With the recent prominence of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney attention has inevitably been focused on his Mormon faith. While his merits as a candidate are certainly questionable (a lackluster, one-term governor who spent most of his time bashing the very state that elected him), I wanted to take some time to examine his religious beliefs more closely.
Faith is always a touchy subject. In the interest of full disclosure, I should start by saying that I am, if not an atheist, then at least an agnostic. I can accept the possibility that there is something more to the universe than that which we currently understand, but I am extremely uncomfortable with most organized religions, and I am supremely confident that no one group's particular dogma is the Great Universal Truth. That said, I usually strive to be respectful of other peoples' beliefs, particularly when those beliefs are coupled with a genuine determination to do good. Call it "faith in good faith," perhaps. To that end, I have frequently taken the position that liberals make a huge mistake by ignoring or marginalizing the religious vote.
But Mormonism is something else entirely.
As is well known, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS, was founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. in the 1820's and 1830's. Briefly, Smith claimed to have been visited by an angel named Moroni, who directed him to the location of long-hidden golden plates, upon which were inscribed the "further adventures" of Jesus Christ, after the events in the New Testament. These inscriptions were witten in an ancient language, but fortunately Mr. Smith had a magical stone which enabled him to translate it. This story eventually was published as the Book of Mormon. (These events are recounted with skill and wit in a recent episode of "South Park.")
If any of this sounds ridiculous to you -- it should. Frankly, how Smith got anyone to believe him is a mystery to me. Likely he preyed upon the weakest element, people with few personal connections, who were down on their luck, or who had psychological problems. The same people who so easly fall victim to modern day cult leaders like David Koresh. The only difference between Smith and Koresh is that Smith never had a run-in with the FBI, and his nonsense has been "legitimized" by the passage of time.
The truth is that Joseph Smith, Jr. was the scion of a family of con men and grifters, who were perpetrating their petty frauds for years before the "miraculous revealations" and subsequent founding of their "church." The evidence for this is obvious in the historical record for anyone to find. I have a particular interest in the matter because it involves some of my own ancestors, who were neighbors and acquaintances of the Smith family when they lived in the vicinity of Palmyra, New York, in the early 1800's. The following are the sworn testimonies of my great-great-great-great grandfather, his son, and his brothers as to the founder of Mormonism and his relations. Please excuse the 19th-century phrasing and wordiness, but I have copied these verbatim from the copies I have. The originals are archived in the appropriate county records offices.
(Note: Joseph Smith, Sr., who is mentioned several times in the testomies, is the father of the founder of Mormonism.)
The testimony of William Stafford, my 4x-great grandfather:
I, William Stafford, having been called upon to give a true statement of my knowledge, concerning the character and conduct of the family of Smiths, known to the world as the founders of the Mormon sect, do say, that I first became acquainted with Joseph, Sen., and his family in the year 1820. They lived, at that time, in Palmyra, about one mile and a half from my residence. A great part of their time was devoted to digging for money: especially in the night time, when they said the money could be most easily obtained. I have heard them tell marvellous tales, respecting the discoveries they had made in their peculiar occupation of money digging. They would say, for instance, that in such a place, in such a hill, on a certain man's farm, there were deposited keys, barrels and hogsheads of coined silver and gold -- bars of gold, golden images, brass kettles filled with gold and silver -- gold candlesticks, swords, &c. &c. They would say, also, that nearly all the hills in this part of New York, were thrown up by human hands, and in them were large caves, which Joseph, Jr., could see, by placing a stone of singular appearance in his hat, in such a manner as to exclude all light; at which time they pretended he could see all things within and under the earth, -- that he could see within the above mentioned caves, large gold bars and silver plates -- that he could also discover the spirits in whose charge these treasures were, clothed in ancient dress. At certain times, thse treasures could be obtained very easily; at others, the obtaining of them was difficult. The facility of approaching them, depended in a great measure on the state of the moon. New moon and good Friday, I believe, were regarded as the most favorable times for obtaining these treasures. These tales I regarded as visionary. However, being prompted by curiosity, I at length accepted of their invitations, to join them in their nocturnal excursions. I will now relate a few incidents attending these excursions.
