“A Place in This Church”: An Interview with Richard Lyman Bushman December 10th, 2012
Larry Alan Brown, a writer living in Alpine, Utah, conducted this interview with Richard Bushman on August 1, 2012, at his summer home in Provo, Utah. Dr. Bushman is the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University, a renowned scholar of American and Mormon history and author of the critically acclaimed Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, for which he received the Evans Biography Award. A practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he and his wife Claudia live in New York City.
Read the entire transcript of the interview here.
Vernon’s Sociology of Mormonism March 30th, 2008
While Glenn M. Vernon was not the first sociologist to analyze Mormonism, he was arguably the first to attempt to organize the social scientific study of the LDS church into a specific field of inquiry. This 1975 text was used in his sociology of Mormonism classes at the University of Utah, and it contains a wealth of social science data on a variety of subjects. While many of the studies are dated, they give important insights into Mormon thinking and behavior in the era just before the internationalization of the faith began to accelerate. Hence, for anyone interested in the history or development of Mormon thought, Vernon’s work is a veritable treasure trove.
Latter-day Saint Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Spirituality
Richley H. Crapo, Utah State University
Religions differ in the degree to which they accept diversity of belief or practice among their own adherents. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose followers commonly are known as Mormons) is among those denominations for whom unanimity of belief and practice is highly valued. Its central theological concepts and liturgical practices presuppose a heterosexual identity. This results in particular dilemmas for adherents whose personal identity is not heterosexual. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons experience various pressures to remain closeted within the church and doctrines that are not easily reconciled with their own personal identities. This results in considerable social isolation and personal cognitive dissonance. Although some gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members adapt to these problems and remain engaged in the LDS church, the most common outcome for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons is eventually either disaffiliation with the church without maintaining a personal spirituality or, less commonly, finding a new, friendlier denomination.
The ideologies of different religious traditions differ in their acknowledgment and acceptance of diversity of practice and belief. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are widely known as Mormons, exemplifies a religion in which unanimity of belief and practice is idealized. Yet, there is diversity within every religion, including those that do not formally recognize or accept it, and the LDS religion is no exception. The fact of diversity within the LDS church is well illustrated by the existence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) members within the denomination.
The LDS idealization of uniformity results in the experience of pressure on members to suppress any characteristic that sets them apart, religiously or socially, from their fellow Mormons. This pressure is particularly acute for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members who desire to continue their participation in Mormon religious life.
Doctrinal challenges for GLBT members
Particular LDS beliefs and practices pose special challenges for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members of the LDS religion. For instance, heterosexual marriage occupies a central place in the LDS community and its theology: “The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan” (The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve, 1995). Among the most sacred LDS “ordinances” is that which is commonly referred to as “temple marriage,” a marital “sealing” between a man and a woman that is believed to make the marital bond valid for eternity. The afterlife is conceptualized in terms of the relationships between such “sealed” (heterosexual) couples and their descendants through an unbroken chain of children and ancestors who have been similarly “sealed” to their spouses. Being “sealed” in a heterosexual marriage is considered to be a prerequisite to a person’s attaining the “highest level of exaltation”in the next life.
Given the centrality of the heterosexual family to LDS social life, theology, and religious rites, it is unsurprising that LDS sexual values not only preclude premarital sex but that specific teachings would exist that impinge directly on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members. For instance, homosexual behavior is regarded as “serious sin” and even the thoughts and feelings associated with homosexual attraction “should be resisted and redirected” (Oaks, 1995:9). According to the Church Handbook of Instructions, the official policy manual provided to ecclesiastical leaders, homosexual behavior by either males or females, particularly by adults and especially by males who hold ecclesiastical office, is grounds for excommunication:
“Homosexual behavior violates the commandments of God, is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality, distorts loving relationships, and deprives people of the blessings that can be found in family life and in the saving ordinances of the gospel. Those who persist in such behavior or who influence others to do so are subject to Church discipline. Homosexual behavior can be forgiven through sincere repentance.
“If members have homosexual thoughts or feelings or engage in homosexual behavior, Church leaders should help them have a clear understanding of faith in Jesus Christ, the process of repentance, and the purpose of life on earth. Leaders also should help them accept responsibility for their thoughts and actions and apply gospel principles in their lives. In addition to the inspired assistance of Church leaders, members may need professional counseling. When appropriate, bishops [pastors of local congregations] should contact LDS Social Services to identify resources to provide such counseling in harmony with gospel principles” (Intellectual Reserve, 1998:158).
Homosexuality is of such concern to LDS leadership that the Church has actively lobbied against same-sex marriage in Hawaii and in several U.S. states in favor of so-called DOMA (i.e., “Defense of Marriage”) laws that restrict the recognition of marriage to heterosexual marriages (Crapo, 1997a, 1997b).
Although transsexual surgery does not violate the LDS expectation of chastity before marriage, it is apparently perceived as an implicit challenge to the LDS belief that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” (The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve, 1995). Thus it is specifically listed as among those “transgressions” for which official action against an individual’s church membership “may be necessary” (Intellectual Reserve, 1998, p. 95). The instructions regarding surgery are that “Church leaders counsel against elective transsexual operations. If a member is contemplating such an operation, a presiding officer should inform him of this counsel and advise him that the operation may be cause for formal Church discipline” (Intellectual Reserve, 1998, p. 95).
Similarly, the intent to undergo transsexual surgery can be a hindrance to joining the LDS religion: “Persons who are considering an elective transsexual operation should not be baptized. Persons who have already undergone an elective transsexual operation may be baptized if they are otherwise found worthy in an interview with the mission president or a priesthood leader he assigns. Such persons may not receive the priesthood or a temple recommend” (Intellectual Reserve, 1998, p. 26).
The very existence of bisexual Mormons is unacknowledged in church publications or sermons by top ecclesiastical leaders. Since, like heterosexual members, they experience attraction to members of the other sex, they are simply expected to conform to the church’s norms of chastity before marriage and to find a compatible spouse who is not of their own sex. Thus, bisexual members are not treated as having any particular pastoral needs. Bisexual members have similar difficulty finding a support network outside the church itself. There are, at this time, no bisexual-support organizations for bisexual Mormons, although such persons are typically welcomed by similar support groups whose members are primarily LDS gay or lesbian individuals.
In principle, the LDS doctrine does not distinguish among persons based on their personal, subjectively perceived sexual identities. For instance, rather than recognizing kinds of persons based on differences in “sexual orientation,” the church regards differences in erotic or affective attraction simply as matters of the kinds of “temptations” different individuals may experience. Thus, the spontaneous experience of a “same-sex attraction” to another person is not regarded as sin any more than an unbidden heterosexual “temptation” would be. It is only behavior–acting on “homosexual feelings” that is held to be sin. In practice, the LDS world view does not allow for the existence of “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” persons. For instance, church leaders carefully avoid the very use of the term “sexual orientation” or terms such as “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” as kinds of human identities. Instead, they speak only of individuals being “troubled” by “experiencing same-sex temptations.” By replacing the noun phrase, “sexual orientation,” with various verb phrases, such as “being same-sex attracted,” LDS theological discourse delegitimizes sexual orientation as the basis for a person’s social identity within the religious setting. One may be an LDS lawyer or an LDS Democrat or Republican, but one may not, in the accepted language of Mormonism, be a “gay, lesbian, or bisexual Mormon.” From the viewpoint of church leaders, persons who designate themselves by one of these terms are, by the very act of self-labeling, placing themselves outside the LDS system of thought that acknowledges only “persons who experience same-sex attraction.” Thus, there is no form of pastoral counseling which is aimed at dealing with the cognitive dissonance of experiencing oneself as being both “LDS” and “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual.” Instead, such individuals are simply counseled not to act on their temptations and may be referred to LDS Family Services where therapists are expected to help such persons conform their behavior to the LDS ideal of chastity outside heterosexual marriage and to alter their self-perception as “being” gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons.
The primary document concerning homosexuality that has been issued by the church for therapists employed by LDS Family Services (LDS Social Services, 1995) discusses homosexuality and lesbianism within a gender-identity learning model in which homosexual and lesbian relationships are portrayed as by-products of inadequate identification with the same-sex parent, poor peer relations, unhealthy sexual attitudes, and early homosexual experiences or sexual abuse. It recommends a form of “reparative” therapy intended to facilitate patients’ acquisition of those gender roles that the church views as appropriate for relationships between men and women. Gay, lesbian, or bisexual members report that their own acceptance of this viewpoint can be a source of tremendous inner turmoil. For instance, several male interviewees said that as adolescents they had prayed repeatedly and to no avail for God to take away their sexual attraction to other males and that, finally, they had chosen to serve as missionaries for the church in the hope that by so demonstrating their dedication to their religion, God would surely change them so that they would no longer feel a sexual attraction to other men. When, after a year or more of missionary service, they found themselves unchanged, they were devastated to the point of becoming suicidal.
Pressure to remain closeted: loss of the usual social support network
As with many Americans, it is common for LDS members to confound any distinction between an individual’s sexual or gender orientation with behavior that violates the accepted sexual norms of the church, so that simply identifying oneself as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered person is perceived as tantamount to challenging the legitimacy of the church. Thus, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members are commonly counseled by their religious leaders not to discuss their sexual or gender identities with other members except on a “need to know” basis. This mandate to remain “closeted” functions to isolate gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members from the social support network that other members take for granted as a norm of Mormon life.
A theology in which heterosexual-family ideals are as central as they are to the LDS church poses clear challenges to persons who were reared in a Mormon family and then find that their sexual identity is that of a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered person. First, such individuals are very likely to be concerned about the potential for rejection by both their families and their ecclesiastical leaders should they “come out.” The pressure not to communicate about issues of personal identity are strong. For instance, R. D. Phillips (1993) interviewed 71 homosexual Mormon males and found that most had not told their parents about their sexual orientation. Similarly, B. Benson (2001), who interviewed homosexual Mormon males about the coming-out process, found that “[t]he most common reason [for not coming out to parents] was fear of parent’s reaction. Another obstacle to disclosure for these individuals was guilt about adding to parents’ emotional distress or wanting to protect their parents from painful emotions” (p. 26). Benson further found that LDS homosexual males who did come out to their families did so at a later age than is typical of non-LDS gays.
Lack of a tradition of pastoral ministry
Coming out to ecclesiastical leaders is complicated by the fact that the LDS ecclesiastical organization is built on a lay ministry rather than a professional one. Thus, bishops and stake presidents have no formal theological or pastoral training. Each lay minister is given a copy of the Church Handbook of Instructions (Intellectual Reserve, 1998) which is concerned with matters of policy that are relevant to carrying out the organizational work each minister has been requested to perform, but this publication does not attempt to outline LDS theology or the skills of pastoral ministering to congregants. Thus, bishops and stake presidents must often rely simply on their personal intuitions about how to respond to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals and on their personal interpretations of the limited policy material that touches on such things as church discipline for nonconformist individuals. For this reason, the response of LDS bishops and stake presidents who are approached by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members can vary tremendously from one “ward” or stake to another.
Awareness that the response of their ecclesiastical leaders is highly unpredictable and often unsupportive is a frequently-mentioned concern of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Mormons, one that they experience as pressure not to seek pastoral counseling at all because of their fear of possible loss of membership. As one interviewee, who now describes himself as a “personally spiritual but organizationally unaffiliated” gay man, described his own previous “discord” about his relationship with the church, “I was afraid about how the church would react and afraid about the loss of social structure and terribly depressed about marriage problems I was having, like my infidelity, because I was trying to follow the church’s teachings by being a father and husband, but I kept getting involved with men.” This individual eventually resolved his cognitive dissonance by no longer participating in either Mormon or non-Mormon worship services and leaving his heterosexual marriage relationship.
Nevertheless, remaining closeted does not eliminate the dissonance gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Mormons experience between their religious and sexual identities. One gay man described how on one Sunday, he was sitting in the choir at the front of his ward’s chapel when “this guy I had slept with the previous night came in and sat down in the congregation!” Experiences such as this, he explained, were personally embarrassing because they challenged his previous compartmentalization of his spiritual and sexual lives and forced him to deal with a sense of hypocrisy in his participation in the religious life of his congregation. The gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Mormons I interviewed described the dissonance they have experienced as primarily internal and psychological rather than as a matter of social awkwardness. More commonly than discussing embarrassing or otherwise difficult social situations, interviewees spoke about the depression and sense of loneliness they had to cope with as closeted participants in LDS life.
Resolving the Conflicts
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members attempt to resolve the social and doctrinal conflicts they experience as members of the LDS church in one of two ways: by carving out niches within the fold and by disengaging from the church.
Carving out niches within the fold
Despite the powerful cognitive dissonance experienced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons whose religious identity is LDS, some individuals remain active participants in the LDS religion. The religious identification can be powerful, and one gay male whose ancestors were pioneer Mormon settlers of Utah territory told me, “I can no more choose not to be Mormon than I can choose not to be male or homosexual.” A. D. Lach, a spokesman for Affirmation, a support group for LDS gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons, quotes one gay Mormon man as having said, “I am a Mormon, from a long line of Mormons, yet, I am also a homosexual. I have come to realize that I cannot cease being either. Thus, happiness depends upon my ability to reconcile these two facets of my nature” (Lach, 1989). In his study of LDS gays, Phillips (1993) noted that his sample included persons who “choose to live celibate lives, attempt to change their sexual orientation, or marry heterosexually in order to maintain favor with the Mormon church” (p. vi). One gay man I spoke to viewed his future in these terms, “I am 25, LDS with a rock solid testimony and planning on a life of celibacy to honor my Temple covenants. But to be realistic being alone is very hard if not impossible, but it is worth a try, and it is what I feel Heavenly Father wants me to do” (Crapo, 1998).
Those who remain sexually inactive and who approach their bishops are usually counseled to remain quiet about their sexual orientation, sharing it on a “need to know” basis only. This perpetuates the social isolation of such members within their religious community. According to Phillips (1993), the result “. . . for most celibate gay Mormons is that they live solitary, lonely lives with few social outings” (p. 94). According to at least half of my own interviewees, this isolation exacerbates the problems of depression, fear of rejection, and even suicidal concerns
Most LDS gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons who remain active in the church elect to remain closeted. Some few may speak to their bishops, but doing so can be problematic, since the personal attitude of individual bishops may result in harsher treatment than is actually justified by the standard policy guidelines that are issued to each local leader. For instance, one transgendered woman reported that her bishop insisted on holding a “Disciplinary Council” because she had undergone surgery for her condition. He insisted that this was mandatory, but when she showed him that the relevant policy statement of the church was merely that church discipline “may” be required in such cases, his response was simply, “It doesn’t matter. I decide.” The eventual outcome was excommunication. A transsexual man explained that his bishop required him to undergo karyotype testing and took the position that he would support him only if there was evidence of chromosomal abnormality to support his choice to transition from female to male, even though the church’s policy manual mentions nothing about chromosomes being determinative of one’s true sex. Nevertheless, even should this prove to be the case, current church policy precludes his being ordained to the LDS lay “Priesthood” which is required for full participation in various church activities, including marriage and which is an otherwise universal expectation for male members.
Finding support outside the church
The most common resolution to the conflict between the religious and sexual identities of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Mormons appears to be varying degrees of eventual disengagement from the church. Sometimes their disengagement has been the result of their having been either “disfellowshipped” or excommunicated by their ecclesiastical leaders. (Disfellowshipped persons retain their membership in the church but are restricted in terms of the level of their participation in the religious practices of the church.)
Others have voluntarily disengaged in ways that vary from retaining their membership but no longer attending services regularly to severing their ties with the church by requesting that their names be removed from its roles. As one gay man explained, the lack of anyone to turn to within the church for support led him to depression and the contemplation of suicide, but he “opted to survive” and found a support network in the gay community and a spiritual home in the local Metropolitan Community Church instead of continuing a closeted life among other Mormons. A lesbian interviewee who now participates in the Episcopal church explained her own feelings of lacking a support network in a Mormon setting this way: “The LDS church is extremely patriarchal, and our mission in life is to get married, have babies, and give up having a career, but we’re not just brainless baby machines.”
The transition out of Mormonism is not an easy one, since many experience their LDS background not simply in denominational terms but as a matter of cultural identity. As one disaffiliated gay male put it, “It’s more than a church, it’s a culture.” Another, who is currently unaffiliated with any denomination, put it this way: “You can take me out of the church, but you can’t take the culture out of me.” Disaffiliation is sometimes associated with unresolved anger. One disaffiliated gay male, a young man of about twenty-five years of age, told me, “I am . . . angry at and deeply disturbed by the Church for the untold suffering and destruction it has precipitated in the lives of so many of my gay brothers and sisters. I don’t apologize for those feelings. I believe in my heart that the Church is deeply mistaken concerning its attitude and policies toward homosexuality. I still have a testimony of the gospel and resent having to attempt to find another outlet for my spiritual feelings” (Crapo, 1998).
The modal pattern among those gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons who have fully disaffiliated themselves from the LDS religion appears to be one of shifting towards agnosticism or atheism rather than of seeking out another denomination with a GLBT-friendly theology. Those gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons with whom I have spoken in the course of my research on various gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered issues are more likely to describe their current religious status to be agnostic or atheist rather than even “personally spiritual but not organizationally religious.” Nevertheless, some do maintain a private spirituality or migrate to other denominations. For instance, among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered student members of Pride Alliance, a student organization at my own university, several of the lesbian members have become affiliated with the local Episcopal church, which they perceive as both accepting of gay and lesbian members and of their own feminist values. Several of the gay male membership has found a community of spiritual support in the local Metropolitan Community Church, and a few currently participate in meetings of the Unitarian Universalists.
A number of support organizations exist that welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Mormons or their families as members. These include some that are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered affirmative in their views and others that have the goal of helping gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Mormons who wish to adhere to the strict sexual norms of their church. There are currently six primary organizations: Affirmation, Q-Saints, Family Fellowship, Gamophites, Evergreen International, and Disciples2.
The centrality of doctrines and practices concerning heterosexual marriage and families makes it unlikely that the LDS church will undergo significant theological changes in respect to its expectation that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons must conform their behavior to the gender and sexual norms of the church. Although the possibility exists that the church might reassess its understanding of sexual identity in ways that would be more accepting of transgendered person’s self perception without directly challenging doctrines or practices concerning the eternal nature of the heterosexual family, the existence of transgendered persons appears to be even less acknowledged or addressed in LDS literature than are homosexual and lesbian members. The church remains similarly silent on issues concerning bisexual members. However according to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons I have interviewed, church policy and practice regarding gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members does appear to be undergoing some change currently, as church leaders become increasingly aware of the existence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members whose pastoral needs have not been previously addressed.
Benson, Brad. 2001. Perceived Family Relationships Associated with Coming Out of Mormon Male Homosexuals. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.
Crapo, Richley H. 1997a. “LDS doctrinal rhetoric and the politics of same-sex marriage.” Invited paper presented at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, San Diego, CA.
Crapo, Richley H. 1997b. “The LDS church and the politics of same-sex marriage.” Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Sunstone Theological Symposium, Salt Lake City, UT
Crapo, Richley H. 1998. “Ministering Angels and Eunuchs for Christ: Being Mormon in the Sexual Margins,” Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Montreal.
Dach, A. D. 1989. Homosexuality and Scripture. Los Angeles: Affirmation.
Intellectual Reserve. 1998. Church Handbook of Instructions. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
LDS Social Services. 1995. Understanding and Helping Those Who Have Homosexual Problems: Suggestions for Ecclesiastical Leaders. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Oaks, Dallin H. 1995. “Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign (October), pp. 6-14.
Phillips, R. D. 1993. Prophets and Preference: Constructing and Maintaining a Homosexual Identity in the Mormon Church. Unpublished Masters thesis, Logan, Utah: Utah State University.
The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve. 1995. Proclamation on the Family. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Free Will and Obedience: The Role of Paradox in Mormon Myth and Ritual
Richley H. Crapo, Utah State University
In Mormon theology both the freedom of the individual to choose their course of action and the duty of obedience to authority are stressed as sacred values. The tensions created by these contrasting values are symbolically expressed in Mormon myth and sacred ritual. This article traces the paradoxical expression of symbols of obedience and free agency in the Mormon Preexistence myth, which is found both in Latter-day Saint scripture and Temple rituals. It is argued that the paradoxical emphasis on freedom and obedience is reconciled through rituals of choice in which Mormons act out their willing deference to the decisions of authority figures.
Myth as Projection of Distress
Myth and ritual have long been recognized as outlets for tensions experienced in social life. The parallels between ritual and myth as expressions of social needs and conflict were noted earlier in this century by Kluchohn (1942:78-9) :
For myth and ritual have common psychological basis. Ritual is an obsessive, repetitive activity–often a symbolic dramatization of the fundamental ‘needs’ of a society, whether ‘economic,’ ‘geological,’ ‘social,’ or ‘sexual.’ Mythology is the rationalization of the same needs, whether they are all expressed on overt ceremonial or not. Someone has said ‘every culture has a type conflict and a type solution.’ Ceremonials found to portray a symbolic resolvement of the conflicts which extant environment, historical experience, and selective distribution of personality types have caused to be characteristic in society.
The symbolic parallels between either myth or ritual and stress can be examined in the context of the innovator who contributes myth or ritual to a religious tradition or in the context of the social following that perpetuates the tradition. Wallace (1966:13) noted that there is an intimate connection between both rituals and beliefs and personal distress: “. . .for at least some individuals, various aspects of belief or ritual can serve as prime generators, apt expressions, or more or less expedient symptomatic solutions of emotional problems.” Gluckman (1970:2397-2398) aptly characterized the same relationship with an emphasis on the social context when he asserted that “. . .ritual, occult beliefs, and practices will tend to occur in crisis situations in which the discrepant principles out of which social organization is formed, principles which are in conflict, produce actual or potential disputes which cannot be settled by judicial and other purely intellectual procedures.”
