Artwork: L'Adorazione del Vitello d'Oro - Andrea Vaccaro
It was June 1st, 1980 when Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave his fireside address titled “The Seven Deadly Heresies” at Brigham Young University. There, in front of crowds of hundreds of students, he offered a definitive list of what he said were the “Seven Deadly Heresies” —not the great heresies of a lost and fallen Christendom, but some that have crept in among [the Latter-day Saints].” In an unapologetic and forward style signature to himself, McConkie defined said heresies as follows, to which I will briefly summarize and offer a concise statement of my feeling towards. After, I will offer my own list of modern heresies I argue against which I believe that Mormonism should avoid. As always, my thoughts are my own and I speak only for myself. I invite all to agree, disagree, critique or comment, as they so choose.
Heresy One: God is Progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.
McConkie here blasts any notion that God is advancing in His own understanding and application of cosmic law to the extent that he decries such as “false—utterly, totally, and completely. There is not one sliver of truth in it.” and attributing such as growing “out of a wholly twisted and incorrect view of the King Follett Sermon and of what is meant by eternal progression.” He makes the case that if the contrary was true in any sense, we could have no confidence in the future actions of God and His relationship to us due to the potential that one day He could discover a new Truth that proved superior or contrary to His own Plan of Salvation and prior course of action. Likewise, McConkie defends the attributes of God as being perfect in every conceivable sense- including knowledge.
He quotes Joseph Smith in saying that, “Without the knowledge of all things, God would not be able to save any portion of his creatures; for it is by reason of the knowledge which he has of all things, from the beginning to the end, that enables him to give that understanding to his creatures by which they are made partakers of eternal life; and if it were not for the idea existing in the minds of men that God had all knowledge it would be impossible for them to exercise faith in him.” [As quoted by Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), p.264]
If I may be so bold, I both agree and disagree with McConkie in these matters as his own thoughts serve to invite discussion regarding the simultaneous, though potentially problematic, premises of both God’s omniscience and man’s freewill; a controversy historically debated among those holding to a traditional belief in what at times has been dubbed the “Omni-God” (a deity possessing traits of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omnipresence). Regarding the disputed compatibility of free will with divine foreknowledge, those who argue that such claims are mutually exclusive adopt an argument known as theological fatalism. The argument raised generally follows along the lines that if any being was truly omniscient, knowing even the future actions of both itself and all others, then how can any being truly be “free” in its own individual course of action.
This predicament can be seen below as described by the LDS philosopher, Blake Ostler:
“The modern argument showing that free will is not compatible with foreknowledge is based on the fixity of the past or, in other words, the principle that no person can have power to do anything which entails that God has not always believed what God has in fact always believed. Suppose that God has always believed that I will rob a 7-Eleven at a certain time t. My refraining from robbing the 7-Eleven at time t certainly entails that God has not always believed that I will rob at t. Because God has always believed that I will rob the 7-Eleven at t, I cannot have the power to refrain from robbing, since this power would entail power to change God’s past beliefs. No person has the power to alter the past. Yet to be free with respect to whether I rob, I must have power to refrain from robbing the 7-Eleven at t. It follows that either God does not have foreknowledge or I am not free.”
(Blake T. Ostler, “Review of The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis by Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish,” FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 99–146)
Many have thus created, modified, or held to positions which then attempt to directly refute, harmonize, or welcome this. Within Christian theology, there exist sects and groups which adopt the stance of what is called theological determinism in that all events are predestined or pre-ordained to happen by God; the most prolific of these being identified as Calvinists.
Theologically speaking, Calvinism holds views that are in some instances, almost completely antithetical to those held within the Restored Gospel of Mormonism. One need only compare the Five Points of Calvinism (Total Depravity of Humankind, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) with contrary views held in Mormonism (Divine Potential of Humankind, Foreordination, Infinite Atonement, Full Agency to Accept/Reject the Salvific Grace of Christ, and the need for Saints to Endure to the End) to see how such is the case. Thus, Latter-day Saints (unless they wish to adopt theological determinism as seen in Calvinism) are more or less open to grapple with how they approach the issue among themselves. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism has the following to say on the matter:
“Latter-day Saints differ among themselves in their understanding of the nature of God’s knowledge. Some have thought that God increases endlessly in knowledge as well as in glory and dominion. Others hold to the more traditional view that God’s knowledge, including the foreknowledge of future free contingencies, is complete. Despite these differing views, there is accord on two fundamental issues: (1) God’s foreknowledge does not causally determine human choices, and (2) this knowledge, like God’s power, is maximally efficacious. No event occurs that he has not anticipated or has not taken into account in his planning.”
Nonetheless, it can be safe to say that while Latter-day Saints may differ in exactly how they view God’s omniscience, there should not be any that hold such to the extent that it jeopardizes or does away with our full emphasis on man’s individual Free Agency. Mormons can rest assured that no matter how we exercise our free wills, God has a continuous contingency provided for us to always repent and return to Him through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. As with Blake Ostler, I personally distance myself from McConkie’s take on God’s absolute foreknowledge and instead opt towards a form of Open Theism in my own understanding of God.
Heresy Two: A joint belief in organic evolution and revealed religion can be harmonized.
