by Martha Sonntag Bradley
and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward
“Heaven Born and Heaven Bound”
The Religious Conversions of Zina Baker Huntington and Zina Diantha Huntington, 1816-33
“I found ordinances changed, the Covenants broken.
The fear of god was Taught by precepts of men.
They had a form of godliness but denied the Power there of.
From such things I Felt it my duty to turn a way.”
—William Huntington, Jr.
[p.27] As seen, Zina’s correspondence with her mother is filled with the disappointments and trials of her life, the changing seasons, a catalog of household productivity, the births and deaths of her children and loved ones, and William’s business. But she also includes reports about the spiritual climate around her; and it is Zina’s focus with matters of the spirit that inflames the pages of these letters. Her inner preoccupation with the great drama of salvation and damnation differentiates her letters from those of any cheerful and busy housewife and mother, giving her soul a stage upon which to move with gestures of terror and beauty.
Although the deaths of three children, her father, her sister, and her mother-in-law, coupled with the random violence of frontier accidents and natural calamities, intensified her search for cosmic meaning, even her earliest letters confess a hunger for piety, a self-reproach for self-perceived [p.28] spiritual sloth, and a fragile awareness of the subtle threads binding her soul to God. In March 1807, Zina wrote regretfully to her mother:
It is a time of general Dulness as to Religious Duties in the Country. A man began to preach with us by the name of Bliss, was here last [spring] on a mission. He is from Longmeadow has preached at Plainfield at the time Wm Short preacht—is hired by the towns Watertown and Rutland to preach a year one half time in Watertown at the house of Timothy Hungerfords one mile South of us the Other half in Rutland the sum he has for preaching is 300 Dollars. … There is some considerable attention paid to the sabbath here in our Society.1
When a preacher was not available, Zina and others met at Caleb Burnham’s barn in Burrville, four miles south of the Huntington home, for singing and worship as the “Religious Society of Watertown,” the village’s first church. Zina regretted the absence of regular church services and felt the lack of a resident minister. “With sorrow I must tell you a general time of stupidity,” she wrote in June 1813, using her favorite metaphor for religious malaise or spiritual numbness. “We have reason to mourn for our own stupidity. I hope it is not so with you. My heart is too cold and stupid yet I think I can say I would not believe always but alas our hearts are deceitful and it is [a] great thing to know the plague of our own hearts.”2
In March 1818, Zina wrote similarly to her mother: “As to religion, it is rather a stupid time as to that in this place and neighborhood, but there is attention in places all around here. I have to lament my own coldness and stupidity, but hope the cause is equally as near and dear to me. If I cannot enjoy some comfort from the holy spirit, I think my enjoyments are faint indeed.”3 Two years later, she assured her mother:
I would inform you that we feel steadfast in the faith of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We lament that we live no nearer to God and our deity, but my dear friends, we feel heaven born and heaven bound. … I wish we might all be so happy as to all meet in a better world than this. There is little prospect of a reformation in this place.4
These paragraphs should not be read as evidence that Zina had a slipshod attitude toward piety, wishing for what she was not willing to work [p.29] for. On the contrary, even as she reproached herself for falling short, she and her family were engaged in identifying themselves as Christians seeking salvation and relying on promises that were within their reach.
William had begun the marriage as less inclined toward spiritual matters. While Zina reproached herself for not being more responsive to the ministers in town, William seems to have been somewhat skeptical, though not cynical. But by the spring of 1817, he had joined Zina in her religious enthusiasm. Zina marveled in a letter to her mother in March:
This God and Saviour of our souls which are spirits has I trust appeared under the roof of my dwelling in a particular manner and has opened the eyes of my husband to see his dreadful situation by nature and to realize his transgressions and has given him strength to flee to the Saviour and to make his peace with God. I wish dear friends that you could know his trials.5
William later recounted his spiritual awakening. “[I] experienced religion as [it] was called in those days,” he wrote in an undated autobiography:
In said time the spirit of the lord called My mind in to action in various Respects, first to abstain From all intoxicating Liquors hot drinks and tobacco. When I had accomplished this great Object my mind was then in a situation to look in to the situation of the churches Which were then extant uppon the Face of the earth. I found the Prophet Isaiah had seen what should come in the last days. That darkness should cover the Earth and gross darkness the minds of the people.6
William and Zina “united with the Presbyterians, walked with them some fourteen years in good standing,” until 1830.7
Zina and William had stepped into the strong current of the Second Great Awakening, a boiling reaction against the growing liberalism in religion beginning about 1800. This revival of religious fervor was one of the most momentous episodes in the history of American religion and left countless converted souls, shattered and reorganized churches, and new sects in its wake. Revivalism fragmented religious faiths and widened the lines between classes and regions.
But at the same time revivals played a mediating role as they provided [p.30] individuals with a collective religious experience that helped them readjust their lives or reconcile economic, social, intellectual, and religious forces that seemed out of control. Revival theologies provided tools and a process in their simple systems of beliefs and loyalties with which to deal with drastic personal and social changes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supplied the same mechanism but also claimed to be the restoration of an ancient order, an appealing new type of religious authoritarianism that allowed for greater individuality and flexibility in its free-flowing interpretation and organization. Now religion encouraged a direct encounter with God and promised an emotionally satisfying connection with heaven that would answer life’s most pressing concerns.
