Mormonism was built on grand claims from the outset: that God had chosen Joseph Smith, an upstate New York farm boy, as His latter-day prophet; that the holy records of Christ’s dealings with the ancient Americans were etched onto golden plates hidden in the Fingerlakes district; and that the Kingdom of God would be built upon the American frontier.  The new religious movement’s grand claims and its founder’s grand self-confidence ensured Mormonism would be controversial from its inception.  Joseph Smith himself recalled that since he had been “an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age” and “a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing” had already taken “notice sufficient to excite the public mind against” him.[1] However, despite its eccentricities, Mormonism initially saw itself as belonging in the framework of traditional Christianity and American political life.  The shift, both by Mormons themselves and by Mormonism’s detractors, in the mid-nineteenth century from seeing Mormonism as an oddity within Christian America to something entirely outside normal religious and cultural boundaries was a more jolting then gradual.  In this is paper, I will argue that Joseph Smith’s famed 1844 sermon, the King Follett discourse, was an especially important dramatic turning point in early Mormon history, in which, firstly, Mormonism branched theologically away from historic Christianity and that, secondly, set in motion the historical conditions that drove Mormons beyond the frontier and out of American political life.

In order to understand the shift that took place, we must first understand the ways in which Mormonism saw itself as an orthodox part of Christianity and a contributing party to American society.  Mormonism was not established to refute orthodoxy, it was established to embody it.  That is not to say that Mormonism modelled itself intentionally after its contemporary denominations.  Like Alexander Campbell, Joseph Smith had a Restorationist impulse.  God had revealed to Smith that other churches were “all corrupt” and that “they teach for doctrines the commandments of men.”[2] However, the solution to Smith’s problem was not Alexander Campbell’s aphorism “no creed but the Bible.”  Smith knew from the outset that strict Biblicism was the road to interdenominational strife in the first place.  While maintaining a belief in Biblical inspiration, Smith denied the Bible as the ultimate determiner of truth and error.  He wrote, “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”[3] To solve this conundrum, Smith concluded he must do an end-run around the text to its author.  Smith wrote:

“At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James [1:5] directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to ‘ask of God,’ concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.”[4]

 

Thus, like Campbell, Smith wanted a Restoration of pure, New Testament Christianity.  However, he unfettered himself and his hermeneutic from the Bible text, setting the stage to eventually be at stark odds with the text while proclaiming loyalty to it.

When Smith organized Mormon church in 1830, it was as the very Restorationist “Church of Christ,” a name he would later elaborate into “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”[5] The proceedings of the organization meeting are part of the Latter-day Saint canon, as Doctrine and Covenants section 20.  With the notable exception of accepting the Book of Mormon as scripture, the creed outlined in verses 1 through 30 is entirely affirmations of previous Christian tradition and creeds.  For example, the passage proclaims, “We know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them.”[6] Smith understood himself as revealing hidden truths that former, ancient Christians had already known.  He did not see himself as a theological innovator. A paradox in early Mormonism, never cleanly resolved, was that Joseph Smith simultaneously was trying to build a restoration of the New Testament church based on extra biblical revelations.

In regards to Mormonism’s place in society at large, Smith saw himself as the quintessential American and his church as a patriotic endeavour.  The church was “regularly organized and established agreeable to the laws of our country.”[7] While numerous nineteenth century Christians exalted America as the culmination of God’s plan for the earth, Smith argued that America had always been central to God’s work.  Smith said the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, that Christ had visited the Americas, and that Christ’s political kingdom at the second coming would be headquartered in Missouri as well.   Smith further considered the Constitution to be an inspired document:

“The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner; it is, to all those who are privileged with the sweets of liberty, like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a weary and thirsty land. It is like a great tree under whose branches men from every clime can be shielded from the burning rays of the sun.”[8]

 

Even when Smith barged through the walls of church-state separation by serving as mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, and took the radical step of declaring his candidacy as president, Joseph Smith saw himself as demonstrating a commitment to working within the American constitutional framework.

