A Tale of Two Revelations

Those who imagine change in the Church are fond of hanging their hat on the principle of continuing revelation, arguing that it allows us a tremendous amount of flexibility to reformulate our doctrines and practices. This is, I think, far too simplistic, a fact that is illustrated by two of the most dramatic shifts in Church policy: the end of polygamy and the end of the priesthood ban.

Both of these events are marshaled in support of the Mormonism-can-change-easily-if-it-wants-to claim. In both cases long standing practices were apparently reversed by simple prophetic fiat. The problem with this view of things is that it is wrong. In reality, the end of polygamy and the end of the priesthood ban were very different sorts of events and thinking about their differences is important for understanding the nature of continuing revelation in the Church.

Let’s start with the end of polygamy. The simple fact of history is that polygamy did not end in 1890. It did not even end in 1904, when Joseph F. Smith issued the so-called “Second Manifesto.” Mormons were incredibly ambivalent about the end of polygamy. Many regarded the 1890 Manifesto as a ruse, or at best a prohibition only on polygamy in the United States. New plural marriages were more or less openly performed in Mexico and Canada, while post-Manifesto polygamous unions were contracted more discretely within the United States. A significant number of Apostles and members of the First Presidency were involved in either performing or entering into these post-Manifesto marriages. Ultimately, in the face of a threat of renewed federal pressure, Joseph F. Smith moved to decisively end polygamy among mainstream Latter-day Saints, forcing the Quorum of the Twelve to drop two members — John Taylor, Jr. and Mathias Cowley — whose post-Manifesto polygamy become public knowledge, and eventually — perhaps as late as 1911 — instituting a rule requiring the excommunication of those performing or entering into new plural marriages. The move precipitated a crisis of authority for Joseph F. Smith, which resulted in some vocal apostasies and a concerted effort by the general authorities to demonstrate to the Saints that the current leadership maintained continuity with the past prophets, even as they rejected key teachings of Joseph and Brigham. Kathleen Flake has persuasively demonstrated, I think, that our current official history of the Restoration — most especially our focus on the First Vision — dates from this period and was part of Joseph F. Smith’s efforts to show that the current prophets and apostles maintained the same authority as past prophets.

Compare this long, messy, and painful process with the end of the priesthood ban. To my knowledge, it precipitated no mass apostasies, serious questions about prophetic authority, or resistance to implementation. Where polygamy’s end was bitter and difficult, the end of the priesthood ban seems to have been comparatively easy. Let me suggest that the difference lies in the differing roles that these two practices served. Plural marriage was a central marker of Latter-day Saint identity that became tied up in the basic stories that Mormons told in the 19th century about the plan of salvation. Furthermore, by arousing intense legal persecution, plural marriage became sanctified by martyrdom. In contrast, the priesthood ban never seems to have taken central stage in the same way. Indeed, it frequently wandered around as a practice furtively in search of some explanation. Ultimately, jettisoning it did not require a dramatic revision of the central stories that Latter-day Saints told themselves the way that polygamy did.

What all of this illustrates, I think, is that continuing revelation cannot be thought of as a simple “reverse course at will” button. After all, change can be evidence of apostasy as well as further light and knowledge. History teaches us that our prophets have not blithely abandoned past teachings or revelations, nor have Latter-day Saints been willing to accept any and all changes without a second thought. Rather, revelation requires a certain kind of integrity to the past. It is not that the past provides immutable standards to be slavishly followed, but rather than it acts as a kind of ballast, a set of authorities that must be accommodated and reinterpreted rather than simply rejected. In this sense, the development of our doctrine and practice is much like the development of the common law. A common law judge may make new law. He may reverse previous precedents and announce new rules. Yet this creative power is constrained, not by per se prohibitions on innovation, but rather by a due regard for past cases, and the requirement that new holdings demonstrate some continuity and respect for that past. So it is, I think, with continuing revelation.

46 comments for “A Tale of Two Revelations

  1. April 16, 2005 at 1:04 pm

    I was told by someone I trust (about 5 years ago) that afterwards a group of members took out a full-page ad in the SLTrib claiming that President Kimball was a fallen prophet, that it was impossible for the policy to change, and listed references to JD, BofA, etc. However, I’ve never had the chance to verify this in archives somewhere, and those issues of the SLTrib. aren’t on-line.

  2. April 16, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    Great post Nate.

    [continuing revelation] allows us a tremendous amount of flexibility to reformulate our doctrines…

    It would seem that none of the official declarations reformulated Chruch Dactrine. Rather it would seem that praxis was modified. Any doctrinal change would seem to be on the grass roots level. No?

  3. Nate Oman
    April 16, 2005 at 1:36 pm

    J. Stapely: I think that you are right if you think of the Church’s actions as being only the two official declerations, but I think that we have to look more broadly. Both documents provoked sermons by authorities explaining them, new emphasis by Church authorities and the like. Part of the problem here, of course, is that we have a terrifically vague concept of what we mean when we say “church doctrine.”

    Consider President Hinkley’s claim that polygam is “not doctrinal.” Does this mean that polygamy has no plae of any kind in Mormon theology? What about the continued cannonization of secion 132? Alternatively, does it mean that it is simply not something that the church teaches or exorts its members to do? Doctrine can mean something like an elaborate conceptual system, or it can mean simply “what the church teaches.”