Zina was one of thousands of women whose lives were dramatically altered by the Second Great Awakening. Although unorganized, unorchestrated, and diversified, manifesting a different face in every place it surfaced, the revival served as a sort of coming-out party for women. It pulled women from their houses and into the public arena in unprecedented numbers, and in unprecedented ways. The Second Great Awakening changed lives, enhanced possibilities, and empowered women in a way previously unknown in the country’s history. Women’s historian Nancy Cott documents that, in terms of numbers alone, women dominated revivals and pushed church membership to new heights.8
Traditionally, men had dominated ecclesiastical liturgy and ritual while women passively accepted the word and revelled in the mysteries of God. But the Second Great Awakening authorized women to, as one historian put it, seize “sacred space,”9 intrude upon male territory, take the pulpit to expound their own spiritual experiences, cry repentance, speak in tongues, and exercise other spiritual gifts. Some women prayed publicly; others stood on street corners and preached to disinterested and disrespectful crowds. Many women dreamed remarkable dreams foretelling the end of an era and the beginning of a great and glorious new time of religious fulfillment. For a while male religious leaders cooperated with and co-opted this newfound female power. They called on women to join them in the Lord’s work, to organize in benevolent and missionary societies, to speak and to pray, and to take the lead in moral leadership in their communities. Therefore, one of the most immediate and direct effects of the Second Great Awakening was that women’s engagement in [p.31] religion became more immediate and expansive. “There is a revivals [sic] of religion all around us,” Zina wrote delightedly in June 1822. “Some places a few drops and other places a plentiful shower. The Lord has visited our family with his good spirit.”10
The effects on Zina of this spiritual rebirth were dramatic. She testified of serenity, comfort, and gratitude even in the midst of adversity:
Now my dear friends we feel heaven born and heaven bound. I hope dear friends that we enjoy the peace of mind that the world cannot give nor take away. I want my dear friends you should all know and partake of this comfort. O my dear friends what miserable creatures [are we] without an interest in the Saviour! I wish we might all be so happy as to meet in a better world than this. … I have found that place where I can bless God for every thing—trials as well as the best of mercies.11
William, still a newborn Christian, added a self-reproachful analysis of his spiritual state: “I will inform you I am through the blessing of God in good health, in comfortable Circumstances as respects worldly concerns though I feel to[o] stupid and indifferent as respects my eternal welfare.”12
In a sense, Zina and William Huntington were like refugees from the declining farming communities of New England who hoped to remake the world. Certainly they yearned to reform Christianity and familial relations. Starting new communities sometimes required new ways of understanding the world. Their religious activism, and that of the men and women with whom they associated, reflected a more generalized rejection of traditional ritual. So for a moment in time, religious enthusiasm reflected the universal social fragmentation and movement which they experienced together.
Zina had believed in God from her mother’s knee, but maturity and its adversities inspired in her a greater need for religious identification and immersion. Her letters still chatted of family business, local gossip, comments on sister Lodema’s marriage and the perpetual longing for her family’s presence, or at least the wish that one of her sisters could live with her. But recounting her spiritual struggles was more interesting and important, her introspection more an act of worship than self-analysis. Zina readily attributed the good in her life to God. Her letters were no mere [p.32] summaries of the day’s events but a searching reflection on their significance for her soul. They mark her spiritual pilgrimage along a trail laid before her feet by the loving but chastening hand of Providence.
Significantly, the relationship that Zina and William developed in the fourteen years after their conversion was commitment to God rather than loyalty to Presbyterianism. They made their devotion to a spiritual life rather than to an institution. A decade before the restoration of Mormonism, they were preparing themselves for their intersection with it.
Religious revivals in the early nineteenth century appealed to the heart rather than to the intellect, and a crucial ingredient in this new type of religious focus was the prominence of women. Women like Zina Baker Huntington could and did “feel” their way to God. Her musings about spiritual matters record an awareness of her emotional state more than intellectual analysis. They reveal struggle, pain, and intensity of emotion over preoccupation with specific sins. Religion helped Zina live through the troubles and concerns of this world in anticipation of a better one. It was easier to renounce this world while looking to another, and thus she more easily adjusted to challenging circumstances.
Deference to God came naturally to Zina. Salvation was a metaphor for the relationships she had experienced since childhood. She had always deferred to the authority of the men in her life, to obey her father, to assume that her mother reflected his views, and to look to both for protection and guidance. Upon marriage, she slipped into the same type of relationship with William. Like nearly all women of her time and place, she was identified by her connection to men—as a daughter, as a wife, as a sister, and as a mother.
Zina exercised her faith as naturally as her nursing skills. In 1820 twelve-year-old Dimick and fourteen-year-old Chancy were plowing a field when one of the oxen broke loose. Dimick, chasing the ox, jumped over a fence, tripped in the rocky soil, and injured his ankle. Two weeks later, a Dr. Kimball lanced the ankle, which by then had swollen, and removed half of the ankle joint and some of the leg bone.13 Dimick walked with crutches for several weeks, and each night Zina covered the wound with cool clay. The doctor advised the Huntingtons to have the leg amputated, but Zina persisted instead with prayer and careful attention to the wound.