For Joseph Smith, his vision of Christian restoration in the American framework had met colossal complications by 1844.  He was politically overwhelmed, serving as local mayor and earnestly running for U.S. President.  Boatloads of converts were arriving in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Mississippi riverfront community where Mormonism was headquartered.  Disease was rampant.  His wife was pregnant.  Finally, rumours, which would be revealed as true, had begun to spread that Joseph Smith was teaching and practicing polygamy.[9] It was a most inopportune time to give the most heterodox sermon of his ministry, but as Smith biographer Richard Lyman Bushman writes, “Joseph’s revelations drove him beyond prudence.  Once a doctrine or project came to him by revelation, he was indomitable.”[10]

Shortly before his martyrdom in June of 1844, the Prophet Joseph Smith spoke at the final preaching session of the April conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his final address to the gathered assembly of the whole church.  According to the notes made by his advisors, “about twenty thousand saints”[11] were in attendance.  The sermon, now known as the King Follett discourse, so named after the church elder whose eulogy this sermon doubled as, represented a stark theological turning point in the development of Mormonism.  Yale literary critic Harold Bloom notes it as “one of the truly remarkable sermons ever preached in America.”[12] The King Follett discourse is most frequently noted for its radical redefinition of the nature of God the Father, toppling the view of an eternal God while elevating the human spirit to the status of uncreated and eternal.

Smith opened the grand sermon:

“I want to ask this congregation, every man, woman and child, to answer the question in their own hearts, what kind of a being God is? Ask yourselves; turn your thoughts into your hearts, and say if any of you have seen, heard, or communed with Him? This is a question that may occupy your attention for a long time. I again repeat the question—What kind of a being is God? Does any man or woman know? Have any of you seen Him, heard Him, or communed with Him?”

The implicit answer, which would have been obvious to a Latter-day Saint audience both familiar with and convinced by Smith’s visions, would be that Joseph Smith knows and that he knows because of he has “seen, heard” and “communed with” God, not because of his intellectual superiority. “I suppose I am not allowed to go into an investigation of anything that is not contained in the Bible,” Smith explains. “If I do, I think there are so many over-wise men here that they would cry ‘treason’ and put me to death. So I will go to the old Bible and turn commentator today.”  While one can sense an exasperation in his tone. “I thank God that I have got this old book; but I thank him more for the gift of the Holy Ghost,” he explains.  As Smith’s revelations grew more complex, the Bible was as much an impediment to Restoration as an aid.  One way in way Joseph Smith coped with this in the King Follett discourse. Despite his insistence, that his new revelation on the nature of God is simple, he offers this analogy for its complexity:

“When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.”

The reason he is faced with an increasingly complex Gospel vision is that his view of Restoration has been unbound from New Testament orthodoxy, whatever that may be.  “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret,” he proclaims.  To substantiate this claim he not only relies on adding scholarly tools to his prophetic witness, he claims to be restoring fundamental truths that have been hidden since long before the New Testament church, essentially restoring eternal knowledge form beyond the veil.  “If the veil were rent today,” Smith says, “and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible,—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man.”  This innovation changes the fundamental claim of Mormonism as a restoration of New Testament practice into a far grander narrative of total restoration.

Joseph Smith had stripped God the Father of both His pre-eternal divinity and his uniqueness. A modern apologist for Smith, Bushman argues that “critics are wrong when they say Joseph Smith created a heaven of multiples gods like the pagan pantheons.”[13] Bushman argues that the model for Joseph’s endless gods was the Christian trinity.  “The gods are one,” Bushman writes, “as Christ and the Father are one.” [14] Yet one man’s Restored Truth is another man’s blasphemy, and to converts who had joined Mormonism seeking a restoration of Biblical Christianity, this had drifted too far.  William Law, a devout Mormon and one of Smith’s closes advisors as a member of the First Presidency, was driven out of the church by the discourse, calling it “some of the most blasphemous doctrines ever heard of, such as other gods as far above our God as He is above us.” [15]

The King Follett sermon was the first general public admission of Mormonism’s radically heterodox view of God.  It is in crossing this line that Mormon detractors, up to this day, make arguments not that Mormons are simply wrong Christians, but that they are not at all Christians, for the God of Mormonism is not the God of Christianity.  Mormons, for their part, simply believe that they have a proper understanding of who God has been all along.

