Anabaptists on my Mind

July 7, 2005 | 19 comments
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Mormons are neither Catholic nor Protestant, we often hear, and I see no reason to doubt the basic truth of the statement. Is there any spectrum of Christian religions such that we can say, “Mormonism is one of the X churches”?

Certainly we share some things with other churches that grew out of nineteenth-century America, but I have a hard time seeing that we have much more in common than the temporal and spatial coordinates of our founding moments. But if we relax those petty restrictions of time and space a bit…If Mormons had existed in sixteenth-century Europe, you and I would have been called Anabaptists.

I’ve been reading for some time, as an outsider to religious studies and a Germanist who knows too little about the Reformation, about what some have called the Radical Reformation, which encompassed movements both within and outside orthodox Catholicism and the Protestant mainstream. In my reading I keep experiencing the shock of the familiar.

The Anabaptists, as their name implies, were rebaptizers. That is, most Anabaptist movements rejected the practice of infant baptism and the authority with which those ordinances had previously been performed, instead insisting upon the rebaptism of their adherents. They usually rejected any religious role for secular government: believers should follow their own convictions, not the religious practices ordained by the laws of the land and enforced by the prince’s sword. We share with the Anabaptists several elements of our history (temporary refuges in Strasbourg/Nauvoo, exile under duress to make the desert blossom like a rose in Moravia/Utah, persecution and martyrdom of the founders), and many elements of our theology have parallels somewhere along the Anabaptist spectrum (for example, in the relative importance of prophecy and scripture). Enormities like reflections on eternal marriage and trifles like using water in the sacrament can also be found in one Anabaptist group or another. Just as the Mormon pioneers kept travelling farther in search of refuge, many Anabaptist movements undertook migrations that took them far from their central European homes, into Russia, Canada, and the infant United States. Above all, we share with the Anabaptists the claim that we are the one true Church, restored in the last days after a millennium or more of Apostasy, and we feel the burden of the Great Commission to preach the gospel throughout the world. None of these parallels are by themselves unique, but taken together they suggest that we could learn something about ourselves by thinking about the Anabaptist experience.

For example: Many Anabaptist movements gained their initial impulse from the observation that the Reformation had not resulted in any improvement in human behavior. The Anabaptist solution was the ban: to remain the true body of Christ, they needed to bar grievously sinful members from fellowship until they repented. After the first few decades of Anabaptism, most who were baptized as adults were no longer converts, but rather those who were being baptized into their parents’ faith, with the consequence that adult baptism became a marginal element of personal religious experience. Instead of baptism, the ban became the ordinance that marked the boundary between believers and unbelievers. Some have suggested a greater use of disfellowship and excommunication in Mormonism than in other churches, but I think the better parallel with the Anabaptists is in the conversion narratives of lifelong members, where baptism at eight is often not a terribly significant event. What takes the place of baptism in many cases are periods of inactivity followed by a new commitment to the church and the gaining of personal conviction as an older adolescent or adult. Has reactivation replaced baptism as the defining moment of our spiritual lives?

If we agree that similarities exist between the Mormon and Anabaptist experience, what significance do they have? There are several possibilities.

1. The similarities are structural: any Christian restitutionist movement by its nature believes certain things, makes particular claims about itself, and behaves in certain ways. The realization that no church is true suggests an attempt to restore a church that claims to be true, and everything else that follows is merely a logical consequence.

2. The similarities indicate direct influence: the religious ecology of early America was shaped by Anabaptist refugees from Europe. Joseph Smith copied from their playbook.

3. The similarities indicate that the Anabaptist experience prepared the way for the Restoration: the religious climate in which Joseph Smith found himself was informed by Anabaptist thought; it didn’t give Joseph Smith his answers, but it did influence the questions he asked.

Coming up next: how we are not like the Anabaptists.

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19 Responses to Anabaptists on my Mind

  1. Kevin Barney on July 7, 2005 at 10:56 pm

    There was an article in Dialogue, which was also a presentation at MHA, and I think maybe even now a book, exploring the religioius background of the earliest Mormon converts. This interesting research suggests that the earliest Mormons came disproportionately by a large margin from radical Christian movements, and not the mainstream.

