The Revisionist Reformation

A favorite perennial topic of discussion is the ever-elusive distinction between church culture and doctrine (or officially sanctioned practice or attitude).  For example, Keith Hamilton recently asked us to consider what the church (and specifically sacrament meeting) would look like had Joseph Smith and the Restoration come out of Africa.  One reason is that it helps us deal with our particular difficulties in the church when we try to convince others or ourselves of the merit of the church as a whole. Bracketing questions concerning its nature, legitimacy, and value, today I want to make use of this seductive practice to indulge in some worthwhile speculation about which parts of our standard Sunday School apostasy-Reformation-Restoration story are doctrinal and which parts are merely cultural (for recent quasi-official articulations of this Mormon war horse, see here and here or just read Preach My Gospel).

It’s surely impossible to sort out exactly how much of what the early church adopted from American and European Protestantism was merely cultural (some things are more obvious than others).  But I want to argue both that we’ve good reason to suspect that our version of the brutally violent and intolerant historical epoch called the Reformation was mere cultural adoption, and also that we’ve good reason to jettison it.  Holding to it is historically questionable, is in significant tension with other positions that we hold, andleads us to tell implausible just-so stories.Since I’m only an arm-chair historian I will focus on the latter of these claims (which I assume we’re all equally qualified to debate) and mention just a few historical considerations upfront.

First off, what is called the Reformation spanned centuries and is actually a composite of many (often unique) reformations—it certainly was not a monolithic historical event.  We use it vaguely within the church, generally I think to refer to that period from the late 14th through the mid-17th centuries when many of our famous reformers lived.  I’m content to use it in our vague Sunday School manner, with the disclaimer that I mean throughout to speak very generally.  Some of what I discuss has roots in this period while the full fruition came later.  Consequently, it will of course be possible to find particular historical counterexamples to some of what I say; but I feel confident espousing the general points.

As to the history, I think we need to be candid with ourselves about the fact that we have adopted the Protestant account of the Reformation—hook, line, and sinker.  (We occasionally go further and adopt the Protestant story of the apostasy as well.) We should also be candid with ourselves that by doing so, we have uncritically adopted one side of what is perhaps the most polemical battle (literal and figurative) in the modern West.  And as our own historical accounts of the Restoration often illustrate, polemical positions usually don’t place a premium on historical accuracy.  Adopting a polemical historical account makes more sense when one has a vested interest in the history; and while we certainly have one when it comes to the Restoration, it is much more difficult to make sense of any interest we have in supporting the Protestant account of the Reformation.  What’s more, in recent decades numerous non-polemical accounts have proliferated; there are no longer only two options to choose from (I recommend this, this, and for those of us who like“very short” introductions, this book).

Next, we should consider the political exploitation of the Reformation.  While even the most orthodox Catholic historians admit the sincerity of many of the reformers (at least the “lay” reformers), even the most orthodox Protestant historians admit the fact that the successful reformations survived in large part because they were a ready tool exploited by the emerging nation-states.  The Reformation was at least as much about a Machiavellian use of religion to mobilize political support as it was about religion.  It’s much harder to think of God’s inspiring the brutal, power-mongering political leaders of the time to support the Reformation than it is to see this as the Constantine-style exploitation of religion that we’re all familiar with.  There are other issues which I do not have the time or ability to go into here, but of which we should be aware of: for example, there are historical arguments that the Reformation overall decreasedpolitical and religious tolerance, that tolerance occurred for economic and pragmatic reasons despite the Reformation (see here; and for a good, non-polemical treatment of the complexity of the tolerance issue, see here), legitimized religious vigilantism, fundamentally shifted the religious landscape to de-legitimize the political-religious Zionism of the early Mormon church, and was the historical catalyst for—if not the source of—the hyper-individualism that characterizes our current political and cultural landscape and which is in direct conflict with the Mormon notions of salvation and exaltation.

I think that the only way we maintain the Protestant version in the church is by discussing the Reformationonly in narrow contexts that don’t come into contact with other parts of our story—including certain parts of the apostasy-to-Restoration story.  We generally focus on the Reformation only in the context of throwing off the shackles of a dramatically over-demonized (i.e., Protestant version) Catholic church and establishing freedom in America.  There are certainly some positive results that we can and should emphasize from the Reformation: some of the reformers and many of the common people really are inspiring examples of good, honest people striving for something better; it was unquestionably a catalyst for literacy (if not for education or intellectual rigor or diversity); and it certainly helped to create the culture of Biblical literacy that played such a huge role in Joseph Smith’s route to the Sacred Grove and many early converts’ route into the Church.  Nevertheless, we ought to recognize that much of what we say about the Reformation in its narrow context is at least in tension with, if not contradictory to, the other things we state.

