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He's one of the oddest of the characters who roamed through our early republic. Joseph Smith Jr. at age 24, founded the only cult to become a world religion since Mohammed kicked off Islam in the year 622. Today, fifteen million followers worldwide believe that Smith, an upstate New York farm boy, translated a document inscribed on gold plates and recorded revelations that rewrote the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Smith's teachings set off a furor in his day. His followers have abandoned or downplayed some of his most radical ideas, but the controversy surrounding him has never entirely subsided. Smith himself remains a figure of fascination, his most famous literary work the subject of a hit Broadway musical.
Charlatan? Madman? Or both? Was Smith out a faker who drank his own Kool-Aid? Most Christians stay mute on the subject, aware that any religion can be depicted as hooey. Some devotees of competing sects attack Smith as a heretic who wrongly incorporated Jesus into his wacky theology.
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Less reverent commentators laugh off the prophet. Mark Twain famously labeled the Book of Mormon "chloroform in print." No doubt the Mormon scripture is convoluted and wordy. But the Bible at times falls into lists of "begats" that offer an equally effective remedy for insomnia.
The idea that full-fledged prophets were walking the earth in the time of Andrew Jackson and the first steam locomotives seems incongruous to most of us. Golden plates inscribed with "reformed Egyptian" writing, magic spectacles, and visitations from angels are easy to ridicule. The idea that the Western Hemisphere was populated by wandering Jews, who later morphed into Indians, seems bizarre.
What's the truth of the matter? A few things are (almost) beyond dispute. Smith's production of the Book of Mormon, an intricate, 600-page tome peopled by more than 300 characters, is a literary feat for the ages. That he dictated most of it in a period of less than three months and did not revise a single word before its initial printing is even more jaw-dropping.
That was only the beginning. Smith used the book as a springboard to found a brand-new religion, recruiting followers from around his family's home on the Erie Canal and from the neighbors of his wife's people near the Pennsylvania border. He established himself as the undisputed leader of this small congregation and almost immediately induced them to follow him westward. They trekked first to Ohio, then to Missouri and Illinois. Joseph sent proselytizers across the nation and to England-they sent back a steady stream of new converts.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not rest solely on the Book of Mormon. Smith continued to pour out revelations, which he insisted came directly from the mouth of God. The idea that the Lord was speaking to mankind after a silence of almost two millennia was an exciting selling point for Mormonism.