Times & Seasons is pleased to announce that Jonathan Green, scholar of German, master of trivia, academic vagabond and world-class T&S commenter, has agreed to grace our blog with a guest stint. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to take up his guest-blogging duties for a few weeks, as his family will soon be in transit from Charleston, South Carolina (where he had a visiting position at the College of Charleston) to Lansing, Michigan (where he will take up a visiting position at Michigan State University–and incidentally, Jonathan would love to hear from anyone with a line on housing options in the Williamston ward…). But as the first post which Jonathan wrote is a detailed review that takes a very different look at one of the books Kaimi recently reviewed, we thought it best to get it out to the T&S reading audience before too much time went by. So consider this review also a preview. And with that, we turn the time over to Jonathan, and .
As one who works professionally on the Middle Ages and early printing, I have an abiding interest in members of the church learning more about medieval and early modern history. Too often the years before the Restoration, stuck with the label of the Great Apostasy, are treated as utterly unlike and irrelevant to our own religious experience. The oft-repeated historical narrative of how the Restoration came about (from Wycliffe to Luther to the Pilgrims to Joseph Smith) is timeworn and, I believe, in need of serious rethinking. So I can only applaud the preface to Prelude to the Restoration, which sets as its goal the illumination of the “complicated choreography of history by which the world became ready for Joseph Smith and the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ,” including aspects that are “ignored or unknown by many Latter-day Saints.” The theme of the 2004 Sperry Symposium was inspired by an address of M. Russell Ballard at BYU-Hawaii, in which the apostle compared reformers to prophets and called for Latter-day Saints to recognize and honor those who prepared the way for the Restoration. The preface raises expectations that an exciting and neglected topic will at last receive the attention it deserves.
Hope dies on page one. While there are some exceptional essays in this volume, most of the contributions fail to meet, or even to aim for, the standard raised in the preface. To their credit, many of the contributors are feeling their way through unfamiliar territory in the medieval and early modern period, but I wish that more thought and more work had gone into coming to grips with the texts and history of an unfamiliar era.
The strongest contributions are those that address earlier religious practices and Reformation figures, particularly the less well known among them. Steven Harper’s chapter on “Thomas MÃ¼ntzer and the Radical Reformation” illustrates the great potential for a Mormon re-evaluation of Reformation history. It is common for Latter-day Saints to view Catholicism as the foe and Luther as our champion in the Reformation, but Harper points out that both Catholics and Protestants are to be found among the martyrs and the oppressors of the day. Both sides persecuted members of the Anabaptist sects, who should in fact be more sympathetic figures for Latter-day Saints than the well-known reformers who approved of the oppression. Harper is absolutely correct that this is a part of Reformation history that we have ignored too long (but considering Harper’s title, he really should somewhere cite George H. Williams’s The Radical Reformation, a monumental work on the Anabaptists and a work that members of the church could study most profitably). I question Harper’s nomination of Thomas MÃ¼ntzer as a distant ancestor of Mormonism, however. While MÃ¼ntzer’s insistence on the central role of continuing revelation is admirable, this view was not unique among the various Anabaptist movements. Furthermore, MÃ¼ntzer’s radicalism was not limited to the religious sphere: he instigated and led an armed peasant uprising. While one might be sympathetic to MÃ¼ntzer’s social egalitarianism (and Prelude to the Restoration would certainly benefit from more of MÃ¼ntzer’s torch-and-pitchfork spirit), MÃ¼ntzer’s life and work is a poor parallel to Joseph Smith’s: MÃ¼ntzer was tried and executed by legal authority in no small part for leading a bloody rebellion, while Joseph Smith was murdered by illegal mob action for his faith. Still, Harper’s contribution is original and on the right path: there are figures among the Radical Reformation whom Latter-day Saints can wholeheartedly embrace.
A large group of mostly unimpressive essays consist of descriptive accounts of various aspects of history prior to the Restoration, too often trying to dress up the mundane as miraculous by mere dint of its occurrence. In the best case, the result is an engaging narration of unfamiliar material. The result in the worst case is a rehash of well-known facts or lengthy recitation of irrelevant details that make no contribution to our understanding of Apostasy and Restoration. Many essays entirely misapprehend the significance of Gutenberg and the role of the Catholic Church with respect to dissemination of the Bible, often reflecting the false caricature of a corrupt institution hiding the Good Book from the restive masses. The Bible was not a book in the Middle Ages, but a library, and its individual components did not typically circulate as a unit. The Bible was predominantly read by clerics and owned by monasteries because only clerics could read, and only monasteries owned books, until the late Middle Ages. The common people could neither read books, nor afford them. Instead, the Catholic Church spread the gospel for centuries the only way possible, by oral preaching. Gutenberg’s first book was not the Bible; rather, his printing of the Bible represents the culmination and perfection of his art. The Bible was printed many times, in Latin and vernacular languages, before Martin Luther.
