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The Mormons Reconsidered


By Bill Kauffman | October 1988
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 Smith’s home­land of Palmyra, New York, smack dab in the mid­dle of upstate New York’s now quiescent Burned-Over District. On the Hill — site of the Book of Mormon’s apocalyptic battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites — a cast of hundreds dramatizes events central to the Mormon holy writ.

Joseph Smith’s 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 Smith’s 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; it’s 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 America’s 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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