Mormon Doctrine Part 1: A Record Keeping People

Mormon_Doctrine-s00033It’s more revealing than ironic, that the most famous book by the most “authoritative” LDS “authority” for many generations was given the title: Mormon Doctrine, by Bruce R McConkie. The revealing part of course, is that Mormon Doctrine isn’t necessarily Mormon doctrine. It’s merely Bruce R McConkie’s personal take on LDS theological concerns. Some of it is correct and undisputable doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And some of it is not only wrong, it’s been admitted by the author to be embarrassingly wrong. And though Bruce R McConkie has successfully homogenized his Mormon Doctrine theology into LDS dogma because he was responsible for most of the now “canonized” indexing, cross-referencing, commentary and dictionary sections of the LDS “Four Standard Works,” Bruce R McConkie’s original encyclopedia of Mormon “doctrine” remains what it has always been, an almost entirely unauthoritative collection of personal Mormon opinions. Any implied authority it may have had while he was alive died with him in 1985.

Mormon Doctrine wasn’t even originally published by the LDS church through its Deseret Book, “official” publishing arm. Mormon Doctrine was published by the period go-to literary marketing wing of rebuffed and rejected LDS apostles, general authorities and literary wannabees, Bookcraft. Bookcraft, or “Priestcraft Book” as I called it before it was bought out by Deseret Book in 1999, eagerly scrounged together odd talks and lectures from whatever LDS “authoritative” source it could scrump out of the religious or intellectual Mormon brain orchards, threw a ghostwriter and an editor at the project, and in a few weeks had yet another inspiring, and more importantly, marketable, piece of LDS er, literature.

The story of how McConkie, not yet an apostle, published this work on his own without any authority or even informing his superiors is an enlightening one. This will come as a shock to most Mormons, particularly of the McConkie era, but Marion G Romney’s evaluation of it at the time, writing on official assignment for the Council of Twelve, under the direction of President David O McKay’s First Presidency, listed over a thousand serious errors and noted the offensive use of negative labels against other religions and an overall pompous and authoritative tone for a book with no approval of the “Brethren” behind it whatsoever:

As to the book itself, notwithstanding its many commendable and valuable features and the author’s assumption of ‘sole and full responsibility’ for it, its nature and scope and the authoritative tone of the style in which it is written pose the question as to the propriety of the author’s attempting such a project without assignment and supervision from him whose right and responsibility it is to speak for the Church on ‘Mormon Doctrine.’ Had the work been authoritatively supervised, some of the following matters might have been omitted and the treatment of others modified.

He then goes into a point-by-point illustration of serious doctrinal errors espoused in the work. President McKay responded with a series of meetings, noted in his diary:

“THURSDAY, January 7, 1960
10:15 to 12:45 p.m. Re: The book—‘Mormon Doctrine’

The First Presidency met with Elders Mark E. Petersen and Marion G. Romney. They submitted their report upon their examination of the book ‘Mormon Doctrine’ by Elder Bruce McConkie.

These brethren reported that the manuscript of the book ‘Mormon Doctrine’ has not been read by the reading committee; that President Joseph Fielding Smith [President of the Twelve at the time] did not know anything about it until it was published. Elder Petersen stated that the extent of the corrections which he had marked in his copy of the book (1067) affected most of the 776 pages of the book. He also said that he thought the brethren should be under the rule that no book should be published without a specific approval of the First Presidency.

I stated that the decision of the First Presidency and the Committee should be announced to the Twelve.

It was agreed that the necessary corrections are so numerous that to republish a corrected edition of the book would be such an extensive repudiation of the original as to destroy the credit of the author; that the republication of the book should be forbidden and that the book should be repudiated in such a way as to save the career of the author as one of the General Authorities of the Church. It was also agreed that this decision should be announced to the Council of the Twelve before I talk to the author.

Elder Petersen will prepare an editorial for publication in the Improvement Era, stating the principle of approval of books on Church doctrine.”

“FRIDAY, January 8, 1960
11:55 to 12:15 p.m.

The First Presidency held a meeting. We decided that Bruce R. McConkie’s book, ‘Mormon Doctrine’ recently published by Bookcraft Company, must not be re-published, as it is full of errors and misstatements, and it is most unfortunate that it has receive such wide circulation. It is reported to us that Brother McConkie has made corrections to his book, and is now preparing another edition. We decided this morning that we do not want him to publish another edition.

We decided, also, to have no more books published by General Authorities without their first having the consent of the First Presidency. (see January 7, 1960)”

As harsh as this sounds, ignoring what the last big, popular LDS “authority” had to say and just swallowing with an embarrassed shrug whatever the new guy is telling you, is essentially the LDS party line. This has become far more difficult to do since the advent of modern, affordable, publishing capabilities, combined with the ability to record these “authorities” in sound and video.

Six years later, after submitting to all the corrections noted by the Brethren, McConkie pressed President McKay to allow a reprint. McKay relented. Rather than reveal McConkie’s lack of insight in his original work, Mormonism, well used to brainwiping itself and starting over with the next big authority, ignored the first edition, and embraced the revised book as next to Divine:

After more than 50 years, Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine , one of the most influential LDS books of the 20th century, has quietly gone out of print.

The encyclopedic explanation of LDS teachings, first published in 1958, went through 40 printings, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Deseret Book has decided not to reprint the classic volume, said spokeswoman Gail Halladay, because of “low sales.”

“The demand is no longer there,” said Halladay, managing director for marketing and communications.

From the day it came off the presses, though, Mormon Doctrine , was at once wildly popular to many and deeply troubling to more than a few, even at the highest levels of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Several passages about the Roman Catholic Church and McConkie’s views of blacks were seen as especially offensive.

Although McConkie, an LDS apostle who died in 1985, took sole responsibility from the start for Mormon Doctrine ‘s content, it often was quoted over the pulpit and treated by members as quasi-official. The book, with its presumptive title, seemed to provide an answer to every question and left little room for ambiguity.

Mormon Doctrine served two generations of the Mormon rank and file as the main authoritative source of LDS teachings,” said LDS sociologist Armand Mauss. “With its authoritative tone and constant promotion from high places, it came to be regularly cited in the church curriculum, especially in [Church Educational System] materials, and soon took on almost a scriptural stature.”

To assemble the volume, McConkie, son-in-law of LDS Church President Joseph Fielding Smith, drew on Mormon scriptures, prophetic sermons and commonly held beliefs. He put them together in alphabetical order and with a tone of certainty.

Still, many complained that it did not fairly reflect the diversity of opinion among Latter-day Saints and their leaders.

“The book would more accurately have been entitled, Mostly Mormon Doctrine ,” Mauss wrote in an e-mail from his home in Irvine, Calif.

The book was even challenged by LDS President David O. McKay, who led the church from 1951 to 1970.

“Nonetheless, McConkie audaciously approached McKay six years later and pushed for publication of the book in a revised form,” according to Prince and Wright. McKay responded that “if republished,” the book should be clearly marked as McConkie’s work and not an official church publication.

McConkie took that as a go-ahead, Prince and Wright wrote.

“The book became one of the all-time best-sellers in Mormondom,” they wrote, “achieving the near-canonical status that McKay had fought unsuccessfully to avoid, and setting a tone of doctrinal fundamentalism, antithetical to McKay’s personal philosophy, that remains a legacy of the church to this day.”

Prince said he “never saw anything in Bruce McConkie that was mean or un-Christian,” but the LDS scientist nonetheless was “delighted” by news that Mormon Doctrine no longer would be published.

“His book,” Prince said, “has done some serious damage.”

In the first edition, Prince said, it was his “diatribe against the Roman Catholic Church that did the most harm, but subsequently, the real damage has been his statements about blacks.”

After the LDS Church opened its all-male priesthood to blacks in 1978, McConkie deleted his previous statement predicting that never would happen. Even in the most recent edition, though, McConkie wrote that God cursed Cain with “a mark of a dark skin, and he became the ancestor of the black race.”

Mauss, the sociologist, thinks the book is going out of print “none too soon, especially given the current public-relations preoccupation of the LDS Church.”

The volume’s continued availability after its wide distribution, he said, will “continue to provide critics of the church with an enduring basis for claiming, however unfairly, that ‘Mormon doctrines’ are non-Christian or anti-Christian, and that the church is a racist institution.”

“Elder McConkie was an apostle and a good man but a man of his times,” said Darius Gray, former president of the

Genesis Branch for black Mormons. “Sadly his times included a period in this nation when not all men were judged by the content of their character but rather the color of their skin.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ never has been a respecter of persons, said Gray, co-producer with Margaret Blair Young of a documentary film, “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.”

“The LDS Church is a young church,” he said, “and, as it has grown, it has become more inclusive, embracing of all God’s creations.”

The continual publication of Mormon Doctrine seemed to suggest an approval of the concepts and attitudes of a former time, Gray said. By not reprinting it, “a weight will have been lifted off the body of the church. We have thankfully moved on.”


09-159-4Not apparent in the above article, is the happy eventuality that David O McKay, who vehemently resented McConkie’s attitude, rude style, and a lot of his theology, passed away four years after the publication of his Mormon Doctrine second edition. His father-in-law, Joseph Fielding Smith, who’s own theology McConkie had almost exclusively been paraphrasing, left as president of the Quorum of the Twelve and became the next president of the church. Oddly enough, McConkie soon moved into the Quorum of Twelve. Suddenly, McConkie’s unauthorized book wasn’t quite so bad after all, and he could preach it with apostolic authority, particularly on issues like the Curse of Cain or Negroes getting the priesthood—issues upon which McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith via Bruce R McConkie strongly disagreed.

I’m not concerned here much with what Mormon doctrine is. I’m simply exploring how Mormon doctrine gets to be Mormon doctrine. And more importantly, how you as an investigator or member of the LDS church can determine what really is your obligation to believe, to accept as “the gospel,” as Mormons would put it. The Mormon “gospel” isn’t mind you, “Jesus saved me amen.” It’s a very complicated litany of beliefs that adds up to “The Church.”

