Church Growth and the Tendency toward Liberalism

Aaron R. aka Ricochurch, correlation, Culture, diversity, doctrine, General Authorities, Mormon, prophets, religion 50 Comments

Some time ago, as a guest I wrote a post entitled ‘Academic freedom in the Church‘ which tried to explore some of liberalizing tendencies seen in LDS culture since the September Six, but particularly over the last decade.  Having recently read an excellent (as usual) article by D. Michael Quinn on the development of the ‘Sacral Power Structure‘ of Mormonism, I wanted to re-visit this issue as a result of some of the reasons he gives for the increasing authoritarianism and conservatism in the Church.  Quinn argues that the expansive growth of the Church during the 1950-1970’s led the hierarchy to emphasize an ‘unquestioning rank-and-file obedience to Church directives’ which is rooted in the ‘inherent fear of centrifugal tendencies of enormous Church growth'[1]. 

One way this tendency has been manifested is the shifting practice concerning Common Consent, which I previously discussed here.  Quinn also argues that during the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, sustaining votes were sometimes used to reject the proposed candidate.  This was encouraged in the context of a voluntary obedience.  However, following the presidencies of Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee, the discourse around common consent became associated with the idea that a vote against a leadership decision was a rejection of the will of the Lord.  Thus, Church leader’s fears of losing control completely of the membership may have led them to emphasis a new type of relationship with Church authorities.  Quinn argues that this can be seen through a concern that some leaders had that the Church would be run by specialists rather than priesthood authority, thus the increased emphasis upon the ‘brethren’.

What does this mean for the Church currently and its membership?  Much has been said both officially, at GC, and unofficially, among the membership, about Church growth.  In general it has slowed (or flat-lined) over the last decade across the world.  It is possible therefore, that as Church growth slows or remains constant that we will see reversals in the way the Church approaches the issues of authoritarianism and doctrine.  I am not trying to argue that the Church is ever wholly conservative or liberal.  My point however is that as new ideas, practices and technologies are assimilated in the Church’s power structure there will inevitably be the emergence of new assemblages of power and new types of discourse.  In the same way that new conservative mechanisms where emphasised and solidifed throught the development of new media, so it is possible that these same changes could provide more liberalising assemblages/discourses.  Thus it is possible that as the Church, and its culture, become more firmly established its Leaders may become more relaxed about ‘the centrifugal tendencies’ Quinn observes.

However, the problem with this hypothesis is that Church growth is not equal across the world.  We have already seen these fears manifest themselves in the Church’s response to exponential growth in areas such as Chile and Philippines (where in each case they sent Apostles to specifically preside over those areas).  Contrastingly, the emphasis on finding local leadership at the general level (Area Authority Seventies – and the like) may result in increased scope for variation and interpretation[2].  Thus it is possible that in those areas like Western Europe (where I am from) where the Church is established and hardly growing, there might be increasing tendency toward liberalism, while in areas of relative instability the emphasis will remain on unquestioning obedience.  However such differences are of course mediated by whether the Church wants to retain a unified approach across the globe (a fact which some have posited will be a major restriction to Church growth[3].

It is possible that the previous liberalisation toward academia, argued for in my previous post, may be part of a wider dynamic linked to the slowing down of Church growth?

Do you think this is plausible?


1. D. Michael Quinn, From Sacred Grove to Sacral Power Structure in Dialogue, vol. 17, no. 2 [Salt Lake city, UT.: Dialogue Foundation, 1984] p. 29.

2. Armand L. Mauss, Can there be a Second Harvest? in International Journal of Mormon Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, [online, 2008], pp. 1-59.

3. Douglas J. Davies, World Religion: Dynamics & Constraints at The Worlds of Joseph Smith Conference.

Comments 50

  1. I believe that we usually get baptized after we felt the Spirit of confirmation. We become a member and then are exposed to more academia-led thinking. My own testimony has been enlightened, at times challenged, by this. The danger with academia/pseudo-academia is that it seeks to explain facts rationally, to shrink to human thinking what may have been done for unexplained, inspired, God-to-his-prophet-only communicated reasons. It’s all about patterns, logical analysis, therefore relegating more subtle senses to league 2. Parts of the world where Mormon academia is less likely to be found and widely accessed typically ‘produces’ more by the book, humble followers. Is it why Latin American countries are now sending missionaries to save the souls of their former colonizers?
    Does academia-processed and academia-produced information chok the soft, delicate voice of the Spirit? Isn’t the manner in which the Church uses medias to emphasize the hierarchy in GC a way to bring people back to the source and origin of the voice and will of God on earth, in a manner reminiscent of King Benjamin calling people to gather to hear him or a patriarch calling his family to visit with him before he departs for the ultimate word of truth?
    Isn’t liberalisation of Mormon thinking simply a mark of the times, when men have been foreseen to lose their faith, let go of the iron bar and get litterally lost in a world of fog, unpromising and unfulfilling?
    Thanks for the reference to Quinn’s article. I will read it and come back maybe.

  2. Rico,

    It is possible that the previous liberalisation toward academia, argued for in my previous post, may be part of a wider dynamic linked to the slowing down of Church growth?

    Are you asking if a more educated society has a slower rate of joining the church? That might be the case, however, another variable over in Europe might be the reason why Europe has a slow growth rate. A slow growth rate is seen in Western Europe, while Eastern Europe grows at a fairly decent rate. Both areas of Europe are fairly well educated (near 100% literacy in almost all European countries). The variable I would consider, or at least account for, in Western Europe is the decades and centuries of religious corruption within the major religions there (Catholicism, Protestantism). Let me tell ya, if I were Irish Catholic, I would have a very hard time trusting anyone talking about God, whether from the Catholic church or any other denomination. That abuse of trust that occurred over the past 40 years where church leadership knew of the abuses of its priests on children! and did nothing about it, well I wouldn’t want anything to do with God. Because I would conclude that God approved of such actions as God did nothing to stop those who claim they represent Him.

  3. 1. “Isn’t liberalisation of Mormon thinking simply a mark of the times, when men have been foreseen to lose their faith, let go of the iron bar and get litterally lost in a world of fog, unpromising and unfulfilling?”

