David W. Bercot, a Texas attorney and Evangelical Christian, embarked on a quest to discover what Christians believed and practiced before the Nicene Creed. What he learned caused him to seriously re-evaluate his beliefs, to eventually change his religious affiliation, and to present his findings and analysis in his book Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up. Although the book represents a critique of mainstream Evangelical Christianity in light of the teachings of the Early Church Fathers, Bercot’s analysis has surprising and thought-provoking application to Mormonism as well. While some may see Will the Real Heretics Stand Up as evidence that Joseph Smith successfully restored many Early Christian doctrines and practices, others may see the overlap between Early Christians and Mormons as the predictable result of Mormonism’s historical connection to the Campbellite Restorationist movement.
Bercot was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness but left over differences about Biblical interpretation, and subsequently became an Evangelical Christian. However, he had doubts about some Evangelical doctrines as well, such as the idea of eternal security (once saved, always saved), and remained convinced the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief in pacifism was correct.
Based on the fact that the pre-Nicene Church Fathers were the closest in time and place to the Apostles, Bercot reasoned that present-day disputes over scriptural interpretation could similarly be resolved by examining the writings of the pre-Nicene Church Fathers to determine how they interpreted and applied scripture. (These pre-Nicene Church fathers lived anywhere between 50 and 325 A.D.) Bercot’s legal training taught him to seek out the primary sources containing the writings of the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, rather than relying on modern treatises that often present sixth or seventh-hand accounts of what the Early Christians supposedly believed and practiced.
At the conclusion of his research, Bercot published a ten-volume collection of the Ante-Nicene Fathers‘ writings, the most comprehensive collection of primary sources available in English. Bercot then compared what he learned about pre-Nicene Christianity to mainstream Evangelical Christianity, formed his own publishing company, and published his summarized findings and analysis in Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up.
Mormons might be interested to know that Bercot’s research into the Early Christian Church demonstrates that the LDS Church today shares many of the doctrines of the Early Church, including:
- A concept of salvation that stresses the importance of both faith and obedience. As Bercot puts it: “The early Christians believed that salvation is a gift from God but that God gives His gift to whomever he chooses. And He chooses to give it to those who love and obey him.” (Emphasis in original.) According to Bercot, the mainstream Evangelical interpretation of “saved by grace” actually originated with St. Augustine after the Nicene Creed.
- That a person, once saved, could fall from grace and lose his salvation through disobedience.
- That salvation depends on a person’s correct exercise of his free will, rather than being predestined arbitrarily and irrevocably by God.
- That baptism actually effectuates a remission of sins, rather than simply being a sign of outward commitment.
- That unbaptized infants who died before baptism could still be saved, as well as other good and noble people who died without baptism.
- That Christians should observe the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper weekly.
However, Mormons might also be interested to know that, according to Bercot, the Early Christians held additional beliefs and practices that may be waning or absent from Mormonism:
- Early Christians had no belief resembling the modern “health and wealth” gospel that physical health and safety, or material prosperity, are blessings for righteous living. Rather, the Early Christians lived in material simplicity, striving to have all things in common and giving to the poor to the point of joining others in their poverty.
- Early Christians believed in separating themselves from the world as much as possible, going so far as to abstain from politics and the legal system, refusing to take oaths, and abstaining from the popular amusements of the day.
- Early Christians rejected capital punishment and even refused to assist in prosecuting someone for a capital offense. Similarly, Early Christians rejected war and refused to serve in the military. According to Bercot, the concept of the “just war” did not exist amongst Christians until St. Augustine.
- Many Early Church Fathers taught there was no special doctrinal revelation after the apostles and that everything we need to know about God had been revealed to the apostles by Jesus.
As Real Heretics crept into Christian bookstores, Bercot was surprised to learn that the book was making a huge splash in Anabaptist (Amish/Mennonite) circles. Bercot’s historical validation of several Anabaptist doctrines like pacifism, baptismal regeneration, separation from the world, and a rejection of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide (faith only) and predestination backed up several of their most cherished views. While Bercot was intrigued to learn that his findings greatly overlapped with Anabaptist beliefs, he found no legitimate basis for some Anabaptist beliefs, such as their lack of evangelism and avoidance of modern technology.
