A Tale of Two Restorations

Expanatory Note: In 1999, the fledgling organization FAIR (more recently FairMormon) held its first ever conference, in Ben Lomond, California. I had nothing to do with the group at the time, but someone invited me to present at the conference, and I agreed to give it a shot. (That first conference was held in a Relief Society room, and the number of speakers almost exceeded the audience. This was a very humble beginning compared to the conference centers and large crowds of today.) My effort was a comparison and contrast of the restorations of Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith. I have copied the main text below, as I’m confident the vast majority of our readers has never seen this piece. For space considerations I have omitted the Introduction, a Chronology, a Bibliography and Notes; that apparatus can be found where the presentation is archived at the FairMormon website. The piece is 20 years old, so I cannot claim to stand by everything I wrote at the time, but I hope some of you may find it interesting nonetheless

The Campbell Reform Movement

The story of the Campbell reform movement begins not with Alexander, but with his father, Thomas Campbell.5 Thomas was born in Ireland in 1763, his family having moved there as part of a series of migrations from Scotland. Thomas’s father was a Roman Catholic-turned-Anglican, yet Thomas himself preferred the Presbyterians. With his father’s hard-won consent, Thomas prepared himself for the ministry by taking the three-year classical course at the University of Glascow, followed by seminary training. In 1807, partly for health reasons and partly in search of better opportunities, he came to America, intending to send for his family once he became established.

Thomas arrived in Philadelphia just as the Associate Synod of North America was meeting, and was appointed to the Chartiers Presbytery, in southwest Pennsylvania. Thomas at this time was what was known as an Old Light Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian. The Seceder Presbyterian Church had withdrawn from the Church of Scotland early in the eighteenth century over the right of local churches to select their own ministers. The Anti-Burghers split with the Burghers over whether it was proper to take a civil oath that bound them to support the “religion presently professed within the realm.” The Burghers took the view that as Seceders they could take the oath; the Anti-Burghers took the view that they could not. Thomas never cared much for what he viewed as petty differences such as these, and he was among those who tried to heal these divisions, without any personal success. These trivialities were not theological but political in nature and only of real relevance in Scotland. Thomas was therefore dismayed to find that they persisted in Pennsylvania as well.

Thomas’s appointment by the Anti-Burgher Seceder Synod was to be short-lived. Within a matter of months a list of charges was filed against him. In general he rejected the extreme sectarian divisiveness of the time, and invited all Presbyterians to communion within his church. Layered on top of that were specific theological differences he had developed with the Presbyterians. Thomas (1) rejected the Calvinist requirement of some sort of mystical experience as an essential element in saving faith; (2) rejected the use of creeds as terms of communion; (3) believed that lay elders should pray and exhort in public worship when no minister was at hand; and (4) argued that when Christians lack the opportunity of hearing one of their own party, it was permissible for them to hear other ministers preach the gospel. In a long series of proceedings he seems to have been given due process and an opportunity to express his views, but since those views were clearly at variance with those of the Synod he was essentially left without an appointment.

Although his superiors did not approve of his views, there were a small number of fellow religionists who did, and in 1809 they formed the Christian Association of Washington (Pennsylvania). Their intention was not to form a new church, but a body that would work for reform in the various churches with which the Association’s members were in communion. Important principles of the group were an appeal to Christian unity and the need for reliance on the New Testament in matters of faith rather than “human opinion.” The slogan of the Association was “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Thomas penned a 56-page booklet outlining the ideals of the Association called the Declaration and Address.6

At this point in the story we need to return to Thomas’s eldest son, Alexander, who was born in Ireland in 1788. Virtually all of Alexander’s early schooling came from his father. In 1808 Thomas sent for the rest of his family to come over, and so Alexander, his mother and six younger siblings began the voyage. The ship ran aground, however, and so the family was compelled to stay in Scotland until the following year. This gave Alexander the opportunity to study at his father’s alma mater, the University of Glascow, where he came under the influence of Greville Ewing. Ewing was a disciple of the Haldane brothers, who were leading Scot independents. Ewing had begun teaching from several books, including one recently published by James Haldane entitled View of the Social Worship and Ordinances of the First Christians,7 which advocated a restoration of primitive Christianity in all its details. A number of the views and practices Alexander was later to champion as a reformer on American soil clearly derived from the experience of his year’s sojourn in Glascow among some of the leading reformers of the time. Among these were the following:

the independence of each local congregation; the rejection of all clerical privileges and dignities, without rejecting the ministry itself; the right and duty of laymen to have a part in edifying as well as ruling the church; a plurality of elders; a conception of faith as the belief of testimony, an act that any man is capable of by applying his natural intelligence to the evidence supplied by Scripture; [and] weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper.8

At the conclusion of his year’s stay in Glascow Alexander essentially withdrew from the Presbyterian Church.

It was with a sense of foreboding that Alexander approached the reunion with his father. He anticipated that his father would be upset at the course he had taken. Alexander was therefore greatly relieved to find that Thomas had taken steps in the same direction, and that independently both father and son had removed themselves from Presbyterianism. Alexander arrived at about the time the proof sheets for the Declaration and Address were coming from the printer. He read the sheets avidly and concurred fully in his father’s sentiments. From this time forward Alexander devoted the rest of his life to the attempt to restore primitive Christianity and work toward Christian unity.

Both Thomas and Alexander continued to preach, but were now unchurched. Thomas made a quixotic application to the main Presbyterian Synod of Pittsburgh (as opposed to the Seceder Synod), but was promptly rebuffed, as Alexander had predicted. Although it was not originally their intention to form a church, now finding themselves churchless the Campbells led the Christian Association to become a church in 1811, known as the “Brush Run Church” from its location. Thomas was chosen elder, Alexander was licensed to preach, and the group began to follow some of the familiar practices of the Haldanean churches of Scotland.

