A religion is born in western New York
The first U.S. Congress began regular sessions at Federal Hall in New York City on April 6, 1789. April 6, 1862 marked the American Civil War Battle of Shiloh, and in the year 1875, Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for the multiple telegraph. On April 6, 1896, the first modern Olympic Games began in Athens, Greece, and in 1909, Americans Robert Peary and Matthew Henson reached the North Pole. The U.S. Congress approved a declaration of war on Germany and entered World War I on April 6, 1917.
Among all these historic April 6 dates is one with specific and unique western New York roots. On April 6, 1830, a young man named Joseph Smith and five others organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Who would predict that from the small town of Palmyra, New York a world-wide church would emerge? Today, there are about 15 million members of the Latter-day Saints with over 29,000 congregations worshipping in more than 175 languages. The church has 80,000 full-time missionaries throughout the world in 405 missions with several missionary training centers.
According to the National Council of Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the second-fastest growing church in the United States, although much of its overall growth comes from other countries. This church has four universities and colleges, along with seminary and institute continuing education programs. The church extends humanitarian aid to many parts of the world through ongoing initiatives and emergency services. All in all, this is a far cry from its simple log cabin beginnings.
The early 1800s was a time of renewed religious interest and experimentation. Many existing sects and preachers sought converts and had tent revivals. New religions were formed. The area of central and western New York was known as the “burned over district” with all of this activity and excitement.
According to Smith’s personal account, he said he was perplexed why there was so much confusion and wondered which of the many churches was correct. In 1820 at the age of 14, he decided to follow the course of action as directed in James 1:5 of the Bible about asking God when lacking wisdom. Seeking the Lord in prayer in a grove near his home, Smith shared what became known as “The First Vision.” He said that in a pillar of light God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him, and among several things, was told that a restored church would be forthcoming.
To gain an understanding of this church’s history, a person can visit the museum grounds and church sites in Palmyra, New York, check the church’s websites and literature, and speak to its missionaries and members.
One of the largest outdoor pageants in the United States held every July in Palmyra gives an account of the religion. Known as the “Hill Cumorah Pageant,” or “America’s Witness of Christ,” it is attended by thousands of people. The pageant is a theatrical production with over 800 cast and crew members. Several evening performances are presented on a hillside on a 10-level stage with 12-tower lighting, a state-of-the-art sound system, and Hollywood caliber special effects in an area with seating for 9000 people. The script for the production is based on the Bible and the Book of Mormon, also known as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”The Book of Mormon is scripture to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Book of Mormon is primarily a spiritual and historical account of ancient inhabitants of America, one group descending from a Jewish prophet named Lehi who fled with his family before Jerusalem fell in 600 B.C. According to this book, this family eventually migrated by a ship to America with records maintained by prophets until approximately 400 A.D., with one of the last authors named Mormon, thus the name of the book.
These records not only speak of the laws of Israel and Moses, but also Christ’s birth, ministry, and the destruction that occurred when Christ was crucified. The pinnacle of The Book of Mormon is when Christ visits and instructs these people a short time after his resurrection. According to members of this church, this visit is referenced in the Bible in John 10:16 when Christ states, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.”
The production then continues with a portrayal of the records, recorded on metal plates, being buried in a stone box in the Hill Cumorah (present day Palmyra) by Mormon’s son, Moroni. These plates are then found and translated by Joseph Smith in the early 1800s with the first Book of Mormon published in Palmyra, New York in 1830. The last scene in the pageant has a single light on Christ with a reminder of his love for all people and to look forward to his second coming.
This church with western New York roots can certainly be studied from many perspectives – spiritual, cultural, or historical. Make it a good week.
Mary Burns Deas writes weekly for the OBSERVER. Comments may be diredted to firstname.lastname@example.org