Contemporary Mormonism maintains a seeming contradiction in combining an authoritarian and dogmatic ecclesiastical structure with an active theological emphasis on free agency as central to the very concept of human nature. White and White (1981:47) rightly noted that “. . .few organizations so closely resemble the classical pyramidal bureaucracy. All power to allocate and mobilize institutional resources resides at the apex.” Yet Leone (1976:722) is also able to argue that “Mormonism is neither authoritarian, hierarchical, nor literalistic but, in matters of doctrinal interpretation at least, is diffuse, egalitarian and loose-constructionist” that in this and in its this-worldly ability “to sacralis day-to-day activities” (p. 730 it meets Bellah’s (1964) criteria for a Modern Religion. The expression of this tension of opposites in Mormon myth and its manifestation and potential resolution in ritual will be explored in the remainder of this article.
The roles of myth and ritual as alternate expressions of the same underlying value conflicts can be illustrated in Mormon theology and rite with examples that demonstrate how the same tensions engendered by conflicting values may receive their symbolic expression through the creative acts of an individual or through social evolutionary processes within a group. In this paper, Mormon creation beliefs will be shown to express a tension between the values of freedom and coercion, a tension that is present in Mormon concepts of church governance and that is given release in Mormon ritual life.
Free Agency and Obedience: Mormon’s Polar Values
When O’Dea (1957:165) described Mormonism as a “democracy of participation and an oligarchy of decision-making and command,” he touched on a central paradox in Mormonism that has a variety of manifestations. One is its simultaneous emphasis on obedience to the authority of its ecclesiastical leaders and on respect for the sacred quality of the freedom of choice of its members. The conflict between these contrasting values is symbolically portrayed in the Mormon creation myth in which some pre-born human spirits lose the possibility of salvation by paradoxically exercising their divinely given freedom of choice to relinquish their agency in return for the promise of salvation made certain. This myth reflects a tension between the competing values of obedience to ecclesiastical authority figures and the freedom of individual choice, a tension that finds symbolic expression in Mormon myth and ritual.
The Mormon Preexistence Doctrine
Unlike traditional Christian theology, Mormonism asserts that human existence, like that of God, is an absolute condition rather than a contingent one (McMurrin, 1979:12). Humans are as inherently eternal as is God, and each individual existed prior to mortal life, first as unorganized intelligences that embodied the unique eternal essence of each human individual in immature form and then as spirit children of Divine Parents (Heeren, Lindsey & Mason, 1984). Though they are subordinate to God, human beings differ from Him merely in degree of persona; development; they are not of a different order. This view of human nature as including individual autonomy that is coeternal with, but subordinate to God is embodied in a well-known Mormon aphorism: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become” (Romney, 1955:34).
The story of human existence as spirit children of God prior to the creation of the world, the Preexistence (or less commonly, the First Estate) as it is called by Mormons, is recounted in a Latter-day Saint (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981) scripture (Abraham 3:23-28):
And God saw these souls that were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou are one of them; thou wast chosen before thou was born.
And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials. And we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God command them;
And they that keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate [i.e., did not obey God in the pre-mortal spirt world] shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate [i.e., remain faithful during the mortal l life on earth] shall have glory added upon their heads forever and ever.
And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first
And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate: and at that day, many followed after him.
In traditional Christianity, God’s transcendence is manifest in His spiritual nature, while human limits are symbolized by the flesh that constrains the spiritual nature of humankind. Mormonism inverts this symbolism, holding God to be a personage of both spirit and perfected body. The Plan of Salvation, God’s plan to create a world in which His spirit family might receive physical bodies and then return to Him, grows out of this nontraditional concept of perfection embodied in spirit united with the flesh. Humans originated in spirit form as the literal offspring of God, but they are limited by their lack of a perfected body, a body like that of their divine Father (see McConkie, 1958:37; Hardy, 1976). Their birth as spirit children of Heavenly Parents (see Heeren, Lindsey, and Mason, 1984) raised them from their prior status as unorganized Intelligences to spirit heirs of God in their pre-earth First Estate. God’s plan for His children was that they might progress to a third and higher status by receiving perfected bodies and, in so doing, become more like Him.
The advancement from mere spirit status to beings of flesh and bone would allow the children of God to experience more of the physical nature of the universe and thereby to progress in knowledge and experience. To accomplish this, a world was to be created on which they would first receive mortal bodies during a temporary time of testing. During their probationary mortal life outside the presence of God and with their memories of the Preexistence veiled by their mortal bodies, God’s children would be–for the first time–truly free to demonstrate their willingness to choose to live righteously according to their Father’s will or to reject the way of life he had taught them. Those who “kept their second estate” by accepting a vicarious atoning sacrifice in their behalf would have the sins of mortal life forgiven so that they might receive perfected bodies in the resurrection and return to Him. Christ, the first born spirit Son of God, volunteered to be this sacrifice. Lucifer, another high placed son of God, offered another plan: He would be the earthly Son of God and rule on earth in such a way that all would be denied their free agency, their ability to choose to follow or reject obedience to God. Since obedience would be coerced, none would sin, and all would return to the presence of God. These two competing plans for the salvation of humankind are described in another Latter-day Saint scripture (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981) (Moses 4:1-4):
And I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses saying: That Satan. . . is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me saying–Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it, wherefore give me thine honor.
But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was from the beginning, said–Father, they will be done, and the glory be thine forever.
Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down.
And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as world not harden unto my voice.
Since many of the spirit children of God chose Satan’s coercive plan of salvation, a great War in Heaven ensued that resulted in one-third of the children of God being cast out and being denied the right to enter their “second estate” by receiving a mortal body on earth. Thus, paradoxically, by exercising their divinely given freedom of choice to relinquish their agency in return for the promise of salvation made certain through coerced obedience, these children of God lost the possibility of salvation. Those who remained obedient to God lost the possibility of salvation. Those who remained obedient to God by accepting a plan for mortal life based on the uncoerced right to elect disobedience to God were rewarded with elevation to the next stage in their eternal progress toward Godhood, their probationary mortal life. Mortal life too would be characterized by the same dilemma–humans would possess freedom of choice, but that choice would have to be exercised only in obedience to the authority of God’s will:
Behold these they brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto his agency;
And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father, but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;
And the fire of mine indignation is kindled against them; and in my hot displeasure
will I send in the floods upon them, for my fierce anger is kindled against them (Moses 7:32, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981).
Thus, the Mormon creation myth is built around the tension between the autonomy of personal choice as a God-given attribute of humankind and the divine commandment that all must exercise their agency only to choose obedience to God.
Authority and Obedience
Mormonism is well known for the tightness of its organizational hierarchy and for its emphasis on divinely delegated authority as the basis of its organizational legitimacy. The church is governed by what Quinn (1984:16) has called “an authoritarian oligarchy.” The highest ecclesiastical officials are a body of men known as General Authorities, leaders believed to be called to their offices by direct, modern revelations from God. The chief presiding officers make up two bodies: 1) The Quorum of Twelve Apostles, held to be contemporary equivalents to the original Christian Apostles both in calling and prophetic inspiration, and 2) the First Presidency, consisting of the highest church authority, the president Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the church and his two counselors. Below these General Authorities in a descending hierarchy is a chain of command terminating in the local bishops of the church, Each bishop is usually responsible for a local congregation called a ward, that averages nearly five hundred persons. Since the ministry among Mormons is a lay ministry, a large percentage of the local membership is involved in conducting the business of each ward. Those persons regularly involved in the work if the local ward are formally called to do so on a regular part-time basis, so that at the local level there is also a large hierarchically organized body of personnel, presiding over the bishop.
Within the church organization, the concept that authority is delegated from above is reinforced by the belief that persons are chosen for the positions that they fill–even seemingly “everyone” positions within the ward, such as teacher in nursery or Sunday School librarian–by divine inspiration. This belief is reinforced by means of rituals in which each person is “set apart” and “given authority” to conduct the work of his or her “calling.” Commitment and efficiency in carrying out the work of each position is emphasized, and Mormons themselves point out that the beehive emblem of the state of Utah is rooted in the religious symbolism of their church (Mauss 1983, 1989).
In church activities and assignments, obedience is expected to be unquestioning, since the organization, practices, and beliefs of the church are regarded as based on divine revelation. Obedience is stressed in officially sanctioned publications and teaching manuals. Indeed, in a study of values expressed in the 1982 manuals used for the teaching of all adult males and females in the church, Crapo and Cannon (1982) found that obedience to the church and its leaders was the second most frequently mentioned virtue, accounting for over twelve percent of all value statements. Indeed, over twenty-seven percent of all value statements referred to some form of loyalty to the church as an institution, making institutional loyalty the broadest general theme in these teaching materials. Shepherd (1984) found that obedience was the most consistently stressed value throughout the history of the LDS Church’s semi-annual Conference that were given by Church leaders.
At the same time, free agency, the freedom of each individual to choose voluntarily the course of his or her actions, is a central theological concept in Mormonism. According to Mormon scripture, free agency was given to humankind when they were created: “Behold these brethren, they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 7:32).
The concept of freedom of choice is so important to Mormon theology that Talmage (1901:33), one of Mormonism’s most respected writers declared: “The Church holds and teaches as a strictly scriptural doctrine, that man [sic] has inherited among the inalienable rights conferred upon him by his divine Father, absolute freedom to choose the good or the evil in life as he may elect.” In matters of Church government, Mormon scriptural admonition insists that “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41). This ideal is consistent with reports of my own informants that in spite of the hight value placed on obedience and support for church leaders, refusals of callings or other requests for service or participation in church programs are typically accepted without further pressure. Church leaders are admonished in LDS scripture that if a leader tries to “. . .exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves, the Spirit of the Lord is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:37). Thus Mormon church government, like its mythology, involves two potentially conflicting values, obedience to authority and respect for free agency. This tension between the value of freedom of choice and the demands for obedience is expressed not only in the Mormon “Preexistence” myth but also in Mormon ritual.
Many behaviors have been called rituals, from the compulsive behaviors of anxiety disorders or the tics and mannerisms of psychoses to the explicit re-enactments of myth in religious ceremony. Even the simple unselfconscious habits required by social etiquette have been called rituals. Rituals may be the spontaneous creations of an individual grappling with the anxieties of a stressful life, or they may evolve over decades within their anxieties. Customs are passed from one generation to the next. They may be rife with the explicit symbolism of formal ceremony or they may be as devoid of ideological significance as is blase routine. They may be a source of solace and surcease from the cares of life (Malinowski, 1925), or themselves a source of personal distress (Radcliffe-Brown, 1939).
The diverse ways in which rituals manifest themselves have stimulated much speculation about the relationship between the most stigmatized and accepted rituals, those of the mental disorders and those of religious worship. Freud (1913), of course, emphasized the similarities between neurotic and religious ritualism. Others (e.g., James, 1902; Jung, 1938; Fromm, 1950, 1951) claimed that religious rituals have more in common with psychotherapy than psycho-pathology. Most have recognized that ritual, wherever found, has some relationship to less than fully conscious ideation–a relationship in which it functions to facilitate the repression of forbidden impulses. Thus, rituals are repositories of conscious or unconscious meaning; they symbolize preoccupations, the problematic nature of which have not yet adequately been incorporated into thought or ideology in a consciously satisfactory way.
Mormon Rituals of Choice
Dolgin (1974:535) has suggested that Mormon ritual life may be divided into “. . .three primary sub-domains: the Temple rites, weekly worship services (held in local churches) and civil religion.” She has constructed a general outline of LDS temple ritual as a drama in which participants play the symbolic role of humanity in a re-enactment of the Mormon Plan of Salvation myths from the creation of the world through the return of each participant in heaven. For Mormons the Temple is a particularly sacred edifice that is viewed, according to Leone (1977:46) as a sacred place in which members may be particularly close to God. Although Latter-day Saints are encouraged to participate often in Temple ceremonies for special communion and instruction, only those who affirm full support of the church and its doctrines are permitted entry, and the frequency of Temple participation varies from person to person, depending on personal inclination.
The central Temple rite is the endowment, a ceremonial re-enactment of the Mormon theology that recounts the history of the world from the creation through the resurrection. In the drama of this re-enactment, the audience is drawn into the sacred symbolism of Mormon theology by taking the role of humankind while receiving special instruction from heavenly personages portrayed by Temple workers. Visiting a temple to participate in this or one of the other sacred Temple rites is a profoundly sacred experience, a kind of pilgrimage into a realm of living scripture, the otherworldliness of which is enhanced by the non-calendrical nature of individual participation, the geographical isolation of the Temple, the architectural symbolism of the rooms in which various parts of the rites are performed, and even by the ceremonial clothing worn on these occasions.
Dolgin (1974:537) has noted that “If one takes the Temple ritual as a linear whole and divides it into two halves, one finds a striking parallelism between the first and second halves of the rite . . . That is, if one starts at either end of the ritual . . . and moves toward the center, one notes (or undergoes) a similar series of ordered phases before one arrives at the middle.” The central feature of the ritual sequence is the Fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to the mortal world. Immediately before and after this transition, the dominant ritual symbol is the presence of Lucifer. Before the appearance of the devil is a Council of gods who plan and carry out the creation of Adam and Eve, and following the role of Satan is a Council of humanity. With this pattern in mind, one might briefly outline the entire ritual sequence as follows: Participants are prepared for the mythic drama by rituals which separate them from their secular roles and introduce them to the sacred realm, the creation and the Fall are re-enacted, the two Mormon Priesthoods (the Aaronic Priesthood, generally held by males below eighteen years of age, and the Melchizadek Priesthood, held only by men eighteen years of age or older) are introduced as the means of salvation and sacred knowledge is imparted that is necessary for entry into heaven, and participants are ritually restored to their secular roles.
Although Dolgin’s division of the Temple ritual into two major parts is not a native classification, its appropriateness is supported by the sequence pattern in the linear progression of the rites. It is also supported by symbolic patterns not discussed by Dolgin, by the pivotal role played in both of her divisions by a ritual of choice. To demonstrate this pattern, it is necessary to return to the issue of the conflict embodied in the LDS story of the Preexistence. The essential paradox of Mormon mythology is that God’s children are required to have free agency but must exercise their freedom of choice by electing obedience to God’s Plan of Salvation. The tension between freedom and required obedience is portrayed not only in the Preexistence myth that forms part of the Temple ceremony, but also in the story of the Fall, which Dolgin regards as the turning point in the Temple ceremony.
In LDS theology, the Fall involved a dilemma. Eve had been deceived into eating the forbidden fruit and would have been separated from Adam by being expelled from the Garden of Eden and immorality into the mortal world. Thus, Adam could obey God’s first command, “Be fruitful and multiply,” only by a conscience choice to disobey the second, “Of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thou shalt not eat.” Therefore, his first truly independent exercise of Free Agency was of necessity a choice of disobedience, but being a “forced choice” that he could not evade, it was not a willful rejection of God’s will but an attempt to choose the lesser of two evils. By partaking of the forbidden fruit, he would remain with Eve and be able to keep what Mormons call “the first and greater commandment” of God, the command to reproduce. In this story, the apparent conflict between free agency and obedience to God is resolved by demonstrating that neither choice nor obedience is a simple unitary phenomenon. Rather, free agency involves complex and sometimes competing choices, and choices must sometimes be made between one form of obedience and other conflicting obligations. Thus, in a classic Levi-Straussian algebra, the paradox is resolved: Free agency is to obedience as disobedience to a lower law is to obedience to a higher law.
According to Dolgin, the enactment of the Fall is the pivotal ritual of the Temple rite. This interpretation is cogent not only because of its central place between the reverse ordered halves of the entire drama, but also because this interpretation illuminates another aspect of the pattern: the central ritual in each half of the Temple rite is itself a ritual of choice in which participants are “offered the chance to curtail their ritual involvement” (Dolgin, 1974:539). That is, they are ritually given the chance to leave the ceremony, thus reaffirming the free-agency/disobedience paradox of the human quest for salvation. In this regard mortality is both an opportunity to make proper choices thereby returning to God as well as a risk from exercising free agency in a way that leads away from God, as symbolized by the choice to leave the ceremony.
Rituals of choice are also an important element of weekly worship services. In contrast to the drama of Temple rites, the weekly worship services of Mormonism seem relatively this-worldly and un-ceremonial. Leone (1964:733) calls these “the most straightforward” of Mormon ritual gatherings. Dolgin (1974:540) emphasizes the absence of drama in more detail:
Unlike the Temple rites, within which the individual participates only irregularly, the services in the local Mormon churches are enacted on a weekly basis. The colorful and dramatic symbols of the Temple rites are not found in the weekly services: indeed, the traditional Christian sacrament is sensually weakened in the form of white bread and water. The tone of the services I attended in Arizona was one of relaxed, albeit “spiritual” communitas. The sharp dichotomies between good and evil present in the Temple rites are here minimized. The Mormon actor as “individual before God” is replaced by the unsubstantial community of fellow Mormons.
The weekly service that brings ward members together for worship is the Sacrament Meeting. Its usual format consists of an opening hymn sung by the congregation, an opening prayer spoken by a ward member, ward business carried out by the conducting official, the sacramental sharing of bread and water as symbols of the flesh and blood of Christ, short sermons by members of the ward, a final congregational hymn, and a closing prayer. Ward business is the occasion for formalizing changes in the social organization of the ward. Families or individuals who have moved into the ward are introduced and accepted by vote of the congregation as new ward members, and members vote by show of hands to 1) sustain actions of their presiding officials, such as the installation of persons into various offices, or 2) express their willingness to support a recommended plan of action or doctrine. Such rituals of choice occur not just in sacrament meetings but in meetings of any size, up to and including church-wide General Conferences that are held semi-annually. Rituals of choice are especially prominent in these Conferences where the membership is asked to sustain all of the various changes being made in the personnel of the church hierarchy.
Although these rituals of choice are actually merely opportunities to express support or opposition to actions being taken by church officials, they are commonly referred to as “votes” even by the officials conducting the process. Expressions of dissent are rare, and in any case the final decision remains the sole prerogative of the presiding officials. Dissenting “votes” at the level of semi-annual conferences are reacted to with shock by the membership as a whole, and persons likely to express dissent during these televised rituals are, in fact, screened from attendance at such conferences to the best ability of the church organization. Particular attention to such screening occurred following an unexpected vocal expression of rejection by five persons in attendance at the nationally televised semi-annual conference in April of 1981.
Nevertheless, in spite of the purely ceremonial nature of these rituals of choice the grass-roots member, by frequent participation in them, receives a sense of personal involvement in church government. Through these rituals the individual’s sense of personal commitment to the leadership and policy decision’s of the church government are repeatedly reconfirmed, maintaining a high level of conformity between his or her subjective sense of choice and dictates of church authority.
Historically, as recounted by Quinn (1984:16), Mormon voting in the nineteenth century might actually set aside actions proposed by even the Presidents of the church, and sometimes local priesthood assemblies were even polled by secret ballot before church leaders made proposals for personnel changes to ensure that the proposal’s would be acceptable. The prerogative of members to limit decisions of the church hierarchy by vote received less and less emphasis as church membership expanded. While exhortations for members to exercise thoughtful judgment in voting continued to be heard as late as 1969, the democratic emphasis was replaced thereafter by the portrayal of “sustaining votes” as evidence of members’ faithfulness to the divine inspiration of church leaders. As a result of this new definition of the situation, “voting” functions in practice more as an opportunity for members to assent ritually to decisions made by church officials than as a polling of their agreement or disagreement. As such, the votes are almost always unanimous.
In the act of ritual voting, Mormons reaffirm their allegiance to the legitimacy of their leaders’ authority to make decisions that members are expected to uphold. By repeatedly affirming support for decisions that flow from above, the individual member short-circuits any likelihood of experiencing cognitive dissonance between private preferences and leadership policies. It is here then, that the potential tensions between the personal choice of the individual and the authority of the church are reconciled, so that authority-based decisions are experienced as expressions of the grass-roots will, rather than as obligations that conflict with personal choice.
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Richley Crapo – Gender Differences in Mormon “Mother in Heaven” Folklore January 4th, 2008
Gender Differences in Mormon “Mother in Heaven” Folklore
Richley Crapo, Utah State University
As has been noted by Peggy Sanday (1981), creation myth symbolism is closely related to gender roles in society. The role of the feminine in divine symbolism is found in many of the world’s cultures, especially in those whose gender roles are among the more egalitarian. Where men’s and women’s roles are equal in everyday life, female deities are prominent in creation stories, and female symbolism predominates: The female creators usually originate from within something such as water or earth, and working alone or in conjunction with male deities, they bring forth humans from the earth, mold them from clay, transform them from plants or animals, or carve them from wood-images that symbolize birth, creativity, and progress. In contrast, where women’s roles are markedly subordinate to those of men, the religious symbolism of creation typically emphasizes male gods who come down from the sky, and themes of warfare, aggression, and sexuality. In these societies, humans are often created out of the god’s body, by acts of sexual intercourse or through self-fertilization by the god, or by being born.
In male-supremacist societies, characteristics that are associated in the local cultural symbolism with feminine characteristics are used as explanations for the origins of various forms of evil, such as sin, illness, and death. For instance, in the Judeo-Christian origins story, it is Eve who succumbs to the temptation of the serpent and commits the first sin, the cause of death and the curse of pain in childbirth. In Greek mythology, illness, greed, and death were released into the world through Pandora’s impulsiveness and uncontrolled curiosity. This use of feminine symbolism is particularly common in male-dominant societies. In these societies, symbols derived from women frequently have negative connotations. For instance, menstrual blood may be regarded as supernaturally dangerous, especially to men.
In societies that lack significant gender stratification, feminine symbolism often has a much more positive connotation. For instance, origin stories may rely on metaphors of childbirth, and women’s ability to bear children may be a source of symbolism in which feminine essence is the source of life and fertility. In these circumstances female deities or divine couples are typically the central actors in creation. Thus, among the matrilineal, matrilocal Iroquois the central characters of the creation myth are two females, the Ancient Bodied One and her daughter who gives birth to the first humans, and among the egalitarian Ituri Forest Pygmies the forest which provides food and the resources for all other needs is personified androgynously as a divine Parent.
