Saints, Sinners and Reformers
The Burned-Over District Re-Visited
The Angel Moroni and Mormonism in New York State
The Burned-Over District of New York spawned one religious revival after
another in the decades between 1820 and 1850. Revivalism, Millennialism,
Spiritualism followed each other, often overlapping and partaking of similar
elements. There was a credulity at the time (and at other times as well,
no doubt) which led individuals from one religious impulse to another.
There was a spiritual yearning for answers to the questions and problems
of this world and a concern about any future existence which might be
faced after this life. There also existed a willingness to follow any
one who seemed to have answers, be it Charles Grandison Finney, William
Miller, the Fox sisters, or a new, self-proclaimed prophet, Joseph Smith,
who appeared on the scene in Palmyra, New York. The very early followers
of Joseph Smith came from among the religious restless, the dissatisfied,
who succumbed easily to the religious emotionalism of the times. They
had been exposed to the popular religious awakenings of the day with the
expectations for the life beyond this worldly realm. The traditional theology
of Christianity was not of great interest to these seeker for answer,
and they were susceptible to explanations which moved beyond the traditional
Biblical basis of the various Christian faiths. Thus the beliefs of Joseph
Smith were to find a small following in New York before the new faith
of Mormonism moved beyond the borders of New York and its future growth.
Young Joseph Smith was an unlikely candidate for the role of a prophet.
His family were drifters from Vermont and New Hampshire who were always
on the move, his father having relocated the family some nineteen times
in a ten year period. The family was barely literate, and they were addicted
to the unusual, the marvelous, the miraculous, and to revelations. The
mother suffered from epilepsy, as did some of her children, and she was
addicted to a neurotic religiosity. She was given to visions, and she
held a hope that one son might have a messianic career. Her religious
enthusiasm was instilled in her children as well. The family eventually
ended in west-central New York State in Palmyra in 1816 when Joseph was
ten, an area of the Burned-Over District which had the usual fairly high
level of superstition. One of these superstitions concerned glass-like
stones which existed in the area, and these were called "magic" or "peek"
stones. The father and the boys spent much of their time with dowsing
rods and "peek stones" which they believed could locate buried or stolen
treasures. Joseph found one of these "peek stones" and he was convinced
that it would give him powers which others did not have. The family was
also convinced that gold could be found at the proper turn of the moon,
and thus much of their time was concerned in the seeking of wealth.
Meantime the family existed in poverty, squatting on land in a four room
log cabin. Joseph thus had little schooling since all in the family had
to help in their economic survival. He could read easily, but his writing
was halting and not truly of a literate standard. He had only the rudiments
of arithmetic. He was often the but of practical jokes in the neighborhood
since others considered him as not quite bright. As a result he compensated
with fanciful claims to powers and wealth which others did not have. In
the 1820s when Finney's revivals were sweeping central New York, Joseph's
mother had the family attend revivals, changing their denomination according
to the current revival which affected her the most. Joseph as an adolescent
attended these revivals, and he soon began to have visions. At one revival
he had a conversion experience, and a brilliant light revealed to him
God and Jesus. In this revelation, God and Jesus the Saviour told him
that all religions were false and none should be believed. His mother
grew quite excited over this revelation; the family left the Presbyterian
church they were attending, and his mother encouraged him to create a
new bible and a new church. She also spread the account of this revelation,
and the family eagerly awaited additional revelations. In the religious
excitement which followed the many revivals ranging across western New
York, there were those who were eager to follow any one who had contact
with God or Jesus. Thus to some, Joseph was the prophet and favored of
God, the founder of an only true church. To others, he was a charlatan,
a self-deceived zealot who was affected by epilepsy and dementia praecox.
Other visions soon followed for Joseph Smith. Smith claimed that the
angel Moroni had appeared to him and revealed that a Bible of the New
World lay hidden. In time he would be permitted to unearth it, but the
time was not yet. Seven years later the angel Moroni, on September 22,
1827, granted him permission to unearth this Bible of the New World from
a spot on a hill near Palmyra, New York. Digging at that spot, he said
he found golden plates in a stone box. On these plates was an unusual
script which the barely educated Smith realized were in the hieroglyphics
of the Reformed Egyptian language. Fortunately the plates came with two
crystals named "Urim" and "Thummen" were set in silver to form a bowl-like
set of spectacles. These magic spectacles, not unlike the "magic" or "peek"
stones with which the family was enthralled, enabled him to read the Reformed
Egyptian text and turn it into unreformed English—"unreformed English"
since the early translation of this "text" was not in the most literate
Smith claimed that he spent two years behind a curtain dictating the
translation to assistants who took down his words as he deciphered the
"reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics." This was truly a remarkable event since
the scholarly French Jean Francois Champollion was at work deciphering
the Rosetta Stone with its hieroglyphics, at about this time, but without
the benefit of "magic crystals," the first time that the Egyptian written
language could be read. When Smith had completed his translation, the
angel Moroni re-appeared and removed the golden plates and the magical
crystal glasses forever. No evidence remains that the plates ever existed.
