Never talk about politics, religion, or money, they say. But with Mormonism the hot ticket on Broadway, and with the Republican Party betting that Mormon Mitt Romney will win the presidency in November, as well, it’s time to talk a little about Mormonism.
So why not? Well, for one thing, there are a few wild stories associated with Mormonism, and nobody wants someone from another religion poring over their religion and digging up the crazy stuff. And every religion has its wild story. The Jews have to explain how Moses separated the Red Sea. The Muslims have to believe that God dictated the contents of their holy book, the Quran, to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel. Buddhists figure out a way to determine that a kid born somewhere in Tibet is actually the reincarnation of the most recent dead Dalai Lama — and everyone has to believe they made the right choice. Christians have that empty grave — explain that one.
And the wild stories, if dwelled upon, would preclude discussion of all the good things the believers accomplish. As a New York Times op ed by Ross Douthat noted on August 12, “Mormonism is a worldier, more business-friendly religion than traditional Christianity, but it does not glorify wealth for wealth’s sake, in the style of many contemporary prosperity preachers . . .” In Salt Lake City “faith, family, and neighborliness really do seem to fill the role that liberals usually assign to the state. . . You can visit inner-city congregations where bank vice presidents from the suburbs spend their weekends helping drifters find steady work, and tour the missionary training center where Mormons from every background share a small-d democratic coming-of-age experience.”
Still Mormons have all those gob-smacking stories of Christianity to believe, and then a raft of, well, latter day wild stories to explain. And what makes their wild stories wilder yet is that they didn’t take place eons or thousands of years ago in far away places where we modern skeptics could believe that the record is murky, that visions were obscured, that figurative truths were expressed in literal terms, or that the word got mangled through translations.
As the New York Times op ed writer put it, Mormon country “also provides reminders of why Romney has been wary of talking about his religious background. There’s the Mormon Temple, whose interior can be viewed in scale-model form but not actually entered; the defensiveness that surfaces around issues like polygamy and race. . . And hanging over everything, the burden of defending Joseph Smith’s revelation, which offers not only bold metaphysical claims (as all religions do) but an entire counter-history of the Americas, which no archaeologist has yet managed to confirm.”
This Mormon lore all takes place practically in modern times, and virtually in our own backyard. For the past 50 years or so, I have been an unwitting pilgrim to one of the most holy sites of Mormonism. It’s a little swatch of land in northeastern Pennsylvania, a few miles off Interstate 81 on Route 171 just before you get to the Penn-Can stock car track and the gritty little city of Susquehanna. The plot of land, between the road and the Susquehanna River in a town now called Oakland, has a small parking lot and a historic marker.
I have passed by it thousands of times on road trips between the summer cottage in Wayne County and family and friends in and around Binghamton, New York. Finally, given the recent political ascension of Mitt Romney, I decided to stop and take a closer look. According to the inscription at the site, the life-sized statue is of John the Baptist, his hands resting on the heads of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, who are kneeling on either side of him. The inscription below reads in part:
This event occurred on the banks of the Susquehanna River, the 15th day of May, 1829, near Harmony, Pennsylvania. Joseph Smith in his writings states: “A messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light. And having laid his hands upon us, he ordered us, saying: ‘upon you my fellow servants in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of acceptance, and of Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth . . .”
Is this a big deal or what? You tell me. Joseph Smith is the teenager living in Palmyra, New York, who was visited by an angel named Moroni who told him to pluck a bunch of gold plates out of the ground and then translate them into the Book of Mormon. As he carries out this mission Smith marries a young lady from Pennsylvania, which is how he ends up — plates in tow — along the banks of the Susquehanna. Oliver Cowdery is his scribe — Smith dictates his translation to Cowdery, who writes it down. That’s important — the first scribe assigned to Smith lost 116 pages of translation. But after the baptism on May 15, 1829, the two got cracking — the entire book was finished in another month or so. And — I’ll be damned — the plates were then returned to the angel.
And now a little modern-day reality: Just last year the Mormon Church bought 10 acres of land near the monument, which has been home for many years to an auto repair shop and junkyard. This acquisition is adjacent to 147 acres already owned by the church.
Susquehanna County officials said that church officials involved in the purchase had indicated that the church might eventually build a “change center” where people could change into dry clothes after being baptized in the river as well as a replica of Joseph and Emma Smith’s home (destroyed by fire in 1919), which would serve as an interpretive center.
The last piece of property acquired by the Mormons, part of that 147 acres, was 24 acres purchased in 2005 from a municipal development authority for $60,000 or $2,500 per acre. The price for the 10 acres just acquired? $2.1 million, or $210,000 per acre — unheard of in northeastern Pennsylvania. And the deal did not include gas and oil rights if the church ever decides to lease the property to the “frackers” storming through the area hunting for natural gas.
No wonder folks in northeastern Pennsylvania are talking about the Mormons. With all that Mormon money floating around town, with the church contemplating a facility that would bring even more Mormons to this sacred spot, will other property benefit from these, well, blessings? My nephew owns a fishing cabin on the same side of the river, not more than 10 miles downstream from the site of John the Baptist’s recent visit.
Could Nephew Jon’s cabin be worth a boatload more now than when he bought it? I could ask him. But I won’t — never talk about money, they say.