Is Mormonism Protestant?: Some Reflections on Rohrer’s Wandering Souls

By April 27, 2011

I recently finished reading S. Scott Rohrer’s Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865, a useful and readable overview of several different religious communities whose migrations to and within colonial British North America and the United States shaped American history in ways often ignored by historians of immigration.

I first came across the book at one of the bookseller’s stands last year at MHA and after quickly glancing at the table of contents, purchased it (with individual chapters on Methodism and Mormonism, how could I not?). I finally got around to reading Wandering Souls cover to cover this past week (it’s amazing what a week away from the internet, TV, and other distractions will do for you) and was struck by something I hadn’t considered when I first purchased the volume: Mormonism’s inclusion in a book devoted to Protestant migrations.[1]

In the introduction, Rohrer groups Mormonism together with the Inspirationists—a group of German pietists led by a revelation-receiving prophet whose migration from upstate New York to Iowa in the 1850s parallels the Mormon experience in several obvious respects—under the descriptor “Protestant utopian groups.” These groups, according to Rohrer, were composed of “visionaries seeking to achieve some kind of Christian perfection” (p. 10). Mormons were certainly utopian in some sense, and any book on religious migration in America would be incomplete without an analysis of the Latter-day Saints’ trek westward the the Great Basin. But does Mormonism deserve a place in a book on Protestantism?

Interestingly, and in spite of his rather passing reference to Mormons as Protestants in the introduction, Rohrer’s chapter on Mormonism takes a more ambiguous approach to the question of Mormonism’s place within the Protestant world. He quotes John Brooke without comment, noting that Mormonism’s theology “promised a radical departure from traditional Protestant Christianity” and then goes even further, arguing that “In offering the prospect of divinity, [Joseph] Smith downplayed the central tenets of Christianity, rejecting the notion of original sin” (p. 228). He focuses in on the Saints’ sharp rhetoric, noting that they “proclaimed that they were right and that other faiths were wrong” (p. 230), and suggests that Mormonism’s use of the sacerdotal title “priest” (“a word that Protestant reformers detested and rejected”) and their temple worship (temple being “another vile word in the Protestant lexicon”) both clearly demarcated the Latter-day Saints from their Protestant neighbors (p. 243).[2] Yet, in spite of all of the evidence he presented to the contrary, Rohrer concludes the chapter by arguing for similarities, not differences: “For all their uniqueness, the Mormons were part of something far larger” (p. 243).

In short, Rohrer’s analysis of Mormonism never comes down firmly one way or the other on the question of the Latter-day Saints’ Protestantism. This shouldn’t be read as an explicit critique of the book; other scholars have included Mormonism in larger analyses of Protestantism and Christianity before (see Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, for perhaps the most notable instance) and the author’s suggestion that Mormons comprised a visionary and utopian Protestant group whose theology challenged that of the Reformers and their spiritual descendants isn’t exactly new and will probably satisfy most readers. But I’m interested in what others think: Is Mormonism Protestant? Does that question need to be historicized at all? Was Mormonism ever Protestant? And what do we mean by Protestant, anyway?


[1] I also read several others books during my vacation, including David Holland’s Sacred Borders. I’ll have a review of that up in the coming days. For those interested in a fuller review of Rohrer’s work, see here. For those interested in a more thorough treatment of his chapter on Mormonism, keep your eyes open for Matt Bowman’s forthcoming review in the Journal of Mormon History.

[2] Rohrer overstates his case on both of these points, especially regarding Protestants’ supposed aversion to the word “temple.” They may not have built temples as the Latter-day Saints did, but 19th century Protestants certainly did not find the word itself—one used in both the Old and New Testaments—“vile.” Furthermore, Methodists in antebellum America regularly described their camp meeting grounds as “God’s sacred temples.”

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Christian History Comparative Mormon Studies


  1. Interesting question. It seems to me Mormonism falls into the Protestant camp if the division is between Roman Catholicism and everyone else. Do writers typically include the Eastern Orthodox Church in the category of Protestant? Or do they draw the Catholic circle wide enough to embrace Eastern, Russian, etc. Orthodox churches?

