The Mormons Reconsidered
October 1988By Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman, who has appeared in The Nation and Utne Reader, writes from the Burned-Over District in the colony of upstate New York. His first novel, Every Man a King, is forthcoming from Soho Press.
For one week every summer, the spiritual epicenter of Mormonism removes itself from Utah to the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Joseph Smiths homeland of Palmyra, New York, smack dab in the middle of upstate New Yorks now quiescent Burned-Over District. On the Hill site of the Book of Mormons apocalyptic battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites a cast of hundreds dramatizes events central to the Mormon holy writ.
Joseph Smiths 1823 epiphany, in which the Angel Moroni is said to have revealed to him a set of gold plates later translated into the Book of Mormon, was just one of many revelatory fires to set this territory ablaze in antebellum days. Most of the brushfires were quenched long ago. But Smiths vision persists, long outlasting those of John Humphrey Noyes and Jemima Wilkinson and his other contemporaries; a century and a half later, Mormonism enjoys seven million followers in 100 nations, and those numbers are expanding apace.
Mormonism is very much a product of its times, which is not such a bad thing if those times happen to be the Jacksonian era. A potent egalitarian strain runs through the Book of Mormon; its no surprise that Smith grounded his abortive 1844 campaign for the U.S. presidency in solid Revolutionary bedrock: liberty and equal rights, Jeffersonian democracy, free trade and sailors rights, and the protection of person and property.
Excepting the Iroquois Indian faith founded by the Seneca named Handsome Lake, Mormonism is the most impressive of Americas aboriginal religions. Yet it remains, among our elite classes, a reviled faith. The contempt that intellectuals rain upon this Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) tells us much about the state of the American clerisy.
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