This one is probably where I disagree with McConkie the strongest in that I do not hold views of organic evolution and spiritual revelation to be mutually exclusive. For McConkie, to accept organic evolution is to reject the scriptural account of the Fall of Adam and then, by due consequence, the Atonement of Christ. I see this as both a false dichotomy and a slippery slope argument used on his part. Like the past Apostle, I too believe that “all truth is in agreement, that true religion and true science bear the same witness, and that in the true and full sense, true science is part of true religion.” (and vice versa I might add) Contrary to perhaps McConkie, I see science as non-threatening towards my faith, using it instead to clarify, illuminate, or correct my own notions regarding *some* teachings whose importance lies more in its symbolic importance rather than its literalistic reality. Though McConkie cites the First Presidency’s early 20th century document The Origin of Man as being supportive of his same views -which support one could argue is minimal- he fails to comment of their later statement expressed some twenty years after, saying:
“Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored Gospel to the people of the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.
We can see no advantage to be gained by a continuation of the discussion to which reference is here made, but on the contrary are certain that it would lead to confusion, division and misunderstanding if carried further. Upon one thing we should all be able to agree namely, that presidents Joseph F. Smith, John Winder and Anthon Lund were right when they said: “Adam is the primal parent of our race.” [First Presidency, Memorandum to General Authorities, April 1931, 6–7]
Just as McConkie was free to express and share his own views as a General Authority (although it pains me personally when he presents such as systematic and definitive Mormon doctrine), Elder James E. Talmage did much the same in expressing his support for modern secular findings regarding the age of the earth, life, and mankind. This he shared in a letter to Heber Timothy in 1932,
“I cannot agree with your conception that there was no death of plants and animals anywhere upon this earth prior to the transgression of Adam, unless we assume that the history of Adam and Eve dates back many hundreds of thousands of years. The trouble with some theologians—even including many of our own good people—is that they undertake to fix the date of Adam’s transgression as being approximately 4000 years before Christ and therefore about 5932 years ago. If Adam was placed upon the earth only that comparatively short time ago the rocks clearly demonstrated that life and death have been in existence and operative in this earth for ages prior to that time.” [Talmage to Heber Timothy, 28 Jan. 1932, Talmage Papers; cited in Richard Sherlock, “A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Responses to the Darwinist Legacy,” Journal of Mormon History 4:? (1975): 45–69.]
In essence, the Church has no exact stance regarding modern scientific findings. If anything, it most strongly supports that science and religion are not fundamentally opposed to each other but rather should be complementary in the end regarding any specific truth. Members are free for themselves to seek learning by study and faith and unlike McConkie, it is the overwhelming amount of evidence in support of organic evolution that causes me to believe that such was God’s modus operandi in bringing his creation to full fruition. While science most often serves to explain the how behind an event, faith and revelation serve to explain the why. In viewing Mormonism’s own view of the individual as progressing from a primordial intelligence, to a spirit child of Heavenly Parents, to a mortal human, to a resurrected being, and eventually a God themselves; believing in the evolutionary process of the species is no difficult leap for me to make. Mormonism’s own theology, is by all means evolutionary in nature.
In the same document cited by McConkie, this similar view of an evolutionary process, albeit a theological one, can easily be seen: “Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God.”
Heresy Three: Temple marriage assures us of exaltation.
Transitioning into the next heresy, I can happily stand with McConkie here in agreement that this represents an incorrect notion of one’s sacred temple sealing, their own dependence on the Savior, the glorious reality represented in the teaching of exaltation and our own actualized Divine potential. Individuals who believe that any specific work, rite, ordinance or point in their life, of itself, will assure them exaltation are misinformed and stand in need of further instruction on the doctrines of Grace, faith, and enduring to the end.
“As for a person being saved in the celestial kingdom of God without being prepared to dwell in a pure and holy place, it is all nonsense and ridiculous; and if there be any who think they can gain the presence of the Father and the Son by fighting for, instead of living, their religion, they will be mistaken, consequently the quicker we make up our minds to live our religion the better it will be for us.” (Discourses of Young Brigham, 392).
Georgin François - Cornell University: Persuasive Cartography
Heresy Four: Salvation for the Dead offers men a second chance at salvation.
I also consider this heresy. As I believe in a fully loving, just, merciful, understanding, demanding, and caring God, I can not help but to believe that he affords each and every one of His children the full and equal opportunity to accept or reject the fulness of His Truth, Gospel, Light, and Being. This begs the question though, what constitutes a chance? Is a “chance” defined by one’s mortal birth or conversion into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? If so, then unfortunately only .002% of the earth’s current population (figured at 15.8 million Latter-day Saints divided by 7.5 billion persons) have been given a “chance”, a number that becomes woefully smaller when factoring all those who have ever lived. Is a “chance” then defined as when someone takes a missionary discussion or hears reference of the Gospel? Still, this number would remain disturbingly small.
No, in my mind the fairest understanding of this “chance” we speak of is when an individual is enlightened with, obtains a full witness of, and understands things as they are; an opportunity I can only image happening to the fullest extent at Final Judgement. Until then, we are all as Paul puts it seeing through a “glass; darkly” (1st Corinthians 13:12), left to live our lives to the best of our abilities, using our rational and spiritual intuitions as our guides. If we do this, if we constantly seek Truth, progression, and further enlightenment, it is my belief that we are on the path that God intends. All have finite understandings and we are all limited by our own unique circumstances, developing paradigms, differing rationalities, and spiritual capacities. This topic is easily one that I could write much more on, but for now I can comfortably say that I believe in only one chance; a chance determined by a perfect God. In that respect, there is no part of me that worries that said chance could ever be less than exactly what we need in order to make a definitive and informed decision as to whether we will follow God into the eternities or not.
Francesco Botticini - The Assumption of the Virgin
Heresy Five: The doctrine of Eternal Progression can also apply to individuals in progressing between kingdoms.
