After the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the death of His apostles, and faced with organized persecution and hostility from within the pagan Roman Empire, the church that Christ had established with its simple but beautiful doctrines and authority began rapidly to change. By the fourth century, it bore little resemblance to the original Church of Christ. With the loss of divine approval and authority from the Church, a long period of spiritual darkness followed.
But in the spring of 1820, on the other side of the world, God appeared to a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith, setting in motion the events that led to the "Restoration" of the ancient Church of Jesus Christ to the earth.
Joseph Smith was born 23 December 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, in the northeastern United States. He later moved with his family to the rural community of Palmyra, New York, where in 1820 a religious revival occurred. Confused by the conflicting claims of the various faiths, Joseph went to the Bible for guidance and there found the challenge to "ask of God" for himself.
In a wooded grove near the family farm, Joseph knelt to pray. There in that secluded place, in the most dramatic revelation since biblical times, God and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to the boy and gave him instructions. He was commanded to join none of the existing churches and was told that God would restore to earth the Church originally organized by Jesus Christ, with all of its truths and priesthood authority. Ten years later, after a series of revelations and dramatic visitations to Joseph and others, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized on 6 April 1830, in Fayette, New York.
In September of 1823, Joseph experienced a visitation from an ancient prophet, a man who had lived and died on the American hemisphere centuries earlier. This resurrected man, who said his name was Moroni, directed Joseph to a hill near Palmyra, where he showed him a religious history of an ancient American civilization engraved on metal plates and buried in the ground. It was four years before Joseph was permitted to take the record and translate it. It is known today as the Book of Mormon, named for one of the ancient prophets who had compiled it. The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830.
The Book of Mormon contains religious writings of civilizations in ancient America between about 2200 B.C. and A.D. 421. It includes an eyewitness account of the ministry of Jesus Christ on the American continent following His resurrection in Jerusalem.
Apostles and prophets in all ages have had authority from God to act in His name. The original Twelve Apostles received this priesthood authority under the hands of Jesus Christ Himself. But with their passing, the authority of the apostleship disappeared from the earth. An essential component of the Restoration, therefore, was the reestablishment of this priesthood authority in 1829.
In May of that year, a resurrected being who identified himself as John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and his associate Oliver Cowdery, laid his hands on their heads, and gave them the Aaronic Priesthood with the authority to baptize and perform other ordinances. Shortly thereafter, three of the original apostles-Peter, James, and John-appeared to Joseph and Oliver and gave them the authority of the apostleship and the Melchizedek or higher Priesthood. With the restoration of priesthood authority, Joseph organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with six initial members.
Like the ancient Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began as a missionary church. In the mid-nineteenth century, converts were encouraged to gather with the members in America. Swelling ranks of immigrants from Europe and the eastern United States soon provided fuel for growing opposition as well.
To escape the escalating turmoil, Church headquarters moved from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, and later to Illinois. In 1839 the Latter-day Saints established the community of Nauvoo (Illinois) on a tract of inhospitable swampland bordering the Mississippi River. Under the leadership of Joseph Smith, they drained the swamps and began erecting a community of beautiful homes, prosperous farms, and businesses. They also built a temple.
By 1844 Nauvoo rivaled Chicago in population. But mounting suspicion and anxiety within neighboring communities fed an atmosphere of extreme agitation and distrust. Newspapers in neighboring towns began to call for the Latter-day Saints' extermination.
At the height of this turmoil, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were shot to death by an armed mob in nearby Carthage, Illinois.
Mobs attacked Latter-day Saint settlements in the region, burning crops, destroying homes, and threatening to exterminate the people. Church leaders knew a move was once again at hand. This one would become one of the most visionary and prodigious in American history.
As the senior of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young succeeded Joseph Smith as the leader of the Church. In February of 1846, he led the Latter-day Saints across the frozen Mississippi River into unsettled Iowa territory. They struggled across Iowa, eventually establishing a settlement called Winter Quarters near modern-day Omaha, Nebraska. Soon the community expanded to include hundreds of lodgings, many of them just dugouts or sod huts, on both sides of the river.
Pursuing a vision initially articulated by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young prepared his people-perhaps 17,000 of them by that time-for a historic trek across the vast wilderness to the Rocky Mountains, 1,300 miles to the west. The first pioneer party departed from Winter Quarters early the next spring and arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake on 24 July 1847.
During the next few years, thousands of other Latter-day Saints struggled across the American Great Plains to the newly found refuge. Some of the pioneers crossed the plains in wagons. Others were equipped with small, lightweight handcarts. Ten handcart companies crossed the American plains in the next four years. Eight made the journey with relative success, but two endured tragedy and saw hundreds perish of hunger, fatigue, and exposure.
For years after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, members of the Church were commissioned by Brigham Young to establish colonies throughout the West. In all, the pioneers settled more than 600 communities in a broad swath stretching 1,350 miles from southern Alberta into Mexico.
When Utah was granted status as the nation's 45th state on 4 January 1896, Church membership totaled a quarter of a million, the majority living in Utah, with a modest number scattered in colonies throughout the western United States, southern Alberta and northern Mexico. By 1930, only about half of the membership lived in Utah, but the remainder was still largely North American. As the Church reached membership milestones throughout the twentieth century-one million in 1947, two million in 1963, three million in 1971, and four million in 1978-the demographic makeup remained primarily American but was beginning to change markedly. Similarly, the Utah proportion became smaller and smaller.
Membership of the Church was nearing 11 million at the end of 1999. Of that total, approximately one seventh resided in Utah, and just less than half in the United States.
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