Given the increased media interest in the Church over the past year, the Mormon Newsroom recently published a document entitled “Mormonism 101: FAQ” . Overall, the document does a good job of clearing up some misconceptions about the Church, and it is very well written, but I do have an issue with some of the manner in which doctrinal things appear to have been changed. To start with, there are some things that I really like about the FAQ:
I like that the focus is on Christ. From the document:
In addition to the above, Latter-day Saints believe unequivocally that:
1. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and the Son of our loving Heavenly Father.
2. Christ’s Atonement allows mankind to be saved from their sins and return to live with God and their families forever.
3. Christ’s original Church as described in the New Testament has been restored in modern times.
In the FAQ, I also like the description of whether we are “Christian”, claiming the title through our belief in Jesus Christ, yet simultaneously accepting that there are some differences with other Christian faiths in our interpretation of what “Christian” means:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a Christian church but is neither Catholic nor Protestant. Rather, it is a restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ as originally established by the Savior in the New Testament of the Bible. The Church does not embrace the creeds that developed in the third and fourth centuries that are now central to many other Christian churches.
There are many other aspects of the FAQ I feel are really well-written. However, there are some aspects that bothered me when I read it, especially when compared with what I learned growing up in the Church over the past 4+ decades. It seems that the Church no longer wants us to be seen as a “peculiar people” with unique doctrines that set us apart, and in reading through Mormonism 101, you would think that we were like everyone else – just another denomination. This doesn’t bother me that much in and of itself, as I think there are many more commonalities between religions than the differences which we often emphasize.
The thing that perplexes me the most is that it appears that some fundamental doctrines seem to have been altered. Again, this doesn’t necessarily bother me either, as we teach that through continuing revelation our doctrine can be changed, but what seems strange is the process. Instead of addressing these things in General Conference with our prophet or an apostle teaching us new doctrine, or instead of presenting these as revealed additions to our scriptural canon, these unique doctrines seem to have been changed by press release.
So, what are these things – what has changed from what I thought was doctrine?
One of the most profound things about the LDS faith that I learned as I grew up is our eternal potential. I was taught that God was once a man, like we are now; and importantly that we each have the potential to truly become like God. The best explanation for this teaching is from the Ensign in Feb 1982. According to the Ensign, in 1840, Lorenzo Snow had the following experience:
“While attentively listening to his explanation, the Spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon me—the eyes of my understanding were opened, and I saw as clear as the sun at noonday, with wonder and astonishment, the pathway of God and man. I formed the following couplet which expresses the revelation, as it was shown me … “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.” “I felt this to be a sacred communication…”
When Elder Snow told Joseph Smith about this in 1843, the Prophet replied: “Brother Snow, that is a true gospel doctrine, and it is a revelation from God to you.” Joseph Smith himself taught this doctrine the next year in the King Follett Discourse, saying: “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens. That is the great secret… If you were to see [God] today, you would see him like a man in form – like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man.” He also taught that men may go “from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation … until (they) arrive at the station of a God.” This teaching was reemphasized by other prophets after Joseph Smith. In 1971, for example, President Joseph Fielding Smith praised President Snow, saying: “This same doctrine has of course been known to the prophets of all the ages, and President Snow wrote an excellent poetic summary of it.” The Ensign article ends with the following sentence: “It is clear that the teaching of President Lorenzo Snow is both acceptable and accepted doctrine in the Church today.”
So, this is the doctrine I was taught growing up, and is likely accepted by the majority of the members of the Church today. But, is it STILL our doctrine?
In 1997, there was a Time Magazine interview with President Hinckley. Here is a portion of the transcript of the interview:
Q: Just another related question that comes up is the statements in the King Follet discourse by the Prophet.
Q: … about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?
A: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.
It seems like there was a distancing from the doctrine in the press. And in the current Mormonism 101: FAQ, that distancing seems to continue. Here is what is being offered to the press. In the response to the question “Do Latter-day Saints believe they can become “gods?” there is the following:
Latter-day Saints believe that God wants us to become like Him. But this teaching is often misrepresented by those who caricature the faith. The Latter-day Saint belief is no different than the biblical teaching, which states, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17). Through following Christ’s teachings, Latter-day Saints believe all people can become “partakers of the divine nature”
Is this the same thing? Is “partakers of the divine nature” the same thing? Do we really not teach that we can become like God? If our leaders “don’t know a lot about it”, what should we believe?
This is a touchy subject which has been touched on in many posts before. I don’t understand it at all. I especially don’t understand what our prophets and teachers have taught about it.
From President John Taylor: “the one-wife system not only degenerates the human family, both physically and intellectually, but it is entirely incompatible with philosophical notions of immortality; it is a lure to temptation, and has always proved a curse to a people” From Brigham Young: “Monogamy, or restrictions by law to one wife, is no part of the economy of heaven among men … this monogamic order of marriage, so esteemed by modern Christians as a holy sacrament and divine institution, is nothing but a system established by a set of robbers… Why do we believe in and practice polygamy? Because the Lord introduced it to his servants in a revelation given to Joseph Smith, and the Lord’s servants have always practices it. And is that religion popular in heaven? It is the only popular religion there…” And so on. There are quotes by other apostles and prophets extolling the virtues of polygamy and the evils of monogamy. It was accepted as doctrine and still exists as a doctrine in our canonized scripture, although we no longer practice it in mortality.
