LIKE HIS CONTEMPORARIES FINNEY AND Miller before they became superstar preachers and prophets, Joseph Smith was a young nobody living in rural western New York. He grew up in a middling family that dipped in and out of various churches, and his father reported having prophetic dreams. Joseph attended school for only a couple of years, but he was a charming and popular boy who found he could make easy money indulging a particular folk fantasy. Many of his neighbors, like lots of Americans at the time, had come to believe the landscape was studded with buried loot—old Spanish or Indian gold, tranches of robbers’ cash, lost jewels. Teenage Joseph hired himself out to help find underground treasure. He claimed to do this supernaturally, using two magic “seer stones.”
When he was fourteen, he said later, God appeared to him one day in a pillar of light in the woods (also, he remembered even later, Jesus). God told him his sins were forgiven and that the existing churches had Christianity all wrong. Three years afterward, at seventeen, around the time he became a freelance magical treasure-hunter, he was praying at home and saw an angel floating above the floor, again in a column of light. The angel was named Moroni, a name that doesn’t appear in the Bible. Moroni told him that the heretofore unknown remainder of the Bible, its text engraved in Egyptian hieroglyphs on golden plates, happened to have been buried fourteen centuries earlier four miles south of the Smiths’ house, along with two ancient seer stones with which Joseph would be able to translate it. Moroni left the house through “a conduit open right up into heaven,” but then immediately returned and repeated everything he’d said earlier, this time adding—right, sorry, one more thing—that the Apocalypse was coming soon. The angel returned to Heaven but presently came back a third time, repeating everything once more—and then the next day reappeared and repeated everything yet again.
Four years later Smith finally succeeded in unearthing the tablets, then began “translating” them. His friends and his wife were often at his side as he performed the translations. He would place a seer stone in a hat beside one of the golden plates, bury his face in the hat, and then speak the English words he “saw,” a sentence at a time. During the period he was translating the tablets, he said, he received additional revelations directly from God, in his mind, which he also transcribed.
The result, after “reading” and talking five days a week for three months, was the Book of Mormon. Smith said it was the third chunk of the Christian Bible, containing revisions to both the Old and New Testaments among its quarter-million words.*1 He published the book in 1830, the year after he dictated it. It’s a doozy. A heretofore unknown prophet named Lehi escaped besieged Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. and sailed with his family and friends to the Americas, where their descendants founded a civilization. The civilization split into two warring peoples, one white and the other dark-skinned. The freshly resurrected Jesus Christ appeared among the white half, appointed twelve of them as his new, second set of apostles, and repeated the Sermon on the Mount. Thanks to Jesus’s visit, the light- and dark-skinned American nations reunited for a while, but then in the fifth century A.D. they went to war again, the darker people annihilating the whiter people. Smith’s interlocutor Moroni was one of the last whites alive when he buried the plates. (Smith said later that God told him American Indians are descended from the dark-skinned group.) For the rest of his life, Joseph Smith continued reporting revelations from God, which he both published as independent scripture and used to correct the Bible.
As I’ve described, American Christians from the start tended toward the literal and hysterical and collectively self-centered. Joseph Smith met that bid and raised it a million. Like the American Puritans as well as the new millennialists of his own era, he prophesied that Armageddon was coming soon. “The heavens shall shake and the Earth shall tremble,” he said God had informed him, and for the unlucky, “flesh shall fall from their bones, and their eyes from their sockets.” One night in 1833 at four A.M., he saw what he took to be a providential meteor shower: “I arose and beheld to my great Joy the stars fall from heaven…a sure sign that the coming of Christ is close at hand.”
The grandiose anything-goes literalism of his theology knew no bounds. He said that “God…has flesh and bones,” and he suggested that Jesus was conceived by means of literal sexual congress between God and Mary. American Christians had always nudged the Bible in the direction of America, imagining their cities upon hills to be at least like Jerusalem, and themselves to be God’s chosen people at least analogous to the ancient Israelites. Smith made America a literal second Holy Land, settled by literal Israeli émigrés and visited by the literal Jesus Christ. The new kingdom he’d create in the American West would literally be the center of the reborn Christian world.
If one considers the Bible, in the main, to be historical fiction, then what Joseph Smith produced was a monumental and pioneering work of fan fiction, the most successful ever.*2 Fan fiction, as one scholar has written, is created by fans to “fill the need” among other fans for “narratives that expand the boundary of the official source products.” Smith’s official source products were the Old and New Testaments. Jewish and Christian theologians—in particular, American Protestants during their first two centuries—had previously indulged a bit of biblical fan-fiction impulse, but they’d limited it to interpretation and annotation. (One could argue that the New Testament itself was a collaborative anthology of fan fiction inspired by the Old Testament—We’ll give Jehovah a son, part god and part human!) But it took hubris of a particularly entrepreneurial American kind for an individual to produce such a comprehensive work of fan fiction over the course of just a few years, one purporting to have been dictated in part by the original author, God himself.
According to Smith, according to God, Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden was not the tragic Fall of Man but a good thing, because it enabled ordinary pleasure and joy, let humans be human. Jesus’s physical appearance here in the New World made Christianity more relatable; a defining trait of Americans from the start was a parochial and narcissistic interest in America. In theological tales, unlike fiction written as fiction, readers are meant to become characters in the story, and the new happy ending in Smith’s fan fiction was fabulous. The term fan fictionwas coined in the 1960s to describe stories written by fans of a science fiction series, and Smith’s Heaven is very sci-fi. It has distinct quality levels, like American Express cards—one for run-of-the-mill people who don’t deserve Hell, one for good Christians, and a superpremium level for Mormons. There you’re not just one of a mass of a billion indistinguishable souls in some ethereal netherworld, but a king or queen of your personal planetary fiefdom as a resurrected immortal physical being, continuing to produce princes and princesses. God lives near an actual celestial object called Kolob, a definite number of miles away from Earth. Plus, any dead friends or relatives can be posthumously baptized and sent along to Heaven as well. Better history, better future—and at least for men, a better present, now that sex with multiple women was no longer a sin but a holy commandment.
So much about the founding of the church seems so comic, even at the most fine-grained level. When Smith asked a disciple to serve as church historian, for instance, the man said he’d do it only if God asked him. So Joseph repeated the order, this time using more God-like language: “Behold it is expedient in me that my servant John should write and keep a regular history.”
Rough Stone Rolling is the recent definitive biography of Joseph Smith. Its author, Richard Lyman Bushman, is a Columbia University history professor emeritus and a lifelong member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, in which he has served as a clergyman. His ancestors knew and followed Smith and his apostles across America in the 1800s. “What is most interesting about Joseph Smith,” Bushman writes in a sentence of breathtaking understatement, “is that people believed him.” Bushman never really answers the question he raises. How can he? One of Smith’s disciples said that he and Smith spoke with John the Baptist in Wayne County, New York, and with Jesus Christ near Cleveland. Two others said they too, alongside Smith, met with angels. Bushman reports all these as factual events.
Was Joseph Smith a prophet who spoke to God and Jesus, an extraordinarily successful charlatan, or sincerely delusional? My strong hunch is option three. “I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history,” Smith said near the end of his life. “If I had not experienced what I have, I should not have believed it myself.”
As ever, when true believers are persecuted for their beliefs, it can fuel their zeal. When the fourteen-year-old Smith told a Methodist pastor about his first visitation by God, the man was appalled and dismissive. At age twenty, after one of his treasure-hunting clients complained that Smith’s magic was fraudulent, he was arrested and tried—and a year later had the golden tablets. And of course, he and his followers were harassed, driven out of towns, genuinely persecuted.
Which didn’t stop the heresy from catching on. In its first decade, the church grew from fewer than three hundred members to almost twenty thousand. After Smith (and then his followers) obeyed an angel’s long-standing order to become polygamous or die, he married thirty women in two years, eight of them during one three-month period, six of those teenagers. The official and unofficial persecution naturally went into overdrive—and the church grew faster, by more than half in just three years. In one of his last sermons, not long after he announced his candidacy for U.S. president, Smith bragged to his people that he’d kept them more loyal than Jesus had his disciples. “I glory in persecution,” he told them. Shortly thereafter, still in his thirties, he was indicted, arrested, and then killed while in custody—like Jesus Christ. During the two years after his murder, church membership increased by another third, and the members undertook their exodus—into a desert, just like the ancient Israelites—to establish their own Jerusalem in Utah.
Joseph Smith was a quintessentially American figure. Whether he was a heartfelt believer in his delusions or among the greatest confidence men ever, his extreme audacity—his mind-boggling balls—is the American character ad absurdum. America was created by people resistant to reality checks and convinced they had special access to the truth, a place founded to enact grand fantasies. No Joseph Smiths emerged elsewhere in the modern world. And if they had, where else would so many responsible people instantly abandon their previous beliefs and lives and risk everything on the say-so of such a man making such claims?
On Easter Sunday in 1800 at St. Paul’s in London, the main cathedral of the Church of England, only six people received communion. The nineteenth-century awakenings in Britain and Europe and Australia were altogether different phenomena. The revivalists were quieter, nerdier, more about returning to stripped-down Protestant piety, less about the individual emotional convulsions of spiritual crisis and rebirth, let alone radical new theological twists. They remained blips, important not for propagating supernatural (and selfish) fantasies but for establishing organizations like the YMCA and Salvation Army to practice Christ-like generosity toward the needy, the poor, and the lame. They were a sideshow to the secularization of Europe and, except for the United States, the rest of modernizing Christendom.
In the United States, meanwhile, supernaturally focused sects arose and boomed, some of them soon dominating whole regions—the Baptists in the South, the Mormons in Utah. They were really new religious species, Harold Bloom argues in The American Religion, as different from the Christianity that preceded them as Christianity had been from Judaism when it began. America was still exceptional and growing more so.
*1 Put another way: the Book of Mormon is more than twice as long as The Hobbit but not as long as The Lord of the Rings.
*2 More than 150 million copies of his Book of Mormon have been printed since 1830. The second most successful work of fan fiction in history, the Fifty Shades of Grey books, inspired by the bestselling vampires-and-werewolves Twilight novels, have sold more than 100 million copies.