One of the talks that really stood out to me in this most recent general conference was one by Elder Jairo Mazzagardi entitled “The Sacred Place of Restoration. A few weeks ago I wrote a post on my blog explaining how this talk helps us learn about the process of receiving personal revelation.
This week I have been thinking quite a bit more about the question that caused Elder Mazzagardi to struggle so much: Why did the restoration have to occur in North America when it did rather than anywhere else or at any other time in human history? He offers some answers in his talk, namely the existence of religious freedom and the confluence of religious revival and economic explosion in upstate New York. These are very significant answers, but certainly many more things could be added to that list.
I have been listening recently to free lectures on Open Yale Courses while working out or commuting. And this week I have been listening to a phenomenal course of the Civil War and Reconstruction by historian David Blight. One of the early lectures is about the “Northern World View.” Listening to this lecture gave me added insight into Elder Mazzagardi’s question.
The first factor mentioned by Professor Blight is what he labels the market revolution. While the full force of this revolution is not felt until the 1830s and 40s, its early impact was certainly felt at the time of the First Vision especially in the Rochester/Palmyra area which was a center of trade of a commerce due to the building of the Eerie Canal which began in 1817. This revolution impacted much more than simply how individuals produced goods. Instead, it led to a change in how people interacted with one another. By encouraging creating items for trade and commerce rather than subsistence farming, it brought people into greater contact with one another. Significantly, it also led to a far greater sense of mobility and a greater aspiration towards westward migration. Blight also argues that it redefined conception of individual rights and led to a greater sense of group identity.
The young LDS Church would fit in perfectly in this milieu. It arose in the perfect location to spread throughout the region and was fueled by missionary work which was increasingly accepted in a culture which relied heavily on merchants peddling wares.
Dramatic increases in transportation such as the construction of the Erie Canal also led to far greater mobility than had ever been possible. While before many would live and die close to their place of birth, innovation in the early 19th century led to a willingness to leave home behind and venture out into the unknown Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America that Americans would build a house but then move before they put a roof on it. That truly reflects the early Mormon experience.
Would it have been possible to get a group of believers to leave everything behind to go found Zion even a generation earlier? That seems highly doubtful to me.
Increasing immigration also brought a constant stream of individuals to the shores of the United States. This flow of immigration truly saved the fledgling Church on multiple occasions. It would have been impossible at an earlier period.
This increase in connectedness, mobility, and social interaction was coupled with a boundless optimism and sense of human progress and perfectibility. Americans and especially those out on the frontier felt that they were involved in a grand experiment to improve the world. This brought with it a sense of manifest destiny and a desire to spread ideals throughout the continent and to all mankind.
This spirit of progress and innovation led to a willingness to reject traditional calvanist ideals of the sinfulness of mankind. It led to a willingness to accept doctrines of human perfectibility and gave the revelations of Joseph Smith a receptive audience. Truly, this was a time when people were ready for innovative teachings about man’s divine destiny.
And of course the Constitution allowed, at least in theory, for the protection of religious freedom and for individuals to freely exercise their conscience. Of course the reality was less than the ideal. But nevertheless awareness of this precious freedom led to a willingness to convert and to follow one’s conscience.
But significantly this people were also extremely religious and moralistic. Enlightenment thinking about natural rights and the nature of man had spread among the people, but the sense of cynicism and secularism which was prevalent among the elites had not yet done so. This was also a time when people were willing to accept divine revelations and angelic visitations.
When I look back at the history of the world it is hard to imagine another time and place for a restoration of the gospel. Can we imagine a Joseph Smith coming forth in feudal or even post-reformation Europe? What about in a more modern area of increased secularism and skepticism? I truly believe that the world was perfectly prepared for a restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the time of the First Vision.