The Historical Roots of the New Mormon Challenge
CRAIG J. HAZEN
Craig J. Hazen is Associate Professor of Comparative Religion and Christian Apologetics at Biola University and Director of the Graduate Program in Christian Apologetics. He earned a B.A. from California State University, Fullerton; studied law and theology at the International Institute for Law and Theology in Strasbourg, France; and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Dr. Hazen is the author of The Village Enlightenment in America: Popular Religion and Science in the Nineteenth Century (University of Illinois Press) and editor of the philosophy journal Philosophia Christi. His academic work has received multiple awards for excellence from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Religion. His articles have appeared in Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation journal of Christian Apologetic, and the Proceedings of the International Congress of the History ofScience, among others.
The flamboyant governor of Minnesota, former theatrical wrestler and Navy SEAL Jesse “the body” Ventura said in a highly publicized and provocative interview that he considered religious people to be inherently “weak-minded” folk. By doing so he was parroting a popular notion of armchair agnostics that people who embrace religion are gullible and needy; they are people willing to give up all or a certain amount of rationality in order to have their emotional needs met by some type of spirituality or superstition.
A furor ensued in his state, and his popularity rating plunged, but to some extent the governor’s remark had some basis in reality. Many get the same impression very quickly by talking to the rank-and-file devotees in most religious movements. The average believer generally does not have the training or the interest in articulating or defending a coherent, systematic worldview that captures and makes sense of his or her faith. This is certainly true with regard to the movements that are addressed in this essay, evangelical Christianity and Mormonism. Both movements have been characterized as anti-intellectual, and detractors have not been slow with insults to both groups along those lines. What both Christians and Mormons in North America know, though, is that those who characterize and insult the groups in this way are themselves not particularly well informed: In both modern American evangelicalism and Mormonism there are significant pockets of believers who are scholars and thinkers, people who are committed to making a vigorous defense of their respective faiths based on reason and on the very best evidence. Whether the case these thinking believers make is sound and persuasive is another question, but the fact that there are LDS and evangelical Christian scholars who would very much like to show that their belief systems are eminently reasonable is not up for dispute.
The accusation of anti-intellectualism and gullibility on the part of believers was especially rife in the early years of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As religious historian Jan Shipps put it, outsiders saw Mormonism pandering “to the superstitious, the gullible, and the fearful.” They would accuse “Mormonism of ‘blinding’ its adherents so effectively that when they heard Smith’s report of his visions and his explanation of the origins of the Book of Mormon, they could not distinguish truth from falsehood.”2 Just a month after the publication of the Book of Mormon, newspaper editors like Abner Cole of the Palmyra, New York, Reflector began the lampooning and discrediting of the new “Gold Bible,” Joseph Smith (180544), and his followers. Mormon historian Richard L. Bushman correctly noted that early on there was simply an assumption that “they had to be dull because it was axiomatic that superstition flourished in ignorance.”;
That there were undiscerning converts to Joseph Smith’s new religion in the nineteenth century is a given. That they were all, or even mostly such, is a myth. Clearly, there was an advantage to early opponents of the Mormon movement’s slapping a pejorative label on those who chose to join. It made the overall task of response and refutation much easier and perhaps more effective. Some adversaries at the time went so far as to claim that Joseph Smith was adept at the power of “animal magnetism” or “fascination” and hence could wield undue influence over the minds of potential converts.4 These kinds of characterizations held on for years. Esteemed Mormon historian Leonard J. Arrington tried to gauge popular views of the movement in the nineteenth century by examining fiction that involved the Latter-day Saints in the plot line. He discovered that almost every one of the fifty novels that described Mormon life saw the people as incurably ignorant if not also lecherous and depraved.’
One can not make full sense of the initial rise of Mormonism without recognizing that there were strong elements in it that resonated with thoughtful people on the frontier. I do not mean by this that the “rational” element was the only factor, perhaps it was not even the primary or secondary factor to which one can attribute the success of the early LDS movement. But for many at the time there was undoubtedly a logic to it and certainly enough cultural resonance of a rational sort in the message of the Mormon “restoration” of Christianity to attract intelligent, reflective people. Of course, I am not talking here about professors, academics, or trained scholars—there were none in the early LDS Church. 6 But here I would make the same point that social anthropologist Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah and historian of Mormonism D. Michael Quinn both make: that we should be sure to carve out a “distinction between the academic and the folk, not between intelligent and unintelligent?” We are discussing here very bright but not highly educated people on the frontier who were unwilling to join a religious movement without what they thought were good reasons.3
Arrington, as well as sociologist and observer of Mormonism Thomas O’Dea, saw an emergent intellectual tradition in the early years of the church where others had overlooked it. Indeed, Arrington saw the LDS intellectual tradition emerging in four stages of development with the earliest “formative stage” (1830-44) dominated by four very bright men: Joseph Smith himself, First Counselor Sidney Rigdon, and the brother-apostles Orson and Parley P. Pratt.9 O’Dea saw the “intellectuality” in the Book of Mormon itself because of “its recognition of currents of thought other than and antagonistic to its own point of view, and especially in its awareness of current skepticism and rationalism”; and he thought it clearly offered a message that could be considered a “reasonable answer to problems of existence and salvation.”1 Ironically, in an article explicating the anti-intellectualism in Mormon history, Davis Bitton noted that in the early years the Mormon faith seemed overall less hostile to the intellect than it might have in later years. The new doctrines being promulgated appeared to some to be “more satisfying, more readily understandable, and more ‘logical’ to the average person.” He wrote that “although such a congeries of beliefs made the Mormon religion thoroughly unpalatable to Catholicism and the main branches of Protestantism, it was Mormonism which, in the context of the time, was easily more rationalistic.”11 Even toward the end of Arrington’s “formative stage,” one could occasionally find neutral observers on the frontier being surprised and impressed by the LDS missionary efforts: “If a thorough knowledge of the scriptures, talent, tact, sound reasoning, and powerful argument are qualifications, then Elder Maginn is fully qualified for the duties of his office…. His reasoning was plain, logical and conclusive to the mind of every candid hearer.”12
