Mormon Inquiry

Mormon Inquiry

Quakers, Shakers, and Mormons

One approach to understanding early Mormonism and its doctrines is to compare it with other denominations of the same period. In E. Brooks Holifield’s book Theology in America, Mormonism is covered in Chapter 16, “The Immediacy of Revelation,” which also discusses two other movements that claimed new revelation as the basis for their theological innovations.

Here is Holifield’s introduction to the chapter.

The populist principle in theology–the claim that the unlearned, even more than the learned, could discern theological truth–often countered traditional theologies. It could sometimes blend with the quite different idea that God continued to provide new truth through immediate revelation to faithful believers or to chosen prophets. From an assertion of private revelation it was easy to argue that the canon of scripture was not closed and that new truths required new canons. In America, this logic of private revelation produced more than one new claim to theological truth.


The Hicksite Quakers were followers of Elias Hicks (1478-1830), a farmer from Rhode Island who, after a religious experience in 1774, relied on his “Inner Light” to make pronouncements related to points of doctrine dividing Quakers. Hicks counseled reliance on “immediate divine revelation” as much or more than reliance on the Bible, which he rather freely reinterpreted. Here is Holifield’s summary of Hicks’ position vis-a-vis the evangelical Quakers of his day with whom he disagreed:

Hicks battled the Quaker evangelicals by associating them with Calvinism. He condemned the Calvinist doctrines of original sin, atonement, and election as “an outrage.” Convinced that every human being had free agency, he insisted that the “elect” were constituted simply of all who elected God. The Calvinist doctrine of justification he regarded as a means of avoiding the spiritual discipline through which the faithful waited on the prompting of the Light, struggled to overcome self-will, and attained a state of submission and obedience.


The Shakers, formally the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, followed the teachings of Ann Lee (1736-84). Starting in 1781, Lee preached in New York and throughout New England. “Like the early Quakers, they grounded their faith in the immediate experience of the Spirit. Even more than the Quakers, they derived a theology not only from scripture but also from immediate revelation.” Shakers embraced the populist approach, criticizing refined theological argument and learned ministers alike.  Some Shakers also stressed “the dual character of God as Father and Mother,” related to an earlier Shaker belief that “the Christ had been manifested in both a male and a female.” Interestingly, section 49 of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants is addressed to the Shakers and refutes some of their doctrines.


Coming finally to the Mormons, it is clear that the logic of new revelation was sort of in the air. The Mormon revelation as it was delivered through Joseph Smith reflected a populist perspective, as did the preaching of the Quakers and Shakers. Joseph Smith differed from others who announced new revelation in that he produced a sizeable volume of new scripture, the Book of Mormon, rather than simply announcing or preaching new doctrines, practices, or insights following an inner light or the Spirit. But the Mormon experience reflected more than just the populist perspective; it also reflected the religious folk culture of the period.

The early movement drew many of its adherents from a culture in which the miraculous and the magical were part of the texture of daily life. … The earliest Mormon converts–people who lived on the margins of evangelical Protestant culture–were already accustomed to the use of seer stones, divining rods, amulets, astrology, healing objects, revelatory dreams and visions, and occult numerology. Despite the scorn of the learned, many of them lived in an enchanted world of esoteric rituals, magical symbols, and occult parchments. This was a folk culture they shared with other populist religious groups ….


As a short commentary, note that claims of new revelation understandably bring a sharp response from other believers. In the days of early Mormonism, it was Protestant clergy who affirmed a closed canon that attacked Mormonism as too miraculous or magical for comfort. Now it is secular critics that portray Christianity as a whole and the beliefs of any denomination as too supernatural for comfort. They reject any revelation, old or new, and are beginning to ridicule any Christian claim with the same relish that Christian commentators have displayed in criticizing Mormon claims for over a century. Welcome to the 21st century.

I hope to put up a couple more posts drawing from other chapters in Holifield’s book that highlight other contemporary denominations and other aspects of early Mormonism.

Comments read comments(3)
post a comment

posted January 19, 2009 at 12:07 am

This seems to be a particularly flawed argument. Would such an argument also serve a critic of Christianity who, because there were people who were possessed at the time of Jesus, could give credence to the various charges of the Pharisees that Jesus was likewise possessed?

report abuse


posted January 19, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Thanks for this, Dave. Personally, I think this is a very apt comparison in Holifield’s overall magisterial book. Placing JS and other Mormons within the intellectual context of populist ideology is, methinks, crucial in understanding the success and message of the early Church. I look forward to your other posts on Holifield’s book.
Evan: I fear your comment is missing the point of Holifield’s argument. He is not judging the “truth claims” of these difference sects, and is in no way arguing that any of them are “possessed” in any way. Even for those of us who hold Mormonism to be a true restoration of truth, we need to bracket those truth claims and treat all different religious movements on an equal level. In this instance, I think the comparisons are especially appropriate.

report abuse


posted January 20, 2009 at 10:05 am

As a Native American revelation holds a special part in our world outlook. When I went on a vision quest to find my miaheyyun, or spirit power, a vision that would would guide me and start me on a lifelong spirit quest, a starting point so to speak, it became an integral part of me. Although I may attend the White Mans church on Sundays, on the time of the full moon and the first sliver of new moon in the west, I try to find a quiet spirit place, smoke the sacred tobacco and watch how the spirit moves the smoke to see where my spirit power will come from during the next moon. On a full moon night I stand in a sacred circle, salute the four sacred directions with my weapons and say-“Hear oh great spirit. A warrior of the Absarokee (Crow) seeks your guidance for the next moon.

report abuse

Previous Posts

More blogs to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Mormon Inquiry. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Most Recent Mormon Story on Beliefnet Recent prayer post on Prayables Most Recent ...

posted 2:21:45pm Aug. 27, 2012 | read full post »

The meanings of Zion
This is the third post on Richard L. Bushman's Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008). [See Part 1 and Part 2.] In Chapter Three, Bushman reviews the several meanings of the term "Zion" in LDS doctrine and thinking. The Mormon ...

posted 11:00:37pm Jul. 29, 2009 | read full post »

A statistical portrait of Mormons
The Pew Forum recently issued a detailed summary of survey information about Mormons gathered as part of a much larger survey of religious life in the United States. It is a very readable summary, noting that Mormons comprise 1.7% of adults in ...

posted 12:33:08pm Jul. 29, 2009 | read full post »

July 24th: Pioneer Day in Utah
July 24th is a state holiday in Utah, designated Pioneer Day. It commemorates the entry of the first wagon train of Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847. They came down Emigration Canyon, somewhat north of the present I-80 ...

posted 5:38:50pm Jul. 23, 2009 | read full post »

Finding heretics in strange places
A very interesting post at Mormon Matters, reviewing a 1989 book titled "Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?" The book was written by an attorney who grew up a Jehovah's Witness, then became an Evangelical Christian. That lasted until he ...

posted 6:27:09pm Jul. 22, 2009 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.