Just as I went to publish this post, I saw Ben’s post about the conference on Mormons and Evangelicals. It’s a nice coincidence. As are the recent posts by Kent and Marc on labeling and categorizing.
I was already scheduled to attend another conference this week, an annual conference for historians of the Reformation (surely you knew about it), where I’ll be part of an ongoing panel devoted to issues in teaching. This year’s issue is “Defining Protestantism,” as everyone is rightly concerned about labels we impose on people. Five or six scholars make up the panel, and we all get about 10 minutes to reflect on our particular experience with that issue. I’m supposed to talk about teaching the Reformation to Mormon students, both in general and in regard to defining Protestantism, as some of the panelists are wondering how Mormons fit or not.
I’m planning to touch on some of the following, but would be happy to hear what T&S readers have to add.
Like most students at American universities, Mormon students know little about religious history, outside of their own, and even that they usually know superficially. To a Mormon kid, religion really begins with Joseph Smith, and oh yes that ancient church was around very briefly too. They have a vague notion that Protestants were the good guys, but Catholics are a complete mystery. Of course this is generalization (as are most observations below), but it’s held up pretty well over the years.
I know that generalization not only from experience in teaching, but because it’s how I grew up too. I remember taking a trip with my family to Salt Lake when I was around 12, and going to the visitors’ center, where there was a brief display on Christian history (all geared toward the Restoration). First came an image of some churches in ruins, shrouded in mist, with a few hooded figures walking around outside them, heads down. Obviously the bad times. Then came the Protestant Reformers bathed in light, saying things (in quotes) about the then-current state of religion that would obviously resonate with Mormons. A smaller version of this presentation was also on display in my home ward in California for many years. It really got my attention; even though I forgot about it for awhile, when I overcame adolescence and got interested in History again, I went right back to studying that subject.
Imagine my surprise, after a few years of study, when I began to realize that Mormons (at least the present version) had more in common with Catholics than they did with the good-guy Protestants. On about ten major issues of the Reformation (grace and works, scripture and church authority, the need for sacraments or ordinances, form of worship, confession, free will, works for the dead, church and state, etc.), present-day Mormons were more like Catholics on all but one. The only exception I saw was form of worship, or liturgy (which mattered a lot), but even that was only if you didn’t count temple rites. (The book How Wide the Divide does a nice job of showing commonalities between Mormons and some Protestants, but even this effort, not to mention the upcoming conference at UVU, implies that real similarities are to be sought with Protestants, not Catholics.)
That’s how it looked to me anyway. Maybe earlier versions of Mormonism were indeed more like Protestants, especially the radical sort of Protestants (in fact one presenter has already told me that he’d always thought of 19th-century Mormons as the last bloom of the Reformation’s radicals). But not the version of Mormonism I knew. This realization didn’t turn Protestants into the bad guys for me, but it certainly changed my image of Catholicism. It also made me more interested in seeing what we have in common with all traditional Christians: growing up, or as a missionary, the differences were always harped on, over and over.
Then onto defining Protestantism. One of the presenters is going to note that the term Protestant isn’t very useful at all, as only a couple of non-Catholic streams identified themselves that way. Another presenter envisions five streams moving away from Catholicism (Lutherans, Calvinists, Church of England, Zwinglians, and Radicals such as Anabaptists and Spiritualists), rather than a single Protestant stream. I think Mormon students would consider Mormonism at least a sixth stream, that went underground soon after the apostles then reemerged in the 19th century. Thus to Mormon students the definition of Protestantism just doesn’t matter much: the religious world is divided into Mormons and non-Mormons, and all the worries my colleagues have about what a Protestant is, so as not to offend their students, seem unimportant. The recent court decision mentioned on T&S, that Mormons don’t count as Protestants, probably doesn’t offend many Mormons. (Of course more sensitive is whether Mormons are Christian, but even there Mormons should take heart: many Catholics and Protestants today engage in warm ecumenical dialogue and services, but during the Reformation they flung all sorts of non-Christian labels at each other.)
This indifference toward what makes a Protestant is precisely why most of the Mormon kids don’t much identify with traditional Christianity, in any of its various forms. Yet I’ve also seen that because Mormon kids are interested in religion, they are willing to learn and get over their vague images and prejudices. They begin to appreciate the connections they have not only with Catholics, but Protestants too. They realize not only that there are far more similarities than they imagined or had learned, but that when they know the similarities they are in a better position to see the differences—real differences rather than imagined ones. I think they also begin to realize that you can only hold to the usual and non-nuanced Mormon view of Christian history if you don’t bother to study what actually happened, or what Christians actually believed. And that we need a new view of the Reformation, indeed of all of Christian history, along the lines of what Jonathan has been trying to do here on T&S. One that will give us new concepts and labels and perspectives. We ought to worry every bit as much about how we label others as we do about how they label us.