Joseph as Proto-Catholic?

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

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  1. Nice post. I’ve been brewing a post for a couple days that relates to many of your thoughts. I tend to think that Mormon have a highly romanticized view of the Reformation and see the major characters as incipient Mormons. Even in the developmental arch of Catholicism and Mormonism share some interesting similarities – the value placed on tradition, e.g. Then there are the parallel struggles over history – the modernist movement for Catholics and the New Mormon History for us.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Good points, J. Both churches reject sola scriptura, and both take a synergist approach to salvation.

  3. I think 14-year-old Joseph would have liked 14-year-old Bernadette . . .

  4. DavidH says:

    I too see Mormonism as more akin to Catholicism than to Protestantism. I have been surprised to learn that many other Christian faiths trace their authority to the original apostles–the Eastern Orthodox, as mentioned by the opening post, but also Syriac (e.g., Church of the East) and Coptic (and other versions of Oriental Orthodox) Christians). My surprise is likely attributable to Mormonism’s restoration having occurred in a Protestant environment in which western Christianity is the only Christianity that seemed to matter. The old saw that, for those who believe in lines of authority, the choice is between Roman Catholic and Mormon, is simply untrue.

  5. “In his Restoration, Joseph seemed to react against Protestantism”

    See, the problem with that thought is that it implies that the Church belongs to Joseph–that Joseph is somehow responsible for the Semitic complexity apparent in the Restoration from the very beginning.

    A bit much for an uneducated farm boy of rural New York in 1820.

    I’m not sure who has a harder road ahead of them–the ones honestly trying to make the LDS church Joseph’s church, or the ones trying to prove that any church can tie themselves concretely to the authority of the apostles through anything other than a miracle.

    Either we believe God when He says that the inhabitants of the earth “have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant,” or we don’t. (D&C 1:15)

    But isn’t arguing with God’s interpretation of what happened what created the question the first place?

  6. “Joseph seemed to react against Protestantism, often trending (unwittingly?) back towards a more catholic approach to the faith.”

    It seems like the ball has been rolling that way ever since. And, I really don’t see how it could be any other way.

  7. Latter-day Guy says:

    1: I do agree that we tend to be pretty lavish in our praise of the reformers, and certainly they accomplished some important things, but the specifics of their doctrinal innovations are often further removed from LDS belief than Catholic/Orthodox doctrine.

    5: I understand what you’re saying, but –– while I believe in the divine origin of the restoration –– I think we also have to admit a hefty dose of the merely human/cultural influence on the shape of the Church. Honestly, had Joseph been exposed to religions with a high church style liturgy, our sacrament meetings today might look a little less low church protestant in style. Can’t the Church be both “Joseph’s church” and God’s church? Just like it’s Brigham Young’s church, and Orson Hyde’s church, etc. Admitting revelation is not the same as saying that the prophet is God’s avatar.

  8. #5 Paradox,

    There are several bad secular reasons for hierarchy: status (royalty), leverage (mafia), corruption (multilevel marketing).
    These all depend on hoarding power.

    There are also several good reasons: managing complexity, developing talent, fault tolerance. Authority and responsibility are (hopefully together in roughly equal portions) delegated. The top provides a mission, which is reified and refined as strategy, then tactics. At the bottom are the valuable people who “merely” provide logistics. Without them, nothing happens.

    It seems plausible to me that if God has a mission for us, he saw in Joseph someone with talent to be mentored in bringing that to fulfillment. Obviously, one man alone could not do that (Jesus did not even found a Church per se, and St. Paul was better at starting than at sustaining) and Joseph was perhaps instructed to delegate, guide, and nurture.

    What good is the Apostle’s authority if he does not know what to use it for? Where children instinctively recognize power, only those actually possessing power really understand responsibility. Both Mormons and Catholics grow up with this lesson and suffer to seek God deliberately and with help. Low-church Protestants tend to covet what they do not understand and lose faith on their lone journeys.

  9. You might be on to something since I’ve long heard it maintained that Catholics make the best Mormons.

  10. Interesting, Kevin. Your thoughts motivate me to go back and re-read some key passages with new eyes. As always, thanks for your insight.

  11. Kieran says:


    I would also agree. Catholics find the low church daily Sunday service frustrating but are comforted by the Temple ceremony and the depth of Priesthood authority as well as the emphasis on the overall plan of salvation. Culturally, Catholics find the lack of reverence on Sunday and the trivializing of theology by life-long members bewildering when there is so much depth to the Prophet Joseph’s revelations and the Book of Mormon.