[p.33] Interestingly, from the amount of space devoted to each topic in Zina’s letters, she was more interested in her children’s religious state than in their education. However, we know that in 1820 fourteen-year-old Chancy was attending the Gould schoolhouse in Lorraine, a village about fifteen miles south of Watertown. The other children took lessons locally in a neighbor’s house, and ten-year-old Presendia attended the Williams dancing school in nearby Rutland. The boys worked hard on the farm with their father, doing chores year-round and fieldwork all spring, summer, and autumn. Frequently the family gathered in the evenings with their own miniature orchestra: William on the bass fiddle, William D. on the cornet, Chancy on the bassoon, and Dimick on the violin. Later, Zina Diantha would play the cello. The women joined in singing hymns and folk songs, knit stockings, or did mending and sewing.
As the daughters grew, Zina assigned Presendia, Adaline (until her death in 1826), and Zina Diantha many of her own duties. They began early learning to churn, spin, milk, sew. They learned by watching Zina, imitating her movements and pacing themselves by her rhythms. They spent much of their time processing fibers, spinning yarn, weaving textiles, and sewing clothes. This apprenticeship in housewifery prepared them for the lives they would lead as managers of households. With their help, Zina had more time for reading, writing, reflecting on spiritual matters, and participating in congregational life. Her daughters also saw this aspect of her life; their apprenticeship as women extended to religion. They learned to read the Bible from their mother’s example and mirrored her spiritual leanings.
The Huntington daughters grew up immersed in the language of conversion. They had heard discussions on conversion in worship services, prayer meetings, revivals, and their families. Zina gloried in her daughters’ spiritual sensitivity. In June 1822, she wrote to her mother: “Our eldest daughter, Presendia, has experienced the saving change of heart, I believe. She is eleven years of age last September and our little girl, Adaline, she is six last August. She has had remarkable exercises indeed for such a child, but known to God are all our hearts, and we ought to rejoice that we are in his hands.”14 When Zina Diantha, as a newly baptized Mormon, spoke in tongues at age thirteen, her mother celebrated her spiritual gift rather than ridiculing her claim. Yet even as these [p.34] women mastered the language of humility, submission, and dependence, they experienced new reserves of strength, power, energy, authority, and confidence because of their new understanding of their relationship with God.
As Zina’s daughters grew into her companions and friends, Zina continued to plead for a visit from her mother. Nevertheless, for reasons known only to herself, Dorcas never made that journey, even when her son, Oliver Baker, and his wife Sally invited her to accompany them on a visit to Watertown in May 1822.15 That fall William and Zina returned to Plainfield, and Zina found her siblings regrettably lacking in spiritual commitment. When she returned home, she rebuked herself for falling “short in every point of duty” because she had failed to inspire in them a belief in God.16 Nevertheless, she felt an unbroken spiritual connection with her mother and wrote wistfully, “I hope our desires center at times and yours sister Dorcas and yours Sister Hannah [her brother Dimick’s wife, Hannah Colby] is it possible that this is all that I can address in that place, Amen. Heman I have no dout [sic] of in my opinion and Sementha I have a good evidence for and Oliver I have hope for and Blessed be the Lord.” With perhaps more zeal than tact, she continued, calling them all to repentance:
O, my friends, altho I am somewhat stupid when I have a little view of the mercies of the living God, I think I can say I hope I feel a glow of gratitude in my heart. … O my friends pray for us, all who have an interest at the feet of our redeemer. Pray that we may be more faithful and that we may be pursued by the good spirit all our days. … Do you realize who this is that I mention to you in this silent way. O, remember that he speaks to you now and what does he say by the whisperings of his good spirit. O, my precious friends, do you not know thanks? Do you not listen, do you not know what will it profit you if you gain the whole world and lose your precious Souls.17
This letter has the flavor and rhythm of a practiced sermon, an indication of the extent to which Zina’s daily life was steeped in religious intensity. Letters written during her first decade of married life contain reports of religious matters woven through news of crops, local events, and the health of family members. After William’s conversion in late 1816, [p.35] religious references and religious language multiply. After 1820 over half of each letter written deals with religion. Clearly, Zina’s focus has turned heavenward. Being “heaven born and heaven bound” gave her solace for her sorrows and the tools to cope with her challenging life.
William’s postscript to Zina’s 1822 letter is equally revealing of his new interest. “Honored Mother, my best respects to you,” he writes. “God’s mercies have been with me and mine since we Left Plainfield which ever I trust will lead me to adore his name. Give my love to Dimmick and his Wife. I hope they will all while passing through this world seek to them selves an interest in heaven.”18 It is a marked change from earlier reports of business successes or failures, although the tone can still, even charitably, be described as officious.
Zina returned from this visit to her childhood home to find eighteen-month-old Zina Diantha “quite fleshy and hearty.”19 And she had bought a new “gown and veil” for twelve-year-old Presendia’s birthday. The next month Dorcas had surprising news of her own. On 12 November 1822 at age sixty-two after eleven years of widowhood, Dorcas Dimick Baker married Captain Phillip Spaulding. Was a flowering courtship the reason she had declined to visit Zina in the spring? And had she really kept her planned marriage a secret from her oldest living daughter during Zina’s visit? Apparently so. How else could Zina have resisted commenting on the forthcoming nuptials in her October letter? She had certainly spoken freely when Lodema had married John Spaulding, Phillip’s son, two years earlier.
