Rethinking the Great Apostasy: “The Peasant Revolt of the Spirit” and the definition of Mormonism

Friedrich Nietzsche explained Luther’s Reformation as a dramatic spiritual revolution within Europe of the northern sentiment and character, which demanded simplicity, with the southern, liberal sentiment that allowed for unending complication under the simple structure of the Church.  Whatever can be said of Nietzsche, he was a fabulous writer.  His imagery viscerally cast light on the spiritual facts going on around him, that cleared the clutter of culture to allow the simplicity of “modern science” but eventually pushed Europe into the maw of gore and madness that reigned there in the first half of the 20th century.

Luther’s Revolution

Nietzsche explains, with at least a bit of lament, the ruins of the Church as he saw it in Europe in the 1880s:

. . . were there ever finer ruins?  Overgrown with weeds, large and small.  It is the Church which is this city of decay: we see the religious organisation of Christianity shaken to its deepest foundations.  The belief in God is overthrown, the belief in the Christian ascetic ideal is now fighting its last fight.  Such a long and solidly built work as Christianity it was the last construction of the Romans!  It could not of course be demolished all at once; every sort of earthquake had to shake it, every sort of spirit which perforates, digs, gnaws and moulders had to assist in the work of destruction.  But that which is strangest is that those who have exerted themselves most to retain and preserve Christianity, have been precisely those who did most to destroy it, the Germans.  . . The Lutheran Reformation in all its length and breadth was the indignation of the simple against something “complicated”.

He describes Luther’s revolution as that of the thinking of simple, good-natured folk over the complexities of culture that shone in the Church because the church retained “the luxury of skepticism and toleration which every victorious, self-confident power permits.” While Nietzsche acknowledged the fact that Luther spiritually revived Christianity as a worldview, and his simplicity allowed for modern thinking, but to him, Luther’s German reasoning meant an unraveling:

“[H]e tore asunder with honest rage, where the old spider had woven longest and most carefully.  He gave the sacred books into the hands of everyone, they thereby got at last into the hands of the philologists, that is to say, the annihilators of every belief based upon books.  He demolished the conception of “the Church” in that he repudiated the belief in the inspiration of the Councils: for only under the supposition that the inspiring spirit which had founded the Church still lives in it, still builds it, still goes on building its house, does the conception of ” the Church ” retain its power.”

Nietzsche also puts his finger on the simple fact that the Reformation made the Church, which had enforced its superiority since Theodosius, the vassel of the state rather than its rightful superior.  Christianity became “good-natured” in its simplicity, and cleared the way for infecting law with modern thinking in the form of modern science.

The consequences of Luther’s simplification of Christianity

In proclaiming “Every man his own priest”,  Luther brought about  a “peasant revolt” in the ecclesiastical social order of the church, which sapped the priesthood of its cultural moral superiority.  He took the scriptures from the priests and told everybody to read, thereby putting the scripture into the hands of those scholars who showed that the way people talk about them as deeply confused. He gave the priests wives and said everyone could have a family, thereby removing from the priesthood its popular sanctity.  This led to the rightful abandonment of auricular confession, which took away an outlet to lay to rest the terrible secrets that complicate the soul.

What were the consequences? In making things simple, Nietzsche observes that  “there grew out of [the Reformation] the mobility and disquietude of the spirit, its thirst for independence, its belief in the right to freedom, and its ‘naturalness’.”  We acknowledge that this sort of sentiment led to “modern science” and modern ideas, but in simplifying things, we make things shallow and ignore the deep chaos and magic, allowing  “naive candour and plain-dealing in matters of knowledge” and removed the “shame” and “profundity” necessary for good scholarship, which requires the scholar to take into account of the world, i.e. all of the complexities of facts.

To understand why Nietzsche reviled Luther and his Christianity it is important to keep in mind the thrust of his project.  Nietzsche, like Einstein, believed that the individual was a simple fact more basic than morality. Why? because he saw that greatness of humans that most people acknowledge cannot be formed through law, morality, theology, science – or any other description of the facts. He reached this conclusion by trust in the simplicity of will, spirit, and reason, and observation of his own brilliance and the brilliance of other great artists, such as Richard Wagner.  Nietzsche saw that the simplicity of Christianity crushed the individual.  He rejected all of the simplicities that Christians saw in morality and sought to re-assert the democratic imperative in the Greeks.  He rejected simple morality as “slave” morality.

