Did Joseph Start a Religion, or Simply a Denomination?

The book for my book club is by Sarah Baringer Gordon,  The Mormon Question.  It’s been a really hard book to find at the library (nearly impossible), so I got a late start on it.   It takes a very different approach to the polygamy question.  Ms Gordon has a law degree, and so she talks about the legal arguments concerning the separation of church and state.  I’ve learned a lot about the evolution of legal thought and the Constitution.  There hasn’t been a strict separation, especially during the 1800’s.  The Mormons helped define that line.

One of the interesting quotes from the book concerns whether Joseph started another denomination of Christianity, or a new religion.  From page 11,

Most antipolygamists were so alarmed by the Mormons that they refused to concede even that the latter-day faith was itself Christian….

In some senses, latter-day revelation and practices were indeed so distinct from other forms of Christianity that it is valid to call Mormonism a new religion.  Religious historian Jan Shipps has cogently argued that Mormonism in the nineteenth century brought believers out of one faith and into a new one–a distinct religion, emerging out of but different from Christianity.  As this book emphasizes, latter-day faith was also deeply related to American Protestantism and was frequently opposed with tools that had been deployed against Catholicism.  If nineteenth-century Mormonism was a new, post-Christian dispensation, it was also developed and defended in American space and time.

I guess what struck me about the quote was that Christianity developed out of Judiasm to form a new religion.  Is Mormonism a new religion formed from Christianity?


44 comments on “Did Joseph Start a Religion, or Simply a Denomination?

  1. I think it is both, just like Protestantism isn’t Catholicism, but they are both Christian. However, only the most strict separatist Protestants don’t consider Catholics as Christian. I do think that Mormonism has won the “is it Christian” debate and is considered Christian by secularists. Newspapers, and especially resource books, classify Mormonism as at least a sub-set of Christianity.

  2. Jetboy – King Canute thought that he could command the sea – I am afraid you must be put out of your delusion – the LDS has not won the ” is it Christian debate ” simply because it says so and simply because it can employ huge PR resources in a secular , liberal age where everyone and anything is accepted – to have its brand of ‘ Christianity ‘ treated as an equal .

    Mormonism is a bizarre mixture of paganism , free masonry , gnosticism and American culture with a wafer thin Christian veneer .

    Here is a snapshot – lets imagine we are flies on a wall in a Mormon Temple and we are observing the young Mitt Romney receiving his endowments – what would we observe . A man in a masonic- like outfit with a fig leaf apron making hand gestures including throat slitting gestures believing one day he will become a god . This young Mitt Romney believes there is a myriad of gods and goddesses including Elohim . This Elohim the god of this planet and his wives spawn a spirit family which includes Jesus , the Devil , you , me , Uncle Tom Cobley et al . Romney also believes in a fictional book called the Book of Mormon which he believes is superior to the Bible and that is not to forget the Pearl of Great Price and the D&C . Perhaps the same Mitt Romney will be in his Mormon ward house the next day singing ‘ If I could hie to Kolob ‘ or ‘ Praise To the Man ‘ or perhaps ‘…doesn’t reason stare we have a mother there ‘

    Much more could be said about this vile heresy – whatever one wishes to call Mormonism – Christianity IT IS NOT .

  3. Just as Christianity is an evolution/revolution of Judaism, I think it is interesting to consider the idea that Mormonism is an evolution/revolution of Christianity.

    Andrew, I don’t like your tone at all. Calling someone ‘delusional’ is not respectful and not welcome at all. Perhaps you missed the poll at Christianity Today which shows a majority of Americans (52%) agree with Jettboy. See my previous post. I’ll give a brief summary here.

    Are Mormons Christian? How Christian groups answer the question?

    All Americans

    Yes 52%
    Don’t know 17%
    No 31%

    Mainline Protestants

    Yes 62%
    Don’t know 15%
    No 23%


    Yes 52%
    Don’t know 19%
    No 29%

    Black Protestants

    Yes 43%
    Don’t know 27%
    No 30%

    Evangelical Protestants

    No 45%
    Yes 40%
    Don’t know 15%

    Andrew, I’ll remind you that I have frequent visitors from the CoC who do not believe in the LDS Temple ceremonies, but do believe in the Book of Mormon and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, so please be more respectful in your comments. I am curious what they think of the question in the title of my post. Finally, if you are so convinced that Mormons aren’t Christian, are you comfortable saying it is a new religion?