To begin, we should remember our claim that a protest wasn’t enough; we needed a Restoration.  It’s often assumed, however that the Reformationwas something really good, perhaps even necessary.  But it’s not clear why an apostate protest (i.e., a Reformation that arose out of a corrupt situation) would take us in the right direction.  We can all cite examples where other reforms made things worse, not better (just think of Hitler’s reforms in Germany).  Since it could be either, we should ask which was the case in the Reformation.

From a Mormon perspective the Reformation was doctrinally retrograde.  When we speak of the Reformation bringing us “closer” to the Restoration, we can only mean that it brought the world to a political climate more conducive to a Restoration (something I claimed above was questionable and which I will have more to say about below).  The Protestant version of the story claims that it successfully overcame the theological excesses involved in indulgences and salvific dependence on priests and priesthood ordinances (although initially remaining similar to Catholicism, Luther and other reformers’ notions of a “priesthood of believers” resulted in an ordinance- and authority-free priesthood, something like a divine approval of those with faith).  The former was a localized problem that had already received attention and was on its way to being corrected when Martin Luther protested, and the latter cannot be considered a “fix” from the Mormon standpoint.  Rather, the Reformation ought to be seen as a sort of culmination of the apostasy as it jettisoned the very idea of a legitimate, divinely authorized and transmitted priesthood and the efficacious (or even necessary) ordinances that go with it.  The temple was destroyed in 70 CE and its doctrinal influence abolished from much of Christianity during the Reformation.

Along with an ultimate scrapping of the priesthood and its ordinances, the Reformation substituted the traditional understanding of prophets as humans chosen by God to deliver God’s message and lead God’s people, with an understanding of prophets as superhuman, infallible God-drones.  That is, they took the going notion of a Pope, subtracted the human aspect that Catholicism had been struggling with for centuries, and superimposed it on a prophet.  This non-human, agency-less prophet was then held up in contradistinction with the Pope and the Pope’s obvious humanity and fallibility.  Since there were no possible contenders for the role of prophet on the scene at the time, the Reformers kept the prophets, and all notions of strong, Biblical-style revelation securely in the Bible.  Joseph Smith and the Restoration clearly had a different vision of both prophets and revelation (though one must admit that the Protestant understanding of an infallible prophet continues to mislead many Mormons today).

Finally, the Reformation abandoned any continuity with past dispensations.  Rather than the unified picture of God’s working to establish divine covenants with peoples throughout history in various dispensations, the Reformation gave us several different variations on a theme: qualitatively-inferior-and-ignorant Old Testament groups whose value comes largely in the form of fable. These groups and their jejune beliefs and practices were done away with and replaced by a wholly transcendent, Christ-centered covenant.  This new covenant corrected and overcame all of the mistakes of the prophetic past and gave us a final, once-and-for-all revelation and message contained in the New Testament.

In addition to abandoning or modifying various remnants of what Joseph Smith considered true religion, the Reformation also created or imported powerful ideas that contrast sharply with the Restoration.  As already mentioned, the Reformation was radically individualistic.  (Calvinism may have originally been a communal exception, and there are other exceptions, but radical individualism is a widely accepted fruit of the Reformation.)  There were no longer communities working together toward salvation (an idea taken quite literally during the medieval period).  There was nothing beyond individual humans who obtain salvation through faith or predestination.  This salvation was itself something new: it was an event.  Martin Luther is perhaps the best and most influential example of a theology wherein an eternal, qualitative transformation comes about at a specific moment in time.  Following this one-time event there is nothing more to be said.  Together with event-salvation came its companion: the faith-works dichotomy.  Faith and works became two separate things, partitioning the existential human, further degrading the physical, and turning faith into a wholly intellectual phenomenon.  Faith—which could no longer be in an existential covenant, dispensation, way of life, or method of progression revealed by God through a contemporary spokesman—became psychological faith in Christ.  Since our only access to what, specifically, this amounts to isfound in scripture, faith and salvation became dependant on the Bible.  Protestant Christians became literally people of the book.  While the Reformation-era Christians did not hold contemporary notions of the inerrancy of the Bible, their biblical dependency was certainly the foundation.

