We sometimes call the greatest moments of time “axial points” or “watersheds.” The course of history turns in a new direction at these moments. The water flows into a different river system and ends in a different sea. Such moments are not just bright points in a line of dimmer ones, but focal points that affect all that comes before and after. The birth of Christ, the fall of Rome, the American Declaration of Independence, World Wars I and II—all are greater or lesser beginnings or endings that shape our concept of time.
In prophetic history, the year 1830 is such an axial point, the threshold of the fulness of times. From that year, all previous history begins to flow together toward the culmination of Christ’s second coming. It is a time the prophets not only foresaw but also anticipated with gladness. 1830 marks the boundary of a new time zone in world history.
The scriptures do not specify how Providence designed history to prepare for that year; with a few exceptions, we merely surmise when we see God’s hand in specific movements or individuals. The voyage of Columbus, migrations from Europe, the Revolution, Indian wars, and Indian expulsion from the eastern United States were foreknown and foretold (1 Ne. 13:12–19), but the prophets did not explain how each fit into the overall plan or affected the restoration of the Church in 1830.
We do know, however, that the United States and the world were undergoing massive cultural and political changes in the years preceding and just following 1830. One historian finds extensive statistical evidence that the United States changed more profoundly between 1790 and 1820 in virtually every measurable dimension of life than at any other time in its history. Therefore, we can at least take note of the course of events and form private conclusions about the Lord’s part in preparing the world for the restoration of the gospel in 1830.
The 1828 Fourth of July editorial in the Wayne Sentinel declared that “this is the anniversary of the great day which commenced a new era in the History of the world.” In other words, the American Revolution “proclaimed the triumph of free principles and the liberation of a people from the dominion of Monarchical government.”
Before 1776 Anglo-American advocates of freedom saw the world spiraling downward into tyranny. France, the most powerful nation on earth, lived under the heavy hand of an absolute monarch and a luxury-ridden aristocracy. Most European princes still looked back to Louis XVI, the Sun King, as a model. Frederick the Great of Prussia, although “enlightened,” was equally a despot in his realms. The Dutch, once the standard-bearers of republican freedom, had slid back toward monarchy. England, one of the few holdouts against the French example, seemed to have sunk so far into corruption that English libertarians gave up in despair. Thomas Paine left England in disgust in 1774 and sailed for America. When the colonies teetered indecisively on the brink of independence, he urged an immediate break. America was the world’s best hope for freedom. “The cause of America,” Paine wrote in January 1776, “is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” The principles which Americans fought for were in jeopardy around the globe.
The downward spiral did reverse itself in 1776, and a new era commenced. The American Revolution appears to have encouraged liberal aspirations in many parts of the world. Surges of democratic feelings followed by revolution or constitutional reform occurred in Sweden, Poland, the Dutch Provinces, and Belgium within a decade or two of the American Revolution. In 1789 French absolutism, the great stronghold of European monarchy, fell before a democratic revolution. Subsequently, democratic revolts or mutinies broke out in Naples, Russia, Spain, and Portugal. By 1828, most of the Spanish colonies in America were independent republics, and Greece and Serbia had broken free of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1830 a new wave of revolts swept over Europe. France deposed Charles X, and the revolutionaries put a king of their own on the throne. In the next two years revolutions occurred in Belgium, Germany, the Papal States, Parma, Modena, and Poland. After an interlude of conservative reaction, a still more violent and pervasive series of revolts spread across the continent in 1848. France once again deposed its king, and Italy, central Europe, and a score of German states and free cities followed. In Vienna, the heartland of conservative monarchy, a mob sacked and burned the house of the aging Prince Clemens Metternich, and the mastermind of the old order fled to London.
And yet for all this democratic and revolutionary activity, the gains of liberal democracy outside of America were slight. The French Revolution failed, and rather than confirming the American venture in free government, it weakened the cause of republicanism around the world. As if following a script, the French traced precisely the course predicted by critics of the United States: first freedom, then license and anarchy, and finally tyranny, as a despairing citizenry gave all power to a despot capable of restoring order. None of the succeeding revolutions proceeded so violently to such extremes as the French, but the disappointing outcomes were essentially identical. A pent-up yearning for democratic reform brought down the old regime, after which quarreling, excesses of a people unused to freedom, and violence in the new regime frightened and repelled the populace. In the reaction, the former ruler or a facsimile returned to power and abolished most of the reforms.
As late as 1860 the United States occupied a singular position in the world. The democratic spirit of the American Revolution had inspired European reformers for eighty-five years, and the impulse was not yet extinguished. But the actual achievements were meager: Greece and a few small republics in Latin America were all there was to show. Englishmen enjoyed the benefits of constitutional monarchy, but the United States was the only major nation in the world to have functioned as a republic for more than a few months. The American republic stood virtually alone among the nations.
