Early Mormonism in Context

July 16, 2009
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We tend to view Mormonism in the context of its current contemporaries:  Baptists, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists (among many others).  But how does Mormonism compare with other religious movements of its time at founding?  Was it more progressive or less?  Were its ideas uniquely handed down via revelation or part of a shifting religious culture?  Or both?

The majority of these comparisons between early Mormonism and other contemporary religious movements were detailed in an excellent Universal Unitarian sermon on Mormonism.

We tend to think of upstate New York as part of New England, in the heavily populated eastern seaboard (although upstate NY is quite rural), but in Joseph Smith’s day it was actually the frontier of the nation.  From the sermon:

Here strange new religious ideas could flourish unchecked by the religious establishment.  In upstate New York, the conservative hand of New England Puritanism barely reached.  There, on the fringes of civil society, mesmerizing itinerant preachers roamed.

  • Universalists could teach that God would never condemn anyone to eternal damnation.
  • Unitarians could teach that each human being could be nurtured and educated and guided into right living.
  • Here, Mother Ann Lee and her Shakers taught that God was both male and female, that marriage should be abolished, and that a person could visit the spiritual realms to receive revelations.
  • It was here that William Miller predicted that Jesus’ Second Coming would take place in 1843. Over 100,000 people took up this belief, leaving jobs and selling farms and gathering to wait. When Jesus didn’t return, splinter groups kept the faith and became Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists.
  • It was here that the Fox Sisters—Kate and Margaret—claimed to be able to speak with the spirits of the dead, giving birth to the widespread Spiritualist movement.
  • It was here that John Humphrey Noyes created a utopian commune, where everything was shared, including sexual partners. Here Noyes’ followers practiced “complex marriage,” where women and men, though married, were free to enjoy sexual relations with any one else in the commune, and where post-menopausal women were encouraged to introduce teenage males to sex, since there was no fear of pregnancy.
  • It was here that belief in folk magic was widespread, belief that talking spirits roamed the countryside, and “seer stones” could predict the future.  It was here that Indian burial mounds were raided for artifacts, giving rise to wild speculation about the origins and demise of the Native Peoples, who some claimed were remnants of a lost tribe of Hebrews.

So, is Mormonism a Whitman’s Sampler of all the “fringe” religious ideas that were in place at the time and place Joseph Smith lived?  Or were these “fringe” notions inspiration for him to ask for and receive revelations?  Why have so many of these movements blossomed into successful religions (e.g. Jehovah’s Witness, Universal Unitarianism, Mormonism) while some others have waned over time?  Discuss.

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22 Responses to Early Mormonism in Context

  1. Andrew Ainsworth
    July 16, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    I’d add to this list the Bahai’i faith, which originated in Shiraz, Iran at roughly the same time, and which promoted a “big tent” theology that strove to create a unity of all faiths. Many statements in Bahai’i scripture sound very familiar to the unitarian-sounding statements of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and others, and I find it interesting that this occurred on the other side of the globe during the same time frame.

  2. July 16, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Excellent post. I think the the “religious establishment” still wishes to reach out its hand and subdue these frontier movements. Are divine revelations, contact from angels, and wild end-times prophecies any more embraced today?

  3. July 16, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Valoel, I agree, and I think these frontier movements have endured in part *because* there are still so many of us radicals around who in some way find the “religious establishment” unsatisfying. Val Rust’s excellent book “Radical Origins” finds 17th- and 18th-century radicalism in the families of a huge fraction of those who joined the church between 1830 and about 1835.

    So, is Mormonism a Whitman’s Sampler of all the “fringe” religious ideas that were in place at the time and place Joseph Smith lived? Or were these “fringe” notions inspiration for him to ask for and receive revelations?

    Yes, all those fringe and mainstream ideas that Joseph recognized as Truth he readily adopted. And even many of the ideas that were thrown out led to essential revelations (e.g., Hiram Page’s stone, spiritual manifestations).

  4. jmb275
    July 16, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    “So, is Mormonism a Whitman’s Sampler of all the “fringe” religious ideas that were in place at the time and place Joseph Smith lived? Or were these “fringe” notions inspiration for him to ask for and receive revelations?”
    Probably a bit of both I would say.
    Re 2:
    “Are divine revelations, contact from angels, and wild end-times prophecies any more embraced today”?
    Probably not, and for good reason. They have proven unreliable at best, and utter nonsense at worst. Has anyone seen “Knowing” with Nicholas Cage? In one of the DVD extras there is a little blurb on apocalyptic prophecies. I knew there had been many, but I didn’t know just how many prophecies of the end of the world there have been. It’s surprising! And yet, here we are, still chugging along!

  5. hawkgrrrl
    July 16, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    jmb275 – I agree with your second point. We should make picket signs that say “The end of doomsaying is upon us!”

  6. Doug G.
    July 16, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    I don’t believe any of the doctrines taught in the early church were new completely revolutionary ideas. Grant Palmer goes to some length in his book explaining how similar the teaching in the “Book of Mormon” were to camp meetings being held all over new England. Even the First Vision seemed inspired by the teachings of a traveling minister who participated in the 1823-1824 revivals around Joseph Smith’s home, according to his brother William. (I know, just suppress the urge to tell me the FV took place in 1820.)

    Many beliefs also evolved over time and became more defined as the church grew. Some of these refinements were the result of new members interjecting their beliefs as well. Sidney Rigdon brought a whole new dimension to the group as he assumed roles of leadership. He helped write the “Lectures on Faith” as well as assisted in the “translation” of the “Book of Abraham” and helped with the revealed “Book of Moses”.

    I think your opinion as to whether God was preparing people for his restored church by leaking advanced premonitions or that JS took advantage of the new ideas being bantered around and assimilated the ones he felt were true into church doctrine is strictly a matter of belief. I can see both sides of that coin and therefore not good evidence for the literalness of the restoration or the dismissal of it. Having said that, I’ve got to believe there were some of those “new ideas” that he wished he hadn’t picked up on. The establishment of a “Zion” which isolated the church and caused outsiders to distrust and hate the saints, or introducing the not so new idea of multiple marriage partners seemed to bring unneeded and persecution and repression.

    All in all, I’ve got to believe that with so much freedom of religious thought spreading across the new nation (that wasn’t possible in Europe) many churches were bound to spring up. How inspired each is must be judged for oneself, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that restoration was some brave new idea that happened to JS out of the blue. Even the idea of restoration was a popular topic among many preachers in the country before his time…

  7. Jeff Spector
    July 16, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    Could be that the subject of religion being so pervasive was just the climate needed for God to call on an obscure boy to help restore the true Gospel and the Church to the earth. there is probably no way that could have happened in Europe.

  8. Aaron Reeves
    July 17, 2009 at 2:01 am

    re 6: Regarding Zion as bad pick up. I am expecting to see that in one Hawkgrrl’s ‘the genius of mormonism’ post. I think that is open for discussion. i think it caused problems but in other ways it may have been a big factor which saved the church.

    To the original question: I think yes much of the religion was derived from the culture around joseph smith, but that seems to be a church culture in general. For we have gone through stages of adopting the religious trends around the church quiet extensively, probably like a lot of other religions.

  9. July 17, 2009 at 7:04 am

    The “end of the world” has been upon us at any moment for thousands of years. Yes, these predictions have been made hundreds of times, believed by thousands and then failed.

    Ask yourself though, why is that?

    There’s a deep deep mythological notion within a great mass of the population, throughout time and across cultures/religions, that the earth will suddenly be snuffed out any moment.

    Regardless of these events materializing, we humans have a need to express this fear. It crops up in various cycles. 19th century American culture was awash with millennial fever.

  10. jmb275
    July 17, 2009 at 11:04 am

    @Valoel
    Well said!

    @Hawkgrrrl
    I’m making my picket sign as we speak! I’ll meet you at our agreed upon protest location forthwith to proclaim our Truths!!

