Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism
Robert N. Hullinger

Chapter 3.
New England and Western New York

[p.19]Revelation means something communicated immediately from God to man.… [Man’s] account of it to another is not revelation; and whoever puts faith in that account, puts it in the man from whom the account comes.… My disbelief of the Bible is founded on a pure and religious belief in God.
—Thomas Paine,1 American deist and political philosopher

When Joseph Smith on the title page of the Book of Mormon announced his intention to convince “Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself to all nations,” he tried to check forces set in motion by deism and rationalism.2 Deism attacked revealed religion in order to defend what was considered natural religion, a creed holding: (1) There is a God (2) whom one must revere (3) through moral living. (4) One should abandon sin because it works to humanity’s disadvantage (5) and also because there is divine recompense here and hereafter.

Natural religion needed no special revelation such as the Bible. Its ethics and religious principles were arrived at through reason. Some deists held that the contents of the Bible might be above reason but not contrary to it. But most denied the Bible any special status at all: its narratives were neither reliable nor unique, the two testaments were unrelated, the miracles and prophecies were absurd if interpreted literally and fraudulent if not, and the mysterious [p.20] elements were corruptions of later times. Since the very means which won acceptance for the Bible were now negated, Thomas Paine demanded its rejection. Christianity had become a corrupt variation of natural religion. The church had obscured religion with unreasonable and immoral concepts, including the doctrines of the trinity, predestination, arbitrary judgment, and the innocent suffering for the guilty. Worse, it had aggrandized itself at the expense of those it purportedly served.

Rationalism in America was an outgrowth of New England’s Puritan heritage. Rationalists repudiated revivalism and accepted special revelation only as long as it was reasonable.3 Jesus was not co-equal with God the Father but subordinate to him. Jesus’ death was seen as a way to alert sinners to God’s authority, to the dignity of his government and law, not as a way to appease God. Original sin and Calvinistic predestination were judged contrary to reason. Such notions would make God immoral, but God is benevolent and brings happiness to humanity. Above all, God is a unity; he is one, not three in one.

Boston’s Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew expounded rationalism in the mid-eighteenth century. Gradually it infiltrated the established Congregational Church and led to the formation of the Unitarian Church. Unitarians stressed the unity of God and creation.4 A simultaneous development was the formation of the Universalists, who shared Unitarian accents but stressed the benevolence of God, who saves all. Universalists began from the ministry of John Murray, an English emigrant. The Universalists first convened in Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1785. They were uneducated and tended to draw their themes from the Bible, whereas Unitarians had educated clergy and often drew inspiration from non-biblical sources. Universalists tended to locate in rural areas, Unitarians in the cities. Writers often confused the Universalists and Unitarians because of their shared teachings.

Rationalists constituted a bridge between deists and pietists.5 Pietists were conservative Christians who subordinated reason to biblical revelation, held orthodox views on the nature of Christ and God, but were disestablished. Political realities forged a marriage of convenience between rationalists and pietists from the French and Indian War through the Revolutionary War, during which they united against the established churches.6 Rationalists considered their theological disagreements with pietists of minor importance [p.21] since both groups believed in God, immortality, and a virtuous life. Pietists ignored differences because both groups rejected the established churches’ rituals, creeds, and theologies, and felt that religion was personal. Both opposed the clerical authoritarianism of the conservative, established churches.7

The marriage dissolved when the Second Great Awakening brought into the open the division between pietistic and rationalistic Christianity. The anti-clerical and atheistic tendencies of the French Revolution led pietists to see a cause and effect relationship between Jacobin infidelity and barbarity. Alarmed at the demise of the French monarchy, the Prussian and Austrian kings, supported by British diplomacy, declared war on revolutionary France. France went to war with Britain and overran much of Europe in the name of liberty.8

France and its revolution were seen as signs of a larger conspiracy, supervised by an Infidel International, to overthrow all religion and government. Sympathy with France became a matter of suspicion. Thomas Jefferson was suspect because of his French ambassadorship from 1785 to 1789. Federalists painted him and by implication members of his party as atheists, Jacobins, foes of private property and civic order. When Paine’s Age of Reason appeared in 1794, it reinforced the anti-Jeffersonian, anti-Republican excitement because Paine too had been in France and was friends with Jefferson. Federalists pushed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to keep their power and to attack the ideas of the French Revolution.

