I recently reread Dan Vogel’s 1988 book, Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism. I am more convinced than ever that it is a seminal study. It was part of a larger investigation of Mormon origins in the 1970s and 1980s, making it one of the most exciting eras of investigation in the field. That vitality was documented in many books. Dan Vogel’s work is an excellent contribution to that effort. Vogel, who had already contributed another important book with Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon (1986) before this one was published, presents an exhaustively researched and clearly written discussion of the influence of Seeker elements on Joseph Smith, Jr., and Mormonism.
Vogel’s thesis is both modest and straightforward. He describes and analyzes the position of a small group of early nineteenth-century Americans called Seekers, who claimed that the existing denominations were corruptions of the primitive Christian church. The Seekers were a subgroup of Christian Primitivism, and, although the influence of the Primitivists on Mormon origins is well known, Vogel goes further to draw attention to the peculiar contributions of the Seekers. They agreed with the Primitivists on many issues, but, according to Vogel, Seekers “believed that ordinances would be inefficacious until there was a new, literal, and evident dispensation of divine power” (p. x).
Vogel sees the Seekers as a truly radical element of Christianity in both America and Western Europe from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. His research moves far beyond traditional bounds to establish that contention. Whereas Primitivists were willing to accept a reformation, Seekers demanded a restoration of divine authority. A reformation of existing religious structures, perceptions, and doctrines would not accomplish that restoration, the Seekers believed; only a complete break with past institutions and the creation of a totally new organization established by God could fulfill that purpose.
The authority to act on God’s behalf was a critical element that divorced Seekers from mainstream Christianity. Mormonism offered Seekers the clean break with established churches and the restoration of the gospel that they sought. Smith’s background had a strong Seeker influence, according to Vogel, and not surprisingly Mormonism always claimed to be a complete restoration of “the gospel in its ancient purity” (p. 27).
By focusing attention on the Seeker element of nineteenth-century Christianity and demonstrating persuasively its influences on Smith, converts to the church, the Book of Mormon, the revelatory process, and the organizational structure and emphasis of early Mormonism, Vogel has performed an important service for all scholars of American religion, particularly for those specializing in the development of Mormonism. His book places a unique twist on Mormon origins that will permanently affect the historical work to follow.
At the time of its publication this book quickly became a benchmark in the study of Mormonism’s formative year. Most important, it pointed up quite well the depth and breadth and complexity of the movement’s origins. Although now some 25 years old, this work still offers intriguing possibilities for further investigation.