A favorite perennial topic of discussion is the ever-elusive distinction between church culture and doctrine (or officially sanctioned practice or attitude). For example, Keith Hamilton recently asked us to consider what the church (and specifically sacrament meeting) would look like had Joseph Smith and the Restoration come out of Africa. One reason is that it helps us deal with our particular difficulties in the church when we try to convince others or ourselves of the merit of the church as a whole. Bracketing questions concerning its nature, legitimacy, and value, today I want to make use of this seductive practice to indulge in some worthwhile speculation about which parts of our standard Sunday School apostasy-Reformation-Restoration story are doctrinal and which parts are merely cultural (for recent quasi-official articulations of this Mormon war horse, see here and here or just read Preach My Gospel).
It’s surely impossible to sort out exactly how much of what the early church adopted from American and European Protestantism was merely cultural (some things are more obvious than others). But I want to argue both that we’ve good reason to suspect that our version of the brutally violent and intolerant historical epoch called the Reformation was mere cultural adoption, and also that we’ve good reason to jettison it. Holding to it is historically questionable, is in significant tension with other positions that we hold, andleads us to tell implausible just-so stories.Since I’m only an arm-chair historian I will focus on the latter of these claims (which I assume we’re all equally qualified to debate) and mention just a few historical considerations upfront.
First off, what is called the Reformation spanned centuries and is actually a composite of many (often unique) reformations—it certainly was not a monolithic historical event. We use it vaguely within the church, generally I think to refer to that period from the late 14th through the mid-17th centuries when many of our famous reformers lived. I’m content to use it in our vague Sunday School manner, with the disclaimer that I mean throughout to speak very generally. Some of what I discuss has roots in this period while the full fruition came later. Consequently, it will of course be possible to find particular historical counterexamples to some of what I say; but I feel confident espousing the general points.
As to the history, I think we need to be candid with ourselves about the fact that we have adopted the Protestant account of the Reformation—hook, line, and sinker. (We occasionally go further and adopt the Protestant story of the apostasy as well.) We should also be candid with ourselves that by doing so, we have uncritically adopted one side of what is perhaps the most polemical battle (literal and figurative) in the modern West. And as our own historical accounts of the Restoration often illustrate, polemical positions usually don’t place a premium on historical accuracy. Adopting a polemical historical account makes more sense when one has a vested interest in the history; and while we certainly have one when it comes to the Restoration, it is much more difficult to make sense of any interest we have in supporting the Protestant account of the Reformation. What’s more, in recent decades numerous non-polemical accounts have proliferated; there are no longer only two options to choose from (I recommend this, this, and for those of us who like“very short” introductions, this book).
Next, we should consider the political exploitation of the Reformation. While even the most orthodox Catholic historians admit the sincerity of many of the reformers (at least the “lay” reformers), even the most orthodox Protestant historians admit the fact that the successful reformations survived in large part because they were a ready tool exploited by the emerging nation-states. The Reformation was at least as much about a Machiavellian use of religion to mobilize political support as it was about religion. It’s much harder to think of God’s inspiring the brutal, power-mongering political leaders of the time to support the Reformation than it is to see this as the Constantine-style exploitation of religion that we’re all familiar with. There are other issues which I do not have the time or ability to go into here, but of which we should be aware of: for example, there are historical arguments that the Reformation overall decreasedpolitical and religious tolerance, that tolerance occurred for economic and pragmatic reasons despite the Reformation (see here; and for a good, non-polemical treatment of the complexity of the tolerance issue, see here), legitimized religious vigilantism, fundamentally shifted the religious landscape to de-legitimize the political-religious Zionism of the early Mormon church, and was the historical catalyst for—if not the source of—the hyper-individualism that characterizes our current political and cultural landscape and which is in direct conflict with the Mormon notions of salvation and exaltation.
I think that the only way we maintain the Protestant version in the church is by discussing the Reformationonly in narrow contexts that don’t come into contact with other parts of our story—including certain parts of the apostasy-to-Restoration story. We generally focus on the Reformation only in the context of throwing off the shackles of a dramatically over-demonized (i.e., Protestant version) Catholic church and establishing freedom in America. There are certainly some positive results that we can and should emphasize from the Reformation: some of the reformers and many of the common people really are inspiring examples of good, honest people striving for something better; it was unquestionably a catalyst for literacy (if not for education or intellectual rigor or diversity); and it certainly helped to create the culture of Biblical literacy that played such a huge role in Joseph Smith’s route to the Sacred Grove and many early converts’ route into the Church. Nevertheless, we ought to recognize that much of what we say about the Reformation in its narrow context is at least in tension with, if not contradictory to, the other things we state.
