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.
First, Elder Maxwell outlined, the Lord raised up highly talented and wise men (see Doctrine and Covenants 101:80). Second, they needed to live in one geographic area on this planet. Third, this contiguity had to occur in a short time frame. Fourth, the citizens had to be prepared and want to implement and sustain self-governance.
Citing historian Barbara Tuchman, Elder Maxwell called the Founding Fathers "the most remarkable generation of public men in the history of the United States or perhaps of any other nation. It would be invaluable if we could know what produced this burst of talent from a base of only two and a half million inhabitants."
In the April 1898 general conference, President Wilford Woodruff declared: "I am going to bear my testimony … that those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of Heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits, not wicked men. General (George) Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord."
President Ezra Taft Benson said the Lord planned out these events perfectly.
"The Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1789. The priesthood of God was restored in 1829. Between those two dates is an interval of 40 years. It is my conviction that God, who knows the end from the beginning, provided that period of time so the new nation could grow in strength to protect the land of Zion," President Benson said in a November 1979 Ensign article. "Thus, in that four-decade period the United States had grown to sufficient strength that she was able to provide a cradle of liberty for the restored Church of Jesus Christ."
In his book "Mine Errand from the Lord," Elder Boyd K. Packer said: "This land will be a land of liberty unless our purposes run counter to God's. The Book of Mormon … in repeated references designates this land as 'choice above all other lands,' and 'a land of liberty' unto those who possess it. This book of prophecy also established a great responsibility upon the citizens of this land and declares that when the purposes of the people become destructive to the purposes of God, they are in danger of losing liberty, the most precious of all gifts."