    Comment by BHodges — April 27, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  2. Great post an important questions, Chris. (And welcome back!)

    Personally, I see Nauvoo-era Mormonism and forward as a Post-Protestant movement, primarily because they are working with a completely different ontology. Prothero also shows the distance between Mormon and mainstream Protestant Christology during the nineteenth century.

    But then, of course, it comes down to how one defines “Protestant.” I typically think of Christians who believe in the Trinity but reject the Catholic claims to authority. Based on the first precedent, I’d say Mormonism isn’t counted in the group.

    Comment by Ben — April 27, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

  3. *cough*free Dialogue DVD&online subscription for student submissions*cough*

    Comment by Kristine — April 27, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

  4. Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as well as Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox, etc are, of course, neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant. Generally, they do not derive their lines of authority through Peter and Rome, but through other lines/apostles. The idea that the only churches with potentially legitimate lines of authority to Jesus are RC and Mormon is in error, although popularly held in our church.

    Comment by DavidH — April 27, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  5. “Protestant” is a very murky ambiguous term. If it means “all those groups that aren’t Catholic or Orthodox” then, yes (that’s often how it is used). But if we’re talking in terms of unifying theology, ie coming from Luther, Calvin, et al. then, no.

    The problem is that there were a whole bunch of different groups and I see coupling Mormons with radical German pietists as worthwhile.

    It sound to me like Roher had a bit of a tricky task. He wants to focus on these religious groups who basically fit under the Protestant umbrella, Mormons less so. But Mormons are the most notable migrants. Do you leave them out, change the title of the booK (too what?) or just make them fit?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 27, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

  6. To be contrary, I think Mormons certainly fit on the Protestant branch of the Christian genealogical tree. The argument should take into account stuff beyond simply theological claims, and Mormons’ way of worship, ethic, and religious style with few exceptions clearly bear a family resemblance to the churches of the Anglo-American Reformation.

    Comment by matt b — April 27, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

  7. This is sort of a similar argument to that of Paul Conkin in The Uneasy Center, when he lumps Methodists in with the Reformed churches.

    Comment by matt b — April 27, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

  8. I agree with Steve that it seems Roher was in a conundrum of wanting to fit Mormonism within his umbrella, and thus having to make them, in some way Protestant.

    And Matt has a great point that there should be considerations beyond theological claims. Even theologically, many of Mormonism’s “heresies” could be construed as still within a Protestant framework. I’m not as well-read in the methodological discussion, so I’d be interested in what the general interpretation is.

    Comment by Ben — April 27, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  9. matt b FTW

    Comment by BHodges — April 27, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

  10. Matt is right here, I think. Mormonism bought and sold in a Protestant marketplace. Thanks for the note Chris.

    Comment by WVS — April 27, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

  11. This isn’t an academic answer or anything, but I have found that the Mormon approach to Christianity makes it far easier for me to talk to my Catholic friends about theology than most Protestant friends.

    Things like a strong patriarchal leadership, the Church taking a hard stance on social issues, “confessing” sins to the Bishop, priesthood authority. When I say something like, “The Church highly discourages divorce and makes obtaining a Church divorce quite difficult,” it clicks with my Catholic friends but not my Protestant friends.

    But I don’t know.

    Comment by Syphax — April 27, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

  12. Syphax – I actually think you make decent points. One way to think about this, maybe, is that Mormonism’s content is Catholic but its form Protestant. Or that it’s rebuilding Catholicism using the Protestant materials of the second great awakening.

    Comment by matt b — April 27, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

