One approach to understanding early Mormonism and its doctrines is to compare it with other denominations of the same period. In E. Brooks Holifield's book Theology in America, Mormonism is covered in Chapter 16, "The Immediacy of Revelation," which also discusses two other movements that claimed new revelation as the basis for their theological innovations.
Here is Holifield's introduction to the chapter.
The populist principle in theology--the claim that the unlearned, even more than the learned, could discern theological truth--often countered traditional theologies. It could sometimes blend with the quite different idea that God continued to provide new truth through immediate revelation to faithful believers or to chosen prophets. From an assertion of private revelation it was easy to argue that the canon of scripture was not closed and that new truths required new canons. In America, this logic of private revelation produced more than one new claim to theological truth.
The Hicksite Quakers were followers of Elias Hicks (1478-1830), a farmer from Rhode Island who, after a religious experience in 1774, relied on his "Inner Light" to make pronouncements related to points of doctrine dividing Quakers. Hicks counseled reliance on "immediate divine revelation" as much or more than reliance on the Bible, which he rather freely reinterpreted. Here is Holifield's summary of Hicks' position vis-a-vis the evangelical Quakers of his day with whom he disagreed:
Hicks battled the Quaker evangelicals by associating them with Calvinism. He condemned the Calvinist doctrines of original sin, atonement, and election as "an outrage." Convinced that every human being had free agency, he insisted that the "elect" were constituted simply of all who elected God. The Calvinist doctrine of justification he regarded as a means of avoiding the spiritual discipline through which the faithful waited on the prompting of the Light, struggled to overcome self-will, and attained a state of submission and obedience.
The Shakers, formally the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, followed the teachings of Ann Lee (1736-84). Starting in 1781, Lee preached in New York and throughout New England. "Like the early Quakers, they grounded their faith in the immediate experience of the Spirit. Even more than the Quakers, they derived a theology not only from scripture but also from immediate revelation." Shakers embraced the populist approach, criticizing refined theological argument and learned ministers alike. Some Shakers also stressed "the dual character of God as Father and Mother," related to an earlier Shaker belief that "the Christ had been manifested in both a male and a female." Interestingly, section 49 of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants is addressed to the Shakers and refutes some of their doctrines.
Coming finally to the Mormons, it is clear that the logic of new revelation was sort of in the air. The Mormon revelation as it was delivered through Joseph Smith reflected a populist perspective, as did the preaching of the Quakers and Shakers. Joseph Smith differed from others who announced new revelation in that he produced a sizeable volume of new scripture, the Book of Mormon, rather than simply announcing or preaching new doctrines, practices, or insights following an inner light or the Spirit. But the Mormon experience reflected more than just the populist perspective; it also reflected the religious folk culture of the period.
The early movement drew many of its adherents from a culture in which the miraculous and the magical were part of the texture of daily life. ... The earliest Mormon converts--people who lived on the margins of evangelical Protestant culture--were already accustomed to the use of seer stones, divining rods, amulets, astrology, healing objects, revelatory dreams and visions, and occult numerology. Despite the scorn of the learned, many of them lived in an enchanted world of esoteric rituals, magical symbols, and occult parchments. This was a folk culture they shared with other populist religious groups ....
As a short commentary, note that claims of new revelation understandably bring a sharp response from other believers. In the days of early Mormonism, it was Protestant clergy who affirmed a closed canon that attacked Mormonism as too miraculous or magical for comfort. Now it is secular critics that portray Christianity as a whole and the beliefs of any denomination as too supernatural for comfort. They reject any revelation, old or new, and are beginning to ridicule any Christian claim with the same relish that Christian commentators have displayed in criticizing Mormon claims for over a century. Welcome to the 21st century.
I hope to put up a couple more posts drawing from other chapters in Holifield's book that highlight other contemporary denominations and other aspects of early Mormonism.
Originally posted with comments at Beliefnet.