Then a silence settled over New Hampshire that must have hurt and alarmed Zina. In September 1823, William wrote: “Having anxiously waited for nearly the term of one year for a line from you feel no small Degree of regard and esteem for you as parents whose Lives have been lengthened out to a Good old age whose paths to you when taking a survey of past time must To you Look like a checkered seine.”20
If religion had been the source of the family conflict during their visit the previous year, William, despite his conciliatory tone, also shows that he feels as strongly about the topic as ever, announcing stoutly: “As respects our most holy religion which I have professed before God and man, in my heart is at Lo ebb. The cares of the world have crept in and have taken to Deep root in my soul. I find I cannot serve God and mam-[p.36]mon. I feel that it is high time for me to shake off the dust of the world.” He bemoans the fact that Universalists had stepped up their proselyting activities in the area. “Infidelity is gaining ground. The Universalists are creeping in fast, making inroads into the Churches. But we have a sure promise in the gospel. The Church of Christ will stand and the Gates of hell shall not prevail against us.”
William then makes a cryptic reference to troubling conversations they had while in Plainfield. “I do not wish to cast any reflections uppon any of our connections but truly many curious seens [sic] occurred in the time we were in Plainfield, though many hard reflections fast passed from the mouths of some. I hope, Father you will not take any exceptions. Forget and forgive, which I presume you have done.” Had Zina affronted her mother and siblings by her zealous piety and her too-ready assumption that they were in danger of damnation? Then, hurt by the silence or perhaps by a rebuke which has not survived, did she feel that she could no longer confide in her mother with the same familiarity? Significantly, only William writes this letter.
William describes his business as thriving. “Am farming, clearing land, making potash which makes Our family Larger than common. Times are more favorable, a greater circulation of money, produce worth more, crops have come in this season middling Good.” Then, in his closing lines, he again made an enigmatic reference to hard feelings: “Zina would be glad to write but thinks she cannot.” William often would pen his own letters to Zina’s parents at the end of her letter, adding his own perspective to her description of their lives.
If Dorcas read her daughter’s heartfelt plea between the lines of William’s letter and responded, it has not survived; but apparently the breach in their relationship healed. Three and a half years later, in September 1826, Zina visited Plainfield again. The next surviving letter, written in October 1826 after her return, is intimate, loving, and spontaneous. Although religious concerns still form a theme, she no longer lectures her mother on spiritual matters. Instead, she shares her grief at the deaths of two sisters—Dorcas had died in July 1825 and Semantha in August 1826: “And whose turn [is] next. There is but one that knows. O that we might all be prepared. See that we live honestly and deal justly by all be honest before God. What a good thing is it to try to be sincere between God and [p.37] our own Souls. May this be the happy Case of us all.”21 Zina did not know it, but the next to depart would be her own daughter, Adaline, less than two months later.
A busy mother of nine children at age thirty-six, Zina filled the rest of her letter with details of her family’s life and mourning for the miles that separated her from her mother. Daughter Presendia had helped William with the children during Zina’s absence, and William said “he would not exchange Presendia [at age sixteen] for any other woman.” Adaline had a short fever (she would die a month later), but the other children were well. Their harvest that year was unexpectedly bounteous—190 bushels of apples and 300 of corn. “We have no other crops extraordinary but a plenty of almost everything but a thankful heart and that I guess is lacking, a contented mind is a continual feast.”22
Zina was six months pregnant when eleven-year-old Adaline died on 26 November 1826. John Dickenson was born the following 11 February. Seventeen-year-old Presendia married Norman Buell, “Old Capt. Buels Nephew,” on 6 January 1827, and the young couple moved to Mansville, New York, south of Watertown. Unlike Presendia’s father, Norman worked as a manufacturer. Their life together differed from the farming life she was accustomed to, and, according to a later biographer, “she was inclined to be unhappy on account of it though in a worldly point of view they were well off.”23 During the same period, Dorcas and Phillip Spaulding moved eight miles from Plainfield to Cornish, New Hampshire.
During the winter of 1828-29, another series of revivals flared through the area, inspiring further introspection in Zina. In January 1829, she wrote her mother:
There is some attention to religion in this place and in the town adjoining there has been a revival. We attended there. We have seen the works of the Lord in conviction and conversion of sinners such operations as I never saw before. … I have been in a cold state of mind. The lord called me to look about myself last Spring before the revival began and O what a situation I found myself in. I felt almost in despair. O what darkness I experienced I cannot describe it. O the goodness and mercy of God, his mercy has brought me from time to time to see of his goodness and feel pardoning mercy. It has made me feel deep repentance such as I thought I [p.38] never felt and then to drink of his mercy from time to time until I feel as tho I had drunk of the water wherein we shall never thirst. I think my dear Mother I can tell you that I never felt that deep work of grace in my heart before.24
In the same letter, she joyfully reports that Presendia “has again been brought to enjoy religion[.] She experienced this change when about eleven but had got so she thought she had none[.] O we have many more souls that need this grace.” According to Zina, Presendia, “her husband and two brothers and sisters had experienced religion this fall, a great revival where they live about 12 miles from here.”
The last extant letter from Zina Baker Huntington to her mother was written ten months later, on 12 October 1829. In it, she reports, “I can see in William a growth of Grace, an increase of knowledge in the ways of holiness.”25 Again, she expressed her yearning for her mother’s company: “Alas shall I never see my Mother here. I have prayed that the Lord would Strengthen you to come. I think of you every day and I remember your kindness for which I ought to be thankful to you and especially to that kind overruling hand of providence.” She cheerily shares with her mother the details of their current family life and William’s business affairs, but it is the pulse of her spiritual life which sets the rhythms of her days. “I have great reason to bless the Lord for his loving kindness and tender mercy over us all,” she wrote ardently. “He has blest the labor of our hands since I saw you, but more abundantly he has blest our needy souls.” Revivals continued to offer her a sense of inspiration and entertainment. “As to the state of religion there is some attention round in the next town. There is a revival among the Baptist and one among the Methodist. There has been a great Camp meeting on John Gotums farm Last week and about 40 or 50 converted it was a good meeting. I stayed 2 nights and William 2 or 3. The last night we never shut our eyes to sleep. The power of God was there altho I do not much believe in the Methodist power.” It is unclear why this is the last letter in this group to Dorcas who lived another twenty years; perhaps she wrote others but they did not survive.
