Whitney Rogers Cross
The Burned-Over District (1950)
Chapter 5 excerpt
Chapter 8 excerpt
The Burned-over District
THE SOCIAL AND INTELLECTUAL HISTORY
OF ENTHUSIASTIC RELIGION IN
WESTERN NEW YORK, 1800-1850
BY WHITNEY R. CROSS
Ithaca, New York
[ 78 ]
SINCE western New York achieved a substantial degree of economic maturity within ten or twelve years of the Erie Canal's completion, the transformation from pioneering days had been accomplished very rapidly. Such speedy change could hardly be comprehensive, affecting equally every social habit and condition. Definite vestiges of youthful character therefore remained evident in 1835.
The main and branch waterways, their railroad connections, and the older turnpikes provided a transportation network which must have been extraordinarily complete for that period. Still, good local roads permitting easy and frequent trips to a neighboring village at all seasons of the year had as yet scarcely been imagined. Although even the cultivators of new clearings could get produce to market and lay in necessary staples on occasional journeys, few men living any distance from town are likely to have made such excursions very often. Their wives, if they went at all, undoubtedly did so at even greater intervals. The kind of loneliness suffered when the family next door dwelt several miles away had certainly forever departed, but the type of isolation would long remain which threw a few men and women from a limited farming area almost exclusively upon each other's society. The church at a central trail or road crossing was the focus for neighborhood sociability throughout much of the nineteenth century. Its ruins, yet witnessing former needs, now crumble on remote byways in nearly deserted valleys.
Ideas and tastes changed slowly, just as did the unit of rural friendliness. A naive optimism characterized Americans generally in Jacksonian days. The rapid growth and enhanced wealth introduced by the canal could only strengthen this buoyantly youthful mode of thought. Although the majority of Burned-over District folk customarily voted for what turned out to be the conservative political party, opposing the more hopefully egalitarian Jacksonians, their poll was determined rather by accident than by principle. The emigrants from the minority sects and the rugged hills of western New England had been bred in the Jeffersonian opposition to Yankee Federalism, but upon reaching New York they found many of the landlords' agents and other scions of aristocracy associated with the Democratic Republicans. Many also proved to be Masons. Antimasonry seemed a more genuine vehicle of optimistic democracy than the Democratic Party itself. 1 Many upstaters failed to perceive the gradual drift of their ebullient movement toward Whiggism.
In religion, optimism took the form of belief in an early millennium. Just as the American political system would lead the world to equality and justice, so would American revivals inaugurate the thousand years' reign of Christ on earth before the Second Coming and the end of the world. 2 Millennial revivalism flourished more strongly here than in any other part of the country, bespeaking a correspondingly sanguine disposition. Though not a frontier region at this time, the Burned-over District certainly exhibited a disproportionate amount of optimism, at least as compared with New England.
The elements of gracefulness which grew with eastern urbanism evidently filtered only gradually into the developing upstate cities, and even more slowly into their hinterlands. Folkways which grew in prevalence toward the West -- tobacco-spitting, heavy drinking, freedom of the streets for livestock, the bolting of meals without accompanying conversation, lack of regard for the privacy of travelers --
1 Paul D. Evans, The Holland Land Company (Buffalo, 1924), 334 ff., 369; Dixon R. Fox, The Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York (New York, 1919), 5, 288, 307; and "New York Becomes a Democracy," The Age of Reform (Alexander C. Flick, ed., History of the State of New York, VI, New York, 1934), 12.
2 Calvin Colton, History and Character of American Revivals of Religion (London, 1832).
the survival of such traits indicated the continuation of youthful awkwardness in western New York. 3 Again, the folk of this region identified themselves with West more than East in their persistent superstition and credulity. Cosmopolitan influences spreading along commercial routes would gradually undermine the more extreme gullibility of the countryside, but even the sophisticated among the area's citizens remained amazingly uncritical. President Eliphalet Nott of Union College voiced the classic statement of a prominent temperance doctrine, that alcohol in the stomach might be ignited by spontaneous combustion and blow up the inebriate. One of Theodore Weld's colleagues described an experiment, supposedly most scientifically conducted, which proved that hairs in water "first change their color from black to a kind of brown or drab, then begin to move, squirm, crawl, etc." Gerrit Smith, upon Angelina Grimke's advice, carried a horse chestnut to cure his piles; and L. D. Fleming recommended for William Miller's boils, "one pound of shot... [boiled] in a quart of sweet milk down to one pint," taken in small quantities several times daily. Thurlow Weed recorded a boyhood excursion to dig gold in the moonlight, when "the throat of a black cat was cut, and the precise spot was indicated by the direction the blood spurted." Even a Universalist preacher had "engaged the services of one of those imposters who, by looking into a mysterious glass, or rather stone, pretended to be able to discover hidden treasures." 4
Legends of buried treasure were indeed widespread, dignified by a lineage rejuvenated by the fame of Captain Kidd, but reaching
3 Captain Basil Hall, Travels in North America, etc. (2 vols.; Edinburgh, 18g), I, 138; [Isaac Candler], A Summary View of America, etc. (London, 1824), 59; and Harriet Martineau, Society in America (3 vols.; London, 1837), III, 260-262.
