One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Churchby Richard Abanes
Founded in 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was initially perceived as a movement of polygamous, radical zealots; now in parts of the U.S. it has become synonymous with the establishment. In reevaluating its preoccupation with issues of church and state, Abanes uncovers the political agenda at Mormonism's core: the transformation of the world into a theocratic kingdom under Mormon authority. This illustrated edition has been revised and offers a new postscript by the author.
Great-Great Grandchild of Brigham Young
Publisher of Skeptic Magazine and author of How We Believe: The Search for God in An Age of Science
President, Christian Research Institute
- Basic Books
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Trade Paper Edition
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.75(d)
Read an Excerpt
Joseph Smith senior, with a family consisting of a wife and eight children, including Joe the Prophet, ... were an illiterate, shiftless, indolent tribe, without any visible means of a respectable livelihood, nor was it apparent that they earned an honest livingyoung Joe being the laziest of the crew. The boys, who were frequently seen lounging about the stores and shops in the village, were distinguished only for their vagabondish appearance and loaferly habits. The female portion of the household were pretty much ditto.
Pomeroy Tucker (1802-1870)
Smith family acquaintance
According to Joseph Fielding Smith, tenth president of the LDS church, Mormonism "must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen." Such an either-or proposition suggests that any study of Mormonism must begin with Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-day Saint faith. In 1844, however, Joseph claimed "[n]o man knows my history." He added that even he himself would never undertake the task of telling such an amazing narrative, admitting: "I don't blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself."
Contrary to Joseph's assertion, historians, religion scholars, and other interested parties have for many years known a great deal about the Mormon prophet, his life, family, experiences, andenvironment. He was born, for instance, in Sharon, Vermont, in 1805, the same year Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean after trekking across the enormous Louisiana Purchase territory. Thomas Jefferson held the U.S. presidency, westward expansion had begun, and abolition was emerging as a highly significant topic of concern. More importantly to Mormonism, the "Second Great Awakening" was igniting intense religious fervor from New England to as far south as Kentucky.
Unlike the "First Great Awakening" (1730-1742), which stressed the Calvinist doctrine of "divine election," the wave of spiritual excitement that spread across America during the 1800s emphasized the role played by one's own free will in choosing God's gift of salvation (i.e., being born-again). Consequently, itinerate evangelists touring the countryside initiated "new measures" for preaching the Christian message during revival meetings; measures designed to motivate listeners toward a definitive and immediate acceptance of Jesus as their Lord and Savior:
revival "camp meetings" lasting several days (sometimes weeks);
extended times of prayer;
verbal pressure from the pulpit for listeners to make on-the-spot conversions to God;
the encouragement of lay participation in leadership activities; and
utilization of the "anxious bench," an area just below the preacher's pulpit where unbelievers prayed and mourned over their sinful condition, and where they were "exhorted to change."
These novel practices and the emotional responses they elicited drew an unprecedented number of lost souls into Christendom's fold. In fact, conversions en masse were commonplace. Many revivals were so spiritually arousing that scores of zealous attendees would succumb to fits of ecstatic utterance (i.e., speaking in tongues), wild episodes of "jerking" (i.e., rhythmic back and forth convulsing), and full-blown fainting spells (i.e., getting slain in the spirit).
At one Fairfax County, Virginia, camp meeting in 1809, Methodist organizers went so far as to erect "a boarded enclosure filled with straw, into which the converted were thrown that they might kick about without injuring themselves." Such enthusiasm made for powerful and dramatic scenes. Consider the following account of a Kentucky camp meeting (c. 1810):
The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stamps, others on wagons ... no sex, nor color, class, nor description, were exempted from the pervading influence of the spirit; even from the age of 8 months to 60 years ... some of the people were singing, other praying, some crying for mercy ... some struck with terror ... trembling, weeping and crying out ... fainting and swooning away ... others surrounding them with melodious song. A peculiar sensation came over me. My heart beat tumultuously, my knees trembled, my lips quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground.
Although the War of 1812 caused a brief lull in the country's religious zeal, the post-war years found Americans resuming their quest for spiritual fulfillmentperhaps more energetically than ever before. The period gave rise to some of history's most gifted preachers including Charles Finney (1792-1875) and Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). In addition to a surge in mainstream religious activity (e.g., Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists), the 1800s also saw "an astonishing degree of religious experimentation and innovation." Dozens of new spiritual movements flourished, including several utopian communities that espoused a wide variety of political and social ideals.
