Protestantism in America: A Narrative History by Jerald C. Brauer
Jerald C. Brauer is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor and Professor of History of Christianity, formerly Dean of the Divinity School, University of Chicago. He is also Editor of The Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 10: Source of Sects
Early in 1805, three strangely dressed men set out on a journey from Mt. Lebanon, New York, to southern Ohio and Kentucky. They took nothing with them and traveled only on foot. They were ambassadors of the Shaker community seeking new converts. Whenever a revival was successful they were successful, so they turned their steps toward Cain Ridge and Gasper River.
As they traveled westward they recalled the story of the Shaker growth. In 1774, Mother Ann Lee, accompanied by her husband and seven followers, landed in New York. In England she had belonged to a group of radical Quakers who expressed their religious feelings through physical shaking; hence they were called Shakers. In America they quickly found several places in which to settle, but they had little success in winning converts.
In 1779 the revivalistic Baptists had a very successful revival in New Lebanon, New York, but the Shakers walked off with many of the converts. This was their first great triumph. Revivalism brought them increased growth. Many folks converted from a life of sin sought a higher, more satisfying experience than the regular Churches seemed to offer. The Shakers were similar to a monastic order that absorbed all those who wanted to live an especially strict life.
Under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee they worked out a position that was very strange for most Protestant Churches. They stressed the operation of God as the Holy Spirit. Mother Lee argued that in her the feminine side of God took flesh just as in Jesus Christ the masculine side became man. So God was thought of as both male and female, but Godís last revelation was through a woman.
As a consequence, Mother Ann Lee felt herself to be possessed of Godís Spirit, and she had visions and trances that revealed Godís will for man. She was the first result of the new outpouring of Godís Spirit, and when Godís Spirit had finished his work, there would be a new heaven and a new earth just as the book of redemption promised.
Under the guidance of the Spirit of God who dwelt in manís heart, a person was driven to do Godís will. Because the person was united with the Spirit, he or she could do no evil. A new spiritual life in full unity with God was lived. The Shakers were spirit mystics because they believed they were in union with Godís Holy Spirit.
They developed a full program of twelve virtues to be practiced by all those dwelling in the Spirit. High on the list of these virtues was the abstinence from marriage, or from sexual relations on the part of those already married. The flesh had to be denied because the Spirit was in total opposition to the flesh. On earth very few people could attain to the perfection of the Shaker virtues, for they were Godís elect, the forerunners of the life of perfection. Therefore, they were satisfied that their Church was not large. In Godís own time all people would be saved; meanwhile the Shakers stood as a demonstration of what the saint was like.
In order to live the life in the Spirit, the Shakers perfected their community life and worship. Mt. Lebanon became the pattern for all their other groups. In order to guide and develop the spiritual life of the group, oral confession of all sins was practiced by those entering the group and periodically by members within. Strict discipline was maintained for all within the organization. Before one could enter such a strict life, he had to pass through a series of different stages of membership. Only the final stage, Senior Order, represented the full and complete membership. Anyone was free to remit the order or to be expelled at any time.
The Shakers lived a community life in which the membership was divided into various families that were responsible for doing the work of the group. Men and women worked separately, except where heavy work for women required male help, and they entered the church by separate doors. Though male and female were strictly separated, there was absolute equality of the sexes, even in the ministry.
Their dress was very plain and practical, similar to that of the Quakers. Everything on the premises, from the buildings to the furniture, was of the utmost simplicity and practicality. Today many artists look on Shaker work as the forerunner of modern functional design. In their day the Shakers wanted to stress only cleanliness and practicality. Everything had to be neat, clean, and in place. Little pegs in the wall provided both coat hangers and a place from which to suspend the furniture while they scrubbed the floors.
The most peculiar side of Shaker life was their worship service. Prayer, preaching, song, and dancing made up the worship. Every medium of expression was employed. Their favorite practice was to form a series of concentric circles that moved in opposite directions as they chanted a tune. The motion would grow in intensity and violence as they danced and sang. At first these dances were quite solemn and subdued; later they became quite agitated. The important thing to note is that everything in life from their economic activity to their worship was centered in the community and not in the individual.
