Perhaps the single most important tenet of Joseph Smith Jr.’s (1805-1844) theology in founding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) was the identification of his followers as a “latter-day Israel.” This identification drove much of the rest of his scriptural and doctrinal innovation, 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 an appropriation of 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 God stated, “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). God then 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.
According to early Mormons with the “great apostasy” of the true followers of God the ancient covenant, first passing from the Israelites to the early Christians, withered and God removed his gospel from the Earth until returned to 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 anything Joseph Smith chose to say was God’s complete law, which he claimed as latter-day revelation through himself as 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. LDS believers early came to accept that the promises and blessings said to be bestowed on Israel at the end of days was no longer the inheritance of Israel but would now be bestowed on the followers of Joseph Smith.
Such a perspective allowed the making of not a little mischief at the behest of Joseph Smith Jr. during the first generation of the Latter-day Saint church. Smith could enunciate any doctrine, command any action, order any demonstration of faith and his followers tended to accept it. Over time the followers of Joseph Smith followed him into all manner of esoteric and outlandish practices. These ranged from remarkably obscure temple practices such as baptism for the dead, sealing families together, and marriage for time and all eternity, to plural marriage and efforts to establish a theocracy as the end point of human history.
In all of this Mormon conceptions of themselves as a “chosen people” enable them to disregard any alternative group or position that did not recognize their primacy amongst all in the world. Fundamentally Mormonism as a movement was steeped in a deep disgust for American society and sought to build a refuge that would be able to weather a great apocalypse that was soon to come upon the Earth.
Those who embraced Smith’s message of a new chosen people saw little of worth in American civilization and sought a place in which all choices would be made for them, and Smith was happy to oblige. They longed to overcome secular influences in the pluralistic American society.
This Latter-day Saint paranoia that the world had gone awry and would subvert or co-opt them if it had the chance permeated every aspect of early Mormonism. The sense of specialness and apartness fed that belief.
The result was an effort to close off the outside world, to revitalize a magical Medieval world view in which Smith’s a theocratic order reigned supreme. No wonder Mormonism has so long been at odds with larger American society.