Reform Mormonism traces its history to what may very well be the most unique, revolutionary and unorthodox sermon in American history.
The sermon was delivered in April 1844 at Nauvoo, Illinois. Built on what had been fever-infested Mississippi swamp land, Nauvoo had become, in less than five years, the largest and most politically powerful city in the state of Illinois.
The sermon was delivered by Joseph Smith, the founder and Mayor of Nauvoo. But long before he founded the city, Joseph had gained national attention as the founder of a new and distinctly American religious movement known as Mormonism.
Fifteen years earlier, Joseph had described the purpose and goal of Mormonism in this way:
“…if the people of this generation harden not their hearts, I will work a reformation among them…” (“Book of Commandments” 4:5)
The mainstream churches of the day hardly thought a reformation was needed. Even though Joseph’s earliest teachings more or less reflected the Christianity of the American frontier, Joseph Smith and Mormonism were denounced by the mainstream churches. Due to the mob-mentality found in rural frontier communities of the day, the Mormons were often the victims of mob violence. Despite this, Joseph Smith continued to attract thousands of followers from across the United States, Canada and England.
Joseph Smith was unlike other religious leaders of his day. Though Mormons thought of him as a prophet, he was no preacher of doom and gloom--and he certainly looked nothing at all like the stereotypical Moses or Elijah. He was over six feet tall, possessed a powerful, athletic build and was described as “a fine looking man.” Good natured and out-going, he loved to wrestle. (One couple converted to Mormonism and moved to Nauvoo, then left the city and the faith the day they arrived when they found Joseph in a wrestling match with some other men in town.)
Growing up in the boom towns along the Erie canal in upstate New York, young Joseph Smith indulged in frontier folk-magic and spiritualism, and was fascinated with the folk-lore surrounding the origins of the Native Americans. In his late teens, his interests turned to religion: he joined a local Methodist debating club and became adept at debating theology. His religious ideas were also influenced by his father and grandfather--both of whom rejected many orthodox Christian doctrines in favor of Deism, Universalism and Unitarianism concepts.
In his early twenties, Joseph began publishing his ideas, presenting them to the world as modern scripture, equal in authority to the Bible and other ancient writings. But Joseph was far from a scriptural literalist or fundamentalist. When, after further study and prayer, his ideas regarding a particular doctrine changed, he would simply rewrite his previous scripture to reflect that change and then republish it.
And indeed, Joseph Smith’s beliefs and ideas did change as he matured.
After establishing a church in 1830, Joseph’s came under the influence of a Christian commune in Kirtland, Ohio, whose members were attempting to “restore” the primitive Christianity of the first century.
Christianity was not the sole influence on Joseph’s changing beliefs and philosophy. In Ohio, he founded what he called “The School of the Prophets,” and hired a rabbi to teach him and other Mormon leaders Hebrew and the tenants of Judaism--including elements of the Kabalah. In his early thirties, he became fascinated with Egyptology and developed a keen interest in the religions and gods of ancient Egypt. Through his involvement in Freemasonry, Joseph was exposed to the philosophy of the Enlightenment.
With all of these contrasting influences, Joseph Smith’s beliefs began to change dramatically. By the time he was in his mid-thirties, Joseph Smith was privately teaching a new theology to some of the highest ranking leaders of the Mormon community. Mormonism was on the brink of changing from a fringe Christian movement into a completely new religion.
In April of 1844, at an annual church conference in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith unveiled a new theology to the world.
He had been asked to deliver a funeral sermon in memory of a Mormon named King Follett who had died recently. This sermon became known as “The King Follett Discourse,” and in it Joseph taught ideas that not only contradicted the beliefs of most people, but also undermined many of his own earlier notions.
Joseph began his sermon championing religious freedom and the natural rights of man--going so far as to say than every individual “has a natural, and in our country, a constitutional right to be a false prophet, as well as a true prophet.” He denounced all violence and bloodshed in the name of religion.
