Earlier I posted on Republican Religion, which touched on the tenor of religion immediately following the Revolutionary War. In this post I review what happened to the American religious scene during the first third of the 19th century, right up to the founding of the LDS Church in 1830. I'm using material from Toward a New Society: American Thought and Culture, 1800-1830, particularly the second chapter, entitled "Christianizing the Republic."
The new American republic was a grand experiment, and it was generally felt that its success depended on the moral character of society, or on the virtue of its citizens. Some felt that such virtue was threatened by the emerging commercial economy of the post-Revolutionary period—suddenly everyone wanted to make money—and the unchurched rough-and-tumble West (basically any state not around in 1776) was a primary concern for such civic worriers. As the 19th century unfolded, religious piety became the new vessel for republican virtue, at least in the eyes of churchgoers.
Initially, the enemy of the preachers was Deism: "Orthodox clergy were obsessed with the threat of Deism, which they perceived as especially likely to corrupt college youth and lower orders." Tom Paine's Age of Reason (1794-95) galvanized opposition to what was depicted as radical republican excess, often associated with the violence and disorder of revolutionary France and that confirmed francophile Thomas Jefferson.
The Second Great Awakening
Then something totally unexpected happened. A broad-based religious resurgence swept over the country. Jefferson, who supposedly thought that everyone would be Unitarian by about 1830, must have been chagrined to watch the Second Great Awakening unfold before his very eyes. An 1801 open-air camp meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801 is generally held to be the first big revival event. "Everywhere the revival emphasized emotion, a deeply felt commitment, and the religion of the heart, and it explicitly or implicitly jettisoned Calvinist belief in predestination in favor of a salvation open to all who would reach for it." Christianity was becoming Americanized (and Arminianized).
The following quote sums up how this changed the social and communal side of religious life in America, especially in the West:
Above all, the revivals offered a more intense community life. At the heart of revival was the overwhelming individual experience of conversion. Yet Evangelical Christianity was not the religion of the private person; professions were made publicly and the soul laid bare to the community, which provided stringent rules of conduct and the scrutiny to make sure they were followed. The new converts became members of a tightly knit group, joined by common experience, belief, and outlook on life .... The voluntary organization into churches of thousands of ordinary Americans was a spontaneous reaction against the growth of individualism and breakdown of traditional communities in the early republic.
And those most susceptible to the emotional appeal of revivals were the young: "the majority of converts were teenagers or in their early twenties." Methodists and Baptists were the big winners in this transformation of the religious scene. The big losers were the increasingly liberal Protestants of established Eastern society. They were simply out of step with the times.
New Kid on the Block
The author notes that, despite its "growing emotionalism, American Protestantism was thoroughly pervaded by a rather naive rationalism that assumed that religion rested on 'truths,' of which the intellect as well as the heart could be convinced." The continued popularity of William Paley's View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794) was one indicator of how much people felt they were practicing a form of religious rationalism rather than religious emotionalism. And people didn't just read -- they discussed and argued and debated religious ideas with their neighbors and friends.
Enter Mormonism. Even in the supposedly uncultured West, people discussed and argued religion:
For many ordinary people, disputation on politics and theology was the form that intellectual life took. Mormonism, for example, emerged out of a milieu in New York State buzzing with theological argument, and it contained, according to one critic, "every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years." The young Joseph Smith left the Prebyterian church in 1820 at age fifteen because, after long pondering, he was convinced Presbyterianism was "not true," and in the Book of Mormon (1830) he produced documentary evidence for a new and quite complicated scheme of theology.
Close. Actually, Joseph apparently told his mother when returning from the woods immediately after his visionary experience in the spring of 1820 something to the effect that "I have learned for myself that Prebyterianism is not true." His long pondering didn't convince him of anything except that he couldn't figure out which denomination was right for him.
For an excellent treatment of early LDS history that stresses some of these themes, take a look at Marvin S. Hill's Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight From American Pluralism (1989). The link is to the full online text of the book at the Signature Books Library. Hill notes, among other things, that Mormons and Mormonism rejected the full range of emotional experience associated with revivalism, which actually puts Mormonism further toward the religious rationalism side of the rationalism/emotionalism spectrum discussed above. I'll close with Hill's comments on the reaction of Willard Richards to revivals:
The revivals were a potent force compelling thousands of people to reexamine their religious state. But not everyone approved of the fierce emotional intensities the revivals engendered. For example, Willard Richards, later a Mormon convert, disapproved of the emotional traumas and the "new measures" which Charles Finney employed. Finney set western New York afire with religious excitement and anxiety, shutting down whole towns for days during his protracted meetings. Richards complained that the revivals "stirred up the imagination exciting unnecessary fears and torture[d] the mind."