Old Stuff: Living Oracles

This is a research project from a 2014 graduate course in Modern Church History, in which I explored intersections between the Stone-Campbell Movement and the Latter-day Saints in the earliest years of those movements. This was easily the most fun I ever had doing research work. It’s kind of a work of religious genealogy, since my mother’s background was in the Latter-day Saints, and my own, though my father’s family going back to around the 1870’s in the Stone-Campbell Movement, starting with the Disciples, then the Churches of Christ at the turn of the century and the non-institutional churches by the 1960’s. In the course of the research, I came to feel like I really got to know Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith as people and, for all their, shall we say, idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t help but like the dudes. Though the paper does not make the argument, because the available evidence is simply inconclusive, on a blog version, I don’t mind pointing out that, based on internal evidence of the Book of Mormon text, I give credence to the theory that Sidney Rigdon is an author of the Book of Mormon. That requires some conspiracy theorizing, putting him in contact with Smith well before there is any direct evidence for their meeting outside of the text itself and while Rigdon was still a leading Disciple, but if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ll find that whackjob conspiracy thinking is en vogue these days.

Because of the historical-critical nature of the piece, it may not shine though, but in the last few years I have come to a great appreciation of the value of my own Stone-Campbell roots. The period in question in this piece, the 1820’s and 30’s, are, admittedly, not what I consider the high point of the Movement, so my fondness may not be apparent in what follows. But I love the Movement, and all three major branches, and feel that they have so much good to contribute to wider Christendom and the wider world. I especially love the good people of the churches of Christ, the fellowship in which I was raised and, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, was privileged to worship with my old home congregation all of the past summer. Being in Lexington, Kentucky, I’m at ground zero of Stone-Campbell history, and I hope to explore that further in the months to come. I’ve had the opportunity to worship with Disciples congregations recently, which I hope to continue doing, as well as to visit local churches of Christ and independent Christian Churches. A 20-year papist, I may not be the type of guy they envisioned, but I’m a grateful product of the Stone-Campbell Movement and churches of Christ.

Living Oracles:

Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints in the Context of the

Christian Restoration Movement of Alexander Campbell

Jeff Childers


“If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.”

1 Peter 4:11

“It is my duty to say to you that the need was never greater for new revelation than now. The doctrine of inspiration is lost. Miracles, prophesy, the holy life, exist as ancient history only. Men have come to speak of revelation of somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was, that He speaketh, not spake.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Speech to the Harvard Divinity School, 15 July 1838


In January, 1831, Alexander Campbell, founding intellectual light and de facto leader of the nascent Disciples of Christ1, received troubling news. His friend and close collaborator in the Disciples’ reform movement, Sidney Rigdon, had, to Campbell’s “regret and surprize,” “renounced the ancient gospel, and…fallen into the snare of the Devil in joining the Mormonites.”2 Rigdon’s “Mormonites,” or, more properly, Latter-day Saints, were a movement committed to restoring the Church to its apostolic purity by following the 26 year-old New York-native money-digger turned pseudopigrapher turned prophet Joseph Smith, Junior, “among the most enigmatic, controversial figures of the nineteenth century.”3 For Campbell, who from the very outset of his ministry had dedicated his work

TO ALL THOSEWho, willing to have all religious tenets and practices tried by the Divine Word; and who feeling themselves in duty bound to search the Scriptures for themselves, in matters of Religion, are disposed to reject all doctrines and commandments of men, to obey the truth, holding fast the faith once delivered to the Saints4

the betrayal of Rigdon could only be attributed to “some morbid of action of mind.”5 Rigdon did not embrace the new prophet alone, but brought much of his Kirtland, Ohio congregation with him6, earning the Latter-day Saints the ongoing polemical attention of Campbell, an animosity that even death could not temper; Campbell eulogized: “JOSEPH SMITH and his brother HIRAM have been providentially cut off in the midst of their diabolical career. They were most lawlessly and mobocratically put to death.”7

