The Burned Over District & the Book of Mormon
In early nineteenth century America a call for repentance swept across the country via the body of Christ just as it did some fifty years earlier with the First Great Awakening. It became obvious to many in the young fledgling country the Lord wanted their attention as growing pains kicked in to move west and heretical teachings of Universalism began permeating pulpits and the nation’s top-notched universities like Yale.
Revivals from New Orleans to upstate New York were held as early as 1800 until the latter part of the century in what was known as the Second Great Awakening. Several denominations held revivals throughout the frontier and saw many people turn to the Lord while clergy fought hard to warn people about the rise of false prophets in America. It wasn’t unusual to see thousands of people attend the meetings where praise music, healings and even miracles were reported to have taken place. In Kentucky as many as twenty thousand people attended a revival in 1801.
Camp meeting revivals were so common in New York and the surrounding areas the leading revivalist and theologian Charles Finney coined the term “burned over district” because no one was left to convert. It wasn’t uncommon to see several hundred people in attendance at a revival and every single person making a confession of Christ. (Wouldn’t that be awesome if this happened again in the US?!)
Typically, the gatherings consisted of itinerant, multi-denominational preachers who took turns preaching almost non-stop for the duration of the meeting which sometimes lasted up to a month or longer. Carving out a living on the frontier wasn’t an easy life and full time preachers employed by a single church were hard to come by. It was at these revivals pastors from various denominations would gather to call sinners to repentance. The meetings also gave farmers the opportunity to take a break for a bit of time while meeting with friends or family to hear the word of the Lord.
Large wooden platforms were built on over-sized tall poles so speakers could be seen and heard in the large crowds. Keep this visual in mind as we look at a passage in the Book of Mormon. According to retired LDS Professor Grant Palmer1, the Methodists who prepared a meeting near Palmyra in 1826, considered the rented grounds to be holy as they prayed for those who traveled from over 100 miles away to hear the preachers.
During the time people were being converted to the Lord, Joe Smith’s family stayed busy debating the legitimacy of the claims being made by the ministers and pastors and dig for treasures in the earth.
Joseph Smith, Sr.’s outlook on religion wasn’t a run of the mill theology you may have encountered during this time. While American Folk Religion by and large was found throughout America’s early years, Mr. Smith’s overriding sentiment towards spirituality also entailed more characteristics from the occult than the average American. You might say he inherited a few of his own father Asael’s ideologies than what Folk Religion afforded the average citizen. From being a member of the Vermont Divining Rod Club to being a Master Mason in Canandaigua, NY, Joe Smith Sr. like many others at that time, was prone to having visions. His wife Lucy2 wrote about the family dividing their time between magical pursuits and worrying about the salvation of their souls;
“Now I shall change my theme for the present but let not my reader suppose that because I shall pursue another topic for a season that we stopt [sic] our labor and went <at> trying to win the faculty of Abrac3 drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business [sic] we never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation but whilst we worked with our hands we endeavored to remmember [sic] the service of & the welfare of our souls.”
Joseph Smith, Jr’s mother Lucy wrote how difficult it was for her when it came to choosing a church. She felt caught between making society happy or following her heart with the appealing unknown spirit world. She also embraced many of the ideologies of her father in believing something other than organized religion was needed to truly follow God. Her father, Solomon Mack, had adopted Primitivism theology which led to the restoration movement in American Christianity. This was the same mindset the Smith family seemed to have embraced.
Asael Smith’s (Joseph Smith, Sr.’s father) disdain for organized religion was passed onto his children who in turn as we see here, did much of the same. Asael was a Universalist with a strong dislike for Congregationalists. Having a determined belief Christianity had strayed from its original teachings and known for believing God was benevolent and wouldn’t send anyone to hell, he also had a premonition someone in the family would rise to do great things4.
And thus was the family dynamic in the Smith household during the time of these great revivals. While no one wanted to fully embrace the God of the Bible, they weren’t willing to completely wash their hands of Him either.
