The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

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Saints, Sinners and Reformers

The Burned-Over District Re-Visited


John H. Martin

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers

Chapter 9

Joseph Smith

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 of English.

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 District.

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers
© 2005, John H. Martin

Further Readings

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, Minnesota. 1944.

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