4 John A. Krout, "The Genesis and Development of the Early Temperance Movement in New York State," New York State Historical Association Quarterly Journal, IV (April, 1923), go; G. H. Barnes and D. L. Dumond, eds., Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimke Weld, and Sarah Grimke (2 vols.; New York, 1939), I, 58; Ralph V. Harlow, Gerrit Smith, Philanthropist and Reformer (New York, 1989), 36; L. D. Fleming, Newark, May 21, 1843, to William S. Miller, William Miller Papers, Aurora College Library; Thurlow Weed, Autobiography of Thurlow Weed (Harriet A. Weed, ed., Boston, 1884), 7; Christian Schulz, Travels in an Inland Voyage through the State of New York, etc. (2 vols.; New York, 1810), I, 16; Memoirs of the Life of Nathaniel Stacy, etc. (Columbus, Penna., 1850), 172.
back to the first explorers of the American continents. Joseph Smith's method of establishing his prophethood was by no means peculiar and quite naturally seemed authentic to ordinary folk among a generation whose sages would soon experiment with table tipping. Even more common, if less sensational, was a belief, respectable at least as early as William Penn's day, that the Indians or a previous race now extinct developed from the lost tribes of Israel. Educated European travelers and authorities in American anthropology alike called attention to pre-Indian remains in New York and Ohio. 5 Neither Solomon Spaulding, for whom some have claimed authorship of a manuscript which became the basis of the Book of Mormon, nor Joseph Smith required any originality to speculate in this direction. Their writings would scarcely seem fanciful, possibly not even novel, to their contemporaries. Neither in any case need have borrowed from the other.
The whole tribe of Yorkers exhibited a trait which bears on the nature of Burned-over District credulity. It ranks in importance with the canniness and moral intensity customarily attributed to Yankees and relates to both, but has been less noticed because it is difficult to define and isolate. Against the "holy enterprise of minding other people's business," 6 which produced a marked community-mindedness, these folk balanced a stubborn introspection in the fashioning of personal beliefs, which recognized no authority this side of Heaven. Frank curiosity, pride in independent thinking, a feeling that action should be motivated by sound logic and never by whimsy, a profound skepticism of any rationalization looking to less than the supposed ultimate good of society, and, once arrived at, an overweening confidence in one's own judgment -- all these attitudes differently demonstrate the same trait. The mores of the community must definitely be observed when established and agreed upon, but in practice they remained forever open to challenge and subject to revision. No apology was required for
5 E[manual] Howitt, Selections from Letters Written during a Tour through the United States, etc. (Nottingham, England, 1820), 161-165; John M. Duncan, Travels through... the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819 (2 vols.; Glasgow, 1823), II, 91-112; Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York (4 vols.; New Haven, Conn., 1822), IV, 188-i8g; Josiah Priest, American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West, etc. (Albany, 1833).
6 Dixon R. Fox, Yankees and Yorkers (New York, 1940), 3.
due to copyright restrictions.
[ 138 ]
THE Mormon Church, having survived and grown in the last hundred years as did none of its companion novelties, interests the present generation far more than any other aspect of Burned-over District history. Yet its impact upon the region and period from which it sprang was extremely limited. The Saints made their first westward removal immediately upon founding the religion and when they numbered not more than a hundred persons. The obscurity and scarcity of local material on the subject reinforces the logical conclusion that few western New Yorkers could have been seriously aware of the episode. In this respect it contrasts strongly with the other omens of the day. In another way, however, Mormonism comes closer to being the true oracle than other developments in the inaugural years just before 1831. It was the first original product of the common circumstances which would breed a train of successors within the Quarter century. It predicted what was to come, whereas the larger simultaneous excitements merely heated the cauldron from which future experiments would boil.
The Smith family arrived in western New York in 1816 when Joseph was ten years old. Fate had been rough on them in Vermont, where each of several different ventures and consequent removes left them poorer than the one before. The war years had been hard enough in the home state, but peace canceled the business of supplying the armed forces, or indulging in trade with the enemy across the border, which had helped sustain the local economy.
The postwar slump which gradually spread over the nation was punctuated in the north country by the frigid summer of 1816. Vermont farmers started west in droves. The Smith family poverty doubtless reached the extreme among the emigrants, since for several generations both the Smith and Mack lines had been running to the visionary rather than to the acquisitive Yankee type. 1
Even. so, the Smiths could in no way be considered uncommon in the westering horde. Like the bulk of their fellows, they sought a new start in the acres of New York just about to be enriched by the projected Erie Canal. Unwisely perhaps, again like many others, they shunned the rugged pioneering life demanded by the more primitive regions in Ohio or west of the Genesee in New York, in favor of a community of some age, respectability, and commercial prospects, where they would have a greater struggle to pay for their land.