Joseph Smith, Sen., came to me one night, and told me, that Joseph Jr. had been looking in his glass, and had seen, not many rods from his house, two or three kegs of gold and silver, some feet under the surface of the earth: and that none others but the elder Joseph and myself could get them. I accordingly consented to go, and early in the evening repaired to the place of deposit. Joseph, Sen. first made a circle, twelve or fourteen feet in diameter. This circle, said he, contains the treasure. He then stuck in the ground a row of witch hazel sticks, around the said circle, for the purpose of keeping off the evil spirits. Within this circle he made another, of about eight or ten feet in diameter. He walked around three times on the periphery of this last circle, muttering to himself something which I could not understand. He next stuck a steel rod in the center of the circles, and then enjoined profound silence upon us, lest we should arouse the evil spirits who had the charge of these treasures. After we had dug a trench about five feet in depth around the rod, the old man by signs and motions, asked leave of absence, and went to the house to inquire of young Joseph the cause of our disappointment. He soon returned and said, that Joseph had remained all this time in the house, looking in his stone and watching the motions of the evil spirit -- that he saw the spirit come up to the ring and as soon as it beheld the cone which we had formed around the rod, it caused the money to sink. We then went into the house, and the old man observed, that we had made a mistake in the commencement of the operation; if it had not been for that, said he, we should have got the money.
At another time, they devised a scheme, by which they might satiate their hunger, with the mutton of one of my sheep. They had seen in my flock of sheep, a large, fat, black weather. Old Joseph and one of the boys came to me one day, and said that Joseph Jr. had discovered some very remarkable and valuable treasures, which could be procured only in one way. That way, was as follows: -- That a black sheep should be taken on to the ground where the treasures were concealed -- that after cutting its throat, it should be led around a circle while bleeding. This being done, the wrath of the evil spirit would be appeased: the treasures could then be obtained, and my share of them was to be four fold. To gratify my curiosity, I let them have a large fat sheep. They afterwards informed me, that the sheep was killed pursuant to commandment; but as there was some mistake in the process, it did not have the desired effect. This, I believe, is the only time they ever made money-digging a profitable business. They, however, had around them constantly a worthless gang, whose employment it was to dig money nights, and who, day times, had more to do with mutton than money.
When they found that the people of this vicinity would no longer put any faith in their schemes of digging money, they then pretended to find a gold bible, of which, they said, the book of Mormon was only an introduction. This latter book was at length fitted for the press. No means were taken by any individual to suppress its publication: No one apprehended any danger from a book, originating with individuals who had neither influence, honesty or honor. The two Josephs and Hiram, promised to show me the plates, after the book of Mormon was translated. But, afterwards, they pretended to have received an express commandment, forbidding them to show the plates. Respecting the manner of receiving and translating the book of Mormon, their statements were always discordant. The elder Joseph would say that he had seen the plates, and that he knew them to be gold; at other times he would say that they looked like gold; and at other times he would say that he had not seen the plates at all. I have thus briefly stated a few of the facts, in relation to the conduct and character of this family of Smiths; probably sufficient has been stated without my going into detail.
State of New York, Wayne County, ss:
I certify, that on this 9th day of December, 1833, personally appeared before me, William Stafford, to me known, and made oath to the truth of the above statement, and signed the same.
TH. P. BALDWIN,
Judge of Wayne County Court
The testimony of Barton Stafford, son of William Stafford, my 4x-great uncle:
Being called upon to give a statement of the character of the family of Joseph Smith, Sen. as far as I know, I can state that I became acquainted with them in 1820, and knew them until 1831, when they left this neighborhood. -- Joseph Smith, Sen. was a noted drunkard and most of the family followed his example, and Joseph, Jr. especially, who was very much addicted to intemperence. In short, not one of the family had the least claims to respectability. Even since he professed to be inspired of the Lord to translate the Book of Mormon, he one day while at work in my father's field, got quite drunk on a composition of cider, molasses and water. Finding his legs to refuse their office he leaned upon the fence and hung for sometime; at length recovering again, he fell to scuffling with one of the workmen, who tore his shirt nearly off from him. His wife who was at our house on a visit, appeared very much grieved at his conduct, and to protect his back from the rays of the sun, and conceal his nakedness, threw her shawl over his shoulders and in that plight escorted the Prophet home. As an evidence of his piety and devotion, when intoxicated, he frequently made his religion the topic of conversation!!
