There is a common cautionary tale I hear retold within Mormon circles. This tale goes something like this: Once upon a time the LDS Church was going to do something progressive, and amazing. However, these measures were abandoned when some person or group (often unknowingly) decided that they would engage the media regarding a church policy or procedure. As the story goes this interference altered the fate of the whole church, and as penance the majority of church members must then wait 20-30 more years for this ‘referenced elusive progress’ to occur.
I have heard this idea espoused multiple places – in church meetings, firesides, online, and in personal conversations. Historically I have overheard these explanations used to explain the inability of the Church to denounce and apologize for its racial ban in the 1990s, and most recently in reference to Let Women Pray and Ordain Women.
I find these stories problematic on a number of levels. Most importantly, they require insider knowledge, that the listening party will never be privileged enough to fact check. These stories rely on “I know someone high up” or “someone at the Church told me.” But, these stories also leave out important facts, such as names of these informants (one would assume to protect them from repercussions). These stories remain what I would label not verifiable and clearly do not pass the Snopes Test.
However for the rest of this post, let’s assume that these stories are true. I want to examine the implications of these narratives. These stories are often used by well meaning individuals to affirm the church and its current policies and practices. However, well meaning, these stories when examined yield some alarming inferences.
The idea that the Church would hinder the progress of its members and development the organization because it wants to keep up appearances and extend control and authority is shocking. In other words, these narratives assume that (at some point) the church received inspiration from God and chose to NOT act on that divine revelation because of some external factor. History is full of organizations (such as businesses and governments) making petty decisions, I am, however, shocked that apologists try to justify and propagate this behavior in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I find it hard to imagine that the Lord’s anointed would allow hurt feelings win out over human decency, and would refuse to carry out revelations from the Lord. Again, I will restate this- I find it hard to imagine that a group of grown professional men would not go forward with the Lord’s plans to implement His will because of a newspaper article, a policy leak, or a letter writing campaign.
These types of self-justifying tales, generally serving the individual telling them, and in doing so communicate to others, mostly women, that if you, or someone within your broad category of gender, just behaved better, your life in the church would have already improved, and there would be more ‘undefined’ advancement. These narratives are without a doubt classified as gatekeeping.
Very briefly, gatekeeping occurs when an authority figure, self-appointed or official, creates a fear-based system to control the behavior of others. And uses those within a less powerful demographic to impose sanctions on themselves. Thus creating fear and anxiety surrounding the ‘possible’ repercussions to the individual or the group as a whole if anyone steps out of line. By telling women that a small group, who asked the church to address their observations of inequality, have, in fact, caused the removal of blessings for the entire church. This system creates distrust among women, resentment towards those who have spoken out, and silences voices.
This type of behavior is rebuked in the scriptures. In Luke 11:10-13 we read: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?
The Lord was very clear about knocking and asking, and the proper response by those in positions of authority. And unless the King James horribly mistranslated the Greek- the proper scriptural response is not what these narrative tales depict. For example, this class of anecdotes depicts the Twelve as having seriously considered reversing their previous decision to allow women to pray in April of 2013, because a group dared to ask why in 183 years of LDS Church history, no woman had ever prayed in General Conference. I think this idea is profoundly depressing. And if- as these narratives assume, that blessings are still being removed or withheld from the Church because of Ordain Women or any other group, then I have to say I am rather speechless and appalled.
These stories perpetuated by individuals are not faith promoting and undermine the processes of revelation and agency. In my opinion these narratives need to stop being used by those who profess to help the church, because, in reality, these narratives make the whole situation worse. These stories depict Church leaders as petty, immature, and vindictive. I certainly hope that individuals called of God would not engage in such juvenile behavior. I have faith that we can stop using unverifiable quasi-apologetic accounts to suppress faithful questions.
Nailed it. My thoughts exactly.
Your opinion is shared by many members of the church. This is one casualty of not knowing church history, and it is unfortunate. You will find ample examples in church history of the leaders turning away from God’s revealed word as a result of social pressure. There are subtleties here that I don’t have time or space to address that are quite important in order to see how such a thing could happen, such as the on-record position the brethren have espoused that their council conversational outcomes are equivalent to God’s revealed word. I invite you to look into that on your own.
