Today is Pioneer Day, a sort of holiday for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons. As you may know, I’m not religious at all but I find uniquely American religions interesting. Mormonism grew out of the Second Great Awakening, a protestant revival movement that came into being as a response to deism and the enlightenment. If we want to know where the religious liberty mantra of fundamentalist evangelicals got its start, we should probably revisit this era in our nation’s history.
The geographical locale for the hotbed of religious fervor was in western New York state, otherwise known as the “burn over district” because by the time the Civil War came along, everyone there had been converted to something and had burned themselves out. It was this area where the Millerites waited out the end of the world. Their legacy survives in the Second Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was here that the Shakers built their first communities. This is where utopian experiments were tried. And it was in Seneca Falls where the American feminist movement started.
Joseph Smith was born in Vermont but his family settled in Palmyra, New York when he was young and he was still in his teens when he had angelic visions. He must have been incredibly charismatic. He was also a canny organizer and knew how to get his followers to vote en bloc in order to influence local election outcomes. It was that ability to mobilize his saints to vote that got him into trouble and had him tarred, feathered and chased from town to town, state to state, with all his saints in his wake.
He finally ended up in Nauvoo, Illinois. How many of us have ever heard of Nauvoo? At one time, it was one of the most populous cities in Illinois. There were something like 12,000 saints living there during Smith’s era. It was in the mid 1840s that Smith started to either experience megalomania or was severely tempted by forces unseen. He made some sketchy real estate investments, experimented with plural marriages and destroyed a printing press all while referring to himself as a general and declaring his intention to run for president. It didn’t end well. He was shot to death while trying to escape from the local jail where he was being held for trial on a first amendment violation.
His saints had a succession crisis but the bulk of them rallied around Brigham Young and they headed out of Nauvoo on the way to the west where they were determined to live by their faith without interference. Some of them used handcarts to transport their belongings. It was an arduous journey.
The Mormons are currently undergoing a sort of reformation. It isn’t of the Church’s making but there are a growing number of progressive members who are forcing it upon the church leadership. So history repeats itself but this time it is turning back to reason. The LDS church is no longer growing. More and more members are leaving, troubled by the hierarchy’s slow evolution on the subject of homosexuality and women in the priesthood, as well as faithful members disturbed by what the church is covering up in Joseph Smith’s biography. I’ve been listening to these dissident voices at the podcast MormonStories, hosted by John Dehlin. What I find is a rich cultural tradition that is uniquely American, forged in the fire and fervor of religious revival, and hardened by pioneers making their way across America to live in Zion. After the religion is stripped away, the Mormon experience is still a forceful one that brings people together and whose ancestors shared a common story that is as powerful as any religious mythology.
I’d like to have the progressive and secular Mormons on my side. They’re a determined bunch.
This song, Come, Come, ye Saints, was written by Mormon poet William Clayton in Iowa on his way from Nauvoo to Utah. The music is based on an old English folk tune, All Is Well. Enjoy.