Anyone familiar with fellow JIer Christopher Jones knows two things: 1) he’s brilliant, and 2) he knows early Mormonism’s connection with Methodism as well as, if not better than, anyone else doing Mormon history. His dissertation, “‘We Latter-day Saints are Methodists’: The Influence on Methodism on Early Mormon Religiosity” is a wonderful introduction to the topic, and can be accessed here. He turned one of his dissertation chapters into an insightful article that was published last year in Journal of Mormon History on Joseph Smith’s First Vision and its relation to Methodist conversion narratives. (JMH subscribers can access it here.) He’s also mused on the relationship at a recent conference. Thus, if you have any question concerning the historic relationship between these two religious movements, he’s the guy to ask.
Well, he’s at it again. The most recent issue of Brigham Young University Quarterly features a new article from Christopher, this one titled, “Mormonism in the Methodist Marketplace: James Covel and the Historical Background of Doctrine and Covenants 39-40” (BYUSQ subscribers can download here). What originally started out as a post here at JI that merely looked at why it is important that new evidence showed Covel was a Methodist rather than a Baptist, Christopher expanded into a brilliant analysis of the convergences and divergences of Mormon and Methodist theology by looking at what drove Methodist preacher Covel originally to, but ultimately away from, Mormonism’s message. (A victory for the purpose and uses of blogs!) “Analyses of Mormonism’s reception by others are generally drawn from either the later remembrances of its most faithful converts or the writings of its most bitter enemies,” the article tells us, “but the story of James Covel—a man intrigued and perhaps even somewhat convinced by what Mormonism had to offer, but who ultimately rejected that message—provides a new and refreshing point of view” (71). Indeed.
The article is rich in archival research and sophisticated in interpretation. Christopher provides a very helpful and exhaustive overview of Covel’s history prior to his encounter with Mormonism in 1831, shedding light not only on Methodism in general but also missiology and religious experience in the early republic in particular. We learn about the “young men” who typically drove these overtly democratic religions in the 1790s (72), the merging of ecclesiastical ministries and secular duties (73-74), and the advent of schisms within the Methodist fold over controversial and progressive religious reforms (78-83). When Mormonism enters the picture, we learn about debates over baptism in the antebellum period (86-90), the different approaches to itinerant missionary work (91-92), and the hesitancy over the centralization of authority in the young Mormon Church (92-93). In total, we learn a lot about the porous religious atmosphere at Mormonism both participated in and reacted against.
Here’s his conclusion:
For our purposes, reading the revelations directed to James Covel in January 1831 within the broader context of his Methodist preaching career highlights the yields to be gained from closer historical readings of Joseph Smith’s early revelations. Such researched readings reveals the specific ways that Mormonism spoke to the religious world it entered in the 1830s. In the single example of James Covel, understanding that he was a Methodist and not a Baptist not only changes our understanding of the revelations directed to him but also underscores the place of Mormonism within larger debates over baptism, missionary work, and church government in nineteenth-century America. (98)
Importantly, this article also represents the great new work being done by young Mormon scholars, in that it is a blend of rigorous archival research, imaginative interpretive analysis, and far-reaching implications beyond the borders of Mormon history. I highly recommend it.