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Celebrating the Restoration Day 1: Seeing the Hand of God in History
Jack Welch's picture
Post contributed by Jack Welch
March 30, 2020
Figure of Christ by Heinrich Hoffman and Portrait of Joseph Smith likely by William Warner Major. Images via Wikmedia Commons.
Figure of Christ by Heinrich Hoffman and Portrait of Joseph Smith likely by William Warner Major. Images via Wikmedia Commons.

Twenty-five years ago, I was deeply struck, seeing up close many striking details present in the rise of Christianity two thousand years ago with parallels in the rise of the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ two hundred years ago. At that time, I was teaching a course at BYU on Masada and the world of the New Testament. At the same, I was editing BYU Studies and Church history publications for the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute at BYU.

Fascinatingly, the social and historical developments that set the stage for Jesus Christ have strong counterparts in the cultural and religious developments that prepared the way for the Restoration of the Gospel by Joseph Smith. As I began tabulating these parallels, the case became stronger and more interesting than I had ever surmised. I ended up publishing the following article about these similarities that exist between early Mormonism and early Christianity.

I have spent much of my life studying these two focal points in world history. It makes sense that certain things needed to be in place in order for Jesus to have had even a chance of accomplishing his mission, attracting a committed following, and leaving a lasting legacy. Many of those same conditions also needed to be present in order for Joseph Smith to fulfill his calling, to find converts in large numbers, and leave his indelible impact on the world. Both Jesus and Joseph spoke words that were treasured, written down, and published widely. Both Jesus and Joseph ordained leaders, established an organization that could carry forward after their martyrdoms, only 33 and 38 years after their births.

Down to minute details, these comparisons show that if either Jesus or Joseph had been born 30 years earlier, they would have been born in tumultuous times at the beginning of new political regimes, either under King Herod or in the Revolutionary War. Getting even a foothold would have been scarcely possible. Had either of them been born 30 years later, they would have been overwhelmed with devastating civil wars, the Jewish War in the 60s or the War between the States in the 1860s. Either way, they could not have accomplished most of what they needed to do. The window was tiny.

As my article indicates, these unique conditions offer a cumulative case of impressive evidence that the hand of God was at work in these two parallel moments in the history of the salvation of all the world. Four charts (Tables 1, 2, 3, 4) make it easy for readers to scan through the lists of these crucial developments. They began over three hundred years beforehand, preparing the way for the impacts of the long-awaited and foreordained lives of the promised Savior Jesus Christ and of his prophetic Restorer Joseph Smith.

Table 1: Parallels in Preparations and Historical Settings

Early Christianity

Early Mormonism

c. 330 B.C. Alexander the Great spreads widely the new influence of Hellenism and rationalism, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus

c. 300 years before Joseph Smith, rationalism, Renaissance and Reformation widely influential, Copernicus, Columbus, Luther, Descartes

Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament is translated by c. 200 B.C., becomes accepted as standard by many Jews, translated by 70 scholars into the common daily language, used heavily in early Christian writings

The King James Version is completed in 1611, 200 years before Joseph Smith, becomes accepted as the standard English Bible, translated by 55 scholars into the common daily language, used heavily in Restoration writings

167 B.C. Maccabean revolt against Seleucids in Jerusalem, reign of strict Jews, their descendants become the Pharisees, purists, separatists

165 years before Joseph Smith, Cromwell rebels in 1640, strict Puritans reign, their descendants flee from secularism

Battle of Actium, 31 B.C., Augustus Caesar defeats Anthony and Cleopatra, ushering in a new era of Roman government and society

30 years before Joseph’s birth in 1805, the American Revolution dramatically begins a new era, George Washington defeats the British

The Pax Augusta affords worldwide peace, general civil and individual freedom with unprecedented optimism and unity

United States Constitution and Bill of Rights protects individual freedoms, promotes peace and engenders great optimism and unity

Old aristocratic arrangements overthrown while underlying Roman mores remain in place, period of legal transition, new horizons beckon

Tory ties to England broken while underlying common law and economy remains in tact, period of legal transition, new frontiers beckon

Romans very attentive to their own gods while mostly tolerating the worship of other gods such as Isis, Mithras, a pluralistic religious world

Most states and religious groups very attentive to their own observances while mostly tolerating religious freedom, a pluralistic religious world

