Anabaptists II: Diverging Parallels

Despite the striking resemblance of the Mormon and Anabaptist experiences, significant differences remain. The Book of Mormon and the temple are the most obvious LDS elements without a precise Anabaptist parallel, but I’m more interested in how similar beginnings have not (yet) led to parallel outcomes.

Like the Mormons, the Anabaptists also had an infamous (if far briefer) episode of polygamy. The Anabaptist experiment in theocracy and polygamy, an attempt to establish the New Jerusalem in the northern German town of Muenster, was finally suppressed after a long siege in 1535 by combined Catholic and Protestant armies, but it was undone most of all by its own awful excesses that horrified many fellow Anabaptists. The incident represents just one part of Anabaptism, but it is worth asking: why was there no Mormon equivalent to Muenster’s disastrous end? Why did Joseph Smith die as a martyr, and not at the head of an army? Why did Kirtland not end in a cataclysm of blood and fire? For that matter, why didn’t Utah? Why did the Mormons build a temple overlooking Nauvoo, and not a citadel?

After decades or centuries of persecution, many other Anabaptist movements (Mennonite, Hutterite, Amish) undertook a double emigration out of Europe and out of the modern world. We share the heritage of exodus, but Mormonism has embraced the twenty-first century. While we have our own conflicts with modernity, a rejection of the modern world of the type we associate with the Mennonites does not seem to have ever been seriously considered. Why didn’t we choose to turn our back on the world?

The third fate of many Anabaptists was assimilation. Particularly the Dutch Anabaptists eventually came to identify themselves with the Dutch Reformed churches, but Protestant and Catholic persecution and proselytizing took their toll everywhere over the course of centuries. Certainly we can point to ways that Mormonism has become more like other Christian churches, but thus far we remain a peculiar people. How much longer?

So far we’ve remained distinct without becoming dangerous or backwards. Some splinter group may be arming itself to reenact Waco, but the moment for Mormonism to go down in flames is more than a century behind us. The church has forcefully parted ways with those who seek to live perpetually in the nineteenth century behind compound walls, and freezing itself in time at the present or any future date doesn’t seem likely. (Would we permit usage of computers up to the Pentium III generation, but proscribe everything thereafter? Label Windows 2000 kosher, but forbid XP?) Assimilation is a possibility, but I don’t think our attempts at dialogue with the rest of the world are eroding our core distinctiveness. Christian restitutionist movements such as ourselves, it seems, do not invariably end in cataclysm, isolation, or assimilation–but we’ll see what the future holds. Even by Anabaptist standards, we’re a young church.

17 comments for “Anabaptists II: Diverging Parallels

  1. In my area, there are Mennonite churches with varying degrees of rejection of modern society. Some seem painfully backwards, and some seem quite normal. If you were an outsider who considered all the splinter groups to be part of Mormonism, you might say the same thing about Mormons.

    I didn’t know Mennonites originated as Anabaptists — that’s interesting. I was going to ask yesterday whether there were still Anabaptists around but feared to reveal my shameful ignorance. Teehee … today it’s Friday and I’m fearless.

    Also since yesterday I’ve been trying to come up with something clever about being an Ana-Mormon, but so far no luck.

  2. Ana,

    I can’t help you on the Ana-Mormon angle. However, I will note that I’ve always thought that the term Anabaptist sounded vaguely like a religion joke. You know, one of those, “a Catholic, a Jew, an-a-Baptist walk into a bar. . . “

  3. Jonathan: I think that the question of why was there no Mormon Munster is facinating. If you read the history of Mormonism, especially in Utah between 1856 and 1890, you realize how very, very close we came.

    My mother wrote an essay about this that eventually became the Introduction to her condesced version of Wilford Woodruff’s diaries, Waiting for World’s End. Her answer is that ultimately Mormons avoided Munster (she chooses Waco as her image) because of Wilford Woodruff’s capacity for waiting, hence the title of her book.

    BTW, there is a Michael Quinn article comparing Mormons and Munster published in an Arrington festscrift by Utah UP in the 1980s. I’ve got a copy of the book at home and will try to remember to post the reference.

    Great posts, BTW. Keep it up!

  4. Ditto Nate’s compliment, Jonathan; this is excellent stuff.

    Nate (I may have mentioned this before, but if not…), your mother’s essay has for a long time framed some of the most basic questions about Mormonism, revelation, and modernity for me; it’s something I’ve reread and thought about many times. It is fascinating to try and understand the kind of faith Wilford Woodruff had, to end up leading a church into a century that he did not believe would come, so convinced was he of the Lord’s imminent coming. We are so very distant from the apocalyptic expectations assumed by the average 19th-century Saint, which is both a good and bad thing.