  4. Kaimi
    April 16, 2005 at 1:51 pm


    I’ve read somewhere that something along the lines of 5 or ten thousand members left the church in direct response to OD-2. There were also various schisms and mini-sects that sprung up claiming that President Kimball was wrong, led by a bunch of little prophets claiming to take his place. None of them had any staying power that I’m aware of.

  5. Jim F.
    April 16, 2005 at 1:56 pm

    Nate: It is a mistake to believe that continuing revelation [allows] us a tremendous amount of flexibility to reformulate our doctrines and practices.

    Since I’ve publicly argued what you criticize here, I should respond. I agree with everything you’ve pointed out–that the abandonment of polygamy was much messier than we usually admit and that the decision to give those of Black African descent the priesthood was easier, at least partly because the ban didn’t lie at the core of our self-identification. (Probably also because, once Joseph F. Smith had succeeded in establishing that his authority was the same as that of Joseph, that authority extended to his successors. However, I also assume that self-identification wasn’t the only reason that polygamy was so difficult to give up. After all, it had been identified as necessary to exaltation.)

    I also agree that your comparison to the common law is helpful: the past “acts as a kind of ballast, a set of authorities that must be accommodated and reinterpreted rather than simply rejected.” However, I quibble with one word, namely “must.” I don’t see that it must since, in principle (regardless of how messy the results might be) continuing revelation can overturn any doctrine except, presumably, those that would contradict the principle of continuing revelation. The second case you discuss, the recension of the ban on Blacks receiving the priesthood, illustrates why “must” is too strong: we haven’t had to accommodate and reinterpret our past practices or doctrines for that revelation to occur or be effectively adopted.

    However, pointing out that the doctrinal fruits of continuing revelation can be messy or that past beliefs and practice generally carry considerable weight when we think about our beliefs and practices does not show, as you claim in your first paragraph, that it is a mistake to believe that continuing revelation gives us considerable flexibility in our beliefs and practices. Perhaps your first paragrapah gives you a nice rhetorical introduction to your piece, but it and the argument that follows are quite compatible with each other. The argument does not show that the claim identified in the introduction is mistaken.

    On a separate point: I disagree with J. Stapley. Both the abandoment of polygamy and the lifting of the ban on Blacks receiving the priesthood were more than doctrinal changes at the grassroots level. It is perhaps possible, ex post facto, to construct a set of doctrines, official teachings, that do not include either polygamy or the priesthood ban as part of Mormon doctrine prior to the relevant declarations, but I doubt that many living prior to those declarations thought either of them to be non-doctrinal. In fact, those teaching that the priesthood ban was not doctrinal often found themselves in trouble with their priesthood leadership in the 60s. I’m not sure what meaning we could give “doctrine” that would make J. Stapley’s claim correct.

  6. Nate Oman
    April 16, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    Jim: If you re-read the offending paragraph, you will notice that I never said that the claim that continuing revelation provides a tremendous amount of flexibility is mistaken, rather I said that it was “too simplistic.” A claim can be basically correct while at the same time being too simplistic.

    As for the offending “must” I suppose it depends on how we take account of, reinterpret, etc. the past. I do think that continuing revelation allows for the outright rejection of past doctrines. In this sense, continuing revelation is like the common law, but in its American rather than its English version. As a matter of law until — I believe — the 1960s, the House of Lords could not reverse its previous decisions, but could only narrow their holdings. In practice, many a holding was narrowed to the point of de facto reversal, but still in theory every single decision that the House of Lords had ever issued was still good law on at least some point. In contrast, American common law courts have always believed that they could reverse previous decisions and simply declare that they were no longer good law for any point, although they have been loathe to do this in practice.

    I have a vision of previous history and doctrine as a piece of fabric. I object to the notion that continuing revelation allows us to simply and easily snip out bits and pieces of that fabric. We can — as it turns out — cut out large pieces of the cloth, but doing so requires that we mend the fabric, patch the holes, and — ultimately I think — refrain from snipping in ways that cause the whole to come unravelled. There is flexibility and change — large amounts of it — but it is not unlimited and its exercise requires attention to how the lacuna created by continuing revelation are filled.

  7. Jim F.
    April 16, 2005 at 2:24 pm

    Nate, The image you give us is one with which I have considerable sympathy. (I am, after all, someone deeply sympathetic to Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s views, views that explicitly take up the position you argue for.) However, how does your theory of cutting out large sections and then mending apply to the priesthood ban? I can perhaps see how it work in the case of polygamy–though even there I’m not sure–but I don’t see it at all in the case of the priesthood ban.

    Also, it seems to me that you may mistake how someone like you or me must understand our history and its relation to current practices for the way in which continuing revelation works. When President Kimball announced the lifting of the priesthood ban, what “mending” did he do? I could ask the same about the Manifesto. Recognizing the time that it took for the Manifesto to be accepted and the messiness of our situation until it was, what doctrinal mending did that revelatory change of doctrine require?