While in many ways on the fringes of Christianity, the Latter-day Saints movement of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. has developed, since its 1830 launch, into an influential and growing global communion, with over 15,000,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints8. Latter-day Saints consider theirs to be the one true Church, a restoration of that established by Christ and the only true expression of Christianity, while many Catholic and Protestant polemicists deny their very Christian identity.9 In the decade and a half preceding the publication of the Book of Mormon and the establishment of the Latter-day Saint Church, the pioneering work of Alexander Campbell, publisher of The Christian Baptist, his father Thomas Campbell, and their associates Sidney Rigdon and Walter Scott led thousands to embrace their call to restore the faith and practice of the primitive, biblical Church. The Campbellian movement, which would unite with the restoration movement of Barton Warren Stone in 1832, is the progenitor of today’s Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), churches of Christ, and independent Christian Churches, among others.10

Rigdon’s defection and near-immediate ascent to the position of Joseph Smith’s second-in-command link the two restoration movements nearly at their source.11 The rise and success of the Latter-day Saints can best be understood in the context of the Campbellian Restoration Movement. We contend that, granting the restorationist premises of Campbell12, Joseph Smith’s movement is an almost necessary fulfillment, providing followers with much that seems demanded by restoration but is lacking in Campbellian ideology. Explored herein will be a brief account of the origins of the Campbellian movement, a brief analysis of the work of Joseph Smith in the context of that movement, points of convergence between Disciple and Latter-day Saint doctrine which made Disciples more prone to give Smith’s teaching a hearing than were other Christians, and areas in which Latter-day Saint doctrine provides satisfying solutions to the problems raised by Campbellianism.

1. Early Origins of the Disciples of Christ

Scots-Irish churchman Thomas Campbell rose to prominence in the Seceder Presbyterian Church13 in Scotland before migrating to the United States in 1807 where he would be joined by his son Alexander two years.14 In a communion wrought with schism, the elder Campbell “worked for unity and sought to bring himself and his family closer to God.”15 Associating with the Chartiers Presbytery in the United States, Rev. Campbell, witnessing disunity in the unprecedentedly pluralistic society of the New World, grew increasingly skeptical about the ability of confessional creeds to serve as a ground of unity for Christians, and increasingly scandalized by the exclusion of faithful Christians from fellowship and communion due to canonical and creedal irregularities.16 Troubled by Campbell’s dissent from denominational orthodoxy, the presbytery suspended him from ministry in 1808, ordering him to answer charges of heresy, to which Campbell rendered this account:

With regard to faith I believe that the soul of man is the subject of it; the Divine Spirit is the author of it; the Divine Word the rule and reason of it; Christ and Him crucified the object of it; the Divine pardon, acceptance and assistance, or grace here and glory hereafter, the direct, proper and formal end of it…With respect to Confessions of Faith and Testimonies I believe that the church has all the Divine warrant for such exhibitions of the truth, that our Confession and Testimony adduce for that purpose.17

Campbell’s attempt to find a middle ground, allowing for the pragmatic use of creedal statements but denying them inherent authority, was not enough to please the presbytery. Upon his expulsion, Thomas and like-minded collaborators formed the Washington Christian Association within which he was able to fully develop his antipathy toward confessional divisions.18 Describing his father’s attitude at the time of his break from Chartiers, Alexander Campbell wrote that

(h)e objected not so much to the doctrines of the Secession creed and platform, as a doctrinal basis, but to the assumption of any formula of religious theories or opinions, as the foundation of the church of Christ; alleging that the holy Scriptures, Divinely inspired, were all sufficient and alone sufficient for all the purposes contemplated by their Author in giving them.19

At an 1809 Association meeting, Thomas Campbell closed a sermon with what would become the most famous motto of the movement: “Where the Bible speaks; we speak; where the Bible is silent; we are silent.”20 Campbell issued the Declaration and Address on 7 September, 1809, which outlined the mission of the Restoration Movement in which his son Alexander would become the key operator.21 With an amazing, if naive, optimism, Campbell “expected his Declaration and Address to produce a religious revolution within a few years.”22