Without utilizing the ad hominem attacks on the reformers themselves (a staple of the Catholic versions of Reformation history), we can still look at the immediate fruits of the Reformation.  We’ve already mentioned several positive fruits.  I have also pointed out a ripening of apostate fruits that took place in the Reformation.  What we’ve not yet addressed (and what we often ignore) is the immediate political and social fruits of the Reformation: brutality, war, and intolerance.  So long as we accept the Protestant version of history, the aftermath of human atrocity can be seen as the justified violence needed to throw off the shackles of a hegemonic, fallen institution.  As soon as we step back from the Protestant version of history, however, we see a rending of the social fabric that led to one of the most violent, hate-filled, and fearful periods of modern Western history.If it’s true that the Reformation was another step in the apostasy, we ought not be surprised by its violent, illiberal effects.  What’s more, we can see that it wasn’t necessary.  We can contrast the hateful protest with the reaction of the prophets and Saints in the Restoration.  We weren’t perfect—we burned Galviston, gave a fewsalted earth speeches, and of course we must confront Mountain Meadows—but our reactions to depredation and violence in Missouri, Illinois, and Utah are overall paradigms of restraint and moderation. There were numerous internal reformers who brought about peaceful changes within Catholicism.  We see towering intellectuals and theologians like Erasmus who strenuously argued for and brought about change while refusing to be taken in or used by an excessive Reformation.

Now what about all of the other “positive” fruits of the Reformationwe often hear about in Sunday School and that I’ve so far ignored?  Perhaps the most patently false is the idea that the Reformation finally broke us out of the “dark ages.”  As historians almost universally recognize today, there was nothing unusually “dark” at all about the thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Reformation.  Instead, what we find is one of the most incredible periods of social harmony that exists.  It wasn’t perfect, and it came to an end for reasons we can’t ignore, but acomplimentary socio-theological division of labor unified and stabilized medieval society so successfully that it’s difficult to find parallels. The clergy gave the full-time dedication to the gospel that Christ demanded, and a laity gave the full-time dedication to securing the temporal welfare that life demanded.  Both benefited from the other, and the two frequently came together in public rituals and festivals, as well as in the various “public works” projects like the building of cathedrals that fueled both the temporal and spiritual economy of the time and whose accomplishment continues to inspire us today.

Next, the idea of a separation of church and state is often attributed to the Reformation.  This ignores the fact that the separation of authority into religious and political spheres was a reality during much of the medieval period, and had received widespread acceptance by many Catholics prior to the Reformation.  There can be no question that the Reformation—or rather the horrendous violence that erupted out of it—deeply entrenched the idea in the modern political psyche and practice.  It did so, however, at significant cost—for example, it was a significant contributor to religious disillusionment and served as a catalyst to religious secularism—and there’s good reason to think that its contribution was entirely superfluous.

Then there’s the idea that the Reformation lead to a divinely inspired pilgrimage to America.  We should notice, however, that the pilgrimage had already begun, and much of it had nothing to do with religion.  Of the religiously motivated pilgrims, a good European friend of mine once quipped that these pilgrimswere not motivated by and composed of groups seeking religious freedom, but were fanatical groups, intolerant of their neighbors, who the Europeans with good sense finally kicked out. He surely overstated himself, but a desire to flee a hopelessly wicked Babylon was a major motivation of puritans and other religious groups; and as we all know, the early religious colonies were anything but tolerant.  What’s more, these liberty-loving pilgrimsbegan one of the largest (if not the largest) genocides in history, and their liberty-loving ancestors nearly followed it up with the violent eradication of the Restoration itself.

Which leads us to the common claim that the Restoration would not have survived had God inspired it to occur in Europe—that we needed a few centuries to let the dust of a violent Reformation settle before God could safely raise up a prophet.  This notion surely takes the cake as the least plausible and least faithful idea espoused in our Sunday Schools and elsewhere.  As we’ve already noted, the Reformation was a cause of and not a fight against religious intolerance.  Almost none of the early reformers or their reform movements were particularly tolerant.  Most importantly, however, we should note that unlike Joseph Smith in the 19th century, Martin Luther was not assassinated (whether this was divine or political deliverance is up for debate).  If Luther and Lutheranism were able to survive and flourish in this volatile period, it is either absurd or breathtakingly pessimistic and unfaithful to suppose that Joseph and the Restoration would not have made it.   The reality is, we don’t have any record of a dispensation being opened in a period of peace.  They always arise in the midst of great conflict and threat, and are always concrete archetypes of divine deliverance.  Every dispensation survives on account of divine deliverance.  Late medieval Europe was surely no worse than pharoahonic Egypt.

Finally, none of this is meant to be particularly anti-Protestant or pro-Catholic.  In characterizing the Reformation as a high point in the Great Apostasy, we do not need to deny what are from a Mormon perspective the authentic good fruits of the Reformation or ignore its genuine contributions to the Restoration.  We can instead glorify a God who continually shows himself wise and powerful enough to turn disastrous situations to our gain—just as he did in the Garden of Eden, with Judas, and with the lost 116 pages.  While we’re in no danger of accepting the Catholic version of the Reformation, we ought also to avoid the unhelpful and inaccurate inconsistency of maintaining the Protestant account.

