We tend to view Mormonism in the context of its current contemporaries: Baptists, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists (among many others). But how does Mormonism compare with other religious movements of its time at founding? Was it more progressive or less? Were its ideas uniquely handed down via revelation or part of a shifting religious culture? Or both?
The majority of these comparisons between early Mormonism and other contemporary religious movements were detailed in an excellent Universal Unitarian sermon on Mormonism.
We tend to think of upstate New York as part of New England, in the heavily populated eastern seaboard (although upstate NY is quite rural), but in Joseph Smith’s day it was actually the frontier of the nation. From the sermon:
Here strange new religious ideas could flourish unchecked by the religious establishment. In upstate New York, the conservative hand of New England Puritanism barely reached. There, on the fringes of civil society, mesmerizing itinerant preachers roamed.
- Universalists could teach that God would never condemn anyone to eternal damnation.
- Unitarians could teach that each human being could be nurtured and educated and guided into right living.
- Here, Mother Ann Lee and her Shakers taught that God was both male and female, that marriage should be abolished, and that a person could visit the spiritual realms to receive revelations.
- It was here that William Miller predicted that Jesus’ Second Coming would take place in 1843. Over 100,000 people took up this belief, leaving jobs and selling farms and gathering to wait. When Jesus didn’t return, splinter groups kept the faith and became Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists.
- It was here that the Fox Sisters—Kate and Margaret—claimed to be able to speak with the spirits of the dead, giving birth to the widespread Spiritualist movement.
- It was here that John Humphrey Noyes created a utopian commune, where everything was shared, including sexual partners. Here Noyes’ followers practiced “complex marriage,” where women and men, though married, were free to enjoy sexual relations with any one else in the commune, and where post-menopausal women were encouraged to introduce teenage males to sex, since there was no fear of pregnancy.
- It was here that belief in folk magic was widespread, belief that talking spirits roamed the countryside, and “seer stones” could predict the future. It was here that Indian burial mounds were raided for artifacts, giving rise to wild speculation about the origins and demise of the Native Peoples, who some claimed were remnants of a lost tribe of Hebrews.
So, is Mormonism a Whitman’s Sampler of all the “fringe” religious ideas that were in place at the time and place Joseph Smith lived? Or were these “fringe” notions inspiration for him to ask for and receive revelations? Why have so many of these movements blossomed into successful religions (e.g. Jehovah’s Witness, Universal Unitarianism, Mormonism) while some others have waned over time? Discuss.