Religious Seekers and the Advent of MormonismReligious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism
by Dan Vogel

on the cover:
In this important new contribution to the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Dan Vogel introduces readers to groups and individuals who seem to have anticipated the kind of radically different religious and spiritual restoration Mormonism represented during the 1820s and 1830s. Indeed, the Mormon gospel attracted various religious primitivists, especially Seekers, who believed Joseph Smith’s Church of Christ fulfilled nearly three hundred years of restorationist expectations. Moreover, Vogel suggests, following its formal organization in 1830, Mormonism’s concept of authority during its formative years resembled that espoused by the Seekers.

“Excellent and sound.” —Thomas G. Alexander, author, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930

“Vogel makes what should become an enduring contribution to the broadening scholarly studies of Mormonism’s syncretistic elements, such as his analysis of the sources bearing on such diverse aspects as charismatic and hierarchical organizational patterns, Joseph Smith and his family, the Book of Mormon, and the revelational process and documents of early Mormonism. Here is a landmark in historical writing for many reasons, large among them being that its readers will gain a new appreciation for the infinitely complex origins of Mormonism, with vast implications for understanding more recent developments.” —Richard P. Howard, Church Historian, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

“Path-breaking and extremely important.” —D. Michael Quinn, author, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View

title page:
Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism
by Dan Vogel
Signature Books
Salt Lake City

copyright page
In Memory of My Father
©1988, Signature books, Inc., Salt Lake City, Utah.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America. All rights reserved.
Cover and book design by Easton Design Group.
Cover illustration reproduced from a woodcut print from Ephraim Pagitt, Heresiography: Or a Description of the Hereticks and Sectaries of These Latter Times, 3rd ed. (London 1646).

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Vogel, Dan, 1955-
Religious seekers and the advent of Mormonism / Dan Vogel.
p. cm. Includes index.
1. Mormon Church–History. 2. Seekers (Sect)–History. I. Title.
ISBN 0-941214-64-8
BX8611.V63 1988
289.3’09’034–dc19 87-32465

Preface [see below]
Introduction [see below]
01 – The Seeker Movement
02 – From Seeker to Finder
03 – The Apostasy
04 – The “Doctrines of Devils”
05 – The Restoration
06 – The Church
07 – The Fulness of the Gospel
08 – A New Jerusalem


[p.vii]Like my previous study of early Mormonism, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon: Religious Solutions from Columbus to Joseph Smith, the present analysis involves numerous quotations from sixteenth-, seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century printed and manuscripts sources. These follow the originals except in the following instances: typography (such as the long “s,” u for v, i for j, and vv for w) has been modernized, and excessive italics (except when used for emphasis) have been omitted. “Sic” and editorial brackets are used infrequently to clarify particularly confusing or distracting areas. Otherwise, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling are reproduced exactly as they occur in the primary sources.

Again, my debt of gratitude to American and British libraries and institutions is so heavy that I can offer appreciation only in a general way. I would especially like to thank the librarians at the California State University at Long Beach for their courteous and prompt assistance in securing books and materials through interlibrary loan. I have also made extensive use of the library’s facilities, especially its microfiche, microfilm, and microtext collections. The librarians at Brown University were especially helpful in locating important items during my research. I would also like to thank the Library of Congress, the historical department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, the archives of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Missouri, the British Museum, and the American Antiquarian Society.

My presentation of what follows has greatly benefited from the kind advice and suggestions of the following persons: Thomas G. Alexander, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Ian G. Barber, H. Michael Marquardt, D. Michael Quinn, and Wesley P. Walters. I [p.viii]am also indebted to Grant Underwood’s and Marvin Hill’s separate critiques of preliminary analysis of “Religious Seekers and the Development of the Mormon Concept of Authority,” which summarized the ideas presented in this book. In addition, my discussion of Mormon priesthood restoration has benefited from numerous conversations with Brent Lee Metcalfe. While I very much appreciate their contributions, I alone am responsible for errors of fact or interpretation.

My thanks also go to the staff of Signature Books for their continued support and encouragement: George D. Smith, Gary J. Bergera, Ron Priddis, Susan Staker, Connie Disney, Jani Fleet, and Brent Corcoran.

Finally, I would like to thank my mother, Jackie Vogel, without whose support this book would not have been possible.