The archaic civilizations also had a place for goddesses as well. The most prominent of these were, of course, the compassionate Mother Goddess Asherah, wife of An, and her daughter Ninlil, the Virgin and wife of the wargod Enlil, who under a variety of names were worshiped throughout the Middle East.
But, although it is most common in less patriarchal societies, a feminine manifestation of the Divine is not totally alien within the western tradition. In the Jewish tradition, the feminine attributes of God were sometimes personified as the Shehkinah, the manifestation of the presence of God on earth. In Catholicism, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was elevated to the status of the Queen of Heaven, a divine mediator for all the human family. Among the Shakers of early nineteenth century America, the Messiah took on the form of a woman, Mother Ann Lee, and today Christian Scientists may pray using the androgynous mode of address, “Father-Mother God”.
Mormonism, which was founded in 1824 in the eastern United States has its own distinctive manifestation of the divine Feminine: a heavenly companion of God the Father, known generally as “Mother in Heaven”. Appropriately, references to this divine Consort of God were first penned by a woman, Eliza R. Snow–a polygamous wife of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., in a poem she titled “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother” in 1845. Put to music, this poem remains a favorite Mormon hymn, now titled “Oh, My Father”. The last two versus read in part (1):
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
Mormonism of today is an ecclesiastical religion with a rather patriarchal structure. Its priesthood, which is held only by male members of the church, is organized into a complex hierarchy, presided over by a president. The president of the church is also referred to as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the church. As the presiding official of the church, the Prophet is believed to receive direct guidance from God whenever this is necessary for the work of directing the church. Below the Prophet is the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, which is presided over by its own president and two counselors. Below this level are intermediary officers down to the local congregations, called wards. The presiding official of the ward is the bishop. The bishop is a nonpaid minister, as are all local members of the priesthood. His responsibilities are not to deliver weekly sermons, but to organize and preside over each Sunday’s worship services and all other business of the ward. In this work he is aided by his own counselors and a series of priesthood quorums within the ward. The local priesthood quorums are themselves organized into an age-graded system which is divided into two major components, the lower, or Aaronic Priesthood and the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood. Boys are typically inducted into the Aaronic Priesthood at the age of 12 as Deacons. Their assignments include passing the Sacrament to members of the ward during the Sacrament meeting each Sunday. At 14 years of age, boys are ordained Teachers and are permitted to prepare the sacramental bread and water used in the service. Sixteen-year-olds become Priests, at which time they receive the authority to bless the Sacrament and to baptize. Eighteen-year-olds receive the full authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood as Elders, including the authority to confirm a baptized person as a member of the church and, by the laying on of hands, to give that person the right to receive direct and personal guidance through the Holy Ghost. At this time, it is expected that worthy males will spend a two-year period as unpaid, full-time missionaries for the church. For most, the next major change occurs at age 45, when men are inducted into a High priest’s quorum.
This recurring theme of Ecclesiastical authority wielded by a presiding male figure and two counselors is, appropriately enough, paralleled by Mormon concepts of a godhead of three distinct personages: a presiding figure, God the Father, and two supporting beings who carry out His work, God the Son, or Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. Thus, the recurring pattern of presidents and two counselors within the church structure mirrors Mormon theology, which includes a divine pantheon of many gods presided over by God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. Jesus, the firstborn spirit child of God, and the Holy Ghost, another spirit son of God, are believed to be fully separate individuals from the Father. Their role in the Godhead is much like that of the counselors to the earthly Prophet of the church. Thus, church organizational structure reproduces forms that Mormons think of as divine in origin and that reinforce the value of a presiding role for males.
Within the Church, the women’s organization is an auxiliary program, since all policy-making and governing authority is vested in the priesthood. The men’s and women’s organizations are structurally equivalent, but they differ in authority and responsibility, with the women specializing in supportive service roles. Mormon ecclesiastical values reflect the secular differentiation of male and female roles. According to Shepherd and Shepherd (1984), Mormons are taught to idealize a family pattern in which the husband, as the family’s sole source of income, plays a presiding role and in which the wife, as counselor to her husband, specializes in domestic responsibilities.
In a neat correspondence of symbolic form that would have been greatly appreciated by Emile Durkheim for whom all things in heaven are a symbolic statement of things on earth, Mormonism’s Mother in heaven has taken her appropriate place somewhere in the background of the more outgoing male-dominated Godhead. Her role in Mormon theology is an auxiliary one, like that of the women’s organization within the church or of the wife within the idealized Mormon family. She is never explicitly mentioned in Mormon scriptures, She has no governing authority within the Godhead, and She is not approached in worship in any rituals of the church. Indeed, since the emergence of a feminist consciousness among some Mormon women, beginning in the 1980s, members of the Church have been explicitly warned by male General Authorities that prayer to the Mother in heaven is not approved. Indeed, a number of women have been excommunicated from the Church for their advocacy of a more central and active role for the Mother in Heaven within Mormon theology.
Nevertheless, ideas about the Mother in Heaven figure have found fertile soil within grassroots Mormonism in the 1980s and 90s. And the theme has blossomed forth in a variety of ways that avoid official sanctions. For instance, in 1980 Lisa Bolin Hawkins’s poem, “Another Prayer”, appeared in Exponent II, a Mormon feminist publication. Notice its prayerful supplicatory message (1):
Why are you silent, Mother? How can I
Become a goddess when the patterns here
Are those of gods? I struggle, and I try
To mold my womanself to something near
Their goodness. I nee you, who gave me birth
In your own image, to reveal your ways:
A rich example of thy daughters’ worth;
Pillar of Womanhood to guide our days;
Fire of power and grace to guide my night
When I am lost.
My brothers question me,
And wonder why I seek this added light.
No one can answer all my pain but Thee,
Ordain me to my womanhood, and share
The light that Queens and Priestesses must bear.
Besides prayer transformed into poetry, Mormon folklore of a Mother in Heaven has found other outlets: presentations at gatherings such as the Sunstone Symposia, articles exploring theological implications in liberal Mormon publications, and lately informal discussions on the internet. I will discuss a few examples from this last source, with particular attention to an interesting gendered difference in the ways in which the concepts are discussed.
Many Mormon women who express an interest in ideas about a Mother in Heaven do so in a way that emphasizes the personal importance of the nurturing symbolism that she embodies for them. At the same time, such women are careful to avoid direct conflict with the patriarchal injunction against Her direct worship. In so doing, one cannot help but note a passive-aggressive attempt to flirt with the edges of this injunction. As one woman put it, “Personally, when I am feeling a bit lonely for a female god (sometimes as a woman, it is just plain hard to relate to a male god), when I am saying my prayers, I will say something like, “tell Heavenly Mother that I said hi and that I’m thinking about her. And could you tell her that I’m currently struggling with (fill in the blank),and if she wants to pass on some info thru you or the Holy Ghost, that would be nice.” This example has a typical characteristic of women’s ways of seeking a relationship to the feminine aspects of the divine–a non-direct approach that seems to be a response to the fact that the male leaders of the Church have made it clear that directly addressing the Mother in Heaven is not an acceptable religious practice.
Women have creatively found other indirect approaches–a variety of prayer substitutes–that permit a sense of relating to an important religious image without challenging the taboo on prayer. One woman reported: “I have a friend who does not pray to Heavenly Mother, but will write letters to her (not written prayers).” Notice how careful women who are interested in the Mother in Heaven are to explicitly disavow any actual violation of the official taboo. Another less direct approach to relating to a Heavenly Mother figure is the use of journal entries or poetry writing as a prayer substitute. Consider the following journal entry of one woman (2):
Oh, my Mother are you there?
Can you hear me? Can you help me?
Do you stand beside my Father and wish to hold me again?
Are you busy in Celestial regions with your own sacred work?
Can you hear me? Can you help me?
Will you have compassion for me?
Mercy is your name–Endless, Eternal Woman.
Wrap me in your shining robe of Faith
And sing to me of your love.
Oh, my Mother–can you hear me?
I think I hurt too much for this life.
Will it make me more like you?
Beautiful is your glowing face.
Sometimes, I know you are close.
Oh, my Mother–can you hear me?
Will you help me?
Men, on the other hand, are much more likely to take an orthodox position of a Mother in Heaven who should be left in the divine Kitchen, so to peak. One LDS male reacted to the subject as follows: “I have a testimony that our Heavenly Mother wants us to pray to Father as Jesus has counseled us. She wants us to honor and revere the patriarchal Priesthood. She wants us to love the Twelve because the Son loves them. In fact, she wants everything that Father wants because she is a Good Wife, just as he is a Good Husband. We cannot please Heavenly Mother by offending the Twelve whom the Son has chosen. This is my testimony. I know these things because she is my mother too.”
On the other hand, this does not mean that men don’t speculate about the Mormon Mother in Heaven. But their speculation follows very different paths from that of the women.
The role of the Mother in Heaven as an important symbol for Mormon women of divine nurturance, love, mercy, and other positive qualities that Mormons attribute to their ideals of feminine gender roles is the aspect that has been most explored in various publications by Mormon feminists. Since this area is already being widely discussed, I wish to turn my focus on the ways in which the Mother in Heaven is discussed among men, for whom the emphasized symbolism is rather different–Mother in Heaven as seen through the lenses of male sexuality and aggression.
Although sexuality is rarely addressed in LDS sermons, and then only in strikingly Victorian euphemistic style, speculation about a Mother in Heaven, or even the possibility of Plural Heavenly Wives, can serve as a topic for the vicarious exploration of male sexual concerns. One male discussant, for instance, raised the question: “Has anyone ever considered that our Father in Heaven has more than one wife, and that we may have different spiritual mothers? Or, if we have the same mother, maybe there are other wives of our Father helping with other worlds. Just a thought, What does anyone think?”
Let me emphasize how strongly this contrasts with the relationship and feeling emphasis given to Mother in Heaven talk by Mormon women. For instance, the first woman to respond wasn’t very happy with the very question: “I don’t imagine my Heavenly Mother as one of a herd of cows to be bred for populating this or other worlds. And yes, I interpret ‘helping with other worlds’ in the context of polygamy as breeding. I would be glad to hear why other multiple wives of a god or a man are necessary.” She was not alone. The next woman to respond: “This anyone once walked in on a Gospel Speculation class one Sunday and heard a debate about this, and thought then that it was a pretty inappropriate topic, and still thinks so. Those who have had sacred experiences regarding Heavenly Mother shouldn’t feel compelled to recount them here, any more than many other sacred experiences belong in this public forum. (Pearls before swine, etc.). And those who haven’t had such experiences shouldn’t be speculating with cavalier nonchalance about the nature of deity. Just my personal opinion, but a rather heartfelt one.”
Nevertheless, among men, the question of heavenly reproduction just won’t go away. Another brother speculates that considering the many billions of humans who have been born, which Mormons regard as originally having been spirits born of the divine Parents, “…if a woman had sex, conceived, nurtured the spirit until it was born…and the process only took one day instead of 9 months, she would require 300 million years to have all those children by herself.” To reduce the gargantuan effort involved he bypasses the question of heavenly polygamy without explaining why, but one might speculate that (were it not for the rather Victorian sensibilities of 1990s Mormon morality) he might have argued that although it would reduce the labors of any one Heavenly Mother it would still involve a rather heavy preoccupation with effort of siring those billions by a single divine Father. his solution, does at any rate reduce the reproductive labors among the gods, for he suggests the possibility that we each may have not only different Heavenly Mothers but different Heavenly Fathers as well: “Let us suppose that 200 million people make it through the [earthly] testing process and are resurrected as Gods, then it would only require that each woman have a few children in order to have enough at one time [i.e., in a short time] to begin the earth creation process – under this arrangement it wouldn’t matter if a man had one or many wives (or even the unthinkable that everyone was married or sealed to everyone) – I think we as yet don’t even have a clue bout what love is all about.” Since, in Mormon thought the future estate of the elect is to become like God, this statement can be understood as a possible typification of deity. In direct words, he is suggesting that God the Father is simply the presiding Person among a large number of gods, the last generation to have undergone the process we mortals are now only halfway through. I should note that this idea that there might actually be many divine parents is not as alien to Mormon thought as it is to mainstream Judeo-Christian theology, since Mormonism has, from the days of its founder, espoused a monolatrous form of monotheism that does not reject the existence of many gods, but rather simply defines God the Father as the Supreme God: (Abraham 3:19).
Now I don’t wish to give the impression that Mormons, men or women, are any more homogeneous in their thinking than is any other group united by a common culture or subculture. I wish rather merely to assert that I see evidence in this grassroots theological speculation of a lively use of the Mother in Heaven as a vehicle of important concerns that play themselves out in common gender differences.
This somewhat Durkheimian notion that ideas about the Mormon Mother in Heaven are seen through the lens of gender can be illustrated by an examination of other variant streams of gender-related issues within Mormondom. For instance, gay and lesbian LDS participants on the internet (where the potential anonymity of the medium makes it easier to abandon the closet that mainstream Mormon values otherwise impose) are much less likely to separate the creation of human spirits from the symbolism of sexual intercourse among the Gods. Whereas heterosexual Mormon men assert, as one did, that “The Gods have children the same way we have children”, gay LDS discussants of Heavenly Mother repeatedly raised the possibility that the divine creation of spirit children might be through other means–adoption, surrogacy, or as one gay LDS man reacted to the last assertion: “Why do you think this? The reasons we have children in the way we do are quite clearly tied to our mammalhood. Within the next 100 years, I suspect we will be able to technologically do away with the necessities of the woman carrying the fetus. Why do you suppose the Gods still do it? Sentiment?”
It is not surprising that heterosexual members were not very taken with this view of reproduction. As woman put it: “We may be tied to mammalhood in mortality, and perhaps capable of manipulating mortal procreation, but we were formed in the likeness of God, male and female. They are personages with bodies, parts and passions. By definition, Godhood is eternal increase, meaning the begetting of spirit offspring and requires both male and female Gods. Whatever differences there may be between the processes of procreation for celestial bodies and mortal bodies, we’ve been given the closest simulation possible in this life. . . . I don’t think we’ve been given a ‘bait and switch’ example of procreation in this life. Marriage, children and family ARE the closest thing to our celestial family as we can recreate in mortality. Whatever differences we will find between mortal and celestial procreation on the other side, will be logical and prudent. Myself, after giving birth to seven children, am sort of counting on Eve’s curse pertaining only to this life so we won’t have to bring forth ‘eternal increase’ in pain and sorrow.”
Male aggression is also connected to ideas, at least rhetorical ones, about a Mother in Heaven. To another male, the idea of plural Mothers in Heaven had another appeal, an interesting way of “othering” someone: “A friend of mine . . . said when in conflict with another member: ‘We may have the same Heavenly Father but he (the other person) must have had a different Heavenly Mother’”
The emphasis on the need to relate personally to the Mother in Heaven and the focus on Her as an embodiment of love, mercy, and nurturance that one finds in discussions by Mormon women for whom the concept is important contrasts markedly with Mormon men’s tendencies to regard women’s desire of relating to Her as evidence of unorthodoxy and to shift from issues of relating to her toward thinking about her role. And these thoughts demonstrate a preoccupation with issues of a more male sort–issues such as the nature of procreation and the possibility of multiple consorts both for God the Father and, potentially for themselves in the future.
Now, this is not to say that all men and women differed in this way. One man, for instance, responded to the direct question of whether any men felt a need for a sense of connection with the Heavenly Mother by saying “I feel that need, for that connection. Although I know that it is not orthodox doctrine. Could one not feel that, when one knows She exists?” But even the direct question yielded only this one response, and no men spontaneously discussed such a personal need. Only women spoke of having prayed to Her, even before such acts were forbidden, and only women acknowledged practicing any kinds of indirect ways of relating to Her, such as writing letters, poetry, or journal entries. On the other hand, some women did not express an emotional longing for a sense of the feminine in their concepts of God, but conformed to the masculine pattern of talking about the concept as an issue of theological fact with personal implications. For example, recall the woman already quoted concerning eternal childbirth.
Sanday, Peggy. (1981). Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(1) Oh, My Father (Eliza R. Snow)
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you In your royal courts on high?
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
(2) Another Prayer (Lisa Bolin Hawkins)
Why are you silent, Mother? How can I
Become a goddess when the patterns here
Are those of gods? I struggle, and I try
To mold my womanself to something near
Their goodness. I nee you, who gave me birth
In your own image, to reveal your ways:
A rich example of thy daughters’ worth;
Pillar of Womanhood to guide our days;
Fire of power and grave to guide my night
When I am lost.
My brothers question me,
And wonder why I seek this added light.
Ordain me to my womanhood, and share
The light that Queens and Priestesses must bear.
(3) Untitled Journal Entry
Oh, my Mother are you there?
Can you hear me? Can you help me?
Do you stand beside my Father and wish to hold me again?
Are you busy in Celestial regions with your own sacred work?
Can you hear me? Can you help me?
Will you have compassion for me?
Mercy is your name–Endless, Eternal Woman.
Wrap me in your shining robe of Faith
And sing to me of your love.
Oh, my Mother–can you hear me?
I think I hurt too much for this life.
Will it make me more like you?
Beautiful is your glowing face.
Sometimes, I know you are close.
Oh, my Mother–can you hear me?
Will you help me?
Grass-Roots Deviance from Official Doctrine: A Study of Latter-day Saint (Mormon) Folk-Beliefs
Richley H. Crapo, Utah State University
Mormonism’s legitimacy is based on the claim that the church was instituted by divine mandate and by the authorization by God of Latter-day Saint ecclesiastical leaders, whose role as the only acceptable source of doctrine is stressed by church leaders and members alike. Mormons hold their religious beliefs to be based on continuing, literal revelation through the church President who is designated Prophet, Seer and Revelator. Doctrine is seen as flowing from the top of the church hierarchy to the grass-roots level. This study of the doctrinal beliefs of a sample of Utah Latter-day Saint documents shows, in spite of the authority-based concept of revealed doctrine, actual beliefs at the local level may deviate from doctrinal positions issued by church Presidents. In specific areas outside core doctrines of the church, the plurality or even majority of local members may espouse beliefs at odds with doctrines articulated by the Prophet of the church with no apparent awareness by members of their deviance from the official doctrine. The pattern of variation between Mormon official positions and folk-beliefs is outlined, and the processes that maintain this variation are discussed.
This paper will clarify the seemingly paradoxical coexistence in the Latter-day Saint church of an ecclesiastical government that lays claim to authority based on ongoing divine revelation and creedal diversity and independence at the grass-roots level. The church organization is headed by leaders regarded as prophets, authoritative sources of divinely revealed doctrine. Official publications of the church stress the importance of obedience to the directives and counsel of the inspired leaders, and the importance of orthodoxy in matters of belief. One might, therefore, expect a high degree of creedal conformity among Mormons. In fact, outside a small body of central doctrines, a high degree of diversity in belief appears to be fostered among members at the grass-roots level of the church, although the existence of this diversity of opinion about doctrine is not formally acknowledged either by church leaders or grass-roots members. For this reason, controversy exists among sociologists and anthropologists about how best to characterize Mormonism in discussions of doctrine. On the one hand, some note that the unique raison d’etre of Mormonism is the claim of divine authority in both practice and belief (Brewer, 1968; O’Dea, 1957; Whalen, 1964). On the other hand, Leone (1974) and Dolgin (1974) argue that in spite of having a hierarchically structured social organization reminiscent of medieval Catholicism, Mormonism, like the metaphysical churches described by Judah (1967), fits Bellah’s (1970) concept of a modern religion, one that incorporates mechanisms for continual self-transformation and fosters the role of the individual over that of the hierarchy in the synthesis of religious meaning. In spite of Mormonism’s emphasis on the authority of an ecclesiastical hierarchy over members in matters of faith, the formal doctrinal proclamations by Mormon prophets do not appear to be the central preoccupation of the typical Mormon when discussing “Mormon doctrine.” Instead, grassroots consensus seems to be the primary basis of members’ confidence in the orthodoxy of their beliefs.
Ultimately, a complete portrayal of the nature of Mormon doctrine and its sources will have to include the full, dynamic pattern of interaction within and between 1) the formal, officially proclaimed doctrine which arises at the level of church government and which is passed down through the full-time church hierarchy to the grass-roots level; and 2) the informal consensus about doctrine which develops at the local grass-roots level of the lay member. This paper will not attempt such an intricate task as illuminating the complexities of these processes but will address just one aspect of the entire picture: the interaction of Mormon folk-beliefs and bureaucratically sanctioned doctrine when the two differ from one another without successful official challenge or grass-roots awareness of conflict between the two.
Revelation: The Basis of Official Doctrine
Authority delegated directly from God to Mormon ecclesiastical leaders is the basis of their official power as decision-makers for the church, and Mormon doctrine is held to be based on direct revelation from God. In light of the belief that the presiding officials of the church are spokesmen for God, it is not surprising that obedience to church authority figures is among the most frequently stressed values in both the official rhetoric of church leaders (Shepherd &Shepherd, 1984) and in manuals published for the teaching of its members (Crapo, 1982; Crapo & Cannon, 1982). Given a dogmatic view of doctrine and an authoritarian basis for church governance, one might well expect Mormonism to maintain a corresponding emphasis on orthodoxy in matters of doctrine. Indeed, my own work among Mormons has given me the impression that they view themselves as strongly in agreement with one another on matters of doctrine. The most commonly cited source of doctrine is the church’s central ecclesiastical leadership, which consists of a body of men known as “General Authorities” and a presiding official, the President of the Church, who is designated “Prophet, Seer and Revelator.” Thereafter, scripture is cited as a valid source of doctrine, but it is clear that scripture is viewed among Latter-day Saints as something to be understood only in terms of ecclesiastically sanctioned, rather than individual, interpretation. It is not unusual at all to hear members comment, as a point of pride in their church, about the absence of contention or disagreement among Mormons on matters of belief. Thus, there is no Mormon equivalent of the diverse but respected exegetical traditions based on theological scholarship that are common to many other Christian denominations (Brewer, 1968: 518), and although members are aware of the existence of Mormon splinter groups and historical schisms, these are consistently viewed as consisting of individuals who have separated themselves from the church. This perceived absence of heterodoxy meshes well with statements of Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie (1976: 550-51) on the importance of complete orthodoxy among members:
Gospel orthodoxy requires belief in the truths of salvation as they have been revealed in this dispensation through Joseph Smith, and as they are understood and interpreted by the living oracles who wear the mantle of the Prophet. Orthodoxy is the opposite of heterodoxy or of believing heretical doctrines. There are degrees of orthodoxy exhibited by members of the Church. Those who believe the whole law – and who believe it sanely, sensibly, realistically, according to its true meaning and purport – are completely orthodox. Those who intermingle gospel truths with the educational or philosophical theories of the world have not yet attained perfect orthodoxy, the orthodoxy which is essential to salvation.