Joseph Smith’s dual career and prophet and politician guaranteed that this theological discourse would not remain in a theoretical realm.  It struck a nerve that reverberated throughout the greater Nauvoo, Illinois, area.  Bushman argues that the sermon is pro-American:

“The King Follett doctrines can sound profoundly American.  Every man a god and a king fulfilled democratic aspirations to a degree unknown in any other religion.  Joseph’s assertion that ‘all mind is susceptible of improvement’ opened up the possibility of limitless growth.  Mormons themselves have labelled the doctrine of eternal spirits ‘ eternal progression’ as if it meant rising ever higher in society, the essence of the American dream.  It is the one teaching of Joseph Smith that Americans are most likely to admire.”[16]

Yet, rather than rousing enthusiasm, the reaction to it led to a series of tragic events.  William Law, so offended by the sermon, formally gathered a meeting to reform Mormonism by rejecting Smith as a “fallen prophet.”[17] Joseph Smith, already a man with a long history of legal troubles and neighbourly disputes, faced unprecedented opposition from within his own inner circle, especially with the apostasy of William Law.  The opposition of so many who knew Smith so well meant that exposés of his actions, especially regarding polygamy, still not officially unannounced even with the church, would soon come out and further turn opinion against him.  In May, one month after the King Follett discourse, Law led the publication of the first and sole issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, a paper full of anti-Smith editorials.  Enraged, Smith and his city council ordered the press destroyed, declaring it “a nuisance” which promoted a “mob spirit.”[18] The irony, though, was the Expositor provoked a mob spirit far less than did its destruction.  For all of Bushman’s views on the Americanism of the King Follett discourse, the post-King Follett Smith merged political and religious authority as mayor and prophet and did so with anti-free speech tyranny.  In June, Joseph Smith was in prison for the illegal destruction of private property when he and his brother were shot and killed in Carthage, Illinois.  The following winter, under threat of further mob violence, Brigham Young led the Latter-day Saints out of Illinois and to Utah, which at the time was outside of the United States, in Mexico.

For the next hundred years, Mormonism would fight with an identity as an un-American “other.”  Its right to home rule was questioned by the US Army when Mormons once again combined political and religious powers in the Governor and Prophet Brigham Young.  Statehood was denied until polygamy was rescinded in 1894.  In the last fifty years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been creeping along in its journey back to recognition as a Christian church and a truly pro-American institution.  Yet, to this day, Joseph Smith’s vision of an evolving God among many gods, hinders Mormon mainstreaming efforts.  When President Gordon B. Hinckley, the last president of the Church, was asked by Time magazine about multiple gods, he “dodged the question,” according to the journalist.  “On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, ‘I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it … I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.’”[19] It remains the biggest doctrinal fuel to evangelical accusations that Mormonism is a “cult,” which haunted Mitt Romney’s presidential ambitions.   American Christianity thrives on the bold and the grand, and from Joseph Smith until today, Mormonism has been at once the boldest and grandest expression of American Christianity and the home-grown faith held most suspect by American Christians.


[1] Smith, Joseph. The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982. Joseph Smith—History 1:22.

[2] Smith, Joseph. The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982. Joseph Smith—History 1:19.

[3] Smith, Joseph. The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982. Joseph Smith—History 1:12.

[4] Smith, Joseph. The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982. Joseph Smith—History 1:13.

[5] Smith, Joseph. The Doctrine and Covenants. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982. 20:1.

[6] Smith, Joseph. The Doctrine and Covenants. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982. 20:17.

[7] Smith, Joseph. The Doctrine and Covenants. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982. 20:1.

[8] History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ed. B.H. Roberts. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Vol. I.  Part 3.  p. 304.

[9] Bushman, Richard Lyman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. pp. 526-536.

[10] Bushman, Richard Lyman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. p. 527.

[11] Unless otherwise noted, all discourse are from Joseph Smith “King Follett Discourse.”  This primary source originates from History of the Church Volume 6 (pp. 302-317).  I am referencing a reprint from that source on <http://www.utlm.org/onlineresources/sermons_talks_interviews/kingfolletsermon.htm>.

[12] Bushman, Richard Lyman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. p. 533.

[13] Bushman, Richard Lyman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. p. 535.

[14] Bushman, Richard Lyman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. p. 535.

[15] Bushman, Richard Lyman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. p. 533.

[16] Bushman, Richard Lyman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. p. 537.

[17] Bushman, Richard Lyman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. p. 533.

[18] Bushman, Richard Lyman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. p. 540.

[19] Van Biema, David. Time. Aug. 4, 1997. “Kingdom Come.” p. 56.