Every now and again, you hear a talk at conference that you feel like addresses you, your life, and your specific concerns. Yesterday, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s talk had many of us standing and clapping (figuratively, of course, conference is a reverent event). There was so much addressed in his talk that we found important, that here at Rational Faiths we’ve decided to break down specific points for a series of posts.
For my part, I’ll be discussing the implications he made about the Church’s troubling past and the imperfectness of its leaders.
He began this section of his talk by validating those of us who are aware of troubling parts in our Church history, “Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that happened in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of church history, along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable and divine events, there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.”*
The idea that there is an “open acknowledgement” here is quite a relief. I feel like we’ve been taught a watered down, sunshined up version of Church history so thoroughly and for so long, that some of us might start to feel like we are the crazy ones when presenting facts that aren’t included in church manuals and don’t fit in with the glorified version of church history. Here Uchtdorf not only recognizes those of us who question, but is optimistic in our behalf: “Sometimes questions arise because we don’t have all the information and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known things that didn’t make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction.” When studying history there is always going to be a problem with historical context and perspective, and shaking out the reality with the sources that we have can be troubling. Uchtdorf seems confident that, one day, when it is all settled, we will be happy with what we know. I feel less confident than he does, but I am just excited he’s bringing it up.
He also addressed the facts we do have, “Sometimes there is a difference of opinion as to what the facts really mean. A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others.” This to me was both a validation and admonition. As though he were saying, “You may have found something that troubles you, but please take the time to study it out; it may not be the problem you think it is.”
But then comes the good part, the part wherein he acknowledges that we may come across things in church history that we will never feel really good about. “And to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the church would only be perfect if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect and His doctrine is pure. But he works through us, his imperfect children, and imperfect people make mistakes.”
Listen people, this was a HUGE admission, big enough to make it into a NYTimes article. The simple admission and acknowledgement that church leaders are fallible (which the church has always taught but that so many of us refuse to believe) has made national news, because it is such a rarity. In that article, Scott Gordon of FAIR was quoted, “I believe this is the clearest statement made in recent times that church leaders have made mistakes in the past. Coming from a member of the first presidency, the highest level of leadership in the church, makes it especially powerful.”
Behold, it is glorious! It is as though we’ve officially been given permission to look back at church history without the rose colored glasses, without linking it to our testimonies and faith when we find something troubling, and without the burden of making our testimonies work for us anyway when we find something that doesn’t sit well with our souls. Because, you see, some things don’t have to sit well with our souls. And that is because they were mistakes.
Uchtdorf quotes the title page of the Book of Mormon, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” Funny story: When I was little I assumed this meant that maybe there were some misspellings or grammar mistakes or something. It never occurred to me that perhaps the reference was to a faulty context within the scriptures. That, maybe, a prophet or person of God somewhere along the way might have said something that was not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine, but that it made it into scripture print anyway. But not only is that what this quote from the title page of the Book of Mormon really means, Uchtdorf says it applies to Church history and it applies now, “This is the way it has always been and will be until the perfect day when Christ himself reigns personally upon the earth.”
He goes on to say, “It is unfortunate that some have stumbled because of the mistakes made by men. But in spite of this, the eternal truth of the restored gospel found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not tarnished, diminished, or destroyed.” I’ve often said how much I love the gospel, but that I’m frustrated with how often we confuse culture with gospel and doctrine. But the message that the eternal truth of the gospel is not affected by our imperfectness resonates with me.
Uchtdorf also testifies of the long arch of the Church’s mission, “As an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and as one who has seen firsthand the counsels and workings of the church, I bear solemn witness that no decision of significance affecting this church or its members is ever made without earnestly seeking the inspiration, guidance and approbation of our Eternal Father. This is the Church of Jesus Christ. God will not allow His Church to drift from its appointed course nor fail to fulfill its divine destiny.”