New England was the center of the storm. Congregational churches were established churches and their clergy members were federalists.9 Ethan Allen’s 1784 publication of Reason the Only Oracles of Man, Elihu Palmer’s attempted anti-church crusade, Paine’s book, the formation of deistic societies, and publication of deistic papers upset the region. Deism and French barbarity were coming to the common people, and New England Christendom was alarmed.

Paine’s Age of Reason10 distilled and simplified deistic thinking in order to defend God against established religion. Paine’s belief in God required him to reject the Bible, “for in my opinion,” he wrote to a friend, “the Bible is a gross libel against the justice and goodness of God, in almost every part of it.”11 Paine articulated a variety of objections to the Bible. The Bible limited God, forcing him to “act like a passionate man, that killed his son, when he could not revenge himself any other way” (p. 65). Christian theology’s use of the devil in connection with Jesus’ death and the necessity of the [p.22] Atonement made Satan’s power greater than God’s (pp. 29-30). Paine scorned the Bible for attributing to God obscenity, debauchery, vindictiveness, and cruel executions. The innocent were made to suffer for the guilty (p. 24). Genocidal wars were waged by Moses and Joshua because of God’s express command (p. 90). Rather than being the word of God, Paine said, the Bible would better be recognized as the word of a demon (p. 34).

Prophecy had long been used as an argument for the divine authorship of the Bible, but Paine ridiculed this notion. Paine traced the development in the Bible from poetry to prediction and maintained that the function of the “seer,” who predicted the outcome of impending battles or other immediate interests, was gradually broadened into “prophecy” (p. 141). Ultimately the prophet was made the historian of the future, and posterity credited him with accurate prediction if he came within a thousand years of the mark (p. 81). Then, Paine stormed, the Bible found a way to exonerate God when prophecy failed. If he blessed people and they kept on sinning, then God changed his mind and destroyed them. If God led a man to prophesy destruction upon an evil nation and it repented, then God spared it. “What a fool do fabulous systems make of man!” (p. 134).

If a prophesied event occurs, Paine said, no one can truly know if it was accidental or foreknown. He refused to grant that God would describe an event important enough for people to know beforehand in terms “so equivocal as to fit almost any circumstances that might happen afterwards” (p. 82). The Bible damaged its own case for predictive prophecy, Paine said, by showing the prophets to have been “impostors and liars.” Jeremiah lied for Zedekiah because it served his own purpose (pp. 138-39).

Neither would Paine accept miracles as an argument or evidence for special revelation. The Bible appealed to miracles to produce belief, but that belief depended on those who reported the miracle, not upon the miracle itself. If the miracle were true, it “would have no better chance of being believed than if it were a lie” (p. 139). Further, one cannot truly judge something miraculous unless one knows that it truly occurred beyond natural law. Additional knowledge might reveal a miracle to have been natural after all, and that would remove its belief-producing effect (p. 79).

Paine set his own definition of revelation against the Bible’s claim to be special revelation: “Revelation is a communication of [p.23] something, which the person to whom that thing is revealed, did not know before.… Revelation, therefore, cannot be applied to anything done upon earth of which man himself is the actor or the witness; and consequently all the historical and anecdotal part of the Bible … is not within the meaning and compass of the word revelation, and, therefore, is not the word of God” (p. 77).

Revelation is “something communicated immediately from God to man” (p. 33). Another person’s account of revelation is only hearsay. Language is ruled out as a medium of God’s word. Instruments of human communication cannot convey God’s word because there is no universal language, translations are subject to error, and copyists and printers make mistakes or purposely alter words (p. 183). Revelation must disclaim any contradiction, for that shows the story is false. Agreement does not make a story true, since the whole may be false, but disagreement absolutely disproves it (p. 38).

Given these terms, Paine denied the Old Testament any status as revelation. Books of testimony, for example, depend upon the certain identity of their authors (p. 153). Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was most unlikely because Genesis depends on Chronicles for a time reference. Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were written in the third person about Moses at a later time (pp. 91-92). Paine argued for a time lapse between the life of Joshua and the writing of the biblical book by that name because of the many instances of the phrase “unto this day” and because of a comparison dependent upon a time lapse to make its point (pp. 94-95, 118-19). The writer’s use of the word “beforetimes” also showed that the books of Samuel came after Samuel’s time (pp. 105-109).

There were also contradictions in the Old Testament. Paine found two different numberings of the Ten Commandments, two reasons for celebrating the Sabbath (p. 111), two accounts of Saul’s first meeting with David (p. 96), and two accounts of Jeremiah’s imprisonment (p. 137). Deuteronomy describes Moses’ burial place, although no man was supposed to have known its location (p. 136).

