A Method to our Mormonism

Hawkgrrrlchrist, christianity, church, Culture, evangelicals, faith, historicity, history, inter-faith, joseph, missionary, missions, Mormon, mormon, Mormons, religion, scripture, smith, testimony, theology 7 Comments

As we know from JS-H 1: 8, Joseph Smith had attended various religious meetings and (in his own words) “In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them.”  So, what did Joseph Smith (as a future Mormon) see in Methodism, and what practices in our faith correspond with the brand of Methodism Joseph experienced?methodist1.jpgThe Methodist movement originated in England in the late 1700s when John Wesley (an Anglican clergyman) formed a new revival of evangelical thought. 

Some common practices in early Methodism may sound familiar to Mormons:

  • Vigorous missionary work that helped spread Methodism around England and beyond.  This is not unique to Methodism, but an enthusiasm for converts was a Methodist trait during Joseph Smith’s encounter with them.
  • Appealing to all members of society, regardless of social or economic status, even criminals who were often outside of organized religion.  This was one of the foundational principles of Methodism, that the church was for everyone.  Early Methodism was considered a “poor man’s” religion.
  • Methodist,” like “Mormon” was a pejorative term ascribed to early adherents due to their focus on methodical Bible study and discussion.  Students would meet together regularly to “methodically” read and discuss scriptures (early morning seminary parallel?).
  • Regular fasting.  This was not common in other Protestant faiths of the day.
  • Weekly communion was held (our sacrament meeting equivalent) and baptism was the other holy rite of early Methodism.
  • Regularly visiting the poor, the sick, and those in prison.  I’m not sure they brought casseroles, but there seems to be a similar principle here.
  • Abstaining from most forms of amusement and luxury.  Refraining from alcohol was sometimes referred to as “turning Methodist.”  One wonders if abstinence from amusement would have been a good match for Joseph Smith, who was said to have a boisterous temperament, but it has been observed on many Mormon posts that we don’t know how to have a good time and don’t really celebrate like other religions.
  • Methodist ministers rebelled against the apathy they perceived in the Church of England.  This seems to fit with our high expectations of church members to live the commandments.  Methodists were often accused of fanaticism, and critics warned that the constant experiences with the Holy Spirit would prove unhealthy or make people go crazy.
  • Although no longer a feature of Methodism, early members had testimony sharing meetings.  So, next time it’s the first Sunday of the month, remember our Methodist friends.
  • Methodists rejected the notion of predestination, instead believing in man’s free will and God’s grace.
  • They believed that personal salvation required service to the world and a Christian mission.  This is not necessarily being a missionary, but doing works of Christian service in the world.

There are differences to Mormonism as well, such as reliance on the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed.  The key difference, one that was especially significance to the formation of the Mormon church and Joseph Smith’s experience, is Methodism’s reliance on tradition as the source of their authority and the means whereby doctrine is determined.

So, was Methodism the source for these practices in Mormonism, borrowed because Joseph found them compelling in his search for truth?  Is Mormonism just an off-shoot of Methodism?

IMO, there’s much more to both Mormonism and Methodism; Mormonism was not merely a recreation of Methodism substituting revelation and angelic visitation for tradition.  But the next time you’re on vacation and you can’t find a Mormon church, check out the local Methodist church.  You might feel more at home than you would expect.

Comments 7

  1. Sam Walton was a Methodist, and Wal-Mart continues to support the Methodist church (even selling old Super Wal-Marts to Methodist congregations for little to nothing while in some cases re-buying portions of the land back for much more than they were sold to build gas stations).

    So add huge business empires to your list of similarities.

  2. Derek – good catch (at least for modern Methodism). It’s not exactly ironic since WalMart’s mission statement to help poor folks have the stuff rich folks have (paraphrasing poorly) is consistent with Methodism being a “poor man’s church.”

  3. Interesting thoughts. Incidentally, I am currently writing my MA thesis exploring the influence of Methodism on early Mormonism, and will present the beginnings of that research at the upcoming MHA conference next month in Sacramento. Among other things, I examine JS’s recitation(s) of the first vision within the context of Methodist conversion narratives in early 19th century America. See here and here for bits of that analysis.

    Regarding your suggestion at the end of the post: the United Methodist Church today is vastly different than its antebellum American predecessor, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and consequently a 19th century Methodist probably would be a bit uncomfortable in a modern-day Methodist church, and a modern Mormon even more so.

