In a recent post I tried to clarify a comment I had made in which I described a particular idea a “wildly popular folk belief” in Mormonism. I think that I need to flesh that clarification out a bit.
First, in the nineteenth century there were no church handbooks, or rule books. There were a few popular works like Jacque’s Catechism that were popular instructional tools and the now frequently maligned Journal of Discourses that was essentially an official publication of the Church. Mostly, however, Mormon beliefs were disseminated in Mormon communities through folk channels of instruction, namely oral instruction and proximate example. In the twentieth century there was a concerted effort to modernize and formalize church bureaucracy, liturgy, and theology. This formalization was tremendously successful and it is easy to point to things like the General Handbook of Instructions as an exemplar of all three.
What I am asking, and it is difficult, is that you, for the purpose of this conversation, forget the word “doctrine.” It’s usage within Mormonism renders it pretty much useless for any meaningful analysis. Instead I want to talk about beliefs and teachings. In formal settings and authorized publications, church leaders teach beliefs that are to be considered normative in the Church at the time they are given. First, and this is another difficult idea for some, it is necessary to understand that some of what church leaders have taught has changed over time. Second, sometimes different Church leaders have taught different and conflicting ideas. That poses an interesting conundrum for the extension of this discussion into the past, but for now, let’s focus on the present.
As examples, let’s look at a few beliefs related to the last post.
Jesus was conceived by sexual union between God and Mary. Yep, I just went there. It is not too difficult to find 19th and even some 20th century examples of Church leaders teaching this idea. It has certainly not been taught through formal channels for many, many decades and the church has made statements against the idea. Still, I’m willing to bet that there are a few people in the church who believe this. This is an example of a “folk belief.” It is not transmitted by current church teachings, but some people believe it. Another example that fits this pattern almost exactly: Jesus was married. Once a common teaching, now folk belief.
Now let’s look at a more complicated example.
A conscious intelligence receives a spirit body through some sort of spirit birth, after which the spirit eventually gets a physical body. This idea which I have called the Tripartite Model was invented near the turn of the 20th century and championed by BH Roberts and a few other church leaders. The First Presidency hated it. So did Elder McConkie. And despite formal attempts to limit its traction, over the hundred or so years after its arrival, it is perhaps the most popular premortal belief system in the church today. Clearly some Church leaders believe it and may on occasion teach it. Due to the flexibility of language, it is not always clear what church leaders mean, so while it is another wildly popular folk belief, it is not formally taught by the church. Once a folk belief (though championed by General Authorities), still a folk belief.
Now for the whammy.
Black people were cursed in the premortal life because they were [insert reason here]. When Brigham Young introduced the temple and priesthood ban, he outlined a very particular reason that was rooted in cosmological language that fell into disuse by the end of the 19th century. Even though his narrative remained the formal teaching of the church for several decades into the 20th century, it was widely incomprehensible. Consequently, other reasons arose among church members—folk beliefs—to account for the priesthood and temple exclusion. These reasons were poo pooed by church leaders, but they became so powerful that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve adopted them in their formal teachings by the mid-part of the century. After the 1978 revelation announcement, these teaching fell out of use with nothing to replace them. However, these teachings still circulate and are common enough that the most popular religion professor at BYU proclaimed aspects of them to a national audience this year (then early retirement baby). It is an example of a folk belief, though I don’t know how popular it is. Once a folk belief, then a formal teaching, now a folk belief.