Many of these new cooperatives offered radically different/experimental notions of sexuality and marriage. Consider the Shakers, for example, who experienced spiritual revival from 1837-1847. As early as 1826 these disciples of Ann Lee (who saw herself as a reincarnated Christ) had built community halls near Joseph's hometown. They believed in a total separation of the sexes and celibacy. The Oneida commune, however, based in New York, advocated sexual freedom and practiced "complex marriage" wherein every member was married to each other. This sect also flourished not far from where Joseph grew up. And then there was Isaac Bullard, who wore only a bearskin girdle, promoted communism, taught free love, and regarded washing as a sin. In 1817 his followers gathered in Woodstock, Vermontonly "half a dozen hills away from the old Smith farm."
It is not surprising that the atmosphere of social change and religious intensity that produced the Shakers and the Oneida Community would give birth to Mormonism. Unexpected, however, has been the Mormon church's prosperous survival into the twenty-first century. Odd, too, has been the public's recent perceptions of Mormonism as just another Christian denomination (see Chapter Seventeen), when the Latter-day Saint faith originally was seen by society in general as little more than a dangerous manifestation of one man's lust for power, wealth, and illicit sex.
To most of his contemporaries, Joseph Smith was nothing but a charlatan from a family of illiterate wanderers; a shiftless trouble-makeralbeit a charismatic and imaginative onewith a penchant for superstitions, storytelling, and decision-making based on the occult traditions of nineteenth century rural folk magic. Nathaniel Lewis, for instance, who was the uncle of Smith's wife, Emma, made a telling comment in 1834: "Joseph ... is not a man of truth and veracity; ... his general character in this part of the country, is that of an impostor, hypocrite and liar."
Others, however, saw a different side to Smith; one that made him very likable. To these individuals the young would-be prophet was charming, full of humor, and intelligent. He also was a natural speaker. According to Orasmus Turner, Smith was an excellent "exhorter" at Methodist camp meetings. This term, "exhorter," refers to a position created by preachers for youths with public speaking talent. It allowed them to hone their skills in front of a live audience. The experience provided invaluable practice for Smith.
Accentuating Joseph's personality was his physical appearance. At seventeen he was "lank and powerful, six feet tall and moderately handsome. His hair, turning from tow color to light brown, swept back luxuriantly from his forehead. Even at this age there was something compelling in his bearing, and older men listened to his stories half-doubting, half-respectful." Smith's most powerful resource, however, was his clever and facile mind, as one-time follower, C.G. Webb, revealed during an enlightening 1886 interview:
[Joseph] acquired knowledge very rapidly, and learned with special facility all the tricks of the scoundrels who worked in his company.... He learned by heart a number of Latin, Greek and French common place phrases, to use them in his speeches and sermons.... Joseph kept a learned Jew in his house for a long time for the purpose of studying Hebrew with him.... I taught him the first rules of English Grammar in Kirtland in 1834. He learned rapidly.
Despite Joseph's lack of a formal education and his complete disinterest in the more mundane tasks of life (e.g., manual labor), it cannot be denied that he possessed a sharp mind, an indomitable spirit, and a keen wit. He had a highly active imagination and by all accounts was a natural public speaker. Even his most ardent critics have acknowledged his "inventive and fertile genius." It is no wonder that he has been described as "one of the most controversial and enigmatic figures ever to appear in American history."
Smith's story, although not as unbelievable as he suggested in 1844, certainly is one of the most intriguing and colorful in the annals of religious leaders. And his legacy, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, testifies to his powers of persuasion, political savvy, and religious zeal. Consequently, the story of Mormonism will likely remain a fascinating saga born out of the cultural events that shook America at the turn of the nineteenth century. It all began with an obscure family from New England.
THE SMITHS OF VERMONT
The parents of Joseph Smith, Jr.Lucy Mack (1775-1856) and Joseph Smith Sr. (1771-1840)both came from well-established New England families that enjoyed some degree of social status. The Smith line included state and local officials who had acquired a substantial amount of land. The Macks, too, had achieved financial stability and commanded a modest measure of respectability thanks to several professional clergymen in the family. So when Joseph and Lucy married on January 24, 1796, both families were able to help the young couple get started: Joseph received a farm from his father and Lucy's brother gave her $1,000. Their future together as New England farmers could not have held greater promise. But a completely different fate awaited them:
[O]ne financial disaster followed another. The farm proved barren and rocky; an unscrupulous partner in a ginseng speculation absconded with their substantial investment. Before many years had passed, the Smiths were living an impoverished, nomadic life, endlessly searching for the fresh start that would bring them financial security.