This was the type of life carried west by the Shaker missionaries. They met with huge success. Their membership went as high as 6,000, and they soon developed as many as twenty communities. One of their strongest settlements was to be in Mt. Pleasant, Kentucky. Revivals gave them fertile fields for growth. Several of the leaders of the New Light Presbyterian schism in Kentucky became Shakers.
Though their growth was astounding from 1800 to 1830, they developed no new communities after 1830, and they slowly died out. Because they had no children, their growth had to be through conversions or adoptions. As long as they represented a strict conversion position and offered moral as well as physical security on the frontier, they had appeal. But as soon as revivalism began to channel its effects into reform and humanitarian activity, it offered the possibility of a life of service and discipline.
Meanwhile, a number of other unusual religious groups developed in various places on the frontier, but none of them grew out of the revivals. However, in common with the Shakers, they also originated not on the frontier but in Europe, and they stressed community living. Whenever religious leaders and followers encountered difficulty in Germany or other European nations, they always looked to America for refuge. In the promised land there was freedom and plenty of rich soil and timber -- a perfect place for a new Church.
In 1803, George Rapp, a German farmer, and his son sailed for America. They were the advance guard for six hundred German Pietists who were seeking a haven in America. Father Rapp, as he was called by his followers, located and purchased a large tract of land in western Pennsylvania. The next year his followers settled with him there.
The group were soon known as Rappites, and they had many beliefs similar to the Shakers. Under the strict guidance of Father Rapp, they introduced "communityism" and celibacy. All the people pooled their labor and resources to work for the common good. No longer was there private property or private welfare. In place of self-seeking and selfishness there was instituted the "community of equality." This was possible only on a strict religious basis, for only people committed to a common goal could so carry on their economic life. Furthermore, these strange Germans submitted absolutely to the control of Father Rapp. His sermons and advice controlled the group. Nobody could join except with his consent. All members confessed their faults to him. But under his leadership the group flourished and prospered.
In 1815, Rapp and his followers moved to New Harmony, Ind. There they repeated their Pennsylvania success. After a number of years they again moved, this time to Economy, Pennsylvania. Wherever they went, they made the ground produce rich and plentiful harvests, but the group were doomed to extinction. Because they were not interested in making converts and because they had no children, they had no source of new membership. They gradually died out.
The Rappites were not the only religious group transplanted to America in order to find freedom to carry out their principle of holding all things in common. In addition to them there were such groups as the followers of Joseph M. Bäumler, who settled in northern Ohio and developed a very successful community called Zoar. Still others came from Germany to found the New Community, later called the Amana Society. First they settled in New York, but they later moved to Iowa.
So it was that American Protestantism of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence and growth of many religious groups that did not originate in America. Nevertheless, they put into practice the principles over which many reform battles were waged. They may not have been large in numbers or influence, but they did represent one concern of American religious life -- the need for moral fervor and reform.
Meanwhile, American religious life itself had brought forth several movements of similar tendency. It was not surprising that revivalism produced such fruits. It stressed the necessity of personal conversion from sin and the consequence of living according to Godís will. The man converted from sin should sin no more. There was a possibility of becoming a perfect Christian, or so some thought. Perhaps one could not become absolutely perfect, but at least one could become as perfect as his talents and possibilities allowed.
But how could one practice the perfect moral life when society itself was evil? Men lorded it over women and considered them as inferior creatures. Economic and personal life were built on greed and selfishness. Only the person who sought his own selfish end could succeed. Money and power controlled the world. Human beings were only tools to be used in the game of gain. Against all this, revivalism protested. It cried for reform.
What a country to reform! Was not America a new land, with vast creative possibilities? Was not the Christian Church responsible to check the evil that was undermining the nation? So those converted from sin were made soldiers of the good cause fighting under the leadership of the Beechers and Finneys.
