The Social Origins of the Kirtland Mormons

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Contents

Early in the spring of 1831, members of a new religious movement entered Ohio’s scenic Western Reserve and settled in the town of Kirtland:

They came, men, women, and children, in every conceivable manner, some with horses, oxen, and vehicles rough and rude, while others had walked all or part of the distance. The future “City of the Saints” appeared like one besieged. Every available house, shop, hut, or barn was filled to its utmost capacity. Even boxes were roughly extemporized and used for shelter until something more permanent could be secured.1

The major force that influenced this migration to Geauga County was the people’s conversion to a new religious movement and their subsequent belief that the Lord, through a latter-day prophet, had called them to “gather” in that region (D&C 37:3, 38:32). This conversion to a new pattern of thinking and behavior was a fundamental difference between the Latter-day Saint immigrants and other Americans in the decades before the Civil War.

Scholars have advanced many different theories regarding the background of converts to Mormonism, including their social origins. Whitney R. Cross, for example, contended that early converts to the Latter-day Saint faith were steeped in the sectarian revivalism that emanated from the “Burned-over District,” a region of western New York that was habitually revivalistic. After plotting the location of Latter-day Saint converts in western New York, Cross concluded that these converts were not living on the frontier of the state but in settled communities.2 A later historian, Mario de Pillis, insisted that Cross’s research on Latter-day Saint settlement patterns was faulty and some of his conclusions flawed. De Pillis associated Latter-day Saint social origins with the “disorientation of values associated with migration to and within backwoods” America. He argued that the migratory nature of these converts prepared them for the “authoritative message of Mormonism.”3

Cross and De Pillis introduced a subject that has continued to be a focus of attention. Agreeing with some of De Pillis’s views, Marvin S. Hill suggested that Latter-day Saint converts were “transients, seeking a stopping place and life style.”4 In a work comparing Mormon, Shaker, and Oneida communities, Lawrence Foster reasoned that the far-reaching changes produced by an unprecedented economic and geographical expansion had significant effects on individuals and the family. “Many displaced New Englanders,” he explained, settled in the Burned-over District, where they were “attracted to an extraordinary range of crusades aimed at the perfection of mankind and the achievement of millennial happiness.” An “atmosphere of intense religious rivalry and competing claims to truth led to great internal tensions in sensitive individuals who desired a secure religious faith.” Foster sees these tensions in Joseph Smith’s description of the religious situation during his youth: “So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”5 Foster proposed that after Joseph Smith resolved his own religious questions, he organized a religious community that in part responded to the subversion of the patriarchal household and the dissolution of kinship bonds in the changing New York environment.6

Studies on revivalism and conversions indicate that tensions and stress are major forces that stimulate changing patterns of behavior.7 According to this theory, developments that disorient people and create unusual tensions (such as disruptions due to migrations, rapid economic changes, and unusual social dislocations) foster conversions, promote social change, and stimulate new movements.8

Many scholars have elaborated on changes in western New York in the early nineteenth century that provided a climate favorable to religious reform. The completion of the Erie Canal broke down corporate family structure and thereby undermined both self-sufficient farming and household manufacturing (such as the production of cloth and woolens).9 The small farmers’ lifestyle was jeopardized by the specialization and commercialization of farming. Products previously made and sold in the farm household could now be made on a larger scale, shipped to distant markets, and sold for less than the farmer could manufacture similar products. As land became scarce and unproductive, second-generation sons and daughters of New York’s farmers began moving to towns and cities to find employment and occupational stability. Chaotic winds of social dislocation penetrated many sections of America, including the Burned-over District. Many traditions were being replaced by a different way of life.10

During the Second Great Awakening, a major revival that began in the new nation about 1800 and reached a peak during the 1830s and 1840s, many individuals expressed dissatisfaction with sectarian religions that concentrated on election and predestination and that tended to support the intellectual and economic elite. Consequently, according to one theory, revivals in the early nineteenth century increasingly became a means of assuring common folk of their uniqueness as individuals and of a place in society.11 In the opinion of William McLoughlin, revivalism not only solidified relationships among those who had experienced dislocations, but also served as a means to assimilate its participants into America’s changing culture.12

The problem of determining the actual cause of conversion is compounded by many factors, not the least of which is the tendency of modern scholars to explain powerful religious experiences in terms of secular theories without reference to divine intervention. Although the impact of supernatural forces is beyond the scope of social history, an understanding of the social processes in conversion does not negate the possibility of divine influences. Those who believe in an omnipotent God should be able to understand that he is capable of working through social processes and environmental influences that would appear natural to the detached social scientist or historian.13 An additional difficulty is that historians work with limited information and draw conclusions based on incomplete data. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish causation from consequences. Similar forces do not always produce similar results. Motives for religious affiliation are as varied and complex as the individuals who espouse belief. Nevertheless, the identification of forces leading to conversion provides an additional dimension to an understanding of the past.