Religious freedoms for the Jews are protected by legal decrees by Julius Caesar and others

Religious freedom is specifically protected by bills of rights and constitutional provisions

Opportunity to form private organizations, including funerary collegia, client cults, house churches, business partnerships

Freedom of association is protected, the rise of corporations and trusts allow formation of private religious and business organizations

Expansion of Roman road system, travel becomes common over considerable distances. Paul travels extensively, including trips to Asia Minor, Greece, Jerusalem, and Rome

Opening Cumberland Gap, canals and federal roads allows for explosive mobility. Joseph Smith travels extensively, including 4 trips to Missouri, others to Boston, Canada, and Washington

Mediterranean made safe for sea travel as pirates are eliminated, harbors built

Safety and efficiency of Atlantic crossings allow missionary travel, immigration, piracy controlled

Economic expansion in Judea under Herod the Great produces unprecedented prosperity, independent opportunities, fabulous construction projects, worker dislocations, family and social changes

Economic opportunism blossoms with new markets, financial independence and ability, the Erie Canal, western boom towns along the Mississippi, bringing personal mobility, family and social changes

Roman innovation brought an age of new construction, engineering, and science, building aqueducts, roads, harbors

Industrial revolution brings new age of innovations and inventions, making of steam engines, railroads, machines

Education and literacy is high, even higher than once thought, noticeably among Jews

Education and literacy is widespread and highly valued, converts are educated readers

Greek is spoken as the common language in the eastern empire, a second language in the west

English as a widespread language carried abroad by the expansion of the British empire

Books, parchment production, scrolls, and libraries are more common and available, a blossoming of literature, Horace, Virgil

Printing presses, books, newspapers, and libraries are available in most towns, blossoming of romantic literature, transcendentalism

A time of individual religious choice, particularly between many Jewish sects and movements, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, as well as devotees of numerous Greek and Roman gods, Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans, and others

A time of personal religious choice in America, between many churches, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Quakers, Mennonites, Unitarians, Seekers, Transcendentalists, and others

Religious controversy is bewilderingly common, spontaneous religious questions and arguments especially in Jewish culture

Religious controversy is an ordinary part of public discourse, strong opinions on religious issues mattered to individuals in America

Old religions threatened, for example Artemis cult in Ephesus (Acts 19), old ways becoming expensive to maintain

Old religions are vulnerable to revivals, reforms, new religions offer less expensive and challenging alternatives

Messianic expectation is high, ideal utopian age expected by many groups, religious agitation is high, large crowds come out to see John the Baptist or Jesus

Apocalyptic fervor is high, millenarianism is popular, visionary utopian societies flourish, religious frenzy is high, large crowds gather for revivals throughout the country

Divination, incantations, exorcism, mysticism present in respectable popular culture

Visions, dreams, seers, amulets, supernaturalism present in respectable popular culture

Galilee, an expansion area for Jewish settlement in the first century before Christ

New England, an expansion area for settlement in the eighteenth century

Galilee, stony soil, demanding hard work, harboring revolutionary tendencies, freedom Zealots distrusted

New England, stony soil, hard work, revolutionary independence, freedom advocates disdained

Rise of powerful parties battling for control in the Jewish world, Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots

Rise of political parties struggling for control over state, regional, and federal politics

Christians flee Jerusalem, James (brother of Jesus) killed, Christians dispersed, Peter, Paul and others martyred, nowhere to gather

Exodus of Mormons out of Illinois, Joseph and his brother Hyrum martyred, the Saints trek across the Plains and gather to Zion

Jewish Civil War (4 years long) and destruction of the Temple, A.D. 66–70, about 35 years after the ministry of Jesus

American Civil War (4 years long), devastation of Missouri and elsewhere, 1861–1865, 31–35 years after the organization of the Church

Table 2: Comparable Foundings: Jesus and Joseph Smith

Early Christianity

Early Mormonism

Jesus’ ministry appears suddenly, is dramatic, innovative, controversial, and polarizing

Joseph Smith’s ministry is sudden, dramatic, innovative, controversial, and polarizing

The new religious movement is initiated by angels appearing to Zacharias, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds at Bethlehem; Gabriel appears at least five times

