Joseph Smith Jr. was struggling. It was a spring day in 1820, in upstate New York—an era of fiery Protestant revivals and a region so seared by evangelical fervor that it was known as the "burned-over district." Smith was 14, from a family of small means but grandiose expectations. His grandfather prophesied that a family member would revolutionize the world of religion; his father had a series of prophetic dreams about his family's salvation; his aunt became a local celebrity by claiming that she had been healed by Jesus himself. And so it was natural that Smith would wonder about his own faith. His mother had just joined the Presbyterians; should he? Or should he stay outside the mainline churches the way his father had?
Turning to the family Bible, Smith came to a verse in James that struck him powerfully: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God ... and it shall be given him." Inspired, Smith went into a grove of trees to pray. As he began, a dark force seized him—until, Smith said, God himself intervened. "At this moment of great alarm," Smith recalled, "I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me." God and Jesus appeared and delivered a startling message: he shouldn't join any of the churches of the world, for they had long ago fallen away from Christ's true Gospel.
This experience, known as the First Vision by Smith's followers, ultimately gave the world a new faith: Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which now has more than 12 million members and, thanks to the vigorous missionary tradition started by Smith himself, is one of the fastest-growing Christian denominations in the United States.
Prophet and polygamist, mesmerizer and rabble-rouser, saint and sinner: Smith is arguably the most influential native-born figure in American religious history, and is almost certainly the most fascinating. This year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the bicentennial is prompting fresh and searching looks at Smith, the faith he built and the legacy he left behind. The church is opening Smith's life and contributions to research—a new stance for an institution whose early experience with persecution has often made it defensive and secretive. This summer, Brigham Young University hosted a six-week multifaith seminar, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Smith's papers are now being consolidated and published.
Smith's times are much like our own, and his story has a particular resonance in the first years of the 21st century. Like us, he lived in an era of evangelical energy, deep patriotism, economic transformation, sharp political divisions and anxiety about foreign forces' inflicting harm on the homeland. Smith's teachings placed America at the center of existence at just the moment in our history—in the wake of the successful War of 1812—when nationalism was on the rise.
From Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts and a 2008 presidential prospect, to Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Mormons are increasingly visible in different spheres of American society, particularly in politics and the Fortune 500. Traditionally conservative but not really part of the religious right, the church opposes gay marriage and abortion (unless the mother's life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest). In the emotional case of Terri Schiavo earlier this year, however, the church diverged from many conservative Christians when it responded to news media by saying, "Members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by means that are unreasonable." There is also room for policy differences among public figures who happen to be Mormon: Romney opposes fetal-stem-cell research, while Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah supports it. Meanwhile, the faith's traditional views on morality and the family are fueling its rapid growth in the developing world, where, despite a broad feeling of global anti-Americanism, the church is expanding even more rapidly than it is within the United States.
And it all began with the teenage Joseph Smith. For Mormons, Smith's importance is singular. "He stands alone as a source of doctrine," says Dallin H. Oaks, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the church's highest governing bodies. The characteristic features of the LDS Church—sacred temple rites, personal revelation, tithing and a history of polygamy—come directly from Smith. So does the emphasis on high moral standards, family ties and community service: Mormonism appeals to the fundamental human impulse for connection, security and a promise of rewards not only on earth but beyond time and space.
Smith knew that his testimony required a leap of faith. "I don't blame anyone for not believing my history," he said shortly before his death. "If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself." Three years after his first vision, Smith reported that an angel named Moroni, an ancient prophet from the Americas, told him God wanted him to bring forth new scripture—a set of gold plates containing an account of Jesus during a post-resurrection visit to America as well as a history of an ancient Israelite people there. The plates were buried in a hill near Smith's house and were accompanied by a Urim and Thummim—stones attached to a breastplate that were supposed to help him translate the text from "reformed Egyptian," an unknown tongue, into English.
