During the late 1820’s, Joseph Smith, Jr., an uneducated youth in upstate New York, proclaimed he had found golden plates containing the record of ancient Hebrews who had settled the New World. With the aid of magic stones provided, he translated the plates into English and revealed tales not only about mighty civilizations unknown to the modern world but also about a visitation to the New World by Christ. At a moment when the northeastern part of the United States was alive with Protestant religious fervor, Smith’s claims naturally attracted interest. Soon, he and his miraculous book stood at the center of a small, but fervent, new religion.
In 1830 Smith published his golden book as the “Book of Mormon,” using the name of its final ancient scribe, and incorporated his new church. Through the 1830’s, his church steadily grew and took on form, and Smith revealed more of how he had come by the golden plates. When he was only fourteen, he recalled, he became confused about the conflicting doctrines espoused by different Christian faiths. Turning to his Bible, he found this helpful guidance: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5).
In a secluded glade, Smith posed his questions in prayer. To his astonishment, God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ, appeared before him. They told him to join none of the existing churches, as all were corrupt. Three years later, Smith had a second vision. This time he was visited by an angel named Moroni who revealed to him the buried golden plates. Finally, when Smith was twenty-three, he was allowed to dig up the plates and translate them. When his work was done, the plates were removed from the earth, never again to be seen by mortal eyes. Apart from sketchy testimonies of a handful of friends and relatives who acknowledged glimpsing the plates, Smith had nothing except his own word and the content of his book to prove that the plates had even existed.
From this curious beginning arose what eventually became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the “Mormon” church to outsiders—a denomination that in the year 2000 would claim more than 10 million members worldwide. The new religion’s growth rate has been remarkable; even more remarkable is the fact that the rate is accelerating. Whereas church membership rolls did not reach a million until nearly 1950, they increased sevenfold over the next four decades and rose by 3.5 million members during the 1990’s alone. At current rates of growth, the church could have 265 million members by the year 2080. If that happens, Mormonism will rank as a major world religion. For this reason alone, the church commands attention.
The church’s importance can be measured in money as well. In dollars per capita, the Mormon church ranks among the world’s wealthiest. Its members, to maintain their standing, must pay a 10 percent tithing on their personal incomes, and a remarkable proportion of them (in North America, at least) actually do so. They are also expected to make additional contributions to other funds and special assessments. As Mormons in North America have above-average incomes, the total revenue the church takes in rivals that of denominations of much greater size. Unlike other denominations, however, the Mormon church is secretive about its financial affairs; lay members and outsiders alike can only guess at how the money is used. The money does not, however, go toward clerical salaries, as does much of the money of other churches. Mormons are expected to serve as unpaid volunteers to staff the church’s lay clergy and run its many affiliated programs, such as its vast welfare system.
The question of finances is merely one of many mysteries about the church. Winston Churchill once described the Soviet Union as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That metaphor might equally be applied to the Mormon church. Few non- Mormons know much about it, how it is run, and or even what its main tenets are. Moreover, there is reason to suspect that the understanding average Mormons have of their church’s workings and doctrines is limited. Matters such as how church leaders are selected, how they make decisions, and where official doctrines come from are impenetrable mysteries to outsiders.
In addition to being secretive, the church does not welcome enquiries about its operations. Unlike young Joseph Smith’s God, church leaders themselves are not receptive to those lacking wisdom who ask difficult questions. An inescapable consequence of church secrecy is the outside world’s curiosity about where the church is headed with its mushrooming membership, financial power, and authoritarian proclivities. In 1999 the president of the church sent letters to all Mormons in California...
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