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The Restorationist Movement in U.S. History

Protestantism in Europe, beginning with Martin Luther, was a rejection of the practices of orthodoxy, which Protestants felt had become corrupt. Not always was it a rejection of doctrine, as the Protestant movements mostly accepted the early creeds of the councils of bishops and the doctrine of the Trinity. The Protestant movement was meant to reform corrupt practices. For Luther, the most corrupt practice of the Holy Catholic Church was the selling of indulgences. If a person paid money, his time in purgatory could be shortened by writ. Luther felt the Catholic authorities had no right or power to grant salvation or to commute God’s punishments.

At the time, the Bible was being translated into common European languages. The printing press was invented, and that put the scriptures into the hands of the common people. The promise was that the scriptures were the highest authority, and a person could get closer to God and gospel through them, than through the ordained, orthodox clergy. Many Protestant sects sprang up, and today, there are over 48,000 sects of Christianity.

methodist camp meeting

Methodist Camp Meeting – 1836

For some prayerful people, reformation did not seem to be enough. What they sought for was a return to the original “primitive” (ancient) Church of Jesus Christ. Some sought the miracles, power, and authority which seemed to have been lost. Some sought the original organization to be restored. Some of these people had visions, assuring them that a restoration of Christ’s original church would indeed take place. Some organized their own churches in an attempt to restore all that had been lost. These people envisioned one church, and one gospel. A true restoration could reunite the proliferating, often opposed, Christian sects.

Actually, the desire for a restoration had begun very early — only a few hundred years after the birth of Christ. Some felt Christianity had already strayed from the faith and church of the original apostles.

Restorationism in the United States

Restorationist desires started to increase in the United States shortly after the Revolutionary War.  Some of the reasons for this increasing desire had to do with America itself. It was a new, fresh, and pristine land, and a new, fresh, pristine country, founded on principles of individual freedom and conscience. People tended to want to move away from institutional, traditional churches. There was even a millennial fervor, and a feeling that America was the perfect place for the millennial reign of Christ. Going back to Christ’s original church would bypass established orthodoxy and perhaps unite the Protestant sects. It would be a return to purity as well as a new beginning.

In the early 1800’s in America there was a movement called “The First Great Awakening” that occurred among the Baptists. It began in New England and spread to the South and then to the western frontier. There arose a suspicion of the early creeds, and a desire to return to pure worship. They sought for the precise structure of the primitive church and hoped to duplicate it.

The Second Great Awakening increased religious fervor, and the number of people seeking a complete restoration also increased. Camp meetings and revivals attracted a large audience. Not all were restorationist, but contributed to the growth of religious fervor. Joseph Smith, through whom restoration actually succeeded, lived in New York. His area was called the “Burned-Over District” because of the numerous revivals and outpourings of the Spirit.

The Stone-Campbell Movement

Thomas Campbell

Via Wikipedia

Barton W. Stone began a movement in Kentucky, and Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander began a movement in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Stone’s followers simply called themselves Christians, and Campbell’s followers called themselves Disciples of Christ. Stone’s faith was open and unstructured, while Campbell’s sought to reconstruct the primitive Church of Christ. Both movements sought to hasten the millennium by restoring apostolic authority. They both partook of sacramental emblems on Sundays and practiced baptism by immersion as a necessary step to salvation. The two movements always had in mind the unity of Christianity, and therefore, they were friendly to each other. Soon, they merged, and called themselves by both of the original names, “Christians,” and “Disciples of Christ.”

Divisions in this sect occurred over time, and currently there are many sects with roots in the Stone-Campbell movement.

The Christadelphians

John Thomas Christadelphians

via Wikipedia

Dr. John Thomas had suffered a shipwreck at sea, and upon his arrival in America, he was shaken by his lack of preparation for eternal life. He devoted his life to studying the Bible. He questioned beliefs on the nature of man. he debated Alexander Campbell. He caused division among faithful restorationists and was disfellowshipped, then rebaptized. In 1848 he went on a preaching tour to England, and his audience included restorationists there.

