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LEADER RESOURCE 2: 1800s Background

Our exploration of religions took us back thousands of years, and we have now arrived at a point on our timeline that is relatively recent—the middle of the 19th century. The Protestant Reformation began the break from the Catholic Church in 1517, and this major religious outburst began just over 300 years later, (Indicate 1830 on the time line.) A surge of activity resulted in the birth of five faiths in less than 50 years. Four of these emerged in the United States. One emerged in Iran. Briefly, what was happening in the world at that time?

Social and Religious Unrest

Write “Age of Enlightenment” on newsprint and leave room for bullet points.

The Age of Enlightenment, which lasted from about 1650 to 1800, set in motion vast social, cultural, political, and religious change. People were encouraged to question traditional institutions and customs, and came to value individual rights, human reason, and self-governance. [Make bullet points for “Critical questioning,” “Individual rights,” “Reason,” and “Self-governance.”]

The United States’ Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and other radical acts of freedom were direct expressions of Age of Enlightenment principles.

During this same period, in the 1730s and 1740s, a movement called the Great Awakening developed in the British colonies that would become the United States. [Add “Great Awakening” to newsprint.] The Great Awakening de-emphasized church doctrine and placed a greater importance on an individual’s spiritual experience. This was a period of great revivalism. New denominations, including the Methodists and Baptists, were created at this time, as congregations split over religious differences.

While exciting and growing, these social and religious movements also generated profound social unease. As the 1800s progressed, America, having won independence from England, was now struggling with the issue of slavery, and moving ever closer to war. This tension sent people to religion for support, sometimes to the faith of their upbringing, sometimes to a new religion, born of the principles of the new age.

Four faiths were born in America leading up to, during, and right after the American Civil War. [Write on the following on a new sheet of newsprint.]

  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons or LDS), 1830 (before the war)
  • Seventh-day Adventists, 1863 (during the war)
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1879 (after the war)
  • Christian Science, 1879 (after the war)

People who found comfort and stability in their current faith were not always supportive of people who went a new way. The United States was founded in part for religious freedom, but religious persecution had happened in its history, and was happening at this time. Among those persecuted for heresy in the mid 1800s were the Mormons. Latter-day Saints, or LDS as they usually call themselves, are commonly called Mormons because of their sacred text Book of Mormon, which was given to their founder by an angel named Moroni. When the persecution escalated, they headed to uncharted territory, just as the Pilgrims had more than 200 years before. Shortly you will hear a story about that journey.

All four of these faiths emerged in the northeastern United States [Point to United States map.]

  • Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), lived in rural New York State
  • Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventists, lived in Maine
  • Mary Baker Eddy, prophet and founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Scientist), lived in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Ask participants if they recall another instance of a short span of years and a limited geographical area proving to be a dynamic birthing ground for religions. Perhaps they will remember that Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism all emerged within a few thousand miles of each other within a hundred years.

Meanwhile, across the globe in Iran, orthodox Shia Muslim leaders of the dominant faith there had to contend with Sufi mystics and other voices calling for greater freedom in religion and society. One of these voices was the man known as the Bab (the Gate), who preached that a new divine messenger, the final messiah, would soon arrive to deliver all humanity from its suffering. The Bab was executed by the government, but the movement he began lived on and identified its prophet and final messiah in Baha’u’llah, prophet of Baha’i. Baha’i was founded in 1863, the same year the Seventh-day Adventists were formed across the globe in Maine.

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Last updated on Thursday, November 10, 2011.

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