Some theories on the social origins of Latter-day Saints have been advanced without a thorough investigation of the background of these people, including migration patterns preceding conversions. The first step in a study of their social origins is to identify the places of birth of the Kirtland Saints. Information on 602 adults who settled in Kirtland before 1839 discloses that 50 percent were born in New England and another 31 percent in New York. Of the non-Mormons who migrated to Kirtland before 1831, 73 percent were born in New England and 13 percent in New York. Although relatively few records have been located that identify the places of birth of non-Mormons who settled in Kirtland between 1831 and 1839, information that is available (for 49 adults) indicates that 41 percent were born in New England and 51 percent in New York. Data available on all non-Mormons who settled there before 1839 reveals that 88.5 percent were born in New York or one of the New England states. (See table 1.)

A second step in identifying Latter-day Saint social origins is to examine their migration patterns prior to their conversions and move to Kirtland. Two major forces motivated American pioneers to move westward: pressures that influenced them to leave their former homes and forces that attracted them to another region. The shortage of good farm land, frequent frosts, and reports of better conditions in the West caused many to leave their homes in the Northeast. By 1810, for example, many children of the first major wave of settlers of Vermont were in the same position as their fathers had been thirty years earlier. They were forced to choose between staying on a family farm, subdividing it until all children would have inadequate acreage, or moving to a new region. Newspapers reported that just fifty to one hundred miles distant in New York was timbered land more fertile than the land in Vermont. As land prices rose in Vermont and conditions became more crowded because of natural increase and continued immigration, out-migration increased.14 Between 1790 and 1830, successive waves of settlers made their way into New York. This westward movement, for pre-Latter-day Saint converts and others, was not a symmetrical wave rolling along a broad front, but, as D. M. Meinig explained, “a highly selective, uneven, fragmented pattern of advance.” The main body of early migrants traveled through the Mohawk Valley, which was accessible to overlanders from New England. A second gateway into New York was across the northern edge of the Adirondacks from Vermont. Yet another influx came from Pennsylvania, flowing up the Susquehannah River and eventually pushing into the Finger Lake region.15

Of those who immigrated to Kirtland, a few had moved to New York from Pennsylvania prior to becoming Latter-day Saints. A larger number in their pre-Mormon days had followed the major paths from New England to New York. Of those who joined the Church in New York, about half emigrated from New England before 1820 and located their homes in settled communities rather than in the frontier regions. Within the next decade, the other half of these families were living near the western border of New York. As the frontier expanded, the initial pre-Mormon move was closer to New York’s western border. Consequently, the postconversion move to Kirtland was a shorter distance than the earlier moves from New England to New York. (See map and table 2.)

[*** graphic omitted ***]

Settlement Patterns within New York 1760–1800.

Table 1. Birth Places of Early Kirtland Residents
(Arrivals Prior to 1839)

LDS

Percent

Non-LDS

Percent

ME

16

2.7

5

3.8

VT

85

14.1

4

3.1

NH

54

9.0

6

4.6

MA

94

15.6

36

27.5

CT

49

8.1

28

21.4

RI

7

1.2

1

0.8

Total NE

305

50.7

80

61.1

NY

188

31.2

36

27.5

Total NE + NY

493

81.9

     116

88.5

PA

18

3.0

2

1.5

OH

23

3.8

12

9.2

Other

68

11.3

1

0.8

Sources: Information on births of Latter-day Saints has been obtained from LDS family group records in the Family History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City; similar information on non-Mormons is located in a collection on early residents of Kirtland at the Lake County Historical Society, Kirtland Hills, Ohio.