Mormon historian Steven C. Harper recently published an illuminating study along these lines. He examined the writings of average new converts to the LDS faith, as opposed to the writings of established authorities and missionaries of the church, in order to better measure what exactly it was that attracted Americans to the new movement in the young republic. Harper began by looking at one of the last great statements on the side of the “ignorance and gullibility” interpretation of Mormon conversions that was set forth by David Brion Davis in his influential essay “The New England Origins of Mormonism.” In his essay, Davis asserted that “Mormonism can be seen as the extreme result of the evils of literal-mindedness” and that the growth of the Latter-day Saints represented an outburst of “extreme mysticism” and superstition. However, in the same essay, Davis hinted at the fact that this interpretation did not tell the whole story about the launching of the church. He was willing to admit that although their missionaries drew converts from the areas of enthusiastic revivals, the LDS approach to doctrine was “always by argument rather than emotional oratory.”13 Harper’s review of the literature revealed that since Davis’s study, “time and scholarship have shown early Mormonism to be more than ‘the inconsequential product of ignorance.'” For the average believers who chose to follow Smith, Harper concluded, one cannot escape the fact that “one finds [the word] ‘reasonable’ and its relatives used frequently by writers trying to describe what it was in Mormon theology that caused conversion in them.” Harper is careful to point out, however, that this does not diminish the fact that Joseph Smith and others were part of a “visionary culture” and that many nonrational factors and currents came into play. But the idea that there was nothing intellectually satisfying in the early LDS message for those that encountered it should be abandoned.”
Indeed, I would take these observations about the popular intellectual attraction of the early Mormon message one step further. I think it is safe to say that the Mormon Restoration of “true” Christianity was itself a movement with an apologetic message at its center. Joseph Smith and the other leaders of the new church were in agreement that something was terribly wrong with the state of the Christian faith in their day and that no tinkering with a doctrine here or a ritual there was going to correct it. Enlightenment thinking had taken a dramatic toll on a range of sacred ideas, and the various churches themselves were finishing the job via revival campaigns against one another. In many ways, I believe, Mormonism represents Joseph Smith’s attempt to save Christianity by reinventing it (what the Latter-day Saints would call “restoring” it) and then outdoing rival forms in the religious marketplace of his day on the basis of superior authority, rationality, and relevance.15 Ironically, in the course of “restoring” Christianity, the Latter-day Saints eventually made it unrecognizable and less relevant for later generations not steeped in popular nineteenth-century categories of thought.
Nevertheless, in the face of the resurgence of LDS apologetics in our own day, it can be enlightening to see how this movement captured the hearts—but more importantly, in this case, the minds—of religious seers in its first generation and how the popular apologetic trajectory was set in the early years. In order to gather clues as to what attracted people to this radical new movement, I will take my cue from Arrington, Harper, and other historians of Mormonism and look to the converts who chose the Latter-day Saints over other vigorously competing religious options confronting them.16
A More Biblical Faith
People who encountered early LDS teaching were impressed with the Book of Mormon and how it and the Bible ”mutually and reciprocally corroborate each other.”‘” The language and themes appeared to early converts to have a seamless flow. Harper noted that one nearly universal commonality was that the new Saints were contemplative Bible readers. A perceived harmony between the original and the latter-day revelations was essential for their acceptance of the Mormon message. Of course, it was not long before Smith himself admitted by his actions that the Bible was a less than perfect guide—or, as Philip L. Barlow put it, “an inadequate religious compass”—because soon after completing the Book of Mormon, he began adjusting the biblical text by producing an “inspired translation” of portions of Genesis and Matthew’s But even his retranslations had the resonant language and themes necessary to give the impression of harmony in the context of the Restoration.19
The biblical messages preached by the missionaries and leaders seemed to have a common sense and a plainness about them for which potential converts longed. As has been observed by a number of scholars, Mormon teachers were able to achieve this primarily because they were both literal and selective in their approach to the Bible. By focusing primarily on biblical passages that served Restoration purposes, such as the nature of the primitive church, the belief in apostasy and later restoration, millennialism, and so on, they could use the Bible more strategically as a pointer to the latter-day activities and avoid the complexities that faced Protestant biblicists in harmonizing texts and doctrines throughout all sixty-six books. This was a decided advantage over competitors, but it was more of a strategic dodge than a long-term solution to problems in the text of the Bible. Careful selection of texts to promote and careful selection of texts to neglect was one of the ways that Joseph Smith “‘out-Bibled’ the traditional biblicists who surrounded him.”20 In fact, the selection of texts was so clear-cut that Arrington and Bitton noticed that it would not be difficult to compile a special “Mormon Bible including only Mormon proof texts” that would be the size of a small book. Like the followers of other sects of their day, agreed Arrington and Bitton, “the Mormons utilized ‘selective emphasis.'”° In his extensive study of the place of the Bible in LDS thought, Mormons and the Bible, Barlow concluded that early Mormon “scriptural literalism is not absolute; it is in fact highly selective.”22 This selective emphasis, consistent linguistic ring, and thematic commonality helped convince “convert after convert” to embrace Mormonism because “it satisfied their yearnings for a truly biblical Christianity!”23
A More Direct Connection to Christ
Religious seekers also seemed to be impressed by Mormonism’s authentic Christian “primitivism,” that is, their attempt to be faithful to the unadulterated and unmediated teachings of Christ and his apostles. After all, it was eminently reasonable to seek out the Christianity that was lived and spoken by the Lord Jesus himself. The first name for the body of new Mormon believers founded on April 6, 1830, was the “Church of Christ,” and Mormon converts were calling themselves “The True Followers of Christ.”24 The simplicity of the name spoke volumes about one of the most important original aims: to return to the fullness of the pure ancient gospel.