The New Testament fared no better under Paine. The anecdotal character of the four Gospels, their disagreements, and their failures to substantiate each other’s details were problems for him (pp. 98-99). Differences in the resurrection stories showed that the writers were neither eyewitnesses nor apostles and that they wrote independently of one another (pp. 41-42, 158-62). If God is wise, Paine asked, how can anyone suppose that he would commit himself [p.24] and his will to precarious language and manuscripts that are edited, altered, and changed (p. 170)? How can anyone place faith in a book not canonized until 300 years after Christ—and then by a committee vote (p. 170)?

Paine’s demolition of the Bible freed him to urge the deistic view. No one should despair of finding revelation or the word of God: “There is a Word of God; there is a revelation. THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD: And it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man” (p. 45). “Nature reveals mathematical laws, and man discovers how to apply them to the earth and heavenly bodies. To study nature is to study true theology and discover the existence of God. It was incomprehensible that anyone might want to know more” (p. 53; cf. p. 48).

In addition to the testimony of nature, Paine also allowed the testimony of a conscience. Reason falls infinitely short in discovering God’s attributes, but men know judgment as a probability: “If we knew it as a fact, we should be the mere slaves of terror; our belief would have no merit, and our best actions no virtue” (p. 188). The sum total of revelation is the knowledge that God exists and that judgment is probable—the testimony of nature and conscience. Corruption looms ahead for those who want more, for it has “been produced by admitting of what man calls revealed religion” (p. 61). The Christian church cannot be reconciled with reason and scientific inquiry. It is maintained by the clergy only because of self-interest (pp. 58-60). For the honor of God, therefore, Paine repudiated all revealed religions and priests and called for a return to the God revealed by nature and reason.

Paine spurred the formation of organized deism in America. Age of Reason was widely read and often reprinted. The Deistical Society of New York published The Temple of Reason from 1800 to 1803. Revived as the Prospect, or View of the Moral World, it finally was discontinued in March 1805.12 Sixty miles north of New York on the Hudson River, the Druidical Society of Newburgh reprinted and circulated the works of Hume, Voltaire, and Paine in taverns, shops, and homes. But it disbanded in 1804.13

Jedediah Morse, pastor in Charlestown, Massachusetts, scorned Paine’s book as a product of the Infidel International and as a symbol of its power base in America. Yale’s president Timothy Dwight offered a reasoned defense, marshalled hatred against deism, and [p.25] popularized the anti-deistic argument.14 Nathaniel Emmons of Franklin, Massachusetts, warned that Thomas Jefferson’s person, party, and principles endangered patriotism and conservative piety. This comment typified clergy reaction.

Three factors brought efforts to spread deism to an end about 1805. First, the U.S. presidential election of 1800 caused a split between republican-political and deistical-religious sentiment. It was now possible to be one without being the other. Second, political republicanism was rapidly taken over by the revivalists and their supporters. Third, the prophets of deism died: Elihu Palmer in 1805, John Foster in 1806, and Thomas Paine in 1809. The demise of Napoleon brought the struggling, dying Federalist Party to a close.15 Only then did the cry against French infidelity subside in the churches. In its heyday from 1784 to 1805, deistic influence had been felt from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.

Paine transmitted the results of 150 years of philosophical and biblical inquiry through his book. The rhetoric about proper credentials for biblical authors, copyists’ errors, contradictions, the nature of God, and communication with humankind—all reflected contemporary concern about the concept of revelation. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke had left their mark on deistic studies of the Bible. Hobbes (1588-1679) held that all knowledge came from the senses and reason, that the Bible might be above reason but not contrary to it. Locke (1632-1704) held that Christianity is not a product of reason but is not contrary to it. It is a revelation. Revelation teaches matters which reason may not have discovered but which reason can comprehend. Revelation, therefore, communicates knowledge.

Long after deism died as a vital force, this concept of revelation lived on in rationalistic and pietistic churches alike. Rationalists wished to purge Christianity of the doctrines which forced thinking people to choose infidelity, but few were willing to adopt Paine’s full repudiation.16 Between 1750 and 1825 rationalism could be seen operating within the movements of Universalism and Unitarianism. But both groups were reacting against deism. Both groups believed in the unipersonal nature of God and the salvation of all humanity. But they were divided by class, education, and style.

