Pondering Across Two Traditions Both Shadowed and Hallowed

Robert Millet’s winsome portrayal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took me first back to my growing-up years. As has been true in the case of many traditions I’ve responded to, my early formation in Anabaptist-Mennonite communities and theologies predisposed me to view the Mormons, as we then knew the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with suspicion. I was taught by my tradition that Mormons were a cult. They based their views on the false foundation of the Book of Mormon claimed by then-New Yorker Joseph Smith to have been written on mental plates derived from an angel.

Mormons, it was said, falsely believed that they were the highest, most faithful version of Christianity due to their founding ultimately by Christ in New York  long after the other traditions. They believed in polygamy and tried to convert others to this lifestyle and problematic beliefs.

There are similarities here with Anabaptist-Mennonites. We often have seen ourselves as restoring the true church of Christ. We rescued the church from wrong directions taken from about the time of the Emperor Constantine and across the centuries of Catholicism and of Christendom (church and nation intertwined) expressions still partly maintained by the Reformers.

Mennonites also, it seems to me, have sometimes been careful to interpret our own history in ways that favor our preferred understandings of ourselves. This may be one reason some of us have favored a “monogenesis” view of having emerged largely from 1525 Zurich when Conrad Grebel rebaptized a number of other Anabaptist leaders. This can enable at least some carving away of the more shadowed historical details. In contrast, a “polygenesis” view that Anabaptists emerged from multiple streams and settings makes it harder to say well this is Anabaptism but that wrong turn is not.

For example, perhaps the most troubling dynamic in Anabaptist history emerged at Münster in Germany in the early 1530s. Anabaptists attempted to impose a theocracy on the city through what came to be known as the Münster rebellion. Jan Matthys was one of the noteworthy Anabaptist leaders until the bishop they had exiled besieged the city, killing Matthys and others. For a time the Anabaptist rebels still held considerable sway, as this paragraph from the Anabaptist encyclopedia GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online) summarizes:

The 25-year-old John of Leiden was subsequently recognized as Matthys’ religious and political successor, justifying his authority and actions by claiming visions from heaven. His authority grew until eventually he proclaimed himself the successor of David and adopted royal regalia, honors, and absolute power in the new “Zion.” There were now in the town at least three times as many women of marriageable age as men, so he made polygamy compulsory,[3] and he himself took sixteen wives. (John is said to have beheaded Elisabeth Wandscherer in the marketplace for refusing to marry him, though this act might have been falsely attributed to him after his death.) Meanwhile, most of the residents of Münster were starving as a result of the year-long siege.

For centuries thereafter, Anabaptist-Mennonites have wrestled with this. Are Münster and its leaders part of Anabaptist history? Or an aberrance to be bracketed out?

I pay attention to this example because it illustrates the complexities of my own tradition’s history and because there are  striking overlaps with Mennonite takes on Mormonism. Perhaps finding a path that didn’t affirm Münster or other thought-to-be-mistaken Anabaptist streams contributed to what I experienced growing up: Certainly Mennonites were not prepared to cede the one-true-church or the highest-expression-of-the-church mantle to Mormonism. This contributed, I’d guess, to the Mennonite tendency to form in its members the often-stereotypical perceptions I’ve summarized.

Eventually I went to college and seminary. I learned more nuanced understandings of other traditions. However, I have less often encountered sensitive interpretations of Latter-day Saints history and beliefs. It has been a privilege then to participate in conversation with such a generous sharer of his tradition as Robert Millet. And I want to spend some more time in, precisely, affirming Millet’s interpretations rather than questioning them.

Before I proceed, however, I do wonder if Millet would be willing to comment on the common perceptions–or surely often misperceptions as Millet has in other responses movingly reported–of the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps hinting at a kind of polygenesis of Mormonism, the Latter-day Saints offer, as I understand it, a preeminent (and non-polygamy-affirming) but not sole expression of Mormonism.

I note Millet has not mentioned the stereotypical takes on his tradition; I’d expect that’s intentional. Why focus on what may be misinterpretations when given the opportunity to write not so much a defense as a proactive statement of the visionary principles that guide the Latter-day Saints of today? Still, it would be informative to learn more of how Millet might address critiques of his or other Mormon branches. It would also be valuable to learn how Millet, who as highlighted below affirms Scripture, views Church of Jesus Christ specifics. For example, what is the role of the Book of Mormon, which I’d imagine few other traditions are prepared fully to embrace?

But turning beyond the shadows, I am struck that Millet helps me make sense of something of a turning point in my own impressions of the Latter-day Saints. Some years ago I was letting Spotify’s algorithms take me hither and yon. That particular night I was tempted to say the algorithm was Holy Spirit, but I doubt Spotify has itself achieved this though who can say how the Spirit may use Spotify!

At any rate, I was in something of a troubled mood and looking for the comforts of music. There were hints of this in various songs. But suddenly I stumbled across a version of “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” by The Lower Lights, about whom I knew nothing. I got goosebumps. I turned up the sound. I let the music fill my home and soul. I looked for more Lower Lights music and found many gems.

Then I looked up the group’s background. I was startled to learn that they are . . . Latter-day Saints. That caught my attention. What a clash between what I had been taught and what I was experiencing. I don’t want to claim there was a major theological impact, though once I knew about the Latter-day roots I could hear Latter-day influences in some of the songs. What really tugged at me was that above or beneath whatever the theological overlaps or differences might be, The Lower Lights were blessing me. My heart opened as it rarely had before to paying attention to Latter-day Saints’ gifts.

Then came Millet, who helps us understand core Latter-day Saints commitments and helps my mind continue the journey The Lower Lights have already helped my heart make. I see much for Mennonites to honor in Millet’s “Walking in His Steps: How Latter-day Saints Seek to Follow Jesus” summary:

Millet emphasizes the Latter-day commitment to search the Scriptures daily. As Millet summarizes, “There is a power inherent in scripture, a power unlike anything else we may read or study.” Meanwhile, at our best (which we don’t always manage), Mennonites are committed to believing as we do because we take the Bible seriously as a guide to daily living. We emerged from visionary leaders and communities that sought to read the Bible for themselves. They became convinced that the Jesus they found in this Bible was to be followed even when teaching such radical precepts as adult baptism or that enemies are to be loved.

Mennonites are perhaps not as known for being a praying people as adherents of some traditions. In fact, when I looked for prayer in the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, I couldn’t find an article on it. I did find prayer appearing in footnotes, for example in the article on the Holy Spirit, in a note summarizing that “the Spirit of Christ is in the midst of the church in its gathering for prayer and praise.” I see Millet as speaking well for Mennonites in his descriptions of how Latter-day Saints practice being a praying people.

Millet describes Latter-day commitment to serving and loving others as Jesus did. This is in effect a Latter-day variant of one of the five core commitments of Mennonites I summarized in my post on Mennonites.

Latter-day Saints are deeply committed to church attendance–and this includes emphasizing community. As Millet puts it, “Christianity entails more than prayer, fasting, and searching the scriptures—more than an individual effort to live the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As vital as personal devotion and individual effort are, Christianity is fully lived out only in community.” In turn a core Anabaptist-Mennonite precept is that we are to live not primarily as individual Christians. We are to journey as followers of Jesus who through adult baptism commit ourselves to live as members of the body–or community–of Christ.

Many thanks, Robert Millet, for these valuable admonitions and for contributing to my own personal pilgrimage toward grasping the treasures in your tradition.