Presendia’s and Norman’s first son, George, was born 12 December 1829 in Mansville. Soon after, perhaps deferring to his wife’s desire for life on a farm, Norman sold his machinery and business interests and re-[p.39]turned to his family’s farm in Richmond, Jefferson County, New York. That same year he received an inheritance from his father, which he used to purchase 100 acres of land in “Pinbury,” Lewis County, New York, east of Jefferson County. There, Norman cleared seventy acres of land and built a comfortable house for his wife and son and a sturdy barn for his livestock. Two years later on 25 December 1831, their second son, Silas, was born.26
At this point, William and Zina had been married for twenty-six years and were enthusiastic participants in frontier religion for fifteen. The intensity of religious piety fueled by periodic revivals was a reorganizing principle for frontier families, either driving them apart or unifying them on a new basis. In the case of the Huntingtons, it was a unifying factor. The new role granted women in frontier religion meant that mothers were especially active in converting unregenerate children, siblings, husbands, and, as was true for Zina, parents, or recalling the backslider. This reorientation played out in the uprooting and settling, innovating and conserving, past and future that defined the frontier.
As the family was the chief economic unit, so it was also the primary religious unit. Christian families created a Christian community. Much religious worship occurred in the domestic arena. Thus men and women felt compelled to pull their relatives with them on the path to righteous living. Perhaps it was the unsettled atmosphere, the daily confrontation with death and disease, with crop failure or flooding, that motivated women and men to design their own spiritual strategies.27
Each new religious movement presented different answers for strengthening familial ties. Presbyterians, Universalists, Methodists, and eventually Mormons devised concrete methods of reinforcing parental ties to children. The intensity of their reaction, which in part explains the tensions that Zina’s piety created with her mother and siblings, was churned by palpable and immediate problems. The closing of the agrarian frontier, the imminent passing of the corporate family economy and covenanted community, and the portended dissolution of generational ties created in Zina a sense of urgency.28
The revivals Zina described were nothing short of revolutions—revolutions that caused men and women to realign their lives as they tried to find new paths to God. Emotional tent meetings and mass conversions [p.40] were the religious expression of the change that swept the land during the first few decades of the nineteenth century. These years brought rapid social upheaval and unpredictable social change.
Religious historian William McLoughlin proposes an intriguing paradigm that illuminates the significance of women’s involvement in new religions like Mormonism during this period. He argues that America’s periods of religious revival from the eighteenth century to the present correspond to periods of moderate but “fundamental social intellectual reorientation.”29 In other words, he suggests an indissoluble connection between economic and institutional change and intellectual and social evolution. Periods of economic depression or prosperity stimulate change in ideas and relations. The religious disorder of the early nineteenth century merely mirrored social disorder. We have seen how Zina and William struggled to adapt to a new environment, to the deaths of family members, to war, and to financial strain. Other Americans also in the throes of social change questioned traditional authority and religious rituals, seeking new ways of mitigating the forceful blows of nature, “Providence,” or a god whose judgment was harsh indeed.
Many nineteenth-century women and men wrote conversion stories that marked their sense of spiritual empowerment. Tirelessly they narrated their recognition of the need to reform their lives and turn to God. Like them, William and Zina frequently told the story of their conversion.
We have already seen how William detailed the events that prepared them for conversion, not only to Presbyterians but to the new religion of Mormonism. Over the fourteen or fifteen years they were Presbyterians, Zina and William continued to attend revivals, study the scriptures, and read literature circulated by the various sects. Increasingly they became dissatisfied with their own beliefs; imperceptibly they moved into the uncharted territory navigated by those seeking the restoration of an ancient religious order. William’s autobiography recounts:
About 1832 I was moved uppon by the spirit of god to Look into the situation of the churches. I found ordinances changed, the Covenants broken. The fear of god was Taught by precepts of men. They had a form of godliness but denied the Power there of. From such things I Felt it my duty to turn a way. I with Drew from the church, stood alone. I searched [p.41] the scriptures daily; found The faith once delivered to the saints Was not among men. The Power of the Priesthood was lost. … John the revelator said it had gone into the Wilderness.30
Several years later, in her autobiography, daughter Zina Diantha described her childhood: “I was with all my family raised of strict Presbyterians. … In my earliest reading of history. Confuscious [sic], Columbus and William Wallace I used to muse while watching the consuming back log in our old fashion fireplace why I could not have been born in a day when something [exciting] was going on in the nations of the Earth, not that I wanted to see distress but some enterprise [in] the sabath schools.”31 Her wistful yearning was fulfilled with the Mormon message—the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Father was a watcher,” she wrote, “for the coming of an apostolic messenger and his trust and patience were not in vain.”32
When Zina Diantha was eleven, the Huntington family received an unusual visitor. They treated it as a significant occurrence, but the experience assumed heightened importance when the family joined the Mormons and heard the mysterious story of Three Nephites, ancient Americans promised by a resurrected Jesus they would live until the Second Coming. As told by Zina Diantha’s daughter, Zina Young Card, the visit occurred on a cold November evening in 1832. The family had gathered for their customary scripture study followed by a musical evening with Zina Diantha playing the cello. After they had finished a piece of music, they heard a knock at the door and opened it to a man of medium height, dressed in old-fashioned clothing, and carrying a bundle under his arm. He stepped into the room and inquired, “I usually bend my steps to some sequestered vale. May I find lodging here tonight?” They pulled up a chair for him, served him some supper, and read with him a section from the New Testament. Zina Baker commented wistfully that they would like to “hear the Gospel in its fullness as explained by the Saviour. The stranger immediately took up the subject and began explaining the scriptures and quoting the sayings of the Saviour. It seemed to them that his words held a new light and were clearer than they had ever thought of before. The stranger filled them with awe and reverence, such as they had never before felt.”33 He left the next morning.