With its emphasis on both authority and the importance of orthodoxy, it is not surprising that Latter-day Saints have developed a church administrative structure that O’Dea (1957: 165) referred to as “an oligarchy of decision-making and command” and that Quinn (1984a: 16) has characterized as “an authoritarian oligarchy.”
The Role of Folk-Belief
In spite of the emphasis on revelation from God to church leaders as the basis of church government, the church’s bureaucracy has, in fact, never functioned as a vehicle for formulating an explicit and precise creed. The church has not formalized an officially sanctioned theology beyond a surprisingly small number of central beliefs, most of which were set forth by the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. According to McMurrin (1965: 112), “Mormon theology is young and unsophisticated and is not overencumbered with creeds and official pronouncements. Its structure has been virtually untouched by serious and competent effort to achieve internal consistency or exact definition.” Thus Peter Crawley correctly asserts:
Even though it is a revealed religion, Mormonism is all but creedless. . . While certain doctrines are enunciated in the standard works and some doctrinal issues have been addressed in formal pronouncements by the First Presidency, there is nothing in Mormonism comparable to the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Augsburg Confession. Few of the truly distinctive doctrines of Mormonism are discussed in ‘official’ sources. it is mainly by ‘unofficial’ means – Sunday School lessons, seminary, institute, and BYU [Brigham Young University] religion classes, sacrament meeting talks and books by Church officials and others who ultimately speak only for themselves – that the theology is passed from one generation to the next. Indeed, it would seem that a significant part of Mormon theology exists primarily in the minds of its members. (Quoted in Buerger, 1982).
It is this fact that has allowed Leone (1979: 168-69) to describe Mormon doctrine as a welter of grass-roots theologizing: “Mormons create their own theology and philosophy in the literal sense, and in the context of the church they work out for themselves most of the problems faced in life. They do their own thinking, which is say that they create their own meanings, in the talks that they give in Sacrament Meetings, in the testimony that they give on Fast and Testimony Sunday, in Sunday Schools and Family Home Evenings, and in at least a dozen other church contexts. “Thus, “Mormonism has evolved a do-it-yourself theology which makes the growth of professional theologians impossible as well as unnecessary” (Leone, 1979: 171-72). Although Mormons view doctrine as flowing down from the church hierarchy to the members, the bulk of what Mormons think of as doctrine actually arises from the grass-roots level as members through their day-to-day interactions construct a distinctive Mormon view of reality, a system of beliefs which they call Mormon doctrine. Thus, Dolgin (1974: 519) asserts that “the apparently authoritarian Mormon Church sustains, and indeed fosters, creedal independence,” and on the words of Leone (1974: 762), “doctrinal flexibility has been the fact that might seem to contradict the Mormon claim to ongoing prophecy and revelation.”
Certainly there does exist a central core of doctrine, upon which all or nearly all who identify themselves as believing Mormons would be in fundamental agreement. Nevertheless, as implied above, the essential doctrine is made up of a relatively small number of specific beliefs (Faust, 1985). A century and a half of guidance by “prophets, seers and revelators” has not resulted in a large and constantly growing body of formally proclaimed doctrines to which members must adhere, since, contrary to the implication of their formal titles, Mormon leaders function primarily as conservators of the prophetic tradition of Joseph Smith. This absence of emphasis on creed as the defining essence of Mormonism is evidenced by the common language of Mormons in which a strong adherent to Mormonism is not referred to as a “believer,” but rather as an “active member.” To the Mormon, commitment is primarily evidenced by participation rather than by “faith” or “belief.”i The active member is presumed to be orthodox, but it is the participation, not the orthodoxy, that is the primary evidence of a member’s allegiance to Mormonism.
Outside the core beliefs of Mormonism, one encounters much variation in what individual members perceive as doctrine, yet members seem generally not to be aware that such variation in beliefs exist. I believe that the perception of variation in belief among members is minimized by a customary avoidance of overt disagreement or controversy in formal church meetings and by a relatively strong taboo on discussing religious questions in which differences of opinion might occur. Such topics are classified as “political” rather than “religious” in nature and are therefore to be avoided in religious contexts. Alternatively, they are said to be “mysteries” – ideas of a religious nature about which no revealed answers exist and on which members should not speculate because of their political divisiveness.
In the intervening ground between core beliefs and tabooed topics lies the realm of beliefs in which Leone’s grass-roots theologizing is found. Here, indeed, one finds tremendous diversity of opinion from person to person when members are interviewed individually (Leone, 1969; Dolgin, 1974: 526). yet group processes mask this diversity in official settings (Dolgin, 1974: 527-28). For instance, “contention” is formally disapproved among members. Lesson plans published by the church for use in meetings are structured around rhetorical questions and may include specific instructions for the teacher on how to deal with potentially controversial comments if they should occur. Any response to a question is likely to be accepted with thanks as a “good point,” even one which is somewhat at odds with anticipated responses.
The Problem of Defining “Doctrine” in Mormon Research
Since “Mormon Doctrine” has different meanings in different contexts, it is important to clarify possible uses of the concept. Sorenson (1983) has distinguished between Mormon folk and elite cultures and has applied this contrast to members’ versus leaders’ behavior, world-view, and values. Mauss (1981) considered doctrine specifically and developed a more elaborate typology consisting of canon doctrine, official doctrine, authoritative doctrine, and popular doctrine, categories that he argued form a “scale of authenticity” for Mormon doctrine, with canon doctrine having the most legitimate claim to divine origin in Mormon ideology (32). His category of canon doctrine consists of only those beliefs that have been openly declared by Mormon prophets to have been received by direct revelation and that have been presented to the membership at large and accepted as revelations by the vote of the members. Thus, canon doctrine comprises Mormon scripture. Official doctrine includes other statements from the President or the First Presidency. Since the President is the presiding prophet of the church and since he and his counselors, forming the First Presidency, are the highest executive body within church government, statements issuing from them on what does or does not constitute an official position of the church must be viewed as nearly-as-reliable as recognized revelations in matters of doctrine. Authoritative doctrine includes the doctrinal interpretations of other holders of high ecclesiastical office and of other influential members whose views are respected as authoritative by virtue of their formal scholarly credentials and research. Popular doctrine has the least claim on authenticity. It consists of the common beliefs of members that may be called Mormon “folklore.” Mauss notes that, “Occasionally a popular doctrine will be considered subversive enough by General Authorities to warrant official condemnation, but usually folklore flourishes unimpeded by official notice” (33).
Although Mauss usefully highlights the existence of a spectrum within Mormon “doctrine,” some clarifications are necessary regarding its utility in research of the kind to be reported here. As with the scriptures of any religion, Mormon canon doctrine is amenable to broad differences in interpretation. Thus, citations from canon doctrine commonly play a prominent role in the doctrinal assertions of Mauss’ remaining three categories. Canon doctrine does not, therefore, lend itself reliably to a role in research requiring precise statements about specific “doctrines.” Official doctrine, on the other hand, includes a prominent component of specific and unambiguous “position statements” by church Presidents on specific questions of doctrine. Furthermore, the doctrinal assertions of church Presidents are recognized as taking precedence over those of other General Authorities. According to a statement on this issue by J. Reuben Clark, Jr. (1954), counselor to President David O. McKay,
When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, we may know that he is not ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost,’ unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
For purposes of the research to be reported here, it was decided that official doctrine would be defined narrowly as proclamations by Presidents of the church which address specific questions of belief and which assert an official stance concerning those questions. All views differing from official doctrine, so defined, would be considered to be Mormon folk-belief, examples of which would be drawn from the grass-roots level of lay membership. Since, as recognized by Mauss (1981: 44), official doctrine represents the views of particular church Presidents, this category may contain contradictory views by different Presidents. For this reason, careful consideration must be made of whether particular statements by church Presidents represent the historical consensus of church Presidents and, if not, what historical trends exist in the diverse positions embodied in official doctrine.
In order to establish that the seemingly paradoxical coexistence of formal doctrinal positions by church Presidents and creedal diversity of folk-belief at the grass-roots level exists, and to provide explanations for it, a research study, based largely on interviews with active Latter-day Saints, was conducted. During the course of each interview, the interviewee was queried about his or her views on topics that participant observation had suggested to be ones in which common folk-beliefs might differ from official pronouncements. These topics included the interviewees’ beliefs about church doctrine concerning the age of the earth, biological evolution, the creation of Eve, conscientious objection to military service, abortion, and when the spirit enters the human body.
The descriptive statistics presented are based on interviews carried out among 60 active Latter-day Saints (32 female, 28 male). The sample was nonsystematic, but an attempt was made to exclude obvious biases in the selection of interviewees. Thus, previous acquaintances of the interviewer were excluded from the study, only one member of any family or household was interviewed, and the informants were not concentrated in any one residential area. Although most of the interviewees were contacted primarily at church functions, some were located fortuitously in other settings, including a state university campus. Interviews were carried out in settings comfortable to the interviewees, usually their own homes, although some of the students were interviewed on the university campus. Informants ranged from eighteen to sixty-four years of age, with a mean age of 37.6 years. Eighty-five percent of the informants had some college education; sixty-four percent were currently enrolled in a university program. Fifty-seven percent identified themselves as Republican, 14% as Democrats, and 29% as independent voters. The Utah Mormon electorate at large is estimated to be 70.2% Republican, 20.1% Democrat, and 9.7% other (Dan Jones Associates, personal communication, 1985). Although 57% of the sample were female, statistical comparisons of the responses of the male and female informants showed no significant differences.
The data were gathered using an interview format in which subjects were encouraged to express their understanding of “Mormon doctrine” in their own words, while the interviewer made notes. The use of in-depth interviews rather than a standardized questionnaire permitted the detailed exploration of subjects’ views on each issue. During the course of the interviews, all subjects were asked the same six questions that made up the focus of this study: 1) How old do you understand the earth to be? 2) How does the idea of human or animal evolution fit with Mormon doctrine? 3) How was Eve created? 4) Can conscientious objectors to military service be good Mormons? 5) How do Mormons feel about abortion? 6) When does the spirit enter the human body? All subjects were also asked how they recognize that a belief is an “official” doctrine of the Mormon Church. Subjects’ views on all questions were probed to clarify their responses, and in all cases the process of clarification included queries about whether subjects believed the church had an “official” doctrinal position on the issue they were discussing and whether they understood the views they were expressing to be official doctrine of the church (however they defined “official”) or simply their own views. In those cases in which subjects asserted that their own views differed from the “official” church position, both views were recorded. Clarification was always specifically sought about how the concept of abortion related to the concept of murder.
Official Positions on the Six Issues
Age of the Earth
Historically, Mormonism has accommodated somewhat to the scientific view of the earth being of great age. Jeffrey (1973: 47-50) has made it clear that Mormon prophets beginning with Joseph Smith have not insisted on a fundamentalist literalism concerning the age of the earth. Joseph Smith seems to have thought in terms of billions of years (Phelps, 1845: 758). Brigham Young (1976: 231) argued that the “days” of Genesis was “a mere term” and asserted, “We are not authorized to say what the duration of these days was.” Thus, David O. McKay (1956: 6; 1967: 5; Brown, 1958: 7) was not asserting a radically different position when he spoke of “the millions of years that it took to prepare the physical world.” In general, statements by Mormon prophets seem best characterized as indicating that the age of the earth has not been viewed as an essentially religious question, and when they have broached the subject, they seem not to have viewed their theology as threatened by the science of the day.
Mormons commonly view their religion as a fundamentalist one when it comes to the issue of human origins. What is not widely known is that Presidents of the Church since 1910 have asserted that the church is doctrinally neutral on the question of human evolution (Joseph F. Smith, 1910: 570):
Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to represent perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God.
Joseph F. Smith (1911: 209) also claimed, “The Church itself has no philosophy about the modus operandi employed by the Lord in His creation of the world, and much talk therefore about the philosophy of Mormonism is altogether misleading.” Joseph Fielding Smith, who was an outspoken anti-evolutionist before becoming President of the church, remained publicly silent on this question after taking office but privately indicated (1972) that the official position of the church had not changed since the Joseph F. Smith administration. Consistent with the position of doctrinal neutrality is the statement by David O. McKay (1957) that, “On the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position.” President McKay, who in his personal views appears to have been a theistic evolutionist (Christiansen, 1984), affirmed this view on various occasions, both in correspondence (1959, 1960a, 1964) and in public addresses, in one of which (1952: 6) he spoke of “evolution’s beautiful theory of the creation of the world.” President Spencer W. Kimball (1976a: 72) has reiterated the doctrinal neutrality of the church on this issue.
However, the official neutrality has not been widely proclaimed to members of the church at large since the administration of Joseph F. Smith. President Harold B. Lee apparently made no public statements on the issue of evolution, but he did publish a statement (1972: 2-3) declaring the belief in pre-Adamite races to be contrary to Mormon scripture (Moses 3: 7) that describes Adam as “the first man.” Although this is a slightly different issue than biological evolution, it is related to that concept and is probably a reliable indicator of his personal attitudes about evolution. Nevertheless, President Lee (e.g., 1972) seems, as a matter of policy, to have refused to have given direct responses to individual inquiries about the doctrinal position of the church concerning evolution and referred such inquiries to the questioner’s local bishop for response. Like Joseph Fielding Smith, the current President of the church, Ezra Taft Benson, was also firmly anti-evolutionist in his views prior to becoming the presiding official of the church. Since becoming President, he has neither reiterated the position of earlier Presidents nor asserted that biological evolution is in-and-of-itself contrary to church doctrine. He has, however, spoken publicly against the acceptance of evolution as an alternative to religious faith. Whether this represents the foreshadowing of a new official position remains to be seen.
The Creation of Eve
Latter-day Saint leaders have devoted greater effort at publicizing the fact that they hold the Genesis story of Eve’s creation from a rib of Adam to have been metaphorical. Official church publications, quoting President Spencer W. Kimball (1976b: 17; 1979: 36) explicitly stated this to be the case.
Conscientious Objection to Military Service
The church has had varied history in its relationship to war and the military (see, for instance, Quinn, 1984b, 1985). Quinn (1985) characterized the church as having pursued an “ambivalent policy toward militarism, war, and peace, which might be called ‘selective pacifism’” (16). By and large, presidents of the church expressed support for a government’s right to conscript men into military service, praised the patriotism of those who served their countries in the military, and at the same time expressed respect for those who elected not to participate in the military if they did so for reasons of conscience.
Brigham Young (1863: 248) said of those who left the United States to avoid participating in the American Civil War,
…I think they are probably as good a class of men as has ever passed through this country; they are persons who wish to live in peace, and to be far removed from contending factions. As far as I am concerned I have no fault to find with them.
However, throughout most of the history of the church, although expressions respecting the sensibilities of those conscientiously opposed to military service have been consistent, they have generally been much more discreetly expressed than have sentiments of respect for military service as an expression of loyalty to society. This is well illustrated during the war in Vietnam, when the First Presidency under the direction of President David O. McKay (1969: 12) publicly declared, “We believe our young men should hold themselves in readiness to respond to the call of their government to serve in the armed forces when called upon …” and at the same time (McKay, 1968) instructed that private inquiries about the acceptability of conscientious objection to military service be responded to with the following reply:
As the brethren understand, the existing law provides that men who have conscientious objection may be excused from combat service. There would seem to be no objection, therefore, to a man availing himself on a personal basis of the exemption provided by law.
Abortion is clearly opposed by church Presidents, who have condemned it for at least a century. For instance in 1855 the First Presidency under the direction of President John Taylor issued a statement, which read, “…And we again take this opportunity of warning the Latter-day Saints against those…practices of foeticide and infanticide” (as reported by Clark, 1967: 11), and Spencer W. Kimball (1975: 6) asserted, “We decry abortions and ask our people to refrain from this serious transgression” (Kimball, 1975: 6).
Nevertheless, the official opposition to abortion is not rationalized on the basis of defining abortion as murder. Indeed, church publications explicitly treat abortion as an offense different from and less serious than murder. Thus, although those who “encourage, perform or submit to an abortion are to be disciplined by Church councils, as necessary,” (Corporation of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, 1983: 77), excommunication is not mandated as it is for murder (Corporation of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980). In 1973 the First Presidency stated that, “As the matter stands, no definitive statement has been made by the Lord one way or the other regarding the crime of abortion. So far as is known, he has not listed it alongside of the unpardonable sin of shedding innocent blood. That he has not done so would suggest that it is not in that class of crime and therefore will be amenable to the laws of repentance and forgiveness” (Church News, January 27, 1973, p. 7). Consistent with this view of abortion is the fact that whereas excommunication with no option of readmission to the church is mandated for murder, abortion need not be so treated: Unlike murder, “a person may repent and be forgiven for the sin of abortion” (Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1983: 78). Furthermore, church Presidents have formally acknowledged the acceptability of abortion for reasons other than protecting the life of a pregnant woman. Abortions are explicitly permitted a woman after prayerful consultation with her husband and bishop in cases of rape or incest or when in the opinion of competent medical counsel the life or health of the woman is at risk (Corporation of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1983: 77).
The Beginning of Human Life
The opinions of church leaders as to when the spirit enters the body have varied historically. In spite of the fact that abortion has been strongly opposed by LDS leaders (Keller, 1985: 42-44), this has never been done on the basis of contending that the spirit was present in the body of the fetus. Most often LDS leaders have suggested “quickening” as evidence for the spirit having entered the child; occasionally some have suggested birth as the crucial time. For instance, Brigham Young asserted that the spirit enters the body at the time of quickening (about 4-5 months after conception): “When the mother feels life come into her infant, it is the spirit entering the body …” (quoted in Smith, 1955: 280-81). Birth has also been cited by church Presidents (Keller, 1985: 42-43).
The de-emphasis on the existence of diversity in the beliefs of members makes possible the perpetuation of folk-beliefs that are contrary to official doctrinal positions taken by the Presidents of the church, even though they are held to be the only officials who are formally authorized to proclaim new doctrine for the church (Clark, 1954: 2). Indeed, in some cases the plurality or even the majority views can be at odds with official doctrine. Such contrasts between the consensus of church members and official church pronouncement can be illustrated by the following six cases: 1) the age of the earth, 2) the concept of human biological evolution, 3) the origin of Eve, 4) the acceptability of conscientious objection to military service, 5) abortion and 6) the concept of when the spirit enters the human body.
Age of the Earth
Only 7% of the males and 3% of the females asserted the extremely literal position of twenty-four-hour days. Another 25% of the males and 50% of the females opted for the fundamentalist view of each Genesis “day” being a thousand-year period. Forty-two percent of the sample (46% of the males and 38% of the females) took the position that the creation “days” were extremely long periods of time. Six of the male interviews and three of the females refused to take a stance on the length of time involved in the creation of the earth. Of those who ventured an opinion, 49% portrayed creation in terms of indeterminate length, while 51% opted for one of the more traditional fundamentalist views.
Sixty percent of the sample rejected the idea that humans had evolved. Only 28% asserted a personal belief that some form of evolution had been involved in the origin of our species. Eighteen percent indicated that scientific ideas of evolution adequately account for human origins and 10% specified a divinely guided evolution.
When asked about whether the church had an official doctrinal position on this matter, 57% of the sample believed there was, and that the doctrine was anti-evolutionary. Only 38% identified the official church position as neutral. None believed their church to be pro-evolutionist. Twenty-five percent of those who personally believed in evolution regarded their own views as deviating from what they believed to be the official anti-evolutionary doctrines of the church. A full 70% of those who primarily rejected evolution also held this to be an official doctrinal position of the church. Thus, not only were the majority of these members out of step with the officially neutral stance of church Presidents, but the majority of these were unaware of this discrepancy.
The Creation of Eve
A clear plurality of 43% of the interviewees espoused a literal interpretation of the Genesis version of the origin of Eve. Only 22% percent disagreed with this view, while 35% were unsure.
Conscientious Objection to Military Service
A plurality, 43% of the sample, believed that the church officially opposes conscientious objection to military service. Thirty-six percent believed that the church either supports (13%) or is neutral (23%) on this issue. Another 20% were uncertain.
Thirty-eight percent of the sample simply equated abortion with murder and another 23% specifically identified abortion as the “shedding of innocent blood,” a particularly heinous and unforgivable form of murder in Mormon terminology. Thus, a full 61% of interviewees defined abortion as a form of murder.
The Beginning of Life
Fifty-three percent of the sample claimed the church had an official position that conception is the moment at which the human receives a spirit. Only 3% cited quickening. Another 3% indicated birth, and 13% were uncertain. Twenty-seven percent asserted that no official doctrine exists. In this case, the majority view clearly parallels the predominant view held by most church leaders, but incorrectly asserts that this position is official doctrine.
