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Religion Library: Mormonism


Written by: Stephen Taysom

Many new religious groups sprang up in response to this spiritual longing. The spirit of revivalism stimulated a personal, emotional engagement with God. Although new groups often shared theological concepts with more mainstream churches, innovation could lead well beyond the acceptable boundaries of Christian orthodoxy.

Included among the many new groups to emerge under these circumstances were the Mormons. Early Mormonism clearly reflects the social and religious milieu of western New York during the Second Great Awakening, an area known as the "burned-over district" for the intensity of religious activity. Joseph Smith's theology brought together a large number of ideas already in circulation. This was part of its appeal to converts near and far. Yet it was also a distinctly new creation.

Despite an abundance of contemporary records, the task of tracing the sources of Mormon theology is a difficult one. There are several reasons for this. Among Mormonism's core beliefs are its claim to embody a "restored" Christian gospel, and its claim to continuing revelation. Both of these beliefs tend to obscure lines of demonstrable intellectual influence. Smith dictated revelations without explaining the underlying thought processes, if there were any. Nor did he ever write a carefully argued theological treatise. Moreover, Smith's lack of formal education or theological training makes it difficult to trace the impact of particular authors and writings he may have encountered.

It must also be borne in mind that Mormonism in 1830, the year of its official organization, resembled evangelical religion much more closely than did the Mormonism of 1844, the year of Smith's death. In 1830 Smith's theology was still in many ways compatible with the restorationist and millennialist streams of contemporary Protestantism. To that foundation was added, however, a second layer of restorationism, a distinctly Hebraic understanding of ritual authority and communal identity. A third layer was added in the final years of Smith's life, expanding the idea of restorationism into a more esoteric realm concerned with matters of afterlife and salvation.

Study Questions:
1.     Why was the timing of the Second Great Awakening important to the formation of Mormonism?
2.     What reform movements were taking place at the time of Mormonism's origins? How did they shift the nation's consciousness?
3.     Why is it difficult to trace the sources of Mormonism's theology?
4.     What can be said about the relationship between evangelicalism and Mormonism (at its origin)?


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