Joseph Smith and the failure of the Reformation

April 10, 2013 | 39 comments
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luther-bomOne of the paradoxes of Mormonism is the heroic status it grants Martin Luther while simultaneously rejecting all of his central teachings. Mormon teachings and the basic narrative of the Restoration in some cases even suggest that the Reformation, however necessary it may have been, was not only incorrect, but also that it was a failure.

We can start with Martin Luther’s central insight that God’s grace is given on the basis of faith alone without the need for good works or sacraments or the mediation of priests. It is probably not useful to argue that we do so believe in salvation by faith alone. We don’t. To Mormon ears, ‘works religion’ sounds more like a compliment than an accusation. For Mormons, faith is but a necessary first step towards ‘saving ordinances’ – a phrase that cannot refer to religious rites in orthodox Protestantism. From the perspective of Mormonism, libertinism and emotional excess masquerading as a religious experience are the logical consequences of emphasizing salvation by faith and diminishing the significance of good works or sacraments. By this reading, Martin Luther wanted to create true Christians but instead gave us unchurched enthusiasts: the Zwickau prophets, victorious at last.

The same might be said for Mormon and Protestant concepts of priesthood. The restoration of the priesthood through Joseph Smith is only possible by rejecting the Protestant view of a ‘priesthood of all believers.’ Luther’s treatise An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation imagines a group of Christians trapped in the wilderness with no priests among them. Who should preach and baptize? According to Luther, they should simply select one of their number to be a priest because all Christians are already priests by virtue of their baptism. In this view, ‘priesthood’ is not something that can be lost or restored. There is no way to reconcile Luther’s definition of priesthood with what Mormons see as the principal accomplishment of Joseph Smith’s ministry. In Mormonism, an interruption in direct conferral of authority to baptize or conduct other ordinances can only be repaired by divine intervention. When the apostle Dallin H. Oaks cited Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” in General Conference, he expressly defined it as relating to prayer and personal revelation, not the authority to officiate in sacraments. The Mormon feminists I am aware of want the priesthood that was restored by Joseph Smith, not Martin Luther’s priesthood of all believers.

Even worse, from a Protestant point of view, is that the Mormon concept of priesthood makes possible things that the Reformation tried mightily to stamp out, including belief in sacred places (temples consecrated as numinous spaces for sacred ordinances), sacred objects (consecrated oil and, in scripture, the Urim and Thummim and Liahona), even sacred people (patriarchs, prophets, apostles). According to Mormon understanding, priesthood gives access to divine power (in healing the sick or pronouncing other blessings), a manipulation of the sacred that the Reformers rejected as superstitious. The God of Mormonism is not an incomprehensible dispenser of divine grace, but a sympathetic being who can be approached through specific steps. This is both a rejection of Protestant doctrine, and an insistent accusation that the Reformation failed to understand mankind’s place in the cosmos: the universe is too terrifying, life is too difficult without some psychologically reliable method to access divine aid. The Reformers, by this account, stripped the altars of things that people actually need.

Nowhere is the Mormon rejection of the Reformation more flagrant than in the doctrine of sola scriptura, the notion that the Bible provides all the truth needed for salvation. Not only has Mormonism repeatedly expanded its canon beyond the Bible, but it doesn’t even regard its expanded scriptures as definitive: at any time, the prophet can authoritatively expand, clarify, or re-interpret existing scripture. The insight of Joseph Smith was that sola scriptura had failed, that increasingly exact translations and ever wider distribution of God’s Word had not succeeded, and cannot succeed, in instilling righteous living and creating a unity of faith among Christian believers.

We shouldn’t overlook the connections between Mormonism and the American Protestant environment in which it arrived at its reimagination of Christianity, just as the Protestant Reformation reimagined Christianity in the context of late medieval Christianity. As long as Mormons and Protestants care about their core doctrines, however, I suspect that no amount of cooperation in good faith between churches will ever make possible a theological reconciliation.

39 Responses to Joseph Smith and the failure of the Reformation

  1. Jonathan Green on April 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Let me add that I’m interested in hearing how I might be misunderstanding Martin Luther or Protestant theology, both in ways that might make it more similar or more distant from Mormonism.