30 comments for “The Revisionist Reformation

  1. I think the idea that the reformation was critical in laying the groundwork for the restoration is so ingrained into the average Mormon psyche that the battle here may already be lost, but I think you’ve raised some compelling questions about common assumptions we often make about the reformation’s role in history and the restoration.

  2. Catholic scholars and others generally agree that the Protestant Reformation lead to internal changes in the Catholic Church – the so-called Counter Reformation – that clarified Catholic doctrine and practice on numerous points and in a good way.

    I think the straightforward case for the Protestant Reformation revolves around the question of religious liberty. It is hard to imagine the Restoration coming off in 15th century Spain or Italy, for example.

    Theological issues, on the other hand, have to be taken one at a time, and there were some healthy developments that should be remembered. In particular, Mormonism adopts so much of the heritage of Wesleyan Arminianism, that Arminius and John Wesley should each be credited as particularly inspired figures in their own right.

    There are other developments of course where Protestantism represented a regression from what we recognize as correct doctrine, and scholastic Calvinism is notable in that regard. There are others.

  3. I’ve written some articles on this subject and while I agree with some of the sentiments, you are engaging in what I would call “anti-myth”; that is, you are attacking overly simplistic historical notions by promoting your own. For instance, promoting a romanticized version of the middle-ages. Most importantly, your narrative leaves out the what are called the “radical reformers” (anabaptists and other radicals). Their contribution toward the things you mention (religious freedom, the groundwork for the Restoration) were significant. My article on the topic is here. While the puritans set up intolerant colonies, the Baptists and Quakers (radicals) established religious freedom in their colonies (Rhode Island and Pennsylvania). It’s unfortunate that people often leave them out of such narratives.

    Also claiming that the Restoration could have survived in Europe because Lutheranism did misses that Lutheranism was radically different than Mormonism. Luther and Calvin had support of local authorities, Joseph Smith did not. Again, radicals that were like Joseph Smith were horribly persecuted and sometimes eradicated, just look what happened to the Munster Anabaptists. Religious toleration was needed and the radicals played a major role in brining it about.

  4. This post contains a number of ideas that have been swirling around in my head ever since I joined the LDS Church. I’ve always bristled at the way Protestantism in all its forms has been characterized by some Mormons as coming “closer” to revealed religion than Catholicism, despite having thrown away quite a few babies with the bathwater.

    Maybe this sentiment has something to do with the fact that the vast majority of first generation Mormons throughout the Church’s first century were converts from Protestant faiths. Hmmmm….ya think???

    I’ve got to put in a few cents for the Puritan colonists, however. Their religious intolerance has often been described as hypocritical, since it was religious intolerance that they were fleeing when they left England. However, the Puritans never claimed they were crossing the Atlantic to establish a land of religious liberty where each could worship according to his own conscience. Rather, they saw the conflict between mainstream state Anglicanism and their own Calvinistic brand of Anglicanism as a conflict between truth and error. They never advocated for a “live and let live” approach, but made enormous sacrifices to establish communities rooted in THEIR faith. Religious liberty as an abstract principle was the farthest thing from their minds, and they were upfront about it before they boarded the ships. Call them intolerant, call them narrow, call them buckle-shod killjoys, whatever, but I don’t think hypocrisy is the correct charge. I wouldn’t want to live in a 17th century Puritan colony (nor would they let me), but then again, I wouldn’t have signed up.

    (I made this point in an American History class back at undergrad, and the Professor said that in the thirty years he had taught that class, I was the first student to stick up for the Puritans.)

  5. I appreciate the comments made so far; if nothing else, I hope this piece is worthy of Marc’s comment—that it raises compelling questions about our common assumptions.

    As disclaimed upfront, the reformation is a kaleidoscopic historical event, and there are of course individual exceptions to the generalities I put forth. For good and bad reasons we talk in generalities in Sunday School. I decided to stay at a general level rather than get into specifics. Also, as mentioned, I’m not in favor of substituting a Catholic narrative for a Protestant one, or of ignoring the positive fruits that came about from various reformations (some of which are being alluded to). Especially since I’m not a historian, I appreciate the comments of those who know history better than I do. Historically speaking, I’m arguing that as Latter-day Saints we should do good history on this period, and history that is true to the whole of Mormonism (adjusting our narrative where needed) rather than defend our standard (Protestant) line.