    Not to be flippant at all but its a sign of google and dissonance. We can’t expect a religion that pushes for further education to have those members tone it down when it comes to studying the gospel.

    Deseret Book has sold In Sacred Lonliness , Rough Stone Rolling for sometime now!! Where many members have learned Joseph Smith had more than one wife and drank through out his life.

    FARMS and FAIR are there for those who want the meat and have moved on from the milk

    Our bishop taught about the Race Issue and Blacks and the Preisthood using Elder Hollands talk during sunday school

  4. I read through Quinn’s article (written in 1984) nearly ten years before the September 6. If anything from my vantage point, Quinn appears prophetic in predicting even more consolidation, correlation and bureaucratic stratification within the Church organization and the correlative of less academic freedom. According to Quinn, the Church aligned itself with Capitalism and Republicans at a time when it appeared necessary for the Church’s survival and that alignment has calcified in the bureaucracy (i.e. the Utah State Legislature) and in the more popular culture (i.e. Glenn Beck) in the present day in ways that Quinn couldn’t have even predicted twenty six years ago.

    I unfortunately do not believe your premise that slow church growth will result in a liberalization of academic freedom. When I was growing up in the Church, I remember one time someone actually raised their hand in opposition to sustaining someone. The result was thrilling and I never lost the craving for someone else to show such courage within the confines of the chapel. The death of Common Consent or the un-sanctity of dissent (to steal a title from another of the September 6)within the Church is the reason that your premise regarding slow church growth leading towards liberalization is flawed.

    “It is possible therefore, that as Church growth slows or remains constant that we will see reversals in the way the Church approaches the issues of authoritarianism and doctrine.” While it may be possible, it is highly unlikely. Look at the Catholics. They had their Vatican II and now Pope Benedict. The Catholic bureaucracy is becoming more rigid as it loses power and influence. Slow growth will have the opposite impact on the bureaucracy as attempts within the organization are made to consolidate and maintain power.

    Unlike a government, a modern Church usually doesn’t have the means to create a totalitarian regime through the use of force. The main force available to maintain power within a Church is the power of social ostracization. The bureaucrats and gerontocracy will not loosen or liberalize if it threatens their position. While I admire your hope, I think it is misplaced.

  5. #1 – Thanks for your thoughts. I think you raise some good points. My only disagreement would be your characterisation with liberal as lacking in faith. Liberal is a relative term and therefore I use it in the sense that Quinn seems to, namely that from the Church’s starting point there was different trajectories toward both conservatism and liberalism. Quinns point seems to be that the Church as a whole was not probably liberal (ever) but that it became more conservative and now it is possible to move back toward where we were (which would be liberalising).

    #2 – Though ironic (i’m guessing) your point is valid. Utha has a culture of its own which is linked with the central place it holds geographically to the Church’s headquarters. This invariably has meant that the emphasis that the Church makes becomes a matter of culture far more there than other places not so closely linked to the Headquarters. Geography of course places a role.

    #3 – I think there are lots of reasons for hte slow growth, and it is fairly slow everywhere. mauss argues that costs of joining the Church are higher in Europe compared to other places. So I agree that factors like you mention are possible. Having served my mission in Ireland however the major issue was the association with Catholicism with their identity (as a nation) rather than religious problems. This supports Mauss’ idea about higher costs.

    #5 – I think you also raise an interesting point, one that I tried to deal with in the earlier issue. The church is a matter of scholarly inquiry and it has proved dangerous to try and reject that wholesale, which is why i think we have seen some church supported/sponsored academic conferences and work.

    #6 – It is not so much a hope as a position. Just to see whether it holds water. I acknowledge that it is a fairly uni-dimensional argument but that makes it most provocative and also allows it to be seen in light of other ideas. I agree that there is a choice, however it is possible that the Church will follow a different path to the Catholic Church and the reason I suspect it will is that we have a lay-leadership and this brings in another dynamic. Allowing autonomy and therefore difference is a long-term way of ensuring commitment and motivation, which is important to our leaders. Increased direction can do the opposite. The reductions in the CHI and also the increased frequency of local GA’s I think are signs that the Church wants to draw back and allow some variation.

  6. I don’t think the Church is going to be “liberalized” any time soon, at least until the current generation of leaders moves on.

    Until recent decades, there always seemed to be room in the Church for differing points-of-view. Some leaders saw value in evolution, for example, while others claimed it was a tool of Satan. During the era when Joseph Fielding Smith and McConkie had tremendous influence, an entire branch of thinking was effectively suppressed. You either agreed with their ultra-orthodox interpretation of that Mormon doctrine actually was, or you were looked down on, overtly or subtlely. The next result of this is that people who were trickling up the ranks of leadership at the time (ie. bishops, stake presidents, etc.) in mnay cases had to buy into their interpretation. It is actually a culmination of a process that has gone on a long time and is actually natural – where someone has to “prove” they are an orthodox, team-player to be “promoted”, to “out-orthodox” the prior person. A typical example is the Word of Wisdom. The Word of Wisdom was initially a “suggestion”, yet still didn’t keep our prophet (Joseph Smith) from drinking wine. It then got increasingly talked about as time went by. It was then raised to the level of commandment. We then got talks about how “not even a drop of liquor” passed someone’s lips. It then got expanded to Coke being an interpretation of “hot drinks” as it was obviously the caffeine that was implied.

    The problem is that there is no room for someone to actually change things. If one of the apostles actually has a different opinion about something, he suppresses it for the sake of unity. If a stake president wants to do something different, he can be called on the carpet. If a bishop wants his meetings to start at 10:00am, but the stake president wants them to start at 9:00am, they start at 9:00am. There is very little room in the “official” Church setting for discussion of any non-orthodox view. We are supposed to follow the correlated manuals in our meetings.

    In my opinion, this is one of the big reasons why the growth of the Church has slowed. The trend toward micromanaging everything from how many earrings you have to if you have a tattoo is somewhat contrary to Western civilization. But I fear it is only going to get worse. As trends slow down, my predicted reaction is that we are going to be told we’re not doing “enough”. We will be given even more non-gospel related requirements. Things will become even more correlated.

