“Religious Beliefs in Joseph Smith’s Day,” Church History Topics
“Religious Beliefs in Joseph Smith’s Day”
As the earliest members of the Church transitioned into their new faith, they brought with them beliefs, traditions, and values from their prior religious experience. Churchgoers in the United States at the time entertained a wide range of beliefs, mostly arising from centuries of debate over the tenets of Christianity. As converts joined the Church, they did not abandon all their previous beliefs and often understood the revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith in light of their earlier views. Many of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants came in response to questions arising from the religious background of Joseph and his associates.1
After the American Revolution in the late 1700s, the new national constitution prohibited an official government-sponsored religion. Individual state governments soon followed, opening the way for vigorous competition between churches and preachers. The relatively literate populace embraced a wide variety of views and debated doctrines in the popular press. Identifying as a Universalist, Arminian, or Calvinist came as readily to the first Saints and their contemporaries as identifying with a political party does today. Common religious rhetoric of Joseph Smith’s day tended toward concerns about Bible interpretation, the nature of God and humankind, salvation, and sacraments.
More than any other text, the Bible influenced American thought, language, and culture. Politicians and preachers alike grounded their arguments in scripture and invoked biblical language. Most Protestants regarded the Bible as the sole authority on doctrine, and many treated its words as infallible and free from mistakes. Readers often arrived at widely diverging interpretations of the Bible, but few seriously questioned its status. Some of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries pioneered new and more sophisticated approaches to biblical interpretation and scholarship, but many remained suspicious of these new methods and preferred a more commonsense use of Bible passages. Most early Latter-day Saints, like many of their Protestant neighbors, promoted a more literal reading of the Bible.
Most Americans in Joseph Smith’s day insisted upon the sufficiency of the Bible and would have taken a dim view of the way Latter-day Saints treated the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants as scripture. Apocryphal writings intrigued many Bible readers, but the majority considered the scriptural canon (the books traditionally accepted by Protestant and Catholic Christians as authoritative) permanently closed.
Most American Christians believed in the doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in traditional confessions and creeds. These spoke of God as three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—existing together in a single being. This concept did not seem absurd to believers, but rather an awe-inspiring mystery of God exceeding human comprehension. Though Trinitarians predominated, other views of the Godhead attracted significant numbers. Deism, a view popular among freethinkers and philosophers in Europe and America, argued for a caring but absent God, a Creator who set the universe in motion but left it to itself. Troubled by the ideas of the deists but still seeking a biblical alternative to Trinitarianism, some theologians advanced what came to be known as Unitarianism. Such theologians asserted that God was one being, that Jesus lived as a human Savior, and that the Holy Spirit was a representation of God’s power.
For the vast majority of Christian preachers and writers, the Fall of man as recounted in Genesis explained the human condition: people lived in a fallen world on account of original sin, and only through divine intervention could this condition improve. Most American Protestants believed that humankind was inherently depraved and would have considered the idea that humans could aspire to be like God blasphemous.
No topic courted controversy more than the nature of salvation. Theologians had long tried to understand the relationship between salvation, free will, predestination, and God’s foreknowledge and grace. By the early 1800s, most American Protestants, regardless of which church they attended, aligned with one of three systems: Calvinism, Arminianism, or Universalism.
Protestant reformer John Calvin reasoned that God possessed total knowledge of the destiny of His creations and, therefore, had predestined whomever would be saved for such a fate. Calvinists viewed free will as an extension of God’s will rather than as an independent choice. Jacobus Arminius, a Calvinist theologian, dismissed strict predestination and argued that human choice played a role in salvation. Even those predestined for salvation, contended Arminius, could resist the Holy Spirit. Some later Arminians, including prominent Methodist figure John Wesley, believed a person could, through choice and God’s grace, attain a degree of perfect love and thus lose the desire for sin. Opponents to this perfectionist doctrine argued such a state of being could arise only in a glorious afterlife and not in mortality.
Most Calvinists and Arminians saw salvation as granted to a relative few, with most facing damnation. Universalists, on the other hand, maintained that because Jesus Christ wrought a perfect Atonement, everyone would ultimately be saved. They understood the biblical doctrine of divine punishment as temporary and corrective. God loved the world so perfectly, they reasoned, that He would ultimately achieve the salvation of all humanity.
These debates over the means of salvation led believers to feel anxious over their own status. The quest for assurance of salvation took different forms for Calvinists and Arminians. Calvinists attempted to read their personal spiritual experiences, their feelings, and their actions as signs that God had elected them for salvation. Arminians often looked for assurance in powerful witnesses of the Holy Spirit. Others considered religious observances like baptism and the Eucharist (the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper) necessary for salvation.
Christians commonly referred to ordinances or sacred observances such as baptism with the term sacraments. In the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, the sacraments were rites considered essential for salvation. Priests traced their authority to administer the sacraments through a succession of bishops back to the ancient Apostles led by Peter. Protestant reformers, especially Martin Luther and John Calvin, considered the sacraments to be signs of faith; authority fell to the congregation of believers rather than to the ordained few, and the validation of a sacrament rested with the Holy Spirit alone.
The mode, timing, and necessity of baptism were vigorously debated. Catholic and Orthodox traditions of baptizing infants came under scrutiny during the European Reformation, though Protestants in America remained split over the practice. Baptists held that only those acting in faith, fully aware of their choice to come unto Christ, could receive a valid baptism. Others believed the baptism rite itself remained valid regardless of age or maturity of the one being baptized. The forms of baptism were also debated. Baptists and others emphasized immersion, while Lutherans, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists allowed for baptism by pouring or sprinkling.
These and other debates spurred Joseph Smith toward many of his most glorious revelations. Latter-day Saint scripture abounds in revealed answers to questions regarding the authority of the Bible, the nature of the Godhead, the fate of the human soul, the necessity and form of baptism, the authority of the priesthood, and the workings of the Holy Spirit. These modern revelations outline a system of doctrines and sacred ordinances distinct from those found in the culture surrounding the first Latter-day Saints.