Who Speaks for Mormonism?

A thorny issue for Mormons is the question of who speaks for the church and who is speaking from their own personal convictions and human viewpoint. This is important because Christians are often accused of misrepresenting the church and its teachings. One way of ensuring that we get it right is by knowing and using reliable sources. Attempts to clarify this issue often include statements similar to the following:

“The only works that are authoritative and binding on the church and its Members are the four books of scripture: the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price (collectively known as the standard works), and official pronouncements from the First Presidency, the church’s three-Member governing body.”

This appears a reasonable statement. There has to be a plumb line by which all other claims to truth can be judged. For the Christian it is the Bible, for the Muslim it is the Koran, for the Jew the Torah. The above statement seems reasonable as a final standard by which to judge truth, or at least Mormon truth. It is a clear statement with apparently no equivocation. One Mormon correspondent illustrates this point by reference to the book Mormon Doctrine, by Bruce R McConkie.Thousands of books have been written by Latter-day Saints over the last 166 years. Some of them are well-written and accurate, some contain merely the personal theories of the writer. But just because a,

“Latter-day Saint writes something doesn’t mean what he writes is correct or speaks for the church. A case in point is a work widely accepted by Members of the LDS church: Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine. Here McConkie attempted to explain in detail what Latter-day Saints believe about more than 1,100 gospel topics. Unfortunately, some of his interpretations and beliefs were not correct, and the second edition of his book had a number of, what were termed in the preface, ‘changes, clarifications, and additions.’ McConkie, as great a man as he was…was imperfect just like the rest of us.”

These two statements seem to clearly define the contrast between ‘scripture’ and those writings, statements, commentaries made by Mormons about scripture and truth. For the Latter-day Saint, however, there is a problem here.

Questioning the Prophets

From the start of Mormonism remarkable claims of revelations, prophecies etc. have been the norm. Although the LDS church started with a book, nevertheless what was written has always proven insufficient and “the saints” have been encouraged to look to “living prophets” for guidance and direction. In a defining statement Ezra Taft Benson said:

The most important prophet, so far as we are concerned, is the one living in our day and age. This is the prophet who has today’s instructions from God to us today. God’s revelation to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the ark. Every generation has need of the ancient scripture plus the current scripture from the living prophet. Therefore, the most crucial reading and pondering which you should do is of the latest inspired words from the Lord’s mouthpiece. – Conference Report, Korea Area Conference, 1975.

Essential to Mormon thinking is the belief that the heavens have been opened once more, and that God, through his servants the prophets, directs and guides the affairs of his people. Continuous revelation is understood to be the lifeblood of the church. Members are encouraged to believe that the affairs of the church are guided on a daily basis by revelation through living prophets. This being the case, when the average Latter-day Saint looks to his leaders for guidance and clarity he hardly expects to have to pick carefully through a selection of teachings, comments and pronouncements, weighing each one. He certainly is not encouraged to even consider the possibility that apostles and prophets would be found wanting in clarity and accuracy in bringing the true “interpretation” of church teaching to their congregations. Listen to Mormon apostle Orson Pratt:

Have we not a right to make up our minds in relation to the things recorded in the word of God, and speak about them, whether the living oracles believe our views or not? We have not the right. – Journal of Discourses 7:374-375.

Brigham Young declared:

I know just as well what to teach this people and just what to say to them and what to do in order to bring them to the celestial kingdom, as I know the road to my office…I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture. Let me have the privilege of correcting a sermon, and it is as good Scripture as they deserve. – Journal of Discourses, vol.13, p.95 (Also see vol.13, p.264).

Joseph Fielding Smith said:

Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voices of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord. An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the lord intends. But the voice of the First Presidency and the united voices of those others who hold with them the keys of the kingdom shall always guide the Saints and the world in those paths where the Lord wants them to be. – Ensign, July 1972, p.88.

It has long been understood amongst the Latter-day Saints that “when the prophet speaks all debate is ended”. Indeed, if you had to define the seminal message of the Mormon Church it is that men may again look confidently to prophets and apostles to guide them unerringly in their lives and devotion to God.

When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan – it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. – Improvement Era June 1945,p.354.

Oracles or Just Men with Opinions?

Contrast this with another quote from Joseph Fielding Smith:

You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. – Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956, 3:203-4.