Northward from Canandaigua, the rolling hills of the Finger Lakes section gradually descend to meet the drumlin-studded Ontario plain. Twelve miles takes one across the line between Ontario and Wayne counties-to Palmyra, situated on the lower level among the glacial hills. Halfway between the two towns, nearly in the dead center of the richest soil area in western New York, lies the village of Manchester. All three villages and their immediate vicinities had been early settled and by 1820 had attained populations approximating sixty persons per square mile. From Palmyra north to the lake, habitations appeared less frequently, while a journey of thirty miles west or south would reach towns where little land had been cleared more than ten years. 2
Canandaigua, the oldest town of the three and in fact one of the two oldest in western New York, had until the twenties enjoyed a dominant position in the region's economy. Here the stage route to Albany crossed the main route to the south, which from the days of the Iroquois had connected Irondequoit Bay, Canandaigua Lake, and the southward-facing valleys of the upper Susquehanna. Up to 1824 Rochester millers had to use pony express to reach the banks at this center. As a seat of culture, the Finger Lakes village retained its leadership even later. For years the country seat of great
1 Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York, 1945). 1-5, 7-9.
2 See maps I and II.
landlords and their agents, it was for this section a sophisticated, aristocratic community with a strong Episcopal church. Even Presbyterians there maintained a conservative tone throughout the period. Its newspapers and schools had attained establishment and reputation. But with the approach of the canal the economic orientation of the three villages rapidly changed.
Palmyra for a time became the chief local mart. Limited use of the waterway began in 1822, and the same summer brought daily stage and mail service connecting several canal towns with each other and with Canandaigua. By the following autumn the canal had opened to Rochester. 3
Palmyra and Manchester, unlike their southern neighbor, very nearly typified the region. Their folk came chiefly from Connecticut and Vermont. Younger and less culturally sophisticated, they had nevertheless enjoyed the services of evangelistic churches from their earliest days, as well as the schools and journals which always followed in rapid succession. Palmyra particularly would have a considerable bonanza in the early twenties and evince the social restlessness accompanying such rapid expansion. But before the end of that decade the village was destined to come quite suddenly to stability, with even a touch of the doldrums, after the canal had reached Buffalo and Rochester had seized local commercial leadership. 4
Thus the Smiths came to no frontier or cultural backwash. Though the society they entered was more youthful, it was less isolated and provincial, more vigorous and cosmopolitan, than Vermont. It was reaching economic stability but remained on the upgrade, whereas rural Vermont had already started into decline.
Nor yet in religion was the younger area less experienced than the homeland. The Great Revival had come here at the turn of the century, just as to western New England. Seven of twelve primary centers of enthusiasm ranged from Palmyra southward. The crest of fervor following the War of 1812 noticeably affected towns sprinkled about the same neighborhood, and the pattern repeated, though less intensively, during the early twenties. So the area had been thoroughly indoctrinated in revivalistic religion
3 Palmyra Herald and Canal Advertiser, July 17, 1822; Western Farmer (Palmyra), Summer, 1822, passim; Wayne Sentinel (Palmyra), Oct., Nov., 1823.
4 Brodie, No Man Knows, 9-11.
throughout thirty years of its youth. 5
And Palmyra at least was old enough by the mid-twenties to exhibit the increased interest in community morals and spirituality which characteristically grew upon villages and countrysides of Yankee stamp as the problems of maturity replaced the struggle to live. 6
In this richer clime the Smiths and their fellow Vermonters fared better than before. A shop in Palmyra and the labor at hire of father and sons swelled the family funds in two years sufficiently to permit initial payment on a hundred-acre farm practically astride the Palmyra-Manchester town line. It must have been a relatively inferior piece of land, else it would long since have been cleared. It seems to have been contracted for at the height of a speculative boomlet which a decade's time would demonstrate to have been based on false expectations. Evidence exists, in any case, to show that the family exerted considerable diligence and enterprise in hope of completing payment. Nevertheless, the farm had been foreclosed by 1830. 7
Many companion emigrants, managing more wisely, made good in the Genesee country, some having brought with them at least enough money for the first deposit on a farm. A sizable minority found land values here inflated beyond their earning ability and were making for Michigan or Illinois about the time the Smiths were losing out. In April, 1829, a Manchester clergyman noted: "Many families are floating about... because in two or three months they expect to remove." 8
Every circumstance seems to invalidate the obviously prejudiced testimonials of unsympathetic neighbors (collected by one hostile individual whose style of composition stereotypes the language of numerous witnesses) that the
5 Rev. James H. Hotchkin, A History of the Purchase and Settlement of Western New York, and of the... Presbyterian Church in That Section (New York, 1848), contains outline histories of each church in the denomination west of Madison County. Tabulated geographically, it provides a reliable guide to revival cycles and locations.
