Letter from the Past: RLDS FundamentalismBy: FireTag
“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” That’s a somewhat simplistic, but nevertheless effective way to teach the law of conservation of momentum, and I think there’s actually some metaphorical version of that law which applies to churches. When someone leaves a church, his/her absence allows/pushes the church that remains to go in a slightly different direction — and probably in the opposite direction than the one who leaves is going.
Imagine a comet. It has a tail, usually composed of tiny flakes whose ejection individually is hardly noticed by the comet, but if collectively expelled in the same direction, can still alter the comet’s orbit in subtle ways. The comet is massive enough to pretty much go where gravity was taking it anyway, but on its next pass through the inner solar system it arrives a few days later or runs into something that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. In any event, the flakes themselves usually aren’t going to collect into anything again.
This is similar to things that happen in the Bloggernacle. As the comment thread in Andrew’s post in May illustrates, when Mormons become “uncorrelated”, they may have difficulty in finding permanent institutional homes within the community. They are more inclined, I think, to find temporary quarters before drifting into the orbit of some other religious or non-religious bodies.
But these uncorrelated Mormons in the Bloggernacle tend, with some notable exceptions, to be less traditional than mainstream LDS. When those leaving the main body are more traditional — and in this case I use “traditional” to mean simply clinging to an earlier version of the main body’s tradition — there seems to be more chance of forming some longer-term organization which asserts its claims to be the true continuation of the original body. (Indeed, the very term Restoration carries with it the unifying importance of self-identification as that true continuation of the original.) These organizations can exert enough of a pull on susceptible members of the larger body that their loss can deflect the larger body measurably in a way that would not have occurred in the organizations’ absence.
Such schismatic bodies do not always end up to the conservative side of the original, of course. Various polygamous sects may be considered to the right of the LDS because they hold to a view from a time in which polygamy was an accepted part of the Restoration gospel. But the Community of Christ, once the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), while now more liberal than the main Mormon body, is still more “traditional” because it originally identified itself with the pre-polygamous practices of the Restoration.
I have had occasion to think during the past weeks of how the CofChrist might owe its present liberal orientation (for good or ill) to another schism in the last half of the 20th Century in which it lost a significant mass of its conservative traditionalists.
The schism began obscurely enough over liberalization of the Sunday School curriculum. New writers made the curriculum less “faith-promoting” in the sense of telling the story of the Restoration, even if trying to be more faith-promoting in the sense of applying modern understandings of the bible, the relationship of the church to the world, and the nature of Jesus. The liberalization occurred, in large part, because the church was trying to move into the developing world, and leading apostles like Charles Neff became convinced that the developing world did not care about the traditional Restoration story because the story did not address the deep spiritual roots of their earthly life-problems.
Opposition to this view arose particularly among the eldership and the seventies who had served the church in the US and held spreading the traditional story as the core of their service to Christ. Because Independence (the Center Place of Zion) was the place the most faithful of them had been taught to gather to when they were able (usually in retirement), Independence became the core of resistance to these new emphases. The younger family members of the traditionalists, still serving the church in Independence or in local stakes, districts, and congregations, took their cue from this resistance, and entire congregations found themselves divided.
The schism was slow-motion, and took something on the order of a quarter-century to work itself out. The first years were spent by the dissidents in appealing to the Presidency about “incorrect” teachings being pushed in the name of the church, under the assumption that the Presidency and the Twelve couldn’t possibly be aware of what was being done by the church bureaucracy. As it became clear that there was no “rogue” bureaucracy acting against the guidance of the leading quorums, appeals turned to resentment. There were even rumors among those working for the church in Independence of death threats against the RLDS Prophet.
