Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: 19th-Century Restorationists (RoseAnn Benson) -- A Review

ALEXANDER CAMPBELL AND JOSEPH SMITH: 19TH-Century Restorationists. By RoseAnn Benson. Forewords by Thomas H. Olbricht and Robert L. Millet. Provo, UT: BYU Press; Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2017.  Xx + 396 pages.

            The first half of the 19th century was a period of religious and cultural ferment as the new American nation pushed west into new territory. During this period of religious experimentation and expansion, new and often heterodox movements emerged. With people leaving behind more settled communities for the frontier, they encountered a variety of movements that sought to claim their allegiance. Many of these movements claimed to restore earlier and purer forms of religion, though their visions of restoration often diverged when it came to the details. Among those who preached a restorationist message were Joseph Smith and Alexander Campbell. Both spoke of restoring the ancient order of things, but their visions of restoration were quite different. Because the two men overlapped each other, several attempts have been made over the years that compare and contrast the visions of the two men. The latest of these efforts was written by RoseAnn Benson, a historian affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and jointly published by BYU Press and Abilene Christian University Press.

I found the book intriguing because it gives insight into both movements. Although I normally reserve my blog reviews for books provided by publishers for review, I decided this is a book, that I purchased, that deserves to be highlighted. Although the branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement of which I am a part tends to eschew the restorationist message, restorationism remains strong in the two other major branches of the movement. Because Campbell remains an important figure in our tradition, though perhaps less so than Wesley and Calvin tend to be in the movements they spawned, it is important to understand his vision. For Mormons, Joseph Smith is not only founder, he is considered a prophet who spoke for God. While both men spoke of restoration, Campbell pursued a rather narrow rationalist vision of restoration, which sought to stick close to the New Testament, while Smith offered a vision that was expansive, believing that divine revelation was still being delivered to the world (and he and his successors were the means of that revelation). While Campbell focused on the New Testament, Smith tried to reintroduce aspects of Old Testament life, as well as offering another book of Scripture (the Book of Mormon). Whereas Campbell was a rationalist, Smith was imaginative. 

Benson rightly sets Campbell in his Enlightenment rationalism, noting that his message was fairly consistent with Locke and the Scottish Common Sense Realists. She notes that when it came to miracles and revelation, Campbell was a cessationist. Thus, the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament were for a particular time and place, and not available to the contemporary Christian. All the revelation one needed was to be found in the New Testament, which superseded the Old Testament. At least some of Campbell’s descendants have given more credence to the Hebrew Bible and to the broader contemporary work of the Spirit.

Whereas Campbell believed that everything we need to know about God and Christian life was revealed in the New Testament, Smith not only embraced the ongoing presence of the gifts mentioned in Scripture, but he wanted to restore the Jewish priesthood, build Temples, and more. He was especially committed to reclaiming the role of prophetic utterance for the contemporary believer. Thus, he proclaimed himself a prophet through whom God was revealing new words from God, most of which addressed contemporary issues and concerns, from the mundane to the important. He also introduced new forms of scripture, with the Book of Mormon being of first importance.

While I, as a non-Mormon, find much of the LDS theology and beliefs odd, I know that this faith tradition has engendered a large religious tradition. My concern as an outsider is that Smith and his work are lifted to a place that it cannot be easily critiqued from inside. Benson is a devout Mormon who embraces the teaching of Smith, and thus is less critical in her reading of Smith as she is with Campbell (though as a Disciple I believe she is very fair to his legacy).

As a Disciple reading this book, I was especially interested in the sections of the book dealing with Sidney Rigdon, who became a leading figure within the Mormon church (and a claimant to succeed Smith), but who started out as a follower of Campbell. Before Rigdon became a partner with Smith, he was one of the most important and successful evangelists among the Disciples in Ohio. In fact, he was second in effectiveness only to Walter Scott. After his conversion to Mormonism, in large part, because he believed that Campbell didn’t go far enough in his restorationist efforts, he brought into the Mormon fold much of his flock. This led, as one would expect, to conflict with Campbell. Now, Rigdon wasn't the first Disciple to convert to Mormonism, but he was one of the most important. What is key here is that Rigdon found Campbell's vision of restoration too narrow. He wanted to pursue such things as living in community, which Campbell rejected. That left him open to Smith's more communal views and laid him open to Smith's embrace of an expansive understanding of spiritual gifts. He wasn’t alone as the Pratt brothers and several other early Mormon leaders came out of the Disciples movement. Campbell took aim at his former disciple and the movement he embraced, using his own journal to challenge Smith and his message, including his Book of Mormon. Campbell was a leading critic who suggested that Smith had borrowed from a manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding. Rigdon has been linked to that rumor. Benson seeks to respond to all of this, though I’m not sure she totally succeeds. Again, as an outsider who finds the Book of Mormon of dubious veracity, I wonder where Smith got his narrative. But, that is my take as an outsider.

>Benson has done a nice job of laying out the two visions of restoration, though she seems to be beholden to older historical sources. She also misidentifies a Church of Christ writer for a Disciple. But these are minor. For the most part, I think she gets our side of the story correct. We even learn a bit about Campbell that only an outsider can see. Regarding Smith, Benson is a devout Mormon, who gives credence to visions that an outsider like me might find incredible. I don't know where Smith got his Book of Mormon, but I don't think it was from a collection of gold plates hidden in a hill in New York state. As to whether he borrowed from Solomon Spaulding or not, no one knows for sure. What we know is that Smith drew to himself a large number of folks on the frontier, not as many as Campbell, but still a large number, which gave birth to one of the fastest-growing and influential religious traditions in the United States and beyond.

Even if you're not part of either of these two religious communities, you will find this intriguing if you're interested in 19th century American religious and cultural life. Church of Christ historian Richard Hughes suggests that it might even be “one of the most important books of our time—crucially important for Mormon studies, to be sure, but also for American studies more broadly conceived” (back cover). While I might not go as far as Hughes, I do think it is an important contribution to our understanding of religion on the frontier during the early nineteenth-century. The two publishers should be commended for working together to make this important study available. 


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