Table 2. Migration form New York to Kirtland

Years of Settlement

Number

Mean Coordinates

Median Coordinates

Median Miles

1810–1824

12

9.3

8.5

246

1825–1829

19

8.4

8.0

239

1830–1834

44

5.8

5.0

171

 

If anything could be classified as unusual, it would be the Mormons’ remarkable geographic stability. Before their conversions, Mormons who moved to Kirtland were not transients. Approximately 95 percent of the Latter-day Saint immigrants to Kirtland had moved two times or less, 80 percent moved one time or less, and 51 percent did not move between the birth of their first child and their move to Kirtland. (See table 3.) Using the child-ladder method of measuring the frequency of and duration between moves (determined by examining records that identify birth dates and places of children), the average number of years of stable residence prior to moving to Kirtland was 7.3 years (the median was 11.7).16

Table 3. Number of Moves by Family within the New England and New York Areas, 1798–1839

Number of Moves

Number

Percent

0

97

51

1

55

29

2

28

15

3+

10

05

Totals

190

100

 

Thus future Mormon converts were neither transients nor frontiersmen, but stable members of their communities whether in New England or New York. In contrast, recent work on other American families during the period demonstrates a difference in migration patterns and geographic mobility. For instance, 80 percent of those who traveled on the Overland Trail moved before heading west.17 Mormons were different. Fifty percent did not move prior to their migrating to Kirtland. This suggests that their move to Kirtland was not motivated by a desire for monetary gain, but was a response to what they believed was a divine decree.

If a profile of the typical Mormon convert does emerge, his or her conversion would be linked to a reaction to the unusual stresses tearing way at the foundations of society. Like most Americans, many pre-Mormons were affected by the rapid socioeconomic changes occurring in Jacksonian America. Means and modes of transportation blossomed. Communication in the form of newspapers and books became available on an unprecedented scale. Commercial trade routes spread throughout the land and began to transform old mercantilist ways into capitalistic enterprises. What was once reserved for the elite now became available to the masses. Democracy wedded to laissez-faire capitalism became in time a powerful civil-religious theme. This combination also disrupted the earlier vision of an agrarian republic based on civic virtue—the sacrifice of oneself for the common good.

The sheer social and geographic movement was unsettling. People struck out for parts unknown in search of better land and a better stake in life. Many became victims of a fledgling capitalist economy that seemed to bring out the worst in people. The shifting ideology was exhibited in an increased materialism and competition that put American society at odds with its colonial heritage. Class lines hardened. Business contended against business, priest against priest, neighbor against neighbor. Alcoholism was rampant.18 Revivalism, reform movements, and associations attempted to stem the tide of these changes that seemed to cut deep into the very fabric of the culture, but many such movements only reinforced the changes. Even such an event as the Second Great Awakening emphasized the disparity between previous conceptions and current realities. Ministers taught that conversion was a solitary act—one that took place between the communicant and God. Salvation was not collective nor universal salvation, but individualized. People chose to be saved. The Jacksonian American was thus the quintessential individual—potentially rich, powerful, and saved on his own merits.19

Most antebellum Americans experienced the stresses and anxieties accompanying such momentous changes and chose various means to displace their insecurities and to assimilate the changing culture. Others turned to associations and reform movements. In contrast, pre-Mormon converts looked toward a restoration of traditional beliefs and values. This search led many to a further dissatisfaction with the pluralism of an expanding secular society and caused them to seek an ordered society free from the upheavals that plagued Jacksonian America. Mormonism, with its emphasis on divine authority, exclusivity, and continual revelation, provided fellowship for such seekers.

While geographic stability was an important factor in the backgrounds of Mormon converts, there were others. The converts were young (their mean age was twenty-nine with more than 50 percent under thirty—see table 4). Many shared a common surname. Most had a common school education and had little money. (See table 5.) Few had migrated often after marriage, nor had they changed their religion with much frequency. Although most adhered to the occupational status of their fathers (semiskilled sons tended to follow in the steps of semiskilled fathers), about 32 percent secured work in occupations different from their fathers’. (See table 6.) Twenty-three percent did not work as rural laborers, reflecting the movement from the farm to more urban areas.20

Table 4. Age at Baptism

Age Cohort

Number

Percent

15–19

13

15.0

20–24

22

25.6

25–29

12

14.0

30–34

14

16.3

35–39

9

10.5

40+

16

18.6

Totals

86

100.0

Table 5. Wealth of Converts

Wealth Level*

Number

Percent

Poor

21

50.0

Moderate

12

28.6

Affluent

8

21.4

Totals

42

100.0

*Due to lack of actual dollar estimates of pre-Mormon wealth, the measurement is subjective. If converts indicated in their diaries that their early lives were impoverished, they were categorized as “poor.” If they indicated that their families were wealthy, they were categorized as “affluent.” Those who indicated neither extreme wealth nor poverty were classified as moderate.

