I want to start a discussion using one of Rosalynde’s comments as a launching point. In a comment on my first post, Rosalynde reminded us that we in the church often talk about the Protestant Reformers as though they helped lay the groundwork for the Restoration. She used the term “proto-prophets” to describe the talk. Names like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Tyndale can be dropped from our lips without anyone blinking an eye in discussions about the preconditions necessary for the “coming forth” of the Restoration. We often talk about the framers of the Constitution or explorers like Columbus in the same terms, as people who had some vital part in the Restoration project long before Joseph Smith was born. Our own scripture calls the framers “wise men whom I raised up” (D&C 101:80).
Bracketing for a moment the question of whether Mormons should be talking about Reformers as proto-prophets, I want to reflect upon our practice of talking about them in such ways. The examples are enough, I think, to suggest the more general point that Mormons believe they have room in their history (and perhaps also in their theology) for non-Mormons who help make the grand work possible. The question then becomes why we stop with reformers, explorers, and framers. Does our own logic demand that we continue past 1820 to consider outsiders who did other lines of work useful to the church? If we talk about non-LDS “preparing the ground” for the beginning of the Restoration, why do we not talk about non-LDS preparing ground for the middle, the end, and points in between?
Nothing in our talk requires proto-prophets to be perfect; we can admit the private failings of Jefferson and Franklin even while allowing them to be “raised up” for special purposes. Why, then, are we not extending the idea to the 1820s when the Palymra ministers provoked Joseph Smith to read and ponder the Bible; to the 1830s when temperance reformers prompted questions leading to the Word of Wisdom; to the 1840s when eastern womens’ societies inspired the founders of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo; to the 1860s when British mercantilists lit the imaginations of our cooperative enterprisers; to the 1930s when FDR’s welfare state sent our apostles looking for alternatives; to the 1970s when women’s lib opened the way for LDS women praying in sacrament meeting? The examples could go on and on, branching off from people–the proto-prophets–to more recent cultural movements akin to older streams like religious liberty or the dignification of the common man.
I am not denying revelation in our doctrines and practices; nor am I advocating that we approach our history in this way. I am, however, interested in our speech practices, specifically, the implications in our speech about the Reformers.