Unitarians were mainly a New England phenomenon centering in the cities of eastern Massachusetts. Universalism developed in western Massachusetts and in Vermont, the hill country of New England. There were Unitarians in western New York, but it was the [p.26] Universalists who mixed with the people in the small towns and rural areas where the revivalistic fires burned.

Universalism in its early phase was shaped by men who held differing views of Christianity. John Murray was a Calvinist and a trinitarian. He held that Jesus was Savior but in contrast to Calvinism he taught that all people were the Elect of God. Elhanan Winchester taught that all souls would be saved, but those who were not pure enough would have to suffer a purgatorial existence for as much as 50,000 years to satisfy the justice of God. Hosea Ballou cut Universalism’s ties with Calvinism and established it on the basis of reason in A Treatise on Atonement.17 He rejected the trinity. Hell was suffered in this life as a result of sin, and it was from this suffering Jesus came to free us. Ballou rejected the picture of the Old Testament God in favor of a God who wants to make everyone happy. Such a God could not allow men and women to choose misery for themselves, even if free will had to be denied to present this image of God.

Issues raised during the 1790s were to have a long life. Between 1790 and 1820 thousands left the western sections of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont for western New York and brought with them the deistic-rationalistic-pietistic debate.18 Their leaving left foreboding in the east that they would “revert to ‘barbarism’ and thus subvert the moral order of society.”19 Pioneer missionary James Hotchkin described western New York of the 1790s as a “wasteland of infidelity.” Not only at Scottsville but also at Wheatland and Rochester, deistic societies had their circulating libraries. Diverse backgrounds and poor transportation kept religious observances from advancing as rapidly as land settlement. The price of land attracted easterners looking for economic improvement. The greater part of the population was irreligious, Hotchkin said. They used the sabbath for business, pleasure, drinking, and carousing.20

Eastern churches worried about this dark cloud on the western horizon. In 1798 the Presbyterian General Assembly declared that it perceived a loss of religious observances and respect for institutional religion in the west, plus “an abounding infidelity, which in many cases tends to atheism itself.”21 In response the churches launched the Second Great Awakening to convert the west. Presbyterians and Congregationalists united to supply enough doctrinally sound clergy to serve the scattered settlements. In western New York Presbyterians were the stronger. Through them came the benevolence agencies with their tracts,22 Bibles,23 Sunday schools, and the [p.27] pietistic rationale. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists held regular conferences, sessions, and revival meetings. Their religious journals informed readers of revival meetings and campaigns, provided theological comment, appealed to a wide readership, and provided a bond to populations on the move.24

The Great Revival of 1799-1800 paved the way for the churches to organize and settle into western New York. Hotchkin saw the revival as a means which God used to build up Zion: “The tide of infidelity which was settling in with so strong a current, was rolled back and Western New York was delivered from the moral desolation which threatened it.”25 The awakening made its greatest impact upon that large segment of the population which had resisted deism during the Revolutionary War.26 In fact, between 1800 and 1835 revivalism would increase church attendance three-fold.

After 1815 Universalists spread their rationalistic gospel in western New York and established nearly 90 congregations in the lower Black River Valley, the Finger Lakes region, and the country of the Genesee River. Their favorite tactic was to engage pietists in public debate and refute their opponents’ views with popularized deistic and rationalistic arguments.27 For example, Mr. Evarts, presiding Methodist elder of the Black River Conference, debated Mr. Morse of the Universalists in Ellisburg in May 1821 for nearly a week. Evarts presented the traditional arguments to support “the doctrine of endless misery.” Each side left the debate convinced that it had won.28

Charles Finney took to task much of the preaching against Universalists. Clergymen fought with arguments from out-of-date books. “They suppose Universalists hold the doctrine that God is all mercy.” Not so, said Finney, “They reject the idea of mercy in the salvation of man, for they hold that every man is punished in full according to his just deserts.… [T]hey hold to the justice of God alone as the ground of salvation.” The result was that “people either laugh at them, or say it is all lies, for they know Universalists do not hold such sentiments.”29 But the appeal to God’s justice rather than his mercy as the basis for human salvation was a deistic argument, which Universalists had made their own.

