Perhaps the single most important tenet of Joseph Smith’s emerging Mormon ideology in the 1830s and 1840s was the identification of his church as “latter-day Israel.” This identification drove much of the rest of his scripture and doctrine, from his concept of “law” and a restored “priesthood” to his identification of America—and specifically Independence, Missouri—as the “promised land” to which Jesus would one day return.
This represented a replacement theology for the early Mormons, substituting their religion as a new Israel very much like the old. They appropriated ancient Israel’s sentiments and traditions, and especially its special status as God’s covenant people. The God revealed in the Old Testament made a covenant with Israel that should they keep his commandments they would be blessed and extolled above all others on the Earth. As stated in the Bible: “I will establish my covenant between me and thee [Abraham] and thy seed after thee…for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed” (Genesis 17:7).
The text then stated that God removed his persecuted people from Egypt and gave them material blessings of lands, cities, fields, and power. (Joshua 24:12). The Israelites, demonstrating their commitment to this God, obeyed strict ethical and ritualistic demands of priestly law. In the Old Testament, God leads and his chosen people follow, and both act. God was not passive, to be apprehended only by faith, but he moved in history and Israel knew him by what she saw him doing for her. Israel was not saved merely by faith, but by obedient action, by serving its God.
This approach is not unlike the replacement theology of Christians through the millennia since the first century church. A dominant view in Christianity insists that it is the New Israel, a continuation of the concept of Israel from the Old Testament. This view teaches that Christianity is the replacement for Israel and that the many promises made to Israel in the Bible are fulfilled in the Christian Church. So, the prophecies in Scripture concerning the blessing and restoration of Israel to the Land of Promise are “spiritualized” into promises of God’s blessing for Christians. The Latter-day Saints, however, carried the replacement further, also substituting themselves for the Christian church.
Within the concept of the “great apostasy” of the followers of God the ancient covenant was abrogated, first passing from the Israelites to the early Christians and finally to the nineteenth century Mormon followers of Joseph Smith. Latter-day Saints accepted God’s covenant with Abraham and his lineage, but emphasized its departure after the death of Jesus, and explicitly state that this covenant was reestablished at the time of Joseph Smith (D&C 110:12). Known as the “new and everlasting covenant” (D&C 22:1; Jeremiah 31:31-34; 32:36-40), it is included in the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ practiced by Mormons.
Further, this new chosen people, favored by God above all others, implies a community willing to accept God’s complete law, which is based in latter-day revelation through the church’s officially-sanctioned prophet. This requires an acknowledgment that God has spoken to both ancient and latter-day prophets and continues to do so. The early Mormons came to believe that the promises and blessings said to be bestowed on Israel at the end of days is no longer the inheritance of Israel but would now be bestowed on the followers of Joseph Smith.
This idea of a them as God’s chosen people had profound ramifications for the early Mormons. In particular, it contributed to the myth of innocence, which is ubiquitous in the Mormon documents of the 1830s and 1840s. It reveals that the retreat from American religious pluralism to theocratic separatist communities represented an escape from moral ambiguity, from the fear of making the wrong choices. As a religious city-state under tight control, Nauvoo became a stronghold and a haven where the followers of Joseph Smith had their most important choices—what they should do to serve God—made for them. They went on missions, worked on the temple, and served in various church offices at the prophet’s direction.
Also, their devotion to the Mormon millennium was defined by the church, and their identity as God’s chosen people was assured through this process. Their innocence was thus guaranteed, and their sense of potential for evil was minimized. As is common in such situations, the threat of evil was projected onto others—in this case the non-Mormons, who were regarded as ungodly enemies.
Another way of saying the same thing is that a chosen people always defines itself against an unchosen opposite, and through that mythic dichotomy differences in human culture (beliefs, values) are transmuted into differences in human nature (the good versus the evil). Hence, in early Mormonism the innocent children of God realized their identity through their struggle against the evil followers of Satan, who dominated American society everywhere else except among the Mormons. A conflict of cultures resulted and dominated the early history of Mormonism.