The restorationist movement was a growing desire of the 1800s to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ back to its New Testament practice. Some wanted only New Testament teachings and some wanted to return to the full practice of the Bible, including prophets and apostles to continue the pattern established by God in Biblical times.
They differed from traditional religions which taught themselves as an unbroken continuation of the original church or as a protest against corruptions in doctrines. The restorationists did not want to change the existing church—they wanted to restore the original church, which they believed was lost. Two leading restorationist movements of that time were a group incorrectly called Campbellites, led by Alexander Campbell, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led by Joseph Smith. Some early church members joined the Mormons (the nickname sometimes applied to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) from the Campbellite movement, including Sydney Rigdon, a leading preacher in that organization.
The proper name of the Campbellites is the Disciples of Christ. The group began with Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander Campbell. They were former Irish Presbyterian ministers. Thomas formed an organization called the Christian Association of Washington in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Alexander formed a related organization and joined with the Baptists, where he preached only from the Bible. However, he felt the Bible repudiated infant baptism and the eternal condemnation of infants who died without baptism, which upset some listeners. Others were offended at his insistence that baptism by immersion by those old enough to make the decision, was necessary.
He eventually separated from the Baptists, taking with him Sydney Rigdon and Walter Scott. Rigdon, a Baptist preacher, continued his preaching circuit, but now avoided denominational issues, since one goal of the Campbellites was to unify the Christian faith into one single body that focused only on 1st century Christianity. Rigdon’s ministry taught only faith, repentance, baptism for the remission of sins, and the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Soon, there emerged an intersection between the two restoration faiths. Parley P. Pratt, a minister for the Campbellites, encountered the Book of Mormon. He was so enthralled by it he read it in just one day and night, having no desire for food or rest. He gained a testimony by the Holy Ghost of its truthfulness and went in search of Joseph Smith. He instead met Joseph’s brother Hyrum. He was soon baptized.
Pratt, in his previous ministry, had known Sydney Rigdon. Rigdon had brought many people into the Campbellite’s organization, including Orson Hyde, who devoted much of his time to preaching against the Book of Mormon, which he had heard about, but not read more than a few segments of. Eventually, he felt uncomfortable teaching something he had not actually read for himself, so he sought Joseph Smith to learn about the book from an authentic source.
When he arrived, Hyde learned Sydney Rigdon had left the Campbellites through the missionary efforts of Parley P. Pratt and become a Mormon. Hyde also converted. All three of these men—Parley P. Pratt, Orson Hyde, and Sydney Rigdon would become Mormon apostles. Elder Pratt would help to bring about 150 members of the Campbellits into the new church.
Joseph Smith was the prophet and president of this new church, which was also restoration-oriented. However, he taught that Jesus Christ Himself was restoring the Church to the earth, whereas the Campbellites were merely trying to establish proper teachings by studying the Bible to find out what was true. Joseph Smith taught that in ancient times, a group of people had left Jerusalem by commandment from God, eventually coming to the American continent, where they settled among whatever native peoples were already here. They had prophets and as much of the Bible as was in use at the time of the Fall of Jerusalem. Jesus Christ had come to them for a few days soon after his resurrection and helped them to organize their church.
These people had largely been destroyed during a great war. One faction, the Nephites, had been completely destroyed, and when the war ended, the other faction, the Lamanites, continued to attack one another. It is likely only a small civilization remained at the conclusion.
The last of the Nephites, Moroni, had concluded and hidden the record of his people, which he, as an angel, led Joseph Smith to retrieve. Joseph translated them through inspiration and the manuscript, called the Book of Mormon, after Moroni’s father, served as a companion book to the Bible, which the Mormons also used.
Joseph taught that Jesus had told him the fullness of the gospel was no longer on the earth. This was clear since so many churches existed, even within the Protestant tradition. There was no longer any agreement on what God really wanted us to know or to do. Joseph’s role was to restore the gospel and to continue the tradition of prophets established by God as the way for God to communicate His will in changing times.
The restoration movement of the Campbellites and other similar movements helped to prepare the way for the restoration of the gospel, demonstrating how carefully God plans His work. Many who joined the church and became its leaders in the early days were seeking New Testament Christianity and believed it no longer existed on the earth. The Campbellites, who taught minimal doctrine, helped give them a small but important focus on key elements of New Testament Christianity—faith, repentance, baptism, and the atonement’s power to save even infants.
By the time these people encountered the Mormons, their hearts had been opened to the idea of a restoration and were prepared to turn to God for confirmation that they had found it in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
More information on early Mormonism: