Written by: Stephen Taysom
As the 18th century came to a close, the prospects for American Christianity were less than encouraging. Memories of the Protestant revivals known as the First Great Awakening had long receded into memory, and the turmoil of the Revolutionary War era had taken a toll on religious life. Less than 10 percent of the population belonged to a church. This apparent state of decline, however, did not last long. The early decades of the new century brought a concentration of religious activity scarcely matched in any comparable period of world history. Now known as the Second Great Awakening, this period provides the general backdrop for the emergence of Mormonism.
Many different forces and circumstances coalesced to create an intense religious environment. Americans experienced social upheaval that affected every area of life. Disintegration of traditional structures and forms of authority fed into a spirit of opportunity, creativity, and competition. Established churches lost their privileged status and became like any other church or sect.
The sense of a new dawn, a new beginning, extended from the political to the religious sphere. It brought optimism and energy. Old hierarchies were replaced with populist, egalitarian visions of social life. Amid the turbulence of a society undergoing rapid, wrenching transformation, religion emerged as a potent force that both reflected and helped shape the wider social and intellectual currents.
One of the lasting developments during this period was the flourishing of an evangelical Protestantism that formed a united front. Competition coexisted with cooperation among the branches of Protestantism until the 1830s, when denominationalism asserted itself.
Central to the changing landscape of American Protestantism in the early 1800s was the voluntary association, a form of elective affiliation created for a certain purpose and, unlike earlier eras, not directed by the state or ecclesiastical authorities. Reform movements sprang up, addressing all sorts of social ills. Foreign and home missions, Sunday School, temperance, Sabbath-keeping, and prison reform are some of the causes taken up within the "benevolent empire" of Protestants. The cause of moral renewal merged the interests of churches with the needs of the new nation.
Theologically, too, the early decades of the 19th century were an unusually active, creative period. Notions of time and society were deeply impacted by a number of widespread theological currents. Many longed for a return to a primordial, distant past, and sought to implement this primitivism by recreating New Testament Christianity. Primitivism was often associated not only with the past, but the future as well, in the form of millennial expectations focusing on the imminent return of Christ.
Some religious groups reacted to the social disintegration by creating new forms of communal living. Others declared themselves independent seekers, dissatisfied with all existing claims to religious authority and truth. It was a time of visionaries and of self-declared prophets; many longed for a more powerful religious experience than was provided in the existing churches.