  4. I don’t think Mormonism is a Christian “denomination.” It’s a new religion.

    I think it sucks that we try to act like a mere denomination in an attempt to be popular.

  5. All I can say is, if I was an Evangelical in the UK, as Andrew’s email suggests to me, then I’d be spending my time opposing bigger threats to Evangelicalism in the UK than Mormonism.

    Ultimately, whether or not we or our institutions are Christian is for Christ to decide.

  6. MH – As I have said the Mormons are not Christian therefore they are another religion . Given the fact that the Mormons teach that the blessed Lord Jesus is the brother of Satan as well as a host of other objectionable teachings what possible respect could any Christian give to such a devient religion . I have a number of Mormon friends who I like and respect as individuals but that does not mean I have to respect their belief system .

    The Apostle Paul said in Galatians ” If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received , let him be accursed ” In the second Corinthian epistle Ch11v4 the same Apostle warns against those who would preach another Jesus , another Gospel and another Spirit . From Genesis to Revelation the language against that which is false is strong and uncompromising . You are profoundly mistaken if you think that Christianity is apple pie sentimentality or should I say green jello sentimentality .Has it come to this that well groomed young men in suits and badges = Christianity ? Has it come to this that the mass ranks of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir = Christianity ? Has it come to this that so long as a person has the name of Jesus Christ in his vocabulary that = Christianity ? No to do so would be to stand truth on its head .So on the full authority of God’s Word I say that the Mormons are not Christian . I have every reason to believe that a considerable number of Americans would agree – but ultimately that is of no consequence bacause the standard is the “law” and “testimony” , not opinion polls .

  7. andrew, you are not welcome here. any further comments from you will be classified as spam. if you think referring to any religion, whether it be mormonism, hindu, islam, or shintoism, zoroastrianism, or catholocism as ‘deviant’ is what Christ taught, then I urge you to go back and understand the good samaritan parable. your incendiary remarks prove you are not a true follower of Christ. good riddance.

    seth, you comments are interesting. the idea that mormonism is the next step of evolution beyond mere christianity is intriguing and I wonder why the church doesn’t try to promote itself this way. we are different, and not just another denomination.

    firetag, jettboy, what do you think of this idea?

  8. “Christian, but different” is how I saw it phrased on an LDS apologetics site. The question to me is how the “mutation” gets embedded in the spiritual DNA of Christianity. During the transition from Judaism to Christianity, several strands of the latter competed before the Western Roman Empire version became normative after Constantine.

    Even within the Restoration there is still competition. You’re 100 times our size, so your evolution probably matters most, but Dale Broadhurst was arguing in threads here recently that the true path of the Restoration lies in a particular type of independent Restoration Branch, which ia about 1/100th of the entire Restoration Branch movement (which is in turn 1/10th the size of the CofChrist).

  9. yes, firetag you are right. in this context, size does matter. after the death of Christ, there were other forms of christianity including gnostics. since the gnostics died out, they don’t really count when we look at christianity today, though certainly their arguments about the nature of Christ did influence doctrine in Christianity in an indirect way.

    I guess what is interesting to me is the idea that Christ was both a Jew and a Christian. he was the first one of ‘dual-citizenship’. Joseph would likewise be the first one of dual Mormon and Christian citizenship. of course this same reasoning could be applied to other protestant reformers, but if they aren’t claiming to start a new religion (which Joseph and mormonism is according the this line of thinking) then this dual-citizenship doesn’t apply to someone like luther.

  10. Of course, if Christ is who we think He is, then He’s also at the root of all human religions from Bhuddism to Zorastrianism, whatever status their human founders may hold in the eternal scheme of things. Humans, even prophets (and probably angels) still see only partially.

  11. I think the question (either/or) is flawed. The Mormon church is a restoration of the original church; thereby it can’t be a new religion. Maybe a new denomination, except it continues from where the old church left off.

