Coates, author of a superb investigative account of the violent ultraright (Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right, 1987) here tackles the mighty and mysterious Mormon Church. In 1823, Coates explains, Joseph Smith claimed he beheld an angel named Moroni on his father's impoverished farm near Palmyra, N.Y. According to young Smith, Moroni—a resurrected member of a vanished American tribe that migrated to America from Israel—had appeared to the backwoods boy in order to guide him to a hill called Cumorah. There, by using a "seer stone," Smith apparently uncovered an Old Testament-era breastplate inscribed with the names of God's saved and a pair of sacred stone spectacles called the Urim and the Thummin. He also claimed he found plates that contained the text of the Bible before it was corrupted by the established church. No one ever saw these marvelous objects; according to his scribe, when Smith dictated the Book of Mormon, he "would put the seer stone in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine." Nonetheless, this rambunctious visionary gave rise to a religion that inspired folks from Brigham Young to humble European factory-workers to risk death crossing the prairie to the high, dry haven of Salt Lake City. Today, an aging hierarchy of these "Latter Day Saints" struggles to live down the outlaw days of polygamy and blood atonement (both still practiced by the survivalist fringe). Coates describes how Mormons remain both wildly mystical (baptizing ancestors for the millenium with the aid of huge computers) and shrewdly pragmatic (grooming presidential advisors, including Brent Scowcroft and Steve Studdert). "The Saints" Coates says, "wrested this trust and power from their fellow citizens by operating with unmatched devotion and fidelity to a set of principles foreign in the extreme to all that mainstream Judeo-Christian traditions hold sacred." A solid, well-researched account of a visionary religion that has survived like the toughest pioneer.
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