Joseph Smith came of age during the Second Great Awakening. His path to the formation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was influenced by this time period, while also becoming a part of this era of religious history.
Second Great Awakening
According to scholars, the Second Great Awakening occurred roughly between 1790 and 1840, and was a time of resurgence in religious devotion and practice in America. Following the success of the American Revolution, religion experienced a revolution of its own.
“During the American Revolution, religious practice was more subdued,” said Spencer McBride, historian for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. “1790 to about 1850 marked a resurgence in religious fervor. People were joining churches at a faster rate than before, and denominations that were formerly on the fringes became mainstream and a major part of Christianity.”
Methodist and Baptist membership grew significantly during this era.
“By 1820, Methodist membership numbered a quarter million; by 1839 it was twice that number. Baptist membership multiplied tenfold in the three decades after the Revolution; the number of churches increased from 500 to over 2,500,” said Nathan Hatch in his book, The Democratization of American Christianity.
Hatch further explained that the major faiths of the time all had charismatic leaders who “challenged common people to take religious destiny into their own hands, to think for themselves, to oppose centralized authority and the elevation of the clergy as a separate order of men.”
Just as the “common people” of America had prevailed over the British elite, the Second Great Awakening was a time of throwing off the religious elite.
Religion no longer centered around wealthy clergymen, but on salvation through Jesus Christ. Lay preachers and traveling preachers came from all walks of life and encouraged congregations to gain their own witness of Jesus Christ.
“Joseph Smith was living at a time where the people were being encouraged to look anew at their religious state,” McBride said. “These clergy that looked and sounded like them were teaching different ways to come to Christ. Americans were finding more freedom to find one that resonated with them – to choose their own religious path.”
According to Hatch, those religious paths often included dreams and visions inspired by God fully accepted and encouraged by preachers of the time as “normal manifestations of divine guidance and instruction.”
Joseph Smith’s Awakening
Much of the era’s religious fervor centered within New York, near where Joseph Smith’s family lived. Methodist and Baptist preachers set up camp meetings that were loud, full of feeling and hugely successful in recruiting converts, Hatch explained. Preachers’ impassioned sermons focused on faith in Jesus Christ and repentance, and drew thousands of congregants and converts.
Smith expressed confusion in his own writings about “this time of great excitement.” His parents and siblings joined different religions, and he felt unsure of his own religious path. Empowered by this same religious atmosphere, which encouraged personal witness and testimony, Smith searched for his own way to Christ.
It was in this atmosphere that Smith’s own faith and religious path was forged, and his prayer and subsequent vision, as recorded in Joseph Smith—History, in the Pearl of Great Price, was in line with the religiosity of his day.
Under Smith’s direction and revelation, Mormonism grew and gained its own followers. While much of its doctrine was similar to Methodism and Baptist teachings of the time, Mormonism included some stark differences.
All three sects believed that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world through his atonement and resurrection. Each group believed in miracles, visions and personal revelation. For all sects, the Bible was the word of God.
But Mormonism believed in additional scripture found in the Book of Mormon, a record of ancient people living in the Americas translated from golden plates by Smith. And because of Smith’s vision in the Sacred Grove in New York — commonly known as the First Vision — Mormonism differed in its view of the Godhead.
Joseph Smith’s vision changed how people viewed the Godhead, because he recorded witnessing two distinct beings – God the Father and Jesus Christ. Within Mormonism, the Godhead is made up of three distinct people — Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost — acting with one godly purpose. This differs from Methodists and Baptists, who believe in the Trinity, or three gods in one.
Under Smith’s leadership and through continuing revelation, Mormonism continued to draw further away from other religions in its doctrines, such as: baptism for the dead, living prophets and three degrees of glory in the afterlife.
McBride explained that Smith pointed to the Bible for a basis of these “new” doctrines, providing answers for long-standing debates through additional revelation.
“The church was established in a time of religious fervor, a moment of fluctuation where Christians debated what they believed and weighed in on religion,” McBride said. “Through the revelations of Joseph Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declared their own position on those debates, but also moved in new directions.”
Thus, Smith was influenced by the religious atmosphere, while also becoming a part of it in his own way.
Hatch sets Smith among other well-known religious leaders of the day – Francis Asbury of the Methodists, and John Leland of the Baptists – calling them all “entrepreneurs in religion.”
“Characteristically bold, self-educated, self-confident, and inventive, this dedicated corps of charismatic leaders developed an array of religious movements that differed radically in theological outlook and organizational intent,” Hatch said in his book. “[T]hese unusually strong personalities all shared a passion for expansion, a hostility to orthodox belief and style, a zeal for religious reconstruction, and a systematic plan to labor on behalf of that ideal.”