  2. Rosalynde Welch on July 7, 2005 at 11:33 pm

    Jonathan, you scooped me! I have a very similar post cooking—claiming, though, that Mormons are really sixteenth-century catholics.

    A few related notes: there’s an article in the most recent BYU Studies by J. Spencer Fluhman, “Early Mormon and Shaker Visions of Sanctified Community,” noting substantial similarities (and also a crucial difference or two) in Mormon and Shaker communitarianisms.

    There’s also an interesting series in _First Things_ entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (see the most recent here) exploring, meticulously and at length, shared tenets and doctrinal convergence. If I were smarter, I’d try to work up a post inserting Mormons into the mix.

  3. Karen on July 8, 2005 at 12:33 am

    Why not say that we’re part of a family of “mormon origin” churches. There are certainly enough off shoots who credit Joseph Smith with their founding, that the group is large enough to note. The Community of Christ says something similar to this in their introduction to the Kirtland temple film. Of course, that’s allying ourselves with such notables as the polygamist cults and the King of Beaver Island, so we might not want to jump up volunteering for inclusion.

  4. Jonathan Green on July 8, 2005 at 3:33 am

    Kevin, do you remember anything more about the title or author? I’d be interested in hearing it, as it would support an otherwise totally unfounded speculation of mine, and help draw the line more directly between the Anabaptists and Joseph Smith.

    Rosalynde, I’m pleased to have scooped you (and hopefully I’ll manage to do it again in the next few days), but I’d also like to see that comparison of Mormons and 16th-century Catholics sometime.

    Karen, I agree, any religious family tree will have several branches descending from Joseph Smith. But who belongs one level above the Mormon sub-family? I don’t think we’re entirely isolated within the family of Christian religions, but we’re a bit hard to place, hence the comparison to the Anabaptists.

    Finally, a friend reminds me that “enormity” does not mean what it appears to mean. I persisted in following the debased usage for want of a better word. Suggestions for a replacement are welcome. Grammar Boy, where are you?

  5. Kingsley on July 8, 2005 at 3:57 am

    Hugeness, vastness, monstrous size of the thing, immensity, its elephantine super titanic mungo jumboness, etc.

  6. Wilfried on July 8, 2005 at 4:14 am

    Great to have your posts and insights, Jonathan.

    The questions you raise should, I believe, be seen in the broader perspective of the total history of Christianity. We have a tendency to look at the 16th century Reformation as the start of a new movement, which followed what we perceive as a rather monolithical medieval Catholic period. The next step is then to imply that Joseph Smith built on the fundament of that reformation movement. I don’t think that perception is completely correct.

    First, main doctrines or practices, which we consider part of the Primitive Church, have always continued in some form or another among Christian movements. Among those are the belief in a corporeal God, the refusal of infant baptism, the simplicity of liturgy, and many others. The controversies and persecutions against those “dissidents” have raged for centuries in the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, typifying the thinking of various Church Fathers, founders of Christian thought. But they themselves were divided too on doctrines and practices. Sometimes they were very close to what would be “Mormon” today, sometimes way off.

    Second, reformist movements, in the shadow of the Catholic political and ecclesiastical center, have always existed during the later Middle Ages. Hundreds of tendencies, carried by the writings of remarkable personalities and by the organization of sects, fraternities, beguinages, communities, convents, etc. can be identified. The constant and substantial persecution by the Catholic Church against those movements is well documented. Some of those movements became so large, like Catharism, that they had to be crushed by real crusades. Catharism, for one, is an interesting example of a massive attempt to partially return to the perceived apostolic purity of the Primitive Church. We speak here of the 12th and 13th centuries. The Reformation was thus a continuation of what had been going on for ages. But its various movements could blossom in new environments, like the printing press, political havens, and the erosion of Catholic power. And finally lead to real and independent churches that could not be crushed anymore.

    Third, I think that what Joseph Smith brought was remarkably unique, compared to what had preceded, even if it is obvious and inescapable that various elements, going back to the Primitive Church, would be part of it. Unique is the claim of direct revelation, the First Vision, the visiting of angels restoring authority. And then especially that concrete gift with its astonishing richness, the Book of Mormon. Also, consider in all this Joseph’s age. He was not a learned man who could have absorbed the history of Christianity, understood the concepts of reformation and who could have developed sufficient experience to do what he did, just on his own. He started at age 15, in confusion, and read James 1:5.