Was republican government by its nature doomed to self-destruction? American leaders themselves thought of the United States as a grand experiment whose outcome was yet uncertain. In 1861 civil war in the United States seemed to indicate that the collapse of republicanism had only been delayed, not prevented, in America. At last, it seemed, the greatest republic was about to crumble and follow the others into chaos and tyranny.
In an address to Congress on 4 July 1861, Lincoln underscored the fact that the issue of secession “embraces more than the fate of these United States.” It presented to “the whole family of man, the question” of whether there is “in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness. Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” Recognizing America’s isolation amidst the monarchies and despotisms of the world, Lincoln proceeded to deny the South’s right to secede, not for the sake of the United States alone, but for all other freedom-loving people. The soldiers slain at Gettysburg, he reminded his audience in 1863, fought “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Are we to make anything of the fact that the United States of America, democracy’s “last best hope on earth” as Lincoln called it, was also the site of the restoration of the gospel, mankind’s opportunity for salvation? We know the Lord raised up men to frame the Constitution, the document that embodied both the democratic impulse for freedom and the fundamental need for order. (See D&C 101:77, 80.) Under its benevolent protection, freedom of many kinds thrived—including freedom to worship. The Latter-day Saints have tested the limits of that freedom to the breaking point and ironically, ultimately fled the settled areas of the United States. Would the budding Restoration have been pinched off prematurely in another nation before the Church could bloom and bear fruit? Is it also significant that the messengers of the restored gospel came to England, Germany, and Sweden from republican America? Was it part of the Lord’s plan that the nation whose example brought the hope of freedom to common people around the globe was the homeland of the missionaries who brought the hope of salvation? We can only report what in fact has happened: the Church took root in American soil in 1830, flourished there, and thence spread like branches over a wall to the rest of the world.
Population migrations. While political revolution shook the old regimes in Europe, another kind of revolution transformed American society. Although not a revolution of guns or riots, it was nevertheless significant. Population growth, rather than oppression and misery, powered the changes. From 1790, when the federal government conducted the first census, until 1830, the population of the United States tripled—from 3.9 to 12.9 million. Had such growth been contained within fixed boundaries, it could have destroyed social institutions. But it was not contained, and change therefore, took another form—not destructive, but still deep and pervasive.
Along the coast from Massachusetts to South Carolina, population increased rather modestly from 1790 to 1830. Rhode Island grew from 69,000 to 97,000; Maryland from 320,000 to 447,000. Overall, the coastal population increased only 1.65 times. The big growth occurred along the edges of this settled coastal plain, in Maine and Georgia to the north and south, and in new states over the Appalachian Mountains. Along these edges the population increased 5.9 times. Kentucky’s population enlarged from 74,000 to 688,000 between 1790 and 1830; Ohio’s from 45,000 to 938,000. Asael Smith, the Prophet Joseph’s grandfather, participated in Vermont’s growth from 85,000 to 281,000 when he moved his family from Topsfield, Massachusetts, to Tunbridge, Vermont, in 1791.
Availability of churches. Churches moved with the migrants and helped to organize and orient them in their new surroundings. Six years after Asael arrived in Tunbridge, he and two of his sons signed the articles of association for a Universalist Society. Other settlers made similar arrangements with Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Quaker, and Reformed churches. Settlers grouped together and hired a pastor. When no one was available to preach, one of their own number took the pulpit; or they read to each other.
The American churches rose magnificently to the challenge of frontier growth. In fact, there were probably more churches per American after the population burst through the Appalachians than before. In 1750, it has been calculated, the number of persons per church was 706:1. As the population grew and moved after the Revolution, the number of churches at first fell behind; the ratio of persons to churches went up in 1780 to 861:1, and in 1800 to 1,122:1. But as the denominations mobilized, they brought the expanding population under control. By 1820 the proportion was 626:1.
From congregationalism to universalism. The new societies in the West, however, and society along the coast for that matter, failed to replicate the society of 1750. A significant shift had taken place, one which affected the spiritual lives of Americans. The New England village of the 1700s, such as Topsfield, where Asael Smith grew up, characteristically had only one church. Within the township, the people organized various parishes and hired their own ministers, but all the churches were congregational, and the ministers met in common association to discuss doctrine and questions of discipline. Here and there in New England, there were Anglican or Baptist or Quaker meetings. But these were the exception outside of Rhode Island. In Topsfield everyone paid taxes to support the congregational minister unless specifically exempted by certificate. The church was almost an arm of the government. In the South, the Anglican Church occupied a similar position.