The birth of Alexander’s first child in 1812 provided an impetus for him to review the whole subject of infant baptism. While allied with the Presbyterians the Campbells had allowed the sprinkling of infants as a matter of forbearance, but now that they were on their own it was possible to reexamine the question from a fresh perspective. From his study of the available books on the subject as well as the Greek New Testament, Alexander concluded that the sprinkling of infants did not constitute baptism. So Alexander and Thomas, their wives and three other members of the Brush Run Church presented themselves to a Baptist preacher for baptism by immersion. This action, in which Alexander took the lead, clearly separated them from the Presbyterians and naturally led to friendly relations with the Baptists. In 1813 the Brush Run Church applied for membership in the Redstone Baptist Association. The Campbells appear to have fully disclosed their views in the application, and there were certainly variations from regular Baptist doctrine. For instance, the Redstone Baptist Association had formally adopted the Philadelphia Confession of 1742, while the Campbells rejected all such creeds. Nevertheless, the application was accepted, and the Campbells began their 17-year affiliation with the regular Baptists.

On August 30, 1816, Alexander preached his famous “Sermon on the Law” before the Redstone Baptist Association.9 One of the areas where Alexander had begun to differ from both the Presbyterians and the Baptists was in his understanding of the Old Testament, and this sermon was an early indication of the extent of that difference. To Alexander, the Old Testament was the scripture of the Mosaic dispensation, and had no direct relevance to those of the Christian dispensation except as mediated through the New Testament. In Christ, not only was the ceremonial law done away, but the whole substance of the Old Testament. The moral principles Christians often saw in the Old Testament existed apart from that volume of scripture. He did not reject the Old Testament as scripture–it did show the providence of God in dealing with men–but he argued that it was irrelevant to Christian salvation. Alexander’s ideas about the Old Testament were not well received by the Baptists, and the forces within the Association that were hostile to the reformers began to grow in reaction to this sermon.

In 1820, John Walker, a Seceder Presbyterian minister of Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, challenged the Baptists to a debate on the proper subjects and means of baptism. The local Baptists prevailed on Alexander to argue their side. Walker took the position that infant children were proper subjects of baptism, because “baptism came in the room of circumcision, that the covenant on which the Jewish church was built and to which circumcision is the seal, is the same with the covenant on which the Christian church is built and to which baptism is the seal.”10 He further argued that the mode of baptism merely required the use of water; the way the water was used was irrelevant. Alexander responded on two fronts. First, he flustered Walker with his command of New Testament Greek and his insistence that baptizein meant to “dip” or “immerse.” Second, he argued that the analogy to circumcision was specious because, as he had expressed in his Sermon on the Law, the Old Testament was a different covenant not applicable to Christians. He argued that if you want to learn about baptism you should turn to that part of scripture that actually teaches baptism, rather than arguing by analogy to some earlier ordinance that was no longer binding on Christians.

The general opinion was that Alexander won the debate. But while the Baptists were pleased in the heat of battle to have carried the day, upon reflection many were concerned that Alexander had further published his dispensationalist ideas about the Old Testament in the process.

It was not long after this debate that Adamson Bentley and Sidney Rigdon visited Alexander, talked into the night, and were won over to the reform cause. The Mahoning Baptist Association, representing Baptist churches in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania, had recently been formed, and many of the churches in this region were sympathetic to Alexander’s views.

Three years later Alexander debated another Presbyterian minister, a Reverend MacCalla, of Augusta, Kentucky, also on baptism. Sidney Rigdon rode with Alexander on horseback 300 miles to the scene of the debate, where Sidney served as recorder. In this debate Alexander began to expand his approach to the question. If baptism is the “washing of regeneration,” why baptize infants, who have not yet sinned? While he acknowledged the fall of Adam and its inherited consequences in the corruption of human nature, the native tendency to sin is not itself sin. Alexander was beginning to reject the extremes of the classical dogma of original sin (which is closely tied to the practice of pedobaptism). His talents as a debater developed in these early debates, he would later put to use in others, including debates on Christianity versus atheism and on Roman Catholicism.

In 1823 Alexander began to publish a new magazine called The Christian Baptist. This magazine enabled Alexander to hone and disseminate his reformist views. Alexander used the magazine as a pulpit to criticize the established churches; the critiques of his fellow Baptists were particularly felt, come as they did from an insider. Alexander sought Christian unity, but his method to achieve that aim was not the ecumenical negotiation of a later age, but rather to root out and expose error as he saw it. The tone of the journal was highly iconoclastic. It was in the pages of The Christian Baptist that the slogan “the restoration of the ancient order of things ” began to be applied, but restoring that ancient order meant tearing down practices and doctrines of the church without specific apostolic mandate. Alexander took on the role of free-lance critic of Christianity as then practiced, denouncing such things as missionary societies, the use of organs, the title “Reverend,” ad infinitum. The principal objects of his attacks can be classed under three heads: (1) the pretensions of the clergy, (2) unauthorized church organizations, and (3) the use of creeds as standards of orthodoxy or tests of fellowship.