With regret I note that the contributions by medievalists have their own shortcomings. Both Jennifer Lane’s discussion of the imitation of Christ in late medieval devotional practice, and Paul Pixton’s notes on “Medieval Texts in Mormon Hymnody,” present fascinating explications of medieval material that should resonate with Latter-day Saint experience–but both authors take pains to avoid any suggestion of similarity. Lane ultimately finds medieval devotion to the life and passion of Christ to be lacking in comparison to the access to the Atonement offered by the restored priesthood ordinances, but that is a false comparison: the correct comparison is between late medieval and contemporary Mormon practices of private devotion, and here there is much to be learned from recognizing the similarities. Pixton lucidly explains the medieval theological context of three hymns found in our modern hymnbook: “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” and “All Creatures of our God and King,” which is no small accomplishment. Understanding how other ages have sought to comprehend Christ should increase our own understanding of the Atonement, but Pixton discusses these hymns not for the sake of illustrating any continuity between medieval and Mormon devotion or theology, but only in order to show how medieval Christianity changed over time-which, in the context of a discussion of Apostasy, is fraught with negative connotations. “What we have witnessed is a religious world constantly redefining itself,” he concludes. This should have been an opportunity for Pixton to help a Mormon audience appreciate the theory of atonement that lies at the heart of “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” so that more LDS students can, for example, learn to be moved by “The Dream of the Rood.”
John Welch’s chapter on the role of creeds in the Apostasy is entirely out of place in a volume dedicated to the precursors of the Restoration. Despite a shaky foundation–Welch notes that Joseph Smith specifically mentions creeds in only one of the accounts of the First Vision, and he concedes in a footnote that the word may not have been intended in the narrow sense of statement of faith–Welch proceeds to argue that creeds were the “main villain” in the Apostasy. Welch asserts on slim evidence that early Christian statements of faith became more complex over time, then declares that this is a sign of Apostasy-in other words, his argument is leaking straw from the seams. Welch states (but does not show) that the antecedents of the Christian creeds were New Testament statements of faith, which Welch calls “short, varied, unrehearsed, and intensely personal,” including Nathanael’s “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel” (John 1:45-49). Welch writes: “No one had told Nathanael what to say; his declaration is pure and unformulaic.” But this is silly: there is absolutely no way to know that there was no formulaic context to Nathanael’s statement, as recorded at best decades after the event, and preserved in manuscripts that are at best a century or more later. Welch sees the ultimate consequence of creedal divisiveness in the many Protestant creeds, of which he lists many examples from 1523 to 1837, but here Welch is comparing vastly different phenomena separated by nearly 900 years from his earlier examples (Welch adds a handful of late medieval Orthodox creeds to hide but not span the gap). The most frustrating failing of Welch’s contribution is that he has an interesting point that unfortunately never gets developed: that not the content of a creed, but its very existence is the problem, because formalized statements of faith lead to divisiveness and exclusion; that the more precise a definition of faith is, the more false it must be. I am left wondering: why was this chapter included in the volume? Rather than help Latter-day Saints better understand and re-evaluate the nature of Apostasy and Restoration, Welch’s contribution merely reinforces widespread Mormon suspicion towards Catholicism and other Christian churches. Welch, the biggest name in Mormon studies today, can do better than this.
The first chapter in Prelude to the Restoration is by Andrew Skinner. Skinner’s contribution is perhaps the most problematic in the collection. To point out just one area of concern, Skinner’s historical evidence that forerunners of Joseph Smith were anticipating the Restoration takes the form of the same quotations, stripped of context, that we have been hearing for more than a century. While Thomas Jefferson, in a quotation cited by Skinner, states his admiration for Christ’s original teachings and disdain for their subsequent corruption, and looked forward to a restoration of primitive Christianity, he intended a restoration nearly opposite of that brought about through Joseph Smith; in preparing a summary of Christ’s teachings, Jefferson systematically eliminated the miraculous and supernatural elements. Skinner also cites Thomas Paine as a Founding Father who anticipated the Restoration, but Paine was a deist who found the Bible ridiculous; the Restoration was unlike any “revolution in the system of religion” that Paine expected. A more likely voice of anticipation cited by Skinner is Roger Williams, but his dramatic and much-repeated statement–“There is no regularly constituted church on earth, nor any person qualified to administer any church ordinances; nor can there be until new apostles are sent by the Great Head of the Church for whose coming I am seeking”–is quite possibly apocryphal. Skinner quotes Williams as cited in a pamphlet published by our church in 1976, although the most accessible source is probably LeGrand Richards’s Marvelous Work and Wonder, and the oldest citation in an LDS source that I find is from 1882. All of these in turn cite as their source William Cullen Bryant’s 1872 Picturesque America, where the statement in question is attributed to Williams, but without a source. Although Williams may have expressed similar sentiments, an afternoon with Roger Williams’s edited works could not verify the statement’s existence. It is in any case Skinner’s obligation not to rely upon a quote that ultimately derives from a picture book. As Dean of Religious Education at BYU, he sets the tone not just for a symposium but for all of his colleagues’ research. Latter-day Saints look to them to discover who really was anticipating the Restoration. Skinner, an experienced scholar who has published widely, can do better.
For the presenters at the Sperry Symposium, who are for the most part professors of religion at BYU, forerunners to the Restoration should be exactly the kind of topic that belongs to their core competency: gospel-related, but obscure and poorly-understood, yet potentially interesting and important. This is exactly the kind of topic where the Religion faculty should be able to offer enlightenment because of the research they have conducted, which they can conduct because of their unique position. But Prelude to the Restoration does not live up to its promise, or to their potential.