6 Western Farmer, Feb. 27, 1822; Palmyra Herald. Jan. 15, 1823.
7 John H. Evans, Joseph Smith, An American Prophet (New York, 1945), 30-32; Brodie, No Man Knows, 10, 11, 55. Land values ran from twenty to thirty-five dollars an acre by 1833, Rochester Daily Advertiser, May 15, 1833.
8 Peter Kimball, Manchester, Oct. 5, 1829, to Absolom Peters, American Home Missionary Society Papers, Chicago Theological Seminary.
Smiths were either squatters or shiftless "frontier drifters." 9
Many an honest and industrious farmer followed their identical experience, pursued by bad luck or poor judgment, and sought a new fling at fortune farther west, No doubt the Smiths, like many of their fellows, wasted valuable time hunting gold at the proper turn of the moon. One of the potent sources of Joseph's local ill repute may well have been the jealousy of other persons who failed to discover golden plates in the glacial sands of the drumlins. 10
The entire family was at least barely literate. Hyrum had attended a Vermont seminary, and Joseph had some part of a few years' schooling in Palmyra, possibly increased by brief attendance at Bainbridge in 1826. He had belonged to the young men's debating society in Palmyra. Though he read easily, his writing was at best halting and he attained only the rudiments of arithmetic. Probably the family budget had required his labor a good deal of the time when he might have been in school. 11
But this was rather the average than an unusual experience among the poorer Yankee migrants to western New York. Despite testimonials to the contrary, it must be concluded that neither Joseph nor any of his family was especially ignorant according to the standards of the place and time. Interest in things marvelous and supernatural they certainly had abundantly, but even this made them differ only in degree from their neighbors. After all, Joseph's peeping stone attracted loyal followers, The rest of the family, though perhaps not the prophet himself, behaved like others in attending services in revival seasons. Perhaps, as not infrequently happened, they shifted sectarian affiliation considerably as different denominations happened to lead the awakenings from time to time. Joseph, Senior, was by profession Methodist; and Lucy, the mother, and Hyrum, the elder brother, had most recently been Presbyterian when Joseph's thoughts began to turn toward religion. 12
9 Brodie, No Man Knows, accepts and prints these testimonials. See pp. 405-418.
10 Western Farmer, Dec. 12, 1821; Vardis Fisher, Children of God: An American Epic (New York, 1939), 29, suggests this cause of antagonism.
11 O. Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, etc. (Rochester, 1852), cited in Evans, Smith, 32; Orson Pratt, Remarkable Visions, quoted by [Henry Mayhew], History of the Mormons, etc. (Auburn, 1859), 19 ff.; Palmyra Herald, Oct. 2, 1822; and Western Farmer, July 11, 18, 25, 1821.
12 [Mayhew], Mormons, 36.
The whole Smith family seems to have been quite thoroughly typical of the westering Yankees in the Burned-over District. It seems entirely plausible, as his most recent biographer claims, that Joseph became a prophet in quite accidental fashion. Having risen above his own early experiments in necromancy, his imagination wandered into new realms. When he found others taking his new hobby seriously, he had to live up to expectations and spend the remainder of his short life learning to assume the consequent responsibilities. In so doing he improved and demonstrated his naturally dynamic character. 13
This was nothing more than happens to any man who enjoys the great responsibilities which fate thrusts upon him, though religious leadership demands somewhat rare personal qualities. It might have happened to almost anyone of Joseph's fellow Yankee migrants. The fundamental condition leading to the new faith was the credulity and spiritual yearning which made people anxious to follow a prophet, whoever he might be. In order to explain why Joseph developed into this role one must either utilize faith, traffic in a psychoanalysis which at such a distance from the event becomes highly imaginative, or descend to coincidence. Historical analysis profits little by any of these alternatives.
It should be added, however, that interest in Mormonism was no necessary indication either of extraordinary ignorance or of unusually febrile imaginings. Converts like Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, J. J. Strang, William Phelps, Sidney Rigdon, Orson Pratt, and Lorenzo Snow, to name only a few, had on the whole superior education for their times, and most of them proved to be as vigorously realistic pillars of the church as anyone might desire. The man who exercised primacy over these individuals approached some kind of genius, however it may have been inspired.
What was it, then, about Joseph Smith which satisfied the spiritual needs of his converts? Clearly it was no case of deliberate imposture, no consciously calculated set of devices to attain power over others. Joseph may have gathered some inklings from an imperfect knowledge of the Shakers or of the New Jerusalem on Keuka Lake, just as he did from Owenite communism by way of
13 Brodie, No Man Knows, passim;Whitney R. Cross, "Mormonism in the 'Burned-over District,'" New York History, XXV (July, 1944), 326-338.