  4. Hawkgrrrl,

    This is great! To add to the list, I believe early Methodist circuit riders, like early Mormon missionaries, went without purse or scrip as well.

  5. I have been thinking about this post as I’m away from the Internets for some reason… And you’ve really sort of helped me to connect some dots in my tangled mental web with this post…

    I must say that being raised Mormon in Missouri would give anyone something of a persecution complex, especially if you’re raised in Jackson County, where the spirit of confusion and contention continues to linger strong.

    It has been among Methodists that I’ve felt least judged for being Mormon. I attended Boy Scouts in a Methodist troop (way better kids than the Mormon military troop I also attended at Fort Leavenworth, KS) and my father’s mother was Methodist (my grandma attended church with Sam Walton in Bella Vista, AR; that’s how I knew of the Wal-Mart connection).

    I didn’t really feel intensely persecuted until high school when non-denominationalism became a raging fad. It was always the born-again Christian students and their leaders that gave me the hardest time about being Mormon (I made the mistake of going to YoungLife camp one year).

    As I came to think of it by way of this post, I never encountered contentions from any of my Methodist friends and family.

    My mother’s side of the family is more along the lines of non-denominational born-again evangelical Christian, and there were also contentions as to our Mormonism from them, but not-so from my father’s family or those Methodists I was close to in my home town.

  6. Celia Marks November 1983
    Were they inscriptions? I think so. When you say an ‘inscription’ that is a rather vague term, right? As I understand it, inscription could mean anything from a simple mark, or scratch to a written word. Were they as powerful as words? I do not think so. Inscriptions often retain great meaning; even through sometimes inscriptions are far from word-like in structure. Elaborate epigraphic markings on wood or stone have been known to convey abstract meanings, emotions, or even to enlighten. On an armrest of an old chair some deep marks made with fingernails conveyed great meaning and emotion, so could one call them inscriptions?

    The chair was run of the mill, a chair made of synthetic leather, black, bonded together with staples. The outer armrests, wood shaped into a half-crescent, so one could comfortably rest an arm or hand. The dreary chair was bland, built more for an office than a home, but that’s what Dad and Irene saw fit to embellish their mobile home with in Clearlake around 1971. A quarter century later He disposed of the decrepit chair simply by leaving it on the driveway of his Riverside home so someone could steal it.

    From 1983 on a hand palpitating the hand rest of the chair could feel deep uneven serrations and indentations that had been scratched onto the armrest. The indentations were a quarter inch deep, about the same on both armrests. Everyone sitting in the chair noted them, and asked how the anomalous marks came to be. Many figured a child carved them with a knife. Everyone who asked was informed that they were ‘Celia Marks,’ and some were told an interesting story.

    It was Thanksgiving Day. I arrived before Celia and Co. I helped Dad move furniture around and chopped wood for the fireplace as Irene fretted in the kitchen. They were apprehensive, but for the most part their apprehensiveness remained concealed. They were fretting about minute details, family photos had to be cleaned, all the books on the book case aligned, towels in the bath roomed had to be arranged ‘just so’, it seemed every corner of the house must be perfect. This all stemmed from their nervousness, a condition I was fully sympathetic to.

    Dad’s numerous framed Norman Rockwell prints on nearly every wall of the home spoke about his values as did numerous family pictures. For him the home was the real temple, earning a house displayed good work values; from that house creating a home was a sacred act, an undertaking approximating the divine itself. Irene’s obsession about hearth and home, a home always looking like it could be photographed in Better Homes & Gardens spoke about her values. Her values were simple, ‘you love and support your adult children, spoil your grandchildren, and in particular you keep the commandment about parents.’ These were values they had to a degree before they joined the Church, but became paramount in the years after they joined, as manifested by their changed lifestyles. Herman and Irene, sought average relations with all their children

