“Religious Enthusiasm among Early Ohio Converts,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“Religious Enthusiasm among Early Ohio Converts,” Revelations in Context
Levi Hancock was 27 years old in 1830 and lived in New Lyme, Ohio, about 30 miles east of Kirtland. During his childhood, his mother had instilled in him a deep interest in spiritual matters. Hancock believed that God often intervened in daily life and spoke to men and women through dreams.1
In the early part of November 1830, Hancock’s brother Alvah brought him word of the Book of Mormon: “Four men have come and have brought a book with them that they call [a] history and a record of the people that once inhabited this land.” His interest stirred, Hancock expressed a desire to hear these preachers. “Tomorrow they are to hold a meeting at Mr. Jackson’s in Mayfield,” his brother said, adding, “They lay hands on those they baptize and bestow on them the Holy Ghost.”
Hancock described his reaction: “At these last words … there seemed to fall on me something pleasant and delightful[.] It seemed like a wash of something warm took me in the face and ran over my body which gave me that feeling I cannot describe. The first word I said was, ‘It is the truth, I can feel it. I will go and hear for myself tomorrow.’”
The four men Hancock went to hear preach were Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Ziba Peterson. They passed through northeastern Ohio as missionaries in the fall of 1830 en route to Missouri. During their brief stay, they created quite a stir. Preaching the restoration of the Church of Christ in preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus, they proclaimed that, among other things, the Lord had restored the gifts of the spirit spoken of in the New Testament.
Levi Hancock was one of more than a hundred baptized as a result of their visit. But the missionaries’ stay was short-lived; they soon departed for Missouri, leaving the small band of converts near Kirtland without experienced leadership. Several prominent figures among the new converts left about the same time (including Sidney Rigdon and Edward Partridge, who went to New York to meet Joseph Smith).
In the early 1800s, New York and Ohio were awash in religious fervor. It began as early as the 1790s, when many Christians became concerned by the way increasing rationalism and skepticism had encroached upon their religious life. They thirsted for more from religion than their churches then offered, some seeking a return to primitive Christianity as described in the New Testament. This popular stir in religious zeal, later called the Second Great Awakening, led to numerous revivals, a surge in conversions, and even the founding of new Christian sects.
One characteristic of this revivalist culture was an increased interest in spiritual manifestations and gifts. The ardent preaching of Charles Finney, Lorenzo Dow, George Lane, and others elicited passionate responses from their audiences, including prophesying, crying, shouting, dancing, shaking, and rolling on the ground. Some groups, such as the United Society of Believers in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (Shakers), even made some of these practices a formal part of their worship.
This style of worship was not without detractors. In fact, many mainstream Christians frowned upon this so-called enthusiasm. By 1830, the surge in religious excitement began to subside. However, there were still many who believed these manifestations were authentic expressions of the spirit. The Mormon missionaries’ message that spiritual gifts had returned to the Church thus appealed to many of those they taught in Ohio.
After the departure of the missionaries, the converts had little experience, few copies of the Book of Mormon, and no copies of Joseph Smith’s other revelations to consult in practicing their new faith. Flush with zeal, some of them began to introduce elements of enthusiastic worship—or “spiritual operations” as they sometimes called them—into their meetings. However, it was not always clear which manifestations were inspired and which were spurious.
In early January 1831, Levi Hancock met three young men named Edson Fuller, Heamon Bassett, and Burr Riggs, who introduced themselves as elders of the Church of Christ. According to Hancock, these young elders engaged in “all manner of doings” during worship services. Burr Riggs would “jump up from the floor, strike his head against the joist … swing some minutes, then fall like he was dead.” He would then rise and relate visions he had while unconscious. “Edson Fuller would fall and turn black in the face. He[a]mon Bassett would behave like a baboon.”
These strange behaviors perplexed Hancock. After all, he himself had experienced feelings, impressions, and dreams he believed were spiritual communications. The young men seemed “so honest and sincere I was led to believe all [they] said.” He even worried that “perhaps I was not as pure as those young men.” However, their actions were very different from the spiritual feelings he had experienced.
These three young practitioners of enthusiastic worship were not alone. Many converts from diverse religious backgrounds contributed to a wave of enthusiasm in the Church in Ohio in early 1831. A man known as Black Pete, a former slave and new convert, brought his experience with the slave shout tradition, including perhaps the practice of speaking in tongues.2 Others introduced innovations peculiar to their groups: “Some would fancy to themselves that they had the sword of Laban, and would wield it as expert as a light dragoon … some would slide or scoot and [on] the floor, with the rapidity of a serpent, which the[y] termed sailing in the boat to the Lamanites.”3
Word that local Mormon worship services often featured these curious manifestations drew the ridicule of many observers. A newspaper in nearby Painesville reported contemptuously that after the missionaries left, “a scene of the wildest enthusiasm was exhibited, chiefly, however, among the young people.”4 John Corrill, a January 1831 convert, later wrote, “It was but a very few of the church who were exercised in that way,” and there were many, he added, that “were suspicious that it was from an evil source.”5
Still in New York, Joseph Smith became concerned about the lack of leadership among the new Ohio converts and sent John Whitmer to Kirtland with copies of the revelations to “strengthen my brethren in that land.”6 When Whitmer arrived in mid-January 1831, he was surprised by the variety of spiritual operations he witnessed.