Thomas Campbell’s vision, which became the raison d’être of Alexander, was to end Christian division and unite all believers in one fellowship by purging the Church of all man-made accretions and restoring the ancient order of Christianity to the churches. He professes in the Declaration:

Being well aware, from sad experience, of the heinous nature and pernicious tendency for religious controversy among Christians…we would desire to be at peace; and…we would also desire to adopt and recommend such measures as would give rest to our brethren throughout all the churches: as would restore unity, peace, and purity to the whole Church of God.23

It is worthy of note that, from the outset, authentic Campbellian restorationism is purgative rather than supercessionist; the Campbells wished to restore purity to the Church without maintaining that apostasy had been so through-going as to eradicate Christianity altogether; other, supercessionist visions of restoration, in which it was the Church itself that was being restored from historical obscurity, would come to dominate much of the later Campbellian movement as well as the Latter-day Saints.24

The Campbellian message of Christian unity to be achieved by the elimination of creeds and adherence to scripture as the sole authority was spread through Alexander’s widely-circulated periodical The Christian Baptist, which saw nationwide distribution from 1823 to 1830 before being replaced by The Millennial Harbinger.25 While seeking to eliminate divisions, the Campbells were content to operate within existing structures, associating their congregation first with the Redwood Baptist Association26 and, after being expelled for unorthodoxy, with the Mahoning Baptist Association, among which they gained so great an influence that a majority of congregations would become part of their reformation.

On a fortuitous day in 1821, Alexander Campbell entertained two ministers, Adamson Bentley and Sidney Rigdon27, discussing his theological vision:

Beginning with the baptism that John preached, we went back to Adam and forward to the final judgment. The dispensations–Adamic, Abrahamic, Jewish and Christian–passed and repassed before us. Mount Sinai in Arabia, Mount Zion, Mount Tabor, the Red Sea and the Jordan, the Passovers and the Pentacosts, the law and the Gospel, but especially the ancient order of things and modern.28

So moved was Rigdon by the Campbellian vision that, Campbell continued, “on parting the next day, Sidney Rigdon, with all apparent candor, said, if he had within the last year taught and promulgated from the pulpit one error, he had a thousand.”29 For the next decade, Rigdon, who would remain officially unaffiliated with any Baptist jurisdiction, along with Walter Scott30, the Presbyterian chosen by the Mahoning Baptist Association to be the principle evangelist of the reforming vision of the Disciples of Christ, would be among Campbell’s closest associates in his mission to unify all Christians through restoration of the ancient order.31

Of Rigdon’s contributions to the nascent Disciples, Amon Hayden states that

Sidney Rigdon was an orator of no inconsiderable abilities….His action was graceful, his language copious, fluent in utterance, with articulation clear and musical…His personal influence with an audience was great…He was just the man for an awakening.32

Of his time ministering with Campbell, Rigdon himself, speaking, as was his custom, in the third person, stated that he

devoted himself to the work of the ministry, confining himself to no creed, but held up the Bible as the rule of faith, and advocating those doctrines which had been the subject of his, and Mr. Campbell’s investigations…to take the Bible as their standard, and search its sacred pages — to learn to live by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of the Lord, and to rise above every sectarian sentiment, and the traditions of the age, and explore the wide and glorious fields of truth which the scriptures holds out to them.33

By 1832, Campbell’s movement would be divorced from Baptist structures and, joined with the movement of Barton Warren Stone, free to pursue his dual vision of unity and restoration from the comfort of his own, independent denomination.34 Yet by that time, the seasoned publisher had already lost one of his closest associates to the wiles of a perplexing new prophet.

