Campbell versus the Mormons - A reflection on a chapter in Douglas Foster's A Life of Alexander Campbell


Campbell versus the Mormons

Douglas Foster, A Life of Alexander Campbell, Chapter 12.

A Review and Response

Note: this was written for a list-serve conversation., I was tasked with writing a piece on chapter 12, which focuses on the relationship of Alexander Campbell and the emergent Mormon movement. Though written for that reason, I thought I would share it more broadly, especially for my Disciples friends who might not know that much about the relationship between early Mormonism and Campbell's movement. 


            Long before I had ever heard of Alexander Campbell, I had encountered the Mormons. I was only seven when we visited Temple Square in Salt Lake City. From that moment I’ve been intrigued by the story of Joseph Smith and his restoration movement. Being from the west coast, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a strong presence, I had several friends who were Mormons. Besides this, I have Mormon ancestors on both sides of the family, so I’ve heard the family stories. In addition, we had regular visits from Mormon Elders and missionaries. Besides that, I began reading about Joseph Smith and others early on. I think I first read Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, a significant biography of Joseph Smith while in junior high school. On the other hand, my first real encounter with Alexander Campbell came in college (I am a graduate of Northwest Christian College—now Bushnell University). It was for that reason that I decided to take up the challenge of addressing Douglas Foster’s appraisal of Alexander Campbell’s encounters with Joseph Smith’s movement as laid out in his A Life of Alexander Campbell, (Eerdmans, 2020)—see my review here:

            According to Foster, Campbell took an especially dim view of Joseph Smith and his movement, offering more scathing denunciations of Smith than any other religious leader. Considering that Campbell could be rather harsh with his opponents, you can figure out the extent of his contempt for Smith. As noted in the book, Campbell was the first person to publish a detailed look at (may I say exposé) of the Book of Mormon. As Foster puts it, Campbell labeled it “the fabrication of a deluded or deliberately deceitful person” (Foster, p. 171).

            That these two figures launched restoration movements, even if very different in substance, on the American frontier at about the same time, offers interesting comparisons as to the receptivity of people on the frontier to these kinds of messages. What makes the comparison even more interesting is the relationship between the two movements, with several key leaders of the LDS movement coming from Campbell’s movement. You can understand, therefore, why Campbell took such a hard stance against Smith and his movement. They were a threat to his own movement, especially in Ohio, where Sidney Rigdon took the Kirtland congregation into the Mormon fold. While Rigdon became one of Smith’s key advisors, he wasn’t alone. Consider that one of Smith’s first converts and a witness to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, Oliver Cowdery, came out of the Campbell movement. In a footnote, Foster notes that anti-Mormon writers had accused Rigdon of stealing the manuscript of a Solomon Spaulding novel about the origins of the indigenous peoples of the region, and then suggesting that Rigdon and Cowdery edited it into what became the Book of Mormon (p. 171).  

Besides these figures, the Pratt brothers, Parley and Orson both had been Reformed Baptist preachers. Another Mormon leader mentioned by Foster was Orson Hyde. There were others (See Rose Ann Benson’s study of the two figures for more on this).

Rigdon, however, was the most important LDS convert, having been a major evangelist for the Disciples movement in Ohio. Apparently, he converted after reading the Book of Mormon in 1830. Campbell’s first exposition of the Book of Mormon was published in the Millennial Harbinger in February 1831 and later republished in Boston in 1832 under the title Delusions. Richard Bushman, the Yale historian, a Mormon himself, and author of a major biography of Joseph Smith, writes that Campbell was not only among the first to critique the Book of Mormon but he “read enough of the Book of Mormon to offer a reasoned critique” [Bushman, Joseph Smith RoughStone Rolling, (Knopf, 2005), p. 89].

Ever the literary critic, according to Foster, Campbell listed ten internal pieces of evidence that proved that the book was a fabrication, not including the suggestion that the Mormon figure Lehi, a descendant of the patriarch Joseph, was a priest (the priesthood was limited to descendants of Levi, making that impossible—biblically speaking).  These included quotations from the New Testament that supposedly dates from before the time of the New Testament as well as mention of navigation instruments not invented until long after the supposed departure of the Mormon ancestors to the Americas. Besides the internal issues, there were Campbell’s concerns about the supposed witnesses, who claimed to have seen the plates, some of whom had, according to Campbell, a financial stake in the project.

While Campbell gave a stinging critique of Smith’s book, it wasn’t so much the “utter credulity about Smith’s claims of revelation from God” that concerned Campbell as the loss of several thousand Disciples to the Mormons in the 1830s. The two movements were emerging alongside each other. Each was offering a vision of restoration that appealed to folks on the frontier. Since Rigdon was the most prominent of the converts, Campbell needed an explanation for his conversion. Thus, according to Foster, Campbell blamed it on mental illness: “This was manifested in fits of melancholy and enthusiasm, nervous spasms, and swoonings—events that Rigdon interpreted as the work of the Holy Spirit. If you set out to experience signs, omens, and visits from angels, Campbell asserted, you will find them, just as those who set out to find witches see one in every ‘unseemly old woman’” [Foster, p. 175]. While Campbell kept his focus on the New Testament alone for revelation from God, Smith claimed to have experienced angelic visions. Whether Rigdon suffered from mental illness is really beside the point here, as the point is that Smith offered Rigdon something Campbell could not. While Campbell took on Smith in the 1830s, after losing members to the LDS movement, he largely ignored the movement until Smith died in 1844. Though Smith read and responded to Campbell’s critique. 

Years ago, I read a book written by Richard Bushman on Smith that had an appendix comparing the two Restoration Movements. I found that essay intriguing, because there are interesting similarities, though there are also significant differences. What is most intriguing, however, are the similarities. With Foster interested in issues of white supremacy in American Christianity and the movement, it’s fitting that he would bring out as one of the core beliefs that were held by both Smith and Campbell included “white America as god’s chosen land.” Besides this similarity, others included the importance of restoring ancient Christianity (though with different emphases) and the practice of immersion.

Regarding Smith’s death in 1844 at the hands of a lynch mob, along with his brother Hyrum, Campbell demonstrated his contempt of Smith by suggesting that their deaths were providential, for they had been “cut off in the midst of their diabolical career.” From then on, Campbell “gave almost no notice to Mormonism,” except a curious comment about Rigdon’s unsuccessful effort to take control of Smith’s movement. The piece was titled “Mormon Church Extinct.” His mention of this episode led Campbell to conclude that the LDS church no longer existed, except for Rigdon’s group, ignoring Brigham Young’s rise to power. Foster concludes, with significant understatement: “Contrary to Campbell’s statement, Mormonism was not extinct. It would continue to grow until it equaled the number of members of Stone-Campbell churches in the United States.” With nearly seven million members in the United States and over sixteen million members, world-wide the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has taken its place among the world religions. 

While RoseAnn Benson’s book Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: 19th Century Restorationists (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2015—review: goes into greater depth on the relationship between the two men and their movements, Foster provides us with an important introduction to the engagement between the two. In doing so, he helps us understand some of the cultural and religious dynamics present in the period. He also raises some intriguing questions as to why the two men appealed to different constituencies. Obviously, Campbell’s vision of restoration is much more rational, Smith appealed to something perhaps even deeper, the need for a supernatural engagement with God. His restoration vision was much more radical than Campbell’s. While Campbell didn’t think it would survive his death, it has demonstrated incredible growth potential (even though I find Campbell’s vision much more credible and compelling).    


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