Creating Mormonism in Our Own Image

I have watched with some amusement as a well-known Mormon apologist has tried fruitlessly to claim that polygamy is not a doctrine of the LDS church, even though the doctrine is clearly spelled out in Doctrine and Covenants section 132. She prefers to take a throwaway comment from late Mormon leader Gordon Hinckley as a clear repudiation of scripture.

As strange as this seems to me, it makes sense to me in light of most Mormons I know. When you have such a broad and rich set of scriptures and doctrines and prophetic statements, you can find support for just about any belief you wish to have. Thus, Brigham Young’s vehemence in proclaiming that Adam is God our Father can be denounced by Bruce McConkie a century later as a damnable heresy. Past statements from prophets regarding race, such as Spencer Kimball’s palpable joy at the whitening of certain Native Americans, can likewise be dismissed as personal opinion.

The correlation program, which began in the early 1970s, attempted to rein in the more fantastic interpretations, but there is still a lot of leeway in what people believe. I have met, for example, people who believe that the lost tribes of Israel live in a giant cave-world beneath arctic ice, and one woman I know believes that God has a body, but it’s huge, else how could he speak of the earth as his “footstool.” She really believes that his feet are big enough to rest on the earth.

Most of this is pretty harmless, but sometimes I’m surprised at what people can and do profess as “doctrine.” Take, for instance, the “tent-city” folks I’ve talked about before. These people are publicly preaching prophecies that, according to church doctrine, they have no right to receive. Similarly, the Bo Gritz/John Birch Society crowd has loudly proclaimed that the international communist conspiracy is taught in the Book of Mormon.

These people can and do preach their off-kilter beliefs, but others can’t. Women who believe that they should have the priesthood have been silenced and disciplined. Those who advocate tolerance for gays have been ridiculed and demonized from the pulpit.

So, where does one draw the line on acceptable belief? If you think of the variety of Mormon beliefs as a large circle, there seems to be an outer ring, which when one passes it, is out of bounds. The obvious no-no is publicly speaking out against the church leadership, even if it is meant helpfully and charitably. Dallin Oaks famously said that it was wrong to criticize the leadership, even if the criticism is right. Lavina Anderson found this out when she tried to act as a sort of unofficial ombudsman to document cases of ecclesiastical malfeasance in order to nudge the church toward better and more responsive leadership. She was excommunicated.

Despite Boyd Packer’s call for people all to be facing the same direction, most people in the church mold the church into a working paradigm, and that paradigm is different for every church member. I suspect that Joseph Fielding Smith and Lowell Bennion would not have seen the same church, though both were officially members of the LDS church. Bennion would have seen an inclusive and liberal church, whereas Smith would have seen a rigid and conservative church. Both were welcome, at least somewhat (Bennion was blacklisted from being mentioned in church publications).

The correlation program appears to be an attempt to reduce the amount of material one can choose, but Mormonism will probably never be the doctrinal monolith that it has attempted to create.

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4 Responses to Creating Mormonism in Our Own Image

  1. JLFuller says:

    In the battle for souls, it seems some marketing hype has crept in. Logic tells us everyone thinks his brand of religion is the correct one otherwise they would leave. Recently, the LDS Church has been making serious conversion inroads amongst Catholics in Latin and South America in addition to other places including Africa and Asia. One has to wonder if the recent Vatican letter to Bishops about cooperating with the Utah Genealogical Society isn’t an outgrowth of that Mormon success.

    Other denominations have felt the Mormon missionary sting as well. The latest rounds of anti-Mormon backlash seem to be part of an amplified turf battle. When Mormonism was merely an isolated oddity, other denominations didn’t seem too concerned about them. But that has changed. Mormons have serious and growing influence. Until fairly recently, Mormons seemed content to stay in Utah and the western U.S. wastelands. But since WWII they have added something around twelve million to their number. Even the august Southern Baptist Convention’s Dr. Richard Land has openly acknowledged the 300,000 Baptist converts in the heart of Bible Belt to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has opened Evangelical eyes to the competition. One only has to visit the SBC official website bookstore to see how seriously they take it.