    Consequently, I’m claiming that statements like:

    It is hard to imagine the Restoration coming off in 15th century Spain or Italy, for example


    Luther and Calvin had support of local authorities, Joseph Smith did not. Again, radicals that were like Joseph Smith were horribly persecuted and sometimes eradicated, just look what happened to the Munster Anabaptists

    lack imagination and an overall Mormon coherence, often lack historical sophistication, and above all else manifest a serious lack of faith (I don’t mean to attack their authors here; but as mentioned, I think that these statements come about as we compartmentalize the different sections of our narrative rather than seriously considering them in context). Noah’s gospel couldn’t survive in society before the flood. Israel couldn’t survive in Egypt. Lehi’s Messianism couldn’t survive in Jerusalem. Mormonism couldn’t survive in antebellum America. In each scenario, God delivered his people. He surely could’ve done so had he wanted to in late medieval Europe (even Italy). I assume God has reasons for choosing the Restoration when and where he did. I just don’t think that these statements are very enlightening as to what those reasons are.

    The same should be said about our other myths, like the nature of medieval society. I’ll admit that my comments above sound as though I’m romanticizing this period. While it’s not my focus, I do acknowledge that this society had its problems and came to an end for what appear to be good reasons. But not only do we inaccurately paint this period as uniquely dark, we fail to acknowledge that it worked. It did. And for a long time. Whether we personally like how things went or would choose to adopt it, it’s a fascinating and unusually stable period of history (again, taken generally; individual counterexamples are easy to find).

  6. Keep in mind what the Lord had to do to deliver His people: Noah (wipe everyone out), Moses (leave for Egypt) and Lehi (leave for the New World). Where would these medieval saints have gone? I do study the periods you describe here and dissenting groups were heavily persecuted and often destroyed (Cathars, Waldensians, Petrobruisians). Keep in mind the classic statement made on the Crusade against the Cathars. When they army arrived at the town that was believed to have a number of Cathars, the military leader asked the Cistercian monk how they were to differentiate between the Cathars and “true” Christians. The response was “kill them all, God will know his own.”

    Take a look at the article I link to. It also attacks the Protestant narrative. (Unfortunately it refers to John Fox where it’s supposed to say George Fox, oops).

  7. It’s probably worth pointing out where the descendants of the Radicals are today: in odd corners of the U.S., and colonies in Mexico and Canada. Even if Josef Schmidt had restored the gospel in 1479 or 1522, it’s reasonable to assume that his descendants would have followed a pattern of emigration and settlement not too different from what we find today.

  8. Steve & Jonathan: I don’t doubt you’re right. There are other parts of the world where eccentric or unorthodox or persecuted groups have found themselves driven (Ethiopia, Eastern China, and India for example), and surely the Lord could’ve led Schmidt or Jung there. But the Book of Mormon and the rest of our narrative makes somewhere in the Americas much more likely.

  9. While it sounds nice to say that God could miraculously bring about the conditions necessary for Joseph Smith and the Restored Church to survive within an unchallenged Catholic hegemony, so all the Reformation blood and gore was unnecessary, the simple historical fact is that the awful history of the Reformation, which coincided with the European discovery and conquest of the Americas, was the actual historical antecedent for the religious diversity of the British colonies that led directly to religious pluralism in the United States, and over time, to increasing religious freedom.

    The LDS church was never very successful in Japan, even withdrawing in 1924, and what success it has had there is a direct result of the awful suffering of World War II that toned down the militarism and xenophobia of Japanese society. God might have done it differently, but that is how he did do it, largely, at the start, through American military men (like my father) who had been trained to fight the Japanese, and who became the first wave of missionaries to convert them to the Restored Gospel.

    The suffering of the Mormons during the anti-polygamy campaign in Utah Territory was significant, but we can only wish for an alternate history in which the Church entered the 20th Century without that legacy of persecution by the Federal government; we cannot say it was not part of the formative experiences of the Church, nor that the grandsons of the last sanctioned polygamous marriages are not still helping to lead the Church.

    By all means, let us be clear-eyed about the realities of the Reformation, just as we should be clear-eyed about the realities of the Revolutionary War and of the Civil War, and all other significant struggles in our past. We should certainly be selective about what aspects of the Reformation contributed to the groundwaork for the restoration, such as the translation of the Bible into vernacular and its wide publication as a kind of Samizdat, and which did not. But we should not also think that it would be a piece of cake to have a Restoration in a European world where there was ongoing war with Islam, and persecution of Jews.

