Joseph Smith and Brigham Young: Religious Prophets or Malignant Narcissists?
I just had occassion to finish reading John Krakauer’s enthralling book Under the Banner of Heaven,  which tells the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, brothers and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, who in 1984 carried out the brutal murder of their sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and niece Erica. The brothers, fanatics by no other name, subscribed to a bizarre mixture of Mormon theology, Old Testament justice and New Age mysticism, killed to attone for Brenda Lafferty’s opposition to their form of Taliban style religious zealotry, particularly their embrace of polygamy.

Although the Lafferty brothers were excommunicated by the Salt Lake City, Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, both subscribed to an orthodox interpretation of the religion’s founder, seer and prophet, Joseph Smith, who in his life claimed to have received revelations from God Almighty to proclaim a new order to replace the apostasy of all other Christian religions. For those such as myself who are not Mormon, LDS theology is a strange bag, a faith that seems to fly in the face of the basic tenets of Judeo-Christian belief, particulary the teaching that mortal man can and will, through the practice of Mormon virtue become himself a god of a celestial kingdom in the hereafter.

Mormonism, among other things, holds that even the dead can be baptized to save them from eternal punishment.

Only a handful of tenets of Mormonism in the thoughts and minds of an unbeliever such as myself are needed to label this American-born religion peculiar at best. Mormon history teaches that upon his death and resurection Christ came to the Americas to establish his church to two lost tribes of Israel, who vanquished each other some 1,600 years ago. Although no credible archaelogical or biological evidence exists to show that the American Indian was descended from Palestine, nevertheless Mormons hold steadfast that at one point there was a thriving Christian society here in the New World, one that dissapeared as all decadent civilizations do. Joseph Smith, a convicted con artist from near Rochester, New York, was the one blessed to have the history of the American people revealed to him.

Theology aside–and I for one will never prescribe to the tenets of Mormonism–I find it a mixed blessing that such a bizarre faith can also exist in modern times, documented as it was by both officials in the fledgling church as well as partisans newspapers who took different degrees of skepticism or outright opposition to Smith and his peculiar new faith, which challenged the old order of Christendom as well as the civil laws of a young nation.

With the history of Mormonism at our fingertips we are privileged as observers of few other religions in that we know much about the founding fathers of the LDS movement. Although there is debate as to the personality and ethics of Joseph Smith, much more is known about him than the lightning rod of orthodox Christian evangelism, St. Paul of Tarsus, the author of more than a dozen letters to the early Christian communities of the 1st Century Mediteranean. Much is said about and speculated of the Greek Jewish tent maker, but only guesses based on varying degrees of analysis can bring us towards understanding St. Paul. 1500 years following his death, in a vastly different world with an accelerated means of disseminating information, the Mormon prophet can be understood better in the context of his time, upbringing and personality.

Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven views Mormonism through the lenses of official LDS teachings as well as the various apostasies and brutalities carried out against and by adherents, including the Lafferty brothers. Although Krakauer does not openly indict Mormonism as the catalyst for all types of social problems, much as the Brahmin, Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the 19th Century did to the horde of Catholic immigrants to America, he does effectively demonstrate how a faith based on such miniscule amounts of historical merit and such copious reserves of personal conjecture and revelation can lay the seeds for the bizzare and brutal goings-on in various communities in the Southwest where an orthodox ideal of Mormonism is espoused, which includes the widespread practice of polygamy and sexual abuse of minors. 

An agnostic, Krekauer does not let other religions off of the hook. One only look at the inquisitions of Jews, the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine and ever-growing suicide attacks of non-believers or infidel Muslims to see that all religion begets, though unintentionally, bad fruit. Even Catholicism, to which I subscribe, has a bloody past.

So much of religion it seems is based on the personalities and beliefs of its early members and modern day officials. Benevolence or outright narcissitic personalities are the foundations for how a religion unfolds in time. Without stirring the pot as I have with Scientology and its obviously self-obsessed founder Lafayette Ron Hubbard, I will venture to say that the founder, seer and prophet of the Mormon faith was if nothing else a narcisstic personality, one who with great devotion to himself and his fanciful ideas used his direct connection to the Almighty to sanction everything from the innocuous construction of temples, to plural marriage (which was very unpopular with many in the early Mormon faith) to the practice of Blood Atonement, as practiced not only by the Lafferty brothers but scores of other Fundamentalist Mormons and even carried out by Smith’s successor Brigham Young, namesake of LDS’ great university and the sire of more than 70 children from dozens of wives.

In Joseph Smith’s short life it seems he was bounded by a great love of himself and mistrust of others. He had hoped to establish a haven here in this young nation that would allow him and his followers to practice freely their faith and peculiar ways free of the infringement of federal authority. At the same time Smith was want to restrict the rights of non-Mormons as well as apostates from his community. The victim of persecutions, Smith too oversaw violent persecution of non-Mormons as a means of correcting the wrongs that even Jesus was powerless to penalize. As Christ said, he who lives by the sword so shall die by it, and in a century of newly honed firepower, Smith was taken down by bullets and thus became a martyr to the strange faith he birthed.

His successor Brigham Young, arguably an astute organizer and loyal Mormon, carried the torch of totalitarian faith a step further in relocating his people thousands of miles away and attempting to establish an LDS theocracy in his the Southwest. Young governed over thousands, taught the inferiority of other peoples and the subhuman nature of Blacks and Indians. In the last Century Mormon historians as well as non-Mormon historians have uncovered evidence that Young gave consent to the execution of more than 120 settlers on their way through Utah in 1857. Several years ago I read a fabulous book about the attack, American Massacre, by a descendent of the murderers, Sally Denton.

Much can be said about charismatic leaders and much should be noted about the founders of the Mormon faith and those who preserve it officially or unofficially. Krakauer’s book succeeded in illustrating the free license Mormons (official or otherwise excommunicated) to take prophecy into their own hands as is evidenced by the many splinter Fundamentalist LDS communities who can trace their polygamy, incest and violence back to the words of Joseph Smith, who declared celestial marriage as a fundamental tenet of his faith (despite the reservations of his own wife!).

To blame Mormons in general for the actions of pedophile-enabler Warren Jeffs of other self-proclaimed Mormon prophets is of course obscene and unfair and would be akin to blaming me for the St. Valentines Massacre of Prostestants in 17th Century France. Mere confession in a faith does not imply complicity. Rather, faith molds for better or worse the actions of the narcisstic fringe element of any religion. In Mormonism, it just so happens that the founders of the faith fit the mold of the self-absorbtion of an anti-social personality and worldview from Smith to Young to John D. Lee, who carried out the massacre of settlers.

I find Mormonism to be interesting. Certainly, I should never subscribe to it, but I have now read four books relating to the faith and hope to read a more official history of the religion to see what separates the average hard-working family oriented LDS member from the self-absorbed prophet. I recommend Krakauer’s book to any of you reading this. It’s a fast read and well worth it in understanding an essential aspect of our collective American history.