The Mormon Trail
How did an American religion that began with a boy praying in the woods become, in less than 200 years, a major world religion? How did a story as surprising as his—of Jesus visiting the Americas and modern-day Native Americans descending from the Hebrews—gain acceptance by 13 million people worldwide? How did a religion promoting polygamy (marrying more than one wife) as late as the 1880s become a part of mainstream America today?
The answer is that Mormonism has come a long way, both figuratively and literally. You will graph the literal journey with your bodies today.
Have participants line up. Designate the walls of the room you are in as north, south, east and west. Or rather, Canada, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Tell youth, "As each place name is read, the next person in line will go to the approximate place on our 'map,' and remember the piece of history that occurred there. At the end of the story, you will recite this part of the history."
The story of Mormonism began in Palmyra, New York in 1823. A youth named Joseph Smith says he was visited by an angel, Moroni. Moroni told Smith that God had a special relationship with the people of North America. Over the next four years, Moroni instructed Smith to dig up golden tablets that told of God's activities in America and helped him translate them into The Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830. Smith said he gave the plates back to the angel, then started preaching. He formed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Smith served as the church's first president until his death in 1844.
What were some of the core beliefs in Smith's early church? Smith preached that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were three distinct beings that could act as one, but he called them the "Godhead," not the Trinity. Mormonism is Christian, and does not consider itself Catholic or Protestant, but a return to a religion as preached by Jesus in the Americas and disclosed in The Book of Mormon (which Mormons consider divine scripture, alongside the Bible).
They believe that individuals are composed of spirits that lived together in God's presence before being incarnated in their present bodies. During a lifetime, Mormons must prove themselves worthy to rejoin their spirits with God. They do this by baptism, following a strict moral and health code, missionary work, and supporting the church through financial contributions and service. Marriage and a strong family life are also central to the church's teachings.
The young church moved to Kirtland, Ohio. True to its missionary nature, it grew quickly. Required tithing (giving 10 percent of income to the church) and other donations strengthened the Mormon community. Instead of relying on outside sources, the church helped Mormon families build homes and businesses. The general populace became suspicious of their financial dealings and growing numbers, and they drove them out.
Next stop was Jackson County, Missouri. The first Mormon temple was built here. The Mormon population was growing so fast the local townspeople felt they were taking over. A war between the locals and the Mormons ensued.
Nauvoo, Illinois became their new Zion, or Promised Land. By 1844, Nauvoo was bigger than Chicago. Joseph Smith was the mayor and was running for President of the United States. The church was gaining significant political power. When Smith destroyed the presses of a newspaper that criticized him, a protest arose. Smith was arrested, tried, found guilty, and imprisoned in the nearby county jail. Smith was killed by a mob. Mormon crops and homes were burned. They were threatened with extinction. It was time to move again.
Brigham Young, the newly elected Mormon leader, decided to relocate the Mormons to Salt Lake City, Utah, wilderness territory at that time. This was the endpoint of what became known as the Mormon Trail. Perhaps as many as 17,000 made the trip in a number of treks, by wagon and even handcarts, over a span of 20 years. Many of the initial group of travelers died from hunger and cold. Once reaching Utah, missionary groups were sent out all along the Western United States and eventually, abroad, to make converts to Mormonism.
Today, Salt Lake City remains the headquarters of the church, and Mormons make up more than 72 percent of the population of Utah. Yet, only about one sixth of the total Mormon population resides in Utah and less than half in the United States: in 1997, the Church membership outside the U.S. surpassed its U.S. numbers.
[Ask participants to share in order what location they represent and what happened there.]
Due to political pressure, polygamy was outlawed by the church in 1890. The church originally denied "the priesthood"—or full membership in the church—to African Americans, who were considered cursed by God and inferior to whites. (By contrast, white males became priests at the age of 16.) It dropped this racist prohibition in 1978. Perhaps someday policies of exclusion of women from the priesthood and denial of membership to homosexuals will also be dropped.
Some beliefs integral to the religion include the idea that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God; the Book of Mormon is the word of God along with the Bible; Zion, the New Jerusalem, will be built in America; and Jesus will reign there in person. In addition, they believe that a Heavenly Mother reigns in heaven alongside God, and we are the children of their marriage. As children of God, they believe human beings have divine potential.
Mormons also have a strong set of values. When a Mormon falls into bad luck or hard times, there is a safety net to help them get back on their feet. Mormons tend to define different gender roles for males and females because they believe it provides a foundation of stability for children and for society. The Mormons believe that "no success outside the home can compensate for failure within it."
The growth of their church has much to do with its proselytizing. Settled successfully in their Salt Lake City home, thousands of young Mormon "priests" spread out across America and the rest of the world to seek converts. Perhaps some will come to your door. How will you respond?