“Mormon Religion—Clerical Ambition—Western New York—The Mormonites Gone toOhio.” Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer (New York City, New York) 7, no. 1331 (1 September 1831).
About this time a very considerable religious excitement came over New York in the shape of a revival. It was also about the same period, that a powerful and concerted effort was made by a class of religionists, to stop the mails on Sunday—to give a sectarian character to Temperance and other societies—to keep up the Pioneer lines of stages and canal boats, and to organise generally a religious party, that would act altogether in every public and private concern of life. The greatest efforts were making by the ambition, tact, skill and influence of certain of the clergy, and other lay persons, to regulate and control the public mind—to check all its natural and buoyant impulses—to repress effectually freedom of opinion—and to turn the tide of public sentiment entirely in favor of blending religious and worldly concerns together. Western New York has for years, had a most powerful and ambitious religious party of zealots, and their dupes. They have endeavored ever since the first settlement of Rochester, to organize a religious hierarchy, which would regulate the pursuits, the pleasures, and the very thoughts of social life.
This organization was kept up by banding churches and congregations together—by instituting laws similar to those of excommunication—by a species of espionage, as powerful and as terrible as that of a Spanish Inquisition. Every occupation in life—every custom of the people— every feeling and every thought, from the running of a stage or of a lady’s tongue up to the legislation of the state, or of Congress, was to be regularly marked and numbered like so many boxes of contraband or lawful merchandise, by these self-created religious censorships and divines. Rochester is, and was the great headquarters of the religious empire. The late Mr. Bissell, one of the most original and talented men in matters in business, was equally so in religious enthusiasm, and all measures calculated to spread it among the people.—The singular character of the people of western New-York—their originality, activity, and proneness to excitement furnished admirable materials for enthusiasts in religion or roguery to work upon.
Pure religion—the religion of the heart and conduct—the religion that makes men better and wiser—that makes woman more amiable and benevolent—that purifies the soul—that represses ambition—that seeks the private oratory and not the highway to pour forth its aspirations: such a religion was not that of the party of which I speak. Theirs is the religion of the pomp and circumstance of glorious controversy—the artificial religion of tracts. Magdalen Reports, lines of stages—the religion of collecting money from those who should first pay their debts—of sending out missionaries to spend it, and of letting the poor and ignorant at home starve and die. Such mistaken principles and erroneous views must when attempted to be carried into effect, breed strange results. Men’s minds in this age will not submit to the control of hypocrisy or superstition or clerical ambition. They may be shackled for a day through their wives and daughters—for a month—a year, but it cannot be lasting; when the first die or the last get husbands, independence will be asserted.
This general impulse given to religious fanaticism by a set of men in Western New York, has been productive among other strange results of the infatuation of Mormonism. This piece of roguery, folly and frenzy (for it partakes of all) is the genuine fruit of the same seeds which produced the Sunday Mail movement—the Pioneer line of stages—the Magdalen Reports &c. &c. It is religion run into madness by zealots and hypocrites.
It was during this state of public feeling in which the money diggers of Ontario county, by the suggestions of the Ex-Preacher from Ohio, thought of turning their digging concern into a religious plot, and thereby have a better chance of working upon the credulity and ignorance of their associates and the neighborhood. Money and a good living might be got in this way. It was given out that visions had appeared to Joe Smith—that a set of golden plates on which was engraved the “Book of Mormon,” enclosed in an iron chest, was deposited somewhere in the hill I have mentioned. People laughed at the first intimation of the story, but the Smiths and Rangdon persisted in its truth. They began also to talk very seriously, to quote scripture, to read the bible, to be contemplative, and to assume that grave studied character, which so easily imposes on ignorant and superstitious people. Hints were given out that young Joe Smith was the chosen one of God to reveal this new mystery to the world; and Joe from being an idle young fellow, lounging about the villages, jumped up into a very grave parsonlike man; who felt he had on his shoulders the salvation of the world, besides a respectable looking sort of a blackcoat. Old Joe, the ex-preacher, and several others, were the believers of the new faith, which they admitted was an improvement in christianity, foretold word for word in the bible. They treated their own invention with the utmost religious respect. By the special interposition of God, the golden plates, on which was engraved the Book of Mormon, and other works, had been buried for ages in the hill by a wandering tribe of the children of Israel, who had found their way to western New York, before the birth of christianity itself. Joe Smith is discovered to be the second Messiah who was to reveal this word to the world and to reform it anew.
