Theorizing the Restoration in the Sixteenth Century

S. FranckI’ve written before about Sebastian Franck, a spiritualist who charted his own path through the religious turmoil of the Reformation era. As I was recently reading Franck’s letter to the Anabaptist theologian Johann Campanus, I was struck by how familiar Franck’s discussion of apostasy, authority, and restoration sounded.

Now, however, since experience teaches that the power of the external church and all things external has fallen into decay and that the church is dispersed among the heathen, truly it is my opinion that no person on earth can gather up the same and bring again its sacraments into use without a special call from God. For this is a work of external and special calling, and external things must have an external call. […] Therefore I have said that the outward ceremonies of the church ought not to be re­established unless Christ himself command it, who did not speak orally to us but to the apostles and originally entrusted to them that they should preach and baptize. But no such directive is given to us, for everyone is stealing and robbing the word of God from his neighbors. I will bite my tongue and simply write that many intrude into this divine office without any calling or sending. […] This is what I am saying: They are restoring the vanished sacraments, as I regard them, which no one should do unless he is especially sent for the purpose and provided with an outward sign and calling from God.

For it is impossible that the one undivided God with Christ, grace, and the sacraments should be in such different churches. […] Therefore either none of all the churches baptizes, or only one of them. If only one, where, my friend, is this church? Perhaps in India, Greece, Germany, Armenia, at Rome, in Saxony, or in the mountains. But I believe nowhere. Instead, they all run uncalled and enter into the sheep[fold] unsent.

(Franck’s original Latin letter, now lost, survives in sixteenth-century German and Dutch translation. The translation here is my  adaptation based on George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, 1957, 152-54; specifically, I have corrected some of the language and relied on the Dutch text for a passage unclear in the German.)

Franck’s own view was that Christians were better off with a spiritual rather than a physically gathered Church until Christ would overthrow Antichrist at the Second Coming, but his criteria for what constituted apostasy and restoration—loss of sacramental authority, which Franck thought had occurred soon after the time of the apostles, and its restitution—is very much like our own. His gesture towards the diversity of churches sounds much like Joseph Smith’s description of his teenage experience, and Franck’s mention of a prophet called of God and given an outward sign is reminiscent of the role the Book of Mormon played in Joseph Smith’s ministry.

This has some important implications.

It reminds us that Mormonism is a response to a long-standing debated within Christianity. What constitutes apostasy, and what would a restoration demand? What does church history since the time of Christ look like? Mormonism is a thinking-through of these questions. We’re a part of that conversation.

Questions about apostasy, the diversity of churches, and restoration predate 1820/30 by centuries. While the Church will have to express its messages as an answer to newer questions, old questions never go away entirely and have a way of returning to relevance. The question, “What church is true” will be with us for a long time.

The familiarity of Franck’s language also suggests how Mormonism fits into the Christian tradition as a post-Reformation, non-Protestant church. The Reformation had many strands, as different from each other as they were from Catholicism, and with different ways of relating to pre-Reformation Christianity. As Jürgen Beyer argues, “Protestantism” was a late invention reflecting reconciliation between Lutheranism and Calvinism centuries after the Reformation. Protestantism incorporated particular elements of post-Reformation diversity and excluded others, including important currents of Christian conversation that led to Mormonism. If we don’t seem to have any close relations at the picnic, it’s because some of our nearest ancestors have disappeared.

11 comments for “Theorizing the Restoration in the Sixteenth Century

  1. I’ve been thinking for a while about what recognitions like this might mean to Latter-day Saints. On the one hand, your find takes away a little of the perceived uniqueness of Mormonism and might discomfit some people (much like the recognition that Joseph Smith was hardly the first to present a dietary health code disillusioned some). On the other hand, you position Joseph Smith as a normal, thoughtful young man joining an ages old discussion — which might, for some, enhance his standing as a prophet. He, after all, is the one who got the ultimate answer.

    I enjoy your contributions, Jonathan. You extend the history of Mormon-like thought to centuries and places beyond anything in a typical Mormon history study.

  2. It’s worth noting that in the 16th & 17th century these questions in Europe weren’t only being asked relative to Protestantism but also in the more esoteric tradition as various ancient texts and traditions were dispersed thanks to the Renaissance. We had the art of memory, the rediscovery of plato and neoplatonism, gnostic and hermetic traditions, and more. Those traditions and ideas entered into movements like Masonry around this time.

    Outside of what I’d call the esoteric and Protestant traditions we then had interesting purported prophecy or related movements. Swedenborg in the 17th century is one example who was influential on early America and offered some parallels to Mormonism.

    In discussing the very idea of apostasy historically, those two broad movements really need to be considered.

