Joseph Smith and Catholicism

During Joseph Smith’s youth it is unlikely that he knew many or perhaps any, Catholics. The New England area was home to few Catholics in 1805, and they were an unappreciated minority. But during the first half of the 19th century, America began to experience a boom in Catholic population. This growth can be seen in the number of Catholic houses of worship following the war of 1812. Edwin Gaustad (Historical Atlas of Religion in America) provides some figures: in 1820 there were 124 such structures in the US, a comparatively tiny number even in church-poor America. By 1850, the number had grown to 1,221. Ten years later there were 2,550. From 1820-1860, this was nearly a 2000% increase in Catholic buildings, a doubling in the final decade. For comparison, Methodist houses of worship — the fastest growing Protestant denomination of the period — increased by about 600%. Congregational buildings increased by about 100%, representing the slowest growth rate among major Protestant groups (this is a little remarkable because the Congregational church was “established” in New England– i.e., had state support–for many years. The constitutional provision did not apply to the states). Immigrants were responsible for much of this growth and this was particularly true in terms of Irish immigration (in regard to Catholic growth).

The relation between Catholics and Protestants in the first half of the 19th century was one where Protestants viewed Catholics as deluded idol worshippers controlled by a Pope who was a devil on earth. But those criticisms were not just expressed in polite conversation: the historical animus in America between Catholics and Protestants did not simply confine itself to discussions of doctrine.

There were deep seated fears of Catholicism among Protestants and these extended to Catholic art and architecture. This was a double edged sword. Protestant leaders feared the seductive power of the beauty of that art and the impressive nature of Gothic church designs. Indeed, there is some evidence that these things did inspire conversions to Catholicism. No self-respecting Protestant preacher would be found with a Latin cross decorating his bible or the spire of his church. Even less recognizable Greek crosses were thoroughly eschewed. Such iconography was viewed as the sign of “the Mother of Harlots.” Indeed, Protestant tracts of the time could display the cross on the “vestments” of the devil while he was depicted as playing cards with the Pope. Paradoxically, those same fears eventually helped lead Protestants to adopt, toward the end of the 19th century, the same symbols which they now vigorously claim as their own.[1]

Popery was the word of the day in Protestant literature during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. It was not a term of endearment.

On May 8, 1844, after anti-Catholic rioters had filled the streets of Philadelphia for some time, arsonists set fire to St. Augustine’s (Catholic) Church after taking a battering ram to the door; they fired cannon at other Catholic structures. When the fire reached the cross at the top of the building’s spire, great cheers erupted from the mob.[2]

Not really an isolated incident except perhaps in scale, it seems reasonable to suppose that Joseph Smith felt some kinship with American Catholics — given the mob action and lack of effective government protection.

Western New York did not open to settlement until after the revolution. Then it was New Englanders, with their attendant philosophies and opinions who flocked to the region. Joseph Smith was raised in Vermont and western New York. In many ways these were similar environments, especially since many Vermonters left the state when the Smith family did, and a fair number of New Englanders again found their way to the Palmyra region. A Puritan heritage was their common link, but they also spread out in their belief systems as well as their geography. Folk beliefs warred to some extent with the desire for respectability. The latter motivated in part by the influx of newsprint. Enlightenment ideas were a part of the respectability of education. And Catholics when they were thought of at all, did not qualify as respectable. What Joseph may have thought of Catholicism in his very early years probably mirrored the ideas of his neighbors.[3] One thing is sure, when Joseph Smith went into the woods to pray in the early spring of 1820, he was not asking whether Catholicism was the true religion. But based on public sentiment and the religious and political persecution of Mormonism over the years, Joseph came to a position of respect with regard to Catholics and their somewhat similar condition to Mormons in America.

Joseph mentioned Catholicism on several occasions and on at least one, reflected that Mormonism and Catholicism held a better hand than the Protestants. Thomas Bullock reported on rain-spotted foolscap:

“[the] old Catholic Church is worth more than all [the other churches]—here is a princ[iple]. of logic–that men have no more sense–I will illustrate [with] an old apple tree—here jumps off a branch & says I am the true tree. & you are corrupt–if the whole tree is corrupt how can any true thing come out of it—the charr[character] of the old ones have always been sland[ere]d. by all apos[tates] since the world began—

“I testify again as God never will acknowledge any apost[ate]: any man who will betray the Catholics will betray you–& if he will betray one anoth[e]r. he will betray you”[4]

