Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism
by Dan Vogel
[p.215]Joseph Smith’s parents were both Christian primitivists, but with important differences. The death of Alvin Smith and the inception of the Palmyra revival brought these underlying differences into sharp contrast. Although his early attempts to communicate with God reveal Joseph’s affinity with his father’s Seekerism, Joseph was caught between his father and his mother’s conservatism,1 and the religious movement he subsequently founded often mediated between the two positions. The mediatory nature of Mormonism has usually been overlooked in the enthusiasm about its more radical elements. But as historian Marvin Hill has pointed out, the Book of Mormon is a mediatory work, “blurring distinctions and drawing together contradictory opinions. It had just the right approach for numerous New Englanders and New Yorkers who were tired of the acrimony of sectarian debate. The sacred volume stands half-way between a liberalism which flirts with disbelief (infidelity?), and a semi-orthodox Calvinism.”2
William Mulder has argued that Mormonism was “not simply a colorful reflection of the times” but “a dynamic reworking of the diverse elements of American culture.”3 According to Thomas O’Dea, Mormonism was a “combination of typicality and peculiarity.” “Throughout its history, as in its very origin,” argues O’Dea, “Mormonism was to be both typical of the larger American setting in which it existed and at the same time peculiarity itself, with its own special idiosyncratic emphasis and interpretations. Even when most at odds with its fellow Americans, it was to be typically American.”4
Smith’s attempt to mediate between opposing views is apparent. His early revelations demonstrated a moderate interpretation [p.216]of spiritual gifts. They supported neither the extreme rationalism of the anti-revivalists nor the wild enthusiasm occasionally displayed in the camp meetings. The essence of the vision of a heaven with “three degrees of glory” was compromise, reconciling conflicting elements in Universalism and orthodoxy. Once, while commenting on the difference between the views of Presbyterians and Methodists concerning the doctrine of election, Smith said, “They are both wrong. Truth takes a road between them both.”5 Although, the idea of continual revelation was radical, Smith’s early revelations were conciliatory and often relatively moderate in content.
In fact, Smith’s revelations conflicted with neither his father’s early visionary dreams nor his mother’s religious conservatism. His mother at first resisted her son’s revelations and ignored his prophetic warning about the Presbyterians, but by the late 1820s she had become disillusioned with mainstream Christianity herself. Joseph’s revelations were also becoming increasingly attractive to her, especially since they promised the Smiths a faith which would not betray their beloved Alvin.
Mormonism was able to mediate within the national context, as well. With the election of Andrew Jackson as president of the United States in 1828, the nation seemed committed to a more commercially oriented, pluralistic, competitive, individualistic, and secular society. Marvin Hill has pursuasively argued that Mormonism was largely a conservative reaction against the increasingly liberalized environment of post-Revolutionary America.6 It was an attempt to return to the Puritan theocracy and community of New England and to realize the Puritan dream of a New Jerusalem in America. Thus some historians have preferred to look to the eastern seaboard rather than to the west for the origins of Mormonism.7 According to American historian David Brion Davis, “Mormonism was a link in the Puritan tradition, asserting a close and personal God, providential history, predestination, and ideal theocracy, the importance of a Christian calling, and a church of saints.”8
Mormonism did not reject Jacksonian American culture altogether but reworked conflicting elements in the old and new orders. However, Mormonism was more syncretic than synthetic, never fully reconciling contradictory tenets and opposing organizational structures, but rather allowing extremes to balance each other.9 Syncretism is discernible in Smith’s communitarian experiment where he departed from other American models by combining [p.217]elements of capitalism with common stock as well as his uneasy combination of theocracy and democracy (“common consent”) in church government. The Book of Mormon’s discussion of the Godhead and afterlife was never fully harmonized with later revelations. Mormonism, I believe, has been difficult to explain largely because of its syncretic nature and its failure to synthesize fully the competing elements it has drawn together.
