Rethinking the Reformation

By July 11, 2010

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) [1].

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.

[1] 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.

Article filed under Christian History


  1. I agree with you, Mormons have let Protestants guide their thinking overmuch at times, and I agree that early Mormonism often sounds pre-Reformation. Hard to know what the next taxonomic/intellectual step is.

    Comment by smb — July 11, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

  2. This struck me when I first encountered Adolf von Harnack and realized that I was reading the same “Greek corruption of Christianity” meme that I had absorbed in Sunday school.

    I think this is a theological rather than an historical problem. The solution is to revision precisely what the Apostasy was. This is important because I think Mormons have a great deal to gain in dialogue with Catholics; more, perhaps, than they do with evaneglicals.

    Comment by matt b. — July 11, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  3. I’ve always taken the blending of state power and doctrinal orthodoxy, with each being used to reinforce the other, to be one of the major features of the Apostasy. Although the persecution of unbelievers and heretics had been a feature of State Christianity at least since Constantine claimed visions endorsing military conquest in the name of Christ, (a concept about as far removed from what Christ actually taught as one can get) the Protestants were not much better when they achieved political power. Both Protestants and Catholics fled to the colonies, at different times and from different places, to escape the monarchs at home.

    Comment by Confutus — July 11, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

  4. I also agree. I am currently reading Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, and I would add that woefully lacking from LDS discourse of the pre-Restoration history of Christianity is any mention of non-Western, non-Latin (to use the book’s taxonomy) Christianity. No mention of Orthodoxy, Syriac, Coptic or other non-RCC/non-Protestant Christianity, including those that did not agree with the various early councils.

    Comment by DavidH — July 11, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

  5. I’m enjoying your posts, Steve. I envy your reading regimen and tend to have sympathetic thoughts.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 11, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

  6. I had a similar experience when I first started looking at 16th century topics, finally had to learn something about the Reformation, and eventually picked up George Huntston Williams’s Radical Reformation. It was slow reading, because it seemed like every page had something where I had to stop and rearrange my previous thinking.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 11, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

  7. Doesn’t the pro-Protestant metanarrative have to do more with 1) getting scriptures in language that common people can read and 2) creating an atmosphere of religious freedom than with Protestant doctrines?
    Or maybe I just haven’t grow up with the same metanarrative than you. I do agree with you that whatever the narrative is, it probably should be more complex.

    Comment by Niklas — July 12, 2010 @ 1:56 am

  8. Niklas brings up important contributions but the others comments demonstrate much of the complexity. Religious freedom was a result, but not the intent of the Reformers as Confutus notes. Radical Reformers played a very important role, as Jonathan Green points out, that we almost never acknowledge. (See my article).

    Matt, I don’t know von Harnock and I agree that the question is fundamentally theological. But studying the history has been a lot of food for thought.

    Sam, I think I’m going to use this post as a sort of introduction to some more posts that will through out some additional possible ways to view the narrative.

    J. thanks, I know you did a post on Catholic similarities (but too lazy to find the link).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 12, 2010 @ 9:50 am

  9. At the time of the Reformations, churches were and continued to be connected to the State. The notion of toleration was not generally accepted, as the various factions punished and executed heretics (it was not just Catholics who burned Protestants at the stake–Protestants executed plenty of deemed heretics as well).

    McCulloch (from an Anglican background) maintains that the “most practical amd official arrangements” for religious coexistence during the 1500s (when the further division of Christianity was occuring through Lutheranism, Reformed Christianity, the Radical Reformation, and anti-Trinitarianism) were in eastern Europe, particularly Transylvania.

    In 1568, the Transylvanian Diet proclaimed:

    “Ministers should everywhere proclaim [the gospel] according to their understanding of it, and if their community is williing to accept this, good; if not, however, no one should be compelled by force . . . no one is permitted to threaten to imprison or banish anyone become of their teaching, because faith is a gift of God.”

    McCulloch notes that one can still travel from village to village in that area and see ancient parish churches there–here a Lutheran, there a Reformed, here Catholic, there Unitarian. Pp. 638-640.

    Comment by DavidH — July 12, 2010 @ 11:27 am

  10. important points, steve. i look forward to your future post/s on this.

    Comment by g.wesley — July 12, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

  11. Steve – no need to leave my comment on the list – but the proper spelling is soteriology not soRteriology.

    Comment by Gilgamesh — July 12, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

  12. Oops, thanks Gilgamesh.

    David, I agree that was the central problem that had to be overcome (state-sponsored religious intolerance) and it took a while. Moravia (now the part or the Czech Republic with Bohemia) was an early refuge for radials because of the attitudes of the local lords. That’s where the Hussites had effectively won “religious independence” (for lack of a better term) from the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th century which seems to have lead to a more tolerant attitude among the local leaders. Transylvania (nearby) seems to have adopted similar attitudes. Unfortunately, I think that was all shut down at the end of the 30 years war (reconquered) and many of the non-Catholics had to leave.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 12, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

  13. […] Decline of Magic (Duffy xx). Duffy?s critique of Dickens is related to what I describe in this post (Dickens described the English Reformation as a popular movement while Duffy said it was not; most […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Magic in the Middle Ages: Eamon Duffy’s Critique of Keith Thomas — October 15, 2010 @ 12:17 pm


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