In 1826 Alexander published his own translation of the New Testament.11 This work was actually a revision of several old translations prepared by three doctors of the Church of Scotland a half-century before. He modernized the Jacobean usages of the King James Version and decried what he viewed as the too frequent use of transliteration. “John the Baptist” therefore became “John the Immerser” in Alexander’s version, a change that many readers found particularly galling.12

The Mahoning Association in 1827 found its growth to be stagnant. The 17 churches in the Association had a net increase of only 16 persons that year, at a time when the population was expanding rapidly. Walter Scott, a friend of Alexander’s, was appointed as an evangelist for the Association, despite the fact that he was not himself a Baptist. Scott developed a six-part “plan of salvation,” involving three things man must do and three things God would do in response. The requirements for man were (1) to believe, based upon an application of one’s reason to the evidence of scripture, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; (2) to repent of one’s own sins; and (3) to be baptized. In response, God would (1) deliver the man from his repented sins, (2) bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost (meaning growth in grace and Christian living), and (3) grant eternal life. Scott later called this scheme the “Gospel Restored,” a title Alexander thought pretentious. The results of this new style of conversion were striking and immediate, as hundreds presented themselves for baptism. The Calvinist requirement of some sort of mystical experience or assurance that the sinner had actually been saved had been a great stumbling block to the conversion of many, which Scott’s procedure now ameliorated.

The period from 1825 through 1830 saw the gradual separation of the reformers from the Baptists. The Redstone Association expelled reform churches, and in 1830 the Mahoning Association, where the reformers were in the majority, voluntarily disbanded, since such associations were not biblical and therefore contrary to the spirit of the reformation. Alexander ceased publishing The Christian Baptist and began to publish The Millennial Harbinger in its stead, which continued his acerbic critiques of other churches. Over the next several years Alexander would join forces with Barton Stone to found the movement Alexander preferred to call the “Disciples of Christ.” And, of course, in the February 1831 issue of The Millennial Harbinger Alexander published his infamous review of The Book of Mormon.

In 1835 Alexander published what might be called his magnum opus, The Christian System.13 The publication resulted in the immediate cry that here at last was the “Campbellite creed.” In a sense, this was unfair, for the book did not constitute a creed that others had to believe. Rather, it was a statement of his own theology. In its systematic, ordered approach it was something like a very modest Summa Theologica. Included were chapters on God, man, Christ, the Bible, and many other topics, synthesizing the conclusions which Alexander had drawn over the previous 25 years.

Alexander would continue to live for another 31 years, enjoying a rich, full life.

The Two Restorations Compared

In comparing Alexander’s beliefs to the restoration of Joseph, it is helpful to begin by quoting Alexander’s own summary of his core belief, which he wrote (in the third person) for a religious encyclopedia in 1838:

They [meaning the Disciples of Christ] regard all the sects and parties of the Christian world as having, in greater or lesser degree, departed from the simplicity of faith and manners of the first Christians, and as forming what the apostle Paul calls ‘the apostacy [sic].’ This defection they attribute to the great varieties of speculation and metaphysical dogmatism of the countless creeds, formularies, liturgies, and books of discipline adopted and inculcated as bonds of union and platforms of communion in all the parties which have sprung from the Lutheran reformation. The effects of these synodical covenants, conventional articles of belief, and rules of ecclesiastical polity, has been the introduction of a new nomenclature, a human vocabulary of religious words, phrases, and technicalities, which has displaced the style of the living oracles, and affixed to the sacred diction ideas wholly unknown to the apostles of Christ.14

But for its learned prolixity, this statement could have been written by a Mormon missionary of the time.

The overarching similarity between the Campbells and the Latter-day Saints was the belief in the need for a restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ. The English word “restore” derives from the Latin restaurare, “to renew, rebuild.” The re- compound in the verb makes it clear that “restore” does not mean to establish in the first instance, but “to bring back or put back into a former or original state.”15 Therefore, if the church needs to be “restored,” something must have happened to cause it to be altered from its original existence. That something Alexander identified with what Paul called “the apostasy” (as in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, he apostasia, KJV: “falling away”).

In his preface to the first edition of The Christian System,16 Alexander explains his views on “the great apostasy foretold by Prophets and Apostles.” Alexander was himself very much a Protestant, and he viewed the reformation of what he called “the haughty and tyrannical See of Rome” as a glorious development. But while Martin Luther and his heroic associates were like Moses leading the people in the wilderness, there was no Joshua to take them all the way into the promised land. While some of the superficial practices of the Roman church were appropriately reformed, the reformation did not go far enough, leaving largely intact the ecclesiastical tradition of the Fathers. Christianity was splintered as new state churches were established following different reform movements. A lust for ecclesiastical power and patronage created what Alexander called “Protestant Popes,” who over time assimilated the new church to the old. “Creeds and manuals, synods and councils, soon shackled the minds of men, and the spirit of reformation gradually forsook the Protestant church, or was supplanted by the spirit of the world.”

Alexander surveyed how the penances, works of faith and of supererogation of the Roman church drove Luther and Calvin to the ultraism of “faith alone.” The renewal of the speculative theology of Augustine and Calvin’s five great dogmas led to five opposite opinions in the mind of Arminius in 1591. All of these ideas were imported into Britain, where the Episcopal Church in Lord Chatham’s day was a singular compound of “a Popish liturgy, Calvinistic articles, and an Arminian clergy.” The numerous abortive efforts to reform the reformation bore no fruit, and had convinced Alexander that the many creeds, constitutions and platforms of Christendom had unnecessarily divided the body of Christ. What was needed was to restore primitive Christianity, by building “alone upon the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself” being the chief cornerstone. In Alexander’s words, “neither the Augsburg articles of faith and opinion, nor the Westminster, nor the Wesleyan, nor those of any state creed or dissenting establishment, could ever improve the condition of things, restore union to the church, peace to the world, or success to the gospel of Christ.”

