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In the beginning, as we know, was the Word of one Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Mormon Church, finder of the so-called Golden Plates from which he was able to translate the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith today in Mormon theology is considered “the prophet, priest and king.” When Mitt Romney avows “My faith is the faith of my fathers—I will be true to them,” the father he invokes is Smith.
This should be highly troubling. In the few authoritative biographies of the prophet Smith – the ones not censored by the Mormon establishment – he comes off both as a good-natured grifter and a venomous sociopath. Kay Burningham, ex-Mormon and author of “An American Fraud: One Lawyer’s Case against Mormonism,” writes that Mormonism “was founded on deception, and continues to build upon that deception.” Its founders – Joseph Smith and family – “were opportunists, driven to create an organization where they could acquire the social status and financial resources that they lacked.” Historian and ex-Mormon Will Bagley, author of many books of Mormon history, says Mormonism can be interpreted critically as “a religious Ponzi scheme and swindle.”
The swindle starts in 1829, after Joe Smith claims to “find” the Golden Plates buried in a mound in upstate New York. According to Smith, the story on the plates had been carved in 421 A.D. by a lost tribe of white people living among Native Americans. Smith was mighty pleased: He had found God’s word, and he would bring the good news to the world. Smith, a semi-literate farm boy schooled in the soaring language of the Bible, had of course invented the Book of Mormon out of his perfervid imagination.
This was no small achievement. He was a smart guy – like most grifters. And he had a family schooling in the art of cheating the gullible: His father, Joseph Sr., had been repeatedly charged with currency counterfeiting in Vermont in the 1820s.
Joseph Jr. himself was hauled into court in the northeastern U.S. on multiple occasions, accused of confidence games and charged with fraud. He was described in a New York court proceeding, in 1826, as “a disorderly person and an impostor.” One of his preferred cons involved the help of his brother Hyrum. While visiting a neighboring household, Hyrum would secretly hide a valuable heirloom. When days later the victim complained that they could not find the prized object, Hyrum came to the rescue: He volunteered his brother Joe Jr. to show up, for a small fee, and put “magic stones” into a hat. Joe would then put the hat over his face, and stare into the stone-filled darkness to see where the lost object was – the location of which his faithful brother had already provided.
Smith said his ethical rule was, “When the Lord commands, do it.” This was convenient, as it was decreed, by Joseph Smith, that the Lord would only communicate with – you guessed it – Joseph Smith. Early on, he receives a message from the Lord about “plural marriage”: God commanded that all Mormon men, especially Joseph Smith, take multiple wives and establish the tradition of Mormon polygamy. Even his wife at the time, the first among many, was skeptical.
On and on it goes. The Mormon sect grows throughout the 1830s and 1840s, and so do the scams: Land theft, bank fraud, cattle rustling. Historian Will Bagley describes what happened when the Mormons, fleeing westward, settled in Missouri and Illinois: “After stirring up a religious civil war in Missouri and being exiled to Illinois, Smith founded a kingdom on the Mississippi at Nauvoo, Illinois. Having secured a charter that made him ruler of a city state and a wealthy land developer, Smith raised a private army, made himself America’s first lieutenant general since George Washington, and began seducing women and barely pubescent girls with an abandon that would make Bill Clinton blush.”
Other Mormon converts also began to look askance at sainted Joe, and today their accounts read like those of cult escapees. “When I embraced Mormonism, I conscientiously believed it to be of God,” wrote a disaffected convert in 1831. “I now know Mormonism to be a delusion.” Mostly what the church wanted, as with modern-day cults, was the property and cash of converts, along with their free labor. Joseph Smith’s own personal secretary watched the fleecing of those newly drawn into the fold and concluded that Smith and other church fathers were “confirmed Infidels, who have not the fear of God before their eyes. They lie by revelation, swindle by revelation, cheat and defraud by revelation.”
Smith ended up murdered by a lynch mob in Illinois in 1844. It’s not a surprising turn, given the level of animosity that Mormon criminality had evoked among non-Mormons – the “filthy Gentiles” who were Mormons’ preferred victims.
The Mormons fled still further west, looking for the Holy Land, the Zion of prophecy, where they could settle without interference from the Gentiles. They discovered Zion in the stony sunblasted wilderness of Utah, where the new prophet, Brigham Young, soon ordered the slaughter of 150 men, women and children traveling across Mormon territory in the southern part of the state. This was the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, prompted by an apocalyptic hysteria that the US government was planning to invade Utah and destroy Brigham Young’s people. The apocalypse never came to pass; the US government did not care to crush the Mormons. Meanwhile, 150 innocent people on a wagon train bound for California had been rounded up and murdered in cold blood, their bodies buried by Mormon authorities to cover up the evidence.
By the mid-1850s, W.A.F. Magraw, a personal friend of President Franklin Pierce, would conclude that civil law in the Mormon territory was “overshadowed and neutralized [by an] ecclesiastical organization, as despotic, dangerous and damnable as has ever been known to exist in any country…all alike are set upon by the self-constituted theocracy, whose laws, or rather whose conspiracies, are framed in dark corners.” An early official historian of the Mormon theocracy, John Corrill, who would later repudiate the church, had also seen Mormonism from the inside. Corrill accused the Mormon leadership of “bad management, selfishness, seeking for riches, honor, and dominion, tyrannizing over the people, and striving constantly after power and property.”
Laws undermined by conspiracies; outrageous privilege coupled with unbounded greed and power-maddened mismanagement – this sounds a lot like a description of Corporate America today, which perhaps explains why our current Mormon moment is really about Mormonism’s engagement and success in the corporatocracy. In this context, think about Mitt Romney: Here is a man who, as head of the leveraged buy-out firm Bain Capital, got rich as an opportunistic “vulture capitalist,” exploiting and plundering the hard work of others. Romney indeed keeps the faith of his fathers.
Christopher Ketcham writes for Harper’s, the American Prospect, Orion, and many other magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org