Out of the bubbling ferment of the revivalistic reform movements arose a series of American attempts to build Godís Kingdom on earth, to achieve a genuine utopia where all the present evils would be overcome, where the first fruits of the new age would be visible. These different groups all had one thing in common. They were impatient with the regular reform movements trying to change society. They scrapped the society of which they were a part and started afresh by creating new communities which embodied the true principles of Christianity from the very beginning. That is what they believed, and on that conviction they staked their substance and their lives.
One of the first such ventures was the Hopedale community established in Massachusetts in 1841. Its leaders had been connected with the Universalist and Unitarian Churches. They undertook a joint enterprise which was not the same as common ownership but very similar. They wrote into their constitution support of all the great reform movements -- equality of the sexes, temperance, chastity, peace, equality of all races, etc. They were opposed to "all things known to be sinful against God or human nature."
With the aim of a life of perfection as full Christian brothers, the enterprise got under way. Needless to say it failed, as did many others like it. Yet the failure was due not so much to the economic or financial arrangements as to a spiritual or moral failure. Somehow they could not re-create the pristine condition of man. Eden was not re-established. Hopedale was only one of several such attempts and failures.
The only really successful experiment to create a new society based on religious principles was that started by John Humphrey Noyes, a graduate of Dartmouth College, who was converted by Charles Finney in Vermont. When Noyes, a licensed divinity student, preached that conversion brought complete release from sin, his license was revoked. He went out on his own to think through his religious beliefs and came to oppose what he called the "Sin system, the Marriage system, the Work system, and the Death system."
He came to the conclusion that revivalism and socialism had to be blended in order to produce a new society based on Christian teachings. As his following grew he established a community in Vermont based on his new beliefs. Because of violent opposition from his neighbors, he was forced to find a new home, and the group settled at Oneida, New York.
There they found sufficient isolation to produce their own type of life. Everything was held in common -- even husbands and wives. They practiced what was called complex life. Noyes argued that the love of one person for another produced jealousy and selfishness. All were partners holding everything in common, but nobody had to submit to another without his or her own full consent. Everything was kept under the strictest regulations of the entire community in order to guard against the abuse of freedom as well as the threat of selfishness.
The Oneida community became very successful financially. It turned from agriculture to industry. First, it became famous for producing steel traps. Later, it started the manufacture of knives and silverware. Today everyone has heard of Oneida Community Plate. But because of pressure from the outside the community was forced to give up the complex marriage system, and when this was surrendered the religious basis of the movement seemed to collapse. The community incorporated itself and became a very prosperous business venture.
So revivalism produced a new spirit that moved through staid old New England as well as through the rough new frontier. It encouraged zeal for reform and fanned the flames of hope for a new nation. Not only did it produce all the great missions and reform movements, it also produced strange and peculiar groups that sought to find more light yet in Godís Word for nineteenth century America.
Strange, was it not, that as groups such as Oneida and Hopedale sought to follow Godís will more completely they often appeared to go contrary to it in their zeal. In finding release from sin in conversion, many thought they had found release not only from their bodies but also from their every selfishness. And so the movements for perfectionism soon showed how far man was from perfection. They stood as condemnations against all halfhearted attempts to live the Christian religion. They also stood as condemnation against all illusions and pretensions that it was possible to live the Christian life without constant forgiveness or to live it in full perfection. The gospel had to grasp a man anew each day -- the struggle between faith and disbelief was not settled once and for all in the blinding burst of the conversion experience.
It was a warm July evening in 1838 as Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson, onetime minister of a Boston Unitarian church, stood in the small Divinity School chapel of Harvard University to address the senior class. Nothing appeared unusual about the occasion, but it was to be of great consequence for the Unitarian Church.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was deeply dissatisfied with the religion of his Unitarian brethren. He saw it as something dry and external. A collection of moral truths accepted only on the basis of a cold, hard reason. It had no life, no real vitality -- it was, in short, worse than the so-called New England Calvinism against which it had protested. Boston Unitarianism was as lifeless and as formal as its opponents. It was bound to tradition.
