The World Into Which Mormonism Was Born

It was a place and a time where there was an outpouring of religious expression, where seers and prophets roamed the countryside, each claiming to possess God's truth.

Jon Butler
Jon Butler is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University and a professor of American history.

Smith came out of an extraordinary spiritual hothouse that was the result of the American Revolution -- an unintended result, but a result nonetheless. Why? Because Americans were freed by the First Amendment of the federal Constitution to create their own religion aside from the government, aside from the state.

It produced exceptional results. It revivified religion in America. It led to revivals; it led to visions created by many kinds of revivalists, especially Methodist itinerants who created their visits to heaven, their visits to hell, and they discussed Methodism with their potential converts in the 1810s and '20s.

So Smith's enunciation of visions in his own world, his reception of revelations that created the Book of Mormon, was not particularly unusual. Smith was also not unusual in his organizational genius. He, in fact, was a latecomer in the world of organization, but he perfected it by following the example of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, all of whom developed extraordinary organizational schemes to boost the place of their own religious groups inside 19th-century American society. ...

And it was a modern America; it was a plural America; it was a visionary America; it was a difficult America; it was a contentious America. All of these groups competed with each other. They competed for attention; they competed for religious space; they competed for visionary acumen; they competed to define who they were as a people. And in many regards they succeeded, because by the time of the Civil War, America was a society in which religion was more powerful rather than less powerful than it had been at the time of the American Revolution. ...

Michael Coe
Michael Coe, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Yale University, is an expert on the Central American region where Mormons have searched for evidence supporting the Book of Mormon.

... The 19th century and the passion for archaeology, the questions that were being asked -- locate Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon in that world.

The world that Joseph Smith lived in, in upstate New York, the so-called Burned-Over District, where all of these new religions were popping up, was one where there were vestiges of ancient Americans -- I mean, real archeological sites with mounds -- and these were found all through the area that he traveled through; in Ohio especially, incredible mound sites. We could now know what cultures they belong to.

In his day ... the theory was, among most white Americans, that this had nothing to do with the American Indians that they saw around them, that they were made by other races who had come over. There are all sorts of theories: They could be Jews or Welshmen or Vikings or what have you [who] had made those mounds. ...

Of course the basis of it is totally racist -- the idea that Native Americans, the dark-skinned people, could not do this by themselves, and it had to be light-skinned people. That's very much part of what was in Smith's mind at that time. So it was no surprise that he came up with this idea that the Angel Moroni had come to him and told him about these ancient Nephites and Lamanites and Jaredites and so forth. It was all kind of pre-adapted; he was pre-adapted to this, let's say. ...

Sarah Barringer Gordon
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in 19th Century America.

If you want to think about the fertility of religion and the early 19th century, think of mushroom soil -- the richest stuff you can imagine, that will grow almost anything -- and there you have what it was like to be a believer in the early 19th century. Things were sprouting up all around you, and you could stick your own shovel in, and it might grow roots. It was incredible.

The outpouring of religious expression in a new environment of religious freedom -- really, lack of control is probably a better word. No one had ever seen a government that didn't put its stamp on religion before, and certainly by 1800 in Mid-Atlantic States -- New York, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania -- there were no established faiths. In the other states -- North and South Carolina, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut -- establishments were either all but crumbling or incredibly weak, so anything could happen, and it did. That's the atmosphere, this supercharged fertility, in which Mormonism was born. It's a very exciting period.

Vivify that landscape for me, some of the characters.

Well, one of the interesting things is you saw all kinds of people doing all kinds of different things. Joseph Smith using divining rods -- he wasn't the only one. ... One of the most interesting people of all was Charles Grandison Finney, who was a recovering lawyer. He had a searing, devastating religious awakening while practicing law, left the practice of law but kept many of those habits. He preached in a business suit, for example, and he described himself as arguing to a jury for his client, Jesus. ...

Ken Verdoia
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.

I'm not a theologian, but what the American experience represents in these first decades of the 1800s is a fertile field of religious thought. For the first time there is no establishment of religion. All bets are off; you are free to follow your heart, your mind, your soul, if you will, in a new direction. All that might hold forth a new vision are welcome to convey that vision to the masses. ... The fact that that dialogue could play out is playing out almost uniquely in this section of the United States for the first time at least in the context of at least European history. That makes it a fertile field.

Could you see also how this "fertile field" might have been scary -- not just to the general population, but to Joseph Smith himself? When he first prayed in the grove, he asked God to "tell me what is the right church." Do you think Joseph could have been confused by the dizzying richness and variety of religious expression around him?

We go back to the roots of the Burned-Over District [in upstate New York, where Smith lived]; everything that had come through seemed so transitory. One reverend would arrive one summer, the fires would burn brightly, and then he would be gone. The next summer there would be a different take coming through, and right on the heels of that a new preacher bringing a new vision, a new sense, a new sentiment. So there was always this sense of being transitory, and Joseph Smith evolved out of that era, sinks roots that grow deep, although the church becomes a bit of a tumbleweed. ...