The way to restore the church, in Alexander’s view, was to return to the Bible alone. This meant not only professing the Bible, but also living in accordance with it. It also meant returning to that “purity of speech” characterized by scripture as opposed to the philosophical language of the creeds.17 His own experience at stripping away the creeds and relying solely on the Bible was a troubling one, for it had caused him to realize that much that he had been taught and believed as a Christian was in fact erroneous. One does not become a Christian by professing one or another of the various creeds. Rather, the bedrock principle is this: “Faith in Jesus as the true Messiah, and obedience to him as our Lawgiver and King, [is] the ONLY TEST of Christian character, and the ONLY BOND of Christian union, communion, and co-operation, irrespective of all creeds, opinions, commandments, and traditions of men.”18

The creeds rejected by Alexander included not only the Protestant confessions, but also the historic creeds of the first millennium. If to be a Trinitarian meant to accept the Nicene Creed, then Alexander was not a Trinitarian. In fact, Alexander expressly rejected what he called the “Trinitarian System.” It is one thing, however, to state in the negative that Alexander was not a Trinitarian; it is another to affirm in the positive just what it was Alexander did believe about the nature of God. His religious descendants would probably argue that he was more or less orthodox in his views, although he refused to use the “orthodox jargon” he so despised, and they might be right.19 Since he claimed to believe nothing more nor less than the scriptures, and since the scriptures do not objectively settle this particular question in rational terms that all could agree to, it should not be surprising that Alexander left his views on this subject somewhat vague.

At a fireside conversation in Kentucky, Alexander was asked his views on the subject of the Trinity. Someone named Timothy later wrote him a letter dated March 1, 1827, asking him to summarize this presentation in writing, which he did.20 He expressed his reluctance to speculate on the incomprehensible Jehovah. He also expressed his concern, evident in later writings as well, that “if a man did not speak in a very fixed and set phrase on this subject, he endangered his whole christian reputation and usefulness.” On the other hand, he was not afraid to think or express his thoughts on the subject, even at the risk of being thought less than orthodox.

Alexander objected to the Calvinistic doctrine of the Trinity for the same reasons Calvinists objected to the Arians and Socinians. The Calvinists objected to the idea that the Savior was a creature, however exalted, because in their view this derogated from his eternal glory. Alexander objected to the Calvinist doctrine of eternal filiation, that is, that the Savior was an “Eternal Son,” because if the Savior were only the Son of God from all eternity he would be entitled to little more glory than what the Arians would give him. In Alexander’s view the names Jesus, Christ, Messiah, Only Begotten Son and Son of God apply only from the time of the Savior’s mortal ministry. He became the Son of God simply because he was born of Mary as described in the scriptures. There was no Son of God prior to the reign of Augustus Caesar. Arguing from John 1:1, before that time there was God and there was the Word. In an elaborate analogy, Alexander compared God to a “thought” and that which became Christ to a “word”; just as a thought cannot exist without a word and can only be expressed with a word, so was the ante-mortal relation between God and the Word. Therefore, as Alexander put it, the Socinians moved upon a hillock, the Arians upon a hill, the Calvinists upon a mountain, but Alexander himself from a height so great above them that the others lost their relative disproportion to each other, at least to his perception.

Barton Stone, the leader of the Christian movement that would merge several years later with Alexander’s reformers in the early 1830’s, was an avid anti-Trinitarian and wrote a letter to Alexander questioning his views.21 Although he was very civil, he thought Alexander’s imagery of looking down from an immense height on the rest of the Christian world extremely presumptuous, saying that he himself should be afraid to venture at so great a height for fear of giddiness. Barton argued that despite Alexander’s claimed divergence from the Calvinists, there was very little material difference that he could see. What they called the eternal Son of God, Alexander called the Word. While his language seemed to speak of two eternal Gods, Barton read Alexander as affirming the Word to be the one, self-existent and eternal God himself, just as the Calvinists would affirm the same thing of the Son of God. Barton then quoted numerous scriptures reflecting the essential separateness of the Son of God from God the Father.

In his response,22 Alexander stated that he was not at all disposed either to adopt the style nor to contend for the views of the Trinitarians, any more than the views of the Socinians or Unitarians of any grade. He then went on, however, for the sake of argument, to assert that there was nothing unreasonable or unphilosophical in the Trinitarian position. At least he said he would demonstrate this, but in reality what he shows is that reason cannot settle the question: “the Unitarian and the Trinitarian are alike unphilosophical–alike unreasonable.” According to Alexander, no man can rationally oppose the Calvinistic hypothesis on principles of reason, nor can he prove it to be correct by any analogy or principle of reason whatsoever. This being the case, he returned to his theme of using Bible terms alone, stating “I believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son; that Jesus was the Son of God, in the true, full and proper import of these words; that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, which was sent by the concurrence of the Father and the Son to attest and establish the truth, and remain a comforter, an advocate on earth, when Jesus entered the heavens.” Although he seemed to back off when challenged by Barton, in The Christian System published eight years later Alexander returned to the analogy he favored of the relation between “thought” and “word” as a description of the relation between God and the pre-mortal Savior.

Walter Scott’s six-point “Gospel Restored” is of interest to Latter-day Saints because of the resemblance it bears to the fourth Article of Faith. The elements of faith, repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost appear, in the same order, in both sources. That saving faith is readily available to all seems a deceptively simple and obvious concept to us today, but in the revivals of the time there was nothing simple about it; achieving saving faith was a great ordeal that required a tortuous experience of some kind. George A. Smith, the Prophet Joseph’s cousin, recalled the disappointment he felt when he attended a seventeen-day Congregational revival. He attended every session, but did not develop any “sensation of religion which should bring him down to the anxious bench.” When prayers and exhortations of the minister failed to bring him down, he was pronounced reprobate and “sealed up unto eternal damnation.” He later was baptized a Mormon in 1832 at age 15.23 The very first heresy with which Thomas Campbell had been charged was his rejection of the notion that a sense of assurance was necessary for the saving efficacy of faith. The Mormons, although less consciously anti-Calvinist than the Campbells, also adopted a simple notion of faith. This more straightforward and scriptural view of faith was more accessible, and was part of the reason for the success of Walter Scott with the reform Baptists, and of early Mormon missionaries as well. It would be a mistake, however, to equate completely the Campbell and Mormon ideas of faith. For the Campbells, faith was more an intellectual exercise, a matter of applying one’s intellect to the evidence of scripture. Although for the Mormons faith could have a similar intellectual basis, more often it was based on a spiritual witness.