Table 6. Occupations of Converts and Their Fathers

Father

Convert

Occupation

Number

Percent

Number

Percent

Farmer

38

80.9

43

58.1

Miller

5

10.6

6

8.1

Shoemaker

2

4.3

1

1.2

Sailor

1

2.1

0

0.0

Other*

1

2.1

24

32.5

Totals

47

100.0

74

100.0

*“Other” includes teacher, hatter, tanner, carpenter, lawyer, clerk, doctor, merchant, and minister.

 

A majority of converts adhered to their fathers’ religious affiliation as well. Unchurched fathers had unchurched sons. It is evident, however, that more of the fathers belonged to major denominations than did their sons. (See table 7.) This small disparity in religious backgrounds is no doubt a product of the fathers’ colonial heritage and increasing sectarianism. As New Englanders ventured westward, many lost contact with formalized religion but remained faithful to previous affiliations. Moreover, following the American Revolution, religious liberty became constitutionalized. Many itinerant preachers of both mainstream and new faiths sought to bring Americans into their fold. Revivalists plunged into a fertile field, and vast numbers of Americans launched a quest for religious truth. About 1819 a second phase of the Second Great Awakening commenced. This time there were many new religious denominations to choose from. This democratization of religion continued for the next sixteen years amidst a powerful surge of revivalism. One of the fruits of this religious quickening was a dramatic increase in church membership and attendance. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the proportion of Protestant church members in the population increased from 7 to 17 percent.21

Table 7. Religious Affiliation of Converts and Their Fathers

Father

Convert

Occupation

Number

Percent

Number

Percent

Unchurched

10

15.2

21

26.9

Methodist

20

30.3

15

19.2

Presbyterian

11

16.7

8

10.8

Baptist

10

15.2

10

12.8

Reformed Baptist

0

0.0

11

14.1

Campbellite

0

0.0

2

2.6

Universalist

3

4.5

2

2.6

Dutch Reformed

2

3.0

2

2.6

Congragationalist

5

7.5

2

2.6

Other*

4

6.0

1

1.3

Totals

66

100.0

78

100.1

*“Other” includes Episcopal and Lutheran.

 

One of the most important characteristics of Mormon converts was their dissatisfaction with major Christian faiths and their belief in the need to restore the power, organization, and doctrinal purity of New Testament Christianity. Of the fifty-eight Kirtland Mormons whose writings were examined, approximately half indicated that prior to their conversions they were searching for the authority of the New Testament church, including its plainness of doctrine. Another 14 percent emphasized their search for the spiritual power manifest among the early Christians. Still another 30 percent recorded that they were converted by reading the Book of Mormon. Some of these might have been influenced by this book because of an earlier search for a restoration. (See table 8.)

Table 8. Reasons for Conversion as Written in Diary or Autobiography of Convert

Reason

Number

Percent

Authority*
(New Testament Christianity)

27

46.6

Book of Mormon

17

29.3

Spiritual Manifestations

8

13.7

Plainness of Doctrine**

1

1.7

Primitive Simplicity

2

3.5

Impressed with Missionaries

3

5.2

Totals

58

100.0

*Those who indicated in their writings that they joined the Church because of its divine authority.

** Those who recorded that they were convinced of the Church’s authority because the doctrine could be easily understood.

 

A significant proportion of the Mormon converts had held restorationist views before joining the LDS church. Almost a third of these “restorationists” were unchurched, a third aligned with reformed faiths, and another third were members of the three largest religious denominations (Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian). Many of the unchurched, however, held deep religious convictions. Even though they did not join an organized religion, they generally believed in God and Christ and in the historical accuracy of the Old and New Testaments. (See table 9.)

Table 9. Restorationists’ Religious Affiliation

Affiliation

Number

Percent

Unchurched

16

30.2

Methodist

6

11.3

Presbyterian

4

7.5

Baptist

7

13.2

Reformed Baptist

11

20.8

Reformed Methodist

3

5.7

Campbellite

2

3.8

Other*

4

7.5

Totals

53

100.0

*“Other” includes Episcopal and Universalist.

 

Selections from writings of early Latter-day Saints, especially descriptions of their backgrounds, including their stresses and quests, aptly disclose some of the most dominant characteristics of these people. Joel Hills Johnson was the eldest of sixteen children born to Ezekial and Julia Hills Johnson and was the first in his family to join Mormonism. He reported that his mother instructed him frequently on the subject of religion during his youth. On many occasions, he thought about the nature of God and wept bitterly because he believed he was a sinner in the eyes of God. On one such occasion, after being scolded by his parents, he considered committing suicide. His teenage years were filled with anxiety about finding the “faith that was once delivered to the [ancient] saints.”