2. A New Restoration Movement

Throughout the late 1820’s, Sidney Rigdon and Walter Scott, with a vibrant missionary zeal, traveled the countryside proclaiming the restoration advocated in Campbell’s Christian Baptist. Parley Pratt, an 1827 convert to the Disciples, shares this account:

Mr. Sidney Rigdon came into the neighborhood as a preacher, and it was rumored that he was a kind of Reformed Baptist…with Mr. Alexander Campbell, of Virginia, a Mr. Scott, and some other gifted men…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.35

This would hardly be the end of Pratt’s journey toward “the ancient gospel;” in 1830, Pratt continues, “(w)e visited am old Baptist deacon by the name of Hamlin…(who) began to tell of a book, a STRANGE BOOK, a VERY STRANGE BOOK!”36 Reading the “strange book,” Pratt “knew and comprehended that the book was true, as plainly and manifestly as a man comprehends and knows that he exists.”37 Disinclined to keep this literary epiphany to himself, Pratt visited his Disciple mentor, Sidney Rigdon. Rigdon describes the unexpected visit:

At this time, it being in the fall of A. D. 1830, elders Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson, Oliver Cowdery and Peter Whitmer, called at the town, on their way to the western boundary of the State of Missouri, testifying to the truth of the “Book of Mormon,” and that the Lord had raised up a Prophet, and restored the priesthood. Previous to this, elder Parley Pratt had been a preacher in the same church with elder Rigdon…(H)e became acquainted with the circumstances of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and was introduced to Joseph Smith, Junior, and others of the church of Latter Day Saints. After listening to the testimony of the “witnesses,” and reading the “Book,” he became convinced that it was of God, and that the principles which they taught, were the principles of truth. He was then baptised, and shortly after was ordained an elder, and began to preach, and from that time became a strenous advocate of the truth.38

Rigdon, skeptical, invited the missionaries to address his congregation, about which he congratulates himself: “This was, indeed, generous on the part of elder Rigdon, and gave evidence of his entire freedom from any sectarian bias; but allowing his mind full scope to range, untrammeled, through the scriptures, embracing every principle of truth, and rejecting error, under whatever guise it should appear.”39 By his own account, Rigdon’s skepticism lasted “a fortnight,” after which “he was fully convinced of the truth of the work, by a revelation from Jesus Christ, which was made known to him in a remarkable manner,” so that he could exclaim “flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto me, by my father which is in heaven.”40

Thus convinced, Rigdon set out to do what historians and theologians alike continue to struggle to accomplish: to know Joseph Smith.41 The self-proclaimed prophet who launched a bold new Christian movement is a man of nuance and contradiction; Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy, recounting an 1844 meeting with Smith, thus characterized him thus:

Such a rare human being is not to be disposed of by pelting his memory with unsavory epithets. Fanatic, imposter, charlatan, he may have been; but these hard names furnish no solution to the problem he presents to us. Fanatics and impostors are living and dying every day, and their memory is buried with them; but the wonderful influence which this founder of a religion exerted and still exerts throws him into relief before us, not as a rogue to be criminated, but as a phenomenon to be explained. The most vital questions Americans are asking each other today have to do with this man and what he has left us.42

In one of his final and most influential addresses, Smith himself, eerily foreshadowing his impending martyrdom, seemed to recognize the impenetrable enigma surrounding him:

You don’t know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself….When I am called by the trump of the archangel and weighed in the balance, you will all know me then. I add no more. God bless you all. Amen.43

Joseph Smith, Jr., was born 23 December, 1805, to a religiously non-conformist family in the burned over district of New York, so called because of the wave of revivalism that had swept through the countryside in the wake of the Second Great Awakening.44 Like the Campbells, the young Smith was scandalized by disunity among Christian sects.