Sidney Rigdon at Kirtland, Ohio, but he did not premeditate a system for self-advancement patterned upon the observed success of Jemima Wilkinson or anyone else. This kind of hypothesis, like the one which claims that the Book of Mormon was copied from Solomon Spaulding's novel on the early Indian wars, is too transparently simple to explain the broad appeal of the new church. Such myths not only distort Joseph's character but also breed serious misconceptions of how any religious novelty is likely to arise. All the spiritual experiments of western New York were alike genuine growths, rooted in a heritage of moral intensity and blossoming in the heat of evangelistic fervor.
The question is better put this way. How did the Church of Latter-day Saints select and emphasize from its Burned-over District milieu those principles of religion and society which would patently attract persons bred in the same environment? First of all, it crystallized and provided an apparently authoritative formulation for what had perhaps been from the beginning the most prominent legend in the region's folklore. The story of a gigantic battle on the hill Cumorah, in which the superior pre-Indian civilization was exterminated, seems today both fantastic and remote from the realm of religion. It was not fantastic to a generation bred in the belief of such a civilization's existence; and neither American society generally nor that of western New York in particular had passed the stage wherein common myth might reinforce Biblical sanction of doctrine. 14
The Book of Mormon also incorporated contemporary interests of the locality, supplementing the sense of familiarity to be gained from its historical approach. Waiter F. Prince proved beyond dispute thirty years ago, by a rigorous examination of the proper names and other language in the volume, that even if no other evidence existed, it could have been composed only in western New York between 1826 and 1834, so markedly did it reflect Antimasonry and other issues of the day. Unfortunately, his work has been so neglected that the most recent historian of the movement had to demonstrate the proposition all over again, independently. 15
14 Brodie, No Man Knows, pp. 34-49.
15 Walter F. Prince, "Psychological Tests for the Authorship of the Book of Mormon," American Journal of Psychology, XXVII (July, 1917), 373-395, and "A Footnote: Authorship of the Book of Mormon," American Journal of Psychology, XXX (Oct. 1919), 427, 428; Brodie, No Man Knows,
The prophet, moreover, for all his imagination, was, like the Yankees he led, in many respects an eminently practical man. He combined appeals to reason and self-interest with emotional attractions. The logic of his mythology and theology, specious though it seem to the Gentile of today, satisfied the inbred desire of Yorkers to achieve an orderly, intellectual formulation of their beliefs. Again, he expected all laymen to participate in the priesthood of the church. This democratic and flattering conception paralleled chronologically the developing controversies over clerical influence in most of the sects of western New York; and its reasonableness, like the Mormon approach to doctrine by argument rather than excitement, contrasted pleasantly with the flamboyant oratory of orthodoxy's revivals. And whereas the evangelists emphasized salvation from personal sins in preparation for the life to come, Joseph's ideas about earthly and heavenly society alike judged happiness more largely in terms of physical comfort and earthly abundance. 16
His degree of communism resurrected the strong sense of social obligation that all should have for each and each for all, which had been long declining in the Puritan tradition of old New England. Born Yankees troubled by the problems of security in a more individualistic society found this doctrine pleasing.
In theology, again, this practical emphasis appeared. Alexander Campbell very quickly discerned how accurately the Book of Mormon reflected "every error and almost every truth discussed in N. York for the last ten years." It presented a definitive answer indeed to every issue of orthodox evangelical religion:
infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of freemasonry, republican government, and the rights of man. 17
16 Ibid., 99 ff.
17 Alexander Campbell, Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon, etc. (Boston, 1832), 13 and passim.
Especially did the Saints lay emphatic stress upon, and offer concrete instead of vague conceptions of, the very doctrines which thirty years of revivalism had made most intensely interesting to the folk of western New York. They incorporated literal interpretations of the Bible, made expectation of the millennium coincident with the prophet's career on earth, and provided a mode for fresh revelation direct from God. Above all, in the person of Joseph Smith they found living, intimately available embodiment of their entire faith. How much more effectively than the orthodox evangelists could they hammer home the consciousness of sin and the hope of regeneration which had been preached here since the first settlement of the region!
Mormonism has usually been described as a frontier religion. But study of the circumstances of its origin and its continuing appeal in the area which bred it suggests a different view. The church did not rise during the pioneering era of western New York. Its early recruits came from many sects, but invariably from the longest-settled neighborhoods of the region. Joseph's peregrinations during the period when he was pregnant with the new religion were always eastward, not westward, from his Manchester home. The first congregations of the church formed at Manchester, Fayette in Seneca County, and Colesville in Broome County. 18 These facts, together with the realization of Mormonism's dependence on current excitements and upon myths and doctrines built by the passage of time into the locality's very fabric, demonstrate that the Church of the Saints was not a frontier phenomenon in origin.
