National Humanities Center
When Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it came to be officially designated, first emerged on the religious scene in 1830, it was simply one of the many, often short-lived, new religious groups born amidst the spiritual ferment of mid-nineteenth-century America. But by the mid-1840s, Mormonism had established itself as a dynamic and distinctive new religious tradition. The historical significance of Mormonism lies not so much in its size and success in gaining adherents. (By 1845, it had nearly 40,000 believers; by 1870, 120,000.
Today, with over seven million members in the United States alone, Mormonism is among the fastest growing of the world’s religions.) What is most significant historically about Mormonism is that it was not simply another Christian sect or denomination but was the only new religious tradition founded in nineteenth-century America. Equally important is Mormonism’s complex and embattled relation to both the society from which it emerged and to the evangelicalism that was such a dominant force in the society.
Doctrine and History
The birth of Mormonism centered on one man, Joseph Smith, Jr. (1806-1844) a farmer from the region of western New York known as the “burned-over district” because of its unrelenting religious enthusiasm. It was launched in 1830 with the publication of the Book of Mormon, the sacred text which became the foundation for new religion. As Smith told the story, seven years earlier the angel Moroni had appeared before him and told him of a book written on gold plates and buried in a hill outside Manchester, New York. Then, on September 22, 1827, after other visitations from Moroni the plates were turned over to Smith. Over the next twenty-four months, Smith and a few trusted associates, using special, ancient, “seer” stones, “translated” the Egyptian hieroglyphics of the plates into English. When they had finished this arduous task, Smith reported, as arranged, he delivered the plates back to the angel.
The Book of Mormon was not simply an arresting and powerful spiritual treatise like John Fox’s Book of Martyrs, which became the foundational text of Quakerism. Rather, Smith promulgated it as a new, sacred and canonical text, a wholly new dispensation of scriptural truth that God, working through the angel Moroni and his chosen earthly vessel, Joseph Smith, delivered to humankind. As such, for Mormon believers, the Book of Mormon possesses the same canonical standing as the old and new testaments do for Protestants and Catholics. In fact, just as early Christians saw the New Testament, with its narrative of Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies, as the completion of God’s delivery of scriptural truth, so too did Mormons see the Book of Mormon, with its prediction of a new prophetic figure, as God’s third and final dispensation. To believers, in fact, the Book of Mormon built directly on the promises and predictions of the earlier texts: it was the “sealed” book, described in the Book of Isaiah, the appearance of which would signal the coming of the “end-times” predicted in the Book of Revelation. Thus did the Mormons identify themselves as “saints,” the new Israelites called out from the Gentiles to usher in the millennium. Finally, the Book of Mormon revealed that on the day it “spoke out of the ground,” a prophet, named Joseph like his father, would appear and, with the aid of revelations delivered to him directly from God, establish the Godly kingdom on earth that would prepare the way for Christ’s Second Coming.
From the beginning, Joseph Smith and his followers provoked ridicule for Mormonism’s seemingly magical if not superstitious origins, and opposition as a heresy that dared to claim itself “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” Feeling themselves persecuted by their upstate New York neighbors, they organized separate Mormon settlements in Kirtland, Ohio, and in Independence, Missouri. Kirtland was the seat of the prophet where in l836 the Mormons built and consecrated an elaborate temple. In both places, they isolated themselves from their neighbors, and, much as other nineteenth-century religious communitarian groups like the Shakers or the Amish, set up cohesive, economically self-sufficient and largely self-governing communities, setting themselves up not simply as a group of worshipers but as a people apart.
Neither Ohio nor Missouri provided adequate refuge against the hostility of neighbors suspicious of Mormon belief and fearful of Mormonism’s growing numbers and economic prosperity and power. In 1833 their Missouri neighbors attacked the settlement, forcing the Mormons to abandon Independence. Opposition also intensified back in Ohio and by early l838 most of the Kirtland Mormons, led by the prophet, had departed for Missouri, where they joined forces with their Independence coreligionists who had resettled in a county organized especially for them. Still, the tension between the Mormons and their Gentile neighbors escalated into armed conflict, and the saints were forced to flee once again.
