Mormons Mark Joseph Smith Bicentennial

Dec. 23 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith. As Mormons around the world reflect on this milestone, there are lingering questions from outsiders about Smith's motivation, teachings and legacy.

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Mormons today are marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith. He's considered the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It's grown to 12 million members in 170 countries, but many outsiders still question the faith and the founder. From Salt Lake City, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Here's one absolute truth about Joseph Smith: If he's a fraud, then the faith he founded is also a fraud.

Mr. MARLIN JENSEN (Official Historian, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints): Certainly faith in the church and belief in the church would rise or fall with Joseph Smith. Either what he said was true or it wasn't.

BERKES: Marlin Jensen accepts the Mormon faith Joseph Smith founded. He's the official historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mr. JENSEN: Everything we have today in the church a lengthened shadow of Joseph. So we owe him for the doctrine, the organization, the authority that undergirds our church.

BERKES: Joseph Smith was just 14 in 1820 when he had his first religious vision. God and Jesus appeared in a forest in upstate New York, he said, denouncing all faiths as false and corrupt. `Don't join any of them,' Smith was told. `And stand by because you will help restore true Christianity.' Richard Hughes is a religious scholar at Pepperdine University.

Mr. RICHARD HUGHES (Pepperdine University): Joseph seems to me simply to be a man of his time who longed to restore the primitive church. He was perplexed by all the many denominations that were competing with one another in early 19th-century America. Many Americans were perplexed by the denominational rivalries. He simply wants right. He wants some answer and that led him to do what he did.

BERKES: The visions continued, leading Joseph Smith to a hillside where he said he dug up golden plates etched with hieroglyphics. Smith translated them, the story goes, with stonelike glasses attached to a breastplate. Scripture emerged, a new New Testament to believers telling of an appearance by Christ in the Americas and of a holy war involving American Indians. This is where skepticism begins, says historian Richard Bushman of Columbia University, a Joseph Smith biographer.

Mr. RICHARD BUSHMAN (Historian): I think a lot of people can say a young kid could have had a vision and somehow or other thought he saw God. But when it comes to gold plates and translating, that really gets into the realm of impossibility and some kind of deception going on. He must have just been concocting this story.

BERKES: Bushman is not among the skeptics. He's a faithful Mormon who sees other possibilities.

Mr. BUSHMAN: There's just enough that's miraculous in this whole story that this young kid should turn out a book, 584 pages, a thousand-year history of a civilization, filled with details, when he could barely write, limited education, less than a couple years. There's just a glimmer of hope that this is, indeed, God working. So I hold on to that glimmer of hope.

BERKES: Joseph Smith called his new scripture the Book of Mormon, and it sets Mormons apart from other Christians, including the anti-Mormon street preachers who gather outside the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City waving Bibles and outstretched arms.

(Soundbite of street preacher)

Unidentified Man: You have sinned against the almighty God if you have ever believed another gospel. The Bible says if they teach another gospel, let 'em be accursed.

Mr. PHILIP ROBERTS (President, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary): In terms of their attempt to say we are a part of mainstream Christianity, there's no way, under any stretch of the imagination, that I could see that Mormonism could be tolerated as true Christianity.

BERKES: Philip Roberts is president of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He finds stark differences between Joseph Smith's theology and conventional Christianity. Prophecy is an example. Many Christians believe only the prophets of the Bible spoke with God, but Mormons believe in modern prophets beginning with Joseph Smith and continuing through every Mormon president since. They can change doctrine overnight. But Roberts suspects more human motives, especially when it comes to polygamy.

Mr. ROBERTS: It may very well have been that Joseph Smith created a religion to justify his own behavior and actions on issues like polygamy. And if you look at the time line of when he did these things, it was when he was most active as a polygamist that he began to create doctrines to justify his behavior.

BERKES: Joseph Smith married 30 women, including 10 already wedded to other men, according to biographer Richard Bushman.

Mr. BUSHMAN: That's really a big problem. It's so contrary to our own sense of moral integrity, and so it's hard for Mormons as well as non-Mormons to stomach. And the unfortunate thing is that Joseph Smith himself really gave no explanation. All he said was that he was restoring the practices of the ancient prophets.

BERKES: Mormon leaders justified Joseph Smith's polygamy even though they firmly reject polygamy now. They're able to do that because of modern prophecy and the belief that doctrine can change overnight. Richard Turley manages the church history department.

Mr. RICHARD TURLEY (Church Historian): Ultimately questions about our faith do resolve themselves to an issue of faith. And our belief was Joseph Smith was right in saying that, at that time, there should be polygamy; and equally so the prophet who said there will not be polygamy anymore was also right.

BERKES: Still, polygamy is the single biggest cause of Mormon schisms. In fact, after his death Joseph Smith's first wife joined a faction that rejected the practice. It persists today among thousands who claim to be the true followers of Joseph Smith. These polygamists are banned from the mainstream church but they call themselves Mormon fundamentalists and they were the focus of author Jon Krakauer in his book "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Mr. JON KRAKAUER (Author): And it wasn't a small, insubstantial part of the religion. It was part of the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on earth. And this causes huge problems for the mainstream church, even though fundamentalists are less than 1 percent of the church's population. But this, it makes the whole church look bad. And this is all the legacy of Joseph Smith.

BERKES: Krakauer says another aspect of the legacy persists as a problem for the faith.

Mr. KRAKAUER: Every believer had this very intimate personal relationship with God. God speaks to Mormons. Now this created problems for him right away because when you have a lot of people talking to God, someone sooner or later--sooner is going to say, `Well, you said this, but God told me that. In fact, God told me that I'm supposed to be the prophet, not you.' And for that reason, every since the church was created there have been schisms and prophets claiming to be the true prophets who've split off and formed their own versions of Mormonism, several of which still exist today.

BERKES: Despite the schisms and polygamy and other problems with the faith, it thrives. Twelve million have joined since Joseph Smith's first vision. Billions of dollars flow into church coffers. Mormons exert significant influence in business and politics, and, for some, the faith is unshakeable. Listen to Glen Davies, a Salt Lake City attorney, standing in the Mormon History Museum surrounded by artifacts of Joseph Smith's life.

Mr. GLEN DAVIES (Attorney): It gives you a greater sense of his reality and that you're looking at something that was actually real and not just a story.

BERKES: How can you be so sure?

Mr. DAVIES: To someone who isn't, it's hard to explain. But when you receive a witness of the spirit, you can't deny its reality, and I've received that witness.

BERKES: Davies is moved to tears as he speaks. Joseph Smith died at the hands of an Illinois mob in 1844, his martyrdom fueling the faith of believers then and now. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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