Nor did it expand through an appeal to frontiersmen. The far greater gathering of converts from this area came during the region's riper maturity, after Zion itself had removed to the West. And the recruits enlisted here and elsewhere in the East by returning missionaries far outnumbered those gained in areas of the Middle West where Mormon headquarters chanced from time to time to be located. These propositions could best be supported by the church's publication of missionary journals, if they exist in the official archives. Even without that evidence, however, they can be adequately documented from scattered references of orthodox
18 See map XIX.
sources to Mormon proselytizing, and from an analysis of the nativity figures in the Utah Territorial Census of 1860.
Whether particularly successful missionary tours are indicated by the concentration in certain years of occasional remarks by others on the Mormon conversions, or whether coincidence is responsible, the notices discovered focus upon 1832 and 1841. During earlier years Mormons had "made considerable inroads in the southern part" of the town of Borodino, whose people, according to the Presbyterian minister, had been "wafted and bemused with every wind of doctrine, till they neither know nor care, what is truth, or what is error." In northern Allegany County, "A Mormon Preacher came along" carrying "a solemn visage and nearly persuaded some over to his delusion." In the same year Alexander Campbell's strictures on the new faith were republished by Joshua Himes at Boston, because two Mormons already had fifteen converts from that city. 19 Early the following summer missionaries in the middle Genesee Valley were reported to have collected fifty recruits by making use of the northern lights to scare the superstitious. A few Mormons helped to turn West Otto, in Cattaraugus County, against Presbyterian doctrine in 1835. The Baptist Register of Utica began publishing occasional exposures of Mormonism in 1839, intensifying its interest during the following two years. Explanation came forth in February of '41. "Mormon emmissaries are now circulating in various directions through the State... and in some instances [are] surprisingly successful." The Methodist Zion's Watchman in the same year commenced to present anti-Mormon material in some quantity. Occasional press notices emanated from Rochester throughout the forties. One of John Humphrey Noyes's supporters recommended that he visit Utica, where the correspondent and forty-four others had supported a Mormon Church in 1841. The same year a returned missionary visiting friends in Low Hampton requested permission to attend William Miller's preaching. 20
19 B. B. Drake, Borodino, Aug. 27, 1832, to Secretary Hoyt, Horace Galpin, Centerville, Nov. 3, 1832, to Absalom Peters, American Home Missionary Society, MSS; Campbell, Delusions, 3, 4.
20 Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate (Utica), IV (July 13, 1833), 220; Simeon Peck, West Otto, Aug. 5, 1835, to Secretary Murray, A.H.M.S. MSS; Baptist Register (Utica), XVI (May 17, 1839) 54 and ff., XVIII (Feb. 19, 1841)...
due to copyright restrictions.
The 1950 publication of Whitney R. Cross' The Burned-Over District was a particularly significant event in both the literary career of Fawn M. Brodie and in her determination to invalidate the Spalding-Rigdon claims for the origin of the Book of Mormon. The Cross book is not a study of Mormon history -- the author merely devotes one of his twenty chapters to the emergence of Mormonism in western New York at the end of the 1820s. Although some historians (see W. W. Sweet's Religion on the American Frontier) point out Mormonism as a religious phenomenon of the American frontier, Cross was astute enough to realize that the origin and proselytizing continuation of the new religion depended more upon its activities in rural (and certain urban) areas experiencing rapid sociological change. The Mormons might "gather" to the western frontier, but their religion did not begin in such a wild setting and few of their converts were made there.
It is especially important to mention here that Whitney R. Cross made notable use (partly critical; partly uncritical) of material in Fawn M. Brodie's 1945 book in presenting his own explanation for Mormon origins in western New York. In doing so, Cross was one of the first popular historians to bring the content of Brodie's new biography of Joseph Smith, Jr. into the historical literary mainstream. The Cross book was well received and has become the classic treatment of what the author himself calls "the social and intellectual history of enthusiastic religion in western New York." After the appearance of The Burned-Over District, Brodie's work began to receive citation (as an authoritative source on early Mormonism) in numerous other books and items of scholarly reporting. By the 1980s (when Mrs. Brodie brought out her revised edition) No Man Knows My History had become ubiquitous in authors' bibliographies of books on Latter Day Saint history, no matter the background or personal views of those various authors. Without Cross' citational assistance Brodie's book would have still become the classic that it is -- Cross' use of her material merely speeded up the process of its acceptance as a reliable source.
