“It’s like Methodism, only more”: Mormon Conversion and Narratives of the Great Apostasy

A couple of weeks ago in Sunday School, a middle-aged woman shared her conversion story to Mormonism. Born and raised a Methodist, she noted that she always felt like something was lacking. When she discovered Mormonism, she explained, “it was like Methodism, only more.”

I smiled to myself as she said this, recognizing in her own conversion narrative a common refrain that dominates the autobiographical writings of her 19th century predecessors. Among the first generation of converts to Mormonism, roughly one-third of them came from Methodist backgrounds, including Emma Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor. Even Joseph Smith remembered being “somewhat partial to the Methodist sect” and feeling “some desire to be united with them” before his own visionary experience. He would later tell Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright, in words foreshadowing those of the woman in my Sunday School, that “We Latter-day Saints are Methodists, as far as they have gone, only we have advanced further.”[1] And Smith wasn’t alone in expressing such sentiments. Methodist converts to Mormonism  routinely portrayed their former faith as an important stepping stone on their path to discovering Mormonism, a sort of Elias that prepared the way for the fulness of the truth.

Brigham Young thus spoke of Methodist founder John Wesley as “as good [a man] as ever walked on this earth” and suggested that “had the Priesthood been conferred upon him, he would have built up the kingdom of God in his day as it is now being built up.”[2] British convert Edward Tullidge agreed, going to far as to argue that “there are no people so much like John Wesley and his early followers in spirit, faith and missionary energy and almost every other distinctive feature, as the Mormons.”[3] While Methodist converts to Mormonism seem to have held their former faith in a higher regard than those who joined Joseph Smith’s Church of Christ from Baptist of Campbellite churches, similar examples can be found among converts from all faiths. Such declarations complicated the earliest Mormon notions of a “Great Apostasy,” or the notion that the world had fallen into sin and that the earthly church established by Christ and his apostles had ceased to exist. The relatively positive portrayals of other faiths thus served as a counterbalance to the swift denunciations of contemporary and historic Christianity alike in the writings of Parley Pratt and other early Mormon apologists and theologians.

As revealed in the comment in Sunday School, these two approaches to apostasy have persisted until today, with Mormons understanding their religion simultaneously as a restoration of pure Christianity completely and utterly lost between the time of Christ and the First Vision and as a culmination of scattered truths carried on in disparate movements within Christianity. Emphasis on one of the other has ebbed and flowed over the last 180 years, with external pressures and internal shifts alike affecting that process. Doctrinal developments of the 1840s, the isolation brought about by the exodus to Utah, and the lack of connection to Protestantism felt by second- and third-generation Mormons led to a noted muting of the more positive portrayals of contemporary Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meanwhile, public relations concerns and the need to address itself to the lives and experiences of millions of subsequent converts from around the globe have led to a recent resurgence of the earlier tradition. Former Church president Gordon B. Hinckley thus echoed Joseph Smith when he explained the 21st century church’s message to the world by noting that “we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do,” and then concluding, “We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it.”[4]

In many respects, Mormonism today looks almost nothing like the church founded in 1830. Expansive growth in Asia, Latin America, and Africa has changed the linguistic, ethnic, and social makeup of Mormonism in unprecedented ways. But in one important respect the Church finds itself in a position today that it has not been in for at least one hundred years: most of its members are not multi-generational Mormons but rather converts themselves. And that has brought about something of a return to earlier Mormon ways of talking about other faiths. History does not always repeat itself, and the meanings embedded in the declarations of Methodist converts to Mormonism in 1830 and those in the 21st century surely differ in important respects, but in some general sense, it seems true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

_______________________

[1] Joseph Smith, “History—1839,” in The Papers of Joseph Smith: Volume 1, Autobiographical and Historical Writings, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 270. A fuller account of Methodist converts to early Mormonism and their collective impact on the church can be found in Christopher C. Jones, “‘We Latter-day Saints are Methodists’: The Influence of Methodism on Early Mormon Religiosity” (MA Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2009).

[2] Brigham Young, “Nature of Man—Happiness—Influence of God’s Spirit Upon Mankind, etc.,” July 3, 1859, in Journal of Discourses 7:5.

[3] Edward Tullidge, “The Mormon Commonwealth,” The Galaxy: An Illustrated Magazine of Entertaining Reading (October 15, 1866), 2:356.

 [4] Gordon B. Hinckley, “The BYU Experience,” BYU Devotional, 4 Nov. 1997. Available online here.

