a1 doctoral candidate in the department of History at the University of Notre Dame.
In 1846, Oran Brownson, the older brother of the famed Catholic convert Orestes A. Brownson, penned a letter to his brother recounting a dream Orestes had shared with him much earlier. In the dream, Orestes, Oran, and a third brother, Daniel, were “traveling a road together.” “You first left the road then myself and it remains to be seen whether Daniel will turn out of the road (change his opinion),” Oran wrote. At approximately the same period in which Orestes converted to Catholicism “because no other church possessed proper authority,” Oran joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because he believed that “proper authority rests among the Mormons.” Indeed, in an era characterized by denominational proliferation, democratization, and competition, Catholic and Mormon claims to divine authority proved appealing to some Americans, like the Brownsons, wearied by the diversity and disunity of the Protestant world. Oran cautioned Orestes to not trust polemical literature against Mormonism, but to “get your information from friends and not enemies.” Orestes could have repeated the same warning about Catholicism, given the number and intensity of nineteenth-century attacks on both Catholics and Mormons. Leaving mainstream Christianity to join the most despised religions in nineteenth-century America, the Brownson brothers embarked on spiritual quests that few contemporary Americans would have understood, much less approved.
1 I would like to acknowledge the generous assistance of Jim Turner, Patrick Mason, George Marsden, John McGreevy, Jay Dolan, and the anonymous reviewers for this journal, as well as the participants of two settings where earlier versions of this paper were presented: the May 2003 conference of the Mormon History Association and Notre Dame's Colloquium on Religion and History.