History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
In the 1820s, a religious revival was sweeping the New England area of the United States. Confused by conflicting claims of the various faiths, a 14-year-old boy went to the Bible for guidance and there found the challenge issued by James to "ask of God" for himself (see James 1:5).
Joseph Smith — born 23 December 1805 in Sharon, Vermont — was living with his family in the rural community of Palmyra, New York, in 1820, when he read that passage of scripture. Following the counsel, he went into a wooded grove near the family farm and knelt to pray for answers.
God the Eternal Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph and told him not to join any of the existing churches. He was also instructed that through him God would restore to earth the Church originally organized by Jesus Christ, with all of its truths and priesthood authority. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — commonly referred to as the Mormon Church — was officially organized on 6 April 1830 in Fayette, New York.
The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ
One night in September 1823, an angel named Moroni — a prophet who had lived on the American continent in A.D. 400 — appeared to Joseph and directed him to a hill near Palmyra, New York. There he showed him a religious account of an ancient American civilization engraved on metal plates that had been buried in the ground for nearly 1,500 years. Four years later Joseph began the translation of this record. The Book of Mormon, named for one of the ancient American prophets who had compiled the writings of many ancient prophets, was first published in 1830.
The Book of Mormon contains religious writings of some civilizations in ancient America between about 2200 b.c. and a.d. 420. The book also includes an eyewitness account of the ministry of Jesus Christ on the American continent following His resurrection in Jerusalem.
Restoration of Priesthood Authority
Apostles and prophets in all ages have had authority from God, called priesthood, to act in His name. The original Twelve Apostles of the New Testament received the priesthood under the hands of the Savior Himself, but with their deaths the priesthood authority of the apostleship disappeared from the earth. An essential component of Christ’s church being restored, therefore, was the reestablishment of this priesthood authority, which was accomplished in 1829.
In May of that year, John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and his associate Oliver Cowdery and gave them the Aaronic Priesthood, with the authority to baptize and perform other ordinances. Shortly thereafter, three of the original Apostles - Peter, James, and John - appeared to Joseph and Oliver and gave them the authority of the holy apostleship. With the restoration of priesthood authority, Joseph organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with six initial members.
Like the ancient Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a missionary church, the purpose for which is to gather Israel from the four quarters of the earth. From the outset, missionaries were active in the United States, and in less than ten years, in England and parts of Europe. Converts gathered to the main body of the Church as fast as their circumstances allowed.
Unfortunately, there was also serious opposition to the Church and its message. To escape persecution and to affect the gathering of Israel, Church headquarters moved several times in the first decade-from New York where it was organized, to Ohio, Missouri, and then Illinois. In 1839 the Latter-day Saints established the community of Nauvoo (Illinois) on a tract of inhospitable swampland bordering the Mississippi River. By 1844 Nauvoo rivaled Chicago in population. But mounting suspicion and anxiety within neighboring communities fed an atmosphere of extreme agitation and distrust. Newspapers in neighboring towns began to call for the Latter-day Saints’ extermination.
At the height of this turmoil, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were shot to death by an armed mob in nearby Carthage, Illinois.
Brigham Young and the Westward Trek
As the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the second-highest governing body of the Church — Brigham Young succeeded Joseph Smith as the leader of the Church. In February of 1846, he led the initial group of Latter-day Saints across the frozen Mississippi River into the Iowa territory. The Mormon pioneers eventually made their historic trek to the remote Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Members of Brigham Young’s advance party led the way, arriving on 22 July 1847.
During the next 22 years, an estimated 68,000 Latter-day Saints filtered into this Great Basin refuge. Some crossed in wagons, but between 1856 and 1860, ten companies of nearly 3,000 men, women, and children walked to the American Zion pulling handcarts. From the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young directed the establishment of more than 350 communities in western America.
Into the Modern Era
When Utah gained statehood on 4 January 1896, Church membership totaled a quarter of a million, most of it in Utah. When Church membership reached a million in 1947, one hundred years after the exodus from Nauvoo, it was still largely North American. After 1947, however, the Utah proportion of membership began to shrink almost as rapidly as worldwide growth accelerated.
Currently, less than 14 percent of all Church members reside in Utah, and fewer than 45 percent of Church members live in the United States. At the end of 2010, the worldwide membership of the Church stood at 14.1 million.