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Mormonism’s “only true church” doctrine “does not feel loving.”

by Sharon Lindbloom
21 August 2023

Earlier this month LDSLiving online posted an article titled, “What does it mean to believe the Church is ‘true’?” In this article, LDS author and historian Kate Holbrook (1972-2002) began by presenting two questions posed to her by a friend who was relatively new to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dr. Holbrook explained,

“Just before leaving for her first year at Cornell University, a young friend of mine approached me with a question on her mind. She had been a Church member for a little under two years, and she wondered about the teaching that the Church is true. It’s a claim so familiar that many of us take it for granted: ours is ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth’ (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). When she was baptized, my friend had accepted membership into the Church and entered a covenant relationship with God and her fellow members. But she still wasn’t sure how to explain to classmates what it meant to say that the Church is ‘the only true church.’ She wasn’t even sure why the concept of an ‘only true church’ was necessary.” (Article posted 8/4/2023)

Dr. Holbrook admitted that what she would write in the article that followed would not “do justice to that question,” but she did hope to “share some ways of thinking about the truth” that she believed is in the LDS church. What Dr. Holbrook wrote was interesting and thought-provoking, but in the end, she didn’t answer the questions posed at the beginning of her article: What does it mean to say that the LDS church is “the only true church,” and why is the concept of “the only true church” even necessary?

Though Dr. Holbrook voiced a concern that it doesn’t feel loving to outsiders to say that the LDS church is “the only true church,” and that it could be perceived as promoting exclusivity or arrogance on the part of Latter-day Saints, she didn’t further explore those issues. Instead, she focused on a different question; that is, explaining what it meant when she said, “I believe the Church is true.”

In this way, Dr. Holbrook changed the original question from one whose full answer would seem unloving and exclusive(because the LDS church is the one and only true church) to one that seemed inclusive (because the LDS church is true, yet there needs to be an acknowledgment of the goodness found in other faith traditions and an “appreciation of other churches and other sources of truth.”). Dr. Holbrook wrote,

“When Latter-day Saints are tempted to discount the value and beauty of other faiths, they ignore another of our homegrown truths, the 13th article of faith… Rather than downplaying the spiritual benefit of other churches, a more useful approach is to acknowledge God’s work in many faith communities and then to magnify the goodness of the tradition we’ve chosen. For Latter-day Saints, that means both appreciating what is virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy in other traditions, and really focusing on what our Church has to offer.”

This sounds nice. It’s a loving approach to understanding Dr. Holbrook’s belief that the LDS church is a true church. But it does nothing to address the idea in Mormonism that the LDS church is the true church, “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” in fact. And, as further appended in Mormon scripture, “with which I, the Lord, am well pleased…” (D&C 1:30).

Doctrine and Covenant 1:30 does away with any hope that this LDS doctrine can be made to sound inclusive rather than exclusive. If the LDS church is the only true church, all others are necessarily untrue (i.e., false). If the LDS church is the only church with which God is well pleased, God is necessarily neutral or displeased with every other church. If, as LDS scripture states, God said the churches that existed in 1820 were “all wrong…all their creeds were an abomination…those professors were all corrupt” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19), there is no “spiritual benefit” in any non-LDS church. This is the answer to the first neglected question of Dr. Holbrook’s young friend. This is what it means to say that the LDS church is “the only true church.”

LDS authorities have been clear on this, not mincing words in order to sound more loving and less exclusionary:

  • Second LDS church president Brigham Young: “Brother Taylor has just said that the religions of the day were hatched in hell. The eggs were laid in hell, hatched on its borders, and kicked on to the earth.” (Journal of Discourses 6:176)
  • Third LDS church president John Taylor: “We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsense …the devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century.” (Journal of Discourses 6:167)
  • Early LDS apostle Parley Pratt: “The sooner the present generation loses all reverence and respect for modern ‘Christianity,’ with all its powerless forms and solemn mockeries, the sooner they will be prepared to receive the kingdom of God.” (The Key to the Science of Theology, 68)
  • Early LDS apostle Orson Pratt: “…all other churches are entirely destitute of all authority from God; and any person who receives Baptism or the Lord’s supper from their hands highly offend God, for he looks upon them as the most corrupt of all people …The only persons among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who have authority from Jesus Christ to administer any gospel ordinance are those called and authorized among the Latter-day Saints.” (The Seer, 255)
  • Ensign Magazine: “To say that Satan sits in the place of God in Christianity after the time of the Apostles is not to say that all that is in it is sa­tanic… ‘the power of God unto salvation’ (Rom. 1:16) is absent from all but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which the Lord himself has proclaimed to be ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth’ (D&C 1:30).” (BUY Professor Kent P. Jackson, “Early Signs of the Apostasy,” Ensign, December 1984, 9)

So, according to these teachings, all non-Mormon churches offend God. They originated in hell, they are spreading the work of the devil, and they have put Satan in the place of God. Indeed, in Mormon thought,

“Since whoever does not belong to ‘the church of the Lamb of God’ belongs to ‘the church of the devil,’ as Nephi announced [1 Nephi 14:10], then all systems of worship outside of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be classified as ‘the church of the devil’ by Nephi’s definition.” (Kent P. Jackson, “‘Watch and Remember’: The New Testament and the Great Apostasy,” John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, 1:87)

Dr. Holbrook may not have meant to be “exclusive” when professing that her church is true, but prophets and apostles of the LDS church have had no such scruples. As they have expounded on the doctrine it could hardly be more exclusive.

To address the second question posed by Dr. Holbrook’s young friend, “Why is the concept of an ‘only true church’ necessary?” I’ll let an LDS leader again answer the question,

“Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (B.H. Roberts, Introduction to the History of the Church 1:XL)

If the LDS church did not promote itself as “the only true church,” but merely as “a true church,” there would be no compelling reason for it to exist. According to LDS leaders, if salvation could be found throughout Christianity and in Christian churches, there would have been no need for the so-called Restoration. The new edition of an LDS missionary manual explains:

“After the Apostles were killed, there was a widespread falling away from the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ. This falling away is sometimes called the Great Apostasy…the Church that Jesus had established was no longer on the earth…If there had not been a falling away, a restoration would not have been needed.” (Preach My Gospel, 2023, Chapter 3, Lesson 1, “The Message of the Restoration.” Imbedded links added.)

These are difficult teachings that authoritatively explain Mormonism’s harsh, core doctrines of the complete apostasy of Christianity and the Restoration of God’s one true church. Some Latter-day Saints are uncomfortable with these church doctrines and so, in an extension of what popular LDS author Jana Riess has dubbed Mormonism’s “we’re not weird” campaign, they modify and transform the actual doctrines so they can explain them to non-Mormons in a way that feels more loving and inclusive. 

The question addressed in this recent LDSLiving article, “What does it mean to believe the Church is ‘true’?” is a completely different question than the one asked by the young LDS convert, “What does it mean to say the Church is ‘the only true church’?” As The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and its members–continue to minimize the church’s unique and uncomfortable doctrines, we must be discerning and think carefully about these things.

To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.

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