The Mormons, of course, were not the only ones reasoning in this way. The notion of primitivism, also called restorationism or restitutionism by historians, was one of the most compelling religious forces of the day.25 American religious historian Nathan 0. Hatch called it the “quest for the ancient order of things”; all of the varieties of Christianity that were springing up in the early republic seemed to have at root a “common conception that Christian tradition since the time of the apostles was a tale of sordid corruption in which kingcraft and priestcraft wielded orthodoxy to enslave the minds of the people” and that pure Christianity could only be encountered if one could get back to its uncorrupted form.26 This restorationist impulse was especially strong for indigenous American Christian movements. Established denominations that had deep Old World roots felt the impact of the primitivist movement only in an occasional fringe faction. Popular religious leaders such as Elias Smith, Lorenzo Dow, Alexander Campbell, Francis Asbury, Barton Stone, and William Miller all preceded Joseph Smith with a robust call to return to the pristine era of the New Testament church.
It is well known that Joseph Smith and his family had significant contact with this primitive-gospel thinking.27 His grandfathers, his uncle, and his parents all held this view; and his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, lamented the difficulty in trying to choose a church because “they are all unlike the church of Christ as it existed in former days!”28 According to Smith’s mother, her husband, Joseph Sr., likewise would not join any “system of faith” that was not of the “ancient order, as established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and his apostles.”29
If Christian restorationism was utterly sensible to thinking seekers, and if more is better, then Mormons had a distinct advantage due to the depth of the apostasy and the glory of the restoration that they envisioned. According to more mainstream primitivists such as Asbury, Campbell, Stone, and others, there was a falling away from the original apostolic teaching and order in the Dark Ages that culminated in the near extinction of the true church. But for them a remnant always remained. The Reformation heralded a valiant attempt to return to New Testament teaching, but it had failed to cast off many of the creeds and traditions of men that still stood in the way of a full relationship with the Christ of the New Testament. In their view the situation was grave, and few worshipped in ultimate purity, but surely the “gates of hell” had not prevailed against God’s remnant.
By contrast, in the Mormon view the darkness of apostasy that fell on the original church was earlier and more complete than imagined by their competitors of the time. The extent of the “falling away” for the Mormons was captured in what was perhaps the most religiously divisive statement penned during this period. Joseph Smith, in an account that is still at the very heart of the LDS movement today, claimed that no less than the Father and the Son themselves made a universal pronouncement personally to him about the religious systems of his day. Smith recalled the divine personages saying unequivocally that he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong … all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'””” This was the concept of primitivism par excellence, wiping the slate clean from the death of the last apostle of New Testament times to the reinstatement of the prophetic and apostolic order under Smith himself. And it was not just the teachings that were corrupt and an abomination, but the teachers themselves—their hearts were not of God. It was a clean sweep of the religious hearts and minds for 1,800 years.”‘ Smith’s “first vision” constituted not only a simple trumping of competing denominations of his period, but also a trumping of competing primitivist ideologies as wel1.32 One does not have to wonder why the “Disciples of Christ” founder Alexander Campbell became one of the most focused early critics of the LDS movement—the core of his spiritual raison d’être was being surpassed by the LDS vision of the Restoration, and the Mormon version was also making a mockery of the primitivist program in general. One of the most educated men in the early LDS Church, though, found this new ultraprimirivism utterly compelling. Former Baptist minister Orson Spencer, once having “cursed ‘Mormonism in my heart,” found the LDS version of the “ancient gospel” irresistible and without parallel. “What could I do,” he asked. “Truth had taken possession of my mind—plain, simple Bible truth.”33
For some early converts the persuasiveness of the LDS Restoration was not just manifest in new revelation and apostolic and prophetic offices. Many believed because the New Testament was coming alive in reports around the frontier—biblical miracles were being performed at the hands of the Saints. Barlow noted that “biblical episodes did not seem ‘once upon a time’ to them, for they experienced such miracles—relived such episodes—in their own lives.”34 The Book of Mormon first raised the issue of latter-day miracles—an issue that would become a hyper-primitivist feature with the power to set the Latter-day Saints apart from the Protestant pack Moroni asked the very question that was being asked of the religious leaders of Smith’s time: And if there were miracles wrought then, why has God ceased to be a God of miracles and yet be an unchangeable Being? And behold, I say unto you he changeth not; if so he would cease to be God; and he ceaseth not to be God, and is a God of miracles?”‘ Yale historian Jon Butler has noticed that some at the time observed this to be one of Mormonism’s most “salient features.”36
