“Christian Churches in Joseph Smith’s Day,” Church History Topics
“Christian Churches in Joseph Smith’s Day”
When young Joseph Smith prayed to know “which of all the sects was right,” he likely had in mind a few Protestant denominations he had encountered near his hometown.1 In one account, he described Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists contending for his affiliation, and he may have considered others as well. The range of religious choices had multiplied across the previous century, and most Americans could distinguish between the many “sects.”
Most churches in the United States during Joseph Smith’s lifetime were Protestant. While Roman Catholicism expanded in the United States during the early 1800s, only a small number of Catholics became Latter-day Saints. American Protestantism, with its colorful range and complexity, most frequently served as the religious backdrop for early Latter-day Saints.
A chorus of grievances against the late medieval Catholic church led to a splintering of West European Christianity, known today as the Reformation. Martin Luther led an influential early reform movement in Germany during the mid-1500s that adopted his name. John Calvin, a younger contemporary of Luther, developed a meticulous theology and attempted to implement his ideas for a religious community in Geneva, Switzerland. Luther and other reformers like Philipp Melanchthon and Huldrych Zwingli drafted statements of belief known as “confessions,” which followers of their movements accepted as rules of faith. Others, including members of the Anabaptist movement, resisted subscribing to any of these confessions.
English Christians had cultivated distinct traditions for centuries, but they separated from Roman Catholicism dramatically when the British Parliament pronounced King Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England by law in 1534. The Church of England (Anglican) experienced a series of internal reform movements for the next hundred years, leading to Puritan, Presbyterian, and Quaker communities, which separated from Anglicanism. This flurry of divisions continued across the Atlantic as colonists settled in their new land in North America.
The colonial government in British America followed a European precedent by sponsoring certain churches with official charters and supporting them with tax revenue. Puritan Congregationalist churches thrived under these charters, becoming predominant in the northern colonies by the mid-1700s. The Church of England enjoyed large numbers in the middle colonies, but when the American Revolution divided patriots and those loyal to Britain, Anglicans in America distanced themselves from their parent church and adopted a new title, the Episcopal Church.
The colonies afforded greater religious liberty, and some religious movements prospered in North America where they stalled in Europe. For example, the Methodist movement attracted far greater numbers in North America than in its native England. And Christians professing baptism by immersion started Baptist congregations in America just as the government in England sent their European counterparts to prison.
Religious choice expanded after the founding of the United States in the late 1700s. The United States Constitution and eventually individual state legislatures dissolved the charters of state-sponsored churches, opening the way for many alternatives to flourish. Methodists and Baptists especially increased in numbers, eclipsing Congregational churches, formerly the largest North American churches, by the mid-1800s.
Churches were sometimes categorized by their organizational structure and style of worship. For example, Episcopalians were sometimes called “high-church” because they emphasized the more formal rituals and hierarchy the Church of England inherited from Catholicism. Methodists and Baptists, on the other hand, favored “low-church” fellowship, emphasizing personal spiritual experience and conversion over priestly authority and ritual. “Low-church” Christians, or Evangelicals, as they were later called, contributed to many religious and social reform movements and were instrumental in spurring the revivals Joseph Smith wrote about in his history. The revivals were often intended to energize all Christians rather than seeking to win converts to a particular group. This Evangelical movement, together with the proliferation of religious choices, led to a massive increase in churchgoing and religious affiliation in the United States.
Early Latter-day Saints included many former Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, as well as some Congregationalists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Quakers, Shakers, and unaffiliated Protestants. One community of Reform Baptists in Ohio sought a restoration of primitive Christianity as found in the New Testament. This group encountered Latter-day Saint missionaries in 1830, and many embraced the Book of Mormon. Other members of this Restorationist movement formed a separate denomination, known as the Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ).
Though Latter-day Saints forsook affiliation with their previous churches, they brought many traditions and beliefs with them as they joined the Saints. This rich Christian background contributed substantially to the culture of the early Church.