Against the rationalistic arguments of his brethren, Emerson bid the young students turn within and find the divine at work in their own lives. Within the very soul of man is a noble and divine sentiment pointing him to what he ought to do. This inner reality is truly appealing, "a more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue. Then he is instructed in what is above him."
Out of Emersonís protest against Unitarianism arose a new movement in American Christianity. This movement was called transcendentalism. It was so called because of its stress on the divine as being at the same time beyond man yet present within manís soul. As he put it: "Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Always our being is descending into us from we know not whence." Hence, manís knowledge of God is not confined to the operation of reason and the five senses but is primarily beyond them.
Because of the union between man as divine and God who is yet beyond all men, Emerson had great faith in the ability of man to cast off the shackles of the past, to realize the divine within, and to create a new, fresh life. He had given up his church in 1832 and proceeded to write and to lecture. He traveled around the country preaching his new message of manís divinity and limitless possibilities. He was not alone in proclaiming this message.
As early as 1836, a group of men in and around Boston had met in a Transcendental Club which discussed the works of recent German and English authors. In 1840 they published a magazine, the Dial, which, under the editorship first of Margaret Fuller, feminist and author, and then of Emerson, became the leading intellectual journal of America. It published poetry, criticism, articles, and book reviews.
Other outstanding members of the transcendentalist movement were such people as Bronson Alcott, one of the greatest lecturers America produced, Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and philosopher, and Theodore Parker, minister, outstanding reformer, and scholar. There were others too, but the number of the movement was always small, though its influence was tremendous.
One of the most famous of the group was the Unitarian clergyman Theodore Parker. He too broke from the Unitarians and urged men to find truth not in tradition but in their own personal experience as they confronted a changing political and economic order. He fought against slavery, he accepted women as equal even in expounding theology, and he preached the necessity of bringing the Kingdom of righteousness into fruition.
In addition to the belief in the ultimate perfection of man and the necessity of reform, the transcendentalists also founded a religious community. Brook Farm, their experiment in communal living, was founded largely under the inspiration and direction of George Ripley, a Boston Unitarian minister. But the whole group was interested in it and supported it through money and writing.
Brook Farm was completely democratic in organization. There was no John H. Noyes or George Rapp to control it. It was an attempt to realize through communal living the highest human virtues. It wanted to create a little world in which each individual could realize all his or her powers and gifts. Everybody was expected to do some work to help maintain the group, and all shared in every type of work, so there was no master and servant relationship.
The most remarkable aspect of Brook Farm was its school for children. Some of the finest families in New England sent their children. Education was largely through personal contact with some of the outstanding minds of America. Tutoring, learning through doing things, and participating in discussion, was the method of instruction. Thus the children were really part of a community given to cultural pursuits and learning. Their education was informal but very effective.
In 1845, Brook Farm changed its nature, when it was legally incorporated in order to become a new type of community. It joined the growing socialist movement known as Fourierism after its French originator. It became a local group of that movement and in a short time failed financially. Thus the transcendentalist experiment was sidetracked and disbanded. But transcendentalism did not die. It continued to flourish through literature and lectures. Even more important, it created a tendency in American Christianity which received expression in later years through a marked emphasis on the spiritual and ideal side of life over against the material and the actual.
While transcendentalism represented an intellectual effort to overcome the base material world with all its ugliness, meanness, and disorder, another movement arose among the uneducated which attempted to overcome the sinful reality of life by preaching the immediate coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the end of the world.
Millenarianism was the belief that Jesus was coming soon to judge the world and to institute his reign. All evil would be put down, sinners would be judged, saints would be raised, and God would reign supreme in a new heaven and a new earth. This belief was widely prevalent in nineteenth century America and was almost universally accepted on the frontier. Sinners were urged to repent before the Day of Judgment struck.
Throughout the "burned-over" revival districts where various revivals had come and gone, strange beliefs persisted. Some men believed they had special powers of prophecy. Others had sticks they called divining rods with which they supposedly located lost treasures or received divine revelations.
