by Greg Nelson
As a kid, I was uber excited whenever we went to Hometown Buffet, even though it was usually after a funeral or something like that. The freedom to pick and choose whatever I wanted was soul expanding. The first time through the buffet line was always awesome. After a few minutes though, it became clear that some things just didn’t digest well together. Eventually, I’d leave food on my plate, unconsumed, in favor of another plate, this time with more carefully selected items. This behavior became part of the experience. It wasn’t efficient, but it kept me from mixing too much of one item with too much of another. With enough trips through the buffet line however, I’d ultimately get my fill.
“[You] will encounter people who pick which commandments they will keep and ignore others that they choose to break. I call this the cafeteria approach to obedience…This practice of picking and choosing will not work. It will lead to misery.” –Elder Russell M. Nelson (1)
I find the counsel to not be a “Cafeteria Mormon” literally impossible – I can’t possibly consume every dish our leaders cook up in the form of council, policy or doctrine. Not because it’s too much to eat, but because the dishes simply don’t go down well together. It would create a serious case of indigestion, aka cognitive dissonance. Accordingly, I think a trip back to the buffet line is in order from time to time.
To be up front, I’m not interested in geeking out over what constitutes as “official,” “authoritative,” “canonical,” or “approved” doctrine and what should be categorized as a “personal, though well-considered” opinion. It may really just be a matter of timing anyway. Depending on the season, we might classify our policies in various ways. The black priesthood ban, for example, was once considered “prudent advice”, then raised to the status of clear “doctrine” and finally relegated back down to a “policy” based on unfounded “theories” which we now disavow.
“…So long as we have no special rule in the church, as to people of color, let prudence guide, and while they, as well as we, are in the hands of a merciful God, we say: Shun every appearance of evil.” – W.W. Phelps, 1833 (2)
“The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization…The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality.” – First Presidency Statement, 1949 (3)
“…Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church…Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life…” – LDS.org, 2014 (4)
Whether personal opinion or authoritative doctrine, I think the cafeteria approach has its place in our individual quest for truth. Elder Holland hits the nail for me here:
“In this Church there is an enormous amount of room—and scriptural commandment—for studying and learning, for comparing and considering, for discussion and awaiting further revelation.” (5)
As we pick through our spiritual food, “comparing and considering” and selective interpretation, I would add, are absolutely necessary in our personal faith journeys.
A few weeks ago in Elder’s Quorum, someone asked what to do if we sincerely fast and pray about something and come to a conclusion that is at odds with the current prophet’s instruction. The ensuing conversation was thought-provoking and enlightening until, of course, somebody played the “never lead you astray” card, which quickly shut down the whole discussion. I was annoyed at what I thought was an overly simplistic answer to a rather complex question. So I looked it up on my own and ended up with these two approaches, interestingly almost mirror opposites of each other.
“My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it…But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.’” – Heber J. Grant, quoted in 1960 (6)
“We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who presided over them, even if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God . . . would despise the idea…When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their minds to do wrong themselves.” – Brigham Young, 1852 (7)
Furthermore, our manuals tell us that “you can always trust the living prophets,” which flies in the face of George Q. Cannon:
“Do not, brethren, put your trust in man though he be a bishop, an apostle, or a president. If you do, they will fail you at some time or place; they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone;” – 1891 (8)
Metaphorically, these dishes just don’t digest well together. They’re not compatible. We absolutely must “pick and choose” which approach should be our approach. So…we must “compare and consider.” But is this open discussion of selective interpretation really expected and accepted in our culture?
