Author: Jensen, De Lamar
The sixteenth-century Reformation was a major religious upheaval that has had repercussions to the present day. When Martin Luther challenged the Catholic doctrine of the sacraments, boldly declaring that salvation comes not by human works but by the grace of God alone through faith in Jesus Christ, he set in motion a complex series of events that not only broke the religious stronghold of the Catholic church but also had a profound impact on political, social, and cultural events as well.
LDS perspective regards the Protestant Reformation as a preparation for the more complete restoration of the gospel that commenced with Joseph Smith. Thus, the Protestant Reformation initiated a return to pure Christianity, a work that could not be completed without divine revelation and restoration. The leaders of the Reformation are honored as inspired men who made important progress, but without direct revelation they could not recover the true gospel or the priesthood authority to act in God's name. That was the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Reformation was the increased attention to freedom, one's own freedom more than that of others. This concern eventually grew into religious toleration and the desire for greater political self-determination. The ending of the single, "universal" church and the proliferation of new churches and sects had echoes in the political arena, most notably in the independence of the United States of America. A great many factors contributed to the establishment of the United States, but the political and religious heritage of the Protestant reformers was certainly among them.
The restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith took place within the context of this post-Reformation world. Yet Joseph Smith is not considered a successor to the reformers in the sense of building on their teachings. He claimed to receive his knowledge and priesthood authority directly by revelation, not by the study of other writers, thus initiating a new dispensation of the gospel rather than a continuation of the Reformation.
The religious environment of early-nineteenth-century America was predominantly Protestant. That environment encouraged religious differences and resulted in many rival churches. Among the characteristics of that religious revivalism was an emphasis on the Bible and Bible reading, a feature that was first promoted by the sixteenth-century humanists and reformers. The Bible used by Joseph Smith and others of his day was the English King James Version of 1611. It was his own reading of the Bible (in particular James 1:5-6) that led Joseph Smith to his first personal encounter with God.
The Reformation legacy is also seen in the frontier emphasis on congregational religion, emphasizing the right and ability of individual congregations to organize themselves as autonomous religious bodies, conducting their own worship services and generally governing their own affairs. Congregationalism grew out of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Calvinist tradition in particular, but it was also practiced by other groups.
Especially important in relation to the Restoration was the concept that religion is personal, a one-on-one relationship between God and the individual worshiper. This was a key feature of the Reformation Anabaptists, who believed, much as Latter-day Saints do, in personal revelation and individual responsibility. The Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, teaching instead that baptism was a cleansing covenant with God, entered into only after the exercise of faith and repentance. Many other Anabaptist doctrines are remarkably similar to Latter-day Saint beliefs, including the concept of restoration itself, which the Anabaptists called Restitution-meaning the restitution of the apostolic Church of the New Testament.
Not as many specific doctrines are shared with mainline Protestants, but Latter-day Saints do have in common a devoted faith in Jesus Christ as Redeemer of the world and as personal Savior. This faith was the moving force in the actions of Martin Luther and other early reformers, and was central to the life and work of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It remains today a central tenet of the Church.
Grimm, Harold J. The Reformation Era, 1500 -1650, 2nd ed. New York, 1965.
Jensen, De Lamar. Reformation Europe: Age of Reform and Revolution, 2nd ed. Lexington, Mass., 1981.
Spitz, Lewis W. The Protestant Reformation, 1517 -1559. New York, 1985.
DE LAMAR JENSEN