A few weeks ago I set out on a new series of articles through which I intend to scan the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we will visit such figures as Arius, Servetus, Fosdick, and even a few you might find on television today. We continue this morning with a false teacher who has at least 15 million followers in the world today, many of whom have undoubtedly knocked on your front door. His name is Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith was born on December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont. When he was a child his family moved to Palmyra in western New York where there was a lot of revivalism and religious fervor due to the Second Great Awakening. The wild enthusiasm and the many denominations present confused Smith and he was uncertain of what to believe and how to worship. As he writes in The Pearl of Great Price: “In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”
In 1820, in this time of confusion, Smith read James 1:5 which instructs those who lack wisdom to request it from God. He immediately withdrew to a wooded area near his home to pray for wisdom and it was at this point that he recalls having a vision of a pillar of light coming down from heaven and God the Father and Jesus his Son standing above him in the air. Smith asked them which of the denominations or sects were right and which he should join. He was told that all of the denominations were evil and corrupt.
It was at the time of this experience that Smith became convinced he had been called as God’s prophet. On September 21, 1823, while praying in his room, he received an angelic visitation. This angel, named Moroni, told him that he had been chosen by God for a great work. He told Smith about a book written upon gold plates that had been buried alongside the Urim and the Thummin of the Old Testament. Smith immediately found this book, and, using the Urim and Thummin, translated it, and published it in 1830 as The Book of Mormon. This was the same year that he formally organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A commanding and gregarious figure, Smith began to amass followers. As the movement grew, it migrated west, in large part because their teaching was not welcome in most places and was often opposed with threats of violence. Smith moved first to Ohio, then to Missouri, then to Illinois. As the movement grew, it required more and more revelations, and Smith received them as need arose. These revelations continued until his death and were compiled into a book referred to as the Doctrine and Covenants.
There was strife within the Mormon church, and in the spring of 1844 it led to threats of violence between Smith and others in the town of Nauvoo, Illinois. The governor intervened and imprisoned Smith until he could stand trial. Before this could happen, though, an armed mob stormed the jailhouse where he was being kept, and Smith was shot and killed while trying to escape through a window.
The heart of Joseph Smith’s false teaching was that he put his own authority over the authority of Scripture. He added his own revelation to the Bible’s revelation and took it upon himself to identify and correct what he claimed were errors in Scripture.