On Sept. 21, 1823, a 17-year-old named Joseph Smith was praying at his bedside in Palmyra, N.Y., when suddenly an angel appeared to him and identified himself as Moroni. Moroni claimed to be a transformed ancient inhabitant of the Americas.
The angel instructed him to seek out buried golden tablets in the nearby hills which, he explained, would reveal the truth about God and Christianity. From those tablets, and with the help of "seeing" stones, Smith was able to dictate to a scribe the text for the Book of Mormon.
And so began a religion known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- otherwise known as Mormonism.It is a belief system, writes author Matthew Bowman, that some scholars have called "the quintessential American faith." That faith has played a significant role in Canadian history, too.
Bowman, who has a PhD in American religious history from Georgetown University and a master's degree in American history from the University of Utah, has written extensively on religious matters and is associate editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. He writes that he wants to introduce the public to the faith of some well-known Americans, including Republican presidential wannabe Mitt Romney, a descendent of Parley Pratt, one of the earliest 19th-century converts to Mormonism.
Bowman has written an entertaining and informative account of Mormonism from its earliest American frontier apocalyptic attempts to build the new Zion to its modern status as a highly organized, bureaucratic and centrally controlled global faith. Mormonism has 14 million adherents worldwide, more than half of whom live outside the U.S., including 185,000 in Canada.
Bowman leaves no stone unturned, taking the reader through the mysticism of Joseph Smith in a frontier America that was populated by end-of-times preachers and practitioners of folk magic.
Smith, who was shot to death in a gun battle in Carthage, Ill., in 1844, led his persecuted followers from Ohio to Missouri and eventually to Nauvoo, Ill., where he tried to establish Zion, or God's kingdom on Earth.
Smith developed consecration, a type of religious socialism, that involved believers giving their property to the Mormon church, which would redistribute wealth according to need. Consecration was practised extensively by Mormons throughout the 19th century and, not surprisingly, was more popular among poorer believers than wealthier ones.
Smith also adopted the practice of polygamy and acquired almost three dozen wives. Polygamy, which was widely practised among Mormons, was a source of friction both within the Mormon community and in the wider sphere of American society. Mormons saw multiple marriages as part of the belief in "sealing," which bound families together in eternity.
Mormon polygamy was an issue in Canada, too. Bowman explains that Mormons got their start in Canada in 1887 when Charles Card received Prime Minister John A. Macdonald's blessing to move north -- with the proviso that there be no bigamy. The Mormons assured him that polygamy was not bigamy, and so began what is now Cardston, Alta.
Polygamy lasted in mainline Mormonism for several decades but was eventually abandoned when Utah became a U.S. state in 1896.
Utah is key to Mormon history and fortunes to this day, as anyone who has seen the hit HBO TV series Big Love is sure to know. Brigham Young took over leadership of the Mormon church following Smith's death and led thousands of followers on a gruelling and deadly journey from the Midwest to the Great Basin of what is now Utah. There, Mormons founded Salt Lake City as their Zion and the city is, today, as important to Mormonism as Rome is to Catholicism.
Bowman covers the admirable aspects of Mormonism -- its charitable work, belief in social justice and concern for the physical and spiritual welfare of believers. He also reveals the faith's darker elements, such as the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood until 1978 due to the belief that blacks were descendents of Cain, who was under "divine punishment" for killing his brother Abel.
Bowman explains the lesser-known aspects of Mormon theology, such as its belief that God the Father and Jesus Christ were regular humans who, through their merits, rose to the top of the divine order yet still have human bodies.
Mormons believe all people can achieve godhood in the spirit world and that souls existed before birth. They are non-trinitarians in the sense that they do not believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three separate-but-connected persons in one God. That puts them outside mainline Catholic and Protestant beliefs.
The Mormon People is worth reading and offers even those with little to no knowledge of the religion an interesting and easy-to-understand overview of Mormon history and beliefs. If there is an aspect of the book that deserves criticism, it is that Bowman seems to go out of his way to downplay and in some ways offer guarded justification for elements of Mormonism that many people would view as offensive and oppressive, especially polygamy (although he never outright endorses it).
For a more critical analysis of Mormonism, check out Jon Krakauer's book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.
Greg Lockert is the faith page editor at the Winnipeg Free Press.