In 1828 at a revival meeting in Vermont, a farmer, William Miller, felt the urge to get up and pour out his heart concerning his religious convictions, but he was afraid to do so. In 1832, after ten years of very intensive Bible study and of meditating and conversing with neighbors, he publicly spoke convincingly of the glorious coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. His congregation was appalled and fascinated. As his reputation slowly grew he was in great demand as a lecturer.
While lecturing in Boston he won a notable convert, a Baptist minister, Rev. Joshua V. Himes, who became director of the Miller schedule. Soon he was lecturing throughout the east. Several newspapers such as the Midnight Cry were published. William Miller was winning a large number of converts. His preaching was quiet, earnest, and sincere, but his message was dynamite.
In a letter of 1832 he wrote: "I am satisfied that the end of the world is at hand. The evidence flows in from every quarter.
Soon, very soon, God will arise in his anger, and the vine of the earth will be reaped. See! See! -- the angel with his sharp sickle is about to take the field! See yonder trembling victim fall before his pestilential breath! High and low, rich and poor, trembling and falling before the appalling grave, the dreadful cholera.
"Hark! -- hear those dreadful bellowings of the angry nations! It is the presage of horrid and terrific war. Look! -- look again! See crowns and kings and kingdoms trembling to the dust! See lords and nobles, captains and mighty men, all arming for the bloody, demon fight! See the carnivorous fowls fly screaming through the air! See! -- see these signs! Behold, the heavens grow black with clouds; the sun has veiled himself; the moon, pale and forsaken, hangs in the middle air; the hail descends; the seven thunders utter loud their voices; the lightnings send their vivid gleams of sulphurous flames abroad; and the great city of the nations falls to rise no more forever and forever! At the dread moment, look! The clouds have burst asunder; the heavens appear; the great white throne is in sight! Amazement fills the universe with awe! He comes! -- He comes! -- Behold, the Saviour comes! -- Lift up your heads, ye saints -- He comes! He comes! He comes!
Little wonder that people were startled and frightened. To make things more compelling, William Miller was not alone in preaching such doctrines. Many people believed in the speedy return of Christ. But under the urging of his followers and after careful study, Miller took the fatal step of predicting the approximate time of Christís return.
He said that "Christ would appear a second time in the clouds of heaven sometime between 1843 and 1844; that he would then raise the righteous dead and judge them together with the righteous living, who would be caught up to meet him in the air; that he would purify the earth by fire causing the wicked to be consumed in the general conflagration."
This was different! A possible date was set -- the end was but a short time off. As 1843 drew to a close the excitement mounted. People began to question about the great day. Again Millerís followers urged him to select a date. He was reluctant to do so. He only insisted that the time was almost up and that believers should not give up the faith. Finally, the Millerites published the date -- October 22, 1844, was supposed to be the last day of time!
Again excitement increased. By this time the Millerites had gained many followers and many sympathizers. When the great day arrived they went to their tabernacles and meetinghouses to sing hymns and await the Lordís coming. Nothing happened! Once again men had sought more light in Godís Word and had misinterpreted it so as to produce delusion.
The newspapers had a field day. They told stories of Millerites climbing to the tops of trees and trying to fly to heaven to meet Christ -- the result was, of course, disaster. They told of faithful followers, wearing white ascension robes, awaiting the end. Stories and rumors of suicides and murders by demented Millerites were passed about. But none of this was true. The movement did cause a good deal of stir and excitement, but it produced no such extremes.
The Millerites recovered somewhat from their great blunder. They did not become a large and powerful American Church, but they passed into two relatively small but flourishing sects called the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Christian Adventists. Miller died a discouraged and forgotten man. Many leaders left their ranks. The doctrine of the Second Coming continued to be preached in American Protestantism, but the public was thereafter very cautious about taking it literally as to the day or the hour. The Millerites agreed that the date selected for Christís visible return was incorrect. No man knows when that will occur. But they insisted that according to the prophecy of Daniel, on October 22, 1844, Christ did cleanse the invisible heavenly temple. They were right as to the time of cleansing but wrong as to the where and how. Thus the movement was consolidated and took its place in American Protestantism.