Setting aside our condemnation of Nietzsche’s obstinate rebellion against all that most hold dear, it seems that Nietzsche’s insight can help to orient us in the LDS/Evangelical conversation.  I think that Nietzsche was in simple terms, correct to say that Luther’s theological moves simplified Christianity, at the expense of the complexities of the individual, and of morality.

Joseph Smith’s counter-revolt of the Spirit. 

Joseph Smith’s life, viewed most plainly, is the story of a radical assertion of the power of the individual’s relationship to God and the Holy Spirit. Joseph saw that God’s commandments do not contain rhyme or reason.  The realities of God that he could see through the Spirit obliterated the complexities that theologians see with reason.  To this good-natured simple country boy, all of that talk led you to think was that God was not a thing at all (i.e. nothing) and if people could just see the face of God, they would understand that he was an absolute individual like they themselves were.  Thus all of the creeds were an abomination to God because they denied that God could reassert Himself through a new personality, i.e. a new prophet. Whether this is heresy or true dogma, it is powerful doctrine.

With it Joseph and his successors deconstructed all allegiances except those of the family and the Church.  They abandoned all of Christian orthodoxy and theology, they rejected philosophy, they rejected Christian marriage, they rejected the United States (an any earthly authority), and sought to set up a new order in the world based on revelation, a new Church to replace the ruins of the Church bulldozed by Luther.  They sent messengers to all of the world saying that Zion was established and to gather together. Later, they decided that Zion was not a place but a sort of order (a priesthood order) and sought to spread that order. That is what the LDS Church is about.

Put in Nietzsche’s terms, to Mormons, the Great Apostasy was the building of the Church without properly taking into account the “founding spirit” of the Church.  Luther helped correct the Apostasy by shredding the Church and making the way for science and freedom.  Joseph restored the Church by founding it on principles of actual communication with God rather than rehashing scripture with reason.  Whether you see the facts as being this simple determines whether you are a Mormon or not. 

I think where most Mormons become confused is that they believe that they are required to ignore simple facts if the complexities of the words of prophecy, revelation, or authority tell them to. This is not true, if any church is to ever be the Church, it must absorb the facts according to the direction of its founding spirit. In the 175 years after the LDS Church was formed, the church has changed in almost every possible way. Institutionally it is unrecognizable compared to how it was in 1830. Mormons seem to have recognized, with Nietzsche, that  “for only under the supposition that the inspiring spirit which had founded the Church still lives in it, still builds it, still goes on building its house, does the conception of ” the Church ” retain its power.”

Also with Nietzsche, Mormons assert that Luther’s position is too simple.  By making the Cross absolutely simple, it leaves all of the complex facts of Church, the Law, freedom and the world unrevealed. Unfortunately, as Nietzsche and those post-moderns that followed conclusively determined, reason alone should not be your only guide to these complex facts.  The orthodox made the Church simple. Luther made the Cross and salvation simple.  Joseph added complexities to both in an effort to make the communication between God and humans simple (basic). But Nietzsche said, and the history of Germany and German thought has proved, is that simplicity in thought,  institution, or relationship comes at the expense of the dampening influence of depth and acknowledgement of deep complexity and may not be the only standard of beauty (i.e. what is desirable) in the art of religion.

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69 thoughts on “Rethinking the Great Apostasy: “The Peasant Revolt of the Spirit” and the definition of Mormonism

  1. I don’t think he “leaves out” the law, his theology of course takes it into account, but I think he makes the law more mysterious or complex than the Catholics. Indulgences represent a very simplistic view of the law.

  2. I fail to see how simplicity destroys the beauty of the church, and therefore find Nietsche unconvincing. Why? If you understood what happens within the simple notion of salvation upon belief alone, you would find it is anything but simple.

    Try reading Paul’s work with an understanding that he is not destroying the law, but that the law is satisfied directly through Christ. Romans is a great place to start on that topic. If you think sorting this out is simple, you do not have a fair understanding of it.

    The challenge, as humans, is that it is easier to trust the tangible, that is to say the predictable and manageable specific laws we can check off as we go forward. With them, we can compare and contrast and glean information. With faith alone, we have nothing of the sort; rather we only have Christ to rely on.

    When we are told over and over again to put our faith in Christ, directly by Christ, what do you think he means?

  3. Or indulgences represent a complication of salvation and an inflation of authority.

    …and I’m not convinced that joseph made “communication between God and humans simple”. From the outside he seems to have bounded communication within complexities of authority and worthiness. Revelation is no longer God’s condescending but man’s effort to be in tune.