Our respective conceptions of repentance were very close. It is particularly interesting that Alexander rejected the traditional theology of “original sin” and concluded that we repent of our own, actual sins. Alexander does not seem to have appreciated the full significance of this break from historic Christian orthodoxy, applying it solely to his rejection of pedobaptism. The Mormons also rejected original sin, as reflected in the second Article of Faith, but for them the idea was more profound, leading to a fundamentally positive view of man and ultimately to the possibility of divinization.

There is also a certain similarity in our beliefs concerning baptism, which was Alexander’s bread and butter issue. Both groups believed in the necessity of baptism, both were immersionists and both rejected pedobaptism. The strong denunciation of infant baptism in the Book of Mormon was instrumental in Sidney Rigdon’s acceptance of that book’s authenticity. Alexander had separated from the Baptists in part over the meaning of baptism. For the Baptists, baptism was the sign or seal of one already saved; for Alexander, it was a necessary precursor to the remission of sins, but had no abstract efficacy in and of itself. The Mormons followed a middle path, taking the words of Peter on the Day of Pentecost at face value, that baptism is “for the remission of sins.”

Following baptism, Alexander believed that God would infuse the believer with the Holy Spirit, to furnish him for the good fight of faith and to anoint him as a son and heir of God. The Mormon practice of conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, although unquestionably a New Testament practice, would have struck Alexander and his followers as scandalous. The reason has to do with very differing conceptions of religious authority in the church.

Alexander, in typically Protestant fashion, saw religious authority as deriving from the Bible. He did not believe in any form of apostolic succession, a point he made in his debate on Roman Catholicism. Early in his career he had been criticized for preaching without having been ordained, but he put little stock in such ordinations. To some extent this attitude was fueled by his profound distrust of the clergy.

While Alexander’s rejection of the need for authority was acceptable to some, to many authority was the most notable ingredient missing from Alexander’s attempted restoration. Consider the reaction of Parley P. Pratt upon his introduction to the preaching of the reform Baptists:

About this time one Mr. Sidney Rigdon came into the neighborhood as a preacher, and it was rumored that he was a kind of Reformed Baptist, who, with Mr. Alexander Campbell, of Virginia, a Mr. Scott, and some other gifted men, had dissented from the regular Baptists, from whom they differed much in doctrine. At length I went to hear him, and what was my astonishment when I found he preached faith in Jesus Christ, repentance towards God, and baptism for remission of sins, with the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost to all who would come forward, with all their hearts, and obey the doctrine!

Here was the ancient gospel in due form. Here were the very principles which I had discovered years before; but could find no one to minister in. But still one great link was wanting to complete the chain of the ancient order of things; and that was, the authority to minister in holy things–the apostleship, the power which should accompany the form. This thought occurred to me as soon as I heard Mr. Rigdon make proclamation of the gospel.

Peter proclaimed this gospel, and baptized for remission of sins, and promised the gift of the Holy Ghost, because he was commissioned so to do by a crucified and risen Saviour. But who is Mr. Rigdon? Who is Mr. Campbell? Who commissioned them? Who baptized them for remission of sins? Who ordained them to stand up as Peter? Of course they were baptized by the Baptists, and ordained by them, and yet they had now left them because they did not administer the true gospel. And it was plain that the Baptists could not claim the apostolic office by succession, in a regular, unbroken chain from the Apostles of old, preserving the gospel in its purity, and the ordinances unchanged, from the very fact that they were now living in the perversion of some, and the entire neglect of others of these ordinances; this being the very ground of difference between the old Baptists and these Reformers.

Again, these Reformers claimed no new commission by revelation, or vision from the Lord, while they had not the least shadow of claim by succession. It might be said then, with propriety: “Peter I know, and Paul I know, but who are ye?”

However, we were thankful for even the forms of truth, as none could claim the power, and authority, and gifts of the Holy Ghost–at least so far as we knew.24

The question of authority was inextricably linked with that of revelation, for as Parley observed, apostolic succession could only come in one of two ways. Direct succession as claimed by the Catholics would have been difficult for a Protestant to lay claim to, so the only alternative was a new revelation from God. While Alexander believed in both God and the efficacy of prayer, he was otherwise very much a creature of the Scottish Enlightenment. Revelation, apostles, miracles and gifts of the spirit were all things that admittedly existed in the New Testament church, but Alexander argued that they were only needed then because the church was just getting started and required such gifts to survive and grow. Now that the church was established, those gifts were no longer necessary. A new revelation from God was quite impossible. So while attitudes towards the need for religious authority were a significant difference between the Campbells and the Mormons, a closely related difference was the willing acceptance of modern revelation by the Saints and the recoil at such in horror by the Campbells.

