The Primitive Church in the Modern World is a welcome companion volume to The American Quest for the Primitive Church, an important anthology published by Richard T. Hughes in 1988. The first volume brought together fifteen remarkable essays on a theme that had too often been neglected by scholars of American religion: the search within American Protestantism for a restoration of the ancient gospel. While not necessarily agreeing on what the restoration might consist of, the various Protestant movements were nearly all characterized by elements of restorationism, or primitivism. For LDS readers, the 1988 volume provided a valuable historical setting for the emergence of their own religion, which emphasizes the restoration of ancient truths and authority.
This new anthology explores the subject of how primitivism applies in modern times. It contains ten noteworthy essays by distinguished scholars of American religion, as well as an important introduction by Hughes. As Hughes explains, restorationist believers tend “to define their most fundamental values and commitments by the ancient norms of the Christian faith, however perceived, and only then—if at all—by the norms of modernity or modernization. In other words, genuine primitivists judge the modern world by the standards of the ancient faith, not the other way around” (xiii).
Some of the essays raise interesting questions about whether churches that began as restorationist movements have moved away from that tradition because of the various influences of modernism. To what degree did, or does, accommodation to modernity undermine basic primitivism? This dilemma, however, is largely circumvented in LDS theology, which understands that continuing revelation originally stood at the core of true, primitive Christianity, which was founded on prophetic, apostolic leadership.
LDS readers will want to take note of the essay by Thomas G. Alexander, “Mormon Primitivism and Modernization” (167–96). Drawing from his extensive study of late-nineteenth-century Mormonism, particularly the administration of President Wilford Woodruff, Alexander focuses on the changing relationship between the temporal and spiritual spheres during that period. In his view, the temporal and the spiritual were fused so intimately in the early days of the LDS Church that there was no incongruity between them. Thus various economic programs, seemingly temporal in nature, were seen as merely one aspect of an all-encompassing faith. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the temporal and the spiritual had become separate, largely because of the pressures brought against the Church by the political campaigns against plural marriage and Utah’s quest for statehood.
Alexander discusses the gradual modification of various beliefs and practices that resulted in the fact that directions from Church leaders on temporal affairs no longer carried the same spiritual connotations as in earlier years. Nevertheless, he shows that the Church was still able “to perceive itself as the restoration of ancient Christianity. Modernization had not changed that” (187). Though Alexander does not specifically comment on the principle of continuing revelation, LDS readers will understand that this is the process that has always led, and still leads, to needful adaptation in the rapidly changing modern world.