  2. Struwelpeter on April 10, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Not to mention the fact that he considered James an extra-canonical “epistle of straw”, not worthy of having been written by an apostle. That same Epistle of James sent Joseph into the grove to pray and prompted the epiphany that began the restoration. James is foundational to Mormon history.

    Oh, and he wrote some anti-Semitic stuff that is pretty awful.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on April 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Jonathan,

    I’m interested in hearing how I might be misunderstanding Martin Luther or Protestant theology….

    Well, I’m not trained in theology, but I wear the occasional accusation of being a closet Lutheran with a certain amount of pride, so let me make a couple of comments.

    There is no way to reconcile Luther’s definition of priesthood with what Mormons see as the principal accomplishment of Joseph Smith’s ministry.

    The latter part of that sentence makes a rather broad, implicit claim: that the “principal accomplishment of Joseph Smith’s ministry” was his teachings about the priesthood. But is that actually the case? It probably is if you assume that the measure of his ministry is best taken in light of its official presentation by correlated church publications today, but outside of that admittedly very large obstacle I’m not sure such an implication is at all obvious. For example, what if one argued that the principal accomplishment of his ministry was the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon. While the Book of Mormon does talk about certain priesthood offices, I think it’s entirely possible that a “priesthood of all believers” idea could be made theologically compatible with what we know about church organizers in the book like Alma the Elder and such (Paul Toscano and Daniel Peterson had a published back-and-forth on this very issue years ago, with Toscano saying the BoM shows us individuals receiving callings and offices in an unmediated way, through faith alone, where Peterson pointed out that was an argument from silence). If the possibility is acknowledged, then your claim here wouldn’t be entirely true, and some theological reconciliation might be possible–with Smith, at least, if not contemporary priesthood manuals.

    According to Mormon understanding, priesthood gives access to divine power (in healing the sick or pronouncing other blessings), a manipulation of the sacred that the Reformers rejected as superstitious.

    This strikes me as much too broad. Not all Protestants–and certainly not all Lutherans!–were Puritans. There is a great deal of literature dealing with the mystical and miraculous dimension which many Protestants affirmed was available through the gifts of God, according to faith and prayer. Is Martin Luther praying at Phillip Melanchthon bedside, calling upon the God to send a gift of healing to his friends, substantially all that different from the ritual I perform when I anoint my daughter’s head with oil and ask God to receive my and her wishes in faith for purposes of healing her? If I actually believed that the oil, having been consecrated, binds God into performing the healing, than yes, it would be very different! But while the Nauvoo-era Joseph Smith and many others in the years after him probably did believe that (which is why, for example, 19th-century Mormons would occasionally wash with consecrated oil, or even drink it–it was, after all, literally magical, having God’s power contained within it), I’m not aware of any Mormons who teach such things today. We have, in practice–if not in our rhetoric–brought our notion of “manipulating the sacred” pretty much in line with what I see most early Protestants (exclusing the Calvinists) teaching. So there, again, perhaps some theological reconciliation could be possible.

  4. DavidH on April 10, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Jonathan. I am not a closet Lutheran and not an expert. But my read of history and theology is the same as yours. The Restored Church, theologically, is much closer to Roman Catholicism than it is to Protestantism. As I read the debates from the times of Luther and Calvin, I see their criticisms of Roman Catholic theology as just as applicable to Mormon theology on the very points you list, and on others. Frankly, I sometimes find myself rooting for Luther’s opponents in those debates. And I find myself a great fan of Erasmus, Luther’s contemporary, who was also a critic of Catholicism, but stayed within the fold, and find his words and reasoning for staying resonate with me.

  5. Howard on April 10, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    When the apostle Dallin H. Oaks cited Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” in General Conference, he expressly defined it as relating to prayer and personal revelation, not the authority to officiate in sacraments.

    This quite does a nice job of conflating power and authority. The “priesthood of all believers” is God’s power and the LDS priesthood confers the authority to use it in the LDS community.

    What exactly, makes something sacred?

  6. John Taber on April 10, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    There is a member of my stake who was Lutheran when he joined the Church. He said in a talk in stake priesthood meeting that when he was investigating the Church, he discovered that (paraphrasing from 20+ years of memory) “Martin Luther didn’t found the Lutheran Church, the Lutherans did.” How accurate is this?