  4. I tend to agree with you that the Church today places a lot of emphasis on worthiness. I don’t think Joseph Smith did.

    If you talk to the LDS missionaries, the first thing they will tell you is that they believe all people can communicate with God. You might say that this is the fundamental dogma of Mormonism – to them, it is a simple fact that you can receive answers to your prayers. I think that is why LDS conversion is about accepting this fact, rather than accepting Jesus.

  5. Revelation is no longer God’s condescending but man’s effort to be in tune.

    I think you point out how some LDS view of revelation may be too simple: being in tune is different than the condescension of God. But if you look to the LDS scriptures, true prophecy is simply that which points to the condescension of God, i.e. Jesus Christ. I think the Church has complicated that notion.

  6. Smith, as far as I can tell, was absolutely about obedience, hence, for example, polygamy and threats of death by flaming if he did not comply. Also witness the Words of Wisdom.

  7. I fail to see how simplicity destroys the beauty of the church, and therefore find Nietsche unconvincing. Why?

    I think what Nietzsche was getting at is that, to him, simplicity in thought (and perhaps art) was ugly. He despised the simpleminded for their lack of good style or taste. That is how he saw the Germans and the Lutherans.

    I think where we all probably agree with Nietzsche on is that simplicity is not the only standard of beauty.

    Luther’s best response to Nietzsche would be to say that the simplicity of his doctrine was beautiful because it was the simplicity of God. But, as history shows, Luther’s church did not hold together and now is in tens of thousands of pieces.

  8. And let’s be honest, it would probably take a “flaming sword” for most Christians to indulge in polygamy. I think “flaming sword” is probably the best name for Joseph’s impulse.

  9. “I think if you read the Word of Wisdom (https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/89) you will find that it is actually a good example of how Joseph was not absolutely about obedience to laws based on wisdom rather than direct revelation.”

    Tell me more about how the LDS church’s laws are different from any other set of laws. You have an issue in showing the WOW are direct revelation. You also must demonstrate, based on the existence of the WOW and the requirement for obedience, that worthiness was not essential to Smith.

    Of course, we must define worthiness, mustn’t we?

  10. I still disagree with Nietsche on this one. As to Luther’s church: that it is now all over the place has nothing to do with Luther’s doctrine.

    And I laughed at your comment on Smith’s flaming sword. Good stuff.

  11. To understand the starting point of a correct understanding of Joseph Smith’s view of of the LDS worthiness narrative is to understand that he asserted two facts:

    (1) Joseph Smith was worthy to be a prophet, and (2) the idea that “God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance”

    https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/1.31

    Whatever worthiness is to a Mormon, he/she it has to navigate those facts.

  12. OK, so the fear of drinking hot drinks etc is unfounded? If people disobey these rules it will not affect them in their journey through the afterlife?

    Whether we call a law a positive law or not, they must still be adhered to. Further, as far as I can tell, failure to adhere to Mormon law results in a position in the afterlife apart from exaltation.

    Exaltation then must in part result from obedience. Worthiness, if we are to believe exaltation occurs after one has been obedient, has at least some part in obedience to Mormon law. After all, how does one prove one’s worthiness if he did not follow God’s plan as outlined in that law?

    Bringing in some of my comments above, it is easier to have a checklist of rules that we can fall back upon to show our worthiness. That way, we can say, “look at how we held to the law! We proved our worthiness!”

    Now, I understand Mormons don’t say it that way, but you cannot deny the truth of that comment and that idea. You also cannot deny that based on a system of the law, someone can fully stay within the law and show merit, even if their heart is in a different place.

    The law, I argue, is indeed more simple than following someone on faith alone.

  13. As to Luther’s church: that it is now all over the place has nothing to do with Luther’s doctrine.

    I tend to agree, but I think what history shows is that his doctrine of Church was not as strong as his doctrine of salvation.

  14. And… The D&C 1:32 we see: 32 Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven;

    Obedience is necessary for forgiveness.

  15. If you believe a whole lot of LDS, so did God. In a very real way, testimonies of the LDS are the best evidence that Joseph was worthy to be prophet.

  16. But Smith himself declared himself worthy? Do I understand that correctly? Apart from how others viewed him, it was Joseph Smith Jr who declared himself worthy to be prophet?

  17. I think Joseph declared it was a fact that he was a prophet. Worthiness did not have much to do with it, he believed Jesus forgave his sins.