    The problem with Andrew is he assumes that the Catholic church is the same as the Methodist church. Meaning: both churches house christian people. That assumption is flawed; not with the people being called christians but that both churches differ in how they see Christ’s teachings. Andrew is free to disagree with Mormon doctrine but he is not free to take away the atonement from Christ. The atonement is infinite which means it has no limits. Yes, even the Mormons have access to Christ’s atonement.

    BTW, the beauty of the Book of Mormon is that we can have a much clearer understanding of how the atonement works in our lives. We are saved by the grace of God, but we need our repentence to have claim on mercy. That is probably where Andrew is blind. Christ cannot rob justice by resurrecting a person in a wicked state to a righteous state.

  12. I wholeheartedly agree with Seth’s comment that the Church sometimes contorts itself into being merely another Christian denomination to appeal to outsiders. I think this is unfortunate, however, because one of the things I find most satisfying about “Mormonism” is its expansiveness. It can account for truth and explain human potential in ways mainstream Christianity simply cannot do. Mormons can easily adopt certain strands of truth found in other belief systems, such as Buddhism and Confucianism for instance, without difficulty, while comfortably maintaining our own Christian identity.

    But my bigger question is why should we care what individuals like Andrew think? While Andrew thinks he is a bold defender of the true faith, his scriptural references could easily be flipped back on him, arguing that it is in fact he who believes in another gospel and another Jesus, as his current concept of the Godhead is one that morphed substantially (to a delusional degree, perhaps) since the time his scriptural references were originally penned. Andrew, of course, would be unpersuaded, making the exercise mostly a waste of time. So why bother? Our theology is too rich to waste it on such trifling debates (not all debate, mind you). If he thinks us delusional, I take it a badge of honor, as the Lord has declared that His people will be a peculiar people. I say embrace the peculiarity.

  13. “the idea that mormonism is the next step of evolution.”

    Evolution from what to what? This presupposes connections that frankly don’t currently exist in other Christian teachings. It is much more like a Restoration or perhaps Reclamation. Even the likes of Harold Bloom and Margaret Barker (and Historical Jesus Scholar N.T. Wright) have claimed Mormonism to various degrees reads the Bible sub-textually to an older theology.

  14. I wish I had a poll set up. Yes, I’m setting this up an an either/or proposition. If you disagree with what I’ve said, let me know. From what I can tell in the votes so far, here is how we’re voting:

    Denomination: Jettboy, Mitch

    New Religion: Price, Seth, WJ

    Waffling: MH, FireTag

    I must say that I’ve always thought of Mormonism as another denomination, but the more I think about it, I really like the idea that Mormonism is a Revolution of Christianity, much in the same way that Christianity was a Revolution of Judaism. The earliest Christians considered themselves just another sect of Jews. It wasn’t until the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 AD that these early Christians finally distanced themselves from Judaism. I wonder if Mormons are in this same mindset as Christians from 35-135 AD. The more I think about it, the more comfortable I get with the idea that Mormonism is different enough from mainstream Christianity that it shouldn’t be considered another denomination anymore–it should be considered a next step of Christianity. Or to frame it in Mitch and Jettboy’s terminology, the Restoration of principles to the ancient Christian Church is so different from current Catholic/Protestant doctrines and teachings that Mormonism should be considered a new religion, rather than simply a denomination (such as Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist) of Christianity. (I guess I should change my vote from Waffling to New Religion.)

  15. Here’s an interesting quote from a book I recently read from the book “Anthology of World Scriptures” by Robert E. Van Voorst:

    “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints see themselves as Christian, and most experts in comparative religions would view this labeling as basically correct. That they accept the Christian Bible as their first cannon is a good indicator of this. Moreover, ‘outsiders’ to [Christianity], such as Buddhists, would almost certainly recognize them as belonging to the stream of Christian tradition.”

  16. Jettboy:

    I like your term “reclamation”. We have a tendency to think of the Restoration as a process of going back to whatever fork in the road where we think we went wrong and continuing forward from that point. “Reclamation” seems to me to carry more the connotation of starting from where we are and moving in the direction of the goal that always existed without retracing our steps.

  17. “. . . starting from where we are and moving in the direction of the goal that always existed without retracing our steps.”

