Mormon Sites of Palmyra
If most Americans had to pick a state to associate with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), more commonly called the Mormon church, they would inevitably pick Utah, not New York. Nevertheless, upstate New York served as the backdrop to some of the most important events in Mormon history. Several Mormon historic sites are clustered near the town of Palmyra, where the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., lived with his family.
In the early 1800s, a wave of Protestant revivalism spread across the United States. Charismatic preachers from a multitude of denominations traipsed around the country, seeking converts and warning their followers to renounce sin and prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Many of them also preached that anyone could forge a personal relationship with God, an alluring concept to the poor farmers eking out a living on the new country’s frontier.
This movement, which historians call the Second Great Awakening, was particularly widespread in upstate New York. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, Shakers, and others, traveled the same circuits in the area looking for converts. One of the most famous revivalist preachers of the time nicknamed the region the “burned-over district” because so many preachers had come through the areas that it was as if the region had been completely consumed the by the fires of religious fervor.
Mormonism arose from this atmosphere of religious passion. Joseph Smith, like others preachers around him, spoke about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and taught that anyone could receive revelations from God. But Smith also introduced new and radical ideas. He claimed to be God’s prophet to whom God had revealed an ancient scripture called the Book of Mormon that was a companion to the Bible, and that Zion, Christ’s kingdom would be built on the American continent.
Because of his unorthodox views, Smith also attracted controversy. The strong reactions that Mormonism elicited caused Smith to move from state to state to avoid persecution. As he moved, he received new revelations that led to him to establish even more controversial practices like baptism for the dead and celestial marriage, better known as polygamy. Ultimately, in 1844, Smith was murdered by a mob after being jailed for destroying a printing press. The press had published a paper that exposed his practice of polygamy, which up until that point had occurred in secret. It was only after Smith’s death that his successor Brigham Young led the Mormons to Utah.
But even before Smith moved his followers out of New York, all of the essential elements of Mormonism were in place. He had received visions and revelations from God. He had established a new, America-centered version of Christianity that challenged the very foundation of other Christian groups. And he had attracted a great deal of suspicion and contention.
Today Mormonism is deeply embedded in the fabric of American life, but it remains enigmatic to outsiders. Mormons have been extremely influential in American politics with one member of the church, Mitt Romney, being the Republican nominee for president in 2012, and another, Harry Reid, being the Democratic party leader in the United States Senate from 2005 to 2017. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir tours regularly and has performed at several presidential inaugurations. Though, Mormon missionaries are easily recognizable from their white shirts, ties, and nametags, most outsiders still know little about Mormon history or beliefs.
Together, the Mormon historic sites in upstate New York tell the story of the creation of a religion. The sites are owned and operated by the LDS church. Because the church is very enthusiastic about proselytizing, this might alienate some visitors. Even so, it is worthwhile to learn the fascinating story behind this unique and controversial religion.