    My prediction:
    – Church membership will flatten out at around 18-19 million.
    – It will remain increasingly conservative, with an emphasis on an image of unity valued above all else.
    – There will be an increasing mass of people who believe in the core truths of the restored gospel but who reject some of the craziness that has risen around it. While these folks cannot have open conversations about their feelings in official Church settings, they are starting to find each other through the bloggernacle, Internet, etc.
    – While the leadership will continue on their path towards more and more conservatism, increasing numbers of members will mirror society and become increasingly liberal, yet still as believing in the gospel.
    – This will become an increasing issue in the church, until it reaches some sort of critical mass.
    – I don’t know how this will be resolved….

  7. #7: Rico, regarding your comments on #3

    I think the reason for the slowing of growth is the rise of the internet. If I were going to join any organization, let alone something as central to me as a religion, I would certainly research it a bit. Prior to the internet, it was fairly difficult to find information about the history of the Church. While we obviously don’t practice them now, it wasn’t too long ago (compared to the thousands of years that other religions have been around) that we actually and officially did things like practice polygamy, deny the priesthood to blacks, keep women from speaking in sacrament, etc.

    There are obviously spiritual experiences that would make someone want to join the Church. There are also societal and familial pressures to keep one from joining the Church. For some people, one or the other is so overwhelming that they join regardless of what else happens in life, or else they completely have no interest. I think, however, for people who are somewhat on the “edge”, with pros on one hand and cons on the other, that some of the things they may find out may tip the balance enough.

  8. When you talk about bureaucracy (Ulysseus, #6), do you mean the stake presidents? They hardly have an entrenched position to defend.

    Anyhow, Rico, your speculation can have a point; you should also consider matters of personality, e.g. Joseph Fielding Smith’s personally held fondness for Young Earth Creationism — and his son-in-law (BRM) was not exactly reticent in defending it; president Benson was a staunch conservative (some say arch-conservative), who was not shy to voice his opinions, although he also said they’re opinions rather than the word of God, although some members are still repeating some of them as if they were the latter.

    In Western Europe, it seems that high GNP per capita plus high levels of education may lead to liberalism.

  9. Mike, I think the reason for the slowing of growth is the rise of the internet.

    I think people on the bloggernacle have an inflated sense of how important it is. I recently asked in Elder’s Quorum how many had heard of the bloggernacle, and they didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I don’t think every investigator is looking up church history on the internet. Certainly some investigators will look, but I suspect that is about 5%.

    My brother started a blog on consumer technology about a year ago. He has 1 or 2 guys helping him, and they have about the same readership as Mormon Matters. Let’s face it: those of us interested in Mormon history are a very small niche. While it’s nice to talk to each other, and certainly the internet has facilitated these conversations, let’s not get carried away with how powerful the internet is. I think the reduction in church growth can be attributed to raising the bar, and having missionaries quit doing baseball and soccer baptisms. If you’ve listened to John Dehlin, Elder Oaks has come down pretty hard on these spurious baptisms. These phantom members had much to do with the rise of church growth in South America, and Elder Holland has been collapsing stakes in South America to correct these corrupt baptismal practices. That is a much better explanation for slowing church growth than the internet.

  10. #11: MH

    I certainly agree with you about the “baseball baptisms”, etc. That was a bad time, but inevitable when goals/numbers are encouraged and rewarded. I also agree that some of the downward trend can be attributed to correcting that.

    However, I do think there are other trends at work:

    – I don’t know that “raising the bar” did much. I know many friends who may have barely made it on missions in our day, who ended up having that experience change their life. Today, I don’t know that they would have made it, with a likely life-long consequence. Also, you would also expect that with all of these “better” missionaries, the converts per missionary would be higher. That hasn’t been true so far – perhaps it will change. I do remember that in my mission (Europe – slower work), some of the more productive missionaries were also the ones that wouldn’t stand a chance today. They baptized people who I know are still strong in the church today. Interestingly, they were all females about missionary age, with “interesting” contacting techniques that are certainly not standard.

    – I also don’t know that “baseball” baptisms were worldwide. In the US, I haven’t heard that they were as much of an issue as other places (correct me if I’m wrong). In various church leadership meetings, the Brethren have talked about the the steadily decreasing conversion rates in the US over the past few decades. This therefore isn’t a “correction” of the baptismal problems in other places, but I think is more likely due to some other trend.

    I also agree that the “bloggernacle” represents a minute fraction of the Church membership (probably < 1% at most). However, in talking to trusted friends and family, while they may never have been online specifically for LDS things, very many people have the same frustrations that are expressed here. So I think the feelings are much more widespread than participation here.

    I also think that the "bloggernacle" is far, far different from the use of the internet in someone researching the Church. Simply type "Mormon" in to Google. On the first page, about 1/2 the sites are "offical" sources, but the other half are about things like "Recovery from Mormonism", etc. By the time you get down a page or 2 in the search, there are a number of sites that aren't "official" and could be construed as "anti-", except for the fact that most of them actually use LDS sources. Try the same search for "Islam" or "Catholic" or just about anything else, and you won't see all the negative information so quickly.

  11. I think people on the bloggernacle have an inflated sense of how important it is. I recently asked in Elder’s Quorum how many had heard of the bloggernacle, and they didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I don’t think every investigator is looking up church history on the internet. Certainly some investigators will look, but I suspect that is about 5%.

    I’m not so sure about that. A short series of Google searches can reveal a lot of negative information about the Church without the investigator ever participating in a bloggernacle forum. I’ve heard from missionaries that are out right now that some investigators are very well versed in the troubling stuff, and that it’s not at all uncommon for any investigator to google “mormon church” at some point in the missionary lessons.

    It’d be interesting to get some hard facts on the sources of research for the typical U.S. convert in 2010.

  12. Yes, I agree with many things Vin and Mike said. However, much of the church growth occurred in South America. Since it has slowed there, it looks like the church numbers have slowed, but since they are due to spurious S American baptisms, I think baptismal rates elsewhere have remained the same. Pres Hinckley made a big emphasis on retention. Clearly the S American “converts” weren’t retained. So, it would be interesting to see if active membership has increased or stayed the same. I suspect that activity rates over the last 30-40 years have always been relatively constant. So the church growth/dip probably should have always been much flatter.

