Sev­er­al years ago I was sur­prised — and delight­ed — to find myself stand­ing with a group of Mor­mon and Evan­gel­i­cal his­to­ri­ans, philoso­phers, the­olo­gians, and bib­li­cal schol­ars at the Lat­ter-Day Saints Muse­um in Palmyra, New York. 

I had been invit­ed to take part in a Mor­mon-Evan­gel­i­cal dia­logue and was enjoy­ing meet­ing new friends and learn­ing more about what Mor­mons believed and how they lived. We were vis­it­ing Mor­mon holy sites in Palmyra, where Lat­ter Day saints believe Joseph Smith received a vision of the angel Maroni direct­ing him to buried gold­en plates con­tain­ing new rev­e­la­tion for God’s people. 

A friend­ly, young woman was explain­ing to us key points in Mor­mon his­to­ry. As she did so she fre­quent­ly referred to a his­tor­i­cal time­line that traced itself around the walls of the muse­um. The first cen­tu­ry of Chris­t­ian his­to­ry was clear­ly por­trayed through both word and art. 

As my eye moved into the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, though, no words or deeds were dis­cussed or por­trayed on the time­line. Indeed, from the 2nd to the 19th cen­tu­ry all I saw was a long, blank white line. Hap­pi­ly, though, at least from a Mor­mon per­spec­tive, things picked up again when we moved into the 1800’s, with the his­to­ry of the Lat­ter-Day Saints vivid­ly por­trayed. How strik­ing and strange. God was active­ly at work in the first cen­tu­ry of the church’s his­to­ry. Then the church’s his­to­ry, the­ol­o­gy, and prac­tice some­how jumped the track from the 2nd cen­tu­ry for­ward, only to right itself in the 19th with the rev­e­la­tion giv­en to Joseph Smith in a holy grove in Palmyra, New York. 

I couldn’t help ask­ing our muse­um guide about the long, blank white line that cov­ered almost all the church’s his­to­ry. What was going on dur­ing all that time from a Mor­mon per­spec­tive?” I don’t think she had ever been asked this ques­tion. She paused, smiled, and said, I’m not sure.” Fair enough. After all, most of the museum’s vis­i­tors were Mor­mons, all part of a restora­tionist move­ment rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly birthed. 

What’s a restora­tionist church? The Mor­mons are only one of many such church­es that sprang into exis­tence in the 19th cen­tu­ry in the Unit­ed States. Many Chris­tians dur­ing that time believed that the pris­tine moment in Chris­t­ian his­to­ry was the 1st cen­tu­ry AD. Sad­ly, accord­ing to restora­tionist inter­pre­ta­tion, dis­tor­tions and devi­a­tions from full gospel truth quick­ly leaked into the church’s life from the 2nd cen­tu­ry up to the 19th.

For many in these move­ments, it was only in the 19th cen­tu­ry that the Spir­it again began to be active as the gospel was ful­ly restored” to the church. Yes, there were gen­uine saints” in the first cen­tu­ry. But for Mor­mons and oth­er 19th cen­tu­ry reform­ers, the true church — the church of the 1st cen­tu­ry — need­ed to be restored. 

As I stood with my Mor­mon and Evan­gel­i­cal friends in the muse­um, I real­ized it was Tom Oden who helped me to under­stand that, in Tom’s words, the Holy Spir­it has a his­to­ry.” As a young Chris­t­ian I, too, had believed there was a long lacu­na in the church’s his­to­ry where the Holy Spir­it had been large­ly silent and inactive. 

When I arrived at Drew Uni­ver­si­ty to study with Tom, I knew very lit­tle of the church’s his­to­ry, the­ol­o­gy, or spir­i­tu­al­i­ty between the 2nd and 16th cen­turies AD. I had read Calvin, Luther, and oth­er Reform­ers, but took it for grant­ed that up to the Ref­or­ma­tion in the 16th cen­tu­ry, the life and thought of the church had been gross­ly dis­tort­ed and the heart of the gospel lost. After all, there was a rea­son why the Ref­or­ma­tion occurred! Any Protes­tant knew that. Tom, a Protes­tant the­olo­gian, spot­ted this gap in my knowl­edge and per­spec­tive. Chris, the Holy Spir­it has a history.” 

Text First Published March 2017

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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