Quest for Refuge
by Marvin S. Hill
Wanted: A Refuge for the Unconverted, Religiously Disoriented, and Poor
[p.1]When Joseph Smith, Sr., and his wife, Lucy Mack, emigrated from New England to western New York in 1816, they numbered among the socially disinherited. They had drifted from town to town during their twenty years together, and by the time of their departure they had moved seven times and had lived in five different villages.1 Much of this was due to discouraging financial difficulties. They had tried farming and merchandising without much success. Lucy later remembered that they owned a farm when they began their marriage, but the evidence for this is conflicting.2
Tenancy explains much of the Smiths’ uprootedness. When those without land rented and the rented farms were resold, the renters were often forced to move on.3 During this period, Joseph Sr. lost heavily when he tried to circumvent the middle man in a ginseng operation and was defrauded by his business associate. Afterward he rented a farm from his father-in-law but again experienced misfortune. Three successive crop failures ruined his hopes for future wealth4 and may have driven him to excessive drinking,5 a habit he apparently retained until his conversion to Mormonism many years later.6 Despondent, the Smiths made plans following the end of the [p.2] War of 1812 to migrate to western New York, where hundreds suffering a similar fate had already immigrated, drawn by reports of rich farm land in the Genessee country.7
When they migrated the Smiths had eight children, and it was the mother who led them westward. They settled in the town of Palmyra, a thriving village located in the middle of a rich valley. They squatted on vacant land and took odd jobs8 for two years before moving to Manchester, two miles south. The village was small when they arrived but grew to 2,851 in 1830 and by then boasted three mills, an academy, and a library of six hundred volumes.9 The region where they settled, according to one scholar, was a “more vigorous and cosmopolitan community”10 than that which they had left behind in Vermont.
The Smiths struggled to pay for a one-hundred-acre farm and built a small log house for their large family. William Smith, the fourth son, recalled proudly some sixty years later how strenuously they had worked to make the enterprise pay: “We cleared sixty acres of the heaviest timber I ever saw. … We also had on it from twelve to fifteen hundred sugar trees, and to gather sap and make sugar and molasses from that number of trees was no lazy job.” Even the third son, Joseph Jr., born in 1805, labored hard to help the family, remembered William. “Whenever the neighbors wanted a good day’s work done they knew where they could get a good hand and they were not particular to take any of the other boys before Joseph either.”11 William’s contention that the family worked hard is supported by at least one neighbor, Orlando Saunders, who told William Kelley in 1884 that “they all worked for me many a day; they were very good people; young Joseph … had worked for me, and he was a very good worker; they all were.”12
Despite their hard work, the Smiths lived on the edge of poverty much of the time and eventually lost their farm just before the last payment was due.13 It may be that they had been required to pay too high a price for their land in the first place.14 Their frustration was compounded by the fact that they had not been able to convince most of their middle-class neighbors that they belonged. Because of their poverty and enthusiasm for what many neighbors perceived as “get-rich-quick schemes,” they were viewed as lazy and socially inferior. This was so despite the fact that many of their neighbors had been as poor as the Smiths on coming to western New York.15
A former resident of Palmyra revealed many years afterward the general attitude of many citizens when he commented, “I knew [p.3] the Smiths but did not associate with them for they were too low to associate with.” In a public statement many Palmyrans maintained that the family was “without influence in the community.” The people of Manchester affirmed, “We are glad to dispense with their society.”16 Most of this hostility probably developed after family members emerged as founders of a new religious movement. According to William Smith: “We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told of his vision. We were considered respectable till then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in wonderful ways.”17
Antagonism toward the Smiths comes from some of the earliest sources now extant and reaches back to within two weeks of Mormonism’s founding in April 1830. Obadiah Dogberry, a liberal village newspaper editor, described Joseph Jr. as “that spindle shanked ignoramus,” “idle and slothful,” and his followers as “ill-bred,” “ignorant wretches.” The following year Dogberry wrote, “We have never been able to learn that any of the family were ever noted for much else than ignorance and stupidity.”18
Despite Dogberry’s assertions, several of the Smith family, including Lucy, had been admitted to the Presbyterian church in 1824 and had remained active for several years.19 No attempt was made during this time to exclude them for reasons of depravity. There were other factors which contributed to the general distrust in Palmyra. Dogberry belittled the Smiths because of the family’s involvement in money digging,20 a common form of folk magic practiced primarily by the poor and itinerant in New England and western New York during the early nineteenth century and usually opposed by middle-and upper-class Americans.