[p.42] A few years later, when Joseph Smith spoke to a group of Latter-day Saints about the Three Nephites, William recounted this visit. Joseph laid his hand on William’s shoulder and said, “My dear brother, that man was one of the Three Nephites who was sent by the Lord to prepare your family to receive the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”34
Their son Oliver also described these years in a retrospective passage of his diary: “In the year 1833 or 34 what was called Mormon Elders began to preach around our neighborhood, and by some means finally came to our house, and left a Book of Mormon which they [William and Zina] read through two or three times and was very much taken up with the doctrine; there had not been much preaching about there, any where, but what father and mother heard it.”35 It is not clear if the unnamed “Elders” represented the Huntingtons’ first direct contact with Mormonism or if Oliver was describing the visit in May 1833 of Joseph Smith’s uncle, John Smith. While passing through the area, John Smith stayed at the Huntington home. He told the family the story of Joseph Smith’s vision of God, of the Book of Mormon, and other teachings of the Mormon prophet.
Mormon missionaries traversed the green fields of upstate New York during the early 1830s, stopping to hold public meetings in courthouses, schools, churches, barns, or on street corners. When they visited homes, they brought with them the Book of Mormon and the story of the boy prophet. Most Mormon elders depended on the people they taught for their meals and frequently slept in their barns or spare rooms. Regardless of the hardships they endured, they were convinced that their new religion was the restoration of the ancient order. They were fired by the belief that they were working for the Lord, calling the faithful to gather to Zion. In fact, much of the preaching of the 1830s centered on the concept of a literal kingdom of God—Zion or the New Jerusalem—Mormons would build in anticipation of Christ’s millennial reign. Gathering to Zion came to be regarded as both a reason for faith (to flee from the wrath to come) and as a sign of one’s faithfulness. In important ways, Mormonism’s millennial expectations provided a justification for immediate and drastic action. The warning that the final days were at hand was logical, given the perceptions of social disorientation that men and women like Zina and William felt.
[p.43] Missionary activity increased after 1833 when Joseph Smith designated Jackson County, Missouri, as the infant church’s new center, the literal Zion spoken of in the scripture. Believing that they were now building the Kingdom of God on the earth, Mormon missionaries worked untiringly to preach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. One Boston newspaper described an outburst of missionary activity in Lyman, New Hampshire: “There has been in this town and vicinity, for about a week, two young men from the westward, who are Mormonites.” These men said “that all who do not embrace their faith and mode of worship, forsake their friends, houses, and lands, and go with them to a place of worship, which is in the state of Missouri, where they are about building a city, will be destroyed by the sword, famine, pestilence, earthquakes.” The only safe choice was “a speedy removal to their city of refuge.”36
The message the Mormon missionaries brought when they knocked on the Huntingtons’ door was of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They bore witness of the need for revelation and the restoration of priesthood authority. For several years, Zina and William had faithfully prayed for a restoration and were particularly sensitive to the missionaries’ urgings to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Typical of this millennial rhetoric was a letter Joseph Smith penned that appeared in the American Revivalist and Rochester Observer in New York in January 1833 which read: “Not many years shall pass away before the United States shall present such a scene of bloodshed as has not a parallel in the history of our nation; pestilence, hail, famine, and earthquake will sweep the wicked of this generation from off the face of the land, to open and prepare the way for the return of the lost tribes of Israel from the north country.”37 The Huntington home became a rendezvous for Mormon missionaries preaching in the vicinity. Joseph Smith, Sr., Luke Johnson, Orson Pratt, missionaries Dutcher and Blakesley, and John P. Greene all stayed with the family.38
The Huntingtons enjoyed a measure of prosperity during this period. More than 200 acres had been cleared, plowed, and planted. The stone house was spacious and comfortable. Two barns, other outbuildings, cattle, horses, carriages, wagons, implements, and tools—all virtually free of debt—bespoke William’s industry and good business sense. He continued the story in his autobiography:
[p.44] I boldly advocated the gospel as our saviour taught it in his days or as his apostles taught. I told the people I believed I should see a church in my day based on the gospel plan as was in the apostles Days. In this frame of mind I stood for some two or three years, anxiously contending for the faith Once delivered to the saints. In 1833 I found the Book of Mormon. I read the book, believed in the book that it was what it was Represented to be. My mind thus being prepared to Receive the gospel accordingly in the month of April 1835 Myself and wife both united with The Church of Jesus Christ of Later [sic] day saints.39
They were baptized, either by John Smith or Joseph Smith, Sr., who both visited William and Zina in the spring of 1835 and stayed for several days, preaching. Their story of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ perfectly corresponded to the teachings of the Huntingtons’ mysterious evening visitor of a few years earlier. Now the children had to make their own decision. For all of them, it was a life-changing challenge.
