In 1984, two fundamentalist Mormons – commanded by God – slit the throats of their sister-in-law and baby niece. Brenda and Erica Lafferty were victims in a long chain of Mormon-related violence stretching back from the 19th century. Today, mainstream Mormonism is a peaceful religion with almost 15 million followers – equal to the world population of Jews. I once knew a Mormon and toured their facilities in Salt Lake City, Utah – quite a sight if you ever get a chance to visit. Mormon history is very peculiar, and I wanted to learn more about it through Jon Krakauer’s book – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Krakauer highlights how fundamentalism can lead to violence and subjugation in his compelling tale of present-day murder and the Mormon church’s growth from obscure to mainstream.
Let’s start from the beginning. Joseph Smith – the founder of Mormonism – was visited by an angel named Moroni while praying one evening in 1823. This angel revealed the location of golden plates that contained lost religious writings. After several failed attempts, Joseph was able to acquire the golden plates at the Hill Cumorah in Manchester, New York. The plates contained sacred records in an unknown language called reformed Egyptian. Joseph was the only one able to translate these tablets using special glasses. These plates would lead to the publishing of the Book of Mormon in 1830 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1838. Several followers joined Smith’s church which claimed that a lost tribe of Isreal came to America and that Jesus visited them after his crucifixion. Early followers joined Joseph’s church because he proclaimed that God could be reached through personal revelations and that there were no barriers in communicating with God. This was at a time when American religion was experiencing a Second Great Awakening. Unfortunately, membership was not boosted by the sight of the golden tablets because they had to be given back to the Angel Moroni.
Joesph moved his church from New York to Ohio where Smith was charged with financial fraud – forcing him to take his flock west to Missouri. While in Missouri, the Mormons fought with their “gentile” neighbors and after a bloody fighting, they were forced to relocate to the state of Illinois. The Mormons, being a tight-knit group who disliked outsiders, did not get along with their Illinois statesman – violence and murder were common. Things began to fall apart for Joseph when he received a revelation from God that he should take multiple wives. The church split from Joseph’s philandering, and the prophet was arrested for suppressing the local press. While in custody, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry “gentile” mob who saw him as a religious fanatic. The Mormon church was in chaos after their founder’s death but one of their leaders – Brigham Young – led them westward to safety. By 1847 more than 2000 Mormons had left American soil and entered the Mexican territory of what is now Utah.
Joseph’s polygamy revelation was not taken well by most of the Mormon leaders. Joseph’s wife actually declared that God had revealed to her that she should have multiple husbands – this did not sit well with the prophet. After the prophet’s death, the church split into polygamous and non-polygamous sects – the polygamous group headed to Utah and the non-polygamous group faded into obscurity. Brigham Young supported polygamy and believed it was the best way for men to live virtuous lives since they wouldn’t be tempted by extramarital sex. The United States government banned plural marriage and fought the Mormons on this front until the late 19th century when they passed laws to seize all Mormon church holdings. The Mormon church finally bowed to the law and changed their policy of polygamy in 1904. Since the prophet proclaimed polygamy to be a God-given right, many Mormons broke from the main church to establish their own “fundamentalist” branches.
Today about 40,000 Mormons are fundamentalists and still practice polygamy. A famous example is Warren Jeffs, who was purported to have 70 wives, many of which were 14 years old at the time of marriage. These fundamentalists are responsible for most Mormon-related violence and kidnappings – the most famous being Elizabeth Smart in 2002. Of course, there is a lot to say about this subject, but the point I want everyone to take from this post is that fundamentalism – in any religion or secular viewpoint – is never a good thing. To be a fundamentalist is to believe that there is nothing more to learn from the world – many times an outlook that leads to dehumanization. Remember that we must be open to both truth and empathy – when those two things are absent the result is the murder of a mother and her child.
What are your views on Mormonism, Fundamentalism, and/or Polygamy? I love to read your comments.