    While I agree that many google searches show negative Mormon info (hence Elder Ballard’s call to start blogging), I think that intellectual middle class people do probably search. I wonder how much it affects them. But I can tell you from my mission that I often baptized poor people with no access to the internet. These people still don’t have internet access at home, and I don’t think they’re all researching the LDS church at public libraries. Hence, while the internet may influence middle class people who were less likely to join anyway, I think the poor people (who are more likely to join) don’t check out mormon history on the internet. Of course, these people have low retention too. So, the net gain in membership is extremely hard to judge.

  13. #8 – I totally agree with what you have said about the leadership, to an extent, except that we have had E, Eyrring, Holland and (perhaps even) Oaks who all are highly educated and probably do not accept the same rigid McConkie-type views that had once been such high-currency. Thus in my comments and in the OP I referenced the importance of emerging local GA’s who will have the power to provide the scope for this type of differentiation. Moreover, I think your analysis of discussion of leaders (SP and Bishops) is quite superficial and has not been my experience. for the most part the SP challenges my thinking on things but never (or rarely) insists. Your WoW example is interesting because at that same time the Church were liberalising the approach to garments. It is rarely a unitary trend.

    #9 – Having been a missionary very recently, most people we taught were not that bothered in looking through the internet to find answers about the Church. I agree with MH that there is a tendency for us to over-estimate how much people use the internet to find out about the Church, plus I think people are not that interested and their concerns are very immediate (is this good for my family and me?); even to the point of reading the internet.

    #11 – I agree with you about other factors leading to Church growth patterns.

    #12 – I certainly think the frustrations of church life are common and relates to my cost-benefit point earlier.

    #13 – Our experiences are obviously different so I too would be interested. What I do suspect is that people who are more educated will use the interent to research their faith. This may have an interesting influence on the types of people the church is able to attract.

    #14 – I agree that this MC may respond to this information in different ways.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments so far.

  14. Back to the original post (which I quite like), I think the leadership of the Church will continue to become more “conservative” while the membership will follow societal trends and become more “liberal”. There is not much of a mechanism in place for “relaxing” statements made by previous Church leaders. As a simple example – while the number of earrings someone has was likely a personal preference or opinion of President Hinckley, it has been raised to near doctrinal status on a practical basis. I don’t see that someone else will ever say anything to the contrary for a long, long time, as that would be interpreted as a criticism of President Hinckley as opposed to merely having a different opinion than him. As time passes, similar things are slowly added to that it means to be “Mormon”. Unfortunately, when someone disagrees with these “pseudo-doctrinal” things, they sometimes throw the baby out with the bath water and unfortunately leave the Church. At the same time, there’s not really a way for the Church to officially “back-down” from many of these things. It took over a century and A LOT of effort for Brigham Young’s feelings about blacks and the priesthood to finally be removed from “official” status.

  15. Rico said: it is possible that in those areas like Western Europe (where I am from) where the Church is established and hardly growing, there might be increasing tendency toward liberalism, while in areas of relative instability the emphasis will remain on unquestioning obedience.

    I don’t see the church as being monolithic (inflexible, unyielding, consistent)in its membership. From my point of view there are at least three degrees of church membership, in the here and now, that can be reasonably analogized to the “three degrees of glory”—of the hereafter.

    I’ll only refer to the ideals of the celestial and terrestrial. For my purposes I’ll define the celestial members as comprised of those who are valiant in the testimony of Christ (they receive of the fulness of the Father), and the terrestrial members as those who are not valiant in the testimony of Christ (they receive the presence of the Son, but not the fulness of the Father).

    To me, the difference between those who are on the path to the celestial, as compared to the terrestrial, is the experiencing and maintaining of the manifestations of the Spirit. It doesn’t matter where members are from, they have the same scriptures, and if they will use them to step out of the culture they live in to embrace the doctrine of Christ they can be valiant (celestial).

    As a general, rule I worry about those who think of themselves as “intellectuals”. It seems to me that they have a tenancy to harden their hearts to the things of the Spirit (2 Nephi 28:4,26). Of course, at anytime they can set aside the things of the world; and take up the things of the Spirit. When they do, they make great contributions.

    I read something Stephen R Covey wrote years ago that makes a good point on the subject at hand:

    However intelligent and knowledgeable we may be, unless we have a real and personal experience with the Spirit of God, we will know no more about Christ than the man blind from birth knows about light and sight, however glib he may be in describing the anatomy of the eye or the properties of light.

  16. From 17: “he often abuses and twists his sources. Read him with a grain of salt.”

    Yes, we certainly don’t want to hear that the General Authorities have the same tendencies toward preserving power just as others do in the materialistic world we live in. The research that Quinn has done may not be pleasing to the eye of the TBM, but it seems to be represented by cold hard fact.

    It is interesting to note that the Holy Roman Church went through a similar phase in its existence where it exercised authoritarian control over the church. It was only when the Germans refused to discipline (read that as burn at the stake) Martin Luther that the tight grip began to ease. While in the case of the Catholic Church the dissenter was typically killed physically, the current path for a dissenter is ‘spiritual’ death.

    What do I think will happen? I would see that the continued mental gymnastics necessary to correlate the past doctrines with the current dogma will continue to hinder the growth and vibrancy of the church. D&C 112 seems to indicate that there will be a cleansing of the church. I would expect that being a lifelong bureaucrat will not carry much value at that point.

    The original premise of the organization that became the LDS Church was to teach people to ‘come unto Christ.’ That direction has been supplanted by ‘follow the prophet.’ We will, by necessity, have to repent and return before the remainder of the prophetic mission of the church can be realized.

  17. spektator,

    Quinn does have a history of abusing facts. the most egregious example from ‘origins of power’, is when he said joseph smith ordered hosea stout to use the nauvoo legion to bust him out of the carthage jail, but stout refused. the footnote was based on a mark hoffman forgery, and quinn never retracted the claim. there are other examples.

    now I like quinn and enjoyed his books. however he does play loose with facts at times.

  18. MH,
    After reading the referenced material on the Sacral Power structure, I didn’t note anything that would suggest playing loose with the facts in that article. Are there any examples in that document?

    My point was that I can’t assume that these men are immune from pride, ego, or a desire for power. Personal experience supports that position.

