Without Joseph Smith, there would be no The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and for faithful Mormons, Smith was a prophet on par with Moses. But that doesn't mean that Mormons "worship" him, Bowman says.
The history of the Mormon church begins this way: In 1820, when Smith was a 14-year-old farm boy in upstate New York, he retreated to a forest grove to ask God a pressing question: Which was the right church for him to join? To Smith's shock and amazement, his prayer was answered by two angelic figures, who identified themselves as God the Father and Jesus Christ.
During this miraculous visitation, known as the First Vision, Smith was told not to join any existing church, but that the true Church of Jesus Christ would be restored through him. After receiving and translating the Book of Mormon, which describes Jesus Christ's ministry to the ancient people of the Americas, Smith was conferred with important priesthood authority that had been lost after the death of the apostles.
Smith was the first prophet of what Mormons believe is Jesus Christ's true restored church, which is organized like the ancient church with prophets and apostles. Brigham Young was the second prophet of the restored church and the line of prophets has remained unbroken through today. The current prophet is Russell M. Nelson.
Smith was fiercely persecuted for his claims and teachings, and was eventually killed along with his brother by a violent mob when he was only 38 years old. Smith's martyrdom, like those of early Christian apostles and saints, made him an even more beloved and revered figure to the Mormon faithful.
"Joseph Smith is important," says Bowman. "He's a prophetic figure who has brought the mechanism of salvation back to humanity through the priesthood and ordinances like baptism, but that's not the same as worshipping him."
It took 117 years for the church to grow from 6 members to 1 million (in 1947). But it reached the 2-million member mark just 16 years later and has been growing ever since. Today, you'll find some 16 million Mormons all over the world, not just in the U.S.