    I like this explanation as it takes care of two problems. First, Mormonism believes in an Apostasy, but doesn’t have even a cursory explanation of when or where this happened. Also, there are teachings and revelations that come from the Bible, but don’t have any exact relationships. I am thinking of the Priesthood offices for example with similar and different functions than in the Bible. Most of Joseph Smith’s theological revelations came from reading the Book of Mormon and Bible, and asking questions. He didn’t just end up with explanatory answers, but often expansions of the concepts.

  18. Andrew Price is back! Good call on the spam action there MH. Consider it a complement that you brought on the wrath of the “God is more evil and more powerful than Lucifer” commenter. 🙂

    Re: the post, I prefer to think that Mormonism is/was a new religion. While I do appreciate the commonalities with Christian friends who allow for them, one of the reasons why I’m LDS is due to the differences from “traditional” Christianity.

  19. Adam, you copied my theme! I was confused there for a minute. Nice looking site! 🙂

    Jettboy, do you have references to the Harold Bloom, Margaret Barker quotes on Mormonism? I’d be interested to read them in detail.

    AllAboutMormons, thanks for the quote. I agree completely.

  20. MH, I know. It’s shameless. 🙂

    I’ve been trying to add little things to differentiate a bit.

    I’ve been toying around with different themes and intentionally avoiding this one because you are using it, but alas, it seems to be the best… other than those weird little avatars next to the author’s name in the posts.

  21. This comment is going to be totally…irrelevant to the discussion.

    But about themes.

    Before the Millennial Star stole my theme (just using uglier colors), they had a theme like yours, MH, and adamf’s new one.

    So, sometimes, I’d accidentally go to millennial star than mormon heretic (since I don’t type addresses in anymore…I just type m and then a bunch of sites come up…the awesome bar is pretty awesome like that.)

    Anyway, I’d be reading the site, not realizing it was not yours, and I’d think, “Ugh….why am I getting enraged at this content? MH usually has really great stuff!” and then I’d realize that I wasn’t at MH at all.

    ok, so that was my off-topic comment.

    The way I’ve seen the question in the past is…what is a reasonable best fit definition of Christianity? I think that, in general, the reasonable definition of what best fits Christianity *should* include Mormonism. I think that groups that try to exclude Mormons make either an unreasonable definition or a definition that doesn’t “fit” what people think when they hear Christianity. This doesn’t mean that an outsider (like a Buddhist…I think that was mentioned earlier in the discussion) has the “best fit” of what is meant by “Christianity” and that insiders (like evangelical theologians) should be dismissed as “disconnected from the common uses”…but I do think we have to weigh these things against each other.


    I am also willing to consider Seth’s point that Mormonism is just too novel and too radical to be “contained” within the inadequate wineskin of Christianity.

    I find that, often, when non-Mormon Christians make arguments against Mormonism being Christian, they begin with some arrogant presumptions. For example, they assume that *if* they can show that Mormon interpretations on a significant many things differ from Christian interpretations, then Mormons will say, “Oh snap, we were wrong; let’s take an authentic Christian interpretation.”

    No, instead, what I find is this: insofar that Mormon interpretations may differ from non-LDS Christian interpretations, I know that *I* think, “Wow, TRADITIONAL Christianity is really cold/inadequate/harsh/unacceptable.” For example, I know that all evangelicals are *NOT* Calvinist, but any Calvinist Christian doesn’t do a great job of convincing me that Calvinism is anything good. If Calvinism represents “authentic Christianity,” then I will accept that there are grave differences between “authentic Christianity” and Mormonism…but in that case, I’ll stick to Mormonism over what I see as cruel and unusual.

  22. Margaret Barker did a lot of work on ancient temple worship – something that tends to make the rest of historic Christianity a bit jumpy. She also did a lot of work on the divine feminine that has provided some interesting possibilities for the Mormon notion of Mother in Heaven – lightly explored by Kevin Barney and maybe a couple others.

  23. Andrew S, good to see you back. I must say I must learn more about Calvinism to really understand the distinctions. I admit my ignorance there.

    Seth, I know that Wilford Griggs has discussed Christian Temple work in Egypt. I wonder if there are similarities. Do you know any books by Margaret Barker I could learn more about? I’d love to look more into this.