  • JohnH

    The view of the great apostasy being a total depravity is actually something that didn’t originate in Mormonism. Try discussing apostasy with a Catholic (or look at how the Catholics are viewed by many evangelical groups and some protestants). If one does so then one will eventually realize that one is talking past the other party, both are using similar terms but what one means is completely different. Even when past leaders or current members teach or think that certain popes or certain ideas or certain practices within Catholicism were completely wrong or even evil the leader or member pretty much never means that everyone that was Catholic from that time until now are totally depraved, fully rejected of God, and lacking of any influence of God, yet that is precisely what many Catholics think we are saying and what many Evangelicals actually are saying.

    That said, in scripture it says that the creeds are not of God, the priesthood was lost, the ordinances changed, the covenants broken, the pastors in many cases led the sheep astray, that most people in all of Christianity were walking in darkness, except for a few, due to the truths that had been lost, that none of the churches were correct, and that we are the only true and living church and I might not have covered everything said in scripture about the subject. Since none of the churches were of God and the priesthood was lost then clearly the Church established by Christ has ceased to exist and there really was a Great Apostasy in this sense.

    Then there is the teaching in the Book of Mormon that God reveals that portion of the gospel that He sees fit in His wisdom to every nation, meaning that not only Christianity, but all religions of every nation has some truth in it and things which we can learn from .

  • WVS

    Well said, Christopher. Early Mormon revelations sometimes chime in on the positive side, for example the characterization of Rigdon’s pre-Mormon work as preparatory, etc.

  • Ken Dahl

    “But in one important respect the Church finds itself in a position today that it has not been in for at least one hundred years: most of its members are not multi-generational Mormons but rather converts themselves.”

    This is a completely untrue statement. The majority of active Mormons are multi-generational. The 14.5 million claimed membership by Salt Lake City may include a lot of “converts” but the estimated 4.5 million “active” Mormon population around the globe are die-hard multi-generational Mormons. The majority of converts to Mormonism do not remain active in the faith after 12 months. Their names may continue to exist on membership roles but they have no other affiliation with the faith.

    • Christopher Jones

      Ken, do you have a link or citation you could provide for that information? I’m very aware of the problems inherent in using the statistical figures provided by the LDS Church but that’s about all I have to go on in estimating the number of adherents and their breakdown by converts/multi-generational members.

      • JohnH

        I believe they are going off of census records in other countries; the number of people that self identify as LDS is much lower than the listed number of members. 4.5 million though is a very low estimate of the number of active members, I believe it is taking the percentage of active single young adults and treating it as the percentage of active members which is a very bad use of the data.

        They also treat the one year activity rate as being the same as those that continue with the church, which is not true. It ignores the numbers of inactive that eventually return to activity and it ignores the differences between what the LDS consider as active and what pretty much any other church considers as active. We expect people to attend church nearly every Sunday; many other groups are happy if one attends church a few times a year. It would be entirely possible for a convert from such a faith to have a hard time adjusting to that expectation or to not see any problem with not coming to church for a few months.

    • Dcsouthgw

      Anyone who knows anything about Mormonism, knows that not 100% of our membership is active, but even many of our inactive members may qualify as active under other churches’ views. Your numbers seems to say that only 30% are active and I don’t see that as accurate. I have lived in over a 12 wards in the states and activity has always been around 50%. That would put our active membership close to 7 mil. I don’t know where you get your numbers, and obviously mine aren’t from anywhere but my own experience. 30% just seems low.

      • Erik

        Dcsouthgw, active membership outside the US is lower than in the US – especially in Latin America. Denmark’s activity rate, for example, is about 33%. From what I understand, the worldwide activity rate is probably the same, about 33%, or close to 5 million. See Cumorah.com for good info on church growth and activity rates around the world.

  • Eric Facer

    “Former Church president Gordon B. Hinckley thus echoed Joseph Smith when he explained the 21st century church’s message to the world by noting that ‘we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do,’ and then concluding, ‘We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it.’”

    Though I appreciate the spirit in which President Hinckley extended this invitation, it nevertheless seems to embody an element of chauvinism—it implies that other faiths have no truths they we haven’t already discovered, that they are incapable of adding to our body of gospel knowledge. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    There is much we can learn from other churches and their members about the doctrines of salvation. For example, James E. Faust, in his April 2007 General Conference address, drew special attention to the compassion and forgiveness exhibited by the Amish after the massacre by a deranged milkman of five Amish school children in Pennsylvania. Brother Faust marveled at how “the whole Amish group [could] manifest such an expression of forgiveness.” This communal response stands in stark contrast to acts of vengeance that Latter Day Saints in the past have, at times, visited upon their persecutors.

