Liberal Mormonism III: Prognosis

John NilssonBloggernacle, church, Culture, curiosity, faith, historicity, LDS, liberal, mormon, Mormon, new order mormon, orthodox, religion, scripture, testimony, theology, thought 35 Comments

Count up all the liberal Mormons you know. Now, compare that number to the number you knew ten years ago. Now multiply the difference between the two by the number of liberal General Authorities, then subtract from that number the number of anti-intellectual General Conference addresses you have heard in the last three years. Finally, divide the number of active LDS (say 5 million) in the world by the resulting number. With me? You should now have your liberal Mormonism prognosis indicator. Here’s what mine looks like:








5,000,000/51= 98,039

The resulting number is the number of new active liberal Mormons which we can expect to be created each year for the next five years. NAH, I don’t buy it either. But I know some of you had fun doing this “scientific” calculation.

Bottom line, there is no way to tell for sure what the future holds for liberal Mormonism. But here are some indicators that liberal Mormonism has a bright future:

  1. The Bloggernacle itself. With the explosion in the number of blogs, more spaces have been created for liberal Mormons to discuss Mormon theology and history. This will have an impact on the Church as a whole, although it is difficult to say what it will be. My bet will be that information will be more freely shared than in the past, and that more Mormons will begin to consider the liberal method of theological interpretation as the best way to deal with the information they are slowly assimilating.
  2. The Church. The Historical Department has been recently given an independent existence from the Family History Department. This new emphasis on the distinct task of church history, accompanied by construction of the Church History Library, official participation in the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and recent work on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, indicates a real willingness to engage with reason and evidence.
  3. Blake Ostler. As the only Mormon theologian working systematically with our theology as a whole, his three volumes of Exploring Mormon Thought gives liberal Mormonism something solid to sympathize with and react against. Using the terms of the latest philosophical theology, Ostler uses reason and evidence in his search through the Mormon scriptures to come to sometimes orthodox, sometimes heterodox conclusions. Ostler is a figure who will provide grist for discussion for liberal Mormons for years to come.
  4. Mitt Romney’s candidacy. Public interest and scrutiny of Mormonism will likely now not ever return to pre-Romney levels, forcing Mormons to use reason and evidence to rationally justify our traditions and beliefs to secular society.

Discuss, my friends:

Comments 35

  1. Post

    I made up my method while writing the post, if by method you mean the one for determining the number of new active liberal Mormons. Some people will only be engaged by numbers and data, so I wanted to get them thinking and then laughing about this.

  2. John–help me understand what a “liberal mormon” is. If LM are on the rise what contributions are they making to the Kingdom of God that non-liberal mormons are missing? Can you point out LM in the Book of Mormon? How about in the standard works? Among the GA who are the LM?

    I’m sincere, I’d like to understand more about LM.

  3. Post


    You can read the Eugene England post from Shawn Larsen yesterday for a great example of a liberal Mormon. You can also read my previous two posts on liberal Mormonism on this site for an idea. Basically in my definition, a liberal Mormon is someone who prioritizes the role of reason and evidence in the search for religious truth on the objective side of the ledger, and who at the same time is more concerned with the subjective effects of religion on the believer than on the objective truth claims of religion.

    A non-liberal (conservative, fundamentalist, traditional, neo-orthodox, etc) might prize scripture over reason, or tradition over reason, or be concerned to prove every point of doctrine without regard to the effects of a doctrine on the religious life. This is not always negative, I just prefer the liberal approach.

  4. The problem with the term “liberal Mormon” is that most active Mormons think the term is equivalent to “Mormons who are politically liberal.” I’m not sure that misunderstanding of the term can ever be brought around to mean Mormons who favor less rigid or less conservative interpretation of scripture and doctrine. Maybe we need a new term.

