Divergent Paths of the Restoration

An Encyclopedia of the Smith-Rigdon Movement

(Fifth Edition) By Stephen L. Shields

Signature Books 2021

( e-book only: $9.99)

Reviewed by Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters

Over forty years in the making, Divergent Paths is a remarkable ahievement from one of the foremost authorities on the history of the various and many branches of Mormonism. Stephen Shields first began his work while in high school, with a small pamphlet that was first published as a booklet in 1975, followed by a second edition a few months later. This fifth edition is of course greatly expanded and improved, even over the huge fourth edition.

As the title indicates, "Restoration" here refers only to the Mormon Restoration, and not to the general movement of Joseph Smith's day which is usually labeled "Restorationist."

Shields has made his Encyclopedia very accessible. Like any encyclopedia, one does not undertake to read it from start to finish, but to browse and to look up specific items. Thus one of the advantages of Divergent Paths being in non-print format: it is easily searchable using the computer's "search" ability. Also, it contains several "find keys," (indexes) listing each group by name, location, date, name of leader, and names of group publications.

Shields has also arranged all the information in an outline structure, utilizing sections and subsections (and sub-subsections) rather than page numbers, which enables the reader to see quickly a group's background and derivation: the item reported at Section is an offshoot of the group at 5.31.1, tracing back ultimately to the original group reported in Section 5.0. This arrangement also enables the reader to see the chronology of the developments.

Shields says on page vii, ahead of the Table of Contents, that an asterisk preceding a group's name indicates that the group is "presumed extant at the time of publication." However, he uses the asterisk only occasionally, and only for groups that are not extant.

Shields is very careful to be completely objective and not use pejorative terms, such as "offshoot," "splinter group," "break-away," or "apostasy." He calls each group an "expression" of the Restoration. He is completely neutral in reporting each "expression," although he himself in his early life was a member of the largest Mormon group (the one based in Salt Lake City, Section 4.0) and then spent his adult life as a full-time minister in the second-largest group, the Community of Christ (Section 5.0). The only criticism of any group appears occasionally in the polemic materials of subsequent sub-groups as quoted by Shields with the purpose of explaining that "expression's" reason for forming.

One cannot browse in Divergent Paths for long without becoming almost giddy at the wide panoply of derivatives all based on what Smith and Rigdon did. One soon notes that many of the people who established new "expressions" followed closely the example of Joseph Smith: they declared that they had had visions and visitations of angelic or divine or resurrected personages (some had visitations from Smith himself). They produced ancient artifacts, metal plates with strange writing, and "translated" holy books. Others were more like Rigdon, who never (that I am aware) claimed to have had visions, but based his beliefs on his Campbellite reading of the Bible and repeating Smith's claims. (Rigdon's sole contribution to "scripture" was probably the Lectures on Faith, which were part of the Doctrine and Covenants until 1921.)

One inconsistency in Divergent Paths is Shields' treatment of groups who have simply left one "expression" without keeping anything at all from Mormonism. The Post-Mormon Internet group is listed (although no longer extant), but the Recovery From Mormonism Internet site (still very active) is not. New Order Mormons is listed, but John Dehlin's StayLDS Internet site (with the same purpose) is not. The Exmormon Foundation gets no mention. Probably it would have been more consistent simply not to list any such groups.

Any collection of such a size can probably never be complete, since new groups and new claimants to divine inspiration are constantly arising. There are already new groups and people that Shields does not mention. Those may appear eventually on the associated website for Divergent Paths at ldsmovement.pbwiki.com.

One must wonder how a reader who belongs to any of the hundreds of extant groups listed will react when exposed to this huge source of Mormon history. My experience as a member of the Utah church (4.0) indicates that most Mormons are completely unaware of the diversity of Mormonism. They might be able to name two or three Mormon groups other than their own, but no more. Divergent Paths lists over 600.

Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle of the Utah church (d 1985) and author of Mormon Doctrine, said this, in the entry "Sects" in that book:

Division and dissension, contention, confusion and discord - these are among the prevailing characteristics of the kingdom of the devil; and they are nowhere better illustrated than in the sects of Christendom. ... Existence of the sects of Christendom is proof positive of the universal apostasy.
One might wonder what Apostle McConkie's reaction would be after having perused Divergent Paths.

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©  2021 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


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