Lucy Mack Smith admitted candidly in the original dictated manuscript of her history that the family was involved in this and other forms of folk magic:
Let not my reader suppose that because I shall pursue another topic for a season that we stopt our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac drawing magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business we never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation but whilst we worked with our hands we endeavored to remember the service of & the welfare of our souls.21 [p.4]
The “other topic” to which Lucy turned her attention was the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the activity she wanted readers to understand did not take up their whole time or keep them from working. In her mind magic circles, sooth saying, and other magical arts were one with her religious activities. Similarly her son Joseph Jr. in a revelation delivered to his close friend Oliver Cowdery in April 1829 endorsed magical practices, commending Cowdery’s own gift of “working with the [divining] rod” prior to becoming a Mormon as “the work of God.” Smith pronounced, “There is no other power save God that can cause this rod of nature to work in your hands.”22 Hyrum Smith, the future prophet’s older brother, believed that seerstones (crystal gazing) would be “as true as preaching” so long as evil spirits did not interfere with their proper functioning. He reportedly said he thought the time would come when there would be no such interference.23
Some historians, including Fawn Brodie, have tended to view a belief in magic in much the same way that Obediah Dogberry did, as chicanery and fraud—proof that Smith’s religious claims were not genuine.24 A more temperate view has recently emerged among scholars of religion, and it is now clear that magic is but one means people employ in efforts to make contact with the divine.25 Belief in magic was not at odds with the Smith family’s religious attitudes and can be seen instead as evidence of them.
In both their religious and business affairs the Smiths were restless, dissatisfied, itinerant. Joseph Sr. and Lucy came to maturity in New England at a time when the domination of the Calvinistic Congregationalists was diminishing and new sects such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists were gaining influence. The latter two particularly challenged the negative view of humanity inherent in Calvinism and came to stress free will and one’s ability to influence his or her own salvation.26 But everywhere there was a rampaging revolt against Calvinistic orthodoxy, as the career of the Yale divine Nathaniel William Taylor shows.27 In an atmosphere of conflict and reevaluation of old theological positions, many people drifted away from the churches, not finding a comfortable social or religious niche into which they could settle. Frequently uprooted, the Smiths were among those who had periods of intense religious concern but had not decided upon any single denomination. They were seekers, two among thousands in New England and western New York who were searching for the right place and the right church.28 [p.5]
Lucy records that her religious searching began a few years after her marriage. In 1802 during a near fatal illness, she pleaded with God to spare her life so that she could raise her family. She pledged that “if he would let me live I would endeavor to get that religion that would enable me to serve him.” She then heard a voice telling her to “let your heart be comforted.” At that point she began to recover. When her health fully returned she began going “from place to place to seek information or find if possible some congenial spirit who might enter into my feelings and sympathize with me.” She said she learned that “one noted for his piety” was to preach in the Presbyterian church that Sunday, but when she attended “all was emptiness vanity vexation of spirit.” The experience did not “satisfy the craving hunger of the soul.” In “almost total … despair” she returned home to continue her quest by studying the “word of God.”
Lucy reports that she continued this course for several years and then found a minister who would baptize her without requiring that she join a church. She remained in this state until her oldest son reached his twenty-second year,29 which would be 1820, although her later recollections contradict this date.
Lucy says little about her husband’s religious attitudes during these early years, suggesting there may have been a difference of opinion between them on this point. We know from other sources that Joseph Sr. joined the Universalists in Vermont in 1797 at the same time his father Asael did.30 William Smith wrote that his father’s belief in universal restoration brought him into conflict with those who believed in endless punishment, showing that he was more than a casual convert.31 When Lucy first mentions her husband’s religious attitudes it is in connection with her attempt to get him to attend Methodist meetings in Tunbridge, Vermont, in 1808. She says that she became concerned about her promises made to the Lord during her illness six years before. But her husband showed little enthusiasm despite her pleadings. He attended on a few occasions “to gratify me for he had so little faith in the doctrines taught by them that my feelings were the only inducement for him to go.”
Joseph’s occasional accommodation to Lucy’s wishes vanished when his father Asael, long a champion of Universalist doctrines, grew upset. Lucy recalls that Asael was “much displeased” and that one day he appeared at the door and “threw Tom Paine’s Age of Reason into the house and angrily told him that he ought not to let his wife go to the meetings and it would be better for him to stop going.” [p.6] Joseph agreed and told Lucy that they must comply to save their family from “such disagreeable feelings.” Lucy later confessed that she was “very much hurt by this.”32 But she records in her history that she remained unchurched for years. Evidently her husband’s will prevailed. No doubt this caused her anguish in light of her earlier promise to the Lord that she would “get religion.” She would have been a rare individual if she had avoided guilt and even resentment against her husband for the stand he took against her. These lingering feelings would overwhelm her following the death of her oldest son in 1823.
Lucy says in her history that between 1811 and 1816 her husband began to show more concern for religion. If he did he was still unwilling to join any church. Her recollection thirty years later of her husband’s religiously oriented dreams may have reflected her own anxiety as much as his. She says that in the first of these dreams Joseph was moving in a barren field, where nothing living appeared, accompanied by a spirit which told him that the field was the world “which lies inanimate & dumb as to the things pertaining to true religion.” Joseph was instructed to move on until he found a box whose contents if consumed would make him wise. As he found the box and was ready to eat, wild beasts came at him menacingly. He dropped the box and ran. When he then awoke from the dream, he was “trembling with terror.” The wild beasts who disrupted his quest for true religion may have been Asael and Joseph’s brother Jessee, who no doubt appeared bestial to Lucy.
