Thursday, July 03, 2014

‘American Crucifixion,’ by Alex Beam

Patriarch and Pariah


A religion whose followers believe that the Earth was created somewhere in the neighborhood of the planet Kolob, and that the Garden of Eden was created somewhere in the neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo., would seem to have so fortified itself against mockery that there’s no sport in scorning it. In this respect, Mormonism is an honest reflection of its founder, a man who offers such an easy target that providing even a partial list of his myriad and exotic transgressions feels too easy, like a distasteful piling on.

That founder was Joseph Smith, a teenager who grew up in western New York. In the 1820s, Smith began to “translate,” from tablets he kept wrapped in a tablecloth, a series of visions that became the Book of Mormon, a turgid sci-fi novel that nonetheless managed to sway a nucleus of converts. Unfurling a vision of a restored Christianity that placed America at the center of the world, and offering the possibility of a perfected soul both here on Earth and, after death, in a multitude of heavens, Smith also managed to be so provocative that he and his followers found themselves hounded, in a series of increasingly dramatic upheavals, from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois.

Alex Beam’s “American Crucifixion” recounts the peregrination of these pariahs. Before they finally evacuated to the Great Salt Lake Valley, which was then part of Mexico, they thought they had found a safe haven in Nauvoo, Ill., the most elaborate of Smith’s foundations. Thence, from all over the United States, Canada and the British Isles, the Mormons flocked. At one point, the city’s population may have surpassed Chicago’s. But Smith’s gift for outrageousness prevailed, and in June 1844 a mob lynched him and his brother. Smith was 38 years old.

(More here.)


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