Surely what makes the “authorities of the Church” authorities at all is their dependability and their insight into the business of God. It is almost always accepted that their comments, in whatever form, will be “with accord with the revealed word in the standard works.” Their humanity will surely show through in tone and presentation, but surely not in content. If this is not the case then they are no “authorities.” When a “prophet” speaks, even as a man, touching gospel principles then, even as a man, his opinion should be in accord with revealed truth. We should be able to trust him. If we are to sift and check, harbour doubts, speculate and essentially question him then how does he differ from the Dalai Lama, Rajneesh or the Archbishop of Canterbury? How could you square such thinking with statements like this from Spencer W Kimball:

Apostasy usually begins with question and doubt and criticism…They who garnish the sepulchres of the dead prophets begin now by stoning the living ones…They allege love for the gospel and the Church but charge that leaders are a little ‘off beam’…Next they say that while the gospel and the Church are divine, the leaders are fallen. – The Teachings of Spencer W Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982.

How can we trust a leader whose personal opinions differ from his official pronouncements for God? Surely, we have been promised that such a thing would never happen?

Of course, the problem here, typically, is that the Mormon Church is trying to hold two mutually exclusive positions simultaneously. The traditional position of the church is that God again speaks through prophets and that, in contrast to a dead tradition, the “true church” is in a state of growth and development, a state of flux. The Mormon canon of scripture is not a complete canon but a founding canon, clearly identified as the “standard works” of the church, but the whole canon is not fixed since it is purported to include further revelations and announcements up to the present day. Hence the statement, “The most important prophet, so far as we are concerned, is the one living in our day and age.” This makes Gordon Hinckley and the rest of the ‘general authorities’ of the church more important to current church members than Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Peter James and John, or even Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. “Watch the prophet” is the phrase sometimes used. Spencer W Kimball criticised the practice of some that, “return to the pronouncements of the dead leaders and interpret them to be incompatible with the present programs.” The message, clearly, is that one should test the past by the present.

On the other hand, as the church grows more sophisticated, in an increasingly sophisticated world, it is apparent that these prophets are more closely scrutinised by a people who are ever more critical and discerning. Leaders can no longer make pronouncements that are xenophobic, confrontational or overtly triumphalistic in nature, and expect to get away with it. Nor can they any longer make ridiculous claims about archaeology and the Book of Mormon, the imminent fate of the United States Government, or the inhabitants of the moon. The answer is to have a fixed canon of scripture, controlled from the centre, against which everyone, even the prophet, is to be tested. This is the current thinking. The message here is that one should test the present by the past. The position of the church has shifted. Surely, though, in a church that claims continuing revelation, and promises unerring guidance there should be perfect accord between prophets past and present?

The Changing Face of Mormonism

It has long been apparent that the phenomenal success of the Mormon Church is in no small measure due to its ability to change and adapt. Mormon leaders have long been image conscious and anxious to own the correct reputation. Such concerns have been the driving force behind some remarkable changes in policy and practice over the years. The nineteenth century Mormon Church was isolationist and aggressive, much in the traditional style of new religious movements. Speeches and statements from church leaders frequently reflected inflated ambitions to “rule every nation.” In that rare atmosphere of triumphalism all sorts of wild statements of doctrine and belief were made, leaders never imagining that the world would change so much as to be able to put Mormon claims to the test (a singular absence of prophetic foresight here). One classic example is the following extract from the Journal of Discourses.

Who can tell us of the inhabitants of this little planet that shines of an evening, called the moon?…when you inquire about the inhabitants of that sphere you find that the most learned are as ignorant in regard to them as the ignorant of their fellows. So it is in regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it. It was not made in vain. – Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.13, p.271.

Thinking that their 19th century world-view would endure they never imagined that one day “the most learned” would land on the moon and find it barren and uninhabited. Trusting in their splendid isolation amongst the Rocky Mountains they defied the world and developed many of the doctrines and practices for which they are still famous. One notorious teaching was Brigham Young’s Adam/God doctrine. Young stated on April 9th, 1852:

Now hear it, O inhabitants of the earth…When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives with him…He is Michael, the Archangel, the Ancient of Days!…He is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do. – Journal of Discourses, vol.1, pp.50-51.

