Thursday, August 14, 2014

Milton Backman Jr on the New England Background to the Restoration

From his confessional background, Backman Jr asks about the institutional antecedents of the Restoration, as the LDS movement sees it (p.33). It is these antecedents or preconditions that make up the "New England Background" for the restoration of the title.

It is indubitably the case that many of early Mormons, leadership and members, hailed from the New England region; of the Kirtland branch "during the decade of the thirties" (p.33), 46 percent were born in New England, and 32 percent in New York (p.33), meaning that 78% of all Kirtland Saints had New England roots (p.34). Thus, inquiring into that background is a justified endeavor.

Backman Jr points out that even though many of the New England settlers came because of a lack of religious freedom, they were not necessarily willing to extend religious freedoms to the other settlers (p.34). The separation of church and state was a long and drawn-out battle in New England (p.34). Tolerance was effectively imposed on the Congregationalists with the English Toleration Act of 1689, which applied to all colonies, but could not exempt the non-congregationalists from paying dues to the Congregationalist Church (p.35). The Baptist leadership used the context of the American Revolution, when their political consent was required, to attack the ecclesiastical laws of New England (p.35). After a transitional period, where the tax was levied but the tax payers could identify the receiving church (with Congregationalist being the default), the support for public religion still waned slowly: Vermont in 1807, Connecticut in 1818, New Hampshire in 1819, Maine in 1820 (p.41 Fn 7), Massachusetts in 1833 (p.35).

Backman Jr cautions that these dates are not expressions of when the underlying sentiments changed.
Although there was a new birth of freedom in the early republic, liberty was young and intolerance was old, and the bigotry that Americans inherited form the past persisted. Too often historians who identify forces leading to persecution of the Mormons neglect to include in their discussions America's heritage of intolerance. Meanwhile, the spirit of Roger Williams, the example of William Penn's Holy Experiment, the crusading beliefs of Baptists, and the ideals of liberty expressed by men of the Enlightenment (such as Jefferson, Washington, Madison and Adams) combined, launching the dawn of a new era. (p.36)

This dawn of a new era was sensed by some as early as 1805; Backman Jr cites Isaac Backus, one of the New England champions for religious liberty [and the subject of Backman's UPenn dissertation from 1959, RCK], who wrote
We have cause to remember, with thankfulness, that God has established a civil government over us, which allows equal liberty to all; so that each one may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and hones- || ty. (pp.36-37)
Backman Jr summarizes how stifling the hold had been in New England of the Congregationalist denomination as late as 1750.
There were far more Congregational churches in New England than all other churches combined. In the mid-eighteenth century, there were 454 Congregational societies in New England (representing 79 percent of all churches, excluding the Friends whose numbers are unknown) in comparison to 58 Baptist, 44 Anglican, 19 Presbyterian and a few Quaker societies. There were no Roman Catholics, no Jewish congregation, and only 1 Lutheran congregation. (p.37)
The exception of course was Rhode Island (p.37), where the Baptists outnumbered the Congregational and Anglican societies, and the Quakers had several communities (p.38).

With the 1810s, this pattern was reversed, and alternate forms of religious thought could begin to circulate.
The new climate of liberty provided a fruitful field for a significant reorientation of Christian thinking. A second reformation was initiated by the Revolutionary generation. (p.37)
The first example were the Baptists, who grew from 6 churches in 1734, to 28 in 1750, to 285 in 1795 (p.38). Other religious communities were being organized at the same time (p.38).
During the American Revolution and its aftermath, Universalists organized in Gloucester, Massachusetts (1779); Unitarians in Boston (Kings Chapel) 1785; Jemima Wilkinson's Jerusalem community in Rhode Island (1780s); Freewill Baptists in New Hampshire (1880); and restorationists (who called themselves Christians or Eastern Christians) in Vermont (1802).
In the ensuring battle of words and ideas, some of the later tenants of the LDS Church were brought into currency in the American religious debates.

  • "The traditional view that God was three persons of one essence was replaced by Unitarians, Eastern Christians, and some Universalists with a belief that the Father and Son were two separate and distinct entities." (p.38)
  • "Unitarians joined Quakers in proclaiming a belief in the Bible insofar as it was translated correctly." (p.38)
  • "Unitarians, liberal Congregationalists, Eastern Christians, Freewill Baptists, and other groups replaced the traditional Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity with a belief that individuals will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam's transgression." (p.38)
  • "Unitarians, Universalists, Free Baptists, and restorationists joined the newly organized Methodist church in proclaiming that man played a role in the salvation experience and that man could fall from grace." (p.38)
  • "... Baptists and Eastern Christians were popularizing the doctrine of believers baptism by immersion and the Lord's Supper as a memorial ...." (p.38)
  • "... restorationists added ... the need to return to the primitive purity of ancient Christianity." (p.38) [[But this is precisely not an innovation, given the interests of the Puritans to do just that; cf. Christianson, p.16; RCK]]
  • "... Universalists taught that after death men went into either a state of happiness or a state of misery. ... All in the spirit world would eventually be converted and lifted up into a heavenly paradise." (p.39) Backman Jr points out that Joseph Smith had a host of Universalist ancestors, including his own father Joseph Sr, grandfather Asael and uncle Jesse Smith (p.39)
Not surprisingly, the 1800s brought a new time of religious awakening. Backmen Jr attributes some of the readiness for this stance to the disorienting effect of the frontier and the rising towns (p.39).
As settlers penetrated the frontier, many lost the identity with institutional religion; and as people were influenced by materialistic and pluralistic ideas popularized in rising towns, many lost zeal for traditional Christian orthodoxy. (p.39)
Backman Jr contends that in this setting, the question of which religion to join was a common one, possibly something unique.
But in this land of liberty and pluralism something occurred that was unparalleled in the history of mankind. In unprecedented numbers Americans joined churches of their choice. The population of this country in pre-Civil War years almost doubled every twenty years, but church membership increased at a faster pace; and this increase occurred during a period of unparalleled western expansion. The approximate 8 percent church membership in 1800 increased to 11 percent in 1820, 130 percent in 1830, and 23 percent in 1860. (p.40)
[[Backman is citing his own book American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism, Salt Lake City (Desert) 1970, here pp.283-92, 308. RCK]]

Bibliographical Record

Milton V. Backman, Jr, The New England Background to the Restorationin: Donald Q. Cannon (ed), Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: New England, Provo UT (BYU), 1988, pp.33-41.

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