This post is a little different than others we have done in the past. It has three parts written by three different authors. At first glance the three essays seem to have nothing to do with each other. For that reason, we thought a brief introduction would be helpful. There is a central theme to this blog post, and one should see the central theme as the hub of a bicycle wheel and the three essays as spokes. The central issue is the change in missionary age for full-time LDS missionaries. The three essayists will approach this change from three different perspectives:
- Michael Barker will examine how the words revelation, doctrine, and scripture are used in the common parlance of LDS culture. He will then complicate the definitions and ultimately will request a more sophisticated and nuanced use of these three words.
- Cody Calderwood will give a history of the LDS-owned school in Mexico, El Benemerito De Las Americas, as it will be closing to help accommodate the influx of new missionaries due to the lowering of the missionary age.
- Paul Barker will critically look at the closing of El Benemerito and will implicitly ask, “At what cost does revelation come?”
The Equivication and Conflation of Revelation
By Mike Barker
My youngest brother sent me a text-message during one of his Sunday church meetings last week. It was from our going back and forth, that this post was born. Here is how the texting went:
Little Brother: Guy in Elders Quorom just called the missinoary age change a revelation. I died a little inside.
Me: What’s your definition of revelation?
Little brother: His definition [the man in his Priesthood Quorum] – not sure….Under my definition, it falls under policy change. Revelation is needed to change doctrine. Common sense mostly changes policy.
Me: Was the change in the “negro” policy revelation?
Little brother: That one’s up in the air for me. It falls under both policy and revelation just because it was so far entrenched. It had been around for what, 100 years or so? But the more I learn about the situation in Brazil and the timing of everything, it seems like it would be more policy change…[the change in] polygamy would probably be revelation. Wilford Woodruff seems like he was ready to continue the practice in public. The Second Manifesto was policy.
The point of the convesation with my brother was not an attempt to point out some falacious logic. It was to point out the complexity and the assumption that the word revelation carries in our LDS culture.
In the broadest sense of the word, revelation is any type of divine communication between God and man. However, when we apply the word to institutional revelation, and not personal revelation, things can get quite confusing. In Mormonism, there seems to be the assumption that revelation is equated with scripture and that scripture is equated with canonized scripture and that from our canonized scripture comes doctrine. This logic is a bit naive and is perhaps perpetuated not only by our LDS culture, but also by our leaders. These conclusions, however, are arrived at quite honestly. Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 reads:
And whosoever shall speak when moved upon the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.
There are ontological differences between what is said in General Conference, what is stated as an Official Declaration by the Quorum of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, personal revelation, and canonized scripture. I think in general, we as a people conflate all of these under the broad term revelation and thus scripture. We don’t have to dig too deep to find where this logic quickly falls apart:
President Boyd K. Packer’s famous talk about homosexuality in 2010 was seriously redacted prior to its printing in official LDS Church publications (click here to see the redactions). Was what he said scripture before or after the redactions?
Elder Pulman gave a talk in General Conference in 1983. He was brought back into the tabernacle with no audience and his talk was re-recorded with some major redactions. It is the second talk that was put in print and ended up on the audio productions that the church published. What the leadership didn’t realize is that many members had the “new” VHS tape recorders and had recorded the original Conference talk. When the redacted talk came out, it caused some issues (click here to read the official printed talk; click here to read the differences side by side; click here to watch and listen to the original talk and compare it to what is on lds.org). So which talk was scripture? The first or the second?
The logic that what is said in Conference is “scripture” or “official doctrine” is flawed. To claim that anything taught in General Conference is “official doctrine”, notes J. F. McConkie, “makes the place where something is said rather than what is said the standard of truth. Nor is something doctrine simply because it was said by someone who holds a particular office or position. Truth is not an office or a position to which one is ordained”(Joseph Fielding McConkie, Answers: Straightforward Answers to Tough Gospel Questions (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1998), 213–214).
Canonized scripture is binding on the church and goes through some very specific channels before it is canonized. It must be voted on by the church “by common consent”. (D&C 28:13).
President Harold B. Lee stated:
“The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church (Harold B. Lee, The First Area General Conference for Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Spain of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held in Munich Germany, August 24–26, 1973, with Reports and Discourses, 69) .
