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.