Among active LDS members in early Utah, the percentage of people practicing it varied. It was certainly very common among prominent Church leaders. In areas like St George, approximately 30-40% of the families in the community were polygamous. Other estimates range from 20-30% for different communities. So, while polygamy was practiced by a minority of the members-at-large, it was still a fairly high number. Additionally, a majority of the higher ranking leaders lived the doctrine and taught it as the standard for God’s people, with monogamy being an evil.
From the Mormonism 101 FAQ:
There are more than 14 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and not one of them is a polygamist. The practice of polygamy is strictly prohibited in the Church. The general standard of marriage in the Church has always been monogamy, as indicated in the Book of Mormon (see Jacob 2:27). For periods in the Bible polygamy was practiced by the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, as well as kings David and Solomon. It was again practiced by a minority of Latter-day Saints in the early years of the Church. Polygamy was officially discontinued in 1890 — 122 years ago. Those who practice polygamy today have nothing whatsoever to do with the Church.
Granted, practicing polygamy today is strictly prohibited and will get you excommunicated, but is the press-release trying to whitewash our history by going further? Has the general standard or ideal for the Church “always been monogamy” as stated in the press-release, or was it actually taught as doctrine by prophets and apostles? Reading teachings of actual leaders at that time makes you at least suspect that it was the latter.
This has been addressed in a number of recent posts, so I won’t go into any detail here. But here is the FAQ from Mormonism 101:
People of all races have always been welcomed and baptized into the Church since its beginning. In fact, by the end of his life in 1844 Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opposed slavery. During this time some black males were ordained to the priesthood. At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended. Church leaders sought divine guidance regarding the issue and more than three decades ago extended the priesthood to all worthy male members. The Church immediately began ordaining members to priesthood offices wherever they attended throughout the world.
Really? Prophets and apostles taught as doctrine that blacks could not have the priesthood. It took a major revelation to change the doctrine / policy. Yet we don’t even know where the doctrine came from?
I grew up back East, although my grandparents lived in Utah. Nearly every year, we would take a car trip back to visit, stopping at many interesting sites along the way. These included Church historical sites as well as non-religious sites. One of the areas that captured my young imagination was visiting Adam-ondi-Ahman. We read scriptures like D&C 116:1, which states that “Spring Hill is named by the Lord Adam-ondi-Ahman, because, said he, it is the place where Adam shall come to visit his people…” We also read D&C 107:53, which states “Three years previous to the death of Adam, he called Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch, and Methuselah, who were all high priests, with the residue of his posterity who were righteous, into the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and there bestowed upon them his last blessing.”
These are heady concepts. To be standing in the place where Adam and Enoch stood was profound. I looked around and imagined the Garden of Eden nearby. There are stories of Joseph Smith even identifying stones that were used by Adam for the altar when he was kicked out of the Garden. And even more profound things were promised for the future. Prophets and apostles taught that in the last days, the leaders of the Church would be called back to the same place. Christ would appear and receive all of the keys back from the leaders of the various dispensations, thereby ending things back where it all started. Again, it is something that I always accepted as doctrine.
But now from Mormonism 101: FAQ:
We do not know exactly where the original site of the Garden of Eden is. While not an important or foundational doctrine, Joseph Smith established a settlement in Daviess County, Missouri, and taught that the Garden of Eden was somewhere in that area. Like knowing the precise number of animals on Noah’s ark, knowing the precise location of the Garden of Eden is far less important to one’s salvation than believing in the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
I don’t know what to make of this. After canonized revelation and statements from prophets and apostles, we don’t know the vicinity where the Garden of Eden is? And it’s not an “important or foundational doctrine”, even when we teach that one of the most vital things to occur in the last days prior to the Second Coming is a gathering in that area?
So, I have mixed feelings. I’m confused. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are many things I like about the Mormonism 101: FAQ document. I like the emphasis on Christ. I like the emphasis on serving others. But I do wonder if white-washing things is the best approach. Are we splitting hairs in our press-releases, arguing over what the definition of “is” is? Are we trying to skirt the uncomfortable things at the cost of integrity?
And more importantly, what IS our doctrine? If things taught as doctrine by prior apostles and prophets in talks, General Conference, magazine articles, etc. are merely dismissed by saying that we don’t really know what they were saying or what they really meant by what they were saying or if they really said what we thought they were saying in the context in which they said it or… You get the picture.
So, I’m confused. Do we believe that God was once like us or not? Do we believe that we can become like God or not? Was polygamy taught as an important doctrine, or has “the standard of the church always been monogamy”? Do we really not know how a doctrine as important as blacks and the priesthood came about even though it took a revelation to change? Do we believe that Adam-ondi-Ahman has any significance or meaning in our church or not? And finally, how do we define doctrine? By addressing it in a conference talk? By including it in our canonized scriptures?
Or do we define what we “believe” by press release, even though it may contradict prior apostles and prophets?