The answer, of course, is mired in another paradox. This time from Harold B. Lee and Hugh B. Brown:
“Well, you’re not the one to make the policies for the Church…If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn’t go shopping for the answer.” – Harold B. Lee, quoted in 1996 (9)
“I admire men and women who have developed the questioning spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress…Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. …We should be dauntless in our pursuit of truth and resist all demands for unthinking conformity.” – Hugh B. Brown, 1958 (10)
In perspective, I realize some contradictions, especially with the passage of time, are simply more amusing than problematic. For example:
“Our doctrine is clear…Wives are equal to their husbands. Marriage requires a full partnership where wives and husbands work side by side to meet the needs of the family.” – Elder Quintin L. Cook, 2013 (11)
“Do their heavy lugging, but don’t wash their dishes as some men do.” – Brigham Young, circa 1845 (12)
“The priesthood leadership of this Church at all levels gratefully acknowledges the service, sacrifice, commitment, and contribution of the sisters.” – Elder Quintin L. Cook, 2013 (13)
“All their council and wisdom don’t weigh as much with me as the weight of a fly tird.” – Brigham Young, 1847 (14)
“The decision to marry is so important that it should be made only after the most prayerful and careful consideration by the individual.” – Mission President’s Handbook, 1993 (15)
“I think no more of taking another wife than I do of buying a cow.” – Heber C. Kimball, circa 1850 (16)
“[Women] hold the priesthood, only in connection with their husbands.” – John Taylor, 1880 (17)
“A wife does not hold the priesthood in connection with her husband.” – Joseph F. Smith, 1907 (18)
Surely our track record of political opinion is also a bit ironic.
“Where same-sex marriage becomes a recognized civil right, it inevitably conflicts with the rights of believers and religious freedom is diminished.” – Mormon Newsroom, 2013 (19)
“By showing no preference for a particular form of marriage in its laws, government would be ‘more complete and glorious…[permitting] the widest diversity in…social habits, as well as in religious faith.'” -Deseret Evening News, 1877 (20)
And our display of historical interpretation is definitely a head scratcher.
“[Emma] readily accepted Joseph Smith’s calling from God and stood by him all his life…Joseph and Emma Smith centered their marriage and family in the gospel of Jesus Christ—an example to all.” – Josephsmith.net, 2014 (21)
“She was embittered against Joseph, her husband, and at times fought against him with all her heart…The course pursued by this woman shows what apostates can do, and how wicked they can become in their hearts” and “twice she undertook to kill him.” – Orson Pratt & Brigham Young, 1869 (22)
“In almost every letter to Emma, Joseph referred to her as “my dear wife” or “my dear, affectionate Emma…There is much to admire and respect in the life of the ‘elect lady.’” – LDS.org, 2014 (23)
“…[Joseph] told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth” and “more hell was never wrapped up in any human being than there is in her.” – Brigham Young, 1863 (24)
Amusement aside, critics contend that our historical and doctrinal inconsistency is a deal breaker when it comes to credibility. And so I ask, isn’t a strictly “faith promoting” approach to historical doctrine a cafeteria approach to our own theology?
I believe the core problem isn’t so much the inconsistency as it is our denial that anything ever changes and the absolutist language we use in our everyday discourse. For instance, mixing up “always” with “never” simply doesn’t look good.
“I bear my solemn testimony that the Church of Christ in its fullness never existed without [polygamy].” – George Tisdale, 1884 (25)
“The standard doctrine of the Church is monogamy, as it always has been, as indicated in the Book of Mormon.” – LDS Newsroom, 2014 (26)
And we shouldn’t assume “knowledge” of something we really don’t know.
“God created the many diverse races and ethnicities and esteems them all equally.” – LDS.org, 2014 (27)
“The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things. Your knowledge of the Gospel will indicate to you that this is contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel… We are aware that some Higher Critics do not accept this, but the Church does.” – First Presidency Letter to Dr. Lowry Nelson, 1947 (28)
Why are we so quick to claim certitude when clearly we simply don’t know, especially in a church uniquely set apart as the one open to continuing revelation necessary to correct flawed doctrine? If “the Church does not preclude future additions or changes to its teachings or practices,” (29) why do we make statements like this?
“And, unlike other organizations that can change their policies and even their doctrines, our policies are determined by the truths God has identified as unchangeable.” – Elder Dallin H. Oaks, 2013 (30)
Isn’t that the exact argument the Fundamentalists use to justify their whole existence? Our policies are not unchangeable. Nor should they be.
“Revelations have been revised whenever necessary. That is the nice thing about revelation – it is strictly open-ended.” – Hugh Nibley, 1966 (31)
Furthermore, it’s ill-advised to name drop Joseph Smith to claim authority for our personal interpretations.
