If you spend time browsing a medium-size collection of early modern pamphlets, you’re likely to come across printed reports of a prophet receiving visions, or preaching in one town or another. But the relevance of one account in isolation is rarely clear. In Jürgen Beyer’s Lay Prophets in Lutheran Europe (c. 1550-1700) (Brill, 2017), based on Beyer’s decades of work with printed sources, manuscripts, and archival material, we have for the first time a comprehensive treatment of prophets in any area of early modern Europe.
What Beyer’s wealth of material shows above all is that prophets were part of most people’s lived religious experience at this time, either through first-hand experience or oral reports about the prophet in the next village, or through widely circulated printed accounts. Prophets were not predominately female (at least until the later 17th century), nor did they inherently represent a form of political protest (although they often gave voice to economic concerns), nor were they a form of heterodoxy. The Reformation as such did not suppress visions; Beyer even argues (more strongly than I would follow) that it was the religious heterogeneity in Lutheran areas after 1550 that made prophetic visions and preaching possible. The image of the Reformation as bureaucratic, emotionless, and rational was instead a post hoc projection by Pietists based on an eighteenth-century Lutheranism that had reconciled with Reformed churches and been shaped by the Enlightenment.
According to Beyer, Lutheran prophets did address one psychological need created by the Reformation: the lack of information about the state of dead family members and loved ones. In medieval Catholicism, living saints and holy men and women were able to provide believers with information about the welfare of the deceased, while the liturgy offered a mechanism for improving their status in the afterlife. After the Reformation, prophets addressed the same informational needs of Lutherans, although no similar liturgical mechanism for assisting deceased family members existed.
The connection between prophets and concern for deceased relatives is of course relevant to Mormonism as well, and readers will note several more surprisingly familiar points in a book outwardly concerned with another continent, another religious tradition, and another century. The book includes examples of people trying to discern whether a spirit was evil or benign by asking it to show its feet (54); a case where witnesses thought they heard the voice of an angel (66); predictions that cities would sink into the water or be buried in the earth (75); a prophet who is reassured that the words he is to say will be revealed to him at the moment he is to speak them (165); a bishop arguing in 1653 that God could still speak to human beings through angels (192); and popular debate as to whether a visionary was a prophet, Moses, a resurrected apostle, or Elijah (219).
Beyond these intriguing details, I think Beyer’s work is important in three basic ways for Mormon Studies. First, it shows that a wealth of material can go unrecognized and unappreciated until someone devotes their career to collecting it. Second, Beyer shows that prophecy persisted longest in Scandinavia, farthest from the center of Lutheran culture; this raises the question as to what happened in North America, at even greater remove. Finally, Beyer notes points of contact between prophecy and cunning men and women (67, 224) and the widespread magical world-view (231), but shows that prophecy was derived not from either of these but from mainstream religious belief. If it were to be shown that prophecy was also a relatively common form of religious expression in early nineteenth-century America, then there would be much less need to delve into Joseph Smith’s biography or psychology to explain the impetus for his prophetic career.