Radical Origins: Early Mormon Converts and Their Colonial Ancestors

Attempts to explain the success of early Mormonism have generated a number of theories about the nature of the early Mormon converts. A persistent theme in many of the assumptions is that there was something wrong with the converts, or that the hardships of the early nineteenth century compelled them to join a new religion that those with more satisfying lives shunned. Mormon scholars tend to counter that there was nothing to distinguish early Mormon converts from other Americans other than a desire to join the new faith, a desire which transcended their circumstances.

In 1994, John Brooke proposed that what set apart would-be converts from those less likely to join did transcend their current circumstances: heritage, according to Brooke, was the impetus toward Mormon conversion. Brooke felt that Mormonism’s intellectual origins went back to the concepts of the radical wing of the Reformation, concepts that became prominent during the English Civil War of 1640–60. Brooke argued that radical English sectarians, or the radical break-off religions that opposed the established church, brought these ideas to America, and that those with a heritage in such radical sectarianism would be most drawn to Mormonism. Brooke found some evidence in the history of certain Mormon families but admitted that “the definitive study of the religious origins of the earliest Mormon converts has yet to be attempted, and such a study may well overturn the tentative conclusions one can draw from this limited exploration.”

Purchase this Issue