Surrogates for the earliest Mormons

If you were unable to access the contemporary primary documents of the earliest Mormons (pre-Utah) but wanted nevertheless to learn about them, which group would you study most intently, and why?

twentieth-century Utah LDS
twentieth-century RLDS
nineteenth-century schismatics (e.g., Strangites)
American Methodists, ca. 1800-1840
Campbellite Baptists–“Christians”–pre 1840
the revolutionary prophets, ca. 1780-1820 (e.g. Southcote and Wilkinson)
Old Northwest unchurched frontierspeople
Yourself, placing a monocle atop your navel and squinting hard


  1. The list doesn’t include the current FLDS. I wouldn’t choose them, but many people think they must be like the early Mormons.

    I would choose the unchurched frontierspeople, like the Smith family; and myself, of course, since I’m the only Mormon whom I really know.

  2. I think Hatch’s Democratization make a fairly good case for all the evangelical groups in the late 18th and early 19th century. I might emphasize American Methodists, ca. 1780-1810 (during the height of Asbury’s Bishopric). None of the folks on your list really reflect Joseph’s ritual innovation, though. Maybe the Catholic Church.

  3. 1. fair enough
    2. read a little more about the revolutionary prophets and their antecedents. what if we added higher degree free masons? and what would it mean to ask the question separately for Joseph Smith himself and for his earliest followers?

  4. SC Taysom says:

    It might also be instructive to look at early Islam from the time of Muhammad through the calpihate of Abu Bakr. Charismatic visionary, production of new scripture in the mode of dialogic revelation, succession issues, routinization, etc. It’s all there.

  5. I recently started Doomsayers as per your recommendation.

  6. John Hamer says:

    Sam MB — I think it would depend entirely on which period of early Mormonism you wanted to observe. The early church was a moving target that evolved significantly over the course of Joseph Smith’s ministry.

    If you wanted to see the very first period, prior even to the organization of the church, you would want to observe the Whitmerite Church of Christ (extinct after 1963). They opposed most everything that happened after 1833; instead they continued to use seer stones to receive revelations, etc.

    If you wanted to witness the period from 1830-34, you would want to witness the Bickertonite Church of Jesus Christ and the Hedrickite Church of Christ (both of which still exist and are healthy today). They oppose the 1834 additions to the priesthood (adding the higher priesthood, etc.) and the changes in the Book of Commandments that led to the D&C. They still have meetings without prepared talks and they preserve Kirtland-era ordinaces like feet-washing.

    If you wanted to witness the period from 1835-38, your best bet would be to visit the RLDS church prior to the 1970s, or any of the non-Community of Christ RLDS groups that have emerged since then (e.g., the Remnant Church). These groups have the full structure of the church, but oppose Nauvoo additions like polygamy, baptisms for the dead and temple endowments.

    If you were interested in the 1839-44 period, you would want to witness the Cutlerite Church of Jesus Christ — the only non-Brighamite group to preserve the Nauvoo endowment (probably in its full form). The Cutlerites also recognize the establishment of the Kingdom of God (Council of Fifty, etc.) and other Nauvoo practices except polygamy, which they rejected.

    If you were interested in the Brighamite 1844-77 period, you would want to observe one of the fundamentalist churches, like the AUB or the FLDS.

    Smaller, more isolated groups tend to preserve historic practices better than large mainline groups. Large groups are more dynamic and can evolve faster. This happens all the time in language, for example. Icelandic is much closer to Old Norse because the small population has been isolated from the mainline of Scandinavia, where language has evolved more rapidly.

  7. The Anabaptists of Munster…

    And the Seekers.

    The former are remarkably similar in very many ways. Though there’s no real genetic relationship, there are many respects in which they reacted to the same kinds of circumstances in the same ways. (There’s a fairly significant quantity of literature comparing them with Mormons, including pieces by Quinn, McCue [I think?], and Forsberg.)

    The latter is a group proposed by Dan Vogel as a possible genetic ancestor to Mormonism. I’ve not read his book on them yet, but the bits I’ve heard sound more promising than the Campbellites.

  8. #7. It is definitely the Seekers. “Just leave us alone.”

  9. Munster Anabaptists are a fascinating antecedent that a majority of evangelicals believed was the actual antecedent of Mormonism (Quinn’s article seems to miss entirely how common this comparison was in antebellum America). THere were some who said they could predict how Smith would behave by reading accounts of the Anabaptists.

    Vogel’s book isn’t as good as it’s billed to be, unfortunately.

    As for John Hamer’s useful comment, a fundamental question elided by it is whether late remnants or near contemporaries are more reliable. How do the constructed memories of such remnants differ? Are the fundamental continuities greater among antebellums than among Latter Day Saints over almost two centuries?

    Also, John, this model of different dissenting groups as fossils of different phases of church development implies a more linear evolutionary model than I think the sources would support. That said, I love to hear the stories about the different dissenting groups, so keep them coming.

  10. Sam, if you’re interested in the different dissenting groups, get the book “Scattering the Saints.” John was co-editor of the book, and it was absolutely fascinating.

    It was such a trip to read about a Mormon succession crisis that didn’t mention anywhere the words “Brigham Young.”

  11. I’m with J. on early American Methodists, 1780-1820 and also Primitive and Reformed Methodists 1810-1840. At least that’s where I’d look for Mormonism circa 1830-1833. Many important converts and early Mormon leaders come from versions of Methodism that yearned for the primitive church (including BY and JT) and embraced charismatic religion in ways strikingly similar to early Mormonism.

    Chris (#7), Sam’s right. Vogel’s book is rather poor. The “Seekers” are difficult study because the group has been constructed after-the-fact by historians. “Seekers” as we construct the term today, included individuals seeking “true religion.” Because of the subjectivity of that quest and what they sought, it is difficult to study them collectively. Rather, the groups that seekers were drawn to and that gave some collective expression to their seeking, like Reformed Methodism and Reformed Baptists are perhaps more useful.

  12. Bruce V Chiarelli says:

    Herald House bookstore has an interesting book on other groups, called Divergent Paths of the Restoration. It tries more to be a reference than a readable history, but as such, it’s very comprehensive and well-balanced. The author deals quite a bit with the tiny splinter groups that went the way of the nineteenth century and aren’t covered anywhere else.

  13. sister blah 2 says:

    #8 Clair, that’s a great clip. Oh the irony that dirty hippies could rock out so aptly about the Saints striving for Zion in Nauvoo and Utah! I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this band before (the song predates my birth by quite a bit but still)–that lead singer’s voice is fantastic.

  14. Dirty hippies? That must be with tongue in cheek, oh young one. Those could be white shirts and ties they are wearing. They are a folk band and sing folk songs – the musical equivalent of Nibley’s Approaching Zion, as you rightly perceive. And, yes, the lead singer, voice and all, was the object of teenage crushes back in the day.

  15. sister blah 2 says:

    Haha, well how is an untrained, non-contemporary eye like mine supposed to tell the difference between dirty hippies wearing suits and clean cut kids in a folk band? Video I’ve seen of the Beatles and other bands shows them in nice suits when they were doing TV appearances. Sigh. Too confusing for my generation! :-)

  16. Perhaps the United Brethren or other Apostolic Restorationists such as Sidney Rigdon’s disciples.