There are six recorded instances of this happening in the LDS Church:
- April 6, 1830 – When the church was organized, the Bible and Book of Mormon were unanimously accepted as scripture.
- August 17, 1835 – Select revelations from Joseph Smith were unanimously accepted as scripture. These were later printed in the Doctrine and Covenants.
- October 10, 1880 – The Pearl of Great Price was unanimously accepted as scripture. Also at that time, other revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants which had not been accepted as scripture because they were received after 1835, were unanimously accepted as scripture.
- October 6, 1890 – Official Declaration—1 (ending polygamy) was accepted unanimously as scripture. It later began to be published in the Doctrine and Covenants.
- April 3, 1976 – Two visions (one received by Joseph Smith and the other by Joseph F. Smith) were accepted as scripture and added to the Pearl of Great Price. (The two visions were later moved to the Doctrine and Covenants as sections 137 and 138.)
- September 30, 1978 – Official Declaration—2 (giving priesthood and temple blessings to blacks) was accepted unanimously as scripture. It immediately was added to the Doctrine and Covenants.
So, it is clear that there is a distinct difference between canonized scripture and our very loose use of the word “scripture”. However, when we speak of “scripture” and “revelation” in our church classes, we usually fail to make this clear distinction. We seem to equivocate and conflate.
Some in the ex-Mormon communities took issue with Elder Christofferson’s April 2012 talk on determining what is Mormon Doctrine (click here to read; click here to read the LDS church’s official statement on doctrine). No clear conclusion was reached in his talk. The reason is that Mormonism does not have what is called a Systematic Theology, a creed, nor do we have a Catechism. In fact, I believe Mormons like the idea of rejecting a systemized theology, creeds, and catechisms and I am OK with that; it makes Mormonism roomier and more open to new revelation; it makes Mormonism a living religion. Deseret Book’s decision to no longer publish Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine (which arguably was an attempt to systematize our LDS theology) was a showing of Mormonism’s rejection of systematic theology. I think we, as a people, like the ebb and flow, that comes with our take on revelation and scripture and our rejection of creeds and confessions.
What do we do when something was once considered doctrine, but is now rejected? We often call it “folk-doctrine”, but at one time it was not viewed by most as folk doctrine when it was fully embraced. I am thinking here of the different explanations justifying those of African descent not having priesthood nor being allowed to participate in temple ordinances. We seem to quickly declare something as folk-doctrine when we are embarrassed by it. In an attempt to minimize the importance of what is now viewed as folk-doctrine, we will often hear Joseph’s famous quote, “A prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such”(HC, 5:265). The difficulty is that there is no clear established rubric to know when the prophet is speaking as a prophet or when he is just “free-lancing.” The above quote from Joseph seems to be held in tension with a later declaration by President Woodruff:
I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, pp. 212–13).
I believe that these two ideas, that are properly held in tension, must lead us to follow, not because of blind obedience, but because of informed obedience. Just to put President Woodruff’s comment in historical context, this was said when he was trying to move the church away from polygamy and he was attempting to keep the Church together.
So does scripture teach what is doctrine? No, it does not. It is interpretation of scripture that determines doctrine. I reject the Protestant Reformation’s view that scripture speaks for itself.
There are those that see the LDS church as being duplicitous and possibly nefarious in its ambiguity of how the words revelation, doctrine, and scripture are used. I don’t view it that way. There are certain aspects of an institution that self-perpetuate simply because they work. Perhaps the ambiguity and equivocation of these words offers some type of cohesiveness to our group as it is a lexicon that we understand amongst ourselves; but, again, maybe it causes more problems than good.
The point of my essay is not to make a concrete determination of what constitutes revelation, scripture, and doctrine in the LDS world view. The purpose is to show that we need to have some more sophistication and nuance when using these words. Now I do have one piece of advice when determining if something is revelation. Ask yourself, does it do more harm than good? If the answer is yes, then perhaps it is not revelation. Of course this would mean that one has to have the hubris to state that they know with some type of omniscience what is “good”. Another important question to ask is, at what cost will a change in policy or doctrine come? If the cost is great, with little benefit, then maybe it is not revelation. Asking these questions, as it relates to the policy change of LDS missionary age, is a good mental exercise to do and leads quite nicely into Cody’s part of the post.