  3. “As Jürgen Beyer argues, “Protestantism” was a late invention reflecting reconciliation between Lutheranism and Calvinism centuries after the Reformation. ”

    Interesting. I didn’t know that.

  4. Ardis, that’s a good point. I tend to be a maximalist when it comes to how unique Joseph Smith was, at the same time that I think his historical context is important. I guess I see context and tradition as primarily helping to explain the kinds of questions he was asking, rather than the answers he received.

    Matt, that was my reaction to reading Beyer as well, but based on the small corner of the primary sources from that era that I work with, I think he’s right. I’m planning a post about how Beyer’s book might be relevant to Mormon Studies, but I need to wait until my review for an academic journal comes out, so it might be a few months yet.

    Clark, good points, but one thing I want to discuss more in that future book review is that esoteric traditions may not be the best explanation if there are more mundane options available. They’re still interesting parallel developments, though.

  5. I think that in practice while we make distinctions between traditions in practice the lines were extremely blurry at best. Take the rediscovery of Platonism particular theurgical or hermetical types. Those deeply influenced how orthodox religious people often thought of things. Likewise someone like Swedenborg was the son of a Lutheran bishop and deeply influenced by Lutheranism even if his movement was considered non-Christian due to the rejection of the Trinity. However Swedenborg is influential on many figures both those outside of acceptable Christianity but often inside such as various Anglican and Methodist preachers. Much of the so-called spiritual but not religious movement in early America (influencing arguably Joseph’s father) would have been influenced by him. Contemporaries of Joseph Smith such as Warrant Felt Evans (originally a Methodist) end up being influenced both by Swedenborg but also the Transcendentalists.

    Drawing clear lines between Protestantism and esotericism is frequently quite hard. Admittedly there was also opposition (such as say Lutheran antagonism to Masonry)

  6. Love this post, Jonathan, and your brief exchange here with Ardis, which sketches out the range of ways in which a better, fuller understanding of Reformation and post-Reformation history can shape our thinking about Mormonism’s contribution to the broad Christian tradition. Your discoveries in various 500-year-old documents–a vision here, a trenchant comment there–are always intriguing. Keep it up.

  7. Very good points about Protestants working to shut out these aspects of the Radical Reformation. These things do stick around though (as you know). But notions of restoration isn’t Mormonism’s only tenet and as Clark points out, esoteric thinkers like Swedenborg have other similarities. And I’ll just bring up Jane Lead, since she is the closest to Mormonism (on restoration and most other points) and she clearly influenced Swedenborg. So these things could mix.

  8. The Preacher said “there is no new thing under the sun.” What we have is that which is new to us. There were quite a few converts to the church who had expressed that they were convinced that God’s authority was no longer on the earth. The “melting pot” of cultures and beliefs that the U.S. became almost surely helped such ideas take root, but even then it was not easy sledding. However I wonder how Joseph would have fared in England or another of the “Old Countries.”


  9. Stephen, I was less thinking of doctrinal or ritual parallels between Mormonism (especially Nauvoo Mormonism) and these more esoteric traditions. Although heaven knows you’re right that many of the things Mormons think needed restored were found in those traditions. Further most of them can be traced back to the ancient world via that conduit with at least a reasonable case to be made they were part of very, very early Christianity and the Judaism of the era.

    But more what I was thinking of were figures who felt a restoration was needed, but who weren’t in the Protestant tradition as much. As you’ve noted in your own writing theurgical platonism (very broadly considered) tended to ascribe a lot of ideas including religious ones to Hermes Trismegistus. Even though fairly early on in the modern period these beliefs were shown to be false, the tradition of restoring these very old traditions from Egypt became a prominent theme in the esoteric tradition. It’s that sense of restoration I was thinking of.

  10. To quote a comment I made on a post with a similar theme back in 2005 (

    In thinking about this, I’ve come to the general conclusion that the Restoration happened as soon as it could. It happened in what was almost certainly the most religiously free nation on Earth, and Joseph Smith still ended up being martyred. The Saints were persecuted and forced to flee to Utah.

    If the Restoration had been attempted sooner, the restored church might have been crushed before it developed. (Or, possibly worse, coopted by a government. Here’s a bit of alternate history for you: A young Spanish explorer in Mesoamerica in the early 1500s finds and translates the golden plates and begins to restore the gospel, including the doctrine of plural marriage. Although nobody expected it, the new religion runs afoul of the Spanish Inquisition. But when Henry VIII of England is looking for a way to have a male heir, he decides Los Mormones have the answer. Mormonism becomes the established religion of England.)

    If the Restoration had happened a generation or two later, the restoring prophet would probably have lived to a ripe old age, and Church headquarters would probably still be somewhere back east. And the growth curve of the Church would be behind where it is.

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