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Robert Remini's work on the Jacksonian epoch has won him acclaim as well as the National Book Award. In Joseph Smith, he employs his keen insight and rich storytelling gift to explore one of the period's major figures. The most important reformer and innovator in American religious history, Joseph Smith has remained a fascinating enigma to many both inside and outside the Mormon Church he founded.
Born in 1805, Smith grew up during the "Second Great Awakening," when secular tumult had spawned radical religious fervor and countless new sects. His contemplative nature and soaring imagination—the first of his many visions occurred at the age of fourteen—were nurtured in the close, loving family created by his deeply devout parents. His need to lead and be recognized was met by his mission as God's vehicle for a new faith and by the hundreds who, magnetized by his charm and charismatic preaching, gave rise to the Mormon Church. Remini brings Smith into unprecedented focus and contextualizes his enduring contribution to American life and culture within the distinctive characteristics of an extraordinary age.
Remini (John Quincy Adams, 2002, etc.) is not a Mormon, wisely situating his life of Joseph Smith largely outside the realm of theology. He concentrates instead on the cultural and social milieu of the Jacksonian era, a time he knows as well as any historian working today. Remini locates Smith’s remarkable achievements as a religious leader given to visions and, apparently, angelic visitations in the climate of millenarian and communitarian experimentation that reigned in the American countryside during the time of the so-called Second Great Awakening, an evangelical storm whose "explosive force swept with such scalding ferocity through western New York"—where Smith lived for most of his short life—"that the region came to be known as the ‘Burned-Over District.’ " Smith’s particular view mixed elements of Christianity with a hopeful addendum to the tale of the Passion, in which the resurrected Christ abandoned the Holy Land and spent the next 200 years preaching to the Nephites, a lost tribe of Israel that had relocated to America. This view was not popular with many of Smith’s neighbors, and he and his early followers endured persecution, armed attacks, and death threats as they slowly traveled westward to the banks of the Mississippi; Smith would eventually be assassinated, leaving it to his lieutenant, Brigham Young, to carry on his work. Remini explores just what it was about Smith’s ideas that inspired such hatred among the nonbelievers—the identification of Mormonism with abolitionism and the early church’s efforts to convert American Indians had something to do with it—and just what itwas about those ideas that enabled his religion to grow from a handful of followers in the 1830s to many millions today.
Typically capable and lucid: Remini’s analysis is sure to excite controversy among those who view Smith in a different light.
The Second Great Awakening
JOSEPH SMITH JR. was born into a wildfire of religious frenzy that raged over large parts of the United States in the early nineteenth century and influenced virtually every aspect of American life and thought. Called the Second Great Awakening (the first occurred in the middle of the eighteenth century), this explosive force swept with such scalding ferocity through western New York that the region came to be known as the "Burned-Over District." It marked the beginning of a new and vigorous evangelical movement that started with a series of revival meetings at the turn of the century and reached its zenith in the 1820s and 1830s, the years Joseph Smith Jr. was born and raised and grew to maturity. The countryside was engulfed by the fires of repeated revivals in which itinerant preachers of little education but mesmerizing oratory summoned sinners to repent and reform their lives. Emotional orgies resulted, reaching such heights that they generated wild scenes of men and women weeping and tearing their hair, vocally confessing their sins, beating their breasts, rolling on the ground, crawling on all fours like dogs, and barking at trees where they had presumably cornered the devil. Some of these preachers were given names by their detractors that were meant to match their antics, names such as Jumpin' Jesus or Crazy Dow or Mad Isaac. Mrs. Frances Trollope visited the United States in 1827, stayed three and a half years, and wrote a critical book published in 1832 called The Domestic Manners of Americans. She witnessed one of these camp meetings, and what she saw frightened her half to death. These people behaved like lunatics, she exclaimed. One minute they seemed sane, the next raving mad. She fled the scene in panic and disbelief.
