The 16th Century Origins of a Mormon Idea

The Mormon court system emerged from the much older tradition of ecclesiastical discipline among the English Protestants who settled North America. Under English law, ecclesiastical courts were integrated into the judicial machinery of the state. Certain kinds of issues – mainly dealing with family law and certain aspects of probate – lay exclusively within the jurisdiction of the courts of the Church of England. These courts enforced their decisions by excommunicating recalcitrant parties, and excommunication would then carry certain civil penalties. The Church of England, however, made comparatively little effort to police the spiritual or moral purity of church members. The assumption was that attempts to enforce ecclesiastical purity through church discipline were unnecessary. Indeed those who called for more aggressive church discipline were labeled “Donatists” (after an early Christian sect condemned by Augustine for their insistence on ecclesiastical purity) and treated as dangerous heretics. Accordingly, the sanctions of church courts were reserved for the ordinary legal cases falling within their jurisdiction and punishing dangerous dissenters such as radical Puritans. Virginia, and other colonies where Anglicanism was the dominant religion, continued this easy-going attitude toward church discipline, a tendency heightened by the fact that without bishops of their own American churches came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, a geographic distance that made the ordinary functioning of the ecclesiastical courts all but impossible. Nor does this judicial neglect by the Church of England seem to have bothered Virginians very much. For example, when the Reverend James Blair, founder of the College of William and Mary, tried to create local ecclesiastical courts to discipline “all cursers Swearers and blasphemers, all whoremongers fornicators and Adulterers, all drunkards ranters and profaners of the Lord’s day,” his proposal was treated with horror by the planter elite and quickly squashed.

The English Protestants who founded the colonies to the north, however, rejected the lax attitude of Anglicanism toward church discipline. The roots of their dissatisfaction lay in a radical wing of the German Reformation: the Anabaptists. In the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists were most notable for their rejection of infant baptism and the apocalyptic theocracy of the city of Munster, which was bloodily suppressed by the local bishop in 1535. The Anabaptists, however, also insisted that discipline was the mark of a true church. In particular, they focused on the eighteenth chapter of Mathew in which Christ commands “if your brother sins against you … tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Adult baptism, insisted one Anabaptist pamphleteer in 1526, would be “no better than infant baptism had been if fraternal admonition and excommunication did not go along with it.” In Geneva, John Calvin regarded the Anabaptists as one of his chief theological rivals, but he nevertheless imbibed their emphasis on church discipline from an early teacher with strong Anabaptist connections. (Calvin also married an Anabaptist widow. ) He wrote, “as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews,” although he did try to distinguish himself from “Donatists and Anabaptists” who “in an impious schism separated themselves from Christ’s flock” and “under pretense of their zeal … subvert whatever edification there is.” After the English break with Rome, Calvinist and Anabaptist ideas began making their way across the Channel. Among the Puritan criticisms of the Anglican settlement was their insistence that “every church should exclude and expel the wicked.”

Like their Anglican cousins to the south, the Puritans of New England dispensed with the courts of the Church of England, moving matters of traditional ecclesiastical jurisdiction entirely into the secular courts. Their early insistence on the purity of the church, however, meant that Puritans kept alive the practice of ecclesiastical discipline, excommunicating church members who failed to live godly lives. The practice of formal church discipline among Puritans, however, was ultimately limited. Early Puritan theology required that church members demonstrate that they had been predestined to salvation, an exacting spiritual requirement that few congregants actually met. Accordingly, few of the people in Puritan pews were actually members of the church and therefore subject to its discipline. The so-called Half-way Covenant eventually relaxed the prerequisites for church membership, increasing the number of congregants potentially subject to discipline. However, the Half-way Covenant itself seems to have dampened the fervor for ecclesiastical purity and with it the widespread practice of church trials and excommunication.

The same thing could not be said of the churches that sprouted among dissenters from Puritan orthodoxy. Despite Calvinist antipathy toward Anabaptism, its ideas and adherents found their way to New England in the first years of settlement. English Seperatists in Holland had come into contact with Anabaptists in the Low Countries during the 1610s and 1620s, and in 1638, Roger Williams established an early Baptist congregation in Rhode Island that drew on this Seperatist tradition. From these beginnings, American Baptists spread around the fringes of New England, and in the 1690s Baptists from New England formed the first Baptist congregation in the southern colonies at Charleston, South Carolina. While divided in their allegiance to Calvinist theology (some Baptists followed the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, who rejected predestination), Baptists retained the early Anabaptist conviction in the need to maintain the purity of the church, and prior to the later part of the nineteenth century Baptist congregations aggressively disciplined their members. Before1840 as many as one in ten white male Baptists may have passed under the church’s rod of discipline each year. Quakerism emerged from the radical fringes of British Protestantism during the religious and political upheavals that accompanied the English Civil War.

Scholars have long argued that the origins of Mormonism lie in New England. Although the Church of Christ was organized in upstate New York in April, 1830, Joseph Smith was born in Vermont of old New England stock. Perhaps more importantly, many of the earliest converts to the new faith in western New York and Ohio were displaced New Englanders whose family roots lay in the “radical fringe” of Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont, precisely the regions where Anabaptist and Quaker influence was the strongest. Likewise, Joseph Smith found early followers in Ohio and the upper reaches of the Susquehanna river, regions peopled largely by settlers from Quaker Pennsylvania. These early converts carried their forbearers’ emphasis on church discipline into the new movement. The earliest set of rules for the government of the church were contained in the “Articles of the Church of Christ” composed in late 1829. Like the Anabapists, the “Articles” endorse adult, believers’ baptism and insist on the importance of disciplining recalcitrant members. “Therefore if ye know that a man is unworthy … ,” they state, “if he repenteth not he shall not be numbered among my people that he may not destroy my people.” A few months later, the newly organized church adopted an expanded “Articles and Covenants.” This document directed that “[a]ny member of the church of Christ transgressing, or being overtaken in fault shall be dealt with as the scriptures direct … [a]nd also, if any have been expelled from the church, so that their names may be blotted out of the general church record of names.”