His translation, known as the Book of Mormon, gave the sect its nickname and brought him national attention—but still didn't give him the "true church" he yearned for. In 1829 Smith was visited by resurrected prophets and apostles who, he said, finally conferred on him the authority to re-establish Christ's church on earth. He officially founded that church in Fayette, N.Y., on April 6, 1830. His missionaries, sent to surrounding communities, had luck in Kirtland, Ohio: they baptized Sidney Rigdon, a prominent Campbellite minister, and some 100 of his congregation, virtually doubling church membership. During 1831, Smith asked his followers to move to Kirtland or to Jackson County, Mo., which he said was the Biblical site of the Garden of Eden and the future land of Zion.
This sudden influx of believers was unwelcome in Missouri, where the Saints were seen as a cultural, political and economic threat. During the next five years, the Missouri Saints were driven by mobs from Jackson County to Clay County to Far West, Mo. As prejudice increased, Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an "extermination order" in 1838, and Smith and his followers fled to Nauvoo, Ill. Smith's increasing political activism there (he was commander of the local militia, justice of the peace and a candidate for U.S. president) inflamed Nauvoo's non-Mormons, who saw the makings of a dangerous theocracy. After Smith ordered an antagonistic printing press destroyed, he was jailed. "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter," he said, sensing his fate. "But I am calm as a summer's morning. I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men." On June 27, 1844, a mob stormed the jail, fatally shooting Smith and his brother Hyrum and injuring two other LDS men. Smith was 38.
His church survived (largely because follower Brigham Young led most of the remaining Saints west to Utah) and, 161 years later, thrives—yet remains mysterious to many. Central tenets of Mormonism seem confusing—even literally incredible—to those outside the faith. An angel named Moroni? "Plural" marriage? A resurrected Jesus visiting the New World? These are questions posed by potential converts, and also by historians and scientists testing Smith's claims.
Moses' burning bush isn't around to be carbon-dated or dissected, but Smith and his followers left behind documentation that can be subjected to modern historical analysis. The record reveals a complicated man. The church's early converts, many of whom learned about it from missionaries, were sometimes shocked when they met Smith in person. He was uneducated, he lost his temper, he enjoyed power—and perhaps most startling for converts was the fact that, on occasion, his ventures failed. Simply put, he didn't always seem like a prophet. "It was very hard, even in his own times, to remain neutral on him," says Mark Scherer, church historian for Community of Christ, a branch that followed Smith's son Joseph III instead of Brigham Young after Smith's death. "Either you thought the guy walked on water or you thought the guy was a huge fraud." Smith was involved in dozens of lawsuits. By the end of his life, he had accrued some 30 wives, massive debt and hundreds of enemies. "I never told you I was perfect," he told his followers. "But there is no error in the revelations which I have taught."
That's a matter of debate. Last year, molecular biologist and former LDS bishop Simon G. Southerton applied available DNA studies in his book, "Losing a Lost Tribe," to argue that Native Americans are descendants of Asians, contradicting the Book of Mormon account of an Israelite family's coming to the New World in the sixth century B.C. and eventually flourishing into two distinct civilizations. "Decades of serious and honest scholarship have failed to uncover credible evidence that these Book of Mormon civilizations ever existed," he wrote. While LDS scholars, of course, reject that conclusion, some are re-examining common theories about the Book of Mormon's geography, suggesting that it takes place near an isthmus in southern Mexico instead of across the Western Hemisphere, as many readers previously assumed.
Within limits, the church encourages internal debate, arguing that doubt can be an important precursor to faith. "I think the Lord expects us to think," President Gordon B. Hinckley, the incumbent prophet who Mormons believe leads the church through divine revelation, told NEWSWEEK. "That which comes easily departs easily. That which comes of struggle remains." What authorities do not accept, however, is those who publicly doubt and actively preach against church doctrines and leaders. In 1993 six LDS academics (known as the September Six for the month of their disciplinary action) were tried in church courts for issues related to spreading allegedly false historical and feminist teachings. Five were excommunicated. In the late 1970s LDS leaders limited access to church records, prompting charges that they were discouraging unauthorized accounts of church history. "Some authorities apparently preferred that we have no history except that kept by public-relations writers," wrote Leonard J. Arrington, the then director of the church's historical department.