  7. Silus Grok on July 8, 2005 at 11:05 am

    Over at See Life Differently, author Christian Cryder (a evangelical seminarian) discusses Mormonism quite a bit, and this is an issue he’s struggled with a great deal… as for me, I haven’t had to come up with a term for _us_ (“Mormon” works just fine), but have instead struggled with finding a term for _other_ Christian denominations (as the contrast against us), and the best I’ve come to is “trinitarian”, which conveniently leaves out Jehovah’s Witnesses (and, I’m sure, a few other outliers).

  8. Nate Oman on July 8, 2005 at 11:16 am

    Jonathan: If you read Brooke’s _The Refiner’s Fire_ he has a very extensive discussion linking early Mormons to the radical reformation and the Puritan fringe in New England (short version: Massachusetts was the seat of orthodox Calvinism; those who adopted more radical positions moved to the fringe of New England, especially Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont). Brooke’s discussion is really interesting, and I find his thesis regarding the connection between Mormonism and Puritanism facinating. (Note: I find the parallells and dissimilarities between Mormonism and 17th century Puritanism really interesting.) However, it is difficult to figure out how significant the links that Brooke’s identifies are. First, there is the question of whether or not he is cherry picking his examples. Second, he frequently resorts to the geographic-proximity-demonstrates-influence inference that others — particularlly Quinn — find so enticing. There is nothing wrong with this move per se, IMHO. Certainly, given a paucity of sources it is frequently the best that we can reasonably hope for. Still, it makes one less confident of the connection. Brooke’s book got a lot of bad press from Mormons, but I tend to think that the reaction was overly defensive. It is definitely something that ought to be read critically (but that goes for anything, right?). However, I think he has some very interesting material.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on July 8, 2005 at 11:27 am

    Wonderful post, Jonathan. I look forward to part #2. One criticism though:

    “Above all, we share with the Anabaptists the claim that we are the one true Church, restored in the last days after a millennium or more of Apostasy, and we feel the burden of the Great Commission to preach the gospel throughout the world.”

    I think this statement needs to be highly qualified, to say the least. Yes, there were and are evangelical Anabaptists, both individually and as separate sects. But by large the Anabaptists, and all the other related groups which appropriated much of the language and justification of the Radical Reformation (Moravians, etc.), saw themselves primarily as a saved (or a potentially saved) remnant, an elect and exemplary body, removed from the secular world and standing as a witness to it. They welcomed new entrants into their communities, but the typical Anabaptist congregation was not, insofar as my reading of their history goes, especially missionary-minded; they were happy to go their own way, making plain their choices but not soliciting others to join them in those choices. Part of this, of course, is a function of the fact that a great many Anabaptist sects were antinomian and apocalyptic in the extreme, anticipating the Millennium or even affirming that it had already begun. (No doubt you’ll touch on some of this in your next post.)

    As for your three possibilities to explain the similarities between Mormonism and Anabaptism (1–restorationist movements are, given the realities of the Christian tradition, always structurally similar; 2–Joseph Smith borrowed from the Anabaptists; 3–the Anabaptists indirectly prepared the way for Mormonism by influencing American Christianity), I think only the first and the third hold water. While the Radical Reformation was very much its own creature (specifically, a 16th-century German and Low Countries one), one can’t reflect upon how Puritan reformers, early Baptists, the English Levellers, the Quakers and German Pietists, Methodists, and others justified and articulated their own innovations and position in Christian history without spotting numerous Anabaptist antecedents, especially in light of how the Great Awakening played out on the early American frontier. But direct influence? Well, maybe if Joseph Smith had been born and raised in the Delaware River Valley and Pennsylvania instead of Vermont and New York, I could imagine it. But I think the “restorationist” models the early Mormons had in mind were overwhelmingly Congregationalist and post-Puritan. (John L. Brooke tried to make the case that Joseph Smith was influence by the 16th century, only he focused on various mystical hermetic, Jewish and Christian traditions; it’s an utterly nonsensical argument, in my view.)