  7. Adam G. on April 10, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    At bottom what we most admire about Luther was his work of destruction. While Catholicism may have views more in line with our own (though, of course, this is partly because of the counter-reformation removing abuses like simony and indulgences), we might say that Catholicism was a local optimum that needed to be undermined so that a more global optimum (our estimable selves) could be reached.

  8. Howard on April 10, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Sorry #5 should read; This quite does a nice job of deconflating…

  9. correlated on April 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    “Martin Luther didn’t found the Lutheran Church, the Lutherans did.”

    This sounds a bit like Bonheoffer to me. Doesn’t Bonheoffer bridge the divide to some extent when he parses cheap grace and bold sin? I know there is still a divide, but Cost of Discipleship seems to be something of a bridge to me.

  10. Kevin Barney on April 10, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Very nice post. I had some similar thoughts along these lines, here:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/05/08/joseph-as-proto-catholic/

  11. Mtnmarty on April 10, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    OK, I’ll take the bait. If we are talking about works, then Luther’s insight was that repentance shouldn’t be sold through indulgences. That’s what started his road to prominence with the 95 theses. His example was that individual conscience is needed to call corrupt hierarchical practices into question.

    Further, a key insight of mormonism is that power corrupts and that authority usually leads to unrighteous dominion. If one is not actively hostile to, at least seriously conflicted about authority and hierarchy,one isn’t being that true to Joseph Smith’s revelations.

    I haven’t read Luther for years, but I’ve been reading both the Summa andCity of God and as much as I enjoy them, they are not that close to mormonism in many significant ways.

  12. Jonathan Green on April 10, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    Russell, on your first point, I’m willing to compromise on calling restoration of the priesthood “a principal accomplishment.” On the other hand, once you’re talking about restoring priesthood, you’re no longer in the realm of a priesthood of all believers. The Book of Mormon might have some ambiguous passages, but once Joseph Smith is being ordained by divine personages, we’re clearly operating with a very different definition of priesthood.

    Your second point is actually the area I’m least sure of. I read Robert Scribner’s essay on “‘Disenchantment of the World,’” and I’m trying to figure out the right way to express where Mormonism comes down on the issue. I suspect we’re somewhere in between medieval folk practice and contemporary mainline Protestantism. We have a sense that ordinances depend to a certain extent on the faith of the participants and are not entirely effective in themselves, but I’m not sure that we would say that it only depends on faith and that the ordinances have no power in themselves.

    John, I think that view of Luther diminishes his responsibility too much. Sure, in his early years, he was aiming for a reformation of the church rather than for the most severe schism Christianity has ever seen, but once he starts publishing catechisms and reforming the liturgy, it’s got to have been clear that he was in the process of establishing a competing church, even if the process wasn’t complete until after his death. I’d be interested to know what other people who have considered the question might say.

    Adam, indulgences are an interesting case. It’s easy to mock indulgences now or decry their abuse, but perhaps we can recognize the important psychological work they performed for people anxious over the salvation of dead family members. Without indulgences, there’s nothing a believer can do about that anxiety. Vicarious temple ordinances would seem to address a need that Protestantism doesn’t have a ready answer for. So back to Russell’s second point: When Mormons feel that their participation in temple liturgy has benefited people who have been waiting for centuries, it seems to me that we’re imagining a direct human influence on the configuration of the divine world – who’s in it, and where – in a way much different than prayer for divine intercession does.

  13. John Taber on April 10, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Jonathan, it wasn’t my view – it was this particular member’s view. That’s why I was asking just how true the soundbite really is. I had Rodney Bohac (a Lutheran) for History 202H at BYU, and he acknowledged that Lutheranism on the surface can seem a lot like Catholicism. (He did put some of Luther’s writings on the reading list.)

  14. J. Stapley on April 10, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    Like Kevin, I think JS was definitely going in the direction of Catholicism, maybe of a post-Vatican II sort. We have him preaching from the Luther bible in his King Follett Sermon (because he was interested in a critical approach to the text), which incited Mormon schismatics (the sermon content, not the criticism) and in his follow up sermon, his last recorded before death, he castigates all Protestants as traitors and that the “old Catholic church is worth more than them all.”