11 comments for “The 16th Century Origins of a Mormon Idea

  1. Adam Greenwood
    March 19, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Moroni 6 is pretty clear about church discipline and the Book of Mormon was written before the influx of New Englanders you describe.

    But I don’t actually know what role Moroni 6 played in early church disciplinary practices.

  2. March 19, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    It seems to me that all the churches in the late 18th and early 19th century were prone to remove folks from the rolls of the church and withdraw communion. That said, from a perspective of ordinances or sacred rites, the Separate Baptists (later merged with the General Baptists) really have a lot of similarities which just aren’t found in traditional New England religion.

  3. DavidH
    March 19, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Thanks Nate. Very interesting analysis. It also helps explain things like discipline in the early LDS church for things we would today consider minor–like violations of the word of wisdom. Do I remember correctly that some were disciplined for for swearing?

    Do you know how patterns of discipline in the Roman Catholic Church (or the Orthodox or Assyrian Church of the East (and other apostolic Christian churches)) influenced patterns of discipline in the various western protestant traditions? Or did the western protestant churches simply ignore developments in the other Christian traditions?

    I understand that excommunication in the catholic tradition has different significance than in the LDS church–that excommunication in catholicism does not, for example, undo all the sacraments or even revoke a person’s membership. It merely excludes one from taking communion. Perhaps this is like a bishop advising a member to partake of the sacrament for a while. Is this how excommunication was viewed by the American protestant churches in the early 1800s?

  4. March 19, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    DavidH: Discipline in the Catholic church worked via a constituted ecclesiastical court system. The Anglicans borrowed this model. The discipline-minded churches in America, however, were overwhelmingly descended from dissenting English sects, which rejected Anglican procedures. They tended to have entirely congregationally based procedures, although some groups — noteably Presbyterians — would delegate adjudication to a specially elected body.

    J.: Actually discipline was not common among Anglicans. It was mainly a Calvinist/dissenting sect thing. Of course, most Protestant churches in America were Calvinist/dissenters. It is also worth remembering that the Baptists started out as a New England movement. Their American orgins lie in Rhode Island rather than the South.

  5. March 19, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    Adam: The 1829 Articles were largely cribbed from the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, the procedures used by the earliest Mormon congregations were mainly influenced by protestant practice rather than the Book of Mormon.

  6. March 19, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    A discussion of and link to the 1829 Articles is available at this old T&S post.

  7. March 19, 2007 at 8:44 pm

    Good catch, Nate. Rereading my comment, it wasn’t particularly clear what I was trying to say. Agreed, all that churches that were in Joseph’s vicinity were regularly excommunicating folk. Seems to me that this is part of why so many of Americans at this time were unchurched (~90%), if I remember correctly. I should have also stated “other traditional New England religions.” I think though that the diversity of Baptists isn’t readily appreciated. The Baptists in Palmyra were Calvinists for example and the Separate Baptists with which we share similar rituals and which formally joined the general Baptists in 1787 in Virginia were Arminian. I still am working on getting a better handle of the history and how widely it was practiced along with its battery of rituals. Have you read Radical Origins: Early Mormon Converts and Their Colonial Ancestors? It is on my list, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet…not sure if it is any good though.

  8. March 19, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    I’ve read Radical Origins, which is largely an attempt to work out with a larger data set the argument put forward by John Brookes in the Refiner’s Fire. For myself, I find the argument persuasive in its broad outlines and extremely speculative in its detail. In other words, I think that the basic schematic of New England has having a Puritan core in Massachusetts and a radical fringe in Rhode Island, and (to a lesser extent) New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut makes good sense, as does the claim that Mormon converts were largely drawn from post-Puritans from this mileu is persuasive. On the other hand, the attempts to draw more precise connections on the basis of the geographic proximity of ancestors stirkes me as ultimately unverifiable.

  9. March 20, 2007 at 2:19 am

    The interesting thing about excommunication in the early LDS church is the number of prominent figures subject to this discipline such as Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Thomas Marsh, W.W Phelps (twice), Hiram Page, Jesse Gause, Frederick Williams, William Law, Orson Pratt, John Bennett, Lyman Johnson, and Martin Harris, usually for dissent and apostacy. Add those disfellowshipped such as Sidney Rigdon and Orson Hyde, and it sometimes appears as though these outnumbered the undisciplined authorities, which included various relatives of Joseph Smith as well as leaders such as Brigham Young, John Taylor, Parley Pratt and so on.

  10. March 20, 2007 at 10:43 pm

    Of the original 12 apostles, only 3, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and David W. Patten, were the only ones not disfellowshipped or excommunicated. From _A Book of Mormons_, by Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, page 137, entry on Heber C. Kimball.

  11. Ken
    March 26, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    #3 DavidH – “Thanks Nate. Very interesting analysis. It also helps explain things like discipline in the early LDS church for things we would today consider minor–like violations of the word of wisdom. Do I remember correctly that some were disciplined for … swearing?”

    Disciplined for swearing? Damn!— [DavidH picks up phone and starts to dial Ken’s Bishop]Uhhh, I mean, “Dang!” That’s harsh! ;-D


    T&S’s answer to J. Golden Kimball in the modern-day Church.

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