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In the decades following the Revolutionary War, Americans witnessed arguably the most intense religious revival in American history—the Second Great Awakening. Historians date this religious awakening from approximately 1800 to 1830. This period in American religious history was paramount for several reasons. The country was still reeling from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Families were recovering from the loss of loved ones, men were struggling to earn money to support their families, and the religiosity of average Americans was low compared to other generations. Unlike the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, when religious sermons were aimed at churchgoers, the preachers of the Second Great Awakening directed their sermons to nonchurchgoers. Well-known preachers like Charles G. Finney, Lorenzo Dow, and Peter Cartwright traveled throughout the states preaching, converting, and baptizing.
Teachers of all religious groups held street meetings that often lasted the entire day and extended into the night. These meetings were sometimes called revivals. Joseph Smith Jr. remembered that the revivals “commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country.” “Indeed,” continued Smith, “the whole district of the country seemed affected by it and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties. . . . Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.”
As people began to join their desired religious sect, “great confusion and bad feeling ensued; priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.” As a result of these revivals, people began joining religious sects and attending their meetings.
The events of the Second Great Awakening resulted in the founding of many religions and organizations interested in temperance, slavery abolition, and women’s rights. Individuals and families of this generation felt free to worship as they pleased, and any person, regardless of his or her level of education, felt capableof interpreting scripture and teaching fellow Christians.
Had this not been the case, Joseph Smith Jr.—an ordinary farmer—would not have been successful in gaining followers. As the well-known historian Gordon Wood observed, Mormonism began at the perfect time. Had someone attempted to found a religion like Mormonism a few generations earlier or later than 1830, it probably would have failed miserably.
The trend of attending religious street meetings and investigating preachers and churches was accompanied by discussions and sermons of revelations, heavenly manifestations, and spiritual gifts. In 1830, Jewish religious zealot Robert Matthews claimed to have received a revelation wherein God appointed him to be a prophet. He subsequently traveled the States and preached the imminent arrival of the millennium, which was common.
Preachers and missionaries captivated audiences and stirred emotions by recounting manifestations and other spiritual gifts that had affected people in their congregations.
The religious culture of both the First and Second Great Awakenings also produced numerous visionaries who published their manifestations in newspapers and pamphlets. Reverend Nicholas Gilman of Durham, New Hampshire, stated in 1742 that visions and heavenly experiences were main topics of conversation among the religious populace, not just professional clergy and theologians.
Douglas Winiarski observed that “Methodists, Baptists, and radical sectarians would load their diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, and published writings with numerous references to audible voices, visions, and various kinds of supernatural visitations.”
Susan Juster, a non-LDS scholar, identified over three hundred individuals who claimed visionary experiences during the generation of Joseph Smith’s parents. Congregationalist minister Charles Chauncy of Boston stated that claims of seeing visions were common.
A few years after Joseph Smith’s First Vision, near the end of the Second Great Awakening, Mormon missionaries were among those who found success in gaining converts. Many of these converts had already accepted the idea of a restoration and had sought for a church that possessed the spiritual gifts common among first-century Christians.
Mormon missionaries, similar to other preachers during this era, held street meetings where dozens and sometimes hundreds of people would gather to listen. They preached at length about prophets, apostles, visions, and other spiritual gifts that accompanied the young Church. They often quoted religious figures like Martin Luther and John Wesley, who discussed the significance of spiritual gifts in the latter days. John G. Whittier, a member of the Shaker movement, described Mormon claims of possessing spiritual gifts as follows:
They contrast strongly the miraculous power of the gospel in the apostolic time with the present state of our nominal Christianity. They ask for the signs of divine power; the faith, overcoming all things, which opened the prison doors of the apostles, gave them power over the elements, which rebuked disease and death itself, and made visible to all the presence of the living God.
They ask for any declaration in the Scriptures that this miraculous power of faith was to be confined to the first confessors of Christianity. They speak a language of hope and promise to weak, weary hearts, tossed and troubled, who have wandered from sect to sect, seeking in vain for the primal manifestations of the divine power.
The religious culture of the First and Second Great Awakening prepared thousands for the Restoration of the Church. Spiritual gifts, visions, dreams, and other heavenly manifestations were common. It is not surprising, then, to learn that Joseph Smith’s parents believed him when he recounted visions and manifestations he had witnessed.
After conversing with Joseph Smith on three separate occasions during the night of September 21, 1823, and again the next morning, the angel Moroni commanded Joseph to relate what he had seen and heard to his father. “I returned back to my father in the field,” recalled Joseph, “and rehearsed the whole matter to him. He replied to me, that it was of God, and to go and do as commanded by the messenger.” Joseph’s father, a skeptic regarding organized Protestant religion, would have been aware of the visionary accounts that had circulated throughout the region. Indeed, Joseph Smith Sr. was a visionary man himself. His wife, Lucy, recorded at least seven of his heavenly manifestations years prior to their son’s First Vision in 1820.
The following was taken from the book, When the Lights Came On, by Trevan G. Hatch, currently on sale at cedarfort.com