Where Does “Restoration Christian” Authority End, and “Mormon Christian” Authority Begin?

[I recently was invited to speak about Mormonism and authority at local ecumenical Christian conference here in Wichita, sponsored by the Eighth Day Institute during their annual “Florovsky-Newman Week.” I’ve done stuff with Eighth Day a few times before, but this was a real challenge, talking about Joseph Smith and the Mormon doctrine of apostasy in front of a mostly Catholic and Orthodox audience. The following is an expansion of my comments.]

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The question of “secularism” in the (formerly?) Christian world today is often expressed as one of authority. It is one thing to place one’s faith in the existence, teachings, and salvific promises of Jesus Christ, but another thing entirely to trust that one is in an “authorized” relationship with Him. The guiding assumption of this conference, grounded as it is in the legacies of John Henry Newman and Georges Florovsky, is that such confidence is to be found by orienting oneself–whatever that may mean–to the Church Fathers. As the conference’s own announcement describes it, “by returning to the common Tradition, by learning to read the Fathers as living masters, rather than as historical documents…[we] deepen [our] understanding of the authority by which the Church grounds her faith and morals.”

This description immediately prompts the question: what the hell is a Mormon doing here? Because for committed, orthodox, church-supporting Mormons (which, to be frank, I am not, at least not entirely), the very language used here, even the capitalization, is a problem. To assume the normative value, much less the salvific authority, of an enduring Christian “Tradition,” or a single Christian “Church,” whose parameters were definitively explored by Christian “Fathers”–all of it runs smack into the current official doctrine of “the apostasy” in Mormonism. Specifically, the Mormon church teaches that: “After the deaths of the Savior and His Apostles, men corrupted the principles of the gospel and made unauthorized changes in Church organization and priesthood ordinances. Because of this widespread apostasy, the Lord withdrew the authority of the priesthood from the earth. This apostasy lasted until Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820 and initiated the Restoration of the fulness of the gospel.” This would seem to suggest that Mormonism includes no substantive theological connection to or agreement with the idea of 1) a continuous Christian tradition, or 2) the importance of early articulators of that tradition, or 3) a universal church body that we have a portion of. We are, or at least long have been, when it comes to speaking theologically about the authority of our claims, a highly exclusive bunch.

This does not mean Mormonism has no capacity to articulate any coherent notion of Christian authority. But it does mean that when we Mormons argue among ourselves about that which is “authoritative” and that which is not, as every other Christian denomination does also, we have some additional wrinkles to smooth out. Without going into great detail here, we struggle continually over conflicts between such rival sources of authority as: duly ordained leaders held to possess priesthood/ecclesiastical authority over set populations of the faithful (ranging from local Sunday school classes all the way up to the whole church; those individuals on the latter end of that scale are usually referred to as “general authorities”); the scriptural canon (which we hold to be the Bible plus three books of writings produced by Joseph Smith, all of which are accepted as “revealed” to one degree or another) and the ability of individual members to engage in what one Mormon scholar called “dialogic revelation” by studying them; and finally the promise of general, authoritative inspiration via the Holy Spirit to all, particularly those who make and are faithful to covenants with God–both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, it is worth noting, regularly quoted the passage from Number 11:29: “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

Now two of those three elements appear to be inseparable from Mormon teachings about the apostasy. First, the assumption (in line with Catholic teachings) that God, through Christ, established a specific line of authority for His church, meaning that with the corruption of the church, said line had to be restored through the power of God, giving us Mormons the claim of priesthood authority tied up with latter-day prophets. Second, the assumption (in line with most Protestant teachings) that God reveals His authoritative word in such a manner as to be available to all people through the reading and study of scripture, meaning that the restoration of lost Christian authority had to involve the revelation of new scripture, giving us Mormons the Book of Mormon. This isn’t the only way Mormons understand these two claims, obviously–but by and large, they seem to fit what is broadly accepted within my church. Hence, the origin and character of the Mormon claim to Christian legitimacy–or a good two-thirds of that claim, anyway–would seem to arrive via the doctrine of the apostasy, and through no other route.

