A Modest Grand Narrative About the History of Hometeaching

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.

20 comments for “A Modest Grand Narrative About the History of Hometeaching

  1. January 10, 2006 at 7:37 pm

    Eek. Sounds more like HTers going around whipping people into shape (gospel-ly and spiritually speaking). At least in form and function.

    I’m glad it seems a bit different, today. This is interesting and informative. I never thought about the roots of HTing before. What about the roots of VTing? A branch-off of HTing or formed in its own right as a blessing for the sisters, in both serving and served?

  2. Jonathan Green
    January 10, 2006 at 8:19 pm

    Nate, I love the idea that home teaching is a continuation of ancient Germanic custom. It makes me feel somehow more…manly. Like, “By the 31st, I will loot&pillage the last outpost of civilization for a hundred miles, sack a monastery and carry off its flocks, and bring this month’s message from the Ensign plus a plate of cookies to the Millers.”

  3. Jim F.
    January 10, 2006 at 11:40 pm

    Jonathan, if you are ever assigned to home teach me, please just skip straight to the cookies–for both our sakes.

  4. January 11, 2006 at 1:21 am

    Depends on the type of cookies.

    Why don’t we women get to loot & pillage? I demand equal rights for women’s looting and pillaging movement. ;D

  5. January 11, 2006 at 2:10 am

    Thanks Nate. I just knew there was something suspect about home teaching … darn Puritans. I put up my own Puritan City on a Hill post around Thanksgiving, but I failed to make the connection to East Anglia and home teaching. Need … more … history.

  6. Nate Oman
    January 11, 2006 at 9:56 am

    Dave: I happen to like the Puritans. Facinating folks. I found the stuff on the East Anglia connection Fischer’s book _Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America_. Facinating stuff. It is dated now, but I am a big fan of Perry Miller as well — _The New England Mind_ and _Errand in the Wilderness_. The other Puritan book that I have enjoyed is a biography of Winthrop — I forget the author — entitled _The Puritan Dilemma_. Really fun stuff…

  7. January 11, 2006 at 10:27 am

    The Puritan Dilemma was written by Edmund S. Morgan; an excellent book. His short, general study The Puritan Family is also first-rate. If anyone’s interested, some other good works on Puritanism include Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad and the early chapters of Mark Noll’s America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.

  8. Jim F.
    January 11, 2006 at 10:44 am

    Like Nate and Russell, I say “Three cheers for the Puritans!” I wish I’d known about the East Anglia connection a few months ago. I would have spent a little more time snooping around East Anglia.

  9. ed
    January 11, 2006 at 10:47 am

    Interesting idea, Nate.

    Of course it sounds like the tithingman had a prominant and respected office. By contrast, the home/ward teacher position has never had any status….hence the decades of talks from leaders trying to convince us that the “lowly home teacher” is actually important after all.

    I found _Albion’s Seed_ interesting as well, and not just the parts about the Puritans. Why do you say it’s dated? Have historians rejected its thesis? I would expect that ideas about subbornly persistent cultural differences would not go over so well with many academics, but I’ve always found them pretty plausible since I read some Thomas Sowell many years ago.

  10. Adam Greenwood
    January 11, 2006 at 10:52 am

    It’s Perry Miller (The New England Mind_ and _Errand in the Wilderness) that Mr. Oman says is dated.

  11. Nate Oman
    January 11, 2006 at 11:06 am

    Ed: Adam beat me to the punch. I don’t really know what sort of reception _Albion’s Seed_ has gotten. Everything that I have seen is positive, and I think that it is a brilliant book. Miller is dated, but I still love him. (Of course, I also love Samuel Eliot Morrison. To have been at the Harvard history department in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s…)

  12. Porter
    January 11, 2006 at 11:43 am

    I enjoyed this historical interlude, but I would love to talk about the practical aspects of it, why nobody does it (well), and whether it is really necessary. Has there been a good bloggernacle discussion on home teaching lately?

  13. January 11, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    If one is looking for a Scriptural antecedent, wouldnt it be Acts 6:1-7, which is a direct descendant of various Law of Moses admonitions (cf. Exod. 22:21-24, Deut. 10:18, Deut. 14:29, Deut. 24:19-24, see also James 1:27) to care for the widowed and orphaned? Which clearly predates Puritanism. How is “Love thy neighbor” strictly Puritan?