Joseph then denounced the central ideas of traditional monotheism, saying they were based in ignorance and superstition, and insisting that they “lessen man in my estimation.”
Joseph Smith rejected the doctrine of Creationism--considered by many to be the foundation of all religious thought. He taught that nature was uncreated and eternal, without beginning or end; that it was impossible for anyone--even God--to create something out of nothing.
Joseph declared that the individual exists literally in the image of God; that each of person shares a common nature with God and is “co-equal with God.”
While traditional religion preached dependence on God and submission to His will, Joseph taught, “You have got to learn how to become Gods yourselves…the same as all Gods have done, namely by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a greater one.” It wasn’t mere belief or faith, or a reliance on some supernatural force that would bring such growth. “Knowledge is what saves a man,” said Joseph. “The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge.” All minds “are susceptible of enlargement.”
Decades later, Joseph Smith’s brother-in-law would sum up his new theology in this way:
“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.”
By embracing such a positive view of human nature, Joseph Smith’s new religion was at odds with orthodox Christianity. Many in the Mormon community were appalled by his doctrines.
William Law (next to Joseph, the second highest ranking official in the church) along with other disaffected Mormon officials established a new newspaper in Nauvoo. “The Nauvoo Expositor” denounced Joseph as an “atheist,” Deist” and “false prophet,” and demanded that he step down as leader of the Church and that he be stripped of the office of mayor.
In response, Joseph as the mayor of Nauvoo declared the newspaper a public nuisance and ordered it shut down. Such measures though common in frontier communities, clearly violated the First Amendment. When word reached the Governor of Illinois, he placed Joseph and several other Mormon leaders under arrest. While Joseph await his hearing, an angry mob stormed the jail in Carthage where he was being housed. Determined to rid the world of a man they viewed as a false prophet and an enemy to true Christianity, they brutally shot and killed Joseph Smith.
With the murder of Joseph Smith, the Mormon community fell apart. Many were so put off by Joseph’s new doctrines, that they left Mormonism altogether. There were bitter disputes over who should succeed Joseph as leader of the Mormon community and which of Joseph doctrines should be accepted as legitimate. Joseph’s immediate family (his wife Emma, his children, mother and siblings) renounced his new doctrines and established a “reorganized” church in Missouri, teaching the orthodox Christian doctrines that Joseph had rejected. Other groups of Mormons migrated to places such as Michigan and Pennsylvania where they founded their own churches. The largest group of Mormons migrated west under the leadership of Brigham Young, where they changed the course of US history by colonizing the states of Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona. Although the largest Mormon denomination, the Utah church would see many of its members break away to establish a variety of churches, sects and cults.
There are now dozens upon dozens of different denominations within Mormonism. However, one thing unites them: in varying degrees, all reject important aspects of the King Follet Discourse’s new theology in favor of orthodox Christian beliefs.
Reform Mormons stand alone in declaring that Mormonism is, in fact, a new religion--completely separate and distinct from Christianity. Reform Mormons do not attempt to distance themselves from the King Follett Discourse or water-down its unique ideas . They know that these ideas cannot be reconciled the traditional monotheism. Taking these ideas are their foundation, Reform Mormons embrace progression, individualism, rational thought, science, technology and the arts--as well as the expansion of knowledge and human liberty. Reform Mormons fully embrace all aspects of Mormon history, and they look to the future, celebrating human achievement and the divine potential of each individual.
“The Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, ranks with Moses, Jesus and Mohammed as a creator of original religious ideas. His spiritual formulations concerning the supremacy of nature, the limitations of God, and the uncreatabillity of the human spirit masterfully addressed the religious issues of his day, These doctrines provided the foundation of a new religion that declared that men could become gods and that God himself was once but a mortal man. Smith’s new religion threw out the preeminence of God, replacing it with the ascendancy of man, just as colonial America had thrown out the preeminence of the king on favor of the ascendancy of the people.” (William Call in his book, “The Cultural Revolution.”)