But that gives rise to a different question: does the aforementioned definition of apostasy, taken directly from the Mormon church’s website, actually fit what lays at the roots of Mormon notions of authority? Might it be that those components of the Mormon argument over Christian authority which I just laid out do not actually require the assumptions which are understood as attending them? In other words, maybe what has long been called “The Great Apostasy” in Mormon circles doesn’t, and needn’t, mean what most Mormons think it does? I am not saying that I, or anyone, can simply redefine words or rewrite doctrine willy-nilly; I am not a historical relativist. But neither am I a philosophical Platonist or Augustinian–rather I am, like everyone reading this, a modern individual, whether I claim to approve or such or not. And that means that I experience a world characterized by individual choice, interpretation, will, and agency; as Charles Taylor put it, in modernity the world has lost “the power to impose a certain meaning on us” (A Secular Age [Harvard, 2007], 33). So with that interpretive freedom in mind, I would like to ask if my own situation as a Mormon seeking Christian authority is, at least insofar as my relation to the Church Fathers and the larger Christian tradition goes, necessarily quite as theologically exclusive as may have been long assumed (by both Mormon Christians and non-Mormon Christians alike).

The first thing to note is that the key issue here–the claim to “apostasy”–is hardly unique to Mormons. On the contrary, the “apostasy” of the Christian faithful, and the need to “restore” authoritative Christian teachings, has characterized the reflections of many pious Christians for centuries, even before the “secular age” which Taylor explored could be said to have fully arrived. You have the Brethren of the Common Life, John Wycliffe and the Lollards, many aspects of the Radical Reformation, the Puritans, the English Separatists, and perhaps most relevantly here, the American Restorationist Movement: an evangelical, revival-based Christian social movement which radically shaped the Baptist and Methodist churches in the United States, gave rise to Disciples of Christ, the Church of Christ, and the independent Christian Churches of America–and maybe, depending on how you look at it, my own Mormon faith as well.

To those unacquainted with the language of men like Barton Stone, Alexander Campbell, William Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, and other trained ministers (usually but not always Presbyterian) who, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, pushed for a radical democratization and open-ended rethinking of Christian principles in line with the experiences of white (and, on rare occasions, black) Christians across the frontier of the newly independent United States of America….well, let me share some passages from their writings (all are taken from The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History [Chalice Press, 2013]):

“As celebrated as the era of [Protestant] reformation is, we doubt not but that the current era of true restoration will transcend it in importance and fame, through the long and blissful Millennium to come….Our quest for the ancient gospel and the ancient order of things distinguished us from every other cause plead on this continent or in Europe since the great apostasy”–Campbell, 1825.

“Those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ have been called today by Divine Providence to meet this emergency, to bring forth the restoration of apostolic Christianity, as part of the onward course of Christianity around the world”–Moore, 1832.

“Any candid person who reads the history of [the Christian] religion as it has been practiced in the world from one period to another would find nothing but a mixture of folly and wickedness from one end of the earth to the other….except among that portion of mankind who received direct revelation from heaven”–Sidney Rigdon, 1834.

Who is that I just slipped in? Sidney Rigdon, an ordained Baptist minister who found himself drawn into Campbell’s orbit and became persuaded of the need for a restoration of true Christian teachings and authority–and then he encountered Joseph Smith, and the movement that Campbell himself referred to contemptuously as the “Mormonites.” Rigdon later became, for a short time, a major leader in the Mormon church, without much apparent need to rework his original restorationist sympathies. Not that the claims of this new church, in the midst of so many other newly established or separated or transitioning churches, weren’t unique–or at least, it is easy to reconstruct them as having been today. Consider how Smith described the revelatory experience he had as a 14-year-old boy in 1820, the vision of God and Jesus Christ–two separate personages!–in response to his question about where true Christian authority was to be found, and which of all these churches Smith should attach himself to:

“I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’ He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.”