The new religious movement is initiated by angels including Moroni, John the Baptist, Peter, James, John; Moroni appears at least twenty times

The voice of God the Father at baptism acknowledges the Son

God the Father at the First Vision introduces the Son in similar words

Opposition by Satan, temptations of Jesus, expelling devils

Confrontations with Satan and his forces, exposing angels of darkness

The movement grows around a central kinship family, that of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, John

The movement centers on the Smith family, Joseph Sr., Lucy, Joseph, Emma, Hyrum, Samuel, uncles, cousins

Family ties are crucial among the earliest converts: Peter and Andrew; the sons of Zebedee; family of Lazarus, Mary, Martha

Family ties are close among the Smiths, the Whitmers, Knights, Johnsons, Pratts, Snows, and many other member families

Jesus is a remarkable youth, answering the rabbis questions at the temple and teaching in the synagogue

Joseph Smith at young age translates, gives bold new answers to prevailing questions

Memories and sayings are preserved, letters and books are written and kept very early

Extensive record keeping from the beginning, revelations recorded, diaries and minutes kept

Various accounts survive of baptism of Jesus

Various accounts survive of the First Vision

Jesus and Paul preach in the synagogues

Missionaries preach in others’ churches

Jesus opposes the temple establishment, runs counter to the prevailing culture

Joseph Smith opposes many democratic themes, runs counter to dominant politics

Moses and Elijah with Peter, James and John on Mount of Transfiguration; Jesus draws strength by association with powerful figures

Appearances of Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John; Joseph draws strength by connection with powerful past figures

House churches at first, in Capernaum, Thessalonica, Philippi, Corinth

House churches at first, Peter Whitmer farm, John Johnson home

Some teachings not openly shared with all, cast not your pearls or holy things before the dogs (Matthew 7:6)

Ritual teachings kept esoteric, sacred, certain teachings or experiences not openly taught at first

Jesus and the Temple, he always went there when in Jerusalem, taught there daily, healed there, would rebuild the temple

Joseph Smith and the Temple, always concerned about establishing temples in Kirtland, Independence, Far West, Nauvoo

Jesus and missionary fervor, very early, sent out the Twelve and then the Seventy, eventually to remote locations

Joseph and missionary fervor, at time of great risk, sent out the Twelve and then Seventies, eventually to remote locations

New scripture created, Christian texts added to Jewish

New scripture created, Mormon revelations added to Jewish and Christian writings

Bold new practices, some do not last, such as holding property in common

Bold new practices, some do not last, such as united order, wealth redefinition

Great promises of exaltation, entering God’s presence and obtaining all, testimonials of benefits in spite of costs

Great promises of exaltation, becoming as God and progressing eternally, testimonials of benefits in spite of costs

Built on ideas found in the basic surrounding culture, parallels can be seen in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and contemporary writings

Built on words and attitudes in surrounding environment, parallels can be found in the nineteenth-century religious milieu

Cultural continuity with conventional Jewish religion was high

Cultural continuity with conventional Christianity was high

Heavy dependence on the Old Testament, making strong truth claims about the original meaning of old scripture

Heavy dependence on the Old and New Testaments, making strong truth claims about understanding their original meanings

Readapting broad Old Testament themes for Christian purposes

Reworking of biblical themes for Mormon purposes

Claims of power to speak and act with divine authority

Claims of authority to speak and act with divine authority

Pre-creedal statements of belief are fluid, simple

Early articles of faith are fluid, uncomplicated

Cosmic signs, star at the birth of Christ, omen at death of Herod Agrippa

Stars fell in Missouri, 1833, seen as a sign of heavenly import

Prophecy about impending destruction, apocalyptic eschatology (see Matthew 24)

Prophecy about impending millenarian destruction, the last days (see D&C 45)

Miracles of Jesus are impressive and abundant

Miracles of Joseph are important and persuasive

Fears of occult powers are part of the undoing of Jesus after the raising of Lazarus, as seen in the accusation that he was a trickster

The undoing of Joseph Smith is traceable to his claims of access to the supernatural, suspicions that he was a deceiver

Violent crucifixion of Jesus, age 33

Violent shooting of Joseph Smith, age 38

Death of Jesus is caused by the failure of Pontius Pilate to protect him

Death of Joseph is caused by the failure of Thomas Ford to protect him

Table 3: Analogous Apostleships

Early Christianity

Early Mormonism

Uncertainty about immediate apostolic succession in leadership in Jerusalem, Corinth, after the unexpected death of Jesus