This sparks interesting discussion for sure that is far less decisive than what McConkie might be projecting onto his audience. Personally, I would not at all be bothered if this were true. I can’t say that whether or not I am decided towards or against it for sure, but I definitely hope that such is the case. Thus, my commentary will be limited in this section, providing instead examples from other General Authorities who held a viewpoint opposite McConkie’s. Hat tip to my friend Zander Sturgill of Book of Mormon Central for recently bringing these to my attention on his Facebook wall.
“None would inherit this earth when it became celestial and translated into the presence of God but those who would be crowned as Gods — all others would have to inherit another kingdom — they would eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy and advancing to a celestial kingdom but it would be a slow process [progress?].”
-Brigham Young, in Wilford Woodruff Journal, 5 Aug 1855
“I am not a strict constructionalist, believing that we seal our eternal progress by what we do here. It is my belief that God will save all of His children that he can: and while, if we live unrighteously here, we shall not go to the other side in the same status, so to speak, as those who lived righteously; nevertheless, the unrighteous will have their chance, and in the eons of the eternities that are to follow, they, too, may climb to the destinies to which they who are righteous and serve God, have climbed to those eternities that are to come.”
-Apostle J. Reuben Clark, Church News, 23 April 1960, p. 3
“It is reasonable to believe, in the absence of direct revelation by which alone absolute knowledge of the matter could be acquired, that, in accordance with God’s plan of eternal progression, advancement from grade to grade within any kingdom, and from kingdom to kingdom, will be provided for. But if the recipients of a lower glory be enabled to advance, surely the intelligences of higher rank will not be stopped in their progress; and thus we may conclude, that degrees and grades will ever characterize the kingdoms of our God. Eternity is progressive; perfection is relative; the essential feature of God’s living purpose is its associated power of eternal increase.”
-James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith [1899 edition] pp. 420-421
“There is never a time,” the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin.”
Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 18
and finally, in the most accurate depictions of the Church’s current stance:
“The brethren direct me to say that the Church has never announced a definite doctrine upon this point. Some of the brethren have held the view that it was possible in the course of progression to advance from one glory to another, invoking the principle of eternal progression; others of the brethren have taken the opposite view. But as stated, the Church has never announced a definite doctrine on this point. Sincerely your brother, Joseph L Anderson, Secretary of the First Presidency”
-Secretary to the First Presidency in a 1952 letter; and again in 1965
By Jacopo Da Empoli, The Creation of Adam - Uffizi Gallery
Heresy Six: The Adam-God Doctrine as espoused by Brigham Young and currently believed by various fundamentalist sects.
While I disagree with the Adam-God Doctrine, it is interesting to me that McConkie would describe its present adherents as cultists, a description he at times used in reference to various groups of Mormon fundamentalists, apostates, or splinter-sects. What is especially interesting with the historic development of the Adam-God Doctrine is not that simply stemmed from Brigham Young, but that it was espoused to the extent of being included within both his personal and public discourses, being introduced as part of the endowment ceremony at the St. George Temple, and accepted by several other General Authorities contemporary to Young, some of which would even become prophets themselves at a later date. Young of course was not without some opposition to this unique teaching that he claimed (without any actual source of reference) he received personally from Joseph Smith. Orson Pratt, a brilliant Apostle-philosopher, opposed Young’s views on the matter for many months, countering his stance in both public and private settings. His opposition was rebuked on more than one instance, but we know that at least before 1860 when he was presented with the possibility of disfellowship, that he held strong disapproval towards the Adam-God Doctrine.
Later, with the death of Brigham Young, the Adam-God Doctrine was shifted eventually into the back pages of history, being described as more and more within Church leadership as Young’s own personal theological musings or matters of mere speculation. This can be seen in a private letter written by Joseph F. Smith in 1897 where he says,
“The doctrine was never submitted to the councils of the Priesthood nor to the church for approval or ratification, and was never formally or otherwise accepted by the church. It is therefore in no sense binding upon the Church. Brigham Young’s “bare mention” was “without indubitable evidence and authority being given of its truth.” Only the scripture, the “accepted word of God,” is the Church’s standard.”
[Joseph F. Smith, letter to A. Saxey, January 7, 1897, HDC.]
For myself personally, I look to individuals such as Orson Pratt as teaching us a valuable lesson on the acceptance of potentially questionable teachings by General Authorities. When it comes to radical shifts in our theological understandings such as represented in the Adam-God Debates -one that created a literal theological rift in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles itself- we can rest assured that if such is truly revealed from the Spirit to be adopted by the Church as standard doctrine, that the leaders of the Church will be able to have a full and complete witness and consensus as to its revelatory veracity. Orson Pratt, I believe, was moved upon by the Spirit to stand for his own authentic understanding of Church doctrine, even though in the process such brought him into direct opposition with views held by the Prophet and several of the other Apostles. If Pratt hadn’t have acted off of his own spiritual intuition, individual agency, and gut-feelings, a potentially very different Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could be in existence today; one much closer in theology to its contemporary fundamentalist offshoots. For me, this testifies that we should never be expected to simply drink the metaphorical kool-aid of our ecclesiastical leaders. Personally, I am prepared to test every revelation they receive against the Spirit and the scriptures and I will never be comfortable acting or affirming a stance that I feel to be without witness of or contrary to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in my life. I believe Brigham Young to be a bona fide prophet of God, I sustain him, and look to him as follower of Christ and a powerful witness to the Restoration of the Gospel. My own sustainment though is not to be mistaken with full agreement, and in terms of the Adam-God Doctrine, I believe that Brigham -though believing himself to be teaching and receiving revelation- was mistaken in his views and like all other prophets proved himself to be a fallible, though inspired, man of God.
