Joseph Smith and the Mormons

The Mormons, who style themselves “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” could, with very little investigation, discover the fantastic foundations on which their title rests. For even were we to wink at their assuming the unusual privilege of self-canonization, we cannot concede to them the claim of being “The Church of Jesus Christ.” The simple reason is that the Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ is a continuous reality throughout history. Even the enemies of the Church must grant as much, for they certainly know how to look for their villain in every age. They may reject the divine promise that it shall never be overcome, but they cannot deny the fact that it has been with us till this very day. Evidence for the existence of the Catholic Church – the One True Church of Jesus Christ – in all times can be found in the histories of every continent, of every great nation, and of monumental cities, even if some of them are now in ruins. The Mormons, on the other hand, could more easily defend the claim of having a new version of the religion of Mohammed.

As a matter of simple fact, Mormonism was founded by a man – Joseph Smith, born in 1805. No one who ever lived before the nineteenth century ever heard of his church, by name or in substance. In vain do we search the Scriptures or the records of history for signs and prophecies, pointing to the advent of this man or his religion. And yet in 1830, at age twenty-five, Smith had convinced a few followers, perhaps even himself, that the world had been waiting all this time for him to give it a true religion!

If the world lasts long enough, people one day will be asking, “What exactly were the Mormons?” as they do today about Montanists, the Manicheans, and the Pelagians. There will be very few to give the answer. But in our time there are about two and one-half million of them.

And how did Joseph Smith come by his message? When the boy was ten years old – in 1815 – his family left Vermont to live in Ontario County, New York, a region infested at the time with competing fanatical sects of the artful revivalist type. Five years later, having been exposed to one revivalist experience after another, Joseph, at last, began to experience some mysterious “visions” of his own. We learn from his writings that he once saw a pillar of light over his head, and two figures before him. One of them addressed the boy by name and, pointing to the other, said: “This is my beloved Son; hear him.” (This makes young Smith the first mortal man ever to see the face of the Eternal Father in life, a privilege not even granted to Moses. But should we begin to account for all the precedents established in the proto-Mormon, we would have no end.) Joseph then asked which of all the sects was the true religion. The answer was that he should join none, for all were wrong. So, apparently, in 1820, the true faith was not to be found!

The next significant vision took place on a night in September, 1823, when an angel called Moroni, “a messenger sent from the presence of God,” appeared to Smith and announced that the young man was called to restore the Church of Jesus Christ, said to have been many centuries dormant. Moroni further informed him of a hiding place where he’d find certain “golden plates,” engraved not only with the hitherto unknown history of early inhabitants of this continent, but also with the teachings of Christ, who appeared in America after His Resurrection. It was four years later when Smith reported his having dug up the plates from an Indian graveside near his home in Palmyra, New York. He also claimed to have unearthed with the plates a pair of supernatural spectacles made of two crystals set in a silver frame. The names of these crystals were Urim and Thummim , and the spectacles were necessary to decipher the plates, inscribed of course with mysterious characters. Being unable to read or write fluently, however, Smith obtained the assistance of a schoolteacher named Oliver Cowdrey to record the seer’s translation. While Cowdrey dutifully scribed, Joseph translated the contents of his plates, hidden from view by a curtain. The resulting composition was called the Book of Mormon and it was published in1830.

The Book of Mormon is a fantastic story, purporting to be an abridged account of God’s dealings with two races of pre-historic Americans: the Jaredites, who were led from the Tower of Babel at the time of the confusion of tongues, and the Nephites, who came from Jerusalem just prior to the Babylonian captivity. According to this revelation, America is the “land of Zion” where the new Jerusalem will be built by a gathering of the scattered Israel before the second coming of the Messiah.

The book’s preface contains testimony from three witnesses who say they had “mystically seen” the original golden manuscript. They may count themselves fortunate, for, not surprisingly, the plates were quickly made unavailable to the skeptical. The angel Moroni, says Mr. Smith, called for them . . . and he has them to this day . . . .”

Having received a divine command “to organize the Church,” the latter-day prophet founded his Mormonry in 1830 at Fayette, New York, with six followers. That same year, another “revelation” came to Joseph, wherein he was pronounced an ordained seer, translator, prophet, apostle of Jesus Christ, and elder of his Church.

