How much did Joseph Smith's religious environment influence the founding of Mormonism?
Second Great Awakening/Burned Over District
Smith Family Religious Background
Born in 1805, Joseph Smith Jr. spent his formative years in rural western New York state, during the massive religious revival movement known as the Second Great Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening was marked by extreme religious fervor, and a desire by many to restore Christianity back to the true and pure form it had supposedly lost over the years. This led to an unprecedented number of denominational splits and new religious movements as people clamored for the truth.
But a particular area of geography was so spiritually decimated by the fires of revival that it earned the nickname the Burned-Over District. This was upstate New York, the home of Joseph Smith.
In the wake of this ‘burning over’, several religious sects begun by self-appointed, untrained clergy were formed, including Millerism, American Spiritualism, and the Oneida Society. These groups were often marked by a focus on the imminent apocalypse or the use of folk magic.
Furthermore, there was what was known as the Seeker movement: groups of people united in their rejection of current organized religion and their seeking of a new dispensation of apostolic authority. Joseph Smith’s own uncle, Jason Mack, was a seeker who was involved in setting up a kind of spiritual/communal society.
Closer to home, Smith’s parents, Joseph Sr. and Lucy, both came from somewhat eclectic religious backgrounds, expressing uncertainty about religious affiliation and holding to beliefs and experiences that were certainly unorthodox.
Joseph Smith himself cited this environment of religious turmoil as a great influence on him as a young man. One day, as he relates the story, he went into the woods to pray about this confusion, and was visited with a heavenly message that none of these religious groups were correct, and in fact, were all corrupt and abominations in God’s sight. Soon enough, Smith alone would be the recipient and propagator of the true restored church, lost since the days of Jesus Christ.
And yet, Smith’s restored church would borrow many features and beliefs from the people and movements already mentioned.
So were Joseph Smith and Mormonism just another product of their religious environment, or the only genuine movement of God among counterfeits? After all, other religious movements who can trace their origins back to the same time and geographical area still exist today, most notably Seventh Day Adventists.
But even if Mormonism was just a conglomeration of popular ideas and desires of the times, it would soon come into its own and distinguish itself as a major religious presence.
This is the first entry in a project called the LDS Video Encyclopedia. Visit us at www.ldsvideo.org to continue the story of Mormonism and explore the facts concerning a religion about which many people are curious, uninformed, or misinformed. Thanks for watching.