To explain the the 1800s mindset that would lead people to join the Mormons.
Take your smart phone and put it away from you just out of reach. Now scoot away from your computer and think of wanting to know something interesting, like how Guineas convert into British pounds, or what the recipe is for German rum fruit (Rumtopf). What sources might you use?
Well, you might use an encyclopedia (These existed in 1729 similar to the form we think of, so that would be a possibility), or talk to an expert. You might try to recreate it from scratch simply by knowing that things were out there.
This compounds with difficulty when one starts talking about metaphysical knowledge. The processes for inductive reasoning were still being bantered back and forth between Hobbs, Hume, Decarte and the like, and really only those who were highly educated had access to such thought.
Instead, folk lore, folk magic, and a scattering of local libraries were the sources of knowledge.
Now, grab that smart phone back and stop hyperventilating. Read back over the last few paragraphs and actually click on the links. We NEED information today, and we have access to it. But in Joseph Smith’s time, information was processed, distributed and pondered differently.
Missionaries were common.
The idea of a street preacher can be very odd today, but it was common in the 1800s. Methodists like William Taylor (author of “Seven Years’ Street Preaching in San Francisco, California”), independent preachers like Charles Haddon Spurgeon, as well as other organizations that claimed members like George Whitefield and John Wesley all focused on growth via street preaching.
Further, Joseph grew up in the Burned-over District, an area that had preaching back and forth through many sects since 1824. Joseph clearly had good reason to believe that sending missionaries out would, in fact, bring in many converts.
Further, the way people transferred knowledge in those days was either by printed word (Which the church used a lot, almost always owning a printing press and putting out newspapers, pamphlets or columns written in the local paper by distinguished members), or by people bringing knowledge to your door.
Door-to-door sales was a common technique, and traveling snake oil salesmen were infamous in this period.
In short, the stage really was set for a missionary program to be effective.
But why would people believe the claims?
First of all, the message was not standardized the way we have it today. Joseph Smith’s First Vision would not be printed until 1842, 12 years after the church was formed and 22 years after the supposed event.
The visit of the angel Moroni and discussion of the gold plates was most of what early missionaries had to work with, and the people in the immediate vicinity were prepped for both visions and explanations about the local Indian mounds.
In 1780, Thomas Jefferson famously excavated an Indian burial mound and published the results. Oliver Cowdery’s teacher, a short distance from where Joseph Smith lived, published “A view of the Hebrews”, discussing the burial mounds and tying Indians to the lost tribes. Solomon Spaulding also wrote about ties between Indian burials and people from the old world. In 1905, “Forty years’ researches in British and Saxon burial mounds of East Yorkshire” was published.
The idea that there was treasure buried in these mounds was a common topic, hence the world was excited to hear about these mysterious burial places.
Visions of Angels
Alexander Campbell had, during this same time frame, started printing various papers and two key circulations. He challenged the orthodoxy of the Catholic church and, like many others, spoke of very different reforms.
This rebellious attitude of a respected voice of theology, along with others, prepared people for the idea of visits from angels and new religions challenging authority.
But his assistant, Sidney Rigdon really pushed the envelope. He believed that a reformation was not sufficient, but that new scripture would need to come forward to restore the old apostolic church, and that it would bring with it visions, angels, and all the gifts of the spirit.
Sidney had been dragged by a horse as a boy. Since then, he experienced seizures that put him into a trance, after which he believed he communed with God.
Sidney’s establishment in Kirtland, Ohio and the many converts to his baptist sect are why Joseph moved the church to Kirtland when things became heated in Palmyra (Sidney Rigdon Timeline).
Although it can be difficult to understand why the church had such success, one can see that the new concepts being preached abroad, as well as the communication methods of the day, helped to foster an environment of growth.
Joseph was a common man.
In England, the Victorian era more or less dictated that the first son of landed gentry inherited the land and the other sons could either go into the church or be commissioned officers in the military.
Those who were not noble could neither become officers nor preachers.
Part of what fueled the reformation was the idea that ANYONE could have access to God, and Joseph Smith, Jr., a poor farm boy from upstate New York, idealized this image. He was a nobody before “God chose him,” and he began to have a blossoming following of people who swore the stories about him were true.
This idea that “anyone can have access to God” probably helped fuel the conversion flames.
Testimony meeting was a new idea.
In 1682, William Penn found a place for his religious ideals. The Quakers relied heavily on meetings where they would share visions, tell about what they knew to be true, even to the point that they would “quake,” hence the name “Quakers.” This place was “Pennsylvania.” Joseph Smith lived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, had key Quaker converts, and adopted the testimony meeting style.
In a world with very little ability to fact-check, a meeting filled with individuals who claim to have had visions, see the plates, or have confirmation would have been powerfully convincing.
Indeed, most of the anti-mormon rhetoric of the 1830s is not based on facts, but on testimony style disclosures. E. Howe, for as much as critics of his work “Mormonism Unvailed” complain about his historical techniques, the idea that he would actually go around gathering data is something that should be commended. He was at least trying to use facts in the discussion of claims made.
What Sidney never had, Joseph had in abundance. That is charisma. He would speak, and people would listen. He would need things, and people would provide.
Indeed, there are numerous accounts of people being opposed to Joseph Smith, Jr. who, after meeting him, found him to be friendly and engaging.
This is a technique that still works today. Con-artists, MLM schemes, and Ponzi operators like Bernie Madoff are able to still convince people to join up to bad deals simply on their confidence, poise, and ability to speak.
Missionaries still try to use the 1800s model.
Although the church reformed the missionary message in 1950, and again in the 1980s with correlation, and again in 2000 with “Preach my Gospel,” the missionary program, at heart, still relies on quaker-testimony, a lack of good primary sources and research, an interest in things people don’t have answers for, the idea that they can know for themselves what wise and learned men never figured out, and charisma.
Missionaries with more charisma outperform those without it, regardless of spiritual worthiness. People with deep, difficult questions commonly complain about the missionaries’ inability to answer them.
The missionary program of the church was an artifact of 1800s culture and, although revised, it shows through to today’s missionary program. The church cannot rely on more modern means of information communication because of all the skeletons in its closet.
As such, missionaries going out should expect fewer and fewer converts as good informational sources begin to spread to additional countries and lands.
It should be no surprise that English speaking/reading countries with access to information have lower conversion rates, on average, than other countries.