In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? …At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion or else I must do as (the Epistle of) James directs, that is, ask of God… I retired to the woods to make the attempt…I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction…I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!45

This first visionary experience would be followed by many others, including a vision of the angel Moroni instructing Smith to recover ancient plates containing lost scriptures.46 Utilizing seer stones and scribes who themselves never viewed the plates, Smith translated what would become the Book of Mormon.47 Recounting the supposed history of the Nephites and Lamantes, two Israelite tribes which traveled from Judea to the ancient Americas at the time of the Babylonian captivity, the Book of Mormon collapses the dispensations of salvation history, portraying a Hebrew-American community of Christians in anticipation. While Christians have long seen Christ anticipated by the Hebrew Bible, they have historically had to be satisfied with nuanced and obscure prophetic language, such as “And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10), the prophesies recounted in the Book of Mormon would make the early Christian apologists salivate with their explicitness:

Yea, even six hundred years from the time my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews–even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world…And after they had slain the Messiah, who should come, and after he had been slain he should rise form the dead, and should make himself manifest, but the Holy Ghost, unto the Gentiles (1 Nephi 10:4,11).48

Through the creation of this scripture, which Robert M. Price likens to the priest Hilkiah’s discovery of the long-lost Book of Deuteronomy as recounted in 1 Kings 22,49 in which Smith even placed himself in prophecy as “a choice seer…(who) shall do a work for…his brethren, which shall be of great worth unto them, even bringing of them (sic) to the knowledge of the covenants which I (the Lord) have made with thy fathers…and he shall be great like unto Moses” (2 Nephi 3:7-9), Smith portrayed the whole of disunited Christendom as diabolical.50 While the sweeping historical consensus is “that Joseph Smith did not discover the Book of Mormon but rather created it,”51 and Dan Vogel argues compellingly that Smith is best understood as a “pious fraud,”52 Smith’s ability to project his spiritual insights through the medium of his imagination into literature which, though blatantly forged,53 revolutionized the Christian experience of even seasoned gospel preachers like Rigdon, enabled the “choice seer,” or, in Campbell’s verdict, “as ignorant and impudent a knave as ever wrote a book,”54 to adjudicate explicitly and authoritatively on the controversial issues dividing Christians in his attempt to unite them into his new Church for the latter days. As Campbell mockingly critiques:

This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies; — infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of free-masonry, republican government, and the rights of man. All these topics are repeatedly alluded to. How much more benevolent and intelligent this American apostle, than were the holy Twelve, and Paul to assist them!!! He prophesied of all these topics, and of the apostacy, and infallibly decided, by his authority, every question.55

What Campbell sees as a weakness, Price sees as a great strength:

When the other Campbellite sects blazed a trail “back to the Bible,” i.e., to the early church of the New Testament, they were unwittingly retrojecting onto the past their own ideas of how the church ought to be. Obviously Alexander Campbell and the others had derived their ideals from a selective reading of the New Testament documents (noticing certain things and ignoring others), so it was not as if they had created their scriptural prototype of Christianity out of thin air. And, by the same token, neither had Joseph Smith…Smith’s fabricated picture of a pristine American Christianity was in fact his own biblically-informed ideal of what American Christianity in his own day ought to become. And, for a great many Americans, it did. Joseph’s Smith’s creation and retrojection of an artificial, superior biblical past is thus seen to be simply the most dramatic and thorough-going of all “restorationist” creations.56

Smith’s restoration movement, growing at the expense of the Disciples and with the aid of former Disciple leaders, was poised to become an enduring new form of Christianity.57

3. Points of Convergence

Rigdon, now a lesser prophet alongside Smith, took great pride in the impact the growing Latter-day Saints movement had on the Disciples.

One thing has been done by the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; it has puked the Campbellites effectually,…has revealed the secrets of Campbellism, and unfolded the end of the system. Every eye may see, and every heart understand; for the public may depend upon it, that the vomit which it has received, is too severe for it; it has spewed itself to death, and in a very short time it will have fled the Lake shore, to appear no more forever…So say we of Campbellism: God has smitten it, lying and harlots have wasted it; but the word of God grows and multiplies.58

How could a vision as different from Campbell’s as Smith’s attract committed Disciples at even the highest level? The path from Disciple to Latter-day Saint was paved with certain key points of convergence between the two movements, particularly an apostasy/restoration paradigm, anti-Calvinism, and soteriology.

