Joseph Smith

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(HOST) This year marks the bicentennial of the birth in Vermont of the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. Commentator Allen Gilbert explores the appeal of this uniquely American religion.

(GILBERT) The residents of Sharon are preparing for an influx of visitors this year. Two hundred years ago, in 1805, Joseph Smith was born there. Smith is the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – the Mormons. The Mormon Church is often cited as this country’s most distinctive contribution to the world’s religions.

Smith’s family left Vermont when he was young; they moved west to upstate New York. It was there, in 1827, that Smith claimed to have found gold plates, with strange writing, buried in the ground. He said Moroni, an angel of god, appeared and helped him translate the writing. Smith’s translation became the Book of Mormon, and upon the writings in this book, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was established.

I’ve met Mormons in almost every place I’ve ever lived or traveled. I’ve been to Salt Lake City and toured the Mormon exhibits at Temple Square. It’s hard not to admire the Mormons’ dedication to family, and their commitment to their church. But somehow, in the back of my mind, I’ve always said, “I don’t get it. Mormonism is based on buried gold plates that a 22-year-old – once accused of fraud – found in upstate New York.” Smith, you see, had dallied in a number of mysterious activities. Among other things, he believed in the power of “peep” stones to find buried treasure.

It wasn’t until I read Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven that I finally began to understand the Mormon religion. And that’s made me reflect on religions generally.

One of the foundations of the Mormon faith is that certain individuals can receive direct revelations from God. This is, in fact, the basis on which Smith founded the church: his discovery of the Book of Mormon. A belief in direct revelations from God is irrational – irrational in the pure sense of the word, “defying reason.” So why would so many people follow a faith based on irrationality?

Krakauer says the attraction is quite understandable. There are elements of irrationality in every religion. Catholics, Episcopalians and other Christians say that the wine that they drink at communion becomes the blood of Christ. They say that Christ fed 10,000 people with a few fish and loaves of bread. These are clearly irrational beliefs, but they have been professed as true for so long that most Christians no longer consider the irrationality.

Krakauer believes that irrationality is inherent in any faith. Most of us have an innate urge to understand our existence, to try to make sense of why we are here on Earth. But there are no rational, provable answers to such questions. So we turn to religion, which provides answers that must, by definition, be irrational.

As Joseph Smith is remembered this year, it does little good to ruminate on the existence of the mysterious gold plates that became the Book of Mormon. Instead, we might think about the nature of religious belief itself. We’re at a time when such understanding is critical, both in our own country and in the wider world.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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