The South Park episode “All About the Mormons” gives a relatively accurate secular historical description of the founding of the Mormon religion. However, while a hilarious rendition of the story, it understandably leaves out the cultural and political context in which Mormonism emerged. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was a product of the 19th century American political ideology, Manifest Destiny, a belief that America had a unique destiny to rule the continent of North America, ever expanding westward. In addition, Mormonism was one of the numerous movements which emerged during a period of religious revivalism known as the (Second) Great Awakening. These included the Shakers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Seventh-Day Adventists. There are three more periods termed “Great Awakenings” in American history, these include one beginning in England, and moved to America during the colonial period, which lead to the creation of Methodism, another during the 1850s, and one more beginning in the 1960’s. These periods of religious revivalism had been involved with both positive and negative causes, such as the Abolition of Slavery, as well as the Temperance Movement. Each of these created new religious denominations, and in some cases, arguably, new faiths. Mormonism was one of these, it emerged as a cult of American Exceptionalism, and believed in that America had a unique destiny to rule the continental West, if not North America.
However, first, one should examine the other, less successful, religious movements which evolved out of the Great Awakenings. Beginning in England and migrating to America, the Shakers reached their zenith around the same time as Joseph Smith founded Mormonism. As Smith’s religious organization refers to itself as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Shakers called themselves The Believers. One of their hymns, Simple Gifts, is in the repertoire of many different Christian Churches. However, the Shakers believed that sexual intercourse, even for procreation, was morally wrong. They increased their numbers through adoption and proselytizing. Interestingly, the majority of Shakers have always been women, in the 19th century, this was due to limited occupations. At the age of 18, those adopted into the church could choose to leave the religion. However, while mistrusted initially, the Shakers came to be seen as a benefit to the orphanages, as they would teach the orphans trades, usually carpentry if male and quilt-making and embroidery if female, as well as basic literacy, all a major step ahead for a 19th century orphan. The Shakers lost major numbers when religions were no longer permitted to adopt, for obvious reasons on both points. There is one Shaker village left today, with twelve residents, it maintains a small farm and operates essentially as a bed and breakfast. Another movement, the Oneida (not to be confused with the Aboriginal tribe of the same name), eventually secularized in 1881, and became Oneida Limited, the cutlery company. One curious group which emerged at the same time were called the Millerites.
The Millerites were the followers of William Miller, they emerged in a region of Western New York State, called the Burned Over District, known for the high conversion rates during the Second Great Awakening. This term held a dual meaning, one, the number of converts had “burned over”, or dried up, and two, a metaphor for the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Millerites people eventually abandoned Miller, following what was called “The Great Disappointment”. Miller had accumulated over 60,000 followers, possibly up to half a million, and contended the world would end on October 22nd, 1844. The “Great Disappointment” was when nothing happened on October 22nd, 1844. Miller’s followers eventually formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and exerted some influence on the teachings of Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Bible Student Movement, which became the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Second Great Awakening gave rise to a number of small religious denominations which exist to this very day. Similar to mainstream Christianity in one why or another, but, are a unique product of European settlement in North America, rather the Reformation, or previous Christian movements. The most successful of the newly emerged denominations were the Mormons, albeit, this came unexpectedly.
Joseph Smith grew up in the Burned Over district. A belief in Mormonism is that originally, Native Americans were white; in addition, they were Jews from Jerusalem. Those who rebelled against God, according to the Book of Mormon, defeated those who did not, and were punished with dark skin. Under this narrative, European settlement in North America was not new colonization, but rather, reclaiming territory that had been lost to heathen, rebels against God. Joseph Smith was known as an untrustworthy fellow, prone to telling outlandish stories. After meeting consternation from the local populace in New York, and then Ohio and Missouri, he moved his followers again and founded a colony called Nauvoo, in Illinois. Smith created a large militia known as the Nauvoo Legion, a force of roughly 2,500 men. For reference, the pre-1861 U.S. Army was slightly more than twice that number. He was eventually murdered by an angry mob in 1844, and is regarded as a martyr and prophet to Mormons. The next man to lead the Mormon Church was named Brigham Young, who would lead the Mormons to what would be their Promised Land.
Brigham Young lead a massive pioneering expedition from Nauvoo to what is now called Utah, leading 70,000 people a distance of ~1,500 miles. What made the Mormons so unpopular was their practice of polygamy. Brigham Young also instituted a new dogma in the faith contending the Mark of Cain as described in Genesis chapter four referred to Africans, banning them from the Priesthood. Note, the rite of Priesthood in Mormonism is different from the notion of clerical status in Christianity, Mormon Priesthood is akin to the Christian rite of Confirmation, or the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. In 1857, a wagon train of non-Mormons came into Utah. Brigham Young’s militia, still called the Nauvoo Legion, ambushed and killed ~150 of these pioneers, this event came to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Utah had been recently granted Territory status by the U.S. government, with Brigham Young as governor. The influx of non-Mormon immigrants had broken Young’s hold on the region. What ensued was called the Utah War, where the Mormons waged a brief guerrilla campaign against the U.S. Army. After several skirmishes, Brigham Young surrendered in Salt Late City in 1858. In the 1890 Manifesto, the Mormon Church officially abolished polygamy, largely due to Federal pressure; views on Black people were not abolished until after the Civil Rights Movement. When Utah applied for statehood in 1895, it was granted, however, an explicit law against the practice of polygamy was required. Despite early grievances, by their settlement of the Utah territory, comprising parts of or the whole of six U.S. states, the Mormons were responsible for adding a vast swathe of land to the United States.
The Second Great Awakening created a diverse array of new religious movements, several of which exist to this day, some with tens of millions of members. The Mormons in particular reflected 19th century political trends within the United States, and perhaps, within American culture itself, namely, the idea of Manifest Destiny. Furthermore, direct settlements by the Mormons were an important part of the history of the American West, settling a large area of land which was brought into the United States. The Shakers, the Millerites, and others grew out of the same period of religious revivalism as Mormonism, and achieved varying degrees of success. The successors of the Millerites, the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have millions of members today, despite being theologically influenced by a fellow who was convinced through his Bible study the world would end on October 22nd, 1844. What is so interesting about Great Awakenings in American history is their seeming cyclical nature, they seem to occur every 50-100 years in America. The frightening aspect of the anti-reason, anti-scientific character of the American political and social sphere today is not its unique nature, but rather, its commonalities with the past.