Even with religious freedom and the birth of a new nation, the Restoration of the gospel was still an uphill battle. Only with a divinely orchestrated plan and precise timing was a space carved out for the young Mormon church to grow.
That was the thesis of a phone conversation with John C. Thomas, who teaches LDS Church history and other subjects in the Department of Religious Education at BYU-Idaho. If conditions were altered here or an event was moved there, the circumstances would have changed, Thomas said.
"I don't know if we (the church) survived by the skin of our teeth, but it was a tough go," Thomas said. "It's remarkable that you had to bring a 17-year-old Joseph Smith and a centuries-old record into proximity so that (the Book of Mormon) could happen. Then have it take place in close enough proximity of a printer who has the technology and an interest in the market. Then have it close to the Erie Canal that you can spread it.
"That is pretty good tailoring."
Elder Neal A. Maxwell made a similar comment about the astonishing alignment of events in an October 2002 conference address: "Recall the new star that announced the birth at Bethlehem? It was in its precise orbit long before it so shone. We are likewise placed in human orbits to illuminate. Divine correlation functions not only in the cosmos but on this planet, too. After all, the Book of Mormon plates were not buried in Belgium, only to have Joseph Smith born centuries later in distant Bombay."
Minutes before running off to his American Foundations class, Thomas shared a few insights regarding the religious mindset of those living in the Colonies during the time of the Revolution. Had America become independent under the church-state rules that most of the colonies had, the coming forth of a new church would have been more difficult, Thomas said.
"Most colonies had established churches and had rules against new or dissenting churches," he said. "But something happened."
In addition to heavenly inspiration and good fortune, Thomas said key factors that favored the Restoration included the Revolutionary War, the dissent of people from the Anglican Church (Church of England) and the idea that ordinary people can make big changes.
"It was the process of becoming American, the idea of making a voluntary, individual, conscientious choice about where you worship, how you worship, and who you worship, because that was something they prized. It took a while for the idea to take hold. It's well beyond the 1780s before everyone believes that," Thomas said. "If we had transplanted colonial Massachusetts to 1830, that wouldn't have been a very hospitable setting for Joseph Smith."
That idea carved out a space where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could assert itself and where people could freely chose to join, Thomas said.
Even then, it was an uphill battle. Local Protestant churches accused the Mormons of being religious heretics. Following the Civil War, the federal government thought Mormons were dangerous because they were different from other churches, Thomas said.
"We (the Mormons) actually had to leave America in 1846 from Nauvoo — but they took with them their attachment to the constitutional ideals that suggested they really could choose for themselves," Thomas said.
The Constitution, and the noble men who composed it, are also deserving of prolonged spiritual applause, Elder Maxwell said in a 2003 talk titled "Unto This Very Purpose."
"Think of all that the Lord had to oversee, including the shaping events, that occurred long before the Constitution was written, ratified and implemented," the apostle said.
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