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Radical OriginsEarly Mormon Converts and Their Colonial Ancestors
By VAL D. RUST
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarly Mormons: A Peculiar People
An American Religion
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a special place in American culture. Founded by Joseph Smith Jr. in 1830, in the "burned-over district" of upstate New York, the Mormon church began as an American religion and remains so today, embodying such optimistic notions as material and social progress, the unlimited potential of each individual, and the capacity for free moral choice. Its moral code of loyalty, trustworthiness, obedience, discipline, cheerfulness, thriftiness, and cleanliness reads like the Boy Scout Law. Its nineteenth-century communitarian ethos has jelled smoothly with free-market principles of capitalism, melding into an orientation that is both liberal and conservative and uniquely characteristic of America.
Even though the Mormon church has been described as "very American, sometimes super American," the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so peculiar that many feel it isn't even Christian. Mormons speak freely of angels, visitations, visions, dreams, and revelations. They believe the president of their church is a literal prophet, seer, and revelator. They have assurance that anyone with the desire can directly know God and his divine plan. Mormons believe Christ took his original church away from the earth because its people fell into a state of apostasy; however, Mormons maintain, he restored his gospel in its celestial purity in these latter days through divine intervention. They accept the Bible to be the word of God but also rely on other ancient and modern scripture. They take for granted that "gifts of the Spirit" are as present today as in ancient times, including the power and capacity to heal the sick, prophesy, work miracles, discern diverse spirits, speak in tongues, and interpret the words of those who speak in tongues. They believe not only in contemporary social and material progress but in Eternal Progress. They believe that everyone, literally, "was in the beginning with God." They hold the assurance that every single person, whether good or bad, possesses a spark of the divine, and that those who endure will one day become gods, ruling as husbands and wives over their own worlds and civilizations. They believe their mission is to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Mormonism holds a special place in its doctrine for the New World. Mormons claim the Garden of Eden was located in what is now Missouri. According to Mormon scripture, Christ visited America after his resurrection and there established his gospel; the Savior will reside in America in a New Jerusalem at the time of his second coming. The Book of Mormon gives a historical accounting of the ancient Americas and testifies that this is a land of promise, "choice above all other lands" and "consecrated" for the restoration of the gospel.
Incredible as these beliefs may seem to the typical American, Harold Bloom believes they are the logical conclusion of the American belief that each person is a child of God, who loves each one directly and intimately. Mormons believe they can attain the Godhood that their father in heaven enjoys. Bloom calls Mormonism the "American Religion."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established in 1830 at the time a general religious revival was taking place in America. This revival has often been called the Second Great Awakening; the First Great Awakening took place the century before, peaking between 1739 and 1742. The Mormon church was but one of many new religious groups that came into being at the time, particularly in western New York. Whereas most of these religious groups were short-lived, by the mid-1840s the Mormon church was well on its way to becoming one of the permanent manifestations of the spiritual and social ferment of the time.
The LDS Church experienced hostility and persecution in its early years, and many Americans continue to think of Mormons as alien and different from the American mainstream. However, Mormon doctrines reflect almost every facet of the Second Great Awakening. Mormons were evangelists, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ as ardently as did Charles G. Finney and Dwight L. Moody, the preachers best known for the fervent evangelism of the time. Mormons were universalists, announcing Christ's sacrifice was valid for all of God's children. Mormons were adventists, proclaiming the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Mormons were millennialists, believing the reappearance of Christ would be accompanied by catastrophic signs and wonders, destroying the wicked and allowing Christ to set up the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri, where he would dwell with the Saints for a thousand years. Mormons were communalists, dedicated to establishing an ideal collective economic community, banding together in a cooperative enterprise to form Christ's perfect religious and social order. Mormons were spiritualists, emphasizing a tangible spirit world accessible to those in the mortal world.
The Second Great Awakening was directed toward more than spiritual doctrines and religious change. It also translated into social reconstruction, and early Mormons espoused almost every aspect of this reform movement. Mormons advocated temperance and even abstinence in the use of alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee. They emphasized universal education to unleash the unlimited potential of all. They were abolitionists, dedicating themselves to freeing all slaves and helping them find honorable labor. They advocated prison reform and the positive rehabilitation of criminals. And they advocated a reformed national government that would rid itself of factions, patronage, and tangled alliances and would work in harmony with the simple ideas of representative democracy to help create a more perfect union.
Another aspect of the Second Great Awakening was its populist and egalitarian focus. Mormons also believed the common person had the right to shape his or her own religious destiny. The Book of Mormon is, according to historian Nathan O. Hatch, "a document of profound social protest, an impassioned manifesto against the smug complacency of those in power and the reality of social distinction based on wealth, class, and education." The early LDS Church exemplified populist themes and rejected the pride and arrogance that comes with economic success and worldly learning.
The American aspects of Mormonism cannot be located solely in the doctrinal and social reconstruction elements of the First or Second Great Awakenings. It remains in what Harold Bloom describes as the "inner and formless forms of our national faith," in the "perpetual shock of the individual discovering ... that God loves her and him on an absolutely personal and indeed intimate basis." The American aspects of Mormonism are located in a form of gnosis, an implicit knowing, that God speaks to us not only through the Bible but also through "replacement scriptures" such as the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants. Such documents are found not only in the LDS Church but also in other "American" churches that honor their own texts, such as Science and Health, Spiritual Gifts, Spirit of Prophecy, and the Watchtower. According to Bloom, these scriptures are not found in traditional Christianity but among Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and other "peculiarly American varieties of spiritual experience."
