Caspar Schwenckfeld: Mormon Hero of the Reformation

July 13, 2005 | 11 comments
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As much as we honor the Reformation in general, on closer inspection the individual Reformers have, from a Mormon perspective, some rough edges. Whether or not a given Reformation doctrine is closer to our views than traditional Catholic teaching had been seems about as predictable as a coin toss. One would hope that the Reformers would show tolerance for those of other faiths, but Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all had their grumpy moments. Is there anyone that we can wholeheartedly embrace as our ideal Reformer?

I nominate the Silesian nobleman Caspar Schwenckfeld (1489-1561).

Like Joseph Smith three centuries later, Schwenckfeld came to believe that none of the currently multiplying churches were correct, and though he condemned none neither did he join any. As a young man, Schwenckfeld had a spiritual experience whose effect he later described as follows:

Although, after God’s merciful visitation, I have never entirely joined the side of any party or church in the use of the sacraments and in other things up to the present day, nor desired to allow people to rule over my belief, yet I have not disdained any church, any person, any leader or teacher; I desire to serve everyone in God, to be everyone’s friend and brother who only is fervent for God, loves Christ with all his heart, clings to his truth, and strives for salvation (CS V, 100).*

For Mormons, one of the attractions of Schwenckfeld is that he did not add to the sectarian confusion of the time. Although he was an influential writer and thinker and attracted a considerable following, he never founded his own church–which is quite appealing for people like us who think that was properly the mission of Joseph Smith. Schwenckfeld believed that proper priesthood authority, much as we understand it, was lacking, and did not attempt to restore it by his own action. On the sacraments, Schwenckfeld advocated a policy of Stillstand, believing that it was best to refrain from performing ordinances in the absence of proper authority and sufficient understanding of their order and purpose:

I believe that the sacraments are everywhere fallen, and that only he who instituted them, that is Christ the Lord, can restore and reestablish the proper usage of the sacraments and also the keys, the ban, and other gifts, whom we should surely implore for that thing….In addition, the correct usage [of the sacraments] cannot exist where there is no gathered church of one heart, one spirit, and one soul in Christ, as in Acts 4[:32]. Therefore it would likely be good that one let the sacraments pause for a while, until the Lord gathers his people and shows himself thereby with mighty grace (CS V, 134-35).

Schwenckfeld distinguished the office of preacher, those who do the good work of teaching according to scripture, from the apostolic office, which could only be conveyed by direct divine commission, and he remonstrated with the preachers of Strasbourg for assuming unto themselves a calling that was not theirs. In the same way, Schwenckfeld held that there were two kinds of churches. On the one hand, he had no doubt that every church where good Christians gathered was in this sense a Christian church. On the other hand, the perfect Church that existed at the time of the Apostles is

not yet gathered, nor adorned by the jewels and gifts, of which Psalms 45[:10-17] and 1 Cor. 12[:4-27] speak. It cannot be a gathered church without the keys, etc., without the ban, without brotherly discipline, without the Holy Ghost, without true love, and without a correct and constant order (CS V, 134).

Despite an appealing ecclesiology, Schwenckfeld will not fit our expectations perfectly, of course. He may prove in the end more of a Spiritualist (like his friend Sebastian Franck) than we would prefer, putting too little stock in the efficacy of even properly performed outward ordinances. His unceasing advocacy of the “celestial flesh of Christ” makes him part of a long dispute that remains opaque to me and one, I suspect, in which Mormons have very little at stake. Still, if I were forced to choose which side I was rooting for in the Reformation, I would pick Schwenckfeld’s.

Then there is the small matter of the Schwenkfelders, who would probably (and rightly) be nonplussed at the thought of Mormons claiming Schwenckfeld as their own. The conventicles of Schwenckfeld’s followers held out in their central European homes for two centuries of recurring persecution, but in the eighteenth century they emigrated as a body to southeastern Pennsylvania, where there are still six Schwenkfelder congregations today. Despite our differences, we share the Schwenckfelders’ passion for genealogy and an outsized political influence (their small numbers have supplied at least one US Senator and cabinet secretary, Richard Schweiker).

*The 19-volume Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum is an exemplary edition of a religious leader’s life work. Hopefully we don’t have to wait as long for something similar on Joseph Smith–the CS wasn’t completed until 400 years after Schwenckfeld’s death.

