Joseph Smith Jr. was born into a family of poor sharecroppers on December 23, 1805. While the family were originally land owners, purchasing a farm with money from Smith’s mother’s side of the family, they soon fell onto hard times due to some bad investments and poor financial management. To supplement a meager income earned by farming, Smith Sr. also worked as a teacher. The Smith family also made a questionable living by divination and treasure seeking. Wealthy patrons were secured to fund treasure hunting expeditions with the promise of exponential returns on their investments. As far as can be determined, the Smiths never actually found any treasure.
Then, during a period of time in the 1820s, in Upstate New York, Joseph Smith Jr. began to receive visions from divine sources. Smith was not alone in his revelations. The areas of Upstate New York at that time were known as the “Burned-over District,” a nickname attributable to the inordinate number of charismatic revivals that took place there.
The charismatic movement, alternatively known as “the Second Great Awakening,” was gaining momentum throughout the fledgling United States, as pioneering spirits challenged traditional Christian beliefs that divine revelation and prophecy ended in Biblical times. In revival tents across the frontier, Americans were overcome with ecstatic frenzy, receiving prophecy and visions directly from God. Revelation told them that Jesus would soon return to establish his 1,000-year rule of a New Jerusalem in this Promised Land.
Smith was well-versed in the art and craft of charismatic revelation. His father and grandfather before him both professed to having received divine visions. Moreover, young Joseph’s informal education was based primarily on Bible and religious studies and what was then known about North American history. In Smith’s first vision, two divine beings with blonde hair and blue eyes (now interpreted as Jesus and Heavenly Father) appear to Smith and tell him that all of the churches on earth are teaching a great apostasy and that the Second Coming would transpire soon.
The exact time and content of the first vision are somewhat dubious, as Smith relayed several versions of the vision, differing as to when the vision occurred, who delivered it and what its content was. In spite of the apparent profound revelations of the first vision, it was not even discussed by Joseph Smith or his closest family members until the mid to late 1830s and didn’t become a significant aspect of Mormon doctrine until the 20th Century.
After the first vision, Smith was visited by several other visions and entities, most notably an angel named Moroni, who revealed to Smith the location of a set of golden plates upon which the Book of Mormon was said to be inscribed. The plates were translated by Smith using two magical divining stones that he named Urim and Thummim. Purportedly viewing the plates by looking at them in his hat, Smith dictated the Book of Mormon to scribes on the other side of a curtain. Transcriptionists included first his wife and then a few other associates. The largest portion of the book was transcribed by an early convert Oliver Cowdery.
Among other things, the golden plates tell a fantastic tale of the Lost Tribe of Israel being led to the Americas by Jesus and establishing a holy kingdom in the New World. The New World tribes eventually fell into apostasy, and God punished them by darkening their skin and condemning them to live in savagery, thus explaining the origins of Native Americans. Cowdery and Smith then claim to have been baptized into the priesthood by none other than John the Baptist himself, and the Mormon religion began.
If one is inclined to scoff at the seemingly incredible history of events central to the creation of the Mormon religion, to dismiss the entire faith as a hoax due to incompatibility with scientific facts or to be skeptical based on contradictory doctrinal details espoused throughout the church’s history, I would submit that the above agents of disproval are characteristics of all religions. Visitations by angels and God, supernatural events that defy and are disproven by the laws of science and nature and contradictory doctrine are hallmarks of the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon. Believing the unbelievable and scientifically untenable is the very essence of religious faith.