The founding and expansion of the Latter-Day Saints represents certain core values in the American frontier experience.
The Old Testament Book of Daniel provided justification for the construction of Zion, a New Jerusalem on American shores: “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” (2.44) Similarly, the Book of Mormon declares, “…I will fortify this land against all other nations. And he that fighteth against Zion shall perish, saith God.” Joseph Smith’s beliefs came out of the American Second Great Awakening and, as such, bear all of the hallmarks of an American frontier religion.
Founding of the Mormons
They are called Mormons and had a humble beginning in Palmyra, New York. Like other distinctly American groups focusing on millennial promises, the Mormons were looked upon with suspicion and fear. Like Shaker communities, Mormons did not turn away free blacks. As with Shakers, Mormons offered a unique communal experience that equalized all members.
The early life of Joseph Smith hardly points to his later years as a founder and leader of an enduring religion. According to historian Page Smith, he was, “a rather feckless youth, given to tall tales and digging for buried treasure.” As a teenager, however, Smith underwent a “conversion experience” that included visions and, ultimately, the ability to translate hitherto unknown events from golden plates.
Joseph Smith translated the golden plates provided to him by the angel Moroni in 1827. This was the beginning of the Book of Mormon. By 1837 the American nation sank into severe depression – a “panic” that seemed to mock individualism and capitalism. The established historical churches – both Protestant and Catholic, were part of the old world system rejected by Smith and by other prophets establishing Utopian communities in the wake of social and economic uncertainty. Historian Page Smith notes that, “…those whom life dealt a bad hand, the church of the Latter-Day Saints offered fresh hope.”
Connecting Jesus to America
For Smith’s Mormons, a new belief for a latter age brought Jesus to the New World on the terms of that New World. God’s son preached to the Native Americans and, in so doing, interjected God more directly into the American experience than any old world religion could have done. Mormon communities were theocratic and highly organized.
Under Joseph Smith’s leadership, the church rapidly grew. Opposition from neighbors, however, established a pattern of continual westward migration to Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Mormon beliefs were perceived as a threat by the established faith traditions, such as the practice of plural marriage. In Missouri, a slave state, part of the anti-Mormon feelings derived from the Latter-Day Saints’ view regarding free blacks.
The Church Moves West
Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by an angry mob in 1844. Their westward migration continued under the leadership of Brigham Young. The Mormons settled in Utah where they were able to establish their “kingdom” without outside interference. By the late 1850’s, however, under the presidency of James Buchanan, U.S. troops arrived in Utah, determined to force compliance with U.S. laws; the successful completion of the earlier Mexican War in 1847 brought the territory under U.S. control.
Joseph Smith was a charismatic leader and a visionary. A product of the Second Great Awakening, he forged a church organization that had broad appeal. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier commented that, “They contrast strongly the miraculous power of the gospel in the Apostolic times with the present state of our nominal Christianity.” Smith, in early 1844, declared himself a presidential candidate, but his intention never led to serious consideration. Mormon theology conflicts with historical Christianity, but its founding and experience is uniquely American.
- Brian J.L. Berry, America’s Utopian Experiments: Communal Havens From Long-Wave Crises (Dartmouth College: University Press of New England, 1992)
- Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992)
- Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years, Volume Four (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)