Uchtdorf seems to be saying that although there are hiccups along the way, we will still make it to the end of all things intake, and where the Lord wants us to be. I suppose the implication is that if we stick with the church, all of these hiccups will be sorted out. I admit that the long game talk is frustrating to me. I think he is understating the problem when he says “no decision of significance affecting this church or its members,” because, sometimes the mistakes of the past have had a very big and often onerous effect of some members of the church. And saying that these mistakes aren’t a part of the bigger picture serves to diminish the pain these mistakes have caused. And it follows that many will say that we just need to have faith and wait it out. To the contrary, I firmly believe that we need to fix the mistakes that we’ve made as a church in the past to progress as a church in the future, and to gain the further light and knowledge that we are promised as God’s children. And so we need to be actively engaged in seeking the truth. Remember that, as I said above, Uchtdorf did also admonish us to investigate. Let’s keep investigating the mistakes we’ve made (and continue to make) as a church. Let’s keep sorting it all out until we have the truth, can separate the mistakes from God’s intent, and can become more perfected as a people.
Also, to all those who keep telling me to stop questioning things and have faith because God leads our church through his prophets and apostles: Stop it.
*You’ll have to look past any discrepancies between what I’ve quoted here and what you may read for this talk in the future. The print version isn’t available yet, so I’ve transcribed this myself.
Sorry, there is nothing new or radical or different about what he said. He did not say that the church has at times gone off in the wrong direction as the NYT wants to imply, he only pointed out that church leaders are not perfect, and at times they do not live up to the perfect ideas of the gospel.
This is not a green flag to comb through the doctrines and policies of the church and decide for yourself what ones are of God and what ones are ‘mistakes’, this is a call for you to forgive the Bishop that said that tactless remark, that RS counselor who gossiped about something she was told in confidence, and that WML who got a little too pushy about setting a date.
P.A., though I may agree with your first paragraph, that there is nothing really different than what the church’s PR department has been saying, your second paragraph seems to have missed the point. His talk had nothing to do with local problems of church gossip or offense, he was speaking as a leader in the church, a member of the first presidency, and talking of those events in church history which are embarrassing to the church. That your local RS president something to offend you is not embarrassing to the church, only to yourself.
Having said that I would emphasize again the non-apology that Uchtdorf has made using very non-committal language. It sounded that he basically took a lesson from the Pope on how to deal with pesky PR issues. His phrasing is very pertinent, you’ll notice the use of the word “may” often in this talk. It was always “may have offended”, “may come across some things in church history”, “maybe, a prophet or person of God somewhere along the way might have said something”. There is no admission of guilt or wrong doing. There is no admission that the church has participated in scandals ranging anywhere from arranged marriages of 14 year old girls, to excommunicating any church historian who writes anything negative about the church using the privileged archives that they have access to.
What I’m saying in the second paragraph is that there is nothing in what he said that justifies cherry picking what you will obey and what you will not obey.
The examples you give of things from the past that bother you are not things that bother me, in some cases I see nothing wrong to be bothered about for one reason or another, in other cases I know we don’t have the full story, or we only have one side of the story.
Don’t take what he said and project your personal concerns on to it and jump to the conclusion that is validating you as right in thinking that particular things was a mistake. Listen to the rest of what he says and keep searching for understanding.
IMHO nobody is ever in a position to say somebody’s excommunication was in error other than a priesthood leader with stewardship over the matter. People who do not know what was and was not said when they met over it are really in no position to pass any kind of judgement. Worry about not doing something so bad you wind up there, and leave it to God to hold His servant accountable.
Every single Mormon, every! single! one! picks and chooses what to believe and what not to believe. It is not possible to believe everything because there are beliefs and practices that contradict each other.
No, there is just sometimes a perception that there is a contradiction, usually the result of somebody not having the full facts and understanding of the matter. Hence the need to humble press on with learning and seeking.
I find the assumption that I am picking and choosing what doctrinal points to believe pretty insulting. Your judgement (so very judgmental) about my testimony of the gospel is not accurate.
Truth of the matter is that we have been tasked with deciphering the philosophies of men that are mingled with scripture. And my doing that actually strengthens my testimony of the gospel and my love for it.
We who question are not the crazy ones.
We who have found answers are not crazy either. Isn’t the whole purpose of questioning to get to the point where you have answers and confidence in the truth of them?
It is disturbing to me that so many people are mischaracterizing this talk (not you Leah, other people). The headline for the NY Times article said he acknowledged that the “Church makes mistakes.” He did not say that, although I wish he had. All he said is that “members or leaders in the church” have made mistakes.