For future reading on the Adam-god Doctrine, make sure to check out the following resources reflecting a variety of viewpoints:
Scanned from Boucher, François: 20,000 Years of Fashion, Harry Abrams, 1966, p. 204
Heresy Seven: Individuals must be perfect to acquire salvation.
This, unfortunately, represents a mistaken belief or at least attitude held by too many individuals in the Church. I fully agree with McConkie when he says that “If men had to be perfect and live all of the law strictly, wholly, and completely, there would be only one saved person in eternity.” By nature, mankind is broken and only by applying that great Balm of Gilead may we find healing and quickening to our souls. An attitude of legalism, of perfectionism, of reliance upon our own efforts, is in my opinion, antithetical to the Restored Gospel of Christ. I find no greater testament to this than contained in 2nd Nephi where the self-same prophet says in the second chapter, verses five through eight:
“And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever.
Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.
Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.” [emphasis added]
In essence, if perfection is required, I will quickly proclaim myself to have failed quite miserably long ago.
The New(er) Seven Deadly Heresies as offered by Jaxon Washburn
With my own coverage of McConkie’s list of heresies completed (of which I found a handful of his views to be personally objectionable), I now wish to offer my own list of heresies that I find myself seeing within the body of the Church. While perhaps some of these might not completely qualify as heresies per se, I do find them disagreeable enough to mention them. As with those set forth by McConkie, I am not necessarily saying that such are representative of the current stances of the Church itself; although in McConkie’s case it can be said that he certainly thought as much. That being said, receive them as you will.
Luther Posting the 95 Theses- Public Domain
Heresy One: The ‘Protestantization’ of Mormonism
I have, and at times still do, fall victim to this one myself when in dialogue with various Protestant Christians over the years, and it can be quite tempting to I might add. But what exactly do I mean with the term Protestantization? Let me explain.
For decades now, the debate has raged. Mormonism: dangerous cult or authentic faith? The fourth Abrahamic religion or just another Christian denomination? A recycled monster of Christian heresies, occult media, and false Pagan notions or the result of legitimate revelation from God in these the latter days? The musings and craft of a charismatic conniver or the Restoration of the Primitive Church through a bona fide Prophet? From faithful insiders to perplexed outsiders, critics and apologists, students and Saints, many have grappled with this question and offered their varied two-cents on it.
Perhaps the most accurate depiction of Mormonism for those looking to compare, classify, and categorize it among the world’s major faiths can be found within the Presbyterian scholar, John Turner’s work, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography, where he concludes that “in light of the church’s pronounced emphasis on Jesus Christ over the past several decades, the contemporary LDS Church is a new genus of Christianity rather than a new religious tradition or a new world religion. Mormon Christianity is not Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. Instead, the Latter-day Saints have charted their own Christian course.” (Turner, 18) For myself, this is the most objective, fair, and consistent answer that I have seen given on a subject matter that is continuing to develop, unfold, and mature as it grows to understand and actualize its place in the world to a deeper extent.
The reality of religious syncretism then is not to be much of a surprise when multiple faith communities come in contact with each other, and given the mostly pluralistic society and historical backdrop in which Mormonism was formulated, one should expect such to take place. However, syncretism by nature holds with it both positive and negative consequences that should be duly noted and taken into consideration. Like most faiths, part of Mormonism’s inception included a rebellion or distancing from the prominent religious environment in which it was brought into being. The spiritual revivalism experienced during the Second Great Awakening (circa 1790-1840) had a profound impact on the community of Palmyra (where Joseph Smith resided at the time of his First Vision experience) which was part of the larger western New York area known as the “Burned-Over District” due to the highly publicized revivals that took place therein. Although the rates of revivalism there were in many ways no different than what was being experienced at large, the various denominations and sects of Protestantism which promoted theological views such as postmillenialism and social reform, underwent a massive surge in membership as they contested for their own beliefs. Such was the milieu that a young Joseph Smith would find himself in, and it is no wonder then that he attributed such as serving as the direct impetus for his own embarkation on his personal journey. Smith attests to such within the canonized 1838 First Vision account:
“My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?”
The great theological disunity between individuals who claimed to belong to the same Body of Christ was quite disheartening to Joseph, leading to his own rejection of the widely prevailing doctrine of Sola Scriptura as “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” Thus, after being particularly impressed when reading James 1:5, he chose instead to make his appeal directly to the Divine. It is here that the multiple First Vision accounts offer differing insights into his exact experience, with the earlier accounts emphasizing his own personal redemption and forgiveness of sins, with the later renditions emphasizing the apostasy and invalidity of the Christian denominations of his day. “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong,” that “all their creeds were an abomination in [God’s] sight,” that their “professors were all corrupt,” that “they draw near to [God] with their lips, but their hearts are far from [Him]” and that “they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
In this way, Mormonism’s emphasis on the need for a Restoration must be equally accompanied by its belief in a complete apostasy of Christendom; but this rebellion and rejection shouldn’t be considered unique or inherently uncalled for, its the way in which new faiths have most always emerged. In how Mormonism was a response and rejection of 19th Century Protestantism, the same can be said of Protestantism’s historical relationship with Catholicism, or between Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as Judaism and ancient near-eastern polytheism. I hope the reader doesn’t mistake this as a personal validation that the foundations of Mormonism (and religion at large) are fully explainable in purely naturalistic terms, however one should be cognizant and understanding of how various faiths have come to fruition and what environmental factors have played into the establishment of their own identity.