[p.ix]”If the people of this generation harden not their hearts,” the resurrected Jesus Christ told Mormon church founder Joseph Smith in March 1829, “I will establish my church, like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old.”1 The following year, on 6 April, Smith’s Church of Christ became “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). Four years later Jason Whitman, the general secretary of the American Unitarian Association, wrote that the Mormons were fond of comparing their beliefs to those which existed in the “primitive ages of the church.”2 Ezra Booth, an early Mormon apostate, admitted in 1831 that the Mormon “system, to some, carries the face of plausibility, and appears under an imposing form. It claims the Bible for its patron and proffers the restoration of the apostolic church, with all the gifts and graces with which the primitive saints were endowed.”3

The idea that existing churches were corruptions of the ancient or primitive church was not new to early America. Nor was there a shortage of those attempting to restore the ancient order. The famous Reformed Baptist preacher and founder of the Disciples of Christ, Alexander Campbell, believed that Mormonism was a satanic imitation of his own “primitive gospel” movement.4 J. J. Moss, a Campbellite who observed the growth of Mormonism in Ohio, believed that Joseph Smith “stole (not all but the best part) of his thunder from the Disciples by taking their plea for the restoration of primitive Christianity & if the Disciples could be successful in bringing the people back to the old Apostolic doctrine of faith[,] repentance & baptism for the conversion of sinners so could the Mormons.”5

[p.x]Campbellites recognized important differences between their version of Primitivism and that of the Mormons. Campbell himself charged Joseph Smith with bringing together in the Book of Mormon “every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years.”6 Campbell used the term “truth” because he recognized in the Book of Mormon narrative of ancient American Christianity some of the same Primitivistic elements for which he was well known. “Error” referred to his rejection of the book’s radical notion of the true church and religious authority.

In his 1968 dissertation, “The Role of Christian Primitivism in the Origin and Development of the Mormon Kingdom, 1830-1844,” Marvin S. Hill explored Joseph Smith’s and his associates’ attempt to restore Christianity to its primitive or ancient condition. According to Hill, the Book of Mormon was not only “an advocate of primitive gospel faith,” but this constituted “the major theme of the work.”7 Where earlier students had noticed only scattered cultural influences, Hill attempted to put the pieces together to reveal the larger picture.

Hill’s findings can be brought into even sharper focus by looking at individuals within the larger primitive gospel movement whose Primitivism was of a special variety. These individuals, usually referred to as “Seekers” or “Waiters,” anticipated new apostles who would be divinely commissioned to “restore” the true Christian worship. Seekers shared with Primitivists the belief that there had been an “apostasy” from an original church established by Jesus and that a “restoration” was necessary. But Seekers differed on matters of authority and restoration. They disagreed with Campbell and others that the Bible provided all necessary authority to establish a church. Seekers believed that ordinances would be inefficacious until there was a new, literal, and evident dispensation of divine power.

In discussing Primitivism, Hill mentioned the “somewhat similar response” of New York Seekers Asa Wild and Erastus Hanchett but did not explain how they differed from Primitivists generally. Nor did Hill distinguish between the Primitivism of Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack, and the Seekerism of his father, Joseph Sr., so apparent during the Palmyra revival of 1824-25, or between other early Mormon converts.8

[p.xi]Peter Crawley, in “The Passage of Mormon Primitivism,” followed Hill by referring to early Mormonism as “a loosely organized, anti-creedal group of `seekers.'”9 However, Crowley’s discussion applied more to the liberal versions of Primitivism, such as Campbell’s Disciples of Christ. Crowley used the term “seekers” to describe early Mormonism without describing what Seekers believed or how they differed from others in the primitive gospel movement.

Historian Jan Shipps also did not distinguish between Seekers and other Primitivists. In Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, she observed that “the Smiths were a part of a heterogeneous assemblage of Christian `seekers’ who were believers of a very special kind.” Her description of Seekerism focused only on the Seeker rejection of organized religion, not their radical concept of authority and restoration. Unfortunately, Shipps echoed Crawley that there was a “crucial difference” between the restoration claims of early Mormonism and other Christian Primitivists and did not note that early Mormonism’s radical authority and restoration claims followed Seeker expectations.10 Her suggestion that Mormonism represents a new religious tradition may therefore require qualification.

