Little more than a century ago our church had its beginnings in the pioneer village of Palmyra in western New York. The history we have made in the succeeding years has been vivid, colorful, and distinctive; so much so that thousands of writers have piled up books, pamphlets, magazine articles, sermons, novels, stories, and plays in such number that it would take a library to hold them all. Collectors to whom the ecclesiasticism of the church has meant nothing have seized upon its early publications with avidity, until book dealers issue special catalogues of "Mormon" in fabulous figures. Zealous ministers of almost every other faith under the sun have added their rabid contributions and kindled many a fire, the acrid smoke of whose burning still obscures the clear facts of history. Peeved and disgruntled dissenters from our own ranks have occasionally added gossipy exposes, some of which have run into many undeserved editions. And eager but undiscriminating students have enriched the world with their "scientific" and psychological studies of "Mormonism." Even the novelist, eschewing the drab toils of religious controversy as the plague, has persistently distorted the history of this much maligned people to suit his own ideas of romance.
Out of the resulting mass of conflicting ideas, of counter statements and irrelevant debris, it becomes our pleasant task to sift the grains of truth. Says Matthew Arnold, "The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them." But to the few who may, lost in the maze of what has been said, earnestly wonder what men have seen in this strange religion which has made it seem worthy to live and to die by (sometimes all too literally); to those who, schooled in half-truths, have honestly asked why thousands of their fellow creatures have chosen to believe in it, rest in it, and give their lives for it, a re-telling of the story may be worth-while.
The institution which is the subject of this history has meant many things to many people, a mighty imposture, the dizzy dream of a master fanatic, the queer structure of a megalomaniac, the eternal plan of salvation. The artist, whose vision is always clearer than he knows, has seen there the stuff of drama: suspense, crisis, human error and disappointment, high hope, sterling courage, black despair. All the elements of real drama are there, and to those who know the story best, back of it all, inspiration and motive, the inspiration of the gospel restored, and motive--the Zionic ideal, that like the leitmotif in a Wagnerian opera comes singing up in every generation, over and over again, perhaps only to fade away in discordant notes. Our critics have missed more than all else this Zion-melody in their telling, perhaps because its notes have not been clear enough, but the fact remains that without it, the story would scarcely be worth telling, for the greatest heritage we have from our fathers who wrote the story of their faith in blood and tears, is the belief that this leitmotif, this plea for universal brotherhood, will someday rise at last to a grand triumphal chant--the glorious finale which has been the dream of our youth, the goal of maturity and the heart's longing of our aged ones through three long generations--"the redemption of Zion."
No malicious people ever enthroned in their philosophy as their highest ideal the belief that God is love and that all men are brothers. Such a philosophy comes from the hearts of poets, enthusiasts, prophets, "saints." To have missed the central faith and purpose of our belief is to have failed to know it at all; and the history of our church movement comprises, at its core, the more or less sporadic attempts of a people--incapacitated by human stupidities, human fears and prejudices, but actuated by lofty aspirations and glorious dreams--to frame their convictions into a system that will eventually regenerate the souls of men.
The origin, evolution, principles, and exceptionally rapid growth of the Latter Day Saint doctrine and belief can be best understood in connection with religious and economic conditions in the American commonwealth at the close of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.
The people had passed through a war of seven years' duration, and moral and religious decadence almost invariably follows war. A toppling over of the Episcopal Church in America was the natural result. Forced into compromise or silence by the war, Episcopal services became, according to Bishop Meade, "brief and most unimpressive." Many of the clergymen had migrated to Canada, followed by the British part of their congregation. In Virginia, the stronghold of the mother church, where in 1776 there were seventy-one Episcopal clergymen, there were in 1783 but fifteen.
The year 1783 marked the closing of the Revolution, and left the people drunk with the idea of "liberty"--a liberty which needed to be interpreted to be made usable in the formation of a new government. The political struggles of that epoch required the best thought and attention of the great men of the new nation. Other considerations took second place. A measure of success was hardly achieved in self-government before quarrels with England again fanned the flames of parental hatred into another war.
Throughout all our troubles, France had been our friend, or was so considered. The French Revolution found many partisans in the new republic. Everyone began to talk and write the new "liberty" jargon that was fashionable at the time. License, anarchy, infidelity were part of that jargon, even as the French fashions, the white cockade, and the address of "Citizen." France was frankly atheistic.
When Theodore Dwight became president of Yale College in 1795, only five or six students were members of any church. Similar conditions existed in the College of New Jersey (Princeton); William and Mary's; Transylvania (Kentucky University), which had been founded by the Presbyterian Church, had frankly passed into the hands of "unbelievers." In the early part of the nineteenth century only one student at Bowdoin College was willing to be known as a Christian. Chancellor Kent, who died in 1847, said that in his younger days there were few professional men who were professed "believers." Lyman Beecher in his autobiography, speaking of that period said: "It was the day of the Tom Paine school when boys who dressed flax in the barn read Tom Paine and believed him." Lyman Beecher was graduated from Yale in 1797, and he tells us that the members of his class were known to each other by the names of "Voltaire," "D'Alembert," "Rousseau," and other French atheists. Prominent thinkers honestly predicted the Christian religion would soon be discarded.
