Historians of early Mormonism have long noted the connection between Joseph Smith and a contemporary restorationist, Alexander Campbell. Both lived in antebellum America, both sought to restore a primitive form of Christianity, and both based their religion on (what they believed to be) a literalistic interpretation of the Bible. And unlike other theological figures sometimes theologically linked to Smith, Campbell actually encountered Mormonism and had a lot to say about the faith: many of the first LDS converts came from congregations loosely affiliated with Campbell’s movement, and Campbell wrote one of the first anti-Mormon books attacking Smith’s new scriptures. The two religious leaders not only had some intellectual similarities, but they also were fighting over the same circles of believers.
But while the connection between these two individuals have been commonly known, we have never had as thorough a comparative analysis as RoseAnn Benson’s Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: 19th-Century Restorationists (BYU Press/ACU Press, 2017). After historical introductions to Smith and Campbell, the book is comprised of mostly thematic chapters covering topics that range from the enlightenment to scripture, and from enthusiasm to the millennium. As a historian, my favorite section was chapters 10-12, which charted the dynamic give-and-take between the figures in Ohio during the early 1830s, but anyone interested in the the ideas that shaped these larger-than-life individuals will find something interesting and new.
Rather than providing a blow-by-blow account of the different themes in this book—a difficult task given the encyclopedic nature of its composition—I’d rather highlight the benefits and pitfalls that come with the type of structure Benson chose to use in the volume. First, by framing her analysis around specific topics, she is positing a particular strategy and purpose her study; and second, by utilizing a comparative focus, her narrative portrays a specific type of image of Campbell and Smith.
There is an obligation left to every author to defend why they chose their topic, and to what end they are pursuing it. RoseAnn Benson’s aims are mostly implicit, but still remarkably clear: Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith are historically important figures whose lives are worthy of examination due to their brilliance and legacy. Campbell, one of the most systematic interpreters of the Bible in early America, helped found a Christian tradition that has resulted in different denominations totaling more than five million adherents; similarly, Smith was one of antebellum America’s most innovative religious leaders who instituted a religion that now claims around sixteen million members.
It makes sense, then, that these two men had ideas that are worth study and analysis. Benson, therefore, makes her approach as a sympathetic follower of one and respecter of the other. She makes no attempt to hide her own LDS faith, and justifies her refusal to seek naturalistic sources for Smith’s theology and scripture by saying she would do the same for Campbell had he claimed immediate revelation. As a result, while the book does not add to understanding antebellum America through as an explanatory context, it reconstructs Campbell’s and Smith’s ideas with respect and decorum. Both are treated as men worthy of adoration.
But there are also downsides to this approach, which are primarily inherent with any comparative analysis. Whenever one seeks to evaluate the ideas of one individual with those of another, it is tempting to present a coherent picture of each side to provide the most generous contrast. (It is a common adage in interdenominational studies to only compare the best of one tradition with the best of the other.) But to do so, one is likely to depict an individual as much more consistent and coherent as they might otherwise appear. To use another analogy, it is easier to compare still photos than fast-changing videos; it is similarly difficult to choose at what particular point in a person’s life to frame their overall theology.
Allow me the chance to give an example. In the final chapter of the book, Benson focuses on Smith’s ideas concerning eternity and matter. These principles, she argues, compose one of the most unique contributions Smith makes to the Christian tradition, and it’s a theme not matched in Campbell’s own writings. But do you know who also would be at odds with the ideas in that chapter? Joseph Smith in 1831, the period Campbell was fascinated with Smith. Smith’s ideas concerning matter, spirit, and eternity evolved over his prophetic career, making him particularly difficult to pigeon hole into one analytical category. Which is what makes Smith one of the most difficult people to use in comparative analyses, because it often downplays historic change over time.
So when comparing Smith and Campbell, which Smith and Campbell do you choose? The most mature versions at the end of their lives? Or the versions in place when they crossed paths in Ohio in the 1830s? That’s, perhaps, why I most enjoyed the chapters that dug into the actual intersections between the two thinkers, like when Campbell reviewed the Book of Mormon.
But this line of reasoning is, to a degree, an unfair critique. As a historian, I am quick to want more historical development, whereas Benson’s work is more devoted to a theological compendium. And that it does quite well. The book has a firm background in both primary and secondary sources, including a reasonable grasp of recent scholarship on Joseph Smith. I will likely be returning to the book in the future whenever I need a quick refresher on Smith, Campbell, and the restorationist tradition they were part of.
Put together, this is a very thoughtful volume that will serve a host of uses. Scholars of restorationism during the antebellum period will surely be grateful to draw from this book as resource for Smith and Campbell. Members of the LDS and Disciples of Christ traditions will no doubt enjoy getting to know their founders in a sympathetic, non-threatening, and approachable way. Indeed, that the book was co-published by universities that stem from these two traditions embodies the interdenominational cooperation this work points toward. The cultural work RoseAnn Benson performs is, indeed, quite commendable.