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.
Many new religious groups sprang up in response to this spiritual longing. The spirit of revivalism stimulated a personal, emotional engagement with God. Although new groups often shared theological concepts with more mainstream churches, innovation could lead well beyond the acceptable boundaries of Christian orthodoxy.
Included among the many new groups to emerge under these circumstances were the Mormons. Early Mormonism clearly reflects the social and religious milieu of western New York during the Second Great Awakening, an area known as the "burned-over district" for the intensity of religious activity. Joseph Smith's theology brought together a large number of ideas already in circulation. This was part of its appeal to converts near and far. Yet it was also a distinctly new creation.
Despite an abundance of contemporary records, the task of tracing the sources of Mormon theology is a difficult one. There are several reasons for this. Among Mormonism's core beliefs are its claim to embody a "restored" Christian gospel, and its claim to continuing revelation. Both of these beliefs tend to obscure lines of demonstrable intellectual influence. Smith dictated revelations without explaining the underlying thought processes, if there were any. Nor did he ever write a carefully argued theological treatise. Moreover, Smith's lack of formal education or theological training makes it difficult to trace the impact of particular authors and writings he may have encountered.
It must also be borne in mind that Mormonism in 1830, the year of its official organization, resembled evangelical religion much more closely than did the Mormonism of 1844, the year of Smith's death. In 1830 Smith's theology was still in many ways compatible with the restorationist and millennialist streams of contemporary Protestantism. To that foundation was added, however, a second layer of restorationism, a distinctly Hebraic understanding of ritual authority and communal identity. A third layer was added in the final years of Smith's life, expanding the idea of restorationism into a more esoteric realm concerned with matters of afterlife and salvation.
1. Why was the timing of the Second Great Awakening important to the formation of Mormonism?
2. What reform movements were taking place at the time of Mormonism's origins? How did they shift the nation's consciousness?
3. Why is it difficult to trace the sources of Mormonism's theology?
4. What can be said about the relationship between evangelicalism and Mormonism (at its origin)?