There is an area in upstate New York that has more power in American culture than Roswell, the purported crash site of a UFO in New Mexico. The television show “The X-Files” sustains the popular imagination that something mysterious must be out in the galaxy. NASA’s space program has launched probes in the hope that we will find Them.
But in the early 19th Century New York one farmer, Joseph Smith, claimed that he found who Them are—they are us once we go to Mormon heaven. Each saint will be rewarded with his or her place in the heavens. Some of today’s Mormons (the official title is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”) explain that their scriptural story is an allegory about rising to higher levels of responsibility in taking care of our resources.
The Mormons originated in upstate New York’s “Burned-Over District,” an area around Palmyra with many Christian revivals and religious innovations that continue to have impact today. The region was a frontier with upheaval from immigrants coming to work on the Erie Canal, New England migrants looking for farmland, and constant economic ups and downs. The parents of Smith moved more than eight times. They were looking for economic stability and life-direction. Smith’s mother changed churches after each new brand of Christianity swept through the area. Conversions to new religions were abrupt and emotional. An intense fervor characterized the abolitionist and temperance movements in the area. Some local religions were more outlandish than reassuring.
Lorenzo “Crazy Dow” offered an eccentric take on the Christian gospel. Skinny and unbathed, his long hair and beard were described as never having met a comb. Isaac Bullard preached free love and communism, and John Humphrey Noyes established the utopian Oneida Community to promote “complex marriage” (a sort of holy free love). Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers preached celibacy and the ability to become perfect. William Miller predicted that the Lord would return in 1843, and his followers became the Seventh-day Adventists. The Smith family also used the burgeoning magic lore of the region in the hopes of finding riches in the soil.
More mainline religious ideas also received new jazzy re-stylings. In the 1820s famous evangelist Charles Finney began his evangelical revivals in the region. During the exciting times of Finney’s meetings, Smith experienced a conversion in which he says God revealed that all the current religions were fakes. His mom encouraged him to start a new religious option.
Mormons believe that after a long period of spiritual misconceptions in the Christian church, that God sent the Angel Maroni to Smith to announce the re-establishment of a pure church starting in the blessed land of New York. The result will be a reformation of the world and the ushering in the millennium.
The angel revealed to Smith where to find golden plates of long lost scriptures for him to translate as the gospel for the last age.
On July 1, 1829 Mormon church history records that their founder Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon which was originally compiled by a prophet in around 400 A.D. called Mormon and handed down to his son and lost until 19th Century. The Angel Moroni took back the plates after Smith had completed his translation.
These scriptures added an updated history to the Bible and a new theology.
The Book of Mormon moved the center of spiritual history to New York state. According to its history, the Americas were settled by four peoples: the Jaredites after fleeing from the debacle of the Tower of Babel; the dark-skinned Lamanites; Mulekites; and the Nephites, God’s Chosen People. All the Nephites were killed in a war except Mormon, his son Moroni and a few others. In desperation Mornoi hid God’s New World scriptures in the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York, an event celebrated every August.
The theology of the new revelation stood in stark contrast to the New England Calvinism that his parents reacted against: one God as Triune and transcendent; the finality of God’s revelation in Bible; original sin; predestination; and salvation by faith. The Mormon gospel mixed some of the optimistic elements of Finney’s theology into their own special sauce. Smith taught that God was once like a human and then became God. Humans too can become Gods.
“Jesus Christ was the Redeemer and son of God,” said Mormon spokesman Ahmad Corbett. “He was a divine being who was part human.” The new saints said Jesus as a separate God to God the Father. Almost all Christian churches have a Trinitarian understanding of God as three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, united in one divine unity.
“Mormon theology differs radically from conventional Christianity in locating God in time and space,” explained Columbia University scholar Richard Bushman during an interview with CNN in June 2011. “He is not outside creation as traditionally believed. He is part of the physical universe, a being like the God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel who could touch Adam’s finger with his own if He chose.”
Mormons believe that God the Father has a perfect physical body. Jesus Christ has a material body too, but the Holy Spirit is simply a spirit. The three entities are considered to be separate beings, but amalgamated in purpose. Furthermore, if ordinary people live according to the Gospel and the ordinances of the church, they can achieve the highest state of godhood glory.
A particularly important aspect of Mormon theology is the continuing of God’s scriptural revelation, starting first with The Book of Mormon, and then followed by other revelations up to today. An 1841 revelation commanded baptism of the dead by which living people can be baptized on behalf of dead ancestors. Then, the dead ones have the opportunity to choose salvation if they want it.
Such latter day revelations are cumulatively compiled into the Doctrine and Covenants. They can alter the current authority of previous revelations.
The religious effervescence of upstate New York quickly sought out the “burnt out” religious scene of religious revivals and innovations in New York City. Finney shifted his headquarters to New York City for his efforts in the Second Great Awakening in the United States.