Let’s start with Brigham Young, because he started the policy of not ordaining blacks to the priesthood. Now we follow through subsequent church leaders. Each one made concrete statements that the scriptures indicating that God has barred certain lineages from the priesthood meant that God barred people with black skin from the priesthood. (Note: I do not accept that connection). There were 1st presidency statements making the doctrine official. There was even one signed 1st presidency letter that said it was a revelation from God. President McKay conducted a historical investigation which showed that there was no evidence of a written revelation, and suggested that Brigham Young made it up. Several members of the 15 were outspoken supporters of removing the ban, such as Hugh Brown. A high profile article from an LDS religious historian outlined an argument for lifting the ban. Some say President Carter phoned President Kimball and put pressure on him, but I can’t verify that. Finally, President Kimball sent the 2 most outspoken opponents of the ban on assignment, then polled the remaining 12 members of the 15 individually and privately to settle their objections, then called for a vote in the temple. Although Bruce McConkie described the event in such charismatic terms that it would rival the Kirtland temple dedication, LeGrand Richards described it as a simple decision. That would indicate that one of those two individuals was, at best, grossly over or understating the truth. At any rate, the ban was lifted without a written revelation or sustaining vote from the church. Recently, the church enlisted the help of historians to again show that Brigham Young implemented the policy of his own accord. They went as far as calling presidents Young through Kimball racists and said they were uninspired in upholding the ban. Let us consider the implications in this case study.
1) According to the church, past presidents have lied—saying something was a revelation when it was not.
2) According to the church, truth is more likely obtained from historian’s access to and interpretation of evidence than it is from signed statements of doctrine from the 1st presidency.
3) It was necessary to receive a revelation from God to lift a ban invented by Brigham Young, and Kimball et al. were not told in said revelation that the ban was made up. They never said so. However, some 30 years after the event, the church is able to say with certainty without any extra evidence that the ban was made up.
4) President Kimball felt it necessary to wait till the 2 most staunch opponents were gone to have the vote.
5) President Kimball felt it necessary to individually convince each of the members of the remaining 12 why it would be good to change the doctrine before praying to God about it to get the “revelation.”
Let’s look at another case: Garment modification. The brethren who lived around Joseph understood that the garment was revealed from heaven to him with certain explicit characteristics. That continued to be the understanding through the presidency of Joseph F. Smith. Throughout that period of time you will find official quotes from the brethren such as this one from president J.F. Smith: “The Saints should know that the pattern of endowment garments was revealed from Heaven, and that the blessings promised in connection with wearing them will not be realized if any unauthorized change is made in their form, or in the manner of wearing them.” (Joseph F. Smith, President of the church, 1916 instruction hung on an 11 x 14 poster in all temples) . Here is another one: “If you mutilate the garment by cutting off the sleeves or legs or changing it in any manner, it loses its identity and is no longer a garment of the Priesthood. Those who do this forfeit their standing as members in the Church and the only way they can get back is by the waters of baptism.” (The Truth Magazine, 16:44-45) Fast forward to Heber Grant’s administration. With building pressure from the ladies, who didn’t like the inconvenience of the original garment in their day-to-day lives and fashions, the Grant administration decided to allow modifications of the garments. Their reason? They found an old lady who claimed that, according to her recollection, the garment patterns were made up by Emma Smith and Bathsheba Smith: “The suggestion for the reconsideration apparently came because of Elder Richards’s questions raised after a conversation with Sister Maria Dougall in October 1922. At that time he learned that Joseph Smith had not designed the garments and temple clothing. In fact, a group of sisters led by Emma Smith and including Bathsheba Smith had fashioned both the garments and the temple clothing, and presented them to Joseph Smith for his approval.” (From “Mormonism in Transition”). Here again we have an example where certified statements of official doctrine from presidents of the church are overruled by convenient and unquestioned “history.” No matter that, even if Emma had fashioned the first garment, Joseph approved it. The garment was modified in accordance with the requests of those petitioning the church.
Another case: There are numerous quotes from Joseph Smith that indicate that the ordinances of the priesthood are revealed from heaven, and will never change. In 1987 David Buerger wrote a Dialogue article where he suggested that declining rates of attendance were due to parts of the endowment that certain members disliked. Just a few months later, the church issued a survey to 3400 US/Canadian members regarding the temple. These were made effective in 1990. The covenants were modified and the instruction was changed.