  13. I assigned Rohrer to my graduate seminar in American religious history at UW-Madison this past fall, and one of the things we discussed was this very question. To my mind, listing Mormonism as a Protestantism is a complete fallacy. I can’t go into all the reasons here, but consider:
    1. the tripartite division of Christianity into Catholicism/Protestantism/Orthodoxy is too neat. Conkin may have been guilty of a homogenizing in Uneasy Center, but he got it right in American Originals, where he interprets Mormonism with other faiths like Christian Science as their own species of Christianity (which to me does not lessen their “Christianness”). There is simply no imperative to categorize Mormons as Protestants if one accepts that there are more than three kinds of Christianity, and that lying outside the three major divisions is not a sign of illegitimacy.
    2. There is an unbridgeable gap between Protestant and Mormon notions about what constitute scripture and the era of revelation. For Protestants, the age of revelation ended in biblical times, and biblical times are revealed in the “standard” OT/NT canon, which does not include the Book of Mormon. For Mormons, of course, the BofM is (Broadway musicals notwithstanding) a sacred text. The Protestant sola scriptura does not include Nephi. There are other important differences too, as some of the writers have indicated. I’d also throw in the Mormon understanding of the Trinity.
    3. Mormon practice, moral probity, political behavior and involvement in the market may make them look culturally and politically like many conservative Protestants, but cultural similarity is not theological, doctrinal, and liturgical similarity. (Let’s add Mormon and Protestant understandings of sacraments to the list of critical differences.)
    4. Hatch did include Mormonism, though he never claimed that the religion is Protestant. There is an implicit argument in his book that American Christianity equates with Protestantism (he doesn’t treat Catholicism at all), so including Mormonism would seem to make it “Protestant.” But Hatch is not at all clear. Another category of his, African American religion, is not a denomination (though it does include black Protestants). Hatch’s argument at this point is murky and shouldn’t be used to define Mormonism one way or another.

    Rohrer is most of all trying to talk about religion and migration to the mid-nineteenth century. The temptation to include Mormonism had to have been irresistible, especially since Rohrer writes narratives well. But, in including Mormons, he has committed a categorical error that he might have avoided by omitting “Protestant” from the title or by explaining why he had to include the Mormon Trek even though the the Saints are not Protestants.

    Comment by Charles L. Cohen — April 27, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

  14. Dr. Cohen, I totally agree. Very well put. And thanks for dropping by.

    Here’s how I would put it, Matt. Mormonism came out of and existed in a Protestant environment, so it was going to have its influences. Where the revelations aren’t specific, the early saints tended to fill things in with Protestant procedures. For instance, early Mormonism in the eastern United States operated in a manner very close to Methodism. This created problems because the Revelations described a different system and I have found that the two systems (the Mormon and the Methodist) tended the clash. But since the eastern branches didn’t get a whole lot of direction, they had to implement something. The system in the BoM looks sort of Quaker and some things in the D&C look kind of Methodist (two traditions whose Protestant nature is somewhat complex). But all the talk of Priesthood was a departure.

    Let’s not forget the temple. Not very Protestant. That’s where JS really focused his energy and funds. Keep in mind that he built no meeting houses (the first Mormon meeting houses were build in New Jersey by a non-Mormon in 1842). All went to the temple.

    Syphax. I totally agree and would argue that Mormonism is much more Catholic than Protestant (not totally Catholic though). I’ve written two articles on that.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 27, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

  15. Dr Cohen – an honor to have you appear on our blog! And thanks for the discussion. I’d say, I think, three things.

    1) I think you’re certainly correct about the basically artificial restriction of the tripartite division. I prefer the metaphor of the family tree, with lots of branches. I also think the lines between ‘cultural’ similarity and theological similarity, or cultural similarity and liturgical similarity, are more blurry than it seems you do.

    2) I think on the one hand, there are some gaps between Mormon and Protestant notions of liturgy, which are bound to the gaps between their notions of scripture, and mostly orbit around the different ways the two camps think about the Word and its place in worship.

    However, I also think that there are equally as important liturgical similarities – and this is where it’s far too easy to equate American Protestantism with American evangelicalism. I think Mormon liturgy looks a whole lot like older Reformed liturgy, particularly the Puritans, because Mormon worship is about creating a covenanted community and about refining the elect, not, as revivalists had it, about conversion.

    Mormon sacramentalism is a hoary beast, precisely because there is virtually no Mormon sacramental theology, even on a lay level. The Mormon Lord’s Supper, which is confusingly called ‘the sacrament,’ is basically a Zwinglian memorialist rite, which doesn’t seem that out of place in the Second Great Awakening. Other rites, like baptism and the endowment, may in fact be sacramental, but it’s unclear to what extent Mormon notions of baptism are so different from, say, Lutheran notions (though not, to be sure, Baptist).