In his influential early years, Campbell sought unity among Christians by attacking confessional systems which impeded that unity. His diagnosis of the Church of his time was scathing: “The Christian religion has been for ages interred in the rubbish of human invention and tradition.”59 Says Hughes: “Campbell was convinced that institutional Christianity was thoroughly bankrupt, right across the board.”60 The young Campbell’s claims for his own work were grandiose: “(S)ince the Great Apostasy was completed, till the present generation, the gospel of Jesus Christ has not been laid open to mankind in its original plainness, simplicity, and majesty.”61

Conditioned by Campbellian teaching to reject the churches of the day as apostate, the Book of Mormon was met by many Disciples as inspired confirmation of their ecclesiological paradigm: “For it shall come to pass in that day that the churches which are built up, and not unto the Lord, when the one shall say unto the other: behold, I, I am the Lord’s…and they shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance” (2 Nephi 28:3-4).

A mere rejection of denominationalism would not suffice to draw a Campbellian Christian into the fold of Smith. Second only to his insistence on the sole authority of scripture, Campbell’s restoration centered on his soteriology, in which the dominant Calvinism was rejected and salvation depended not on predestination, but on freely given human obedience to the ordinances of God, particularly in baptism.

Campbell offered…a theology that cut through the struggle and pain (of the Calvinist quest for a conversion experience)…(H)e developed his contention that immersion is for the forgiveness of sins. This notion became the linchpin in what Campbell increasingly would call the ancient gospel.62

So integral to Campbell was baptism by immersion for the purpose of regeneration that he issued his own translation of the New Testament, titled Living Oracles, which replaced “baptism” with “immersion.”63 Campbell’s focus on baptism was so single-minded as to cause many to equate having received immersion for the forgiveness of sins with Christianity itself; based on the centrality of baptismal doctrine, Walter Scott would pinpoint the date of the restoration of the gospel to precisely 1827.64

Disciples exploring the teaching of Joseph Smith discovered, as in Campbell’s teaching, redemption linked explicitly to baptism: “And behold, (Christ) cometh to redeem those who will be baptized unto repentance, through faith on his name” (Alma 9:27). The controversy over infant baptism, rejected ardently by Campbell, is adjudicated explicitly in Mormon scripture: “And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling of the commandments unto the remission of sins” (Moroni 8:11).

The most intellectually compelling point of convergence, in which Smith’s restoration appears to fulfill something lacking in that of Campbell, is the question of authority. Like Smith, Campbell maintained that the ancient order of the gospel has been corrupted, only to be restored in his new movement. Like Smith, Campbell invited converts to embrace the ancient Christian faith through immersion for the forgiveness of sins. Yet such a grand endeavor as a restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ raises a pressing question, the strength of which was felt by Parley Pratt upon his entrance into the Disciples:

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?65

Authority was perceived by many as the fatal gap in Campbell’s ideology. Smith’s claims to be a prophet gave divine warrant to the work of restoration, preventing it from being, as Campbell himself feared for his own movement, a mere “adding to the catalogue of new sects.”66 Campbell’s message of restoration made many followers hunger for a manifestation of power such as they read about in the Book of Acts; one can easily imagine such persons as primed to hear the words of a charismatic prophet claiming divine authority to do exactly that which Campbell had attempted to do by his own accord. Lost on many Disciples would be Campbell’s words of caution: “He who sets out to find signs and omens will soon find enough of them. He that expects visits from angels will find them as abundant as he who in the age of witchcraft found a witch in every unseemly old woman.”67

Beyond the intellectual question of authority, Smith offered believers an experiential engagement with the biblical narrative in place of Campbell’s legalistic, doctrinaire approach to the text. Campbell “viewed the New Testament almost as a divinely inspired, scientific text which supplied precise directions for admission into the church, for church organization, for proper worship, and for a variety of other details.”68

Ultimately, men like Pratt and Rigdon and the thousands who followed Smith through their missionary work, were not interested in the Campbellian pseudo-science of biblical proof-texting. It was not “precise directions” and “details” that spoke to their hearts; they desired an encounter with a living, speaking God. In the company of a seer receiving continuing revelation, whose foundational document had already collapsed the distinction between dispensations, Latter-day Saints could walk amongst prophets and apostles like the Christians of old.