The reason then that I emphasize Mormonism’s historical rejection of Protestant Christianity is to speak to the internal identity crisis it has experienced towards its relationship to that same Protestantism. There are a multitude of occasions where past Church leaders offered stark disapproval and at times, vehement condemnation, towards the branches and members of the various Christian denominations. Just a few of the many examples of this can include:
Brigham Young: “Do the Christian world know whether God has eyes to see, ears to hear, or hands, or a body? They are as ignorant of the true God as are those islanders, and all whom we call heathen.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, p.195)
John Taylor: “We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsense….and the Devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol 6, pg 167)
Parley P. Pratt: “But returning to the general corruption that has prevailed nationally, politically, and religiously, under the name of Christianity, leaving out Christ and his Apostles, I do think there has been no idolatry in the world, under any form or system, that could surpass it. It is the mystery of iniquity, the great whore of all the earth. It has brought the whole earth under a lasting curse, having departed from the laws of God, changed the ordinances, and broken the everlasting covenant, in consequence of which the earth is destined to be burned, and few men left.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol 3, p. 41).
Orson Pratt: “The European nations with the United States come more particularly under the dominion of the “great and abominable church,” which includes all the churches of apostate Christendom, both Catholic and Protestant.” (The Seer, Vol.2, No. 4, p.246).
and in contemporary times, especially he to whom this post is dedicated,
Bruce R. McConkie: “Christianity is the religion of the Christians. Hence, true and acceptable Christianity is found among the saints who have the fullness of the gospel, and a perverted Christianity holds sway among the so-called Christians of apostate Christendom.” (Mormon Doctrine, pg. 138)
There are dozens more and while many Latter-day Saint members and leaders alike commonly avoid this kind of language, it is an inherent and undeniable part of our Church’s past. Today, tones have not only become softer but also more focused on the beliefs we hold in common with other Christians, rather than emphasizing that which we have in ultimate difference due to differing exclusive truth claims. To the traditional Christian who comes across these past statements, though of course having the high likelihood of taking offense, understand that this kind of exclusive and condemning rhetoric is not at all unique to Mormonism, in fact the Bible is full of it. Whether rejecting the pagan and heathen religions of its time in the Old Testament, or condemning the Jews and judaizers in the New Testament, to be accepting of the Bible, one should not find this kind of language foreign and objectionable.
The irony then lies with the charge laid against Mormonism that in recent decades, a transition has been made from traditional Mormonism (which places emphasis on a finite God with mortal beginnings, the inherent goodness of man’s nature which stems from his Divine heritage, exaltation by individual merit, and a plurality of Gods) to that of what professor of sociology, O. Kendall White Jr. has dubbed Mormon neo-orthodoxy (which places emphasis on the sovereignty of God possessing wholly perfect qualities, the inherent depravity of mankind, salvation by grace, and otherwise a theology much closer to that of Reformed Protestantism.) With Mormonism’s historic theological distancing from traditional Christianity, this school of thought, although only accounting for a fraction of the total Mormon demographic, represents in part a level of comfort in utilizing and adopting various theological perspectives not emphasized within so-called traditional Mormonism. (White, O. Kendall., Jr. Mormon Neo-orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature, 1987. Print.)
Various causes have been put forth as to why a shifting has occurred in the tones and language present within the Mormon paradigm at large. To some, a desire for wider appeal and acceptance from among Mainline Christians and American society at large has provoked a move into the mainstream. Efforts towards emphasizing the centrality and focus of Christ within Mormonism (such as in adding “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” to the title of the Book of Mormon in 1982 and reformatting the name of the Church to the centrally bolded words “JESUS CHRIST” in 1996) have taken place during times of heightened scrutiny towards the Church by both secular and Evangelical critics, and the nation/world at large. The so-called Mormon Moment created by the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the 2012 Romney/Ryan Presidential Run, and the “I’m a Mormon” Campaign, as well as an increasingly globalized total demographic in membership, have all influenced the Church’s approach in Public Relations. While I am all for adapting Church materials to be more inclusive of the world population rather than being solely representative of Rocky Mountain culture and values, and while I am all for reaching out to other faiths in a spirit of goodwill and cooperation based off shared values, my worry is that too many Latter-day Saints (though perhaps unaware of the fact) are willing to water down their own beliefs for the sake of making them more palatable to a wider Christian audience (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant). Examples of this include the misguided response often given by members and missionaries alike, “but we are Christians just like you! We believe in the same Jesus!”
I find this problematic for many reasons.
For starters, if a Mormon is using this as a dodge so as to avoid talking about the real differences for the sake of an easier (and perhaps more persuasive?) discussion, they are being disingenuous. One must provide a definition of Christian and Jesus before the previous statement can carry any validity, and almost always, that definition will differ from what their audience might have in mind. The recent Gospel Topic essay released in recent years titled “Are Mormons Christian?” gives responses to three common (although somewhat elementary) reasons as to why many have objected to extending the label of Christian to their Latter-day Saint neighbors. These are:
- Latter-day Saints do not accept the creeds, confessions, and formulations of post–New Testament Christianity.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not descend through the historical line of traditional Christianity. That is, Latter-day Saints are not Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant.