Case in point is the author of the Book of Mormon. In 1820 Joseph Smith, Jr. wrote that not long after his family moved to Palmyra a religious revival was taking place so he, along with his family, attended the camp meeting to hear what the Methodist minister would have to say about God5. He mentions after reading James 1:5 it gave him pause, prompting him to go into a grove of trees and pray to ask God which church was right.
The problem with this scenario is timing. Suffice it to say the camp meeting took place in June of 1826 one mile outside of Palmyra, not in 1820 as Joseph claimed in his testimony. Presbytery records show dismal numbers of new membership for 1819-1820, indicating no revival taking place at that time. Ah, but that’s another subject matter for another day. This time around we’re looking at the content in the Book of Mormon and one particular revival that took place in June of 1826.
Another account of his vision and the family’s conversion to the Presbyterian Church is from 1834 in the LDS publication Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 1, No. 3, pg 42 & Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 1, No. 5, pg 78.
These state his family joined the Presbyterian Church in 1824; in addition to the time discrepancy, Smith describes an angel that visited him in his bedroom when he asked God which church he should join. This is vastly different from his story in the Pearl of Great Price where it says they joined the Church in 1820 and he went to the woods to pray and saw God and Jesus.
Joseph Smith’s Testimony 1:5; “Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.”
Joseph Smith’s Testimony 1:7; “I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father’s family was proselyted [sic] to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia.”
Joseph Smith’s Testimony 1:17; “It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
The revival of 1826 hosted the beloved and well known retiring minister by the name of Bishop William M’kendree and preacher Benjamin G. Paddock. Visitors pitched their tents facing the raised stand in a semi-circle where they heard a valedictory speech of the sickly, older pastor M’kendree. The camp being referred to as God’s temple was a reminder of the tabernacle that the Israelites would set up and take down as they wandered the desert.
The congregation of more than 10,000 heard Bishop M’kendree express his love for them and their need of a Savior. The altar call proved fruitful as nearly everyone accepted the invitation to ask Jesus into their hearts. The revival further solidified unity amongst the various denominations in their fight to keep unorthodox teachings about the Bible from the Christian pulpits.
You can read about their experiences in Grant Palmer’s book “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins”6, as well as Michael Marquardt’s work, “Inventing Mormonism7” and the local newspaper at the time, The History of Wayne County8 (see excerpt below).
“In the old chapel, as it was usually called, the Genesee conference held its seventeenth session during June, 1826. Bishop McKendree presiding. A camp-meeting was held at the same time in a fine grove nearby. On Sabbath morning the bishop preached in this glove [grove] to a congregation of thousands. It is said that not less than ten thousand persons were on the ground during the day.”
The timing for this revival makes more sense than the 1820 date Smith spoke of for a few reasons, one of which is his mother Lucy’s diary entry about the family’s trauma when her son Alvin died. She wrote that after his death in late autumn of 1823, a great revival took place and not finding any solace for her broken heart from his death, some members of the family attended the assemblage. She mentioned that she, along with some of her children decided to join the Presbyterian Church at that time9.
Now let’s take a look at another revival story. This time the location is somewhere here on the American Continent, circa 124 BC.
The main characters for this get-together were the Nephites and King Benjamin. At the end of the king’s life he called for his sons to gather the people so he could give a farewell speech which included teaching them about Jesus and announcing his son Mosiah as his successor.
The problem with this scenario is content. It seems like a lot to accept that in 124 BC King Benjamin called everyone together to remind them they needed to obey Jesus’ teachings while waiting for his birth. Furthermore, how likely is it the setting of his speech would be nearly identical to that of Bishop M’kendree’s?
The beloved Bishop M’kendree lived 1,950 years after King Benjamin and the events surrounding the 1826 Palmyra revival took place before Joseph produced the Book of Mormon.
