I'm a little late to the party for John G. Turner's Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, which has of late blazed through the Bloggernacle. I've read both Arrington's American Moses and Bringhurt's Brigham Young and the Expanding American Frontier, so this is familiar ground, but it's clear from other reviews that Turner uses a lot of archived letter and journal material that were either not accessible or not prominently featured in earlier books. In this post, I look at Brigham's pre-LDS religious experience as a Reformed Methodist. All quotations are from Chapter One, "A New Creature."
It is hard to grasp the variety of early 19th-century sects, even within just one denomination. Brigham and his family were attracted to the Methodists but, being unhappy with the form of the Methodist Episcopal Church, gravitated toward the more congregational Reformed Methodists. Turner notes that "the Reformed Methodists exhibited several of the impulses later central to early Mormonism."
Among the similarities noted by Turner are:
- "The Reformed Methodists upheld the bible as 'the sufficient rule of faith and practice,' worshipped with fervent ecstasy, demanded strict observance of the Sabbath, forbade 'spiritous liquors,' and warned against the 'putting on of gold and costly apparel.'"
- "Initially formed by 'plain, unassuming mechanics and farmers,' none of whom had advanced beyond the status of 'local preachers and exhorters,' they 'renounc[ed] the episcopal mode of church government' ...." (In these first two bullet points, Turner appears to be quoting from Larry C. Porter's 2007 article on Brigham Young and Reformed Methodism published in Kent Jackson and Andrew Skinner's A Witness for the Restoration: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Matthews (BYU Religious Studies Center, 2007).)
- "[T]hey looked to restore Christianity to its ancient roots."
- "[T]hey believed that 'faith is the restoring principle' for a church that 'has apostatized.'" (Turner is here quoting an early Reformed Methodist preacher.)
The emotional and physical excesses of the Reformed Methodists (Turner notes "shouting, screaming, jumping and falling" in their meetings) led to predictable charges of religious fanaticism, but to the participants these were spiritual gifts or manifestations of the Spirit. Brigham joined the Reformed Methodists in 1824; in 1828 he and his wife Miriam moved to Mendon, New York. In April 1830, a copy of the Book of Mormon given to Brigham's brother Phineas by young Samuel Smith made its way through the Young family. A year later, Brigham and his wife traveled to Pennsylvania and visited a small congregation where Mormons "spoke in tongues, interpreted tongues, and prophesied." Careful and deliberate, Brigham was not baptized into Mormonism until April 9, 1832. A few weeks later, his wife Miriam did the same.
It is clear there was a lot of what we would now call Pentecostalism in Reformed Methodism and similar Christian offshoots, and some of these practices were carried over into early Mormonism to a degree that makes 21st-century LDS readers a bit uncomfortable. To get a little more context, I re-read Gordon S. Wood's 1980 article "Evangelical America and Early Mormonism" (reprinted in The Mormon History Association's Tanner Lectures: The First Twenty Years, edited by Dean L. May and Reid L. Neilson, 2006, U. of Illinois Press). Wood emphasizes the degree to which early 19th-century American religion was thoroughly refashioned in much the same way that the Revolution had refashioned American politics. He observes:
The disintegration of older structures of authority released torrents of popular religion into public life. Visions, dreams, prophesyings, and new emotion-soaked religious seekings acquired a validity they had not earlier possessed. The evangelical pietism of ordinary people, sanctioned by the democratic revolution of these years, had come to affect the character of American culture in ways it had not at the time of the Revolution. It now became increasingly difficult for enlightened gentlemen to publicly dismiss religious enthusiasm as simply the superstitious fanaticism of the illiterate and lowborn.
Wood continues, "Subterranean folk beliefs and fetishes emerged into the open and blended with traditional Christian practices to create a wildly spreading evangelical enthusiasm," and "thousands became seekers looking for signs and prophets and for new explanations for the bewildering experiences of their lives."
For Wood, this was the religious environment from which Mormonism emerged. Wood sees Mormonism as drawing in threads from all across the religious spectrum:
Mormonism was both mystical and secular, restorationist and progressive, communitarian and individualistic, hierarchical and congregational, authoritarian and democratic, antinomian and Arminian, anticlerical and priestly, revelatory and empirical, utopian and practical, ecumenical and nationalist.Wow, that's quite a list, but we do have to narrow it down a bit. Obviously, the Book of Mormon makes Mormonism distinctive regardless of how one might try to classify it using the doctrinal choices listed by Wood. He calls the Book of Mormon "concrete material evidence, that gave Joseph Smith's prophesying a legitimacy that the visions and predictions of the many other prophets of the day could not equal. ... Such a tangible document fit the popular belief that what was written was somehow truer and more authentic than what was spoken."
Perhaps Turner, later in his book, reflects on how Mormonism outgrew the ecstatic practices that, in the early years, seemed to carry over from Reformed Methodism. Here's how Wood captured that larger picture:
Mormonism brought the folk past and enlightened modernity together. It sought to reconcile the ecstatic antinomian visions of people with the discipline of a hierarchical church. It drew upon the subjective emotionalism and individualism of revivialism and institutionalized them.Wood concludes, "In dozens of different ways Mormonism blended the folk inclinations and religiosity of common people with the hardened churchly traditions and enlightened gentility of modern times."
Wood's article is a nice complement to Turner's first chapter. The article makes it clear that while Mormonism may have emerged from an environment of enthusiastic religious practices, it also quickly rose above that and developed its own tradition. In later years, Brigham himself made no small contribution to that developing Mormon tradition.