There is a huge base of what I call “hard” LDS doctrines that really haven’t budged from the days of Joseph Smith. Almost all of these originated with Joseph Smith. Most of the rest are little bursts of insight professed by Smith’s contemporaries or later leadership that sprang directly from something Joseph Smith once said. One of these would be the notion that mankind is literally the kin of God. Jesus is our literal brother, and God the Father is literally our Father. This crosses physical and spiritual lines to mean that God and man are of the same species, and that mankind can grow to become like our Father the same way a human child can grow to be like its father. But through the years, the urge to expand upon this concept or define it further, has tended to get a bit dodgy–from the top to the bottom of the LDS church.

Joseph Smith’s first step into “heretical” anti-Trinitarian unorthodoxy  was the “First Vision.” Mormonism has never doubted from that point onward that there are three distinct and individual members of the “Godhead.” Smith’s terminology was ironically stolen from Jean Cauvan, who also used “Godhead” rather than “Trinity,” because frankly, Cauvan, or “John Calvin,” couldn’t find any Trinitarian language in the Bible itself either. He was persuaded however to find some, when his early detractors formed a lynch mob, dragged him before the local church authorities, and they nearly excommunicated him for it. At that point Calvin begrudgingly conceded to pick up the required Trinitarian jargon and at least pay lip service to the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds—neither of which he actually considered authoritative. That adjustment having thus been made, Calvin’s theology became immensely popular in “orthodox” Protestantism. Calvin indeed, nearly invented what we in America call “Protestantism.”

StStephenBut Calvin probably saw in Acts 7, exactly what Joseph Smith said he saw personally in the thickets of Upstate New York: God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, appearing as two distinct and identical beings in human form. In Acts 7:55, Stephen identifies these two as the Father and Jesus Christ. Stephen says these two Biblical characters appeared to him as separate beings. Luke, the presumed author of Acts, obviously agrees with Stephen’s assessment. Furthermore, Luke claims Stephen was first visited by the presence of a third entity, a spirit entity, the Holy Ghost—again, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same place, in three separate forms, the Holy Ghost filling Stephen’s his heart, and the other two Deities appearing before him physically. Even this perfectly traditional, Christian and orthodox source gives Mormonism three distinctly separate beings with or without Smith’s vision. This testament appears in canon, from a Sainted witness, Stephen, and a Sainted, Apostolic scribe, Luke. But of course, you have Joseph Smith’s replication of this experience concurring with Acts 7 on top of that. So this bit is easy: The Father and Son are again, in Mormonism, unquestionably two “perfected” or “glorified” physical beings and the Holy Ghost is just that: a Spirit.

I’ve looked by the way, for Christian depictions of Saint Stephen’s First Vision. They’re markedly absent from the icon repositories. This is because they would look exactly like Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and blow the hell out of all of Christianity since 326 AD and the Council of Nicea.

You may well ask, what is a “perfected” or “glorified” body? That’s where it starts to get sticky. That’s were knowledge starts to get replaced with intuition, sophistry, intellectualism, or just a hunch. Or worse yet, in Mormonism, you get your own “personal revelation,” and run around shooting your mouth off about it for generations until it sticks.

When you open the door to re-conceptualizing the nature of God and Man, what follows is that prophets, apostles, janitors and ward clerks all feel equally empowered to walk through that magic portal and explore the vast open spaces of the “Restoration.” God’s intentions, express and implied on the matter, are generally far more limited than those who claim to seek His wisdom in all things.

We find the whole culture of Mormonism pondering just what the relationship of God’s physical body is to ours, how man’s spiritual beginnings are integrated into a mortal frame, why the Holy Ghost doesn’t have a body of any sort, and so forth. For authoritative answers to all this pondering and questioning, at one time, with a handful of members and the prophet Joseph Smith alive and kicking, you would just go up and ask him. He’d talk to God about it, and give you an answer sometimes instantly, not just in the name of God, but he would deliver the very word of the Lord in First Person. Most of these tidbits of God’s Word were written down, went before the leadership, sustained by the membership, and became canon scripture.

Now, even though in Joseph Smith’s day you might well have God’s wishes for you personally delivered by a letter1prophetic mouthpiece of the Lord in First Person, if it was just you writing it down, especially scribbling it out later from memory, well, that only means something to you. Assuming you got it down right, which is a big assumption, it may be a great personal bit of insight, but has no more binding doctrinal authority on you or anyone else than an autographed baseball card from Babe Ruth would have the authority to get you a contract with the major leagues. If you didn’t get it right, then you have a problem not just for you, but for a whole people of faith. Mormons love to dig this stuff out of scrapbooks, family Bibles, pioneer journals and old conference talks. Since 1847 they’ve been reading, sanctifying, and passing this crap around out there in “Zion.” And then every generation’s “authorities” tag onto the heritage, a little bit of their own alleged insight.

For instance, I used the language, “mankind can grow to become like our Father the same way a human child can grow to be like its father,” in my quick sketch of the doctrine in examination at the moment. Let’s pretend I’m Joseph Smith. Let’s pretend that Parley P Brigham LaVerle Widstoe wrote it down in his journal a day or two after I said that from memory, but now you’re reading me nearly two hundred years later. Did I really mean the “same” way, or did I only mean to imply a similar relationship?