Similar uncertainty about immediate apostolic succession in leadership in Nauvoo after the unexpected death of Joseph

Group validation at Pentecost in Acts 2, rapid initial growth, enthusiasm; validation of Peter as successor

Group spiritual outpourings, rapid burst of growth, enthusiasm; validation of Brigham Young as successor

Separation of spiritual and temporal administration by the early apostles in Acts 6

Division of responsibilities between Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods

Joining requires little teaching; membership marked by baptism, Acts 3, 8

Converts join after little time or training; membership marked by baptism

People join from all social and economic groups, but mainly middle class, unaffiliated

People join from all strata of society, but mainly middle class, mobile

Great success comes in territories that have been recently populated, Philippi, Corinth

Great success comes in settling in expansion areas, Western Reserve, Missouri, Nauvoo

Women play important roles in the community, exceeding the opportunities normally afforded in the surrounding culture

Women given important roles, organization, vote, service, exceeding those normally afforded in nineteenth century culture

Great interest in prophecy, foretelling the future

Prevalence of futuristic speech, prophetic predictions

Speaking in tongues in Acts, other gifts of the spirit in Corinth

Speaking in tongues in Kirtland, other gifts of the spirit in Nauvoo

Divisions arise quickly in Corinth and Galatia

Divisions arise soon in Kirtland and Missouri

False apostles reject Paul’s authority, apostasy underway

Apostasy of half of the twelve apostles in Kirtland in 1837

Free riders and false prophets are dealt with severely; social costs of membership are high

Nonconformists expelled quickly; distinctive stigmas of membership present entry barriers

Leaders are often imprisoned; Peter, John, Paul in Jerusalem; Paul in Philippi, Caesarea

Leaders are often imprisoned; jails in Richmond, Liberty, Carthage

Paul rises above the rough treatment of the prison guard in Philippi

Joseph rises above the vulgar treatment of prison guard in Richmond

Paul articulates phrases that become elements in enduring statements of faith

Joseph Smith articulates similar statements that become Articles of Faith

Paul travels to Rome to plead his cause and to testify to Caesar

Joseph travels to Washington to set his cause before the President

Letters of Peter, John, James, Jude and Paul become scripture in the New Testament

Joseph Smith’s letters are canonized in Doctrine and Covenants 121–23, 127–28

Concerns arise in Thessalonika and Corinth over those who had died before knowing the truth

Concerns arise in Nauvoo over those who had died, such as Alvin, before the restoration of the truth

Great promises, to become sons of God

Great promises, to rise to celestial glory

Earliest priesthood instructions in 1 Corinthians deal with administration of the sacrament

Earliest instructions in the 1830 Articles and Covenants deal with administration of the sacrament

Borrowing of Jewish psalms while writing new Christian hymns

Borrowing of Christian hymns while writing new LDS hymns

Table 4: Similar Aftermaths

Early Christianity

Early Mormonism

Ideological opposition through emperor-worship, this-worldliness

Ideological opposition from secularism, atheistic scientism

The end did not come as quickly as assumed (see 2 Peter 3:1–9), people adjusted

The end did not come as expected, people need to adjust to unfulfilled expectations

Jewish Civil War (5 years long) and destruction of the Temple, A.D. 66–70, 35 years after the ministry of Jesus

American Civil War (5 years long) and devastation of Missouri, 1861–1865, 31 years after the organization of the Church

Christians get out of Jerusalem, James (brother of Jesus) killed, Peter goes to Mesopotamia, Christians move to Pela1

Mormons get out of Illinois, Joseph and his brother Hyrum killed, the Saints trek across the Plains

Impact of Jewish War on Jewish history, loss of Jewish influence in Roman empire2

Great impact of 1857 on Mormon history, Mormon isolation in the West

No real gathering place, concentration in certain cities around bishops, Rome eventually becomes central in the West

Gathering to Zion as focus of concentration except for dissenting groups, Salt Lake City becomes central in the West

Struggle against multiple traditions and interpretations of Christ

Struggle against many dissenters and early schismatic groups

Some early Christians stop with the baptism of John (Acts 19:2), do not receive the Holy Ghost through the higher priesthood

