The only true and living church. It strikes me that when the voice of the Lord exclaimed unique pleasure in the nascent church, it was qualified with the adjective living. In this post I outline what I perceive to be a great danger to the living church: fundamentalism. In doing so, I am espousing the decidedly partisan position that the current LDS Church is “true.”
I believe that as any living thing, the church not only does change, but must change. The church is not the only thing that changes however, and fundamentalism arises from interaction with both internal and external dynamism. What follows is my short taxonomy of the fundamentalist threat.
Internal: Rejection of evolution and innovation in church doctrine, belief, policy and structure
With every major change in the Church we can generally find groups that reject the novel situation. They see these developments not as a line upon line advancement but as a deviation from the true church. A small sampling of early possibilities:
- 1833-1836, Joseph Smith revealed new offices and rituals such as Seventies, Apostles and the Kirtland Temple liturgy. Church leaders also revised revelations found in the 1833 Book of Commandments to reflect these innovations and published them in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants along with the “Lectures on Faith.” The Hedrickites (Church of Christ [Temple Lot]) reject these changes and you can pick up copies of the Book of Commandments from their Independence temple lot offices. If you were a hundred years older you could have hooked up with the Whitmerites who rejected the 1831 innovations of highpriest.
- 1839-1846, Joseph Smith revealed the Nauvoo Temple liturgy, including proxy salvific rituals, began polygamy in earnest and established the Council of Fifty. The Reorganization (now Community of Christ) rejects all the Nauvoo innovations and even the Kirtland temple liturgy. The Cutlerites retain the Council of Fifty and the Nauvoo temple liturgy, but reject polygamy.
- 1890-1906, Church leaders reveal that polygamy and re-baptism are no longer part of our church. This is the territory of “Mormon fundamentalists” in the popular media. Pick your flavor.
The living church is a blend of God and humanity and occasionally church leaders believe and teach things that are mistaken. Over the long term, the church generally outgrows falsities. Some people have a hard time accepting that our leaders can be wrong. When the Church does abandon previously held beliefs and practices, some tend to see apostasy instead of progress.
Brigham Young grew to believe in a cosmology that is very different than current Church orthodoxy. He clearly believed that Adam and Eve created all human spirits and that Adam was the father of Jesus Christ. Really, he was wrong or we are wrong. Faced with such a proposition, it is not hard for people with fundamentalist leanings to choose him over us. It is no surprise that Adam-God belief is popular among schismatic polygamists.
Racialist beliefs and the priesthood ban
Church leaders ordained several men of African descent during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and Brigham Young commented favorably on one such elder after Smith’s death. Brigham Young et al., however, formalized the priesthood ban between 1847 and the 1880s, during which time and subsequently, church leaders developed explanations for the ban from prevalent racist theology in broader Christianity. After the revelation repealing the ban, Church leaders have disclaimed all theses “folk beliefs” or justifications for the ban. And while the church has not yet commented on the reason for the ban, we are left with three possibilities:
- The ban was a mistake.
- The ban was God’s will, but the people responsible for interpreting that it was God’s will were uniformly mistaken about it.
- The ban was God’s will, and the reasons leaders gave for it were true.
Again, it is not surprise that like Adam-God, the ban and the reasons for it are still upheld by schismatic polygamists. We don’t like church leaders to be wrong; it can be disconcerting. That said, personally, I see no real advantage of taking the second position and I imagine that with time, most church members will choose the first position.
External: Rejection of secular advancements
Church leaders and the Church itself are bound to the broader culture in which they abide. The creation narrative of Genesis requires an ancient mid-east cosmology, in which the heavens are a dome holding back the waters. We view things a bit differently, with our helio-centric solar system, massive galaxy and universe. Just as Church leaders once adopted ideas about people of African heritage from the broader culture, they also adopt ideas about the universe in which we live. As our knowledge of the world expands, sometimes (though not always) some of our beliefs are exposed as no longer consistent. The resulting conflict is frequently exacerbated by individuals who are antagonistic towards one side or the other.
Now, this is not to say that all technological advancement is good. There are clearly moral ramifications to much of our scientific progress. I believe that the Church should accept all truth, but it should also be a resolute critic of its use. Joseph Fielding Smith would have been well served to have framed his argument against the lunar landing not in terms of possibility – he asserted that humans would not land on the moon as God declared that our existence was restricted to the earth – but in terms of morality. He was proven wrong. We went to the moon in one of the twentieth century’s finest moments. Had he asserted a moral argument against space exploration, I believe he would still have been wrong, but he would still have the possibility of influencing the use of the knowledge we have.
The fundamentalist tendency is to reject new knowledge. A world-wide flood which covered all the earth is repudiated by a deluge of evidence. The idea that there was no death of any creature or plant before 6,000 years ago is a fantasy in light of the living and the dead.
I am currently unaware of any schismatic group focusing on lunar hoaxes, or young earth creationism due to the apostasy of the BYU biology department; I still see the fundamentalist interaction with secular knowledge as a danger to the living church. You see, I believe that all truth is encompassed in one great whole. A fundamentalist world-view is simple and uncomplicated, and the alternative is messy, complicated and maybe even painful for some. Still, living requires change and the Church will survive.