The first reported miracle was an exorcism performed by Smith on Newel Knight at Knight’s father’s home in Colesville, New York, in June of 1830, which garnered significant notoriety. In June of 1831 “the most dramatic and well-attested” example of an exorcism was performed on several people at one meeting. The news of this occurrence quickly spread via newspaper to states such as Vermont and even Missouri)” Other types of dramatic biblical fare, such as raising the dead, walking on water, and multiplying loaves and fishes, were not, however, in the offing—perhaps because in a July 1830 revelation Smith and Oliver Cowdrey were warned against seeking after miracles?” Healings and exorcisms, however, were allowable exceptions. Just as the quickly spreading reports of the exorcisms seemed to magnify the attention beyond their actual numbers, reports of physical healings were also magnified. Newspapers in western New York and Ohio reported alleged healings and “divers miracles” in 1830-31, but they also reported failures. “These newly commissioned disciples [Oliver Cowdrey, Peter Whitmer, Parley P. Pratt, and Ziba Peterson] have totally failed thus far in their attempts to heal.”” One of Smith’s own failures to heal‑ Warren Doty, who ended up dead “in spite of all efforts and promises to the contrary”—was reported in a paper as far away as New England in the Independent Chronicle d Boston Patriot.40
On occasion, an immediate healing at the hands of Mormon elders was given direct credit by a convert as the reason for joining the church. Steven C. Harper relates the account of Bible-believer Esaias Edwards, who appeared to be drawn to some aspects of the Mormon teaching but needed some type of threshold evidence to be finally persuaded:
By “a close examination of the scriptures,” Edwards concluded that the Latter-day Saints was [sic] the only people that believed and practiced them in full.” He determined that the saints could prove that beyond reasonable doubt by healing his sick wife, upon which he “covenanted” that he would be baptized. Edwards invited Alexander Williams, a Mormon elder, to “administer to my wife that she might be healed of her sickness.” The two men prayed, and Williams “layed [sic] his hands upon her head and rebuked the disease in the name of Jesus Christ. Her pains immediately left her, and she was filled with the spirit of God.” The couple became lifelong converts.”
Edwards’s testimony of a miraculous healing drawing him to the faith, however, was by no means the usual pattern. Indeed, the Saints actually taught against using miraculous signs as “proofs” for people coming to faith, but rather taught converts to use them simply as a “great benefit” to their fellow human beings as outlined in Mosiah 8:18. Sidney Rigdon argued this way when Oliver Cowdrey failed at his wonder working on an important early missionary journey, reportedly saying that the faith “was not intended to be confirmed in that way.”42 After reading through scores of early missionary accounts, Steven C. Harper concluded that miracles and spirit manifestations “came usually in small groups of believers or among those on the brink of baptism.”43 There were no reports of stupendous public miracles as signs of the Restoration, just individual healings, infrequent exorcisms, and reports of “speaking in tongues.”44
The reports of the healings were far more important than the actual mended bodies because the reports provided precious attention and a way to transcend publicly the claims of competing “sects.” Most important, whether actual supernatural events occurred or not, was the fact that the Mormons were open to miracles such as healing, exorcism, and latter-day revelation. This openness yet again set the LDS primitivism over and above the other primitivisms, which generally taught that divine messages and miraculous works had passed with the end of the apostolic age. Given the fact that the New Testament paints a picture of Jesus and the apostles awash in healings and miracles, reasonable people looking for “the one true Church” vis-à-vis the New Testament would have been imprudent not to give the Mormon message, with its openness to such divine actions in their own day, careful attention.
There was one other important “rational” factor in the Mormon variety of primitivism that was influential in persuading thinking seekers of the primacy of the LDS Restoration as opposed to other types. Just as Joseph Smith had an unimpeded connection to God as a latter-day prophet, so the LDS Church had an unimpeded connection with Jesus and the apostolic church—a connection that was, in LDS thinking, impossible for other restorationists to achieve. In June of 1844, just nine days before his death in the Carthage jail in Illinois, Smith himself summed up the type of hyper-primitivist argument that had been successful against the Protestant competitors on the mission field:
The old Catholic church traditions are worth more than all you have said. Here is a principle of logic that most men have no more sense than to adopt. I will illustrate it by an old apple tree. Here jumps off a branch and says, I am the true tree, and you are corrupt. If the whole tree is corrupt, are not its branches corrupt? If the Catholic religion is a false religion, how can any true religion come out of it? If the Catholic church is bad, how can any good thing come out of it? The character of the old churches have always been slandered by all apostates since the world began…. Did I build on any other man’s foundation? I have got all the truth the Christian world possessed, and an independent revelation in the bargain, and God will beat me off triumphant…. I would still go on, and show you proof upon proofs; all the Bible is equal in support of this doctrine, one part as another.45
Anti-Roman Catholic rhetoric was a large part of the currency of the restoration economy, and the Mormons used it very effectively against their primitivist counterparts. The “principle of logic” that Smith pointed out is one by which Mormons were able to hoist the “sectarians” on their own petard. After all, the Protestants were by definition an offshoot of the very church they pilloried. Because of the common vitriolic rhetoric, the Mormons had a point that could be persuasive: it was absurd to think that something good could have been spun off or been birthed by such a corrupt and demonic system as Roman Catholicism. Early convert Joel Johnson listed this as the number one reason to embrace Mormonism rather than the competing sects: “Firstly, that as all Protestant sects had sprung from the Church of Rome, they have no more authority … than the Church of Rome, and if she was the mother of harlots, they must consequently be her daughters; therefore none of them could be called the Church of Christ.””