In another dream Joseph reportedly saw many people rushing toward an impressive meeting house “from every direction and pressing with great anxiety.” He felt “careless and easy” and took his time getting to the church door. When he arrived an angel blocked his way and told him that he would have to “plead the merits of Jesus.”33 Again, Joseph was seen as being outside the congregation and careless about his salvation. But these attitudes may better reflect the concerns of Lucy than of her husband, who apparently was comfortable as a seeker. When conversion came to the Smiths it was Lucy who experienced it. Joseph remained outside the fold of a church.
The latter dream was reported to have occurred in 1816, apparently after the family had come to Palmyra. At this time the town was alive with religious ferment and a year later experienced a major revival with hundreds joining the churches.34 The region was the special target of a host of preachers, missionaries, and Sunday School and Tract Society enthusiasts, who were determined to save the west [p.7] from infidelity.35 But, as Charles G. Finney reported, much of the region was already “burned out,” having experienced too much religious excitement over a long period of time, beginning with the Second Great Awakening in the early 1790s.36 Most of the settlers were from New England, but a greater diversity of people and opinions prevailed in New York and made for a sharp clash of religious views. For example, the secretary to the American Home Missionary Society commented in 1827 that throughout western New York the people “are much divided in regard to their religious sentiments.”37 A Disciples of Christ historian, reporting on much the same thing further west in Ohio, later observed that the coming together of many different people from New England and elsewhere, “was a powerful stimulus” to the study of the Bible.38
Political conflict was also intense, and often political and religious issues intermingled. Almost every dispute was heralded as having religious import, so that it was difficult to escape an overburdening religious orientation. Such controversial issues as anti-Masonry, the removal by the government of the Indians to a reserve in the west, and the circulation of the mails were each portrayed as religiously significant.39 Old-line church ministers warned their congregations that the battle against infidelity was not over, and a sense of crisis rested upon those in the churches.40 In this spiritually charged atmosphere many people talked about the coming Millennium. The editor of the Wayne Sentinel in Palmyra wrote that “everyone looked for some ingenious application of the revelations to the peculiar situation in the present century.”41 Some sought to give themselves totally to God and to reach a state of religious perfection and sinlessness.42
The revivals were a potent force compelling thousands of people to reexamine their religious state. But not everyone approved of the fierce emotional intensities the revivals engendered. For example, Willard Richards, later a Mormon convert, disapproved of the emotional traumas and the “new measures” which Charles Finney employed.43 Finney set western New York afire with religious excitement and anxiety, shutting down whole towns for days during his protracted meetings.44 Richards complained that the revivals “stirred up the imagination exciting unnecessary fears and torture[d] the mind.”45
A recent scholar has discovered that many revivalists deliberately focused their attention upon the “youth” whose life style was [p.8] not yet set, employing strong peer pressures to compel youthful hearers to make a religious commitment. Those who did often found peace of mind in an old-line church, but those who could not underwent severe mental anguish.46 Sectarian competition, demands for conversion, and anticipations of a millennium placed many Americans under great pressure, leaving them guilt ridden, confused, frustrated, even disillusioned. One man who had fled sectarian claims confessed, “I was at first a Baptist, then a kind of New Light [Christian], afterward a Congregationalist; now my only creed is God be merciful to me a sinner.”47
Another disillusioned casualty of sectarianism was Asa Wild, a resident of New Amsterdam, New York, who turned away from organized religion to his Bible and his God, receiving a revelation that the Lord would soon overthrow all of the churches made by men. As reported in the Palmyra newspaper of 1823, Wild claimed:
Having a number of months enjoyed an unusual degree of the light of God’s countenance … the Lord in his boundless goodness was pleased to communicate the following revelation.…He told me that the Millennial state of the world is about to take place; that in seven years literally , there would scarce a sinner be found on earth; that the earth itself, as well as the souls and bodies of its inhabitants, should be redeemed, as before the fall, and become as the garden of Eden. He told me that all of the most dreadful and terrible judgments spoken in the blessed scriptures were to be executed within that time, that more than two thirds of the inhabitants of the world would be destroyed by these judgments; some of which are the following—wars, massacres, famine, pestilence, earthquakes, civil, political and ecclesiastical commotions; and above all, various and dreadful judgments executed immediately by God, through the instrumentality of the Ministers of the Millennial Dispensation which is to exceed in glory every other dispensation. … He also told me that every denomination of professing christians had become extremely corrupt; many of which had never had any true faith at all; but are guided only by depraved reason, refusing the teaching of the spirit … which alone can teach us the true meaning of the [scriptures]. … He told me further, that he had raised up, and was now raising up, that class of persons signified by the angel mentioned by the Revelator XIV. 6, 7, which flew in the midst of heaven; having the everlasting gospel to preach, that these persons are of an inferior [social] class, and small learning; that they were rejected by every denomination as a body; but soon, God will open their way, by miracles, judgments, &c. that they will have higher authority, greater power, [p.9] superior inspiration, and a greater degree of holiness than was ever experienced before. … Furthermore he said that all the different denominations of professing christians constituted the New Testament Babylon … that he is about to call out all his sincere children who are mourning in Zion, from oppression and tyranny of the mother of harlots; and that the severest judgments will be inflicted on the false and fallen professors of religion.48
It was from this maelstrom of religious ferment that Joseph Smith, Jr., as prophet emerged. Religious commitment was encouraged at revivals occurring intermittently throughout western New York from 1800 onward. In his official history of Mormonism Joseph Smith acknowledged that revivals had a compelling, if in some ways negative, influence on him. In 1838 when he was the leader and prophet of a growing and controversial religious society, Smith dictated to a church scribe that it was during a revival in Palmyra in 1820 that he first turned to God to ask which church among so many was right to join, the results of which came to be known among Mormons as the first vision.
