As I was researching a post last summer on 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 organization, the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Robert Murie, Jr. is one of twelve men ordained to the office of Seventy within the Remnant Church. He is a self-sustaining minister who spent 37 years as a teacher, coach, and guidance counselor in Michigan public schools before retiring in 2003. He has spent his adult life as a minister in the RLDS church, the independent Restoration Branch movement, and now in the Remnant Church, and so has had a deep knowledge of the evolution of alternatives to the RLDS movement. I also know from personal experience that he’s a pretty good man to have on your side in the last minutes of a softball or basketball game.
I contacted him to ask some questions that might help readers of this blog understand the views of the last body more specifically. What follows are my notes of that discussion as it ranged back and forth between the pre-written questions (i.e., they are NOT direct quotes from a recorded transcript, so any errors are mine), cast in an interview form for clarity.
Q: The Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is new enough as a specific organization to probably be unfamiliar to most readers of this blog. How did you personally come to be involved with it?
A: Over a number of years, the movement of the RLDS church away from what had been its distinctive beliefs and toward a general liberal Protestantism — what the church previously would have called denominations in “apostasy” — had just made it impossible to stay with the church. At the time, the alternative was the Restoration Branches, where I became one of four pastors for the Garden City, Michigan, Restoration Branch, but that always seemed temporary. The Branches’ own structure did not provide any authority to ordain new High Priests, and so they could not reconstitute leading Quorums to replace those they believed were in apostasy. The High Priests within the movement were being allowed to age and die, so that the ministry of the High Priest itself would be lost. No one was doing anything except wait for God to do something.
As the Remnant Church was forming after 2000, two Apostles of that organization requested permission of the four pastors in Garden City (as the Remnant Church were doing with many Restoration Branches) to come and speak to the people. The request was granted, and some liked what they heard while some were opposed. Discussions within the branch continued, and the divisions deepened. After a time, two more Apostles visited and invited priesthood from the Branch to attend a conference being held in Independence in 2003. Six of the priesthood, including me, accepted the invitation to attend.
At that conference, I met Fred Larsen [President of the Remnant Church] and received an undeniable personal confirmation by the Spirit that this was the place I was supposed to be. All six of us went back to Garden City with a recommendation that the Branch unite with the Remnant Church, but the result was that the Branch split right down the middle and separated into an independent Restoration Branch and a new Remnant Church branch, meeting separately from each other and neither having any priesthood authority in the other organization.
Q: Were there specific decisions made by the RLDS/CofChrist that were particularly important in your decision to look elsewhere?
A: As mentioned above, there was be a general de-emphasis of traditional Restoration distinctiveness — less emphasis on the Book of Mormon, the historical role of Joseph Smith and his lineal descendants in church leadership, literal establishment of Zion on earth as preparatory to the return of Christ — that continues up to this day with open communion and acceptance of baptism by other Christian priesthood. The acceptance of the D&C section that authorized ordination of women (156) was an especially critical decision-point. More personally, the practices of worship and teaching mattered a lot. The focus on being inclusive, with everything being “intergenerational” — with ten minutes set aside for one group, then ten minutes for some other group, ten minutes for clown ministry, and so on…
[Interjected Q: “Like a Chinese menu, with one from column A, one from column B, one from column C?”] Yes. By trying to give everyone something in every service, no one was getting enough to sustain themselves spiritually most of the time.
Q: What is the doctrinal distinction between the Remnant Church and the Restoration Branches?
A: The doctrinal positions are very similar, with perhaps the major difference being that they do not accept priesthood lineage as being valid through the maternal line. [Note: Fred Larsen, the Remnant Church’s President and Prophet, is the son of a daughter of a son of a son of Joseph Smith, and thus a great-great-grandson of Joseph Smith through maternal lineage.] But that results in the Restoration Branches having no structure to carry out the commandments of the early Doctrine and Covenants to “organize yourselves”. The Remnant Church is reconstituting all of the orders and quorums of the RLDS.
Q: Do you feel that this distinction will grow with time, or are there any organized attempts underway to bring these movements under a single organizational umbrella?
A: There are some attempts, but there are also the stumbling blocks of the differing views about the importance of organizing and the validity of Fred’s right to the office of Prophet. I don’t know if these can be soon resolved. The Restoration Branches are themselves fragmenting into three or four groups, with a number of them wanting nothing to do with larger organizational structures. They do not want to repeat their RLDS experience of someone coming along and telling them what they have to do.
