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Mormon Inquiry

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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