During this era another general change was occurring in Protestant ways of thinking. G. A. Koch has observed that the 1790s seemed the time when American independence would sweep the globe, but the idea of a social and political millennium faded away [p.28] with deism after 1800. Human salvation was seen no longer as coming through revision of social institutions but through an end-of-the-world millennium.30 Protestants united in their hope of inaugurating the Millennium in the immediate future. New systems of education such as the Oneida Institute, missions to convert the Jews, numerous new sects—all were founded in the belief that such activity would hasten the thousand-year reign of Christ. This was a form of American optimism which was especially strong in the Burned-over District.31

Itinerant missionaries and evangelists were motivated by this optimism about the immediate future. Charles Finney, dean of them all, believed that the right kind of ministers at the head of the revivals could bring in the Millennium. if the clergy could rise above doctrinal pettiness and denominational competition in a joint effort and could agree “as to what ought to be done for the salvation of the world,” then the Millennium would “come at once.” Finney therefore criticized the clergy for the sectarian spirit which went with the joint revivals, since it precluded such possibilities. Clerical cries of “Heresy” and “New Measures” and their “controversial spirit and manner” in discussing disputed doctrinal issues only confused the churches. Proselyting those at revivals always proved the most divisive practice.32 Converts were usually “mighty zealous for the traditions of the elders, and very little concerned for the salvation of souls.” In Finney’s view then, the challenge with any revival was to maintain the spirit of unity. Finney pleaded with colleagues to emphasize only the fundamentals of salvation and to exclude sectarian differences.

Hostilities attendant upon revivalistic and benevolent activities, according to historian Whitney Cross, “made up a sectarian hierarchy. All Protestant churches united in condemning Catholics. All evangelical sects united, too, against Universalists and Unitarians. Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians could share their hatred of Christians. Baptist and Presbyterians co-operated in damning Methodists and Free-will Baptists. Presbyterians all too often proved disagreeably intolerant of Baptists. To cap the climax, both Baptists and Presbyterians, particularly the latter, maintained a constant and bitter strife between the enthusiasts and the conservatives in their own ranks.”33 Local newspapers followed the Protestant-Catholic struggle and carried many notices and articles about the threat of Catholicism.

[p.29] Alongside this religious enthusaism, freethought also experienced a resurgence in the 1820s. From 1824 to 1829 Robert Owen’s utopia in New Harmony, Indiana, was meant to be an infidel community. In 1828 the Free Enquirers of New York organized and regularly sponsored lectures for themselves and the public. Within a few months the National Tract Society afforded skeptics a propaganda medium and outlet in the state of New York.34

The new wave of infidelity was recognized only by a few as different from the deism of Paine and others. Tracts written years before against Paine and his followers were reissued to combat the new wave. Conservative Christians in particular warned Americans in 1824 that French infidelity and the Reign of Terrors were not associated in the public mind by accident. Paine was castigated—again—in 1826, and the faithful were assured that God’s wrath would strike down the infidels. The fitting example was William Carver, a deistic pauper, whose condition in life was living proof of freethought’s consequences. “Dying infidel” stories, whose subjects contritely confess lives of shame on their deathbeds, were popular weapons in faith’s arsenal.35

Protestant antagonism showed itself also in political action. Dissenters were refused the right of testifying in court in 1828 because they were thought to be incapable of swearing an oath. When Finney used the name Universalist as a synonym for “ungodliness,” “infidelity,” and “terror,” he struck a sympathetic chord in the burned-over district.36 The religious press applied the name to criminals.

The churches found another cause in common when William Morgan published an exposé of Freemasonry and then mysteriously disappeared.37 Attention focused upon an institution which served many as a church and which formerly had been linked with the Infidel International. Public concern about Masonic secrecy, titles, and ritual centered upon an alleged connection with deism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism.

Congregationalists in New York retained many of their federalist sympathies, sentiments which included a bias against the Masonic lodge. Now they were joined in their outrage by large numbers of pietistically and rationalistically inclined churches and individuals. Since lodge membership carried with it the social and political privilege of the large towns—the urban versus the rural, the professionals against the laborers—the anti-Masonic movement was headed [p.30] more by lay direction than by clerical. Whitney Cross has explained that Presbyterians and others tried to use such released energies more as “a means to develop universal revivalism and reform than [as] an end in itself. Anti-Masonry thus became another gun in the benevolent system’s artillery to convert the world and introduce the millennium.”38

Church action was largely responsible, Finney believed, for the lodges’ almost complete shutdown in western New York. They disbanded and relinquished their charters. By 1830 “the greatest revival the world had then ever seen commenced in the center of the anti-masonic region, and spread over the whole field where the church action had been taken until its converts numbered 100,000 souls.”39

Early nineteenth-century America fostered many religious responses to these cultural and social problems. Two deserve special notice. Both tried to obviate sectarian abuses: the one by abandoning denominational divisions, the other by starting anew. They both shared the millennial hopes and anti-deistic concerns of Protestantism but were scandalized by rampant sectarianism. As an alternative they offered—themselves.