But that just begs the question. Which leaders? What decisions were mistakes? Personal mistakes or big huge ones? Did the mistakes involve church policies? Was Brigham Young’s decision to not give the priesthood to blacks a mistake? Was Proposition 8 a mistake? Will the church ever apologize for its mistakes?
This was a MINOR admission at best, and I fear it will become the apologist’s get out of jail free card.
Porter, I would have also loved a stronger admission. And maybe even a laundry list of those mistakes (like blacks and the priesthood) so that we can finally put them all to rest.
Alas, I’m thinking most change is incremental and I’ll take this baby step. There is always a backlash to progression and this is better than nothing, right?
I love your analysis of Uchtdorf’s mention of the Book of Mormon title page. I’ve had similar thoughts.
And “Also, to all those who keep telling me to stop questioning things and have faith because God leads our church through his prophets and apostles: Stop it.” Love it.
P.A. – i was disappointed in your second paragraph “not a green flag to comb through doctrines and policies” if you are going to comment you really should know what the issue even is.
Leah – LOVE these thoughts of yours – you expressed it so well.
I enjoyed all of conference and have a few things to listen to again – i believe Elder Uchtdorf – given the position he is in – said as much as he could in relation to the current issue and i just.love.him.for.it. I don’t think he skirted the issue (as was mentioned in a previous comment) i think he just addressed it in a wonderful, non combative, loving way. would that everyone would. hugs. you’re awesome.
I don’t think he skirted this issue either. In fact, in his most important statement(in my eyes) he used the words “quite frankly” and I feel like her was being, you know, very frank. He walked a fine line, and I think he took a wonderful approach.
(hugs to you too. thanks mom.)
I loved Elder Uchtdorf’s talk. My favorite bit was, “God will not allow His church to drift from its appointed course.” I really believe that. It gives me a lot of comfort and peace. There have been times when cultural things within the church have to change. Here’s one example: there was a time that missionary farewells were a big deal. The missionary’s family would give all the talks and musical numbers and then there would be some kind of event, often a meal, for the whole ward after the meetings. I don’t know if that was taking place everywhere in the church. Anyway, it was something that was getting out of hand. Church leaders gave council and changes were made. I have confidence that on the weightier matters the Lord will make adjustments as needed.
One can stand on the sidelines and peer in at the Church and its doings and keep score, tallying all the things they see on the “Good” side or the “Bad” side, and remain on the sidelines no matter if the Good or the Bad is perceived by them to be winning. Or one can progress in the gospel, grow in the principle of revelation, and have communion with the Spirit.
Each individual has the choice of which route they will take. I’ve operated in the first one before and was often finding that my concerns about different historical things were getting answered. But I later came to realize that I could perpetually go back and forth on whether or not some things in the Church’s history were troubling or not, but my ability to have a personal testimony was a separate issue. This is not because you ignore historical realities in order to “have faith” but because you can argue about the historical points forever and still not gain a testimony because mounting up some apologist attack, no matter how well-reasoned, is not the prescribed way to gain a testimony.
No, I’m not saying, “Just have faith and look past the imperfections.” What I’m advocating is to have vision, not blindness. Two totally different things. You can have a living, vibrant, revealed testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and still be aware of the historical realities as well as imperfections of members and leaders in the Church. Some bishop, or stake president or apostle doing something less than perfect doesn’t change the reality of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appearing to Joseph Smith and calling him as the instrument to restore the Gospel. We already now that every accountable person, bar Jesus Christ, has been less than perfect. We shouldn’t get too surprised when we find it out again.
President Uchtdorf isn’t trying to compassionately trick people into activity. He is wanting them to have the blessings of the Gospel. For some it may be hard to see that this could even be the case.
This comment is kindly and eloquently written, but it is also loaded with a TON of judgement. You are making the assumption if one is troubled by the church’s history that one’s testimony is obviously failing. That’s not the case for me, and it is not the case for many others. I’m not saying it never happens, but you can’t just come into the conversation assuming that’s the problem. That is condescending and unhelpful.
Thanks for your post Leah. It was a huge deal that he gave this talk, and it was what I needed to hear at this time of my life. I like that you and others have dissected it and written more about it. Thanks for the link to the NYTimes article. I didn’t know that they wrote that article.