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Campbellite Conversions and Early Mormonism

By: Guest - July 27, 2012

By Pete Wosnik

I have long been interested in the cultural influences that helped shape Mormonism. This fascination led me to ask questions about conversion: what accounts for Mormonism’s success, and why did early converts find it so appealing? Delving into the subject I quickly realized that there is a rich historiography full of brilliant scholars grappling with these questions. Whitney Cross and Mario DePillis were some of the earliest scholars to debate these topics. And while they used very limited data, they were in agreement that early Mormons were generally poor coming from the fringes of society. These author’s ideas were rooted in a socioeconomic theory that those unhappy with their current situation are more likely to join radical movements.

More recent scholars have focused on early Mormonism’s theological appeal. For example, John Brooke argued that hermitic and magical influences attracted followers who had culturally inherited occult beliefs. In addition, Grant Underwood, has convincingly argued that the attractiveness of millenarianism played a role in Mormonism gaining converts. Both these authors and others’ works show why Mormon theology would have been compelling in the religious climate of antebellum America.

For a time I was wondering what I could add to this conversation. I started to get ideas when I encountered Stephen Fleming and Christopher Jones’s works on conversion. Stephen Fleming’s article “Congenial to almost every shade of radicalism ”: The Delaware Valley and the Successes of Early Mormonism,” proposes an effective method for getting at the why behind Mormon conversion. His method looks at regional socioeconomic data of early converts as thoroughly as possible (principally through tax records), while also taking into account conversion narratives, diaries, newspapers, and other relevant primary sources that consider evidence for religious motivations of conversion. His findings in the Delaware Valley establish that early Mormon converts did not come disproportionally from a single socioeconomic class. This discovery refutes the earlier work of scholars like Mario DePillis who argued that most Mormon Converts came from among the poor and destitute. Fleming then provides evidence that particularly Methodists and lapsed or “hickory” Quakers were interested in the supernatural/charismatic aspects of the Mormon religion, and that this may have been their reason for converting. Christopher Jones, in his Master’s thesis, furthers this idea in his study of Methodism, emphasizing the large amount of Methodist conversions to Mormonism and a pattern of excitement about the charismatic belief that Mormonism embraced. Additionally, Jones argues that certain aspects of Mormon culture and doctrine were directly influenced by Methodism.

This research sparked my interest and got me thinking about converts from other religious denominations (in particular, Sidney Rigdon). Sidney Rigdon was perhaps more important and influential than any other convert. Rigdon quickly climbed the ranks of Mormonism, greatly influencing its doctrines and revelations. Rigdon was also successful at converting hundreds of people from his former Campbellite congregation. In light of these facts, I suggest that Campbellite conversions would make a great topic of study. I want to see if Fleming’s and Jones’ conclusions hold true for Campbellite converts to Mormonism: first, did Campbellites come from a certain class of society; and second, were these converts especially attracted to the practice of and belief in spiritual gifts so prevalent in early Mormonism? The answers to these questions will yield valuable information that, I hope, will further the development of Mormonism’s social history.

This research proposal, as it stands, still has much I have yet to flesh-out. In terms of scope, I need to find out if I will approach this regionally, or according to denominational background. Another problem I must tackle concerns the availability of data (I’m still not sure what kinds of socioeconomic data and conversion information I can find for Campbellite converts). Nevertheless, I am excited about this avenue of research and I will be posting my findings on these questions in two subsequent posts here on JI. If any of you have questions/critiques or have any ideas for me, feedback will be greatly appreciated.

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17 Comments

  1. Pete–

    Welcome! Looks like a fruitful project. Let us know what you uncover.

    Comment by Max — July 27, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  2. Excellent, Pete. Have you checked out Steve Harper’s articles on the topic? They seem relevant, too.

    Comment by Ben P — July 27, 2012 @ 10:01 am

  3. Thanks, Max. I’ll be doing a post next Friday with further research!

    Thank you, Ben. I have looked briefly at a couple of his article and seen his work cited in a few different places. I think one of them argues that early Mormons were not necessarily superstitious or weak minded (if I remember correctly). I’ll look at him more closely. Thanks for the input!

    Comment by Pete Wosnik — July 27, 2012 @ 10:19 am

  4. It seems to me that in Northern Ohio it is easy to have skewed data due to the prominence of relatively wealthy converts like the Whitneys. With a lack of conversion records and high rates of dissafection, it seems like a challenging project.

    Staker really tried to integrate Disciples into the early Mormon narrative.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 27, 2012 @ 10:27 am

  5. Interesting project Pete. It may be challenging to track down data on the Campbellite conversions. I hope you are successful.

    As you point out, the reasons why people convert to any religion are difficult to determine. There are many factors that may explain why or why not someone is drawn to a particular faith.

    Something I have often wondered is whether a majority of the Campbellite converts remained active in the main Mormon church after the Nauvoo period. I know Rigdon, and thousands of others, “unconverted” from the larger body of church members in the 1840s because they didn’t like many of the rituals/doctrines (supernatural aspects) introduced by Joseph Smith.

    If Campbellite conversions, as you mention, were based on attraction to Mormonism’s supernatural/charismatic aspects you would need to determine exactly what those supernatural and charismatic aspects were. What was it about Mormonism that attracted Rigdon and his group? And, did this change over time?

    Once you have established what is was about Mormonism that drew conversions, it would then be interesting to see if those same converts stuck around or decided to leave when in the 1840s Smith introduced his Old Testament and esoteric ideas of polygamy, temples, baptism for the dead, Masonic rituals, etc.