Contemporary estimates suggest that the bulk of converts during the revivals were young women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, single or married but without children.40 Zina Diantha, who was three months past her fourteenth birthday when her parents were baptized, certainly fit into that category. The social upheaval of the period was particularly disorienting for young women like Zina Diantha trying to map their futures. Like their mothers, they felt the disruption in their traditional roles of domestic usefulness, yet they still moved in a world of economic and legal dependency, always defined by their fathers or husbands. Marriage was the only way an adult woman could provide for herself. Nevertheless, the social order was changing so rapidly that men could not confidently plan on reaping the material benefits of even their hardest work. Zina Diantha must have wondered if she would marry, if her husband would take her far from her parents, as her father had taken her mother, if he would be a believer who would support her emotionally and spiritually, or if she would have to remain a committed Christian alone.
Conversion played a prominent role in providing young women with ideological tools to stabilize their lives and identities. Mormonism went a step farther by helping them claim responsibility over their own salvation. Equally important, the religious events accompanying conver-[p.45]sion provided opportunities for public expressions of anxiety, sympathy, and support as well as a ready supply of new friends. Zina Diantha experienced a phenomenon not unlike a new birth into an extensive family of sisters and brothers, a family that promised to be more secure than her original family.
In the midst of this tumultuous time of conversion and change, Presendia’s and Norman’s son Silas, not quite two, died an agonizing death. On 13 November 1833, Presendia was “boiling down cider in a very large brass kettle” when Silas accidentally fell in. He survived thirteen pain-racked hours before mercifully expiring. “No one but a mother can realize the sorrow of an accidental death,” Presendia later wrote. Three months pregnant with her third child, she recovered slowly, becoming so ill toward the end of her pregnancy that Norman took her to a Dr. Bragg in nearby Adam and sent for William and Zina. Presendia survived, but their third child, Thomas Dimick, died shortly following his birth on 8 March 1834.
It seemed physically and emotionally difficult for the couple to take up life again on the farm. They sold and moved to Lorain where Norman “rented a woolen factory … resuming his favorite employment.”41 Presendia’s biographer later wrote that the ministers unrelentingly tried to recruit her and Norman, but “Mr. and Mrs. Buell believed they were all wrong, and stood aloof from all.”42
Zina shared her daughter’s pain—both had suffered the deaths of three children—and encouraged her to find consolation in religion. Her mother visited Presendia in April 1835 with her Book of Mormon and a handwritten copy of a revelation called the “Word of Wisdom” in hand. “I felt it was true,” Presendia recalled later, “and thought I would keep the Word of Wisdom and obtain the blessings promised.”43
Zina Diantha later remembered the day she first experienced the promptings of the Spirit. It was in May 1835 after her parents’ baptism.
The Book of Mormon had been brought to my Father[’]s. I had been to school. The family ware at supper. I went into the front room, saw a book laying in the window. I opened it, saw what it was. The sweet Spirit of peace was with it. I clasped it—my hands pressed it to me with that childish but pure joy that is one sense not told. I dare not even try [to express [p.46] my feelings]. At the time I was baptized there was not a young person belonged to the Church in 20 miles of me. I was made fun of at school.44
Late in July, Hyrum Smith and David Whitmer visited Watertown and stayed several days at the Huntington farm. Zina Diantha, her brother Dimick, and his wife Fanny45 had not yet been baptized, but the question had greatly exercised their minds. Zina Diantha wrote:
The morning for the departure of these men from our house arrived, and I had not yet become a member of the Church. That morning, a short time before they were to start, Hyrum Smith’s cousin rode up with a message that they could not leave that day as my brother Dimick and wife Fanny, were desirous of being baptized.
That morning at prayers I had presented to me [a] heavenly vision of a man going down into the water and baptizing someone. So when this message came I felt it was a testimony that the time had come for me to receive baptism. Brother Hyrum Smith was mouth in prayer, and in my secret soul I had a wish that he should baptize me. I had refused the coaxing of Brother Whitmer, as I told myself, because mother and father were going away from home, and I had all the home cares on me, and I feared I would be tempted to speak crossly or say something I ought not to after so sacred an ordinance. … But this strong testimony that the proper time had arrived I did not dare treat lightly. … Brother Hyrum was chosen by the others … and I added my preference to their words. Accordingly, we all went down to the water and were baptized by Hyrum Smith.46
Zina Diantha was fourteen, Dimick twenty-seven, Fanny twenty-five. Presendia did not hear missionaries preach until the fall of 1835. Elders Dutcher and Blakesley delivered rousing addresses on Mormonism in the schoolhouse at Burrville where Presendia and Zina Diantha had first attended school. Like Presendia, Norman believed the elders’ message and was eager for baptism. Apparently the concept of a gathering was particularly attractive to Norman, for Presendia later wrote: “At that time a western fever was raging very high, and Mr. Buell was very anxious to go out west.”47 The Buells decided to move to the Mormons’ temporary headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, even before they were baptized. After selling their property, they spent the winter of 1835-36 at Sackett’s Harbor, waiting to take a boat to Kirtland. Finally, in April 1836 [p.47] they left New York with her brother Dimick and his wife Fanny Huntington. They arrived in Kirtland on 1 May.