Although Joel gained peace while attending various Protestant services, the eighteen-year-old boy was not fully satisfied with the churches located in his neighborhood. He became concerned because he had not been baptized for the remission of sins or received the gift of the Holy Ghost as practiced in the ancient Christian church. This concern was partly resolved when he decided to be baptized and united with a Free Will Baptist society located near Pomfret, Chautauqua County, New York.

Shortly after he became a Baptist, Joel’s attempt to gain economic security crumbled. After purchasing a farm adjoining property owned by his parents, he built a sawmill. However, faulty planning resulted in the collapse of this mill and the loss of his farm to creditors. In an attempt to recuperate from this loss, Joel invented and patented a machine that cut shingles. But misfortune struck again. Claiming that he was the original inventor of this machine, he insisted that he was “swindled” by others and was not able to profit from that accomplishment. Discouraged, he decided to leave the home of his youth and “seek an asylum among strangers.” After moving to Amherst, Ohio, he learned about the restoration of the ancient Church through a latter-day prophet. Teachings of this new movement harmonized with beliefs he had embraced as a youth, and he was baptized and confirmed by Latter-day Saint elders.22

Meanwhile, mounting problems plagued his father’s family. Farmland was becoming increasingly unproductive, the need for cloth and wool declined, and the price of many products the family purchased increased.23 As economic problems intensified, many residents of Pomfret emigrated. According to the New York state census, from 1825 to 1835 persistence in the area was only about 18.6 percent. Of the 18.6 percent who stayed, 81.6 percent were among the wealthiest settlers. Although Ezekial Johnson owned fifty-five acres (which placed him in the upper third of land owners—see table 10), the family, because of its size, lived in what Joel referred to as a state of poverty.24

The response to organized religion by Ezekial and his wife, Julia, was very different. While living in Pomfret, Ezekial did not participate in formal Sunday worship, showed no interest in organized religion, and drank heavily, which in the opinion of many Protestants of that age was a serious transgression. Julia seemed to be the antithesis of her husband. A devout Presbyterian and dedicated mother, she trained her sixteen children with apparently little formal help from her husband. When Ezekial’s addiction to alcohol interfered with his daily work habits, Julia began directing work on their farm.25 Apparently in an attempt to regain social respectability and resolve some of his personal problems, Ezekial left Pomfret and searched for land further west. Amid changing socioeconomic conditions in western New York, Julia struggled as she continued to raise her many children and manage their farm.26

Table 10. Wealth Distribution of Pomfret, 1825

Wealth Distribution
(acres of land)

Number

Percent

0

93

17.2

1–9

155

28.5

10–19

103

19.0

20–49

147

27.1

59–99

35

6.5

100–199

9

1.6

200+

0

0.0

Totals

542

99.9

Julia and most of her children learned about the new restoration movement from Joel, who returned to New York from Ohio as a Latter-day Saint missionary. After responding favorably to the message unfolded by her son, Julia and her children decided to gather with other converts to Kirtland, Ohio, a new “City of the Saints.” Even though Ezekial also moved to Kirtland in the mid-1830s, he lived apart from his family because of “his continued unbelief . . . and intemperance.” While reflecting on the conflicts which occurred in his home, Benjamin F. Johnson, another son of Ezekial and Julia, wrote:

[T]he fiend of unhappiness had entered our home to break the bonds of union between our parents and to destroy the happiness of their children. In looking back over my childhood it almost seems that I was born to be a child of sorrow, for such was my love for both my parents that because of the troubles and unhappiness my heart at times would seem almost ready to burst with sorrow and grief, and a feeling always seemed with me to wish that I had died at my birth, or that I never had been born.27

Benjamin Brown, another convert to Mormonism from Pomfret, recalled that prior to learning about the Restoration, he was searching for religious authority and received several visions. When he told one of the local ministers of his spiritual experiences and his desire to worship in harmony with “the ancient gospel,” the preacher told Brown that both his visions and desires were “of the Devil.” Undaunted, Brown continued his search for New Testament Christianity until he met the Latter-day Saint missionaries.28