But the thing is, it is not clear that the anti-creedal theological exclusivity which characterizes this account of what we Mormons refer to as “the First Vision” was, in fact, what people like Rigdon heard in the early 1830s, as Smith’s church began to grow in the midst of the Restorationist revivals all around him. The above account was written and published in 1838, 18 years after the 1820 event. Smith’s earliest description of his vision does talk about the “apostasy”–but only in reference to the moral condition of the whole Christian world, and not as a specific condemnation of the reigning confusion over Christian authority:

“By searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith, and there was no society or denomination that was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament. I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world….I was filled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord. And he spake unto me, saying, ‘Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments. Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world, that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life. Behold, the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me. And mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth, to visit them according to their ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and apostles. Behold and lo, I come quickly, as it is written of me, in the cloud, clothed in the glory of my Father.’”

Now of course, you do not have to accept that Joseph Smith actually had this vision. Similarly, you do not have to accept that the charismatic gifts, the fiery preaching, and the spirit of restoration which forms the foundation of more than a dozen Christian churches during this era were all, in fact, the genuine work of the Holy Spirit and the will of God. But no one disputes that the Disciples of Christ, however distant from the Church Fathers they may be, are nonetheless certainly part of the Great Tradition. So just who decided that Mormon claims to Christian authority are categorically distinct and separate from all these others, especially given that the early language of Mormonism regarding apostasy and restoration is not obviously all that different than the same language used by other, more widely accepted Christians, who similarly confronting a Christian world that was seemingly filled with corruption and confusion, and similarly searched for God’s authority?

The answer to this is not entirely clear. We can’t even really be certain, at least insofar as I can tell, the Smith himself was emphatic about this distinction or separation; for example, it’s hard to make sense of his comment, “we Latter-day Saints are Methodists, as far as they have gone, only we have advanced further,” when one insists that, as his later description of his vision suggests, he had had a set of theologically exclusivist assumptions divinely impressed upon his mind. And Smith was not alone in making connections with other Protestant searchers and radicals in those early days; as one scholar observed, reflecting upon the many Campbellites and others who joined with the new Mormon church in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in the early 1830s: “for many, John Wesley and Alexander Campbell rhetorically became a John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness to prepare the way for the advent of Mormonism.” (Both quotes taken from Standing Apart: Mormon History Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young, eds. [Oxford, 2014], 66, 71.)

Was the problem the Book of Mormon itself? That’s plausible; after all, while disagreements within the broader Christian tradition about the legitimacy of any particular church or movement conjoining its search for religious authority to angelic visitations and divine visions have nonetheless been ecumenically accepted, claiming a whole new addition to the story of the Risen Christ might be beyond the pale. Except that those who embraced Smith’s teaching and church at the time do not seem to have taken the specific content of the Book of Mormon terribly seriously, which suggests that they would not have assumed that the book itself necessitated a complete separation from the main Christian tradition. On the contrary, the revelation of a new book of scripture was mostly taken, from what letters, journals, and sermons of the day tell us, as evidence of the power of God, of spiritual gifts and the ministering of angels–something revivalists all across early 19th-century America were calling for, and frequently claiming. So perhaps the practical genesis of the exclusivist articulation of the Mormon theological position was simply the state of competition which existed at the time? Certainly Campbell viewed Mormons less as a radically new heresy and more as an upstart challenge. He wrote once about “the conversion of a Mr. Booth, a Methodist preacher of very considerable standing, many years on the circuit, to the New Bible [meaning the Book of Mormon],” dismissively adding that Booth’s conversion may have, at best, “prolonged the existence of this new religion a few weeks” (cited in Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations [Kofford, 2009], 287-288).

Mormonism obviously lasted longer than a few additional weeks; we’re on our way to our 200th birthday in a little more than a decade. Through the growth and changes of those two centuries, the language by which we explain ourselves–both to others and to ourselves–also grew and changed. Late 19th-century and early 20th-century Mormonism in particular moved away from emphasizing the role of miracles, angelic visitations, and spiritual gifts (all of which fits well with the standard Weberian arguments about the “routinization of charisma”), and gradually extended a kind of mid-20th-century professionalism and bureaucracy into our self-understanding (within Mormon circles, this decades-long process is called “correlation”). During these years, the imperatives of missionary work and general branding led to an increased reliance upon extensive scholarly arguments to clarify what “apostasy” and “restoration” actually meant. The arguments made by 19th-century mainline Protestant historians about the corruption of Catholic, Orthodox, and later Protestant traditions came to be widely cited by church leaders (thus supporting the assumption that of course other churches are wrong; they are bad apples which fell from a bad tree). And among the church’s intelligentsia, much European philosophy became an equally important part of an argument against the Church Fathers, with Greek philosophy being presented as having undermined the covenant basis of original Christianity, thus justifying the need for God to begin entirely again with a newly restored church.

