In the 1820s, Joseph Smith at Palmyra, NY related several revelations that led to the writing of the Book of Mormon and the founding of a new religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. In just over 10 years, the movement had spread into Monmouth County as far as Toms River (Ocean County wasn’t founded until 1850).
While finding local sources on Mormons in New Jersey has been difficult, a search of the Brigham Young University archives revealed a surprise: a 2001 article by Stephen J. Fleming titled “Early Mormonism in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey,” published in the quarterly magazine.
The article shed new light on the topic. In it, Fleming defined the area.
“The Pine Barrens, an area covered with pine trees and sandy soil, encompasses a large part of southern New Jersey. In 1840, the principal enterprises in the sparsely populated area were the iron, charcoal, timber, and glass industries, although shipping was developing in Toms River. Farming, fishing, clamming, and hunting were also prevalent. Despite these means of employment, the Pine Barrens never had ‘enough economic activity to enrich all its residents.’ A contemporary observed that the people were impoverished because ‘the wood is generally gone and if it was not, that from Virginia has precedence in the market. So the people are generally poorer than they were a few years back and likely to remain poor.”
Following the bleak description of the area, he looked at the inhabitants.
The most detailed descriptions of the area come from calporteurs (peddlers of religious books for the American Tract Society). These calporteurs had few kind words to say about the cultural state of the Pines. According to one, ‘there existed a kind of indifference to culture of almost every kind except agri-culture, a distaste for reading in order to secure mental or religious improvement.’ Another found ‘it was no unusual thing to meet with whole families, not a single member of which could read’ and that ‘most of the people are very ignorant.’ The calporteurs went so far as to describe the Pines as a place where all that ennobles man find scarce a single friend; while their opposing vices reign triumphant.”
The religious state of the area seemed to lag behind the nation.
Theodore McKean said that his birthplace, Allentown, consisted of ‘inhabitants seemingly unfavorable to modern innovations.’ … It is for the condition of such as these ignorant and depraved as they mostly are, that the Christian heart should deeply feel and indeed yearn for them.”
“The religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) had been the major denomination in the region through the early 18th century, but by the 1840s, the Methodist Church had surpassed it. Despite the strong Methodist influence in the area the various preachers were mostly in agreement the religion in the area was ‘dreadfully paralyzed.’ Local industries required work on Sunday, leading many to form the habit of neglecting all proper Sabbath exercises.”
With this as the background, Mormon ministers entered the area trying to win converts. According to Fleming, one was Rachel Ivines from the western part of the Pines.
In her later years, Rachel described her conversion. She was a member of the Baptist Church when she first heard the Mormon preachers. At first, she thought the Mormons were ‘the false prophets the Bible speaks of’ and paid them little attention. Her sister Anna however, had joined the church and was able to convince Rachel to attend church meetings with her. Rachel said, ‘I attended some more meetings and commenced reading the Book of Mormon, Voice of Warning and other works, and was soon convinced that they were true.’ Rachel said the result was that ‘a new light seemed to break upon me, the scriptures were plainer to my mind, and the light of the everlasting Gospel began to illuminate my soul.’
Probably the most important local convert to the new religion was William Appleby. Born in New Egypt in 1811, he became a schoolteacher, justice of the peace and town clerk. He wrote after hearing a Mormon sermon, “I began to contemplate my situation, the scorn of the world &c, when the tempter takes advantage says ‘there is no need of your being baptized, only live a moral life &c, that is all that is required, you have been converted, that is sufficient, but if you go to be Baptized the people will laugh at you.”
Appleby finally decided to join the church, which he did on Sept. 21, 1840, saying, “We returned home with rejoicings. … And I have continued to rejoice from that day until the present in the truth I have embraced and trust I ever may.”
Appleby began to spread the word. He wrote to his brother in March 1842, “I have been home but a few days from a tour of nearly two weeks along the shore (ie) Toms River and Forked River &c. There were six baptized at Toms River while I was there and more believing; There are something near 200 members here and in Cream Ridge, and Toms River exclusive of those who have gone West. I was informed by Mr. Winner that Elder Divine baptized 18 more in one day a few weeks ago at Long Branch, and that there had been 60 baptized within a short time. There are calls here for preaching on the right and left, we would like to see John Page or some other efficient elder, here as soon as you have an opportunity of sending one.”
Because of his religious work, Appleby began to notice a backlash.
“I continued teaching school, but I soon realized a difference. (The school) decreased in numbers, persons who had been familiar with me heretofore, now appeared reserved and cold. … By baptizing 26 (I believe) into the church in the surrounding neighborhood. This increased the ire of many, towards me, especially some of those professing ‘Christians’ but I heeded them not.”
Eventually the enrollment in the school dropped to a point that Appleby gave up teaching.
While anti-Mormon sentiment was peaceful in New Jersey, it exploded in another part of the country. In 1844 the Saint Louis Gazette of June 28 reported, “Joseph Smith; the Mormon prophet, is dead! He was making laudable efforts to avoid or escape from certain unbidden guests, and to this end precipitated himself from a window in the second story of the Carthage jail. During the few seconds of his dissent, and immediately thereafter, he received as many as 15 wounds, many of which were mortal. Yesterday the 26th, Governor Ford having prevailed upon Joseph Smith, and several other principal Mormons, to resign themselves into the hands of the officers of justice at Carthage, to be tried by due process of law.
The mob had turned Joseph Smith from a prophet into a martyr. It also had thrown the leadership of the Mormon church into turmoil. But most importantly, it sent waves of fear into the hearts of Mormons as far away as the Pines of New Jersey.
Next Week: Go West!