By the time Joseph, Jr. was born on December 23, 1805, the Smith family had grown by four children (including Joseph) and migrated from Tunbridge, Vermont, to nearby Sharon. This was only one of many moves back and forth across parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. Finally, in 1816, after four more children had been born into the family, all of them settled in Palmyra, New York. Like many of those who moved just north of the Finger Lakes, the Smiths hoped to find better financial times via the thriving commerce flowing from the construction of the new Erie Canal, which would eventually be completed in 1825.
The Smiths unfortunately arrived long after the high-quality tracts of land had been sold. So to make the best of a very difficult situation, Lucy opened up a "cake and beer shop" where she sold gingerbread, root beer, and oilcloth accessories. Joseph, Sr. hired himself out as a manual laborer until he was able to sign a note for a hundred acres of mediocre terrain near Manchester (a township located just a few miles south of Palmyra).
But even this did not enable the family to make a consistent livelihood from farming. They ended up relying on the common practice of tapping sugar maples for sap to make sugar and syrup. "They made seven thousand pounds in one season and won the fifty-dollar bounty for top production in the county." Such a small accomplishment, however, hardly alleviated their never-ending struggle against the haunting specter of utter destitution.
As a result, Joseph, Jr. received virtually no formal education. He and his siblings, as their age permitted, were forced to join the daily grind of menial labor: building fences, harvesting crops, and assorted odd jobs around town. These hardships continued for many years, until the Smiths finally gave up on finding deliverance from their poverty by any means that might be termed legitimate employment. They turned instead to borrowing, fast-talking, and "money-digging" through occult divination (see p. 28).
Much of the foregoing information appeared in Mormonism Unvailed (1834) by E.D. Howe (b. 1798), a book in which nearly one hundred persons acquainted with the Smiths gave statements to Howe's investigator, Philastus Hurlbut. None of the affidavits were favorable toward the family. Joseph Capron, for instance, said "the whole family of Smiths, were notorious for indolence, foolery, and falsehood. Their great object appeared to be, to live without work."
Another neighbor, Roswell Nichols, remembered that "for breach of contracts, the non-payment of debts and borrowed money, and for duplicity with their neighbors, the [Smith] family was notorious." Nichols also recalled that Joseph, Sr. once confessed it was "sometimes necessary for him to tell an honest lie, in order to live." A third individual named Parley Chase (b. 1806) related the following:
I was acquainted with the family of Joseph Smith, Sen., both before and since they became Mormons, and feel free to state that not one of the male members of the Smith family were entitled to any credit, whatsoever. They were lazy, intemperate and worthless men, very much addicted to lying. In this they frequently boasted of their skill. Digging for money was their principal employment.... Joseph Smith Jr. to my knowledge, bore the reputation among his neighbors of being a liar. The foregoing can be corroborated by all his former neighbors.
An additional statement, signed by fifty-one citizens of Palmyra, reads equally as direct:
We, the undersigned, have been acquainted with the Smith family, for a number of years, while they resided near this place, and we have no hesitation in saying, that we consider them destitute of that moral character, which ought to entitle them to the confidence of any community. They were particularly famous for visionary projects, spent much of their time in digging for money which they pretended was hid in the earth; and to this day, large excavations may be seen in the earth, not far from their residence, where they used to spend their time digging for hidden treasures. Joseph Smith, Senior, and his son Joseph, were in particular considered entirely destitute of moral character and addicted to vicious habits.
For obvious reasons, Mormons have attempted to discredit such statements. Richard L. Anderson, in a 1970 article for Brigham Young University Studies, argued that Hurlbut, because he was an apostate Mormon, completely fabricated some of the Mormonism Unvailed statements, while inserting into others his own disparaging words. LDS author Milton V. Backman said Hurlbut's affidavits were significant only as evidence of how some suspicious critics will stoop to "manufacturing a variety of preposterous myths" in reaction to Joseph's testimony. But a careful examination of Howe's documents by unbiased scholars and reputable historians has upheld their accuracy. In Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined, nineteenth century religion specialist Rodger I. Anderson lists numerous reasons to trust Howe's published accounts:
[M]ost scholars outside of Mormonism have tended to accept the non-Mormon side of the issue. The number of witnesses, the unanimity of their testimony, the failure to impeach even a single witness, and the occasional candid reminiscence by Martin Harris, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, Lucy Mack Smith ... or other early Mormons have contributed to the conclusion that Hurlbut and his followers were probably reliable reporters.
Excerpted from ONE NATION UNDER GODS by Richard Abanes. Copyright © 2002 by Richard Abanes. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
This book is one of the best books on the subject of Mormonism that I have ever read. It attempts to be fair to both sides (many books on Mormonism tend to be slanted and inject unnecessary comments), and yet it hides no truths. I recommend this book to any LDS member, because it may be the only book out there by which you will be least offended by. Abanes also gives wonderful footnotes and resources for his material which provides for great opportunities for further research! This is the best book you can buy for your money to have a general overview of Mormon history.
