Joseph Smith, a Vermont farm boy who translated gold plates he found on a New York hilltop into the Book of Mormon, then birthed a worldwide church, was born 200 years ago Friday.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints — about 12 million strong — will gather at their church buildings Friday night or in front of their televisions and watch their 15th and current president-prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, 95, honor Smith at his birthplace.
In Salt Lake City, headquarters for the church since 1847, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will perform a musical tribute to the founder, who has been called an "American prophet." The celebration culminates a year in which Mormon congregations have been encouraged to stage their own pageants, concerts and other activities in tribute to the man killed by an Illinois mob in 1844.
Today, more than 200,000 Arizona residents are Mormon, or about 6 percent of the state — ranking Arizona fourth in members behind Utah, California and Idaho. The state can claim that Spencer W. Kimball, the church’s 12th president, was reared in Thatcher, and the church chose Mesa to erect its seventh temple in 1927.
"I just think it is remarkable that a man with an eighth-grade education was chosen of God to bring back the gospel on Earth as a prophet and seer and to be able to translate another testament, the Book of Mormon," said Scott Briggs of Mesa.
Kent Bowen, a church missionary from Vancouver, Wash., said people he encounters during his daily missionary work in east Mesa ask him why Smith is so important.
"They talk to us and say, ‘Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith: All you care about is Joseph Smith,’ " Bowen said.
But he said he corrects his critics: "No, you’ve got to have your faith centered on Jesus Christ, but Joseph Smith helps me understand Jesus Christ more."
Bowen’s partner, Jason Bagby of Taylorsville, Utah, calls Smith his "personal hero."
Bagby was among more than 100,000 young Mormons who filled two Utah sports stadiums on July 15 to commemorate the Smith bicentennial.
Don Evans, spokesman for the church in Arizona, said Mormons focus on their founder to judge the religion’s veracity.
"In terms of truthfulness of the church, it all comes down to Joseph Smith," Evans said. "Was he a true prophet or not? If he was a true prophet, then everything else that has happened subsequently has got to be true. And if not, he is a great fraud and nothing is true."
Smith has been the subject of hundreds of books and exhaustive research, in and out of the Mormon church. His numerous prophecies and revelations set the course of the church, including issues regarding polygamy.
Throughout 2005, Brigham Young University Television has been showcasing Smith’s life through cable outlets, and much of the programming will be replayed Friday beginning at 6 a.m.
The live commemoration will begin at 6 p.m. Arizona time, and Hinckley will stand in Smith’s rebuilt Vermont home.
The church also has produced a new film on the founder, "Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration," being shown in visitors centers at temples and historic sites across the world.
Dec. 23, 1805:
Born in Sharon, Vt.
1820: Smith said the Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ visited him in a grove of trees near the family farm in Palmyra, N.Y.
1823: Smith said an angel visited him and revealed the location of gold plates, which contained the history of God’s dealings with the inhabitants of ancient America.
1827: Smith receives the gold plates and begins translation.
1830: The translation is published as The Book of Mormon.
April 6, 1830:
Smith organizes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with six members.
1836: First Mormon temple is dedicated in Kirtland, Ohio.
1838: Smith is arrested and jailed after the Missouri governor orders Mormons exterminated or expelled from the state.
1840: Church headquarters moves to Nauvoo, Ill.
June 27, 1844: Smith and his brother are shot and killed by a mob in Carthage, Ill.
What: Joseph Smith 200th birthday commemoration
When: 6 p.m. Friday with rebroadcast at 10 p.m.
Where: KBYU cable channel. The public also may go to Latter-day Saint stake centers for the satellite broadcast.
Information: byubroadcasting.org/ josephcommemoration