I think this is a pretty big deal.
For over a year there has been an entry for “Polygamy” in the Gospel Topics section of lds.org that briefly mentions post-manifesto polygamy. Of the same vintage is the “Spaulding Manuscript” entry. I guess I can see the wisdom in not describing the people who believe the Spaulding-theory of Book of Mormon composition as being cuckoo for cocoa puffs.
Recently several new pages have been published, which perhaps signal a new trend in approaching certain Gospel, or church-related topics. They are prepared with the “contribution of historians and scholars.” What I have read so far is very encouraging. I haven’t checked to see if these are available in other languages. I imagine that if not, they eventually will be. Perhaps I presume too much, but I hope that knowledge and intelligence will flow down from this time. This is the beginning of better days.
Race and the Priesthood
The Priesthood and Temple restriction that endured after Joseph Smith’s death to 1978 is a topic that is deeply troubling to many, appropriately so. That the Church has published a descriptive account of the rise of the restriction and chose to contextualize it by situating it within broader American racial cultures is important. Moreover, nowhere in this article is it indicated that the restriction was the will of the Lord. All teachings relating to the reasons for the restriction which were disseminated by Church leaders publicly and privately are to be viewed as wrong.
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
First Vision Accounts
Some antagonists of Mormonism have locked-on pitbull-like to the various accounts Joseph Smith made of the First Vision. The article correctly states that since their discoveries, “these documents have been discussed repeatedly in Church magazines, in works printed by Church-owned and Church-affiliated presses, and by Latter-day Saint scholars in other venues.” I am also aware that on the ground in many places, discussing the non-canonized versions in church settings has been met with shock, disgust and fear.
This article points out some of the differences between the various documents and provides links to read them all (major props to the JSPP crew). It also offers methods to digest and incorporate the differences between the accounts (some are more interesting than others) into our historical narratives. As I think the 1832 account is the most easily adapted to devotional readings, I hope that the imprimatur of the official website will make these documents more accessible to the church membership.
Are Mormons Christian?
This is an interesting one. The reliance on non-Mormon scholarship to establish the diversity of early Christian belief is a remarkable precedent. Imagine if we saw some of these same authors’ work on the Bible being cited in church materials. I do think that perhaps in an effort to deflect accusations of polytheism this article tapped a decades-old rhetorical vein, which suggests that we don’t worship Jesus (hint: this is a big reason why some Christians say we aren’t). I think that is sort of dumb. Beyond my personal beliefs, the Book of Mormon commands us to worship him (2 Nephi 25:29, among others). Also remember when Elder Ballard answered the question about whether Mormons worship Jesus at church? And who did the Israelites worship again (okay, there I was just being snarky)? I also know some friends who also might be sad there was no explicit mention of Social Trinitarianism, or even process theology, but I think that this is supposed to be easily digestible.
There is also the anti-creedalism, which made a ton of sense in Joseph Smith’s age [n1]. Inasmuch as people use them as a club to beat us up, I guess we have to address the creeds. However, Ronan once told me: “the creeds established a Christian orthodoxy to which we are all heirs. It is hard enough imagining an embodied God even with an embodied Son; by banishing such heresies as Docetism, the creeds mean that Joseph Smith didn’t have to preach an embodied God against the orthodoxy of a phantom Incarnation. The creeds in history are praiseworthy.” Inasmuch as they keep the church from living—increasing in knowledge and empathy—they are to be mourned. But again, if we look at ourselves, I think it is not too difficult to find our own similar barriers.
- Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity is still really great on this.