    Irene’s daughter had other values. Irene’s daughter Celia was known as a professional business woman, a sophisticated social butterfly, and an incorrigible religious fanatic. Without respite Celia had been trying to convert Dad and Irene to her fundamentalist religion. Celia’s constant crusades had produced year or two long estrangements between Mother and child. Over time Celia surmised Dad and Irene would not be displace from their faith so it was vital that Dad and Irene divorce, after all, according to their dogma Dad and Irene were ‘unevenly yoked’ and lost in a cult, meaning any and all belief system’s not fundamentalist. Over time that had become her concerted agenda. Motivated by her convictions there had been endless manipulations, setup situations which all served to create those year or two long estrangements between mother-daughter. On another far deeper level Celia’s hidden agenda was for financial motives, as Celia felt all Dad and Irene’s property and possessions really belonged to her. Dad, the step-father was an impediment to that elusive pie-in-the-sky. Years before I was offered as a viable reason they should divorce, now that I was an adult on my own the reasons offered were exclusively religious. There had been a recent thawing, as witness by the fact that Celia and family were all arriving for the Thanksgiving holiday.

    As the in-laws arrived social niceties effectively balmed over deep seated feelings. Shallow talk consumed Dad’s Riverside home, serving to put everyone at ease. Celia’s three boys, 17, 18 and 19 talked about high school, the men talked football, and the women busied themselves in the kitchen. In all there were eight in-laws. For over an hour insignificant conversation slowly calmed everyone. In time Irene sported a pleasant optimism that all would remain pleasant, and everyone and everything would be hunky-dory. Such naive notion poised against the veracity of malevolent intention lends itself to often painful realizations. This particular holiday, true to form, Celia, her husband Richard, Carmen his wife Annette, a friend named Lea and the three boys had envisioned a new devise for marital discord. Their scheme was not yet revealed, but most assuredly soon would be. Days before Dad admitted that Celia could not go long without some nefarious devise for discord raising its head. I had seen it enough times before, parental hopes and aspirations for ‘good kids’ did not cloud my vision.

    I had been rather alienated for some time from Dad and Irene, the relationship strained for other reasons, but recently they had invited me to several Church functions, and Irene had made me pie. I suspect this is why both Irene and Dad pushed for me to come to their holiday meal, as a buffer, bastion against Celia and Co. ”We would like you to come, Celia and Carman will be at the house, and well, we are rather edgy about it.” Irene, after 3 years had renewed relations some months before with Celia. Their last falling out, in Irene’s terms, was now a, ‘forgive and forget memory. This was, in my view the case at least until the next scheme was made apparent. It was all a game, a dance they had played for decades, and the next one was about to be played out after Thanksgiving dinner at Dad and Irene’s Riverside home.

    Dad, about 1983

    Before dinner Dad’s Home Teachers arrived. Celia the ever-so-consummate professional was pleasant, as were the other in-laws. They chatted amicably with the Home Teachers about work and other trivia. The taller Home Teacher was a very successful businessman. He was well to do, owning several businesses, but humble about it, something I admire. The other home Teacher, a generational comrade of my Fathers, retired, short, aged, but keenly sharp did most of the talking. He briefly joined Dad and Irene in the front room. The man imparted wisdom through his wit, his awareness of the scope of Dad and Irene’s situation was conveyed by every comment he made, every comment, no matter how seemingly trivial was pregnant with sagacious understanding.

    Underneath Celia and Co. seethed in discomfort, being in a home with a few too many LDS folk. After a pleasant visit Dad and I accompanied the Home Teachers to the driveway, away from the family guests. “Are you all going to be alright?” asked the perceptive Home Teacher. “I have dealt with these people for a long time” said Dad, “And My son here, is a 6’5” a safeguard if they start something.” The Home Teacher firmly grasped Dads hand; “I have dealt with such folk a time or two as well.” Through mature in years, he was a most discerning Home Teacher. The man knowing glance gave away his keen awareness of Dad’s familial dilemma. Shaking my hand he added, “Don’t leave your parents to the wolves.” The Home Teacher offered his comment with a wink and nod; it was a half-joke. Like my father, old, bend but still substantial, the Home Teacher departed.

