Letter from the Past: RLDS Fundamentalism

By: FireTag
August 20, 2011

“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”?

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20 Responses to Letter from the Past: RLDS Fundamentalism

  1. Mike S on August 20, 2011 at 5:24 PM

    I think this is seen in the LDS Church as well. In the early 1900′s, there were healthy debates on both sides of many issues. Church leaders disagreed on things like evolution, etc. Scientists and “intellectuals” and educators were valued and called to high Church positions. And even prophets like McKay famously came to the defense of some of the more “liberal” members, telling others to drop their threats of Church discipline.

    But then came the Joseph Fielding / McConkie / etc. era. A rigid conservatism became more valued. It was more important to tell faith-inspiring things than true things (even including GA’s like Paul H Dunn). Science and intellectualism and honest investigation of facts became less valued – a “united” front became more valued. We had the “14 Fundamentals”. We had purges of people. The Church essentially jettisoned many of its more liberal thinkers.

    And now we have the Church today. The current leaders were brought up through the hierarchy during the McConkie era, and similar thinkers were selected. And now questioning is not valued. When asked to name prominent LDS thinkers or scientists, most polls name people from decades or a century ago. Anyone honestly investigating history has to walk a fine line.

    Is this increasingly conservative nature for the better or for the worse? Who knows? We do know that membership trends have been steadily decreasing for a few decades. Fewer people are joining the Church, more people are leaving the Church, etc. Is this because the conservative nature doesn’t allow it to accept things in society like gay marriage or a role for women in the hierarchy? Or is it because of a disinterest in religion in general?

    I don’t know. But again, as mentioned in the OP, people with “liberal” or “non-traditional” viewpoints are not very welcome in the mainstream Church.

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  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 20, 2011 at 8:59 PM

    This is fascinating. I remember from the old Prodigy boards (a service I remember fondly because it had a grief support section and Prodigy gave free access time to that part of the system for parents who had lost children) some of the restorationists who felt that non-believers had stolen their church from them.

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  3. Rigel Hawthorne on August 20, 2011 at 9:34 PM

    “factions within the church using various pirated administrative mailing lists”

    A very interesting read Firetag. I’ve been contacted by Living Scriptures (animated stories from the Bible and Book of Mormon) salesmen from pirated administrative mailing lists, and although they were tenacious, at least they haven’t tracked me down since our last move. Amazing to think that someone still has interesting in sending you mail after so many years.

    So does the Restoration Branch maintain a male only Priesthood? Do they emphasize a faith-promoting telling of the restoration? Any chance of inviting one of them to do a guest post?

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  4. Ben Pratt on August 20, 2011 at 10:14 PM

    FireTag, you nailed it with this post. This dynamic of schism/apostasy/etc. occurs in any organization, and the flavor of dissidents certainly affects their “clumping” ability later on. Very cool.

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  5. FireTag on August 20, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    Rigel:

    In many ways the potential for schism is being reignited again by the issues of rights for priesthood to administer in sacramental same sex marriages and to enter into such marriages themselves without violating our equiv of the Law of Chastity (same law, but it’s not a term we use, nor do the officers go looking for infractions in many jurisdictions). There is also concern about the de-emphasis of the Book of Mormon, changes in membership requirements, and affiliation with the National Council of Churches. And if anyone in former CofChrist circles wanted to locate anyone in the church’s blogging community, they probably know someone who knows us already.

    I’ve written several posts in the author archive on these developments, the most recent of which is:

    http://www.wheatandtares.org/2011/06/11/community-of-christ-delays-us-national-conference-on-glbt-issues-for-year/

    Restoration Branches have no single belief system that binds them universally, so there could be an exception somewhere, but male-only priesthood is almost in the universal category, and any future changes would almost certainly simply promote a repeat of the factionalization. Since as a pastor I have both processed calls for priesthood of women as personal revelation and ordained them, it’s one reason I can not embrace their movement despite its comforting similarity to the church of my childhood.

