Considering its dubious origins, the rapid growth and endurance of Mormonism is remarkable, but my concern here is to address the issue of how the mass of mainstream Christianity in the United States responded to and interacted with Mormonism from its beginnings in rural New York and its later expansion onto the American frontier. What motivated its response? Was it a question of rivalry, and was it mainly concerned with competing with the Mormons for converts, or was it a question of upholding Christian orthodoxy from the challenge of Mormonism’s heretical and cultic teachings, and its false claims to be the restoration of true Christianity from the apostasy to which it had fallen? Before addressing these questions, it is helpful to begin by exploring the origins of Mormonism, and then to examine how the Christians responded to and interacted with it in its early years, drawing conclusions from these encounters.
Joseph Smith Jr was the founder of Mormonism. Born in 1805 in the town of Sharon in the American state of Vermont, he was the fourth child of Joseph Smith Sr and his wife, Lucy. Both of them had an influence on their son’s spiritual beliefs. Rather than belonging to a particular denomination, Smith’s family were spiritual seekers. 2 Lucy Smith was highly superstitious. Smith’s father had a reputation among his acquaintances as an occultist who used supernatural aids such as divining rods and seer stones to search for imaginary buried treasure, and his son often joined him in these expeditions. Their involvement in Freemasonry has also been well documented. 3 Mormon teaching holds that in 1820, Smith was out praying in the forest near his home in Palmyra, New York when God and Jesus appeared before him. While Smith had some interest and involvement in Methodism in his youth, he was troubled by the tension between different denominations. He was prayerfully considering the question of which denomination he should join, and in this vision they told him not to join any of them, as they were all apostate. A restoration of true Christianity was needed, and God had called Smith to be the prophet of a new dispensation to bring this about.
He maintained that three years later, an angel named Moroni appeared at his bedside, revealing to him the location of ancient records engraved on golden plates that were hidden in a nearby hill named Cumorah. Written in the hitherto unknown language of reformed Egyptian, Smith used magic peep stones, known as the Urim and Thummin, to read and translate these inscriptions into English, which he dictated to others who acted as his scribes. The result was the Book of Mormon, published in March 1830. Described as a new revelation from Jesus Christ, portions of this work were largely plagiarised and reworked from the King James Bible. To these were added fabricated accounts of lost Israelite tribes that originated in the ancient near east. These tribes were said to have migrated to the Americas in biblical times. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, he appeared to these peoples, teaching them as he did during his incarnation. According to these accounts, wars between rival tribes led to their extinction. 4 The golden plates, containing the history and prophecies of this civilisation, were hidden by one of these tribes people, laying undisturbed until Smith’s discovery of them. There are no reliable eyewitness accounts of anyone actually seeing the plates. Smith claimed that God had forbidden him to show them to anyone, and that God took them back when the translation was completed.
In April 1830, with a small band of followers made up of family and friends, Smith organised the first congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Seneca County, New York. Initially consisting of six members, it grew rapidly, establishing centres in the states of Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois. As they expanded their movement, and attempted to evangelise, the early Latter Day Saints were frequently beset by violence and persecution from “Gentiles,” as those outside the church were known. A Nauvoo newspaper, the Expositor, published material critical of the church, and Smith ordered its press destroyed. This led to the arrest and imprisonment of Smith and his brother, Hyrum in June 1844. Incited by disaffected former church members, a mob later stormed the prison and shot and killed them both. 5
After Smith’s death, the church split into numerous rival factions, but in 1847 Brigham Young (1801-1877), who had converted from Methodism and worked as a Mormon missionary in England and the United States, became Smith’s successor and assumed leadership of the largest faction. Hoping to escape Gentile persecution, Young led over two thousand Mormons on a long and at times perilous wagon journey westward to resettle what would later become the state of Utah. Due to the annexation of California in 1848 and the discovery of gold and the building of the transcontinental Union Pacific Railway in the 1860s, their hopes for isolation were not to be realised. Even so, under Young’s leadership, by developing agriculture, business, and industry, they formed a viable community. Accompanied by aggressive missionary activity, population growth was aided by the immigration of over 70,000 people from elsewhere in the United States and Europe. Before it was outlawed, church membership growth was also greatly assisted by the controversial practice of polygamy. 6 This was later prohibited as a condition of Utah’s recognition as a state.
Kingdoms in Conflict
As we have already seen, as the Mormon Church expanded and founded settlements throughout the United States it was inevitable that its leadership and members would come into contact and conflict with evangelical Christians, of which numerous examples can be cited. It was during the time that the Mormons were based in Illinois that Joseph Smith himself became acquainted with Peter Cartwright (1785-1872), a noted Methodist frontier evangelist who was involved in the Second Great Awakening. Cartwright was known for his bluntness, and was very unfavourable in his appraisal of Smith and his followers, to say the least. 7 His autobiography describes at length a conversation he had with Smith about religious matters. Firstly taking issue with his claims to be a prophet, he described Smith as “a cunning, grand impostor,” and he resisted his flattery and attempts to persuade him to join them, rejecting the suggestion that Mormons were “advanced Methodists.” He responded to Smith’s overtures by describing to him how a group of Mormons deliberately disrupted one of Cartwright’s camp meetings, and he had them ejected. This angered Smith, and attempted to pronounce a curse on Cartwright, and Cartwright responded in turn by rebuking Smith, and they parted company. 8 Cartwright later disguised himself to infiltrate and disrupt a Mormon camp meeting.
Another of Cartwright’s recent converts was a young man who had Mormon family members. In his zeal, he felt compelled to visit them in Nauvoo in an attempt to convince them and other Mormons of their errors. Speaking from his earlier first hand experiences, Cartwright warned him of the Mormons’ cunning, and that as a recent covert, he was vulnerable to their deception. His warnings went unheeded, and this young believer was converted to Mormonism.
They told him he was just right as far as he had gone; that the Methodists were right as far as they had gone, and next to the…Mormons, were the best people in all the land…and that the best and holiest men and women among the Mormons had been members of the Methodist Church. They told him if he would join the Mormons and live faithful, that in a very little time he would have the gift of tongues, and the gift of healing, so that by faith he would raise the dead as did the first Christians. The fatal bait was gulped down…and when I last saw him he was in daily expectation of these great gifts. I told him he would never receive them; and he promised me if he did not, he would leave them. What has become of him I know not, but it is probable he is at Utah, and has fifteen or twenty wives. 9
Cartwright denounced the Mormons, calling them outlaws and abominations, and condoned the actions of those Illinois townspeople who resorted to violence, organising private militias to drive the Mormons from their communities. It is significant to note that where these townspeople came into conflict with Mormon communities; it was because they were unable to obtain legal redress against them for their acts of vandalism, theft, and murder. They were forced to take matters into their own hands. Their actions were high-handed but necessary. 10 Despite his bluntness, it appears that Cartwright was concerned with upholding Christian orthodoxy, and his writings also express a paternal concern for the spiritual welfare of his converts.
Another significant critic of early Mormonism was Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), founder of the Disciples of Christ, and one of the most notable theologians and preachers in the United States at the time. In February 1831 he published a critique of the Book of Mormon in his own newspaper, the Millennial Harbinger, and the essay later reappeared as a pamphlet in Boston under the title Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon; With An Examination of Its Internal and External Evidences, and a Refutation of its Pretences to Divine Authority. To give the reader a sense of its narrative, Smith’s critique summarized half of its plot, outlining the history of the so-called lost Israelite tribes who, in Old Testament times, left their homeland and travelled across the seas to resettle in the Americas, with God appointing one of their tribes to serve Him as a priestly tribe, in a similar manner to the Levitical priesthood, travelling and preaching among their people. Interestingly, as Campbell points out, these tribes were called Christians and practiced Christianity, influenced by Calvinist and Methodist doctrines, preaching baptism and other Christian usages hundreds of years before the birth of Christ 11 To Campbell, another inconsistency is that Smith’s Jews were called Christians while also practicing temple Judaism. This demonstrated Smith’s ignorance of the divide between the Old and New Testaments, and more broadly, of the basic facts of Jewish and Christian history. This undermined the claims that the book was of divine origin. 12
Smith claimed that the golden plates, which nobody ever saw, and that he used to write the Book of Mormon , originated from this civilisation. They were a record of their history and also contained prophecies, but Campbell rejected these claims. These plates didn’t exist, and the work was “almost certainly Smith’s fabrication as Satan is the father of lies, and Smith himself was “as ignorant and as impudent a knave as ever wrote a book.” 13 Curiously for a book claiming to be a product of an ancient civilisation, Campbell saw it as the product of Smith’s culture, with touches of Freemasonry, republican government, contemporary phrases, and opinions on controversial theological issues including infant baptism, ordination, the Trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the atonement, fasting, penance, church government, and other concerns. 14 In Campbell’s appraisal, if Smith himself wasn’t the author, than the Jewish prophets who wrote the golden tablets demonstrated a remarkable level of prescience to not only pre-empt Calvinism and Methodism, but also to be able to foreshadow precisely the concerns of 19th century American Christianity and society.
As well as the question of Christian orthodoxy, Campbell may have had more personal reasons for opposing Mormonism. In 1831, one of his colleagues, Sidney Rigdon (1793-1876) converted to Mormonism during a Mormon mission in New York. Rigdon was a Baptist minister, but after falling out with the Baptists, became acquainted with Campbell and his associate, Walter Scott. After meeting Parley Pratt, an early Mormon convert who had also been involved in Campbell’s movement, Rigdon himself joined the church, taking most of his congregation with him. 15 He read the Book of Mormon, and claimed to have become convinced of its veracity. Like Campbell, Rigdon was a revivalist, and, like many of his contemporaries, longed for the restoration of primitive Christianity, and saw in Mormonism the realisation of his hopes.
Well educated and a gifted orator, he became one its key leaders, serving as one of Joseph Smith’s closest advisors, but was excommunicated from the church in the leadership upheaval that occurred after Smith’s death in 1844. In the same issue of his newspaper, Campbell expressed his regret and sadness at his friend’s conversion to Mormonism and renunciation of the Gospel, falling into “the Devil’s snare.” 16 Given the fact of his rapid ascent in the Mormon hierarchy after his conversion, and his attempts to fill the leadership vacuum caused by Joseph Smith’s death, it is reasonable to speculate that Rigdon’s conversion was actually motivated by the desire for power. 17
While Rigdon’s conversion to Mormonism and acceptance of the Book of Mormon was significant, it was not unique among early converts to Mormonism, who perhaps had similar motivations. Orson Spencer was a former Baptist clergyman and well-known preacher who, influenced by his brother, had converted to Mormonism in 1841. Recounting his conversion experience, Spencer wrote that he spent considerable time and emotional upheaval grappling with its teachings, until he embraced wholeheartedly what he considered to be the “plain simple truth of the ancient gospel,” seeing in Mormonism its restoration. Several important figures in early Mormonism had prior religious affiliations prior to their joining the Mormon Church, but had become disillusioned with their denominations. Brigham Young, for his part, was a former Methodist. It has been estimated that of the thirty-four men who were early Mormon leaders, ten were Methodists, one Baptist, five Disciples of Christ, two Presbyterian, three Congregationalist, one Shaker, eight unaffiliated, and four unknown. Several had been affiliated with more than one group prior to becoming Mormons. 18
The Mormon War
In 1831, Mormons began settling in large numbers in Jackson County, Missouri. Residents saw them as a political, social and economic threat, while other religious leaders also feared their impact. Presbyterian pastor Finis Ewing incited hostility towards them by circulating pamphlets calling Mormons “the common enemies of mankind who ought to be destroyed.” 19 As they attempted to settle in neighbouring counties and establish their city of Zion, from which they believed Christ would rule the world at his second coming, aggressive elements from among the local populations repeatedly drove them out. This constant persecution antagonised the Mormons, and by 1838, they engaged in violent rhetoric, with Sidney Ridgon threatening a “war of extermination” against any mob that attacked church members.
In October 1838, after mobs set fire to the home of a prominent church member, a brief armed conflict broke out, and ended in the deaths of twenty-four Mormons. As a result, on the orders of the Governor, 10,000 Mormons were driven from the state on the grounds of their defiance of its laws and making war upon its people. 20 In seeing Mormons as a threat, many Missourians perceived their religion to be alien and un-Christian, and this attitude shaped their perceptions of Mormon activities and intentions. Members of the clergy shared these perceptions, and were also active in mobilising opposition to the Mormons in this incident. In the context of the Mormon War, it appears that this opposition was largely influenced and informed by political, social, and economic concerns, and there is no evidence of it being motivated by spiritual rivalry, with Ewing and his peers seeing Mormons as rivals vying against them to win converts. 21
In the broader context, the situation was different. More established denominations saw Mormonism, organised as a corporate whole, as a threat. In the 1830s, when Mormonism first began, these denominations were not firmly established in Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois. They often struggled to maintain a few congregations and preachers. Pioneer evangelists on the frontier often struggled to win converts. Individuals and families were converting to Mormonism, and Protestants were concerned over the potential or reality of Mormons taking converts from their small congregations. They saw it as their duty to defend their faith against false prophets and the heterodoxy that Mormonism represented. 22 Given the experiences of Cartwright and Campbell, two significant Mormon opponents, and its ready acceptance by Rigdon, Spencer, Young, and other high profile converts to Mormonism, it seems that their concerns were well founded. Mormonism was a very real threat.
Peter Cartwright, Alexander Campbell and their Evangelical contemporaries felt they had to expose Smith and his movement for what they were. Some of this opposition was spiritually motivated, as Cartwright and Campbell demonstrated. They were concerned to warn others not to be taken in by Mormonism’s deception, both of them strongly denouncing Joseph Smith and his false teachings. Cartwright, who met Smith on several occasions, had seen at least one Christian he knew personally join the Mormons, and Campbell was saddened when his friend Sidney Rigdon converted, taking his congregation with him. Rigdon was one of several significant early converts to Mormonism with prior involvement in Evangelicalism. In the case of Finis Ewing, and others like him, his opposition to Mormonism went beyond spiritual concerns, seeing it as a threat to social, political, and economic interests, with violent consequences.
Mormonism arose in an age of revivalism and heightened millennial expectation. In some cases, its converts had seen these revivals take place, but were disillusioned when they dissipated. In such a spiritual climate, people believed that the Second Coming was imminent, and they may have been anxious about their eternal destinies. Perhaps it is little wonder that so many of these people were led astray, susceptible to the overtures of Mormonism and its claims to offer something new and distinctive from what had come before. Its self-proclaimed prophet of the restoration, Joseph Smith, was in reality a devious and cunning man, and his Book of Mormon, other writings, and his numerous prophetic utterances were complete fabrications. Whatever Smith’s motivations were in founding Mormonism, it is tragic that for almost two centuries, millions of people have been led astray by the deception he, the early Mormon leaders, and their successors have perpetrated upon the United States and then the world. In the contemporary context, the danger of spiritual deception is more present than it was in the United States of the 1830s, just as it has been since the apostolic age. The example of history reminds Christians of the ongoing need to be spiritually discerning, and to not be taken in by false teachings, however appealing they may be.
1. Tad Walch. “1 Million Missionaries for LDS Church – So Far.” Deseret Morning News, June 26, 2007. http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,680194052,00.html (Accessed October 13, 2007)
2. Jan Shipps. Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 6.
3. Terry Chateau. “The Mormon Church and Freemasonry.” California Freemason Online. www.freemason.org/cfo/may_june_2001/mormon.htm (Viewed October 22, 2007).
4. Kenneth Scott Latourette. The 19th Century Outside Europe: The Americas, The Pacific, Asia and Africa. (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1961), 113-115; Walter Martin. The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), 204-205.
5. Latourette, 114; Josh McDowell, A Ready Defense (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, 1991), 342-343.
6. Latourette, 115.
7. Christian History Institute. http://chi.gospelcom.net/GLIMPSEF/Glimpses/glmps085.shtml (accessed October 18, 2007).
8. Peter Cartwright. Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (Nashville: Abingdon: 1956), 224-228.
9. Cartwright, 260-261.
10. Cartwright, 228-229.
11. Alexander Campbell. The Millennial Harbinger. Vol. 2, No. 2. February 7, 1831.
12. Richard L Bushman. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Chicago Press. 1984), 126.
13. Ibid. 125.
14. Ibid, 125.
15. Bushman, 174; Martin, 188.
16. Campbell, Millennial Harbinger.
17. Martin. 188.
18. Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter Day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1979), 28, 29; Klaus J. Hansen. Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 40.
19. Anna Scianna. “Missouri’s Mormon Past." Columbia Missourian October 15, 2006. http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2006/10/15/missouris-mormon-past/ (accessed October 27, 2007)
21. Stephen C. LeSueur. The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 247, 248.
22. Arrington and Bitton. 53.
Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Hansen, Klaus J. Mormonism and the American Experience. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott. The 19th Century Outside Europe: The Americas, The Pacific, Asia and Africa. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961.
LeSueur, Stephen C. The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
Martin, Walter R. The Kingdom of the Cults. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1997
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(Accessed October 27, 2007)
Walch, Tad. “1 Million Missionaries for LDS Church – So Far.” Deseret Morning News, June 26, 2007. www.deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,680194052,00.html
(Accessed October 13, 2007)
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