The “same” way could mean that humans just physically evolve into Gods. I could have meant that God started as pond scum and evolved His way up from tadpoles to fish to reptiles to mammals to monkeys and so on. You could postulate that mankind is phase-one of becoming Divine in a very Darwinian sense. “Similar” however, might only mean that even though the organic physics of the process may be entirely different, the familial relationship is the same from the standpoint of intelligence and spirit.31

The point is, even if quoted verbatim in the surviving record, you can’t be certain what I, as Joseph Smith meant, almost two hundred years ago. And you can’t ask me.

Joseph Smith has also written that we existed in a spiritual body before this earthly body, and that spiritual matter is simply a finer type of matter than temporal matter. This isn’t debated doctrine at all either. OK then, how is the crossover between the two types of matter and existence accomplished? Why is this crossover even necessary? Did God also begin as an intelligence, organize Himself into a spirit, and then evolve or manufacture Himself a mortal body? Did He then move on to perfect his mortal body over time into His present form? And how do I advance this line of understanding? What resources do I have? What role does logic or science or other wisdom play in figuring out this puzzle? Do I conclude that Jesus was an alien-human hybrid, and the Virgin Mary was enveloped by a cloaked shuttle sent from God’s mothership and received her implanted Divine DNA bundle through a non-physical trans-matter probe?

Don’t laugh. It’s not so funny. There’s a whole class of LDS gospel hobbyists who think they’re entitled to explore both that sort of vernacular and the exact mechanisms of Celestial reproduction.

With any allegedly “authoritative” Mormon source, I always go back to the same question I have about any “canon” or any other authoritative record: is that what the guy actually said? Now, in the case of the Gospels and Biblical texts, no, there were no shorthand geniuses taking dictation. Everything is from memory, everything was recorded years, decades, hundreds of years after-the-fact and filtered through generations of copiers and editors. As McConkie claims, yes, the only way we have of “proofing” canon is against other canon. From several canon authors we can eliminate some of the goofier theories at least. IE:

On the question of the Mormon conception of a Godhead, apart from divining Truth from a hundred slightly conflicting Biblical verses, Mormons have a very spelled-out version of the doctrine in the D&C, from the Articles of Faith, the very first of which is:

1 We abelieve in bGod, the Eternal Father, and in His cSon, Jesus Christ, and in the dHoly Ghost.

To flog this dead horse one more time: Mormons believe there are definitely three distinct personages in the Godhead. The Father and the Son are determined to have “perfected” physical bodies. The Holy Ghost has a spiritual body—but in LDS theology this would simply mirror His physical body-to-be. It is also taught that the Holy Ghost will some day have a physical body as well, but you know, at the moment I’d really have to do some research to tell you where to confirm that in the canon, because at that point we come to the end of the certainty.

First VisionIt has been universally surmised initially however, that the whole point of what Joseph Smith meant to say was that we’re literal children of God. All of us. We are not born the inherently evil offspring of Satan. We don’t have to be “saved” from our hellish fate with our hellish natural born father the devil, by being adopted into God’s family. We were born children of a noble birthright and always have been His children, even before birth. Calvin was full of crap. That was radical enough for Mormonism when Joseph Smith was first explaining it to the world. It certainly pissed off the Calvinists.

Joseph Smith said that not only did God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son have physical bodies, but we are physically and spiritually related to them. This further applied to every one of us in or out of this or that church or not. Black, white, pagan, heathen, elect or not elect. All of human kind were God’s children. That’s all the farther Joseph Smith ever really took the doctrine however.

Mormon culture was founded originally by free-thinking, “enlightened” souls keen to explore intellectual and theological liberty. For many a generation, every single Mormon of any slight position or rank felt compelled to lecture and write and promulgate and plumb the depths of every minor theological or doctrinal suggestion ever half-spoken or jotted down by Joseph Smith–even if Smith had been pondering in jest. Today’s Mormonism however has been re-crafted with a quick sketch, a flip chart, a challenge to baptism, a lot of praying, and waiting for a burning bosom to confirm you should sign up. If you don’t weep in the first discussion you’re probably not good Mormon material. So conversely, today’s Mormonism has for generations, systematically repelled the same sort of intellectually and theologically curious, enlightened, free-thinkers who founded the church. Thus we find it now produces shepherds who talk softly and carry a big stick like Bruce R McConkie instead of insightful, inspired, pastoral theologians.

Even the best of sheep are not theologians. They just chew the theological grass–any theological grass, you lead them to. Only in the McConkie model, you drive sheep where you want them to go. That’s American style shepherding. Train some dogs and let them loose on the flock. They’ll all end up in the pen where you want them to be.