The sources of the anti-Catholic sentiments and their ubiquity in the colonies and the young republic are well known err Likewise well known is the fact that the anti-papal expressions could be used to support a wide range of causes. But what better cause than that of the Protestant restorationists seeking to throw off the shackles of corrupt human tradition bequeathed it by the “whore of Babylon” herself? Although some in the “burned-over district” (so-called because it was a hotbed of religious fervor and revival movements) and beyond may never have had contact with a Roman Catholic, they were certainly familiar with periodicals such as The Protestant, Priestcraft Exposed and Primitive Religion Defended, and The Anti-Romanist that painted the picture of nefarious apostates “covering their hypocrisy with the cloak of religion, and with more than serpent’s guile, worming themselves into the confidence and affections of their unsuspecting victims.”48 Even a more mainstream newspaper like the Rochester Observer used language such as “the Beast” and the “mother of abominations” to describe the Roman Church.
Mormons were certainly not opposed to using the nativist rhetoric themselves, for it served their restorationist ideals well. Indeed, Fawn M. Brodie has pointed out that early in the writing of the Book of Mormon, Smith vigorously attacked the Catholic Church. She pointed out that 1 Nephi 13 and 14 refer (prophetically, of course) to “that great and abominable church, which is the mother of abominations, whose founder is the devil.”49 Apostles and other missionaries of the early LDS Church not infrequently joined the founder in these types of expressions.50 The Mormons saw their own use of nativist speech and writing as thoroughly legitimate, but for the Protestants of their day, it was a sign of the greatest myopia and hypocrisy. Even though restoration-minded preachers like Alexander Campbell called for the complete “casting off human creeds and traditions, Catholic and Protestant,” the Mormons argued that try as they might, they would not be able to do it, because it was from those traditions that they derived their “authority and priesthood.”51
The distinct advantage for the early LDS in the rivalry of the primitivist environment was having a fresh encounter with the Father, the Son, John the Baptist, and the apostles in modern times that allowed them conceptually to make a cleaner break from the past than their restorationist competitors. The “authority” granted to them from the true holders of the “keys,” allowed them to present their movement as having leapfrogged the long historical trail of religious apostasy and corruption. Indeed, as Jan Shipps noted, the very first Mormons did not merely have a past that differed from the past of other nineteenth-century Americans; they had no recent past at The ‘Great Apostasy’ … left the Saints with an enormous 1,400- to 1,800-year lacuna in their religious history.” Due to this huge hiatus, the parallels they saw between their experiences and biblical characters made much more sense to them.52 The Mormons stood on no one’s shoulders but those of the New Testament figures themselves.
More Reasonable Beliefs
Another important factor that early converts declared to be influential was that the LDS preachers seemed to be clearing up intractable doctrinal conflicts and controversies that appeared ever-present on the religious landscape of the new republic—especially in revival regions such as western New York. Joseph Smith’s several statements in the canonical account of his “first vision” present this at the outset as a key problem to be solved by any restoration of the true faith. Smith recalled that his mind was
at times greatly excited, the cry and the tumult were so greatly incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all their powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least to make people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. In the midst of this tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?”
Although there is much to doubt about Smith’s rendition of his encounter with the divine “personages” in the woods of Palmyra, no one doubts that the apparent religious tumult of his day was a real and significant driving force for him in devoting his life to a breakaway religious cause. To the interested observer at the time, the Christian denominations—that in retrospect had tremendous commonality of belief—seemed to be as different as Muslims and Buddhists might seem to us today. The inter- and intra-denominational battles were noteworthy for their rancor.” Hence for those truly concerned about the states of their souls, this was a situation of grave concern. There was also a sense that the “priests” and “professors” of traditional Christianity had led the faithful astray on a number of doctrines that simply did not concur with the way the world looked in the more enlightened and democratic age of the early 1800s. Authoritative alternatives to traditional stances on these problems in theology were therefore alluring to thoughtful seekers.
For instance, the LDS notion of a universal atonement of Christ was especially attractive. In a reaction to the “Calvinist-Baptist” doctrine that seemed to be offering a range of “unreasonable” ideas like a capricious God, no human freedom, original sin, and salvation only for the predestined, the idea that one could rescue God and man from such apparent injustices was utterly intriguing. Also attractive was the throwing out of the idea of salvation as a passive religious experience and replacing it with “salvation imminently accessible and immediately available.” Nathan 0. Hatch has observed that the populist religious movements of the day seemed to many to be offering a more reasonable approach to some of the difficult issues, and that the Mormons were no different. “The argument against Calvinism pitted enlightened common sense against scholastic metaphysics of the educated elite,” Hatch wrote. “As people became more insistent on thinking theologically for themselves, the carefully wrought dogmas of Calvin, Edwards, and Hopkins were dismissed as ‘the senseless jargon of election and reprobation.”” Hatch cited several confused seekers of the era who were relieved to hear the “Methodist gospel” over against the Calvinist teaching that left so many questions unanswered. Said one Billy Hibbard of a Methodist preacher he encountered, “I heard for the first time, a doctrine that I could understand. There was no contradiction, but he could prove his doctrine from scripture and reason!”56 Humorous barbs from frontier preachers about Calvinist orthodoxy became standard fare, setting the stage well before Smith began his ministry. Popular songs with lyrics such as the following circulated:
If this be the way,
As some preachers say,
That all things were ordered by
I’ll not spend my pence,
To pay for nonsense,
If nothing will
alter my state.”
