Inventing Mormonism

$24.95 $13.00

Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record

Tracing the origins of Mormonism through Joseph’s itinerant and impoverished  childhood, his history of treasure hunting, his legal battles, and his eventual elopement and escape to Ohio.

October, 1998




For more than 150 years the story of Mormon origins has been rewritten to a point where only fragments remain of the original. This book restores much of the human drama and detail. Moving from village to village, the Joseph Smith, Sr., family lived in constant poverty. When in 1825 Joseph, Sr., a cooper, defaulted on the family’s final mortgage payment, he and his nineteen-year-old son, Joseph Jr., traveled 100 miles south to Pennsylvania to join a band of money diggers on a desperate hunt for buried Spanish treasure.

Following this ill-fated quest, father and son returned near-penniless to New York to face eviction. They resettled in a small Manchester cabin where young Joseph later saw angels–not unlike his father and other contemporaries–and eventually found hieroglyph-inscribed sheets of gold, which his former money-digging associates repeatedly tried to steal.

During this turbulent time Joseph Smith was brought to court three times for crystal gazing, eloped with a former landlord’s daughter, watched as his mother and siblings were excommunicated from the Presbyterian church, published his translation of the hieroglyphs, founded the Church of Christ, saw a potential convert forcibly abducted by her minister, and eventually sought refuge in Ohio where he changed the name of his church and its place of origin.

Michael Marquardt is co-author with the late Wesley P. Walters of the acclaimed The Four Gospels According to Joseph Smith; Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record; The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844; and editor of Early Patriarchal Blessings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary. In addition, he is the author of several historical monographs, including The Book of Abraham Revisited, Joseph Smith’s Diaries, and The Strange Marriages of Sarah Ann Whitney, and of essays that have appeared in a variety of professional and religious journals. A retired civil servant, he is now the webmaster for the Mormon Origins site. He and his wife, Dorothy, live in Sandy, Utah, and have five children.

Wesley P. Walters, M.T., Covenant Theological Seminary, was pastor of the Marissa Presbyterian church in Illinois until his death in 1990. His thesis, The Use of the Old Testament in the Book of Mormon, presaged his life’s work. He was the editor of the revised editions of Harry L. Ropp’s Are the Mormon Scriptures Reliable; co-authored Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record; was published on similar topics in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Journal of the Westminster Theological Society, and the Journal of Pastoral Practice.

Full text available online. 

Additional information

Book Author


4 reviews for Inventing Mormonism

  1. Newell G. Bringhurst, Journal of the West

    In this carefully written work based on some 30 years of research, two long-time students of early Mormon history, H. Michael Marquardt and the late Wesley P. Walters, have focused on the early life and experiences of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism (or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is officially known). This work considers Smith’s varied and sometimes controversial activities in relationship to Mormonism as an emerging religious movement during the late 1820s and early 1830s.

    Inventing Mormonism establishes, as its starting point, Joseph Smith’s own recollections as contained in his 1839 “Manuscript History”—a work that, in time, served as the basis for the “official history” of the Mormon Church. The authors utilize numerous and varied contemporary accounts in evaluating the accuracy of Smith’s 1839 account, focusing on various relevant events in the so-called “Burned-Over District” of upstate New York, where Smith lived and which is known as the birthplace of Mormonism.

    Among the topics examined are Smith’s involvement in local religious revivals, the secular and religious background of Smith and his family, Smith’s controversial experiences as a “money-digger” and “glasslooker,” and his bringing forth of the Book of Mormon—a collection of sacred writings that provided the theological foundation for his religious movement.

    In general, Inventing Mormonism is an impressive work based on meticulous research, as reflected in its extensive documentation and copious footnotes. Also, it contains the texts and photocopies of several important historical documents in addition to the complete text of Joseph Smith’s 1839 “Manuscript History.”

    This work, however, has a few problems. Its basic literary style is somewhat awkward, often tedious, and sometimes repetitious. Also, in places the narrative seems disorganized and disjointed, particularly in two chapters concerned with Joseph Smith’s family activities, and in a third exploring the activities of Smith’s early Mormon followers. Despite such minor shortcomings, Inventing Mormonism is a significant work providing illuminating insights into the early life of Joseph Smith and the Mormon movement that he founded.

  2. Paul Swenson, The Salt Lake Tribune

    This new book about the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its originator, Joseph Smith, will likely draw friendly fire—from Saints and their critics.

    The title Inventing Mormonism has rich implications: For some, the necessity of a new religious tradition that broke with orthodox Christian teachings may have been the mother of Mormonism’s invention; for faithful Mormons, God—not Joseph Smith—was the father of the faith’s invention.

    In addition, revisionist historians Michael Marquardt of Sandy and the deceased Wesley Walters, former pastor of the Marissa, Illinois, Presbyterian Church, reinvent Mormonism with this volume—analogous to the way Mormons believe that Joseph Smith reinvented Christianity as a restoration of the Christian gospel for modern times. Anyone who takes up the artifacts and beliefs of a religious tradition—believer, historian, or critic—participates in the reinvention process.