The preceding six examples have illustrated that in areas not central to LDS theology, diversity does exist in the views of Mormons as to whether particular common beliefs are or are not doctrinal. Furthermore, individual Mormons espouse opposing views as being doctrines of the church. In some cases even a majority of members may believe a position to be official doctrine when it is not. That variation should exist in the religious beliefs of the individual members of a religion is not, in itself, exceptional. However, variation in which the predominant view of what is church doctrine differs from the officially espoused position of church leaders who are thought of as prophets, seers and revelators, calls for some explanation.
Mormonism is a heavily proselytizing religion. Its nearly 28,000 active full-time missionaries bring approximately 200,000 new convert members into the church each year (Corporation of the President, 1985: 20). The absence of a large body of well-established formal doctrines facilitates recruitment of individuals with diverse views. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that Mormonism, with its claim to the status of a revealed religion based on contemporary prophetic leadership, might differentially recruit a high percentage of converts for whom a rather literal understanding of scriptural accounts of God’s relationship with his followers is appealing. Mormon converts fit Hadaway’s (1980) description of denominational switchers, “committed seekers” who adopt a new denomination for its better theological legitimation of the kind of religious experience with which they are most comfortable.
The central theological precepts of Mormonism, those with which a convert must agree in order to join the religion, harmonize readily with a fundamentalist literalism in matters of faith. These include the acceptance of an anthropomorphic concept of God who is the literal Father of human spirits, the portrayal of the Sonship of Jesus Christ as a truly physical relationship to the Father, and a rather legalistic view of the necessity of the Atonement of Christ.ii Other central beliefs are especially compatible with a mentality for which clear, neat and authoritative answers to questions of doctrine and practice are desirable. These include the acceptance of leaders who are held to be prophets, seers and revelators. Their authority over the church is legitimized not on the basis of their education, training or pastoral calling but on their inspired selection and ordination by other ecclesiastical leaders whose priesthood authority traces back through an unbroken chain to Joseph Smith, Jr. The authority of the first prophet of the church was based on a series of divine revelations beginning with the literal appearance of God the Father and Jesus Christ in 1820. Converts to Mormonism are joining a religion that lays claim to inerrancy in doctrine and practice, since both are held to be based on divine revelation to prophets rather than on human interpretation of scripture (Faust, 1985: 8). Christensen and Cannon (1974) found a consistent trend toward greater religious conservatism and decisiveness in the religious beliefs of students at Brigham Young University between the years of 1935 and 1973, trends that they (Christensen, 1982: 10) believe represent church-wide changes. These findings are paralleled by those of Smith (1976) regarding the sexual behavior and sexual attitudes of Mormon students, and they fit the idea that a major selective process, such as differential recruitment of new members who have a fundamentalist approach to religion, is at work within the church.
Mormonism’s central doctrines set the tone for a pattern of scriptural fundamentalism and literalism which pervades religious thinking at the local level of the Mormon ward, or congregation. Religious discussions at the ward level follow a pattern that allows one to readily predict what ward members will typically agree upon as a valid doctrine or interpretation of scripture. The assumed context for interpreting even ancient scripture is usually that of contemporary American culture, rather than the culture in which the scripture arose. Within this taken-for-granted context of interpretation, a hierarchy of principles seems to guide the choice of interpretations. First, simple explanations are preferred over complex ones. Second, literal interpretations are preferred over non-literal ones. However, more complex or non-literal interpretations will be accepted if this is necessary to reconcile a scripture with other Mormon beliefs. Thus, the principle of coherency sometimes supersedes the principles of simplicity and literalism. Finally, an interpretation, regardless of its simplicity, literalism and coherency with other beliefs will be rejected if it portrays the church or its leaders (modern or ancient) in a way which includes human failings, faults or frailties. The overriding principle of decision-making about what is or is not “true doctrine” (since Mormons do not characteristically speak in terms of “interpreting” scripture, history or doctrine) is, in other words, the preference for views which portray the church and its leaders in the most positive light possible. This preference follows from the fact that the central justification for the existence and authority of the church is the belief that it was instituted and continues to be guided by direct intervention by God through the vehicle of his prophets, the leaders of the church. The church is and must be thought of as a sacred institution (Crapo & Cannon, 1982), symbolic of God’s direct involvement in its origins and ongoing functioning.iii
Routinization of Charisma and Official Doctrine
In the near century and a half since the death of Mormonism’s charismatic founder, the tradition of divine revelation through church leaders as the basis of church government persists in the designation of those leaders as “prophets, seers, and revelators.” However, the leadership style has changed tremendously since the days of Joseph Smith, who received more than a hundred and thirty later-canonized revelations during the fourteen years of his tenure as church President. Revelations have become increasingly less common and church leaders devote their most observable energies to perpetuating and increasing the efficiency of established church routines. The shift in emphasis within the role of the governing officials of the church has led to a corresponding shift in one source of doctrines within the church from the central leadership to the grass-roots members. According to Leone (1974: 765), a major aspect of the evolution of Mormonism has been exactly this shift: “…the major change is not doctrinal, it is structural. Those who define belief have changed. The people do it now, the leaders did it then. And this change has occurred not in theory but in practice.” In the context of a theoretically authoritarian ecclesiastical structure, the church has achieved what O’Dea (1967: 165) referred to as a “democracy of participation.” It is, according to Dolgin (1974: 545), “at those historic moments when the core concepts of the Church are in danger and during times when significant alterations in social reality are increasing the non-isomorphism between Church theology and individuals’ beliefs” that revelations to the President of the church occur, bringing the openly espoused official theology into line with folk-belief.
This move away from the revelatory process has allowed grass-roots theologizing to play an increasingly important role in determining the course of the theological concepts of the typical member, including those of the leaders who ultimately rise from their ranks. The role played by grass-roots theologizing as a socialization mechanism is enhanced by the fact that folk-beliefs at the ward level are consistently more conservative than are the official doctrinal positions with which they conflict.iv The reliance on grass-roots theologizing as a source of peer pressure allows an authority-based ecclesiastical structure which stresses the importance of obedience to church leaders (Shepherd & Shepherd, 1984; 98-100; Crapo, 1982; and Crapo & Cannon, 1982) to avoid, in most cases, the role of enforcing discipline on individual members by formal ecclesiastical mechanisms such as excommunication. Since both the origin myths and the contemporary values of Mormonism place great emphasis on the free will of individuals (see Crapo, 1985), the relatively heavy reliance on informal peer pressure to enforce conformity helps members avoid the perception of conflict between the belief that the church regards their free will as sacred and the church’s demand for obedience to its leaders.
Recruitment of Church Leaders
The reliance on a lay ministry at the local and regional levels overseen by a full-time body of professional ecclesiastical authority figures provides a very effective means for recruiting the more socially adept members into positions of higher church government. According to Leone (1974: 750), the degree to which Mormons are involved in the organizational and leadership activities of their ward is greater than that of Protestants in their congregations or of Catholics in their parishes. In a typical Mormon ward as many as thirty to fifty percent of the numbers may be requested by the bishop, himself a lay minister, to fulfill duties in the day-to-day programs of the ward. In fact, when one includes ad hoc and part-time assignments, virtually all active members of a ward are likely to have at least one assignment. Adler (1978: 70) estimates that a typical ward “requires about 150 positions to staff these many programs (exclusive of the fifty to one hundred home teachers and visiting teachers and countless ad hoc assignments). Ward members devote a staggering number of volunteer hours to their church assignments and meetings.” He lists the typical staff positions as including the bishopric and clerks; librarians; presidencies, secretaries, choristers, organists and teachers for auxiliary organizations (Relief Society, Primary, Sunday School, Young Men’s and Young Women’s); and officers and teachers for Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthood quorums. Additionally, ward members may be called to organizationally higher positions such as stake presidencies, high councils, and auxiliary positions; as temple officiators, and as missionaries. It is responsiveness to these “callings” and the demonstration of skill, leadership qualities and dedication to the church in carrying out assignments, that increase the likelihood of calls to positions of greater responsibility within the church. Albrecht and Heaton (1985: 15) found that there is a positive relationship between education and church activity, a fact which they partially explain on the basis of the skills required in fulfilling the work of a lay ministry – bookkeeping, teaching, organizational management, and interpersonal relationship skills. The calling of members with such skills to positions of responsibility within the lay ministry encourages the active participation of more educated members.
Thus, Bishops, Stake Presidents, and eventually General Authorities are chosen for their demonstrated leadership skills. They tend to be successful businessmen, members of law firms, and to a lesser degree educational administrators in their secular lives (Johnson, 1970) and financially better off than most members (Davies, 1963; Quinn, 1976). Selected for their skills and active loyalty as organization men, the General Authorities of the church have been rather sensitive to issues of public relations with the larger secular society with which the church bureaucracy must deal as a corporate entity. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that the views of church Presidents – or more particularly the views they set forth as official positions – may occasionally contrast with those of members at large, due to the moderating influence of their educational and social backgrounds and to the administrative issues which confront the leaders in their management of the church within the larger society (Sorenson, 1983). The formal, public positions taken by church Presidents do not necessarily represent their private views. Rather, they serve the interests of the organization as a whole in a church that has made the transition from its early charismatic leaders to a bureaucratic leadership style that functions to regulate the dynamic equilibrium that exists between the church and its broader social environment. In the words of Hansen (1981: 215): “In spite of a facade of amateurism, these men in fact represent a dedicated and hardworking group of professionals who are devoting their entire lives to the corporate well-being of the organization they are serving.”
Image Management: Avoidance of Controversy
In areas of potentially significant controversy, such as biological evolution, church Presidents have carefully avoided a confrontation between their official positions and the view of the scientific and education communities by asserting the doctrinal neutrality of the church on this issue. At the same time such statements are not widely circulated among members at large, thereby avoiding conflict with the predominantly fundamentalist views of the church membership and the proselyting goals of the church. Indeed, a few General Authorities of lesser seniority than the church President have occasionally published and preached, even in church-wide semi-annual conference broadcasts to the membership, the anti-evolutionary views which members generally regard as doctrine. Only when individually queried are these views later acknowledged to be “personal opinion” of those church leaders, rather than church doctrine. The tolerance of church Presidents for a one-sided presentation of non-doctrinal opinions at variance with their uncirculated declarations of church neutrality on the issue is well illustrated by the case of Bruce R. McConkie, one of the decade’s most outspoken anti-evolutionists among Mormon General Authorities. His book, Mormon Doctrine, originally published without church approval, has been one of the ten best-selling books by General Authorities in the history of the church. Two years after its publication, Mormon President David O. McKay (1960b) commented that it “had been a source of concern to the Brethren ever since it was published.” and that it “is full of errors and missed elements.” Nevertheless, such misgivings have not been circulated to the members at large, who generally regard this work as the authoritative source for answers to questions about church doctrine. A similar history attends the issue of conscientious objection to military service, where the official mentality is stressed only in response to individual inquiry. However, sermons and writings in church publications stress the tradition of patriotic participation in military service by Mormons.
In less controversial issues, views of church Presidents are occasionally referred to in church publications which reach the individual member. For instance, the church magazine, Ensign, which is published for all members, and the Melchizadek Priesthood Course of Study, a lesson plan used for teaching all adult male members of the church, have both included a statement by church President Spencer W. Kimball (1976: 71; 1979; 36) that the rib story of the genesis of Eve is merely figurative. In this case, a larger minority of the sample (22%) was aware that the official position on the question of Eve’s origin is not a fundamentalist one. Contraception is also broached in church teaching materials. It is uniformly discussed in a format that stresses the importance of having children. This is consistent with the findings of Heaton and Calkins (1983: 111) that Mormons are as likely as Protestants to practice contraception, though patterns of contraceptive use among Mormons are guided by pro-family rather than anti-birth control values: “Mormons are apparently committed to a subcultural goal of having children but feel little constraint in terms of the contraceptive means they use to achieve this goal.” Although church publications criticize the use of economic reasons for limiting family size and generally cite only the health of the mother as a valid reason for avoiding conception, such discussions typically end by urging the use of “wisdom” and “self-control,” thereby allowing latitude in individual interpretation.
In issues where official statements are likely to be available to most members but where those statements are out of step with the pattern of biblical literalism typical of Mormon grass-roots theologizing, selective perception can permit the individual to remain true to the overall pattern. Although it is likely that church Presidents are aware that some of their official views differ from the consensus of members in general, it is clear that the membership at large remains unaware that their views contrast with those of their prophets. In fact, the church hierarchy encourages members to avoid the perception of conflict, not only within the church but in life in general.v Thus, in spite of its intense missionary zeal, Mormon publications typically do not criticize the beliefs or practices of other religions. Likewise, members normally do not become involved in political activism for the promotion of their own values. Within the church setting itself, the avoidance of controversy is even more evident. Open disagreement with one another in religious discussions is explicitly discouraged, and formal lessons in meetings where group discussion is appropriate are usually structured around rhetorical questions which channel members into acceptable responses that are not likely to stimulate disagreement. Teachers in such settings typically compliment any response but are less likely to follow up on comments which deviate from the desired response. Potentially controversial topics are carefully avoided in established church meetings. Religious topics of this kind are typically referred to as “the mysteries.” They are issues considered dangerous to speculate about because they may lead to heresy. Non-religious topics of a potentially controversial nature are labeled “political issues.” They, like “the mysteries,” are considered taboo in a church sanctioned setting. Criticism of any church leader, which is likewise taboo, is sometimes described as behavior that “leads to apostasy.” These patterns of conflict avoidance encourage the repression of any conflict within the church. Members readily acknowledge the existence of “Mormons” who have not been in harmony with the church hierarchy, such as the various polygamous, fundamentalists past and present, other schismatic groups which have arisen throughout the history of the church, and political activists and feminists such as Sonia Johnson, who have received public attention in the news media. However, these are not discussed as examples of debate over contrasting views within the church. Neither is the pathos of the personal conflicts such persons may have experienced concerning church doctrine or practice a normal part of conversations in which they are mentioned. Rather, such people or groups are described as having “fallen away” from the church and its teachings. Dissension, in other words, never happens “within the ranks,” since dissent is merely the act by which individual members separate themselves from the church and its teachings.
The emphasis on minimization of conflict is also extended to external relations, where it is manifest as a concern for the careful public presentation of the image of the church as a monolithic organization in which members universally support common values and beliefs which are in harmony with American ideals. As a part of this process of image management, the church maintains a variety of visitor centers throughout the world, televises its semi-annual church conferences as well as weekly Mormon Tabernacle Choir programs, and in recent years has established a Public Relations office to monitor media portrayals of the church, to respond to adverse publicity, and to deal with outside agencies, especially the news media (see Shepherd & Shepherd, 1984: 184).
A paradoxical aspect of Mormonism is its simultaneous emphasis on the divine authority of its leaders as sources of revealed doctrine and on tremendous tolerance for deviance among members from some of its officially espoused doctrinal positions. Members often do not perceive any difference between their own views and those of the leaders. This results from the fact that the processes by which general members and church leaders are recruited select for different attitudes and values in the two groups. It is adaptive for the typical views of lay-members and those of church Presidents occasionally to stand at odds, with no apparent evidence of awareness of this fact among church members at large.
Albrecht, Stan L. and Tim B. Heaton 1985 “Highly educated Mormons are ore religious, study shows.” Sunstone (March): 15.
Alder, Douglas D. 1978 “The Mormon ward: Congregation or community?” Journal of Mormon History 5: 61-78.
Bellah, Robert N. 1970 Beyond Belief. New York, New York: Harper and Row.
Bitton, Davis 1982 “Like the tigers of old times.” Sunstone 7: 44-48.
Brewer, David L. 1968 “The Mormons.” Pp. 518-47 in Donald Cutler (Ed.), The Religious Situation: 1968. Boston: Beacon Press.
Brown, Hugh B. 1958 “What is man and what he may become.” BYU Devotional, BYU Speeches of the Year (1957-58), #6.
Buerger, David John 1982 “Speaking with authority: The theological influence of Elder Bruce R. McConkie.” Sunstone 10: 8-13.
Christiansen, E. B. 1984 “Compartmentalization denied.” Dialogue 17: 10-11.
Christensen, Harold B. 1982 “The persistence of chastity: A built-in resistance within Mormon culture to secular trends.” Sunstone 7: 7-14.
Christensen, Harold B. and Kenneth L. Cannon 1974 “The fundamentalist emphasis at Brigham Young University: 1935-1973.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 17: 53-57.
Clark, James R. 1967 Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – 1933-1964. Vol. 3. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft.
Clark, J. Reuben, Jr. 1954 “When are the writings or sermons of church leaders entitled to the claim of scripture?” Church News 31 (July): 2.
Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1980 General Handbook of Instructions. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
_______,1983 General Handbook of Instructions. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
_______,1985 “Statistical report 1984.” Ensign (May issue). Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Crapo, Richley 1982 “LDS (Mormon) sex role values as revealed by a content analysis of official teaching materials: A comparison and evaluation.” Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Pacific Sociological Association, San Diego, California.
_______,1985 “Free will and coercion: The role of paradox in Mormon myth and ritual.” Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Utah Academy of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Provo, Utah.
Crapo, Richley and Sharon Cannon 1982 “LDS (Mormon) values as revealed by a content analysis of official teaching materials.” Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Western Social Science Association, Denver, Colorado.
Davies, J. K. 1963 “The Mormon church: Its middle class propensities.” Review of Religious Research 4: 34-39.
_______, Janet L. 1974 “Latter-day sense and substance.” Pp. 519-46 in irving I. Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone (Eds.), Religious Movements in Contemporary America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Faust, James E. 1985 “The abundant life.” Ensign (November): 7-9.
Hadaway, C. K. 1980 “Denominational switching and religiosity,” Review of Religious Research 21: 451-61.
Hansen, Klaus J. 1981 Mormonism and the American Experience. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Heaton, Tim B. and Sandra Calkins 1983 “Family size and contraceptive use among Mormons: 1965-75.” Review of Religious Research 25: 102-13.
Jeffrey, Duane E. 1973 “Seers, savants and evolution: The uncomfortable interface.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 (3 & 4): 41-75.
Johnson, F. Reed 1970 “The Mormon church: Resource allocation in a non-market organization.” Paper presented at the Conference on Economics and Mormon Culture of Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
Johnson, Sonia 1981 From Housewife to Heretic. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
Judah, J. Stillson 1967 The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press.
Keller, Jeffrey E. 1985 “When does the spirit enter the body?” Sunstone (March): 42-44.
Kimball, Spencer W. 1976a “The blessings and responsibilities of womanhood.” Ensign (February), pp. 70-72.
_______,1976b “Speaking today.” Ensign (March), p. 70-72.
_______,1979 “The divine origin of man.” Pp. 35-40 in Choose Ye This Day: Melchizedek Priesthood Study Guide, 1980-81. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Lee, Harold B. 1972 “Find the answers in the scriptures.” Ensign 2: 2-3.
Leone, Mark 1969 “Modern cultural patterns in east-central Arizona.” Unpublished paper. Princeton University.
_______,1974 “The economic basis for the evolution of Mormon religion.” Pp. 722-70 in Irving I. Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone (Eds.), Religious Movements in Contemporary America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
_______,1979 The Roots of Modern Mormonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Mauss, Armand L. 1981 “The fading of the Pharaoh’s curse: The decline and fall of the priesthood ban against blacks in the Mormon Church.” Dialogue 14: 10-45.
McConkie, Bruce R. 1976 Mormon Doctrine. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft
McKay, David O. 1952 “A message for LDS college youth.” Speech to BYU student body. October 10, 1952.
_______,1956 “Gospel ideals – Life’s surest anchor.” BYU Devotional, BYU Speeches of the Year 1955-56, #5.
_______,1957 Unpublished letter to Professor William Lee Stokes, February 15, 1957.
_______,1959 Unpublished letter to A. Kent Christensen, February 3, 1959. (On file with author.)
_______,1960a Unpublished letter to A. Kent Christensen, February 3, 1959. (On file with author.)
_______,1960b Official Journal. January 7, 8.
_______,1964 Unpublished letter to Pertti Felin, May 8, 1964. (On file with author.)
_______,1967 “Gospel ideals – Life’s surest anchor.” BYU Devotional, BYU Speeches of the Year 1966-67, #31.
_______,1968 Unpublished letter. (On file with author.)
_______,1969 “First Presidency statement.” Deseret News Church Section 24 (May): 12.
McMurrin, Sterling 1965 The Theological Foundations of Mormonism. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press.
O’Dea, Thomas 1957 The Mormons. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Phelps, W. W. 1845 “The Answer.” Times & Seasons 5 (January 1): 758.
Quinn, D. Michael 1976 The Mormon Hierarchy, 1832-1932: An American Elite. Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University.
_______,1984a “From sacred grove to sacral power structure.” Dialogue 17: 9-34.
_______,1984b “The Mormon culture and the Spanish American War: An end to selective pacifism.” Dialogue 17: 11-30.
_______,1985 “Conscientious objectors or Christian soldiers?” Sunstone 10: 14-23.
Shepherd, Gordon and Gary Shepherd 1984 A Kingdom Transformed: Rhetorical Patterns in the Development of Mormonism. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Smith, Joseph F. 1910 “Priesthood quorum’s table.” Improvement Era 13: 570.
_______,1911 “Philosophy and the church schools.” Juvenile Instructor 46: 208-09.
Smith, Joseph Fielding 1955 Doctrines of Salvation. Vol. 2, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft.
_______,1972 Unpublished letter to Michael E. Derr, January 25, 1972. (On file with author.)
Smith, Wilford E. 1976 “The persistence of Mormon sex standards of college campuses (Deal us out of the sexual revolution).” Dialogue 10: 76-81.
Sorenson, John L. 1983 “Mormon folk and Mormon elite.” Horizons 1: 4-18.
Stephenson, Shirley E. 1981 “Fawn McKay Brodie: An oral history interview.” Dialogue 14: 99-116.
