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.