The impact of progressive change on Mormonism

March 24, 2013    By: Matt W. @ 8:53 am   Category: Life

Change within the church, as within any other organization, can be challenging. This is not to say change should not and cannot occur. But it does mean that those who agitate for change need to be sensitive to the issues surrounding it and should be sensitive to the needs and feelings of those who will be impacted by that change.

One challenge many face in the wake of change is uncertainty and confusion about what is correct and valuable. Some will look back on their lives and see a gap in them that could have been filled had the policy been different in their day, and will cry out “How could God let this happen to me?”. Others will see this change as an indicator that other changes are possible and will lose certainty of the paradigms upon which they have made their life decisions. They will either have set up a series of reasoning which had supported the rules before the change and need help deconstructing that list, or they will have reservations making faith claims on any certain position of the church, wondering if it will just change later. They will turn to their own reasoning over the teachings of the church and begin trying to predict rightness or wrongness on their own. This is not bad in its own right, but people will feel further from God as a result of this.

Another result causing a feeling of sadness in people will be their seeing human action trumping divine aid. They have seen you lobby for this change, and they wonder to themselves “All my life I have been told that God runs this church, and that I can pour out my heart to him in prayer and he will answer. But now, these people run the church via activism. Should God have not just heard their prayers and responded?” Some will see this as another indicator that the church is a human run organization with no divine spark pushing it along.

This leads us straight into prophetic fallibility. It can be very challenging for members to see major change from leadership in the church. One of the central ideas of Mormonism, like it or not, is that the Lord uses his prophet to lead the people. It is assumed that this should mean the prophet has some higher level of consciousness and should know God’s will directly. He should not need to be poked and prodded by other men or women. He should take his orders directly from God. When one statement from a general authority is questioned, it creates the Paul H. Dunn effect, where every other statement by that same authority is damaged collaterally.

Lastly, when we are dealing with change of any kind within the church, we have to be sensitive to the human emotion involved. People have invested their time, talent, and energies into defending the thing you are now seeking to change. They have done this because they believed it was God’s will. Some have made it a central part of their identity to defend it. They will need to be assured their energies have not been wasted and still matter, or you will have people become emotionally disengaged.

So when you bring snacks to primary, please be considerate of those who remember the days when snacks in primary were not allowed. Tread lightly, my friends.


  1. I have some neighbors who are good friends and who happen to be Catholic. One day I mentioned how much I admired Pope John Paul and got steely looks in return. They did not like the pope because of his stands on celibacy and certain other hot issues of the day. It got me thinking: as much as I might dislike our church’s position on certain issues, if they can be changed simply because people want them changed, how valid were they in the first place, or more to the point, how valid is the church?

    Comment by Ray — March 24, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  2. …the Lord uses his prophet to lead the people. It is assumed that this should mean the prophet has some higher level of consciousness and should know God’s will directly…He should not need to be poked and prodded by other men or women. He should take his orders directly from God.. It would be great if actually worked this way and he did have a high enough level of consciousness to do this but according to President Kimball prophets need to approach God because it will not likely happen not the other way around and it does not come easily or quickly, it often takes overcomming the prophet’s own biases and it takes months of work to receive. Since our prophets are far less accessible than Moses was to Zelophehad’s daughters and given there is no church suggestion box, activism appears to be the only way to make a request.

    So when you bring snacks to primary, please be considerate of those who remember the days when snacks in primary were not allowed. Tread lightly. Much of my career was as an agent of change for businesses. Organizations can handle change well when it starts slowly and then accelerates. They emerge much stronger and hearter than they begin.

    Comment by Howard — March 24, 2013 @ 10:11 am

  3. Ray: I actually don’t know much about Pope John Paul, but his successor, John Paul II was a great example of doing institutional religious change correctly, with the catechism.

    Howard: I don’t see how your statements inviolate my statements at all. Are you denying that people do not perceive the prophet as closer to God and in a positiin to receive greater revelation? For that matter, doesn’t our theology demand the same? It may be more complex than that, but do we not perceive and teach this simple version as a practical matter?

    Comment by Matt W. — March 24, 2013 @ 10:36 am

  4. Matt,
    I’m pointing out that in practice they don’t work the way they are described in the OP and the way they actually work invites activism. If they worked as described activism would have far less traction. I offer President Kimball’s experience with the OD2 revelation as support.

    Are snacks prayers? Are you asking activists to play nice following GC prayers given by women?

    Comment by Howard — March 24, 2013 @ 11:03 am

  5. Matt,

    Thank you for posting this. It has been on my mind very much. You concerns are real, but this point of view is not likely to get much play on the ‘nacle.

    Personally I think I could handle pretty much any change as long as I am convinced that revelation is the cause. If I were to feel that PR concerns and the complaints of the -ists was the cause I would have a very difficult time with this. I would not feel that such change would be progress.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — March 24, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

  6. Howard: except it is commonly assumed that the church would have acted sooner if it had not been pushed re: OD2. And nope, this isn’t purely about snacks.

    Eric: I don’t know. I think the naclers are a pretty reasonable crew. I just think we are all caught up in our own cultural biases. I honestly believe if we can keep things away from political alignments, things can be reasonably discussed. After all, I am 100% for snacks in primary.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 24, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

  7. Sure, just as it was once commonly accepted that the world was flat. But denial, even uplifting Pollyanna denial is unhealthy. Suffering is caused by clinging to the way we want things to be instead of accepting them as they are.

    Looking at OD2, what is the commonly accepted reason for the 100 years or so of revelationary drought on the subject between Brigham and the Civil Rights movement?

    Comment by Howard — March 24, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

  8. If this post was really about snacks in primary, then perhaps my gratitude was misplaced.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — March 24, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

  9. Howard: my best guest would be revisionist history by people who weren’t there.

    Eric: it’s fast Sunday. No snacks today.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 24, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

  10. Matt,
    My 9 year old daughter has known there is no Santa Clause for several years now. Do you think she was damaged by learning this at 5? Is there a soft way to break the news? Do you believe it is better to learn this truth as an adult? It it better learned in the afterlife?

    Comment by Howard — March 24, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

  11. Nice punchline, Matt.

    When it come to snacks I have always been in the “easier to get forgiveness than permission” camp and brought them.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 25, 2013 @ 12:08 am

  12. Some of what we practice in the LDS Church is doctrinal-based. Many other things are practices and culturally-based. The main problem comes when people conflate the two. When a practice changes that some people have considered “doctrine”, all of the feelings you describe can and will occur.

    This problem is self-created in many ways. We are told over and over than when a church leader speaks, it is the same as if God Himself said it. We are told to consider Ensign articles and conference talks as scripture. While there are many inspired things in those, there are also things that are someone’s opinion, and opinions are sometimes wrong – no matter what particular role is in the hierarchy.

    We have a way to fix this – but we don’t use it. Actual revelations from God through a prophet could be added to our canon. We would know these were absolutely true and God’s will. If President Monson said tomorrow that he spoke to God, and “Thus sayeth the Lord…”, it would carry an immense amount of weight. Then add it to the D&C, as we used to do.

    Other things would then merely be policies. These could change and evolve as societies develop, and no one would need to worry that “doctrine” changed, as there would be a demarcation between “doctrine” and “policy”. But as long as we continue our current blurring of the two, we will have problems.

    Comment by Mike S — March 25, 2013 @ 7:33 am

  13. Well said Mike S. and since this hasn’t occurred in a very long time, given we are told to consider Ensign articles and conference talks scripture the conflation must be by design perhaps to obscure the fact that there has been little or nothing in the way of “thus sayth The Lord” revelation to add to the D&C?

    Comment by Howard — March 25, 2013 @ 7:42 am

  14. To the extent that many Mormons believe that every little policy or practice in the Church happens at God’s explicit command, I think that idea deserves to be dismantled.

    As far as larger changes (e.g. female ordination), I think the Church needs to emphasize lessons from our history that show how revelation can happen when the people are ready for it. Something like what Blake Ostler calls “co-creative” revelation. If activism brings attention to an issue, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

    This wouldn’t even be a problem were it not for the many highly questionable justifications that have been given out in the past.

    Comment by Trevor — March 25, 2013 @ 8:08 am

  15. “To the extent that many Mormons believe that every little policy or practice in the Church happens at God’s explicit command, I think that idea deserves to be dismantled.”


    I like Philip Barlow’s perspective, though I know reasonable people can disagree. He said that disillusionment with LDS leaders “would evaporate if people saw the church not as essentially divine, marred only by the weaknesses of human administrators, but rather … [as made up] entirely of human beings — with all of their limitations—who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have (in faith) been touched.”

    Comment by Clean Cut — March 25, 2013 @ 8:35 am

  16. I also like Margaret Young’s applicable comments here:

    “Finally, let me make a bold suggestion. I suggest that we Mormons have chosen the wrong paradigm to describe how the church functions under prophetic leadership. We seem to have gone with the Wilford Woodruff statement used to defend the manifesto, since he was speaking to people who had suffered and even gone to jail over polygamy:

    ‘[T]he Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty’ (Official Declaration 1).

    “Since we have multitudes of instances where one prophet contradicts another, it’s likely that President Woodruff’s statement has a particular context and is confined to that. Armand Mauss, in a comment on February 22 at the Juvenile Instructor blog stated: ‘[T]his claim seems to have originated as a kind of guarantee from Wilford Woodruff in 1890, as he tried to reassure some of the apostles and others who questioned the legitimacy (or necessity) of the Manifesto. That was a fairly specific context, and no one at the time seemed to take it as a universal gospel principle. I never heard of it as I was growing up during the first half of the 20th century, as I said, but it began to occur (totally out of its original context) with increasing frequency as part of the “retrenchment” era after the 1960s to reinforce the ‘follow the prophet’ mantra that is now so familiar to us.”

    Comment by Clean Cut — March 25, 2013 @ 8:38 am

  17. “that’s not necessarily a good thing”

    err, I meant to say, “that’s not necessarily a BAD thing”

    Comment by Trevor — March 25, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  18. Forgot to include the rest of her quote:

    “Would we not all be better served by acknowledging that the Prophet is exclusively entitled to the mantle of leadership over the Church, and that he will always do the best he can to transcend his own culture and tradition in serving God, though not every utterance he makes will constitute the mind and will of the Lord?

    “I would far prefer President Lorenzo Snow’s description of Church governance:

    ‘Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant. We had our prejudices to combat. Our ignorance troubled us in regard to what the Lord intended to do and what He wanted us to do … We advanced to boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which … generally arise from a …lack of experience. We understand very well, when we reflect back upon our own lives, that we did many foolish things when we were boys … Yet as we advanced, the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. It has been so with the Church. Our errors have generally arisen from a lack of comprehending what the Lord required of us to do. But now we are pretty well along to manhood … When we examine ourselves, however, we discover that we are still not doing exactly as we ought to do, notwithstanding all our experience. We discern that there are things which we fail to do that the Lord expects us to perform, some of which He requires us to do in our boyhood. … While we congratulate ourselves in this direction, we certainly ought to feel that we have not yet arrived at perfection. There are many things for us to do yet.’ (April, 1900)

    “And to that, I say amen.”

    Comment by Clean Cut — March 25, 2013 @ 8:46 am

  19. To the extent disillusionment means without illusion I think we would all do well to be disillusioned with leaders LDS or otherwise.

    Comment by Howard — March 25, 2013 @ 8:48 am

  20. It seems to me that it is wise to demarcate areas where we have clear guidance from revelation and where we don’t. With respect to denying the priesthood to blacks, it was clearly not based on any revelation or scripture. The church never claimed otherwise. It’s constant refrain was “we do not know why.” I know that some wrested a particular cultural narrative about Cain or about something that could have occurred in the pre-mortal life, but let’s be honest about it — there is no scripture that ever stated anything about blacks in the pre-existence.

    What is disconcerting now is that many members are advocating for women to have the priesthood. That would be fine if we did not have the revelation in D&C 107 about the Patriarchal Order of the priesthood. Where we have a clear revelation, it seems to me that only a clear revelation can change the practice. Those who advocate otherwise, it seems to me, either do not believe in revelation or they are ignorant of what the revelations in the D&C state. In my view, if this issue changed without revelation then the Church would be operating contrary to the revelations. It would take an outright revelation to change this issue in my view.

    The issue of gay marriage is another matter. There are no clear revelations about gays and marriage. I believe that there are several scriptures that can be read to assert that gay sex is an abomination before God, that men laying with men or women with women is sin, but these are in the Old and New Testaments and subject to interpretations that either limit their application (the Law of Moses is no longer followed) or give a limiting interpretation (e.g. the prohibition is limited to the particular circumstances addressed by Paul).

    The next issue is whether is appropriate to lobby the Lord. Joseph did it when he would not allow him to show the 116 pages to Martin Harris, and that did not turn out so well. On the other hand, importuning the Lord for greater light, asking if the Law could change given changes in the world, or simple refusal of his people to abide his Law or will, seems appropriate to me. But it seems to me that it ought to be the prophet asking for the Church.

    On issues where there is clear revelation, it seems to me that Wilford Woodruff’s stance is appropriate. Such issues require clear direction from God and not merely some political ground swell of a particular point of view. Where there is confusion on the issue because the scriptures are not clear, it seems to me that Lorenzo Snow’s approach is the appropriate response. We ought to search it out and ask God and learn. On issues where there just is nothing to support it in scripture or revelation, we ought to recognize it can be changed at any time.

    Comment by Blake — March 26, 2013 @ 9:10 am

  21. When the concern is about whether this minor policy or that is right or wrong, one might well consider the possibility that God has delegated the decision and it either doesn’t much matter to him either way, or (more likely) he has an opinion but doesn’t want to impose it on anyone, and furthermore, the ideal changes based on time, circumstance and what the members and leader involved actually want.

    Comment by Mark D. — March 28, 2013 @ 11:09 pm