    As for “too simplistic” not meaning “mistaken”: I understand your point, but it seems to me that it is not too simplistic to say that continuing revelation allows us doctrinal flexibiility. If someone were to say “continuing revelation allows us doctrinal flexibility that emenates in easy change,” that would be too simplistic. I still don’t think your discussion of the complexities cuts against the claim about the fleixbility afforded by continuing revelation, not even against that claim as “too simplistic,” because the claim is a claim about the nature of doctrinal change, not a claim about the ease with which those changes are effected among the members of the Church.

  8. Seth Rogers
    April 16, 2005 at 2:41 pm

    The parallels between Joseph F. Smith and the Apostle Peter are interesting. Both presided over periods in the church where some dearly held beliefs and practices were abandoned in favor of new doctrine.

  9. April 16, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    Plural marriage was a central marker of Latter-day Saint identity that became tied up in the basic stories that Mormons told in the 19th century about the plan of salvation.

    What? Stories matter?

  10. April 16, 2005 at 4:07 pm

    Hi folks – I’m very sorry to post an off-topic comment, but I’m completely out of my element in LDS circles and I’m not even sure where to begin looking.

    So – up front: I am not a Mormon. I’m a protestant seminary student, but I need to learn more about Mormon beliefs, and I’d really like to get it from the horses mouth, so to speak. And hopefully, someone who reads this can help me.

    Basically, I am looking for a book(s) on Mormon theology (specifically, what Mormons believe about God, Christ, salvation, etc) – I NOT all that interested in the history of the Mormon church (which seems to be what most of the books out there focus on).

    I would really like to find something that Mormon’s themselves would point to as “yes! that says well who we are!” I’ve already done some searching on Amazon, and I’m having a difficult time figuring out what’s considered “orthodox” in LDS circles.

    So if you have any suggestions or pointers, I would appreciate it greatly! You can email me w/ info…

    Thanks much,

  11. Aaron Brown
    April 16, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    Christian — Check your email.

    Aaron B

  12. Kevin Barney
    April 16, 2005 at 5:08 pm

    Ben S. (no. 1), you are correct. I remember the advertisement in the SL Trib. As I recall, it had 500 signatories. Undoubtedly there were others who leaned fundamentalist who were bent out of shape by this. But overall, negative reaction was very muted, and the overall reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

    Nate, I agree with your analogy between the common law and continuing revelation. I’ve always thought there is a certain stare decisis quality to developments in Church thought. It generally develops gradually, so as to give the illusion of certainty and continuity, all the while over time it gradually shifts to accord with changing conditions. This is part of the genius of the concept. If you allow change to happen too quickly, those who are more conservative and crave stability will be thrown off, but if you don’t allow it do change at all, eventually changing conditions may pass you by. Allowing slow, incremental change in a common law type sense gives the illusion of unshakeable certainty while still allowing subtle progression.

  13. ed
    April 16, 2005 at 5:12 pm


    I agree with J. Stapley…your examples were about changes in practices, and I’m not sure how it would apply to changes in doctrines.

    Doctrines in Mormonism are also subject to change, but I think that they usually change slowly and almost imperceptibly. The old doctrines just get talked about less and less, until they mostly fade away, and it becomes unclear whether they are really doctrines anymore. Can you think of any times since Brigham Young that doctrines changed through continuing revelation?

  14. Rosalynde Welch
    April 16, 2005 at 5:17 pm

    So which doctrines and practices are central to our community identity in the way that polygamy was, and which are peripheral, like the priesthood ban? Certainly the idea of unique priesthood authority is central; what about a male priesthood? Temple sealings are central; what about heterosexual marriage? (I tend to think this is central.) Our emphasis on ordinances is central; what about our system of missionary proselyting?

    Both the abandonment of polygamy and the lifting of the priesthood ban were moves toward cultural assimilation: could it be that revelatory moves in the direction of accommodation happen differently than those toward differentiation? (It’s difficult to imagine any new revelation moving us significantly against the cultural drift, however.)

  15. John H
    April 16, 2005 at 5:47 pm

    “But overall, negative reaction was very muted, and the overall reaction was overwhelmingly positive.”

    I think this is definitely the case with the priesthood ban. For most members, it ranged from a source of awkward discomfort to indifference – it didn’t affect them. More importantly, it didn’t directly affect any leadership of the Church. A ban on polygamy, however, required radical changes in lifestyles for the very people making the decisions. Hence Joseph F. Smith’s frustration with Lorenzo Snow’s declaration that cohabitation needed to cease. Snow was an old man; Smith, much younger with young wives who wanted to bear children – how would he explain that they couldn’t have those children?

    Check out B.H. Roberts diaries, edited by John Sillito, for a wonderful summary of Roberts’ conflicting feelings over the polygamy ban.

    While in many ways the priesthood ban wasn’t easy leading up to OD-2 – the negative publicity, the conflict between Harold B. Lee and Hugh B. Brown, etc – the direct consequences on most members was nonexistent. Even those of us who grouse for a renunciation of racist folklore can’t complain too much – the results of OD-2 are too remarkable.

  16. April 16, 2005 at 7:23 pm

    ed: Can you think of any times since Brigham Young that doctrines changed through continuing revelation?

    I guess Sec 138 could be construed as changing doctrine.

    Nate: Both documents provoked sermons by authorities explaining them, new emphasis by Church authorities and the like.

