A little more than five years ago, I posted some thoughts on Scott Rohrer’s chapter on Mormonism in his Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). I was particularly intrigued by his inclusion of Mormonism in a volume on Protestant migrations, and a lively conversation and debate over whether Mormonism is, was, or ever has been Protestant ensued in the comments.
That conversation has stayed with me over the last few years, even as my research interests have drifted further away from Mormon history, and I was intrigued when I saw that a new volume on Protestant Communalism in the Trans-Atlantic World included a chapter on Mormonism. Unlike Rohrer’s book, Protestant Communalism is an edited collection of essays, each penned by an expert in a specific Protestant community’s communal practices. The chapter on Mormonism, written by friends of JI Matt Grow and Bradley Kime, is placed alongside essays on the Ephrata Community, the Shakers, the Harmony Society, and the Inspirationists. I want to here provide a brief overview of Grow and Kime’s (really quite excellent) essay and then to revisit the question of Mormons as Protestants/Mormonism and Protestantism in light of this volume.
Matt Grow and Bradley Kime provide a wonderfully helpful overview of Mormon communalism. While they note up front that “Mormons made two specific large-scale attempts at communal economics during the nineteenth century” (the Law of Consecration and Stewardship in early 1830s Ohio and Missouri and the later United Orders and cooperative economic institutions of 1860s and 1870s Utah), their essay is anything but a standard rehearsal of the subject. The transatlantic emphasis of the book more broadly makes such an approach insufficient, and the authors’ focus on the individuals and ideas that connected Mormonism to broader communal and millennial movements on both sides of the Atlantic is refreshing. As a corrective to the continued portrayal of Mormonism as a/the prototypical American religious movement, Grow and Kime note that “Mormonism was surprisingly trans-Atlantic from its early days,” with missionaries to and converts from Europe traversing the Atlantic Ocean with some regularity in the mid-nineteenth century (163-64). Such a transatlantic focus lends itself to an emphasis on several individual converts to Mormonism (many of them often overlooked in other treatments) and their participation in early Mormon communal practices.
So instead of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Edward Partridge, and Newell K. Whitney, we approach the Law of Consecration and the United Order from the vantage point of Jesse Gause (a Shaker convert to Mormonism), John and Jacob Zundel (converts from German reformer George Rapp’s Harmonist Society), Louis Bertrand (who studied Mormon communalism while a member of the French socialist Icarian commune), Canute Peterson and Christian Hyer (both adherents of the Norwegian pietist Haugean movement before converting to Mormonism) , and Johan Henrik Bergstedt (a member of the socialist Norwegian Labour Party). Mormonism, then, attracted converts from wide range of communalistic backgrounds in both the United States and Europe. Many of these converts understood Mormonism not as a full-scale rejection of their earlier religious and communal experimentations, but rather as its fulfillment.
But Mormon interaction with other Christian and secular communal groups was not limited to individual converts. Mormons and other groups studied one another, as well. Louis Bertrand studied early Mormon communalism extensively while still an Icarian, after the movement purchased much of what remained of Nauvoo after the Joseph Smith’s death and the dispersal of Latter-day Saints from Illinois. Mormons, meanwhile, “studied cooperatives in England” and elsewhere as they prepared to reintroduce communal living in Utah, feeling a clear sense of “kinship with the cooperative institutions of Europe” (177-78). Grow and Kime conclude their essay with a short section bringing the story into the 20th century and extending it even beyond the Atlantic world. John Alexander Dowie, a Scottish-born evangelist, traveled from his native home to Australia, where he established in the 1870s a ministry centered around divine healing and charismatic gifts. He met Mormon missionaries in Melbourne before migrating to the United States in 1888. During his sojourn from the Pacific Coast to the Midwest, he spent three days in Salt Lake City, where Mormonism “made a deep impression upon him” (182). He eventually established the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church and the city along the shores of Lake Michigan in which it was headquartered: Zion City, Illinois. From Mormonism, Dowie borrowed not only cooperative economics, but also an emphasis on a literal gathering, the titles of “First Apostle” and “High Priest” (both held by Dowie), and an aggressive missionary force with global ambitions, which he named the “Seventies.” Zion City also included both a temple and a tabernacle. Several of these were not uniquely Mormon things, of course, but common spiritual, communal, and millennial practices drawn from the Old and New Testaments and passed down through the centuries. But in Dowie’s case, they were filtered through his interaction with Mormons.
The big payoff for historians of Mormonism is the comparative angle revealed here. While often compared and contrasted with Shakers and the Oneida Community, Mormons are less often placed alongside Harmonists, Inspirationists, and the Ephrata Community — all radical Protestant groups with an emphasis on Pietism and communal living. As editor Philip Lockley explains in the book’s introduction, “Between 1650 and 1850 a distinctive if disparate North Atlantic Protestant culture emerged, grew and continued among a variety of religious communities set apart from mainstream Protestant Christianities in both Europe and North America by their attitude to property and collective social practice” (1). While Lockley notes that Mormons are “a perhaps unexpected” inclusion, Grow and Kime’s essay persuasively demonstrates the potential of exploring Mormonism from this vantage point (7).
 The Community of True Inspiration, or Amana Church Society, were German pietists who founded intentional communities in upstate New York and then, later, in Amana, Iowa. Rohrer also included a chapter on them in his book.