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 â€“ mainly dealing with family law and certain aspects of probate â€“ 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 â€œDonatistsâ€ (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 â€œall cursers Swearers and blasphemers, all whoremongers fornicators and Adulterers, all drunkards ranters and profaners of the Lordâ€™s day,â€ 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 â€œif your brother sins against you â€¦ 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.â€ Adult baptism, insisted one Anabaptist pamphleteer in 1526, would be â€œno better than infant baptism had been if fraternal admonition and excommunication did not go along with it.â€ 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, â€œas the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews,â€ although he did try to distinguish himself from â€œDonatists and Anabaptistsâ€ who â€œin an impious schism separated themselves from Christâ€™s flockâ€ and â€œunder pretense of their zeal â€¦ subvert whatever edification there is.â€ 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 â€œevery church should exclude and expel the wicked.â€
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 churchâ€™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 â€œradical fringeâ€ 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 forbearersâ€™ emphasis on church discipline into the new movement. The earliest set of rules for the government of the church were contained in the â€œArticles of the Church of Christâ€ composed in late 1829. Like the Anabapists, the â€œArticlesâ€ endorse adult, believersâ€™ baptism and insist on the importance of disciplining recalcitrant members. â€œTherefore if ye know that a man is unworthy â€¦ ,â€ they state, â€œif he repenteth not he shall not be numbered among my people that he may not destroy my people.â€ A few months later, the newly organized church adopted an expanded â€œArticles and Covenants.â€ This document directed that â€œ[a]ny member of the church of Christ transgressing, or being overtaken in fault shall be dealt with as the scriptures direct â€¦ [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.â€