  10. Consequently, I’m claiming that statements like …
    lack imagination and an overall Mormon coherence, often lack historical sophistication, and above all else manifest a serious lack of faith

    If your version of theology is that God finds no virtue in economy of action, and he is willing and able to push people around to achieve any desired result under any circumstances on any time schedule, then sure.

    Personally, I don’t think a disagreement with such theological absolutism manifests a “serious lack of faith” but rather basic rationality in thinking about what God does and why and when he does it.

  11. To me, the fundamental question in the discussion is, “How did God choose the specific place and time of the Restoration?” The positions I see here are:

    (1) It was arbitrary — He could have successfully restored the gospel in any place or time;

    (2) It was influenced by local conditions — He wanted a cultural environment that was conducive to a new religious movement.

    Let me suggest a third. Imagine a gigantic heap of people, with Adam and Eve at the top of the heap, their children beneath them, and so one. Kind of like a big pyramid, which the final generation of humanity making up the base. Now, if you wanted to place a “restored gospel virus” somewhere in the pyramid, with hopes of infecting the entire pyramid, where would you put it?

    Perhaps the Reformation and Restoration weren’t about setting up a cultural or political environment. Perhaps Joseph Smith just happened to be the person at the right spot in the pyramid, central to the history and future of world. I’m not necessarily advocating this interpretation, I just came up with it and haven’t had time to really consider it. But I think it’s interesting.

    (Incidentally, this example only works because our temple work allows the virus to travel backwards in time (i.e., up the pyramid) as well as forward in time (down the pyramid).)

  12. I think the problem with the reformation story is not that we need more details, footnotes, or even vignettes of the exact reform groups or of noble Catholics of the same period. I think the problem is the dumbed-down tedium that is repeated ad nauseum from the pulpit of general conference that is than read from the pulpit at our local congregations. The brethren would not dream of (and should not–could you imagine enduring it with children) listing off a huge collection of radical reformers or exceptions to the norm along with their academic citations. But the false simplification of things such as “the dark ages were a time of no progress” is simply embarrassing. We all know that the “dark ages” of Eastern Europe were the “gleaming ages” elsewhere such as the Middle East. Why simplify it incorrectly from the podium? Answer: because the “scholars” of the church such as Steve the self-proclaimed above have not lent their talents and expertise in a form that the brethren are reading. Those of you who are experts in this field could use your vast amounts of ephemeral blah blah to make an-oversimplified statement accurate–one that could be shared with the masses. Such as “The dark ages of Europe was frought with struggle along with beauty as in every age of creation. Noting the great accomplishments of other lands and peoples allows us to see that God sheds forth his light to his children at all times and places, even when an organized form of his church is not accessible.”

    I fail to see how arguing over minute details lends us a better version of something the brethren could share with the world during conference, and shouldn’t those of you who have the specific knowledge in this topic consider that as a precious opportunity if not obligation?

  13. The worst problem is that people speak of the transition from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance as if the medieval period never happened. In many ways the medieval era was siginificantly brighter than much of what was soon to follow. Talk about revisionism…

    The most effective thing I imagine that could be done to correct this misperception would be to teach the intellectual history of Christianity – from the Resurrection to the Restoration – in a balanced fashion. Easily a semester course, preferably two. And of the two divisions, the period from 1100 to 1800 should be the priority.

  14. Good point Erin. I wasn’t thinking that broadly when I wrote my article on the Reformation. Creating a new and simple grand narrative is very tricky though. “Dark ages,” “good Reformers,” “evil inquisition” are deeply ingrained in our Anglo-American historical narrative.

    That larger world narrative is sort of outside my expertise, I just do the history of Christianity. And since Mark D. brought up John Wesley, see the article I wrote here.

  15. Steve F., Thanks for the pointer. That is an outstanding article with an abundance of material on the subject I had never seen before. The only thing I would add is the usefulness of reading some of the texts delivered by John Wesley himself. For example:

    Nor, lastly, is [a Methodist] distinguished by laying the whole stress of religion on any single part of it. If you say, “Yes, he is; for he thinks ‘we are saved by faith alone:'” I answer, You do not understand the terms. By salvation he means holiness of heart and life. And this he affirms to spring from true faith alone. Can even a nominal Christian deny it? Is this placing a part of religion for the whole? “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law.”

    We do not place the whole of religion (as too many do, God knoweth) either in doing no harm, or in doing good, or in using the ordinances of God. No, not in all of them together; wherein we know by experience a man may labour many years, and at the end have no religion at all, no more than he had at the beginning.