But in recent years, a small but growing number of Mormons are recognizing the problems with those articulations. For one thing, those Protestant histories are now recognized as having been mostly wrong, or at least highly tendentious in how they presented early Christian history. And more serious philosophical reflection upon early Christian texts reveals not a single “original” Christianity that is subject to being lost or restored, but rather a multiplicity of Christian perspectives, whose rapid evolution involved interpretation, negotiation, and even councils–something that actually isn’t unknown in our own church’s history. I do not mean to suggest that Mormonism is about to collectively abandon correlation and routinization and a way of thinking about its own authority that was consistently and emphatically embraced for more than a century. But it is undeniable that the old reliance upon “apostasy” is fading (though hardly disappeared) in Mormon circles. The realization that the apostasy foretold in the New Testament involves not the replacement of Christ’s gospel with apostate beliefs, but rather a turning away from godliness and from being willing stand before God as one who accepts His covenant (suggesting more a need for general moral reformation than doctrinal restoration), to say nothing of the simple fact of Mormonism’s increased recognition of the humanitarian and moral goals it shares with so many other Christian churches, is slowly–though maybe not surely–suggesting a need to rethink our claims to Christian authority. The Mormon scholar Miranda Wilcox summaries this rhetorical and conceptual situation well:

“Mormonism’s 20th-century Great Apostasy narratives constructed exclusive and narrow boundaries between the true [Mormon] Church and apostate Christendom. Such division was not the case in earlier Mormon narratives, which depicted Joseph Smith’s revelations as building on and adding to the truths of traditional Christianity….The Hebrew Bible illustrates ways in which Israelite narrators–prophets, psalmists, historians, scribes, and editors who formulated, transmitted, or edited sacred texts–widened boundaries in retelling stories of their ancestors’ exodus from Egypt as they reshaped their collective identity during periods of cultural transition….Are [we] confident enough to refashion their separatist narrative into a narrative of interrelation?….If [Mormons] were to complicate the ending of their story, their category of self might widen, and they might come to imagine restoration as an unfolding process in which [we] are still engaged–a process that has involved and will continue to involve dynamic interactions between divine and human agents beyond the scope of just Mormon institutions”–or, I would add, just Mormon historical references (cited in Standing Apart, 104, 106-107).

Imagine if we Mormons gradually, creatively, interpretively, turned aside from our church’s long history of tying our claims to Christian authority to the salvific exclusivity of Mormon conceptions of priesthood and ecclesiology in the midst of an apostate Christian world. What would remain? A history of miracles, revelations, gifts of the spirit, the ministering of angels, even new scripture. Would any of those have to be articulated as a entirely disjuncture from the overall Christian tradition, or would any of them have to be accepted as such by other, non-Mormon Christians? Just how necessary in the Christian tradition is the insistence upon a closed canon, upon the end of revelation, particularly as regards accounts of Jesus Christ? That is not a question I can answer, but it is a question we Mormons probably will not be able to avoid struggling with in the years to come. Whether or not a reconsideration (and perhaps a retreat) from exclusivist understandings of Christian authority are likely in the near future, Mormons are struggling with new questions of identity which cannot be easily extricated from it.

My church is probably better known through our missionary program than by anything else, and for many decades that program, and its presumed necessity given the apostate world around us, was embraced as central to our self-understanding. But now many our asking: how do we justify our missionary program, how do we articulate ourselves in light of the Great Commission, when the long-standing appeals that the Mormon church has depended upon (which could be reduced to either “other churches are not baptizing in a way that will be accepted as authoritative by Christ” or “we can authoritatively guarantee you eternal family happiness”) increasingly no longer make sense to the world we are called, as Christians, to save? I don’t imagine that this presentation will successfully address all such questions, but maybe it can add something helpful to those who struggle with them.