  5. You know, I see LM as a tool, not as an ideology or as an identity. Its kind of like how a psychologist might use the theories of Freud or Jung as a tool of interpretation to diagnose a disorder, for example, without trying to decide which one represents “truth.” If the Freudian way of thinking brings results, then it has value. I see LM as a vehicle/crutch/framework for the preservation of the remainder of faith for those who have had a crisis of faith. If it keeps them in the Church so they don’t leave, more power to it. But for me, I use LM to interpret things in some ways. But I don’t use it as a framework for my entire worldview. I use it when it makes sense to use it. I use the traditional tools of interpretation when it makes sense to use them. I am this way because I am well aware of the difficulties of Mormon history, but I have a simple testimony of the core of this work and I have child like faith in the reality of priesthood authority and keys and the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and Thomas S. Monson as the one with the keys. My simple faith in these things has never been shaken by Polyandry, Adam God Theory, Mountain Meadows Massacre, Seer Stones, or whatever. I would say that LM is simply another tool to use when other tools simply don’t work. Its another thing like a particular screwdriver that only is used when it is the right tool to use for a particular screw that you wouldn’t use a hammer for, when the hammer is for singing “Give said the little stream” in Primary, or bearing testimony in Sacrament meeting. And the flaw of course of LM is that too many people try to hammer in a nail with a screwdriver when you need a hammer to hammer that nail. LM never was a replacement for simple testimony and knowledge of truth by revelation.

  6. Post


    What terms do you think would be more effective while being accurate?

    UFO Skeptic,

    Great insights! You are saying exactly what I was getting at in my first post. Liberal Mormonism is a methodology not a set of beliefs. Eugene England, for example, held entirely orthodox opinions on most subjects for his day as far as I can tell. The few exceptions I can name he arrived at reasonably: the belief that God continues to progress in knowledge and power, and the belief that polygamy will not be practiced in the hereafter. One can nevertheless reference traditional Mormon authorities on these topics as part of a reasonable argument, and this is what England did.

  7. To me, the difference is one of perceived sight and understanding – the difference between those who believe they “see through a glass darkly” (even if they feel comfortable saying they “know” fundamental things) and those who believe they “see through a glass clearly”, if you will. It’s the difference between seeing things in black and white vs. seeing a lot of gray. It’s the difference between trying to “learn something” (especially by rote) vs. trying to understand something better and better over time.

    I have seen religious liberals who are political conservatives and political liberals who are religious conservatives.

    Fwiw, I am a opponent of extreme religous liberalism AND extreme religious conservatism, as I see them as different manifestations of the same mentality. Each, when push comes to shove, thinks he is right and everyone else is wrong – instead of the moderate view that each is right AND wrong to whatever extent possible according to his or her ability to understand. Each is very judgmental – which means, in practical terms, extreme religious liberalism is just extreme religious conservatism in drag.

  8. Post


    To answer your question about liberal GAs, it is easier for me to answer that with historical than contemporary examples. Historically, I would say B.H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe, Adam Bennion, Hugh Brown, Marvin Ashton, Howard Hunter, Marion Hanks, and Vaughn Featherstone seemed to have that approach. In the thick of things, I am having a harder time identifying contemporary examples, although I would venture that Elder Oaks could be one, as could Elder Holland. President Monson seems to focus on the subjective effects of religion, which I enjoy.

  9. How would you classify Joseph Smith? I consider him a liberal both in methodology and in the political arena of the time.

  10. Just to point out, one can engage with history without being a liberal Mormon. I doubt most FARMS folks are liberal Mormons by most people’s criteria but most are fairly well versed in the history of the Church.

  11. I’m still stuck on this liberal label because I don’t think it correlates with political stance. I think we really mean “open-minded” or “questioning” Mormon. In which case, I definitely think JS was one, perhaps the classic example, as a contrast to BY who may have been more orthodox. But is FARMS really ‘liberal,’ even under my revised definition? They tend to start with the conclusion first, and come up with the proofs. Aren’t apologists too grounded in their inevitable conclusions to be “open-minded” or “questioning”?

    The real issue is that this is a negative definition. It would be pretty easy to define the opposite of it.

  12. Post

    I don’t consider Blake Ostler a FARMS type, although he has associated with them in the past (he has also associated with the Sunstone crowd). Anyone who wistfully says, “I miss Sterling McMurrin” and denies God’s foreknowledge based on reason regardless of statements of the institutional Church is liberal in my book. But I cast a wide net in my definition.


    What is the negative in the definition of liberal Mormonism I have set out? I don’t mean simply open-minded or questioning by what I am suggesting. What I am suggesting is that liberal Mormons will settle on fewer binding, rationally defensible dogmas than traditionalists, neo-orthodox, and others. I am not saying that liberal Mormons believe, but less than conservatives, or that they negate what conservatives say. In fact, I would say that often, conservative Mormons are the negaters. Many negate the scientific evidence for the physical descent of humans from non-human ancestors. They simply negate it without providing counter-evidence. Liberal Mormons will feel the need to construct arguments based on evidence.