    The Book of Mormon makes it clear that the Lord communicates his teachings to all worthy men and women, “both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south and in the islands of the sea,…” 2 Nephi 29:11. There is no reason to believe that the Lord, in 1830, departed from this nondiscriminatory practice and suddenly decided to give the LDS Church an exclusive right to celestial revelation.

    Any church and/or its members who live in harmony with the teachings of Christ are entitled to further light and knowledge. This is the eternal principle of causation embodied in D&C 130: 20-21. When members of a faith, such as the Amish, are blessed with a higher understanding of the doctrine of forgiveness or any other gospel principle, we should set our religious chauvinism aside and say: “Thank you for adding your truths to ours. And what else can you teach us?”

    By the way Chris, nice article.

    • Dcsouthgw

      @Eric: I think that you are reading the chauvinism into his words. Your example with the Amish doesn’t illustrate your point well, because forgiveness isn’t a principle unique to the Amish and absent from LDS teachings. Their act was remarkable and inspirational, which is why Elder Faust brought it up. Your point rests on the principle of revelation. In New Testament times, the word of the Lord came through Jesus and then His apostles for that region. In the Americas at that time, they had no access to the revelation given in Israel, so they required their own prophets and apostles. In our day we don’t have a segmented church. There is no other president of our church based out of another country, because modern communication allows one set of church leadership to minister to the whole world. That doesn’t mean the people outside of our faith can’t receive personal revelation for themselves and their stewardships, but that isn’t the same as doctrine. Pres Hinckley’s call for others to bring the good with them means just that. Bring the truth that you have been taught and we will add to it with what God has revealed through modern prophets. We don’t believe there are prophets or the priesthood authority in any other church on the earth and hence, we don’t believe that any other church has true doctrine that hasn’t been revealed in our church. No kitchen can run under 2 head chefs, no ship can be piloted by 2 captains, and there is only one prophet and president of the church at one time.

      • JohnH

        There is only one prophet in the sense that there is only one person authorized to receive revelation for the whole church; there should/could be 14 million prophets in the sense that there are 14 million people that have access to the gift of the holy ghost and should be receiving revelation for themselves. ” Would God that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” Numbers 11:29

      • Eric Facer

        @Dcsouthgw: I expressed no opinion as to whether or not the Lord reveals actual doctrines to anyone on earth other than a prophet. Rather, I simply stated that there are truths we can learn from other churches and their members about gospel principles and Christ’s teachings. My example of the Amish illustrates this point quite well: the doctrine of forgiveness has been revealed to and is accepted by virtually all Christian religions, but the Amish, as both individuals and as a community, exhibit an understanding of this doctrine that, in my opinion, exceeds that of our Church and its members. This enhanced understanding of the principle of forgiveness was revealed to the Amish because of their faithfulness, and I want to learn from them. For us to say that there is no eternal truth they can teach us because we, after all, are the only “true” church is not only chauvinistic but also arrogant and prideful. President Hinckley’s invitation to other churches said nothing about doctrine; rather, he spoke of truth—something that is not the exclusive prerogative of the Mormon Church.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    It seems to me that the statement that is being criticized is incorrect for the opposite reason: because the growth rate of the LDS Church has stayed pretty steady through the last century, doubling every 20 years, with half that increase coming from conversions, there has always been a large portion of the LDS who had substantial life experiences in other denominations and faiths. As the scope of missionary work has expanded into other countries, the proportion of LDS who came from a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or even Buddhist experience is increasing, but converts have always been a significant part of the membership. In my own experience, some of the harsher critics of those other faiths have been the converts who decided to reject them. Just as people who have left the LDS Church often combine their rejection of the authority and doctrines with love for particular people or aspects of the community, converts into Mormonism often show mixed feelings about their former affiliations. A lot of people who grew up in LDS families have little familiarity with creeds and other doctrinal details of other faiths, so it falls in many cases to converts to explain the particulars of how the LDS faith differs fropm their former religious communities.

  • Kim Benson

    As a lifelong United Methodist, I shudder to think what form of watered-down Methodism or the Gospel this dear woman was exposed to that she could find Mormonism a natural stepping stone from her growing-up years in a Methodist church. The truth is that all the marketing push from LDS over the last decade has only resulted in steady numbers and no real growth. This is further support for the case that, as United Methodists, our future is not in becoming more watered down, but in distinguishing ourselves as we were first conceived–as spirited believers in the Trinity who embraced and understood prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace and the need to grow in holiness throughout our lives, by grace and through our faith in Jesus Christ.


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