    I guess this is what I would consider grass roots. Especially for OD2, there is what seems to be a combination of “authorities” and lay contributing to our current understanding of the topic. As to Jim’s comment, what exactly was Church Doctrine before OD2? Besides the practice itself, I don’t find anything “doctrinal”.

  17. Jed
    April 16, 2005 at 8:11 pm

    Nate writes: “Revelation requires a certain kind of integrity to the past. It is not that the past provides immutable standards to be slavishly followed, but rather than it acts as a kind of ballast, a set of authorities that must be accommodated and reinterpreted rather than simply rejected.”

    I am inclined to agree with this, and unlike Jim I am not concerned with the word “must,” if by authorities we mean one or some but not necessarily all prophetic authorities. The reason is that prophetic authorities see themselves within a tradition of prophetic authorities; they do not see themselves as renegades, as men on the loose, as it were, answerable only to themselves. They see themselves as heirs to the prophetic office, an office they did not themselves invent. So while I agree with Jim that in theory continuing revelation can overturn any doctrine except, presumably, continuing revelation, I do not believe continuing revelation can overturn any doctrine without reference to some past authority. The prophets very literally cannot pronounce without taking some account of those who have gone before them.

    Consider the two cases Nate mentioned, the cessation of plural marriage and the restriction of priesthood. In both cases prophetic authorities were mustered in defense of the change. In the general conference where OD 1 was read and a vote taken, counselor George Q. Cannon read D&C 124:49, a scripture excusing the Saints from following a commandment in cases where “their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work.” It was a remarkable reading. The revelation was given years before in Nauvoo when the Saints were trying to account for why they were unable to build a temple in Missouri when earlier revelations implied they would be able to build. The revelation said nothing about plural marriage. In the verse Cannon quoted, the Saints tried “with all their might and with all they have to perform that work,” building a temple in Missouri; their enemies prevented them; hence, they were freed of the commandment. So it was in 1890, Cannon argued. The Saints had tried with all their might to perform the work of plural marriage, but their enemies preventing them, they were now freed of the commandment.

    OD 2 pursued a similar line. The document referred to “the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood.” In this instance, like Cannon’s reference to D&C 124, the “prophets and presidents of the Church” are the authority, and also like Cannon the reading is remarkable. Kimball and his counselors did not muster the prophets and presidents who had proclaimed Black Africans accursed or benighted; rather, they call upon the prophets and presidents who spoke of the “promises” that all of the brethren would one day receive the priesthood. Kimball did not have to account for all the prophetic tradition only the part that mattered in this moment. In both OD 1 and OD 2 a prophetic authority is accomodated, to use Nate’s word, but in a remarkable new reading.

    I think the flexibility of continuing revelation is the flexibility to reinterpret old scriptures in new ways. Everywhere we find a prophetic pronouncement in the modern church we find some reference to past authorities. Often the reference is a verse interpreted in a radical or fresh way. Joseph Smith never gave a sermon without quoting some biblical authority, claiming, further, that he never taught a doctrine that was not in the Bible. He found all the Mormon doctrines he wished in the Bible. (The prophets were for Smith like the pre-Socratics were for Heidegger.) Think of his sermon on the plurality of Gods where he called up 1 Cor 8:6 and Rev. 1:6 as his primary texts. The texts were the standard prophetic authorities read anew. Joseph did this over and over again.

    The reference to authorities, I think, is even more pronounced in the modern prophet statements. The readings seem to be less radical than Smith’s as we settle into a conservation of tradition rather than the remaking of it in the spirit of Weber’s prophet/priest distinction. But the power of continuing revelation means the more radical prophetic tradition can be drummed up at any time. The recent Proclamation on the Family quotes Psalms and refers to the judgments spoken by “the prophets.” I don’t see these readings as proof texts so much as new readings in the prophetic tradition of Jesus, who turned to the Old TEstament for many if not most of his radical readings.

  18. April 16, 2005 at 9:16 pm

    Nate, your post here is I think more descriptive of practice than of theory; of course God’s will be done, anything could happen. But it won’t. I think your vision of revelation as a tapestry is a nice metaphor and image, and certainly revelation has shown itself to be consistent with the past. That said, can you think of any doctrinal reason that this should be so? Is there anywhere in our scripture the notion of adherence to precedent?

  19. Shawn Bailey
    April 16, 2005 at 9:37 pm

    I am sympathetic to Nate’s common-law model for change in the church. I certainly prefer it to the revolution model to which he compared it in a previous post.

    But something about such models still bothers me at a fundamental level. The discussion here seems to use the term Prophet in quotation marks. Here “the Prophet” looks like the Chief Justice of a one-man common-law supreme court. As long as doing so is tenable, he rests on precedent. Such consistency translates into legitimacy: people trust it, rely on it, order their relationships with God and man based on it. But when a dramatic stroke of assimilation is in order, he revokes one set of precedent (rends it from the garment), and invokes another (stiches it into place). I wonder if “the Prophet” in this model needs actual inspiration or revelation at all. Or would certain skills be sufficient for “the Prophet” to function under this model? This brings to mind the legal scholarship of Anthony Kronman and Brett Scharffs that, drawing on Aristotle and following in the tradition of Llewellyn and others, treats judging and lawyering in terms of wisdom and skill. Would penetrating understanding of key texts and church history—and ability to assess and respond to “changing conditions” (i.e., a federal government bent on ending polygamy; a world rejecting racism, etc.)—be sufficient for “the Prophet” to perform well under Nate’s common-law model?