  10. Russell Arben Fox on July 8, 2005 at 11:34 am

    Great–in the time it took me to look up the FARMS review of Brooke, Nate posts something praiseworthy about it. Nate, I was originally somewhat taken by Brooke too, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought the contemptuous dismissal of it by FARMS and their crowd was justified. It’s not just the lousy “geographic-proximity-demonstrates-influence inference” that you rightly condemn (look, there’s evidence that Smith may have heard about the Ephrata community down in Pennsylvania!); it’s also the whole idea that comprehending the basic terms of Mormonism requires departing the Christian tradition entirely. It doesn’t. Like Harold Bloom, Brooke assumed that the only Mormonism which matters is the one Smith sketched out very preliminarily and inconsistently in later Nauvoo discourses; everything that came before is considered prologue, and everything that came after is considered damage control (or, worse, hiding away the “real” Mormonism). Baloney. Joseph Smith was a Christian from beginning to end, and it is to the Bible, as I think Peterson and Co. ably demonstrate, that you need to go first to account for whatever sensational or “radical” claims Brooke’s and others think Mormonism makes for itself.

  11. Justin B. on July 8, 2005 at 11:53 am

    Re #1 and #4, I believe the reference is to Val Rust’s book Radical Origins. Haven’t read it. Rust also published an article in the Spring 2000 Dialogue entitled “Mormonism and the Radical Religious Movement in Early Colonial New England.”

  12. Nate Oman on July 8, 2005 at 11:58 am

    Russell: My point is not that I agree with Brooke’s over all thesis or interpretation. I read him rather like I read Quinn. One should surf over his book, enjoying the flow of new and interesting facts, picking up some of the parellels, and working through the argument without necessarily buying into either his more extreme claims or his basic interpretive framework. I do think that there is a tendency for Mormons to downplay the sorts of connections that Quinn and Brooke’s over-emphasize. In part, I think that the FARMS et al reaction to Brookes was justified purely in terms of the weakness of his book. However, I think that there is also an apologetic at work that goes something like this: (1) Showing Biblical influences on the development of Mormon theology does not undermine the legitimacy of the Restoration and probably boulsters it; (2) Showing extra-Biblical influences on the development of Mormon theology undermines the legitimacy of the Restoration, (3) Ergo, it is better to show Biblical rather than extra-Biblical influences. I don’t see that this basic apologetic stance is justified by anything other than a certain lingering Protestantism. Theologically, it seems to me that the Mormon account of providential history can account quite nicely for extra-Biblical influences on the Restoration, thank you very much. This doesn’t mean that ultimately I think that Brooke’s Joseph-Smith-as-Alchemist Thesis is right (I don’t really buy it), only that I don’t have an objection per se to locating antecedents to certain Mormon doctrines outside of the covers of the Bible. BTW, I wonder to what extent the FARMS reaction to that book was in part driven by the fact that Brooke identifies Nibley and his disciples as esoteric carriers of the hermetic flame in the world of protestantized modern Mormonism. At this point there is no denying that Brooke has a horrible tin ear for Mormon scholarship and theology.

  13. Russell Arben Fox on July 8, 2005 at 11:59 am

    Justin, thanks very much for that link. Sounds like a provocative thesis, hopefully one much better sustained than Brooke’s. There’s a world of difference between saying Mormonism was influenced by Anabaptist-era mysticism, and saying that many early Mormons had family backgrounds in various post-Puritan or even anti-Puritan restorationist Christian movements. I’ll have to put that book on my to-read list.

  14. Jack on July 8, 2005 at 12:30 pm

    Wifried: “He [Joseph Smith] was not a learned man who could have absorbed the history of Christianity, understood the concepts of reformation and who could have developed sufficient experience to do what he did, just on his own.”

    While this is true, I think it’s also true that those who would be adherents of the Mormon faith did, by and large, come out of a “preparatory” religious tradition of sorts.

  15. Kevin Barney on July 8, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    Right you are, Justin. Here’s the specific Dialogue cite:

    Rust, Val D. “Mormonism and the Radical Religious Movement in Early Colonial New England.” Dialogue 33 (1) Spring 2000: 25-55

    Dialogue is of course available online now at the University of Utah.