    They certainly BELIEVE a faith-promoting telling of the Restoration, so I don’t think they could promote anything else. The Remnant Church, for example, is building Zion so Christ can return just as surely as conservative Evangelicals are waiting for the Rapture. Every revelation given by their Prophet, and they are issued at about a 1/year pace, is directed toward the next immediate thing to be done, and they read like less flamboyant versions of the early D&C sections that directed the church to Missouri in the first place.

    Interestingly, as I was researching this article yesterday, I discovered that a friend with whom I played on church softball and basketball teams throughout high school and college is listed as a Remnant Church pastor. His father preached a sermon of a vision at a youth camp that still inspires me today almost fifty years later. I hope to interview him if he’ll still speak to me, so perhaps there will be a follow up to this post.

    Ethesis:

    It was a grief process, but the willingness of these groups to “go on offense” toward their vision of the mission now, without constant reference to the CofChrist, perhaps indicates that their grief process has reached the acceptance phase and that they are moving on in hope.

    Mike S.:

    I appreciated your thoughtful comment, as usual, but perhaps it should be someone other than the CofChrist guy to engage your point further.

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  6. Mike S on August 20, 2011 at 11:05 PM

    FireTag:

    Although it’s a different situation, I do think your post is right on. I like the idea of the main group becoming more defined by those who leave. In the case of our faith (LDS), we truly have become more conservative because of those who left in the past few decades. It seems almost the opposite direction from where you have gone.

    Ironically, it seems that going either way hasn’t really helped in terms of growth, retention, etc.

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  7. Mormon Heretic on August 20, 2011 at 11:17 PM

    Mike,

    I do sense some pessimism on your part about how conservative the church is. The conservatism bothers me too, but I do see signs of change, and I don’t think it is quite so bleak as you make it out to be.

    For example, here are some pieces of anecdotal evidence. There was a recent BYU Studies article about Mother in Heaven that was a surprise to me. (It was the topic of a Sunstone session I attended and blogged about recently.) Additionally, the church is opening up the archives to the internet. There was a Sunstone presentation from a current BYU law student titled “Why the church can abide gay marriage.” Mormon Stories recently highlighted a BYU employee that has come out as a celibate gay person and he is producing a documentary highlighting the gay issue.

    Don’t get me wrong, I feel stymied at church as well, and I don’t think we’re anywhere near as liberal as the CoC. However, there are some movements that get little publicity. If Monson outlives Packer, I think there could be some more toleration for alternate points of view, and the church may be more accepting of diversity.

    FireTag, I just love these posts about the CoC!

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  8. Mike S on August 21, 2011 at 1:57 AM

    MH:

    I love stories like the ones you pointed out. There was a recent post on FMH that is very encouraging as well. :-)

    I, too, love these posts about the CofC. Kep them coming – they are fascinating.

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  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 21, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    I find fascinating the thought that the restorationists might begin to outnumber the CoC main body.

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  10. FireTag on August 21, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    Ethesis:

    That would only happen in North America. The CofChrist seems to be changing to a non-American church and is betting its future there. That, in turn, sets up a whole new batch of theological dynamics that are explored in some of the earlier articles in the author archive.

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  11. Jeff Spector on August 21, 2011 at 10:53 AM

    Firetag,

    I have been following the story since i met the Prices in Independence. I was quite sympathetic to the situation. I was most intrigued by the following statement:

    “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.”

    this was odd for me because the whole point to the original restoration was to restore the original Gospel and Church back to the earth to better cope with this in the first place. That the “apostate” Church as functioning at that time did not fully address this. It was the restoration that was supposed to bring it all back.

    Seems odd to have essentially come fully circle in the CoC.

    Now, in the LDS Church, many would say we have the opposite problem with factions trying to introduce the apostatized church into the Restored one. Umm, could be a post in the making there.