    @Doug G.
    “I can see both sides of that coin and therefore not good evidence for the literalness of the restoration or the dismissal of it.”
    This represents my thoughts exactly.
    You mentioned:
    “I don’t believe any of the doctrines taught in the early church were new completely revolutionary ideas.”
    I am probably just ignorant as I am not a historian of 19th century religious culture, but I thought that the idea of being a God in embryo was fairly revolutionary. Where did this idea come from? Incidentally, I do agree that many of these concepts were in place already. A bit of a disturbing fact for me is that I see many of these concepts in various sundry cults.

  11. Craig
    July 17, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Seeding a field with landmines is a time tested tactic in land warfare. Why wouldn’t the adversary do the very same thing, only in a spiritual sense. Scatter enough truths around to be wholly confusing and convince late arrivals that the truth is nothing but a gathering up of old ideas into whole cloth…

  12. Doug G.
    July 17, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    JMB275,

    The Catholics have actually been teaching this doctrine since the near the beginning of their church. As with many early doctrines in Mormonism, JS and company put different twists and clarifications on them if you will. Some might say by inspiration, others think he was more of a realist using some common sense to work out the details. I think many religions believe in some sort of deification for the saved ones. This would include many of our non-Christian brothers as well. The idea certainly isn’t new, but Mormonism did put an interesting twist to it by incorporating families and eternal polygamist relationships.

    See below for some interesting quotes:

    “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” (St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, BOOK: Adversus haereses, worked with Pope Victor in about 191 or 192)

    “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” (St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, BOOK: De Decretis, about 325?)

    “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Philosopher, Theologian, Angelicus Doctor, BOOK: Opusculum contra errores graecorum, by order of Pope Urban IV 1261-64)

  13. July 17, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    I wonder why, if many other churches believe this, why do they not teach it, and why is it so offensive? Often this idea that man can become a God seems to be viewed as blasphemous, and seems to be one of the main charges laid against the church by anti-Mo-Fundes.

  14. hawkgrrrl
    July 17, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Well, but they are not talking about all men having Godlike potential. Those quotes are more like the Greek Gods taking human form (minus the skirt chasing).

  15. Doug G.
    July 17, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    The Catholic twist involves more of a belief in being united with Christ and thereby sharing his Godhood. You also have to remember that early in the 19th century many preachers were taking liberties with the doctrines of the Catholic and Anglican churches. While I still think modern religions believe in some type of deification after death, they are adamant about our God not being a man to start with. As Mormons seem quick to quote the King Follett discourse and point out the eternal progression ideas, most of the rest of Christianity is sure that this is blasphemy. I think that’s why we get the black eye…

    Hawkgrrrl,
    I’ve got to be honest with you; I don’t understand your comment. Could you elaborate a little?

    Here’s another quote from a Father Bloom that I found on the internet from a Catholic answer board.

    “Perhaps in the West we have shied from talking about divinization because we so easily can fall into a pantheistic or even pagan idea. Joseph Smith did this when he founded Mormonism. If I understand them correctly, they have the idea of that faithful Mormon (males) will be raised to a divine status, each one ruling his own separate world. The doctrine has been stated famously: ‘As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.’” That of course is not Christianity but the old polytheism. What the Catechism teaches is not that we will become separate gods, but that through Christ we will become totally united with the one God and in that sense be divinized.”

  16. MH
    July 17, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    Doug, I wouldn’t attribute deification to the Catholics, but rather to the Orthodox Church. Remember, they were one and the same until the schism happened about 1054 AD. Both the Catholics and Orthodox have many of the same saints, such as Ireneaus. The Orthodox have continued to embrace deification, while the Catholics view it as more of a heresy. I did a few posts on it last year, and found the Orthodox position stunningly similar to the LDS position. The largest difference is that the Orthodox believe in the trinity, while the LDS believe in a more anthropomorphic god.

    The Catholics weren’t really preaching deification at the time of Joseph Smith, and I don’t believe the Russian Orthodox Church was an influence at all on Joseph Smith. While the Russian Orthodox Church established some churches in Alaska in 1794, the first Orthodox Church in continental America happened in 1864 in New Orleans. I don’t recall Joseph spending any time in Alaska to learn more of their knowledge of theosis/deification.

    I did a post comparing theosis to exaltation. I got my info from a Presbyterian seminary. You might find it interesting, and it can be found here.

  17. Doug G.
    July 18, 2009 at 1:31 am

    MH,
    You may be right as I don’t hold myself up as an expert on Catholic beliefs. A quick search turned up the few quotes I attributed to them from one of their answer broads for members with questions. It would seem that at least Father Bloom is a believer in deification as it relates to his understanding of there doctrines.

    From his answer I also noticed his reference to pantheistic or pagan beliefs. Later, in the response to his member, he calls the belief “old polytheism”. My point in commenting was to answer jmb275 question about whether or not believing in becoming a God was new to the world as a result of JS revelations. I haven’t studied paganism much, but I’ll bet a little research would show that they believed in becoming God’s as well, but perhaps only a select few. Come to think of it, don’t we believe that narrow is the gate and straight is the way and few there be that find it?

    As I’m sure you are aware, there were many “new ideas” about God and doctrines running around at the time of the revivals. The resurgence in religion was joined by a rethinking of many supposed beliefs as more and more people learned to read and felt free to take on different opinions of the bible. Alexandra Campbell and many like him helped start a new version of Protestantism in America. I believe these new understandings of doctrines helped fuel the excitement and added to the resurgence of religion in the 18oo’s. Speculation about the origin of the Indians, the second coming, signs in the heavens, people claiming to talk with God, seer stones, the lost ten tribes, and angels walking the earth seems to be all too common in the day.

    Just to clarify, you’re not saying that JS couldn’t have known about men becoming Gods by the 1840’s from contemporary sources are you? Even though many considered the belief heretical, it was still known of…

    BTW thanks for the link to your site, the article you wrote was very interesting. The split of the church in 1057 A.D. is interesting as according to our guide when I recently toured the Vatican, the church moved its headquarters to Constantinople after Rome was sacked in 475 A.D. and Rome became mostly abandoned. The Roman Empire survived in the east with its headquarters in Greece until the split occurred. Rome then came back into prominence as the bishop of Rome excommunicated the Constantinople bishop and was given wide political power and jurisdiction in Rome. Perhaps the Orthodox Church really is the true one… :)

  18. Aaron Reeves
    July 18, 2009 at 4:04 am

    I am also not an expert but it seems to me that the idea that God the Father was a man on another earth elsewhere is fairly radical.

    I doubt that Father Bloom and Harold Bloom are related but the latter argues that Joseph managed to incorporate gnosticism into his religious world view. I note this as a comment similar to Andrew Ainsworth’s #1. An example of disparate places with apparently little connection (according to Bloom) who had very similar ideas.

  19. Doug G.
    July 18, 2009 at 10:15 am

    “I am also not an expert but it seems to me that the idea that God the Father was a man on another earth elsewhere is fairly radical.”

    Yep, it is radical, so radical that President Hinckley wasn’t even sure we teach that or knew much about it. Sorry, couldn’t resist :)

    In truth, the ideas about becoming “Gods” or “God like” as been around for as long as humans have been able to write. Different groups have put different spins to it, but the basis is the same. I’d be careful in building a straw man around the similarities with the Gnostics…

  20. hawkgrrrl
    July 18, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Doug G – my only point was that the view of other Christian sects abt theosis is more like stories from Greek mythology than it is like the concept of eternal human potential on various planets. In Catholicism specifically it is said that God (who was already God) took human form (while still being a God) in order to rescue humanity. That’s not the concept JS shared in King Follett. It sounds like Zeus taking human form to live as a man (usually in a quest for a lover in his case). That was the parallel I was drawing. To me, it seems that this concept of God (the word made flesh) has more in common with those pantheistic views that were more contemporary with it (the Word poem at the beginning of John was a later addition, but still contemporary to pantheism in that part of the world). I don’t see it (specifically) as consistent with the KF view which is far more radical yet logical as well.

  21. jmb275
    July 18, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Well, I for one have been enlightened by the discussion.

    So ultimately, for me, I’m led to believe that Joseph didn’t really introduce as many novel concepts as we often give credit for. Many of the ideas were already there and he often expanded the meanings, or gave different interpretations. His main novel contribution, I think, is the BoM.

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