There are recurring discussions between the Remnant Church and one of the large factions of the Restoration Branch movement, the “Joint Conference of Restoration Branches”, a group of four to five thousand which is centered largely in Missouri, but has little strength in my part of the country. Michigan seems to be more the home of those Restoration Branches that want no one telling them what to do.
Q: How does the Remnant Church view itself as a “renewal” of the RLDS tradition?
A: We have very much “patterned” ourselves after the actions of those church leaders in the Midwest during the 1852-1860 period prior to the Reorganization. They began to rebuild the quorums and orders of the church in expectation that God would call a lineal descendant of Joseph Smith to the Office of Prophet if they were obedient to the commandments to “organize yourselves.”
Q: How many baptized members does the Remnant Church have, and where are most of them located? How fast is the Remnant Church growing? Where is your Field as a Seventy located?
A: We have about three thousand members now, with perhaps one thousand or more of them overseas, where we are growing more rapidly. Growth there is most rapid in Nigeria, and we have just had the experience of an entire LDS group in Panama (some 100 to 200 people) who were dis-satisfied with the Mormons, for reasons with which I’m unfamiliar, follow their pastor in [Bishop] asking to speak to us about uniting with us. [Note: Initial baptisms and ordinations from that group were reported in September.]
[Interjected Q: “Like Sydney Rigdon in Ohio in the early days of the church?”] Yes. They seem to be sincere. But we don’t leave the people abroad on their own. The Apostles return there every month or two to make sure everything is well.
Q: Although I know that the Remnant Church has the framework of a First Presidency, a Quorum of Twelve, Bishopric, Quorums of Seventy, etc. that would be familiar to LDS, like the RLDS before it, the quorums are not necessarily fully staffed until or unless there are specific calls. Who makes up the First Presidency? How many of the Apostles are in place? How many Seventies? Is there a Presiding Bishop? A Presiding Patriarch?
A: As stated, the President is Fred Larsen, who is about 80. His Counselors are Robert Ostrander and Samuel Dyer, Jr. [Note: as with most churches in the RLDS tradition, counselors to the Prophet must be High Priests, but do not necessarily come from, nor return to, the Quorum of Twelve.] Seven of the Quorum of Twelve are in place as Apostles, which permits their organization as a Quorum. The President of the Quorum is Ralph Damon. We just recently ordained our twelfth Seventy, which is not yet enough to organize as a Quorum with Presidents of Seventy, so the Seventies meet as an Order at present. My own field of responsibility is the entire North Eastern United States and Eastern Canada. In fact, the significant concentration of our members, and therefore the greatest missionary opportunities here tend to be in Michigan and West Virginia, with Canadian work largely limited right now to areas near the crossings from Canada to Michigan [Note: e.g., Sault Ste Marie, or Detroit] or in Toronto.
The Presiding Bishopric is fully organized, with a Presiding Bishop and two Counselors, and there are additional area Bishops. [Note: in the RLDS tradition, Bishops are general financial officers and Presidents of the Aaronic Priesthood; they are NOT the presiding officers, or pastors, of congregations as in the LDS organization.] The Presiding Bishop is W. Kevin Romer, 54.
We also have an Acting Presiding Patriarch. We also believe in lineal succession to that office based on the traditions of the church, so the Patriarch in that office is only “acting” in Presiding over that Order. This issue of lineal succession of the office of Presiding Patriarch was actually one of the first forerunners of the theological split between conservatives and liberals within the RLDS. Lynn Smith, a lineal male descendant of previous Presiding Patriarchs, was not chosen by President William Wallace Smith in favor of Roy Cheville, who was not a lineal descendant. The reason seemed to conservatives to be the latter’s more liberal political views — but the role of a Patriarch is supposed to be a nurturing father to all of the church and to be beyond politics.
Q: One distinction that may be important to LDS readers is succession to the role of Prophet. In the LDS, the Senior Apostle becomes the next prophet, while in the RLDS tradition, the prophet named his own successor. In the Remnant Church, the Prophet is still a (maternal) lineal descendent of Joseph Smith. Since President Larsen is becoming aged, is there a “younger generation” of descendents affiliated with the Remnant Church to continue that succession practice? Is such a lineal successor an essential belief, or is it something that could change as it did in the Community of Christ?
A: We wonder about that a lot. Although Fred is in excellent health, he has made it known that his letter regarding what is to happen upon his death has already been written and is stored in a safe at church headquarters, and he will say nothing more about the subject. He has no obvious successor among his own children. So, like I say, we talk about it a lot — but not usually in Fred’s presence, because he’s a loving, but no-nonsense administrator like his grandfather, F. M. Smith, was as Prophet.