Smith’s followers experienced a “romantic thirst for a direct encounter with the Spirit of God,” and, unlike orthodox Campbellianism, they “had little interest in mere obedience to biblical commands and replication of biblical data. Indeed, they never viewed the Bible as data at all. Instead, they viewed the Bible as story, as drama, in which they themselves were participants.”69

The vision of Alexander Campbell to unite Christians on the foundation of a restored apostolic Church launched an influential movement that lives on today in the Disciples of Christ and churches of Christ. From the very core of his ranks emerged leaders like Sidney Rigdon who would hear his call for primitive Christianity and, in a sense taking him at his word, move beyond Campbellian re-enactment of scripture and opt for a truly sacramental encounter with the Word of God. So hungry were they for a living encounter with God like that of the disciples on the Emmaus Road, that they saw overwhelming appeal in the peculiar and unlikely figure of Joseph Smith. Latter-day Saints found in their jovial forger a portal through time and space back to the Pentecostal newness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, fulfilling what was promised by Campbell in an exciting and unexpected way.

1There is no uniform nomenclature for Campbell’s movement in the early years, which was called variously the Reformers, Reformed Baptists, Christians, Church of Christ, or disciples. The official denominational label Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) would be adopted in 1832 following the merger of Campbell’s movement with that of Barton Warren Stone. Recognizing the anachronism, this study will utilize “Disciples of Christ” for the sake of clarity. It is to be noted that the label “Campbellite” was never embraced by the movement, and to this day is considered pejorative. When appropriate, this study will substitute the equivalent “Campbellian” out of deference.

2Alexander Campbell, “Sidney Rigdon,” The Millennial Harbinger (MH) 2, no. 2 (1831), 99. Idiosyncratic grammar, emphases, and spelling in primary sources dated before 1900 shall be retained without the indicator sic unless the needs of clarity necessitate otherwise.

3Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), vii.

4Alexander Campbell, “Dedication,” The Christian Baptist (TCB) 1, no. 1, 1823, 1.

5“Sidney Rigdon,” ibid.

6Milton V. Backman, “The Quest for a Restoration: The Birth of Mormonism in Ohio,” BYU Studies 12, no. 4 (1972), 347.

7Alexander Campbell, “Death of J. Smith, the Mormon Impostor,” MH Third Series 1, no. 9 (1844), 1.

8The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Newsroom, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/facts-and-stats, accessed 4 October 2014.

9Barry R. Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith & Early Christianity. (Ben Lomond, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, 1999), 21.

10Any study of the origins of the Disciples of Christ is incomplete without an examination of the work of Barton Warren Stone which, since Campbellian-Mormon intersection occurred predominantly before the Campbell-Stone merger, is beyond the scope of the present study.

11Knowles, Lloyd. “Sidney Rigdon: The Benedict Arnold of the Stone-Campbell Movement?” Stone-Campbell Journal 6, (2003), 23.

12The validity of the theological/ecclesiological apostasy-restoration paradigm taken as a fundamental premise by both Disciples and Latter-day Saints is beyond the competence of an historical examination to adjudicate. From the theological perspective of a Roman Catholic, the principle of the indefectibility of the Church renders restorationism flawed at its core, and any ecclesiology based upon it problematic. This historical analysis is written from a perspective which grants the validity of the restoration premise in order to analyze the relative consistency of both movements in adhering to it, while the present author’s own ecclesiological perspective is one of assent to the Roman tradition.

13On the intricate complexities of Presbyterian ecclesial polity in the 18th and 19th centuries, see Andrew R. Holmes, “Presbyterian Religion, Historiography, and Ulster Scots Identity, c. 1800 to 1914.” The Historical Journal 52, no. 3 (2009), 615-640.