The Mormons joined in this chorus, but as in other areas of popular religious thought at the time, they went several steps further than many of the competing primitivists in the denouncement of strict Calvinist theology. Smith seemed to have a tremendous sense for the populist religious “marketplace,” and he put his prophetic stamp of approval on a collection of doctrines and methods of delivery that hit the mark with religious seekers—at least enough to get his movement off the ground.” For instance, in addition to doing away with predestination and reinstating a commonsense notion of human freedom to respond to the gospel—something with which other restorationists were in line—he also included certain aspects of universalism likely gleaned from his father, Joseph Smith Sr., and his grandfather, Asael Smith, that were unusually attractive in his part of the country.” The notion of universal salvation could take on different details depending on which group was proffering it, but all of them worked toward banishing the notion of eternal conscious punishment in a place of unfathomable torment.” Universalism was one of the strongest points of intersection between the Enlightenment and Protestant theology and was an important component in what I have elsewhere called the “village Enlightenment—the way in which religious people in rural areas and on the frontier co-opted and modified concepts from the elite Enlightenment to serve their own needs”‘
If one were clever enough to make a biblical case for some type of universalism (no easy task, but many thought they had achieved it 62), one would have a powerful tool to solve a number of problems that troubled thinking people. The LDS conception of the afterlife was just such a tool. The only humans that would ultimately be lost were a handful of “cognizant apostates” who “suffered themselves through the power of the devil to be overcome,” or in other words, “the sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him?” “All others,” wrote modern LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie, “are saved from death, hell, the devil, and endless torment.”” This was obviously not a pure universalism in that some—the very few most diabolical and recalcitrant, who simply would not mm no matter what light was given them—would be lost. Ironically, although Mormonism has traditionally embraced a modified universalism, the Book of Mormon itself contains what must be read as anti-universalist rhetoric. On closer examination, though, one could argue that its main focus seems to be against those who believe in no punishment at all after death for the wicked—a notion that some groups of universalists were also against because of its apparent Injustice toward the truly wicked 65 Either way, early convert Zerah Pulsipher found in Mormonism just what he had been looking for—a spiritually vital religion that for the most part excluded “souls left in Hell fire to all eternity.” He had heard about “an ancient record or Golden Bible” and thought “it might be something that would give light to my mind upon principles that I had been thinking of for years.” Pulsipher “read it through twice and gave it a thorough investigation and believed it was true.”66
Although the Book of Mormon seemed to have a mixed message on universalism, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon removed any lingering ambiguity concerning the LDS position on the final destination of the dead in an 1832 revelation on the topic (D&C 76) that helped set the course for the Mormon view to the present day.67 Everyone in the next life (except for the small handful of “sons of perdition”) would ultimately enter (perhaps after a limited time in a purgatorial setting) one of the “three degrees of glory” of which even the lowest level (the telestial) has a glory that “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89). Given the options offered by religious competitors, Smith and Rigdon may have revealed the most attractive formula on the frontier. They seemed to include the best aspects of all the afterlife scenarios available: postmortem opportunities for salvation, limited punishment for those who really deserve it, and eventual paradise for everyone except (as a popular sense of justice demanded) the devil, his demons, and their intractable followers. Whether it was intentional or not, this “degrees of glory” revelation, which included the “Celestial kingdom” as the highest level and the “Terrestrial kingdom” in the middle,68 provided the answer to another important question that was probably being asked by early seekers: Why must I join the church if in the end all are going to be saved anyway? Answer: to have a shot at the highest state of glory.”