Over the next several years, Bercot struggled to find a religious community that embraced all Early Christian beliefs and practices as he understood them. He formed his own short-lived Early Christian Fellowship, but later affiliated with the Anglican Church because it allowed him freedom to form his own society to promote Early Christian beliefs, and because it is one of the older Christian churches that avoids the veneration of icons. However, Bercot eventually left the Anglicans due to their Catholic practice of venerating the Virgin Mary and espousing the “Just War” theory.
Bercot ultimately relocated to Pennsylvania, where he currently resides, and now affiliates with the Mennonites, who have many, but not all, of the Early Christian beliefs and practices that his research discovered.
The Campbellite-Mormon Connection
As I read Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, I was intrigued to find a non-LDS scholar giving historical support for so many LDS doctrines. Page after page, I kept wondering to myself: When Joseph Smith set out to restore the Early Christian Church, how did this largely uneducated 25-year old get so many things right? As far as I know, Joseph was ignorant of the writings of the Early Church Fathers. I couldn’t see how Joseph could have had the time or means to pour over old texts written by Polycarp, Ignatius, Origen, Ireneus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, or any of the other Early Church Fathers. Nor am I aware of Joseph ever having quoted the Early Church Fathers in his sermons or writings.
Moreover, I was struck by the fact that some of the Early Christian beliefs and practices that seem to be waning or absent in Mormonism today, such as the strong emphasis on creating a separate society and having all things in common, were found in Mormonism as originally established by Joseph Smith. The differences between Mormons today and the Early Christians (e.g., Mormons’ abandonment of communal living, strong involvement in political and legal affairs, common approval of capital punishment, military service, and strong allegiance to country) all seem to have resulted from Mormon “mainstreaming” over the past century .
In response to the question of how Joseph Smith got so many things right when he undertook to restore the Early Church, faithful Mormons will likely respond that Smith’s success owes to the fact that he was a true prophet of God who was called to restore the true Church of Jesus Christ. However, Real Heretics presents information that many others have cited to provide another possible explanation. After discussing the Early Church, Bercot discusses the eventual corruption and apostasy of the Church, and the valiant efforts of the Reformers to root out that corruption. Bercot then traces the development of several Restorationist branches of Christianity using language that will ring familiar to Mormons:
Whereas Luther had sought to reform the existing church-state establishment, others concluded that such an establishment was beyond reforming. So they worked to restore primitive Christianity apart from the church-state institution. Since the days of Luther, there have been numerous such movements to restore early Christianity. Real Heretics, p. 149.
Although Bercot does not identify Mormonism as one of those Restorationist movements, he does identify one of Mormonism’s cousins, the Stone-Campbellite Movement, as being one of the more successful Restoration movements:
Another movement to restore primitive Christianity sprung up in America in the early 1800s out of the Presbyterian church. . . . Barton W. Stone, a Presbyterian minister, began a movement in Kentucky to restore apostolic Christianity. Stone’s chief objective was to restore the holy living and separation from the world that had marked early Christianity.
In the 1820s, Stone’s movement merged with a separate movement begun by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who were also seeking to restore primitive Christianity. One of Alexander Campbell’s primary objectives was to achieve unity among all Christians, forsaking all man-made creeds and traditions and returning to the forms, structures, and doctrines of the apostolic church. Real Heretics, p. 151.
Both Stone and the Campbells published journals urging a Restoration of the Early Church in the early 1800’s (The Christian Baptist, Millennial Harbinger, and The Christian Messenger).