  5. > I think that the question of why was there no Mormon Munster is facinating.

    It may simply be that the missionaries had not yet knocked on the Munsters’ door.

  6. Keep going, Jonathan!

    You mentioned: “Assimilation is a possibility, but I don’t think our attempts at dialogue with the rest of the world are eroding our core distinctiveness.”

    I agree, but would you not rather say that the rest of the world is rejecting our attempts and widening the distances, so that it is more the world which reinforces our distinctiveness? I have seen that in particular the past two decades in the anti-cult movements in European countries, where they make efforts to identify the Church with cults. In that sense we certainly continue to share similarities with the Anabaptists of former times.

  7. Here is the citation for the Quinn essay that I mentioned yesterday:

    D. Michael Quinn, “Socio-religious Radicalism in the Mormon Church: A Parallel tot he Anabaptists,” in _New Views of Mormon History_, Davis Bitton & Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Utah UP 1987.

  8. Wilfried, you make an important point that assimilation requires the consent of the majority as well as the willingness of the minority. I hadn’t thought of that before.

    Thanks, Nate, for the references to the articles. One of the useful functions of posting here is that it elicits pointers to things I should have already read before posting.

    I’ve been given the green light by T&S tech support (thanks, Kaimi!), so I’ll see if I can get the next installment out the door tonight.

  9. Jonathan,

    Fascinating parallel. In trying to understand why Mormons remained “distinct without becoming dangerous or backward,” or why we didn’t “choose to turn our back on the world” and become a freakish cult that shunned outsiders, I started reading D&C 134. This section is a declaration of the church’s beliefs regarding government and law.

    In 134, phrases such as “sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen” appear, along with bold declarations — “Governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man.” Did Waco and Muenster have such a patriotic backbone inscribed in their holy books? Is it possible that the church’s declared submission to wordly “kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates” leads us to be more integrated and accepting of the world around us?

    (Curiously, I just learned that D&C134 had a companion article in its initial publication in 1835 — a similarly written piece on marriage. But in 1876 the article on marriage was removed, while the one on government remained, as if the government piece had been promoted to divine status. You can read them both at

    Another reason we’re more mainstream and included in the world, I think, is that the world is more including of us. Back in the 16th century, they imprisoned people like Galileo and burned his books. Today that would be unheard of. So maybe it’s the world’s open embrace of diversity that allows us to be included in the world.

  10. … freezing itself in time at the present or any future date doesn’t seem likely.

    I don’t know about that. I have a theory that the church has culturally locked itself in the 1960s, the days when men wore white shirts and ties to church (most churches, not just LDS), when long hair on men was viewed as a sign of rebellion, ditto for beards, when inclusive language didn’t exist, when most churches used “thee” and “thou” in prayers, when not even soft rock music was used in churches, when women wore dresses to church, and so on. I grew up in an evangelical Protestant church during the 1960s, and it doesn’t cease to amaze me how culturally similar the LDS church today is to what I grew up with.

    There’s no theological reason why any of the things I’ve mentioned have to be that way. But yet they’re all enforced to some degree, either through official policies (such as the BYU dress code) or peer pressure.

  11. One opportunity for the Saints to reject modernity (and for lots of churches, actually), will be the bio-engineering revolution. When gene therapy, human modification, etc., get serious, there will be another wave of Christians asking the bus to stop so they can get off. I don’t say its probable that the Church will ask us to reject enough technologies, and that those technologies in turn will be central enough to modernity, that rejecting them will be tantamount to rejecting modernity, but its much more possible than computers or what have ye.

  12. Jonathan:

    You have chosen a sobering subject matter. What is your intent in associating Mormonism with the Christian Restitutionist movement? It obfuscates the reason for the presence of the Church of Jesus Christ on earth. Your opinion that, “the moment for Mormonism to go down in flames is more than a century behind us,” seems impulsive. There is no comparability between the movement Joseph Smith was directed to start and any contemporay movements of any kind.

    In a 2003 Conference talk President Hinckley spoke for the Lord, when he said: “We recognize and teach that all the people of the earth are of the family of God and as He is our our Father, so we are brothers and sisters with family obligations on to another.” How should Mormons interpret our world-wide family obligations, when a portion of our Heavenly Father’s children live under extreme poverty or are threatened by self-serving neighboring rulers?

    What am I to make out of your conclusion, that “we’ve remained distinct without becoming dangerous or backwards.” Is it your intent to portray Mormons as bystanders awaiting a celestial rescue? A re-interpretation of the Christian idea of Rapture? To be acted upon are hardly credentials for a peculiar people.

