I am pleased to introduce Bill Russell, whose article, "The Remnant Church: An RLDS Schismatic Group Finds a Prophet in the Seed of Joseph," appears in the fall 2005 issue of Dialogue (38, no 3:75-106). It has also been posted here on BCC. You will find the article an informative summary of the events preceding the RLDS church’s change of name to Community of Christ and of the subsequent confusion afflicting RLDS members who do not wish to associate with the new, liberal-leaning church. As the title indicates, the focus of the article is upon a group of disaffected saints who have reorganized The Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints under the leadership of a descendent of Joseph Smith through a female line.
I have asked Bill to respond to a few passages from his article. He will be happy to respond to your questions and comments.
Levi: Bill, you write that the schism in the RLDS church culminated with the ordination of women to the priesthood. Even before that, you say, it was clear "that some highly placed church leaders no longer regarded the Book of Mormon as history and didn’t believe the RLDS pattern of church organization and doctrines constituted a restoration of the forms and beliefs that Jesus had established during his mortal ministry" (79). You call these liberal leaders New School saints. In the LDS church, liberals have declined in their influence. How do you account for the New School saints having so much influence on the direction of the RLDS church?
Bill: One factor may be that the RLDS church originated as a dissenting church. We have always been fairly tolerant of those who express differing views on issues. Related to that, living in the Midwest, among neighbors who were of various Christian denominations, we interacted more with Protestant neighbors than did the LDS in Utah. Possibly that led to a greater willingness to attend Protestant seminaries and graduate schools of religion. And I think the significant change in the thinking of top leaders over the past 40 years resulted from RLDS members getting graduate degrees in religion and then being hired to staff significant departments of the church and teach at church sponsored Graceland College (Graceland University since 2000). I think the major factor was the growing numbers of members who attended graduate schools of religion, wherein they learned that some elements of our traditional story didn’t add up. So revisionism in our understanding of the nature of scripture, theology, and our historical story resulted. Also important was our missionary activity in Asia and Africa, beginning in the early 1960s, whereby our leaders came to the judgment that some of our traditional gospel story was really American culture and not gospel universals. So there was a search for universals which caused us to focus more on Jesus and less on Joseph. We came to see Joseph through the eyes of Jesus, where before we tended to see Jesus through the eyes of Joseph. Finally, as more of the membership of the church became middle class in their socioeconomic status, I think there was naturally less of a tendency to want to see our church as "the one true church." For people of lower socioeconomic status, it may be more attractive to see oneself as a member of the true church, but as you become more educated and acculturated, you are more likely to feel embarrassed by such a claim.
Levi: Do you see close parallels between the current formation of RLDS splinter groups and the formation of the polygamy oriented Fundamentalist groups among the LDS church?
Bill: As I understand it, LDS polygamy oriented Fundamentalists reacted against the Woodruff Manifesto, believing that God revealed "the principle" and wouldn’t be changing it 50 years later. Also, the fact that President Taylor, in about 1886 I believe, prophesied that polygamy would always be practiced by the saints gives them support for believing that President Woodruff merely caved in to the "teachings of men" rather than holding fast to the rod of iron. I understand that many Fundamentalists also reject President Kimball’s 1978 revelation, since it was contrary to Brigham Young’s position. I think the Old School saints who have split from the RLDS church (now the Community of Christ) have been in a similar situation. The New School saints in our church have often come to conclusions contrary to Joseph Smith. For example, to hold that Joseph Smith was the author of the Book of Mormon is quite contrary to Joseph’s explanation of the book. Conclusions about the apostasy and restoration, and many other questions of scripture, history, and theology run contrary to teachings that go back to Joseph Smith.
Levi: You warn that presently independent RLDS splinter groups need to unite. Otherwise, you say, they will be "in the position of being, in effect, Southern Baptists with two extra books of scripture to defend"(85). Would you clarify what you mean by this last remark?
Bill: My comment referred more to the "independent restoration branches," who constitute 80 to 90% of the formerly active RLDS people who now attend groups that have split off from the church. They have total autonomy in the local congregation, not answerable to any higher authority. This has freed them from the restraints that had been placed on them by the liberal leadership of the church, but it leaves them without the ability to call higher officers in the church. As local branches, they are able to call only elders, priests, teachers, and deacons, but not seventies, high priests, bishops, evangelists, apostles, or a prophet. So as independent local branches, they are like the Southern Baptists, with absolute local autonomy, but they have two more books to defend–the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. (The Pearl of Great Price is not in our canon of scripture.) So they are much like the Southern Baptists but they have three books to defend rather than just one, the Bible. My comment regarding Southern Baptists doesn’t apply to the Remnant Church because they have organized a new church with all of the officers from the Prophet on down.
Levi: I was impressed by the collective revelation by which some of the independent branches united as The Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Although individuals announced revelations, other persons confirmed these revelations. Am I correct in assuming that the RLDS tradition all along has relied on a collective searching for the will of the Lord that is foreign to LDS tradition?
Bill: Over the years it was very common for people to stand up in church meeting, often in a prayer and testimony meeting (traditionally held on Wednesday nights) and utter a prophecy or a gift of tongues. Prophecies were far more common than tongues. I was spoken to at a large prayer meeting at a church camp when I was 19: "Thus saith the spirit unto my servant Bill Russell…." I was called to the office of priest as a result of that prophecy. (We don’t "work up the ladder" from deacon to teacher to priest to elder. Most priesthood are called first to one of the Aaronic offices, and then if they are called again, it will very likely be to elder.) The dozen of so revelations that I have seen published by Remnant Church people came during the five years of so prior to the formation of the Remnant Church. These were by men who were in the various independent restoration branches whose prophecies seemed to point the way toward organizing a church with the higher officers, which became the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. People have often had revelations (prophecies, etc.) in our church, but only the revelations of the prophet have created church policy.