Methodism, Mormonism, and the Atlantic World



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Christopher Jones

Cross-posted at the Juvenile Instructor.

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I recently opined on the benefits of situating the rise of Mormonism within the larger historical context of the (late) early modern Atlantic world. I would like now to briefly outline one example of what such an approach might look like. When I wrote my MA thesis on the subject of Methodist influence on early Mormonism, I was mostly interested in exploring the specific ways Methodist converts to Mormonism left their mark on early Latter-day Saint religiosity and paid little attention to the ways in which Methodism and Mormonism related to one another on a broader scale of Christian, American, or Atlantic history. In light of my more recent reading and research, however, I find it difficult to separate those two questions.

In chapter three of my thesis, I explored the ways in which Mormon converts from Methodist backgrounds understood their prior affiliation with Methodism as expressed in public sermons, tracts, and especially in private (and occasionally published) spiritual narratives. I found that contrary to sweeping assessments that Mormonism’s doctrine of “restoration made it abundantly clear that God had sanctioned one true church and that all others were false,” and that this identity left “no room for abstractions, ambiguities, or shades of gray” in the way Mormons understood Protestant traditions [1], Mormon converts from Methodism more often than not understood their conversion to Mormonism not as a wholesale rejection of Wesleyan religion, but rather as a final step in their search for truth. These converts explained that it was their former experience as Methodists that led them to accept the Mormon gospel. Methodism was thus insufficient or incomplete, not altogether incorrect, and Mormons recalled enjoying certain spiritual gifts, learning essential “truths,” and experiencing true Christian conversion during their time as adherents to Methodist teachings and churches. Joseph Smith, therefore, purportedly declared to the Methodist itinerant Peter Cartwright that “he believed that among all the Churches in the world the Methodist was the nearest right, and that, as far as they went, they were right,” and that “if the Methodists would only advance a step or two further, they would take the world. We Latter-day Saints are Methodists, as far as they have gone, only we have advanced further, and if you would come in and go with us, we could sweep not only the Methodist Church, but all others, and you would be looked up to as one of the Lord’s greatest prophets.” [2]

Related to Smith’s assertion that Methodists had “stopped short” of claiming the entire Christian gospel was the suggestion made by other converts that Methodists not only stopped short but even took a backward step by forsaking some of John Wesley’s teachings. Of course such a claim was not new or novel, and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many disgruntled Methodists leveled similar charges against leaders of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America and the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Great Britain, leading to a splintering of the movement over issues of church governance, mode and manner of worship, social issues, and theological emphases. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was from these several splinter groups that so many of Mormonism’s early converts and leaders came. And it was those same individuals who repeated anew the charges that mainline Methodists in the 1830s and 1840s had forsaken pure Wesleyanism. Brigham Young, who aligned himself with the Reformed Methodist Church prior to his conversion, thus had little kind to say about the Methodists of his day but held John Wesley in high regard, remarking on one occasion that he considered Wesley to be “as good [of a person] as ever walked on this earth, according to his knowledge,” and expressed his belief that “had the Priesthood been conferred upon [Wesley], he would have built up the kingdom of God in his day as it is now being built up. He would have introduced the ordinances, powers, grades, and quorums of the Priesthood.” [3] William Appleby (and Parley Pratt), meanwhile, praised Wesley’s take on spiritual gifts, and John Taylor, who led a small Methodist sect in Canada before converting to Mormonism, once accused Methodist preachers he encountered in the British Isles of forsaking their Wesleyan heritage, charging that “surely Messrs. John Wesley, John Nelson, Fletcher, and Bramwell, who were ornaments of the Methodist society, would have been ashamed to have been found in the situation in which Messrs. Heys and Livesey have placed themselves in.” [4]

I’ll leave it to others more interested in the accuracy of such charges to debate their relative merits. But it does seem clear to me that in looking at the historical trajectory of Methodism and Mormonism, one can point to ways in which Methodists did move away from key points of Wesley’s teachings and ways in which Mormonism can appropriately be seen as “restoring” some of those points. But what does all of this have to do with the Atlantic world?

Well, one of the most notable ways in which Francis Asbury, whom Wesley appointed as co-superintendent of Methodist efforts in America and who initiated the process leading to the establishment of a separate Methodist church in America (the Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1784), moved away from Wesley’s legacy was in his approach to missionary work. While both were proponents of aggressive and far-reaching missionary efforts, they envisioned those efforts in very different geographical terms. As Ian Straker recently noted, whereas “[John] Wesley defined the world as his parish,” and initiated a number of foreign Methodist missions, the “British born Asbury defined his world more narrowly,” limiting the missionary endeavors of his Methodist Episcopal Church largely to the North American continent (and ultimately to the United States alone). [5] While British Wesleyan missionaries continued to operate on both sides of the Atlantic (especially in Canada and the Caribbean), American Methodists aggressively spread throughout U.S. territory. In the early 19th century, Methodists became fierce advocates of American exceptionalism and in some crucial sense (my apologies to Mormonism), the MEC became the quintessential American church of the era, growing to become the largest Protestant denomination on the eve of the Civil War.

While it could be argued that Mormonism built on this pattern both in assembling an upstart and wide-reaching missionary force and in sacralizing the American landscape (and the underlying ideals of the United States), Mormonism also departed sharply from the example of Asbury and the American Methodists by restoring an emphasis on transatlantic (and indeed, worldwide) proselytization. Instead of restricting his church to the United States, Joseph Smith (like John Wesley and others before him) initiated a movement that operated in a truly Atlantic world, prompting the spread of ideas and of people back and forth across the ocean.

Interestingly, other dissident Methodists, like Lorenzo Dow and William Hammett, insisted on moving beyond the borders of the United States and across the Atlantic in their preaching careers. And other inheritors of the Wesleyan legacy, including the Holiness and (later) Pentecostal movements (whom David Hempton appropriately labeled Methodism’s “religious offspring”) also emphasized worldwide missionary programs, leading to their modern day success in Latin America and Africa, where they compete with (who else but) Mormons for converts.

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[1] Richard T. Hughes, “Soaring with the Gods: Early Mormons and the Eclipse of Religious Pluralism,” in Mormons and Mormonism: An Introduction to an American World Religion, ed. Eric A. Eliason (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 27-28, 40.

[2] Peter Cartwright, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, with an introduction by Charles L. Wallis (Nashville: Abingdon Press reprint, 1984), 225-226.

[3] Brigham Young, “Nature of Man—Happiness—Influence of God’s Spirit Upon Mankind, etc.,” July 3, 1859, in Journal of Discourses 7:5.

[4] John Taylor, An Answer to Some False Statements and Misrepresentations made by the Rev. Robert Heys, Wesleyan Minister, in an Address to His Society in Douglas and its Vicinity, on the Subject of Mormonism (Douglas: Penrice and Wallace, 1840), 9.

[5] Ian Straker, “Comments on Selected Themes [in John H. Wigger’s American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists],”Methodist History 48:4 (July 2010), 221.

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