El Benemerito De Las Americas
By Cody Calderwood
The LDS church has owned and operated a private high school (prep school) in Mexico City since 1964 named El Benemerito De Las Americas. The locals have affectionately called it “El Beni” for short. The school was founded with the purpose to provide an opportunity for LDS Mexican youth to receive a quality secular education that would be augmented with a spiritual education as well. For the past 49 years it has served as a wonderful school for young Mexican Mormons.
Benemerito has been very influential for many of the LDS people in Mexico. It provided an opportunity for many to study there and for others to work there. The closest thing in the United States to compare it to would be BYU or its other campuses like BYU-Idaho and BYU-Hawaii. El Benemerito created a subculture of identity and tradition for Mexicans and instilled the foundation of higher values and principles in the lifestyle of those who studied, worked, or lived there. In 1999 the school reported that 55% of the alumni served a mission, 75% stayed active in the Church and about 80% attended university. For thousands of families involved, Benemerito has been a family tradition; for others the gathering point and linkage between members of the Church from different parts of the country. It was also a taste of what it is to live in a full LDS environment, something hardly found in Mexico.
The Benemerito provided educational opportunities for members living in Mexico City that could commute to the school, and for those that lived throughout the rest of the nation there were boarding opportunities that allowed them to stay on the campus and attend during the school year. Those students would return home for the summers.
I served my mission in the Mexico Hermosillo Mission in 1997-1999. Seeing the hard work and dedication that young members would put forth in an attempt to be accepted there was admirable. All the members in the local branch/ward would celebrate when one of their youth would get accepted. It was a huge honor, and an amazing opportunity for both secular and spiritual growth to attend the school. Most of my Mexican companions who had grown up in the church attended El Benemerito and spoke very highly and fondly of their time there. In my experience, those elders who attended Benemerito were just as capable, and knowledgeable as their American counterparts.
On January 29, 2013 the church announced that they were going to close the school to make room for a new missionary training center. The recent changes that lowered the age of missionaries has prompted a surge of new missionaries. The church does not currently have the facilities to train the number that is requesting to serve. So one solution they decided to pursue was close down the school in Mexico City and use it as a mission training center rather than wait the three years it would take them to build a new MTC in Mexico City.
On an interesting side note, the LDS church has allowed Mexican missionaries to begin serving at the age of 18 since the 1990’s and had great success with that policy.
At one point the church owned and operated 100 schools across the world that provided similar experiences. That number has continually diminished over the years until now there are only 11 schools left in operation. All but one are scattered throughout the Polynesian islands.
That is about all that we do know for the decision to close down El Benemerito. There is much speculation though as to why it was chosen to be closed down. Many of my Mexican friends and companions who graduated from El Benemerito have heard whisperings that the church was unhappy with how politicized the selection process had become. Also, the Brethren felt that it no longer adequately was fulfilling the mission for which the school had been established and many alumni speculate that the best and most diplomatic way to change course was to shut down the school and reopen it as a new MTC. There is currently a movement by many alumni of El Benemerito to start up a new LDS sponsored prep school in Mexico to continue providing those unique opportunities for the youth of that nation.
Even though the Church is closing the school down it will help the current student body by giving them enough funds to go to another school of their choice. For the employees that worked at the school, the Church will try to find spots for them in the new MTC or if that is not a possibility they are awarding business grants so that they could start their own business. This is according to a returned missionary from Mexico City. This is a responsible action by the Church for students and faculty that are currently affiliated with the school, but leaves nothing for future students.
The size of the campus will be similar to the size of the MTC in Provo, Utah. It will become a global MTC, not just a center to train Mexican missionaries as they have had previously in Mexico City, but a center for missionaries from around the world to attend, be trained, and sent out to their respective missions.