To begin, we should remember our claim that a protest wasn’t enough; we needed a Restoration. It’s often assumed, however that the Reformationwas something really good, perhaps even necessary. But it’s not clear why an apostate protest (i.e., a Reformation that arose out of a corrupt situation) would take us in the right direction. We can all cite examples where other reforms made things worse, not better (just think of Hitler’s reforms in Germany). Since it could be either, we should ask which was the case in the Reformation.
From a Mormon perspective the Reformation was doctrinally retrograde. When we speak of the Reformation bringing us “closer” to the Restoration, we can only mean that it brought the world to a political climate more conducive to a Restoration (something I claimed above was questionable and which I will have more to say about below). The Protestant version of the story claims that it successfully overcame the theological excesses involved in indulgences and salvific dependence on priests and priesthood ordinances (although initially remaining similar to Catholicism, Luther and other reformers’ notions of a “priesthood of believers” resulted in an ordinance- and authority-free priesthood, something like a divine approval of those with faith). The former was a localized problem that had already received attention and was on its way to being corrected when Martin Luther protested, and the latter cannot be considered a “fix” from the Mormon standpoint. Rather, the Reformation ought to be seen as a sort of culmination of the apostasy as it jettisoned the very idea of a legitimate, divinely authorized and transmitted priesthood and the efficacious (or even necessary) ordinances that go with it. The temple was destroyed in 70 CE and its doctrinal influence abolished from much of Christianity during the Reformation.
Along with an ultimate scrapping of the priesthood and its ordinances, the Reformation substituted the traditional understanding of prophets as humans chosen by God to deliver God’s message and lead God’s people, with an understanding of prophets as superhuman, infallible God-drones. That is, they took the going notion of a Pope, subtracted the human aspect that Catholicism had been struggling with for centuries, and superimposed it on a prophet. This non-human, agency-less prophet was then held up in contradistinction with the Pope and the Pope’s obvious humanity and fallibility. Since there were no possible contenders for the role of prophet on the scene at the time, the Reformers kept the prophets, and all notions of strong, Biblical-style revelation securely in the Bible. Joseph Smith and the Restoration clearly had a different vision of both prophets and revelation (though one must admit that the Protestant understanding of an infallible prophet continues to mislead many Mormons today).
Finally, the Reformation abandoned any continuity with past dispensations. Rather than the unified picture of God’s working to establish divine covenants with peoples throughout history in various dispensations, the Reformation gave us several different variations on a theme: qualitatively-inferior-and-ignorant Old Testament groups whose value comes largely in the form of fable. These groups and their jejune beliefs and practices were done away with and replaced by a wholly transcendent, Christ-centered covenant. This new covenant corrected and overcame all of the mistakes of the prophetic past and gave us a final, once-and-for-all revelation and message contained in the New Testament.
In addition to abandoning or modifying various remnants of what Joseph Smith considered true religion, the Reformation also created or imported powerful ideas that contrast sharply with the Restoration. As already mentioned, the Reformation was radically individualistic. (Calvinism may have originally been a communal exception, and there are other exceptions, but radical individualism is a widely accepted fruit of the Reformation.) There were no longer communities working together toward salvation (an idea taken quite literally during the medieval period). There was nothing beyond individual humans who obtain salvation through faith or predestination. This salvation was itself something new: it was an event. Martin Luther is perhaps the best and most influential example of a theology wherein an eternal, qualitative transformation comes about at a specific moment in time. Following this one-time event there is nothing more to be said. Together with event-salvation came its companion: the faith-works dichotomy. Faith and works became two separate things, partitioning the existential human, further degrading the physical, and turning faith into a wholly intellectual phenomenon. Faith—which could no longer be in an existential covenant, dispensation, way of life, or method of progression revealed by God through a contemporary spokesman—became psychological faith in Christ. Since our only access to what, specifically, this amounts to isfound in scripture, faith and salvation became dependant on the Bible. Protestant Christians became literally people of the book. While the Reformation-era Christians did not hold contemporary notions of the inerrancy of the Bible, their biblical dependency was certainly the foundation.