“It was Joseph’s doctrine that Adam was God” -1860 (32)
“It is true that the Negro race is barred from holding the Priesthood…the Prophet Joseph Smith taught this doctrine…” -1924 (33)
Both highly speculative, if not downright false. Both used as doctrinal justification at some point in our history. The contradiction below is perhaps more troubling to the record:
“Joseph Smith taught that there were certain sins so grievous that man may commit, that they will place the transgressors beyond the power of the atonement of Christ. If these offenses are committed, then the blood of Christ will not cleanse them from their sins even though they repent. Therefore their only hope is to have their blood shed to atone, as far as possible, in their behalf. This is scriptural doctrine, and is taught in all the standard works of the Church.” – Joseph Fielding Smith, 1954 (34)
“From the days of Joseph Smith to the present, wicked and evily‑disposed persons have fabricated false and slanderous stories to the effect that the Church, in the early days of this dispensation, engaged in a practice of blood atonement… there is not one…event or occurrence whatever, of any nature, from which the slightest inference arises that any such practice was taught.” – Bruce R. McConkie, 1958 (35)
So perhaps Bruce McKonkie was differentiating between teaching a “doctrine” and teaching a “practice.” But it’s still difficult to excuse his matter-of-fact language in categorically denying that the “slightest inference” might arise to actually put your doctrine into practice. Moreover, contradictions laced with name calling and threats of salvation don’t look good either.
“Some years ago, I advanced a doctrine with regard to Adam being our father and God, that will be a curse to many of the Elders of Israel because of their folly. With regard to it they yet grovel in darkness and will. It is one of the most glorious revealments of the economy of heaven, yet the world hold derision…But they are ignorant and stupid like the dumb ass.” – Brigham Young, 1861 (36)
“There are those who believe or say they believe that Adam is our father and our god…The devil keeps this heresy alive as a means of obtaining converts to cultism. It is contrary to the whole plan of salvation set forth in the scriptures, and anyone who has read the Book of Moses, and anyone who has received the temple endowment and who yet believes the Adam-God theory does not deserve to be saved.” –Bruce R. McConkie, 1980 (37)
Simply acting like we never taught anything different and using accusatory language to make that point is fairly insulting. Then again, making that point without using accusatory language is also insulting.
“There has been no tampering with God’s Word…. The whole body of Church laws forms a harmonious unit, which does not anywhere contradict itself nor has it been found necessary to alter any part of it.” – Elder John Widtsoe, 1951 (38)
We can definitely choose our words a little more carefully. Even the new and widely-praised Gospel Topics essays are somewhat tough to swallow.
“Church leaders recognized ‘that individuals who did not enter [polygamy] could still stand approved of God.'” -2014 (39)
“[They] would be under condemnation and would be clipped in their glory in the world to come.” – Daniel Wells (First Presidency), 1875 (40)
Since current leaders rarely call out previous leaders, it’s no wonder there’s sometimes an overwhelming selection of dishes to choose from in the spiritual buffet line. Of course, I’m not advocating for blood atonement or polygamy as an option on the table. But I will advocate for acknowledgement and increased transparency on how and why these things were a part of our identity. Otherwise, the silence and the related ignorance that ensues will potentially breed distrust and embarrassing PR (see Randy Bott in the Washington Post here, and the Church’s attempted damage control here). This isn’t about shielding milk-drinkers from”useless” truths. It’s about credibility in an increasingly informed world.
Despite the discouraging record, I personally find comfort and hold strongest to Joseph Smith’s clarification.
“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” (41)
Fortunately, appendages can be severed when it becomes clear they’re not conducive to our overall health. In fact, since the sizable deposit of new revelation in the early days of the church, we seem to spend more time flushing out partially understood messages and erroneous interpretations than we do actually receiving new revelation. Our new highly ambiguous stance on the once-core doctrine of peopling our own planets is a case in point. LDS sociologist Armond Mauss observes that:
“The narrative of Mormonism will likely continue to be “reduced to a small number of basic and indispensible doctrines and principles” which would “link Mormon communities around the world into one universal religion” where “each cultural community could adapt and embroider the core in accordance with its own needs” (42)
I welcome this simplified narrative. Until then, staying faithful and becoming “independent in our sphere” is sometimes about having the courage to self-validate our personal meal choices to avoid spiritual indigestion.