Recently, scholars have learned that as early as 1832 Smith partly wrote and partly dictated another account of this first vision, which made no mention of revivals.49 In this earliest account Smith said that at the age of twelve he began to be concerned for the salvation of his soul and searched the scriptures. He said he was already very familiar with the existing denominations but believed that they “did not adorn their profession with a holy walk.” He went to the Lord in his sixteenth year to learn if he was accepted of him and was told that his sins were forgiven. The messenger who came to him said, “I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world.” No mention was made of any other personage appearing. The messenger continued that the “world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good.” Smith said that for many days afterward he felt great joy but then fell into transgression. This account, as some Mormon scholars have noted, is similar to others of the period50 and reveals the sort of religious experience that was expected of youth who were exposed to intense proselyting.
When Smith dictated a more polished version in 1838, it was altered in many details and more elaborate. He said he was in his fifteenth year when his family, except for his father and brother William, were converted at a revival by the Presbyterians. He said he kept himself aloof after attending a few meetings. He described [p.10] “unusual excitement” in the neighborhood on the subject of religion with multitudes joining the churches. He admitted that his “mind at different times was greatly excited” amidst the “war of words and tumult of opinion.” He wondered “who of all these parties are right? Or are they all wrong together?” He said two personages visited him and that he was told specifically that he should join none of the churches “for they are all wrong.”51
Considerable controversy has been generated by the various accounts of Smith’s vision. One early scholar contended that little was said about the first vision at the time it supposedly occurred and that there are significant differences in details among several accounts, including a recital drafted by church historian Oliver Cowdery in 1834.52 Other scholars have since claimed that there was no major revival in Palmyra in 1820, the year Smith would have been fifteen years old, again contradicting the traditional account.53
Smith may have had difficulty remembering the exact year of his vision. His mother indicates in her published narrative that the vision came four years after they arrived in Palmyra, making it 1820 as Mormon tradition holds. But her preliminary manuscript combines her son’s first vision with subsequent visions to present her own account bearing little resemblance to any of Smith’s own recitals. And it is hard to establish a major revival in Palmyra in 1820, although there was one in late 1823 and early 1824,54 the time when Lucy and others in the family evidently joined the Presbyterian church. Lucy says that they joined after the death of her oldest son Alvin, who died in the fall of 1823. Her grieving for Alvin was one reason Lucy sought out the Presbyterians.55 Burdened with guilt because of her unfulfilled promise to find a church, she found release for her pent-up emotions by conversion at the revival. Very likely then, since Smith does not mention revivals in his 1832 account, there was no great revival in Palmyra itself which precipitated his teenage conversion in 1820.
Still, it is evident that Joseph Smith was later moved to religious questions when Alvin died and his family, except principally his father and brother William, joined the Presbyterians. He recalled in 1844 that he wanted to “feel and shout” with the rest of his family but could “feel nothing.”56 Conceivably he was made numb by the enduring tension between his mother and his father regarding religion.57 Joseph St. had been deeply offended at Alvin’s funeral when the Presbyterian minister said publicly that Alvin had gone to hell58 and would have nothing to do with the church. Yet, as William [p.11] recalled, his mother “continued her importunities and exertions to interest us in the importance of seeking for the salvation of our immortal souls, until almost all of the family became either converted or seriously inclined.”59 The tension in the family must have been considerable for Joseph to have had “deep and often poignant” feelings at this time and yet been unable to yield to the revivalist’s message and his mother’s pleas.
