I received this question in a comment: “You often refer to incorrect traditions that you see members following. Can you give me a few specifics?”
This is a potentially sensitive question and I want to answer it with care. Before doing so, however, I want to clarify some initial matters: First, I sustain the church’s leaders and I do not challenge their right to preside, make decisions, direct the affairs of the church, control tithing and call leadership. I “fall in line” behind them and do not question their right to lead. Second, I have a testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of President Monson as the only one authorized to exercise all the keys within the church. Third, I do not think that observations about the church, even if they are critical of it, are proof that someone is misled, under Satan’s influence, or on the road to apostasy. In fact, there are many active Latter-day Saints who have concerns, but who are content to remain active, faithful and supportive members of the church. Concerns are not the same thing as rebellion or rejection. Fourth, I do not either expect or advocate any changes being made. When or if changes are made they will happen as a result of someone else’s actions, more than likely someone who would be in a position of authority within the church. I am not such a person.
Also, I want to be clear that I may personally make a value judgment about what has changed and mourn the loss, but another person may look at the same events and say they are good, developmental and preferred to what was there before. So these are MY opinions, and not necessarily the view you should adopt as your own view. You will have to decide such things for yourself. That having been clarified, here are some of the things which have changed dramatically and are the product of accepted tradition now, but were entirely innovative when they happened.
The discarding of the Presiding Patriarch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is no scriptural authority for this change and there was nothing in the original order which suggested that a change would be made. Now the current state of things is equivocal. We actually have still a Presiding Patriarch who is still living. He is emeritus. Whether the church intends to terminate the office upon his death is unclear. If they do, that will be an innovation and (in my personal opinion) unfortunate.
The alteration of the Presiding High Priest’s status from “President” to “Prophet.” From the time of Joseph Smith until 1955 the term “Prophet” was used exclusively to refer to Joseph Smith. It was changed in 1955 to apply to the living President, David O. McKay. Before then no living man was ever referred to as “Prophet” within the church, other than Joseph Smith. When the word “Prophet” was used after Joseph’s death, it was understood the term meant Joseph Smith.
The result of this change was to create a “cult of personality” around the church president in much the same way that the Catholic Church has created a “cult of personality” around Mother Mary. You need to understand that whole subject before you get too excited by my putting it that way. If you do not understand this technical description then you need to become acquainted with it to be able to comprehend what I am saying here. To briefly touch upon the subject, the Catholic view of the “cult of personality” around Mother Mary is positive. It does not get viewed by them as a defect or some terrible aberration. Pope John Paul II considered himself a part of that “cult” involving Mary.
In our context, what has happened as a result of this alteration is that the former significance of the church’s president was administrative, and priestly. He was a final arbitrator and judge, a presiding authority and a leader whose words were to be considered carefully. He was NOT considered infallible or to be invariably inspired. In fact, during the presidencies of the Prophet Joseph Smith, President Brigham Young and President John Taylor, they all spoke against any notion of infallibility of the church’s president. President Young was particularly cautionary about trusting church leaders instead of the Holy Spirit as your guide. President Young said too much trust of a church leader would bring the saints to hell.
President Woodruff was so criticized by members for the Manifesto that he defended himself by claiming that the Lord wouldn’t let him make a mistake on that order. He said that the Lord just wouldn’t let the church’s president lead the saints astray. That comment was what would later be used to buttress the notion popularly believed today that the “prophet is infallible.”
President Heber J. Grant was an unpopular church president. One of the problems with getting the saints to respond to the church president’s counsel was solved when the president of the church became the living “Prophet.” You can reject or question counsel from an administrative authority. But to question a “Prophet of God” was to invite the damnation of hell. So the change in nomenclature worked a mighty change in the perceptions of the Latter-day Saints. The “cult of personality” was an inevitable result. Everything the president did would be done as “God’s Living Prophet.” No matter what decisions were made, no matter their wisdom, goodness or undesirability, the result was the same: “They MUST be inspired. We may not have the human capacity to see it, but God’s ways are higher than man’s after all. To question is to lack in faith.”
The change put the president into a league in which at a minimum criticism was disrespectful. Worse, if you were convinced that he made a mistake, it followed almost as an inevitability that you were absolutely forbidden from saying so because to do so revealed a “weakness in the faith.” In fact, there are General Conference talks which speak about criticizing the church president (or “Living Prophet”) claiming that the criticism was due to a weak faith, and it would lead to apostasy unless a person repented.
This cult of personality has grown as a result of internal structural changes, including correlation. The outcome is particularly dramatic with respect to the tolerance of women’s inspiration. Whereas, in the early years a woman could be regarded as a “prophetess” (Eliza R. Snow, for example), today that recognition would be offensive to correlation, where all functions are combined under priesthood, and all priesthood is subject to the president alone as final authority.
The changes have been evolutionary, and over a single person’s lifetime not all that dramatic. However the cumulative effect from the start to now is dramatic. Right now the church views any revelation or miraculous event originating with a woman as suspicious. It was so markedly contrary to this trend when a mission president’s wife foretold the Chilean earthquake, and the Meridian Magazine covered the event without any notice that the message came through the wife, that I linked to that article on this blog. The article presumed the propriety of the inspiration. But the message came to the wife, not the mission president. That would be an un-correlated event today, and there is an existing infrastructure that would frown on that. Happily the event was not questioned, but instead celebrated.
The “cult of personality” has been extended to cover everything. You name it it is now covered. Take any complaint at all: The chapel paint is hideous! Well, there are those who will argue that the chapel’s paint is chosen by the regular authorities of the church, who are chosen by the prophet, and your complaint about the paint color is really questioning the Prophet of God’s authority. Therefore you are on the road to apostasy….
It doesn’t matter the subject. The argument works by extension to everything. The Bishop cheated his business partner: You shouldn’t question that because … yada, yada, .. you’re questioning the Prophet of God. Therefore you are on the road to apostasy.
Try: My child was molested by her primary teacher. Oddly enough it even works there, too. At least there are many people willing to apply that by extension to every ridiculous proposition advanced. So the cult of personality has now assumed a front and center position to curtail discussion, debate or consideration of even healthy alternatives to the way things are. EVERYTHING is inspired. EVERYTHING, by extension, is happening because a “Prophet of God” has made it so. Therefore unless you concede that “All is Well in Zion” you are questioning the “Prophet of God” and on the road to apostasy.
The stifling effect of this is pernicious. It is not a view shared at the top. In fact, the brethren preach against this notion, but to no avail. I have coined the term “Brethrenites” to describe the result of this cult of personality in my book Eighteen Verses. There’s a chapter in there that discusses this problem.
Crap, this is going to take longer than I thought. Well, here we go again. This will be “Part One” and I’ll continue this with something more.