  18. OK. Since he himself declared it, I am sure worthiness was not a factor, and I am sure he believed Jesus forgave his sins. Seems he believed Jesus did much more than that, even.

    I hope you also see the trouble with his own self serving assertions.

  19. I hope you also see the trouble with his own self serving assertions.

    I do, in fact, some would argue that all of Christianity is self-serving assertion. There is a deep question here that I am still trying to figure out.

  20. Sure, one can look to Paul and Jesus himself as self-serving figures. I’ve heard it argued that Paul’s encounter with Christ is not much different than what Smith said he encountered. I don’t buy that, but the argument is there.

    It is an interesting topic, sure.

  21. Jared

    I am not sure that Joseph didn’t equate worthiness and revelation, it is taught throughout the D&C. Off the top of my head I forget the specifics but I seem to remember that Smith was pretty quick to establish his unique authority to revelation putting the kibosh on any competing prophets in his church.

    And while I agree that the Mormon missionaries will tell people to pray for a confirmation of their teaching, a failure to get that confirmation is a lack of worthiness. Moroni’s Promise is really a mechanism to enforce authority.

    So yea you can communicate with God, but only to a God that never contradicts authority.

  22. I don’t think that is accurate:

    Mormons do not teach that failure to get a confirmation is lack of worthiness. Worthiness is not “sincere heart” “real intent” or “faith in Christ”. That seems to be the sort of thing that qualifies you for forgiveness of your unworthiness.

    Joseph Smith taught that only the President of the Church can received revelation for the world and the church. But I think this is most charitably seen as a need to create the order of the priesthood that is the Church and avoid the dispersion and disorder he saw that could come from the early LDS who were also “charismatic.”

    But the Doctrine & Covenants underscores the difference between private communication, preaching, teaching, and protest. D&C 1 is a prime example where the text points out that the “the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated” and, also points out that those who rebel against the authority of the Church will be cut off from it. All this means is that rebellion is not seen as a right, even though communication may be universal.

  23. If Mormons view someone without a “sincere heart” “real intent” or “faith in Christ” worthy I stand corrected. Otherwise I still think that revelation in Mormonism is complicated by the need for a controlling priesthood authority and the ever present question of worthiness.

  24. Wow.

    What a terrible misreading of Luther (by Nietzsche).

    Luther shredded the Church? Hardly. He wasn’t attempting to do anything of the sort. His goal was to improve preaching and get back to the gospel and away from spiritual ladder-climbing and un-Christian practices.

    No one…no one had a higher view of God’s Law than did Luther.

    Simplicity? The gospel is simple. Even a school aged child can grasp it. “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”

    Where in there does it speak about all that you MUST DO? Nowhere.

  25. Paul’s encounter with Christ took a legalist and religionist, and made him into a man who trusts in the finished work of Christ on the Cross.

    Smith’s encounter with Moroni took an ordinary man and made a religionist and a legalist out of him.

  26. And we can check Pau’s work against the rest o the Bible and find his themes fit. Not so wit Smith.

  27. I think Joseph Smith proved that fitting with all of the Bible’s themes is not the correct standard for religion. Protestant’s take a narrow view of the Bible in order to make their religion fit into a simple paradigm. Mormons take a broader view, but their paradigm is more complicated.

  28. I think Smith proved that he didn’t find the Bible’s themes fitting for his religion and didn’t want to be corrected by that standard.

    Owing to the priesthood authority’s total control of the Bible it’s obvious that the paradigm is different, if one is more complicated than the other is probably irrelevant because there is no common point of contact between the two religions.

  29. Lacking in what? Luther freed religion from what he saw as illegitimate authority while Smith bound religion to what he claimed was the only legitimate authority.

  30. Of course, but this is where many non Mormons create confusion with Smiths claims. A church cannot be true without authority.

    This is why smith is almost irrelevant, truth is based on authority.

  31. I’m not convinced that Smith really ever believed he had any unique authority. But in a way it is irrelevant to the claims of authority in Mormonism today because authority does not rest in Joseph Smith it resides in the current first presidency, the quorum of the twelve and other priesthood leaders.

    For that matter every Mormon man or boy with the priesthood has an interest in maintaining the leaders claims of authority because their own priesthood power is directly tied to sustaining authority.

    You really should read Jarred’s post on positive law where he shows how the present leaders and perceptions are more important than past leaders and ideas.