  24. Just type in her name on Amazon. You should get a nice long list of books from her to read. I’m not too qualified to recommend specific books since my familiarity with her is only through secondary sources.

  25. MH,

    To give a really biased Mormon view on calvinism…let’s compare and contrast.

    In Mormonism, Satan’s huge bad deal was to take everyone’s agency away and take God’s glory for himself. But at least with his plan, not a single soul would be lost. However, there would be no growth as everyone would be “predestined” for Heaven.

    Contrast with Calvinism. Everyone is predistined…but God doesn’t even make it so that everyone goes to heaven. Some people are predestined for hell and there isn’t anything they can do about their reprobation.

    Now, of course, there’s more to it than that…but the thing that really gets me, in talking with Calvinists, *that* telling of it, though it is slanted, isn’t false. (If any Calvinists want to correct me, I’m still open.) That’s pretty terrible, if you ask me.

  26. I was reading Jesus Before Christianity last week on a flight and considering this same question. But I think at heart the question is also valid whether Christianity was a sect of Judaism or a new religion. It seems that it started as a sect of Judaism, and only when it went to the gentiles did it become a new religion. Without Paul, it would have remained a sect of Judaism.

    The interesting thing about the evolution of Christianity is that it was originally viewed as the “true sect” of Judaism, but within a few centuries, Judaism was completely reviled by gentile Christians who had taken over the religion. Centuries later, some of the reformers tried to reclaim some of that Jewishness through reinterpretation of Jewish texts, but it was never sufficient to be convincing to the Jews on the whole.

    So, is the BOM (which contains so much pre-Christ Christology that it feels anachronistic) a valid depiction of pre-Babylonian conquest Judaism (like a multi-verse version of Judaism)? I’m not sure I’m convinced of that, but I do find something about it intriguing.

  27. @Andrew Price

    Andrew Price,

    How does your religion explain the origin of Satan?

  28. @Jettboy

    I wonder about something you said. You say that we don’t have an answer to when the Apostasy took place. It is often assumed it took place after the Ascencion of Christ, since we must assume there was originally a true church organized by Jesus.

    Then, naturally, it must have transpired before the Restoration. Those fewer-than-1800 years would do.

    The Restoration, then, occurred on the exact date that the keys of the Melchizedek priesthood were restored. They are what essentially were the Restoration, the rest is window dressing from this point.

    If Christianity is explicitly defined to be exactly like the Church that Jesus organized, then neither Protestant or LDS Churhces would be Christian.

    Christianity was invented hundreds of years later, and it is uncertain when the Priesthood Authority itself was corrupted sufficiently to be revoked.

    If Andrew Price says that the Protestants’ “Priesthood of all believers” is true, then can you trace back your authority to the original Apostles? Or anywhere at all?

  29. Andrew S, so does Calvinism = Predestination? Is that all there is to it?

    Hawkgrrrl, that sounds like an interesting book. If we look at it as the gentiles which really changed Christianity, I wonder what it would take to redefine Mormonism. I know FireTag has said that in the Community of Christ, growth of the international church has had a big impact on it. But in our church, it seems that international growth hasn’t really affected it much. It seems like we are exporting Americanisms, rather than importing an international flavor. Using that definition, it would seem Mormonism is more of a denomination rather than a new religion.

    Velska, I know you were addressing others, but let me put in a few comments. You referred to the exact date that the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored. That is a bit fuzzy. You might want to read this post which discusses 3 possible dates–2 of which are after the organization of the church (and seem more likely to me.) I think the apostasy was a process, not an event. Early Christianity was much more diverse than we typically think. Gnostics had both cool and strange beliefs–having both truth and error. I think Orthodox Christianity had both truth and error too.

  30. MH,

    As I said, there are more parts to it. But it does have the five points (TULIP, or, spelled out, total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) which all seem to say to me: some people are predestined to be saved…the rest are predestined to suck. In comparison with Mormon theology in particular, predestination vs. an almost troublesome libertarian free will is the major distinctive.