  19. I haven’t read Sacral Power structure yet and certainly haven’t checked the footnotes in the document. But I am familiar with some of Quinn’s other writings in which he plays loose with facts. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this piece of writing, but judging from his other writings, I was supporting Nitsav in #17. I think Quinn’s claims are more than a grain of salt; but I am saying that we need to be judicious when evaluating some of Quinn’s sources. He tends to have more footnotes than writing, making the task of fact-checking overwhelming, yet some of his footnotes don’t hold up to scrutiny. He also has a bit of an ax to grind with the power structure, so that needs to be taken into consideration. I don’t think his footnote gaffes started only after the church left him.

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Quinn, and really enjoyed Origins of Power and I plan to read some of his other books. But I am saying that you can’t always take everything Quinn says at face value. His blatant use of a Hoffman document that he knows is false greatly tarnishes his reputation as a scholar, and calls other of his works into question.

  20. #22-MH-I quit reading Quinn. At some point, he became very anti-church in his writing. He would mask it, however, so as to not have it come across as such. His “Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans” was woeful. He no longer was a historian even trying to be even-handed. Regardless of the amount of research that went into his writing, he was simply writing to demonize the church.

    I loved his first edition “Early Mormonism and the Magic World View” and became a Quinn fan. I think the bitterness following his excommunication came through in his writing and, in my opinion, made it bathroom reading material, even as anti-church as I can get at times.

    His current situation, at least as I last understood it, is sad.

  21. MH,

    I’ll admit my ignorance here… Are you saying Quinn knew the Hoffman document was a forgery when he wrote “Origins of Power” but used it anyway?

  22. Yes, Doug. I erroneously referred to Hosea Stout above, but it was Jonathan Dunham. Here’s a link to FAIRwiki discussing this issue.

    Mark Hofmann forged the supposed letter from Joseph to Dunham, and it was published in a collection of Joseph’s personal writings before the forgery was discovered.

    Despite the fact that the document is a forgery, some authors have continued to use it. For example, D. Michael Quinn used it as evidence as late as 1994, and cites the Jessee transcript of the letter (cited above):

    The morning of 27 July, Smith sent an order (in his own handwriting) to Major-General Jonathan Dunham to lead the Nauvoo Legion in a military attack on Carthage “immediately” to free the prisoners. Dunham realized that such an assault by the Nauvoo Legion would result in two blood baths—one in Carthage and another when anti-Mormons (and probably the Illinois militia) retaliated by laying siege to Nauvoo for insurrection. To avoid civil war and the destruction of Nauvoo’s population, Dunham refused to obey the order and did not notify Smith of his decision. One of his lieutenants, a former Danite, later complained that Dunham “did not let a single mortal know that he had received such orders.”

    * Citing: “Joseph Smith to Jonathan Dunham, 27 June 1844, in Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, xxv, 616-17; History of The Church 6:529. (subscript. required) GospeLink referred to this order but neither quoted nor summarized it….Allen J. Stout journal, 13; also T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints…,164n, told the incident without naming Dunham.”[3]

    In 1995, Quinn wrote a letter in which he acknowledged his reference to the forged document and included and explanation:

    While vacationing in California during January, I received a telephone call informing me that my newly published book Mormon Hierarchy had cited a Hoffman-forged letter to Jonathan Dunham in the source notes. I’ll spare you my immediate reaction, but it was stronger than “Oh hell!”….

    The only parts of the Dunham letter I used were the variant date (a day later than History of the Church) and the word “immediately,” but during my rushed revision of this passage I mistyped the month in my narrative. I should have caught my misstatement that Joseph Smith wrote these orders a month after his June death, but I never saw that error. Nor did I see the typographical error of transposing the page-number citation in History of the Church for the letter.[5]

    Quinn continues to insist on his misreading of the History of the Church entry (see discussion above), only correcting his typographical error in the citation (6:592 instead of 6:529).

    Quinn ignores that he also claimed (without evidence save from the forgery) that the writing was “in his [Joseph’s] own handwriting.”

    Quinn made corrections for the 1997 printing of Origins of Power. However, his publisher issued the New Mormon Studies CD-ROM in 1998, but still included Quinn’s erroneous 1994 version in this digital product.

    Sorry for the sidetrack Rico, but I thought it was important to show Quinn’s use of footnotes. Someone of Quinn’s stature shouldn’t be using forged Hoffman documents. Either he is really sloppy (at best), or intentionally misusing these sources. I’d prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, but when he is so well-known for his footnotes, one would expect he would be more careful. A scholar of Quinn’s stature shouldn’t be this sloppy. As I said, there are other examples, but this seems to be one of the most egregious to me.

  23. Thanks MH, I was just surprised by this as I’ve found Quinn to be fairly even handed in his writing style and almost fanatical in his methodology. Having said that, there are other articles he’s published were he went the other way with the “facts” like his paper defending the claim of revivals in upstate NY during the spring and summer of 1820. He seemed to play a little loose with those facts as well, so you do have a point.

    Before we castigate him further though, it’s only fair to point out that many of the church manuals have played “fast and loose” with many events as well. I know, I know, two wrongs don’t make a right, but if we were to compare the amount of twisted truths in our manuals with Quinn’s writings, I think Quinn comes out looking pretty good. 🙂 Just saying…

  24. Yes, Doug. I’m not castigating him, just saying we need to be careful with some of his claims. I really did enjoy Origins of Power, and plan to read the sequel, Hierarchy of Power. I thought his treatment on the history of the Melchizedek Priesthood was outstanding in Origins of Power, but that Hoffman forgery from the same book leaves me shaking my head.

  25. This is a fascinating post. Statistically speaking, your denomination is SOOO following the path that the CofChrist took — just 70 years behind us and at a much higher “saturation level” (maximum membership).

    A couple of points strike me as important:

    Stress induces change. Stress CAN induce speciation. If the church were to continue to grow strongly, change could be deferred. But as sincere leaders (at all levels) and believers strive to fulfill the mission when success seems to retreat before them, I suspect individual differences in personality come to the forefront. Conservatives will pull more toward conservatism; liberals will pull more toward liberalization. EACH will feel that the pulls are warranted by the importance of holding to the truth.