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  12. FireTag on August 21, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    Jeff:

    Yes, it is odd. Many churches have been remarkably successful in the third world WITHOUT altering their previous message. But we did not go that route, with the life experiences of Neff (see the link in the OP) and others of the leaders seeming to be very important in that outcome.

    But it should also be recognized that an earthly Zionic kingdom is much more heavily emphasized relative to one’s final classification in the Kingdoms of the afterline in all RLDS/CofChrist traditions (whether conservative or liberal) than in the LDS tradition.

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  13. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 21, 2011 at 7:30 PM

    Many churches have been remarkably successful in the third world WITHOUT altering their previous message — in fact, many churches have found that as they have altered their previous message they have lost significant ground in the third world.

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  14. mark gibson on August 22, 2011 at 7:53 AM

    Great post FT!

    Regarding comment 5: I was informed of meetings held in area churches of the CofChrist by Apostle Linda Booth which outline procedures for future lgbt issues.
    Do you know what exactly is the agenda in these meetings? I wasn’t able to attend one on saturday (not that I would’ve been allowed in, being an ex.)

    I was told that a similar meeting in the Atlanta area resulted in 4 families withdrawing. So the next dissadent grouping could support women’s ordination but opposse the lgbt agenda.

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  15. FireTag on August 22, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    Although the reason given for delay of the national conference by the leadership was financial, I’ve never been able to figure out what they know about finances now that they didn’t know when the conferences were scheduled. There is always a disconnect in the demographics of those who interact with the church primarily through HQ and those whose experience is defined by local congregations.

    The latter did not know what the former were doing, and resistance to the idea once discovered has been, at least from rumblings of shock from church liberals around the web, greater than anticipated.

    Most of the leadership in the US believes that monogamous same sex unions are as moral as monogamous heterosexual unions, from what they tell gays and lesbians privately. But leadership from other nations with different cultures take a distinctly more socially conservative position.

    I would say that the priority agenda of these meetings is minimizing further schism some way or another. Whatever leaders may believe personally, the corporate behavior will be to keep the institution growing, I’m afraid. Determining how many people are willing to walk over an issue has been, IMO, the best statistical predictor of church behavior for decades.

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  16. Rich Brown on August 22, 2011 at 2:12 PM

    I had an interesting lunchtime conversation with a friend yesterday after church. She works with a woman who is a member of one of the Restoration branches/churches in the Independence (MO) area, who finds it a bit of a challenge to respond when somebody asks her what church she belongs to. She doesn’t think most people will have any idea whatsoever what “Restoration church” means, there’s no longer any such thing as “RLDS,” and she’s definitely not Community of Christ. And so to get through the conversation quickly she’ll sometimes just say she’s Mormon. Perhaps this is an isolated situation, but it leaves me wondering if there might be a more widespread self-identity issue still among these “former RLDS.”

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  17. FireTag on August 22, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    Rich:

    The Restoration Branches have a special problem in that there is no real organization above the branch level. The Remnant church can at least say Remnant Church. When I was younger, I used to describe myself as belonging to the church “the Mormons broke off from” to avoid having to give more info than the questioner wanted to hear.

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  18. Eileen on October 11, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    Firetag,

    I admit I have not read this entire article or the comments. But, the last one I will say does need correction.

    “The Restoration Branches have…. no real organization above the branch level”

    This is not true. I suggest you go to http://www.conferenceofbranches.org

    Conference started in 2005 and have spread to several countries. The movement organizing and much has been done to preserve the original doctrines of the RLDS church. Just thought this might be interesting information to you.

    There is also a bookstore that prints books that tell of the original doctrines… and audio books not being produced of many of these publications.

    see http://www.restorationaudio.org

    And

    http://www.restorationbookstore.org

    Hope this information is of benefit to those interested.

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  19. [...] some of the organizations that have sprung up in the stead of the RLDS movement as fundamentalist alternatives to the Community of Christ, I discovered that a childhood friend had become one of the leading officials of one such [...]

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  20. Jeank on December 14, 2012 at 3:53 AM

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