Virtually since the beginning of the Latter-day Saint church in 1830 its founder, Joseph Smith Jr., had made strong linkages between ancient Israel and the modern Mormon era. Gathering a small group of stalwart followers in upstate New York, Smith sent missionaries into outlying areas, proselytizing all that would listen. Their message was eloquent in its simplicity and powerful in its attraction. They spoke of the boy prophet who had received divine guidance to correct the errors of the Christian churches by calling the world to repentance and baptism into the pure church of Jesus Christ.
They appealed to the adolescent republic’s natural curiosity about the ancient inhabitants of America with the story told in the Book of Mormon. They propounded the doctrine of divine revelation—not just as experienced in Biblical times but for their own day as well—and asserted that Joseph Smith Jr., was a prophet like Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Elijah. And finally, they adopted a popular ideal of the time concerning the imminent advent of Christ and the beginning of the millennial reign.
The themes of millennialism, current divine revelation, the Book of Mormon, and the restoration of Christianity to its ancient purity—the bases upon which Smith built early Mormonism—were exciting and meaningful to many Americans of the 1830s and 1840s, a period when the religious ferment of antebellum America spawned many religious movements, several adopting one or more of the basic themes of Mormonism.
What made Smith’s movement so unique was its blend of themes and the energy and vitality of both its leadership and membership, which guaranteed the survival of the Mormon religion when many of its counterparts failed. Mormonism survived largely because of a second tier of leaders who took the vision of the prophet, cut it loose from the more sublime and radical concepts of the early church’s theology, and put it more in concert with a practical reality. Brigham Young clearly followed a path of “routinization” of the faith, institutionalizing critical elements of the remarkably fertile theological conceptions of Joseph Smith .
Joseph Smith from his earliest years emphasized the apostasy of all other religious groups and the need for a restoration of ancient religious truth. Smith insisted that the church established by Jesus Christ has been a new chosen people, accepting the special place in God’s favor that had been enjoyed by the ancient Israelites. But like those ancient Israelites, the Christian religion had fallen into apostasy and had to during the intervening years and required restoration.
In Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” presumably taking place in 1820, the 14-year-old boy prayed to God which of the various Christian churches he should join. He received a powerful vision that motivated the remainder of his life. “I was answered that I must join none of them,” Smith recollected in 1842,
for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
Only a restoration of the church in its ancient purity would prove acceptable, and Smith believed himself called of God to accomplish that sacred task. The April 6, 1830, incorporation of the church, as well as host of other actions including the “restoration” of the priesthood and the translation of the Book of Mormon, represented key elements in that process.
Mark E. Petersen, who served for many years in LDS Quorum of Twelve Apostles, wrote of Smith’s restoration efforts:
Under the guidance of heaven they organized his Church according to the pattern of ancient times. The powers of the priesthood have been brought back to earth by the ministry of angels. All the gifts and powers of former days have been restored. They did not come from any existing organization. They did not come from any manmade society, nor from any political unit. They came from heaven. Holy angels brought them to earth, pure and undefiled.
This restored Church is known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with headquarters in Salt Lake City. Its organization meets all of the specifications of the scripture. It possesses the divine priesthood of God. It is headed by prophets and Apostles as was the Church in the days of Peter and Paul.
It invites all men to receive its message, for it is a message of salvation for everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, bond or free.
Of course, Joseph Smith was not the only individual in the early American republic concerned with the restoration of ancient Christianity. An important strain of “restorationism” ran through many religious groups in the first half of the nineteenth century. Among many others, Alexander Campbell and his followers adopted a goal of the restoration of the “ancient order of things.”
Those interlinked ideas of apostasy and restoration led directly to a belief among nineteenth century Mormons that the beliefs they embraced was a continuation of the eternal gospel present on the Earth whenever there were righteous men. In earlier eras God’s followers had been a covenant people, raised above all others and rewarded by God for their faithfulness. Mormons of all eras have believed that they were nothing less than a chosen people as the ancients Israelites of old.
For the Mormons, they possessed the truth of the gospel and it was their responsibility to bring it to the rest of the world. That was true in the first generation of Mormonism, and it remains true to the present. In the fall of 1830 Joseph Smith sent his first far-reaching missionaries to the American West to preach to the Native Americans of Kansas, and while that effort proved less than successful a detour led by Parley P. Pratt to Kirtland, Ohio, netted Sidney Rigdon, a reformed Baptist minister, and virtually all of his congregation. The 2000 feature film, God’s Army, by writer/director/actor Richard Dutcher, attests to the continuing centrality of the missionary impulse in Mormon culture. And a key element of Mormonism’s message from 1830 to the present resides around apostasy and restoration.
Early Latter-day Saints developed an ironclad proof text—passages of scripture used to prove a doctrine—to demonstrate the apostasy of the ancient Christian church and the restoration of God’s ancient law in the modern era. They proved remarkably inventive in making this case, using biblical texts and related theological treatises to accomplish the task. As only one example among many, in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, is states: “For the time will come when [members of Christ’s church] will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers. And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned into fables.”
No less, Mormon believers accept the concept of a restoration of the gospel in the “latter days” before the tribulations foretold in the Book of Revelation (Isaiah 29:13-14, 24; Daniel 2:28, 44-45; Jeremiah 31:31-34; and Ezekial 37:26.) They would affirm, both in the 1830s and today, that new scripture would come forth out of the Earth to stand with the Bible as a witness of God and His work (Psalms 85:11 and Isaiah 29:4, 11-12, 18, 24.)
Mormons insisted that God ordained a new messenger, as He did with John the Baptist, to bring about this restoration, and that He would empower that prophet with the keys of priesthood sealing powers (See Malachi 3:1; Matthew 11:10.) That individual, of course, was Joseph Smith Jr.