In the spring of 1839, nearly 15,000 Mormons crossed into Illinois, where they purchased the town of Commerce, which they renamed Nauvoo. Granted a charter that made Nauvoo virtually an independent municipality with its own court system and militia, the Mormon settlement by l844 had become the largest city in the state. In Nauvoo, Smith completed the process of organizational and doctrinal consolidation begun in Kirtland. What had begun as an effort to recover the clarity and simplicity of early Christianity and the pure and authoritative forms of the apostolic church, developed into a more doctrinally complex and more elaborate and hierarchical religious structure. With the consecration of the temple in Kirtland, Smith turned away from the example of the early church and embraced more ancient Hebraic models of organization. In addition to deacons, elders, priests and bishops, he instituted a “First Presidency,” composed of Smith as president and two counselors, a high counsel, a special Quorum of Seventy, a Council of Twelve Apostles, and a patriarch, the first of which Smith ordained his own father. Finally, revelation granted the Lord’s “servant, Joseph Smith, jun.,” the sole authority for receiving “commandments and revelations” from God. In addition to this revelation securing the ultimate authority of the prophet (and president), Smith announced the key revelation concerning “celestial marriage” under which saints’ marriages were “sealed” for eternity. This doctrine became the basis for the revelation (disclosed to a chosen few saints in l843) for the practice of “plural marriages,” under which select and worthy Mormon men could take multiple wives.
Growing Mormon power alarmed their initially welcoming Illinois neighbors. In addition to their economic power, Mormons voted as a block in accordance with revelation announced from the pulpit. In 1844, Smith, who had revealed a plan for organizing the kingdom of God on earth with himself as king, declared his candidacy for president of the United States. In June, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested, dragged from jail, and murdered by a group of militia called out to protect the state against a feared Mormon uprising. After Smith’s murder, the Mormons regrouped and under the leadership of Brigham Young, selected as Smith’s successor as prophet and president, undertook the “great trek” westward to the Utah Territory, where they established a virtual Mormon kingdom, centered in Great Salt Lake City, which they called the State of Deseret. In Utah, under the long leadership of Young (1847-1877), building on the precepts of plural marriage and patriarchal, prophetic governance promulgated by Joseph Smith, the Mormons established a unique, cohesive, economically self-sufficient, and thriving society. Indeed, at the time of Young’s death in l877, the Utah Mormons, augmented by converts from England and elsewhere in Europe, numbered close to 150,000. The Great Basin Kingdom endured largely intact into the 1880s. But then, due to mounting hostility that centered on the practice of polygamy (which the U.S. Congress declared illegal by the Edmunds Act of l882), the Mormons relinquished their most controversial doctrine. After the arrest of a number of Mormon leaders, the president of the church, Wilford Woodruff, in exchange for granting Utah statehood, agreed to halt plural marriage and dissolve the separate Mormon political party.
Religious and Social Sources
Throughout the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth, Mormonism has been viewed as an aberrant, bizarre, isolated, and largely self-contained religious movement cut off from the mainstream of American society. But what this picture obscures is the extent to which Mormonism, for all its distinctiveness, was not only rooted in many of the broader ideas that characterized early nineteenth-century evangelicalism but was also broadly responsive to the social changes playing across nineteenth-century American society.
Like the Campbellite movement or the “primitive” Baptists, it sought to cut through the confusing welter of warring sects and denominations and restore the simplicity of the early church by resting itself on a few clearly revealed, authoritative truths. It also reflected the strong current of belief in magic and the occult and in the reality of spiritual visions and divine signs that was widespread in the culture. (In fact, in 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia, another prophetic figure, Nat Turner, following signs and visions given only to him, launched a bloody slave insurrection that he too saw predicted in the Book of Revelation.) Finally, of course, the millennialism at the heart of Mormonism drew on evangelicalism’s pervasive sense of millennial expectancy.
Mormonism, however, took these broader religious impulses farther than more “mainstream” religious groups were willing to go. Cutting through the complex doctrines surrounding evangelical conversion and spiritual rebirth, it simply shed the idea of original sin and promised salvation to all who professed belief in Jesus Christ, renounced sin, and promised to obey the clerked “laws and ordinances of the Bible.” Mormonism also went well beyond mere millennial expectancy. To believers, deliverance of the Book of Mormon and the institution of a Mormon order had launched the “latter days.” Mormons considered the social and spiritual order that Joseph Smith tried to build in Nauvoo and that Brigham Young and his followers established in the Great Basin of Utah as the actual kingdom of God on earth, the replica of the celestial kingdom to which all “saints” were sealed for all eternity.
Mormon doctrine and organization also reflected broader and often contradictory social conditions. Above all, it provided desperately desired structure for lives beset by unpredictability, disorder, and change. It gave its adherents enormous social, psychological, and economic support. In social terms, in fact, Mormonism can be seen as perhaps the most successful, dynamic, and enduring version of the communitarianism of the l830s and 1840s. It provided isolated, struggling, often desperate families like the Smiths and Youngs from economically changing or declining countryside and small towns from the Northeast and Midwest with a new kind of economic security and cooperation. In the early years in Kirtland, the Mormons, like the Shakers or the Moravians, practiced a form of economic communism in which the church held title to all property and possessions. Even when they abandoned church ownership of property, the Mormons made sure that those who joined their community had a beginning economic stake in the community and instituted a strict regime of tithing to insure that no member of the community would be abandoned to poverty. Mormons extolled hard work and discipline and soon offered tangible proof that it would be rewarded with solid and secure property.