    Celia, 1983

    After dinner, but before dessert the men sat in the front room pontificating about nothing of import as Celia and Irene finished dishes; both women being the type, for better for worse who could not sit down after a meal until their kitchen was immaculate. I could hear the dishes clatter women chatter, as the men talked. I was 22 and recently out of the CCC. I had no fondness for any of Irene’s progeny, but to please Dad I showed up. Her two children and their brood lived in a ‘really good part’ of Orange County, letting all know about it. Whatever acclamations they assigned to themselves I took without displaying deference, which they took as a blatant lack of respect for their perceived station in life. The three boys and Lea were in the other room watching TV, to be specific televangelist, as the ‘big game’ was over. Dad was indifferent to football, and when it came to televangelist Dad would not allow such swill in his home, finding it an absolute mockery. At present he was out of earshot of the video vicars. It was one of the foibles of their religion. Briefly in the room I watched the flickering images on the screen, the cotton-candy haired lady, the guy who looking embalmed, both who’s verbal parsimoniousness denoted their immense disdain for education. Those preachers ‘scream out’ to be made fun of, and self-control on my part is a virtue I lack, but I managed to bite my tongue, that time. My only wonder is how any self-respecting individual could take such protracted rhetorical jive seriously.

    Celia came in the front room and asked if they could have an ‘open-minded Bible study.’ The men, including my father agreed. With a quick glance Dad conveyed he would deal with them, for the moment, unaided by me. Irene was finishing drying dishes and the sound of the oven door opening told me pies were in the oven. I will give Celia credit; like her mother, she made fine pies, pies worth hanging around for. Celia announcing such a theological activity was peculiar, but for some reason it had been agreed on before my arrival by Dad and Irene.

    I was perceptive enough to know there was nothing ‘open-minded’ in any ecclesial dialogue with these in-laws. I knew all along he knew some type of hidden agenda would manifest itself, so at least the scheme was becoming apparent. Celia sat down in that chair. The boys left the TV room and joined in. In unison Celia, Richard, Annette, Carman, Lea and the boys opened their Bibles, coincidently to the same chapter and verse. They were smug, but quietly smug. They were solders girded for battle, confident, brazen. Dad sat quietly, silent, appearing cornered. I sat silently as Irene finished up in the kitchen. They read their Bible verse, and only one verse. They read it as an exclusive mandate,-the final word. With resolute self-confidence they confronted Dad, figuring a lack of theological knowledge coupled with an abundance of collective bravado on their part would corner him, rendering him mute, and maybe, hopefully, acquiescent. Without missing a beat Dad quoted from memory the next several verses, then became silent. The ensuing silence was deafening. With a few verses quoted from memory he utterly exposed their idiosyncratic altering of the meaning they assigned that one verse; a verse clearly taken out of context. His articulate response confounded them; his elucidation unanticipated. Befuddled, they were, for the moment rendered wordless, mortified. Their faces flushed, they struggled for composure. In allayed silence Dad patiently awaited a rejoinder he knew could not come. Celia was rendered the most visceral. Her eyes torrid, her face crimson, she grasped the arms of the chair; her sturdy fingernails grinding into the malleable wood. It was the only malleable item in the home. Celia took advantage of that fact, her sturdy fingernails grinding into the wood. If a chair could scream, that chair would have done so in agony. The Celia marks were forever stamped on the chair, inscriptions that conveyed great meaning. Elaborate epigraphic markings on wood or stone have been known to convey abstract meanings, emotions, or even to enlighten. Irene, smiling, pleasant and oblivious strolled into the front room, still drying her hands with a dish towel as Celia, Carman, Richard, Annette, Lea and the boys dispensed smug glances between themselves, closing their Bibles in unison. “Has the Bible study started yet?” asked a beaming Irene as she plopped into a vacant chair, entirely unaware it was finished before it began.

    An abundance of apple, pumpkin, and especially peach pie was there for me to take home as Irene’s progeny left within 20 minutes, pies forgotten. Dad that day had been in a form characteristic of him, nothing atypical in his reaction. Was his conduct opprobrious? I don’t know. I do know it was not a self-serving characteristic of him to cast down any gauntlet, but it was characteristic of him to have sturdy elastic net always at the ready in case someone else does.

    It was at least two years before any of that bunch was seen again. Dad told me the Home Teacher came by the next month. Sitting in the chair he noted the carvings. When told what had happened the Home Teacher said, ‘There was a shadowy rage in that woman’s eyes.” For years many people felt the marks under the armrest, Dad and Irene often explaining their origin to others who noticed them when on the injured chair. Over the years the marks became more an item of absurd, laughable silliness, time rendered it more a subject of vagarious humor, to all but me. You see the Home Teachers words disturb me. I know something surpassing normal psychology animated Celia, as no matter how hard I, or Dad tried, no one, except Celia has been sufficiently enraged or strong enough to drive fingernails that deep into that wood to leave an inscription.

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