Joseph Bates Noble experienced a similar quest, launching a search for religious truth during his early years. Like Benjamin Brown, he wanted to belong to the “ancient Church.” Because of the poverty of his family, he left home at fourteen and supported himself by working for others. Throughout his teenage years, he was burdened by a belief that he needed approval from a forgiving God. “I was a person,” he recalled, “that thought much about the things of God and often . . . asked myself this question: where is the people of God?” After changing jobs and learning the milling trade, he met Latter-day Saint missionaries who were preaching religious authority. He believed Jesus Christ’s second coming was soon at hand, and he wanted to be a part of Christ’s kingdom where equality and justice could prevail. In the fall of 1832, after listening to three Latter-day Saint elders, Brigham Young, Joseph Young, and Heber C. Kimball, “I said in my heart, ‘that is truth according to the spirit that was in me.’”29

Brigham Young, a future president of the Church, recalled that when he was seventeen (following an impoverished childhood) he “quit the country” and moved to Auburn, New York, to seek better employment. Auburn was located along the Seneca Turnpike and was a boomtown in 1817 with new stores and houses being erected almost overnight. Hundreds of newcomers found work in small shops, stores, taverns, or mills located along or near the main street.30 This initial move did not lead to the economic success he was seeking. Probably because he could not find sufficient work to sustain himself as a carpenter, painter, or glazier, Brigham Young moved in the early 1820s to Port Byron, a nearby town situated on the recently constructed Erie Canal. In 1828 he moved again, this time to Oswego, New York, and less than one year later, in the spring of 1829, relocated to Mendon, south of Rochester, where his father, John Young, and his brother Phineas and their families had settled. Meanwhile, he struggled financially to support his wife, Miriam Works (a resident of Aurelius whom he married in 1824), and his two children. After becoming an invalid and suffering for years from chronic tuberculosis, Miriam died on 8 September 1832, less than five months after Brigham had been baptized a member of the Latter-day Saint Church (then called the “Church of Christ”).31 Brigham Young recognized the poverty of his early years as an important influence on his development and his philosophy of life:

I know how to economise [sic], for my father had to do it. . . . I have been a poor boy and a poor man, and my parents were poor. I was poor during childhood, and grew up to manhood poor and destitute; and I am acquainted with the various styles of living, and with the different customs, habits, and practices of people; and I do know, by my own experience, that there is no necessity for people being so very poor, if they have judgment, and will rightly use it.32

Although Brigham Young was brought up in a strict Methodist home, he did not profess a religious experience until he was twenty-three, and then he said it was more of a confession to satisfy his peers than a profound conviction. There were times when he considered himself an “infidel” because he could not accept the teachings of any of the religious societies he investigated. “In my youth . . . I would have freely given all the gold and silver I ever could possess,” he recalled, “to have met with one individual who could show me anything about God, heaven, or the plan of salvation, so that I could pursue the path that leads to the kingdom of heaven.”33 Not only was he troubled because of his dissatisfaction with the churches of that age, but he frequently felt “cast down, gloomy, and despondent . . . lonesome and bad.” The trials of life created “a dark shade, like the shade of the valley of death.” He was also vexed with a strong sense of guilt:

The Evil One would whisper to me that I had done this, that, or some other thing wrong, and inquire whether that looked like a Christian act, and remark, “You have missed it; you have not done right, and you know it; you did not do as well in such a thing as you might; and are you not ashamed of yourself in saying you are a Christian?34

There were times when he became sick, tired, and disgusted with people because he observed so much “sorrow, wretchedness, death, misery, disappointment, anguish, pain of heart” prevailing in the world.35

In the summer of 1830, Joseph Smith’s brother Samuel left several copies of the Book of Mormon with John Young’s family. One of these copies subsequently was delivered to Brigham Young. His reading of that book began his serious investigation of Mormonism; especially appealing to him were its “universality” and its harmony with biblical teachings. “Were you to ask me how it was that I embraced ‘Mormonism,’” he declared,

I should answer, for the simple reason that it embraces all truth in heaven and on earth, in the earth, under the earth, and in hell, if there be any truth there. There is no truth outside of it . . . for, wherever these principles are found among all the creations of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his order and Priesthood, embrace them.36

On another occasion, he said that when he commenced preaching forty years earlier, the main message he unfolded to others was “believe the Bible,” for he taught that those who embrace the Bible will accept the Book of Mormon. After asking the question, “What are the doctrines of the Book of Mormon?” he responded, “The same as those of the Bible.”37 He further stated that he would not have united with the Latter-day Saints if he had not received a witness that Joseph Smith was truly called of God.38

