Should the study of church history be limited to the superficial, faith-promoting summaries given through the “official” church publications? Doesn’t that risk accurate histories being tools used by the critics against the church? Should the church accept members who choose to believe in the restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith? Who believe in the Book of Mormon, and other scriptures that came through Joseph? Who believe in God’s purposes in starting a new dispensation of the Gospel? Who also recognize the course the saints pursued in the past and are pursuing at present with the restoration has been neglectful, even harmful?
One of our great non-Mormon friends is Harold Bloom. He has written about Joseph Smith and his authentic revelations. He has heaped praise on Joseph’s ability to restore lost ancient, First-Temple era teachings. Yet as an astute observer of Mormonism he has recently written about his complete disappointment with Mormonism, and how badly it has changed in a few short years. He is not being unkind. He has honestly assessed the many radical changes underway with the restored church in the last few years. Since he does not feel any emotional need to defend the church, and is therefore free to give his candid views, his assessment represents an honest way to view the radical alterations currently happening with Mormonism.
If Mormonism is limited to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and for the most part it is), then the recent changes and radical innovations are so dramatic that our largest denomination now runs the risk of following in the steps of the second-largest “Mormon” denomination. The Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is now just another quasi-Protestant faith bearing almost no resemblance to the movement begun through Joseph.
How much study should be given to the history of the restoration? How carefully should Joseph’s teachings be preserved, studied and followed? When the Lord commanded us to “give heed to all his [meaning Joseph Smith] words and commandments” to what extent are we justified in forgetting his words and teachings? (See D&C 21: 1-6.) In the commandment, Joseph is identified in these words: “thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ[.]” (Id. v. 1, emphasis added.) We know Joseph was called “through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ” because we have the records before us. For example, Joseph witnessed the Father and Son appearing to him in the Spring of 1820. (JS-H 1: 17.) Again on the 16th of February 1832 Joseph saw the Father and Son. (D&C 76: 20-24.) The description and explanation of why we should “give heed” to Joseph’s words are set out in both scripture and history. Therefore it makes perfect sense we should pay careful attention to them. Subsequent office holders had no similar experiences. (I’ve covered President Brigham Young’s statements about never seeing angels or Christ or the Father in my last book. President Grant thought it was dangerous to encounter such spiritual experiences because they might lead to apostasy. Therefore, he never asked for them, and never experienced them.)
On the other hand, current Mormonism as practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has shied away from its history, abandoned many of Joseph Smith’s key teachings, altered some of the most important ordinances restored through him, and so heavily edited the latest study guide on his teachings that the results sometimes contradict what he originally said. I have a friend who has compiled a list of abandoned teachings of Joseph Smith. The list is now nearly two-hundred separate items long. This friend retains his believe in Joseph, the Book of Mormon, other restored scriptures, and in Jesus Christ. But he is alarmed by and alienated from the church. I think his approach in voluntarily withdrawing from fellowship is wrong. I think he has a duty to remain in fellowship with the saints. But what happens as shifting demographics lead to changes such as open acceptance of homosexual marriages? The leadership model implemented during Gordon B. Hinckley’s long tenure in leadership (which began long before he was president) uses opinion polling to guide decision-making. Using the current format, the church is helpless to resist changing public opinion trends.
The church draws leadership from successful internal leader-pools. Young bishops become high councilors and stake presidents. Those with wealth and business acumen become mission presidents. Before long a resume of church service attracts higher office and such men are called as a general authorities. These men are drawn from business, law, banking, education and government. Oftentimes their business acumen is the overwhelming forte’ and their knowledge of the church’s history and doctrine are lacking. In fact, knowledge of doctrine and history is not required for higher church office. (If you study the history and journals, you will find there are those who didn’t even believe in the Gospel who were called to be members of the Twelve. They were great businessmen, and the church’s many assets and interests required that talent.)
Oftentimes the reality is that leaders know far less about the religion than members who have devoted themselves to studying the Gospel and the church’s history. The results are sometimes interesting, because doctrinal or historic errors are made by those we sustain as our leaders. How big an issue this becomes for some very devoted believers is up to each individual. I choose to cover their shortcomings with charity, and to remember how difficult a challenge it is to manage a 14 million-member all-volunteer organization spanning cultures and languages across most of the world. But that does not mean their mistakes go unnoticed, just that I accept human-limitations as inevitable. There is a difference between not knowing something and being indifferent to it. I try to keep that in mind.