In an entry recently written for "Mormon Scholars Testify," economist and economic historian Mark Skousen highlights the remarkable changes that occurred around the year 1830 — the year in which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded.
Two decades ago, he reports, he was struck by a 1991 book titled "The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830," written by the eminent British historian Paul Johnson. Johnson devotes more than a thousand pages to a mere 15 years that, he contends, changed the course of human history and founded the modern world.
Skousen concurs, pointing to the dramatic economic growth and the sustained rise in the standard of living that began around that time for many (though, sadly, not yet all) of the world's inhabitants.
The vast majority of scientific and technological advances have occurred since 1830. Progress prior to then was slow and plodding. Material life at the opening of the 19th century was roughly the same as it had been 2,000 or even 5,000 years earlier. People got around, for instance, on foot, on animals, or in vehicles pulled by animals, or else in boats powered by wind or by oarsmen. This was no less true for George Washington than for Tutankhamen and Julius Caesar.
Medical science as we know it scarcely existed in 1800. For example, when George Washington died at the end of 1799 (probably of acute epiglottitis after a chill), he was only 67, and had still been quite vigorous. But his doctors, trying to eliminate "bad humors" and following a practice already ancient at the time of Galen (d. roughly 200 AD), had "bled" him of approximately 50 percent of his blood. (In pre-modern English, physicians were sometimes termed "leeches." This had nothing to do with exorbitant medical fees.)
Nowadays, President Washington would have been treated with antibiotics. Such medicines, along with anesthesia, vaccines, x-rays, CAT scans, MRI technology, open heart surgery and a host of other healthcare breakthroughs, have fundamentally altered, and extended, our way of life.
Now we travel in elevators and automobiles, on motorized ships (including submarines) sometimes even powered by nuclear fission, and in helicopters and jets. (Occasionally, we exit the earth's atmosphere via rockets.) Photography, the telegraph, air conditioning, gas refrigeration, light bulbs, telephones, radio, television, computers, fax machines, CDs and the Internet have revolutionized our world.
Another book cited by Skousen is UCLA historian Daniel Walker Howe's 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner, "What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848."
Is it mere coincidence that the founding events of Mormonism occurred during this transformative era?
Skousen also cites financial economist William Bernstein's 2004 volume, "The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created." Bernstein, who holds both a medical doctorate and a Ph.D. in chemistry but has made his name in the technical discipline of "portfolio theory," pinpoints 1820 as the specific year in which modern economic growth began to explode.
That was, of course, also the year in which, Latter-day Saints believe, the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith, launching the Restoration of the gospel and opening its final dispensation.
But maybe, too, it's part of a divine plan that includes, but is not limited to, the restoration of the church. As Skousen observes, the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, often regarded as the Lord's preface to the book, is not only apocalyptic and admonitory but "brimming with optimism about the 'last days.'"
And not only that first section:
"And, as I, the Lord, in the beginning cursed the land, even so in the last days have I blessed it, in its time, for the use of my saints, that they may partake the fatness thereof" (Doctrine and Covenants 61:17).
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"What power shall stay the heavens?" Joseph Smith asked from his dark Missouri jail cell in 1839. "As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints" (Doctrine and Covenants 121:33).
Believing Saints rejoice with Parley Pratt:
The morning breaks; the shadows flee;
Lo, Zion's standard is unfurled!
The dawning of a brighter day
Majestic rises on the world.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.