  15. LDS Anarchist on April 10, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Three points to address on this one.

    #1 “It is probably not useful to argue that we do so believe in salvation by faith alone. We don’t.”

    Actually, my understanding of our theology is that we are saved by faith alone. Everything that comes after the first principle (faith) is designed and intended to maintain and develop whatever faith we have. But the actual salvation doesn’t come from the ordinances, but from our faith (if we have obtained any). Without faith, none of the other principles and ordinances of the gospel are salvific.

    #2 “Dallin H. Oaks cited Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” in General Conference, he expressly defined it as relating to prayer and personal revelation, not the authority to officiate in sacraments.”

    This is essentially correct. Anyone who is authorized to use the name of Jesus Christ holds an order of the priesthood. Since we are all authorized to pray and receive revelation and gifts from God, according to our faith, everyone on the planet holds priesthood authority of a specific order. However, the ‘priesthood of all believers’ was lost to the earth, as that expression refers to the POWER of the priesthood order (given to all mankind). Such power only comes of faith, which had been missing from the earth. That faith only comes of belief and whosoever believes in Jesus Christ has specific signs manifesting. (Jesus stated, “These signs shall follow all those that believe in me…” and then gave a list of signs.) The signs of the believer were absent, because belief was absent. As belief was absent, faith was absent. Until Joseph prayed and restored again to earth the ‘priesthood of believers’ when he prayed and received the First Vision. Then faith and belief returned to the earth. So, there has been a restoration of the priesthood of all believers, insofar as professed believers still manifest the appointed signs that follow true believers. All those who pray to God (using the authority of the priesthood of all believers) but who cannot open the heavens and receive direct responses from God and His angels (because of their faithless state), are denying the power of God, or the power of the priesthood of all believers which they hold. And insofar as this in the case, the ‘priesthood of all believers’ has been lost.

    #3 “Nowhere is the Mormon rejection of the Reformation more flagrant than in the doctrine of sola scriptura, the notion that the Bible provides all the truth needed for salvation.”

    Although we don’t subscribe to an only-the-Bible view, sola scriptura is the standard under which our theology teaches we are to operate. The scriptures teach that whatever anyone speaks by the power of the Holy Ghost is scripture. Who determines what is scripture and what is not? The membership that hears the spoken word does. Is the spoken word (given by the Holy Ghost) binding upon the members? Nope. Those who hear it may choose to be bound by it, but the rest of the membership is not so bound. (This is the principle of receiving the will of the Lord not by commandment. See D&C 63:1,13,22.) Who determines what accepted written scripture is canonized and made binding upon the general membership? The membership does, by vote.

    So, sola scriptura is what we are all about. It’s just that we have a much larger body of scripture in which to work with.

  16. Cameron N on April 11, 2013 at 2:09 am

    By our definition at least (and I’d say that of all believers in the Holy Bible), faith *is* literally an imperfect level of obedience that through the Savior’s grace and Atonement can be sufficient for our end. Faith and obedience to the Lord are basically synonyms. I would merely classify faith as a richer, more specific kind of obedience.

  17. Ben S. on April 11, 2013 at 5:27 am

    “sola scriptura is the standard under which our theology teaches we are to operate. The scriptures teach that whatever anyone speaks by the power of the Holy Ghost is scripture.”

    Sola scriptura loses all meaning with an open canon.

  18. Howard on April 11, 2013 at 6:55 am

    Excellent comment Cameron! That defines the first step toward the mighty change of heart beyond simple rote obedience. Add love of God and knowledge of God via. a meaningful relationship with him and the door has been opened for that mighty change which transcends and obsoletes obedience as most know it!

  19. Rameumptom on April 11, 2013 at 8:25 am

    I think Dallin Oaks’ talk on “Two Lines of Communication” fits better than your concept of entirely rejecting the “priesthood of all believers.” In this talk, Elder Oaks notes we have a priesthood of all believers, but ALSO the formal priesthood. IOW, Luther’s concepts were correct, but incomplete. This is why the Reformation was good, but did not take care of all things needed, so requiring a Restoration.

    As I read it, the difference between the two types of priesthood is only in the ordinances.