Joseph’s argument, as one Catholic priest illustrated to me, could be stated “there is the old covenant” (Catholicism) “or the new covenant” (JS’s restoration). “What’s in between is on shaky historical ground.” Naturally, in the wake of Luther, this argument is not likely to be convincing to many Protestants in itself.[5]

While Joseph may have been one of the first Latter-day Saints to notice such logic, he was not the last. Witness the storied (at one time among Mormons I think) incident of John Reiner, Catholic professor (Villanova) and former Lutherian, who spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in January 1898. Orson F. Whitney said that Reiner told him personally, “You Mormons are all ignoramuses. You don’t even know the strength of your own position. . . only one other [is] tenable in the whole Christian world . . . the Catholic Church . . . the Protestants haven’t a leg to stand on.” [From Whitney’s book, “Saturday Night Thoughts, Part 3.” –The Strength of the Mormon Position.]

Please feel free to debate the merits of such statements if you wish. Also, I have not considered what effects statements like these have had on Mormon discourse in later years. I remember hearing this “strength of the Mormon position” when I was younger, but I cannot recall the context. I’m sure neither Joseph Smith’s nor John Reiner’s name was associated with any reference I heard decades ago.



[1] Some Protestants offer heavy criticism to Mormons for their lack of cruciform displays in and on churches, vestments, books and jewelry. But the Mormons missed the big transition. Protestants took on the cross in a gradual process that involved slow infiltration, and that did not really begin before the 1850s. Further, there was wide variance in views about what kinds of Catholic art would be acceptable. Episcopalian usage differed greatly from Baptist. Even today, there is wide variation in the way Latin crosses are used in Protestantism. But if Joseph Smith had begun his work in 1880, Mormon chapels would almost surely be topped by crosses today. As it was, Mormon troubles near the end of the 19th century merely served to cement a distinction between Mormons and Protestants. However, observant Latter-day Saints will see that cruciform design can now sometimes be found in their building designs (like the assembly hall on temple square in Salt Lake City) and even in temples from time to time, as well as (as an architect friend pointed out-Hey, Dale!) in Latter-day Saint chapel interior decor. With the influx of converts from Protestants in the latter part of the 19th century, the Latin cross could be seen at funerals and in other venues. But anti-Catholic feeling was growing for some reason. Mid-20th century saw it peak and then rapidly diminish. But as a result, the Latin cross has never made a strong inroad in Mormonism.

[2] See Ryan K. Smith’s excellent account of such tensions as it applied to architecture in his Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses.

[3] Witness Parley Pratt’s reference to Catholic “abominations” in his autobiography as he related his Chilean missionary experience.

[4] Thomas Bullock manuscript, Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, MS 155, box 4 folder 6. This is relevant to the blog charter since the June 16 sermon continues the topics of the April 7 Follett funeral. The Mormons and Catholics were sometimes lumped together by political rags. See for example Sangamo Journal 10/42 (June 10, 1842).

[5] Sola Scriptura and all that.

24 Responses to Joseph Smith and Catholicism

  1. Matt W. says:

    The Strength of the Mormon Position” as you refer to it, was popularized in Legrand Richards’ “Marvelous Work and a Wonder”, if memory serves.

    As a Former Catholic, I find these statements comforting.

  2. Michael says:

    As a former Catholic and an LDS convert, I have always felt the connection between Mormonism and Catholicism is much stronger than with the Protestant break-off churches. If you look at the church as a whole, I would believe that the large majority of LDS converts over the past 30 years have been former Catholics.

    Authority, scriptural interpretation, and Gospel ordinances are greatly downplayed by the Protestants. It is the only way for them to justify their existence.

    I don’t know why members try so hard to become buddies with the Protestants. They will never respect us.

    • velska says:

      I don’t know why members try so hard to become buddies with the Protestants. They will never respect us.

      All I can say to that is Amen, brother!

      It is hard for me to fathom, why some of the LDS want to be so closely identified and associated with the more blowhard Evangelicals. It is not as if there’s reciprocation.

      On a related matter, I was brought up somewhat Protestant, at least in that I knew the Protestant position of eschewing mention of the Sacraments or Priesthood. That made me want to become a Jew or Greek Orthodox at some point in my search.

      Then, in a baptismal service, it hit me: “Commissioned by Jesus Christ.” Could it really be true? Yes, it was, and is! The past three decades have only strengthened my conviction about it.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I believe the statements of Joseph Smith that you quote were rooted more in his proximate experience with apostates than his experience with Catholics. Particilarly William Law and his new Mormon Church. The sermon in the grove is essentially a rebuttal of appostate criticism of the KFD.

