When Did We Stop Being Christians?

I have a historical question that hopefully someone out there can help me figure out. When was the first time that Mormons were excluded from Christianity by Evangelicals or others? I have a feeling that it is pretty late, like sometime in the second half of the 20th century. Critics complain that Mormons have recently begun to emphasize their “Christianity”, but my theory is that Mormons have only recently done so because the charge that Mormons aren’t Christians is just as recent. Can anyone confirm or deny this?

The EoM article on “Anti Mormon Publications” is about the closest thing that we have to a history of this literature, and I don’t see anything there that indicates that early charges against Joseph Smith, or later charges against polygamy ever included the accusation that Mormons weren’t Christians. Heretics, yes, but not Christian? I just don’t think that they were doing this. I would love it if someone could provide a set of references to some material before the 1950’s that explicitly says that Mormons aren’t Christians.

A secondary question is why these charges arose at the time that they did, especially if it is as late as I think that it is. What was at stake or what had changed to begin to emphasize this specific accusation?

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “When Did We Stop Being Christians?

  1. Great post. Thanks. I look forward to your future work.

  2. andrew

    We never were Christians according to Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ. His 1831 treatment of the Book of Mormon makes clear that his belief that we are following a false Messiah. The article may be found at http://www.lds-mormon.com/campbell.shtml.

  3. I believe EV’s think we have never claimed to be Christian due to early LDS anti-sectarian rhetoric. Typically, they don’t bother with definitions or other early statements that make it clear LDS considered themselves Christian, just not a part of traditional (read: apostate) Christianity.

  4. I don’t know the history of reaction to the LDS church too well. But I would have to guess that it wasn’t necessarily from the beginning. LDS heresy increased as Joseph Smith was “receiving greater revelation”. It increased even more under Brigham Young.

    When all the church had was the Bible and the Book of Mormon the church was still Christian (though heretical or at the very least “weird”). There is very little in the BoM that contradicts orthodox Christianity and quite a few parts that actually explain classical Christian thought better than the Bible.

    I would say that the church’s complete move out of Christianity was around the time Joseph’s first vision account was revised to reflect Jesus and the Father as separate gods. Another possible point in time is when theosis was introduced and the church moved out of monotheism. These two doctrines were probably inventerrrr. . . revealed around the same time.

    Theologically speaking heresy is the belief in false doctrine. A “cult” is theologically defined as a group that introduces heresy into a religion’s core doctrines but still maintains that it is part of the parent faith. The LDS church is not considered a Christian church because it abandons core Christian beliefs.

  5. “The LDS church is not considered a Christian church because it abandons core Christian beliefs.”

    Such is the EV contention, anyway.

    Edit: This contention rarely seems to take into account the history of Christian doctrine or interpretation, but assumes some kind of monolithic and changeless Christian Doctrine.

  6. Dando, perhaps we could agree on the term “heretical Christians” for the LDS. It conveys both that LDS are not in the received tradition of Christianity, yet have Jesus and his sacrifice at the center.

  7. Broz

    After centuries of trying to distance themselves from the Catholic church and their ecumenical creedal doctrines, It is interesting how evangelical and protestant Christians are now holding onto a Catholic creedal definition of Christianity.

    LDS believe we are the only true church of Jesus Christ but we don’t consider those of other Christian faiths non-Christian. If you love, follow, and serve Christ, then you’re Christian. Our doctrine doesn’t exclude others from heaven either. Those of other faith’s will just get exactly what their faith promises them (immortality, salvation, and eternity with Christ). And we hope our faith will give us exactly what it promises us (exaltation, eternal families, eternity with the Father and Christ).

  8. David

    You need to check out J. Spencer Fluhman’s (BYU Religion) important work on 19th century anti-Mormonism. His dissertation is available through UMI, and hopefully will be in print within a year or so. Here’s the link to an online article that summarizes some of his work – http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-9.html.

    Fluhman argues that during the 19th century, Evangelicals excluded Mormons not only from Christianity, but from the general category of religion. He traces how Evangelicals constructed JS as an imposter and Mormons as fanatics. While the current terms of exclusion may be new, Latter-day Saints have been excluded from the religious mainstream since 1830.

  9. TT

    David,
    This is an excellent reference and I look forward to hearing more about Fluhman’s research. I don’t dispute that Mormons have been called all sorts of things or that we’ve been constructed as outsiders from the beginning. That much seems obvious. What I was more particularly interested in are precisely those new “terms of exclusion” in order to get at why the terms change.

    Andrew,
    I didn’t read every word, but I didn’t see anything that said that Mormons weren’t Christians. Campbell seems to have said that we were following a false prophet and that we were heretics and fools, but not that we didn’t fit the definition of Christianity.