  16. James on July 8, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    Jonathan,

    I thought I understood your post but after reading the comments, I’m not sure I do.

    I have always thought that families and individuals who are anabaptists or were puritans seem to “practice what they preach” much more than most church members today. So, in that sense, I would agree that the LDS church is like these followers, in that LDS tend to have made a lifestyle choice to try to be like Christ.

    Also, . . .

    The LDS church is very similar to the current Roman Catholic church when it comes to government and organization.

    The LDS church is very similar to the modern independent bible church movement in that the individual, autonomous churches each assert that it is neither catholic nor protestant but instead is patterned after the Apostolic Church and traces its roots to the pre-Reformation era.

    The LDS church is very similar to some of the conservative presbyterian churches which believe in patriarchal family leadership and encourage family-integrated church practices.

    I don’t know of other churches who claim to have a living prophet, so in that sense, there are no christian chuches like the LDS.

  17. Jonathan Green on July 8, 2005 at 5:27 pm

    Russell, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of factual disagreement but without sources at hand. Williams’s Radical Reformation describes several missionary journeys and proselytization programs, undertaken in response to the biblical injunction to preach the gospel in all the world, during the founding decades of the Anabaptists. Fatality rates were high. My impression is that the Anabaptist churches soon became much as you describe them, but the early decades were nevertheless marked by evangelical zeal.

    Wilfried, I agree in some respects, but I don’t think that the spiritual and intellectual antecedents of Mormonism before the Reformation are entirely coterminous with resistance to Roman Catholicism. As you point out, medieval Catholicism was not monolithic, and sometimes what is now the LDS position had proponents within it, sometimes even contrary to heretical movements. Our fellow travelers in the 12th century are as likely to be monastics as heretics, I suspect. While Joseph Smith is unique, I’m not sure that the First Vision is quite as unprecedented as we sometimes think. Again, I am in no position to offer references at the moment, but theophony seems to have been considered extraordinary but not inconceivable in the medieval and early modern periods. One of the Italian radicals claimed a similar source of authority, I believe.

    James, thanks for those comparisons. They’re interesting and instructive. I continue to maintain that we are in some way more like the Anabaptists than any other Christian church, because the similarities have to do with our core religious identity. We situate ourselves at the same moment in time (after the apostasy, in the last days before the second coming) and see ourselves in the same role (the one true church and restored kingdom). The differences are nonetheless considerable. Time to get the second post out the door, I think.

  18. Wilfried on July 8, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    Jack, you are certainly right in your statement in # 14 “that those who would be adherents of the Mormon faith did, by and large, come out of a “preparatory” religious tradition of sorts.” The history of conversions in the 19th century, and in particular of larger groups, shows that prominently. The story of the United Brethern in England is well known, and here in the Netherlands we had the conversion of the Newlighters in the 1860s. They recognized Mormonism as the confirmation of their own searching belief. Amazing.

    At the same time Joseph Smith did not find in the many groups that surrounded him what he sought. It’s somewhat contradictory that some claim Joseph was very close to his “sources”, yet he did not join any of them.

  19. Jack Sprat on July 11, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    Table of Contents for the Rust book (#1, 11,14)

    Preface
    Acknowledgments
    1. Early Mormons: A Peculiar People
    2. Progenitors of Early LDS Converts
    3. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony
    4. Puritan Progenitors in Massachusetts and Maine
    5. Puritan Progenitors in Connecticut
    6. Schismatic New England
    7. The Antinomian Crisis
    8. Anabaptists, Quakers, and Gortonists
    9. LDS Progenitors Engaged in Alchemy and Astrology
    10. Witchcraft among LDS Progenitors
    11. Generational Connections
    12. Progenitors of the American Religion
    Appendix
    Notes
    Index

    Read it last year…Rust charts the family history of early LDS converts and finds that a large number had family connections to communities with strong Anabaptist ties. From what I remember, would it was a strong circumstantial case, but one that would have been more compelling if he could have shown that the ancestors of converts were actually affiliated with Anabaptist churches rather than merely living in Anabaptist dominated areas. Still, an interesting read leaving the reader much to think about.

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