Despite its inaccuracies and omissions, Joseph Smith’s 1838 account is important because it provides Smith’s recollection of those forces which brought his religious movement into being. It was the excitement of the revivals with their appeal for Christian conversion which stirred him and the war among contending sects which repelled him. Pluralism caused the young prophet-to-be great anxiety. Lucy explained in her history the torture of deciding among several churches. Describing the time of her first awakening, she wrote, “If I remain a member of no church, all religious people will say I am of the world; and if I join some of the different denominations, all the rest will say I am in error. This makes them witness against each other; and how can I decide?”60
Lucy perceived what others recognized at the time, that a religious decision of this sort had more than religious consequences. Such commitment established one’s friends and life style. Barton W. Stone, later a Christian, was influenced by a series of revivals conducted by James McReady in 1790-91 but was tormented when it came to making a decision whether to accept the revivalists’ message: “Shall I embrace religion or not: If I embrace religion, I must incur the displeasure of my dear relatives, lose the favor and company of my companions—become the object of scorn and ridicule. … Are you willing to make this sacrifice to religion? No, no, was the answer of my heart. Then the certain alternative is you must be damned.”61
For Joseph Smith the anguish that normally accompanied such a decision was accentuated in his early mature years. He had associated with his father in the money-digging business and had established some close friendships. But he experienced shame in connection with money digging in 1826 when he was brought to trial as a “glass looker” in Bainbridge, New York. Some of his friends and associates in the enterprise were interrogated as to his personal character, which no doubt brought him personal humiliation. Existing accounts differ as to the charges against him, witnesses and testimony given, and even the final verdict. Nonetheless, it is clear that a trial did take place and that at issue was Joseph Jr.’s money digging. One [p.12] account indicates that Joseph Sr. said he and his son were “mortified that this wonderful gift which God had so miraculously given… should be used only in search of filthy lucre,” showing that father and son were very sensitive to the public censure they experienced.62
Perhaps the embarrassment of the trial was a turning point for young Smith, but no doubt his increasing attraction to Emma Hale, whom he had met during his treasure hunting in Pennsylvania, also had considerable influence. Emma and her father Isaac were devout Methodists and increasingly opposed to Smith’s money digging. Isaac was unwilling to give his approval for a marriage, so Joseph and Emma eloped in February 1827. Hale then pressured Smith to give up money digging and exacted pledges on the matter from his new son-in-law. Joseph and Emma moved to a house on Isaac’s property in 1828,63 suggesting that this arrangement may have figured in the promise made by Smith. It was after this that Smith began attending Methodist meetings held in individual homes in Harmony, Pennsylvania. He sought membership after a time, and his name was added to the class role. But Emma’s cousin, Joseph Lewis, bitterly opposed his membership due to his treasure hunting. Smith was asked to make a public confession but could never bring himself to do so.64 The chagrin which he doubtless felt may have finally dissolved any attraction which the old-line churches had for him. He made no comment about this episode in his history, except to note that at one point he was attracted to the Methodists.65
From this point on Smith had little good to say about Protestant denominations generally, and his calling as prophet rather than money digger became increasingly important to him. To satisfy his own developing religious conscience, to escape the contending Protestant denominations, particularly the Methodists at Harmony, to reconcile his mother’s and father’s differences on religion, to please his new bride, he had to find a church that he could accept and that would accept him. Joseph Smith at this point became a religious seeker. But he began with a much stronger sense of alienation from society than most of the other seekers of his day. His poverty, his much disparaged career as a money digger, his court trial, and his expulsion from the Methodist church left him outside the usual religious and social circles. He would of necessity have to pursue a course radically different from that of the ordinary seeker.
When Smith began his translation of the Book of Mormon in 1828 and initiated a new religious movement, there were hundreds [p.13] in western New York like himself, at odds with the religious establishment for various reasons. Many were struggling to break free of Calvinism or revivalism and the associated demand for spiritual conversion. Others were unchurched and despised the professional clergy. All were disgusted with sectarian opinion and conflict. They required a new start, a faith based on something more than divergent biblical interpretations, a religion which would again manifest the power of God on earth.