    If we must explain, let’s find something worthy of explanation, i.e. Jehovah’s covenant with the ancient patriarchs regarding the Promised Land. The issue of entering the Promised Land has been muted by our past spiritual history. Moses was not allowed to enter the Land of Promise and the crucifixion of Jesus, all but decided this issue. Is there really still an opportunity for anyone entering a Land of Promise in a mortal state as natural men and women?

    In this Great Day of the Gentile, it is not the past, but the future that rules. The resurrection of Jesus Christ and the restoration of the ancient covenant with Jacob and Levi through Joseph Smith are also inseparably connected. Indeed, Lehi’s dream about partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life is a reality. President Hickley and the Twelve made it available on many continents to all His children willing to receive Jesus Christ.

    Do Mormons have a responsibilty over the actions of their self-serving elected rulers? Our Mormon Pioneers met with violent opposition, when their neighbors heard of the Book of Mormon and the nature of our God. Jesus Christ urged Joseph Smith to seek redress for their grievances. The purpose of redress that all rulers and wise men may be left without any excuse and that they may hear and know that, which they have not considered. Joseph Smith carried his flock’s grievances to President Buchanan and ultimately becoming a candidate for the presidency of the United States, knowing that he would not win. It did put the injustice perpetrated on the Mormons before a wider audience and warned these rulers of the His children’s plight.

    Even with the Peacemaker, Jesus Christ at the head of our Church, I find it odd, that peace and injustice are rarely issues among Mormons. Instead the issues of polygamy and the similarities or difference with other Christian churches seem always to attract wide publicity. Why do Mormons unquestionably accept the Gentile way – that is choosing war as the first step to peace making? It seems an un-Christ like way for the meek to inherit the earth. Should we not importune our elected rulers, as our Prophet Joseph did; to awaken in them a consideration for our Heavenly Father’s other children?

    Edward A. Erdtsieck

  13. I loved serving as a missionary in Münster. It has to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, with a fascinating history to match. The parallels between the pesky street-contacting missionaries and the Anabaptists weren’t lost on the incredibly Schwarz populace. It wasn’t rare for them to point to the Anabaptist cages still hanging from the spires of St. Lambert’s and tell us “that’s what we do with your type around here!” (The corpses of the three highest-ranking leaders to survive the papal army’s retaking of the city were hung from the tower of the church as a symbol that only a fool messes with Münster Catholicism. The cages are still there).

    That said, I think the main reason we had no parallel to Münster is we didn’t piss off the powers that be to quite the same level as the radical Anabaptists. Münster was incredibly significant to the Catholics. The word stems from the Latin for monastery. It was founded by St. Liudger in the late Eighth century and was filled with monks and nuns and the like. (Don’t forget that Münster was the site chosen by the Catholics to sign the Peace of Westphalia).

    Yes, they (the Anabaptists) practiced polygamy, but some of their polygamous wives were nuns who had chosen that over death. I can’t help but think that this pissed the Pope off a bit. Many of the citizens submitted to “rebaptism” as an alternative to death. Had we marched on Washington D.C., baptizing people at sword point and taking the wives of prominent politicians as polygamous brides, we may have achieved a similar result. Instead we fled into the wilderness to make the desert blossom as the rose and made our converts through the spirit.

  14. Good points. EricG points out that we already are stuck in a time warp in some (still minor, I think, but certainly noticeable) ways, and Adam adds that the motivation to decouple from the modern world might soon grow stronger. Adam, I’m not quite convinced that the current direction of biotech will lead us to take the Amish path, but I agree that some potential advance in technology might. Sometimes you help Pharaoh store grain, and sometimes you flee into the wilderness.

    Edward, you’ve clearly got a bone to pick with someone, although I rather suspect it’s not me. It sounds like you have some interesting points to make, although the connection to this thread is a bit opaque to me. Keep checking this site, though, because the managment constantly restocks the shelves with new products, and a relevant post is bound to come up sooner or later.

  15. Jonathan:

    I’ve been reading this blog for some time and don’t yet know what sort of a medium it is? Your invitation is welcome and I certainly will add my voice to this clatter box.

    You’re right, I do have a few issues I am passionate about.

    Edward A. Erdtsieck

  16. Edward A. Erdtsieck: It isn’t difficult to describe the medium that this is: several of us (the “permabloggers”) write posts on whatever topics we wish, and we invite those who are interested to respond to those posts with thoughts of their own. In general, most of the permabloggers and those who respond expect that comments will have something to do with the original post or with some response to the original post, but that is a weak expectation rather than something enforced. We have some rules for civility and we enforce them when we see problems (but since we have other lives, we often don’t see the problems until they’ve been up a while), but other than that, there isn’t much to it.

    Glad to have you here; join in at will.

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