Brigham Young was not the only member of his family who joined the Latter-day Saints and migrated to Kirtland. His father and all his children and their families were baptized, including Brigham Young’s wife, Miriam. Three of Brigham’s brothers, Phineas, John Jr., and Joseph, were ordained Methodist ministers prior to their conversions and emigration. His sister Rhoda’s husband, John P. Greene, was also a Methodist preacher before his conversion to Mormonism and move to Kirtland. Many of Brigham Young’s cousins, uncles, and aunts also joined the Church.39

The early life of another early Saint, Luman Shurtliff, also included periods of doubt and confusion. Although his family supported different Protestant faiths, Luman could not decide which church he should join. He claimed that he “was a Christian . . . but kept it entirely” to himself. Meanwhile, he prayed “continually, hoping the time would come soon when I could join some church.” After Luman’s family moved to Ohio in 1819, his father, through a series of unfortunate land transactions, lost all his property in Ohio and Massachusetts and was reduced to a state of poverty. Subsequently, Luman secured employment as a teacher but decided he was not qualified to instruct others. Discouraged, he became ill and suffered for several years from a nervous or emotional disorder. Recalling this series of misfortunes, he wrote:

Wales [a brother] was now twenty-seven years old and all he saved out of his hard labor was one hundred and twenty dollars in property. I was twenty and worth forty dollars. . . . Father was sixty-two years old, stripped of all, not even a horse to ride. He was broken and discouraged, his energy and ambition seemed to ease. Thus with all our hard labor for years we were forced to begin anew.

Shortly after this economic crisis, a revival erupted in the neighborhood where he lived. “We were all stirred up in this reformation,” he remembered, “and all got religion.” After his conversion, Luman became a shoemaker and helped his family recover from their economic loss. Nevertheless, he was temporarily embittered because of the problems which had befallen his family. Prior to meeting Latter-day Saint missionaries, Luman attended Baptist services, but this faith did not fully satisfy his quest for truth. He investigated the beliefs of Alexander Campbell but was not convinced that Campbell was restoring the ancient Christian order. His quest was eventually satisfied after he completed his exploration of Mormonism.40

Many Americans experienced social dislocation and rapid change during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Most chose mainstream solutions—revivals, reform, or associations—in order to dispel confusion and anxiety. Those who would become Mormons, on the other hand, rejected these forms of community. Rather than attempting to reform society, they sought to redefine it. Even though they were relatively stable socially, neither moving nor changing their religion often, they found the existing society lacking and were looking for an alternative society that promoted stability. Hence, some of the most important factors that attracted converts to Mormonism and thus to Kirtland were the promise of divine sanction, the assurance of status, and an ordered lifestyle in the undeviating restored kingdom of God. In short, the new church met their needs.

 

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About the author(s)

Mark Grandstaff is a historian with the Office of Air Force History in Washington, D.C. Milton V. Backman Jr. is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Notes

1. History of Geauga and Lake Counties, Ohio (Evansville, Ind.: Unigraphics Inc., 1973), 248.

2. Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York. 1800–1850 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1950), 3–109, 138–50.

3. Mario S. De Pillis, “The Social Sources of Mormonism,” Church History 37 (March 1968): 61–72 (article runs from 50–79); Mario S. De Pillis, “The Quest for Religious Authority and the Rise of Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Spring 1966): 66–88.

4. Marvin S. Hill, “The Rise of Mormonism in the Burned-Over District: Another View,” New York History 41 (October 1980): 426.

5. Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols., 2d ed. rev. (reprint; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976), 1:3–4.

6. Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 12–13, 128–29.

7. Religious historians have long maintained that agrarian areas were breeding grounds for sectarianism and revivalism and hence a catalyst for Mormonism. Some recent publications challenge this theory. Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1832 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 15–61, and Paul Faler, “Cultural Aspects of the Industrial Revolution: Lynn, Massachusetts, Shoemakers and Industrial Morality, 1826–1868,” Labor History 15 (Summer 1974): 367–94, emphasize that revivalism had little to do with rural maturation or agrarianism. Both see revivalism as a tool employed by an urban ruling elite to maintain supervision and insure an orderly and efficient working class. For additional alternatives to the rural thesis, see Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790–1865 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 60–104; Glen C. Altshuler and Jan M. Saitzgaber, Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community in the Burned-Over District: The Trial of Rhoda Beman (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983), 15–77, 143–69.

