Mormons and the Disciples of Christ

Writers on Mormon history frequently mention the Disciples of Christ as close counterparts to Latter Day Saints during the first generation of these religious bodies. The primary point of comparison is that both movements sought to restore primitive Christianity.

Mormons and Disciples both emphasized three ideas: 1) The Bible describes the church as God intends it to be. 2) Most of the time since the period described in the New Testament has been marked by aberrations in doctrine and practice. 3) Their respective movements represent authentic restorations of “the ancient order of things.”

As a life-long member and long-time minister of the Disciples of Christ, I have been particularly attentive to this early linkage, and I have in my own mind objected to the casual comparison of these two impulses in early nineteenth Christianity.

Granted, Joseph Smith and the Mormons on the one hand and Alexander Campbell and the Disciples on the other sought to recover the purity and power of New Testament Christianity.

Why, then, did these two movements develop so differently? The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), to use the contemporary name of the one movement, have remained within the boundaries of classical Christian doctrine and practice. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have become a new religious movement with strong connections to orthodox Christianity but significantly different elements in theology, churchly practice, and sacred writings.

One of the reasons why Disciples have stayed with the main Christian stream is that from earliest days, they have understood restoration to be the minor premise in their syllogism. The major premise has always been the unity of the church.

One of the clearest and useful statements of the Disciples’ preference for unity is a paper written by Thomas J. Liggett, who spent his career as missionary, church administrator, and leader in theological education. President Liggett, who died March 27, 2012, and is being honored in memorial celebrations around the country, prepared these remarks for the School of Theology for the Laity at East Dallas Christian Church in Texas, June 22, 1979. The paper was later published in Mid-stream: An Ecumenical Journal.

Although this paper does not discuss the 1830s’ similarities of Mormons and Disciples, it does offer six reasons why Disciples consistently chose unity over restoration. This consistent choice is one of the reasons why the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have remained within the sphere of classic Protestant Christianity.

The concluding paragraphs of Liggett’s paper state his conclusion forthrightly:

Our movement began with the dual emphasis of Christian Unity and Restoration. These two ideas, compatible and complementary in the beginning, eventually were perceived as existing in tension with one another. As this tension grew, we were led to make value judgments and to choose between them. The Churches of Christ and the independent Christian Churches, while exhibiting significant differences of interpretation of restoration, seem to have chosen “restoration” as the primary value. Each movement, in its own way continues to seek to restore the New Testament Church. Neither participates in the formal manifestations of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century.

The Disciples of Christ, on the other hand, have chosen “Christian unity” as the primary commitment and value. We have participated from the beginning in local, regional, national and world ecumenical bodies. We have encouraged “mission churches” to enter united churches, we are participants in the Consultation on Church Union and we have engaged in union conversations. We believe that this commitment to Christian unity is based solidly on Biblical and theological grounds. We believe that it constituted a major commitment of Thomas Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and became a major commitment for Alexander Campbell in his mature years. We frankly admit to having given priority to Christian unity rather than to Restoration, particularly in any legalistic sense. There have been solid reasons for this decision, some of which are identified above. The choice has been made and the direction has been set. The full expression of our commitment to the one, universal church continues to be our task.

With the support of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I have prepared T. J. Liggett’s paper for republication in an electronic version. To read the entire paper, click  Why the Disciples Chose Unity.

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6 Responses to Mormons and the Disciples of Christ

  1. bobcornwall says:

    Keith,

    I agree that the commitment to unity kept the Disciples on focus, but so did a commitment to biblical Christianity.

    What is interesting is how many Disciples converted to Mormonism and played important roles in the development of Mormonism.

    Sidney Rigdon is of first importance as he was a leading evangelist in Ohio and took the Kirtland church essentially into Mormonism. The Pratt brothers and others were also Disciples before becoming Mormons.

    The difference between Rigdon and Campbell was the extent to which restoration should take place. Rigdon wanted a much more robust restoration — apostles, spiritual gifts, etc. Campbell played things too close to the vest for Rigdon, and Joseph Smith offered him what he needed.

    • Bob, You are right that the emphasis on Biblical Christianity was important for Campbell. Two other factors contributed. The first was Campbell’s distinction between Old and New Testaments. His “Sermon on the Law” separated him from Baptists in the upper Ohio Valley and distinguished him from certain other strains of the Reformed Tradition. He also had a strong sense that certain spiritual gifts were confined to the New Testament era and were not be be continued thereafter. Thus, his restoration was much more sharply defined than the one that developed among LDS people. Sidney Rigdon is someone I want to read about and there are good studies available, but other topics currently hold a higher priority. Keith

  2. Rod Reeves says:

    Keith, as you well know, from our conversations, I consider T.J. without question one of the most expansive insightful 20th century minds and voices within the CC(DofC). Having said that, I’m mildly surprised that T.J. does not mention in passing in his 1979 prepared remarks for the School of Theology for the Laity at East Dallas Christian Church in Texas, Ronald E. Osborn’s little classic, “Experiment in Loberty: The Ideal of Freedom in the Experience of the Disciples of Christ” (1978, The Bethany Press, The Forrest F. Reed Lectures for 1976).

    The heart of Osborn’s thesis in his “Experiment in Liberty” is somewhat captured in his Preface (page 13). “Oddly enough, no historian of the Disciples has traced the ideal of freedom through the history of the movement…..Even more striking is the general tendency of historians, aside from an occasional mention of freedom and the assumption that everyone knows the Disciples’ commitment to it, to omit it from the basic formula of interpretation. It has become conventional to present the movement as concerned with two great emphases, unity and respration.

    “In my view, the effort to understand Disciples in terms of these two principles alone (or of either one of them) oversimplifies the situation. The commitment of heart and mind was not just to unity, not just to restoration of the apostolic order, not just to some dynamic combination of these two. From the beginning that commitment was given to freedom, unity, and restoration, held together in a varying and sometimes unstable equilibrium. Indeed, one could advance the thesis that freedom has now become the dominant force within the triad. Within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as within the undenominational Fellowship of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, the most compelling argument against any proposal is neither that it is divisive nor that it is unscriptural, but that it threatens the freedom of the congregation or infringes on the rights of the members. (My insert/remember the context in which Dr. Osborn delivered The Forrest F. Reed Lectures for 1976, with the CC(DofC) having just gone through the disruptions for many of “Restructure” by the Disciples) My selection of the motif of liberty is not a Bicentennial (1976) gimmick: rather it seizes an appropriate occasion for the exposition of a major theme running through the life of the movement.”

    Keith, let me restate publicly what I have shared in person with you on more than occasion, how much I look forward to reading your posts, on both American Religion and on cycling.

    • Rod, you are correct in noting that the Disciples intellectual-theological tradition is broader and more complex than the restoration-unity relationship that T. J. discusses in the paper I posted. Since my reading of the Osborn book you cite took place long ago, I cannot right now comment constructively on the position that he takes in that book. His knowledge of Disciples was deep and broad, and for the most part I am willing to accept his interpretations. It’s quite possible that Osborn’s book had not yet become widely known at the time T. J. prepared his paper. Furthermore, his assignment for the Dallas presentation might have been shaped by circumstances that were directly related to the topics being discussed during those classes. Thank you for being such a constant reader of the columns I post.

  3. mormon says:

    John 13:34-35
    “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

  4. Georgia says:

    I reaally like looking through an article that can make people think.
    Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!

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