If one is to restore the early Christian church, there are two basic ways to go about the task. One would be to restore it the way Nauvoo Restoration restored Heber C. Kimball’s home: to attempt to recreate it as it was and preserve it in precisely that setting. This is a sort of museum approach to restoration, and this was the path followed by Alexander. The alternative approach would be to restore not only the forms of New Testament worship, but also the means, which entail revelation between God and man. This of course is the path followed by Joseph. If one restores the means as well as the forms, however, a paradox arises, for revelation by its very nature can take the church in new directions responsive to changing conditions. It may be that a church patterned after a first century Hellenistic ekklesia is not what is needed by the Saints in, say, twenty-first century Russia. Some in the early Church of this dispensation were not prepared for this possibility. For example, David Whitmer objected to the printing of the Doctrine & Covenants, calling it “a creed of religious faith,” a definite insult in the Christian primitivist movement. Wording from the introduction to the Doctrine & Covenants seems to have been intended to counter such complaints:

There may be an aversion in the minds of some against receiving anything purporting to be articles of religious faith, in consequence of there being so many now extant; but if men believe a system, and profess that it was given by inspiration, certainly, the more intelligibly they can present it, the better. It does not make a principle untrue to print it, neither does it make it true not to print it.25

Another major difference between the Campbells and the Mormons had to do with their respective attitudes towards ancient Israel and the Old Testament. As we have seen, Alexander drew a hard and fast line between the two Testaments; one much less penetrable than other Christians would have allowed. Joseph, in contrast, largely obliterated the artificial division between the Testaments. This can be seen particularly in the Book of Mormon, with its expressly Christian portrayal of Old Testament-era figures.

The early church was compelled to fight long and hard against the Gnostics. To some extent they won the battle by preserving the incarnation of Christ in the flesh, but lost the war by assimilating to Gnostic thought on the all-important question of the materiality of God. A similar mixed result occurred with respect to the scriptures in response to Marcion, a second century heretical Christian whose teachings were opposed by Irenaeus in his Contra Haereses and by Tertullian in his Adversus Marcionem. Marcion contended that the Old Testament had no place in the Christian church. In its place he developed a kind of proto-New Testament, containing the Gospel of Luke (with Old Testament material edited out), the Apostolicon consisting of 10 of Paul’s letters, and his own Antitheses. This challenge was instrumental in spurring the Christians to collect the writings that would eventually be canonized in the New Testament itself. The heresiologists succeeded in preserving the Old Testament for Christian use, which after all had been the Scripture of the first Christians. But again, in a sense, they won the battle but lost the war. While Marcion’s heresies were repelled and the Old Testament saved, the Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament, coupled with early polemical battles between the Christians and Jews, resulted in a certain Christian ambivalence towards the Old Testament. Even today, while most Christians consider the Old Testament part of the Bible and Scripture in its own right, like George Bailey’s guardian angel, it does seem to be regarded as a kind of Scripture-Second Class. Alexander did not reject the Old Testament so vehemently as Marcion did, but there is a definite Marcionite flavor to his attitude towards it. In Alexander’s case I think we may need to amend the slogan sola scriptura to solum Novum Testamentum.

Conclusions

We have traced the background to the Campbell restoration movement and compared some of its principal features to that of the Latter-day Saints. Similarities exist in the understanding of an apostasy resulting in the need for a restoration; the rejection of creeds, and in particular the rejection of metaphysical speculation regarding the Trinity; and in the conversion process of faith, repentance and baptism. Strong differences include variant understandings of the roles of religious authority, revelation from God to man, and the Old Testament.

What are we to conclude from this comparison? As a faithful Latter-day Saint, I will suggest twelve conclusions we might draw from these parallel attempts to restore original Christianity:

    1. Alexander perceived himself to be a reformer, in the mold of a Luther or Calvin. I would agree with his self-perception. Just as we honor the great lights of the Reformation, I would suggest that Alexander was a very important religious figure of the first half of the 19th century, deserving of our honor and respect. It is true that he authored an anti-Mormon book, but his review of the Book of Mormon really is not that bad; would that all anti-Mormon books were written with the intelligence and originality of Alexander’s effort. Although he was no Luther, I picture Alexander as a kind of missing link between the earlier reformers and the Restoration through the Prophet Joseph. In a sense, he was almost an Elias,26 preparing the way for something greater to follow. But for Alexander, it is questionable whether the tremendous success of the Mormons in Ohio would have occurred, and but for that success, the Mormon Church very easily could have died on the vine amidst persecution in New York. Important early figures like Sidney Rigdon and the Pratt brothers would not have been exposed to the Gospel were it not for Alexander’s reform movement. I for one am happy to acknowledge his contributions, unwitting though they may have been.
    2. Alexander’s basic notion of lopping off all of the creeds and philosophical accretions that had become encrusted, barnacle-like, on the hull of traditional Christianity was an immensely powerful idea. I have fancifully labeled Alexander’s approach to the scriptures solum Novum Testamentum, but in fairness I think he came closer to the Protestant ideal of sola scriptura than did many other Christians. In the case of traditional Christianity, we may need to amend the slogan to read sola scriptura et sola decreta conciliorum: “the scriptures–and the decrees of the councils–alone.” We understand that in the past hard theological battles had to be fought, and we appreciate the efforts of those who tried so valiantly to preserve the Christianity of the New Testament. But it is beyond question that compromises were made in the course of those battles, which may have been politically necessary or expedient then, but which are no longer necessary or expedient today. Excising the ugly bulwark of accumulated philosophical debris and returning to the scriptures themselves is a wonderfully liberating idea, and it is little wonder that Alexander was able to attract so many others to his way of thinking.
    3. When we speak of the accretion of philosophical ideas to Christianity from the creeds, the number one item on the list is the Trinity. Latter-day Saints have long argued that the Trinity is not scriptural, but rather a product of the Christological controversies leading up to the Nicene Creed. It is fascinating to see this realization unfold in Alexander. He had been raised a Presbyterian, and was well schooled in the Trinity, yet when he rejected the creeds in favor of the New Testament itself, the Trinity did not make the cut as a New Testament concept, and was relegated to the trash heap. Alexander seemed ambivalent about his rejection of the Trinity, but reject it he did. Even stronger examples can be found elsewhere among the American independent Christian movements, as is the case with his denominational co-founder Barton Stone, who rejected the Trinity completely. When Alexander stuck to his core principles of using only New Testament language to describe God, he managed to stay close to the truth. But despite his insistence on the sufficiency of the New Testament alone, there was a touch of Aquinas in him, and he could not resist a little theologizing of his own. Those efforts were badly muddled and showed that systematic theology was not his strength. Be that as it may, here we have an independent Christian movement rejecting the creeds and concluding that the Trinity is more creedal than scriptural. This is a second witness to the Mormon view of the matter.
    4. Alexander to me is a flesh and blood testament of the power of the famous observation made by a Catholic scholar to Orson F. Whitney, which he recorded in a pamphlet entitled The Strength of the Mormon Position:

