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  A barbarism equal to slavery: A cartoon from 1877 tackling Mormon polygamy 

Religions are affected not only by periodical revival movements but also by claims of more recent direct revelations from God. Mormonism arises from just such a claim, and these fascinating books provide impressive, but different, accounts of the result. Neither is uncritical, and Brigham Young very much emerges with his faults manifest in Turner's impressive biography. At the same time, each of the books takes Mormon studies forward, avoiding the pitfalls of apologia and polemic.

As both works made clear, Mormonism emerged in a desperate environment. Far from being the promised land, upstate New York was poor, and it was very difficult to earn a living from the forested, rocky soil. Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young knew acute poverty as well as family deaths. The distinctive character of American society also played a major role in the origins of Mormonism, as freedom meant a lack of ecclesiastical power and confessional homogeneity at least by the standards of the Western world of the time.

Swept by revivalist movements, upstate New York was open to another one. Paul Gutjahr, Professor of English at Indiana University and an expert on the Bible in American history, provides gripping coverage of the discovery of the gold plates that allegedly offered an account of the former inhabitants of America and Jesus's visitation to them. Gutjahr then uses the descent of what became the Book of Mormon to provide a history of Mormonism. He does not pull punches about incredible aspects of the discovery and translation, but also helps explain its significance. Joseph Smith was in no doubt of the importance of his position. As Gutjahr points out, Smith presented himself as God's most recent chosen instrument of grace and redemptive enlightenment. Smith thus demonstrated to his own satisfaction that God's revelation did not cease with the apostles of the early Church but continued into the present age. He claimed that the Book of Mormon was a purer text than the Protestant Bible as it had been passed to his hands directly from America's own ancient and inspired scribes, and had not been defiled by centuries of scribal error and Church politics.

Moreover, according to Smith, God was still speaking, and via his prophet who was to inaugurate a new biblical age. The belief in a living prophet, however, helped ensure that Mormonism could not readily fit in with the American state, although, as also emerges from both books, there was a fissiparous quality in Mormonism as too many figures were willing to step forward as prophets. Smith's death was followed by divisions that have lasted to the present.

Internal divisions were matched by external hostility. Once organised as communities, the Mormons were seen as unwelcome, which is not surprising as the theocratic city of Nauvoo, Illinois — which they founded in 1839, had a large militia as well as a secret society, the Sons of Dan, that was like a secret police.

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