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2. The Latter Day Saints and the Restoration
by Steven L. Shields*
Latter Day Saints of various brands refer to themselves as the "Restoration Movement" or similar phraseology. This is most often done in a context that would suggest, and has long been taken as, that Joseph Smith, Jr. and his work were unique and exclusive to the churches who took him as their founder. The "New Mormon History" has worked diligently to help us understand that Joseph Smith, Jr. was a product of his time and culture, and that the Latter Day Saint movement did not emerge in a vacuum (Howard, 1992). Our understandings have been helped by the work of Dan Vogel (1988) and others who have explored the seeker movement and the primitivism that was apparently a strong force in the early years of the United States, and in Europe prior to that. Yet, there is still an incomplete understanding within the Latter Day Saint movement of the broader Restoration movement that demands our attention.
A recently published history of Herald House begins with this comment: "The Restoration movement consists of several million people, located in numerous ecclesiastical organizations, all of whom trace their origins to Joseph Smith, Jr., and to his experiences in the early 1820's" (Pement & Edwards, 1992, p.17). And in his time-honored missionary tome, the late LeGrand Richards (1976, pp.2-4) tells his readers that there are but three classifications pf churches: the Catholics, the Protestants, and the Mormons - who alone can lay claim to the restoration.
However, the broader American Restoration movement, which we know today mainly through the expressions of the churches of Christ (not to be confused with those of Latter Day Saint extraction) and the Disciples of Christ, needs to be considered. Those churches which are called "Campbellite" in the common vernacular also use the term "restoration movement" in refering to themselves exclusively. A recent writer bemoaned the problem, "Earlier this summer I was in 'Christianity Today' an article on 'The Restoration Movement'. I tore open to that page, eager to read about 'us'. What a shock to find that it wasn't even about us - it was about another group. And they stole our name!" (Cope, 1992, p.6).
The connection between the Latter Day Saints and the Restoration Movement led by Alexander Campbell and others has been considered by numerous writers, even from the earliest times. Sidney Rigdon has been the key in these discussions, and most writers generally concur that whilst Rigdon was indeed very influential in shaping many elements of the early Latter Day Saints church, Joseph Smith, Jr. had already set the foundational ideas into motion. Historian Richard T. Hughes (1993, pp.40-41), writing from the Campbellite position, suggests that
Hughes and others who have considered the position have been very helpful to the process in providing for us the setting out of which both Latter Day Saintism and Campbellism emerged. These views, however, have been written from a perspective of hindsight. By and large writers on this topic have generally taken a view that events occurred in Joseph Smith, Jr.'s life as they were written later - and perhaps embellished, as Richard Howard (1980) has so aptly demonstrated in his studies on the first vision accounts. Most writers have considered the Campbellite connection in the context of Sidney Rigdon, and from 1830 onward, which seems to imply a viewpoint that Joseph Smith's religious endeavors were springing up independent of all others, except in the context of the cultural influences which Hughes and the writers of the New Mormon History have so ably described for us (Hullinger, 1980).
...Walter Scott, one of the early leaders of the churches of Christ, was simply mistaken when he ascribed the success of the early Mormons to principles he thought the Mormons had learned from the Campbellites. Indeed, he charged that Sidney Rigdon "filched from us" the concept of immersion for the forgiveness of sins, thus accounting "for the success of the ministers of Mormonism." This myth has been a powerful theme among churches of Christ from the 1830s until the present day. Nothing, in fact, could have been further from the truth.
Thus brings us to the following propositions:
Time and space do not permit an adequate exploration of these five propositions, each of which could and probably should be treated in book-length efforts. Hence, this paper is but a preliminary exploration. I do not intend to attempt final answers but barely the beginnings of adequate treatment of these topics. I do, however, want to raise a number of thoughts and questions which will hopefully challenge serious students to further study and pondering of the issues raised.
- 1. The First Vision was Joseph Smith, Jr.' personal conversion experience, and was not foundational for the development of the Latter Day Saint church.
- 2. The Book of Mormon initially had nothing to do with the organization of a church, and there may have been little or no ecclesiastical motivation involved in the development of the Book of Mormon in any event.
- 3. Joseph Smith, Jr, organised a CHURCH (meaning a single, local congregational entity) and not a DENOMINATION (meaning a collection of single, local congregational entities).
- 4. The basic themes of and authority for the CHURCH founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. had as their source the efforts of Alexander Campbell and others in the Restoration Movement, although Smith was undoubtedly influenced and shaped by the culture in which he lived.
*This series of articles is an abridgement of a longer article presented to the John Whitmer Historical Association (1993) and modified for publication in his own journal, Restoration: The Journal of Latter Day Saint History, vol.8, 1995, pp.6-15, under the title, "The Latter Day Saints and the Restoration: A Prelimnary Exploration", which I myself critiqued in Vol.9, 1997, pp.61-62. Steve Shields is a member of the RLDS Church, holding an important leadership position for his Church in Korea, and is a personal friend. His scholarship is open, honest and thorough. Copyright © 1993 Steven L. Shields. Reproduced with permission.
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Last updated on 9 March 2001
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