Moreover, Smith gave conflicting accounts of the find. He was to describe
the plates in various ways, ranging from simply metallic plates, then
to golden plates, and finally to engraved golden plates.
In 1830 Smith's new American Bible, The Book of Mormon, the
purported account given on the golden plates, was published. The money
for its publication came from Martin Harris, one of the four transcribers
to whom he had dictated from behind the curtain. When pressed as to whether
he and the other three transcribers had seen the plates, Harris admitted
that they had seen them "with the eyes of faith"—in other words,
they had never actually viewed the plates behind the curtain. The first
edition of The Book of Mormon listed its authorship as "Joseph
Smith, Jr., Author and Proprietor." This claim to authorship was omitted
in later editions since the authorship ostensibly belonged to the angel
Moroni and not the "translator," Joseph Smith. The text of The Book
of Mormon was later enhanced by other more literate followers after
the faith had moved west. Five thousand copies of this first edition of
the book were published, but it did not sell well. By special revelation
the price was then reduced to $1.25 a copy.
The Book of Mormon filled a "gap" in American history which
many local citizens of central New York found far-fetched. It gives the
history of America from the first early settlements of the continent until
the years beginning in the fifth century A.D. The first American settlers,
it claims, were the Jaredites, the people dispersed at the time of the
Biblical Tower of Babel. They fell to warring among themselves until there
were no survivors left. The second settlers of the American continent
were the Lamanites, a worthless and warlike people with dark skins—the
American Indians. Then came the Nephites, God's Chosen People, and war
existed between the Lamanites and the Nephites for centuries. Eventually
all the Nephites were killed except Mormon, his son Moroni, and a few
others. Moroni collected the record of these people, which they had written
in the hieroglyphics of the Reformed Egyptian tongue, and he buried these
records at the Hill Cumorah in what would become Ontario County, New York.
There they would remain until a true prophet would eventually find them.
In the fullness of time, that prophet, Joseph Smith, appeared.
One can be struck by a number of things where The Book of Mormon
is concerned. Both Moses and Joseph Smith ascended a hill to be rewarded
with tablets of the truth of God. Both were seen as leaders of their people
and the founders of their faith. Actually, the text is a mixture of many
strands common at the time. Much of the original text is in the King James
Bible style of English, as Joseph would have been familiar with the spoken
version of the Bible from church services, and it is thus a reflection
of the Christian Bible with many Biblical ideas. Ostensibly the record
was written by the angel Moroni, but where it departs from the language
of the King James scriptures it is ungrammatical, repetitive, and awkward.
It is the language one would expect from one of Smith's educational level.
Later revisions of the text by others were to enhance the language, the
grammar, and the flow of the text.
In addition, the book reflects the religious ideas and the social activities
of the 1820s. Its oaths are close to those of the anti-Masonic movement
of the times, and almost every religious concern and error under discussion
in the decade of the 1820s can be found here, particularly those ideas
of the Campbellite dogma and the perfectionism of the time. The Campbellite
doctrines of Protestant Christianity reflect the influence of Sidney Rigdon,
one of the most influential of Smith's early converts who had been a Campbellite
minister after having been a Baptist and a Disciple minister. The text
also reflects aspects of Shakespearean language such as one heard from
traveling actors who appeared in New York State towns. The question also
arises as to how much of the account is based on an unpublished novel
by an eccentric Presbyterian minister, Solomon Spaulding, which details
the supposed origins of the American Indians.
In 1830 Smith's first church was chartered under New York State law in
Fayetteville, New York, and Smith announced that by angelic baptism he
had been ordained as first Elder of this new church with the power to
ordain assistants. Once again, the influence of Sidney Rigdon is evident
here, for Smith could not have organized and sustained a church without
professional assistance. The Burned-Over District, fertile as it was for
religious experimentation, was not willing to accept Mormonism. Smith
was too well known in the Palmyra area to be taken seriously, and thus
the church did not succeed and it was to have little effect on western
New York in its time. Only about one hundred members joined before the
church moved the following year to the west, first to Kirtland, Ohio (near
Cleveland), from 1831 to 1837, and then to Illinois. In Kirtland a better
educated membership evolved, and The Book of Mormon began its
re-written and eventual form.
