By any measure, he was a remarkable man. At a time in US history when religious passion was seizing hold of the American imagination, he was “the first prophet . . . to traffic in millenarian predictions, and he wasn’t the last. But he was the most successful.”
Joseph Smith, the eccentric “prophet” who conceived the Mormon religion in 1830, was uneducated, though he wrote a book that has been read by millions from that time forward. He was a down-to-earth man of the American frontier whose spellbinding oratory entranced thousands of followers and drew them into lifetime commitments to the faith he invented. While denying the existence of polygamy, he took dozens of “spiritual wives” and seduced numerous other women, many of them married. He had no discernible political credo, yet he was running for President of the United States when he was murdered by a mob at the age of 39, just 14 years after declaring himself a prophet.
American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church by Alex Beam (2014) 354 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Alex Beam’s American Crucifixion mixes history and biography in relating the entwined stories of Joseph Smith’s short life, his murder, and Mormonism’s early years. In approaching his subject without apparent biases, he skillfully paints a portrait of a complex man and the unlikely success of the strange religion he conjured into existence.
The Mormon religion in context
Consider this. People who adhere to one latter-day religion believe that supernatural souls called thetans created the world four quadrillion years ago. The faithful in another religion are taught that God — one of a dynasty of gods — lives close to a planet or star named Kolob. And both these beliefs are the cornerstones of elaborate science-fiction fantasies that challenge the imagination.
Today, an estimated 25,000 Americans identify themselves with the former of these two upstart religions, Scientology (though the Church claims 10 million members). By contrast, the other religion, the Mormonism of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, possesses a membership of around 15 million, with more than half outside the US, and the LDS church continues to grow rapidly through aggressive proselytization and a high birthrate.
Why would two modern-day faith systems have such disparate track records despite their similar roots in the ravings of men who were clearly unbalanced, L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith?
Don’t get me wrong. I bear no malice toward the LDS Church (more popularly known as the Mormons, of course), although I truly despise Scientology, which has been a scam from the start and has destroyed thousands of lives. I don’t feel much differently about Mormonism than I do about Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or just about any other religion in today’s world. To my mind, all organized religion is institutionalized superstition.
But isn’t it puzzling why one improbable fantasy would attract millions of adherents while another fizzles? If you can figure it out, please write me.
For additional reading
Like to read good biography? Check out Great biographies I’ve reviewed: my 10 favorites.
If you enjoy reading nonfiction in general, you might also enjoy:
- Science explained in 10 excellent popular books (plus dozens of others)
- My 10 favorite books about business history
- Top 10 nonfiction books about politics (plus dozens of runners-up)
For more good books on the history of the US, see Understanding American history: a reading list.
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.