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.

1 reply
  1. Robert Millet
    Robert Millet says:

    June 20, 2022

    Thank you, Michael, for your thoughtful comments. I think it would be the case with most every Christian group represented in this dialogue that we could identify, without much effort, several commonalities with the beliefs and current practices of the Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, some individuals or religious groups do not allow us to do so. They want to spend their energies trying to tell us and everyone within the sound of their voice what Latter-day Saints “really” believe. This is almost always the case with the “counter-cults” who spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars attacking our faith and way of life and consistently misrepresenting what we hold dear.

    I appreciate your request that I discuss briefly some of the misperceptions that persons of other faiths have about the Latter-day Saints, as well as my response to those misperceptions. I am happy to do so.

    • That we are not a Christian organization. To set the record straight, we believe that the Bible is the word of God; that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; that the transcendent message of the New Testament concerning the Savior’s divine birth, teachings, and miracles are factual and true; that at the close of His ministry He gave His life as a willing sacrifice for sin through His death on the cross; that he literally rose from the dead on the third day following His death; and, that salvation comes by and through His atoning work and in no other way. Now we readily acknowledge that we are a different brand of Christian, but followers of Jesus Christ nonetheless.

    • We worship a different Jesus. This one is silly. We worship the man Jesus who was born of a virgin in Bethlehem of Judaea, lived and ministered in Galilee, and died on a cross in Jerusalem. For us, the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith.

    • We accept scripture in addition to the Bible. The family of young Joseph Smith loved the Bible, and they read it regularly. It was, in fact, through pondering upon a biblical passage (James 1:5) that Joseph began his quest to know the will of the Almighty. Most of his sermons, writings, and letters are laced with quotations or summaries of biblical passages and precepts from both the Old and New Testaments. Joseph once remarked that one can “see God’s own handwriting in the sacred volume: and he who reads it oftenest will like it best.” He believed the Bible represented God’s word to humanity, and he gloried in the truths and timeless lessons it contained.

    To state that the Bible is the final word of God—more specifically, the final written word of God—is to claim more for the Bible than it claims for itself. We are nowhere given to understand after the ascension of Jesus and the ministry and writings of first-century Apostles that divine revelations, which could eventually take the form of scripture and thus be added to the canon, would cease.

    Lee M. McDonald, an evangelical scholar, posed some fascinating questions relative to the present closed canon of Christian scripture. “The first question,” he wrote, “and the most important one, is whether the church was right in perceiving the need for a closed canon of scriptures.” McDonald also asked, “Did such a move toward a closed canon of scriptures ultimately (and unconsciously) limit the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church? More precisely, does the recognition of absoluteness of the biblical canon minimize the presence and activity of God in the church today? . . . On what biblical or historical grounds has the inspiration of God been limited to the written documents that the Church now calls its Bible?” McDonald poses other issues, but let me refer to his final question: “If the Spirit inspired only the written documents of the first century, does that mean that the same Spirit does not speak today in the church about matters that are of significant concern?” (The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, rev. ed., 1995, 254-56.)

    The fact of the matter is that no branch of Christianity limits itself entirely to the biblical text alone in making doctrinal decisions and in applying biblical principles. Roman Catholics turn to scripture, to church tradition, and to the magisterium for answers. Protestants turn to linguists and scripture scholars for their answers, as well as to post–New Testament church councils and creeds. This seems, at least in my view, to be at variance with sola scriptura, the clarion call of the Reformation to rely solely upon scripture itself.

    My friend and colleague, Richard J. Mouw, observed that “it has often struck me that [the Latter-day Saint] view of their later scriptures is much like my own view of the Calvinist creedal documents that I subscribe to. When I was a member of the Christian Reformed Church, I twice pledged my fidelity to a set of documents that were treated in that denomination as guidelines for understanding the biblical message from the standpoint of Reformed Orthodoxy. In doing so, I promised—first when I joined the faculty at Calvin College, and then when I was ordained as an elder in our local congregation—to uphold the truth of, along with the classical Christian creeds, three Reformation-era documents: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort. . . . I look to those Calvinist documents as my reference point for deciding matters of Reformed orthodoxy.” He explained that although he does not look upon these documents as scriptures per se, “I do see them as containing a reliable explication of the biblical message.” (Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals, 2012, 65-66.) Some may wonder what trumps what?

    The Gospel according to John ends with these words: “But there are also many other things Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Now that’s a fascinating statement.

    • We believe we can work our way into heaven, that salvation comes by and through our good works. I want to devote a bit more space to this misconception, since I hear this so often. To be sure, Latter-day Saints are a busy people, and we spend a tremendous amount of time and energy striving to serve others, care for the children of God, and do our best to keep ourselves unspotted from the world. But there is no doubt in the mind and heart of any member of our Church who spends significant time in the scriptures or listens carefully to the words of our Church leaders that salvation is the greatest of all the gifts of God. But a gift must be received in order to be efficacious in the lives of people. Latter-day Saints are taught to receive the Lord’s gifts by faith in Jesus Christ, which for us includes repentance of our sins, baptism for the remission of sins, and the reception and cultivation of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When it comes to salvation or eternal life, we believe, as the Apostle Paul taught the Philippians, that the way we “work out our own salvation” is by allowing God (through His Spirit) to “work in us” (Philippians 2:12-13). As C. S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, we cannot separate into water-tight compartments what humankind must do and what God will do, since God and humanity are working together (Book 3, chapter 12). The Book of Mormon (which I will discuss later) teaches that “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do,” meaning above and beyond what we can do, notwithstanding all we can do, in spite of all we can do.

    • That we still practice polygamy. A manifesto was issued by the President of our Church in 1890 announcing that plural marriage was no longer to be practiced by Latter-day Saints. Because there remained a few who continued to hold on to the practice, a second manifesto was issued in 1904. Today any person found to be involved in a polygamous relationship is summarily excommunicated from the Church.

    • That we value the teachings of the Book of Mormon more than what is found in the Bible. I have taught the New Testament for forty years, thirty-one of those years as a professor of Religion at Brigham Young University. I love the Gospels and have a special place in my heart for the writings of Paul. In fact, I have just completed a 500-page doctrinal commentary on Paul’s epistles that will be released in late October of this year. One of our senior leaders, Elder M. Russell Ballard, stated: “In our last general conference [October 2006], here in this building, our Church leaders quoted from the Bible nearly 200 times. I bear solemn witness that we are true and full believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His revealed word through the Holy Bible.”

    O well, that’s at least a beginning. I hope you find the above helpful.

    Bob

    Reply

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