Contemporary views of the Mormon Church have been shaped by influences as disparate as the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, the HBO series “Big Love” and the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. Suffice it to say that most Americans have a shallow understanding of Mormonism. Some view Mormons as squeaky-clean apostles doing door-to-door missionary work. Others label Mormons as hedonistic polygamists, even though multiple marriages have been prohibited for more than a century by the official Mormon Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Journalist Alex Beam tries to provide some context in his historical narrative, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church. The book doesn’t try to correct the stereotypes of contemporary society. Rather, American Crucifixion explains the origins of Mormonism and shows that from the start, the faith was viewed with suspicion and hounded by detractors.

Beam tells the story of Joseph Smith, a humble farm boy from upstate New York who said an angel had told him about a set of golden plates bearing the religious history of America. Smith said the angel directed him to the buried plates, and he set about translating them into the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830. The 600-page book was a retelling of the Bible, including a story of two ancient tribes of Israel that made their way to America and buried the golden plates in the hope of future discovery. After claiming to find the plates, Smith declared himself a prophet and founded the Church of Christ.

Critics immediately lashed out at Smith and his new religion, and the Mormons were repeatedly ostracized and uprooted, marching westward to Ohio and later to Missouri. Mormonism became even more controversial when Smith started accumulating multiple wives and polygamy became an accepted part of the faith.

It was in the Mississippi River town of Nauvoo, Illinois, that tensions reached a crescendo. Upset with Smith’s polygamy policy and his building of a temple, locals imprisoned him in neighboring Carthage, Illinois. Beam gives a vivid description of the events of June 27, 1844, when a mob stormed the jail, killing Smith and his brother, Hyrum, his would-be successor. It was church leader Brigham Young who assumed control, leading the Mormons once again westward to Utah.

American Crucifixion details the mystery and controversy that has followed Mormonism from its inception. The book provides important perspective as to why today, some still violently reject its doctrine, while others follow with faith.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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