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_______,1876 Journal of Discourses 18: 231.
iMormon language is replete with phrases which emphasize its focus on instrumental-activism: e.g., eternal progress, temple work, work for the dead, genealogical work, missionary work, active member (a committed member), church assignments, obedience, and testimony bearing. Such phrases are much more common in Mormon discourse than is the language of “faith.” Particularly noteworthy is the large number of hymns which stress work and action: e.g., “Come, Come Ye Saints, No Toil Nor Labor Fear,” “Do What is Right,” “Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?,” “I Have Work Enough to Do,” “Improve the Shining Moments,” “Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words,” “Let Us All Press on in the Work of Lord,” “Choose the Right,” “Shall the Youth of Zion Falter?,” “If you Could Hie to Kolob,” and “Sweet is the Work, My God, My King.”
iiThe necessity of the Atonement involves a rather concrete conception of God as a Being bound by Natural Law. L.D.S. Church publications portray God as constrained by the fact that justice requires that sin be punished. Thus, the sins of humans may not be forgiven simply by an act of divine mercy, for justice may not be arbitrarily set aside. The suffering of Christ in His act of atonement was a necessary voluntary payment for humankind’s debt of sin by one who, himself sinless, need not have suffered. Only by such an act was it possible, even for God, to allow humans who accept Christ’s proxy suffering for their sins to re-enter his presence, cleansed of sin.
iiiThis is illustrated by the recent censuring of various LDS historians for engaging too strongly in objective historical research that might undermine the faith of members (Bitton, 1982).
ivFor this reason, it is conservative deviance from the predominant folk-belief system (e.g., the espousal of polygamy) rather than liberal deviance which is more likely to be dealt with by formal excommunication proceedings. Traditionally, the liberal deviant from folk-belief was more likely to simply fall into inactivity than was the ultra-conservative member who was more likely to create the threat of schism within the church. Publicized cases of excommunications of liberal members such as Fawn Brodie (Stephenson, 1981) or Sonia Johnson (1981) are exceptions to this pattern and occur only when the liberal member publically attacks the image of the church or its leaders. The greater tolerance for academically-based liberal church members manifests itself in the existence of publications such as Dialogue and Sunstone which are widely read by liberal members. These publications can even be purchased in Church bookstores in spite of the fact that they are commonly viewed as suspect by mainstream members. On the other hand, affiliation with or sympathy for fundamentalist groups (e.g., Mormon ultratraditionalists who espouse practices no longer accepted by the mainstream church, such as polygamy or the withholding of the priesthood from Black members) is grounds for denial of a temple recommend or excommunications.
vThe major exception to this pattern is the emphasis on the overt persecution which Mormons have experienced, especially in their early history. This is usually confined to discussion of history, but even here, the antagonism is phrased in terms unrelated to contemporary relations between Mormons and other groups. Religiously and politically motivated persecution is discussed in terms of the individuals, now dead, who were involved, rather than as problems between Mormonism and government or other religious denominations.
Schismatic Movements in Contemporary Mormonism: An Evaluation of Weber’s Concepts of Religious Change
Richley H. Crapo, Utah State University
By focusing his work on the analysis of the major religions of the world’s nation states–Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism–Max Weber was able to rely on the common understandings of his audience and bypass the question of how religion should be defined. This question which has been more pressing to anthropologists who worked with a broad range of less well-known nonwestern religions than sociologists of Weber’s day were concerned with. In Gessamelte Aufsaetze zur Religionssoziologie, which Weber worked on from 1911 until his death in 1920, Weber drew upon the vocabulary of his day, contrasting belief in the “supernatural” and in “spirits” with “naturalism” and the “this-worldly orientation” of religious goals. But he simply used such terms as practical tools for examining his real interest, the structure of religion and religious processes and sidestepped the question of defining religion, beginning his treatise with these words: “To define ‘religion,’ to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as this. Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study. The essence of religion is not even our concern, as we make it our task to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social behavior” (1922:1). Instead of attempting to define religion, Weber merely relied on his audience’s common understandings and used the established vocabulary of his day, he cast new light onto the structure of religion and onto religious processes.
Since the time of Max Weber, there have been changes in the vocabulary on which sociologists and anthropologists draw to discuss religion. We speak, for instance, of revitalization processes and mazeway resynthesis, terms popularized after the work of Weber. With the passage of time and the rise of new and different idioms, it is all too easy for those of a new generation to wrongly assume that our perceptions differ qualitatively from those of our predecessors. I wish to demonstrate how versatile the insights of Weber remain after three-quarters of a a century by applying his views of religion and religious change to an examination of a recent schismatic movement within the Mormon religious tradition.
The most prominent weakness in Weber’s work was that he approached religious change consistently in terms of sudden, qualitative shifts–what he termed “breaks”–in religious traditions and world-views. This was a natural outgrowth of his use of the evolutionary framework which had been popularized by anthropologists in the previous century. However, this is not, in my opinion, an inherent weakness of Weber’s conceptual scheme but merely a limit in how Weber applied that scheme. I hope to demonstrate that Weber’s tools may be applied to the more gradual changes which occur within religious traditions by applying them to an examination of change within the Mormon variant of the Christian tradition.
Mormonism offers very fertile ground for the study of religious change and of what Weber termed “charismatic prophets”. In its century and a half history, over two hundred schismatic groups guided by leaders who lay claim to divine inspiration have arisen within the Mormon community. One of the most recent of these new offshoots was formally organized on May 3, 1994, in Manti, Utah, as the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days (TLC). The central legitimizing characteristic of the TLC is a return to what it holds to be the pristine teachings and practices of Mormonism’s original founding Prophet, Joseph Smith Jr. Led by its Prophet, Jim Harmston, and a Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the TLC has reinstituted the practice of polygamy and a communal economic order and teaches that the LDS Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, has been in complete apostasy since its extension of the priesthood to Blacks in 1978. Distinctive doctrines of the TLC include a reinstatement of the so-called Adam-God doctrine, the belief that God the Father took on mortality and became Adam, the Father of the human race, a belief which has been rejected by the LDS Church in this century. The TLC also asserts that Joseph Smith Jr., the founding Prophet of Mormonism, has been resurrected and is actively involved in organizing the TLC and reestablishing the original doctrines of Mormonism.
Members of the TLC emphasize the role of personal religious experiences such as visions, visionary dreams, the visitation of angels, and the everyday experience of miracles by members at large. Like many previous Mormon schismatic movements, the TLC embodies a move towards a more charismatic leadership structure that is more conducive to active ecstatic religious experiences among congregation members than is the more bureaucratized form of ecclesiastical authority currently practiced by the LDS church. As such, it presents an excellent opportunity to examine the dynamics of such a transformation in Weberian terms.
Though Weber’s vocabulary did not include the phrase “revitalization movement” which has been popularized since Weber, his conceptualization of religious change captures the process quite well and casts a light on how the structure of a religious ideology and social system can be important elements in the mechanisms of change. Both LDS Mormonism and TLC were founded by “prophets” in Weber’s sense–charismatic leaders who formulated new systems of ideas for “rationalizing” life experience, that is new ways for believers to conceptualize the social order of which they are a part and the cosmic and moral orders that give it broader meaning. In both cases–the original founding of Mormonism and the recent origin of TLC–the prophets announced what Weber termed “breaks” with the established normative order and declared this break to be morally legitimate by invoking a divine source of authority.
Weber’s system also lacked the term “alienation”, but he nevertheless made it clear that there is a relationship between religious innovation and psychological reactions to socio-structural stresses. In his view, different social conditions result in different “sensitivities” to the same stimulus to “break” with the established order. The prophet-founder of a new religious movement is an individual whose experience within his social structure has confronted him with problems in need of solving, problems that make him aware of the contrasting options of changing the established social order or supporting it and who finds the option of change the more attractive one. He and his followers are less likely than other members of society to have a vested interest in the status quo. This aptly describes the economic circumstances of the current followers of the TLC, whose occupations are, for the most part, within the middle to lower middle economic strata and who currently reside in a rural environment that offers little opportunity for employment. Many have been unable to find the type of employment for which they were trained. In these circumstances, TLC members tend to be strongly conservative, even reactionary in their political views and perceive their economic difficulties to be the result of social policies which in recent decades have in their view favored less qualified minorities at their expense. They therefore oppose such programs as Affirmative Action and idealize the gender roles of the late 1940s. Their corresponding religious views are a rejection of the perceived accommodation of the LDS Church to these modern “liberal” values, as exemplified by the LDS rejection of polygynous marriage earlier in this century, recent changes in LDS temple-marriage vows (which no longer include a covenant by the bride to “obey” her husband) and the extension of the LDS priesthood to Blacks. As a religious community, they home-school their own children and share economic assets with one another. Some members practice polygynous marriages.
The founders of both the LDS Church and the TLC are “ethical prophets” in Weber’s terms, charismatic leaders who are not just role models that others may choose to follow to achieve a higher level of personal virtue, but leaders who proclaimed a duty for others to follow their precepts. Since these precepts include the entitlement of all members to direct guidance from the Holy Ghost, there is a tension within the structure of the Mormon religious tradition, a tension between the personal spiritual experience of individual members and the policies of leaders whose authority is, by definition, divinely sanctioned.
The LDS church has grown rapidly since its inception and today numbers over 9 million members. With this growth, the charisma of leadership and the ecstatic experience of members have been replaced by routine and bureaucracy. Yet the Mormon tradition legitimizes the direct involvement of the Spirit in the lives of individual members and in the role of Church leaders as the mouthpieces of God. The discrepancy between practice and theory remains a constant basis for “breaks” with the current system of Church authority by new charismatic leaders who offer a return to the early, more Pentecostal pattern of ecstatic religious experience in both leaders and members alike.
Nevertheless, schismatic movements within the Mormon tradition maintain the essential ingredient of tension at its core: the tension inherent in the the religious autonomy of the individual that is implicit in ecstatic religious experience and the obligation of obedience to leaders implicit in the concept of their status as prophets. Thus, in its short history, the TLC has already experienced its own schisms, which like those of the LDS church have arisen out of conflicting views concerning the relative authority of their prophet leaders versus the claim to inspiration to which other members are also entitled in the Mormon theological tradition. For instance, the largest split within the TLC developed when the leadership formulated a taboo against plural wives sharing the same bed with their husband. Some members viewed the imposition of such rules as an inappropriate use of authority by the church’s leaders.
Thus even in the face of the important theological innovations involved in a revitalization process, the tension between two competing sources for the legitimation of religious knowledge has been perpetuated within the TLC as well as within the LDS mother church. And this tension has continued to generate new prophet leaders who “break” with their group’s current religious worldview when its system of rationalization is out of harmony with their own circumstances.
This pattern is a consistent element of schisms within the Mormon tradition and goes a long way toward explaining the large number of schisms in Mormonism’s short history. By focusing on the effects of a social organization and its system for understanding human experience on the psychology of its constituents, Weber’s approach to religion can be used to highlight ways in which tensions within a particular worldview can condition the nature of religious change, perpetuating continuity by maintaining the structure which perpetuates those tensions, even while making a major “break” with the prior religious tradition. Though Weber’s vocabulary differed from later students of religious change, it was certainly adequate for discussing schismatic changes and revitalization processes in religious tradition.
Pseudoscientific Beliefs of Utah State University Students: A Preliminary Report of Research in Progress
Richley H. Crapo, Utah State University
In recent years, a variety of well known reports on the status of academe have raised questions about whether American universities are fulfilling their responsibilities to educate. Generally, these critiques have emphasized the failure of universities to provide students with a strong and well-rounded classic, liberal and general education on which to build the remainder of their college training. Raymond A. Eve, Francies B. Harrold, and several of their colleagues have gone beyond a finding of a mere deficit in the training of American students and have documented the widespread existence of pseudoscientific beliefs among college students. Our students do not simply lack an acquaintance with Aristotle, Marx, and Freud, but they have filled this void with a patchwork quilt of ideas about astrology, bigfoot, psychic archaeology, UFO’s, and so-called “creation-science.” This doubly underscores the severe implications of an educational system that gives short shift to critical thinking skills while pursuing the siren song of a market driven economy for the scholarly citadel. Although a thorough examination of the specific failings of our own Utah educational system is sorely needed, my purpose today is the more modest one of briefly summarizing my own examination of the students of one Utah university to see how they compare with the Eve and Harrold findings for students at similar land-grant institutions in Texas, California, and Connecticut.
Two years ago, I undertook a modified replication of Eve and Harold’s original study using two samples drawn from Utah State University and its neighboring Latter-day Saint Institute, a college-level religious studies system for students of the majority faith at Utah State University. The combined sample consisted of 252 students and included 10% of the students currently enrolled at the LDS institute. LDS students comprised 64% of the USU sample, a figure thought to approximate the LDS proportion of the entire undergraduate studentbody.
In their original study, Eve and Harrold (1986) examined a number of common beliefs that are not scientifically substantiated. These fell largely into two categories, creation-science and cult archeology. The former include many well-known examples of fundamentalist religious doctrine that are falsely asserted as scientifically substantiated fact: beliefs that the world is demonstrably only a few thousands of years old, that the ark of the Noachian Flood has been discovered on one of the mountains of Ararat, and a variety of related ideas. Cult archeology is a more diverse set of beliefs such as the idea that the earth was visited in ancient times by astronauts from another world, that these visitors were responsible for a number of great archaeological curiosities, the existence of several lost civilizations such as Mu and Atlantis, and the existence of psychic powers and their valid use in interpreting archaeological sites. A few other miscellaneous beliefs, not strictly archaeological in their content, such as the existence of UFO’s, the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot or equivalent creatures in various parts of the world, the factual basis of astrology, and the reality of reincarnation, ghosts and ghostly manifestations were also treated in their survey.
Eve and Harrold found that pseudoscientific beliefs were surprisingly common among university students. For instance, the existence of Bigfoot was accepted by at least 30% of the students surveyed in Texas, Connecticut, and California. Belief in the past existence of the civilization of Atlantis was equally strong. Reincarnation was affirmed by nineteen or more percent of students in all three states, and over half of all respondents in each state accepted the ability of psychics to predict the future. Eve and Harrold also found that anti-evolutionism was alive and well on university campuses. Twenty or more percent of students in all three states denied that the theory of biological evolution was correct, and approximately 30% of students believed that dinosaurs and humans had coexisted.
At Utah State University, students did not score significantly higher than those in the Eve and Harrold study on measures of creationist beliefs, cult archeology, and other paranormal beliefs. Indeed, the USU scores trended in a lower direction. This was particularly so for LDS students. These data are summarized in Table 1, which compares levels of belief on the items which made up these three scales in Harrold and Eve’s (1986) original study. In spite of the relatively lower scores of Utah State students, I believe that most educators would still find the absolute levels of pseudoscientific beliefs in the Utah data to be distressingly high. Pseudoscientific gullibility is certainly not a rare phenomenon among our students.
(See attached Table)
What can be said about the sources of pseudoscientific beliefs? Creation science oriented beliefs merit attention because of their connection with Fundamentalist religious tradition in the United States. Kehoe (1985) has discussed the functions of “creation science” within the New Religious-Political Right of contemporary conservative politics. She contends that the acceptance of the inerrancy of the Bible inherent in “creation science” serves as a manifest sign of dedication to the central value of the New Religious-Political Right: acceptance of authority versus “reality testing” and adaptation. In this context, scientific gullibility may be seen as one facet of deference to authority, a kind of generalized willingness to accept as plausible that which appears to be commonly believed by others or what is asserted in folklore to have been proven by unnamed “scientists” or experts. Harrold and Eve (1987) have given support to Kehoe’s assertions about the political and attitudinal underpinnings of the “creation-science” ideology by showing that Creationism beliefs correlated positively with a measure of dogmatism r = .32, .18, .33 for TX, CA, CT) and a measure of political conservativism (anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality, pro-death penalty) which they termed a Moral Majority scale. These findings hold for the USU population, although the correlation was only a moderate one (Creationism-Dogmatism, Pearson’s r = .20; Creationism-Moral Majority, Pearson’s R = relationship with reported number of books read that were not required in an academic course (R = -.24), a finding also reported by Harrold and Eve (1987).
One obvious question is the role of religiosity in these findings for LDS students. It is not particularly surprising that LDS students tended to be the lowest scorers on items pertaining to Cult Archaeology and Other Paranormal beliefs. However, contrary to what might be anticipated, LDS students tended to be the lowest scorers overall on the Creationism scale. This was generally true for most Creationism items. If religious fundamentalism is an important factor in any of these areas, one would expect it to be especially influential on these items. it is conceivable that the largely Southern Baptist population of the Texas university might account for that schools generally high results, but this is a less likely explanation for the tendency of Connecticut and California students to outscore even the LDS subset at USU. Unfortunately, Harrold and Eve have not provided a breakdown for their data by religion, religious or commitment.
Some internal evidence of a religiosity or religious commitment factor can be found in my data. Although the dogmatism and political conservatism measures used by Harrold and Eve showed only moderate correlations with creationism scores for the LDS sample, a stronger relationship exists between Creationism and the importance of religion (R – .43) and reported frequency of church attendance (R = .75). This suggests a strong institutional component in the acquisition of a creationist ideology. To check for further evidence of institutionally controlled socialization in creationist opinions, I examined several subsets of LDS students, including current attenders of the local LDS Institute of Religion, current nonattenders, complete nonattenders (who had never attended), active attenders, and inactive nonattenders. There were significant differences in the mean Creationism scores between current Institute attenders (mean = 17.76 vs 16.09), between current attenders and never attenders (17.76 vs 14.86), and between active and nonactive church attenders (17.31 vs 15.08). Notice that institute attenders had even higher mean Creationism scores than did church attenders in general. Subsets of institute attenders indicated that a creationist ideology was strongest among those who were senior level students. The very highest scores were found among the institutionally most committed–active church attenders who were enrolled in Institute and who had served as missionaries for the LDS church (a several year, voluntary, unpaid service to the church).
A religious connection does seem to be present when specific items are examined on which LDS scores outranked those of other students. If one considers those few items for which LDS students were the highest scorers in the comparisons, specific theological backing for the expressed beliefs does seem likely. For instance, ninety-three percent of the LDS sample accepted the literal existence of Adam and Eve (vs 55% of the Texas sample and 670% of the USU nonLDS sample). Similarly, only 2% of the LDS respondents accepted a nontheistic version of evolution (vs 14% of the Texas sample and 49% of the nonLDS group at USU). Forty-eight percent of the LDS group felt that creation science should be taught in the public schools (vs 59% of the Texas students and 35% of USU’s nonLDS respondents). Note also that the LDS group was the only one in which a smaller percentage favored the teaching of scientific evolution (39%) in schools than favored the teaching of creationism (vs 72% and 73% of the other groups).
The lower showing of LDS students on other Creationism items may also reflect theological issues that distinguish Latter-day Saints from Protestant fundamentalists. For instance, in spite of its literalist tendencies, such as a central role for the concept of Adam and Eve as literal progenitors of the human race, LDS doctrine has never included a concept of biblical inerrancy. Thus, Eve and Harrold’s measure of fundamentalism may rely too heavily on Protestant concepts to be useful with an LDS audience.
Although doctrinal commitments may account for high creationism scores among LDS students on individual items, there do seem to be some exceptions to this relationship. For instance, LDS students were the least likely to espouse an ancient age for the earth. This rejection of an ancient age for the earth certainly cannot be accounted for on the basis of any theological mandate, since Mormons have not shared the traditional young earth theology of Protestant fundamentalism. Perhaps, what we are seeing here and elsewhere in this data reflects more a scientific naivety than a religiosity factor.
Cult Archeology and Other Paranormal beliefs showed a diverse pattern similar to that found for Creationism beliefs: LDS students generally had the lowest scores. Again, there were some exceptions, most of which also are understandable either in terms of LDS religious support for high levels of belief or of scientific gullibility. For instance, the belief in a North American origin for human beings and pre-Viking trans-Atlantic voyages has clear support in Mormon doctrine. A belief in the efficacy of Black Magic and the existence of ghosts also receive support in common LDS folklore.
Scientific gullibility may also be a factor in the few LDS scores in Cult Archeology and Other Paranormal beliefs. A number of items in these categories for which the nonLDS groups show higher levels of acceptance are particularly those items in which the pseudoscientific element is strongest (e.g., the existence of Bigfoot) in contrast to the quasi-religious overtones of other items (e.g., the existence of ghosts). What I am suggesting here is not mere tautology, but an as yet untested hypothesis that religiosity may correlate with high levels of a general “willingness to believe” ideas known to be accepted by others, so long as those beliefs are not specifically in conflict with subjects’ religious doctrines. The LDS church is certainly not alone in its fostering of a willingness to accept the guidance of others in matters of belief. Although my current data do not lend themselves to a direct test of this hypothesis, I hope to explore such a relationship in the future.
Eve, Raymond A., and Francis B. Harrold. 1986. “Creationism, cult archaeology, and other pseudoscientific beliefs: A study of college students,” Youth and Society 17 (4):396-421.
Harrold, Francis B., and Raymond A. Eve. 1986. “Noah’s Ark and Ancient Astronauts: Pseudoscientific Beliefs Abut the Past Among a Sample of College Students,” The Skeptical Inquirer 11:61-75.
Harrold, Francis B., and Raymond A. Eve. 1987. “Patterns of Creationist Belief Among College Students.” In Harrold, Francis B., and Raymond A. Eve (Eds.), Cult Archaeology and creationism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Kehoe, Alice B. 1985. “Understanding Creationism Within the Conservative Christian Movement.” Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., (4 December).
Chronology Pertaining to Blacks and the LDS Priesthood
Richley Crapo, Utah State University
This is not a position piece. It is a simple compilation of historical references that are deemed reliable and pertinent by the authors. Every reasonable effort has been made to ensure their reliability and accuracy. Every reasonable effort has been made to make the chronology exhaustive, but there are almost certainly obscure references that have been overlooked.
- 1830 – The Book of Mormon is published. The Book uses a dark-skin motif as a sign of sinfulness by the Lamanites, descendants of Israel through Menasseh whom are considered ancestors of contemporary Native American Indians, “The Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon [the Lamanites]“, cf. 1 Ne. 5:21.
