Mormonism can pop up just about anywhere these days. I was reading through The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet (Penguin Group, 2012) when I stumbled across this interesting passage:
[T]he colossal April 1815 eruption of Tambora, which produced an amazing twelve cubic miles of lava, was the deadliest of all. More than seventy thousand lives were lost, most as a consequence of agricultural failure and subsequent mass starvation. Tambora's injection of immense quantities of sun-blocking sulfur compounds into the upper atmosphere turned 1816 into the Northern Hemisphere's "year without a summer." (p. 270)The author, a geologist, was recounting the fury of Tambora while speculating on the likelihood of a supervolcano eruption in the next few thousand years. Unlike earthquakes, which max out a little above 9 on the Richter scale, volcanic eruptions scale up almost without limit.
That "year without a summer" in 1816 caused by Tambora's eruption the previous year found ten-year-old Joseph Smith and his family in Vermont, not the best place for farming even in a good year. Here's how Matt Bowman recounted the effect of that summer on the Smith family in his recent The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House, 2012):
In 1816, the infamous year without a summer (also called "Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death"), frost persisted into June and July and rivers remained icy all summer as far south as Pennsylvania. Like thousands of others, the Smith family lost their crops. By the end of that year they had followed Joseph Sr.'s brother Jesse to western New York. They settled just east of Rochester in a bustling village called Palmyra .... (p. 10-11.)
Richard Bushman includes a few more details about the Smith family's experience in Rough Stone Rolling (Knopf, 2005). Their crops failed the two years previous to that chilly summer. Thousands of families left; it took decades for the state's population to rebound. In a footnote, Bushman links the weather to the volcano:
The unseasonably cold weather across North America and northern Europe in 1816 is generally attributed to the volcanic explosion of Tamboro on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in 1815, which blew at least 150 cubic kilometers of volcanic ash and pulverized rock into the atmosphere. (n. 67, p. 568.)
So if the weather had been better and the crops more fruitful, the family might very well have stayed in Vermont. If so, Joseph would have missed those New York revivals that later stirred his religious anxiety, not to mention his being hundreds of miles away from the hill where he later discovered the plates, as opposed to being just a short walk from his front door. Was this huge eruption in 1815 all part of the plan, with God keeping a firm guiding hand on the course of events here on Planet Earth so the Smith family ended up in Palmyra? Wasn't there an easier way to move the Smith family to New York? (Don't forget 70,000 people died.) Or is the path of history largely undetermined and contingent, meaning that things could have turned out differently? If the chaotic convective currents of molten rock creeping below the Earth's surface had crept a bit differently in the centuries preceding 1815, would the Joseph Smith story have turned out to be something entirely different?