One of the best book's I have ever read. This book is well researched and is a easy read. Mr. Abanes does a great job in taking the reader through the years of the LDS Church. To me Mormons are a very interesting religion. This book is not a Mormon bashing book, it is a book written about the Churches history, the good and the bad. EVERYONE IN AMERICA SHOULD READ THIS BOOK.
Very informative, yet not vindictive. Unfortunately, the truth is sometimes unpleasant. Exhaustively documented. For truth seekers, this book is a must!
If only we could all slander the name of Christianity for the sake of... fame? Money? Rather than educate this book does nothing more than perpetuate stereotypes and play off of irrational untruths. It would be most unfortunate for well educated readers to limit themselves to the short sightedness of one writer. I consider this book disappointing to say the least. The views expressed are purely biased, and present nothing of the unique views, morals and doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ. All this book can hope to achieve is continued ignorance, and will lead the reader no closer to better understanding a unique branch of Christianity.
A well-documented, thought-out, and incisive expose, One Nation Under Gods is a great read for anyone interested in religious history in general, or Mormonism specifically. The true power of this book is in its Notes and Bibliography section (probably about 1/5 of the book itself) for the use of its readers to see for themselves just what went on in the 1800s, on through current events... particularly useful if you have, as I do, close friends in the Mormon church. Abanes has brought a case that any court in the nation would have to agree with... the Mormon church is guilty of deception, among other, far worse, things.
Richard Abanes has done an excellent job in providing a factual history of the LDS (Mormon) Church. The 152 pages of footnotes and appendices at the end of the book makes his documentation superb. I appreciated the honesty of this history, which is very refreshing compared to the white-washed pablum normally published by the LDS Church. Mr. Abanes punctuated his writings throughout the book with pictures of original documents and records. Having been a devout Mormon for 26 years before leaving the religion because of historical and doctrinal contradictions, revisions, and inconsistencies, I found this book to be captivating, poignant, bittersweet, and truthful. Thank you Richard for having the courage to take on this intimidating work.
I was very impressed by the deep research by Richard Abanes; he certainly knows his stuff. However, while I favor objectivity, I don't necessarily object to a person taking a hardline 'pro' or 'anti' Mormon stance. But I do object to bigotry and dishonesty (either by pro- or anti-Mormons). For instance, after his accurate recounting of the Paul Dunn affair, he concludes (I'm paraphrasing): While Packer was dicsciplined for telling the truth about Dunn, Dunn was 'free to continue spreading his lies.' The facts are that Dunn was free to continue public speaking, but he hadn't told those war or baseball stories in over 20 years. It was old (although disheartening) news by the time the story broke; but in any case, Dunn did NOT continue spreading those lies as Abanes implies. Many more examples could be cited. His definition of a 'true' Christian is equally narrow, ruling out almost all but evangelicals, who share his specific tenents (Greek Orthodox, for instance, by his definition, would probably not be called Christians). In short, same old stuff, same old half-truths, and condmenation by innuendo, but with a lot more footnotes to make it look scholarly, even though it really adds nothing new to the discussion.
The book is presented as a very good argument against LDS theology. For the most part, I have not found any mistakes that I know of in the writing, but it is for sure not a complete picture of Mormonism (only a select sampling of quotes and instances that support Mr. Abanes' position--which is what a good argumentative paper is, really). The book relies heavily upon internet sources which are not scholarly nor peer reviewed. I do have issue that Abanes quoted a person who honestly did ask not to be quoted or cited, and I find that unethical.
I am not a member of the LDS Church, but I have had an interest in LDS history for quite some time. One Nation Under Gods (ONUG) is well-researched and an incredibly easy read for being such a large volume. However, ONUG is far from objective. On the contrary, he spends numerous chapters on the dark side of LDS history (as well he should), but few on the positive effects the Church has had. The author frequently makes veiled allusions to the Church being a 'cult'- which is where the entire book loses its credibility. From the very beginning, it is obvious to a critical reader that the author has an agenda (he's written other books on cults) and he has made no attempt to portray the Church in an even remotely favorable light, going so far as to make veiled allusions to the Church being a 'cult' on the dust jacket description. Even ONUG's forward was written by a vehement anti-Mormon by the name of Sandra Tanner. If you are an Evangelical Christian intent on ridiculing others' faith, by all means, waste money on this book. If you actually want to learn about the LDS Church from a historical perspective, go nowhere near ONUG. The only reason I gave this book two stars and not one is because it has dozens of references to (hopefully) legitimate works in the bibliography.