14Leroy Garrett. The Stone-Campbell Movement. (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1983), 97.

15Earl Irvin West. The Search for the Ancient Order, Volume I. (Memphis: Religious Book Service, 1949), 43-44.

16ibid., 45.

17Thomas Campbell, cited in W.H. Hanna, Thomas Campbell, Seceder, and Christian Union Advocate. (Cincinnati: The Christian Standard Publishing Company, 1935), 38-39.

18Garrett, 102.

19Alexander Campbell, Memoirs of Elder Thomas Campbell. (Cincinnati: H.S. Bosworth, 1861), 11.

20West, 47.

21Garrett, 99.

22F.D. Kershner in Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address. (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1975 [1809]), 14.

23Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address of the Washington Christian Association, 1809. http://web.archive.org/web/20080625072058/http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/tcampbell/da/DA-1ST.HTM, accessed 25 June 2008.

24Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America. (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008), 5.

25Hughes 1996, 21.

26Developments in the Campbell’s soteriology and sacramental theology rendered them more akin to Baptists than Presbyterians. Campbellian baptismal doctrine will be discussed in Section 2 below.

27On Rigdon’s pre-Campbellian Baptist career, see Richard McClellan, “Sidney Rigdon’s 1820 Ministry: Preparing the Way for Mormonism in Ohio.” Dialogue-A Journal of Mormon Thought 36, no. 4 (2004): 152-159.

28Alexander Campbell, MH Third Series 5, no 3 (1843), 523.


30On Walter Scott, see Garrett, 143-170.

31Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 34.

32Amon Sutton Hayden, Early History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve (Cincinnati: Chase and hall, 1875), 191-192.

33Sidney Rigdon, “History of Joseph Smith, continued,” Times and Seasons (TS) 4, no. 13 (1843), 193-194.

34Garrett, 194.

35Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley Pratt (Salt Lake City: Desert Book Company, 1985 [1873]), 13-14.

36ibid., 18.

37ibid., 20.

38Sidney Rigdon, “History of Joseph Smith, continued,” TS 4, no 19 (1843), 289.

39ibid., 290.


41Van Wagoner, 71.

42Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals. (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), 376-377.

43Joseph Smith, Jr. “The King Follett Discourse,” Documentary History of the Church 6 (1971 [1844]), 317.

44Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 26.

45Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1978 [1902], 4-5.

46Bushman, 45.

47Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: the Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1995 [1949]), 39.

48All citations from the Book of Mormon from Joseph Smith, Jr., trans., The Book of Mormon. (Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981 [1830])

49Robert M. Price, “Joseph Smith: Inspired Author of the Book of Mormon,” in Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe, eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), pdf version, p. 1-2.

50cf. 1 Nephi 13:6

51Price, 3.

52Vogel 2004, viii.

53As Bart Ehrman argues compellingly were many of the canonical documents long recognized as scripture by mainline Christian traditions. See Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (London: Oxford University Press, 2012).

54Alexander Campbell, “Delusions,” MH 2, no. 2 (1831), 91.

55ibid., 93.

56Price, 4.

57The standard critical biography of Smith is Fawn Brodie, op. cit. The leading contemporary biographies are Richard Bushman, op. cit. himself a believing Latter-day Saint, and the critical work of Dan Vogel 2004, op. cit.

58Sidney Rigdon, “Persecution,” Latter-day Saints’ Advocate and Messenger 3, no. 4 (1837), 437-438.

59Alexander Campbell. “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things,” TCB 2, no. 2 (1824), 134.

60Hughes 1996, 22.

61The Christian System, 154.

62Hughes 1996, 113-115.

63Garrett, 161.

64Hughes 1996, 52.

65Pratt, 13-14.

66Alexander Campbell. “Reply to T.T.,” TCB 3, no. 7 (1823), 217.

67“Sidney Rigdon,” 110.

68Richard T. Hughes, “Tanner Lecture: Two Restoration Traditions: Mormons and Churches of Christ in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Mormon History (1993), 43.

69ibid., 48.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s