On 22 September 1827, Joseph Smith – founder of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) – claimed to have received a set of gold plates inscribed with the text of the Book of Mormon. He had apparently been told of the existence of these plates four years earlier by a heavenly messenger named Moroni. With divine inspiration, Smith set about translating the characters in which the text was written and the first edition of the Book of Mormon was published at Palmyra, New York in 1830.
In the preface, a number of witnesses testify to the existence of the gold plates, which were subsequently taken away by Moroni. The book itself is an account of certain ancient ancestors of the Native Americans, to whom Christ is said to have appeared after his ascension. The book is printed on thirty-seven sheets and folded into thirty-seven gatherings of eight leaves each, making a text block of 592 pages.
Joseph Smith died at a young age, just fourteen years after the first edition of the Book of Mormon was published. However, in this time he had attracted tens of thousands of followers and had founded a religion and a religious culture that continues to the present day.
Throughout his life, Smith had been sharply criticised by newspaper editors and after his death, newspapers were almost unanimous in portraying Smith as a religious fanatic, ignoring his mark on history. Conversely, within Mormonism, Smith was memorialised first and foremost as a prophet, to the point of excluding ‘his personal virtues and defects.’