Despite Mormonism’s mediatory character, it was a radical, even revolutionary movement,10 and its theocracy seemed anachronistic, if not subversive, on the American frontier. The Disciples of Christ, on the other hand, attempted to adapt to the democratic impulses of the new republic. Since they did not expect a new dispensation of charismatic revelation and saw the Bible as the ultimate source of authority, they were able to assimilate democratic principles without strain. It was Mormonism’s restoration of the charismatic apostleship which distinguished it from other Primitivists. Thus Mormonism was never simply “primitivism,” as other studies have asserted. In addition, the suggestion that a “passage of primitivism” characterized the first decade of Mormonism overlooks the enormous influence of Seekerism.11
In its embryonic stage Mormonism fulfilled radical Seeker expectations, with the restoration of charismatic authority and theocratic government. The later shift away from charisma did not preclude revelation and spiritual gifts but rather drew boundaries within which charisma was allowed. Charisma was institutionalized. Once the institution had been stabilized, then spiritual exercises such as the Kirtland temple endowment—which exemplified the evolving Mormon concept of authority by combining spiritual endowment and angelic endowment—could safely unfold and missionaries could be more confidently sent into the world to teach by the spirit. This effected, in the words of German sociologist Max Weber, the “routinization of charisma” and enabled the growth, stability, and endurance of Mormonism.12
Many of those who struggled against Smith within the Mormon movement were influenced by Seekerism to the point that they believed only in charismatic authority. The complaints of David Whitmer and William E. McLellin are illustrative in this regard. According to Whitmer, he at first reluctantly accepted the shift to a bureaucratized concept of priesthood bestowal but upon further reflection eventually concluded that Smith had departed from the ideals of the Book of Mormon and other early [p.218]revelations. Whitmer’s and McLellin’s claims that angelic ordinations were late additions to Mormonism are supported by considerable circumstantial evidence. The early emphasis on charisma, the lack of a clear priesthood restoration concept in the Book of Mormon and in the “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ,” the additions made to the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants concerning angelic ordinations, and statements of early leaders all demonstrate the shift to accommodate evolving notions of authority and governance. However, despite the reluctance of Whitmer and McLellin, the imprecision of the Seeker tradition regarding the restoration of authority allowed most others to make the adjustment without difficulty. Thus, I would argue, the shift in the Mormon concept of authority was consistent with most Seeker expectations.
In this treatment, I have not attempted a definitive explanation of Mormon origins, but rather an exploration of what early Mormonism represented to those drawn to its version of the gospel, many of whom had been influenced by Seekerism. In fact, Seekerism contributed more significantly to the early preoccupations and commitments of Mormonism than has previously been recognized. Whereas Mormonism may have been influenced by several movements and denominations, any examination of its theological and historical roots must consider Seeker beliefs to be complete.
[p.218]1. Marvin Hill has recognized the psychological aspect of Joseph Smith being caught between the religious positions of his father and mother. However, I disagree with Hill’s assertion that Smith’s vision solved this dilemma for Smith. Neither the 1832 history nor the official 1838 history indicates that Smith received a commission in 1820 to establish the restored church. When he did establish an organization, it evolved from a Seekeristic church to a more conservative heirarchy—always retaining some elements of both. See Marvin S. Hill, “A Note on Joseph Smith’s First Vision and Its Import in the Shaping of Early Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Spring 1979): 90-99.
5. Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1964), 6:252. Compare Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 330.
7. For those who have argued that we should look to the rural West for the social context of Mormonism, see Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1950), 55-76; and Mario S. DePillis, “Social Sources of Mormonism,” Church History 37 (March 1968): 50-79. For those who emphasize New England rather than New York in their discussions of early Mormon origins, see David Brion Davis,”The New England Origins of Mormonism,” New England Quarterly 26 (June 1953): 147-68; Marvin S. Hill, “The Shaping of the Mormon Mind in New England and New York,” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 351-72; Warren Jennings, “The City in the Garden: Social Conflict in Jackson County, Missouri,” in The Restoration Movement, F. Mark McKiernan, Alma R. Blair, and Paul M. Edwards, eds. (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1973), 110-13, 117; Franklin Hamlin Littell, From State Church to Pluralism: A Protestant Interpretation of Religion in American History (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1962), 83-89. My view is closest to that of Marvin S. Hill.
9. The term “syncretism” in connection with Mormonism was suggested to me by D. Michael Quinn. On the use of syncretism in religious studies, see Mircea Eliade, et al., eds., The Encyclopedia of Religion, 15 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987), 14:218-27; James Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908-26), 12:155-57; and Samuel Macauley Jackson et al., eds., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 12 vols. (New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1908-12), 11:218-23.
12. See Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, ed. Talcott Parsons (New York, 1947), 363-73; see also H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociolooy (New York, 1946), 262-64; S. N. Eisenstadt, Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building (Chicago, 1968), xx-xxii. When RLDS scholar Robert Mesle described the transition in early Christianity from “ecclesia to institution”—that is, from a loosely structured church with a charismatic source of authority to a tightly structured church with clearly defined priesthood offices—he [p.220]noted a similar transition in early Mormonism. One reason for the transition in the early Christian church, Mesle argues, was for the control of charisma. See C. Robert Mesle, “The Restoration and History: New Testament Christianity,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Summer 1986): 59-66.