In September, 1827, the Smith family of Manchester, New York, was greatly agitated by the actions of Joseph Smith. He had brought home a mysterious box, which, he claimed, contained some golden plates that he had dug from the ground at the direction of an angel, Moroni. Furthermore, he maintained that two strange stones, the Urim and Thummim, attached to a breastplate, accompanied the golden plates. By peering into these stones he could translate the inscriptions on the plates.
Joseph Smith claimed that he was instructed in a vision to procure the plates and that an angel was to guide him in their use. Now it so happened that this section of New York was part of the "burned-over" revival district. Many strange stories and practices floated about. Previously, Smith and his father had worked with a divining rod trying to find buried treasure. Necromancy, mystery, and legend filled the air. The high hills and peculiar mounds of the neighborhood mystified the local inhabitants. Many claimed that they contained Indians who were buried there after a tremendous battle in which thousands were slain in ages long past. Others said that these Indians were the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel of which the Bible speaks. In any case the mounds excited curiosity.
In 1827, Smith began his translation of the golden plates. He sat behind a curtain and dictated to scribes, among them a local teacher named Oliver Cowdery. In 1829 the work was finished and in 1830 the Book of Mormon appeared. Joseph received a revelation from heaven as to the price of the book.
What was the mysterious Book of Mormon? It was supposedly the story of Nephi and Laman, the sons of Lehi, a minor prophet of Israel who was not mentioned in the Bible, and of their coming to America before the birth of Jesus. In America their groups divided and fought. The sons of Nephi had scripture and divine guidance through prophets. After Jesusí resurrection he appeared to the Nephites and taught them all his doctrine, and among them he found his most faithful followers. A true Church was organized in which all things were held in common.
After two hundred years of peace, war broke out again until all members of the true Church were destroyed. Meanwhile this entire history had been kept on golden plates by the Nephite prophet Mormon and given to his son Moroni to complete and to hide in the earth, which he did. With the destruction of his people, the Church of Christ was no longer left on earth. It was Godís purpose through Moroni the angel to make known the history of his true Church through the Book of Mormon and to use Joseph Smith as a prophet to start his Church anew. Thus a new age was to dawn, the millennium was to come, through a reconstituted Church into which all the saints would be called.
Joseph Smith received other revelations from heaven which instructed him on Baptism and the formation of the Church. He and a faithful little group were declared to be of the priesthood of Aaron, and he alone was declared prophet and seer. In 1830 the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints was founded. Meanwhile, the Book was not selling too well, and Smith received a revelation to reduce its price over one half. But there were men out on the field winning converts. The Bible was not ignored; it was always read in the light of the Book of Mormon, which supposedly stated the same truths but in a clearer fashion.
By the early 1830ís, Smith with his wife and family moved to Kirtland, Ohio, where they settled and prospered. Another group went to Missouri and settled near Independence. While in Ohio, Smith was full of prophecies and plans. Several other books of his revelations were published, and a temple was built. On the command of direct revelation he started his own bank, which failed miserably and lost the savings of many Saints. The people in Ohio determined to bring Joseph Smith to trial for violating the state banking laws, and he fled.
Meanwhile trouble was developing for the Mormons in Missouri. Their neighbors accused them of thievery and of planning to take control of the entire state. The Mormons responded that they were being persecuted for the sake of their faith. Several skirmishes were fought, and the Mormons moved to Clay County, Missouri. Smith joined his followers in Missouri, and by 1837 there were around 15,000 gathered Saints. Their missionaries went all over the world preaching the gospel of the reconstituted Church with free land for all the Saints.
Driven out of Missouri, the Mormons settled, finally, at Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1840. As they constituted such a large number and always voted in a block, Smith used this power to wrest from the Illinois legislature unheard-of powers for his town. The mayor, Smith, was a court in himself, and the mayor and council could pass any laws not repugnant to the liberties guaranteed by the constitution. They were even given the right to equip and put in the field their own private militia. Little wonder their neighbors feared them.
