Beginning in the 1730s, Congregational theologian Jonathan Edwards ignited a spark of religious interest and revivals “that flamed into the Great Awakening.” Decades later, at the beginning of the 19th century, another revival swept America. Known as the Second Great Awakening, it consisted of many smaller revivals occurring in towns and villages. It peaked in the 1830s and ‘40s (see “American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism,” by Milton V. Backman, pages 266-269). The best known of these was a multi-day event held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801.
There was a great need for these revivals. One observer in the Kentucky region noted that “infidelity was triumphant and religion was on the point of expiring” (see George Baxter in “American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism,” page 267). Moreover, historian Milton Backman reports that only about 7% of Americans belonged to a church at that time. This detail may surprise those who hold to the traditional image of a 19th century frontier family reading the Bible by the fireplace (see Backman’s essay in “The Prophet Joseph,” edited by Larry C. Porter and Susan Easton Black, page 23).
In Draft 2 of the dictated history of the Prophet Joseph Smith in “The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Vol. 1,” he recounts that in the second year after the Smith family moved to Manchester, New York, there was “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion” and that it “soon became general among all the sects in that region of country, indeed the whole district of Country seemed affected by it and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties.” These religious revivals that had spread to western New York state were part of the maelstrom of confusion experienced by the Prophet Joseph Smith, which lead to the First Vision of 1820.
Kenneth Mays is a board member of the Ensign Peak Foundation (formerly Mormon Historic Sites Foundation) and a retired instructor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Department of Seminaries and Institutes.