    I would guess that because early Mormonism’s teachings fit well within the greater restoration narrative of the Second Great Awakening, Rigdon’s Campbellite group would have naturally felt comfortable within early Mormonism. I think converting from Campbellism to Mormonsim was not a big deal for most of these people because early Mormonism, at its core, wasn’t much different than Campbellism. I suspect, however, that by the Nauvoo period many of the Campbellite converts would have left the church or were unhappy with it. Mormonsim had morphed into something completely new and unfamiliar to them.

    I may be completely wrong. Pete, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    Comment by Brad — July 27, 2012 @ 11:41 am

  6. Illusions of innocence is important historiography ally. Also The family may not have been entirely representative of Campbellism. Still, could be a good masters thesis.

    Comment by Smb — July 27, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  7. …early Mormonism, at its core, wasn’t much different than Campbellism.

    I think that I fundementally disagree with this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 27, 2012 @ 11:47 am

  8. I just read Chapter 2 of the Givens and Grow biography of Parley P. Pratt, which has several pages on the the successful encounter between Pratt with his fellow missionaries and Rigdon’s Campbellite congregations. Probably less coverage than in Staker (which I haven’t got around to reading yet) but considerably more than in general histories. Looking just at the numbers, it would be more accurate to say the Mormons joined the splintered Campbellites or Disciples rather than the other way around, although Joseph, rather surprisingly, was never displaced or even threatened by the older, more experienced, and more educated Sidney Rigdon. There’s definitely an interesting story there that has not yet been fully explored.

    Comment by Dave — July 27, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  9. J. Stapley,
    I have fears that I might not be able to find enough data to support my ideas. I may have to shave down the scope of the project to something more simple. In the next few weeks I’ll be researching full-time, so we’ll see what I can find.

    I might also disagree with brad on that point. Mormons embraced a lot of things that would have felt foreign to the strictly New Testament based Disciple doctrine (like the BoM,Authoritative revelations ect.)

    Brad,
    You bring up a lot of interesting points. I didn’t think to look at “unconversion” of Campbellites which could be really interesting to see the trends of them leaving the church as well.

    As far as campbellite attraction to charisma, In some of my readings it seems like a major point of disagreement between Campbell and Rigdon was over the idea of contemporary practice of biblical gifts. (I believe I got that from a Dialogue article by Mckiernen). I have a hunch that campbellites were hungry for the spiritual stuff, but hopefully next week I can provide some sources for that.

    I have question about what unconversion might mean. If Campbellites ended up joining other Mormon splinter groups (Strangites, Rigdonites) would they then count as unconverted or would they need to leave Mormon movements entirely to count as unconverted?

    Comment by Pete Wosnik — July 27, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

  10. It may well be that those congregations of restorationists from which many of the early Ohio converts came are regularly called “Campbellites” by historians of that period. I know that they are regularly called that in Church histories that I have read. But you should be aware that many of the heirs of that tradition think that term is offensive–much more than our forbears found “Mormon” or even “Mormonite.”

    The reason is at root theological–they follow Christ, not man. Not even Alexander Campbell.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 27, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

  11. Pete, as you know I’m excited about your research and think much more social history research on early Mormon converts is necessary. And thanks for the kind words about my own research.

    One thing you’ll want to consider is the larger denominational path these converts took. Some grew up Episcopal, converted to Methodism or Baptistism as young adults, then made their way to Campbellitism before finally joining the Mormons.

    I don’t think sources will be too much of a problem—it seems like there’s enough conversion narratives from these early converts to form a solid source base for what you’re proposing here. You might also be interested in a paper Steve Fleming and I just finished writing on early Mormon conceptions of the great apostasy, which deals a bit with Sidney Rigdon and a couple of other converts to Campbellitism.

    Comment by Christopher — July 27, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

  12. Agree with Sam that Illusions is useful here. The Kirtland converts seem less brittle than the New York people, most of whom left with decreasing Millennialism and increasing complexity.

    Looking forward to seeing the future posts.

    Comment by WVS — July 28, 2012 @ 12:33 am

  13. Thanks, Dave.
    will need to check out those two books you mentioned. That is strange how Rigdon was more experienced, older, and probably smarter than Smith on a lof of accounts yet there still seemed to be no question who was the top dog.

    Smb and WVS, what do you mean by “illusions of historiography” here. ? I don’t seem to be familiar with that. Please expound.

    Christopher,
    Thanks for the shrewd comments. I need to remember the fact that most of these people moved through several conversion before Mormonism (and taking into account Brad’s comments, many eventually moved out of Mormonism, as well).

    I’ll be sure to check out that paper you guys just finished.

    Comment by Pete Wosnik — July 28, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  14. Pete, they’re referring to Hughes and Allen’s book, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875.

    Comment by Christopher — July 28, 2012 @ 9:58 am

  15. Great project Pete, and thanks for the reference.

    I did some source checking on an article on some Kirtland converts when I was at BYU Studies and as I recall most of the Kirtland tax records are at the family history library. Also, if I recall, Sidney GIlbert and Newell Whitney were the richest guys in the area. So if you can come up with a good list of names, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Also, if you use the median rather than the mean, your data won’t be thrown off by a few rich people (or any outliers).

    I would maka a point to distinguish between the Kirtland converts and those who gathered to the area. Those who moved in did not convert in the area, so they represent a different group and would need to be compared to their neighbors in the areas where they converted (I’d save that for the dissertation, a big task). So yeah, just focus on the local converts would be my advice.

    That Rigdon spilt with Campbell over spiritual gifts seems pretty well established. All of his rants against Campbell in the early periodicals were over this issue. The Campbellite converts stress this point also. So that seems pretty easy to demonstrate.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 28, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  16. Thanks, Steve

    Super helpful stuff!

    And thanks to everyone who has commented so far, your comments have been invaluable.

    Comment by Pete Wosnik — July 28, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

  17. [...] findings so far have been in some ways consistent with my original thesis, that early Mormons were most compelled theologically by religious charisma, while in other ways [...]

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