A People Prepared for the Restoration

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.

9 thoughts on “A People Prepared for the Restoration

  1. Very good points Daniel O. There were unique historical events taking place in the United States at the time of the Restoration. You can see the Lord’s hand at work when you look at the sweep of history.

  2. Awesome points.

    I remember President Hinckley answering a question about why things were the way they were (standardized church buildings) by effectively saying, “It’s obvious – see why.”

    I think when we see as we are seen, it will all be gloriously obvious.

  3. J. Reuben Clark, one of my Church heroes, was primarily responsible for the move to a standardized building plan. He was the fountainhead of many changes that streamlined and helped the Church set the stage for its international growth.

    My study of history has also confirmed for me the uniqueness of American society in the early years of the 19th century.

  4. AH! I love this! I love the secular historical aspects of the restoration. A few years ago we were in Palmyra visiting, but were staying in Rochester. On the way back to the hotel, I noticed a sign that pointed us to a lock on the Eerie Canal (yes, you can still travel on the canal in a boat). I insisted we stop. The lockmaster gave us a great lesson on the history of the canal and how it impacted the area. We’d just come from a tour at the Grandin Bldg which also talked about that same thing — but from the perspective of establishing the Church. Then he lowered the lock for us when some boats came thru … it was fantastic. My family was chuckling at me, but really, what can the history teacher do but take the moment?

  5. I was also intrigued by E. Mazzagardi’s conference talk. Besides the Why America question, I’ve often wondered why it took 1400 years to end the Apostasy. Through historical lens (1 Nephi 12-15; Jacob 5), we can clearly see the Lord’s hand in preparing for the optimal moment and circumstance to commence the final dispensation of times. The OP author points to various social movements leading up to the Restoration.

    Two thoughts come to mind: The end of the war of 1812, which was actually in 1814-15, finally severed our ties to England and with that began anew an American consciousness and identity. Any remaining loyalties to the British, 30 years following the end of the Revolutionary War, would likely have died out by this time. Though some fighting and skirmishes occurred around Lake Erie and Niagara in 1813, the end of the 1812 war made migration through New England more safe. Perhaps the subsequent religious revivals, economic explosions, migrations, manifest destinies, etc. of the time period along with Constitutional liberties, all gave rise to new generations to explore what it means to be an American.

    Secondly, another explosion–the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia–was a cataclysmic event that virtually altered many social and agricultural landscapes. The eruption was 20 times worse than the famed Mt Vesuvius eruption. In 1816–The Year without a Summer–crops failed all around the world, forcing people to migrate in search of food. Joseph Smith’s family suffered several such crop failures, and they moved westward several times until finally settling in Palmyra. In this, we once again see the Lord’s hand in guiding JS and his family ever closer to the burial site of the golden plates.

Comments are closed.