As I’ve been working my way through Brooks Hollifield’s fascinating Theology in America, several themes in my own thinking have come more clearly into view. Hollifield writes that with few notable exceptions (Lutherans, the transcendentalists, some Catholics, some mystics, and Horace Bushnell) American Christians strongly embraced the notion that Christianity was above all reasonable, that no sacred truth could be contrary to the exercise of Reason. One major theme in this rational Christianity is the evidences, both internal (OT prophecies of the NT, the Bible, despite its complexity is harmonious) and external (witnesses actually saw people rise from the dead or experience successful exorcism or be fed from the scraps of loaves and fishes). According to this “evidential Christianity,” American Christianity (evangelicals and Catholics used the evidences in conflicting but similar ways) was irrefutably true. I won’t bore you with all the details (though if you’re interested in these themes, Hollifield’s book is well worth the time), but I am fascinated by how Joseph Smith entered the fray. Both Hollifield and Terryl Givens (Viper on the Hearth ca. 80-85) have begun the discussion on this topic, but part of Joseph Smith’s religious power was that he caught mainline Christians in a convenient but pious fiction, a surprisingly tenuous accommodation to Enlightenment ideals. Miracles prove the truth of evangelical Protestantism, you say? Well what about miracles right now, before your eyes? Holy scripture contains the witness of Revelation to guide Reason, you say? Well what about holy scripture and revelation right now?
It has occurred to me while reading Alexander Campbell’s angry response to Mormonism in 1831 (widely considered the first anti-Mormon tract, though the story is somewhat complex), that finding recognizable Christianity in the Book of Mormon serves a similar purpose.
From Campbell to the present day, critics of Mormonism have noted gleefully the presence of modern Christianity in the pre-Christian era described by the Book of Mormon. The argument goes that only a simpleton would claim such explicit projection of Christianity back before Christ’s birth (even though the majority of the Book of Mormon content on Christ is extremely explicit prophecy about his coming). I have previously thought of this material as evidence of pseudo-dispensationalism, a rigorously harmonizing response to Protestant dispensationalism. Here, though, Smith also appears to be pointing out the hypocrisy of the use of the internal evidences. Types and prophecies of Christ in the Old Testament prove the Bible true? Well what about undeniably explicit prophecies and the pre-Christian existence of sacraments and ecclesial features of Christianity?
I will confess that in a not particularly ecumenical vein, I smiled a bit at the elegant simplicity of this potential rebuke, and it has made me wonder more about the material. So on this point, a few questions:
What is the meaning of the (B.C.) Christian material in the Book of Mormon?
Was Joseph Smith calling mainline Christians on the carpet by what critics would call a reductio ad absurdum?
Was Smith’s criticism accurate or just?
Do we need to reconsider the nature of early anti-Mormonism? Were they actually responding to a very real threat to their religious beliefs and the integrity of their accommodations to Reason and pluralism?
In a period when Biblical scholarship provides little if any support for the “internal” evidences of the Bible, can Protestants safely criticize the Christian material in the Book of Mormon?
I do not mean by invoking Smith specifically to suggest that he wrote the Book of Mormon himself as an attack on mainline Christianity; I believe that Smith was a prophet of God, and I merely chose this language to allow those of various stripes of belief about the Book of Mormon to contribute to the discussion. I do not believe that the Christian material demonstrates the ahistoricity of the Book of Mormon.
Hollifield’s book is Yale UP, 2003. He’s a prominent historian of American Christianity at Emory.
Campbell’s diatribe is “Delusions,” Millennial Harbinger 2, no. 2 (February 7, 1831): 85-96, republished as 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. Boston, MA, Benjamin Greene, 1832, with prefatory remarks from Joshua V. Himes