Many years ago a learned man, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, came to Utah and spoke from the stand of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. I became well-acquainted with him, and we conversed freely and frankly. A great scholar, with perhaps a dozen languages at his tongue’s end, he seemed to know all about theology, law, literature, science and philosophy. One day he said to me: ‘You Mormons are all ignoramuses. You don’t even know the strength of your own position. It is so strong that there is only one other tenable in the whole Christian world, and that is the position of the Catholic Church. The issue is between Catholicism and Mormonism. If we are right, you are wrong; if you are right, we are wrong; and that’s all there is to it. The Protestants haven’t a leg to stand on. For, if we are wrong, they are wrong with us, since they were a part of us and went out from us; while if we are right, they are apostates whom we cut off long ago. If we have the apostolic succession from St. Peter, as we claim, there is no need of Joseph Smith and Mormonism; but if we have not that succession, then such a man as Joseph Smith was necessary, and Mormonism’s attitude is the only consistent one. It is either the perpetuation of the gospel from ancient times, or the restoration of the gospel in latter days.27

  1. Now, of course, Alexander rejected apostolic succession, so he doubtless would have rejected this argument. But for one who accepts apostolic succession, as in the case of a Parley Pratt, the argument is a compelling one. In the law of evidence there is a doctrine referred to by the expression “fruit of the poisonous tree,” to the effect that an unlawful search taints not only evidence obtained in the search itself, but also facts discovered by any process initiated by and deriving from that unlawful search.28 On the question of religious authority, Alexander strikes me as being very much like fruit of a poisonous tree. By what right did the Baptist preacher who baptized Alexander perform that ordinance, and by what right did Alexander himself subsequently baptize others? None, so far as I can see.
  2. While Alexander’s approach to restoration was an attempt to replicate such first century forms as an overseer, a plurality of elders, deacons serving temporal functions, observance of the Lord’s day, weekly observance of the Lord’s supper, and so forth, Joseph’s was a dynamic restoration based on apostolic authority and continuing, ongoing revelation. Joseph restored not only New Testament forms of worship but also New Testament means of worship. Joseph’s revelations preserved in the Doctrine & Covenants have the ad hoc, pragmatic quality of Paul’s letters, while Alexander’s writings have, on a very small scale, the formal quality of writings of a theologian or philosopher.29 Just as a less literal translation paradoxically can give a truer sense of the original than a very literal one, so the most important part of the restoration was not the aping of static forms of worship, but the renewal of the relationship between the early saints and their God. Some of the early saints of this dispensation, such as David Whitmer, were not prepared for the consequences of worshiping in a living church directed by ongoing revelation, as opposed to a museum piece tied inextricably to one set form from the past. These saints therefore left the Church when Joseph’s revelations moved in the least degree from the set forms they had so idealized.
  3. The Prophet Joseph’s restoration was biblically oriented, rather than focused narrowly on the New Testament. Joseph’s mild dispensationalism in which he saw seven dispensations of human history was nothing like the more rigid dispensationalism of Alexander. To Joseph, the Old Testament and the New Testament were both integrally part of the Bible and ultimately taught a single plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. The profoundly Christian focus of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, the visitation of angelic figures from Old Testament times and the restoration of temple worship were all things that would have made no sense to Alexander, as for him there could be no miscegenation between the Testaments. The Prophet’s close study of the Old Testament as part of his work on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible led to an intermingling of the Testaments that would have been anathema to Alexander and his biblical heterodoxy.
  4. W.D. Davies once described Mormonism as a re-Judaizing of a Christianity that had been too much Hellenized.30 This observation helps to explain some of the differences between the restorations of Joseph and Alexander. Where Alexander seemed to be aiming at the restoration of a hypothetical church that might have seemed at home within the pages of Acts, his rejection of Old Testament relevance to the task resulted in a still very Hellenistic image of this ideal church. Joseph’s embrace of the Old Testament as well as imagery and ideals from ancient Israel meant that, in a sense, Joseph overshot Alexander, at first reflecting something like the earlier Christian church at Jerusalem, and then under the influence of his continuing revelations going on to restore Israel itself (just as the early Christians believed they were doing).31
  5. This embrace of ancient Israel goes a long way toward explaining the remarkable phil-Semitism that is a characteristic part of the genius of authentic Mormonism.32 We may be criticized for rejecting certain of the historical traditions of Christendom, but some of those traditions need to be rejected by all in any event, as most Christians now recognize.
  6. A basic knowledge of the Campbell reform movement provides significant context for understanding Alexander’s critique of the Book of Mormon. The tone of Delusions is sarcastic and biting, but we need to realize that he wrote the same way about his fellow Christians as well. He unfortunately antedated Dale Carnegie by several generations. His style was bilious, which did not endear him to others and resulted in the development of an anti-Campbellite movement and literature set against him. Were he alive today he would no doubt delight in joining anti-Mormons in attacking the Book of Mormon and the LDS Church in general, but when he was done he would turn his poison pen against his anti-Mormon fellows and catalog their religious failings as well. More significantly, most of his arguments against the Book of Mormon are based on his rather heterodox premise that the Old Testament is not a Christian document. The book is remembered mostly today for its famous “environmental” paragraph, in which Alexander claims that the Book of Mormon contains every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the previous 10 years. But that is a small part of the argument. Most of Delusions is concerned with episodes like the non-Levite Lehi making an offering, or temple worship outside of Jerusalem, complaints that are easily answered today. Alexander repeatedly scorns the heavily Christian orientation of the book. Because it was received by revelation and so freely mingles Old and New Testament themes, there was never the slightest chance that Alexander would have or could have reacted favorably to it.
  7. An understanding of the biblically oriented restoration of Joseph provides important context for appreciating some of Mormonism’s most distinctive doctrines, such as the practice of plural marriage and the acknowledgement of the existence of a plurality of gods. Joseph initiated plural marriage in Ohio following his careful studies of the patriarchal narratives of Genesis and amid his restoration of other distinctive Old Testament practices and institutions. It is common for anti-Mormons to claim that the sole reason for polygamy was Joseph’s prodigious carnal appetites, but it is ludicrous to consider this issue in ignorance of the restoration context that generated it. Similarly, Joseph in the JST repeatedly tried to emend the text to avoid references to a plurality of gods, but it is easy to see how the sheer number of those references, particularly in the Old Testament, could have overwhelmed him until he sought revelation on the matter. If an anti-Mormon wishes to argue against these Mormon distinctives, in my view the proper way to frame the argument would be to claim that Joseph took the Bible too seriously. I do not agree that that is so, but at least I could understand that argument. I recently saw on the Internet a case where an anti-Mormon was trying to claim that there was no polygamy in the Bible whatsoever, based on legalistic distinctions between concubines and wives. This particular argument was downright silly, and an embarrassment to the anti-Mormon fraternity. Apparently, the Church’s critics are preternaturally unable or unwilling to acknowledge that Joseph took the Bible dead seriously, often more seriously than they themselves do. Wherever the Bible led, Joseph followed, even when it conflicted with the religious assumptions of his youth.
  8. I believe that Alexander had an important insight when he observed that the traditions and creeds of historic Christendom have been largely responsible for the unfortunate disunity of Christianity. That was a profound observation with which I am in agreement.
    However, Alexander’s Scottish Enlightenment rationalism was impotent to heal the breach. As much as I admire his ideals, his naivete in believing he could unite Christianity was astounding. Even if other churches were willing to abandon their creeds (which they were not), how could they ever agree on just what it was the New Testament taught and required? While still a reformer, Sidney Rigdon believed that a community should have all things in common, as was the pattern in Acts, yet Alexander disagreed. On what basis did Alexander disagree, given the clear New Testament precedent for such a model? His argument was nothing better than that it would be impractical.
    He disagreed with the Mormon practice of conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Why? Because none was authorized to do so. Why not? Because none could be authorized to do so. Why not? Here we come to his Enlightenment premises, that revelation and apostles and gifts of the spirit simply could no longer exist. He was incapable of believing in such things, yet the New Testament was filled with these very things he did not and could not believe in.