1.Elder Russell M. Nelson, “Face the Future with Faith,” Ensign, May 2011, 34
2.Bush, Lester E. “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview.” Pg. 11
3.First Presidency Statement, 1949, http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_racial_issues/Blacks_and_the_priesthood/Statements
4.lds.org “Race and Priesthood,” https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng
5.Elder Jeffery R. Holland, “A Prayer for the Children,” Ensign, May 2003
6.Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78. Quoted by Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet” (Address given Tuesday, February 26, 1980 at Brigham Young University)
7.Millennial Star, vol.14 #38, pp. 593-95
8.Millennial Star 53:658-59, quoted in Gospel Truth, 1:319
9.Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
10.From speech given at BYU in 1958. Also see ”The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown: An Abundant Life,” Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1988, pg. 135-140
11.Elder Quintin L. Cook, “LDS Women Are Incredible!” Ensign, May 2011
12.Wilford Woodruff Journal 1833-1898:Typescript, 9 Vols. (16 Feb. 1846)
13.Elder Quintin L. Cook, “LDS Women Are Incredible!” Ensign, May 2011
14.John G. Turner, “Pioneer Prophet,” pg. 152
15.Mission President’s Handbook , 1990, p. 23 (Bulletin, 1993, no. 1, 2).
16.The Twenty Seventh Wife, Irving Wallace, p. 101 or Ann Eliza Young, Wife No. 19, Ch. 17. (Admittedly, this source comes from a biased party. I believe, however, that the nonchalant attitude shown is consistent with many accounts of the time. See, for example, John G. Turner, “Pioneer Prophet,” pg 134)
17.Journal of Discourses 21:368. Also see Linda K. Newell, “The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood,” pg. 25
18.Improvement Era, 1907 (Smith 1907, 308). Also see Linda K. Newell, “The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood,” pg. 26
20.“Utah,” Deseret Evening News, July 18, 1877. Also see B. Carmon Hardy, “The Persistence of Mormon Plural Marriage” pg. 68-69
21.josephsmith.net (maintained by LDS Church), “Joseph and Emma,” http://josephsmith.net/article/joseph-and-emma?lang=eng
22. Elder Orson Pratt, delivered in the New Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, October 7, 1869, transcribed by David W. Evans on pp183-196 of volume 13 of the Journal of Discourses. Brigham Young – Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 48, Winter 1980, 82
23.Lds.org, “The Elect Lady Emma Hale Smith,” https://www.lds.org/ensign/1979/09/the-elect-lady-emma-hale-smith
24.Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 48, Winter 1980, 82
25.Salt Lake City, Sunday Afternoon, January 13th, 1884. Journal of Discourses Vol. 25
27.lds.org “Race and Priesthood,” https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng
30.Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “No Other Gods” Ensign, November 2013
31.Hugh Nibley, letter to Morris L. Reynolds, May 12, 1966, quoted in Tanner, Case Against Mormonism, 1967, v. 1, p. 132
32.Minutes of Meeting, at Historian’s Office; Great Salt Lake City; 7 P.M. April 4, 1860
33.”The Negro and the Priesthood,” Improvement Era, 27:564-5, April, 1924.
34.Joseph F. Smith, “Doctrines of Salvation,” v. 1, pp. 135?136, 1954
35.Bruce McConkie, “Mormon Doctrine,” p. 92
36.Quoted from Manuscript Addresses of Brigham Young. Watt, G.D., transcriber, October 8, 1861
37.BYU Devotional, June 1, 1980. (McConkie said this in the audio recording of this address. The print version was subsequently changed to “has no excuse whatever for being led astray by it.” Compare PDF text with MP3 audio at 26:48 found here: http://speeches.byu.edu/index.php?act=viewitem&id=658
38.Elder John Widstoe, “Joseph Smith – Seeker After Truth,” 1951, p. 119, 122
39.LDS.org, “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-and-families-in-early-utah?lang=eng
40.“The Reynolds Trial,” Deseret News Weekly, December 15, 1875, 732.
41.Elders’ Journal 1 (July 1838): 44, available at www.josephsmithpapers.org
42.Armand Mauss, “The Angel and the Beehive,” pg. 209