Religion in the Early Republic
|Digital History ID 2996|
In the history of religion, few stories are more dramatic than that of the Mormons. It has haunting biblical overtones of divine revelations and visitations, of persecution and martyrdom, of an exodus virtually across a continent, and of ultimate success in establishing a religious society in an uninhabited desert. This story, however, did not take place in a foreign land in the distant past. It took place in the United States during the 19th century.
The Mormon church had its beginnings in western New York, which was a hotbed of religious fervor. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Universalist preachers eagerly sought converts. Fourteen year old Joseph Smith, Jr., the son of a migrant farmer, listened closely to the preachers, but was uncertain which way to turn.
In the spring of 1820, Smith went into the woods near Palmyra, N.Y., to seek divine guidance. Suddenly, he was "seized upon by some power that entirely overcame me." According to his account, a brilliant light revealed "two personages," who told him that the existing churches were false and that the true church of God was about to be reestablished on earth.
Three years later, he underwent another supernatural experience. A spectral visitor told him of the existence of a set of buried golden plates that contained a lost section from the Bible describing a tribe of Israelites that had lived in America. The next morning, Smith proceeded to unearth the golden plates. He was forbidden to reveal their existence for four years, when he translated them into English, published the Book of Mormon, and founded the church that would later be known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
His movement quickly grew. Part of Mormonism's attraction may be that it spoke to the beliefs and yearnings of antebellum rural New Yorkers. The folk culture of the time paid a great deal of attention to diviners who used rods and seer stones to find water or buried treasure, to magical talismans and mystical visions, and to legends about Indians and mysterious Indian mounds. Smith had an extraordinary capacity to speak to these people, offering (as poet John Greenleaf Whittier put it) "a language of hope and promise to weak, weary hearts, tossed and troubled, who have wandered from sect to sect, seeking in vain for the primal manifestation of the divine power."
Because Smith said that he had conversed with angels and received direct revelations from the Lord, local authorities threatened to indict him for blasphemy. He and his followers responded by moving to Kirtland, Ohio, near Cleveland, where they built their first temple. It was in Kirtland that the Mormons first experimented with an economy planned and run by the church. In this community, church trustees controlled the members' property and put members to work building a temple and other structures.
From Kirtland, the Mormons moved to Independence, Missouri, and then to a town in the northern part of the state. Beginning in 1832, proslavery mobs attacked the Mormons, accusing them of inciting slave insurrections. They burned several Mormon settlements and seized Mormon farms and houses. Smith was arrested for treason and sentenced to be shot, but managed to escape several months later. Fifteen thousand Mormons fled Missouri to Illinois after the governor proclaimed them enemies who "had to be exterminated, or driven from the state."
Trouble arose again in Illinois after dissident Mormons published a newspaper denouncing the practice of polygamy and attacking Smith for trying to become "king or lawgiver to the church." On Smith's orders, Mormon legionnaires destroyed the dissidents' printing press. Authorities charged Smith with treason, but the Illinois governor gave Smith his pledge of protection. Smith and his brother were then confined to a jail in Carthage, Ill. Late in the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of prominent citizens, aided by jail guards, broke into Smith's cell, shot him and his brother, and threw their bodies out of a second-story window.
Why were the Mormons subjected to persecution?
Why did the Mormons seem so menacing?
Today it is hard to believe that Mormons could ever have been regarded as subversive, since they are known for their abstinence from tobacco and alcohol and their stress on family and community responsibility. Anti-Mormonism was partly rooted in a struggle for economic and political power. Individualistic frontier settlers feared the Mormons, who voted as a bloc and whose trustees controlled their land.
Mormonism was also denounced as a threat to fundamental social values.
Protestant ministers attacked the Mormons for rejecting the legitimacy of the established churches and for insisting that the Book of Mormon was Holy Scripture, equal in importance to the Bible.
The Mormons were also accused of corrupt moral values, especially after 1842 when rumors about polygamy began to spread. Indeed, Mormons did practice polygamy for half a century, which was justified theologically as an effort to reestablish the patriarchal Old Testament family. Polygamy also served an important social function, absorbing single or widowed women into Mormon communities. Contrary to popular belief, polygamy was not widely practiced. Altogether, only 10 to 20 percent of Mormon families were polygamous and nearly two-thirds involved a man and two wives.
Today, the Mormon church is one of the fastest-growing religious groups in the United States, and its members are known for their piety, industriousness, sobriety, and thrift. A century ago, anti-Mormons regarded the church as a fundamental threat to American values. Early 19th century American society attached enormous importance to individualism, monogamous marriage, and private property, and the Mormons were believed to subvert these values. But if in certain respects the Mormons challenged the values of pre-Civil War America, their aspirations were truly the product of their time. They sought nothing less than the establishment of God's kingdom on earth.