  13. John N. – oops! I didn’t word that very well at all. I meant it is a “negative definition” in that it is defined by its opposite or defined by what it is not (like the negative of a photograph or negative space in a painting). It’s much easier to define the opposite of a liberal Mormon, or a liberal Mormon is one that is NOT traditional, orthodox, conservative, closed-minded, etc. I didn’t mean “negative” in a pejorative sense at all, just descriptive of the method to define the term.

    Maybe the definition is that Liberal Mormons see and enjoy the gray areas, while Conservative Mormons see things black and white.

  14. Ehh… liberal Mormons are Pauls- the conservatives among us are patterned after James, while typical Mormons are probably more of a Peter type. The mystics take after John…

    At least that’s how I label them in my head.

  15. John et al–thanks for taking the time to explore this subject. I have a better idea what a LM is.

    I have never felt completely comfortable trying to absolutely define a political figure by referring to them as a conservative or liberal. In general terms the labels seem to work, but when one looks deeper then the terms lose there meaning. I think it is the same when using these terms to define a mormons religiosity.

    When I try to define myself using these terms I find I am both. On the surface I think of myself being conservative, but when it comes to the scope of my interest and how I depart from the typical mormon views (as express in church and at GC) on many subjects because of my searching in the nooks and crannnies of our history and doctrine, then I see myself being more liberal. I think we all need to be “bilingual” in interfacing with our follow church members; I’m not interested in hurting another persons faith, but at the same time I want to be able to be myself around those I feel comfortable with.

    I’ve come to the bloggernacle to be myself. I like the anonymity blogging allows. The depth I find here is refreshing, but I am concerned that the depth may not cut both ways, that is why I set up a blog emphasizing the Holy Ghost. I worry that because of the prosperous times we’ve enjoyed for so long mormons are not embracing the HG. The Book of Mormon warns against this. I don’t want to walk that path and I feel a need to encourage others to be more diligent in seeking after the HG.

  16. There are lots of conflicting ideas of what being a LM really is, here. My two cents worth:

    Being Liberal is not about being the opposite of Orthodox… as has been said already – that’s just another kind of orthodoxy – orthodoxy towards reason. Neither do I accept that being a LM is about the primacy of Reason. There was a great hymn in Conference: ‘Know This, That Every Soul is Free’ – one of the verses speaks about the primacy of Reason – and the Choir sang that in Conference!

    For me, being a LM is about accepting the right to believe according to traditional or non-traditional structures (or non-structures!). It’s about allowing that Liberty (hence the name). So, as has been said already (again!), I might be orthodox in my practises and personal beliefs, but still be Liberal in my philosophy – being aware of the validity of those who think otherwise.

    In this case, the Church is not an Orthodox-Liberal continuum of personal beliefs. A better gauge might be Reason-Faith, or Questioning–Non-questioning. Hawkgrrrl says it pretty well, I think.

  17. The only nit I want to pick with Hawkgrrrl is the idea of beginning with a conclusion then coming up with proofs. I would propose that when anyone publishes anything they have a good idea where the paper will end when they start writing it. If you are speaking of research, you test a hypothesis and see how the evidence measures against it. I guess I’m saying that there is no such thing as self interpreting “facts” and the idea that some just follow where the evidence leads while others are close minded and wrest the evidence to “say” something it doesn’t say is a poor dichotomy. I believe everyone is pretty close minded and uses emotion to decide what counts as evidence and what doesn’t. A better generalization, IMHO, would be to say that you haven’t found the arguments scholars at FARMS use to be convincing.

  18. Post


    Good point. While I share a healthy skepticism about FARMS because of its lack of scholarly independence, as I would with the Heritage Foundation or any other explicitly ideology-driven organization, I don’t think FARMS is the issue here.

  19. Kent, I certainly wasn’t saying that I don’t find FARMS convincing. That’s not true on the whole, although some of their pieces seem to be reaching. I see what they are doing as very uniquely valuable and necessary. But let’s be clear–they are never going to say, “This just in: JS was a fraud.” The counter-arguments do the same thing, too, by starting with their conclusion first. FARMS just attempts to be more scholarly than some to respond to what purports to be a scholarly attack.

