Robert Millet, professor of education at Brigham Young University, has contributed an article to the Washington Post addressing the question, “Are Mormons Christian?” As part of his apologetic published on June 4 (2012) Dr. Millet wrote,
“So far as I can determine, the cry of ‘Mormons are not Christian’ was not heard very often during the formative period of Mormon history. Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians in the area knew that the followers of Joseph Smith believed in doctrinal matters that deviated somewhat from traditional Christianity. Folks seemed to assume, however, that Mormonism fit under the umbrella of Christianity.”
Dr. Millet’s determination may or may not be correct, but for the sake of discussion, I would like to explore the idea that Christians during the “formative period” of Mormon history believed Mormonism “fit under the umbrella of Christianity.”
In the introduction of Kurt Widmer’s book, Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1830-1915, Widmer writes,
“While the early Mormon Church of the 1830s was not significantly distinct from the rest of 19th-century Christianity, later Mormonism became quite distinct from the rest of 19th-century Christendom. For nearly a century, the Church underwent changes in its beliefs. The best example of these changes is seen in the development of the Mormon concept of God.” (4. Except where otherwise noted, all page numbers in the following article refer to Widmer’s Mormonism and the Nature of God, McFarland & Company, 2000.)
“Converts to early Mormonism…did not join the Church because of the doctrines that were taught.
“As James Allen has outlined, early converts would not have had to alter their theology in order to join the Church. If belief in the Book of Mormon was a pre-requisite to joining the Church, it was a belief in the book’s divine origin rather than in the doctrinal content of the book. The Book of Mormon taught nothing different from what early 19th-century religious seekers would have already been familiar with.
“The theology of the Book of Mormon was monotheistic. Early Mormon theology then would not have been unique in comparison to other beliefs of the day.” (20)
Widmer notes that early on, Joseph Smith mainly used biblical texts for “sermons and doctrinal exposition,” and used the Book of Mormon “sparingly,” suggesting that “Smith’s theological convictions were rooted in the biblical literalism of the day” (27).
In his essay, “The Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” Dan Vogel notes that due to the “ambiguity” of the founding document of the Mormon Church (“Articles and Covenants,” June 1830) “many outsiders concluded that the Mormon view of God was similar to orthodox Trinitarian creeds” (Line Upon Line, 17).
But Mormonism was changing. Vogel writes, “Various scholars have noticed a shift in the Mormon concept of God in the mid-1830s” (Line Upon Line, 26). Referencing the “Lectures on Faith” that were included in the Doctrine and Covenants from 1835-1921 Vogel writes, “…this description of the Godhead represents a shift to binitariansim.” Then,
“When Joseph Smith was preparing to publish a second edition of the Book of Mormon in 1837, he revised several passages to reflect this new understanding of the Godhead… By the 1840s the Mormon concept of the Godhead had developed to a clearly defined tritheistic (literally, ‘three gods’) position” (Line Upon Line, 27).
Little by little the theology of Mormonism shifted away from what initially appeared to be familiar Christian theology. In April 1844 Joseph Smith preached the King Follett Discourse in which he taught radical ideas about God. These teachings included that God the Father had once been a man, who lived on another earth, who progressed to Godhood, who was but one of a council of Gods, who invites human beings to become Gods like himself. Even some of Joseph Smith’s followers found the sermon troubling. In Kurt Widmer’s opinion, it was the teachings in the King Follett Discourse that led directly to the publication of the dissenting newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor — which Joseph Smith quickly condemned and destroyed.
“Through the pages of the Nauvoo Expositor the Nauvoo dissenters… made their disaffection with the Prophet known. Among the key points of disagreement with the Prophet were the very concepts that Joseph had taught in April of that year, that a hierarchical Council of Gods existed and that men could become Gods.” (Mormonism and the Nature of God, 14-15)
Joseph Smith died before he could fully develop this new theology. Widmer writes,
“’Hence, with only a single sermon from which to start, the Mormon leadership would need to expand upon that and provide a clear exposition on the nature and character of God. It would be during the Salt Lake period that the origin and destiny of God, and therefore man, would be dealt with.” (129)
After the death of Joseph Smith, the Mormons moved west under the leadership of Brigham Young — where Young introduced, among other things, a new theology that declared Adam (who was in the Garden of Eden) was God. According to Widmer, “The Adam-God doctrine appears to have been the dominant Mormon theological position on the godhead during the latter half of the 19th century” (131).
In 1877 the Rev. R.G. McNiece became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City, Utah. Twenty years later, after having “the opportunity to secure complete understanding of the system” of Mormonism, having spent a generation listening to Mormon leaders, and studying Mormon books, pamphlets and articles, R.G. McNiece concluded, “Christian people everywhere need to have a clear idea of what Mormonism really is, and the shameful way in which it dishonors the Bible and the Christian religion” (Mormonism: Its Origin, Characteristics and Doctrines). In his writings, Rev. McNiece makes it very clear that Mormonism does not fit under the umbrella of Christianity. Calling Mormonism “anti-Christianity” and “a deliberate counterfeit of the Christian religion,” he says it is a “reproach on the Christian churches of this country that, after eighty years, such a system of downright heathenism should still hold the people of one of the great states of the West in absolute bondage.”
I posit that if Robert Millet is correct that Christians believed “Mormonism fit under the umbrella of Christianity” in its “formative” years, it is because Mormonism had not yet embraced the radically heretical theology that has come to define the religion’s Godhead today. Therefore, I agree with Rev. McNiece,
“The one important thing to be done is to double the Christian missionary forces in Utah, in order to bring deliverance to those who are in bondage.”