Shortly after his own arrival in Kirtland in February, Joseph Smith set about to check these displays of enthusiasm. He wrote to his brother Hyrum (then in Colesville, New York) on March 3 reporting, “I hav been ingageed in regulating the Churches here as the deciples are numerous and the devil had made many attempts to over throw them.”7
But there were important questions that remained to be answered. If the Book of Mormon promised the presence of spiritual gifts in the Church, what was wrong with these practices? Had not Joseph himself been blessed with miraculous manifestations of the spirit? And what of the Book of Mormon stories of Alma and Lamoni, who fell, apparently unconscious, while the spirit spoke to them? Just how was one to distinguish the gifts of God from human inventions or the influence of evil?
A revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants 46) given on March 8 in response to Joseph’s inquiries about how to conduct sacrament meetings shed some light on these questions. In it the Lord reminded the elders that they should be “guided by the Holy Spirit” in directing their meetings. The revelation sanctioned the presence of spiritual gifts in the Church, even encouraged the members to “seek ye earnestly the best gifts always remembering for what they are given.” It cautioned, however, “Some are of men & others of Devils[.] Wherefore beware lest ye are deceived.”
The revelation listed a number of gifts the faithful could expect to find in the Church, including faith, miracles, knowledge, healing, and speaking in tongues. This list is similar to those found in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon (see 1 Corinthians 12:4–11; Moroni 10:8–18). The Lord also promised that bishops, elders, and others with the appointment to “watch over the Church” would have the gift “to decern all those gifts lest there shall be any prophecying among you & yet not be of God.”8
When Parley P. Pratt returned from Missouri in March, he too noted the continued displays of enthusiasm as he visited the congregations scattered about the Kirtland area. He later wrote, “Feeling our weakness and inexperience, and lest we should err in judgment concerning these spiritual phenomena, myself, John Murdock, and several other Elders, went to Joseph Smith, and asked him to inquire of the Lord concerning these spirits or manifestations.”9
They met on May 9, and after they prayed together, Joseph Smith received the revelation now found in Doctrine and Covenants 50. Pratt described what he witnessed: “Each sentence was uttered slowly and very distinctly, and with a pause between each, sufficiently long for it to be recorded, by an ordinary writer, in long hand. … There was never any hesitation, reviewing, or reading back, in order to keep the run of the subject.”10 In this revelation, the Lord spoke “as touching the Church & the spirits which have gone abroad in the Earth.” He indicated that many of these were “false spirits” and that “Satan hath sought to deceive you that he might overthrow you.” He cautioned that some of the practices exhibited by the enthusiasts were “abominations” and that “there are hypocrites among you & have deceived some which have given the adversary power.”11
The Lord reasoned in mercy with this earnest but inexperienced young group of disciples, reminding them that the Holy Ghost is the “spirit of truth” and that anything “which doth not edify is not of God & is darkness.” It also taught them of the corollary “That which is of God is light.” The revelation proceeded to give instructions on how to detect manifestations inspired of God as opposed to those coming from other sources: “If ye behold a spirit manifested that ye cannot understand & you receive not that spirit ye shall ask of the father in the name of Jesus & if he give not unto you that spirit then ye may know that it is not of God.” The elders were to rebuke false spirits with a loud voice, and the Lord promised they would be given power to resist evil influences so long as they remained humble.12
With these revelations, Joseph and the Kirtland elders were better equipped to understand and discern the many spiritual manifestations they encountered. But establishing order in the various congregations would require several weeks, as Joseph and others needed time to put into practice the revelation’s instructions.
On June 4, Joseph Smith met with several elders of the Church in a log schoolhouse on Isaac Morley’s farm near Kirtland. Levi Hancock attended this meeting and witnessed the way Joseph Smith responded to the Lord’s counsel. When several elders began to exhibit the influence of unknown spirits, Hyrum Smith said, “Joseph, that is not of God.” Joseph prayed as the revelation directed, and a moment later stood and rebuked the spirits.
Parley P. Pratt and Joseph Wakefield went “forth among the churches” as the revelation directed, “rebuking the wrong spirits which had crept in among them, setting in order things that were wanting.”13 Jared Carter was also among the growing number who felt newly empowered by the revelation, and he contested a false manifestation during a meeting in Amherst, Ohio.
Reflecting on his experience as a witness to this early wave of spiritual enthusiasm, Levi Hancock said he felt ashamed he had believed it “like a fool.” He gratefully embraced the new revelation and was a faithful member of the Church for the rest of his life.
Joseph Smith’s history summarizes the events of these tumultuous weeks: “Some strange notions and false spirits had crept in among them. With a little caution, and some wisdom, I soon assisted the brethren and sisters to overcome them. … The false spirits were easily discerned and rejected by the light of revelation.”14