  12. Swisster says:

    Excellent. Thanks to J. Stapley’s Sept. 2007 BCC post on this subject, and Matthew Grow’s Church History article referenced therein, I always have this topic in the back of my mind. May I repeat J. Stapley’s wonderfully provocative closing sentence from 3 years ago? “Perhaps, at this moment of Joseph’s betrayal, he felt to sympathize with what he recognized as the previous dispensation’s heir.”

  13. I think that Catholicism would not have quelled all of Joseph’s unease with the religious discord of the day. If anything, I think it would have added to it. Sure, Catholicism has the claim of priesthood authority, a line of succession, and the hierarchy, but it is seriously deficient in terms of the church organisation that existed at the time of Christ and beyond.

    I do think that, inasmuch as the church Joseph organised did, in many ways, seem to be a counter-Protestantism movement, there would have also been a counter-Catholicism movement. I am not sure how that would have affected the development of the church, though. The organisation of the church was revealed by God. Those called to the various positions were called by God. The ordinances were outlined by God.

    However, there was, and remains still, much that the Lord allows His chosen leaders to decide on their own. As much as this is a church that we believe is led by God, we must still recognise the influence of those who guide it on earth. I think we can see the reaction against (or for, as the case may be) various movements in the ministries of subsequent prophets.

  14. Thanks, Swisster. Alex, I believe one can see the cultural and societal factors as well as the revelation of God. For example, you mentioned the organization and the ordinances. Those two things are still evolving in interesting ways. Perhaps the single most static thing within those areas is the baptism ritual, but even that has seen some interesting evolution. I tend to think it isn’t helpful to view things so statically.

  15. Aaron R. says:

    Kevin, I have been under the impression that some of the seemingly anti-catholic rhetoric in the Book of Mormon was rooted to this protestant culture. So two thoughts: is it possible, that just because there was no catholic church is palmyra, that he was not unaware of catholicism and its tradition? Second, I seem to recall that you favour a loose translation method for the BoM, would you also argue therefore that this hypothetical catholic-joseph would have written a different BoM?

  16. J – I think we are in more agreement than you may think. I am very much a believer of the notion that God has given us the principles, but allows us to decide how to implement them. Thus we see methods of delivery changing regularly, with no affect on the doctrinal foundation.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, I agree that the seemingly anti-Catholic rhetoric in the BoM is simply an absorption from Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric. And presumably if Joseph became a Catholic there would have been no Restoration and no BoM.

  18. it would be fair to characterize Mormonism as a re-catholicizing of a Christianity that had been too much Protestantized.

    That’s absolutely correct, however, Smith and his early Mormon followers (keep in mind that JS had a big group of followers that saw things his way) probably didn’t want Catholicism proper. The low church stuff in Mormonism is deliberate I would argue. 1) the church in the Book of Mormon is distinctly low church-esque. Mornoni 6. 2) Mormonism is highly influence by a long radical tradition of Anabaptists and separatists so that a lay clergy is quite important. 3) Keep in mind that this radical tradition also promoted a “true church” idea. Whereas Protestants did not, they promoted an “invisible church” idea of the elect and no one knew exactly who the elect were. But the radicals did form groups that they called the “true church” based on the idea of following that Sermon on the Mount at all costs. See Franklin Littel’s The Anabaptist View of the Church for a good explanation. Also Ernst Troeltsch’s The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches for how this radical tradition (called the “sect-type”) works in the history of Christianity.

    So paradoxically, Mormonism was both high and low. For my attempt to explain how that all works see here and here.

  19. Also I would argue that the supposed anti-Catholic rhetoric in the BoM is simply how we read it. I would argue that what the text is actually saying is rather more nuanced that we tend to assume.

  20. Aaron R. says:

    But would that rhetoric have left him just as dissatisfied with catholicism. I guess my questions work on the assumption that though he may have relaxed some of his feeling toward catholicism if he had a congregation in his community it seems unlikely that he would be able to shake off the anti-catholic rhetoric and that the restoration and BoM would have happened but in a slightly different form.

  21. Aaron R. says:

    Steve, I think you have articulated my thoughts far better than I could of.

  22. Steve, I love your stuff. I think what you have described works very well for Joseph Smith’s lifetime. How do you think it trends for the Utah Church, or even to the post-Vatican II era?