Many reasons explain this religious phenomenon. Americans at the time were undergoing sudden, jolting change-again and again. In fact, the United States changed more profoundly in the thirty years from 1790 to 1820 than during any other period in its history. As a starter, Americans had just concluded a revolution in which they shucked off monarchical rule for a wholly untried governmental system. They established a republic first under the Articles of Confederation, which failed, and then under the Constitution. Shortly thereafter they formed political parties to run the government. But this "experiment in freedom," as it was called, met only contempt and disdain from European heads of state. France wanted a bribe (the X, Y, Z Affair) before recognizing American ambassadors. It also seized American ships in French ports and engaged in naval combat with U.S. vessels, precipitating the Quasi-War with France in 1797-1798, which President John Adams managed to prevent from escalating into a full-fledged war. And England was worse. It refused to abandon its forts on U.S. soil as required under the peace treaty that ended the Revolution; it armed Indians and encouraged them to attack the frontier; it seized American ships; it impressed seamen; and it issued Orders in Council that virtually stifled U.S. international trade. Exasperated, the nation declared war against Great Britain in 1812 (this is sometimes called the Second War of Independence) only to have its coastline blockaded, Washington captured, and the White House and Capitol burned. During the war one disaster followed another. Not until General Andrew Jackson won a spectacular victory at New Orleans on January 8, 1815, was the nation rescued from the disgrace of utter and complete military defeat.
Jackson's victory, in which more than two thousand professional British soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured by a "ragtag" collection of American militiamen, regulars, men of color, Indians, pirates, and townspeople, set in motion a nationalistic surge. Americans reveled in the firm knowledge that they had finally accomplished "real" recognition of their nation's independence and that they were no longer colonists or Englishmen. They developed enormous pride in their country. "Who would not be an American?" trumpeted Niles' Weekly Register in 1815. "Long Live the republic!"
Once the war ended, additional changes rapidly followed: the Industrial Revolution exploded within the country, allowing Americans to establish at long last an independent national domestic economy; a market revolution began the process of converting the country from a purely agricultural to an industrial society; and then a transportation revolution inaugurated the building of roads, bridges, highways, canals, and finally railroads that assisted in expanding the country across a continent. It had taken colonists one hundred and fifty years just to settle an inland area of about one hundred miles from the coastline. In less than fifty years during the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans stretched their country three thousand miles to the Pacific Ocean.
But perhaps the most important change that took place at the start of the nineteenth century was the steady evolution of the government from a republican to a democratic form. States amended their constitutions to provide universal white manhood suffrage. As a result, in 1828 this newly enfranchised mass of ordinary citizens elected as their president General Andrew Jackson, a man without a single qualification for this high office, except his fantastic popularity resulting from his military victory at New Orleans.
Small wonder that, with all these rapid, wrenching shocks and unforeseen changes taking place within just a few decades, the American people turned to religion to find stability, guidance, and comfort. Desperate and anxiety-ridden, they looked for divine help as they struggled to reshape and anchor their lives in a modern democratic society.
In their struggle they reached out to any and all religious persuasions that promised them deliverance. And the more they could respond vocally, physically, and emotionally to the oratory of the clergy at revival meetings, the more they felt the joy and comfort of divine forgiveness that guaranteed their ultimate salvation.
What had happened was the arrival of a new romantic age that succeeded the age of reason and emphasized the importance of human emotions and feelings. Such sentiments were no longer suspect or frowned upon as they had been in the past. Now they were believed to aid individuals in their search for truth and wisdom. Intuition also served as an important tool in the search. Not surprisingly this romanticism brought about a flowering of intellectual pursuits and the appearance of a number of distinguished writers who composed arguably the finest literature this country has ever produced. Novelists and poets such as James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Walt Whitman, among others, inaugurated a golden age of American literature. And such gifted artists as John James Audubon, Thomas Sully, Asher Durant, George Innes, Thomas Cole, and George Caleb Bingham created a gallery of pictorial masterpieces.
Perhaps the most obvious expression of this romantic age was the Transcendental Movement. This New England phenomenon consisted of a group of men and women whose writings celebrated a belief not only in man's goodness but in his divinity as well. The most outstanding Transcendentalists were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, and Bronson Alcott, who argued that each individual, male or female, could "transcend" experience and reason and through intuitive contemplation discover the glories and the mysteries of the universe and hear the voice of God.