- Latter-day Saints do not believe scripture consists of the Holy Bible alone but have an expanded canon of scripture that includes the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
Although true that Mormonism is not creedal in its beliefs, traditional in its historical line or closed with its scriptural canon, the larger distinction that both well-read Christians and Latter-day Saints will recognize is that on the ontology of God and man. Traditional Christianity has historically held to Trinitarian Monotheism in which three persons make up the One God and Creator of the Universe whose qualities of being eternal and thereby uncreated sets distinction between itself and every other thing in existence. This God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipresent in the fullest capacity, being a fully transcendent personal force which took upon a human form in the person of the Logos so as to redeem mankind. With this, there exists an ontological gulf between Divinity and Humanity, due to the exclusive qualities of being uniquely uncreated (God) and being created (man).
Mormonism on the other hand, recognizes an ontological plurality of Gods/gods or divine beings both within the Godhead (which are said to be “One” in the sense of being wholly united in power, purpose, love, and action rather than being) and outside of it within the individual potential to achieve exaltation, thereby becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2nd Peter 1:4) in the fullest sense. Man and God alike are eternal in the sense of always existing, albeit originally in an unorganized primordial state. As stated earlier, there isn’t an absolute consensus among Latter-day Saints as to the “fullness” intended when ascribing to God divine qualities (such as omnipotence, omniscience etc.) as there exist limitations of sorts that even God is subject to. Thus, with all of these unique theological posits, Christendom at large has struggled to accept Mormons as Christians in the same sense as themselves, and not just Christendom alone, but the larger academic world (including within Mormonism) has struggled to categorize it within any theological system in a fully definitive and satisfying way. From individuals such as McConkie who have argued that “true saints are monotheists”, to Richard Bushman holding to “social trinitarianism”, to Blake Ostler defining them as monolatrous or Monarchic Monotheists, to many critics citing them wholly polytheistic in the same sense of the rejected pagan pantheons of old, the debate continues today.
Nonetheless, without going into even more depth (I have written too much on this subject already), my hope is that Latter-day Saints can be confident and upfront enough in their own doctrine so as to not water it down for the sake of ecumenism. It is plain enough that if a Mormon wishes to self-identify as a “Christian”, they must elaborate on what that entails beyond simply looking to the historical Jesus of Nazareth as their Savior and Redeemer. That being said, I believe that Mormons are unequivocally Christian, although they are not creedal, traditional, or trinitarian monotheists; and I realize that for many, such is difference enough to withhold any possible leeway.
By National Library of Ireland - Painting the town red
Heresy Two: Attitudes and Stances of Anti-Intellectualism and Historical White-Washing
With the Age of Information being catalyzed by the advent of the Internet within the last decade, the ease and accessibility of information and arguments -both pro and critical to the Restored Gospel- has pushed the Church into a whole new ballgame that can no longer be played by adhering to the same stances and patterns of action in previous decades. This means that it can no longer (at least not in honest and good faith) promote the same narrative of the Restoration as it has in years past. So far, our narrative has been that of a hagiography (and I use that term not as a pejorative) with larger than life stories of near-immaculate characters experiencing the Divine in simple and easily describable ways. While information dealing with some of the lesser emphasized or publicly known has not been completely hid or ignored in all cases -although perhaps handled in a less-than aboveboard manner at times- the time is at hand that, for the sake of the Church’s own survival as an institution and body of believers in the secular age, an attitude and habit of complete and total transparency must be adhered to. This means depicting the Church and its history, warts and all, fully transparent with both the inspiration and mortal failings of its leaders and members.
There have been times when the predominant attitudes of the Brethren have reflected more a spirit of anti-intellectualism and unfortunate authoritarianism than free thought and open scholarship. To see just one example of this, one can view the England-McConkie Correspondences which historian Claudia Bushman has described as “a microcosm of the diverging styles” between two believing intellectuals within the Church, effectively creating a “celebrated showdown between England, a provocative thinker . . . and McConkie, a lawyer and doctrinaire General Authority.” which leads her to believe that the “McConkie-England disagreement revealed the division between theological conservatives and liberals within the believing camp and, in a larger sense, the tension between authoritarian control versus free expression.” (Claudia L. Bushman, Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), 149.)
To get a sense of what this sounded like, McConkie, tells England in a 10-page letter regarding a condemnation of England’s views on the omniscience of God that, “I shall write in kindness and in plainness and perhaps with sharpness. I want you to know that I am extending the hand of friendship though at the same time I hold over you the scepter of judgment.” with the somewhat startling climax of the letter being at “it is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent.” The full text of the letter can be seen HERE. I am certain that readers will find it quite fascinating as they see what I mean when I speak to veins of anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism within the Church’s (even recent) history. Such shows the diversity in views that can exist between Church leaders serving in the same Priesthood and leadership capacity. Take for instance the Apostle Hugh B. Brown in saying:
“More thinking is required, and we should all exercise our God-given right to think and be unafraid to express our opinions, with proper respect for those to whom we talk and proper acknowledgment of our own shortcomings. We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it. The church is not so much concerned with whether the thoughts of its members are orthodox or heterodox as it is that they shall have thoughts.”