It is not surprising then that the LDS church finds itself now still idling and chugging the worn-out engine of its gospel bandwagon around the safe retreat of the Wasatch Front, never daring to theologically venture far from the nearest gas station and repair garage. Organizationally the church is expanding its horizons and doing great business, but theologically and prophetically speaking, it is in a very retrograde condition. It’s no longer “revealing” or “restoring” insight into God, the universe and everything, every day in wilder and woolier ways. More importantly, it doesn’t seem to know how to back the old jalopy-towed bandwagon out of the several box canyons and blind alleys previous leadership has unwittingly, and repeatedly piled and rammed it into over the generations.

Today’s LDS leadership must look back to Joseph Smith and the early days of the Restoration, in much the same way the Early Christian Church looked back at Christ’s ministry towards the end of its second century on earth, after losing its First President, our Lord, Jesus Christ, and then all His original apostles. And just like the Apostolic Fathers who scrambled to preserve what little written records they had back in those days, the LDS church went through an era where there was an abundance of writing and theological wrangling, based upon what early Latter-day Saints like Parley P Pratt for instance had extrapolated from teachings by Joseph Smith.

Parley Pratt invented Mormon pamphleteering, or “tracting” as it is called today. One of the big problems withParley_P_Pratt Pratt in particular, and the entire “Restoration” movement, is that it borrowed a lot from the “Primitive Gospel Movement,” which among other revolutionary ideas, felt that written creeds were an abomination compared to Holy Scripture. Anything that cannot be extracted from Holy Scripture is not Church dogma they held. Period.

Parley Pratt, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and the very core of the LDS church as organized officially on 6 April 1830 with six total members, thought for the most part that the church was as “Restored” and as “Organized” as it ever needed to be. Those 13 Articles of Faith Joseph came up with were quite enough. For some early Mormons then, there remained a lot of organizational tension in the group as Joseph Smith continued to have more and more visions, write more and more scripture, reveal more and more dogma, and the LDS church started to be more and more centrally “instructed.”

Parley Pratt and most early Mormons, leaders or not, felt liberated to take the new canon, from the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants, or the mouth and pen of Joseph Smith, and with this measuring stick as a central jumping-off point, just go nuts with their pondering and praying and studying, like drunken prophetic sailors.

The bottom line is, to this day, the LDS church as an organization, has not dealt with the issue of what is or isn’t Mormon doctrine in a unified, coherent, harmonized fashion. I do not mean that they have not obfuscated, banned, redacted, sanitized, reprinted, republished, and sent out hit men like Bruce McConkie and the Correlation Police to insure that what they want taught gets taught, and what they want read gets read. What they have not done is define a clear criteria or organized system for canonization, or for harmonizing sometimes hugely disparate statements of doctrine by various Mormon “Prophets” or church presidents and other high leadership over the ages.

But most importantly they haven’t bothered to do “it.” As Spencer W Kimball used to say, “Just do it.”

220px-JosephSmithTranslatingIt seems that prophecy is more an art than a science. Prophecy is more a question of waiting for God to speak through you than the ability to know the immediate will of God just by asking any time you like. The truth is, it’s pretty hard to tell sometimes when a prophet is speaking as a prophet—even to the prophet doing the speaking. And so, from the prophet’s perspective, it’s just better that Mormons assume a prophet is always speaking as a prophet. Furthermore, the longterm problem with openly establishing a consistent criteria for Mormon doctrinal authority, is that it will eventually lead to some current “Prophet” having to authoritatively condemn a previous “Prophet” for teaching false doctrine.

In example, let’s go back to Joseph Smith’s simple revelation that God is a perfected human and that we can be like Him:

In June of 1840, apostle, and eventual LDS church president Lorenzo Snow came up with the couplet, “As man is, God once was, as God is, man may become.” Superficially, this seems to be in harmony with the Divine snow1human origins Joseph Smith implied we had. But on the contrary, it bounds spritely beyond Smith’s teaching, almost like a nonsequiteur, leaping over what Snow obviously thought was a logical ditch to jump. Snow says God started out just like man. Smith never said that. Smith said man can become like God. Smith said that we are children of God and can become like our Father. We are the created children of our Father and we were designed by Him to become like our Creator. That’s what Joseph Smith said for sure anyway. That’s what made it into canon. This is not at all what Snow is onto here. Snow implies that if we can become like God, then God must have at some point been just like us and done the same thing. This demands that God must have had a God back then, just like we do. Take your SciFi pick folks–you guys know what a temporal paradox is, and that’s one right there. So much for an eternal God without beginning or end. That’s your basic ouroboros, the eternal snake of the universe swallowing it’s own tail forever.

Snow never really issued a binding, definitive “revelation” on the matter. Brigham Young naturally blabbed all about it off the record as usual, but the issue wasn’t specifically parsed out anywhere in LDS canon. So, the question remains, is there one eternal and unchanging God in Mormonism? Mormons would answer yes. Can we as co-eternal lesser children grow to be like Him? Mormons would also answer yes. That much would be hard, steadfast Mormon doctrine. To do any more thinking about it however, puts you on very thin theological ice. If God started out as a mere mortal who grew to be God, and thus by implication, God had a God, and God’s God had a God, and God’s God’s God had a God……well then, God wasn’t always God, so He’s changed, and couldn’t possibly be eternal and unchanging and perfect. Amongst other things, this fuels the intellectual fires of pundits like Cleon Skousen who, from this sort of pondering, deduce things like God is only God because we voted Him into office in the Spirit World.