    In short, even though I acknowledge its explanatory power, the common law model of change in the church seems to leave no room for brilliant and dynamic Prophets like Joseph Smith. It seems to leave no room for Prophets, Seers, and Revelators who actually “commune with Jehova.” On the contrary, it seems to imply that Prophets since Joseph have been mere common-law judges who reconciled to changing conditions the revelations of actual Prophets who came before.

  20. Jim F.
    April 16, 2005 at 10:13 pm

    I find myself in an interesting position: I agree with Shawn’s concern, which is why I think that it makes sense to say that in principle continuing revelation leaves radical change always possible. At the same time, I think that Jed is right about the way in which new revelations are explained and justified, and I don’t think that the explanation and justification are merely peripheral to the revelations themselves.

  21. April 16, 2005 at 11:29 pm

    I think that part of the reason the polygamy end was messy is precisely because there was so much going on. In other words it wasn’t just a simple issue of ending polygamy. There were issues ranging on everything from the way the Federal government was attacking the church, to issues of authority which hadn’t really solidified yet, to the things Nate hinted at via a return to an inner body ala Nauvoo. The fact that the church was really still in its infancy whereas by the 1970’s it was mature also really matters.

    The reason I bring that up is that I think if we try to draw theological implications from the difference we simply can’t do it. You simply can’t isolate out the events enough.

  22. Nate Oman
    April 17, 2005 at 9:00 am

    Shawn and Jim: I think that there are a couple of possible ways of responding to your point.

    1. We might say that we are required to believe that past revelations are probative of God’s ways, and that although God’s ways can change, his character requires that he maintain some consistency over time. This doesn’t mean that any particular doctrine or practice is not open to revisions, but it does mean that God’s character will require some integrity of the whole.

    2. We might note that revelation is actually a multifaceted process and that reinterpretation of past authorities is not a process that occurs in lieu of revelation, but is itself one of the ways that God reveals himself to his prophets. In support of this, I would point to the revelations of Joseph Smith, our most radical and charismatic prophet. If you look at the Doctrine & Covenants, to say nothing of Joseph’s sermons, what you find is precisely what Jed points to: a constant, radical, reinterpretation of past authorities, or stories that explain how breaks with past authority do not disturb the basic integrity of the whole, e.g. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God in so far as it is translated correctly” etc. etc.

    I am not claiming that prophets are simply judges reinterpreting past authorities by their own lights. I believe that God speaks to his prophets and that they can announce new doctrines on their own authority with a simple “thus saith the Lord.” My point, however, is that if we look at our own experience of continuing revelation, this model does not account for all of what the prophets do when they announce further light and knowledge from God.

    Rosalynde: I don’t think that my point is necessarily that some doctrine is completely off limits to revision (except perhaps continuing revelation), but rather that revisions do not exist in isolation, but have an impact on the whole and in understanding or imagining revisions one must think about their impact on the whole “seemless web” (to borrow a favorite common law metaphor).

    I have actually post a bit on this both in the context of women and the priesthood and gay marriage. See:

    Models of Women and the Priesthood
    The Real Issue

  23. April 17, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    Since many people here are more informed than I am on the subject, here’s a question: Is OD1 itself the “manifesto”. It sure doesn’t read like a manifesto. It sounds like some other announcement was made earlier and that this is a follow-up of sorts. It certainly doesn’t read as nicely as OD2. I have always thought that it was strange bit of text, and that the strangeness indicated that something fishy was going on.

    In a way the real end of polygamy did do a lot to cause members to think of the current prophet as a prophet in the same sense that Joseph was. This seems strange to modern members, but remember that while Brigham Young was named President of the Church within a few years of the death of Joseph Smith it took decadees for him to be named Prophet. There was a great deal of deference to Joseph.

    As for OD2, I agree with John H. that looking at what went on behind the scenes leading up to it is interesting and shows that the process wasn’t as simple as is perceived by the members. I think that one of the reasons that the lifting of the ban was relatively easy after the ban was announced is that anyone who seriously looked into the history of the ban in trying to justify it would find that the ban was never justifiable to begin with. It emerged from rumour and speculation which contradicted actual practice as instituted by Joseph Smith. It seems that OD2 is simply a restoration of what should have been happening all along. For some reason the church was allowed to tarry in darkness on this issue for a while. It saddens me that we used folk doctrine to not be at the forefront of the civil rights movement, as we were on the issue of women’s suffrage.

  24. Nate Oman
    April 17, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    Random john: As I recall the context of the Manifesto went something like this. The FP had let it be known through back channells to the President that they were going to stop all plural marriages. Under the Edmunds-Tucker act, a government commission came to Utah to investigate. This Commission leaked to the press that they had found evidence that plural marriages continued. The FP issued the Manifesto to deny these charges, its main audience being the president. Leo Lyman’s _Political Deliverance_ has all of the details. The text of the Manifesto that is in the D&C was one bit of a very complicated legal and political chess game that the church was playing with the federal government, which is one of the reasons that a precise interpretation of its meaning in practical terms — polygamous marriages of all kind will cease — took a good fifteen to twenty years to work out.