    Much less in any one of these; or, it may be, in a scrap of one of them: Like her who fancies herself a virtuous woman, only because she is not a prostitute; or him who dreams he is an honest man, merely because he does not rob or steal. May the Lord God of my fathers preserve me from such a poor, starved religion as this! Were this the mark of a Methodist, I would sooner choose to be a sincere Jew, Turk, or Pagan. (from “The Character of a Methodist”, by John Wesley)

  16. To me, the clue that the abbreviated version of religious history presented in Church lessons was woefully inadequate is found in doing my own genealogy. In some 10 or more generations, I’ve not got any Catholics or Lutherans, but instead some Hugeonauts, more than a few Wesleyans, with even more Anabaptists. Have any of you read the “Martyr’s Mirror”? I think the abbreviated version of history was a barrier I had to overcome to understand and appreciate and seek out my ancestors; can you imagine how much harder it is to overcome for a person not of Western heritage.

    Changing direction: Do you think that the particular abbreviated version generally adopted was chosen to be reflective of the prophetic passages in 2nd Nephi? How might a revised/broadened reformation history be composed with scripture in mind?

  17. (I made this point in an American History class back at undergrad, and the Professor said that in the thirty years he had taught that class, I was the first student to stick up for the Puritans.)

    Solomon Kane approves.


    food for thought.

  18. Thanks Mark. Of course Times and Seasons’ own Craig Harline is really the expert on all this and does teach influential courses at BYU.

    Coffinberry, do take a look at the links I posted in 3 and 16 on Anabaptists and Methodists. I’d be very interested to hear about your Anabaptist ancestors.

    As far as how we fit our concepts of history with scripture, I think our tendency is to overlay our historical understanding on our scriptures and not vice versa (this is very natural). The Protestant narrative sort of works (I’m thinking of 1Ne 13) but , as James points out, there are some problems with it on closer examination.

  19. Sorry, but this is just a pet peeve of mine. I believe you meant to say it was the “descendants” of the pilgrims that fought against the Restoration.

  20. Again, I enjoy the points being raised.

    Raymond (#11): I agree—how history played out IS how the Lord did it (or what the Lord worked with to bring this dispensation about). The fact that Joseph Smith was called in early 19th century, Protestant, European-descended America is the starting point. This isn’t trivial. What I’m calling into question is the narrative we tell of when and how God was involved, and the historical facts we base them on. I also agree that starting the Reformation in medieval Europe would not have been a cake walk (just as it wasn’t a cake walk in 19th century America).

    Dane (#13): Yes, I think there’s got to be a third route, or perhaps a route that acknowledges both 1 & 2. If we decided to endorse your speculations, however, I think I’d call Joseph and the Restoration “leaven” rather than a virus—helps with the PR.

    Erin & Coffinberry (#14 & #18): Amen. We don’t need technical GC addresses. And such isn’t needed in order to adapt our narrative. You two bring up one of the major reasons we ought to adjust how we tell things: the internationalization of the Church. Not only were the “dark ages” gleaming in some places, but I think it’s important that we begin to tell a narrative that doesn’t leave out the rest of the world. Silence that implies a sort of dispensational limbo amongst most of the population of the world for at least a couple of millennia is sure to be an obstacle. And as Steve (#5) is perhaps alluding to, taking sides in a historical polemic that doesn’t directly involve us can likewise be an unnecessary obstacle. Faithfully exploring other ways of historical appropriation could be very fruitful. This is MUCH more the reason behind my writing than specific details of certain Reformation groups or speculation on whether or how God could’ve/would’ve initiated the Restoration in medieval times.

    None of my comments on the current narrative are meant to be condemnatory. It wasn’t the earlier converts’ fault that they came from a Protestant background. It’s not Talmage’s fault that the scholarship on the history of Christianity during his day was thoroughly dominated by German Protestants. Nor is it our fault that until the latter part of the last century, most of our membership fit nicely into a narrative that only took in Europe and America. From where we stand today, however, I think we have an obligation to critically analyze and where needed adjust and add to our story.

    Mark D. and Steve F. (#15, #16 and #20): Courses at BYU would certainly help. I think a conference of LDS and non-LDS scholars hosted at BYU would also be great and perhaps get the attention of those who could most help to change the narrative. Perhaps most effective for the church overall would be a series of Ensign articles. As Marc Bohn and Steve F. both note, given how ingrained our narrative is, it’ll be hard. The trick in each case is to present the material without flatly refuting (at least in a tactless or faithless way) what has been the content of numerous GC talks and church publications. We’ve successfully done this in a number of other areas (e.g., Mountain Meadows Massacre). We ought to be able to do it here.