Apparently, at least one recent LDS president had time to do some thoughtful reconsidering of the LDS official commitment to this whole apocryphal line of reasoning–before he kicked the bucket and left it for somebody else to reverse:

Question: “Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?”

mormon racismHinckley: “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.
Interviewing Gordon B. Hinckley, Time Magazine, Aug 4, 1997

Question:Don’t Mormons believe that God was once a man?”
Hinckley: “I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else.
Interviewing Gordon B. Hinckley, San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1997, p 3/Z1

Church apologists explain Hinckley’s public statements:

The real question should be, is President Snow’s couplet an accurate reflection of LDS doctrine? Everything Latter-day Saints teach about God is in agreement with the rest of the Christian world, with the exception of His nature. Joseph Smith said God is in the same form as we are, because we were created in His image as the Bible plainly and clearly tells us… But again, we do not emphasize Heavenly Father’s past, but the possibility of our future.
The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR)

For what it’s worth, Joseph Smith’s assertions about man’s kinship with Deity do in fact have an ancient basis in both Christian and Jewish theology. The concept was called “theosis.”

With this doctrine of exaltation or human deification, though, Joseph Smith wasn’t actually moving away from Judeo-Christian tradition. He was returning to a forgotten strand of it.

For ancient Christians and Jews also had a doctrine of human deification, which scholars call “theosis.”

As an early Jewish midrash or scriptural commentary expressed the belief, “The Holy One … will in the future call all of the pious by their names, and give them a cup of elixir of life in their hands so that they should live and endure forever. … (And He will also) reveal to all the pious in the world to come the Ineffable Name with which new heavens and a new earth can be created, so that all of them should be able to create new worlds.”

President Hinckley was quite correct about Lorenzo Snow’s couplet having been de-emphasized for many decades now, at least in the official LDS teaching and support materials. The way of it is this: Lorenzo Snow had one big idea during his presidency. He came up with that cute couplet. Though he couldn’t quite canonize it or bill it as “prophecy” he flogged the hell out of it and it became the gospel fad of his era. That era passed it on for another couple of eras until, probably around the time David O McKay was yelling at Bruce McConkie for his presumptuously encyclopedic tome, and afterward into Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B Lee’s Correlation Movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Brethren, the First Presidency that is, started to try to take control of doctrinal development and clarification personally. By the time Gordon B Hinckley was having a closer look at some of these long-held folk doctrines, Snow’s couplet for one, which raised more questions than it provided answers, just didn’t seem to measure up. So it went bye-bye quietly.

At one time every LDS meetinghouse library would have a complete set of the Journal of Discourses, the Comprehensive History of the Church, and other collections of first-hand or near-period journal-based “histories” and “doctrinal” commentaries particularly from presidents and apostles of the church.  Many of images (1)these sorts of “authoritative” historical volumes and their later-era commentators are now commonly understood to lie in the realm of extra-canonical or apocryphal records.

At the same time the prophet-of-the-day is cleaning the bookshelves of his predecessors’ doctrinal ramblings, each new generation of LDS leadership also fears the imagined consequences of letting the non-inerrancy bunny loose in the garden, or the non-infallibility cat officially out of the bag. The feeling amongst the “Brethren” it seems, has long been that to admit that even a single past leader was apparently pulling his “doctrinal” thoughts out of the wrong orifice, rather than giving verbatim dictation from Deity, would collapse the entire Kingdom of God like a house of cards. The Truth however, exists in a sphere unto itself. That’s another Joseph Smith-based, hard Mormon doctrine. It’s an “Eternal Principle.” Not even God can change that.journal_of_discourses

Covering arse is not an Eternal Principle. Personally, I think cleaning doctrinal house and formally admitting to failed records or failed traditions would serve God’s purposes better than covering arse. It would only free the church structure of its weak members and bring in a more solid foundation and an overall stronger leadership as well as general body of believers who are less fragile and more capable of taking the work to a very harsh world.

But then, I don’t run the place.

The bulk of LDS membership today hears exactly what they want to hear and will believe what they want to believe, in regards to current prophetic leadership. They will believe that the current “prophet” is the only authority in the church, and Jesus gives him direct and daily instructions about everything and anything. Most Mormons really really need to believe this. It’s their whole “testimony.” The whole garment of their image002_2membership in the church hangs utterly upon this one flimsy coat hook. It would spiritually and emotionally devastate most Mormons to know that the truth about the “restored” church is that usually, LDS “prophets” and “general authorities” say their prayers, read up on the subject, and then have to discern, decode, and try to understand the Will of God from the same subtle workings of the Spirit that you and I do.

