The Deconstruction of Mormonism

Jeff NeedleMormon 15 Comments

I am trying to keep to a once-a-week blog post, generally on Sunday evening. The passing of President Hinckley is surely sad news for all Latter-day Saints, and for many of us outside the Church who have followed his career. I suppose everyone expects Pres. Monson to become the new Prophet, although this is tradition more than a hard and fast rule.

Pres. Hinckley, in his efforts to put the best face on the Church, had been criticized for some of his public comments. His thoughts on eternal progression, for example, raised quite a howl. I remember thinking at the time that, if I were in his position, speaking to a national audience on, say, Larry King Live, I likely would also have been hard put to come up with a good answer. (Of course, I’m not a prophet…<grin>)

Instead of being critical, I prefer to think of these events as part of what may be the deconstruction of Mormonism — the reduction of a unique faith to another nearly-evangelical religious group. Of course, this will never be the whole story — Mormonism will always stand alone in its unique expression of religious thought. You can’t distance yourself from the genius of Joseph Smith without suffering some identity crisis.

But the recent changes to the introduction to the Book of Mormon are, I fear, yet another effort to move the Church toward center, and require less of its members in terms of radical belief and practice.

What think ye? How far do you think the Church will go in its efforts to achieve acceptability in the Christian community? And how far do you think the new Pres. Monson will go in furthering this deconstruction?

Your thoughts are welcome.

Comments 15

  1. President Hinkley was a master at public relations. I think the deconstruction and mainstreaming phase may be over, although I think it was more perception than reality, but I digress.

    In my humble opinion, President Monson may be our Franklin Delano Roosevelt equivalent, taking us through the tough economic times ahead. He was bishop then consequently stake president over the pioneer stake in west salt lake and knows how to deal with poverty, disease, and old age. All of his widows have now died as he has pointed out. Time to get some new widows to serve. But that’s the apocalyptic in me talking. I see President Monson embarking on a Jesus-type ministry when we will probably need it most.

    An another note, I think the Church will become less Republican.

  2. I agree, Jeff. The church seems to be moving closer to “mainstream” protestantism.

    For example, a typical mormon response to Helen Whitney’s recent documentary was something like: “They spent so much time on Mountain Meadows and polygamy and hardly any on eternal families.” So, from the 19th century doctrine of polygamy (celestial marriage), we’ve come to the much more presentable idea that families can be together forever (aside: is there any scriptural justification for concept of the eternal family as it is commonly believed by modern mormons? I’ve been wondering lately whether it’s just a “folk doctrine”.)

  3. A couple of comments:
    1) There has been some reaction to the anti-Mormon critics starting with Fawn Brodie, who have done their historical reasearch, biased though it has been. This criticism, half-truths, caricatures, and all, was swallowed whole by the Christian countercult movement and thence into evangelical Christianity. Have the anti-Mormons been our latter-day scourge, to prompt us to refocus on the the Book of Mormon and on Christ? I think that would be a good thing, and I don’t see deconstruction at all.

    2) Book of Mormon scholarship, which relies heavily on close reading of the Book of Mormon itself, has over the past 20-30 years has heavily favored the “limited geography” model, which tends to locate the Book of Mormon lands, and descendants of Lehi, as most probably in southern Mexico and Central America. It is also possible, even probable, that there were other peoples besides those explicitly named in the Book of Mormon in the Americas. All this work well predates (and largely defuses) the recent DNA-based criticism of the Book of Mormon. Even if the Church does give up the 19th century view that all the North American Indians were literal descendants of Lehi, it doesn’t alter one syllable of the scriptures themselves.

    3) I would hazard a guess that teachings and emphasis on the eternal family seem to come from Wilford Woodruff’s time. Perhaps someone with scholarly references and inclination can pin this down, but I believe it was he who initiated the teaching that one should be sealed to one’s own ancestors, and baptisms and other ordinances be done for them as far back as they could be traced, instead of to one of the Prophets such as Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. The church’s emphasis on genealogical research began about this time. This, along with a re-interpretation of D&C 132 to the effect that it was sealing that was obligatory for exaltation and not necessary polygamy, laid the foundation for today’s understanding of the eternal family. As far as I know, it’s somewhat more than folk doctrine, but not expressly laid out as such in canonized scripture.

  4. “I suppose everyone expects Pres. Monson to become the new Prophet, although this is tradition more than a hard and fast rule.”

    Everything I’ve read makes me believe that this is indeed ‘a hard and fast rule’ and not just tradition, due to the keys of presidency given to the apostle when called. That key is also why they follow a set order of seniority.

    As for me and what I hope Pt Monson will do, well I hope he continues to treat other religious fairly while still noting that we are very different to other so called Christian faiths. I also kind of hope he publishes more sections into D&C, anything that’s new or clarifies some complicated doctrine like polygamy and the highest level of the celestial kingdom. Hopefully he will be more of a Mormon Reformer than progressive as McKay or Hinckley where. Just my thoughts though.

  5. Under Pres. Hinckley the memebership increased from 9 million to 12 million members & I believe the increase will be greater in years coming. He is a wonderful man & leader; will be missed.

  6. I think that the Church is makeing a huge mistake by going twards the center. Wile the scriptures may not be affected or changed, there interpretations have been.It is ignorant for the Q12 not to think that most will not notice a diffrence.Think how this will affect Temple rites and ultamately our view on Godhood being the ultamate reward for church membership.
    There is a huge split comeing. Monson will likely take the Church away from the Center. I think he is a very spiritual and hermeticly capeable man. I would be very pleased if he brought back anamal offerings as is talked about in some LDS groups.To do that however the trinity people have to go!
    This is just my opinion. I know many will disagree with me.I don’t care because there is right and there is wrong.Moormonism is not Prodastantism. D&C 132:20, that is so not what a Baptist or Evangelical believes but every Mormon should take it literaly.