    Elder Oaks’ talk:
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/two-lines-of-communication?lang=eng

  20. Science Teacher Mommy on April 11, 2013 at 10:21 am

    #7 “At bottom what we most admire about Luther was his work of destruction.” This sums it up for me. He was really the first to speak loudly enough and boldly enough against the heinous crimes being committed by the Church. The papacy at the time was bankrupting its adherents and the popes honestly thought it was their right to do so (divine or otherwise). The church was corrupt at nearly every level and dramatically changeable depending on who was elected to (or paid for) the papacy.

    While true religion needed restored (how can you reform something so corrupt? New wine in new bottles and all that), the Reformation gave room for dissent and opened up the possibility for other religions. The fact that they were all corrupt in their way is less important than the fact that they fostered a place where free-thinkers could eventually stand up and say that people should not only be free to worship as they chose, but that their governments should be free from any one religion’s control as well. These two concepts are part of the very essence of freedom.

    As to the faith and works thread . . . in the LDS mind can these be separated? If Christ said that to love Him is to keep His commandments and that baptism was necessary, and James said that faith without works is dead, then is there ANY true faith without works? The New Testament makes pretty plan that faith unto salvation is wrapped up in the commandments (what we CAN’T) do and our works (what we SHOULD do) and ordinances. By this reasoning, if we don’t do the works then we don’t really have saving faith at all.

  21. Mtnmarty on April 11, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I think Luther’s negative teachings are being devalued by JG as not being “central”. Here are several of his writings that seem central to the reformation and have not, to my knowledge, been rejected by LDS beliefs.

    selling of indulgences
    devotion to Mary,”The Mother of God”
    the intercession of and devotion to the saints
    the mandatory clerical celibacy, including monasticism,
    the authority of the Pope

    The paradox to me is that the whole reason that the list above doesn’t seem “central” to you is because Luther’s victory was so great that you don’t need to be concerned with them. If not for Luther and the reformation, wouldn’t the authority of the pope and the celibacy of the clergy still be ‘central” for you?

  22. Adam G. on April 11, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Mount Nmarty has a point.

  23. stephenchardy on April 11, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Science Teacher Mommy:

    “If Christ said that to love Him is to keep His commandments and that baptism was necessary, and James said that faith without works is dead, then is there ANY true faith without works?”

    I am thoroughly Mormon, but I have learned to admire my friends of other Christian traditions who see such scriptures as descriptive, and not prescriptive. That is, a true Christian loves Christ because he/she loves Christ, not because it is a commandment. They teach that a true Christian sees “works” as an expression of love for Christ, or as a sign of devotion, or as a natural result of taking Christ upon them, and especially not as works with the power to save. It’s an attitude that I think I disagree with, but admire. Their obedience is a sign of love, and is not done with the sense that they are earning their way to heaven. I don’t see them using that belief as an excuse for a selfish and rebellious lifestyle. We are constantly reminded to be obedient because our obedience will save us. I don’t think that we emphsize (very often) that obedience can be an expression of love and gratitude.

  24. Science Teacher Mommy on April 11, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Excellent comment stephen. I think my point was more about true faith inspiring us to DO something. The friends you describe are doing something about their devotion with very pure and inspiring motivation. I think the faith and works dialogue is sometimes hard for LDS people because it is a false dichotomy. Our works cannot save us; only our faith can, but if true faith inspires work then is there really a difference? I do certainly agree that we need to be cognizant of our motivation. If we are only doing good because we are hoping for some huge eternal pay off then we have certainly missed the point, but if we think that God is indifferent to the service we render his children then that is equally fallacious.

  25. Carey on April 11, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    I like to think of this way: You can’t love Christ without following his commandments, but you can follow his commandments without loving him.