As this romantic impulse swept across the United States it helped shape American attitudes about religion. The old Puritan belief in a stern deity poised to punish sin-prone man slowly yielded to the notion that humans were created in the image of God and therefore possessed the touch of divinity that elevated them above the rest of creation. In religious terms these notions translated into the belief that every person could achieve salvation through his or her own volition by submitting to the lordship of Christ. All it took to win salvation was an act of the will and the desire to obey the commandments and lead a holy life. The idea of an elect chosen by God no longer had the same force it enjoyed in the colonial era. One simply had to hear and respond to God's call to sanctity. And the faithful who crowded into revivalist meetings came to purge themselves of their sins and open themselves to the outpourings of love and forgiveness from a merciful Godhead.
Charles Grandison Finney was the most prominent revivalist of the day and the originator of modern evangelical Protestantism in America. He journeyed throughout New York's Burned-Over District, summoning sinners to repent. He exhorted his listeners to "aim to be holy and not rest satisfied till they are as perfect as god."
Finney provided the model for preaching during the Second Great Awakening, and he was imitated by other clergymen of many faiths whose approach to religion blended perfectly with the emerging democratic spirit of this romantic age. For the most part these revivalist preachers were filled with the Holy Spirit and bursting with passion and wonder over the Christian message of repentance, forgiveness, and love. They were individuals who could inflame an audience with their zeal and their religious commitment. Methodists and Baptists were especially attuned to this new approach to religion, and they attracted thousands of men and women from every section of the country. They appealed to ordinary people who, like themselves, had an enormous thirst for spiritual fulfillment. Their churches swelled in number throughout the century and dominated the western and southern states.
One interesting aspect of this religious excitement was the degree to which many Americans resorted to various forms of folk magic in expressing their religious beliefs. They used such things as amulets, talismans, divining rods, and seerstones or peepstones (akin to the crystal balls used by fortune-tellers) for protection or to predict the future, or even to hunt for treasure. There was an interest in and practice of divination, personal visions, astrology, alchemy, and all manner of things occult. These people believed in devils and witches as well as angels and divine messengers. And nothing in their occult practices was regarded as contrary to accepted Christian values or beliefs. It was a generation of seekers in search of a faith by which they could govern their lives to the satisfaction of the Almighty. And they believed fervently in Christ's imminent Second Coming, more so than any generation before or since. Armageddon was close at hand, they insisted, and salvation was of immediate concern and need. Thus, if amulets and talismans could assist them in their quest for redemption and a better life, so be it.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, countless sects and other permutations of Christian belief suddenly appeared, bringing with them an assortment of new messages that allegedly had divine sanction. These messages frequently conveyed the idea of a New Zion to be built and ranged from spiritualism to millennialism to socialist utopianism. The number of different religious options, many of which involved withdrawing from society and forming separate communities, was bewildering.
This urge to create separate communities was one of the more striking and distinctive features of the Second Great Awakening. Communitarianism could be found in several sections of the country, but mainly in isolated areas and near the frontier. Most of the communities disappeared almost as quickly as they surfaced, but one prominent and relatively lasting example was established by Ann Lee Stanley, or Mother Ann Lee, who migrated to the United States from Great Britain in the 1770s and settled in Albany, New York. She preached the duality of God, the masculine and feminine: Christ was the masculine expression of God's personality and, according to believers, Mother Ann was one of the feminine expressions. She also taught the sinfulness of sex and the necessity of celibacy. Her followers called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearance but were generally known as Shakers on account of their dancing ritual, which involved the violent shaking of the body. Although Mother Ann died in 1784, the numbers of Shakers grew steadily during the next several decades and their individual communities expanded to two dozen. The simplicity, grace, and beauty of their houses and furniture were so masterful that they produced a unique and lasting style of American design and craftsmanship that is still admired today.
Into this maelstrom of economic, political, intellectual, and religious turbulence Joseph Smith Jr., the Prophet, was born. Religious excitement was part of the very air he breathed. However, he was not simply molded by the events transpiring around him; he was also and most profoundly shaped by the powerful influence of his deeply religious parents and by his residence in the western frontier of New York in the heart of the Burned-Over District.
Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack, was the descendant of an immigrant from Inverness, Scotland, who came to this country in 1699 and settled in Salisbury, Massachusetts. Her family prospered and moved several times before her father, Solomon Mack, took up residence in Gilsum, New Hampshire, along the northern frontier. Solomon farmed, married Lydia Gates, a schoolteacher and steadfast member of the Congregational Church, and had eight children, the last of whom was Lucy, born on July 8, 1775.