Likewise, the Mormons trace back their ties to the city to this time. Mormon founder Smith visited the city in 1832, writing to his wife, “The buildings are truly great and wonderful…”
In 1837 missionary Parley P. Pratt started handing out tracts on the streets announcing a new revelation about a new religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly called the Mormons. Pratt, one of the earliest leaders of the church, baptized six people and established a small congregation that met in a room near Delancy Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. One member of the Church who had already moved to New York City, Elijah Fordham, helped Pratt in his mission.
Pratt and Fordham preached, published tracts, advertised, prayed and mentored. Over six months, the progress was painfully slow: maybe six adherents, one new Mormon per month. Pratt decided to give up. He planned one last prayer meeting before leaving for New Orleans.
The two leaders and their six followers retreated into the upstairs of Fordham's house on Goerck Street (which no longer exists) in lower Manhattan. They took turns praying, and then suddenly, Pratt wrote in his autobiography, the Holy Spirit filled the room. They began to speak in tongues and prophesied. “The principal burden of the prophesyings was concerning New York City, and our mission there,” the missionary recounted. “The Lord said that He had heard our prayers, beheld our labors, diligence, and long suffering towards that city; and that He had seen our tears. […] We should tarry in the city, and go not thence as yet; for the Lord had many people in that city, and He had now come by the power of His Holy Spirit to gather them into His fold.”
After receiving this message, Pratt stayed and was able established 15 more meeting places. He also started a newspaper called The Prophet and wrote several hymns, including three hymns, famous among Mormons, called “The Millennial Hymns.” The movement’s growth was accelerated by the conversion of a Methodist pastor and his
family and reports of miracles of healing. However, the number of adherents was still very small, and included no or few African Americans. It is likely for theological reasons that Pratt did not try to reach out to them.
The original 1830 Book of Mormon taught that dark skin is a direct curse from God for sinfulness. For this reason the church should not allow African Americans to join the priesthood until sometime in the distant future, although a few were allowed to join the priesthood in the early years. This restriction meant everything to the future of a prospective African American Mormon.
In the Saints’ system a male becoming a priest is like a Bar Mitzvah among Jews, a coming of age rite into adulthood. Without receiving acceptance into the priesthood an African American could not go on the famous Mormon mission trips or ascend into the highest tier of heaven to become a god. However, in principle early Mormons taught that when the time was ripe, African Americans would also have full access to the church and its practices.
After Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob, his successor Brigham Young was even more hostile to African American well-being. He standardized the view that African Americans were under a curse from God. For example, he legalized slavery for Mormons in 1852.
Over time attitudes within the church shifted, and by 1969 Latter-day Saints’ President David A. Mackey tried to deemphasize old ideas by endorsing civil rights for African Americans in the secular realm.
In the 1970s the church was also becoming part of the mainstream of American life and building more temples outside of Utah. Within the Saints’ leadership there were more discussions about the role of African Americans in the church. The public pressure was also mounting, though the Saints are extremely reluctant to change in the face of such pressure.
In 1971, the church bought a building on the Upper West Side across from Lincoln Center and eventually converted it to a temple. However, there was a noisy demonstration against the church’s policy on African Americans, and there was a nasty spat with the Boy Scouts of America over the segregated leadership of scout troops.
In 1974 the church dedicated a highly visible temple in Washington, DC. In 1970s the all-Mormon music group The Osmond Family were a popular white counterpart to The Jackson Five. Donnie and Marie Osmond starred in a television show under their own names. They also recorded a moderately successful album called “The Plan,” a sort of concept album outlining the Mormon faith. It looked like the Saints would gain more and more acceptance and members. However, the Mormon theology about African Americans hovered as a shadow in the closet. In 1978 television news interviewer Barbara Walters confronted Donnie and Marie with questions about the Mormon views on African Americans. It was an embarrassing moment. The exception in the Mormon expansion was its invisibility in African American neighborhoods.
In 1978 the Mormon church changed its policy regarding African Americans. Through a revelation, the head of the Mormons said that now was the time for the acceptance of African Americans on an equal basis with whites.
Richard Bushman, a Mormon and scholar at Columbia University said in an interview with CNN that “The Church always believed blacks would receive the priesthood some day. It was only a question of when. The Church is conservative in the classic sense of changing slowly, but it does change deliberately in its own good time.” Although the church still discouraged racial intermarriages as too stressful, the policy dropped by the wayside.
Today, interracial marriages are noticeable at the Harlem church.
Down here in New York City, the United States, the Planet Earth, we might become the responsibility of Burned-over district heir Mitt Romney if he is elected President of the United States. As we saw in our first article, Mormon African Americans in Harlem have mixed reactions to Romney’s candidacy. Some of those reactions are the product of the long difficult relationship that Mormonism has had with African Americans.
In our next article we cover the recent history of African Americans of the church in Harlem.
With additional reporting by Tony Carnes.
For further reading:
Paul E. Johnson. 1978/2004. A Shopkeeper's Millennium. Society and revivals in Rochester, NY 1815-1837. New York: Hill and Wang.
Michael Barkun. 1986. Crucible of the Millennium: the Burned-over District of New York in the 1840s. New York: Syracuse University Press.
Michael Barkun. 1986. Disaster and the Millennium. New York: Syracuse University Press.