In 1800 only one Congregational Church in Boston remained loyal to the orthodox faith. When the Reverend E. D. Griffith became pastor of the Park Church in 1811, the feeling against orthodoxy was so intense that men who went to hear him went in disguise for fear of ridicule.
Intemperance was the rule. To become drunk was not a breach of decency, nor did such indulgence particularly injure any man's reputation. Liquor was in every home. Total abstinence was scarcely known. Few ministers preached temperance sermons, or even knew that intoxication was an "evil" to be denounced by Christians. Members of the church in high standing drank to intoxication at social functions. Wine was served as a matter of course at religious ceremonies, christenings, marriages, funerals, and even ordinations. The physician was offered a drink as a matter of course when he called on a patient; the minister was accorded like hospitality by members of his congregation. One pastor in New York, as late as 1820, deplored the fact that it was difficult to make pastoral calls for a day and duly observe the social amenities without becoming in a measure intoxicated. The Reverend Daniel Dorchester, D. D., quotes a minister of the period as saying he could count among his ministerial acquaintances forty who were either drunkards or so addicted to the use of liquor that their usefulness was seriously impaired1. This man says he was present at an ordination where two aged ministers were literally drunk.2
The legislature of Kentucky, at this time, by vote dispensed with the services of a chaplain. The pioneer States were marked by general disregard, even contempt, for religion and religious institutions. The Lord's Day in such communities was only distinguished from other days by greater noise, more amusement, and dissipation. Often on the western frontier there were no houses of worship, even in towns of considerable size.
It is not at all strange that the most intelligent and tolerant men in a community made no profession of faith, for so many religious people were so narrow and fanatical that they would be intolerable to the people who profess to belong to the same denominations today. "The most pious people in the beginning of the present century in the United States entertained a faith so unlike the belief of evangelical Christians as to almost create the impression that their religion was not the same religion we now have, and in which we now believe."3
Doctor Wayland tells of an early experience in his ministry in a small community in Massachusetts. He had in his congregation a highly intelligent gentleman who had an interesting but "worldly" family of young people. He expressed to this man his desire to speak to his sons and daughters on the subject of their "personal piety." The father objected strenuously--if his children were of the elect, God would save them in his own due time; and if they were not, such a conversation as Doctor Wayland proposed might make them hypocrites! There was no power in the written word, or for that matter in the spoken word, to produce a saving faith in anyone. Such faith, or "regeneration" as it was then called, was a gift from God, a miracle with which he transformed the hearts of his elect.4
At the beginning of the last century there were few, if any, Sunday schools in the United States. The American Bible Society was not organized until 1810 or after. Antislavery agitation had scarcely started, the crusade for temperance barely begun, nor was the orthodox attitude towards these movements, when they did start, often one of approval, or even toleration. Missions, Sunday schools, Bible societies were all opposed under the avowed belief that they "conflicted with the sovereignty of God in the kingdom of Christ." As late as 1836 the Baltimore Association of the Baptist Church resolved that it would not hold fellowship with such churches as united with these and other societies of a benevolent, religious, and philanthropic character. The names of congregations co-operating in mission work, in Sunday school work, in distribution of the Word of God through Bible societies were erased from the minutes of that associations.5 The same attitude prevailed in other denominations. Whole congregations zealously bound themselves together by oaths and covenants of the rankest intolerance, such as the "solemn league and covenant" taken by one church "to oppose Rome, the pope, and popery with all their anti-Christian ways."
Economic brotherhood was as foreign to the thought of this day as religious brotherhood. The majority of the laboring class, caught in the aftermath of financial stringency following the wars with England, knew fare that was mean and scant in the extreme. A laborer was fortunate indeed if he drew four dollars a week for the support of his large family. His home boasted no carpets, no glassware, but few bits of china, no pictures--not even cheap chromos for the wall. His clothing was a pair of leather breeches, a flannel jacket, a rusty felt hat, shoes of neat's skin, and a leather apron. The bare necessities of today were luxuries in that era.
Into such a world, French ideas of "liberty, fraternity, equality" flowed like a flood, which even as its radicalism ebbed away left behind it notions of economic liberty, equality before the law, and denial of titled aristocracy. Of such ideas, was born the new state, a government in which "freedom" and "liberty" were to become magic passwords, a government completely and permanently separate from any and all churches. At the same time religious people were shaking off the shackles of outgrown thought in rebellion against "creeds and confessions of faith" and ushering in the days of the "Great Revival," in which old denominations were to go through the throes of a new birth, and in which, many new religions were destined to come forward.
1 Christianity in the United States From Its First Settlement Down to the Present Time
(1888 ), by Reverend Daniel Dorchester, D.D., New York; Phillips and Hart.
2 In his Background of Mormon Word of Wisdom reprinted from the Scratch, Brigham Young University, Volume 2, No. 2, page 56, March, 1930, M. Wilford Poulson tells of the beginnings of the temperance movement in the United States.
4 Wayland, on Notes on the Principles and Practices of the Baptists.
5 History of the Baptists, by Thomas Armitage.