My dissertation committee felt I sort of gave them a bait and switch at my prospectus defense. I had spent three years telling them I wanted to compare Mormonism to medieval Christianity (which I’m still doing) but for my prospectus I was now talking about Mormonism and Neoplatonism. They found this all rather confusing and wanted brainstorm other angles I could take. In the midst of all this, my medieval advisor exclaimed, “I know what your thesis should be. It should be how Christian Mormonism is. This is all thoroughly Christian, it’s just not Protestant.”
What is Christian depends on one’s point of view. Medieval Christianity was very different from Protestantism. As I’ve noted around here a few times, Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 presents a very different picture of traditional Christianity than do Protestants.
So what is “traditional/historical” Christianity? As Karen Jolley, a scholar who focusses on Anglo-Saxon Christianity, asserts, “Because of the amorphous nature of Christian practice as it changed through time, it is hard to isolate what Christianity is or was…. Theology seeks a timeless definition, a set of standard by which to measure what is Christian and what is not …. But from a historical standpoint, this is impossible” .
Theologians will debate and discuss what they believe proper Christian belief and practice is, as they have always done. But this is not the same a describing what Christian practice actually was historically. In the words of Norman Tanner, “Christianity, however, has never existed in a ‘pure’ form except in the person of Jesus Christ…. It does not exist in the abstract, rather in individuals and particular historical situations” .
The truth is, you can find even the most radical Mormon ideas and practices throughout the history of Christianity. Such doctrines were usually seen as unorthodox and often suppressed, but they still existed in “historical/traditional” Christian practice and belief. Pre-existence, deification, heavenly marriage, marital experimentation, utopianism, continuing revelation, heavenly mother, etc. all have a history within Christian practice.
Kocku von Stuckrad argues in his brilliant new book Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Esoteric Discourse and Western Identities, that there have always been multiple Christianities. ”It is not that Christian Europe never existed; instead, Christianity in Europe has always been diverse and comprised many forms of beliefs and practices that populated the minds of believers” . Von Stuckrad traces the “esoteric” components of Western Christianity (where one finds most the Mormon-looking ideas mentioned above) which are often overlooked or suppressed in narratives of Christian history.
Von Stuckrad goes so far as to call the word tradition “a polemical term.” This is because traditions are constructed by those in power to differentiate between what they see as legitimate and illegitimate. ”It is not a candidate for an analytical term in the study of religion. Although there are identifiable continuities in the history of religions, these continuities do not necessarily constitute tradition. Instead, tradition is the evocation and application, if not the invention, of a set of continuities for certain identifiable purposes” .
Thus theologians will seek to define and claim “traditional” Christianity in opposition to that Christianities they do not like. This is quite natural (Mormons do it too, there’s nothing wrong with it). But we ought to be aware, as von Stuckard warns, of the theological premises behind such actions and the difference between history and theology. “Master narratives, even if they are based on historically dubious material, are capable of creating structures of power and society realities” .
At the first European Mormon Studies Association meeting, someone asked Douglas Davies if Mormonism was Christian, to which he responded, “Well, yeah, because to scholars, Christians are simply people who say they are Christians.” I agree, which makes my medieval advisors’ thesis suggestion not really feasible since there’s nothing really to defend. Of course practitioners have always debated how to define Christianity, and Mormonism (as well as the various strains on which it drew) has been very controversial. Why that is is a topic worth exploring.
 Karen Louise Jolley, “Magic, Miracle, and Popular Practice in the Early Medieval West: Anglo-Saxon England,” in Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and Conflict, ed. Jacob Neusner et. al (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 179.
 Norman Tanner, The Ages of Faith: Popular Religion in Late Medieval England and Western Europe (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 195.
 Kocku von Stuckrad, Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Esoteric Discourse and Western Identities (Leiden: Brill, 2010) 14.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 4.