    But to be truly open minded, you would have to have no dog in the fight, or no stake in the specific outcome. FARMS has a personal stake. So do antagonistic researchers. So, that’s why I say they are in the “coming up with proofs” business. Therefore, they are not open-minded or questioning (the definition of liberal I proposed). So, maybe the definition of liberal as open-minded and questioning is also flawed, because while I consider myself open-minded and questioning, I’m pretty much like FARMS.

  20. RE: “There are lots of conflicting ideas of what being a LM really is, here.”

    Of course, because LM represents any and all “alternate voices” and any and all “alternate methods” that are not orthodox.

  21. LM’s are the bassoons – weird sounding and looking all by themselves, stand out in the orchestra, and sound good next to the piccolos.

  22. Post


    So if one is open to the possibility of being convinced by evidence that certain traditional LDS truth claims are incorrect, at least as currently formulated, does that mean they are religiously liberal, or just more open-minded than you and other FARMS types?

    I think you may be bringing us closer to clarity here. I would say that what distinguishes a liberal Mormon from an “open-minded” Mormon would be that the liberal Mormon is more open-minded. That is, they are open to any and all conclusions which cross their radar screen, provided they are backed up by enough evidence.

    I’ll give an example. Traditional Mormon belief holds that Adam and Eve were two individuals who looked essentially like us, were probably Caucasian, and had no physical parents on this planet. If one comes to the conclusion from reading reports of DNA research results that any common descent of the current human race which can be traced to one source leads us to Africa, that that source in Africa is genetically related to non-human beings, and that divergence between humans and these non-human relations involves a common ancestor, one diverges from that traditional Mormon belief. The liberal Mormon, recognizing good in Mormonism, reinterprets the Genesis story symbolically while the open-minded Mormon still holds to the traditional belief while trying to mentally walk a tight-rope and await scientific evidence which will support the traditional belief.

  23. John N. – I don’t know. Would FARMS stick to a “tradition” that isn’t a doctrine? I would not. As to the Adam & Eve story, I don’t consider our doctrines to be very set on that, and my own beliefs are not. Yet, I would come from the perspective that the doctrines (that I believe in) are true. I guess I may be saying no one is either as liberal or as open-minded as we like to think. Maybe the best definition of a liberal Mormon is one that is “less enlightened than we are” or “someone that seems closed-minded to me personally.” In which case, I may think I’m a liberal Mormon, but others would think I’m another one of the sheep. Maybe we should just lay everyone out on a continuum.

    Maybe this is closer to the definition: someone whose opinions are not as set on more matters than the majority (at least two standard deviations).

  24. Post
  25. and maybe we should avoid labels and classifications completely, just accept that we are different and embrace those who are born as tubas, oboes, clarinets, drummers and piccolos – and the flutes, saxophones and french horns who make a conscious choice not to be piccolos, clarinets and trumpets

    In the immortal words of Gus Portokolos, “We are apples and oranges . . . but, in the end, we are all fruit.”

  26. So let me see if I’ve got this right. A liberal Mormon is someone who (for whatever reason) believes that there is such a thing as religious truth and prioritizes the role of objective evidence and reason in the search for this truth, placing a lesser (or no?) value on subjective experience. So would Jared’s comment (and blog) about the Holy Ghost and testimony be a second-tier concern for a liberal Mormon? (I don’t want to get into the issue of the relative value ascribed to the Holy Ghost by the scriptures and modern prophets. That’s another discussion entirely, I’m guessing.)

  27. Post


    “Embracing our individual and unique gift of the Holy Ghost” is the title of Jared’s “Holy Ghost Post” 🙂 , and it is a prime example of why, in my definition, liberal Mormons are just as concerned to favor the subjective approach to religion, if not more so, than the traditionalist brand of Mormon, who sometimes seem inclined to more tangible heavenly manifestations.

    Jared referred in his post to his “inner voice” telling him to make behavioral changes, and later identifies this inner voice as the Holy Ghost. This is crucial for the motivation to pursue religion and a committed acceptance of the path we see God marking out for us, if we believe in Him. The role Jesus claimed for the one we have identified as the Holy Ghost was the Comforter, a role that I would see as primary for the Holy Ghost, and probably the reason most LDS report their experience of the Holy Ghost as one of “comforting” feelings.