Many had been adversely affected by Calvinism and revivalism. George A. Smith, a cousin of the prophet, remembered that his father was alienated from his Congregational church because he was baptized before experiencing a change of heart. George himself attended Congregational revivals in 1831 and became a “seeker after religion night and day.” He was unconverted despite his diligence and was “sealed up to damnation.”66 Willard Richards attended revivals at his Congregational parish but experienced no change of heart and was denied membership although his friends were admitted. He reported that his efforts were all to “no purpose” and he lost all hope.67 Parley P. Pratt also admitted that he never believed himself a sinner and could “experience no great change.”68 Calvinistic requirements made no sense to him. George Laub began attending Methodist meetings and sat on the mourner’s bench “to pray to have my sins forgiven. I did this in three evenings in succession but found no deliverance.” On the third evening, Laub recalled, “the priest told me to believe I had it and then I would have it. I told him I could not believe that I had a thing when I knew it was not so. I said if this is religion there is none for me.”69 George Whitaker said that at age seventeen he thought a lot about heaven and hell but did not think God showed much love or mercy if he was going to send most people to “an endless hell.”70 Even Lucy Mack Smith wrote to a relative in 1831 that she rejected the format of conversion. “Peter did not tell them to go away and mourn over their sins weeks and months, and receive a remission of them and then come and be baptized.”71
Similarly, Warren Foote said he “often went to the Methodist revival meetings to see them jump and hear them sing and when they all got to praying, shouting and singing at once it was fun to hear them.” But, he added, “I could not see anything in such proceedings like the gospel.”72 Lewis Shurtliff drifted from the Baptists to the Campbellites but had no conversion experience and did not feel saved. He said that by 1836 he was “fast approaching a state of infidelity and had little confidence in anything and believed [p.14] nothing.”73 Lorenzo Dow Young, a younger brother of Brigham Young, attended a Methodist revival where everyone but himself experienced a change of heart. He recalled, “When I failed to come to the ‘anxious seat’ Elder Gilmore told me I had sinned away the day of grace and my damnation was sure.”74
All of these and other future Mormons participated in a general break with Calvinism. They were casualties of revivalism and its powerful pressures. In his Lectures on Revivals of Religion, which he published after his whirlwind campaign in western New York, Charles Finney described his methods. He told young converts that they must be religious in “every department of life and in all that they do.” He accentuated his point by saying, “If they do not aim at this, they should understand that they have no religion at all,” and added, “Obedience to God consists in the state of the heart. It is being willing to obey God; willing that God should rule in all things.”75 Finney’s protracted meetings and anxious bench were psychologically oriented tools for compelling members of his audience to face the choices he insisted that they make.
For those future Mormons who were shut out from the saving graces and from saved congregations, the effect could be devastating. Cast adrift, they desperately needed to bring God into their lives, to allow him to rule in all things. They wanted a society that would exclude unnecessary choices and would exclude pluralism. Above all, they wanted to diminish the secular influences that pluralism engendered.
Sociologist Peter L. Berger has described how pluralism promoted secularization.76 He argues that religious impotence in today’s world began to develop rapidly after the Reformation as the church became less and less involved in day-to-day matters. As a result, men and women today face choices about where to live, where to work, where and what to worship, and whom to have as friends. Such choices did not exist in the medieval world, where the social order was set and sustained a unified, religious world view. However, Protestantism promoted secular tendencies by diminishing the role of miracles, magic, sacraments, and ceremonies, which brought God into the everyday life of average men and women. Protestants depended solely upon the conversion experience to make God manifest. Cast loose into a sectarian world, the unconverted could become confused and uncertain as to whether God was manifest in any of the competing denominations.
[p.15] Hosea Stout was one of many Mormon converts who demonstrate this pattern. He attended a revival in 1829 and found many of his friends joining the “Cumberlands.” Yet he disliked the sectarian rivalry which resulted: “I soon discovered a hostile spirit between them and the Methodists which I thought was uncalled for. It threw me much in the back grounds to hear preachers slander each other because of small differences of opinion in ‘non-essentials,’ so called.” Stout added that the “perpetual quarrel” between the sects “nearly extinguished my religious fire.”77
Edward Hunter, another early Mormon convert and later a bishop in Illinois, said that in the 1830s he was “watching sectarian strife, waiting to see what he could make of it.”78 Martin Harris, a witness to the Book of Mormon, recalled that in 1818 he felt inspired “that I should not join Eny church although I was anxiously sought for By Meny Sectarians. … I might just as well plunge myself into the water as to have any one of the Sects baptize me.”79 Sarah Leavitt, daughter of a Presbyterian deacon, had a vision of the “damned spirits in hell” and was filled with horror. She was visited by many sects but after studying her Bible found none to her satisfaction.80 John Murdock traveled in many parts of New York but waited before becoming a Dutch Lutheran. Then he left them and joined the “Seceder Church.” Moving to Ohio he joined the Baptists, the Campbellites, and finally the Mormons.81 Laban Morrill, a blacksmith, reported that he was sought after by many churches but was skeptical of them all.82 And Lewis Barney said that before joining the Mormons he had decided that “all religion [is] a hoax and that preachers were hypocrits, that they preached for money and popularity.”83
