We all remember Gordon B. Hinckley’s famous “I don’t know that we teach it” moment when he denied a core doctrine of Mormonism on live, national television. What’s interesting is that at the following General Conference, when he addressed members’ concerns about his remarks, he didn’t reiterate the doctrine of deification but simply told members not to be concerned:
There have been a few things we wish might have been different. I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that’s to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church. (Ensign, Nov 1997, p.4.)
I suspect he did this because he knew that if he had reversed his earlier denial, the national press would have been all over it. Better to just tell the members they need not worry.
Obviously, a sound bite on a TV show does not constitute a binding statement of doctrine, but it does illustrate how fluid Mormon teachings are. A commenter here said yesterday, about homosexuality and the church:
American civilization may change, but the Lord does not and will not.
I’ve heard this said many times before by members of the church, and it’s almost quaint in its naivete. If the Lord doesn’t change, the church certainly does. All my life I’ve heard that policies and practices change, but doctrines don’t. It’s a nice slogan, but it’s not so.
Let’s start with an easy one. Today in the church, the doctrine is that there are three members of the Godhead: The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit (D&C 130:22). But before that, the doctrine was a two-personed Godhead, with the Holy Ghost being the shared “Mind” of the Father and Son:
There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing, and supreme power over all things – by whom all things were created and made that are created and made, whether visible or invisible; whether in heaven, on earth, or in the earth, under the earth, or throughout the immensity of space. They are the Father and the Son: The Father being a personage of spirit, glory, and power, possessing all perfection and fullness. The Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle, made or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man – or rather, man was formed after his likeness and in his image…. And he being the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, and having overcome, received a fullness of the glory of the Father – possessing the same mind with the Father; which Mind is the Holy Spirit, that bears record of the Father and the Son (Lectures on Faith 5:2b-2k
Another doctrinal change is the rejection of polygamy and polyandry. Of course, the church still believes in polygamy, hence a widower can be sealed to his second wife along with the first. But in the last century, prophets taught that polygamy was essential for exaltation. With the second Manifesto in 1904, the church formally abandoned all earthly practice of polygamy (well, except for some leaders up to 1940 or so). And other than Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, no other person in this “dispensation” has ever been authorized to engage in polyandry.
In 1949, the First Presidency issued a statement that the withholding of the priesthood from those of African descent was a result of “the conduct of [their] spirits in the premortal existence.” After 1978, that doctrine has been referred to as a mere folk doctrine promulgated by a few misguided members.
My commenter also wondered about temple changes. It’s a testament to the church’s skill in erasing its past that a mere eighteen years after the changes, you have active members who have never heard of such things as the penalties and the “orthodox” minister from the pre-1990 temple ceremony. And for the record, I went through the temple the first time in the early 1980s and participated in hundreds of endowments before and after 1990. I’m not going to spend any time here on direct temple content, but suffice it to say that with every sign and token in the temple, there used to an accompanying penalty. We were told, “The representation of the execution of the penalties indicates different ways in which life may be taken.” As I’ve said, these representations involved pantomiming having your throat slit and being eviscerated and disembowelled. And there was a long section involving a sectarian minister who was in the employ of Satan. For the not-faint-of-heart, you can see the changes in the endowment made in 1990 here
What I find interesting is not that the church changes and adapts to the times. A vital and prophet-led church ought to be changing and growing, line upon line. But it’s fascinating to me that some members insist that Mormonism has any lines drawn in the sand. If the church is to survive into the next century, it will adapt and change. And I suspect that, like it has in the past, the church will be a latecomer to the party, but it will eventually change to accommodate gay members. It’s changed before, and it will change again.