The Mormon social order, referred to by some scholars as a theocratic-democracy, embodied a unique combination of democracy, hierarchy, and authoritarianism. All adult males possessed the franchise. Moreover, Mormonism did not possess a priesthood or organized, specially trained, and paid clergy. In effect, it obliterated the distinction between clergy and laity by making all adult males from the age of twelve members of the priesthood who could ascend as they matured from the lowest to the highest rank or “quorum” of the priesthood. After Brigham Young, the position of president and prophet devolved on the eldest surviving member of the Council of Twelve Apostles. Females, though “sealed” as “saints,” were not admitted to the priesthood nor granted the vote, though they did have a series of special, gender-based roles and associations.
But at the core of the Mormon social order, especially as it developed in the Desert Kingdom of remote and isolated Utah, was its unique familial organization rooted in the practice of polygamy. The extraordinary motion and mobility of American society that launched thousands upon thousands of families into a kind of rootless nomadism destroyed most vestiges of the broader kinship networks that had characterized much of eighteenth-century America. Again and again, in diaries and letters as well as in newspapers and tracts of various description, Americans decried the evils of “isolated households.” The familial organization of Mormon society countered this society by incorporating its members into a resolutely patriarchal structure that seemed not only to restore but to extend and strengthen patriarchal authority and the scope and power of kinship by grounding it in Hebraic models drawn from the Old Testament and reinforced by the ongoing revelations to the Mormon prophet.
Finally, Mormonism was organizationally, culturally, and intellectually comprehensive, cohesive, and complete. To many it proved a welcome antidote to a highly fluid society of rampant individualism in which people sought improvement and prosperity for themselves and their families at the same time as they craved a sense of belonging and sought out various forms of community. The comprehensiveness of Mormonism, moreover, combined with its self-contained isolation and sense of itself as different, superior, and exclusive, provided its adherents with a sense of identity, belonging, and esteem comparable to that which Afro-Christian religions provided enslaved African Americans and which Roman Catholicism provided nineteenth-century Irish immigrants.
The Sources of Anti-Mormon Hostility
A puzzle remains. If Mormonism was so deeply embedded in broader religious ideas and impulses and so reflective of broader social processes, how do we account for the hostility with which non-Mormon Americans greeted it? In some ways, anti-Mormonism can be seen as a part of the deeper and violent intolerance of the l830s and l840s that was also turned against Masons, Roman Catholics, Native Americans, and blacks in the “free” north.
Most Protestant Americans perceived Mormonism as an alien and threatening force, almost as “un-American” outsiders at odds with “native” American values and beliefs as the Roman Catholic Irish immigrants. The Mormons exhibited a sense of exclusiveness, superiority and righteousness –they condemned all existing forms of Christianity as false religions. But, unlike such exclusive, doctrinally idiosyncratic groups as the Shakers who provoked opposition and ridicule but little violence, the Mormons before the migration to Utah seemed to run counter as well to basic American democratic values and practices. Like the Masons and the “Monster Bank,” the Mormons seemed to those who drove them out of Missouri and Illinois to represent an illegitimate concentration of power. Mormonism seemed a mysterious cult, cloaked in secrecy and bent on assembling illegitimate, almost monopolistic power that would prevent ordinary non-Mormons from fulfilling their dreams of democratic self-improvement and rise. And like Roman Catholicism, it seemed an un-American and antidemocratic form of religion whose adherents were under the dominion of an autocratic “prophet” who not only controlled belief but also dictated how believers should vote in secular elections. Finally, with the promulgation of its doctrine of plural marriage, Mormonism threatened to undermine the conventional institution of monogamy that “mainstream” America increasingly envisioned as a central bulwark against immorality and the principal agency for the control of sexuality. For all of these reasons, Mormonism served as a convenient “other” upon which “mainstream” America could project many of its deepest fears and anxieties.
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Donald Scott was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1985-86. He has taught at the University of Chicago, North Carolina State University, Brown University, the New School, and is currently Dean of Social Science and Professor of History at Queens College / City University of New York. He is the author of From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750-1850 (1978), America’s Families: A Documentary History (1982, with Bernard Wishy), The Pursuit of Liberty (1996, with R. J. Wilson, et al.); and he is the co-editor of The Mythmaking Frame of Mind: Social Imagination and American Culture (1993). He is currently at work on a book entitled Theatres of the Mind: Knowledge and Democracy in 19th-Century America.
Categories: Religion and Philosophy