Today what the church calls the Adam/God “theory” is stridently denied and those who teach it are excommunicated. Along with polygamy, blood atonement, and men on the moon, Adam/God was dropped, and the church buried its 19th century mistakes with its 19th century dead. One commentator observed that “The [Mormon] Church entered the twentieth century in anxious pursuit of respectability.” This century, however, has also seen the Mormon Church face controversy. One notable hangover from the days of Brigham and Joseph has been the church’s stance on Negroes. One noted Mormon leader stated:

As a result of his rebellion [in a pre-mortal existence], Cain was cursed with a dark skin; he became the father of the Negroes, and those spirits who were not worthy to receive the priesthood are born through his lineage. – Bruce R McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p 102.

According to performance in a pre-mortal state men and women are born into different races. The Negro is the lowest of these and not deserving of Mormon priesthood blessing. Clearly to be born White, Anglo-Saxon and LDS puts a person at the top of this caste system. In 1978 the then prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, announced that “all worthy male members of the church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard to race or color,” claiming to have received revelation on the matter. This has opened a whole new mission field to the church, which is now expanding at a phenomenal rate amongst African nations.

Again, the Mormons are digging graves for past mistakes. Dead and gone are key portions of the temple ceremony. Notably the blood oaths were removed in 1990, and a controversial section portraying the typical Christian clergyman as a lackey of Satan, who taught a “ridiculous and incomprehensible” philosophy, which he called “orthodox religion,” was removed. The Journal of Discourses was once a key source of doctrine. It has recently been demoted to the position of interesting but uninspired teachings, which may, or may not, be reliable. Many of the problems they are trying to bury are from this, once unimpeachable, source. (The preface to volume eight of the Journal states “The Journal of Discourses deservedly ranks as one of the Standard Works of the Church”)

Bruce R McConkie simply shares the fate of all past prophets. While his writings were once essential reading in every seminary and institute class, he is increasingly marginalised as his teachings fall behind current Mormon thinking. As with the prophets of the nineteenth century, the Mormons seem to be burying their 20th century mistakes with their 20th century dead.

What Christians Should Do

So Christians may reasonably be quoting apostles McConkie and Tanner and Talmage etc. as authorities, naively thinking that they are endorsed by a church that itself extensively quotes them, only to be told, “but that is just his opinion.” In Mormon writings we are led to believe that, if an apostle says it then it must be so. But the frustrating experience of so many Christians is that nothing is carved in stone – especially not the modern revelation of the Mormon Church. I am afraid the Mormon Church wants the penny and the bun. It wants apostles and prophets but it does not want to be held accountable for what they say when what they say is no longer politically correct. In light of the above do we make of a recent statement by Gordon Hinckley:

(In bearing testimony of Jesus Christ, President Hinckley spoke of) those outside the Church who say Latter-day Saints ‘do not believe in the traditional Christ.’ ‘No, I don’t. The traditional Christ of whom they speak is not the Christ of whom I speak. For the Christ of whom I speak has been revealed in this the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. He together with His Father, appeared to the boy Joseph Smith in the year 1820, and when Joseph left the grove that day, he knew more of the nature of God than all the learned ministers of the gospel of the ages.’ – Church News (6/20/98, p.7)

Was this just his opinion or is it official Mormon doctrine? If the latter then why have Christians suffered grief all this time at the hands of Mormons for simply stating that Mormons don’t believe in the same Jesus? It is not we who are telling less than the truth but Mormons who do indeed believe in a different Jesus and insist that they don’t. But then Hinckley could be simply expressing an opinion. And no doubt at some point in the future, when a Mormon is backed into a corner over worshipping a different Jesus, and this quote is brought up as “proof”, the well worn riposte “that was just his opinion” will be trotted out once more. Because any point, quote, verse or question that is raised in such confrontations is always labelled out of context, misquoted, misrepresentative, misunderstood or mischievously twisted. And, whatever the source, every quote is up for negotiation and can be devalued at a stroke – as expediency demands.

We believe all Christians, of whatever persuaision, should be aware of the slippery nature of so-called Mormon doctrine and not be put off by accusations of misrepresentation. Mormonism attempts to appeal to converts by claiming consistent and reliable guidance from God, which they claim is absent from the Christian churches. However, they also use the claim to prophetic guidance to change “restored” truth when it suits them and defy their followers to dare question the living prophets who alone speak for God. Caught between their faith in the prophets of Mormonism and their experience of inexplicable change and doctrinal inconsistencies Mormons are forced to excuse, explain, conceal and deny the pronouncements of their own leaders in an attempt to keep the faith. In the face of such circumstances, Christians should be ever more patient, prayerful and consistent in their witness.

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