Oliver Cowdery, another Book of Mormon witness, touched upon a sensitive point when he wrote, “There is so great a resemblance between all the religious sects of the day, that one who stands aloof from all of them is astonished why there should be so much strife and contention from among them; for all the difference there is between them consists of opinion.”84 Isaac Haight, who became a Baptist at age eighteen, decided three years later that all the churches had departed from “primitive purity.”85 Oliver Granger started as a Methodist but then “stood aloof from all sects and all creeds.”86 Wandle Mace in New York was reared by parents who were Bible readers but would join no church. He went into the grocery business, acquired two stores, and then lost both of them when his friends soon disassociated themselves. Mace lamented what he termed “the [p.16] hollowness of so-called society.” After this he joined the New School Presbyterians but argued with the elders over the christening of infants. He withdrew and joined a seeker society, only to once more feel out of place. He met Parley P. Pratt in 1837 and joined the Mormons.87
Class-oriented antagonisms were another reason many looked outside the old-line churches for religious solace. The revivals were aimed at the American middle class, which flocked to the churches. But W. W. Phelps wrote that they did not seem suitable for the poor: “It may be worthwhile for the humble disciple of the meek and lowly Jesus to notice how the rich, the great and noble, are flattered and honored, and even excused from acts of sin … how the Christians, as they style themselves, following the changing fashions of the day, to the most extravagant extremes. … All sects are striving for the uppermost rooms at feasts, and for the chief seats in the synagogues.”88
The Book of Mormon, in passages addressed to Americans in the 1830s, likewise expressed the view that the churches were accommodating the wealthy but slighting the poor: “Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted; and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up. They rob the poor, because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek, and the poor in heart; because in their pride they are puffed up.”89 According to another passage, the modern churches were too worldly and too caught up in their own learning, too given to division and strife: “And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, … that they have built up many churches; nevertheless they put down the power and the miracles of God; and preach up unto themselves, their own wisdom, and their own learning, that they may get gain, and grind the face of the poor; and there are many churches built up which causeth envyings, and strifes, and malice.”90
There is a good deal of evidence that many, if not most, early Mormons were men and women of modest means and little formal education. Such notables as Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor, Lorenzo Snow, Parley P. Pratt, and Lyman Wight were poor farmers or artisans barely finding the funds to meet their needs in 1830. Young was a carpenter and jack-of-all trades, Woodruff a miller, Taylor an apprentice to a cooper, Snow a “surer” of hardships in his youth, Wight a participant in Sidney Rigdon’s pre-Mormon communal experiment.91 These findings compare favorably with Orson [p.17] Spencer’s assertion in 1842 that “our people are mostly the working class.”92 They undoubtedly felt ill at ease in middle-class churches, as Brigham Young’s sojourn in the Methodist Reformed church suggests. Yet there is no evidence, as anthropologist Mark P. Leone has asserted,93 that the industrial revolution affected them directly. There was an anti-capitalistic quality to the early Mormon movement, but this had more to do with the divisive, pluralistic character of capitalism than to permanent ideological objections to it.
A degree of class consciousness among early Mormons seems evident too in their involvement with treasure hunting and its associated pre-Reformation style of religion, which had largely died out among the middle classes but continued to thrive in the early nineteenth century among the destitute and downtrodden. Many of the common people brought the miraculous into their lives by using forked sticks to find water or magic stones to find lost articles and hidden treasures. It was no accident that such peoples were millennialists looking for the New Jerusalem and a new social order.94
Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, sought to revitalize this magical world view, combine it with elements of more traditional Christianity, and establish a theocratic society where the unconverted, the poor, and the socially and religiously alienated could gather and find a refuge from the competing sects and the uncertainties they engendered. His efforts to do so would bring him into conflict with leaders and others of the established order who were otherwise-minded.
1. This is noted in LMSms, which Lucy Mack Smith dictated in her old age and which has been published in two somewhat different versions. The edition which is most accessible, and which I have cited unless otherwise noted, was edited by Preston Nibley under the title History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954); see pages 31-32, 46. Orson Pratt edited and published the first edition in England in 1853, titled Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: by S. W. Richards, 1853), which is cited below on one occasion. Where necessary I have compared these with LMSms, citing the latter where the original wording is important.
2. Ibid., 31-32, 37, 46, but compare the remarks of Asael Smith, Joseph’s father, who wrote on 4 January 1796 that his son was farming his “old farm” at “halves” and that he himself intended to move to a new location. Since Lucy dictated her history so many years afterward she may have erred. She also seems to have been very sensitive on the subject of their poverty. See The Historical Collections of the Topsfield Historical Society (Topsfield, MA: by the Society, 1905), 10:74.
5. Joseph himself acknowledged a period of drunkenness at a time when his son Hyrum was young. In a patriarchal blessing he gave to Hyrum in 1834 he said that “though he [i.e., Hyrum's father] has been out of the way through wine, thou hast never forsaken him nor laughed him to scorn” (Hyrum Smith papers, LDSCA). It is unlikely that Hyrum, born in 1800, would have laughed at his father after reaching maturity, so this probably refers to a time before 1820. That father Smith drank to excess in New York after moving there in 1816 is also attested by Lorenzo Saunders in 1884, as interviewed by a sympathetic member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, E. L. Kelley. Saunders, a long-time neighbor of the Smiths, said that the “old man [i.e., Smith] would go to turkey shoots and get tight.” His brother Orlando added that he once went into Joseph’s cooper shop and found him dressed in the “raggedest and dirtiest shirt and all full of holes,” suggesting not only his poverty but apparent lack of self-esteem at the time. “Interview with Lorenzo Saunders,” E. L. Kelley papers, RLDSCA.