    • boaporg says:

      No question that it was both a continuation of KFD and a response to Expositor claims and the rumor mill of Nauvoo. I suppose the Catholic reference could be cast in that light. Be that as it may, the sentiment is an unusual one for a non-Catholic of the times.


  4. J. Stapley says:

    I definately agree. This is a great post. Isn’t there someone doing a thesis on the cross in early nineteenth century American culture? At Clairmont maybe?

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Just did some digging, and I believe that it was Michael Reed, “The Development of the LDS Church’s Attitude Toward the Cross,” MA thesis from California State University in Sacramento. I think I bumped into him at MHA a couple of years ago and I remember him discussing the Protestant context.

      • boaporg says:

        I did take a look at Reed’s thesis. The change in Protestant attitudes about the cross in the latter part of the 19th century did seem to drift into Mormonism to some extent. Reed blames anti-Catholic feelings mid-20th century for Mormons avoiding the cross then. Since that has diminished to nothing, nearly, perhaps the Latin cross will appear in more obvious ways in Latter-day Saint art and architecture.

      • Mike Reed says:

        As the SL Tribune story explains, the LDS cross aversion was a late development in Mormon history, manifesting itself at the grass-roots level around the turn of the 20th century, and was institutionalized in the 1950s under the direction of President David O. McKay (on grounds that it was Catholic). Prior to this time, many prominent Latter-day Saints embraced and promoted the symbol of the cross. The Church had even petitioned the SLC Council in 1916 to erect a cross monument on Ensign Peak (a proposal that was passed, but later dropped due to public protest). When the aversion to the cross developed in the Mormon mainstream, the Saints reached back and utilized the Protestant anti-cross polemics of past generations.

      • WVS says:

        Nice work, Mike. What are your future academic plans?

    • Mike Reed says:

      Hello J Stapley. Yes, I believe you are correct that we met at MHA. The thesis was completed and accepted last semester. Salt Lake tribune did short story on it a couple months ago:
      I am working on a condensed version for dialogue, and will also be delivering a presentation on “LDS Contempt for the Christian Symbol” at Sunstone this month.

  6. David G. says:

    Nice post. I haven’t read it, but Matt Grow published a paper on Mormon perceptions of Catholicism and vice versa a few years ago in Church History. As is everything Matt does, I’m sure it’s top notch.

    • boaporg says:

      Thanks, I’ll get the library to send me that.

      • boaporg says:

        It is a well written article. (Matthew J. Grow, “The Whore of Babylon and the Abomination of Abominations: Nineteenth Century Catholic and Mormon Mutual Perceptions and Religious Identity.” Church History, March 2004). No mention of the JS thing, but plenty of good stuff on Mormon-Catholic relations. Heavy irony, with each employing Protestant complaints about them against the other. Authority of course, was both the key to attraction for each, and key to criticism of each. The 20th century (not covered in Grow) saw wonderful moderation in all that, at least in some geographic areas.


  7. velska says:

    As a general comment, I have become wary of letting any symbol be given too much weight. The scenes of cross-wielding Conquistadores/Patronizers or exorcists have put me off it. As well as the obsession of some Protestants to call out Mormons for not prominently displaying crosses.

    As if the crosses would save us?

    But it has a lot to do with Authority. The keys of the Kingdom. You have them or not. If you don’t, you’re out of the picture in my viewfinder. If your big argument is to try to downplay the Authority to altogether discarding it, you’re as out of it as if you had self-confessed you don’t have it. Which you have done actually.

    I’m a little feverish and tired, so this is a little rambling… But therein lies the answer. From what I’ve read of Joseph’s dealings with Catholics, there was definitely a certain fraternal feeling, because they were the other ones, who had a credible claim to authority, and they were also persecuted.

    In regards of Irish immigration, the Irish used to be what Arabs are now: The people nobody wanted living next to them. Methinks it has more to do with the English Puritan ideas of the double pollution of Papacy and Irishness. After all, if you had red, curly hair, you couldn’t go to Heaven… (I have a friend, who used to hear about it in her Evangelical childhood environment.)

  8. Mike Reed says:

    Thanks William. For the moment my plans are to teach humanities/religious studies at the community college level, and work on a PhD later on down the road. But who knows… with California’s recent budget cuts, I may soon decide that now is the best time for me to jump back into grad school.

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