There isn’t a better example of this Mormon emotional dependency on a single Divine Oracle than the first time a change of “The Prophets” or church presidents took place after Joseph Smith’s murder. A meeting was called in Nauvoo, In the midst of much contention over the line of LDS leadership succession, lead in part by Smith’s wife Emma and her son’s claim to the ministry through a claimed blessing given to Joseph Smith III by his father. Sidney Rigdon made a claim for the job based on proximity of his calling as First Counselor in the First Presidency. Brigham Young’s claim came as the standing president of the intact Quorum of Twelve. He argued that the Twelve held in trust all the keys of Melchizedek Priesthood, and that the First Presidency had been dissolved upon the death of the First President. Until officers of the First Presidency were again called and that quorum reformed, Young claimed title as the chief presiding officer of the Church, and holder of all related priesthood keys.

Now, legalistic arguments like this just aren’t sexy enough for some Mormons. The story goes that Brigham Young stood up before the crowd and at least some portion of that gathering suddenly saw him change into the voice and person of Joseph Smith—the sign from God that confirmed his mantle of authority. This was really really popular when I was a kid. It came right out of the primary manuals and everything.

The only problem is that no one talked about this amazing transformation when it happened. There are no journals, letters, or newspaper accounts written at the time of the meeting that would back up this amazing story. It is true that such a meeting took place. And it is true that both Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young spoke at the meeting. But no account of the transformation was recorded at that time.

Historian Richard Van Wagoner has searched all diaries, journals, newspapers, and church records written shortly after the meeting and has found no evidence to verify the “miracle transformation” story. You can read more about his findings by reading his published report.

Brigham’s speech was reported on in detail in both Nauvoo newspapers and recorded by scribes for the official church records. Hundreds of members present wrote about Brigham’s persuasive argument in great detail in their private journals. Nowhere was there mention of the miraculous or divine.

So where does the story come from? There is no recorded account of the transformation until many years later, after the Saints were settled in Utah. In 1857, 13 years after the speech, Albert Carrington is the first to mention the transformation. In a speech before a huge gathering of Saints, he said that he couldn’t tell Brigham from Joseph that day when Brigham was speaking. Soon others were making the same claim.

Records even show that it was impossible for several members who made the claim to have witnessed the miracle to have even been in Nauvoo at the time of the meeting.

But not all members got caught up in the new story. Bishop George Miller, present at the gathering, later recalled that nothing supernatural had occurred on that day. Young made a “long and loud harangue,” Miller later wrote, for which I “could not see any point in the course of his remarks than to overturn Sidney Rigdon’s pretensions.”

I guess this was supposed to be Brigham Young’s big miracle or something, or at least a lot of the faithful felt he needed one. At the time of the alleged miracle naturally, the first Mormon prophet had been murdered and Young was contending for his now open position. joseph-smith-photographLikewise, at the time the story first appeared over a decade later, not coincidentally, there was an Army marching out to destroy them from the States. Brigham Young needed all the leadership credibility he could muster to hold his people together in the crisis. No doubt, some of his followers tried to help him out by producing some really convincing testimony in his favor, since Brigham was in the heat of many debates and contentions regarding how to respond to the invasion force.

In pioneer times, obviously an orderly transition of leadership in the corporation wasn’t thrilling or convincing enough to inspire men, women, and children to struggle, fight, and die all across the Great Plains for reasons of parliamentary procedure. The fact remains however, that, not since Joseph Smith “restored” the church, has LDS leadership openly claimed to have been led via bona-fide and openly glorious “revelation” in the same sense that Smith actually claimed to talk personally, face-to-face with Deity and Angels in a Q&A setting. Neither has any subsequent LDS leadership actually laid claim to speaking directly as the Voice of God, meaning relaying directly or channeling the express words and will of Deity, speaking in the First-Person of Jesus, as did Joseph Smith in hundreds of distinct, sometimes very personal and specific revelations now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, and many others not so canonized:

Thus sayeth the Lord… And Joseph Smith quoted the Lord almost daily. He and the Brethren hung out in the room above Newell Whitney’s store and held lengthy question-and-answer sessions about nearly everything, and Smith would right then and there give them the direct Word of God. Or he’d come back the next day having written down a vision or revelation, and he’d call it that, and present it as the verbatim word of the Lord.

image001_1Starting with the Utah experience, starting with Brigham Young to put a fine point on it, Mormonism found itself short on prophecy, long on hardship, and it began to invent encouraging, seemingly harmless little stories to make themselves feel better about themselves and their leaders. Their leaders in turn tried to promote everything they uttered as if it had the same prophetic insight as the ruminations of Joseph Smith. They weren’t always on the mark like Smith seemed to be. In a closed society, all of these wishful, sometimes whimsical if faithful efforts, evolved into a warm tapestry of homespun mythology, as Mormonism kept trying to fill the pit of mystical emptiness that Joseph Smith had once filled daily via connecting them directly to God.

Eventually, “harmless” Mormon mythology got sucked into the culture as fact and thus became an integral part of the religion as well. Since it was just them, out there in that hole, and they were all Saints, and they all believed anyway, nobody cared if it their little stories were all entirely true. It felt true. And they didn’t care if it sounded stupid. Mormons don’t like smart people anyway. Smart people don’t make good Mormons, they had decided long ago. Simple mindedness became a virtue in Brigham Young’s church. Their little anecdotes and couplets and experimental theological ramblings raised their spirits and promoted the “Gospel.” That’s all that mattered to them.