Other scholars have used the term “Seeker” with similar imprecision, and a detailed investigation of the beliefs and history of religious Seekerism and its possible influence on early Mormonism has long been needed.11 The purpose of this study is to illuminate more fully nineteenth-century Seekerism as a facet of Primitivism, to explore the implications of Seeker beliefs possibly held by Mormon founders and converts, and to suggest the waning of charismatic Seeker influence as Mormonism developed a more bureaucratized hierarchy.

In discussing Seekerism and the primitive gospel movement, I have found it convenient to refer to those holding either liberal or conservative versions of Christian Primitivism simply as Primitivists. My discussion compares the radical version of Primitivism held by the Seekers with the liberal and conservative versions held by other Primitivists. Although Seekers rarely used the term to describe themselves, scholars generally use the term “Seeker” to refer to members of the Seeker sect of seventeenth-century England and to individuals and groups coming before and following the English Seekers of that period. I follow this practice by using the term Seeker to describe those adopting various versions of Seekerism. That the term “Seeker” was employed [p.xii]in Joseph Smith’s day is indicated by Lucy Smith’s use of it to describe the beliefs of her brother Jason Mack, who, at age sixteen, “became what was then called a Seeker.”12

I have organized the book in the following manner. Chapter 1 introduces readers to Seekerism and its connection with Christian Primitivism. Chapter 2 explores Joseph Smith’s pre-Mormon Seeker tendencies and describes possible Seeker influences on early Mormonism. Chapter 3 discusses differing views of Christian apostasy and emphasizes the similarity of Seeker and Mormon claims. Chapter 4 discusses the Primitivist reaction to the various churches–especially to their creeds and professional clergy–and suggests that the Mormon position is best understood in a Seeker context. Chapter 5 examines Primitivist attempts at restoration and explores the concept of the restoration of authority claimed by Seekers and Mormons. Chapter 6 describes the type of church to be restored and argues that the early Mormon concept of a theocratic church government followed Seeker expectations. Chapter 7 describes some of the leading doctrines of early Mormonism within the context of the Seeker-Primitivist debate. Finally, chapter 8 discusses varying nineteenth-century views about the Millennium and indicates that Mormons and Seekers held similar views.


1. A Book of Commandments, for the Government of the Church of Christ (Zion [Independence, MO]: W. W. Phelps, 1833), 4:5. This verse was deleted from the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

2. Jason Whitman, “The Book of Mormon,” The Unitarian (1 Jan. 1834): 46.

3. In E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [sic]: or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 179-80.

4. Alexander Campbell, “The Mormonites,” Millennial Harbinger 2 (Feb. 1831): 93, and “The Book of Mormon Reviewed and Its Divine Pretentions Exposed,” Painesville Telegraph (15 March 1831): 1-2. The term “primitive gospel” is used by Robert Frederick West to characterize Campbell’s movement and is useful in describing the movement in general. See Alexander Campbell and Natural Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), vii-viii.

5. J. J. Moss to J. T. Cobb, 17 Dec. 1878, in A. T. Schroeder Collection, Wisconsin State Historical Society.

6. Millennial Harbinger 2 (Feb. 1831): 93.

7. Marvin S. Hill, “The Role of Christian Primitivism in the Origin and Development of the Mormon Kingdom, 1830-1844,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1968, 104, 101, 102.

8. Ibid., 44-45, 49-51, 56-60. Hill subsequently recognized the tension existing between Lucy and Joseph Smith. See “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. However, Hill described the tension as a clash between pietism and rationalism and did not explore the differences between primitivism and Seekerism. In my opinion, he also incorrectly identified Lucy as a Seeker.

9. Peter Crawley, “The Passage of Mormon Primitivism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Winter 1980): 27.

10. Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 6, 119-20; also 34-35, 68, 78-79.

11. For example, Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 4, write that the Smith family in 1816 was “unchurched yet spiritually inclined and the inheritors of a mild ‘seeker’ tradition.” Richard L. Bushman, in Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 38, incorrectly says Lucy Smith was a “seeker.” An exception might be Gary W. Ellsworth, “Seventeenth-Century Seekers Wait for the Restoration,” Ensign 10 (Oct. 1980): 57. While Ellsworth recognized that Seekers anticipated a restoration, he made no attempt to examine Seeker beliefs in detail. Moreover, he viewed Seekerism only as a seventeenth-century movement and missed its possible influence on Mormonism.

12. Lucy [Mack] Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853), 21.