Shakers attributed Europe’s religious wars and America’s religious discord to the belief that the Bible is God’s word for all future ages. Religious strife demonstrated the Bible’s insufficiency. “Instead of the knowledge of the true and quickening Spirit of revelation,” they taught, the orthodox position left people with only human precepts for comfort, left them ignorant of the spiritual life. The dogmatic confinement of spiritual revelations to a book written for former ages is attended by dead formalism in Christendom and a rapid increase in infidelity—proof positive of apostasy: “The idea … that all inspired revelation ceased with the canon of Scripture is inconsistent with both reason and Scripture.” Shakers declared the situation desperate. There was a true church in apostolic times, but it had been displaced. According to them, the great apostasy had begun as early as 457 A.D. the anti-Christ took over during the reign of Leo the Great.40

Joseph Meachem was a former Free-will Baptist preacher who formed the Shaker movement into a communal society in preparation for the impending Millennium. Before his death, communities were set up in New York, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine. By 1825 there were at least twenty communities [p.31] scattered from New England to the western borders of Indiana and Kentucky. In 1827 a Shaker community was formed at Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario just thirty miles from Palmyra, New York.41 According to the Shakers, evidence abounded that the spiritual manifestations of the time fulfilled ancient prophecy that the last days had come. A new work of God was imminent: “The work which God purposed to do in the latter days, was not to be according to the systems of human intervention known and understood among men; but was to be a strange work; and the act which he intended to bring to pass, was to be a strange act, even A MARVELOUS WORK AND A WONDER.”42

The second movement was the restoration sought by the Christian Connection (or Christians) and the Campbellites (or Disciples), both part of what would become America’s largest indigenous religious movement.43 Multiplying church schisms led them to a pole opposite the Shakers. They tried to heal the divisions by scrapping all creeds, confessions, and theological terminology which came after the New Testament. Abandon denominational peculiarities. Bring in the Millennium by restoring a faithful observance of New Testament revelation, they urged, not by seeking new revelation. Return the church to the state prescribed by Jesus.44

The Christians were formed from Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian secessions from parent bodies in 1793, 1800, and 1801. The Christians held to the divinity of Jesus, but many were anti-trinitarian. Their only creed was the Bible and their only name Christian.

The Disciples regarded the laity as spiritually competent and independent, held to an Arminian theology, and defined faith as an intellectual test given to Jesus’ moral principles.45 They saw faith’s essence as obedience to Christ, sympathized with anti-trinitarian sentiments, taught an anthropology which gave people the rational and moral ability to understand and fulfill New Testament demands, and were repulsed by the ordinary revival because of its emotional appeal.

Mario De Pillis has described this struggle among the churches as a “quest for authority.” Christians and Disciples located that authority “in the ability of a congregation to find truth in the scriptures.”46 Shakers found their authority in the restoration of the true church and relied on continuing, present-day revelation to direct its life. By contrast, other Protestants relied upon a body of [p.32] doctrine which they believed agreed with the Bible and taught its principles.

Like Disciples and Christians, Joseph Smith would locate authority in the correct interpretation of the Bible by the church. Like Shakers, he would restore the church and be led to the correct interpretation by new and constant revelation. Like other Protestants, he would see correct doctrine as a mark of the true church. But Smith added something else: a new scripture and a dual priesthood based not on apostolic succession, as in the case of the Roman Catholic claim to authority, but on prophetic succession.47 In response to the turbulence about him, Smith would seek to heal the wounds of sectarianism and defend God against deism, rationalism, and sectarianism, not by revivals but by the experience of personalized revelation.


1. Thomas Paine, Age of Reason: Being An Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, Moncure Daniel Conway, ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898), 23, 183, 199. Part I of Paine’s Age of Reason was first published in 1794, part II in 1796.

2. The following works are invaluable in tracing American deism: G. Adolph Koch, Religion of the American Enlightenment (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1968); Herbert N. Morais, Deism in Eighteenth Century America (New York: Russell & Russell, 1934); Albert Post, Popular Freethought in America, 1825-1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943); Martin E. Marty, The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion (Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1961).