The Brodie Effect
Whitney R. Cross did more than just help advance Brodie's 1945 book, however. He also helped legitimatize her elimination the old Spalding-Rigdon claims from the current scholarly literature and from the popular histories of Mormonism. In accepting her expulsion from the LDS Church in 1946, Brodie "crossed-over" into the non-Mormon ranks, but only those writers whose heritage was firmly non-Mormon (like Whitney R. Cross) could successfully carry her unique viewpoints over into mainstream American history -- that is, promote those same viewpoints without the imaginable taint of overtly or covertly espousing key Mormon interests. By supporting Brodie's lead in abandoning the Spalding-Rigdon claims for Book of Mormon authorship, Cross helped keep the historical limelight focused squarely upon Joseph Smith, Jr., as being the inspiration and source for the Book of Mormon. This was a notion that the LDS leadership in Salt Lake City could tacitly accept. It was far too much for the Church officials to expect that non-Mormon historians writing about their history would accept and promulgate the Church's peculiar polemics in explanation of the Book of Mormon. But now (after the contributions of writers like DeVoto, Brodie, Cross, and those who followed in their footsteps) it was enough for those same religious leaders to simply expect that in the future the professional historians would drop the old conspiracy charges previously leveled against Joseph Smith, Jr. and simply portray him as the American religious genius who brought forth a most significant book.
On the surface this "common ground" has become acceptable to both the Mormon leaders and the non-Mormon scholars and writers who seek the indispensable access to the Church's archival holdings that any serious student of the subject must consult. So long as Smith is held up as a great religious leader and innovator, it little matters whether or not any positive avowal of "Nephite plates" is put forth in the scholarly literature. After all, practically no Mormon converts are ever made among the ranks of learned scholars and "gentile" students of LDS history. Beneath the surface, the fellowship of Mormons and non-Mormons cooperating (or, at least tolerating one another) in the production of Latter Day Saint history remains an uneasy endeavor -- but it continues to survive in the twenty-first century, after having aided and abetted the establishment of the "New Mormon History" during the second half of the twentieth century. The development and continued existence of modern Mormon history as a scholarly discipline is largely creditable to the mid twentieth century innovations of writers like Fawn M. Brodie and Whitney R. Cross. Of course, this also means that any efficacy inherent in the old conspiracy theories for Book of Mormon origins is today being ignored and left unexamined because of the lingering achievements of those same innovators. If Solomon Spalding and Sidney Rigdon did indeed produce the Book of Mormon for Joseph Smith's subsequent use, that marvelous machination has remained well buried in its original secrecy.
What Cross Says
After introducing the Joseph Smith, Sr. family to his readers, Cross says: "Every circumstance seems to invalidate the obviously prejudiced testimonials of unsympathetic neighbors (collected by one hostile individual whose style of composition stereotypes the language of numerous witnesses) that the Smiths were either squatters or shiftless 'frontier drifters.'" At first glance this appears to be a reasonable statement. After all, few non-Mormons of the 1830s ever said much that was good about those same Smiths. The utterances and solicitations of "hostile individuals" seeking to expose Mormonism should always be weighed against information obtainable through other, less partisan sources. Chances are that most any "anti-Mormon" testimony will contain at least a few exaggerations, if not outright falsehoods. But Cross makes a fundamental error in supposing that "one hostile individual whose style of composition stereotypes the language of numerous witnesses" collected and published all the information to be had concerning the Smith family. Cross cites Brodie in making his point, but Brodie does little more than refer her readers to the material collected at the end of 1833 by D. P. Hurlbut. Early testimony regarding the Mormon Smith family is by no means limited to Hurlbut's solicitation of testimony, as eventually collected and published by Ohio editor Eber D. Howe in 1834. There are numerous contemporary and near contemporary sources on the Smiths from which the serious investigator can gather useful information, several of which pre-date Hurlbut's work.
A close consultation of the numerous early sources available for study will verify the fact that Hurlbut was generally not saying anything new when he wrote down the statements of his witnesses in western New York in 1833. While some portions of that compiled testimony may be highly unreliable, at least many things asserted there are supported by other evidence and the Mormons themselves made no attempts during the early years of the Church to publicly expose and discredit any outright lies recorded or produced during Mr. Hurlbut's 1833 visit to the Palmyra region. Brodie was obviously wrong in her relying so heavily upon Hurlbut's reporting, without comparing and contrasting it to other early accounts. But Cross was even more wrong in writing his book when he accepted Brodie's very limited budget of early attestations as being the primary available evidence "against" the Smiths.
On the other hand, Cross makes an valuable contribution to history by merely stating that he does not accept the Hurlbut material as reliable evidence -- while, at the same time, pointing out that Mrs. Brodie "accepts and prints these testimonials." Cross' laconic statement would have been even more valuable to the student of Mormon history had he taken the time to demonstrate that Brodie's accepting, at face-value, the truthfulness of the material Hurlbut gathered in New York conflicts markedly with her non-acceptance of similar testimony gathered by the same man in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Brodie was, no doubt, aware of her methodological error, but it best suited her purposes not to dwell on the matter. Cross, on the other hand, was too much a gentlemen to openly state that Brodie had, with no justification by good scholarship, accepted a certain set of Hurlbut-solicited statements, while rejecting another set obtained by him at about the same time and under very similar circumstances -- that is, those statements making the claim for a Solomon Spalding authorship of the Book of Mormon.