    Since conservatives are dominant, at least in the US, I expect the Conservatives will make the church more so. Liberals will increasingly find their own place and institutions to represent the gospel faithfully as THEY understand it. Attitudes of the leadership will largely determine whether those institutions are within the body of the church or not.

    I am sure God loves both “sides” for the portions of the truth they hold, so I would expect God to continue to love and support each one,hopefully, together in one body. But the Restoration has been shedding denominations (like Catholicism and Protestantism before it) for a long time, so I certainly can not predict that God will intervene to stop this process on the basis of His past actions.

    I also think that the debate about causes of the leveling in growth is futile. No matter what the CofChrist did, we could neither speed up OR slow down our growth; it ultimately was controlled by factors OUTSIDE of the church. Still is, in fact. Our efforts may certainly have influenced WHOM we baptized, but not how many.

  26. Regarding the footnotes issue: he certainly does have a point-of-view in spite of an attempt to be portrayed objectively. I do think it does go both ways, however, and provides a balance. When the Brigham Young manual used in priesthood and RS doesn’t even mention BY’s polygamy, that is also playing “loose” with the facts (I happened to be an EQ instructor that year, so knew the manual better than I do other ones).

  27. #16 – I certainly agree that your ideas here can’t be ignored. I think this is what I was trying to convey when I wrote about the new assemblages of ideas that might emerge. While the earring idea may well remain near-canonical other items have the scope to be liberalised if brought to being in the right way (as I mentioned with the garments earlier). So I think there is this dual-process.

    #18 – I don’t see the Church in that way either. In fact my post tried to present the church as a place where variation occurs but where there are different processes that try to contain and direct certain patterns of change, as any organisation would (and probably should). But thank you for your thoughts.

    #19 – I think that the distinction you create between following the prophet and coming to christ is not easily defensible. I sense that Joseph intended for himself to be an archetype o fthe process of coming to christ, while the trend more recently has been to follow my words in coming to christ. I agree that there is a slight difference here but the intent is the same. Moreover I think both ideas are useful because of the weakness of our leaders but also the need we have to see them exemplify the process of moving toward God.

    #22 – Is this has any bearing on the Quinn discussion this is an older essay, as I recall?

    #25 – Don’t worry about the diversion, I am as interested as everyone else in these matters, particularly becauise I do like Quinn.

    As an aside, I have suspected that Origins of Power is a quite respected text primairly because FARMS did not do a critique of it as they have done with the second volume (Extensions) and also that it is positively cited in BYU Studies.

    #28 – Thats interesting that you draw parrallels between the two. I need to get more into CofC history. I know your previous posts here at MM have looked at the role of non-US membership, how do you see this playing out in the LDS.

  28. I haven’t read all the posts, but are there things the Church could reasonably do that might, say, increase the conversion/retention rate in countries in Europe? For example, would it be so terrible to announce that the prohibition on consumption of tea and coffee (a significant part of social/familial life in Europe) is now to revert to the status of a ‘suggestion only ‘(as I believe is the case within the RLDS/CofC)?

  29. #31 – It is an interesting suggestion. However, I suspect that most people never hear that much about the Church, they resist contact from the off-set. Thus information about the change might not get disseminated. ven if the Church produced a massive media campaign regarding this, then we would see the impact. But my sense that the Tea/Coffee thing is not big a selling point. In fact, because of the cohesiveness the Church obtains from such a cultural marke is actually more useful in areas like Britain where membership is sparse is of more value in long term retention than droppping it would be.

  30. My interpretation of how a liberal sees the World and Church differently from a conservative is not on doctrines or laws but emphasis.
    1. Respect for agency, liberals would not impose their views but allow include and respect different views. eg Prop8,
    2. We are not under attack because others view the world differently. (family, values etc)
    3. Do not limit defending the Family, and marriage to homosexuals, abortion and pornography, but include working hours, holidays, basic and living wage. Germany with 9 weeks annual leave and 35 hour week, and universal health care, but less concern about homosexuality, abortion, pornography etc,is a more family friendly environment than US.
    4. More emphasis on JOY and less on OBEDIENCE. Recent SS lesson readings have contained both concepts but our conservative teacher not only ignored mention of Joy, but told me she the prophet and the Lord would rather I kept my opinions to myself, when I tried to bring in the JOY content.

    My SS teacher is the Bishops wife and they are the most conservative family in the ward. She even has a uniform, which a number of other conservative women follow, of ankle length black skirts, flat black shoes, and a loose pastel coloured blouse with long sleeves, which is worn year round whether 15c or 40c.

    I believe the conservative position of the church is a function of the culture of the area it’s headquarters are located. That culture is carried by Area Presidencies to areas where a more liberal culture is standard and their choice of leaders flows down to choice of Bishops. What is acceptable belief in Utah is considered extreme in liberal societs such as northern Europe, Australia etc. hence the lack of appeal in those societies.

    Were I investigating the Church now I would have trouble getting past the culture to the Gospel but as I have been an active member for 40 years plus and have a testimony I have to try to find a place in a sometimes unwelcoming Church.

  31. #31, #32:

    It does bring up an interesting point. It is fairly obvious that Church growth is slowing down. This brings up a few questions:

    1) Is this just a correction of a “blip” (ie. baseball baptisms, etc.) or a longer term trend? I think the latter if you look at charts of growth going back decades, but who knows?

    2) Is there something specifically “wrong” in the Church’s policies that is a hurdle? There are other denominations, Christian and not, who are growing faster than us in the US, Africa, Asia, etc., and these are groups that don’t specifically have the institutionalized missionary program that we have. What is it about our Church that is holding us back?

    3) If there are things holding us back, does anyone think they could be changed? Could the Church come out and say that white shirts, tattoos, earrings, 3-hour block meetings, no drums in sacrament meetings, etc. don’t really have anything at all to do with the core of the restored gospel but are cultural artifacts that have been overlaid? Could the Church modify the Word of Wisdom to where it really is a code of health as a suggestion – ie. a glass of wine or coffee is probably healthy, too much wine, coffee, or food for that matter, is unhealthy? For places where the tax burden is high, could the Church still have the principle of tithing, but say that it could be on “net” or “increase”? Could we still have a missionary program, but have much of it turn into a humanitarian missionary program? I think for many youth, building wells or serving the poor in Africa would be a better 2-year experience than walking through the streets of a country where they might baptize 1 person their whole mission. It would probably be better for the Church’s image as well.