David Whitmer and some stop with events of 1829-31, baptism and initial teachings, do not accept the higher priesthood

Sons of Sceva and early Jewish opponents to Christianity (Acts 19:14)

Joseph Smith describes opposing Campbellite pamphleteers as sons of Sceva3

Cultural baggage brought by converts into local congregations, hellenistic ideas, notions of Roman patronage, honor and shame

Cultural baggage brought by converts into church thinking and writing, influence of Protestantism on Mormon writers

Effect of loss of the Temple in Jerusalem, Christian envy of the temple

Temporary loss of the temple in Nauvoo, continued focus on temples

Memory of Jesus is transmitted by Paul and John to Polycarp and second generation

Memory of Joseph is transmitted by Brigham Young and John Taylor to next generation

Early Christians Polycarp and Ignatius focus on historical facts, later writers on theology

Early Mormons stand more on historicity of founding events, less on theology

Religion is based on narrative theology, not systematic theology

Religious expression is based on episodes and personal experiences, not theory

Docetists are scandalized by supernatural elements in Christ

RLDS and secular Mormons minimize miraculous beginnings of Mormonism

Doctrinal disputes arise very early, alternative teachings abound

Doctrinal disputes and dissenting group form very early

Concern over asserting and establishing orthodoxy in the face of diverse heresies, Gnostics, Jewish syncretists, or secularists

Concern over asserting and establishing orthodoxy as divergent groups arise, Rigdonites, Godbeites, Reorganites

Public concerns and doubts about loyalty of Jews and Christians to the Roman Empire

Public concerns and doubts about Mormons, kingdom building and loyalty to United States

Paul frequently in courts of law, early suspicions and legal trials of Christians in Pontus

Joseph Smith frequently in courts of law, suspicious legal trials of Joseph Smith in New York

Jews paint Christians in poor light, bad public image4

Mormons receive terrible image in the establishment press

Christians are considered to be fanatics

Mormons are considered to be fanatics

Christians are used as scapegoats for great fire of Rome by Nero5

Mormons are used as scapegoats in 1857 U.S. politics

Self-identity of Christians is established by martyrdoms of Ignatius, Polycarp, whose deaths come at crucial moment of failed expectation6

Self-identity of Mormons is established in suffering and martyrdoms, which reinforce the faith at crucial moments of failed expectations

Rise of apologetic and polemical writings as interaction with host culture increases

Rise of apologetic debates as Mormons emerge in early twentieth century

External discourse shifts to internal discourse in the late second century

Some Latter-day Saints talking more in terms of the world in its second century

Epidemics plague Roman empire allowing Christianity to grow more rapidly than the general population7

U.S. Civil War and World Wars I and II allow for population advances of Mormons vis-a-vis the rest of the population

Early Christians find theological meanings for suffering in God’s schooling8

The Saints find theological meanings for suffering as valuable human experience

Success of early Christianity is based largely on love and welfare to the sick and needy9

LDS emphasis on charity and welfare, caring for the sick and the poor

Callistus, bishop of Rome, approves just concubinage for Christian women10

Mormon practice of plural marriage

Importance of urban centers, urban Christianity in the second and third centuries

Importance of stakes, missionary success in urban settings in modern era

Diocletian’s first edict of 303 required confiscation of church property, meetings forbidden, second edict arrested clergy11

Edmunds Act (1882) leads to the arrest of leaders, Edmunds-Tucker Act (1887) to the confiscation of church property

Edicts requiring all inhabitants of the empire to sacrifice to Roman gods, on pain of death, selectively enforced12

Extermination Order in Missouri, selectively enforced

 

Further Reading

John W. Welch, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity: Some Providential Similarities,” in Window of Faith: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History, ed. Roy A. Prete (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 17–38. And reprinted in The Religious Educator.

Read the Other Restoration Posts

  • 1. W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965), 171.
  • 2. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, 226–27.
  • 3. Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 99.
  • 4. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, 178–88.
  • 5. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, 167.
  • 6. Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 187.
  • 7. Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 77.
  • 8. Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 80.
  • 9. Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 87.
  • 10. Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 111.
  • 11. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, 477–520.
  • 12. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, 505.

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