State of New York, Wayne County, ss:
I certify that on the 9th day of December 1833, personally appeared before me, the above named Barton Stafford, to me known, and solemnly affirmed according to law, to the truth of the above statement and subscribed the same.
THOS. P. BALDWIN,
a Judge of Wayne County Court
The testimony of Joshua Stafford, brother of William Stafford, my 5x-great uncle:
Manchester, Ontario County, Nov. 15th, 1833.
I, Joshua Stafford, became acquainted with the family of Joseph Smith, Sen. about the year 1819 or 20. They then were laboring people, in low circumstances. A short time after this, they commenced digging for hidden treasures, and soon after they became indolent, and told marvelous stories about ghosts, hob-goblins, caverns, and various other mysterious matters. Joseph once showed me a piece of wood which he said he took from a box of money, and the reason he gave for not obtaining the box, was, that it moved. At another time, he, (Joseph, Jr.) at a husking, called on me to become a security for a horse, and said he would reward me handsomely, for he had found a box of watches, and they were as large as his fist, and he put one of them to his ear, and he could hear it to "tick forty rods." Since he could not dispose of them profitably at Canandaigua or Palmyra, he wished to go east with them. He said if he did not return with the horse, I might take his life. I replied, that he knew I would not do that. Well, said he, I did not suppose you would, yet I would be willing that you should. He was nearly intoxicated at the time of the above conversation.
(Note: Why Joshua Stafford's testimony is not confirmed by a judge I do not know.)
The testimony of David Stafford, brother of William and Joshua Stafford, my 5x-great uncle:
I have been acquainted with the family of Joseph Smith Sen. for several years, and I know him to be a drunkard and a liar, and to be much in the habit of gambling. He and his boys were truly a lazy set of fellows, and more particularly Joseph, who, very aptly followed his father's example, and in some respects was worse. When intoxicated he was very quarrelsome. Previous to his going to Pennsylvania to get married, we worked together making a coal-pit. While at work one time, a disput arose between us, (he having drinked a little too freely) and some hard words passed between us, and as usual with him at such times, was for fighting. He got the advantage of me in the scuffle, and a gentleman by the name of Ford interfered, when Joseph turned to fighting him. We both entered a complaint against him and he was fined for the breach of the Peace. It is well known, that the general employment of the Smith family was money digging and fortune-telling. They kept around them constantly, a gang of worthless fellows who dug for money nights, and were idle in the day time. It was a mystery to their neighbors how they got their living. I will mention some circumstances and the public may judge for themselves. At different times I have seen them come from the woods early in the morning, bringing meat which looked like mutton. I went into the woods one morning very early, shooting partridges and found Joseph Smith Sen. in company with two other men, with hoes, shovels and meat that looked like mutton. On seeing me they run like wil men to get out of sight. -- Seeing the old man a few days afterwards, I asked him why he run so the other day in the woods, ah, said he, you know that circumstances alter cases; it will not do to be seen at all time.
I can also state, that Oliver Cowdrey proved himself to be a worthless person and not to be trusted or believed when he taught school in this neighborhood. After his going into the ministry, while officiating in performing the ordinance of baptism in a brook, William Smith, (brother of Joseph Smith) seeing a young man writing down what was said on a piece of board, was quite offended and attempted to take it from him, kicked at him and clinched for a scuffle. -- Such was the conduct of these pretended Disciples of the Lord.
On the 12th day of December, 1833, the said David Stafford appeared before me, and made oath that the foregoing statement, by him subscribed, is true.
Justice of the Peace of Wayne Co. N.Y.
So why is any of this relevant? Why does it matter if Mormonism was founded by an obvious liar and con man? What difference does it make, when it happened over 150 years ago, so long as today's Mormons lead upright, socially responsible lives? What does all of this have to do with Mitt Romney?
It matters. It matters because Mitt Romney believes that the Book of Mormon, despite the extremely questionable nature of its so-called "discoverer," is true. He believes the lies of a 19th-century con man -- and not even a very good con man, at that. He believes it, word for word. Is that the kind of judgment we want in a President of the United States?