  10. Kevin Barney

    TT, I don’t have anything specific for you, but my impression is that you are correct in your assumptions. Of course, the Mormons have always been perceived as *wrong*, but framing that opinion in terms of positively asserting that they are not Christian strikes me as a second half of the twentieth century thing. It is a particular type of boundary maintenance that wasn’t always there, but that developed in the twentieth century, at least to my perception.

  11. David

    TT,
    In 1912, Joel Richards wrote an editorial for the _Liahona: The Elders’ Journal,_ 10, no. 6 (1912): 79-88, entitled “Are the Latter-day Saints Christians?” Richards was responding against a lecuturer “in one of the sectarian churches.” The lecturer argued that “the ‘Mormons’ were not Christians, ‘For,’ said he, ‘If they don’t accept Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for sin, they are not Christians.'” Richards responded that “no other doctrine of the ‘Mormon’ Church is given greater prominence than the atonement of Christ…This is one of the fundamental teachings of the Latter-day Saints.” Richards proceeded to give a five-page exposition on why Mormons are Christians.

    Here we have an evangelical excluding the Latter-day Saints because they are not Christians. The terms of exclusion are different from today(no mention of creeds, etc.), with the argument being that the Mormons do not believe in the atonement. But it does show that evangelicals have been excluding Latter-day Saints from the definition of Christianity at least since the second decade of the twentieth century, if not before. I don’t mean to discourage you in your project; it certainly is fascinating and needed. I just hope that you see that excluding Mormons from either the category of religion or from Christianity has longer history than 1950 to present.

  12. When non-LDS assert that the LDS church is not Christian, they are in effect saying that the LDS church is not a true church. This is not any different than the LDS church saying that IT is the ONLY one true church, the implication is clearly that all other churches are false churches.

    You may indeed view Prostestants, Catholics and Orthodox as Christian, but you do not think their churches are true. It can be difficult to view those that participate at false Christian churches to be true Christians. If they were “true Christians” wouldn’t they abandon “false Christian teachings”?

  13. TT

    David,
    Excellent work! This isn’t really a “project” per se, just a historical question. I do think that someone should do some research on the terms of exclusion to understand why they change, but alas, I cannot do this now.

  14. Jonathan M.

    I wish we could get away with this obsession with defining the worth of the Church by whether it can be classified as ‘Christian’ or not. I think there is so much more to Mormonism than to restrict it by attempting to fit it within traditional and indeed contemporary (ie 21st century) definitions of Christianity. The day the Church becomes ‘Christian’ will be the day it becomes just another of an innumerable number of almost indistinguishable faith systems. It will then be on the slow road to virtual oblivion, as is happening (sadly) with the Community of Christ. We need to stress the best elements of our distinctiveness, not hide or suppress them. For me, this means highlighting such concepts as the idea of eternal progression, the uniquness of Mormon Culture, the idea of a Heavenly Father AND a Heavenly Mother, and so on. But then, I must confess, I start from the standpoint of neither believing in the traditional Jesus story or in the ‘Restoration’via Joseph.

    Jonathan M (Australia).

  15. HP

    Dando,
    Actually, we are generally agreeable to calling other Christian denominations Christian and assuming that they are seeking to (and succeeding in) serving Christ. We think that we have more to offer, but that doesn’t mean that we think those religions are entirely (or even mostly) wrong. Mormons emphatically deny that they have exclusive access to truth.

    Besides, if any of us were true Christians, wouldn’t we abandon our personal false beliefs?

  16. Pete Howlett

    A degree of absolutism is required by any religion that professes truth. The Catholic Church adopts this stance, The Eastern Orthodox, Islam… to name just 3. What the LDS Church does not do (and I think this is significant)is publish anti-other church material, ridicule those of other faiths/beliefs or more importantly, dilute it’s doctrine by ecumenical consensus. It does not seek to play the ‘we’re better than you game’ but instead works tirelessly to promote family values and global harmony. These are the essential good works that Jesus requires of us and forms part of the qualification to be known as His servants – Christians of you want to give it a name – Incidently, wasn’t the word ‘Christian’ originally a derogatory appelation, rather like Mormon?

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  18. The other essential work on this subject is Terryl Givens “Viper on the Hearth.” Bro Givens goes beyond the construction of heresy as placing Mormons outside the realm of Christianity or as a true religion, but beyond the ethnic or national category of being white Americans. It is quite interesting. I don’t have a good answer to the question about when we stopped being Christian. My guess is that it was probably pretty early on, but Given’s work makes me think that the Christian-non-Christian distinction was probably last in importance to many at the time, who were worried that the Mormons were not American or non-whites.

  19. TT

    AHLDuke,
    Thanks for bringing up Givens. This is really an excellent work that charts out the discourse about Mormons in the 19th c. I haven’t looked at this book in several years. Though I donn’t think that it answers my question directly, it is certainly asking the same kind of question about the history of discourse about Mormons.