Joseph Smith: How to start a religion

Some call him a conman. Some call him the prophet. Joseph Smith is the founder of Mormonism. By the time of his death at the young age of 38, Smith had attracted tens of thousands of followers. 

Legend has it that the angel Moroni revealed the location of buried books made of golden plates to Joseph Smith. But people were sceptical. Because Smith could not show the golden plates to anyone, as the angels had instructed him to hide it. And because a couple of years prior, Smith was brought in front of a county court – for charging people and taking them on an unsuccessful treasure hunt.

When the golden plates were translated by Smith, they told an amazing story as well. It narrates the history of how people from Jerusalem built a ship and crossed over to America. It detailed the rise and fall of a religious civilization in Americas. The book also talks about how Noah’s ancestor built the righteous city of Zion. And the book foreshadows the coming of Christ and teaches his lessons. 

Slowly people were convinced of the truth of Smith’s vision. First Smith’s neighbour. Then a teacher. And it snowballed from there and hundreds of others joined the new church.

What persuaded so many people to join a new religion?

How do you make people build a boat?

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Science sets the setting

Historians say that because Mormonism is rooted in Christianity, it wasn’t difficult for Smith to sway people to join him. And while there is some truth to it, it’s not the complete picture.

In the early 19th century, science was busting religious myths and miracle moments that people placed their beliefs in. People were turning away from religion. And Christianity itself was more split than ever.

In such a situation, Joseph Smith told people his story: of how anyone can have a personal connection with God.

Smith told how he wanted to rebuild Zion. A place of Utopia. Zion would protect people from calamities that were bound to occur during the last days of Earth. And it’s this vision of his that persuaded people in droves to join his cause! 

Smith built a religion because he knew how to connect with people’s deepest desires. He knew how to make them yearn!

How to make people yearn?

You have to find people’s deep drives. Create a promise that makes them want to follow you. But this is tricky. Because you can’t ask people what they want. By just speaking to people, Joseph Smith would never have been able to promise building Zion in North America.

You somehow have to find people’s deepest drives without asking direct questions. Some people like Steve Jobs are intuitive and just know how to promise and build what people want. But how can we mere mortals do that?

You find the other side of the coin. Instead of people’s dreams, focus on finding people’s fears. And then, flip the fears to dreams.

Focus on the fears and frustrations of people

Marketing guru JK Molina teaches us that fear is future oriented. And frustrations are things that bug people in the present.

  1. Ask people what frustrates them in things that they do right now.
  2. Ask people about their fears. Things that they worry about.
  3. Flip their frustrations to wants, and their fears to dreams.

For eg: People may have a fear that their children won’t succeed in life and will be left behind. Can you flip that to find a promise that can assuage their fears away?

Maybe something like: “Fools learn from experience. Wise men learn from history. Subscribe your child to today so that they can learn from the lives of other successful people.”

When people were fearing that science was replacing religion and that was breaking the fabric of the society, promising Zion where people could come together and live in harmony seems like the perfect answer to their deepest fears. That’s how Joseph Smith built a burgeoning religion.

Action Summary:

  • If you want to build a big company, you need to rally behind a strong promise. Paint a dream that people want to follow. To do that, you have to start with people’s fears, and then flip the fears to dreams.