8. Donald G. Mathews, “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780–1830,” in Religion in American History: Interpretive Essays, eds. John M. Mulder and John F. Wilson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall 1978), 202–7. The thrust of Mathews’s article is that although “no one is really sure just how the Second Great Awakening began or why it continued over so long a period of time, the Awakening was “an organizing process that helped to give meaning and direction to people suffering in various degrees.” It was characterized by unity and organization and “demonstrated the dynamics of a movement.” For example, through Methodist and Baptist organizations, the Awakening helped “give social and religious direction to those disaffected from the establishment” (202–3, 213).

9. Hill, “Rise of Mormonism,” 420.

10. See Gordon S. Wood, “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” New York History 41 (October 1980): 361–65; Lawrence Foster, “Between Heaven and Earth,” Sunstone 7 (July–August, 1982): 7; Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class, 7–17, 54–59, 72, 102; Johnson, Shopkeeper’s Millennium, 95–115.

11. Wood, “Evangelical America,” 363–67.

12. William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 21; Donald G. Mathews, “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780–1830: An Hypothesis,” American Quarterly 21 (Spring 1969): 27.

13. See David O. Moberg, The Church as a Social Institution (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 421–44.

14. Walter Nugent, Structures of American Social History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 70.

15. D. W. Meinig, “Geography of Expansion, 1785–1855,” in Geography of New York State, ed. John Henry Thompson (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1977), 144–45.

16. The child-ladder method was introduced by Barnes Lathrop in his study Migration into East Texas, 1835–1860: A Study from the United States Census (Austin: The Texas State Historical Association, 1949). See in particular chapter 2, “The Child-Ladder Method.” Grandstaff has determined the migration of pre-Mormon converts by examining the dates and places of birth of children prior to the first birth in Kirtland.

17. Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), 96; see also John M. Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), 4–22.

18. See Ian R. Tyrrell, Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800–1860 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), especially chapter 1.

19. For an irreplaceable work on the Jacksonian legacy, see Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1957).

20. For an excellent work dealing with the effect of the Industrial Revolution on occupational and social mobility, see Franklin F. Mendels, “Social Mobility and Phases of Industrialization,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 7 (Autumn 1976): 193–216.

21. Milton V. Backman Jr., American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1970), 283, 291–92, 308; Richard Carwardine, Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America, 1790–1865 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978), 48, 50–51.

22. Joel Hills Johnson, Journal, 1–7, typescript, Library-Archives, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (hereafter cited as LDS Historical Department).

23. According to the Chautauqua County Census of 1840, 53 percent of the labor force in the Pomfret area was involved in commerce or manufacturing. Furthermore, approximately 60 percent less homespun cloth was produced in 1845 than in 1825 (George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution, 1815–1860 [New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1951], 211–20).

24. Joel Hills Johnson, Journal, 2–3.

25. Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life’s Review (Independence, Miss.: Zion’s Printing Co., 1947), 8–12; Joel Hills Johnson, Journal, 2. Benjamin recalled that previous to the arrival of Mormon missionaries in Pomfret, Ezekial was working as a carpenter in the village of Fredonia, located in the northeast section of Pomfret, thereby implying that Julia and the children cared for their fifty-five acre farm.

26. Benjamin Johnson, My Life’s Review, 13–15. Prior to Ezekial’s leaving and against his desires, Julia and some of her older children were baptized by Mormon elders.

27. Benjamin Johnson, My Life’s Review, 8, 20.

28. Benjamin Brown, Testimonies for the Truth (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853), 2–4, 8–13.

29. Joseph Bates Noble, Journal, 3, typescript of holograph (in which the spelling errors were corrected), Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

30. Brigham Young, “History of Brigham Young,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 25 (1863): 423; Henry Hall, History of Auburn (Auburn, N.Y., 1869), 120–22; Richard F. Palmer and Karl D. Butler, Brigham Young: The New York Years (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1982), 11–40; Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 7–14.

31. Palmer and Butler, Brigham Young, 16–20, 27–30, 67.

32. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855–86), 5:97; 4:312; hereafter cited as JD.

33. JD 9:248

34. JD 7:6.

35. JD 6:39.

36. Arrington, Brigham Young, 28. On another occasion, Brigham Young declared that “‘Mormonism’ embraces all truth that is revealed and that is unrevealed, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical” (JD 9:149).

37. JD 13:174–175.

38. JD 9:365.

39. Palmer and Butler, Brigham Young, 32–39, 65–68; Arrington, Brigham Young, 29–30.

40. Luman A. Shurtliff, Journal, 7–25, typescript, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

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