I think that it is fairly well established that Mormonism has deep roots in the religious history of Puritan New England. Of course, how one parses out the relationship between Mormonism and Puritanism is complicated, but I don’t think that there is much argument as to the fact of a relationship. Put in the simplest terms, Joseph Smith and many of the earliest converts to Mormonism came from old New England stock and their religious world views were profoundly shaped by their Puritan roots, even when they were largely reactions against the old-line Calvinist orthodoxy of the Bay Colony. Which brings us to my completely under-documented theory about the origins of home teaching.
Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants states:
The priest’s duty is to . . . visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties . . . . [and] the teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; and see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, back-biting, nor evil speaking; and see that the church meet together oft, and also see that all the members do their duty. (v.53-54)
This is the scriptural basis for the idea that Church officers should regularly visit families, exhort them to lead godly lives, do their duty to one another, and generally avoid iniquity. In short it is the canonical basis for home teaching. (Yes, the home teaching program as we have it now is a later creation, but it is an extension of this idea that priesthood holders should be visiting the homes of members.)
Home teaching, however, has Puritan antecedents. In the first generation of Puritan settlement in America, the town selectmen (essentially the local municipal government) were required by law to visit each family in the village, check-up to see that they were meeting their family obligations, living godly lives, and the like. As Puritan settlement became more established — and correspondingly more complicated — they revived an English officer called a tithingman and gave him the duty of visiting each family. The tithingman, in turn, was a local municipal office transplanted to New England from East Anglia, which is the part of England where the majority of Puritan immigrants came from. Today we tend to think of the law of England as being the common law. However, it is important to remember that in many ways the common law was an elite legal veneer promulgated by the royal courts in London over the top of a thick set of local laws and customs. Hence, tithingman was not an office in all English towns, but rather it reflected the essentially Germanic folk law of east England (Anglia is named for the Angles, a German tribe that invaded eastern England in the early middle ages.)
The Doctrine and Covenants, of course, did much more than simply revive the Puritan office of tithingman. It transformed it by making the home teacher into an officer of the church rather than an officer of the state. Therein lies one of the most important ways in which Mormonism transformed the spirituality of Puritanism. Remember that Puritanism was ultimately a reaction against the High Church Anglicanism of Bishop Laud and other English prelates who saw the English Reformation in terms of an integrated, hierarchical, bishop-ridden, national church, much along the lines of Catholicism only with the King rather than the Pope at the head. The Puritans reacted against this by eviscerating the institutional power of the Church in their ecclesiology. Hence, while the church as a spiritual entity was important within Puritan theology as the community of the elect, as an actual institution in the world it was very anemic. Puritans were nevertheless committed to strong social controls and the building up of a godly commonwealth, their famous “City on a Hill.” But it was the job of the state rather than the church to build up this commonwealth. It is no accident that the dominant figure in the first generation of Puritan settlement was John Winthrop, a “secular” ruler.
Mormonism reversed this allocation of power in the building up of the City on the Hill. The goal was still to create Zion in the wilderness, but this job was firmly committed to the Church as an institution rather than to the state. Indeed, the state becomes an almost superfluous concept in the high-Kingdom theology of mid-19th century Mormonism, and the Church becomes a proto-state, waiting to step in to take the reigns of all government when the nations of the earth shall fall. Ironically, this meant with the ebbing of imminent apocalyptic expectations and theocratic ambitions at the end of the 19th century, it was fairly easy for the Church to settle into its role as tolerated denomination within a liberal republic. The loss of the state was not as troubling as it might have been. Unlike Puritanism — or Catholicism — Mormonism didn’t suffer its crisis of identity with the loss of control of the state, but rather when the state intruded into the Church’s sphere and drastically curtailed its ambitions.
Something to think about the next time the home teachers show up.