    Coffinberry & Steve F. (#18 and #20): I agree with Steve that our readings of I Nephi 12-13 & passages in certain chapters in II Nephi seem problematic much more because of the preconceived understanding we bring to them. I think the current issue is analogous to how we used to naturally read the great & abominable church as the Catholic church. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I think that bringing a new narrative to bear on these chapters will not only NOT pose problems, but will in fact greatly enrich our reading.

  21. Thankfully, I think we have turned this around and most of us can agree that while comments 2-10 make interesting historical conversation, they have little to do with what this article is actually about. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with everything written in James’ article, however, I do think its purpose is potentially quite important. We, as Mormons in general, look incredibly foolish when someone of another faith begins to inquire about a topic that has been glossed over and become a quaint story in our culture. For example, when a typical Latter-Day Saint is asked about the church’s polygamous background, an unfortunate typical response is, “Mormons don’t practice polygamy and anyone who practices isn’t Mormon.” For nearly two thirds of our church’s history, we did practice polygamy, so answering in such a trite manner about our past just leaves people wondering what it is we are hiding presently. The same can be said about spouting off ridiculous fence-sitting Mormon folk-lore when asked about our prejudice priesthood background. It is just silly and embarrassing.

    As we see, the reformation was certainly not all enlightenment and goodness and progression and the dark ages were not as oppressive and unbearable as Preach My Gospel might lead one to believe. An investigator who understands such will quite possibly be turned off if these are the sort of anecdotes we are tossing around. I think it would be a shame to have what is actually and truly the gospel of the Lord unattainable to those who care, simply because we are too engrained culturally to shake off what is certainly not the most important part of the restoration.

  22. “Two thirds” is a bit of an exaggeration. 71 years (1833-1904) at most out of 179 (1830-2009) is about four tenths. If you drop a few anomalies, 1841-1890 is more like it, just over a quarter of LDS Church history.

  23. If one includes the lifetimes of officially sanctioned polygamists (i.e., the years we had officially sanctioned polygamists in our community), the figure is much more like two-thirds, perhaps a little longer.

  24. Mark D. – As James points out, we had officially sanctioned polygamists (who had entered into polygamy before 1904) up through the 1960s. I know a number of people who had active, participating polygamists in their wards when they were younger.

  25. I wonder if echoes of the Reformation went on for centuries, like mentioned. The old Catholic belief that the average person needed someone in the priesthood to study & explain the scriptures for them, even if they were literate, went on for a long time, until being changed. And, that was long after the Reformation.

    Then, there’s Transubstantiation. At what point did the Reformers toss that away? How many of them still believed it?

    Not trying to hijack this, but why is so much blame about the Jewish Holocaust put on the Catholics? What about the Lutherans? About half of Germans are Lutheran, so what was their part in all this? Yet, I do know that a number of Danish Lutherans did save a number of Danish Jews by sneaking them to Sweden. And what about some of the Eastern Orthodox churches? I know the Russian Orthodox Church would be fair game for Nazi persecution, but were none of the other Orthodox churches appalled about Nazi atrocities? Did they comply or resist extermination? It’s hard to blanket say who’s innocent, resistive, or complicit in this abomination.

    While doing my Family History, I’ve seen original documents urging harsh official action by the State church of the Isle of Man, which was under under the Anglican Diocese of York, against Quakers. I have ancestors on another line that were first Inghamite, a group that had some popularity in the mid 1700’s in England, then later became Baptist. They were looked down upon in society, but it was not like the persecution of the Quakers. Or, the Huguenots.

  26. Marc Bohn, While I don’t doubt that essentially platonic relationships and material support continued in non legally sanctioned marriages for many years, by 1910 I can hardly imagine that plural couples with continuing intimate / sexual relations would be respected or remain a members in good standing. By that time the Church was running a regular propaganda war against the break away groups who insisted on continuing the practice.

    New plural marriages in the US were relatively rare after the start of the Utah Raid in 1880. With a small handful of exceptions LDS plural marriages would each be in at least their thirtieth anniversary by 1910. How many of those members in good standing can we believe were still unlawfully cohabiting as they entered their fifties?

    By way of example, I have two prominent polygamists among my direct line ancestors who were alive during the Utah Raid. One of them (who had entered into six plural marriages) was sent to jail for the practice during the 1880s. However, none of their children, the earliest of whom would have come of age about 1870, entered into plural marriages as far as I know.

    As such it is hard to believe that US members in good standing who were still cohabiting after 1910 were anything but a bizarre anomaly. Same for those members in Mexico and Canada, except delayed ten or fifteen years. That is not to say that those members didn’t live or maintain non-intimate relationships for many years after that of course.

  27. Mark D. – You’re misinformed. No Church action was taken against cohabiting polygamists who were married before the second proclamation in 1904.

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