    3) I think that most of the differences over scripture that you’re talking about have to do with where the limits of scripture are, and perhaps, to some extent, the sense of the converting power of hearing the Word of God, which is vestigal but present in Mormonism. However, that aside, the ways that Mormons and conservative Protestants read and use scripture are, and have been for a long time, functionally quite similar. The ways that Nancy Ammerman or Brian Malley describe conservative evangelical Bible reading today could easily apply to the ways Mormons read the Book of Mormon: a sense of applicability, naive inerrancy, transitivity (or what Mormons call “likening”), and both of these styles of reading, I think, go back to the common sense theology of the early republic.

    Comment by matt b — April 27, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

  16. Though I would agree that you can place Mormonism on the Protestant “genealogical tree.” (I’d put them by the Methodists). But in the end, Mormonism rejected these roots.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 27, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

  17. Matt, again, you’re leaving out the temple. You have to understand the while the the Reformers insisted on only two sacraments, Mormonism brings back the other five. The seven are: baptism, confirmation (check), eucharist, confession (check), marriage (check), holy orders (check) and last rites (looks an very similar to Mormon second anointing, so check).

    Matt finding certain similarities seems beside the point. Other Christians “likened” the scriptures long before the Reformation. It’s not unique to Protestantism, not does it make Mormonism Protestant.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 27, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

  18. Steve, I actually have a paper forthcoming on Mormon Last rites, which was a vibrant part of lived Mormonism through the nineteenth century (and to the present really). Some Baptists could keep up on the sacramental count, and last rites were more likely to be anointing the sick (same as the Roman Catholic church pre-Carolingian reformation and post Vatican II).

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 27, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

  19. I think the broader question here is whether Restorationist religions can be considered Protestant.

    Comment by Larrin — April 27, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

  20. Thanks, all, for the lively discussion and debate. This post prompted far better discussion that I envisioned, and a lot of good points have been made.

    I think Steve Fleming is right in #5 that how we define Protestantism is crucial, and that Dr. Cohen is right in his #13 that Rohrer could easily have chosen a different descriptor (Christian, perhaps) instead of Protestant and we could’ve avoided this discussion altogether. This is, as Dr. Cohen notes, precisely what Hatch did. But I mostly agree with Matt here. A couple of thoughts:

    1. re: the scriptural canon. I’ll have a review forthcoming of David Holland’s Sacred Borders here at the blog soon. It shows, among other things, that several different Protestant individuals and groups have reached beyond the traditional borders of the OT and NT in defining their scriptural canon (and in interpreting the OT and NT). I’m not aware that doing so made them (well, most of them anyway) any less Protestant.

    2. re: the Temple. Steve’s right that this separates Mormons from most antebellum Protestants (though use of the word “temple” does not, as Rohrer claims). What about pre-Nauvoo Mormonism, Steve? Is it then more Protestant than Nauvoo and post-Nauvoo Mormonism since it did not include the elaborate temples rites so central to Mormonism today? This is part of what I had in mind when I asked if Mormonism ever was Protestant.

    Comment by Christopher — April 27, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

  21. Good question, Chris. I’m interested in what Ben or J. have to say on that. Simply put though, Mormons were off to a very bad start (in terms of Protestant orthodoxy) with the publication of the Book of Mormon and I’d say it only went down hill from there.

    J., cool, I took forward to your paper. What were the nature of these rituals during JS’s life (if I may ask)? Good point about certain groups having extra rites. I hope to discuss this with you further.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 27, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

  22. I think we resolved on a previous thread (comments 38-39) that the official characterization for 1830s Mormonism was an “orapple.” (Not completely in line with the general evangelical population (the oranges), but not far from it (an apple).)

    Comment by Ben — April 28, 2011 @ 7:43 am

  23. Great discussion. What about the Church of England, generally described as having retained Catholic forms and practices while adopting Protestant doctrines. Scholars don’t have a problem seeing both the Protestant and Catholic influences on Anglicanism.