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11 Responses to Caspar Schwenckfeld: Mormon Hero of the Reformation

  1. Wilfried on July 13, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    Fascinating and enlightening contribution, Jonathan. Thank you very much.

  2. Jonathan Green on July 13, 2005 at 5:05 pm

    Fascinating, enlightening, nourishing, tedious: it’s a slippery slope. Tomorrow’s post will return us to the twenty-first century, or at least to the late twentieth.

  3. john fowles on July 13, 2005 at 7:04 pm

    This is very good. I respect his notion of Stillstand and think that it really is the right course to steer out of a belief that “the sacraments are everywhere fallen.” Martin Luther also did not intend to found his own church either. He wanted to reform the Catholic Church and did not have problems with authority per se, but more with the corruption of ordinances, etc.

    I agree with you on the intolerance of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. One interesting aspect of the period is the capacity for Protestants to brutalize each other over doctrine, much less the antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

  4. Dennis Read on July 14, 2005 at 9:32 am

    I worked for Richard Schweiker for 11 years. If being a Schwenckfelder contributed to who he was as a public servant and a human being, it has much to be admired. He was a classy guy in every way.

  5. Bill on July 14, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    Jonathan, thanks for all these great posts.

    About 150 years on, another figure who subscribed to a sort of version of Stillstand (although for a variety of different reasons) was the great Sir Isaac Newton. His disciple and successor in the Lucasian chair, William Whiston, who in 1711 published Primitive Christianity Revived, was frustrated by Newton’s reluctance to advocate for a reformation along the lines of his private theological views.

    “Indeed, Whiston relates that Newton had ‘a very sagacious Conjecture’ that the apostasy ‘must be put a stop to, and broken to Pieces by the prevalence of Infidelity, for some time, before Primitive Christianity could be restored’. Only after this ‘greatest decay of religion’ would there be ‘an universal preaching of the Gospel’. In case there could be any doubt as to the timing of this great event, Newton went on to affirm that ‘this is not yet fulfilled; there has been nothing done in ye world like it, & therefore it is to come’. No contemporary effort at reformation could pre-empt this plan any more than one could fight against God. Furthermore, the message would fall on deaf ears. A long period of corruption lay ahead.”

    The preceding quote is from a fascinating article detailing Newton’s heterodox religious beliefs. Long, but worthwhile if you like this sort of thing:

    http://www.isaac-newton.org/heretic.pdf

    Newton was an anti-Trinitarian, influenced by Arianism and Socinianism and had good incentives to keep his ideas out of the public eye.

    Incidentally, after publishing his book, Whiston was thrown out of Cambridge, and years later, in the 1740s, he became an Anabaptist.

  6. Kevin Barney on July 14, 2005 at 4:16 pm

    Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum

    What a great title! I’d like a set of those on my bookshelves for that reason alone.

  7. Bryce I on July 14, 2005 at 4:20 pm

    Excellent work as usual, Jonathan. It’s fairly rare for me to see a word that I’ve never seen before, but “conventicles” is a new one.

  8. Jonathan Green on July 14, 2005 at 8:31 pm

    Dennis, thanks, I’m quite pleased to hear that.

    Bill, but wasn’t that just Newton’s cover story, so no one found out he was Grandmaster of the Priory of Sion? (Sorry, I’ll never get back the time wasted on that book, so I have to get what mileage I can out of it.)

    Kevin, I’d like a set too, but finding one for sale might be tricky, and the one I saw listed for around $1300.

    Bryce, unfortunately I forgot to work in ‘irenicism.’

  9. Jim F. on July 14, 2005 at 8:34 pm

    Jonathan: But “conventicles” is better because it is harder to guess at its meaning than it is to guess at the meaning of “irenicism.”

  10. Russell Arben Fox on July 14, 2005 at 9:58 pm

    “…I’ll never get back the time wasted on that book…”

    Hey, Jonathan, that was my line. I demand a source credit.

    For what it’s worth, the idea of “conventicles” being the proper public form for a chastened and humbled Christian worship to take was a constant in Lutheran pietist thought for centuries afterwards; Herder used that terminology often in his theological treatises, written in the late 18th century.

  11. Bill on July 15, 2005 at 1:35 am

    Some of William Byrd’s best music was composed for conventicles.

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