Kirtland, Ohio, February 14th, 1831. From the journalistic reports of Cyril Bennet.
In light of the new movement that has sprung from the current religious excitement flourishing in the faithful across our country, I have travelled to Kirtland, Ohio, to speak with a group of religious visionaries. The movement calls itself the church of Latter-Day Saints, and appears to be based around a very young man named Joseph Smith. My contacts in Kirtland call Smith’s followers “Mormons”, based on the book that Smith published in March last year, titled The Book of Mormon, after the supposed prophet who created this “scripture”(2). The book is mildly heretical at best, claiming many worrying things, chief among them the idea that Christ himself once visited America in ancient times (1). My intent was to discover Smith’s motives in the creation of this book and interview his followers, to learn their thinking in following the words of a young man and a book of unknown source. The mind of the modern American is submerged in religious piety, but it is piety of the new style; radical and rambunctious, and it is a split Christianity. We are no longer united under the Puritan church, as when our forebears founded this country. Now we call ourselves Protestants, and Methodists, and Baptists, all of us know the Catholic threat infiltrating our cities more and more each year. The strength of a single church no longer exists to protect the naïve from frauds and crazies; and as such, the true motives of every new movement must be discovered, for the integrities of both God and America. (6)
I arrived at the headquarters of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints early Wednesday evening, bringing my loyal assistant Barton with me, as well as my press badge in my pocket, in case any situation should arise. My previous correspondence with the church had been limited, only one of my letters responded to, and in the vaguest fashion, allowing only that I could speak to Smith himself and write as much as I saw of the church, within reason. The town of Kirtland is just outside of Cleveland (4), a formally quiet village now astir with converts to the Mormon faith. The church currently has some one thousand parishioners; a small community, but growing quickly. The building that these visionaries operate out of is clean, well organized and newly painted, though not well-made. As I arrived, a small meeting was taking place in the chapel itself, and I watched as some six men discussed conversion tactics in the first row of pews.
“‘Tis not enough to simply welcome them to the church,” said the first man, “we must change views as we go, show them what we have in our church. Show them evidence, even.”
“Quite impossible,” said a second, “What are we to show them, the golden plates? We no longer have them, and even if we did, Joseph says they were only translated unto him due to heaven’s intervention! The common man will not recognize them as the miracles of the Almighty that they are.”
A third man, the youngest present, turned hopefully to the second. “Did you see the golden tablets then, Elder Sampson?”
Sampson shifted in his seat. “Not… as such.”
“Where are they? Surely if we were to show such a miracle to the masses, they would all see the truth of our way.”
A fourth man chimed in: “They are buried in the cave of Cumorah, Jonathan. And–” Here he cut off Jonathan as he began to speak, “Do not say you wish to make a pilgrimage to see them. Look to Elder Sampson. He is capable of faith. He needs to see no object to believe, as all of us should not. Does the Almighty father visit you in person, Jonathan? Do you see saints about you right this instant?”
“No, Elder Lucas.”
“No. Because you are not a blessed prophet, as Joseph Smith is. They appear to him because of his great faith, and will never appear to you until you know that they are with you.”
“Yes, Elder Lucas.”
The young man dipped his head, and as he did, noted my presence.
I greeted all and sundry with graciousness, though Barton was uncomfortable, and asked after their prophet. I was directed to an office in the back of the church, but found that the door was locked, as Smith was currently meeting with a parishioner. I sought out the first man of the meeting and asked him what he could tell me about these golden tablets.
“A miracle,” said the man, whose name was Elder Polk. “Joseph Smith received them from the angel Moroni in 1827(2) –”
“Just four years ago?” I ask, aghast.
“Indeed. The Prophet is not a man to dally when heaven has given him such clear directions. He received these tablets, and transcribed The Book of Mormon from them. Our text is a message directly from the Almighty to our people.”
But these tablets are hidden away?
“Buried in the cave of Cumorah (1), Patriarch Smith has told us. Though he also said he gave them back to the angel Moroni.” Polk did not blink at this incontinuity. “Elder Sampson rather misread what I meant earlier. I meant that we must prove to the masses that the Church of Latter-Day Saints is like any other faith; God-fearing, pious, peaceful.”
Elder Polk excused himself from the conversation, took a few steps, then turned back to me. “Like any other faith, except better, I mean.” As he exited the building, looking vaguely defensive, I sought out other opinions. Jonathan Wendon was happy to provide: “I converted,” He told me cheerfully. “Like Joseph Smith, I asked God for advice when it came to finding the right church. There are so many different factions of the Christian faith today, how can one man find the truth? My whole family are protestants, but I used to have doubts. Not about God, just about the way I was following God. Of course, I didn’t have visions like the prophet did, but the next day there were Mormon brothers reading out parts of The Book in the marketplace, and I listened for a while, and then… Well, I felt a call (3). I approached the brothers, and they had answers to my questions that didn’t rely on the old scripture; they had new text that made sense to me. My father didn’t approve, to say the least. To be honest, I haven’t been home since I told him about my conversion four months ago. But the Lord is my true father, and the Church of Latter Day Saints is the true church.” I asked where he lived now, if his parents have disowned him. “I’ve taken up house with two other recent converts,” Wendon smiles. “They’re young men, like me, and we’re all chipping in to pay for a small apartment in town. It’s cramped, but we often share ideas about our community and faith, and what it can become. Joseph Smith preaches that the ancient civilizations of America can be a model for our communities” (6). But what of the non-Mormon community in Kirtland? “They’re as displeased as my father,” says Wendon. “They see the new scriptures as heretical, sinful, even. They don’t understand that the Prophet’s visitation by the lord was true, and a miracle. Elder Sampson says that it’ll come to a head eventually. We may have to look elsewhere for our holy land” (6).
I thank him for his time and wait another hour in the church for Joseph Smith to appear, only to be told by a passing parishioner that the prophet had left via the back door some time ago. What am I to make of this strange day? I left without my arranged interview, and, after some discussion with Barton, decided that Joseph Smith would likely never speak to us at all, if he had left in such a hurried and suspicious way. I cannot imagine why he would not have spoken to us, as he might have stripped away some of the damaging accusations made against his sect in recent times, but as is, I can only say that I find this church to be made up of lost boys and willfully ignorant madmen, duped without proof by a man unwilling to access the greater community of Kirtland. It is the weak values of our time that cause men to turn from our previously established churches and try to think up their own versions of God. What is to be expected, when we have allowed Catholics and Baptists to spring up on our soil? I was not surprised when I exited the building and found that those on the street outside were glaring at me, thinking that I myself was a member of that church. It seems unlikely that this new sect will last, and if it does, it will not continue in Kirtland, or perhaps even in Cleveland. We must watch carefully in the coming years that no violence comes of The Mormon Situation.
3. Smith, Joseph. The Pearl of Great Price. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1920) Chap.1, verses 5, 7-24, 26.
4. Bailey, T. A., & Kennedy, D. M. (1994).The American spirit (8 ed.). Lexington, Mass.: Heath. Pages 333-334