One other aspect should be mentioned, and that is the sexual element
which often found its way into religious groups at this time, as witness
the various free-love groups in Berlin Heights, Ohio (near Cleveland),
on Long Island, and elsewhere. That other aspect is the doctrine of polygamy.
Smith himself is said to have been "sealed" (the term used for Mormon
multiple marriages) to eight women, and at the time of his murder in Illinois
he is reputed to have been "sealed" to thirty-three women. At first this
polygamy was reserved for Smith and a small privileged hierarchy, but
this blessing was later extended to other males of the faith.
Financial manipulation forced the faithful to move on. Smith had started
a bank which violated the banking laws of Ohio, and he had to flee the
State from the authorities who would have indicted him. Thus began the
so-called "persecution" of Smith and his followers, a persecution which
became more real in Illinois where Smith was murdered. Mormonism quickly
continued its westward movement, and thus its future is not the concern
of this account of activities based in western New York.
Today the Hill Cumorah near Palmyra, New York, is a center of modern
Mormon history, and every August there is a great pageant which re-enacts
early American history, according to The Book of Mormon. That
history begins in Jerusalem in the year 600 B.C., moves on to Jesus' supposed
visit to America in 34 A.D., and culminates in the restoration of Christ's
kingdom under Joseph Smith from 1823 to 1827. A reception center at Hill
Cumorah offers literature on Mormonism, and members of the faithful are
present and anxious to explain the faith and to welcome converts.
Religious experimentation did not end with Mormonism
The Fox sisters were to make their mark with Spiritualism, William Miller
was to foretell the imminent Millennium to occur in the 1840s, and the
Adventist and various Churches of God would arise from this Millennialism.
These in turn would be followed by other experimental religious and communal
movements, most notably the communal religious Oneida Society in 1848.
In one sense, the religious impulse of the 1820s to the 1850s all involved
a form of perfectionism in which one hoped to become as perfect as one's
Father in Heaven. This concept of perfectionism was to grow beyond the
churches to establish itself in secular movements which aimed to perfect
society, from the temperance movement to the anti-slavery impulse to the
Women's Rights movement, to the eventual attempt to save the world for
Democracy in the twentieth century. In one sense, these secular reformers
were the extreme descendents of the old time revivalism and the Arminianism
of the Methodists and Baptists who took Wesley's belief that man could
save himself by his own efforts through religious faith. The new reformers
also felt that one could save oneself and society, but it became a movement
outside of the churches as will be discussed in the next section.
Neither Roman Catholicism nor Judaism have been discussed in the context
of the Burned-Over District, and that is because neither of these two
religions had that many adherents in upstate New York prior to the years
before the Civil War. The Irish Catholics came primarily after the 1848
famines, the Italian Catholics came after the 1848 revolutions, as did
those who were Jewish and wished to move to a land of greater opportunity,
freedom, and, hopefully, toleration of their beliefs. Much can be said
of the difficulties these groups faced in the New World and the length
of time it took them to be accepted into the mainstream of American life.
One of the curiosities for Roman Catholicism, however, is the action
taken by the higher clergy of the Church in America. Fearful that the
faithful would become Protestants if they spread across a country which
was primarily Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the Bishops encouraged their charges
to remain in the large cities which were growing under industrialization.
Thus the faithful would remain within the influence of the Church. As
a result, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and the burgeoning
cities of the Mohawk Valley stretching to Detroit and Chicago were to
become Catholic strongholds in time. As little-educated individuals on
their arrival in America, working in the newly-created factories of the
industrial revolution after the Civil War, with their long hours, scanty
pay, and no benefits, they were, in a sense, condemned to the lowest paying
jobs and had little political influence before the twentieth century when
their status in society was to change.
But that is another story and not one for this account based on the Burned-Over
Barkun, Michael. Crucible of the Millennium: The
Burned-Over District of New York in the 1840s. Cornell University
Press. Ithaca, New York. 1964.
Cross, Whitney R. The Burned-Over District, the Social
and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York,
1800-1850. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York. 1950.
Sperry, W. L. Religion in America. Macmillan.
New York. 1946.
Sweet, William W. Revivalism in America: Its Origins,
Growth, and Decline. Scribner, New York. 1944.
Sweet, William W. The Story of Religion in America.
Harpers, New York. 1950.
Tyler, Alice. Freedom's Ferment: Phases of American
Social History until 1860. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis,