Mormon Inquiry

Mormon Inquiry

Mormons and Restorationists

This is the second post drawing on E. Brooks Holifield’s Theology in America: Christian thought from the age of the Puritans to the Civil War (see first post here). The broad themes Holifield draws from American religion in the 19th century — a continuing quest for reasonableness and rationality, avoidance of theological “speculation,” and appeals to internal and external “evidences” to support belief in God and the Bible — are observed in the theological content and style of almost every American denomination. It is other factors that distinguish them from each other. Restorationists, those who would “return the Church to its primitive purity, return theology to the people, and return reason to theology,” emerged as an identifiable movement in the early 19th century. Interestingly, Mormonism is not grouped with the Restorationists.

Alexander Campbell was a leading 19th-century Restorationist whose followers helped form what soon became the Disciples of Christ denomination. Requiring biblical warrant for doctrines and practices meant rejecting such developments as creeds, conferences, Sunday Schools, seminaries, even printed musical notes for hymns.

The restorationists uniformly believed that creeds had done nothing but create discords and parties. Creeds prevented unity and usurped the authority of the Bible. … Campbell once described his movement as a “campaign against creeds.”

Campbell also rejected the idea that the Bible resulted from “plenary and verbal” inspiration. Instead, he argued for the infallibility only of the Bible’s “ideas and leading terms,” as well as its “narratives and episodes.”

There are other parallels with early Mormonism. Both movements showed a keen interest in eschatology and the end times. Both rejected speculative theology and Calvinist tenets, particularly the idea that original sin imputes guilt to later generations. Both taught that baptism conveyed remission of sin (rather than faith alone accomplishing that result). And don’t forget that Sidney Rigdon was a Restorationist minister before he joined the Mormons in late 1830; he had developed differences with Campbell, who would not endorse the economic communalism displayed by early Christians in Acts 4.

Commenting now on Holifield’s approach, it is clear from a glance at the LDS Articles of Faith that Mormons certainly affirm many Restorationist beliefs. For example, “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.” So why isn’t the LDS Church considered Restorationist?

Several reasons spring to mind. I suspect Holifield felt the Mormon embrace of new revelation and an expanded canon overshadowed its Restorationist impulse. Furthermore, Alexander Campbell famously criticized the Mormon beliefs in very pointed terms (after Rigdon left the movement for Mormonism and took much of his Ohio congregation with him). It just won’t do to group together denominations that display such deep disagreement with each other.

As a final reason, whatever modern Evangelicals might think about the claims and doctrines of the Restorationists, they were plainly Christian. Grouping Mormons with the Restorationists would validate the LDS claim to be Christian, the last thing most Evangelicals appear to want to do. Of course, I’m not saying Holifield employed this particular line of reasoning. I’m just noting that portraying Mormons as following Restorationists in rejecting extrabiblical creeds and Calvinist doctrinal speculation in favor of doctrines and practices more closely aligned with the Bible than are Evangelical doctrines and practices would make it more difficult for Evangelicals to criticize the LDS position. The easiest way to avoid that result is to quietly ignore Mormon overlap with the Restorationist agenda.

If I had more time I’d do a third post discussing Unitarians and Universalists, but I don’t. Anyone interested will just have to find a copy to purchase or borrow and do their own reading, which I highly recommend if you like to dabble in theology.

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The differences are huge

posted January 21, 2009 at 9:57 pm

You seem to swerve into one of my largest concerns about the common method for LDS evangelism: “We’re Christians, we’re just not Christians like you understand them to be.” And with this LDS missionaries stand on my porch and when asked, “Do you believe you can become a god?” answer in metaphor instead of telling the truth. When asked, “Do you believe there may exist many true gods?” They answer in ways that would make a politician proud. And so in their never-ending quest to appear “We’re just like them, only better,” they (and you) promote confusion over the true beliefs and historic teachings of the church.
I wish the LDS church would embrace their history and the profound differences between their core beliefs and those of the mainstream Christian faith. Can you imagine the power church members would have if they didn’t have to spend any time or energy attempting to debunk the church’s history? No more need to label most critics as merely backslidden unworthy apostates. Websites such as would be able to go out of business rather than flourish with the growing stream of disgruntled LDS who are leaving the faith simply because they learn the truth that was concealed from them at the start. Ministries like and could finally move on to other challenges with the recognition that the LDS faith has finally embraced its historic — and very different — doctrines.
So, how wide is the divide? Well, to the uninitiated, not very wide at all. Many LDS seem content to have you last a lifetime in that belief. To those that research their history, changes in doctrine, scriptures, and teachings, the divide is darn near infinite.
Why might an author chronicling the Restorationist movement choose to exclude the LDS? It could be as simple as the recognition that the Christian faith excludes henotheists from the label of true Christians.

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posted January 22, 2009 at 12:09 am

Count me as one that believes Christianity is alive and well in the LDS faith. The need for continuing revelation to guide Christ’s church is just as great today as it was in biblical times. Seems silly to argue that a church guided by revelation wouldn’t be changing to meet God’s purposes and the needs of his children. Same held true throughout biblical times. Why not now?

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posted January 22, 2009 at 2:15 am

Yes, there are large differences, but a lot of these are created by the mindset that says “when asked…answer in metaphor instead of telling the truth”. What that shows is that you start from a position of believing that we LDS have a hidden creed that we deliberately conceal. You do not consider that perhaps the reason you did not hear a reply of what you consider ‘the truth’ is that your expectations are wrong. As far as becoming gods is concerned, this is a traditional anti-Mormon attack based on our belief that we will share in the inheritance of Christ in exactly the way that He promised in the New Testament. We do not believe that we will become Gods to rival Heavenly Father. We believe that we will be His children in eternity, assisting Him in the accomplishment of His will through the use of His divine power that He will allow us to use. The anti-Mormon attack implies that this means that we will be equal to Heavenly Father, when in fact we will be entirely subordinate to Him because we will have a full understanding of His purposes and intents. Yes, we may construct worlds in our turn, but only as the Father requires it of us and according to His design and purpose. However, speculation about the things that we will do in eternity are exactly that, speculation; what is not speculation, and what is a direct promise by Jesus Christ, our Lord and Redeemer, is that we will be joint heirs. If you wish to distort that, that is your right, but don’t be surprised if missionaries don’t say what you expect them to say.

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chris g

posted January 22, 2009 at 11:12 pm

Differences are huge – attacking people for trying to get work past semantic issues in a non-confrontational way is, to my way of thinking, rather odd. Binary answers to deeply religious questions are a good way to create deep misunderstandings.
Dave I do like the parallels you draw between the functional role of creeds and practical role of modern Mormon revelation. They seem to serve the same basics needs – refocussing on what constitutes core belief.

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posted January 23, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Thanks for your posts on Holifield’s book. I think what’s going on here (with his not lumping early Mormonism together with the Restorationists) is the debate over what markers defined the earliest Mormon identity. Holifield places Mormons with other religionists of the day who sought after revelation (as you detailed in your first post), thus making the implicit argument that the revelatory nature of early Mormonism trumps the restorationist impulse in defining the movement in its earliest years.

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posted January 24, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Re: The differences are huge
I’m unaware of any evidence that the “growing stream” out of the LDS church is in any way, shape or form related to the LDS claim to be associated with Christianity. The majority who leave the church do not join with more traditional branches of Christianity, but become indifferent or openly antagonistic to religion generally. Dropping the claim to be part of the Christian tradition doesn’t resolve debates over LDS historical issues one way or the other.
What’s troubling about the accusation of the “wide divide” is the steadfast refusal to even address the issue by denying invitations to dialog and discuss. Here we have a post that discusses Mormonism in relation to the Restorationist movement, yet the first post is yet another dogmatic assertion that there is no relationship between Mormonism and Christianity. Whether that’s true or not isn’t the issue – at least engage the argument instead of resorting to the facile mantra of “No, you’re not Christian no matter how much you try lying to us that you are”.

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