The Cost of Revelation
By Paul Barker
When President Hinckley announced the Perpetual Education Fund (PEF) in 2001, I was totally on board. What a great, inspired program! The program is set up to provide low-interest loans to students to help them escape the vicious cycle of poverty. Less than 18 months after its introduction, the PEF had disbursed more than 5,000 loans. Within three years, about 10,000 young adults had received loans from the PEF. In 2007, the number of loans had reached 27,000 students in 39 different countries. In late 2009, the numbers climbed to over 40,000 people who had received loans through this inspired program in more than 40 countries including Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, the Philippines, India, Fiji, Tonga, South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria. What a phenomenal way to create well-educated leaders in third world countries! (Deseret News, An LDS Conference outside the US? April 2007)
In my mind, the PEF program reflects the values and stated aims of my church regarding the importance of education and the duty to help the poor. Needless to say, when I first read the news about the closing of the Mexican school, I was heartbroken. It seemed to contradict those values and aims of my church. Closing a school in the USA is much different than closing a school in Mexico. In the USA, we have numerous educational options and opportunities, but in Mexico the closure of a school can leave students with little or no choice for a good education. I’m especially troubled to see the closing of a school in a third world country when the church recently spent so much time, energy, and money – billions of dollars – to construct a shopping mall for profit in a first world country.
Now, let me just say that I don’t know the reason or reasons behind the conversion of the school into an MTC, and I never will. Was it really brought about because the politics were getting too messy? Maybe, but the church probably could have made steps to correct issues of that nature instead of just shutting the school down entirely. One could also speculate that the conversion was in direct relation to some recent drama with the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo…
Back in March of 2012, plans were made to increase the size of the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah. You can see the proposed plans here, which presented a nine-story high building. Protest quickly arose from local residents who claimed that a nine-story building would be in violation of the agreement that was formed when the MTC was first constructed. The agreement stated that the LDS church would never build anything over four stories at that location. The situation became even more controversial when, during church services, a stake president over the area invited members to “sustain the brethren”. “The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have made this a matter of fasting and prayer in the temple, and they consider it to be an ecclesiastical decision… They feel like this was the right decision for the Church,” said the stake president (according to a member who was present). After the invitation, many protesters fell in line to support church leaders, and so the opposition somewhat fizzled out. The leader of the opposition, Paul Evans, was told by his stake president that the apostle Russell M. Nelson was extending a personal invitation to Evans to abandon the protest as a matter of faith. Evans decided to step down when the stake president urged faithful obedience from the pulpit. Evans is also a teacher at BYU; one could speculate about his job security.
After all of this drama, the LDS church announced that it was going to scrap the plans for the nine-story building: “There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the Church’s proposal to construct a new building at the Provo Missionary Training Center. Church leaders have determined that, due to a number of complexities and concerns, we will not move forward with the nine-story building originally proposed. Expansion of the MTC is necessary but we are confident we can find a solution that builds upon the long-standing working relationship between the MTC, BYU, and the community at large. We look forward to further discussions as the process moves forward.” This announcement came less than a week after President Monson announced the lowering of age for men and women to serve full-time missions.
Was the church ill prepared for the rush of applicants? Even if the Provo MTC expansion had been approved, there is no way it could have been completed in time for the rush of missionaries the LDS church received after the announcement was made. The church received 4,000 applicants in the week following the announcement compared to the 700 they got a week before. That is an increase of 471%! So was the closing of the Mexican school just a quick fix for space in lieu of building another MTC? Could the church have instead built another MTC and had it ready before moving forward with the announcement? Or maybe the church could have just purchased a hotel in Mexico to act as an interim MTC to offset the rush of new missionaries while other arrangements were made? Again, it’s all speculation.
One of the reasons the closing of the Mexican school feels so personal to me is probably because I served my mission in Argentina. In Argentina and other countries outside of the USA (usually developing countries), you will find areas with hundreds of members on the rolls, but only 30-40 that actually attend church services, if that. The turnover rate in these countries is also pretty ugly – missionaries baptize large numbers of people only to have them go inactive years or sometimes even months later.
I believe that education is vital to successful missionary work. One of the best ways to create solid members and leaders, not only in the church but also in communities throughout the world, is through education. On my mission, my most successful areas were in wards where I could rely on solid members to help with the work, and these members, more often than not, were educated and employed. Also, the native missionaries I served with who received a good education before their missions were much better prepared to take on the rigorous work and study required of a missionary.
Because I am such a strong proponent of education and I can see its importance in successful missionary work, I feel like the closing of the Mexican school (education) to turn it into an MTC (missionary work) is kind of a defeating move. We need educated people to help our missionary work be more successful! Not only that, but now all of those Mexican students will have to find somewhere else to get an education. And that makes me sad.