    A benignly intended statement of obvious fact, the very first sentence of the book’s prologue (“Mormonism is rooted in the life and activities of its founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., much as Christianity is rooted in the life of Jesus”) will nonetheless set the teeth of sensitive Saints on edge (since for Mormons, both enterprises are inextricably linked through Jesus Christ).

    The authors’ research (much of it from primary sources) provides a diverse, detailed but contradictory picture of the early life of Joseph Smith. Their careful exposition of this historical record generally attempts to avoid generalizing about his motives or character, or drawing easy conclusions about his paradoxical beginnings. An ill-schooled farm boy from an economically depressed family, Smith dug for treasure among the odd jobs he performed as a young man. He described a series of early visions that changed his life and inspired his translation of a religious and historical record of a group of inhabitants of ancient America, and organization of a church and a movement.

    The geographical inconsistencies relating to the religious revival that Joseph Smith said spurred his search for faith and to the organization of the LDS Church, the misrepresented or misremembered dates of the First Vision and other early events, the incongruities surrounding the discovery, reception, hiding and translation of the golden plates from which Smith said The Book of Mormon was produced, are meticulously tracked by Marquardt and Walters.

    What the authors neglect to examine is the book itself, the central enigma of the Mormon experience. With its interminable wars, layered with profound spiritual teachings, a complex narrative that is by turns boring and fascinating, the book challenges simple explanations of it as the product of an untutored young man’s imagination or as a historical record translated by the inspiration of God.

    Marquardt and Walters establish a connection between Joseph Smith’s treasure-digging years, his discovery of the alleged golden plates, the process of receiving revelation, and part of his Book of Mormon translation work, since early documents indicate he used a “seer stone,” a polished rock he discovered while helping to dig a neighbor’s well, in all these activities.

    “Was Smith less than forthcoming in later years about his evolution from Manchester farmboy to a new prophet?” the authors ask. “Our intent is to understand not to debunk.” They reject Martin Heidegger’s axiom that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” but allow that “an array of different interpretations is possible. We trust most readers will agree.”

  3. Rodger M. Payne, Church History

    In this meticulously researched and impartially presented reevaluation of the traditional account of the early life of Joseph Smith, Jr., and the New York roots of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Marquardt and Walters have produced a masterful work that reads like a fine detective novel. Drawing upon materials generally neglected by previous studies, such as tax records, censuses, and manuscript journals, the authors offer new insights into familiar issues (for example, the relationship between Smith’s money digging and the discovery of the golden plates) and occasional surprises (such as relocating the initial organization of the church from Fayette to Manchester, New York). Exceptionally rigorous (though often repetitive) documentation, a revisionist and detailed chronology of Smith family activities from 1817 to 1831, reproductions and transcriptions of rare documents, and a brief bibliographic essay round out the study. Unfortunately, these supplemental materials are not indexed. Those who are familiar with the canonical versions of the life of Smith and the foundations of Mormonism will find this investigation fascinating and richly suggestive; those engaged in research in this area will find this volume indispensable.

  4. Paul H. Peterson, BYU Studies

    It had to come! Two well-known sleuths of early Mormon history have written what might be called their final testament—the end result of two-and-one-half decades’ tedious research into Mormon origins. Presbyterian pastor Wesley Walters had been researching early Mormon history since the late 1960s. Lapsed-Mormon Michael Marquardt’s interest in Mormon beginnings and Joseph Smith stretches back at least half that long. When Walters died in 1990, Marquardt finished the book and dedicated it to him.

    Regardless of what agenda motivated this volume, it merits a careful reading by students of Latter-day Saint history. The text is comparatively brief but highly detailed (almost tediously so in places). The accompanying notes and appendixes are useful, and the bibliographical essay is especially helpful. It is apparent the authors have paid their research dues, having painstakingly combed through sundry archives, searching for obscure tax and assessment records and censuses to supplement the often familiar statements by contemporaries who remembered the Joseph Smith family. Much of the authors’ information and many of their arguments are familiar, some dating as far back as the late 1960s. But in this culminating study, they have added some new wrinkles, tightened their prose, and, in their minds, further buttressed their basic arguments.

    They have also made every effort to defuse the polemics. Walters and Marquardt, deservedly or not, are sometimes categorized as anti-Mormon writers. Their earlier monographs and articles on Latter-day Saint history sought to expose and disprove Mormonism, but Inventing Mormonism has a slightly different ring to it. The authors (possibly this is the influence of Marquardt) at least make a pretense of extricating themselves from their formerly rigid and dogmatic methodology and strive to approach their subject with more historical sophistication. I was both surprised and pleased when I read the following among the authors’ conclusions: little is to be gained from promoting a “prophet-fraud dichotomy” (197), Joseph honestly believed he spoke with supernatural beings, and the young prophet was an important figure in the development of western religious history.

Add a review

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *