Church doctrine vs. ‘Mormon Doctrine’ — What’s the difference?
According to Elder Bruce R. McConkie, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have an obligation to understand the doctrines of salvation. He cautioned members in a 1980 letter to avoid gospel hobbies, and to not be concerned about unimportant matters.
Some LDS members focus on one or two general authorities as their ultimate favorite source, or an issue or topic as their sole study — such as the last day prophesies or food storage. The overwhelming acceptance and use by many Latter-day Saints of the book, “Mormon Doctrine,” could be seen as an example of this hobby study.
McConkie’s first edition of “Mormon Doctrine” was published in 1958. At the time McConkie was in the presidency of the Quorum of the Seventy. The 776-page book was a first for its time, a type of encyclopedia of Mormon belief.
Casey Griffiths, an assistant professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, said, “How remarkable it was when it was first produced. He (McConkie) was plowing new territory. It was a revolutionary attempt to create an encyclopedic gospel resource. There really wasn’t anything like it at the time.”
This book had a profound impact on a generation of church members after publication.
“It was almost like a Bible in most situations,” said Ann Chumbley Snider, through a social media message. “I’m grateful I was taught by wise CES (Church Education System) people who guided my thinking to broader ideas and church doctrine.”
“It was on the book shelf in our home, and I think my dad would sometimes teach things from it, but it wasn’t referenced as a specific source or with the same authority as scripture,” said Anne Flinders.
Flinders added that while serving a mission, “a ward mission leader gave a copy to an investigator, who then flatly refused to read the Book of Mormon because, he said, ‘If your doctrine is in this book, I don’t need anything else.’ He didn’t join the church, and I didn’t read ‘Mormon Doctrine.’”
For Deborah Whitehurst Nowland, it was a source of information for her family.
“My mother definitely was not a scriptorian, but it was an encyclopedia that we used on our shelves,” she said.
At the time of its publishing, “Mormon Doctrine” was met with criticism from some, including President David O. McKay, president of the church at the time. He called McConkie out on several points in the book.
“President McKay asked McConkie to submit the book for review to ensure it was as accurate as possible,” Griffiths said.
In the 1966 second edition, many of those concerns were taken out or reworded.
Still, many within the membership embraced the publication as seemingly the newest addition to the church’s approved scriptures, known as the Standard Works. The Standard Works recognized by the church consist of the books of the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.
Later in his life in 1980, McConkie detailed in a nine-page letter on church letterhead how honest truth-seekers could find truth and core doctrine.
“Members of the church have an added obligation to understand both the laws of nature and the doctrines of salvation,” McConkie said in the letter. “They have the gift of the Holy Ghost which is the right to the constant companionship of this member of the Godhead based on faithfulness.”
He admonished that the way to achieve a high state of gospel scholarship was first to study and ponder and pray about the Book of Mormon, and then to follow the same course with reference to the other scriptures.
“Some prophets — I say it respectfully — know more and have greater inspiration than others,” McConkie said. “Thus, if Brigham Young, who was one of the greatest of the prophets, said something about Adam which is out of harmony with what is in the Book of Moses and in Section 78 (of the Doctrine and Covenants), it is the scripture that prevails. This is one of the reasons we call our scriptures ‘The Standard Works.’ They are the standard of judgement and the measuring rod against which all doctrines and views are weighed ...”
Griffiths explained, “The Standard Works have a symbiotic relationship with the current prophet.”
J.B. Haws, associate professor of church history at BYU, said he talks with his students frequently about the changes in the church since the time of “Mormon Doctrine.”
“It’s something we talk about a lot — these questions of what constitutes official doctrine and how we approach that.”
“There is a need to be careful in holding on to outdated sources, and in determining what is essential, what is core, and what are the saving truths,” Haws cautioned. “All of us in our classes are having these conversations.”
When it comes to issues and culture, Haws said time has a big role to play.
While McConkie’s book was the go-to for those a half-century ago, Haws said true doctrine is what stands the test of time and the course of years.
“A crucial question to ask it what is the church currently teaching and affirming, in official venues and in a collective way,” Haws said.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reminded church members in the April 2013 general conference that “not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.”
Some of the major issues that have changed significantly since the first edition of “Mormon Doctrine” was published include: the Catholic Church’s place in the kingdom of God, blacks and the priesthood, suicide and same-sex attraction.
The Devil’s church
In the 1950s and 1960s of the “Mormon Doctrine” era, the world was in turmoil with human rights and integration issues. The Catholic Church was going through its own changes with the Second Vatican Council in 1962, and was called out in “Mormon Doctrine.”
In the 1958 edition on page 129, McConkie, in defining the “Church of the Devil,” cites the Roman Catholic Church specifically as being “most abominable above all other churches.”
The statement was later removed.
In the years since, the two religions have developed close relationships in their joint beliefs of service, humanitarian efforts and as mouthpieces on the importance of marriage, family and bringing up children in a peaceful world.
On Nov. 16, 2014, President Henry B. Eyring joined other global religious leaders as a guest of the Vatican at a three-day colloquium organized by the Pope and the Catholic Church.
In recent years, there have been numerous accolades and awards shared and given between the two religious bodies. President Russell M. Nelson, then-president of the Quorum of the Twelve, was honored on Nov. 4, 2016, by the Catholic Community Services of Utah. In turn, the LDS Church honored Cardinal Timothy Dolan with the Visionary Leadership Award.
Catholic Archbishop Joseph Kurtz said of the LDS-Catholic relationship, “We stand together on issues that are good for America.”