Without utilizing the ad hominem attacks on the reformers themselves (a staple of the Catholic versions of Reformation history), we can still look at the immediate fruits of the Reformation. We’ve already mentioned several positive fruits. I have also pointed out a ripening of apostate fruits that took place in the Reformation. What we’ve not yet addressed (and what we often ignore) is the immediate political and social fruits of the Reformation: brutality, war, and intolerance. So long as we accept the Protestant version of history, the aftermath of human atrocity can be seen as the justified violence needed to throw off the shackles of a hegemonic, fallen institution. As soon as we step back from the Protestant version of history, however, we see a rending of the social fabric that led to one of the most violent, hate-filled, and fearful periods of modern Western history.If it’s true that the Reformation was another step in the apostasy, we ought not be surprised by its violent, illiberal effects. What’s more, we can see that it wasn’t necessary. We can contrast the hateful protest with the reaction of the prophets and Saints in the Restoration. We weren’t perfect—we burned Galviston, gave a fewsalted earth speeches, and of course we must confront Mountain Meadows—but our reactions to depredation and violence in Missouri, Illinois, and Utah are overall paradigms of restraint and moderation. There were numerous internal reformers who brought about peaceful changes within Catholicism. We see towering intellectuals and theologians like Erasmus who strenuously argued for and brought about change while refusing to be taken in or used by an excessive Reformation.
Now what about all of the other “positive” fruits of the Reformationwe often hear about in Sunday School and that I’ve so far ignored? Perhaps the most patently false is the idea that the Reformation finally broke us out of the “dark ages.” As historians almost universally recognize today, there was nothing unusually “dark” at all about the thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Reformation. Instead, what we find is one of the most incredible periods of social harmony that exists. It wasn’t perfect, and it came to an end for reasons we can’t ignore, but acomplimentary socio-theological division of labor unified and stabilized medieval society so successfully that it’s difficult to find parallels. The clergy gave the full-time dedication to the gospel that Christ demanded, and a laity gave the full-time dedication to securing the temporal welfare that life demanded. Both benefited from the other, and the two frequently came together in public rituals and festivals, as well as in the various “public works” projects like the building of cathedrals that fueled both the temporal and spiritual economy of the time and whose accomplishment continues to inspire us today.
Next, the idea of a separation of church and state is often attributed to the Reformation. This ignores the fact that the separation of authority into religious and political spheres was a reality during much of the medieval period, and had received widespread acceptance by many Catholics prior to the Reformation. There can be no question that the Reformation—or rather the horrendous violence that erupted out of it—deeply entrenched the idea in the modern political psyche and practice. It did so, however, at significant cost—for example, it was a significant contributor to religious disillusionment and served as a catalyst to religious secularism—and there’s good reason to think that its contribution was entirely superfluous.
Then there’s the idea that the Reformation lead to a divinely inspired pilgrimage to America. We should notice, however, that the pilgrimage had already begun, and much of it had nothing to do with religion. Of the religiously motivated pilgrims, a good European friend of mine once quipped that these pilgrimswere not motivated by and composed of groups seeking religious freedom, but were fanatical groups, intolerant of their neighbors, who the Europeans with good sense finally kicked out. He surely overstated himself, but a desire to flee a hopelessly wicked Babylon was a major motivation of puritans and other religious groups; and as we all know, the early religious colonies were anything but tolerant. What’s more, these liberty-loving pilgrimsbegan one of the largest (if not the largest) genocides in history, and their liberty-loving ancestors nearly followed it up with the violent eradication of the Restoration itself.
Which leads us to the common claim that the Restoration would not have survived had God inspired it to occur in Europe—that we needed a few centuries to let the dust of a violent Reformation settle before God could safely raise up a prophet. This notion surely takes the cake as the least plausible and least faithful idea espoused in our Sunday Schools and elsewhere. As we’ve already noted, the Reformation was a cause of and not a fight against religious intolerance. Almost none of the early reformers or their reform movements were particularly tolerant. Most importantly, however, we should note that unlike Joseph Smith in the 19th century, Martin Luther was not assassinated (whether this was divine or political deliverance is up for debate). If Luther and Lutheranism were able to survive and flourish in this volatile period, it is either absurd or breathtakingly pessimistic and unfaithful to suppose that Joseph and the Restoration would not have made it. The reality is, we don’t have any record of a dispensation being opened in a period of peace. They always arise in the midst of great conflict and threat, and are always concrete archetypes of divine deliverance. Every dispensation survives on account of divine deliverance. Late medieval Europe was surely no worse than pharoahonic Egypt.
Finally, none of this is meant to be particularly anti-Protestant or pro-Catholic. In characterizing the Reformation as a high point in the Great Apostasy, we do not need to deny what are from a Mormon perspective the authentic good fruits of the Reformation or ignore its genuine contributions to the Restoration. We can instead glorify a God who continually shows himself wise and powerful enough to turn disastrous situations to our gain—just as he did in the Garden of Eden, with Judas, and with the lost 116 pages. While we’re in no danger of accepting the Catholic version of the Reformation, we ought also to avoid the unhelpful and inaccurate inconsistency of maintaining the Protestant account.