Note: The following was originally printed in the May/June 2019 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
On the morning of February 8, 1843, Mormonism founder Joseph Smith said that he had met with “a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that ‘a prophet is always a prophet;’ but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he is acting as such” (History of the Church 5:265).
This escape clause is too convenient. Mormons often make reference to this statement in an attempt to dismiss embarrassing comments made by past leaders. A good counter to this excuse is asking how the Latter-day Saint knows Smith was “acting as a prophet” when he said this in the first place. After all, it was said in a private conversation in the Smith home and not from behind a pulpit at, let’s say, general conference. But let us assume Smith was offering a correct assessment.
In the March 2012 edition of Ensign magazine, Apostle Dieter F. Uchdorf wrote an article titled “Why We Need Prophets.” On page 5 he said, “Listen to general conference with an ear willing to hear the voice of God through his latter-day prophets.” This comment is not at all out of harmony with statements from other general authorities. For example, 11th President Harold B. Lee gave a conference message in April 1973 where he said,
If you want to know what the Lord has for this people at the present time, I would admonish you to get and read the discourses that are delivered at general conference; for what the Brethren speak by the power of the Holy Ghost is the mind of the Lord, the will of the Lord, the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation (Conference Reports, April 1973, 176. See also Lee’s book, Stand Ye In Holy Places, 183).
Of course, comments like the above raise many questions. For example, if a prophet can be counted on to speak the mind and will of the Lord in general conference, was Brigham Young speaking the mind and will of the Lord in his April 9, 1852 conference talk when he said Adam was God and the “only God with whom we have to do”? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced Young’s teaching after his death, even though Young stated that this pronouncement was “doctrine” so important, that to treat it “lightly or with indifference,” it “will prove their salvation or damnation” (Journal of Discourses 1:51).
Since its inception in 1830, LDS Church leaders have claimed that what separates their religion from all others are prophets who provide “latter-day” or “modern” revelation. They use this concept to maintain the trust of its members. While Doctrine and Covenants 3:2 says God does not “vary from that which he hath said,” the problem is that church history is replete with course corrections.
Doctrine or Policy?
Speaking in general conference in 1993, Mormon Apostle Boyd K. Packer stated, “Some things cannot be changed. Doctrine cannot be changed” (“For Time and All Eternity,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1993, 22). Such a statement must be confusing for LDS members. While leaders insist that doctrine remains constant, “policy” can be changed.
Consider that for much of its history, those of African heritage were denied the priesthood. In 1978 this teaching was reversed, and today all worthy male members of the LDS Church are allowed to hold this important office. Was this not a doctrine? Prior to 1978 members were certainly led to believe this was so. In his book The Way to Perfection, 10th President Joseph Fielding Smith apparently thought it was when he said,
This doctrine did not originate with President Brigham Young but was taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith. At a meeting of the general authorities of the Church, held August 22, 1895, the question of the status of the negro in relation to the Priesthood was asked and the minutes of that meeting say: “President George Q. Cannon remarked that the Prophet taught this doctrine: That the seed of Cain could not receive the Priesthood nor act in any of the offices of the Priesthood until the seed of Abel should come forward and take precedence over Cain’s offspring” (The Way to Perfection, 110. Emphasis mine).
On August 17, 1949, the First Presidency, led by President George Albert Smith, sent an official statement to Brigham Young University President Ernest L. Wilkinson. It said,
The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time. (www.fairmormon.org. “Statements made by Church leaders regarding the priesthood ban”).
Fast-forward to the 21st century. On April 4, 2019, the church released a statement on its MormonNewsroom.org website titled “Presidency Shares Messages from General Conference Leadership Session.” Dallin H. Oaks, President Russell M. Nelson’s first counselor in the First Presidency, said, “While we cannot change the Lord’s doctrine, we want our members and our policies to be considerate of those struggling with the challenges of mortality.” The statement went on to say that
effective immediately, children of parents who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans-gender may be baptized without First Presidency approval if the custodial parents give permission for the baptism and understand both the doctrine that a baptized child will be taught and the covenants he or she will be expected to make. A nonmember parent or parents (including LGBT parents) can request that their baby be blessed by a worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holder.
Oaks also said that “same-gender marriage by a church member still is considered a serious transgression. However, it no longer will be treated as apostasy for purposes of church discipline.” This announcement completely reversed an earlier mandate given in November of 2015, raising many questions regarding this “policy vs. doctrine” debate.
In 2015 it was announced that those in same sex marriages were to be considered apostates, and that children with parents involved in same sex marriage could not be baptized unless they disavowed the behavior and practice of their parents. This position was then included in Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops under headings 16.7.2 and 16.7.3. On January 10, 2016, Russell M. Nelson detailed how the 2015 resolution came about in a talk called, “Becoming True Millennials.” Speaking to LDS young adults at BYU Hawaii, he said,
This prophetic process was followed in 2012 with the change in minimum age for missionaries and again with the recent additions to the Church’s handbook, consequent to the legalization of same-sex marriage in some countries. Filled with compassion for all, and especially for the children, we wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter… We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer and sought further direction and inspiration. And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson.
Notice the language Nelson used. He made clear that the conclusion they reached in 2015 was sought by prayer and fasting and that it was revealed to President Thomas S. Monson as “the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord.” Nelson and his colleagues also “felt” a spiritual confirmation.
How is this any different than how Mormon doctrine comes about? Are we really to believe that God revealed this controversial “policy” in late 2015 while always having it in mind that he would rescind it in April of 2019? Does it not show that “feeling” something to be true at the time can one day show that your feelings were misleading? Consider also Nelson’s mention of lowering the age of male missionaries from 19 to 18. Since that was implemented, many young missionaries are coming home early due to homesickness.
Compounding this feeling of failure is the shame many young people will experience when they return to their families and local congregations. Could this have been more a “policy” of expediency? Since including 18-year-old men and women hasn’t affected the convert baptism rate, is it accurate to say that God was behind this change?
It appears that the leadership is knowingly engaged in a shrewd and confusing game of semantics. If the 2015 announcement was not technically a doctrine, it certainly seems to fit the definition of a “decree.”
After all, it was enforced with the full authority of the First Presidency behind it. That being the case, it seems that Alma 41:8 in the Book of Mormon could be invoked. It states very clearly that “the decrees of the Lord are unalterable.” It ought to be pointed out that this verse has a footnote in the LDS King James Version edition that references Mormon 9:9. It says, “For do we not read that God is the same, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?” The next verse says, “And now, if ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who doth vary, and in whom there is shadow of changing, then have ye imagined up unto yourselves a god who is not a God of miracles.”
Since Mormons insist that they believe in a God of miracles, how is this contradiction to be explained? Again, D&C 3:2 teaches how God does not “vary from that which He hath said.” If God really spoke to Monson and Nelson in 2015, does it make sense that He would reverse Himself in 2019?
Reversing its 2015 decision—whether it is called a “revelation,” “policy,” “doctrine,” or “decree”— seems to have been based on the trends within this secular culture or even the pressure put upon them by some LDS members. This is not way that the God of the Bible operates. While church leaders tell their members that they are guided by revelation reflecting the mind and will of God, the evidence seems to suggest differently.