Creeds were developed by Thomas and his followers. Some of their beliefs and practices included

  • Expecting the return of Christ
  • A rejection of Trinitarianism
  • The belief that God has a body
  • An objection to military service/ pacifism
  • Service by the lay membership in church functions

The name of the church became associated with conscientious objection to military service.

Other Restoration Philosophies

…include Adventism (looking to the imminent Second Coming); the Millerites (parent to the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Advent Christian Church). Adventists do much service around the world. In many of their doctrines, they agree with Protestantism.  The Worldwide Church of God arose from the Seventh Day Churches (who worship on Saturday).  It rejected restorationism and sought to become more like other Protestant churches. It splintered into many churches.

The True Gospel is Restored

joseph smith first vision

Nearly all of the early converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) were individuals who believed that a restoration was coming (many of whom had experienced spiritual manifestations that led them to believe it) or who were already members of a restorationist group. Sidney Rigdon was a leader among the Campbellites who converted to “Mormonism” and brought hundreds of Campbellites with him.

For the restoration of apostolic Christianity to actually occur, a number of things had to happen:

  1. It needed to occur in a location where it could survive, even if Satan declared all-out war upon it. Such was the United States and its western frontier.
  2. It needed to occur in a location where there was religious freedom. Such was the United States.
  3. It needed to occur at a time and place where new scripture could be printed and distributed. The coming forth of the Book of Mormon as a second witness of Christ was the foundation for the organization of the Church.
  4.  Ideas of individual conscience and spiritual experience had to be embraced. Such occurred during the Age of Enlightenment and the Reformation and Age of Belief.

Thus, the stage was set for the restoration of Christ’s primitive Church. This happened in many steps.

  1. The Second Great Awakening caused the Smith family of New York to question doctrine and desire to choose for themselves which church most closely fit their beliefs.
  2. Joseph Smith, then 14, could not decide. He found it futile to resort to the scriptures, because all the sects disagreed in their analysis of scripture.
  3. Believing he could receive an answer to prayer, Joseph inquired of God and received a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ. This dashed his belief in Trinitarian tradition. Christ told him the early creeds of the bishops’ councils were false and that a restoration was coming and Joseph would play an important part in it.
  4. God revealed the location of the Book of Mormon record, a second witness of the resurrected Christ, and Joseph began to translate it through revelation.
  5. Through the resurrected John the Baptist, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the restored Aaronic, or Levitical Priesthood, giving them power to baptize by immersion with full authority from Jesus Christ.
  6. Through the resurrected Peter and James, and the translated John the Beloved, Joseph received the Melchizedek, or higher priesthood, giving authority to confer the Holy Ghost, enjoy the Spirit of Prophecy and perform the miracles that the Apostles performed anciently.
  7. Through Elijah, Moses, and Elias, who visited the Kirtland Temple the Sunday after it was dedicated to the Lord’s service, Joseph received the keys to seal in heaven what was sealed on earth, and for the gathering of Israel and for administering the Church of Christ.
  8. The ancient biblical rite of baptism for the dead was revealed from heaven, as were the doctrines and keys for temple worship and eternal marriage.
  9. The Church was organized as was Christ’s primitive church, with a prophet, apostles, seventies, etc.
  10. The Church has a true lay clergy, as did Christ’s primitive church.
  11. Priesthood, defined as the power and authority to act in God’s name, abides with all worthy male members, with women sharing in its power and blessings.
  12. Revelation flows freely; scripture is open; the heavens are open.
  13. The Kingdom of Heaven is established on earth in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Latter-day Saints have never offered an exact date or time, as some sects have while watching that time come and go with prophecy unfulfilled, but Latter-day Saints look forward to His coming.
  14. Dedication to missionary work. Beginning with 6 members in 1830, by the end of 2014, there were 15,372,337 members of the Church worldwide.
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