February 11, 2009 6:55 PM
Mormons In America
Roger Sorenson directed the pageant for seven years. Osgood observes Sorenson as he retells a Mormon story of a prophet in Jerusalem.
"The Lord appeared to me and told me to take my family into the wilderness," Sorenson says. He talks of the prophet building a boat and traveling to America and then enduring a civil war. Finally, Sorenson says, a "savior" from Jerusalem comes to America
"We see him come to this country after his resurrection. And teach his people. He organized his church here just like in the old country," Sorenson says.
In time, the story goes, a general named Mormon buried a record of these events written on golden plates. They remained hidden until an angel appeared to 14-year old Joseph Smith and directed him to the plates.
The young Smith lived on a farm near Palmyra, N.Y. Spiritually curious, it is said he rejected the teachings of other churches -- even at the tender age of 14. In 1820, Smith said God and his son, Jesus, appeared to him in the woods near his home. They told him all existing churches were an abomination. He had been chosen to reestablish the one true Christian church.
Richard Lyman Bushman, a Mormon, has written extensively on Smith as a professor of history at Columbia University in New York. If you think the Mormon story is far-fetched, he says, think about the roots of other religions.
"Certain kinds of religion have a broad appeal everywhere. And Mormonism brings this promise that God is speaking to his people," Bushman explains.
The professor adds, "All the great religions, or many of them, are founded on a revealed miracle. The resurrection, the parting of the Red Sea, the vision -- Mohammed's visit, vision of Gabriel. So, Joseph Smith from that point of view fits into a pattern that reaches a long way back."
Smith attracted a following -- and enemies. Local churches bristled at being labeled "an abomination" so Smith led his followers west. In 1843, Smith further enraged non-Mormons when he said God revealed to him that men should be allowed to marry more than one woman, as did "Abraham" and "other" prophets.
"It went against conventional Victorian morality, so it confirmed this view of Joseph Smith as a dangerous person," Bushman says.
As the Church's numbers grew, it took political control of towns and whole counties and also raised an army. Non-Mormons felt threatened and there was violence. The Mormons were forced out of New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. Smith was killed by a mob in Carthage, Ill. when he was only 38. Then most of his followers fled to desolate Utah.
Of course, the story doesn't end there.
"There are two landmarks, I would say, in Mormon history that makes it central to the mainstream," says Richard Ostling, chief religion writer for the Associated Press.
"The first," Ostling says, "is the 1890 decision , under pressure from the federal government and the United States Supreme Court, to get rid of polygamy."
The second was in 1978 when the Church ended its refusal to allow blacks into full membership.
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