Sunday, November 1, 2020

Joseph Smith's Doctrine of the Holy Spirit Contrasted with Cartwright, Campbell, Hodge, and Finney

Last week, I discovered Lynne Wilson’s dissertation—Joseph Smith's Doctrine of the Holy Spirit Contrasted with Cartwright, Campbell, Hodge, and Finney [LINK]. It happened almost by accident whilst I was checking some references from Matthew Brown’s, A Pillar of Light. Wilson’s contribution was not one of Brown’s references, but came up on the third page of a Google search. The title included three important figures of 19th century American Christianity—Campbell, Hodge and Finney—that I am quite familiar with, so I immediately downloaded the PDF, holding off on reading it until I finished Brown’s book.

From Wilson’s abstract, we read:

The dissertation is an historical-critical examination of Joseph Smith’s (1805-1844) sermons and writings from 1830 to 1844 to determine the scope of his doctrine on the Holy Ghost. Many biographers dismiss Joseph Smith as a product of his environment. Superficially, his thoughts on the Holy Ghost appear to fall within the mainstream of the enthusiastic outbursts of the Second Great Awakening, but a closer look shows that they are an abrupt and radical departure from the pneumatology of his day. To clarify the unique parameters of Smith’s pneumatology, it is necessary to place Smith's views in a historical context by examining the ideas circulating on the Holy Spirit in the early nineteenth century American Protestant thought. Smith’s views are compared to those of four of his contemporaries: Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) Alexander Campbell (1788- 1866), Charles Finney (1792-1875), and Charles Hodge (1797-1878). We examine these four men's use of the Holy Spirit from their sermons and other writings, and then compare them to Smith's interpretation.

I found Wilson’s dissertation to be quite informative. I suspect that even folk who are not particularly interested in Mormon studies will find value in this work. (The first 202 pages of the dissertation have a non-Mormon focus.)

Chapter 1 “Historical Context: Reactions to Revelation and to Mormonism”, “outlines two historical phenomena: a general early American religious interest in the Holy Spirit and a specific religious reaction to the rise and development of Mormonism in the early nineteenth century" (p. 13). Wilson starts with a look into a number of historical periods within America’s religious history, beginning with, the “Colonial (1620-1700)”, which included “immigrating Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans, Catholics, and Anglicans" [pp.13, 14]. He moves on to “the “Enlightenment (1700s)” [pp. 15-17], and then draws attention to the, “First Great Awakening (1740s)” [pp. 17-20]—from this section we read:

The Puritans’ fervor waned in their progeny until a resurgence occurred between 1739 and 1741, known as the First Great Awakening. The charismatic British preacher George Whitefield (1714-70) ignited a religious renaissance to the thirteen colonies during his seven tours from Maine to Georgia...His enthusiastic sermons captivated tens of thousands, who followed with great religious commitment. A “spiritual new birth” or personal witness of the Holy Spirit was his core message. [pp. 17, 18]

Concerning Whitefield, I learned the following:

Whitefield sought the Spirit’s inspiration during prayer by incorporating lessons from the Imitation of Christ, a handbook on prayer, by Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471). [p. 18]

He then relates:

Equally as important as Whitefield’s revivals were Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758)  writings, calling Americans to seek the Spirit in a spiritual rebirth. Edwards, who became known as the father of American theology, emphasized the Holy Spirit working within humanity as “Spiritual and Divine Light immediately imparted to the soul by God.” [pp. 18, 19]

The next period is the “Revolutionary Era (1773-1791)” [pp. 20-22], which is then followed by the "Second Great Awakening (1801-1840)” [pp. 23-25]. This section provides the following extraordinary statistics:

Churches that emphasized a spiritual rebirth or witness of the Spirit before baptism grew the most dramatically during this time. Methodist membership rose from 4,921 members in 1776 to 130,570 in 1806. Similarly, Baptists grew from 53,101 in 1784 to 172,972 by 1810. These numbers are more significant in light of the fact “that the nation’s population did not even double during this interval.” [pp. 24, 25]

After the look into the above historical periods, Wilson then delves into the following topics: “Missionary Efforts”, "Training for the Ministry", "Volunteerism and Voluntary Societies", "Burned-over District", and "Reactions to Mormonism” [pp. 25-51]. The last section includes a survey of the anti-Mormon writings of three of the four Protestant contemporaries of Joseph Smith listed in the dissertation’s title: Alexander Campbell, Peter Cartwright, and Charles Finney.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the Methodist preacher, Peter Cartwright [pp. 52-80]. Chapter 3 is on the restorationist theologian, Alexander Campbell [pp. 81-118]. Chapter 4 focuses on, “arguably the greatest nineteenth-century conservative Presbyterian theologian", Charles Hodge [pp. 119-158]. Chapter 5 delves into, “the greatest revival preacher in the Second Great Awakening", Charles Finney [pp. 159-202].

Each of these four chapters has a “Biographical Sketch”, followed by an in depth, “Teachings on the Holy Spirit" section, and then ends with a concise “Conclusion". The chapters are excellent, giving readers an informative look into four important religious figures of early 19th American Christianity. Wilson has certainly ‘done his homework’ on these four men.

The titles of the final three chapters are self-explanatory. Chapter 6: "Joseph Smith Junior’s Biographical Background" [pp. 203-257]. Chapter 7: “Joseph Smith Junior’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit” [pp. 258-326]. And Chapter 8: "Comparing Smith with Cartwright, Campbell, Hodge, and Finney” [pp. 327-369].

Wilson discerned that all five men had a number of, “shared doctrines of the Holy Spirit". Note the following selection:

They all believed in the same Bible and shared biblical thought particularly in four areas: First, each man believed that God’s Spirit took part in creating the earth and humanity. Second, they understood that the Spirit assisted in applying the atonement or cleansing of sins. Third, they also all warned against false spirits and the dangers of being deceived by satanic influences. Fourth, they felt the Lord’s Spirit could commune with humanity, even though they differed on how that communication occurred. [p. 338]

Wilson immediately followed the above with:

On the other hand, the four religious leaders differed considerably from Smith in five major areas of pneumatology: Most notably, Smith did not limit the Spirit’s revelation to the Bible and professed to offer the world “new scripture.” Second, he did not believe in a Trinity that was ontologically one but viewed the Spirit in a Godhead of three separate personages. Third, he taught that obedient, baptized, church members could enjoy the constant companionship of the Spirit, termed: “the Gift of the Holy Ghost.” Smith used this idiom to refer to a special gift received via an ordinance administered through the laying on of hands by those who held a special “Melchizedek priesthood” or apostolic authority. Fourth, he enthusiastically embraced the gifts of the Spirit and believed all of them had been restored to the earth again. Finally, he claimed that the Holy Spirit of Promise sealed baptism and other ordinances dependent upon the obedience of each participant. [p. 339]

Wilson’s dissertation ends with five very useful appendices and a topical bibliography [pp. 370-549].

My overall assessment: an excellent contribution.

Hope at least some folk will take the time to read it…

Grace and peace,


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