Prior to the Civil War, America was a nation in search of its own identity. The experiment in democratic self-government was hardly two generations old and the western frontier of the United States had barely grown from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. The Age of Enlightenment, with its scientific rationalism and religious skepticism, sparked a counter-movement in the United States and abroad called Romanticism. These were the years of transcendental poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whose search for meaning and truth eschewed hard evidence for natural intuition. This was the era of Jacksonian Democracy and empowerment of the “common man” as a potent political force. Still, despite the declaration of man’s equality, the American landscape was riddled with inequality: tensions over slavery were mounting; women’s political and property rights were virtually non-existent; and American Indian tribes were being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands.

This was also an era of religious revival, led primarily by the Methodists, with the Baptists and Presbyterians in close competition. Itinerant preachers rode by horseback through the rugged American frontier, delivering their messages of Armageddon and spiritual regeneration. A belief in the immanency of the Second Coming (millenarianism) swept through religious society, and charismatic camp-style revivals commanded the attention of thousands. Passionate preachers like Charles Grandison Finney, Lyman Beecher, and Alexander Campbell attained near-celebrity status, while the previously dominant institutions—Congregationalists and Anglican Episcopalians—began fading into an increasingly pluralistic landscape. Beyond the established churches, numerous utopian experiments existed on the fringes of religious society: Ann Lee’s Shakers; Georg Rapp’s Harmonists; John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida community; and the proto-Zionist Ararat colony led by Mordecai Manual Noah are but a few of these expressions. It was into this fertile environment that the Mormons emerged, founded by the charismatic and controversial Joseph Smith Jr. who brazenly declared himself God’s chosen prophet and decried all other creeds an abomination.

For various reasons that shall be explored, the Mormons were despised wherever they attempted to settle. Fourteen years after its founding, this growing animosity culminated in the assassination of the Mormon prophet. But the movement Smith began did not dissolve with his death. Among the various groups who claimed succession from Joseph Smith Jr., the largest to emerge was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), led to the Great Basin by Brigham Young. Nearly two centuries after Mormonism’s founding, the Salt Lake City-based church boasts an international presence with over fifteen million members on record. Despite sweeping changes from its early turbulent years, the LDS Church has never abandoned its reverence for Joseph Smith Jr. as a prophet of God and still claims to be led by a prophet today.

Further Reading:

Donald Scott, “Mormonism and the American Mainstream.”