  25. John H
    April 17, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    “Leo Lyman’s _Political Deliverance_ has all of the details.”

    I’d add that Carmon Hardy’s _Solemn Covenant_ has great information, as does Alexander’s biography of Woodruff.

  26. April 17, 2005 at 5:02 pm

    Great post, Nate, and wonderful follow-up comments. It’s interesting to be reminded of the important, if narrow, similarities between a position which emphasizes the way in which all new understandings arise against a backdrop of pre-understandings (i.e., philosophical hermeneutics), and a position which emphasizes the practical importance of innovating within a historically developed tradition (whether legal or scriptural or otherwise). Burke (the common-sense conservative) and Gadamer (the critic of interventionary methodology) have more in common than many people realize.

    “[I]f we look at our own experience of continuing revelation, this model [that doctrinal changes arise through radical, “thus-saith-the-Lord” prophetic action] does not account for all of what the prophets do when they announce further light and knowledge from God.”

    I emphasize that passage, Nate, because I wonder if your reading of history may betray a disciplinary bias (in the same mine may also, of course). I’ve heard both law and politics described at various times as “the science of the possible”; that certain fits here. The church’s experience with the two revelations you use as examples makes it clear that it is simply not possible for certain doctrines to be changed by revelation without a great deal of stress, dissent, and confusion; from a perspective which holds that which gets done to pretty much define that which can be done, the lesson is therefore that the prophet can’t change the church at the drop of a hat. Whereas philosophers might still be interested in the actual account of that range of possibility. Granted that radical action has enormous costs, but how is that an argument about the possibility of radical action?

    “If you look at the Doctrine & Covenants, to say nothing of Joseph’s sermons, what you find is precisely what Jed points to: a constant, radical, reinterpretation of past authorities, or stories that explain how breaks with past authority do not disturb the basic integrity of the whole.”

    I think I see an assumption here–that the revelation comes, or at least some sort of inspiration comes, and then the prophet (or others) turn to the scriptures in order to gain a fuller understanding of the revelation or indeed to “flesh out” the inspiration received; by so doing, over time, they “patch together” the fabric, figuring out how to stitch the new revelation or contingent reality back into the “basic integrity of the whole.” Even if this order is merely hypothetical, I think it may be flawed–it is (in reference the above) Burkean and stewardship-minded, making prophets responsible for discerning how the new doctrine fits (and, more importantly, teaching the saints how the new doctrine fits) in with the existing tradition or historical situation. That’s not a bad model. But isn’t just as likely, maybe even more likely, that the revelation’s “radicalness” isn’t something which demands comportment, but rather something which emerges out of efforts to achieve such? That is, the tradition or teaching is assumed in the first place; it’s the source of inspiration, or the source of the problem for which inspiration is the answer. This is a more Gadamerian argument: namely, that of course prophets attend to the integrity of the whole existing understanding, because nobody ever has any idea that doesn’t come out from the integrity of such. The reason they’re prophets (in contrast to you and me) is that what God reveals to them or inspires them to pull out of the tradition may well be in radical disjunction with it, or a throwback to some forgotten element of it, or an unexpected addition to it. (Joseph Smith is told he will be an instrument in the “restoration of all things”; he wonders to himself–plural marriage too? Joseph F. Smith is reading the scriptures; he sits back and wonders–so just what did happen in the spirit world when Jesus’s body lay dead in the tomb?) Smith’s constant citing of authority may have less to do with “proving” the intergrity of his point than in demonstrating how he got from point A (in the tradition) to point B (which was premised upon his prophetic insight alone).

  27. Jed
    April 17, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    random John (23): “The ban was never justifiable to begin with. It emerged from rumour and speculation which contradicted actual practice as instituted by Joseph Smith.”

    From our post-Civil Rights perspective, everything seems clear now, but I think the situation was more complicated than this statement lets on. Racial hierarchies governed the nineteenth century at every level. No abolotionist argued for full social equality. Even the most innovative social thinkers did not countenance interracial marriage; many were inclined to ship the black slaves back to Africa. Moderns always want to make Joseph Smith into a post-Brown integrationist, but the evidence for his racial liberality is mixed at best. There is probably as much chance Young was following Smith’s lead in restricting priesthood as there is evidence he was striking out on his own. I am not countenancing the ban, but the context of the times has to be considered, and you have to realize the further we are away from those times the worse things look. I think we can forget chalking up the ban to rumour and fluke.

    As for your question about OD 1, Nate, I think, is right about the Utah Commission leak to the SL Tribune being the immediate trigger, and this helps explain in part the reactionary tone. But I believe there is an above average chance the 1P would have issued a statement anyway without any leak as a prompt. There was widespread rumor in the east that the E-T Act had done very little to stop plural marriage. Counselor Cannon’s non-LDS lawyer friends had already informed him that the public needed reassurance. Most importantly, the Supreme Court was to meet in just a few weeks to consider the legality of E-T. With so much hanging in the balance, some sort of statement of good faith was on the horizon.

  28. Jed
    April 17, 2005 at 7:56 pm

    Random John: There is a draft of OD 1, unpublished, dictated from Pres WW to his secry George Gibbs, which differs slightly in tone from the document now published. The one we now have has a press release sort of feel, as though many hands worked it over. And indeed this was the case, as the Woodruff draft was taken to Cannon and the Twelve and worked over. The original has more immediacy and humanity. You might feel differently about the original draft.

