Who are the Current Church Leader Intellectuals?By: Jeff Spector
Throughout the history of the Church, there have been General Authorities who have stood out as the intellectuals or keepers of the Doctrines of the Church. I am wondering who those leaders are today? I have my ideas and I am anxious to hear yours. This is not meant as an exhaustive list, but some of the most famous ones.
Joseph Smith, Jr. – (1805 – 1844) Brother Joseph, as the Restorer of the Gospel to the earth, was certainly the modern Church’s first intellectual. He, in his short time, gave the Church the majority of its doctrines still upheld today.
Orson Pratt – (1811- 1881) One of the original twelve Apostles and its last surviving member, he wrote some fifteen pamphlets and booklets including “The Kingdom of God,” and “New Jerusalem, or the Spirit of Modern Prophecy,” and published and circulated several hundred thousand of them in different languages. At the same time, he edited the Millennial Star, and increased its circulation from less than four thousand to nearly twenty-three thousand. While serving a mission to Washington D.C., he wrote and published “The Seer, in which he was stanchly defended of Polygamy and expounded upon it, finding himself at odds with Brigham Young regarding some of his more esoteric writings on the subject. He also transcribed and published the Book of Mormon in both the Deseret alphabet and Pitman phonetic characters. And finally, he served as Church Historian and Recorder from 1874 until his death in 1881.
Joseph Fielding Smith – (1878 – 1972) Son of President Joseph F. Smith, who became Church President himself. He began his post-mission career in the Church Historian’s office where he developed his writing and research skills. He began by writing pamphlets such as “Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage” and “Origin of the Reorganized Church and the Question of Succession.” These were apologetic materials written to defend the Church. He then went on to write 22 books mostly on doctrinal subjects, such as “Doctrines of Salvation” (3 vols), “Essentials in Church History,” “Teachings of the “Prophet Joseph Smith,” a compilation of articles from the Improvement Era entitled “Answers to Gospel Questions” (5 vol), and “Man: His Origins and Destiny among others.” The latter book was quite controversial. In spite of the Church taking no position on evolution, President Smith took a hard position against evolution and it created tensions between various members of the Twelve with scientific backgrounds, namely Talmage and Widsoe and also B.H. Roberts, a Seventy.. He was considered a hard liner when it came to doctrinal interpretation and had a significant influence on his Son-in-Law, Bruce R. McConkie.
James E. Talmage – (1862 – 1933) A member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he is best known for his works, “Jesus The Christ,” Articles of Faith,” The Great Apostasy,” and “House of the Lord.” Elder Talmage wrote “Jesus The Christ” on commission from the First Presidency over a three year period in the Salt Lake Temple. It became one of the classic works in Mormon literature, being used as a study manual for Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society. Elder Talmage did, however, rely very heavily on Alfred Edersheim’s “The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah,” among other works in writing “Jesus the Christ.”
BH Roberts – (1857 – 1933) Brigham Henry Roberts was a member of the First Council of Seventy. He has a colorful life to say the least. However, while serving a mission to England, he served as an Assistant editor for the Millennial Star and completed his first book, the much reprinted, “The Gospel: An Exposition of Its First Principles” (1888). Upon his return to Utah, he was ordained to the First Council of Seventy. He also became full time editor of The Contributor, a Church magazine. In response to an Inquier, Roberts wrote three studies questioning the issues in the Book of Mormon, namely “A Book of Study.” This work explored all the difficulties Roberts found within the Book of Mormon itself. This book was not published until 1985. While many claimed that Roberts, a loyal Church leader was playing the other side of the issue and expounding on it, this put him at odds with some General Authorities. However, he continued to function as a Church leader to his death. To Leonard J. Arrington, Roberts was “the intellectual leader of the Mormon people in the era of Mormonism’s finest intellectual attainment.” (Leonard J. Arrington, “The Intellectual Tradition of the Latter-day Saints,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969), 22.)
John A. Widsoe – (1872 – 1952) A member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he obtained a Ph.D from University of Göttingen, Germany while serving a mission there. He was a professor of Agriculture at BYU. Elder Widsoe wrote a number of books, including “Teachings of Brigham Young,”” Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Writings of Joseph F. Smith,” “A Rational Theology as Taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” “Evidences and Reconciliations”, a compilation of his columns in the Improvement Era and “Priesthood and Church Welfare” and “Priesthood and Church Government.” The latter two were somewhat quasi-Church Handbooks for their time. He also penned two books about Joseph Smith , “Joseph Smith: Seeker After Truth Prophet of God” and “Joseph Smith as a Scientist: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy.” Overall, Elder Widsoe held the belief that multiple interpretations of Latter-day Saint doctrine and issues could be held by faithful members.
Bruce R. McConkie (1915-1985) – A member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Son-In-law of President Joseph Fielding Smith and certainly the most well-known of the modern Church Leader intellectuals and keepers of the doctrine. McConkie published several doctrinal books and articles and wrote the chapter headings of the LDS Church’s most recent editions of the Standard Works. He was a member of the First Council of Seventy when he penned his now-infamous book, “Mormon Doctrine: A Compendium of the Gospel. “ He described as “the first major attempt to digest, explain, and analyze all of the important doctrines of the kingdom” and “the first extensive compendium of the whole gospel—the first attempt to publish an encyclopedic commentary covering the whole field of revealed religion.” He included a disclaimer that he alone was responsible for the doctrinal and scriptural interpretations, a practice unusual at the time. (Horne, Dennis B. “Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights From His Life & Teachings” (2000). Eborn Books).
However, the book had a number of problems and errors. Elder McConkie was asked not to reprint the book by President David O. MacKay. However, later, with the help of Elder Spencer W. Kimball, a 2nd edition of the book was published and it became a standard reference for many Church members and in Church publications and manuals in spite of the fact that it was not an “official Church publication.”
Elder McConkie was well-known in the Church as speaking with an authoritative tone, even occasionally chastising those who questioned him. He also wrote “Doctrinal New Testament Commentaries” and “The Messiah” series, which relied heavily on his past writings. He also heavily used Alfred Edersheim’s works as reference.
In the recent past, his works have seen less use in the Church.
So, who are today’s version of the Church leaders. Certain, Elder Holland is one who speaks frequently on important Gospel Doctrinal issues as do many of the General Authorities. What you do not see are the books like those in the past.
So, who do you think are the current Church Leader Intellectuals?