The Book of Mormon as Literature
- Early nineteenth-century America was a time and place peculiarly receptive to new prophets and their books. Two lively cultural currents combined to make it so. One was the drive, in the heady early decades of the Republic, to create a uniquely American literature. The other was a national religious mania known as the Second Great Awakening, whose epicenter was western and central New York State. Between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, countless revivals and new religions flared up from the Finger Lakes to Niagara Falls.
Many of the newer sects flamed out. The Shakers’ demise was no surprise, given their celibacy. The Oneida Community taught free love but lives on today only as a silverware company. Others persisted in new forms. The Millerites believed that Christ would reappear on October 22, 1844; their faith was severely challenged when that day passed without incident, though a version of Millerism survives with the Seventh Day Adventists. The most impressive and unlikely survivor from New York’s religious bumper crop is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A hundred and fifty million copies of its central scripture have been printed since its first edition, in 1830. The Book of Mormon is where the literary and spiritual ambitions of the antebellum age most tenaciously converged.