  26. Steve Smith on April 11, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    I think that you’re generally right, there is a paradox in the LDS church in that it looks kindly upon Luther in spite of the fact that it disagrees with him on many points of doctrine. My explanation for this is that the LDS church appreciates Luther’s spirit of questioning the religious traditions around him and his quest for a light beyond the shackles of those traditions. What missionary trying to proselytize people in a highly Protestant or Catholic area doesn’t hope that their investigators have concerns about their traditional religious practices and doctrines similar to those of Luther? The LDS church also appreciates the fact that Luther set the ball rolling for a series of religious and social transformations that eventually produced an environment in which Mormonism could rise and flourish. Were it not for the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the First Great Awakening, and US Constitution, all of which came about largely as a result of the Reformation, Joseph Smith would have been hard pressed to build and grow the LDS church, and may not have even lived in an environment that would have prompted to question the surrounding religious traditions and seek answers. Of course I’m probably just stating the obvious here, but generally, I think that you came up with a correct and very interesting observation.

  27. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 11, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Without the Reformation that allowed the focus of religious belief to be one’s personal encounter with scripture, the model of the plowboy searching scripture, as William Tyndale put it, and then asking God for understanding, would not have existed. That model for spiritual enlightenment not only prepared the early Mormons to receive new revelation, it predisposed them to be able to accept the Book of Mormon as an addition to their study of scripture. Luther’s translation was an antecedent to Tyndale’s English Bible, which was the father of 80% of the language in the King James Version. Luther’s movement paved the way for the Book of Mormon.

    I have often thought that the most significant implementation of the concept of a “priesthood of all believers” is in the LDS Church. Mormons share ministerial functions broadly among dozens of people in each congregation. In remote locations, such as during military service, a handful of Mormons can set up a functioniing congregation on a few minutes’ notice. In contrast, most Protestants are strongly wedded to the idea that a pastor should be a professional, a full time specialist. With Mormons, a ward can be split in two (as mine was last summer) and the two daughter wards can be fully staffed in a couple of weeks with people who were all within the boundaries of the former single ward. It enables small congregations to function at a size where no full time clergy could be supported (such as the places in Michigan and New Jersey where Mitt Romney and Henry Eyring grew up), and facilitates the kind of growth (e.g. doubling every twenty years) that the Church has experienced in many areas.

    Once as a missionary I visited a military base in Japan to meet with the branch president, a mature man closer to my Dad’s age than mine. We were picking up some stuff at the base chapel when we ran into one of the Protestant chaplains. He remarked that he thought it was good that our church was finally sending our some ministers since he knew the Mormon branch on base had been getting by a only “lay ministers” for some time. When he left the room, we broke out laughing. The Mormon amateur priesthood was not something he admired, even though it embodies Luther’s ideal more than his own professional career did.

  28. Old Man on April 11, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Quite simply, I admire Luther’s bravery in the face of persecution for his convictions. Standing before Charles V and the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire and refusing to recant? In the early 16th century? That’s guts.

  29. Dave on April 11, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    Very nice points, Jonathan. It wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that I fully grasped the fact that the LDS doctrine of the Great Apostasy has no particular relation to any historical facts or developments but is simply an implied consequence of the Restoration. (Which is why every LDS writer on the Great Apostasy fits the facts together differently. The facts don’t really matter.)

    It strikes me that the LDS view of the Reformation works the same way. Whether a Latter-day Saint is well informed, a bit informed, or completely uninformed about the Reformation as a historical episode and the work of the Reformers, one’s LDS view is the same: By breaking the religious monopoly of Roman Catholicism (in the West) the Reformers prepared the way for religious pluralism and religious liberty, culminating in constitutionally established religious freedom in the USA that facilitated the establishment and growth of the LDS Church. So the LDS view of the Reformation has essentially nothing to do with the actual facts about the Reformation.

  30. Steve Smith on April 11, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    Another thought: I interpret Joseph Smith and other early Mormons as taking some inspiration from the earlier Protestant Reformers, at least as far as challenging many of the prevailing doctrinal positions of the time. But then they, particularly Joseph Smith, channeled the energy of the Protestant spirit towards building a hierarchical institution somewhat similar to the Catholic church in which doctrine and policy was established through a single person whom the followers believed to possess divine authority, this being Joseph Smith, and not through a reason-based collective engagement with a scriptural canon, as many Protestants of the time were doing. Also part of the result of the wave of the Protestantish “great awakening” spirit that was sweeping New York during the 1820s was the restoration of many Old Testament/ancient Jewish traditions that had fallen out of practice and been eschewed by New Testament-emphasizing Protestants (the practice of polygamy being one of the most ostensible instances of this restoration).