  7. Peter Brown- Fantastic response. I agree with all the points you have raised and see a similar future.

    I do think there will continue to be a reduction of Mormonism to simple core values with the peripheries being subject to individualist Mormon interpretation. I think this is a good thing as it gives autonomy to the congregation.

  8. >>> I do think there will continue to be a reduction of Mormonism to simple core values with the peripheries being subject to individualist Mormon interpretation. I think this is a good thing as it gives autonomy to the congregation.


    Confutus, excellent response too.

  9. I want to second the notion that the I hope the church is moving the direction of its simple core values surrounding the gospel of Jesus Christ. Elder Matthew Cowley coined the phrase “the gospel of Jesus Christ was simply beautiful and beautifully simple.”

    I have often thought that we delve into the periphery of the Gospel for several reasons: 1) Curiosity of the deeper ideas that make up the gospel and human behavior. 2) Boredom, some of us get bored by the topics discussed in church over and over, and, 3) The inability to fully embrace the gospel and our willingness to be introspective about our own failings and shortcomings. I think that we do not want to face the work we need to do to conform our lives to the life of the Savior, his gospel, the commandments and the ordinances. So we deflect that work with a more scholarly approach that keeps us both occupied and avoiding the real issues.

    In some cases, we can rationalize our shortcomings with various arguments, supported by vast research that points out some quote, example, or writing that allows us slack.

    So my question is: If the gospel is simple, why has it been made so complicated and confused by the mass of “folk doctrine” and the like?

  10. The way I look at the “deconstruction” is that it is actually a minimizing of the core of the doctrine to what we really are forced to defend in the scriptures, for example, that God has a body. We are not forced to defend the theories about *how* he got that body. So why should we and make our lives more complicated.

    Its kind of like how in FARMS apologetics, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers got sacrificed for their perceived ability to defend the Book of Abraham more easily. Only the Book of Abraham is canonical, so why mess around with these other papers? Just get them out of the equation and defend only what you have to.

    I don’t necessarily fault them for wanting to simplify what they have to deal with. The only problem is, I personally think the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are as real and as true as the Book of Abraham.

  11. Jeff,

    Good questions. I think the Church’s perception of encroaching secularism in society generally reinforces a desire to stand with other Christians. This in turn leads to the Church minimizing differences on the PR side.

    I see us following the Roman Catholic model if we have any hope of remaining one organization and exist in so many different cultures. Let different interpretations of who the Lamanites are exist in different parts of the Church, for example. If some Latin Americans find it’s a useful part of their identity, fine. If more North Americans find this concept incompatible with their understanding of science, fine too.

  12. I like the idea that “we stand with all men (and women) of good will” I think we have more in common with other parts of Christendom than we all realize. We have been just as much at fault for the separation as anyone else. the commmonly held belief that “we got the truth, so nany, nany,” has to be forgotten. Even if it were true, which is not, it is not a friendly gesture to wag a finger at others who are trying to be good followers of Jesus Christ.

  13. While I absolutely love the idea of the church becoming less dogmatic and more open for individual interpretation, I don’t think that works with a missionary church. What makes the church essential for people is revelation through prophets and the restoration of the priesthood and accompanying ordinances. If you start blowing off teachings of past prophets, it makes it so much harder to have confidence in any prophetic teaching. How do you know if this teaching won’t get overridden in 20 years? The real power that the church holds today is that the rank and file membership believes that the leaders are inspired by and give unto us the will of God. Anything that weakens that confidence weakens the church. This is why certain leaders have fought spiritually bloody battles with scholars to keep difficult information out of the public.

    I see two totally different pictures of the gospel and church today. There is the PR and Newsroom church which definitely seems progressive and moving towards Protestantism. That includes recent releases on the genetic nature of homosexuality, Mormon doctrine, Mormon history, and flexible Bible interpretations. Yet, we have an internal church which is proud of its peculiarity. Its a church that believes we need to share this gospel with everyone in the world, not just to make sure we cover Christians who are not really converted to Christ yet, but because Mormonism has something unique and essential for salvation. Something all other faiths are lacking. In this internal church, we emphasize our differences as a celebration of God restoring truth and a celebration of continuing revelation.

    The question is, can you really have it both ways?

  14. The “Teaching of the Living Prophets” manual makes a fairly clear case for the notion that succession is indeed a “hard fast rule.”

    The chapter is here.

    It states that:

    “Succession in the prophetic office is automatic and proceeds according to apostolic seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve.”

    “The matter of seniority is basic in the first quorums of the Church. All the apostles understand this perfectly, and all well-trained members of the Church are conversant with this perfect succession program.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1972, p. 29; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, p. 34.)

    The leadership change is automatic and instantaneous. A special revelation is not necessary.

    “Now, this is the pattern; this is the system. Succession in the presidency happens in an orderly and systematized way, because the Lord has conferred upon the members of the Council of the Twelve all of the keys and powers and authorities that have ever been held in any dispensation or any age of the past. Every key is given to each apostle who is set apart a member of the Council of the Twelve. But because keys are the right of presidency, they lie dormant, as it were, in each man unless and until he becomes the senior apostle and is thus in a position of presidency to direct the labors and the work of all others. Therefore succession occurs, as it were, automatically. (Bruce R. McConkie, “Succession in the Presidency,” in Speeches of the Year, 1974, p. 25.)

  15. I believe it was President Kimball who said that the Lord uses death as a way of determining who will or won’t be our Prophet. Many Apostles have died prior to their occupingthe Senior Apostle chair.

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