I’ve written before about Sebastian Franck, a spiritualist who charted his own path through the religious turmoil of the Reformation era. As I was recently reading Franck’s letter to the Anabaptist theologian Johann Campanus, I was struck by how familiar Franck’s discussion of apostasy, authority, and restoration sounded.
Now, however, since experience teaches that the power of the external church and all things external has fallen into decay and that the church is dispersed among the heathen, truly it is my opinion that no person on earth can gather up the same and bring again its sacraments into use without a special call from God. For this is a work of external and special calling, and external things must have an external call. […] Therefore I have said that the outward ceremonies of the church ought not to be reestablished unless Christ himself command it, who did not speak orally to us but to the apostles and originally entrusted to them that they should preach and baptize. But no such directive is given to us, for everyone is stealing and robbing the word of God from his neighbors. I will bite my tongue and simply write that many intrude into this divine office without any calling or sending. […] This is what I am saying: They are restoring the vanished sacraments, as I regard them, which no one should do unless he is especially sent for the purpose and provided with an outward sign and calling from God.
For it is impossible that the one undivided God with Christ, grace, and the sacraments should be in such different churches. […] Therefore either none of all the churches baptizes, or only one of them. If only one, where, my friend, is this church? Perhaps in India, Greece, Germany, Armenia, at Rome, in Saxony, or in the mountains. But I believe nowhere. Instead, they all run uncalled and enter into the sheep[fold] unsent.
(Franck’s original Latin letter, now lost, survives in sixteenth-century German and Dutch translation. The translation here is my adaptation based on George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, 1957, 152-54; specifically, I have corrected some of the language and relied on the Dutch text for a passage unclear in the German.)
Franck’s own view was that Christians were better off with a spiritual rather than a physically gathered Church until Christ would overthrow Antichrist at the Second Coming, but his criteria for what constituted apostasy and restoration—loss of sacramental authority, which Franck thought had occurred soon after the time of the apostles, and its restitution—is very much like our own. His gesture towards the diversity of churches sounds much like Joseph Smith’s description of his teenage experience, and Franck’s mention of a prophet called of God and given an outward sign is reminiscent of the role the Book of Mormon played in Joseph Smith’s ministry.
This has some important implications.
It reminds us that Mormonism is a response to a long-standing debated within Christianity. What constitutes apostasy, and what would a restoration demand? What does church history since the time of Christ look like? Mormonism is a thinking-through of these questions. We’re a part of that conversation.
Questions about apostasy, the diversity of churches, and restoration predate 1820/30 by centuries. While the Church will have to express its messages as an answer to newer questions, old questions never go away entirely and have a way of returning to relevance. The question, “What church is true” will be with us for a long time.
The familiarity of Franck’s language also suggests how Mormonism fits into the Christian tradition as a post-Reformation, non-Protestant church. The Reformation had many strands, as different from each other as they were from Catholicism, and with different ways of relating to pre-Reformation Christianity. As Jürgen Beyer argues, “Protestantism” was a late invention reflecting reconciliation between Lutheranism and Calvinism centuries after the Reformation. Protestantism incorporated particular elements of post-Reformation diversity and excluded others, including important currents of Christian conversation that led to Mormonism. If we don’t seem to have any close relations at the picnic, it’s because some of our nearest ancestors have disappeared.