The universal nature of the atonement taught in the early LDS movement offered answers to other troubling questions—especially about the eternal destiny of several classes of people. What was the final fate of innocent children? Those not able to respond? Those who had never heard the gospel? Getting a definitive answer to these questions from the Bible, and traditional Christian theology seemed unlikely—especially in the chaotic environment of the burned-over district. The Bible simply did not address the questions directly, and the answers different Protestant church leaders derived by inference from the text contained elements of doubt by scriptural necessity. Not so in the LDS system.70 Perhaps one of the greatest comforts that the average person found in the Book of Mormon in a day when childhood mortality was many times higher than it is today was a definitive answer to the first question. The death of young children was a ubiquitous source of pain and grief for people of the time; hence, the authority of the reported words of Christ himself in Moroni 8 must have been a profound comfort. The text taught that “little children are whole” and “alive in Christ,” for they are “not capable of committing sin”; and it reassured parents that if they only ”repent and be baptized, and humble themselves” they will be “saved with their little children.”71
A similar message answered the perennial question about the ultimate fate of the unevangelized, that is, those who had never had the proper opportunity to hear and respond to the LDS gospel. As Smith and Rigdon prophesied in 1832 and again in 1836, All who have died without a knowledge of this Gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom.”72 In Smith’s thinking, though, an official LDS baptismal rite could not be waived even for those departed before the Restoration. Hence, in a revelation that seemed to tie up the loose ends of the LDS system—and that certainly went further than any religious competitor on the scene–Smith instituted baptism for the dead, which opened the door to all generations past to have their encounter with the Mormon message of salvation. In an 1840 letter and an 1841 revelation, Smith provided a means by which living saints could be baptized on behalf of departed relatives (and several decades later, on behalf of just about anyone) to ensure their full opportunity to be saved. “You will undoubtedly see its consistency and reasonableness,” Smith wrote after preaching on it for the first time in a heartfelt response to a woman who had lost an unbaptized son, for “it presents the Gospel of Christ in probably a more enlarged scale than some have imagined it”—an assertion that would certainly have been a dramatic understatement to Smith’s non-LDS contemporaries.” The expanse of the salvation opportunities enchanted early converts like Benjamin Brown, who found the LDS position on the afterlife far more compelling than the other options such as “the Universalist system,” which before his introduction to Mormonism he considered “the most reasonable of the various denominations.”74
The apologetic power of the LDS claim to have solved many of the problems at the root of the Christian infighting simply cannot be minimized. In 1837 Apostle Parley Pratt capitalized on this power in his little book, A Voice of Warning perhaps the most important early noncanonical Mormon book, in which he included a chapter entitled “A Contrast Between the Doctrine of Christ and the False Doctrines of the Nineteenth Century.” In juxtaposed columns, Pratt set forth the “Doctrine of Men” on one side and the LDS answer called the ‘Doctrine of Christ” on the other—an arrangement that he thought provided an apologetic rout of apostate Christianity. This book circulated widely and, as LDS document scholars Peter Crawley and Chad Flake maintained, “erected a standard for all future Mormon pamphleteers … which would be used by others for the next hundred years.”75 Missionaries like Pratt “competed directly and intensely for converts, confident that their message could stand up well in head-to-head encounters with other proselyters.””8
The persuasive power of popular doctrinal repackaging may have had a greater affect on potential converts than other aspects of the early Mormon faith. Indeed, Steven C. Harper reiterated an important point made by historian of Mormonism, Klaus Hansen, twenty years earlier. Based on the words of early converts, it was not the supernatural origins of the Book of Mormon, the modern prophet, and priesthood authority that seemed to help most people to embrace the extraordinary doctrines held by the Latter-day Saints. Rather, it was the reverse. The extraordinary doctrines and the popular problems that they seemed to solve helped many along the road to the acceptance of all the rest.” The offering of ostensible solutions to age-old theological conundrums was one of the strongest points of resonance within the popular Enlightenment culture and was heralded by the LDS evangelists of the time. These proffered solutions played the role of a stepladder for many to get over the implausibility of Smith’s visions, his prophethood, and the fantastic story of his discovery and translation of the Book of Mormon.
A New Cloud of Witnesses
In response to the Enlightenment skepticism in Europe and North America, apologists for the traditional view of the Christian faith had established sew eral lines of argument to defend the authenticity of the Bible, the biblical miracles, and the work and words of Christ. Every line of argument they had that pointed back to the historicity of Christ and the supernatural feats surrounding him at some point included the testimony of the apostolic witnesses of Jesus and his resurrection.78 Authentic and reliable witnesses and testimony of the ancients and their texts had become the backbone of the defense of Christianity against the enlightened deists, rationalists, and skeptics who were still making their case in Smith’s day. Indeed, Robert N. Hullinger has envisioned the real impetus behind Smith’s religious activities, especially the writing of the Book of Mormon, to be his “intention to defend God” in the face of deism and Enlightenment skepticism:9 In my view, Hanger’s focus was too narrow in that there was much more to Smith’s program than just his response to Christianity’s Enlightenment foes.80 But I do believe that Hullinger’s thesis was one important aspect of Smith’s program—especially with regard to reestablishing a strong set of latter-day witnesses and testimonies to help in the restoration of Christianity in the face of such challenges. If the modern foes of Christianity could be repelled by the testimony of witnesses from ancient times, how much more so by the witnesses of God’s supernatural intervention in their own day.81
Everyone who opened the Book of Mormon encountered these new witnesses—in this case the signed testimony of eleven witnesses who were alive in their own day.82 Eight of the witnesses testified to seeing the engraved plates of gold with “the appearance of ancient work and of curious workmanship.”83 Three others testified to seeing the plates, to seeing an angel that accompanied them, and to hearing the voice of God. This was not unlike the biblical witness of the Apostle John, who also expressed his testimony in resolute empirical language: that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). Like jurors hearing testimony in a trial, converts like Eli Gilbert were won over by this evidence. “I read it again and again with close attention and prayer. I examined the proof; the witnesses, and all other testimony,” he reported. And he decided that the rules of the game were the same for both the Bible and the Book of Mormon; the witnesses confirmed them both. “If I let go the book of Mormon,” he reasoned, “the bible might also go down by the same rule.”84
