The church was founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. in New York on April 6, 1830. Smith declared that he was directed by God to refound the true Church of Christ which had "fallen away" in what was described as an Apostacy that began in the early years of the Christian era. He reported that an angel named Moroni appeared to him and showed him the location of some gold plates, buried in a hill near his home, which contained records of ancient Israelites who journeyed to the American continent and were visited there by the risen Christ. These records he translated with the assistance of instruments provided by the angel, and published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Smith's religious claims met violent opposition in New York. He claimed to have received a revelation from God directing him to relocate the church on the western Frontier. The New York members were settled near Independence, Missouri, where Smith announced that a temple would be built. However, Smith and other church leaders chose to remain for a time in Kirtland, Ohio, where an established community under the leadership of Sidney Rigdon had been converted to the faith.
Joseph Smith led his followers to Nauvoo, Illinois. There he introduced the practice of polygamy, or plural marriage. There were many causes of friction between the members and non-member elements of the local population. The doctrine of plural marriage was not widely known (or widely practiced) until the Church reached Utah and therefore was not a major source of the friction between church members and other residents in Nauvoo. Opponents of Joseph Smith published material in a local newspaper which was criticial of him and other Church leaders. Their press was destroyed by Joseph Smith (at that time the Mayor of Navoo) and the City council, who declared it to be libelous. This action precipitated the imprisonment of Joseph Smith in Carthage, Illinios, where he was murdered by a mob.
After the death of Joseph Smith, many small groups splintered away from the larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Strangites and the Hendricites are two examples. Eventually, two main factions developed. The larger, led by Brigham Young, accepted polygamy and travelled to what is now Utah where they founded Salt Lake City and became The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The smaller, led by Joseph Smith's wife and son, rejected polygamy and remained in Nauvoo, eventually developing into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2000, they changed their name to the Community of Christ, stating that it more adequately represented the church's theology and mission. It currently has approximately 60,000 members and tends to be more liberal and closer to mainstream Christianity than the LDS church.
Many men were killed during the persecution before the move West, and many died among the Pioneers during the trek. Polygamy was encouraged as both in keeping with God's law and good for the protection and care of the many widows and orphans. Brigham Young, the Prophet of the church at that time, had quite a few wives, as did many other church leaders.
This early practice of polygyny caused conflict between church members and the wider American society. The United States Congress enacted legislation permitting the confiscation of church assets and the assets of church leaders. The Army was sent to Utah and, for a time, occupied Salt Lake City. Church leadership prohibited the practice in 1890. Church members today who attempt to marry more than one wife are excommunicated. However, some small groups refused to accept the prohibition of polygamy, and continue to practice it to this day. They are often called "fundamentalist Mormons", and have their own churches.
The church has also held controversial positions about black people. Like many other Christian denominations in their time, early Mormons believed black people to be descendants of Cain, who were marked in all perpetuity with a sign of his sin. This belief was in no way uncommon in America at the time, and like all other mainstream Christian denominations, the church no longer supports this belief.
The Bible references which were used by the other denominations in support of this view were interpreted in the same manner by the LDS church at the time. In addition, the Book of Mormon contains a similar reference to the Lamanites, by which is meant Native Americans. It says, in 2 Nephi 5:21:
- And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
- And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.
- And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.
- And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.
The second President, Brigham Young, taught that interracial relationships would be punished by God. In Journal of Discourses Vol. 7, pg 290-291, he says:
- Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African Race? If the White man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.
Whether one interprets this as the promise of an immediate act by God or a call for the immediate death penalty, it's a harsh condemnation of interracial couples. It's important to note that the Journal of Discourses is not accepted as an official source of church doctrine, and that this statement has never been recognized as the stance of the church.
It's also significant that the church always allowed black membership in all its congregations, and taught that they were entitled to the same blessings in heaven as all people.
A relatively modern Prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, believed that after accepting the Gospel, dark skinned people would be made white, a process that would take place over a number of generations. After visiting a mission site in South America, he said in his General Conference Report of October, 1960 (quite a number of years before he became the president of the church), which was published in Improvement Era, December 1960, pp 922-923:
- I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today.... The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos, five were darker but equally delightsome The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.
- At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl--sixteen--sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents--on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather....These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.
In 1978 the church began ordaining black men to the priesthood, citing a revelation from God received by the same Spencer Kimball, who was by then President of the church.
- (I know these paragraphs give a slanted picture, althrough I've tried not to. Please help round out the picture from either a Mormon perspective) or wider historical perspective
Differences over some of the beliefs of the Church split the Mormon movement after the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, and lead to the creation of a few splinter groups, for example, The Restoration Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This latter church rejects the Doctrine of Exaltation as as "speculation by early church leaders", and as such does not consider it doctrine.