Last week I wrote an article on the LDS Church’s new policy on gay marriage, and my belief that the Church’s persistence in condemning gays and forbidding their children from receiving the same rights and experiences as other Mormon children is both unchristian and irrational. I went on to explain how the Church is operating on the wrong side of history and risks irrelevance in a society that is becoming increasingly accepting of the gay community. These views are fairly controversial, especially when they are expressed here in the LDS capital of the world.
The most common complaint about my piece went something like this: “A ‘true’ church doesn’t change its doctrines at the whims of society and the pressures of ever-changing and evolving morals and values. God and His true church are the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and to change would be to cave on what it stands for.”
This is not the case. Any church actively seeking to grow its membership and enjoy a long lifespan will do what it takes to avoid slipping into extinction. Historically, the LDS Church has not been an exception to this rule. More than once it has reworked its doctrine and operations to appease an evolving society, regardless of whether those changes align with what it said God planned for His children.
There are two primary examples of this, which are addressed in a revealing piece by Lawrence Write of The New Yorker, published Jan. 21, 2002. The deals with polygamy. In 1843, Joseph Smith was already dealing with non-Mormon critics for having multiple wives, and his wife, Emma Smith, worked hard to publicly deny that her husband had more than one wife. However, in July of that year, Smith came up with a revelation in his defense that essentially stated that it is not considered adultery for a man to marry more than one woman with the first wife’s consent — though if he fails to receive her consent, he will be “damned.” However, if a wife seeks a man other than her first legal husband, she will be “destroyed.” The infamous practice held strong after Smith’s murder; Brigham Young declared in 1866 that “the only men who become gods, even the sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” He backed this up by marrying an estimated 55 women.
By 1890, thousands of Mormons were locked up or facing prison time for actively engaging in polygamy, which was and is a federal crime. That was also the year the U.S. Supreme Court authorized the confiscation of Mormon property in an attempt to crush the polygamist movement. Not only were Mormon polygamists facing federal punishments, but renouncing polygamy was also a requirement for Utah to reach statehood. Church President Wilford Woodruff had a convenient revelation that came to be known as the 1890 Manifesto, which stated that, by the word of God, plural marriage was no longer officially allowed. According to Wright, Gordon Hinckley, Prophet of the LDS church from 1995 to 2008 said, “Polygamy came by revelation, and it left by revelation.” I guess God has a practical side and wanted His children to give in to the politics and preferences of non-believers more than He wanted followers to stand up for His high and mighty “truth” about polygamy.
The second example of a perfectly timed revelation that ensured the continuation of the LDS Church came in 1978, but it started in 1835 when Joseph Smith purchased a wagon full of mummies. Enclosed within were some papyrus writings that Smith said were writings of the Old Testament prophet, Abraham. Smith then “translated” them into the “Book of Abraham,” where he describes the lineage of blacks as descending through a cursed, dark-skinned race. Due to this curse, blacks were denied the right to hold the priesthood. Around the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, people started to come down on the Mormon Church for their racism. To stay afloat, the Church once again abandoned its “truth” and gave in to an evolving culture.
The situation we face today is hardly different. The examples I’ve described prove that the Church’s fears that giving in to society will undermine the principles they stand for is unfounded. Even after reversing its policies on polygamy and blacks holding the priesthood, the institution thrives. I suspect sooner or later the Mormons will receive another well-timed and convenient “revelation” to avoid irrelevance and extinction. Then it’ll be on to yet another competition between social justice and Mormon religious “truth.” Maybe once this gay rights debacle is settled, the LDS Church will finally and fairly address the mistreatment of its female members, who are currently not allowed to fully participate in the operations of the Church and are inexplicably excluded from the priesthood.