  29. Nate Oman
    April 17, 2005 at 10:14 pm

    Jed: Where can I take a look at the first draft?

  30. April 17, 2005 at 10:46 pm

    I like the way this thread and http://speeches.byu.edu/htmlfiles/Faulconer_James_06_1998 work together.

    But … (perhaps I should say “and”) … I think a better model of a prophet is one who takes us in our language, and with our culture and attempts to lead us out of error into light, bounded by the flaws in the structure we are in.

    Both the scriptures and Brigham Young reference how we are taught in our own language and how we are hemmed in by the false traditions of our fathers and limited by our circumstances. Not to mention commandments God gives us for temporary purposes, either to create a peculiar people (many O.T. commandments that were fulfilled in Christ and finally set aside under Peter have, as an important part, interfering with assimilation), a specific structure (such as Jacob refers to the purpose of polygamy and the way it worked to create an LDS ethnic group) or to send a particular message (dress codes for missionaries).

    In that context, I really enjoyed Nate’s post here.

  31. Ted Cannon
    April 18, 2005 at 12:34 am

    I largely agree with Stephen. It seems to me that a possible explanation for how revelation progresses and doctrine or policy changes is that God works with imperfect people and institutions to achieve the best result under the circumstances. God has the ultimate goal to reveal all truth and to build a kingdom in which we will be governed by all truth. However, because God relies on imperfect people to build the kingdom, he necessarily must reveal truth only in stages and at times when the people can accept it and live it.

    Thus, under this approach, God’s revelation to end the practice of polygamy may have stemmed from God’s recognition that the practice jeopardized the growth of the church under the political climate of the time. (I believe it is also significant in the case of polygamy that God had already tested his people and found many willing to obey his law even in defiance of earthly law and at the loss of liberty.) This does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that God or the church has renounced polygamy as a doctrine.

    God has similarly withheld or withdrawn certain revelations because of the lack of preparation of the people to accept them. This occurred, for example, when Israel rejected the higher law and God gave instead the Law of Moses. It likewise occurred when the people did not live the United Order and God substituted the law of tithing. God may have waited to extend the priesthood to all worthy males at a time when the change would be widely accepted and would not cause a major schism.

    I recognize that this interpretation poses unique problems with respect to the priesthood issue because under this interpretation one group’s lack of preparation negatively affected another presumably deserving group of people. Nevertheless, overall I like this approach because it assumes God will ultimately reveal all truth while explaining imperfections introduced by human error or weakness along the way.

  32. danithew
    April 18, 2005 at 11:56 am

    Nice post Nate.

    I wonder if the Church’s organization and communication capabilities were better able to disseminate and enforce new changes in the 1970s than they were in the first decades of the 1900s — and if that didn’t contribute more to the messiness of the first change vs. the relatively easy transition of the second. Perhaps some Mormon communities had more autonomy and separation from the leadership than others — particularly outside of the United States.

    Also, it seems easier to teach and practice a newly positive commandment (you can now do something you couldn’t do before) than to teach a newly negative commandment (you can’t do something now that you could do before).

  33. April 18, 2005 at 6:18 pm

    Is there some reason Nate’s post always ends up on top? Is this some sort of symbolic action on Nate’s part? Or is it just what happens whenever Kaimi deletes his posts?

  34. Kaimi
    April 18, 2005 at 6:25 pm

    Funny that you ask, Steve — earlier this afternoon, I modified the code so that hopeless apostates would always see Nate’s post first.


  35. Jim F.
    April 18, 2005 at 6:55 pm

    Steve, given the number of people who owe finding T&S to Nate (see Kiami’s blog on that), it seems only appropriate that Nate stays on top–at least for a while.

  36. April 18, 2005 at 6:59 pm

    Agreed. Nate remains on top. And all kinds of horrible, evil jokes now fill my mind. …. must resist…posting…

  37. April 19, 2005 at 7:25 am

    I like this approach because it assumes God will ultimately reveal all truth while explaining imperfections introduced by human error or weakness along the way.

    That is the same reason I like it.

    As for Steve Evans … get thee to the correct thread for temptations … ;)

  38. April 19, 2005 at 10:07 am


    I am not claiming that Joseph Smith was a radical abolitionist or significantly ahead of his time. I am simply wishing that he were and that those that followed him were a little more progressive on the issue of racial equality rather than inventing stories about behavior in the pre-existence to reinforce the status-quo. In any case, it seems to me that Joseph had every opportunity to address the issue or institute a ban given that Elijah Abel lived in his house and he didn’t do it. It seems pretty clear that we took a few steps backward when the ban went into effect. If you argue that it was inspired, where is the evidence? It seems that the commandment to Peter to preach the Gospel to everyone trumps any OT scripture on the subject, and that Elijah Abel again shows what Joseph’s understanding of the subject was.

  39. Nate Oman
    April 19, 2005 at 11:13 am

    random John: Your point also reinforces the differences in these revelations. For all its messiness, the beginning of polygamy was quite a bit clearer than the beginning of the priesthood ban. We have a cannonized revelation and literally hundreds of sermons elaborating on the meaning and importance of polygamy. In contrast, even hitting on a date for the beginning of the priesthood ban is difficult, there is no cannonized revelation annoucing its existence, and relatively few sermons explaining or justifying it.

