The story of Mormonism’s origins begins with the young Joseph’s experience with Christian pluralism in the Burned-Over District of upstate New York in the early 19th century. He was deeply affected by and resistant to the fragmentation of the faith all around him. Surely there should be one Lord, one faith, one baptism, but that was not his lived reality at the time, and it bugged him more than most, so much so that he took his concerns to God himself in the grove that famous spring morning. We’re all of course familiar with this seminary version of what happened.
When I was young, I just sort of assumed that Joseph’s experiences with Christian faiths included pretty much all of the major faith traditions of the day. Actually reading just a little history reveals that his exposure to Christian sects was by no means exhaustive. At Palmyra the main denominations he encountered were the Presbyterians, the Methodists and the Baptists. Coming from New England he certainly had experience with Congregationalists, and it would be reasonable to assume he had some exposure to Quakers and other Protestant groups. But the boy Joseph by this time had had essentially no experience at all with the catholic traditions, whether Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
And I’ve always wondered: What if there were a gorgeous Catholic cathedral on one edge of Main Street in Palmyra? How might history have been different? Joseph was concerned with finding the “one true church,” a claim that was difficult for a Protestant sect to make, but one that might have carried more weight–perhaps even much more weight–with the young Joseph coming from a Catholic church, given the continuity of that faith back to the very origins of Christianity itself. Might Joseph have simply concluded that Catholicism was the one true, historic faith and simply been baptized therein (perhaps being impressed by the beautiful iconography and the smells and bells of the catholic experience)? The nascent Mormon understanding of a “Great Apostasy” was in some sense an adaptation from Protestant thought (as was so much of early Mormonism), but one engineered with essentially no actual, lived experience among the catholic faith traditions.
In his Restoration, Joseph seemed to react against Protestantism, often trending (unwittingly?) back towards a more catholic approach to the faith. Perhaps the biggest example of this is the Mormon understanding of priesthood and authority, which looks a little bit like Luther’s priesthood of all believers dragged back a fair distance towards its Catholic origins. Unlike Protestantism but like Catholicism, Mormonism is both hierarchical (with a single leading figure at the head) and, despite its lay nature, bureaucratic. And despite its low church origins, Joseph eventually created his own version of a high church liturgy in the temple, which has been compared to the mass.
Late in his life in his Sermon at the Grove, perhaps reflecting on persecution Catholics were suffering at the time that was very reminiscent of what the Mormons had been through, Joseph made this remarkable statement:
“[the] old Catholic Church is worth more than all [the other churches]—here is a princ[iple]. of logic–that men have no more sense–I will illustrate [with] an old apple tree—here jumps off a branch & says I am the true tree. & you are corrupt–if the whole tree is corrupt how can any true thing come out of it—the charr[character] of the old ones have always been sland[ere]d. by all apos[tates] since the world began—”
W.D. Davies once famously described Mormonism as a re-Judaizing of a Christianity that had been too much Hellenized.(1) I wonder whether, to a perhaps lesser extent, it would be fair to characterize Mormonism as a re-catholicizing of a Christianity that had been too much Protestantized.
(1) W.D. Davies, “Israel, the Mormons and the Land,” in Truman G. Madsen, ed. Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft and BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 91