In 1834, Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph, published “Mormonism Unvailed” (sic). Generally recognized as the very first anti-Mormon book, it blazed the trail for many hundreds of future volumes — which, in many regards, haven’t really advanced much beyond it. But Howe wasn’t the first significant critic of Mormonism. Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) had already published a lengthy critique of the Book of Mormon in the pages of his periodical The Millennial Harbinger in February 1831, titled “Delusions.”
Who was Alexander Campbell? Importantly, he was the Scotland-born son of the Rev. Thomas Campbell (1763-1854) who, having been raised an Anglican, was ordained a Presbyterian minister before emigrating to the United States in 1807, where he soon affiliated with the Baptists. Eventually, Alexander and Thomas became the principal figures at the origins of an American religious movement (sometimes called “Campbellite”) that includes today’s Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ.
Together, they sought the complete restoration, as they termed it, of biblical or early apostolic Christianity, which, they believed, would unite Christians worldwide.
Those who think that this sounds rather like early Mormonism aren’t wrong. And, indeed, several significant early converts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — including Isaac Morley, Newell K. Whitney, Edward Partridge, Parley Pratt and Sidney Rigdon — came to Mormonism from the Campbellite movement.
Perhaps the loss of such prominent and energetic disciples accounts for some of Alexander Campbell’s animus against Mormonism. But the Campbellites and the Latter-day Saints were also contesting the meaning of the word “restoration,” which was fundamentally important to both movements.
One of the many striking insights offered by Gary Lawrence’s fascinating 2008 book “How Americans View Mormonism” (published by The Parameter Foundation) concerns that very word. When Latter-day Saints speak of “the Restoration” and of “the restored church,” he says, many in their audience misunderstand what they’re saying.
How? Many Americans who hear the word, Lawrence argues on the basis of survey data, envision something like the restoring of an old car or a dilapidated house. By contrast, when Latter-day Saints speak of “restoration” they have in mind not merely a daub of paint here or a patch there but the bringing back of something that was actually absent — in the way that a lost child might be “restored” to grieving parents.
Lawrence’s distinction is relevant to the disagreement between the Campbellite and the Latter-day Saint movements over what it means to “restore” apostolic Christianity.
Thomas and Alexander Campbell believed that the existing Christian church or churches could be reformed, and apostolic Christianity restored, through careful, systematic study of the Bible in its original languages. Such study, the Campbells held, should use reasoned analysis as it was taught and modeled in the works of the philosopher John Locke and the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, out of which they both emerged.
By contrast, although Joseph Smith was interested in learning biblical languages, he lacked the educational background that the Campbells enjoyed. Much more importantly, though, his concept of restoration didn’t involve repairs and modifications to existing churches based on reasoned biblical scholarship. Instead, it required the return of lost truths, lost texts and lost authority by divine messengers.
Notably, while Alexander Campbell sought a return to “apostolic Christianity,” he denied the need for a restoration of the apostolic office itself, declaring that actual apostles belonged uniquely to the primitive church and were no longer needed. In stark contrast, restored apostolic authority and actual apostles are fundamental to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Kevin Barney presented a paper on Mormonism and the Campbellite movement to the 1999 FairMormon conference under the title “A Tale of Two Restorations” (see fairmormon.org/conference/august-1999/a-tale-of-two-restorations).
For the first time, though, the subject has now received book-length treatment. Published by Brigham Young University Press in conjunction with Abilene Christian University Press — like California’s Pepperdine University, Abilene Christian is affiliated with the Churches of Christ, a loose federation of broadly Campbellite congregations — RoseAnn Benson’s “Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: 19th-Century Restorationists” attempts a balanced examination of two contrasting efforts to restore primitive Christianity.
Herself a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a Disciples of Christ background, Benson surveys the beliefs of the two movements, both similar and distinctive (including their different understandings of “restoration”), and their interactions with each other. (Helpfully, she includes the entire text of Alexander Campbell’s polemic against the Book of Mormon.)
Those curious about how the Prophet Joseph Smith was and was not a man of his time will find this book both informative and interesting.