The Mack family held strong religious beliefs, but a succession of family illnesses and deaths deeply depressed Lucy and made her "pensive and melancholy." First her father suffered a dreadful accident when a tree fell on him and nearly crippled him. A few years later, after his recovery, he left for Nova Scotia to run a coasting trade from Halifax to St. John. During his absence Lucy's mother, Lydia, contracted a severe illness and seemed so close to death that she called her children around her bed to say farewell and exhort them to "fear God and walk uprightly before Him." Then she asked her son Stephen to take the eight-year-old Lucy into his home and raise her as his own. Stephen was nine years older than his sister. Fortunately the mother recovered in six months and the daughter returned home.
When Lucy was fourteen her married sister Lovisa became deathly ill with tuberculosis and for three days lay in a comatose state. Then, suddenly, on the night of the third day at two o'clock in the morning, according to Lucy's account written decades later, Lovisa roused herself and cried out, "The Lord has healed me, soul and body. Raise me up and give me my clothes. I want to get up." Dressed, she was lifted from her bed and raised to the floor, but the weight of her body dislocated both feet. "Put me in a chair and pull my feet gently," she commanded, "and I shall soon be sound again." And so it happened, just as she instructed.
Lovisa's miraculous recovery had a profound effect on Lucy and on the community at large. Neighbors crowded into the house where Lovisa spoke to them, sang a hymn "with angelic harmony," and told them to meet with her on Thursday in the village church where she would relate in detail the circumstances of her recovery.
A large congregation dutifully jammed into the church to hear about the miracle. The minister yielded his pulpit to Lovisa so she could tell her story. She started by singing a hymn, after which she launched into a recital of her unique experience. "I seemed to be borne away to the world of spirits," she began, "where I saw the Savior as through a veil, which appeared to me about as thick as a spider's web, and he told me that I must return again to warn the people to prepare for death; that I must exhort them to be watchful as well as prayerful...and that if I would do this my life would be prolonged." She ended her discourse with a lengthy commentary on "the uncertainty of life."
Lovisa became a celebrity for the next several years. Her house was always crowded with people and she did not hesitate to speak at length about her "miraculous recovery" and the visitation she had experienced. Echoes of these events would later surface in Joseph Smith's life.
But her vision was not extraordinary. During the Second Great Awakening many men and women-particularly adolescents-claimed to have seen and talked with God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. One young man, Billy Hibbard, later wrote about a celestial experience he had had at the age of eleven. And in 1815 Norris Stearns published a work describing his vision in which there suddenly appeared a "small gleam of light in the room," brighter than the sun, and God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer stood before him. Lorenzo Dow claimed that at the age of thirteen he was whisked to heaven by a whirlwind and beheld a throne of ivory overlaid with gold, with God sitting upon it attended by Christ at His right hand.
Following Lovisa's vision, another of Lucy's sisters, Lovina, developed an advanced case of tuberculosis and became desperately ill. Lucy was obliged to assume the role of nurse to the dying sister, tending to her every need. She fed her, washed her, and carried her from the bed to a chair. Finally Lovina asked Lucy to call the family together to hear her final farewell. When they had gathered around her chair, she told them that at the age of ten, "God...heard my prayers and forgave my sins. Since then I have, according to my best ability, endeavored to serve him continually. I have called you here to give you my last warning and bid you all farewell and beseech you to endeavor to meet me when parting shall be no more."
Lovina then asked Lucy to carry her back to her bed. Feeling her life draining away she called out to her parents, sisters, and brothers and bade them "all farewell. I am going to rest-prepare to follow me." Following that she sang a hymn, and when she finished she closed her eyes, folded her hands across her breast, and died.
—from Joseph Smith: A Penguin Lives Biography by Robert Vincent Remini, Copyright © October 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., use d by permission.
1. The Second Great Awakening, 1
2. First Vision, 18
3. Moroni, 40
4. The Book of Mormon, 57
5. Organizing the Church of Christ, 75
6. Kirtland, 95
7. Far West, 127
8. Nauvoo, 140
9. Assassination, 160
Select Bibliography, 187
Posted December 20, 2003
Posted September 7, 2010
No text was provided for this review.