Mormonism and Forerunners
Mormons maintain that America played a special role in preparing for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. With the assistance of God, they believe, Columbus discovered the "promised land" and opened the way for its settlement. God stirred the leaders of the American colonies to rebel against the British in order to build the foundation for a land of freedom. Thomas Jefferson joined with others in crafting a divinely inspired American constitution, which enabled the gospel of Jesus Christ to take root and thrive.
It is a central doctrine of the Mormon church that God prepared the way for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in these latter days. Even though all individuals make free, personal choices, God participates with them in these decisions. According to this view, the leaders of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment can be seen as joining with God in fulfilling a grand design. Mormons believe that God moved Erasmus to challenge the formalistic piety of the Catholic Church and to emphasize a return to the simple, moral principles of Christian life. He inspired Martin Luther and other reformers to defy religious evils of their day and make the Bible available to all. He helped Copernicus to conceive a new vision of the universe and stimulated Isaac Newton to discover the basic rules that God had applied in organizing (creating) that universe.
But pathfinders or forerunners are not only outstanding historical figures; they may also be ordinary people. Unfortunately, we rarely learn much about such people because little documentary evidence about them is available. In this book, I undertake the difficult task to describe and analyze a special set of forerunners of the Mormon church, the colonial ancestors of those who responded directly to the radical religious message of Joseph Smith Jr. (1805- 44) and made it their own.
I am exploring an innovative way of doing history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, American historians began studying the colonial beginnings of the nation by using census data and other "silent" records to reconstruct the history of New England towns. From those reconstructions, it was thought, it should be possible to look at what happened to the descendants of the populations of various towns in order to grasp the American social order, economic elites, and all sorts of other communities. In this study, I have turned that method on its head by starting with members of a particular religious group and then tracing their ancestors. In this way, records that initially appear to be silent begin to reveal valuable information.
At its founding, the message of the LDS Church was so revolutionary that it demanded a certain spiritual predisposition on the part of those who were attracted to it. I am certainly not the first to make this claim. John Brooke, in his important study of the roots of Mormonism, also contends that Mormon cosmology did not arise in a vacuum but had deep roots in the American colonial experience. My claim, that those who were drawn to the message of Joseph Smith Jr., especially in the earliest years, likely had family and community histories that predisposed them to resonate with that message, is consistent with Brooke's analysis. The early converts to the LDS Church shared a historical background and radical spiritual orientation that had been cultivated and honed over a number of generations.
Brooke and I both argue that the Mormon story goes back beyond American history since the 1830s and has implications for an understanding of the larger context of American colonial history. But Brooke and I differ importantly in our understanding of both the nature as well as the historical roots of Mormon beliefs and spiritual expression. He connects Mormonism with "restorationism and paradisial universalism" and a whole range of practices that he labels "hermeticism," including Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and other manifestations of the occult. He reminds us that there were two broad movements of migrants from England across the Atlantic Ocean to the colonies. The first took place with the founding of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies in the 1620s and early 1630s; the second took place after the 1660s with the restoration of the crown to the Stuarts. The Acts of Uniformity, passed at this time, required everyone in England to conform to the Church of England. Some of them refused and set up their own churches, and many of these so-called nonconformists left for the colonies.
Brooke claims that hermeticism had little to do with the early Puritans coming to New England; rather, it arrived with the migration of the second wave of immigrants coming to America, particularly to the Middle Atlantic region. He therefore concludes that the roots of Mormonism originated with the second migration, taking place after 1660.
However, my data clearly indicate that almost all of the thousands of ancestors of early LDS converts had settled New England during the first migration and were already established before the second wave of migrants arrived and dispersed throughout New York and the Middle Atlantic colonies.
Brooke agrees that Mormonism is connected with early New England, and he observes that this presents a "paradox" for his analysis in that the occult phenomena he connects with Mormons "must have taken a different route than that through Puritan culture in orthodox New England."
I argue that there was a different type of religious radicalism among the LDS ancestors than that identified by Brooke as hermeticism and occultism. These ancestors had indeed settled in New England, but they constituted a radical fringe element in a Puritan landscape. And they came to live in parts of New England where they might escape Puritan influence and give expression to a more radical spirit, one characterized by a belief that miracles and direct spiritual communication with God were open to all, rather than only to those who possessed specialized "hermetic" knowledge of magic practices and specialized occult ritual.
Early LDS Church Membership
The Mormon church began on 6 April 1830 with 6 members. About two months after the church was organized, the minutes of the first general conference, held on 9 June 1830 in Fayette, New York, reported 27 members; the minutes of the second general conference, held about four months later on 26-28 September 1830, again in Fayette, reported 62 members. Church membership was first centered in the small towns of Manchester, Fayette, and Colesville, New York, as well as in Harmony, Pennsylvania, towns that were at the time being settled by recent migrants. The names of approximately 140 individuals have been identified who were baptized during the so-called New York-Pennsylvania period, which lasted until the early winter of 1830-31, at which time most of these Saints moved down the Erie Canal and along Lake Erie to Kirtland, Ohio (see figure 1).
A first surge in LDS Church membership began in the fall of 1830, a few months before the Saints left the New York and Pennsylvania region. Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson, Oliver Cowdery, and Peter Whitmer Jr. were on their way to the "wilderness" to declare the gospel to the Indians, and they passed through Ohio, where Pratt had lived for a time.
Excerpted from Radical Origins by VAL D. RUST Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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