- The dark skin is equated with a curse which was a result of rebellion, “And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them”, cf. 2 Ne. 5:21.
- The dark skin is explicitly presented as a “mark”, a “curse… because of…transgression” and as a means of separating different cultures, “And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men. And their brethren sought to destroy them, therefore they were cursed; and the Lord God set a mark upon them, yea, upon Laman and Lemuel, and also the sons of Ishmael, and Ishmaelitish women. And this was done that their seed might be distinguished from the seed of their brethren, that thereby the Lord God might preserve his people, that they might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions which would prove their destruction”, cf. Alma 3:6-8.
- It also states that it was “against [Nephite civil] law” to hold slaves, cf. Alma 27:9 and Mosiah 2:13.
- 1830 – Black Pete joins the Church in Kirtland. There is no evidence pro or con of his having been ordained to the Priesthood.
- Jul 1831 – Smith identifies Negroes as lineage of Canaan, “The first Sabbath after our arrival in Jackson county, Brother W. W. Phelps preached to a western audience over the boundary of the United States, wherein were present specimens of all the families of the earth; Shem, Ham and Japheth; several of the Lamanites or Indians–representative of Shem; quite a respectable number of negroes–descendants of Ham; and the balance was made up of citizens of the surrounding country…” (History of the Church, 1:190).
- 1832 – Joseph Smith Jr. predicts an insurrection beginning in South Carolina in which slaves would rise up against their masters and great bloodshed would result, cf. D&C 87.
- 1832 – Elijah Abel baptized. There is presently some dispute over his exact ethnicity. Reports vary from his being white, which seems impossible given later actions regarding him, to being light-skinned to being octaroon (1/8 Negro).
- 1833 – W. W. Phelps editorial in the Evening and Morning Star, “Free People of Color” expresses an anti-slavery viewpoint and outlines procedures for the migration of free Blacks to Missouri: “So long as we have no special rule in the church, as to people of color, let prudence guide; and while they as well as we, are in the hands of a merciful God, we say: Shun every appearance of evil.”
- 1834 – According to Zebedee Coltrin (as recalled in 1879, some 45 years later) Joseph Smith in the presence of Coltrin receives a revelation that Blacks are not to be ordained. See 1879 entry for quote.
- 1835 – “Messenger & Advocate” uses “black skin” motif, indicating that it is a mark of sinfulness that can come on members of any race. No mention of a racial ban on the Priesthood related to race. W. W. Phelps writes in January that Ham married a black wife.
- Aug 1835 – In a general declaration concerning governments and civil laws, the following statement is made, “We believe it just to preach the gospel to the nations of the earth, and warn the righteous to save themselves from the corruption of the world; but we do not believe it right to interfere with bond-servants, neither preach the gospel to, nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor to meddle with or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life, thereby jeopardizing the lives of men; such interference we believe to be unlawful and unjust, and dangerous to the peace of every government allowing human beings to be held in servitude (cf. D&C 134).”
- Sep 1835 – LDS Messenger & Advocate declares that the Gospel’s “order was the same; it produced the same effect among all” and its “order was the same; it produced the same effect among all people, whether they were Seythian, Barbarian, bond or free, Jew or Gentile, Greek or Roman, it mattered not what they were; for in this respect, there was neither Greek nor Jew, bond nor free, male nor female; but they were all one in Christ Jesus, and the same blessings belonged to all, and the same fruits followed all, and the order was the same, whether it was in Africa, Asia, or Europe”.
- Nov 1835 – Joseph Smith reaffirms his earlier proclamation of an “official” anti-abolitionist position for the Church in To the Elders of the Church. He says that Elders are to avoid going “unto…slaves or servants…unless granted permission by their masters.”
- 1835-39 – Various sections of Doctrine and Covenants present a “universalist” view of the gospel being for all peoples and races and of all peoples being equal in the Gospel (e.g., D&C 1:2; 38:16; 1:10; 10:51; 1:23; 1:34; 112:4.)
- 1836 – Kirtland Temple’s initial rules of conduct were addressed inclusively to “old or young, rich or poor, male or female, black or white, believer or unbeliever”.
- March 1836 – In a discourse on the subjects of slavery and abolition, Smith states that the curse of Ham is “not yet taken off” from the Negroes. “After having expressed myself so freely upon this subject, I do not doubt, but those who have been forward in raising their voices against the South, will cry out against me as being uncharitable, unfeeling, unkind, and wholly unacquainted with the Gospel of Christ. It is my privilege then to name certain passages from the Bible, and examine the teachings of the ancients upon the matter as the fact is uncontrovertible that the first mention we have of slavery is found in the Holy Bible, pronounced by a man who was perfect in his generation, and walked with God. And so far from that prediction being averse to the mind of God, it remains as a lasting monument of the decree of Jehovah, to the shame and confusion of all who have cried out against the South, in consequence of their holding the sons of Ham in servitude. ‘And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.’ ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant’ (Gen. 9:25, 26). Trace the history of the world from this notable event down to this day, and you will find the fulfillment of this singular prophecy. What could have been the design of the Almighty in this singular occurrence is not for me to say; but I can say, the curse is not yet taken off from the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great a power as caused it to come; and the people who interfere the least with the purposes of God in this matter, will come under the least condemnation before Him; and those who are determined to pursue a course, which shows an opposition, and a feverish restlessness against the decrees of the Lord, will learn, when perhaps it is too late for their own good, that God can do His own work, without the aid of those who are not dictated by His counsel.” (History of the Church, 2:438-439).
- Mar 1836 – Elijah Abel ordained an Elder (Eunice Kenny says by Joseph Smith Jr. in My Testimony of the Latter Day Work, ms. in LDS Church Historical Department, although she wrote this four decades after the ordination, and Abel did not cite Joseph Smith as having ordained him in his defense against the later challenge to his status). The certificate of ordination was dated 3 Mar 1836. Newell G. Bringhurst (Saints, Slaves and Blacks, p. 60) notes that certificates were sometimes delayed, so the ordination could have been sooner than this, but Abel is still listed among the recently licensed elders in Jun 1836 (Messenger & Advocate, 2:335).
- Mar 1836 – Elijah Abel given a Patriarchal Blessing by Joseph Smith Sr. No lineage is declared, rather, Abel is proclaimed “an orphan” (this phrase may have been meant literally). Patriarchal blessing states, “Thou shalt be made equal to thy brethren, and thy soul be white in eternity and thy robes glittering.” Sometime in the Kirtland era, Abel is washed and anointed in the Kirtland Temple by Zebedee Coltrin, who would much later remember having never had “such unpleasant feelings.”
- Apr 1836 – Joseph Smith’s front-page editorial in the Messenger and Advocate says “we have no right to interfere with slaves, contrary to the mind and will of their masters.”
- Jun 1836 – The Messenger and Advocate (page 335) lists the names of several Elders including “Elijah Abel”.
- Dec 1836 – Elijah Abel advances to the rank of Seventy and becomes a “duly licensed minister of the Gospel” for missionary work in Ohio. He also serves missions to New York and Canada. Ordination was performed by Zebedee Coltrin according to certificate. Abel was apparently re-ordained on April 4, 1841.
- 1837 – Apostle Parley P. Pratt expresses his desire to preach the gospel “to all people, kindreds, tongues, and nations without exceptions” (in A Voice of Warning). No indication of differentiation between races with regard to system of preaching the Gospel of the kind that accompanies the Priesthood ban in later times.
- circa 1837 – Joseph Smith begins working on the Pearl of Great Price. (See 1842 for material on contents)
- Jul 1838 – The term “black” is used in a blatantly figurative statement referring to the spiritual condition of apostates, “Therefore, rejoice ye Elders of Israel. Believe not the slangs and foul reports against our beloved brethren, Joseph Smith, Jr. and Sidney Rigdon. They are groundless and as black as the apostate authors who will not protect that little stone that is hewn out of the mountain without hands and who exerts their utmost endeavors to impede the progress of the kingdom which God has set up for the salvation of man in these last days” (A. Ripley, Elders’ Journal, page 39).
- Jun 1839 – Elijah Abel’s activities discussed, but his holding the Priesthood is not documented as being questioned, in a meeting attended by Joseph Smith, Jr.
- 1839 – Elijah Abel made a member of the Nauvoo Seventies Quorum.
- 1839 – Apostle Parley P. Pratt reports that there are fewer than “one dozen free negroes or mulattoes” in the Church. (Late Persecution of the Church of Latter-day Saints, 1840)
- 1839 – Apostle Parley P. Pratt refers to the “mission of the Twelve” to all nations including those on “India’s and Afric’s [sic] sultry plains…where darkness, death, and sorrow reign” (from The Millenium and Other Poems).
- 1839-46 – Nauvoo reported to have 22 Blacks, including free and slave.
- Jun 1841 – Regarding the events surround an arrest, Smith refers to one “Elijah Able”, note the different spelling of the last name. It seems likely that Smith was referring to “Elijah Abel”, but it is not entirely clear that is the case as no direct references to Elijah Abel appear in History of the Church. “News of my arrest having arrived in Nauvoo last night, and being circulate through the city, Hosea Stout, Tarleton Lewis, William A. Hickman, John S. Higbee, Elijah Able, Uriel C. Nickerson, and George W. Clyde started from the Nauvoo landing, in a skiff in order to overtake me and rescue me, if necessary. They had a heavy head wind, but arrived in Quincy at dusk; went up to Benjamin Jones’s house, and found that I had gone to Nauvoo in charge of two officers.” (History of the Church, 4:365)
- Oct 1841 – In a discourse on fault-finding among the brethren, Smith tangentially comments upon the curse Noah laid upon Ham, and states that the curse remains upon the posterity of Canaan until the present day. “I referred to the curse of Ham for laughing at Noah, while in his wine, but doing no harm. Noah was a righteous man, and yet he drank wine and became intoxicated; the Lord did not forsake him in consequence thereof, for he retained all the power of his priesthood, and when he was accused by Canaan, he cursed him by the priesthood which he held, and the Lord had respect to his word, and the priesthood which he held, notwithstanding he was drunk, and the curse remains upon the posterity of Canaan until the present day” (History of the Church, 4:446).
- Jan 1842 – Smith enters various comments into the history and tangentially remarks upon Negroes being “sons of Cain”, which may or may not be intended literally, “Signed deeds for lots, to Law; transacted a variety of business in the city and office. In the evening debated with John C. Bennett and others to show that the Indians have greater cause to complain of the treatment of the whites, than the negroes, or sons of Cain” (History of the Church, 4:502).
- 1842 – Pearl of Great Price completed (Note: work on the Pearl of Great Price began about 1837). The work makes two references relevant to the issue at hand:
- Enoch ministers the gospel to surrounding nations but does not go to those of the lineage of Cain, which are identified as being “black”, cf. Moses 7:12 for Enoch not calling on the people of Canaan to repent; Moses 7:22 for the seed of Cain being “black”. Regarding the “seed of Cain were black”, the LDS community has traditionally interpreted Moses 7 as referring to a black skin color rather than “black” in deeds or spirituality.
- Lineage of Ham via Canaan is cursed by Noah for “seeing the nakedness of his father”. This curse is equated with a black skin and Priesthood ban by inference, (cf. Abr. 1.)
- Mar 1842 – Smith writes the following in a letter on the subject of slavery, “I have just been perusing your correspondence with Doctor Dyer, on the subject of American slavery, and the students of the Quincy Mission Institute, and it makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people. When will these things cease to be, and the Constitution and the laws again bear rule? I fear for my beloved country mob violence, injustice and cruelty appear to be the darling attributes of Missouri, and no man taketh it to heart! O tempora! O mores! What think you should be done?” (History of the Church, 4:544)
- 1843 – Apostles Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt and John Page restrict Elijah Abel’s missionary work to his own people. There is no indication from the documentation of this meeting that any of these three Apostles remark upon there being something wrong with Abel’s holding the Priesthood.
- 1843 – Elijah Abel serves another mission.
- 1843 – Sometime in the Nauvoo era, Elijah Abel participates in at least two baptisms for the dead.
- Jan 1843 – Regarding Negroes in general, Smith states, “At five went to Mr. Sollars’ with Elders Hyde and Richards. Elder Hyde inquired the situation of the negro [sic]. I replied, they came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places, and the black boys will take the shine of many of those they brush and wait on.
- “Elder Hyde remarked, ‘Put them on the level, and they will rise above me.’ I replied, if I raised you to be my equal, and then attempted to oppress you, would you not be indignant and try to rise above me, as did Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and many others, who said I was a fallen Prophet, and they were capable of leading the people, although I never attempted to oppress them, but had always been lifting them up? Had I anything to do with the negro [sic], I would confine them by strict law to their own species, and put them on a national equalization.” (History of the Church, 5:217-218)
- Some feel that Smith is referring to Elijah Abel above in the reference to “Cincinnati” as Abel took up residence there for a time. There is only circumstantial evidence to support this.
- 1844 or earlier – Walker Lewis, a Black member and barber in Lowell, MA ordained an Elder either by William Smith (a younger brother of Joseph Smith Jr.)–reported by William L. Appleby in a letter to Brigham Young dated June 2, 1847 and in his “Journal History” dated 19 May 1847–both in LDS Archives) or (according to Jane Elizabeth James in a letter dated 7 Feb 1890 to Joseph F. Smith) “Parley P. Pratt ordained Him and Elder” (reported by Wolfinger in A Test of Faith, p. 149).
- Nov 1844 – Apostle Wilford Woodruff visits Lowell, MA and observes that “a Coloured Brother who was an Elder” (presumably Walker Lewis) was present and raised his hand in support of the leaders of the Church. No remark about the existence of a Black Elder being contrary to doctrine or practice.
- 1844 – Joseph Smith Jr. campaigns for the presidency of the United States and espouses an anti-slavery platform aimed at ending all slavery by 1850. His earlier position had been anti-slavery but also anti-abolitionist. Smith states, “Pray Congress to pay every man a reasonable price for his slaves out of the surplus revenue arising from the sale of public lands, and from deduction of pay from the members of Congress, break off the shackles from the poor black man, and hire him to labor with other human beings, for an hour of virtuous liberty on earth is worth a whole eternity of bondage….”
- Jun 1844 – Assassination of Joseph Smith Jr.
- Apr 1845 – Article addressing issue of abolition appears using a mix of apparently literal (i.e. “black skin”) and figurative (i.e. “black hearts”) “black” references. No author is cited, but the periodical at that time was edited by John Taylor. “The descendants of Ham, besides a black skin which has ever been a curse that has followed an apostate of the holy priesthood, as well as a black heart, have been servants to both Shem and Japheth, and the abolitionists are trying to make void the curse of God, but it will require more power than man possesses to counteract the decrees of eternal wisdom” (Times and Seasons, Vol.6, p.857).
- Oct 1845 – Apostle John Taylor, editor of Times & Seasons, characterized Africa as a “meadow of black flowers [used] to beautify white gardens” and lamented the buying and selling of people (in Nauvoo Neighbor, 29 Oct 1845).
- 1844-45 – Sometime in 1844-45 the Lowell, MA area was visited by Apostles Ezra Taft Benson and Brigham Young, neither of whom apparently mentioned anything amiss about a Black elder’s existence. Brigham Young’s later (1847) statement makes it clear that he was aware of Walker Lewis’s holding the Priesthood.
- 27 Apr 1845 – Orson Hyde refers to Negroes as the cursed lineage of Canaan and says that the curse of servility which they bore was for actions in the Preexistence (“Speech Delivered Before the High Priests Quorum in Nauvoo”, MS in Utah State Historical Society). He also expressed the fear that the curse of Cain would come on him and his posterity if he did not repent his apostasy.
- Oct 1846 – William McCary baptized and ordained by Apostle Orson Hyde (reported by Voree Herald, Oct 1846). See also Fall 1847 entry on McCary.
- Apr 1847 – Apostle Parley P. Pratt writes concerning William McCary, “This black man has got the blood of Ham in him which linege [sic] was cursed as regards to the Priesthood”
- Jun 1847 – William L. Appelby (in charge of eastern states church activity) questions the right of Walker Lewis to hold the Priesthood in a letter to Brigham Young (dated 2 Jun 1847) and inquires whether it is acceptable. The letter arrives at Winter Quarters after Young’s departure, so it is not replied to by Young.
- 26 March 1847 – Brigham Young confronts Black Indian member, William McCary, concerning his erratic behavior and says “its nothing to do with the blood for of one blood has God made all flesh, we have to repent (and) regain what we av [sic] lost–we av [sic] one of the best Elders an African in Lowell [i.e., Walker Lewis].” This positive reference to an African Priesthood holder in the context of “its nothing to do with the blood” appears to indicate that no ban existed as of this date.
- Fall 1847 – Black Indian “prophet”, William McCary seduces a number of Mormon women into his own polygamy rites. McCary was subsequently excommunicated.
- 1847 – Brigham Young declares Blacks ineligible for certain temple ordinances, potentially reactionary to the William McCary affair.
- 1847 – Elijah Abel arrives in Utah, a free man. A carpenter by trade, he works on building the Salt Lake Temple. He and his wife Mary Ann manage the Farnham Hotel. Mary Ann Abel was Negro according to the 1850 Hamilton County Ohio census and 1860 Utah census.
- 1847 – First slaves brought to Utah by LDS members. Slavery is practiced until 1862, when it is abolished by Congress in all territories.
- Feb 1849 – Brigham Young declares “because Cain cut off the lives [sic] of Abel…the Lord cursed Cain’s seed and prohibited them from the Priesthood”. This is currently the earliest known documented statement by a Church President explicitly making a Church policy of a Priesthood ban for Blacks.
- 1850 – Twelve Mormon slave owners possess between 60 and 70 black slaves in Deseret Territory. There is one Apostle, Charles C. Rich, among these slave owners.
- 1852 – An Act in Relation to Service gives legal recognition to black slaveholding in the Territory of Deseret.
- 1852 – First public statement by Brigham Young that Blacks my not hold the Priesthood. Though it is couched in phraseology that implies it was not a new policy, Brigham Young says, “in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true.”
- 1852 – Brigham Young, in a speech regarding slavery before the territorial legislature declares “The seed of Canaan will inevitably carry the curse which was placed upon them until the same authority which placed it there, shall see proper to have it removed”. He also expresses his personal opposition to slavery: “that no property can or should be recognized as existing in slaves” (Brigham Young’s father had been a bond servant to a man who also held slaves and who had mistreated both).
- 1853 – Elijah Abel not allowed by Brigham Young to receive his endowment.
- 1860 – Utah census lists 59 Blacks, 29 of whom were slaves.
- 1862 – Slavery becomes illegal in Utah when Congress abolishes slavery in all territories.
- 1865 – Joseph Smith III, of the RLDS Church, ordains Blacks and asserts that his father never instituted a ban on Blacks holding the Priesthood.
- Oct 1868 – Juvenile Instructor asserts that “Figi [sic] Islanders” and New Zealanders were a problem because they were “greatly mixed…with the Negroes”
- 1879 – Abraham Smoot (the owner of 2 slaves) and Zebedee Coltrin claim Joseph Smith instituted the Priesthood ban in the 1830s (L. John Nuttal, Diary, May 31, 1879, p. 170, Special Collections, BYU). The Smoot affidavit, attested to by L. John Nuttall, appears to refer only to a policy concerning slaves, rather than to all Blacks, since it deals with the question of baptism and ordination of Blacks who had “masters”. This affidavit says that Smoot, “W. W. Patten, Warren Parish and Tomas B. Marsh were laboring in the Southern States in 1835 and 1836. There were Negroes who made application for baptism. And the question arose with them whether Negroes were entitled to hold the Priesthood. And…it was decided they would not confer the Priesthood until they had consulted with the Prophet Joseph; and subsequently they communicated with him. His decision was they were not entitled to the Priesthood, nor yet to be baptized without the consent of their Masters. In after years when I became acquainted with Joseph myself in Far West, about the year 1838, I received from Brother Joseph substantially the same instructions. It was on my application to him, what should be done with the Negro in the South, as I was preaching to them. He said I could baptize them by consent of their masters, but not to confer the Priesthood upon them” (quoted in Wm. E. Berret, Historian, BYU VP of the CES, The Church and the Negroid People).
- Coltrin more emphatically generalizes that the ban was applied to all Blacks. The Journal of L. John Nuttal (pages 290-293) reads, “Saturday, May 31st, 1879, at the house of President Abraham O. Smoot, Provo City, Utah, Utah County, at 5 O’Clock p.m. President John Taylor, Elders Brigham Young, Abraham O. Smoot, Zebedee Coltrin and L. John Nuttall met, . . . . Coltrin: I have heard him [Joseph Smith] say in public that no person having the least particle of Negro blood can hold the Priesthood.”
- According to Coltrin, “…Brother Joseph kind of dropped his head and rested it on his hand for a minute, and then said, ‘Brother Zebedee is right, for the spirit of the Lord saith the Negro has no right nor cannot hold the Priesthood.’… Brother Coltrin further said: ‘Brother (Elijah) Abel was ordained a Seventy because he had labored on the Temple…and when the Prophet Joseph learned of his lineage he was dropped from the Quorum, and another was put in his place. I was one of the 1st Seven Presidents of the Quorum of Seventy at the time he was dropped.’” Coltrin claims that Abel was dropped from the quorum of Seventy sometime before or during 1837 when Joseph Smith Jr. learned that Abel was Black. Apostle Joseph F. Smith successfully argues against this point on the grounds of Abel’s two additional certificates of ordination to the office of Seventy, one dated 1841 and the other from some time in the 1850s after Abel arrived in Salt Lake City. Coltrin’s memory is shown to be unreliable in at least two specifics: His claimed date (1834) for Joseph Smith’s announcing the alleged ban is impossible, since Coltrin himself ordained Abel a Seventy in 1836. Also, he incorrectly identifies which of the quorums of Seventy Abel was ordained to. Abel, on the other hand, claims that “the prophet Joseph told him he was entitled to the priesthood.” President John Taylor, on the other hand, said that Abel’s ordination as a Seventy “was allowed to remain.”