All worthy males
It was a common teaching in early days of the church, and reiterated in “Mormon Doctrine,” that men of African or “Negro” descent would not receive the priesthood in this lifetime. From “Mormon Doctrine” it said, “Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty.”
On pages 476 and 477 of the 1958 edition, it continued, “President Brigham Young and others have taught that in the future eternity, worthy and qualified Negroes will receive the priesthood and every gospel blessing available to any man.”
Twenty years after the first “Mormon Doctrine” edition, on June 1, 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced that all worthy male members could hold the priesthood. Members of the church voted on the matter in the October conference of 1978 and it became part of the Doctrine and Covenants, known as Official Declaration 2.
In a recent commentary since becoming a member of the First Presidency, President Dallin H. Oaks said before he was a general authority, he questioned why those of African ancestry were denied the blessing of the priesthood.
Oaks said he determined, “to be loyal to our prophetic leaders and to pray — as promised from the beginning of these restrictions — that the day would come when all would enjoy the blessings of priesthood and temple. Now that day had come, and I wept for joy.”
“The reasons that had been given to try to explain the prior restrictions on members of African ancestry — even those previously voiced by revered Church leaders — were promptly and publicly disavowed,” Oaks added.
He noted that, “Some accepted the effects of the revelation immediately and gracefully. Some accepted gradually. But some, in their personal lives, continued the attitudes of racism that have been painful to so many throughout the world, including the past 40 years. Others have wanted to look back, concentrating attention on reexamining the past, including seeking reasons for the now-outdated restrictions.”
The significance of that revelation can be seen in the rapid growth of membership in countries with high populations of those from African heritage. Since the change, church growth in Africa has increased. On the continent of Africa, there are now nearly 579,000 members, 2,004 congregations, three temples, 285 family history centers and 31 missions.
In June, the church announced it was collaborating with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on humanitarian and educational projects. Elder Jack Gerard, General Authority Seventy, spoke at the national convention of the NAACP July 15.
Recently, a major project called the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, to help both black Canadians and black Americans find their Civil War ancestors, was developed. The project focuses on the records of former U.S. slaves who were given citizenship. Thousands of volunteers are indexing or typing information from the Freedmen’s Bureau records to make them searchable in an online database. To date, the project is 78 percent complete, according to a church statement.
Another area of concern to many parents, spouses and children was the perceived stance of the church’s doctrine surrounding suicide. In “Mormon Doctrine,” McConkie said, “Suicide is murder, pure and simple, and murderers are damned. There is no more justification for self-murder than for the willful destruction of another.”
He said those who take their life are not in their right mind and are mentally clouded, they do know what they were doing was wrong. “The great probability is that nearly all self-murders — though they may be depressed and mentally ill — do in fact know right from wrong, the same as most killers do.”
Over the decades, the LDS Church has become more transparent and active on responding to suicide. It is particularly concerned about the number of teen suicides and has joined with other church and government leaders in Utah to teach and help with suicide prevention.
In an ongoing effort to prevent suicide, the LDS Church recently released a series of videos from Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The videos are on the church’s approved websites, and thus has the approval of the First Presidency.
In the videos, Renlund encourages members to “reach out in love and caring for those who have suicidal thoughts, who have attempted suicide, who feel marginalized in any way. We need to reach out with love and understanding. And you do that in concert with health care professionals, with ecclesiastical leaders, with friends and family support.”
Renlund said the “old sectarian notion that suicide is a sin and that someone who commits suicide is banished to hell forever [is] totally false.”
Renlund said he believes those who commit suicide will not have it be a defining characteristic of their eternity.
While “Mormon Doctrine” did not have a specific section on same-sex attraction, on page 639 of the 1958 edition, it did list homosexuality with other “whoredoms,” including; lewdness, lasciviousness, prostitution, masturbation, incontinence, and perversions of rape, seduction, infidelity, adultery and fornication.
“All these things, as well as many others, are condemned by divine edict and are among Lucifer’s chief means of leading souls to hell,” McConkie wrote.
In the years since that statement, the church has shocked and surprised those of the LGBTQ communities. Same-sex marriage was first declared legal in Utah in December 2013. Three years ago, the church sent bishops and stake presidents an addition to Handbook 1 — the special instructions to bishops and stake presidents for leading their congregations — which stated that children from same-sex marriages are not allowed to be blessed, baptized or be ordained to the priesthood, until they turn 18 and decide for themselves.
More recently, the church upgraded its website http://mormonandgay.org.
“Feelings of same-sex attraction are not a sin,” Elder M. Russell Ballard said on the website. “Let us be clear: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is.”
He added, “Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including [those with same-sex attraction].’”
The website also included counsel to parents and church members.
“The parent of a child who experiences same-sex attraction or identifies as gay should choose to love and embrace that child. As a community of Church members, we should choose to create a welcoming community,” the site said in a recent update to mormonandgay.org.
Most recently the LDS Church announced that it was retooling the FamilySearch and FamilyTree programs to include genealogical information on same-sex couples and families; a project that cost into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Revelation in a ‘living church’
There is no question after April’s conference that the LDS Church is ever-changing.
Local religion professors say it is important to remember the church is bigger than one standard, book or philosophy.
“President John Taylor was fond of saying that God’s revelations to Adam didn’t tell him how to build an ark,” Griffiths said. “We need to remember the church isn’t defined by the leaders. They are amazing personalities, but the doctrine attracts. The church is bigger than one personality.”