    I know that others see His role as a revelator as paramount, but I can’t make sense of how that works fully, at least in terms of the disclosure of new facts one was completely unaware of. Even modern LDS theology asks us, based on Oliver Cowdery’s experience in (not?) translating the Book of Mormon, to study matters and then ask for confirmation from God if necessary. It is up to us to decide when we need extra assurance, but where other methods exist of discovering truth, as I would submit they do in most conceivable areas of investigation, I would submit we ought to use those.

    The weakness of relying only on this subjective approach is, of course, that others come to opposite religious conclusions (Martha Beck comes to mind) and claim similar or stronger subjective evidence. The Holy Ghost isn’t easy to talk, much less blog, about.

  28. Well said, John.

    I once heard an explanation of the glowing stones in the Jaredite ships that went like this: In determining how to get light into the ships, the brother of Jared was encouraged to work it out in his mind and come to his own conclusion. After looking to prior precedent (see the footnote to Genesis 6:16), the brother of Jared reached the correct conclusion about the use of the stones and went to the Lord with some confidence in the result. (Of course, seeing the finger of the Lord was obviously a surprise to him, but the glowing stones were what he expected.) Anyway, I suppose explaining this episode in this way might cast the brother of Jared as more of a liberal than a traditionalist, according to your definition.

    I think I understand what you’ve been saying about liberal Mormonism thus far. I just wanted to make sure that I correctly understood the role of the witness of the Holy Ghost and other such subjective experiences in your definition. I personally place much more value on such experiences than on reason alone, but I have found, as you say, that those kinds of experiences usually come most powerfully only after I have expended as much effort as I can on any given matter.

    In conclusion, here is a well-known statement by that early liberal Mormon B. H. Roberts regarding the Book of Mormon and perhaps, by extension, all truth:

    “The power of the Holy Ghost … must ever be the chief source of evidence for the truth of the Book of Mormon. All other evidence is secondary to this. … No arrangement of evidence, however skilfully ordered; no argument, however adroitly made, can ever take its place. … [However,] secondary evidences in support of truth, like secondary causes in natural phenomena, may be of firstrate importance, and mighty factors in the achievement of God’s purposes” (New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. [1909], 2:vii–viii).

  29. John said: “The Holy Ghost isn’t easy to talk, much less blog, about.”

    I just read your last comment a few minutes ago. Been out of town.

    I agree with your comment (in quotes above)about the HG. However, I think it is imperative that each of us experience the HG at some level; an identifiable experience with the HG increases our faith. Generally our early experiences with the HG are subtle, we can talk ourselves out of them if we’re so inclined, or we can acknowledge our experience and ask Heavenly Father to grant us more experiences with the HG. We can also exercise our faith and seek for the gifts of the Spirit. The time will come when greater manifestations of the HG will be given. These kinds of manifestations are not subtle and subject to interpretation by those who receive them.

  30. I’m not a member of the church. I’m investigating right now. My background is another Christian denomination that favored liberal interpretations of scriptures. The bible was not seen as literal but rather a group of writings that were meant to inspire enlightenment about certain principles. As such your approach is rather appealing based on my past sentiments. Our own reason seems like it should play some role in our spirituality. That said, how do you handle things like giving testimony? Admittedly I might have some faulty assumptions here, but I always heard that LDS members were frequently asked to give testimony and say things like, “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet, I know the president is a living prophet, etc.” It seems that when you take a liberal approach, or an approach that admits to fallibility of leaders present and past, it makes it difficult to give that sort of testimony. Can you, in good faith, say you know they were prophets while questioning their fallibility? What if you don’t “know” in the traditional philosophical or scientific sense? You just have hope or faith that what they teach is true, but you don’t believe that their every word or writing is directly inspired by God. Would you be seen as someone of lessor faith? Would it ever even come up?

  31. *These kinds of manifestations are not subtle”



    My answer is that some things I know, other things I believe, some things I merely hope, and some things I don’t believe. We begin where we are, since there is no other possible place to begin, and learn “line upon line, precept on precept, here a little and there a little.” That learning process is largely individual. It is a sometimes difficult process, but if one takes on the covenants and keeps them through difficult times, it is a process of increasing clarity. Don’t try to eat the whole elephant at one sitting. Best to you. 🙂 ~

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