At Nauvoo the Mormons prospered. By 1844 this was the largest city in Illinois, larger than Chicago. Converts from England flocked to Nauvoo seeking the kingdom of plenty. Joseph Smith ruled supreme. He received a revelation that he should institute the practice of marrying women for eternity as well as for time. This meant that a man, if approved by the Church, might have several wives, and in some cases have the use of another manís wife. It is alleged that Joseph Smith married over twenty such women for eternity.
The enmity against and fear of the Mormons spread among their Illinois neighbors. Smith decided to run for President of the United States in 1844. Finally, due to the rumors over polygamy and the destruction of a press to silence opposition in Nauvoo, violence broke out. Joseph Smith, his brother Hyram, and two other followers voluntarily surrendered for trial in Carthage, Illinois. The trial never came off. On the evening of the twenty-seventh of June, 1844 Joseph and his brother were murdered by a mob in the Carthage jail.
This was a terrible blow to the Mormons, but they rallied under the leadership of Brigham Young and left Nauvoo for a long trek west. By the fall of 1848, a goodly proportion of the Mormons had settled in the valley of Salt Lake in Utah. No land was to be sold to the Saints; it was given to them -- the only demand was that they be industrious and make it prosper. The timber and the mountain streams were the property of all, not just a few. Salt Lake City was laid out after a plan that had been revealed to Joseph Smith. Included in these plans was the center of life -- a temple.
The Saints flourished; they made the desert bloom. Nobody could work only for himself -- the community was as important as the individual. While a man was allowed to provide for all the needs of his family, he turned over everything above those needs to the group as a whole. And they did just that! Co-operative enterprises sprang up. Self-interest as the basic drive for economic life was replaced by concern for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints.
Another strange practice of the Mormons in Utah was polygamy. Brigham Young put into public practice what Joseph Smith received by revelation and practiced in secret. Not all could afford to practice plural marriage because the support of several wives and large numbers of children required the physical resources to maintain them. However, in the winning of the western desert the practice appeared to work quite well -- it provided a large number of children to work the land and made use of all the excess women. The question of what it did to family relations is a difficult thing to determine.
Meanwhile, under the guidance of Joseph Smithís widow and son, a Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints was founded with its headquarters in Independence, Missouri. It denied that Smith ever had more than one wife and was opposed to the doctrine of polygamy.
So the Mormons grew and prospered. In 1890 they were forced to give up polygamy by a law of the land, and when they did so Utah was finally admitted as a state. They became famous for their economic prosperity. Every year they sent hundreds of missionaries out to win converts, and they grew. They were one of the few new religions to develop in America. Mormonism was not an importation, not even a schism from another Protestant Church; it was the product of revivalism, the vast American frontier, the fertile imagination of Joseph Smith, and the dogged determination of the leaders and the Saints.
America is famous for its many strange and peculiar religious groups, yet it is not odd that they should have developed here. Under full religious liberty many kinds of religions could develop. But only two or three genuinely new Churches developed in America. Rather, America took all the offerings of Europe, all the oppressed, the peculiar, the strange, and here they were given an unmolested place to develop. Why not? The country was huge. It needed people who were willing to work and if they also wanted to test new principles, there was room to do so.
But American Protestantism did produce several strange groups of its own. Adventism is nothing new in history. William Miller can be understood as one among many men in history who thought he knew the date of Christís Second Coming.
John Noyes was somewhat different. Here was a genuine product of American religious life. He actually succeeded in forming a community on principles absolutely contrary to the society around him. Yet those principles, for him, were only the logical consequence of the holiness produced by conversion. Zeal for reform could take unusual turns as well as the more common protests against injustice. Joseph Smith and the Mormons were also a peculiar American product. They sought to channel the results of conversion not into the spiritual life which denies the flesh but into the material world. It was in the use and manipulation of the material world that they sought the blessings of religion, and they found them in abundant crops, large families, and green, rolling hills. Strange that in seeking new answers to the religious quest of man these men distorted or perverted the gospel in a way that they could not see. It appears that the light may well have been hidden from them.