– Hugh B. Brown, “A Final Testimony,” Edward B. Firmage, The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown: An Abundant Life, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1988, pg. 135-140
That being said, I have a testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Second to Christ alone, he may well be the individual who has impacted, changed, and inspired my soul the most. The man Joseph that I have a testimony of is not the individual that I was taught in Sunday School, nor Seminary, but he is the one that I will bear authentic personal witness of on my mission and elsewhere. This is Joseph: the true, though at times failure-prone Prophet; this is Joseph: the mortal man wrestling with his own experience with the Divine and grappling on how to express that in terms restricted by human limitations; this is Joseph: whose understanding and recognition as to the true depth of his calling would mature and develop over time. I have a testimony of Joseph, of the young and rash treasure-digger, of the idealist and dreamer, of the meek though charismatic leader of thousands, of the devoted though lowly follower of Christ, of the dancer and dealer in Truth and the abstract, of the freemason, the polygamist, the practitioner of 19th century folk-magic, the theocrat, and the Martyr. It is this Joseph, fully humanized, that I have a testimony of, and anything less recognizing of his faults alongside his triumphs, I can’t believe in or teach with integrity. My testimony is of Joseph Smith rather than Joseph’s Myth (with myth being intended in the objective academic sense rather than describing a falsehood) and I will proudly bear witness as to himself, his work, the Restoration he ushered in, and the God he loved and served until his final breath.
Heresy Three: On Fitting the Notorious though Fictitious “Mormon Mold”
“Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed. Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole. This variety of creation itself is a testament of how the Lord values all His children. He does not esteem one flesh above another, but He “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God.”
– Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Concern for the One,” Ensign, May 2008
There are many aspects of predominant Mormon culture that I love and appreciate, while there are others which I hope we can distance ourselves from as a faith community as soon as possible; one of which being that of the “Mormon Mold”. By this, I mean the unrealistic, idyllic, and homogenous stereotype of what a “true Gospel devotee” should be seen as. I think that the Church, especially in recent years, has been doing a tremendous job at speaking out and disproving this in Church media resources, General Conference talks, and other publications and statements by Church leaders; however, we still have a long climb ahead of us.
I was delighted to hear Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s most recent Conference talk titled “Songs Sung and Unsung” where he says:
“Brothers and sisters, we live in a mortal world with many songs we cannot or do not yet sing. But I plead with each one of us to stay permanently and faithfully in the choir, where we will be able to savor forever that most precious anthem of all—“the song of redeeming love.” Fortunately, the seats for this particular number are limitless. There is room for those who speak different languages, celebrate diverse cultures, and live in a host of locations. There is room for the single, for the married, for large families, and for the childless. There is room for those who once had questions regarding their faith and room for those who still do. There is room for those with differing sexual attractions. In short, there is a place for everyone who loves God and honors His commandments as the inviolable measuring rod for personal behavior, for if love of God is the melody of our shared song, surely our common quest to obey Him is the indispensable harmony in it. With divine imperatives of love and faith, repentance and compassion, honesty and forgiveness, there is room in this choir for all who wish to be there. “Come as you are,” a loving Father says to each of us, but He adds, “Don’t plan to stay as you are.” We smile and remember that God is determined to make of us more than we thought we could be.” (emphasis added)
As this is somewhat straightforward, I will just add my own united voice to Holland’s in speaking towards the inclusive space that is truly represented by the Gospel and God’s Plan of Salvation. In times past, fallible members and even leaders may have depicted this as less than all-encompassing, however God’s Word stands to show that God “doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (2nd Nephi 26:33, emphasis added)
By Guillaume Duchenne - 1965 University of Chicago Press
Heresy Four: Fear and Resistance to Change and Further Revelation
I consider it a stark irony when, as belonging to a Church built upon the literal “rock of the revelation of Christ” (Matthew 16:18), members carry an attitude of being resistant or hesitant to the idea of new revelation in the future. I will give an example, and I hope that my giving this example is not taken as an express statement on what will or must take place in the future, just what could hypothetically be the case; I speak of the Priesthood being extended to Women.
If tomorrow say, the First Presidency expressed in a dramatic and unexpected fashion that effective immediately, the Priesthood would now be extended to all worthy females who could serve in the same capacities and callings as men, how would one imagine that the Church body at large would take it? I guarantee that there would be a few who would oppose for some reason or other, but perhaps at large it would be accepted in full and sustaining faith. The reason that I say this is that I have heard some adamantly and perhaps overconfidently say, that women will never have the Priesthood. This type of attitude towards what apparently must be is perplexing and I believe, misguided. As it pained some Church members to accept the Gentiles into the fold, or to abandon plural marriage, or to accept the Blacks being given the Priesthood, I tend to vie away from making definitive and authoritative statements on what must be the case now and forever. Instead, my attitude is one of sustaining God’s inspired leaders now, heeding to the best of my conscience their teachings, and anxiously awaiting the outpouring of new and wondrous revelation when it comes.
A similar, and more elaborated example has been created by my friend, Stephen Smoot titled “Of Gays and Gentiles: A Thought Experiment” which I invite the reader to also take a look at if they feel so inclined.
Parable of the Blind Men- P. Bruegel the Elder, 1568.
Heresy Five: Conformity and Agreement with Church Leaders
On the flipside, some changes, though at times being cited as stemming from revelation, are not as easy to accept or bear. For myself personally, along with many others, this most recently was established in the form of the 2015 policy change regarding the baptism of children from same-sex couples. Though at first I accepted it without a second thought, and even defended it, I find it much more difficult now to stand in full support of it when witnessing the pain it has caused. I sustain my Church leaders, I support them in the position and capacity that they serve in as inspired men of God, but that being said, this is a hard policy -not doctrine- for me to accept with full cheer and faith, and it is my prayer that further light might come to explain, elaborate, change, repeal, or replace it. I understand that Truth can at times be hard, but it is my experience that the Gospel more often then not lifts individual’s burdens rather than becomes one of itself.