Soon after her baptism, Zina Diantha, like other Mormon women, exercised newly bestowed spiritual gifts. Zina later wrote:
Soon after this, the gift of tongues rested upon me with overwhelming force. I was somewhat alarmed at this strange manifestation, and so checked its utterance. What was my alarm, however, to discover that upon this action upon my part, the gift left me entirely, and I felt I had offended that Holy Spirit by whose influence I had been so richly blessed. One day while mother and I were spinning together, I took courage and told her of the gift … and how … I had lost it. Mother appreciated my feelings and told me to make it a matter of earnest prayer, that the gift might once more be given me. I walked down to a little spring in one of the meadows, and as I walked I mused on my blessing and how I had turned away the Spirit of God. I knelt down and offered up a prayer to God and told Him if He could forgive my transgression, and give me back the lost gift, I would promise never to check it again, no matter where or when I felt it’s promptings.48
The process of conversion to Mormonism was for the Huntingtons one of empowerment—after a long period of enlightenment, community, and spirituality. The choice to convert was an assertion of united strength, an exploration into unknown territory. And quickly they began to regard themselves as agents of the Lord’s new covenant, of a redefined set of moral, religious, and ethical codes. Joining in the work of kingdom-building gave the Huntingtons a new focus, and Mormonism became the center of their lives, demanding that they relinquish the security of their farm in Watertown and life as they knew it. They turned their faces toward Kirtland and set off to join the body of Saints.
27. According to Mary Ryan, The Cradle of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 59: “It was the explosive fusion on the maturing New York frontier of changes in the family, gender, age structure, and society [p.49] that prepared the Burned-Over District for this epochal historical event. That unique combination of social forces might be summarized as follows. Before 1820 the first settlers had succeeded in re-creating a New England social organization that included the reincarnation of such seventeenth-century institutions as the corporate family economy, a patriarchal household structure, and the covenanted religious community. These throwbacks to the days of the Puritans, however, coexisted with the culture, economics, and society of the eighteenth century with habits of trade, industry, and benevolence that had been acquired east of the frontier. … They adapted these old and new social forms in the course of a rapid transition into a span of family time that enclosed fewer than two full generations. This vertiginous social atmosphere attained the velocity of a hurricane in the 1820s, roughly as the second generation came of age.”
28. A second and equally important change was that mothers played an increasingly significant role in the religious socialization of their children. Ryan analyzes the “more decidedly privatized and feminized form of religious and social reproduction [that] was beginning to take shape around the relationship between evangelical mothers and converted children. This was perhaps the most significant social change that germinated on the charred landscape of the Burned-Over District.” Ibid., 104.
31. Zina Diantha Huntington Young, Autobiography, 1, Zina D. H. Young Collection. There are numerous autobiographical sketches in the collection. The three most important follow different chronological time periods. The first begins, “My own father served …,” the second, “Sept. 29th 1840 …,” and the third, “The temple was on fire.” They are each located in Ms d 4780, Bx 2, fd 17. They will be identified as autobiography #1, #2, and #3.
37. Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, edited by B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 6 vols. published 1902-12, Vol. 7 published 1932; reprinted by Deseret Book Company, 1976, paperback issue, 1978), 1:312-16.
45. Fannie Maria Allen was born on 26 October 1810 in Watertown, New York, to Clark Allen and Martha Thompson Allen. Fannie and Dimick were married on 28 April 1830 in Watertown. They had nine children: Clark Allen Huntington, 6 December 1831-16 November 1896; Margaret Huntington, 17 March 1836-10 May 1839; Fannie Maria Huntington, 21 August 1838-4 September 1842; Martha Zina Huntington, 19 July 1844-3 April 1883; Betsy Prescinda Huntington, 21 October 1846-4 November 1846; Julia Carlene Huntington, 21 June 1848-10 September 1925; Sarah Adaline Huntington, 30 March 1851-5 November 1856; Joseph Smith Huntington, 6 January 1855-April 1907; and Lot Elisah Huntington, 29 April 1864-16 January 1862.
48. Zina Huntington Young, Young Woman’s Journal 4 (April 1893): 317-19. She concludes, “I have kept this vow, but it has been a heavy cross at times, for I know that this is the least of all gifts and it is oftentimes misunderstood and even treated lightly by those who should know better. Yet it is a gift from God.” Heber J. Grant described speaking in tongues in this way: “To speak in an unknown tongue and give the interpretation, or to have a second person blessed of the Lord with the interpretation, is one of the fruits of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which was enjoyed by the saints in the days of the Saviour, and His apostles. Unless the gift of tongues and the interpretation thereof is enjoyed by the saints in our day, then we are lacking one of the evidences of the true faith. When I was a child sister Eliza R. Snow by the gift of tongues, Sister Zina D. Young giving the interpretation pronounced a blessing upon my head. She made a very remarkable promise. It was to the effect that I should grow to be a man and become one of the leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ. This blessing was promised in a meeting of the sisters, and if I remember correctly, I was the only child in attendance. Sister Snow gave a blessing through the gift of tongues to each of the sisters present and then gave me the one to which I have referred. I can testify to all the world of the inspiration of the Lord to Sisters Snow and Young in the blessing given to me because of its complete fulfillment.” Heber J. Grant, “A Gospel Gift,” Young Woman’s Journal 16 (March 1905): 128-29.