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.
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). 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?
 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.
 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.”