When society fell into place in the frontier communities, however, all this had changed. By 1790, Asael Smith had broken away from the congregationalism of his ancestors to embrace universalism. In Palmyra in 1820 the Smiths chose among the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Society of Friends, and sporadic meetings of Episcopalians. Their children were not absorbed automatically into a traditional church. Some neighbors and family members went to one meeting, some to another. Lucy Smith, the Prophet Joseph’s mother, had a deep religious experience in Randolph, Vermont, in 1803 and sought for religious counsel, but she had no pastor to whom she instinctively turned. A Methodist exhorter visited her, she paid a call on a local deacon, and she listened to a visiting Presbyterian preacher. But finally she persuaded a minister to baptize her without requiring that she join any church.
Availability of voluntary associations. Voluntary choice characterized nearly every aspect of nineteenth-century society. Asael Smith’s ancestors lived in Topsfield for four generations. Asael himself moved his family eight times before settling in St. Lawrence County, New York, where he died. Even for those who never had to decide where to move and when, life presented a great number of decisions. After 1790 the simple eighteenth-century society of family, church, and town meeting had to compete with a huge array of other organizations soliciting participation and loyalty. In the 1760s only twenty voluntary associations such as charities, schools, business corporations, and political and civic improvement groups were organized in Massachusetts. In the 1770s, twenty-four were formed. But in the 1790s the number suddenly rose to 180 and kept climbing: in the 1800s 236 new voluntary associations were formed, 511 in the 1810s, and 553 in the 1820s.
Availability of information. In the same years, information began flowing into the towns as never before. In 1760 there were only five newspapers in Massachusetts, all in Boston. But in 1820 there were fifty-three, distributed among twenty-three towns. By 1850 every town of any size had its own paper, carrying articles copied from papers all over the country. In addition, scores of magazines and specialized periodicals attained regional or national circulation. The improved postal system dumped fifty to seventy different titles in the village post office every month. Once dependent for information on influential persons in the town, people now had independent sources of news, each presenting the world from its own perspective. The family, neighborhood, and community lost much of their control over opinions and personal identity. Each person affiliated as he or she chose, read what appealed, and modeled himself or herself after persons at a distance as well as those nearby.
A break in religious tradition. In the turmoil, institutions rose and fell in importance. From the best information available, it appears that in 1750 the largest denomination in America was the Congregational Church. The Anglicans (Episcopal) were second, and the Quakers, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Baptists followed in that order. However, by 1850 the rankings had been overturned. The largest group in 1850, Roman Catholicism, had been almost entirely absent in 1750. The Irish migration particularly swelled its ranks. The largest Protestant denomination in 1850, the Methodists, had not even been in existence in 1750. In 1850 they had 13,280 groups meeting, when the Congregationalists reported only 1,706. Methodist influence touched Joseph Smith who became “somewhat partial to the Methodist sect” (JS—H 1:8) just prior to the First Vision. Behind the Methodists came the Baptists, who in 1750 had been but a small struggling band of dissenters in all of the colonies but Rhode Island.
The growth of a few denominations from obscurity to preeminence meant that hundreds of thousands of Americans broke from the faith of their fathers and chose a new church. The traditions that had governed life for many generations loosened their hold, and individuals moved away under their own power. Two town institutions of the 1820s and 1830s caught the spirit of the new age—the lyceum and the debating society. The lyceum contrasted sharply with the church. Instead of one person instructing an audience from a known and fixed body of doctrine, a series of different speakers addressed the town on a great variety of topics from many perspectives. The debating society went a step further. There was no position, only a question. Young Joseph Smith participated informally with the printer’s apprentices in such a group in Palmyra.
Results of societal change. Having achieved political freedom in advance of other nations in 1776, the United States in the next half century freed its citizenry from the restraints of traditional opinions. Migrations from old neighborhoods, a variety of accessible churches and voluntary associations, and a melee of conflicting values and beliefs compelled each person to choose to a degree unknown a hundred years earlier. That freedom invigorated the minds and enlarged the spirits of the American population—until one by one individuals realized the limits of genuine freedom.
Consider the anguish of a young person wishing for nothing more than his own salvation. In what could he place faith?
“In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (JS—H 1:10.)
Freedom allowed people to ask questions. It did not provide answers. The breakdown of the old regime enabled people to choose, but its culmination could not be a limitless enlargement of purposeless liberty. Providence must have had a specific end in view as it directed events toward the last days. The climax of the liberating forces flowing through history toward 1830 was the recovery of the truth. The times reached their fulness when men and women, freed from an oppressive past, recognized and embraced the revelation of heaven.