Brodie's blunder on this matter in no way affected the opinion of Mr. Cross. He had already become determined to depict the Mormon Smith family in a mostly favorable light when he wrote the precursor to his 1950 book -- that earlier contribution to religious knowledge being his "Mormonism in the 'Burned-Over District,'" published in New York History vol. 25 (July 1944). Cross carries a basic thesis over from his 1944 paper into his 1950 book: "Despite testimonials to the contrary, it must be concluded that neither Joseph nor any of his family was especially ignorant according to the standards of the place and time." This is enough of a reason for Cross to conclude, independently of Fawn Brodie, that Joseph Smith, Jr., had the ability, motivation, resources, and opportunity to write the Book of Mormon all by himself. Brodie's concurrence in that belief simply made citing her 1945 book more serviceable to his goals, at the time that Cross incorporated the 1944 article into his 1950 text.
Cross then goes on to make one of the most important announcements contained in his reporting on the Mormons: "he [Joseph Smith, Jr.] did not premeditate a system for self-advancement patterned upon the observed success of Jemima Wilkinson or anyone else. This kind of hypothesis, like the one which claims that the Book of Mormon was copied from Solomon Spaulding's novel on the early Indian wars, is too transparently simple to explain the broad appeal of the new church. Such myths not only distort Joseph's character but also breed serious misconceptions of how any religious novelty is likely to arise." Cross says a great deal in those two sentences; unfortunately it is mostly wrong. The author maintains that Smith's pretension to the prophetic mantle "was no case of deliberate imposture, no consciously calculated set of devices to attain power over others." Brodie would have agreed in part. History's final judgment may well disagree with Cross' assertion altogether.
What Cross fails to realize that the Mormonism of 1831 -- the viable, growing, evolving, and ultimately successful new religion -- was the synergistic merging of the Rev. Sidney Rigdon's millenarian offshoot of Campbellism with the charisma and mysteries which so entranced Joseph Smith's fanatical followers -- whether they were seekers after buried treasures or seekers after angelic communications. Because Cross only looks upon this merger as occurring after the ostensible first meeting of Smith and Rigdon, he does not see that much of the "religious novelty" he speaks of had already "arisen" in the successful "Reformed Baptist" movement of Reverends Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and Sidney Rigdon. The "broad appeal" of the 1830 Church of Christ came about when an offshoot of an already established religious reform (actually, a purported "restoration") movement suddenly produced for the world a living prophet, new scriptures, priestly authority, and a promise that "the saints" of the "restored church" would inherit the land -- literally, and live in a heavenly city sent to earth.
Cross would have benefited greatly from even a cursory reading of William H. Whitsitt's "Sidney Rigdon, the Real Founder of Mormonism," for in that massive work, Dr. Whitsitt answers quite satisfactorily how the Mormon "religious novelty" was more than "likely to arise." But, having credited the origin of Mormonism to Joseph Smith, Jr., it was no great difficulty for Cross to simultaneously reject the "kind of hypothesis, like the one which claims that the Book of Mormon was copied from Solomon Spaulding's novel on the early Indian wars" as being far "too transparently simple to explain the broad appeal of the new church." Cross sounds trustworthy in his reporting. He gives every indication to her readers that he is a careful and systematic researcher and compiler of the historical record. Beyond all that, he is able to refer his readers to the reportedly reliable Fawn Brodie book, should they seek any further confirmation of the fact that Joseph Smith., Jr., wrote the Book of Mormon with no help at all (thank you Ma'am) from Sidney Rigdon or the late Solomon Spalding.
The distinguished writer, Thomas G. Alexander, has this to say about the matter in his 1978 article "The Place of Joseph Smith in the Development of American Religion: "Cross's analysis of the cultural background of Mormonism is insightful... He rejected the Howe-Hurlbut testimonials as self-serving and vague, pointed to the evangelical background of the [Smith] family and rejected the hypothesis of imposture together with the Spaulding story as 'too transparently simple to explain the broad appeal of the new church. Such myths not only destroy Joseph's character but also breed serious misconceptions of how any religious novelty is likely to arise.'" Thus is happens that Whitney R. Cross, who was never much of a student of Mormonism in the first place, is called upon to set the acceptable standard for conclusions regarding "Joseph's character" and acceptance or rejection of various authorship claims -- for the benefit of even modern Latter Day Saint historians -- by his saying that the "hypothesis of imposture together with the Spaulding story" is fully untenable in any serious attempt to explain Joseph Smith, Jr., the book he published, and the religion he promoted. Alexander's borrowed notion in this regard holds fast among the opinions of the leading scholars of Mormon origins today. One can only wonder if those opinions will ever change.
For more on Whitney R. Cross, his views, and how they have influenced Mormon historical studies, see Marvin S. Hill's "Rise of Mormonism in the Burned-over District: Another View," in New York History vol. 61, no. 4 (Oct. 1980).