Mosiah 2:1, 5-7, 3:8; “And it came to pass that after Mosiah had done as his father had commanded him, and had made a proclamation throughout all the land, that the people gathered themselves together throughout all the land, that they might go up to the temple to hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them. 5 And it came to pass that when they came up to the temple, they pitched their tents round about, every man according to his family, consisting of his wife, and his sons, and his daughters, and their sons, and their daughters, from the eldest down to the youngest, every family being separate one from another. 6 And they pitched their tents round about the temple, every man having his tent with the door thereof towards the temple, that thereby they might remain in their tents and hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them; 7 For the multitude being so great that king Benjamin could not teach them all within the walls of the temple, therefore he caused a tower to be erected, that thereby his people might hear the words which he should speak unto them.”
3:8; “And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.”
As you can see, the vocabulary this King Benjamin employed is what we’d expect to find in New Testament settings and certainly not indicative of a Jewish tribe living in the BC era. Phrases such as Son of God, Jesus Christ, crucify (vs 9), et al, just weren’t part of a Jewish tribe’s vernacular for that timeframe. Additionally, why would the Nephites talk about Jesus in the past tense in 124 BC?
Aside from the vocabulary issue, we need to keep in mind the other topics we’ve mentioned here; location and timing of American revivals, Smith’s evolutionary stories of his experience when asking God which church he should join and finally the overall story of Benjamin in the Book of Mormon.
One of Joseph’s stories about the revivals taking place two years after they moved to Palmyra doesn’t match up with the date of when Palmyra hosted a revival. There were no revivals matching his description or numerous people joining different denominations in the area in 1820.
Secondly, it doesn’t match up with what his mother stated about revivals taking place after Alvin’s death.
Lastly, there are too many similarities between the Book of Mormon and 19th Century American history to lend any credibility to Smith’s claims. Universalism, early American view of Indians being a warlike people with un-tethered morals, people having visions of early Christianity, revivals, the fixation of early settlers digging for buried treasure, Egyptian hieroglyphics and let’s not forget sixteenth century Reformation ideologies were all part of the early Americana landscape and ironically enough, the Book of Mormon as well.
So here we are with numerous problems tied to just this one revival in Palmyra that took place in 1826.
We pray that as a Mormon you afford yourself the time and effort to investigate these things for yourself. Please know we don’t post these topics out of spite, but as a sincere concern for the salvation of the Mormon people. We pray daily for each member of the Church as we’re intimately aware of just how complicated and difficult it can be to choose between heritage and the Bible.
With Love in Christ;
1 Cor 1:18
1. Grant Palmer – “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins”
2. “Lucy’s Book, A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir” – Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson
3. “Faculty of Abrac” was a term used by Masons when describing some of the writings of the Basilideans (a Gnostic group from the fifth century). Faculty of Abrac is the word abracadabra spelled in a triad by dropping one letter per line. This would be written or engraved on metal and hung around the neck to be used as an amulet. They believed the amulet provided hidden knowledge and powers in time of danger. Trying to win the faculty of Abrac meant nothing more than practicing witchcraft. See The Early History and Antiquities of Freemasonry
4. “Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism“, Dan Vogel
5. Joseph Smith’s Testimony 1:11, 14; “While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.”
6. Grant Palmer’s book “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins”
7. Michael Marquardt, “Inventing Mormonism”
9. History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, pg 86, 88, 90;
“ON THE 15th of November, 1823, about 10 o’clock in the morning, Alvin was taken very sick with the bilious colic. 88 As I turned with the child to leave him he said, “Father, mother, brothers, and sisters, farewell! I can now breathe out my life as calmly as a clock.” Saying this, he immediately closed his eyes in death. 90 SHORTLY after the death of Alvin, a man commenced laboring in the neighborhood, to effect a union of the different churches, in order that all might be agreed, and thus worship God with one heart and with one mind. This seemed about right to me, and I felt much inclined to join in with them; in fact, the most of the family appeared quite disposed to unite with their numbers; but Joseph, from the first, utterly refused even to attend their meetings, saying, “Mother, I do not wish to prevent your going to meeting, or any of the rest of the family’s; or your joining any church you please; but, do not ask me to join them. I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time.””