    Certainly between 1830 and 1838 church leadership was more council-based and early converts such as Sidney Rigdon, Thomas B. Marsh, Oliver Cowdery, and others assumed more say in policy-making and even in establishing doctrine (i.e. Sidney Rigdon persuaded Joseph Smith to add “Latter-day Saints” to the name of the church). However, after the Mormon War and the migration of the Mormon community to Illinois, Joseph Smith managed to assume near full doctrinal authority and even political and military power. In Nauvoo JS was mayor, prophet, and the highest ranking officer (Lieutenant General) of the Nauvoo Legion. Brigham Young, with his vision of a State of Deseret in the Great Basin, carried on Joseph Smith’s vision of building in the US frontier a physical Zion governed by the LDS religious hierarchy. I often wonder had there been no British settlement of California and the concomitant Manifest Destiny doctrine prevalent among US leaders, if Brigham Young would have succeeded in establishing an independent State of Deseret with a theocratic government, closed economy, and communitarian social order in the Rocky Mountains.

  31. Steve Smith on April 11, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    Sorry I mean settlement of California by white people of British/northern European ancestry.

  32. Chris on April 12, 2013 at 1:33 am

    I believe in salvation by Faith alone, but I define faith as righteously using our agency (mentally and or physically ). You can’t be righteously using your agency if you don’t do good works where necessary or for instance even receiving your temple endowment at the proper time of your development, etc.

    And time I see faith in the scriptures I insert the phrase righteously use your agency and my understanding is increased. In fact even the prayer to have our faith increased takes on added meaning when you consider the prayer to have our righteous use of agency increased (ie. whose responsibility is it to do that?)

    Not saying this sums it all up, but it does add another dimension to my understanding of faith.

  33. Mike S on April 12, 2013 at 9:29 am

    One of the practices which played an impetus in Martin Luther’s process of reformation was indulgences. This essentially tied spiritual blessings to the donation of specific amounts of money.

    While we have a very different explanation, we do tend to this in our church more than many other denominations. Try being a mother who wants to see her daughter married in the temple without paying a certain percentage of your income for a certain length of time. It’s not going to happen. Many denominations request voluntary donations to support their work, but we essentially require 10% in order to receive spiritual blessings, to serve in the highest callings, or to be together as eternal families.

  34. Jonathan Green on April 13, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. In general, I remain skeptical of arguments that we really do believe in salvation by faith alone or have a priesthood of all believers or any of the rest by defining those terms in particular ways: if we look at what Luther meant and the implications that led to for him, and if we look at both current Mormon usage and its implications for us, it’s clear that we mean very different things.

    I’m also wary of trying to find too much common ground in negatives. Luther rejected the things that Mtnmarty lists as a consequence of his core beliefs, but it is in those core beliefs that we diverge most sharply. Those shared rejections are real and important, but more superficial than the divergence in central doctrines. Schism is not a commutative operation. Two heresies are not mutually orthodox.

    I wouldn’t say that the Reformation and Restoration have nothing to do with each other – they’re only 300 years apart, and the latter involved a bunch of people heavily influenced by the former – but both are much more complex than we usually assume, as is the relationship between them. The Reformation did bring about religious freedom…for princes, who became free to choose the religion for their subjects, paving the way for a century of religious warfare, persecution, and forced resettlement. Dave’s right in that we usually don’t have to concern ourselves with the messy ambiguities of early Christian or Reformation history, as belief in apostasy and restoration does most of the work for us. It’s important to understand the limits of our knowledge, however, in order to understand both our religious heritage and our religious innovations, and so that we don’t get distracted by superficial differences or similarities.

  35. Dave on April 19, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Just a an outsider can clearly see that Mohamed was trying to bring Judaism and Christianity back together, and started a new religion altogether with his failure, outsiders could easily gather that Smith was trying to reconcile Catholicism and the Protestant movement. What if you had both? You get the “every member a priest/nun” and the sacred places and rituals. You get the Bible and the revelations. It’s the best of both worlds. The ides in Mormonism is that the Reformation proved the apostasy and paved the path the lead mankind back to God’s light in revealed religion – something neither side in the Christian debate wanted or saw as needed. Yet with it can the good from both sides of the argument and even greater light an knowledge.

