Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism
by Dan Vogel
Many of those who struggled against Smith within the Mormon movement were influenced by Seekerism to the point that they believed only in charismatic authority. The complaints of David Whitmer and William E. McLellin are illustrative in this regard. According to Whitmer, he at first reluctantly accepted the shift to a bureaucratized concept of priesthood bestowal but upon further reflection eventually concluded that Smith had departed from the ideals of the Book of Mormon and other early revelations. Whitmer’s and McLellin’s claims that angelic ordinations were late additions to Mormonism are supported by considerable circumstantial evidence. The early emphasis on charisma, the lack of a clear priesthood restoration concept in the Book of Mormon and in the “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ,” the additions made to the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants concerning angelic ordinations, and statements of early leaders all demonstrate the shift to accommodate evolving notions of authority and governance. However, despite the reluctance of Whitmer and McLellin, the imprecision of the Seeker tradition regarding the restoration of authority allowed most others to make the adjustment without difficulty. Thus, I would argue, the shift in the Mormon concept of authority was consistent with most Seeker expectations.
In this treatment, I have not attempted a definitive explanation of Mormon origins, but rather an exploration of what early Mormonism represented to those drawn to its version of the gospel, many of whom had been influenced by Seekerism. In fact, Seekerism contributed more significantly to the early preoccupations and commitments of Mormonism than has previously been recognized. Whereas Mormonism may have been influenced by several movements and denominations, any examination of its theological and historical roots must consider Seeker beliefs to be complete.
Dan Vogel is the editor of Early Mormon Documents, a five-volume series that won Best Documentary awards from both the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association. He is the editor of The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture; author of Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon; Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet and Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism; and co-editor of American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon. He is also a contributor to The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith and Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, among others. He has presented research papers at the annual Mormon History Association meetings, Sunstone Theological Symposium, and similar conferences. He is currently preparing a definitive edition of Joseph Smith’s multi-volume History of the Church. He and his wife live in Westerville, Ohio.