    In mirror image, it seems like Mormonism has retained many Protestant forms and practices (most evident in weekly Sunday worship, I think) while gradually repopulating Catholic doctrinal and ritual categories. Not entirely parallel, of course — Protestant doctrine came rather directly into the Church of England, while Mormonism seems to have developed its own doctrine in Catholic categories rather than adopted Catholic doctrine directly. So there shouldn’t be any great difficulty in acknowledging both the Protestant and Catholic features of Mormonism.

    Comment by Dave — April 28, 2011 @ 9:10 am

  24. On the outside, the school of the Prophets, if you ignore the priesthood, looks sort of protestant, I think. You see feet washing elsewhere (I believe Rigdon was doing this before converting, e.g.). But I’ve not seen the theology associated with it anywhere. The washing and anointing in preparation for the endowment of power is pretty aberrant for protestantism as well.

    Steve, alas, the first documented last rites that I have found were in 1846. I’ll shoot you an email.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 28, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  25. It seems then that the best way to describe Mormonism is a Protestant Restoration religion with a Catholic form. The problem is that Christianity is so diverse and branched out from each other that finding any definition is almost impossible. For instance, is the Lutheran religion Catholic for its liturgy or Protestant for its reason for existence? Are Baptists (commonly used as a baseline for Protestantism) more Protestant for their theology and forms of worship or for breaking away from Catholicism even though they are more a break away from other Protestants?

    Comment by Jettboy — April 28, 2011 @ 9:54 am

  26. […] asks the question over at The Juvenile Instructor.  Professor Charles Cohen offers an answer.  Cohen suggests “cultural similarity is not […]

    Pingback by Is Mormonism Protestant? « Heart Issues in the I-15 Corridor — April 28, 2011 @ 11:17 am

  27. I wonder whether it matters how early Mormons defined themselves. I was surprised when I got into the sources surrounding the British mission to discover that some early British converts saw Mormonism as the completion of the English Reformation and the work that Henry VIII had begun. I doubt American Mormons would have seen their faith in quite the same way.

    Of course, this type of reasoning would create a sticky situation in which British Mormons are more Protestant than American ones, and in which Mormons might be Protestant at one historical moment and not at another. This stickiness might, though, better reflect the messiness of history, which always defies our categorizations.

    Finally, like Matt B., I’m also reluctant to frame the question solely around belief. Religion also has to be defined culturally, liturgically, and sacramentally. It seems to me that in most of these areas, as Matt has pointed out, Mormonism is close (if not identical to) Protestantism.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 28, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  28. I think you’re right that how Mormons defined themselves is crucial to this discussion, Amanda.

    I was surprised when I got into the sources surrounding the British mission to discover that some early British converts saw Mormonism as the completion of the English Reformation and the work that Henry VIII had begun. I doubt American Mormons would have seen their faith in quite the same way.

    Actually, a number of early Methodist converts to Mormonism in America saw Mormonism in somewhat similar terms—Mormonism represented the culmination and completion of what John Wesley had begun.

    Edward Tullidge once described Mormons as “Wesleyan Baptists” because he saw their “spirit, faith, and missionary work” as building on the foundation laid by Wesley and their form of baptism following after the Baptists. So some early Mormons did recognize the messiness of this all.

    Comment by Christopher — April 28, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  29. Out of curiosity are there other groups that historians aren’t sure whether to characterize as Protestant? Say Swedenborgism or the Oneida movement?

    Comment by Clark — April 28, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

  30. Clark, my own anecdotal evidence would suggest that historians generally grant the Oneida community the title of Protestant without any qualms (please correct me if I’m wrong); Swedenborgians I’m less sure about.