    I see many of the things in (3) as my interpretation of “liberalization” of the Church as suggested in the OP. But, are they needed? And would any of those actually ever be passed?

  32. Rico:

    In the CofChrist statistics, national cultures show up more strongly in differences in growth — at least in those countries where there are enough members to get reliable disaggregated data — than any factor we can measure within a culture. The rapid decline in the (aggregated) North American data is more responsible for the relative importance of the third world in the councils of the CofChrist than the baptismal success there, though the success is quite real.

    It could easily take many decades for such a decline to produce similar changes in the LDS, but the stresses that can produce fissioning can happen sooner. Our church began its evolution leftward in only 10-15 years after peak baptisms, with disputes first breaking out over liberalizing the Sunday school curriculum. Using Mike S. comments above on the LDS peak, that’s only 30 years away for the LDS.

    The forms this can take can depend on seemingly little things. In our history, all elders were ex officio voting members of conference. Since many of our elderly faithful “gathered to Zion” after retirement, the elderly in Independence effectively controlled the legislative body of the church during the 1950’s when peak baptisms were reached. In the early 60’s, the leading quorums slipped through major reductions in ex officio membership (from 1000 votes in the conference chamber to at most a few dozen. It was only after this seemingly non-theological change that the church could move in a new direction.

    Maybe the rigidity that most dictates how the LDS evolves depends on the ties to age and seniority under the structure of succession in the 12.

  33. I am trying to remember where I read that church growth prior to 1950 was due to births, and after that time, church growth was due to convert baptisms. I think rico’s question about liberalism vs conservatism is an interesting premise. i am not sure where I stand on this issue. I think firetag has a point that neither liberalism or conservatism will have a big impact on church growth, but I wonder if renewed emphasis on births or baptisms could have an impact on growth patterns.

  34. #33 – I agree with many of the ideas that you think are linked with liberalism. For me it is a matter of respecting relationships, seeking to reduce the negative effects of power and to live a life that is willing to question. I am sorry that you have had some negative experiences in your ward but also know that other wards are not all like yours. Thanks for your thoughts.

    #34 – I agree that some of what you have highlighted would be beneficial to the Church. I also agree that all these factors have an impact, however I think there impact can be both negative and positive as in the case cited. I see the possibility that some of what you say is possible. For example, if the fourth mission of the Church is taken seriously then we should se a greater emphasis on humanitarian missions? Moreover, the Church has started to move in that direction in some ways with the beginning of helping hands.

    #35 – Thank you for your interesting insights. Although I would probably see myself as a liberal, I am more conservative than some (maybe most). So although some liberalising changes i would like to see most I think are a double-edged sword. I am not sure the I see changes in how the 12 are led, particularly with strong hierarchical progression that currently produces people of talent. Moreover, with medical advances it is clearly becoming less of an issue than it might have been in the 60’s-early80’s.

    #36 – I think that liberalism won’t change growth but might be an epiphenomenon of it. Birth’s/convesion split is interesting and although I have never heard of it makes intuitive sense.

    On another point that is interesting in the UK. A large proportion of conversions in some areas of the UK are from migrant populations. This may have a interesting influence on Chuch culture here as these people move into leadership positions (which is just starting to happen). Moreover, our leaders (here) are aware of ensuring that an appropriate number of the people from these other ethnicities are represented in the Stake leadership, for example, and this might create new tensions at the local level.

    #35 –

  35. Arguing a point from the larger culture, stratification is evident as is slower growth among LDS denominations, however, the more ecumenical a denomination is, the more rapid its decline, until you have the fastest growth among all religious disaffected being manifest.

    I’m said this before but it bears repeating, ceterus paribus, we’ll see things liberalize as they must do to survive with a realigning culture, however, and I will use the term progressive, no matter how progressive our society becomes, it isn’t a guaranteed thing. I see lines on the horizon of increased conservatism worldwide, and an increased libertarianism and more localism here in America. This would in essence provincialize Utah and other Mormon strongholds against a wider cultural conglomeration.

  36. I’d also like to point out that I think we’re at a tipping point in definitions in the next ten years. We seem to do this about once a century. It used to be that liberal meant libertarian and republican in governance, while conservative meant statist and centrally-governed as it used to be manifest in the old Democrats and Republicans prior to the turn of the last century. The moralists on all levels were Republicans. In a hundred years how things have changed, and what is liberal and what is conservative end up being two different moralisms vying for power (social and cultural morals on one hand and egalitarian and economic morals on the other) with a very little voice for what was classic liberalism. I think we are seeing the old power structure reemerge where you have a yet undefined power structure (best seen by the tea parties) and progressives on the other, with expansionist and moralist Republicans left twisting in the wind. And progressivism is being sold or seen as the emperor with no clothes by folks as a sort of neo-monarchism where elites who know best–rule. In this sense, I do the Church as liberalizing in the classic sense even if they double down regionally.

  37. Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately my knowledge of american politics and culture is limited and I therefore do not feel I can give an intelligent response.

    However, I think you raise an interesting question about the changing meaning of liberalism and its role, particularly, for religion.

    For me, religiously speaking, liberalism is a turn toward toleration of religious diversity and also a increased amount of spiritual autonomy.

  38. #40 Rico

    I like your definition of religious liberalism. Putting this in the context of the LDS church, I think we are going the other way. We have the correlation committee, with the latest message that when the “manuals are written, the preparation is done” to paraphrase another common phrase. I think there is a DECREASED amount of spiritual autonomy. This goes down to something as simple as how many earrings to have, etc. As society becomes more tolerant, I think the Church is becoming less so. My personal opinion is that this is fundamentally behind the decline in baptism rates, but that could be wrong.