Not only did the Book of Mormon contain the statements of living witnesses, but the very fact that it existed was itself a powerful and tangible witness for the first generation of the Restoration era. As Leonard Arrington and Katherine Hanson Shirts confirmed, “The Book of Mormon itsels was conceived as another piece of evidence ‘to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God.” Unlike doctrines, creeds, and other ideas that could be more easily ignored or passed off, the tangible nature of a published text claiming to be on par with the Holy Bible “had to be accounted for in some specific way.” The very fact that it was there and seemed credible to some was a real leg up on the competition. But the fact that it also invited investigation and seemed to be in fact something testable—whether or not it could pass any such tests—was in and of itself persuasive. Add to that the notion that the text contained features that “within the frame of reference at the time” would have excited “a modern marketing expert,” and you had a tangible product that, properly presented, had the ability to propel the movement to the front of the primitivist pack. Such was the Book of Mormon as witness.85
Of course, there were other aspects of the LDS schema that “witnessed” to the truth of the Restoration. The very existence of latter-day prophets, apostles, priests, and other biblical accoutrements helped to give the impression that ancient times had dawned anew. There were also abundant personal testimonies of LDS converts about their own experience of the Holy Spirit’s witness to their hearts. I will not cover that aspect because at that point the Mormons competed on a level playing field. Almost all of the frontier preachers and their converts could and did claim parallel experiences. However, I must point out that although I am not addressing personal experience here, some type of internal “witness” was the most commonly mentioned factor in LDS conversions After all, not everyone, perhaps not even most, needed external substantiation. On the other hand, the reports are also dear that it was not at all uncommon for a variety of external evidences to lead a seeker to the point of conversion. Some thoughtful people on the frontier, looking for a blend of the “revelatory and the empirical,” found what they were looking for in the LDS movement.
A Tailor-made Restoration
Although some of the issues and evidence that attracted early converts may not be particularly persuasive today, early Mormonism seemed to provide a view of the world that had a special resonance for the popular nineteenth-century American mind. Indeed, it appeared almost tailor-made. I agree with Klaus J. Hansen that given what the people of this time were looking for, “if Mormonism had not already existed, it would have had to be invented.”87 I also agree with Fawn M. Brodie that the best explanation points, not to Smith’s ignorance or delusions, but to “his responsiveness to the provincial opinions of his time…. His mind was open to all intellectual influences, from whatever province they might blow.”88 Gordon Wood’s influential essay, “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” was especially persuasive on this point. Wood showed that the complex questions raised during the Reformation and the Enlightenment, usually only seriously entertained by the educated elite, had by Joseph Smith’s generation penetrated every aspect of American popular culture.”
To be sure, given the Enlightenment currents swirling about at the popular level, traditional Christians at the time had their hands full reconciling their faith with these new ways of looking at the world. Add to this mix the democratic ideals of the young republic and the individualism of the frontier—both of which affected popular religious thought at the time—and you had a situation that was going to take a generation or two for Christian theologians and laypersons to sort out in an intellectually satisfying way. In this milieu, the advent of the prophet, the Book of Mormon, and the restored church was in many respects a truncation of the more conventional path to a coherent view of their world. From this standpoint, Joseph Smith was himself an apologist for Christianity—a man with one foot in the Scriptures and another in the controversies of his day. But his method of reconciliation was dramatically to reenvision Christianity to the point of creating, in Jan Shipps’ words, “a new religious tradition?”
Like its early nineteenth-century counterpart, the modern LDS Church has to live with certain factual—and in some cases testable—claims about specific historical events surrounding its origin as well as daims about ancient history in the Western Hemisphere. These kinds of claims guarantee that the “apologetic impulse” in one form or another will continue, for there will always be some in the church who believe that LDS faith and history should never be compartmentalized. A faithful few will always try valiantly to reconcile LDS teachings with the historical record in the most sophisticated way possible. If Orson or Parley Pratt were alive today, I believe they would be first in line to join the revitalized effort to defend the LDS faith in this manna.
Evangelical Christians who work in the area of Mormon studies for missionary purposes would do well to notice this longstanding apologetic impulse. Empty charges of deception, gullibility, and ignorance did not do well in the early years of Mormonism and will do even less well today. There are many Latter-day Saints who take their faith very seriously on an intellectual level and have dedicated their careers to reconciling the conflicts and problems found in Mormon history, doctrine, and scripture—often earning doctorates in key disciplines to equip themselves for the task. Successful Christian missionaries to the Latter-day Saints will be the ones who understand the depth and breadth of the new Mormon apologetic endeavor and the historical context from which their apologetic emerges.
In my opinion, the new Mormon apologists have a very long way to go to produce a convincing case for the truth of the Restoration through Joseph Smith Jr. I do not envy their task, because so many of the raw materials for a robust defense are missing. Mormon scholars have inherited a less-thancoherent metaphysic, a continued mistrust of the Bible, some difficult theological conundrums, and a devastating drought of “threshold” evidence that does not allow the broader scholarly community to take seriously the claims made in and about WS sacred texts. The LDS movement that once resonated with popular nineteenth-century thinking is struggling to find new chords to strike at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In many respects, evangelical Christians in America are rediscovering their intellectual heritage at the same time. Hence, the time is ripe for a new type of dialogue between evangelicals and the Latter-day Saints. I am therefore grateful to the editors and contributors of this volume for setting a new tone for the dialogue and for caring enough about the Mormon people in our own day to address “the new Mormon challenge” at the highest levels and to do so with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).