Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was a dynamic leader with some teachings that were odd to those listening. He claimed these were direct revelations from God. Joseph’s motives for these teachings were most likely directly related to his environment, family, and experiences in his young life, and not from God as he claimed.
At the age of about seven, young Joseph had some very traumatic experiences. He had three surgeries without any anesthesia at all. These surgeries consisted of the young boy being held down while a good portion of his left leg bone was gruesomely removed. These awful experiences can be easily traced to why his “revelations from God” included themes of dismemberment and other similar things (Scott 31).
Joseph Smith Jr. was the fifth of eleven children born to Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. The family young Joseph grew up in was very religiously tumultuous. His mother was a very religious Protestant. His father was less religious but believed in universalism, meaning that everyone would be saved. At any rate, there were many religious debates within his household growing up. Much of what Joseph Smith Jr. would later record as doctrine came from his early experiences. In order to please his father, he came up with the three kingdoms belief. He said in the afterlife, there are three kingdoms – the telestial, the terrestrial, and the celestial – which everyone would go to one after they die. People who were Mormon but had left the church were the one exception; they would go to what he called “outer darkness.” At any rate, this idea satisfied Joseph Sr.’s belief that everyone would be saved (McCraney 123-135).
While living in Palmyra, New York, the men of the Smith family were very active in money-digging. Money-digging was a fairly common practice of using folk magic to find buried treasure. One of the most important tools Joseph Jr. used in this practice was his “seer stone.” He would use it by putting it in his hat and closing the hat tightly around his face. He said that then he would see the location of the treasure (Scott 35). Is it then a pure coincidence that this was the exact same method the angel Moroni supposedly gave Joseph to translate the Book of Mormon? Logic would say, “Absolutely not.”
Another defining moment in his life happened when Joseph was about 17 years old. His older brother Alvin had recently died. While their mother, Lucy, was still grieving, a Protestant minister came to their house and told her that her son was in hell because he had never been baptized. This caused her to become very distraught. As a result, years later, Joseph Jr. came up with the doctrine of baptism for the dead that the LDS church still practices today. In this practice, a young person goes into the temple and is assigned the name of a deceased person; they then are baptized for that person. This is an extremely logical effect of his mother being told Alvin was in hell. This practice allowed Joseph Jr. to provide an answer to his mother’s burning questions about the afterlife (McCraney 135-137).
The culture of Joseph’s era shows a large amount of circumstantial cause-and-effect evidence. The Book of Mormon talks about a people group who were Jews that came to America and says part of that group are the ancestors of the Native Americans. This idea is not exclusive to the Book of Mormon. In fact, it was a rising idea in the early nineteenth century. In fact, a man named Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph) had published a book espousing the exact same idea. His book, View of the Hebrews; or the Ten Tribes of Israel in America, came out five to seven years before the Book of Mormon. In this book, the author theorized the possibility that a large group of Israelites came to America, split into two groups, the more evil one killed the other group, and that they became the American Indians who Columbus discovered in 1492. The Book of Mormon has the same storyline. (As a side note, in recent genetic studies, the American Indians almost certainly originated in Asia, not Israel.) Joseph Smith Jr. claimed this story was written on golden plates thousands of years before. More plausibly, it was created by the cultural environment that affected Smith (Scott 37).
Another cause and effect that is astoundingly obvious is Joseph Smith’s involvement in freemasonry. He became a freemason, and within two weeks of going through the Masonic temple, he announced the “endowment ceremony” for the Mormon temple. The similarities cannot be considered coincidence. They both have the “five points of fellowship,” in which the words are almost identical. The oath for the “First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood” is almost identical to the oath of the “First Degree” in Masonry. They both have the promise of letting your throat be slit if the person reveals certain things. The handshakes are almost identical. These are also the case for the “Second Token of the Aaronic Priesthood” and the “Second Degree.” The similarities continue on much farther than this (Tanner 536-41).
Joseph Smith Jr. was a very imaginative man. He liked formulating theories and writing stories based on those theories. However, he also liked very much to say that God himself told him these things. However, the cause and effects of the influence that family, culture, and Masonry had on Joseph were almost certainly contributed to his formation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
McCraney, Shawn. I was a Born-Again Mormon. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Alathea, 2003. 123-37. Print.
Scott, Latayne. The Mormon Mirage. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009. 31-37. Print.
Tanner, Jerald, and Sandra Tanner. The Changing World of Mormonism. Chicago Illinois: Moody Press, 1979. 536-41. eBook.