  36. Adam Greenwood on April 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    “Luther rejected the things that Mtnmarty lists as a consequence of his core beliefs, but it is in those core beliefs that we diverge most sharply.”

    Jonathan, I’m no Luther scholar, but are you sure the causal arrow ran that direction? Luther could have easily shared the anger of his time and place with indulgences and with gold flowing south to Rome, and come up with his positive doctrines in an attempt to explain that anger. Sola fidei neatly explains why indulgences are a bad idea, why the priesthood of all believers (which is sola scriptura, essentially) neatly explains why gold doesn’t have to flow to Rome and why Luther can ignore the Pope’s defense of indulgences.

    BTW, once you realize that the priesthood of all believers and sola scriptura are the same thing, its really obvious that the LDS do not believe anything like the priesthood of all believers.

  37. Mike H. on April 25, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Also, the last of the historical Antipopes was not too long before Luther came along. That may also have had his attention.

  38. Ms. Jack on April 27, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Luther rejected the things that Mtnmarty lists as a consequence of his core beliefs, but it is in those core beliefs that we diverge most sharply

    Not a Luther scholar either, but I did take a class from one, and I’d say Adam G. is correct on this point. Luther’s theology developed out of his rejection of things like simony, sale of indulgences, concubinage, absenteeism, etc. and not (for the most part) the other way around. Luther’s theology also underwent significant development as a result of the Roman Catholic church excommunicating him. He didn’t originally set out to start a new branch of Christianity; the Roman Catholic church forced his hand by kicking him out.

    I wouldn’t say that Mormonism doesn’t believe in anything like the priesthood of all believers. Remember, Mormons give their priesthood to all worthy members—except women, and many Mormons try to compensate for this with explanations about how women really do hold the priesthood through the temple or how they access it through their husbands or how motherhood is just as good, etc. That’s a far cry from what other Christianities with linear priesthoods teach and practice, where only a tiny and select group of men (or, in Anglicanism, men and women) hold the priesthood. If anything, I would say that Mormonism is an amalgamation of the Roman Catholic and Protestant systems of priesthood.

    I think I read the OP with a shrug. To me it’s kind of a “duh” that Mormons reject large swaths of Luther’s theology. However, they do owe a great debt to Luther on some of their very core doctrines. For example, it was Luther who railed against the exaltation of celibate orders and insisted that the Christian family was just as good as, if not better than, Christian celibacy. He insisted that Christian family life and procreation was every bit as much a holy and divine calling as participation in clergy. It was also Luther who centralized and encouraged motherhood as a woman’s predominant calling in life, thus restoring a bit of glory and affection for the acts of procreation and giving birth that had been lost and looked down on throughout Christian history. I don’t believe this was entirely a good thing for women, but for centuries the pendulum had ideologically favored celibate Christian women. Luther swung it hard in the other direction, and Mormons are still stuck there to this day.

    Last one: which Christianity’s biblical canon do Mormons believe in? See any Apocrypha in your Scriptures lately? Rail against Protestantism’s priesthood of believers all you want, but Mormons kind of accepted its authority on at least that much.

  39. Seth R. on May 12, 2013 at 9:54 am

    I think the Mormon admiration for Luther simply illustrates something about the core nature of Mormonism in general.

    Mormonism, generally speaking, doesn’t give a flying fig about theology.

    But it is overwhelmingly passionate about historical narrative.

    Luther, in the eyes of Mormonism, was a hero who stood up to a corrupt wedding of money, political power, and priesthood. He was a historical figure who fought against priestcraft and the “Great and Abominable Church” (whether you agree with McConkie that that is a synonym for Catholicism or not). That’s what Mormons see in Luther. That he was a reformer.

    The content of his reformation is frankly, irrelevant to most Mormons. That’s just mumbo-jumbo theological voodoo stuff that most Mormons don’t study or care about.

    This theological indifference is something about Mormons that drives a lot of Evangelicals, and others who care a lot about theology, absolutely bonkers. But there it is.

    Luther’s narrative matters a lot more than his content for Mormons. Same way we tend to feel about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, actually….

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