  39. #41 – Although I agree that there are some trends which point away from the kind liberalism that I mentioned I also sense that it is a little more complex. I previously wrote a post called ‘In Praise of Elder Packer’. In which he said that part of the process of correlation is so give back some of the autonomy that the Church had previously taken. He says ‘matters of the deepest doctrinal significance should be decided in the home’. In this I sense that (maybe this is just my experience) that there is some scope for spiritual autonomy and difference but this often depends on who are the leaders you have around you. Moreover, the retrenchment I am not convinced is a major issue, because in most parts of the world (even in britain) the Church’s values are not so out of date and people still generally recognise things like chastity, sobriety and faith as virtues in teh abstract sense. Although i agree this is becoming less so and may influence baptisms in the future. i am just not convinced that it is having a major impact now.

  40. Minor point to get out of the way first: The CofChrist does treat the WOW more as a suggestion than a “commandment”. However, the WOW to us has NOTHING to do with tea and coffee. The WOW talks about the temperature of the drink.

    The larger point is that I don’t think movements toward liberalism or conservatism within the church CAUSE changes in growth rate. Changes in growth rate are much more strongly controlled by changes in the surrounding culture, and then the church evolves as individuals and leaders respond to the changes in growth rate by trying new (or old) strategies to achieve the goals they believe they are supposed to achieve.

    I even know of some scientific evidence to suggest that the individual strategies chosen relate to fundamental personality traits — which are illustrated in the “conservative” and “liberal” self descriptions above.

    So maybe a lot of theology isn’t just culture, but psychology as well.

  41. #43 – Thanks firetag, I agree with the durection of your causality. Hopefully my OP suggested that. Are you suggesting with your WOW comment that the CofC have had a more relaxed approach but that this has not influenced the rates of baptisms? I think that there is porbably some accuracy regarding your comment about psychological traits.

  42. Rico: My comment on the WOW meant that I can drink as much coffee or tea as I want and BE IN FULL COMPLIANCE with the WOW. However, I probably violate it by putting enough ice in it that the ice hasn’t all melted by the time I drink it.

    Absolutely nothing internal to the church seems to effect its growth rate. In the late 1800’s, although our denomination had considerably less than 20,000 members, we were adding about 1700 people to our membership per year. Over roughly the next century, we added some 150,000 additional church members as potential witnesses. We built hundreds of churches. We trained and expanded the missionary quorums of the church several-fold. We established major church institutions such as Graceland University (of which this seminary is a part), the medical complex next door to us, the Auditorium Complex that preceded the Temple Complex a few blocks to your right, and Herald Publishing House. We experienced times of relative financial hardships and times of relative plenty. We knew times when the leading quorums were highly unified and times of great internal disputes among them. We undertook literally thousands of evangelistic initiatives at the local and regional levels.
    And none of those things had absolutely any effect, positive or negative, on the numerical rate at which the church in North America grew! The church shook off the effects of every one of them after a few months or, at most, a few years and stubbornly continued, decade after decade, to add the same 1700 members per year.

    Something overwhelmed that equilibrium in mid-century, but again, it seems to have had nothing to do with anything internal to the church. The start of the decline PRECEDES the first disputes between “liberal” and “conservative” in North America, and the growth of the church in the Third World seems to track more with the experience of other denominations than, again, with anything we’re doing. (We’ve never penetrated ANY non-Christian culture unless Christians from non-Restoration denominations paved the way.)

    It is as if you’re driving a car, and no matter which way you turn the steering wheel, and no matter how hard you step on either the brake or the accelerator, the car continues to travel in a straight line at the same speed. Eventually it has to dawn on you that your controls aren’t really connected to anything, and, in fact, you aren’t really the one driving the car.

    And that really raises questions about whether we understand what God is doing; I can make a scriptural case that what will happen depends on the response of the society to Jesus, not on the response of the church to Jesus.

  43. Firetag, thanks for the response I am sorry it took me a while to respond.

    I think you posit an interesting argument. I will assume by Church growth you mean conversions (i.e. people that stay long-term and that compared to the people leaving). The reason i say that is Baseball baptisms have proved to have a fairly massive change in the number of baptisms, in England at least.

    However, I think it is alos possible to work from this premise to another position (not your thought about what God is doing) but rather than a changing set of sociological conditions are the major factor that determines the growth of the Church. I am training as a sociologist and so my interest is of course biased. I wonder whether God’s ability to work in peoples lives is constrained by environment more than the averag Mormon missionary might like to believe.

    Moreover, i sense that the LDS Church acknowledges this and hence sends missionaries to areas that are baptising regularly because that is the best use of resources rather than because missionries/mission presidents/the message is somehow different in those areas.

  44. #46 Rico

    I like your statement: “I wonder whether God’s ability to work in peoples lives is constrained by environment more than the averag Mormon missionary might like to believe.”

    I think this is certainly the case. We can send all the missionaries to many parts of the Middle East that we want, but if someone is going to be killed if they convert to Mormonism, it is somewhat limiting.

    My own opinion, and this doesn’t necessarily go along with the “official” one-true-Church teaching, is that God is bigger than the LDS Church. I think there are different denominations that “fit” different cultures for various sociological reasons. I think our ultimate goal is to learn to be good people, to respect God and our fellowman, and to develop charity and compassion. To me, the ordinances that we preach as so essential are just hoops to jump through for a reason that I don’t completely understand. For 99.9% of the world, those ordinances will be done vicariously anyway, so it can’t be overly essential that they be done in mortality.

    I think the success or failure of the Church in various areas of the world can’t be based purely on whether it is true or not, otherwise, there should be similar amounts of success in the different regions of the world as their soul “resonates” with truth when they hear it. Instead, I see it more as an organic approach. Send missionaries everywhere. In some socioeconomic and geographical areas the LDS “package” will resonate more and be more successful – so more resources are sent there.

  45. Post

    I tend to agree with your assessment.

    Vicarious ordinances do provide a problem. In fact JNS wrote a very interesting post on this recently


    He also believes that although Work for the Dead is a nice doctrine it raises other theological issues that Mormons have not fully dealt with yet.

  46. Rico and Mike S.

    I tend to agree with both of you. In fact, I would go so far as to say that sociology doesn’t “constrain” God as much as it “reflects the constant action” of God, in the same way we view the Restoration as reflecting the actions of God.

  47. Post

    That’s an interesting perspective. I suppose I often view God as something other than human/society. Thus his working with us is as an agent. Yet, it is possible that his agent status is through people and therefore what builds the societal culture and framework.

    I have very much benefited from your comments, so thank you.

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