  32. Gundek, interesting comment that you don’t think he thought he had any unique authority, given that part of his restoration was of the restoration of priesthood authority. That was one of his very distinct justifications for his movement. Without such restored authority, Monson et all have none today.

  33. Slowcowboy

    The thing is that I don’t think Monson has a unique authority either.

    Following Jered’s positive law paradigm authority is current in Mormonism. Sustaining the current leaders is the institutional unity. This doesn’t mean Smith is completely irrelevant, but that his relevance comes in a very real way from the current authority, the inverse of apostolic succession.

  34. Gundek, but they believe they do. Whether we think they actually have it is another matter. Smith’s relevance is found the precisely in his restoration of this authority. However we word that philosophically is not something I am too worried about.

  35. Of course Mormons think they have unique authority, otherwise you are thinking like a Protestant. Protestants and evangelicals talk with Mormons like they talk to other Protestants.

    For the Protestant authority is derivative and ministerial. Authority is bound by the apostolic kerygma.

    For the Mormons authority is immediate and presiding. Smith’s relevance, the Bible’s relevance and all previous revelation is controlled by the presiding authorities interpretation.

    Of course the restoration and the other Smith revelations can never be irrelevant but what that means will always be a product of the current presiding authority.

  36. Gundek, are you suggesting Mormon ideals will always shift with presiding notions of you truth and are not based on a constant foundation besides present authority?

  37. I think it is so obvious that Mormon “ideals” are constantly changing.

    What is often overlooked is that these changes are the result of a constant (current) authority. In this system change reinforces authorities continuity.

  38. Gundek, are you suggesting Mormon ideals will always shift with presiding notions of you truth and are not based on a constant foundation besides present authority?

    The Church recognizes three sources of authority, the Spirit, the scriptures, and the Priesthood. The doctrine comes from the spirit, to the minds of the leadership, the membership ratifies the doctrine by activity and by testifying that the Church leadership is inspired.

    The way the church is run will always shift with the presiding notions, that is the way it was set up.

  39. Of course the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve other authorities control access to Spirit, the scriptures, and the Priesthood so you have a system that sustains the current authority.

    Kind of like having a religion based on free agency that presides over everything you do.

  40. The religion does not preside, the people in the religious community preside, chosen by other local leaders. The Church allows wide discretion on many decisions.

  41. Perhaps, in the law judges have pretty broad authority and discretion, and the appellate courts protect it, but trial judges still line up around certain conventions.

    I think it is like this: The church gives local wards and stakes wide discretion on how they want to run their wards, just like they give families wide discretion in how they want to run their families. However cultural forces from the membership push conformity as much as the leadership. Wards want to be considered orthodox in practice over convenience or flexibility, especially non-English-speaking wards. They want to be “full” Mormons and want to run their schedule like the English wards, even when they are given a lot of leeway on how they talk about the church.

    The church’s M.O. is basically to step away from its theological authority and leave most problems vaguely answered with formulaic or “spiritual” answers. The average Mormon believes they receive some manifestation of the spirit in their lives because of the church community and this guides them to want to submit to the community ethics and conventions.

  42. What discretion does a local ward have? Do they pick their own leader? develop their own local curriculum based on local needs? Prioritize their own local budget? Decide on the dress code?

  43. The bishop is chosen from the members, the ward accepts it. It keeps the focus on the ward community. The volunteer system also gives induviduals a lot of control over how the do their callings, i dont think you can make the mormons-are-authoritarian argument as strong as you aresking it.

  44. I’m not making the argument that Mormonism is authoritarian. All I am saying is that in Mormonism revelation and the interpretation of revelation is controlled by the brethren.

    It is easy to see really. Members are told to seek personal revelation, but Rock Waterman and Denver Suffer were both excommunicated by local authorities for out of control revelation.

    Members are told to seek the Spirit but Katy Kelly was excommunicated for asking her prophets to seek the same Spirit.

    Theology based on reasoned interpretation of past revelation is understood as a “competitor to divine revelation”.

    None of this is really surprising, Mormons claim authority and continuing revelation not a theology of “Christian liberty”, or the principal of “lex orandi, lex credendi”.

  45. That is all true, the brethren have the power, but they are generally guided by growth and unity, they will crush forces that they think are devisive but they dont seem to have a theological agenda, my gut feeling is yhat they could be convinced of theology if it is not divisive, using visions and political causes to question the established order is generally very devisive, other methods of persuasion may not be

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