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Steve, I wasn’t able to get into the Cambridge article, but I just now read the Religious Educator one. I thought that was a terrific summary of the history. I too have been fascinated by Val Rust’s observation of the profound radical background to Mormonism’s earliest converts, and see you added to that idea. Very well done. (I agree with your observation that those radical converts wouldn’t have wanted Catholicism proper.)

  24. Thanks Kevin and J. After JS, hmm… I don’t have a grand narrative but it’s in the 1860s when Cardinal Reisach says that Mormonism represents a Protestant turn to Catholic principles and thus proves that Catholicism is true.

    A couple more thoughts on the BoM and Catholicism and the Great and Abominable Church. The first descriptor of the GAC is that it persecutes the saints of God. Pre-modern Catholicism did a lot of that (persecuting dissenters). Yet 1Ne 13 doesn’t say anything about the Reformation and state-church Protestantism also persecuted dissenters suggesting that they were also behaving abominably. Not all groups were persecutors however: radicals like Quakers and Baptists.

    Anyway, all churches evolve as does culture so that things are very different now. We ought not to see any church as some unchanging unified body. Historical Catholicism was a big tent. But religious persecution is a bad thing (abominable) and there has been quite a bit of it in Christian history.

  25. As time progresses the top down authoritarians will aggregate power and control. As time passes the Church is looking more and more Catholic.

    It appears to me that Joseph picked up on many of the Gnostic remnants left over in the gospels and the letters of Paul. These Gnostic pieces are much more egalitarian and much more centered on the spirit (pneumatic) life of the individual vs the control of the organization. (I teach them correct principles…) With the passage of time these interpretations are being reinterpreted and molded into a more traditional, top down, (psychic) Christianity, more particularly Catholicism.

  26. Rob #25. it’s easy to say that, but I think it almost sounds more like a justification with disillusionment with the church rather than truth.

    No doubt the church has more structure, which the members are able to benefit from from, but I don’t see how you can say Joseph merely taught principles and left it at that.

    You could even argue the reverse in terms of authority/control.

    When you have written revelations from God, being issued individually to members by President Monson, maybe then we can claim that our current leadership approaches the level of control that Brother Joseph had and made use of. We’ve got revelations targeted at individuals requiring them to sacrifice for the good of Jospeh, his family, and the organization. It’s all too easy to look at the structure/nature of the church then and now with a cynical eye. But we have to remember, the same could easily be said of the Savior or his Apostles. I don’t see real truth in it, even if you can line the facts up and look at them a certain way.

  27. From
    Bishop Woolley demonstrated his tolerance for dissent by aiding his heretical counselor (1864-1869) William S. Godbe. Godbe had been out of harmony with Church policies for some time before he organized a spiritualist movement called the Church of Zion. During the months that followed that tragic schism, Bishop Woolley permitted the leaders of the Godbeite movement to hold meetings in the Thirteenth Ward assembly rooms. Knowing that Godbe had been a respected counselor, Bishop Woolley deemed it prudent to “answer” the dissidents after each of their Sunday meetings. The Godbeites responded the following week. Thus, a series of debates on the New Movement, as it was called, was held in the ward meetinghouse.

    Chris, I understand what you mean. Joseph was not easy. He asked for huge sacrifices. I am not talking about that. I am talking about his ability to turn over large portions of his kingdom to other people to run, his gift to trust (maybe beyond good judgment) other people.

    But his spirit was alive with Bishop Wolley. In the tight knit society of Salt Lake City at the time Bishop Woolley allowed, and was allowed, wide range of trust. Can you imagine the above episode in today’s SLC? It is my opinion that Bishop Woolly was simply doing as he had learned from his master, Joseph.

  28. I myself have wondered about Joseph trusting beyond good judgment. Sometimes it seems the Lord does that with each of us, which brings into the question of it being “beyond good judgment” if the Lord is doing it. But I get what you mean.

    But it might be a stretch that he was doing what he learned from Joseph and then to compare that to the rest of the church. I don’t know how that situation would play out now. Back then I imagine all those who joined the Godbeite movement you speak of probably worked on and built the building! So it might have been a bit tricky to tell them they have no right to use the building in a frontier situation…

    But even now it’s not unheard of for our buildings get used by other religions I’ve seen wards and stake presidents actively encourage members from the pulpit to volunteer to help build chapels for other faiths.

    So while I can feel what you mean by tighter control, I don’t know if I see it that much more. You can always find an example sure… and another example from history can serve as a counter point.

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