By Pete Wosnik
I have long been interested in the cultural influences that helped shape Mormonism. This fascination led me to ask questions about conversion: what accounts for Mormonism’s success, and why did early converts find it so appealing? Delving into the subject I quickly realized that there is a rich historiography full of brilliant scholars grappling with these questions. Whitney Cross and Mario DePillis were some of the earliest scholars to debate these topics. And while they used very limited data, they were in agreement that early Mormons were generally poor coming from the fringes of society. These author’s ideas were rooted in a socioeconomic theory that those unhappy with their current situation are more likely to join radical movements.
More recent scholars have focused on early Mormonism’s theological appeal. For example, John Brooke argued that hermitic and magical influences attracted followers who had culturally inherited occult beliefs. In addition, Grant Underwood, has convincingly argued that the attractiveness of millenarianism played a role in Mormonism gaining converts. Both these authors and others’ works show why Mormon theology would have been compelling in the religious climate of antebellum America.
For a time I was wondering what I could add to this conversation. I started to get ideas when I encountered Stephen Fleming and Christopher Jones’s works on conversion. Stephen Fleming’s article “Congenial to almost every shade of radicalism ”: The Delaware Valley and the Successes of Early Mormonism,” proposes an effective method for getting at the why behind Mormon conversion. His method looks at regional socioeconomic data of early converts as thoroughly as possible (principally through tax records), while also taking into account conversion narratives, diaries, newspapers, and other relevant primary sources that consider evidence for religious motivations of conversion. His findings in the Delaware Valley establish that early Mormon converts did not come disproportionally from a single socioeconomic class. This discovery refutes the earlier work of scholars like Mario DePillis who argued that most Mormon Converts came from among the poor and destitute. Fleming then provides evidence that particularly Methodists and lapsed or “hickory” Quakers were interested in the supernatural/charismatic aspects of the Mormon religion, and that this may have been their reason for converting. Christopher Jones, in his Master’s thesis, furthers this idea in his study of Methodism, emphasizing the large amount of Methodist conversions to Mormonism and a pattern of excitement about the charismatic belief that Mormonism embraced. Additionally, Jones argues that certain aspects of Mormon culture and doctrine were directly influenced by Methodism.
This research sparked my interest and got me thinking about converts from other religious denominations (in particular, Sidney Rigdon). Sidney Rigdon was perhaps more important and influential than any other convert. Rigdon quickly climbed the ranks of Mormonism, greatly influencing its doctrines and revelations. Rigdon was also successful at converting hundreds of people from his former Campbellite congregation. In light of these facts, I suggest that Campbellite conversions would make a great topic of study. I want to see if Fleming’s and Jones’ conclusions hold true for Campbellite converts to Mormonism: first, did Campbellites come from a certain class of society; and second, were these converts especially attracted to the practice of and belief in spiritual gifts so prevalent in early Mormonism? The answers to these questions will yield valuable information that, I hope, will further the development of Mormonism’s social history.
This research proposal, as it stands, still has much I have yet to flesh-out. In terms of scope, I need to find out if I will approach this regionally, or according to denominational background. Another problem I must tackle concerns the availability of data (I’m still not sure what kinds of socioeconomic data and conversion information I can find for Campbellite converts). Nevertheless, I am excited about this avenue of research and I will be posting my findings on these questions in two subsequent posts here on JI. If any of you have questions/critiques or have any ideas for me, feedback will be greatly appreciated.