- 1880 – Elijah Abel again denied the endowment, this time by the Quorum of the Twelve.
- 1883 – Elijah Abel still on record as a Seventy.
- 1884 – Elijah Abel sent on a mission. He returns home and dies in Dec of 1884.
- 1895 – Elijah Abel, now 10 years dead, is again discussed by the Quorum of Twelve. Joseph F. Smith again rebuffs claims that Abel had been dropped from the priesthood. On the contrary, he makes two new, otherwise unverifiable claims: that Abel’s original ordination was done under the direction of Joseph Smith Jr., and that Abel was ordained a High Priest after being a Seventy. At this meeting, George Q. Cannon makes the first known claim–other than by Coltrin–that Joseph Smith himself instituted the ban. Cannon later clarifies that his statement was not firsthand information (Cannon was 17 when Joseph Smith Jr. died), but that he “understood” that to have been the case, citing John Taylor as his source.
- 27 Nov 1900 – Enoch Abel, son of Elijah Abel, ordained an Elder (photocopy of ordination certificate published by Modern Microfilms).
- 1902 – Jane Manning James, a faithful Black member of the Church since the days of Joseph Smith Jr, is given a special temple endowment as a “servant” to Joseph Smith Jr.
- 1908 – Joseph F. Smith, on unspecified grounds, reverses his former position about Elijah Abel’s status and now claims that Joseph Smith himself declared Abel’s ordination “null and void”.
- 5 Jul 1934 – Elijah Abel, grandson of Elijah Abel, is ordained a priest (Modern Microfilms document).
- 29 Sep 1935 – Elijah Abel, grandson of Elijah Abel, is ordained an Elder (Modern Microfilms document).
- 1940 – Apostle J. Ruben Clark, Jr., recommends the appointment of a sub-committee to the council of Twelve to “make some ruling or re-affirm whatever ruling that has been made on this question in the past as to whether or not one drop of negro [sic] blood deprives a man of the right to receive the priesthood” (“Council Meeting” 25 Jan 1940, George Albert Smith Papers, LDS Church Archives).
- 1947 – A Church First Presidency investigation concerning the racial situation among Brazilians finds “the races…badly mixed” because “no color line is drawn among the mass of the people” and that “a great part of the population of Brazil is colored.” In Brazil, a shift occurs to using Patriarchal Blessings as the means for determining whether the Priesthood ban applies.
- 1949 – First Presidency statement issued stating that the Church’s position is a result of revelation, “The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.” No specific revelation is cited.
- circa 1955 – Melanesian “Blacks” (e.g., Fijians) defined by the Church, under David O. McKay, as not under the Priesthood ban. Previously were banned from the Priesthood.
- Jun 1958 – B. R. McConkie publishes Mormon Doctrine. Under heading for “Negroes” he states that Negroes are lineage of Cain through Ham’s wife, they were less valiant in the pre-existence, are banned from the Priesthood, and the gospel message is not to be carried to them. He cites passages from Moses 7 and Abraham 1 as proof texts.
- Jan 1959 – M. G. Romney delivers report authorized by Pres. D. O. McKay on Mormon Doctrine. The report identifies “controversial issues” which “might have been omitted . . . [or] modified” if “the work been authoritatively supervised.” McConkie’s comments concerning the Negro are not cited in the report. Unsold copies of the edition are recalled and destroyed.
- circa 1960-1970 – The Church actively engages in proselyting African Negroes. “In 1960, at the request of the First Presidency, Glen G. Fisher visited…[Nigeria] …as he returned to Utah from his assignment as president of the South African Mission…. by 1961 President McKay concluded that the Church must permit the Nigerians to be baptized and confirmed members of the Church…. Before the end of February 1962, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve decided to open a mission in Nigeria. In March , [Lamar S.] Williams was called…along with his wife, Nyal, to preside over a [mission] district to be established under the umbrella of the West European Mission. Four additional couples were soon selected to assist. On November 21 Williams was set apart by President McKay as the first missionary to the black people of Nigeria and told to establish the Church, conduct missionary work, and organize all the auxiliaries, with local members supervising the auxiliaries. . . . Nigeria had only recently gained independence from British colonial rule, and government officials were suspicious of outsiders. When they learned of the priesthood policy they immediately denied visas to LDS missionaries. . . . Twice Williams returned briefly on temporary visitor’s visas…. [In Dec. 1965 the Biafran War erupted and precluded any missionary efforts.]
- 1962 – “Sometime in 1962 a missionary tract, the “Joseph Smith Story”, found its way into the hands of a black religious leader [in Ghana], Dr. A. F. Mensah, who was converted almost immediately. He soon converted several others, organized a ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’, and began to correspond with LaMar Williams at the Missionary Department of the Church. In 1964 he gave a copy of the Book of Mormon as well as other literature to J. W. B. Johnson who, after reading it and receiving a series of dramatic personal revelations, was also converted and became equally successful in spreading the gospel among fellow Ghanians. Eventually Johnson and his followers formed several ‘Latter-day Saint’ congregations, somewhat independent of Mensah. Mensah, Johnson, and others continued through the 1970s to preach the gospel as they understood it, and to plead with the Church for missionaries and for the official establishment of the Church among them.” (James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints: Correlating the International Church, 1960-1973)
- 1963 – Apostle Hugh B. Brown quoted as saying that the Church was “looking toward the possibility of admitting Negroes” to the Priesthood. (New York Times, 7 Jun 1963)
- 1963 – Joseph Fielding Smith in Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol 4 addresses a question concerning the Church’s position towards Negroes (pages 169-172). He states “the Latter-day Saints… have no animosity towards the Negroe [sic]. Neither have they described him as belonging to an ‘inferior race.’ There are Negroes in the Church who are respected and honored for their integrity and faithful devotion. The door into the Church is open to all.” He also states “if a Negro joins the Church through the waters of baptism and is confirmed by the laying on of hands and then he remains faithful and true to the teachings of the Church and in keeping the commandments the Lord has given, he will come forth in the first resurrection and will enter the celestial kingdom of God.”
- 1963 – Spencer W. Kimball states, “The things of God cannot be understood by the spirit of men…. I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter. But for me, it is enough. The prophets for 133 years of the existence of the Church have maintained the position of the prophet of the Restoration that the Negro could not hold the priesthood nor have the temple ordinances which are preparatory for exaltation. . . . The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory…. I know the Lord could change his policy. . . . If the time comes, that he will do, I am sure.” Concerning members who were pressuring Church leaders to make a change regarding blacks and the priesthood Kimball states, “These smart members who would force the issue, and there are many of them, cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority.”
- Sep 1966 – The Second Edition Mormon Doctrine is published, with a number of the items noted in M.G. Romney’s report to the First Presidency edited out. Statements concerning the Negro remain unedited and intact from the 1st Edition.
- 1969 – President Hugh B. Brown proposes that the Church’s policy be reversed and that Blacks be given the Priesthood. This policy was approved by the Quorum of Twelve and the First Presidency with President McKay and Harold B. Lee absent. (President McKay was disabled due to age and President Lee was traveling on Church business.) When President Lee returned, he called for another vote and the measure was defeated this time. (Edwin B. Firmage, editor. The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown, “Editor’s Afterward.” Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988.) President Brown wrote about the issue:
- “A serious problem that has confronted us, especially during the past few decades has been our denying the priesthood to the Negro. Personally, I doubt if we can maintain or sustain ourselves in the position we have adopted but which has no justification in the scriptures, as far as I know. The president says it can only come by revelation. If that is true, then change will come in due course. It seems to me that if we had admitted the Negro to the church as a full member, at the time of Joseph Smith, we would have had more trouble with the government than we then had. Holding ourselves aloof from that until after the Civil war gave us the opportunity to establish the church without that question coming to the front. It was, in other words, a policy, not necessarily a doctrine” (1988. Edwin B. Firmate, editor. The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown. Salt Lake City: Signature Books. P. 129.)
- 1973 – Upon becoming President of the Church, S. W. Kimball was asked about the position of the Church regarding the blacks and the priesthood, he states, “I am not sure that there will be a change, although there could be. We are under the dictates of our Heavenly Father, and this is not my policy or the Church’s policy. It is the policy of the Lord who has established it, and I know of no change, although we are subject to revelations of the Lord in case he should ever wish to make a change.”
- 1978 – “In 1960 stakes began to be organized in foreign nations, and today the Church is clearly an international organization. With the decision to build a temple in Brazil, the policy regarding the African blacks came into sharp focus because interracial marriage is a common practice there. Under these conditions President Spencer W. Kimball began an exhaustive personal study of the scriptures as well as statements of Church leaders since Joseph Smith, and asked other General Authorities to share their personal feelings relative to the longstanding Church policy. Then he began to inquire of the Lord if the time was not right to extend the priesthood blessings to this restricted people. Recalling this period, President Kimball stated, ‘Day after day, and especially on Saturdays and Sundays when there were no organizations in the temple, I went there when I could be alone.’ The result was a revelation on 1 June 1978:
- “On Thursday, 1 June 1978, the First Presidency and ten of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave the matter special attention. Then, following the monthly fast meeting of the General Authorities in the Salt Lake Temple on 1 June, President Kimball ‘asked the Twelve not to go home,’ but to stay for a special prayer circle with him. It was on this occasion, at 2:45 p.m., that the Lord confirmed the wishes of the Brethren to rescind the policy that prohibited African blacks from receiving the priesthood.” (Lyndon Cook, Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith)
- 1 Jun 1978 – Revelation is received granting the Priesthood to those of African Negro descent. Concerning the revelation Kimball states, “I offered the final prayer and I told the Lord if it wasn’t right, if He didn’t want this change to come in the church, that I would be true to it all the rest of my life, and I’d fight the world against it if that’s what He wanted…. But this revelation and assurance came to me so clearly that there was no question about it. . . . I knew that the time had come.”
- 8 Jun 1978 – Under the direction of President Spencer W. Kimball, the First Presidency announces a revelation extending the Priesthood to “every faithful, worthy man in the Church”. (See Official Declaration-2.)
- Aug 1978 – In a public lecture, B. R. McConkie states,
- “We have revelations that tell us that the gospel is to go to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people before the second coming of the Son of Man. And we have revelations which recite that when the Lord comes he will find those who speak every tongue and are members of every nation and kindred, who will be kings and priests, who will live and reign on earth with him a thousand years. That means, as you know, that people from all nations will have the blessings of the house of the Lord before the Second Coming.
- “We have read these passages and their associated passages for many years. We have seen what the words say and have said to ourselves, “Yes, it says that, but we must read out of it the taking of the gospel and the blessings of the temple to the Negro people, because they are denied certain things.” There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
- “We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.
- “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year.” (All Are Alike Unto God, A SYMPOSIUM ON THE BOOK OF MORMON, The Second Annual Church Educational System Religious Educator’s Symposium, August 17-19, 1978)
- Sept 2000 – Alexander Morrison in an Ensign article in Sept 2000, said:
- “Unfortunately, racism – the abhorrent and morally destructive theory that claims superiority of one person over another by reason of race, color, ethnicity, or cultural background – remains one of the abiding sins of societies the world over. The cause of much of the strife and conflict in the world, racism is an offense against God and a tool in the devil’s hands. In common with other Christians, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regret the actions and statements of individuals who have been insensitive to the pain suffered by the victims of racism and ask God’s forgiveness for those guilty of this grievous sin. The sin of racism will be eliminated only when every human being treats all others with the dignity and respect each deserves as a beloved child of our Heavenly Father.
- “How grateful I am that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has from its beginnings stood strongly against racism in any of its malignant manifestations.”
- 28 Sep 2002 – Apostle Russell Ballard dedicates a marker to Elijah Abel.
LDS Doctrinal Rhetoric and the Politics of Same-Sex Marriage
Richley Crapo, Utah State University
Purpose of this Paper
A number of denominations regularly perform same-sex religious marriages. These include the U.S. Branch of Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Association, Reconstructionist Judaism, the Metropolitan Community Church, the Unitarian Universalists, and even two Restorationist denominations within the Mormon tradition.i The LDS Church headquartered in Salt Lake City is like the majority of denominations in not performing such marriages. However, it differs from most in that in addition to not performing religious same-sex marriages, it is also politically active in opposing secular recognition of same-sex marriages. I wish to address how this political activism intertwines with religious rhetoric concerning marriage, including both what is said and what goes without saying.
In 1990 a court case, Baehr vs Lewin, was filed in Hawaii by three couples in an attempt to get the state to recognize same-sex marriages. Initially, the Honolulu Circuit Court found against the same-sex couples, but in May of that year the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that under the state constitution, which forbids discrimination based on sex, a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional unless the state could demonstrate a “compelling state interest” in discriminating against same-sex couples. Having made this determination, the Hawaii Supreme Court remanded the case to the circuit court with the mandate to reverse its decision unless such a compelling state interest was found to exist. The legislative Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law established to determine whether a compelling state interest existed in not recognizing same-sex marriages determined that no such interest existed. This finding made it inevitable that the Honolulu Circuit Court would change its original decision and find in favor of the couples involved in the case.
The hearing of the arguments concerning the issue of compelling state interest was finally scheduled to begin in the Honolulu Circuit Court on September 25, 1995. But seven months before that date, the LDS Church in Hawaii sued the circuit court (in February) to be admitted as “co-defendants” with the state. As explained in a press release dated February 23, 1995, by the Hawaii Public Affairs Council of the LDS Church, the Church’s position was based on the claim that it and its members would be adversely affected if its interests were not represented in the case. The Church argued that if same-sex marriages were granted legal recognition, then its ministers might be legally required to perform such marriages despite the fact that they are contrary to the Church’s religious values. It further explained that “Our motion for intervention is not to oppose civil rights for anyone, but to protect families and children, as well as society in general, by opposing a proposal to extend the legal privileges of marriage beyond the kind of relationship that justifies it”. In late March, a Circuit Court judge rejected the LDS request, noting that the argument of being forced to perform marriages that are religiously repugnant to the church is legal nonsense, since no minister is legally required to perform any marriage. Nevertheless, the LDS Church in Hawaii appealed this decision to the Hawaii Supreme Court, where the appeal was also not favorably heard. The final step in the court process is for the Hawaii Supreme Court to hear arguments and render a final decision, one that is likely to be consistent with its previously expressed views on the unconstitutionality of refusing to grant married status to same-sex couples.
LDS Rhetoric Concerning Legal Marriage
Although most denominations are not totally sanguine about same-sex relationships, the concept of same-sex marriages is particularly problematic for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, since the very core of its organizational and theological emphasis is the sanctity of the family created by heterosexual marriage. The sanctification of heterosexual marriage is more than a mere political slogan for the LDS religion, which celebrates as one of its most sacred rituals the ordinance of heterosexual temple marriages, long described as necessary for salvation in the highest degree of glory in the next life. LDS theology views such temple-blessed unions as “eternal marriages” which will endure beyond death. Among the small number of special ordinances practiced in LDS Temples is the “sealing” of children to their parents to ensure that the family organization is preserved throughout eternity. Worldwide, the LDS church reserves one evening a week in which no regular church meetings are scheduled so that each family may hold its own “Family Home Evening”. So central is the family in church thought that, even Apostles of the church have expressed the idealized view that the central function of the church itself is simply to serve as an aid to the family, the true organizational unit of the church. Thus, heterosexual marriage is not simply one of a number of sacraments within the LDS church, but is better seen as the culminating ordinance for the typical member. This makes the concept of same-sex marriage uniquely problematic in LDS discourse.
The LDS press release of February 23, 1995, is interesting both in the terms that are used to discuss the legal and religious issues concerning marriage and in the terms that are avoided in that discussion. In taking a position against state recognition of same-sex marriage, the press release contrasts what it calls “traditional marriage” with “homosexual and lesbian marriage”. The phrase “traditional marriage” or some synonym is used seven times in fewer than six hundred words of text. The phrase “homosexual marriage” or an equivalent is used another seven times. This contrast set is interesting because of the semantic shift which it involves. The document does not contrast “traditional” with “nontraditional” nor does it contrast “homosexual and lesbian” with “heterosexual” but rather shifts from one semantic set to the other. Notably, in contrast with the seven occurrences of “homosexual” and an equal number of occurrences of “lesbian”, the term “heterosexual” is never called upon to discuss marriages involving males and females. The sexuality of same-sex unions is thus highlighted, while the sexuality of so-called “traditional marriages” is avoided.
The use of an unbalanced contrast set in statements such as the 1995 press release certainly imparts a connotative spin to the argument, but I believe that more than mere polemics is involved. It is the absence of the term “heterosexual” that I wish to focus on. It is a term that goes without saying not just in public political statements, but in LDS rhetoric concerning marriage in general. Marriage is, in other words, assumed to be heterosexual. The possibility of same-sex marriages is an immediate challenge to this assumption. It’s existence as a public category would demand that the unspoken be addressed. I will argue that doing so is problematic for the LDS church in very practical ways.
The Ambiguity of Marriage
Marriage in western societies is an ambiguous concept. It may, for instance, be thought of in personal terms as a committed sexual relationship, in political terms as a legal institution, and in religious terms as a sacrament. That which is defined from any one of these perspectives is something quite different from the meaning embodied in each of the other perspectives. Yet this ambiguity is commonly ignored as if the word “marriage” meant the same thing whenever uttered. This blindness to ambiguity makes it possible to use religious rhetoric about sacramental marriage as if it were relevant to the political issues of the legal institution called by the same name.
Failure to distinguish between “marriage” as a religious institution and “marriage” a defined set of secular legal rights and responsibilities is incongruous on its face, since it legitimizes secular bureaucratic control over an institution thought to have been established by God with no inquiry concerning the interesting question of how human governments might have acquired such authority regarding a divine institution. Mormons of a century ago came down unambiguously in opposition to the authority of government to impose a secular definition of marriage or to limit their right to establish marriages according to their own religious conceptualization of the institution. For instance, Shoshone couples whose “marriages” had involved no religious or secular ceremony were freely admitted to membership in the church without any requirement of instituting a marriage by either a legal or religious ceremony. They were not defined as “living in sin” for the lack of either formal mechanism for defining themselves as married. Similarly, Mormon polygynous marriages did not involve a civil ceremony. Thus, a variety of ways existed for creating relationships that were considered valid bases for being said to be “married”. Their common denominator was probably nothing more than the expression of commitment to the relationship, because Mormons did distinguish in political speeches about polygamy between the legitimate sexuality of these relationships and the “fornication” or “adultery” in the uncommitted sexual liaisons of their adversaries.ii Today, the LDS church defines “chastity” in a way that incorporates the secular definition as limiting sex to a partner with whom one is “legally and lawfully” wedded. This shift in definitions deposed personal commitment as the defining essential of marriage, creating a major contrast between “married couples” and couples who, though committed, were merely “fornicators” and thereby raised the status of civil marriage to a position coequal with that of religious ceremony as the public determinants of marriage.
The contemporary ambiguous nature of the concept of marriage leaves us blind to this unasked and unanswered theological question. In LDS circles it literally “goes without saying” that secular governments have somehow been authorized by God to determine when sex is or is not sin, a sentiment that would not have been shared by LDS polygynists of the last century.
This issue can be brought into focus in several ways. From a religious perspective an LDS person might note that fornication and adultery are sins because God forbade them and that marriage, which legitimizes sex in His eyes, was instituted by God. Furthermore, marriage is a sacrament, or, in LDS terminology, a Priesthood ordinance, since the effectiveness of a sealing for eternity is contingent upon its being performed by an authorized Priesthood bearer. The question that generally remains unput in LDS circles is “Under what circumstances may sex occur outside a temple marriage and not constitute fornication or adultery?” The “LDS common sense” response to this uncommon question is, of course, when the couple is legally married in the eyes of the government of their society. But this reply seems sufficient only because it relies on an implicit LDS assumption that God recognizes the validity of secular marriage, an assumption that is both naive concerning the cultural diversity of marriage norms throughout the world and culture-bound as well. The latter is well illustrated by a case in point, the Protestant applicant for baptism into the LDS community, who at his baptismal interview inquired whether he was “living in sin”, since he and his wife of twenty-years had been married only in a non-LDS ceremony.iii To one not immersed in the “common sense” of the LDS subculture, the question was a natural one. The LDS interviewer’s response, however, was surprise at the question itself and a friendly reassurance that such was not the case.
But what is the underpinning of this LDS “common sense” view that secular marriage is efficacious in determining whether sex is sinful or acceptable to God? The case of same-sex marriage forces a confrontation with this question in a stronger way than does any other form of marriage. If a state such as Hawaii actually comes to recognize same-sex unions as legal marriages, then the usual reliance on unquestioned “common sense” fails in a religion such as Mormonism that rejects same-sex unions as inherently unchaste. It becomes logically mandatory to make a theological distinction between secular marriages performed by government that shift a cohabiting couple’s sexual behavior from the category of “fornication” to that of “chaste sex” and governmental marriages that have no such efficacy. At the very least, theological discourse must change, even if the question is not addressed head on. For instance, in a society in which same-sex and other-sex marriage are legally indistinguishable, the ambiguity of the phrase “eternal marriage” in a missionary dialogue would miscommunicate in a way which would no longer be practical. To communicate LDS theology appropriately it would be necessary to make explicit that which can remain implicit in a heterosexist culture; to communicate what is really meant, the missionary dialogue would have to speak explicitly of “eternal heterosexual marriage”. This explicitness is, of course, quite out of step with our still rather Victorian LDS sensibilities within which sex is to be euphemized if spoken of at all.
iThe Restoration Church of Jesus Christ and The Restoration Fellowship of Jesus Christ.
iiCowley, Matthias F. 1909. Wilford Woodruff. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft (1964 edition). Pp. 403-404.
iiiPersonal recollection of the event.