In relation to the finding of the plates and the taking the engraving, a number of ridiculous stories are told.—Some unsanctified fellow looked out the other side of the hill. They had to follow it with humility and found it embedded beneath a beautiful grove of maples. Smith’s wife, who had a little of the curiosity of her sex, peeped into the large chest in which he kept the engravings taken from the golden plates, and straightway one half the new Bible vanished, and has not been recovered to this day. Such were the effects of the unbelievers on the sacred treasure. There is no doubt but the ex-parson from Ohio is the author of the book which was recently printed and published in Palmyra, and passes for the new Bible. It is full of strange narratives—in the style of the scriptures, and bearing on its face the marks of some ingenuity, and familiar acquaintance with the Bible. It is probable that Joe Smith is well acquainted with the trick, but Harris the farmer and the recent coverts, are true believers.—Harris was the first man who gave credit to the story of Smith and the ex-preacher. He was their maiden convert—the Ali of the Ontario Mahomet, who believed without a reason and without a murmur. They attempted to get the Book printed, but could not raise the means till Harris stept forward, and raised money on his farm for that purpose. Harris with several manuscripts in his pocket, went to the city of New York, and called upon one of the Professors of Columbia College for the purpose of shewing them to him. Harris says that the Professor thought them very curious, but admitted that he could not decypher them. Said he to Harris, “Mr. Harris you had better go to the celebrated Doct. Mitchell and shew them to him. He is very learned in these ancient languages, and I have no doubt will be able to give you some satisfaction.” “Where does he live,” asked Harris. He was told, and off he posted with the engravings from the Golden Plates to submit to Doc. Mitchell.—Harris says that the Doctor received them very “purlitely,” looked at his engravings—made a learned dissertation on them—compared them with the hieroglyphics discovered by Champollion of Egypt—and set them down as the language of a people formerly in existence in the East, but now no more.
The object of his going to the city to get the “Book of Mormon” printed, was not however accomplished. He returned with his manuscript or engravings to Palmyra—tried to raise money by mortgage on his farm from the New York Trust Company—did raise the money, but from what source—whether the Trust Company or not I am uncertain. At last a printer in Palmyra undertook to print the translations of Joe Smith, Harris becoming responsible for the expense.
They were called translations, but in fact and in truth they are believed to be the work of the Ex-Preacher from Ohio, who stood in the back ground and put forward Joe to father the new bible and the new faith. After the publication of the golden bible, they began to make converts rapidly.
The revivals and other religious excitements had thrown up materials for the foundation of a new sect, they soon found they had not dug for money in vain—they began to preach—to pray—to see more visions—to prophesy and perform the most fantastic tricks—there was now no difficulty in getting a living and the gingerbread factory was abandoned. They created considerable talk over all this section of the country. Another revelation came upon them, and through Joe and some other of these prophets, they were directed to take up their march and go out to the promised land—to a place near Painesville, Ohio. Money was raised in a twinkling from the new converts. Their principles—their tenets—their organization—their discipline were as yet unformed and unfashioned, and probably are so to this day. Since they went toOhio they have adopted some of the worldly views of the Shakers and have formed a sort of community system where everything is in common. Joe Smith, Harris, the Ex-pedlar and the Ex-parson are among their elders and preachers—so also now is Phelps one of Mr. Granger’s leading anti-masonic editors in this village.
Such a brief view of the rise and progress of the Mormon Religion one of the strangest pieces of fanaticism to which the ill-advised and the worst regulated ambition and folly of certain portions of the clergy in Western New York ever gave birth. What a lesson it ought to teach us!