6. There is no account in LDSCA that Joseph Sr. drank to excess after he joined the church in 1830. His conversion, together with that of Martin Harris, caused his son the prophet to break down in wrenching sobs, evidence of his deep concern and relief. Joseph Knight remembered “that evening that old Brother Smith and Martin Harris was Baptised Joseph was fild with the Spirrit to a grate Degre to see his Father and Mr. Harris … he Bast out with greaf and Joy and seamed as tho the world Could not hold him. He went out into the Lot and appeared to want to get out of site of every Body and would sob and Crie and seamed to Be so full that he could not live” (Dean C.Jessee, “Joseph’s Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” Brigham Young University Studies 17 [Autumn 1976]: 37).
14. Bushman (p. 48) indicates that the family paid between seven and eight hundred dollars over several years, making one-hundred-dollar payments each year. Yet, as Brodie argues (p. 10), this estimate may be too high.
15. James H. Hotchkin, a Presbyterian minister in western New York, comments on the poverty of many who migrated to the area. See A History of the Purchase and Settlement of Western New York (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1848), 24-25.
19. The records of the Presbyterian church in Palmyra show that Lucy, Hyrum, and Samuel Smith were active until the fall of 1828. They were suspended from church sacraments in March 1830 for not having attended meetings during the preceding eighteen months. There is no other charge against them. Milton V. Backman reproduces these sources in Joseph Smith’s First Vision (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971), 182-83.
23. “Journal of Priddy Meeks,” Utah Historical Quarterly 10 (1942): 180. There is a great deal of evidence, much of it from Mormon sources, which shows that Joseph and other members of the Smith family were deeply involved in treasure hunting. See my “Money-Digging Folklore and the Beginnings of Mormonism: An Interpretive Suggestion,” Brigham Young University Studies 24 (Fall 1984): 473-88. Also in the same issue, see Ronald W. Walker, “The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,” 429-60, and his “Joseph Smith: The Palmyra Seer,” 461-88. The most detailed discussion to date of Joseph Smith and magic is D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987).
25. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1971), 22-50, 70-93, 117-28, 200-13, 224-45, 643-66. Jon Butler argues that Thomas errs in distinguishing between religion and magic, which serve a common function (see his “Magic, Astrology, and the Early American Religious Heritage, 1600-1760,” American Historical Review 84 [April 1979]:317-46). I have sided with Butler in arguing that magic had religious meaning for early Mormons in “Money Digging Folklore,” 474-75, 482-86. See also Jan Shipps, “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History 1 (1974): 3-20; Alan Taylor, “Rediscovering the Context of Joseph Smith’s Treasure Seeking,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Winter 1986): 18-28; and Quinn, Magic World View.
27. William Warren Sweet, Religion in the Development of American Culture, 1765-1840 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959), 190-233; Sidney E. Mead, Nathaniel William Taylor, 1786-1858: A Connecticut Liberal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949).
39. Wayne Sentinel, 31 Oct. 1828, 2; 26 March 1830, 2; 21 May 1830, 2; 23 July 1830, 2. Obadiah Dogberry also noticed a minister’s mixing of politics and religion in the Palmyra Reflector, 2 Jan. 1830, 12; 1 Feb. 1831, 95.
40. James Hotchkin lamented that French ideas thrived in America at this time, bringing infidelity and atheism. He wrote (p. 26), “Some who were deeply imbued with these principles were among the first settlers of western New York and were zealous in propagating their sentiments.”
46. Joseph F. Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York, 1977), 62-85. Kelt indicates that many young people berated themselves when they did not have the coveted experience.
49. The several different versions of the first vision are reproduced in Backman, 155-69. An account by William Smith in the New York Observer, July 1841, recounts how an angel was the first heavenly messenger to visit his older brother “About the year 1823.”
54. “The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Summer 1982): 31-47. I set down here my reasons for believing that none of the small revivals around Palmyra and environs before 1823 and described by Backman satisfy all the conditions in Joseph’s descriptions.
91. M. R. Werner, Brigham Young (London: Jonathan Cape, 1925), 7; Matthias F. Cowley, ed., Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co., 1909), 4; Brigham H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1963), 23; Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co., 1884), 2; Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, 30-31; and “History of Lyman Wright,” LDSMS 27 (22 July 1865): 455-These findings compare favorably with Orson Spencer’s statement in 1842 that” our people are mostly the working class” (see Letters Exhibiting the Most Prominent Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co., 1889], 38).
94. Ronald W. Walker traces the contours of this early form of religion in the two articles cited in note 23. Barnes Frisbie recalls some of the religious beliefs of money diggers in 1800 in History of Middletown, Vermont (Middletown: Middletown Historical Society, 1867), 49-60.