The same sort of thing happened in the mountain isolation of the Appalachian range in Tennessee and the south. The only difference is Brigham Young decided Adam was God, and the Christian hillbillies decided you should dance around, drink poison and handle vipers at church if you really love Jesus.

Wackiness is wackiness.


About lrwhitney

American Saint but not Utah product.
This entry was posted in 21 Mormon Doctrine Part 1: A Record Keeping People and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Mormon Doctrine Part 1: A Record Keeping People

  1. I never thought of it that way, well put!

  2. JR says:

    I grew up in a small town and we had a Branch, not a Ward. There was one Sister member who told me and others, that she had a journal of an ancestor who was present when the fighting was going on about who would lead the Church. There were many claiming the right to be the next Prophet after the death of Joseph Smith. This ancestor wrote in their journal of the fighting AND wrote that they saw Brigham Young take on the mantel or appearance of Joseph Smith and that B. Young sounded like Joseph Smith. This was not shared a lot because this ancestor felt it was too sacred. I did not believe it when she told me but she showed it to me, and there it was in writing. So did B. Young look like and sound like J. Smith? Some people believed they saw it. This is the first time I have mentioned this to anyone in a public forum. This was 25 years ago and I have never forgotten it.

    • lrwhitney says:

      Yes, and as I’ve said elsewhere, though the point of “Magic Underwear” is not to stop bullets or fire or shrapnel, there are many apocryphal stories that have circulated from the faithful claiming that the temple garment has, and will do just that. Indeed, some of the Saints at the time of Brigham Young’s bid for church leadership after the death of Joseph, claim or imagine that at least his bearing, his tone and inflection took upon the characteristics of Joseph. As Brigham made his bid for leadership, they recalled Smith when he was giving similar orations and at least felt the same impact. Entirely likely. Did this amount to an actual physical miracle in which Brigham was temporarily actually converted into Joseph Smith? I doubt it, but I wasn’t there, and only a few of those present noted anything at all out of the ordinary until many years after-the-fact. And the truth is that these re-tellings got more and more miraculous, and more and more literal, and in short, more and more impressionistic, fantastic, and romanticized. In my youth the church was still promoting such “miracles” as major features of the religion, major proofs of God’s direction and so forth. The “miracle of the gulls” was a regular feature in my primary and Sunday school years. The miraculous freezing of the Mississippi just when the Saints needed to flee across it, and so forth. These pioneer-era, mixes of good luck, fortuitous natural forces and faith-promoting rumors are almost entirely downplayed in the modern church compared to their earliest incarnations in the litany. The question becomes; are you going to require me to believe (as did Rome in the doctrine of transubsantiation, where the host was literally turned into the flesh and blood of Jesus as you ate it) that your garments will stop a shotgun blast or flamethrower, and Brigham Young was the right guy to lead the church mainly because he twinkled himself into Joseph Smith on the campaign trail? These things may or may not be true, may or may not be acts or miraculous interventions of God, and may or may not be utterly convincing and compelling witnesses to the truthfulness of the LDS church on a personal, microcosmic level, and fair enough. But we as an advancing religion, have a hard enough time dealing with buried plates of gold and visiting angels and whatnot. Constant, miriade deviations into tangental personal testimony is often counterproductive and confusing. And a lot of times the well-meaning Latter-day Saing in spreading his own, personal “Good News,” has just got it wrong on all levels. Some examples would be Skousen and his legacy, or Glenn Beck. Two generations waited for the Commies to nuke Salt Lake under Skousen’s theories. When that didn’t happen, we all prayed Skousen was dead. But Glenn Beck resurrected is rotting politico-theological corpse, and now two more generations are going to eagerly await the end of the World via a World Islamic Caliphate, or the Chinese buying out the US and making us all slaves.

      The bottom line is that Brigham Young assumed the LDS leadership because God appeared to Joseph Smith and instructed him how to set up and organize His church. When Smith was murdered, the system worked. In spite of rivals and contention, the structure and order remained intact, and Brigham Young was not “elected” to take over because of a cute parlor trick in the middle of a heated public debate, that swooned all the body of the Saints to his side–even if it did involved a shaft of divine light, singing angels and magical powers of levitation. (As some of the faith-promoting fables presume.) What really happened is that the First Presidency dissolved when the First President died. All power was then contained in and reserved to the Council of the Twelve and executed by its president, Brigham Young. It’s a simple, “inspired” organizational structure, whether the “people” went along with it en-mass or not. All I ask as a member of the church is that you believe that much, and if so, you are a candidate for Sainthood and welcome in fellowship. If you also want to believe Brigham Young miraculously turned into Joseph Smith for a few minutes during his self-promotional speech and it’s that which qualifies him to assume the role of LDS Supreme Leader, fine, but it’s organizationally irrelevant. Just like it’s irrelevant for the next president (almost embarassingly called the “Prophet” as if he was the only one) to qualify himself by turning into his predecessor in front of a large body of witnesses and so on to ad-infinitum until the organization itself changes its own system of governance.

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