    Comment by Christopher — April 28, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

  31. Why does the bulk of this discussion ignore what Mormonism claims to be, a restoration? I found the flow chart in the Oxford short intro to religion to be very helpful for a religious studies ignoramus like me. It created a separate category for “Restorationist Churches” and included Mormons, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ. Hughes’ Tanner lecture was also very helpful on “Two Restoration Traditions.” I agree with Dr. Cohen, in other words, that the tripartite division of Christianity is too neat, but do so on different grounds. Mormonism claimed to be a restoration, a new religious tradition, ala Jan Shipps. One could compare and contrast liturgy/culture/sacraments ad nauseum and never draw firm borders.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — April 29, 2011 @ 10:12 am

  32. Paul, I think that’s a great point, but I also think it’s important that not all converts to Mormonism saw it as a completely new religious tradition. Many, as both Chris and I have pointed out, saw it as a continuation as a process already begun. It’s been awhile since I read Jan Shipps, but I agree that perhaps her comparison with Christianity and Judaism is useful. Even if we take those people who saw Mormonism as a continuation of their previous faith, we could argue that Mormonism became something different than the Protestant milieu that it began with. I also wonder if we create a separate branch for Restoration traditions where we place a group like the Primitive Methodists. Didn’t they also see themselves as searching for a version of Christianity that was more like that of the ancient apostles? Perhaps these questions are another reminder that distinctions are always messy and making a divisions, as you point out, is always problematic.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 29, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  33. I don’t know what historians think, but some anabaptists (at least the Mennonites and Amish) don’t self-identify as protestant.

    Comment by sar — April 29, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

  34. Paul and Amanda, you have to understand that the impulse to be like the apostles has been around throughout the entire history of Christianity. It was a major theme of both St. Francis and Luther (though they were quite different). No doubt Primitivism was a major theme in the early republic but it was hardly unique to the period. Thus I don’t see “Restorationist” as a workable category.

    Clark’s and Dave’s and sar’s point about other traditions not seeing themselves as Protestant is a good one. There are a number, from Anabaptists, to spiritualists, to Scientology. Such movements are often classified as “New Religions.” Mormons certainly never ever saw themselves as Protestant and I think that matters.

    I’d say the JS rejected Protestantism the minute he resolved to go dig up his first seer stone. There was a long history of the common people being uneasy with Protestantism, it was never a “popular movement.” If Smith and others felt that Wesley was headed in the right direction, they saw the fruition of that direction as the full rejection of Protestantism.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 29, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

  35. Steve, it’s easy to say “I renounce Protestantism.” (Although, we should, I think, be cognizant of the fact that as Christopher’s pointed out the actual claims Mormons made were more nuanced than this). Saying it, though, doesn’t make it so. Indeed, I think part of the argument here is that “Protestantism” is not merely a set of doctrines that one accepts or repudiates; it’s a whole set of cultural baggage, conscious and unconscious, that one doesn’t simply take off like a jacket. John Bossy’s book on the Reformation is good on this. And if seer stones and folk magic made Joseph Smith not a Protestant, than the Puritans aren’t Protestant either.

    I continue to think that these traditions are best thought of in terms of family resemblance, as clouds floating somewhere between ideal poles. And Mormonism’s got a lot of Protestant in it – I think the way I spoke of it above, as a faith straining for Catholic-esque sacramentalism through the forms of Protestantism, still makes sense to me.

    And while Duffy may be correct on the first generation of English Protestants, I defy you to argue that the First and Second Great Awakenings were not grassroots movements; good heavens.

    Comment by matt b. — April 29, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

  36. Indeed, I think part of the argument here is that “Protestantism” is not merely a set of doctrines that one accepts or repudiates; it’s a whole set of cultural baggage, conscious and unconscious, that one doesn’t simply take off like a jacket.


    Comment by Christopher — April 29, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

  37. matt, first, my apologies if I’ve been a little snarky and combative. No doubt “never popular” was an overstatement. What I was getting at by that was a statement Christopher Haigh said about the English Reformation, that it produced a “Protestant nation but not a nation of Protestants.” This was particularly the case in the North and West, Haigh argues (cue my Church History article). Ronald Hutton’s examination of folklore backs up that assertion and I do see the persistence of folk religiosity (the Protestants called it “vestiges of popery”) as just that. I also see the rise and success of Methodist, which drew heavily on medieval religiosity and tapped into and succeeded among this kind of folk religiosity as a further indication. So I would argue that being influenced by and feeling positive about Methodism isn’t the same as feeling so about Protestantism generally. For instance, William Appleby, who praised Wesley in his Dissertation on Nebuchudnezzar’s Dream, called Calvin a bigot in the same text and had nothing nice to say about Luther.