Those familiar with Mormon history will recognize the names of Thomas and Alexander Campbell as the founders of the “Campbellite” Restoration movement that Sidney Rigdon, Parley Pratt, Edward Partridge, Isaac Morley, and at one point a majority of all Mormons belonged to before converting to Mormonism. When Sidney Ridgon read the Book of Mormon in 1830 while he was a Campbellite preacher, he converted to Mormonism as did many other Campbellites. This enormous influx of former Campbellites into Mormonism doubled the Church’s membership in three weeks and resulted in Joseph Smith relocating the Saints’ gathering place by joining the former Campbellite converts in Kirtland, Ohio.
Why was Mormonism so appealing to Campbellites? Starting in 1823, Campbell’s publication The Christian Baptist advocated an abandonment of all creeds and sects that divided Christendom and a restoration of a unified Church in which the “original gospel and order of things” are present. (Source.) Alexander Campbell explained the Campbellites’ “distinguishing views and practices” as follows:
They regard all the sects and parties of the Christian world as having, in greater or less degrees, departed from the simplicity of faith and manners of the first Christians, and as forming what the apostle Paul calls “the apostasy.” . . .
They look for unity of spirit and the bonds of peace in the practical acknowledgment of one faith, one Lord, one immersion, one hope, one body, one Spirit, one God and Father of all; not in unity of opinions, nor in unity of forms, ceremonies, or modes of worship. . . .
Thus while they proclaim faith and repentance, or faith and a change of heart, as preparatory to immersion, remission, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, they say to all penitents, or all those who believe and repent of their sins, as Peter said to the first audience addressed after the Holy Spirit was bestowed after the glorification of Jesus, “Be immersed every one of you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The immersed believers are congregated into societies according to their propinquity to each other, and taught to meet the first day of every week in honor and commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus, and to break the loaf which commemorates the death of the Son of God, to read and hear the living oracles, to teach and admonish one another, to unite in all prayer and praise, to contribute to the necessities of saints, and to perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord.
Every congregation chooses its own overseers and deacons, who preside over and administer the affairs of the congregations; and every church, either from itself or in co-operation with others, sends out, as opportunity offers, one or more evangelists, or proclaimers of the word, to preach the word and to immerse those who believe, to gather congregations, and to extend the knowledge of salvation where it is necessary, as far as their means extend. (Source.)
Although the Campbellites and Mormons held many other beliefs in common, the above provides a sampling of the types of similarities that have presented religion historians with a fascinating chicken-or-the-egg question: did Joseph Smith’s teachings resemble the Early Church’s “original gospel and order of things” because Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God whose authentic revelations enabled him to restore the true Church of Jesus Christ, or because contemporary Restorationists like Alexander Campbell first identified correct Early Christian beliefs and practices that were later adopted by Joseph Smith? In other words, did God use the broader Restoration movement of the American frontier as an “Elias” that prepared Rigdon and eventually thousands of souls to embrace the true Church of Jesus Christ restored later by Joseph Smith, or was Joseph Smith’s success in duplicating many Early Christian beliefs and practices the result of his simply mimicking the beliefs and practices of contemporary Restorationist preachers who got it right first? Because Campbellite converts to Mormonism such as Parley Pratt reported that they were converted Mormonism because they were inspired by the truthfulness of the doctrine contained in the Book of Mormon (Source), it seems the answer to that question depends on whether the Book of Mormon is an accurate translation of an authentic record compiled by Early Christians living on the American continent, or is a fabrication cobbled together by Smith and possibly others inspired by the Restorationist ethos that pervaded the American frontier when it was published. (We know where Alexander Campbell stood on that question: in 1831 he denounced the Book of Mormon as a fraud because it all-too-coincidentally addressed “every error and every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years.”) (Alexander Campbell, “The Mormonites,” Millenial Harbinger 2, (January 1831): 93.)
Regardless of the answer, Will the Real Heretics Stand Up suggests that the modern Christian denominations that most resemble the pre-Nicene Church’s beliefs and practices (i.e., Anabaptists and offspring of Restorationist movements) are relatively obscure groups that are popularly regarded as being on the outskirts (or on the outside) of Christianity today.
[Pictured below, left to right: Alexander Campbell, Sidney Rigdon, and Joseph Smith.]