I end with another quote from Alexander Campbell, whose accepted place in the Christian tradition perhaps opens a door to Mormonism’s place as well. Speaking the subject of Christian unity, he wrote: “No mortal need fancy that he shall have the honor of devising either the plan of uniting Christians in one holy band of zealous co-operation, or of converting Jews and Gentiles to the faith that Jesus is the seed of, in whom all the families of the earth are yet to be blessed. The plan is divine. It is ordained by God; and, better still, it is already revealed. Is any one impatient to hear it? Let him again read the intercessions of the Lord Messiah, which we have chosen for our motto. Let him then examine the two following propositions, and say whether these do not express Heaven’s own scheme of augmenting and conversating the body of Christ. First. Nothing is essential to the conversion of the world, but the union and co-operation of Christians. Second. Nothing is essential to the union of Christians, but the Apostles’ teaching or testimony.” That, I presume, might not be acceptable to everyone as a full summation of the debate over Christian authority. But, might it not be acceptable to everyone as at least a start?


  1. Thanks, Russell, for laying out clearly what some of us merely think vaguely. :)

  2. Raskolnikov's Successor says:

    Excellent work, Russell. These are major critical questions that I have been struggling with deeply as I spent significant time exploring the evolution of LDS claims to exclusive authority through the priesthood — both salvific and institutional. It seems, so much of the LDS historical narrative and identity has been crafted around authority, that losing or even substantially redefining claims to exclusive authority could be devastating to the Church institutionally. The entire presentation as to why someone should join the LDS church (or remain) would necessarily change – it no longer could be that you must join or stay to enjoy the sole source of God-approved ordinances and gain exaltation in the celestial kingdom with your family. The Church, with its uniqueness, beauty and problems, would be one of many other equally valid ways to approach and experience the divine within a community. I think that is right and it becomes an individual choice as to whether the Church provides the best vehicle for them for those experiences. But I wonder whether many remain in the Church because it has claimed to be the only way for salvation (whether you join in this life or the next).

    For me personally, when I began to struggle with my beliefs in the Church, I told myself that I would take whatever level of social pain and intellectual discomfort was required, if I could believe or confirm two things: (i) that the Church was the sole institution on earth where God’s power and authority resided, and (ii) related, but slightly different, that the sealing ordinance was eternally real (in the absolutely literal sense) and the blessing of exaltation and eternal life was not available to anyone else anywhere else outside the Church (again, in this life or through vicarious ordinance performed by LDS priesthood). Without affirmative answers to those two questions, it seems to become somewhat of a subjective analysis and cost/benefit study as to whether the Church offers the community and religious tools for that person to experience the divine in the way that best works for them. I don’t think the Church is close to being ready to allow people to be free to make that decision on those grounds or to honor the choice of that individual.

  3. Joseph Stanford says:

    Well thought out and stated! I’d be interested in what was the response. I suggest that we could also think of authority being established (not just maintained) on the principles articulated in D&C 121. That’s the kind of moral authority that is more likely to resonate today. Rather than which angel visited you or where you can apparently trace a line of ordinations.

  4. Amazing work. I wish I had your brain.

  5. “After the deaths of the Savior and His Apostles, men corrupted the principles of the gospel and made unauthorized changes in Church organization and priesthood ordinances. Because of this widespread apostasy, the Lord withdrew the authority of the priesthood from the earth.”

    It seems like a similar statement could be made about the LDS Church. Particularly if you compare the charismatic church of JS and BY eras with the present-day corporate Church. So I think we need to be careful who we throw rocks at. I’m not a Snufferite; I’m at the other end of the spectrum.

    For me, authority is not an issue. I want a church that helps me be a better person. And the current lack of vision in the LDS leadership is a major reason for membership exit. Many members need a reason to stay, and authority isn’t it.

  6. Well articulated, Russell. What sort of a response did you get?

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