    Anyway, what do you see as the cultural baggage of Protestantism that couldn’t simply be taken off like a jacket? Again, I would argue that a lot of people weren’t really on board and thus had less to shed.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 30, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  38. Oh, no apologies needed; I’m enjoying this greatly. Have you read Bossy’s Christianity in the West, or Benedict’s Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed? Those, I think, are the main works that are shaping the ways I’m thinking about Protestantism here – a faith that was organized as a religion (with ordinances and sacraments, liturgy and theology, and the rest) – but also, because religion is something that creates worldviews, a faith that organized the ways people thought about themselves and the nature of their communities. Bossy argues that Protestantism reorganized Western society toward notions of self-discipline and character by altering the ways people thought about justice and reconciliation, and toward a society based upon words rather than one based upon ritual. This is the sort of thing that I think I’m saying when I call Mormonism genealogically Protestant: its millenarian orientation, its emphasis upon discipline and rectitude, its notion of the sanctified community: these things all seem to stem from Anglo-American Reformed Christianity to me.

    Comment by matt b — April 30, 2011 @ 10:51 am

  39. Thanks Matt. I have read Bossy though I haven’t heard of Benedict. I read Bossy a little differently though. I see Mormonism seeking to recreate much of the traditional world that Bossy said Protestants sought to reshape. The interconnectedness of society, of family and fraternity. Indeed, reading the draft fo Sam’s forthcoming book where he talks about the creation of Mormon “chain of belonging” has quite a medieval feel to it. Bossy really stresses medieval confraternities that would convenant to remember each others souls and pray for the dead as being a primary social unit that the Protestants did away with (all except the craft guilds, Masonry).

    This line from Bossy seems important also: Protestants “did not see the institutions of Christianity as a saving machinery of social integration…. God’s ordinance for civil peace and the preservation of the human species from itself must therefore lie in universal submission to Government, and to sovereignty sacred and inviolable.” (161). Mormon attempts to create an independent Zion seem quite different than the Protestant view of civil society and much more in line with the medieval.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 30, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

  40. That’s an excellent point, Steve, and certainly there are other particular aspects and features of either Protestantism or Catholicism that might be applicable here – like the ones I’ve mentioned before. The point I’m drawing with Bossy is that I think we should be thinking in the general rather than the particular when we ask these questions: in terms cultural impulses, orientations, and worldviews more than trying to trace particular and specific doctrines or procedures.

    Comment by matt b — April 30, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

  41. Great discussion on Mormons and Protestantism. A knotty relationship and a lot to decode there, obviously.

    On the topic of characterizing Mormons relative to other American faiths, it’s fun to trace the categorizations of Mormons in surveys of American religious history over the past 160 years. Sort of a reflection of how they were seen to be attached to the body of American religion and it’s currents. The historians who produced those surveys really struggled with knowing where to put Mormons (and this is caused especially by the fact that most of them imbued their religious history with religious zeal). Mormonism was often an embarrassment to the historical ethic of Protestant religious historians (the only ones writing it for long time. Whatever the merits of including Mormons in a Protestant narrative, there’s no question that these pioneering Protestant historians would be mortified.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 2, 2011 @ 12:33 am

  42. Great post. I argue in the book that Mormonism was a self-conscious protest against Protestantism. Which sort of makes it both Protestant and not simultaneously. Protestantism framed the Mormon reponse, which leaves its imprint even on the Antique/Catholic/other elements. .

    Comment by Smb — May 3, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  43. […] The Claremont Journal ofSmb: Is Mormonism Protestant?: SomeSteve Fleming: Joseph Smith and theJoe Spencer: The Claremont Journal ofBen: The Claremont Journal […]

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  44. If Mormonism is Protestant, then Protestantism is Catholic.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — May 5, 2011 @ 9:49 am

  45. Let me try that again:

    If the early Mormons were Protestant, then the early Protestants were Catholic.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — May 5, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  46. Good point Sam. Protestant discourse certainly framed early Mormon discourse. It’s my sense that it took a very long time for Mormons to figure out how to talk to Catholics.

    Mark, good point.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 6, 2011 @ 1:41 pm


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