The reins are looser now. The church is likely always to be more comfortable with orthodoxy than with inquiry, and this year's celebrations won't bring the unsolicited airing of dirty laundry (a church-sponsored art exhibit about Smith made no mention of his polygamy, for example). But there is no longer the sense that documents are being squirreled away. LDS historian Richard Bushman, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University and author of the new biography "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," recently gave two lectures in which he tackled some of the more difficult elements of Smith's life in front of audiences that included high-ranking LDS leaders. "I ran the risk of making them bridle at me," he says. "But they liked the talks. And that leads me to believe that we don't have to bury our stuff anymore. We're able to deal with the problems and accept them."
No single Mormon doctrine or practice has been more controversial than polygamy. Smith said he was commanded by God to take plural wives like Abraham and other Old Testament figures. Most historians agree that he married his first plural wife, a 16-year-old who worked in his house, about 1833—and some 30 more in the next decade. Not everyone believed God sanctioned the marriages. His associate Oliver Cowdery called the first plural marriage "a dirty, nasty, filthy affair" (Cowdery later rejoined the church). Though the LDS Church stands by polygamy as a divine—albeit revoked—revelation, others are suspicious of Smith's motives. "He committed ministerial abuse," says Scherer, whose church long denied that Smith practiced polygamy. "He figured out a way to commit adultery and to do it sacramentally."
In Utah after Smith's death, polygamy was practiced openly: at its height, at least 25 percent of adults in some communities were members of polygamous households. In 1890, facing intense pressure from federal authorities, the then prophet Wilford Woodruff issued a "manifesto" forbidding the practice. While some breakaway groups still follow polygamist lifestyles, the LDS Church adamantly opposes the practice. However, LDS doctrine holds that some polygamist marriages will exist in the celestial kingdom, the highest tier of heaven. Smith taught that humans (who were spirits in a "pre-existence") come to earth to get a body and to be tested. After death, everyone is placed into one of three kingdoms, depending on his level of righteousness. Those in the highest degree will dwell with God, their families will be eternal and they'll even become gods themselves—as God did. Lorenzo Snow, fifth LDS prophet, articulated doctrine when he said, "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may be."
Because of Mormonism's unique theology, some of which challenges early Christian creeds, many Christian denominations don't consider the LDS Church to be Christian. "There is no rightful claim by historic Mormon doctrine to the name Christian, because they deny almost every one of the major fundamental doctrines of Christendom," says Norman Geisler, founder of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. But for Latter-day Saints, who believe in the Jesus Christ of both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, the cold shoulder from other denominations is baffling. "I am devastated when people say I am not a Christian, particularly when generally that means I am not a fourth-century Christian," says Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Had Smith's revelations ended with his first beatific visions, he probably would have passed into history unremarked, one of innumerable seekers who believed they had found the divine. Yet something made people leave their homes to follow him, to endure persecution and risk death. Some of the answer is personal—his charisma. "I don't think he ever entered a room where he didn't feel dominant," says Bushman. But many of Smith's most committed followers—among them future prophets Young and Woodruff—joined the church without ever having met him. "I think that these people felt they had found the sacred in a way they'd never known it before," says Bushman. "And they would go to the ends of the earth for that idea."
People still do, and given the church's emphasis on the daily needs and concerns of its members, the reasons for its success become clearer. No matter where Mormons live, they find themselves part of a network of mutual concern; in Mormon theology everyone is a minister of a kind, everyone is empowered in some way to do good to others, and to have good done unto them: it is a 21st-century covenant of caring.
The church is organized into "wards" in which members deliver meals to new mothers, help relocating families find housing, and pack and unpack during moves. Mormons are also linked up with other believers for monthly visits in which the members can offer each other a friendly ear in good times and bad, providing a sense of connection amid the complexities of daily life. This culture of taking care of one's own almost certainly has its roots in the many decades of persecution the faithful endured on their long journey west—what was a curse then has, in the fullness of time, become a blessing.
Smith founded cities, built temples and ran for president. But his most meaningful contribution was as "prophet, revelator and seer," as he called himself—and as the architect of a church that tends to nurture the bonds between its members in a spirit of charity. Smith's vision—optimistic, vigorous, a source of continuing personal growth for all who accept its blessings—in many ways echoes the American Dream. Millions around the world now see in their own lives what a young man found for himself in that New York grove.