In 1831 he moved his little community to Ohio and joined up with Sidney Rigdon, a local Baptist preacher, thus raising the sect’s number to over a thousand. Under the inspiration of continued revelations, Smith directed his followers to consecrate all their property to God and start a bank. The apostle installed himself as the bank’s president, and the locality soon became flooded with worthless notes. The result was that, in 1837, both he and his fellow saint, Rigdon, were tarred and feathered, and the divinely instituted bank failed. Joseph Smith promptly fled to Missouri and then to Illinois, where he and his followers, now numbering about 15,000, founded the city of Nauvoo.

Still another revelation was given to the Mormon prophet, by which he was commissioned to introduce polygamy into his church. Thereafter, the Latter-day Saint took to himself some twenty wives. This caused no small dissension both within and without his community; a serious schism arose, and Smith’s powerful position began to deteriorate. The head of Mormon used force to put down the opposition, but his high-handed tactics in suppressing dissent and his autocratic rule only further divided his followers. In June, 1844, he and his brother Hiram were arrested and jailed in Carthage, Illinois. On June 27th some two hundred men forced their way into the jail and killed the Smith brothers. The leadership of the church then passed to Brigham Young, who led the remnant community to the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where the headquarters remain to this day.

The early success of Mormonism primarily was due to the ingenuity and captivating personality of Joseph Smith. But the perverse nature of this man, had he lived, would certainly have brought a decisive end to the sect. His death, however, presented the Mormons with a martyr and allowed more able hands to assume a leadership that would assure longevity.

The religion conceived and developed by Smith is based upon thirteen articles of faith. In these, many of the historic heresies long considered dead and buried are brought back to life. And so, without any apparent continuity on the human plane at least, the Mormons resume in days the work of Arius, Pelagius, and Montanus, by reviving their ancient heresies.

But the errors of the Mormons do not stop there. They cheerfully admit that they are neither Catholic nor Protestant, and therefore they will feel no grief and should take no offense when we point out that almost every one of their beliefs has been condemned by the One True Church. To give just one example, Mormony denies the doctrine of Original Sin and, in opposition to the Catholic practice, it forbids infant baptism. God only knows how many millions of conquests over souls the devil has won on account of this one glaring deviation form Christian tradition.

The baptism of an infant brings the redemptive mercy of God infallibly to the soul of the child, sanctifying it and, in the case of early death, bringing it directly to the Beatific Vision. This is true even where Baptism is properly administered by a person who is himself a non-believer or heretic. This is why the Church repeatedly has condemned in the strongest language any doctrine leading to the neglect of infant Baptism. This sacred tradition was reaffirmed by the Council of Trent in the following words:

If anyone denies that newly born infants are to be baptized, even though they may have been born of baptized parents, or say that they are indeed baptized for the remission of sins but that they don not contract from Adam any Original Sin that must be expiated in the bath of regeneration to obtain life eternal . . . let him be anathema

Now neither the doctrine of Original Son nor the dogma of the universal necessity of Baptism are matters of the natural order that could be settled by rational argument or any amount of sentimental considerations. Rather, they are supernatural matters to be decided strictly by the judgment of God and to be determined by the authority He gave to His Holy Church. And when the Church speaks from the height of her supreme authority, as she did in the Council of Trent, we recognize the voice of God, for Our Lord said, “He that heareth you heareth Me” (Luke 10:16).

No one can be saved who rejects such teaching (see Unam Sanctam in this issue). We recall these eternal truths, therefore, not merely to defend the Faith of Catholics, but also for those Mormons of good will, who may not fully be aware of the implications of their religious commitment or of the judgment rendered against their doctrines by the Church – a Church scornfully attacked by Joseph Smith – but upheld by the great saints and martyrs of every age in an unbroken tradition.

Saint Augustine, like any other Father or Doctor of the true Church, would have known nothing about the angel Moroni, the prophet Nephi, or the Jaredites. But he would most certainly recognize the Mormons’ rejection of the doctrine of Original Sin and their tampering with the consubstantial unity of the three Persons of the Trinity. And, for that, and for rejecting the authority of the magisterium established by Christ, he would have done battle against them.

The Mormons, we can be absolutely certain, are not “the Church of Jesus Christ.” Epistle of St. Jude 1:4