3. Compare comments on Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew in Robert T. Handy, Lefferts A. Loetscher, and H. Shelton Smith, American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 1:382.

4. Unitarianism shifted grounds many times since then. The older Unitarians taught what was called “modal trinitarianism,” known usually as Sabellianism: God appeared first in the mode of Father, then as Son, then as Holy Spirit. These were three consecutive appearances rather than simultaneous being—as the orthodox doctrine teaches.

5. The use of “pietist” follows Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

6. “Established” means that a church body was supported by the state. The established church in Massachusetts was the Congregational Church. This was the kind of support against which the constitutional amendment [p.33]was directed. By 1820 the last state to comply with the amendment finally disestablished its favored church.

7. Mead, 39-42.

8. Charles A., Mary R., and William Beard, New Basic History of the United States (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1960), 162.

9. Mead, 57.

10. The book was written in France while Paine was imprisoned by the Jacobin regime. Paine wanted to show that belief in God did not require acceptance of doctrines and churches which drove people to infidelity and to the excesses of the Jacobins. Page references from the 1898 reprint of Paine’s book will appear in the text.

11. “Letter to a Friend,” 27 May 1797; in Paine, Age of Reason, 199.

12. Morais, 137-39.

13. Koch, 114-29. An “infidel” club was formed about 1794 on the Genesee River on the site of what would later be Scottsville. It had a circulating library “composed of the works of Voltaire, Volney, Hume, Payne [sic], and others of a similar character. No church of the Presbyterian or Congregational order existed in this place till March 1822.”James H. Hotchkin, A History of the Purchase and Settlement of Western New York, and the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Presbyterian Church in That Region (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1848), 90. This was west of the Smiths’ home at Palmyra.

14. Koch, 239-84; cf. Morais, 159-78.

15. Koch, 281-84.

16. For example, they still retained belief in the Bible as special revelation. Compare Koch, chap. 8, and Marty, The Infidel, chap. 6.

17. Hosea Ballou, A Treatise on Atonement (Randoph, VT: Serano Wright, 1805). This book was available in Palmyra bookstores.

18. Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950), 6.

19. Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America: An Historical Account of the Development of American Religious Life (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), 133.

20. Hotchkin, 24-29.

21. Quoted by William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religions in America (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1930), 324.

22. From 1825 to 1827 the American Tract Society, in its first two years of existence, printed 44 million pages and kept 43 million east of the Allegheny Mountains. By 1835 it had printed almost 30 million tracts. Three-fourths of this output stayed in New York. Cross, 25.

23. Palmyra Register, 18 Aug. 1818.

24. The Methodist Magazine (New York) regularly printed reports of the [p.34]Bible societies. Cf. vol. 4 (1821), 312.

25. Hotchkin, 74, 79-118.

26. Cross, 7.

27. Cross, 17-18, 44. David Marks, a young Free-will Baptist evangelist, preached twice in West Bloomfield one Sunday in 1823 “and was much opposed by a Universalist.” In April 1827, he “attended a debate, that was appointed to be held between a Calvinistic Baptist and a Universalist.” Marks, The Life of David Marks to the 26th Year of His Life (Limerick, ME: Office of the Morning Star, 1831), 161, 233.

28. Ernest Cassara, Universalism in America: A Documentary History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 128.

29. Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Oberlin, OH: E. J. Goodrich, 1868), 171.

30. Koch, 292.

31. Cross, 79.

32. Finney, 211,312, 192-93, 381, 153, 267, 189.

33. Cross 43.

34. Post, 24, 80, 122.

35. Ibid., 210, 203, n. 17, 76, 221-22, 204-205.

36. Finney, 119, 196.

37. Freemasonry Exposed and Explained (New York: William Brisbane, 1826).

38. Cross, 123.

39. Finney, 284.

40. Testimony of Christ’s Second Appearing, Exemplified by the Principles and Practice of the True Church of Christ, 4th ed. (Albany: The United Society [Shakers], 1856), 592, iii, 460-62. First ed., 1808; second, 1810; third, 1823.

41. Ibid., xi.

42. Hudson, 183-85.

43. Hudson, 122-24; F. E. Mayer, The Religious Bodies of America (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 371-86.

44. Mayer, 383.

45. Note the influence of John Locke at work here.

46. Mario DePillis, “The Quest for Religious Authority and the Rise of Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Spring 1966): 74.

47. Ibid., 77.