  31. @MH

    I think Richard Bushman in Rough Stone Rolling makes a good point for “sometime in June 1829” as being likely…

    Anyway, I sort of meant that while we may not have anybody’s first hand account with a date about the restoration of the priesthood, the thing is anyway, that in my view, all the rest is window dressing. Priesthood keys matter. If I didn’t have a testimony of that, I would be gone pretty soon…

    I mean, LDS people in general and LDS prophets in particular do not have an exclusive right to good ideas. Many people have good ideas. But it’ll only be meaningful to me, if the person has priesthood keys. I will listen to the counsel of my Bishop more likely than the counsel of my friends.

  32. Personally, I think you are all wrong (in a good way).
    If you understand Christ’s teachings (from my point of view of course) and believe LDS teachings, then the only correct conclusion is that Mormonism is reformed Judaism.

    Think about it.

  33. Sorry, I spoke before reading hawkgrrrl’s post. That is exactly what I am referring to. Its my opinion that Jesus did not intend to start a new religion, but to fulfil (and thus reform) Judaism. It is dead on that Paul is the one that started Christianity. He initiated the break from Judaism, not Jesus.

    In fact, it’s curious to me that Mormons don’t consider Paul as the one that corrupted the teachings of Christ (now known as Christianity).

    If the Mormon church is the True Religion, then it is a restoration of Reformed Judaism, not Christianity, thus it could not have stemmed from Christianity.

  34. Andrew, “limited atonement”? I thought Brigham Young was the only one who believed that, and we don’t even believe that anymore. 🙂

    Velska, I gave away my copy of Rough Stone Rolling, and my new copy hasn’t arrived yet. I’ll have to read up on that again–it’s been a long time since I reviewed that.

    Bishop Rick, long time, no hear. I thought you’d find this post interesting. So, if Mormonism is reformed Judaism, then so were Christ’s teachings, and he never founded a new religion at all, right? Orthodox Jews must continue to follow the apostasy of the Pharisees. I get what you’re saying, but it flies in the face of conventional definitions. The sacrament and shift of the Sabbath day seem to make such an explanation hard to swallow for most people. Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses. While Christianity seems to generally accept such an idea, when you look at worship practices, worship changed radically between Christianity and Judaism after the Last Supper. If one subscribes to such a definition, Christ mutated Judaism quite radically.

  35. MH,

    LOL, not *that* kind of limited atonement. Calvinist interpretation isn’t that the actual act of the atonement is limited in power and efficacy (and therefore needs something like the shedding of blood to augment it), but rather that if predestination is true, then it follows that God obviously limits his scope of atonement. Jesus saves his sheep. Not a single sheep will be lost. But some people will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Conclusion? Some people were never sheep to begin with.

  36. BR; The reformed Jadaism idea is VERY interesting.

  37. MH, doesn’t Mormonism fly in the face of conventional definitions?

    FT, I really think this is the case. Why would Jesus want to start a new religion? The original religion was wrong? This doesn’t make sense to me. Now fulfilling / reforming does make sense to me.

    Doesn’t mean I’m right, but it makes sense…to me.

  38. BR: I’m ultimately intellectually committed to the notion of a “xosmic Christ” whose role in human form among the Jews is part of what he’s doing throughout all of time and space (and maybe a few other realms we don’t grok yet!) But I think I can readily adjust to the idea that his earthly focus gave first shot to reforming Judaism (whatever he felt the odds of success were).

  39. So I just started Terryl Givens book called By the Hand of Mormon. The subtitle of the book is “The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion”. I guess we know where Brother Givens stands on this issue.

  40. I’m about half way through with Sorenson, so we’ll have some interesting things to say on Meso when we gat finished with the two books, I’m sure.

  41. Personally, I think he started a new religion, but I stand by my earlier statement that if Mormonism is true, then I believe he would have restored reformed Judaism.

  42. Bishop Rick,

    I’ve personally entertained the possibility that Paul may have been Christianity’s first “heretic.” He certainly seemed to take the Gospel in a unique direction from other Christian sources – including Jesus himself.

    But I’ve seen people misinterpret his words too often to feel really confident in labeling him a force of Apostasy or anything like that.

  43. Seth, what makes you say that Paul was the first heretic? Was it mostly his advocacy to preach to the gentiles, and have them be baptized without circumcision?

  44. Seth, do you consider Paul a Christian heretic or a Jewish heretic?

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