So when it comes to sustaining and supporting Church leaders, for myself, such is not predicated upon my agreeing with them. I sustain and support them according to the position that they are in, but like with the example of a one Orson Pratt single-handedly opposing Brigham Young and many of the Twelve on the attempted establishment of the Adam-God Doctrine, it is clear that one should only ever operate within the dictates of their own conscience and the direction of the Spirit rather than succumbing to the pressures of authoritarianism. I can happily say that despite the failings and mistakes of past Church leaders, at times on matters of doctrine, I hold them to be men of God and spokesmen of Christ nonetheless. If individuals are looking for infallible, inerrant, or unfailing leaders, just as within Biblical times, they will not find what they are looking for. Despite Moses never making it to the Promised Land, despite Joshua issuing and taking part in genocide, despite David making grave moral transgressions before God and man, despite Peter denying the Christ, despite Joseph Smith’s (at times questionable) involvement with polygamy and polyandry, and despite Brigham Young’s perpetuation of racism, I hold them all to be inspired men of God just as I extend to our leaders today. It is clear that the Lord works with us in our weaknesses, mistakes, short comings, and brokenness, and the Spirit can be our guide as we judge what is from and of God. Mortality offers no perfect or infallible path to God, the point is to do our best with what we have by studying out all things in our minds and responding to the promptings of the Spirit as we are so called.
As we are asked if we sustain our Church leaders, might we remember the joint definition of the word as,
Sustaining then might be both a pleasant or unpleasant course of action, and such should be remembered as we sustain those we agree or disagree with in their inspired callings within the Lord’s Church.
Heresy Six: What the Road to God Really Looks Like?
I believe in a Plan of Salvation that is so much more universal in scope than what we often make it to be. Given my exposure and background with family and friends who have left the Church, with amazing Christ-like people of faiths different then my own, and with individuals both solid and struggling with their identity of being Mormon, there is no singular and homogenous road to God. I am no universalist in that I take all roads as equally efficient in reaching Truth and God, but rather an inclusivist in that I see all paths eventually converging to one on the narrow road to the strait gate that leads to eternal life. I am a Mormon, it is the moral, spiritual, rational, and metaphysical framework which represents my worldview, however I can only attest to its validity within the scope of my own experience. I can speak to the clarity and happiness it has brought me and invite others to come and partake of the same if they so choose. Come and receive a witness from the Spirit according to the time and place that is right for you.
My view of God’s Plan for all of us is holistic enough to always be to our own benefit. I believe that God wants us to grow, progress, and flourish and that in every moment, we are extended an opportunity to draw nearer or farther away from him according to our actions. The path that God calls us to walk could bring us into or outside of the fold while in this life if such will be to our eventual benefit, but He will always provide a means and a way for us to return to Him until the coming of the Great and Last Day.
So let us be respectful and supportive in each other’s faith journeys. Let us progress and be uplifted as individuals, as families, and communities. Though some may wander, though we all may wander, may we be equally accepting when individuals return to the fold. We are all lost, we are all fallen, and the Church that we create should be a hospital for the sick and a refuge for the broken rather than a museum of saints and a country club for those who have it all together. God doesn’t advocate for sin, but He does advocate for the expression and exercise of agency.
This is reflective in the teachings of the Church regarding the fair, equal, and full opportunity all will have to accept or reject the Gospel as so they choose and can be seen in the following quotes by the Prophet Brigham Young:
“So far as mortality is concerned, millions of the inhabitants of the earth live according to the best light they have—according to the best knowledge they possess. I have told you frequently that they will receive according to their works; and all, who live according to the best principles in their possession, or that they can understand, will receive peace, glory, comfort, joy and a crown that will be far beyond what they are anticipating. They will not be lost.” (DBY, 384).
“If [people] have a law, no matter who made it, and do the best they know how, they will have a glory which is beyond your imagination, by any description I might give; you cannot conceive of the least portion of the glory of God prepared for his beings, the workmanship of his hands.” (DBY, 385).
“I say to every priest on the face of the earth, I do not care whether they be Christian, Pagan or [Muslim], you should live according to the best light you have; and if you do you will receive all the glory you ever anticipated.” (DBY, 384–85).
Just after his address, Pope Francis warmly individually greeted and shook hands with several faith leaders, including President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Heresy Seven: Spiritual Superiority, Exclusivism, and “The One True Church” Mentality
Finally, although important for Latter-day Saints to be knowledgable, confident, and uncompromising in their unique doctrines, they should likewise maintain an optimistic and appreciative spirit towards other faiths rather than one of exclusivity and and spiritual superiority bordering on arrogance. The phrase of “The One True Church” should only be used in reference to our authority and special stewardship of the saving ordinances unique to our faith.
Some quotes to consider before I close in listing some interfaith promoting resources for Latter-day Saints:
“While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is established for the instruction of men; and is one of God’s instrumentalities for making known the truth yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place. God raises up wise men and prophets here and there among all the children of men, of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend; not always giving a fullness … of the gospel of Jesus Christ; but always giving that measure of truth that the people are prepared to receive.”
(See Brigham H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints [Deseret News Press, 1907], 1:512–13.)
“Based upon ancient and modern revelation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gladly teaches and declares the Christian doctrine that all men and women are brothers and sisters, not only by blood relationship from common mortal progenitors but as literal spirit children of an Eternal Father. The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals. The Hebrew prophets prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, who should provide salvation for all mankind who believe in the gospel. Consistent with these truths, we believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation, either in this life or in the life to come…. Our message therefore is one of special love and concern for the eternal welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race, or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters because we are sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father.”