I’ve argued around here that we Mormons have tended to borrow the Protestant metanarrative of history in seeking to lay out how we get from Apostasy to Restoration: early Catholics corrupt the church, on come the dark ages, Luther brings light back into the world by focusing on the scriptures and breaking with the wicked pope, setting the stage for the Restoration.
A little more autobiography if you’ll indulge me. As I mentioned in a previous post I was always interested in the notion of how this process came about and had been very interested in Refiner’s Fire when I came across it early in my masters program. So while at CSU Stanislaus I wanted to take a class on the Reformation to get some basics down, having not done so as an undergrad. I could not take the Reformation course for credit as a grad student (it was in the wrong category of class) so the instructor suggested I sign up for a directed readings course, pick some books on the Reformation, and sit in on his class to get the gist. I picked some book on themes dealt with in Refiner’s Fire (on Renaissance hermeticism and the Radical Reformation) and then picked some general books. Two of the books were pretty boring, but the other two radically changed the way I viewed our Mormon metanarrative.
The first was Martin D. W. Jones’s The Counter Reformation, a sort of study guide for undergrad history students. Jones went through and explained some basic information that I had never heard before: the Reformation was not about abuses, but about doctrine. Most religious people were against church abuses of pluralism, simony, absenteeism, and extravagance. What divided the Protestants from the Catholics, Jones explained, was the nature of salvation. In very neat charts, Jones explained the difference between Augustinian soteriology and Thomist soteriology: for Augustine salvation was predestined and instantaneous, while for Thomas Aquinas salvation was a process and sacramental. The Catholics chose the Thomist view while the Protestants chose Augustine and it looked pretty clear to me that Mormons were on the Catholic side. This view has only been entrenched with further study and I know it has been mentioned several times around the bloggernacle.
Next I read a book as equally groundshifiting: J. J. Scarisbrick’s The Reformation and the English People. I thought it would be a nice overview and I’m always interested in social history. The very first line was quite the bombshell: “On the whole English men and women did not want the Reformation and were slow to accept it when it came.” And Scarisbrick spends his book making his case. I later discovered that Scarisbrick marked the beginning of what is called the Revisionism of the English Reformation, which stirred a virulent debate throughout the ‘80s and pinnacled with Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Christopher Haigh’s English Reformations (who essentially fleshed out Scarsbrick’s arguments) .
So if Mormons were more Catholic than Protestant and the English people did not want the Reformation, what did that do to the pro-Protestant metanarrative I had heard all my life? I’ve been milling that over since and think the answers are complicated. However, I think it’s important to take a closer look at what our scriptures say about modern history, particularly 1 Nephi 13. There’s a lot there, but for now I would only mention that nowhere (as far as I can see) is the Reformation mentioned. Verse 13 sums it up “they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.” If we see this as Europeans coming to America (the standard interpretation) Protestants seem to be in captivity just like Catholics; again, the Reformation isn’t mentioned.
My purpose here is to complicate the Reformation narrative, not reverse it. I am not advocating good Catholics and bad Protestants. In fact, it looks to me that we need to abandon notions of strict divides between good guys and bad guys (history does have plenty of good and bad individuals, but they are found all over). Catholics could be plenty bad and Protestants did a lot of good things that were important for the Restoration. Ultimately, we are left with a far more complex narrative, but one that 1 Nephi 13 suggests.
 Since then, the historiography of the English Reformation has moved into what is called post-revisionism, which attacks the revisionists as overstating their case while admitting that the Reformation wasn’t exactly popular. I still really like the revisionists.