In summary then, the great difference between the restorations of Alexander and Joseph was that to Alexander the heavens were closed, while to Joseph the heavens were opened. As a boy Joseph correctly sensed that Christianity had become far too fragmented for one to be able to settle much of anything by an appeal to the Bible. What was needed was not a new Aquinas to delineate authoritatively the meaning of the New Testament, a hopeless task indeed, but rather a new Paul, with a new vision on the road to Damascus, to once again open the windows of heaven and allow God himself once more to direct his redeeming work.

It seems likely that we actually borrowed the term “restoration” from Alexander and his reformers. But for Joseph and the Saints it meant much more than it ever did for Alexander, for whom it was simply a striking synonym for a radical reformation. The difference is characterized by the added words “of all things.” For the Mormons, the restoration of “all things” encompassed (1) Old Testament as well as New Testament truths, and (2) the revelatory means of the earliest Christians as opposed to merely the forms of their worship. Where Alexander’s restoration was characterized by Enlightenment reason, Joseph’s was characterized by extra-rational revelation. This difference is I think well expressed by Dryden’s Religio Laici, where he describes the relative merits of reason and revealed religion using the image of the borrowed light of the moon versus the authentic light of the sun:

And as those nightly Tapers disappear

When Day’s bright Lord amends one Hemisphere;

So pale grows Reason at Religion’s sight;

So dyes, and so dissolves in Supernatural Light.33

 

Comments

  1. Wish I had been there at the beginning of FairMormon to hear your presentation. This is fascinating history and enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks Kevin. Informative and thought-provoking as always.

  3. Thank you, Kevin. This will take another 2 or 3 readings to fully digest.

  4. Benjamin Knoll says:

    This past fall I was able to visit the Cane Ridge Meeting House where the 1801 revival meeting took place. It was fascinating to learn of the connections between the Stone-Campbell movement and LDS Church history. Your article, Kevin, was very helpful background reading to help prep for the visit! Here is my write-up: https://rationalfaiths.com/the-stone-campbell-movement-and-the-restoration-of-the-primitive-church/

  5. Very informative. Thanks for posting.
    While Alexander was able to deduce that the Trinity is not New Testament doctrine the problem then stems from the fact that he wasn’t able to say what was correct doctrine. If someone is going to follow someone else’s teaches they need to know what to believe in, not just what not to believe in. Which isn’t to say that there needs to be %100 answers to all questions, but there needs to be something for most questions.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    A great post, Benjamin, thanks for the link!

  7. Thank you. I live in a region that is rich with members of Churches of Christ. This narrative has increased my appreciation for their tradition and has heightened what I had already felt to be a certain kinship with them. Thank you.