So, the root of all this is: what happens when you put pressure on the church to do something? The answer is, you get what you ask for, whether it comes from God or not.
Rob, I agree with your examination of church history and disagree with the author. I have spent the last year in a faith crisis that is not so simple so work through. The points the author is trying to prove as damaging is actually what I found to be more truthful (oh, that was hard for me). I tell people don’t go down the rabbit hole by searching “actual” church history. Stay with the white washed version if you are not ready for a faith crisis. I am grateful I looked but it is not easy and not for everyone (wish it was).
As my bishop said, “Ok to question.”…but not ok to find different answers. I agree that change only has occurred after 20-30 years of painful growth- something I am no longer waiting for in the church to grow-up.
I was reading all my family journals from history- I am from pioneer ancestors. My great, great, great, great, great Grandfather Thomas Sunderland Hawkins was a polygamist who was asked by an apostle to marry an Indian woman so her skin would get whiter. He said to the apostle that he believed in following a good example and when he married an Indian woman he would also. He did eventually 2 other women- my ancestry and even served time when his first wife prosecuted him. I was disappointed in the “apostles” revelation on how to “whiten” skin and was inspired by his connection to God’s will. Yes, I was so sad that my heritage is racist and inspired from men who were suppose to “know better”. It has been very painful.
I think you misunderstand the OP slightly. She isn’t arguing changes in the church don’t come through the processes you describe. Lets say I have reasons to *highly* doubt that is what Jessica believes, but she can speak for herself.
In fact it is quite the opposite. What she is arguing is that trying to shut down feedback from members in the forms of say letter writing compaign or other forms of collective advocacy with the arguement that they are slowing the process implies things those using this apologetic approach would find disturbing if they thought about it for a moment. She then argues that these actions aren’t really so much ones of apologetics but a form of gatekeeping – trying to silence the voices of the advocates. This helps explain why those motivated to defend the church might use it.
PS – The title of your post is correct, although the implications are probably something you had not previously considered.
“Spencer believed that external pressure made revelation even less likely to come.”
On page 37 of “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood” by Edward L. Kimball.
Yes one would Hope so … unfortunately history teaches otherwise
Well reasoned, well written. I couldn't agree more!
If that article is to be believed, something like the 2014 essay on race and the priesthood was underway, slowly, 16 years ago. Maybe the article is totally made up. My guess is that it was not.
I have two comments. First, your article seems to indicate that these changes that were in the works, then later cancelled, were the result of direct revelation. I doubt that this was the case. We are more than likely looking at situations like lowering the mission age or other policy decisions that don’t need to be directly revealed by God.
Second, what you call “petty” might very well be a more serious issue when looked at from the leadership’s position. I, for one, can see why they do not want to create a precedent of “if you cause enough of a ruckus in the media or at general conference or whatever, then we will cave to your demands.” That’s perfectly reasonable, and certainly isn’t “petty.” You are not giving some of their possible reasons (assuming these stories are true, which you point out is problematic and I agree) enough weight.
From the article you referenced:
“William S. Evans, a public affairs committee staffer, confirmed that the committee members have discussed the matter. But he cautioned that only the church’s highest authorities–not the committee–could make such a statement.”
Boy, that sure has changed, hasn’t it? (Nothing really to do with this essay, but I thought that was an interesting statement) Seems today’s PR department is putting out many more statements than the church’s ‘highest authorities’.
John Harrison is right. Marlin K. Jensen was also long rumored to be linked to the committee and he obliquely acknowledged his participation in it during his interview for the PBS documentary The Mormons:
Carole is right also. I think the reason the leaders of the church might be reluctant to move on a major policy issues in an environment of heightened public pressure is because they usually receive revelation the same way we do, through the still small voice of the spirit. And for them it is that much more difficult to tell if you are making the change because it’s what the Lord wants you to do, or you’re just doing what you want to do to get rid of the pressure.
I really like your points here, Jessica. The model underlying this type of statement seems to be that GAs are more concerned with their image (“Ignoring public pressure since 1834!”) than with doing what’s right. Like you, I hope that’s a false model.
I've never heard this argument before. I agree with your reasoning, but maybe we're knocking down straw men.