    What makes this growing influence even more troubling to traditional Christianity is Mormons tell investigators they don’t have to rely on a priest or pastor to interpret scripture or provide the last word on doctrine. Mormons say everyone can find out for themselves whether what they preach is right or not. One just has to read the Book of Mormon humbly and honestly desire to know whether it is true. If they are teachable and are willing to apply what they are told they can successfully ask God for confirmation. If they have faith God will tell them they can discover for themselves whether Mormonism represents Christ’s original church and doctrines. Obviously the other denominations take umbrage with the implications of that claim.

    Some say the Mormon claim attacks traditional Christianity’s very existence. Mormons don’t agree saying these other denominations are evidence of an ongoing gradual reclaiming of the Church which has been underway since Martin Luther. They say the advent of Mormonism caps the movement and adds to what traditional Christianity teaches. They say they have come to make some corrections to inaccuracies which have crept into the old canon and to re-establish original ordinances lost over the centuries. Given there is a considerably firm and fast difference between the old traditional Christian doctrines and LDS doctrine there isn’t much wiggle room for negotiating a compromise in either camp. Mormons say compromise, in large part, is what caused the problems in the first place. Mormons offer Old and New Testament passages to support their position and then say serious investigators should put Mormon teachings to the test by asking for Holy Spirit confirmation – even everything the LDS Church teaches from the pulpit.

    The interesting thing about how this whole affair has evolved is the way the traditional Christians have responded. Rather than acknowledging the effectiveness of recommending people humbly approach God in prayer and fasting to get confirmation of what they teach, they chose to demonize Mormons and attack them as an enemy. They have placed the correctness of the Nicene Creed as foundational to their doctrine and no discussion or dissent can be tolerated. Logically then, if the NC is not correct then much of their religious doctrine is not correct. No where in traditional Christianity is there any significant reappraisal of those doctrines. It seems that if a denomination or researcher wants to be part of the acknowledged Christian club they have to keep mum about many salient Creedal problems. The common bond amongst traditional Christians is found in the nature of the Holy Trinity. Mormons acknowledge a belief in God the Father, Christ and the Holy Ghost but say they are individuals and not an unknowable amalgam as the Creeds say. So, in this part anyway, the whole affair comes down to a difference in God’s nature.

    Traditional Christians go on to use individual differences between the two doctrines as proof of Mormon heresy. But their proofs almost always are filtered through the lens of the Nicene and other traditional Creeds and rely on human understanding and tradition as they willingly acknowledge. But Mormons say the discussion ought to be whether God has in fact opened the canon and restored prophets and apostles to lead His restored Church. They say all these other contentions are subordinate to what should be the primary discussion. If what Mormons claim is in fact true then the detractor’s claims are essentially meaningless because Mormon theology really does come from God, human failings excepted. Mormons offer direct access to God as their way to prove what they proclaim. Their detractors offer tradition and the understanding of men as theirs. Or so it seems to me.

  2. runtu says:

    A couple of comments:

    1. In what way is this response related to my post?

    2. The idea that the LDS church is making serious inroads in Latin America is absurd. Even ignoring the fact that nearly 90% of all baptized Mormons in Latin America are inactive, the Mormon percentage of the population is abysmally small.

  3. bull says:

    I think that the point of the comment is that one appeal of Mormonism is the fact that it teaches that the truth is discoverable by each individual member. It can therefore tolerate the immensely different interpretations of its scriptures that you hint at and everyone can have their individual “inspired” interpretation that works for them.

    Of course, the limit on that is if you dare to open your mouth and oppose the leaders or in any way challenge the authority of the church. In that case the church feels compelled to establish it’s position by excommunicating the challenger.

  4. anonymous says:

    JLFuller left the same exact message at “Mormon Coffee” in response to an entirely different topic.

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