Q: The Remnant Church’s website has a theme or mission statement: “The Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been called in renewal to preach the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will listen, and to prepare and gather a righteous people for the building of the Kingdom of God on Earth, Zion.” Does the Remnant Church place a special emphasis on immediate Zion-building as opposed to either a “Zion-in-the-distant future” as now emphasized in the Community of Christ or in concentrating on personal salvation after death as in the LDS?
A: Yes, the urgency of building Zion is a definite emphasis. Even though we are a small group, we’ve emphasized tithing and the storehouse to assemble funds to buy property in Jackson County, Missouri, just as the early Saints did, without going into debt. For example, we’ve developed a 26-acre Retreat and Conference Center [Note: picture to right.] there. Even more recently, we’ve begun development of what we hope will grow into the example community of Bountiful, Missouri, on working farmland in Eastern Jackson County. We have room on the site for hundreds of homes — and we’ve already put in roads and utilities with that in mind.
We follow the zoning laws of Jackson County, so at present we are allowed only to build single homes on 10 acre lots, and we continue to have a share-crop relationship with a local farmer so the land remains in agricultural production. We’ve broken ground on the first homes and have a waiting list, even in these difficult economic times. When all of the 10-acre lots are developed, we can incorporate as a village, and then establish our own zoning laws for Bountiful to establish it as a gathering site.
We know there is a lot more to a physical Zion than this, and there is a lot more property available in Jackson County for that matter, but it’s a concrete step that we can actually take now toward fulfilling the commands of God. There’s not a whole lot of hymn singing. It’s time to quit talking about it, and get going. As the saying goes, “the future is now”.
Q: The Remnant Church has Three Standard Books of Scripture patterned on the RLDS versions of the Bible (which LDS readers would know as the Joseph Smith Translation), the 1908 version of the Book of Mormon, and the RLDS version of the D&C through Section 144. What made Section 144 the break point?
A: The death of Israel A. Smith [Note: a grandson of Joseph Smith who served as Prophet of the RLDS until 1958.] and the assumption of that office by William Wallace Smith. W. Wallace called strong liberals into positions of leadership and they moved the church toward a more general liberal Protestantism, as we’ve been talking about. Most of the conservatives who rejected this direction also rejected the legitimacy of this Prophet and those who followed him in that office.
Q: The Remnant Church has continued to add Sections to its D&C. What are the subjects of these Sections, and are there any that you find of special personal significance?
A: We are up to 156 now, as of last April. There is a common theme to all of them: urgency. Prepare the bride for marriage to the bridegroom, i.e., prepare Zion so that Christ can return and receive a purified, loving, righteous people unto Himself. It is essential that we stop squabbling over roles — what the Apostles can do, or what the Seventies can do.
I particularly find significance in our 151, where we are told to stop waiting for further instruction from the Lord when we haven’t yet followed through on what we’ve already been told to do.
In our most recent revelation, we’ve been told to start planning for the Temple in Independence. We have no idea how we are going to do this. We have no Temple. There’s Kirtland, but a lot of our people felt that the sharing of those Temple facilities by the Community of Christ with an organization of gay Mormons was very offensive. We’re ultra-conservative on the issue of homosexual relationships. The Statement on Moral Values was one of the first things we issued back in 2004. So we don’t really have anywhere where we can feel comfortable as being a Temple.
But the Community of Christ Temple [Note: and other buildings in the Temple Complex] and the LDS buildings occupy nearly all of the Temple Lot in Independence. There’s a small Restoration group church in the corner, but zoning laws prohibit us building there because of a lack of parking even if we bought it.
So we don’t know how we’re going to accomplish what God has commanded, but we’re moving forward to try the best we can.
[Interjected comment by Q: “I still remember your father preaching a very spiritually powerful sermon to the youth at a camp at Blue Water Reunion Grounds when I was in Junior High School in which he confessed that his generation was not going to build Zion, and told of his vision of the people who would succeed.”] Yes, and now we find ourselves at our age and health in the same position.
[Interjected Closing Comment by Q: “Then lets hope we’re each breaking ourselves in a good cause.”]
My thanks to Bob for taking the time to share his experience. I hope, in Part 2 of this post next month, to explore some of the unique interpretations of the Remnant Church regarding the law of temporalities, consecration, and the storehouse as specific steps toward Zion-building. I hope to be interviewing a representative of the Remnant Church’s Bishopric.