The issues moved on from curriculum, to the baptism of polygamous tribes in India, to ordination of women, serving of communion to those who were not church members, etc, with each new issue driving the membership further apart. At the end of the process, there was no RLDS church and an increasingly liberal Community of Christ stood in its place. The dissidents formed new bodies, often theologically frozen circa 1958, with the death of Israel A. Smith –the last valid Prophet in the RLDS succession in their eyes — being the simple line of demarcation. They considered themselves the “true” successors to the RLDS church, just as the RLDS had once considered itself the “true” Mormon church, but most stayed in only a loose confederation awaiting another “reorganization” to be initiated by God. They were reluctant to even ordain new leading quorums, honoring the belief that such calls could only come by direct revelation to a new prophet or through valid existing leadership quorums (which makes for a real catch-22 if you think existing quorums are invalid).
Still others have attempted a more complete “renewal”, reconstituting the Presidency around a great-great-grandson (maternal) of Joseph Smith, reestablishing the organization of the Melchezidek and Aaronic priesthood quorums, and moving toward developing a gathering of a “remnant” in Jackson County. In the last decade, it appears they have built something comparable in size to one of the larger stakes in the RLDS’ own history, and are now actively expanding abroad, particularly in Africa.
This became very personalized for me because, as the schism grew in the pre-internet age, there was a great deal of behind-the-scenes recruiting by the factions within the church using various pirated administrative mailing lists. Since these mailings could, and often did, subject the senders to disciplinary action before the church — and the materials often did impute the worst possible motives to theological opponents in the leadership — they were almost always mailed anonymously to members and priesthood who the senders felt would be receptive.
As a college-age priest in Detroit International Stake, where a couple of the largest congregations were hotbeds of the dissidents, I got to be one of the chosen mailees. (Since my mother was a stake employee, my parents were correctly not considered sympathetic to the rebellion, and never received anything.) The mailings would always consist of reprints of previously standard missionary materials, sermons or articles from previous church leaders, denunciations of the new curriculum and the leadership promotion of it, and invitations to attend some conference, rally, or festival to organize against the “growing apostasy” within the church. I enjoyed the testimonial nature of the old articles, but found the denunciations unpersuasive because I was teaching the new curriculum to high schoolers and found it helpful in inoculating them against faith challenges coming from their non-member peers and that would be coming from their college professors shortly.
When I moved east after grad school, I dropped off the dissidents radar. My parents, however, gathered to Independence, where my mother went to work for church HQ in the church property insurance department and my father became a guide in the eventual Temple. They began attending the South Chrysler congregation — i.e., the one nearest their new home — just in time for that congregation to implode over the issue of ordaining women. Again, friends divided. Church loyalists and dissidents separated and began to theologically segregate congregations. Even sustaining of stake and congregational officers became political battles. By the time membership and finances were untangled, there were several new non-sanctioned branches in sight of the spire of the CofChrist temple. The Restoration Branch congregation pictured at the beginning of the post even has the classic RLDS lion-lamb-little child logo from my childhood in the circular window at the top of the wall facing the street entrance, but it affirms no association with the CofChrist.
I rehearse all of this because earlier this month another mailing showed up at my Maryland address. It comes from somewhere in Illinois, and it has the usual old testimonies, scriptural quotations, and missionary materials. Indeed, some of the missionary charts are so familiar I memorized them in my own Sunday School as a child, and taught them to inquirers before I ever left Detroit decades ago.
But this time there was something missing in the mailing — and something new. Instead of complaints about the CofChrist apostasy, there were new testimonies of a growing church movement, a rebuilt South Chrysler congregation with weekly attendance larger than before the implosion, and the opening of new branches in the Independence area, while the CofChrist continues to have to consolidate branches and congregations throughout North America. One of the dissidents once challenged me that the Restoration Branch movement would be larger than the Community of Christ in the US. He’s not right — yet.
It seems the children of the Restoration are evolving into a variety of new, institutionally more mature forms, where the attempt to retain what we individually sense is important about the Restoration is spreading us more thoroughly across the theological spectrum.
How do you think where we end up depends not only on the presence of those we choose to stay with, but on the absence of those we choose to leave, or who choose to leave us? If traditionalists are more likely to re-establish long-term church communities than liberals, are there possibilities for establishing religious homes for liberals within a Restoration umbrella that looks still farther into the roots of the church than the traditions embraced even by the “traditionalists”?