    By the beginning of the 18th century, Puritanism had declined to an unrecognizeable form in America. How does this speculative thesis bridge a 100+ year gap to make Puritanism shake hands with Mormonism, and then jump clear up to the beginning of the 20th century for “active teaching/block teaching/ward teaching” and then to January 1964 when Home Teaching was formally instituted? It was the “influence” of our Puritan American heritage? More likely it was a direct result of various Scriptural commands to fellowship and care for fellow believers, take Moroni 6 for example. Maybe it was all those Puritan tithingmen in Utah that gave the Mormons the idea?

  14. Last Lemming
    January 11, 2006 at 12:43 pm

    Is nobody else conjuring up bizarre images of some nerd in a superhero costume knocking on peoples’ doors and demanding that they pay their tithing?

    Maybe I’ll have my 13-year old son dress up a Fast-offeringman next month.

  15. Nate Oman
    January 11, 2006 at 2:54 pm

    Kurt: I am not denying the influence of other scriptural sources. I don’t see why one can’t posit several different influences. I think that the gap between seventeenth century Puritan practice and Joseph Smith’s 19th century world is a fair point. The answer is that I don’t really know for how long the tithingmen remained active in New England towns and (perhaps) the towns founded by transplanted New Englanders. Saying that Puritanism was a spent force by the end of the 18th century depends entirely on what you mean by Puritanism. If one means the Calvinist theological orthodoxy of the 17th century, then you are probably right. Although even here, one can overstate the issue. John Adams in many ways grew up in an orthodox, Calvinist world. (I have generally seen the “shift” dated to the conversion of the Harvard Divinity School to Unitarianism in the first decade or two of the nineteenth century.) Many apsects of Puritan communal life continued much longer; indeed they continue to this day in New England, which has a marked preference for towns — ie government by selectmen rather than a mayor — in municipal government, etc.

    BTW, it seems to me that your comment at least in part is being driven by theological anxiety, ie suggesting non-biblical historical antecedents for Mormon practices and revelations denies their divine origin. I see no reason for this given the notion that God was working to prepare the world for the Restoration, etc. etc.

  16. January 11, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    No theological anxiety here, Nate. I’m on deiPaxil. Thanks for asking though.

  17. Rob
    January 13, 2006 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks for the post Nate. The first time I heard of tithingman was when I read Albion’s Seed a couple years ago, and I agree that it does seem like a plausible precursor to the idea of hometeaching.

    Apparently, Oliver Cowdery’s father William Cowdery was elected tithingman in Wells, VT several times when the family lived there from 1788-1808 (see Larry E. Morris, “Oliver Cowdery’s Vermont Years and the Origins of Mormonism, BYU Studies, 39(1):107-129, footnote #19). So the practice has ties to the family of at least one early LDS leader. Maybe more research can show if it was still common in any of the towns where the Smith family resided. At any rate, the role of the tithingman wasn’t a long-lost practice by the time we get a similar practice announced in what is now D&C 20.

  18. Nate Oman
    January 13, 2006 at 5:58 pm

    Rob: Cool! Thanks for the Cowdery reference…

  19. Rob
    January 13, 2006 at 6:08 pm

    Wilford Woodruff’s family also had experience as tithingmen:

    “His grandfather, Eldad, his father Aphek, and his uncles Ozem and Eldad Jr. owned property and businesses. At times they held responsible offices such as tithingmen; tax collectors; agents to collect the ministers salary and firewood; and overseers, prudential committee members, and committeemen for the local schools.” (131)

    –Alexander, Thomas G. “Wilford Woodruff and Zion’s Camp: Baptism by Fire and the Spiritual Confirmation of a Future Prophet.” BYU Studies 39 (2000): 131-146.

  20. Joseph Stanford
    January 16, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    Slightly tangential:
    In a ward I attended years ago, the bishop asked the question- how do we show that we are truly committed to building up Zion? In the 19th and early 20th Century, a core part of the answer was gathering physically to Zion (Kirtland, Missouri, Nauvoo, Deseret/Utah). That no longer applies. His conclusion was that in our day, a core part of the answer is whether we do our home teaching.

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