  40. Stephen Hardy
    April 19, 2005 at 12:17 pm

    I am jumping in with a comment without having read all of the responses. (I don’t have time today to read them.) I have always thought that our belief in continuing revelation is a hinderance rather than a help to “progress.” The Priesthood revelation is a great example of that. I have heard it said that Catholics are told that the Pope is infallible, but no-one believes it, while Mormons are taught that the Prophet isn’t infallible, but no-one believes it. Once a practice gets going, if it is supported by the Prophet, then it become “defacto” relevation, and is very very hard to change. Other religions which might have had racist policies in the past were able to change them easily. Or at least more easily that we could change ours. Changing a policy is always painful because it seems to be a confession of a weakness or a blind-spot in the former leader’s mind. But in Momonism’s case, a change can suggest a loss of belief in a prophet’s vision.

    I sometimes worry that we are drawing lines in the sand (or actually in cement) which will be hard to back off of someday, because our leaders are seen as not just inspired, but as dictating the mind and will of the Lord. Examples might include practices regarding same-gender relationships, or statements regarding women’s place and role in our society and church. I worry that our practices may be excessively brittle because we see them as revelations, rather than as very good opinions.

  41. M.J. Pritchett
    April 19, 2005 at 8:32 pm


    I agree. This tendency is exacerbated by our centralized and heirarchical organizational structure. The General Young Men’s President for the Church and his counselor visited our area recently and said that the main thing that he and the other general authorities try to do is to figure out what is on President Hinkley’s mind so they can focus on those things. This is not a bad thing, but it does reinforce the idea that things stay the way they are unless the Prophet sends a signal for change.

    He said that the YM presidency meets with the First Presidency once (or maybe twice) a year. He and the other YM presidency members are regular members with demanding full time jobs, so it is not surprising that they are not spearheading a lot of innovation in the Young Men’s program. (I’m the YM president in my ward and I know how hard it is to do that job at the ward level and still hold down a regular job. I can’t imagine how they are supposed to do it for the whole Church.)

    He and his counselor seemed intelligent, spiritual and well meaning, but it seems that by design or circumstance they are figureheads. What I wonder is whether there is a professional staff that is really thinking about the YM, or if CES is pulling the strings, or there is another general authority committee that is the real power, or if YM is just on autopilot. Given how long it has been since the Aaronic priesthood manuals have been revised, I’m afraid it’s the later.

  42. Jim F.
    April 19, 2005 at 9:09 pm

    M. J. Pritchett said: What I wonder is whether there is a professional staff that is really thinking about the YM?

    I would bet on it. There are such staff for every other area, and my experience is that permanent staff have a lot more power than people appointed to govern them for temporary amounts of time. It isn’t maliciousness on their part, but because they work in an area for a long time, they believe that they know what is best. The consequence is that their ideas and practices almost always outlive anything that a new but temporary leader might try to do. (I speak from experience here.)

    I suspect that the YM presidency have little real, long-term power. In fact, from what I’ve seen from a distance, the Twelve and the First Presidency have much less real power than we might assume. They, too, are often unable to effect change in the permanent people who run the various offices of the Church. Again, that isn’t a result of maliciousness on anyone’s part. It is just the way things work in large organizations.

  43. Jed
    April 20, 2005 at 12:00 am

    Random John (#38). Yes, indeed, we who live in the twenty-first century all “wish,” as you say, that JS and his successors were a little more progressive on social equality.

    Wishful thinking, however, is not history, and if we are to recover our history the way it was lived, we must resist imputing our own wishes onto the historical record. The record on this subject is mixed. Elijah Abel was ordained, but there is no evidence JS recommended his ordination. The argument that JS recommended Abel presumes JS had more control over Kirtland quorums than seems to be the case from minutes of meetings. Abel may have lived with the Smiths, but the evidence is late and secondary. JS never spoke of premortal curses, but an editorial appearing over his name in Kirtland said blacks were “cursed” to servitude by a “decree of Jehovah,” a curse, JS said, that could only be lifted with God’s help. There is no contemporary evidence JS restricted priesthood, but Abraham Smoot, a solid source, later said JS instructed him not to give priesthood to blacks while proselyting in the South. The Nauvoo temple allowed black people entrance, but JS fined black men who tried to marry white women. JS’s presidential platform called for slaves to be released and their masters compensated, but elsewhere he argued that blacks should be confined by “strict law” to their own species. You get the idea. The evidence for racial progressiveness is not clear-cut–my main point all along.

    Rather than parse our early history into periods of progressivism and racism, I think we do better to take the broad view that admits the church grew up in a racist world. Colored people everywhere suffered at the hands of white oppressors for thousands of years. The 1830s was not the decade when the old attitudes were swept away. The “curse” of the black skin was a widely shared belief across white America. African Methodists formed their own church rather than suffer indignities at the hand of whites. We sometimes like to think the church should lead out in social progressiveness, but there is no good reason why this must be so. Mormons look back as much as they look forward. The church, the guest of a host nation, is far from sovereign. We like to say the Restoration had to wait for the printing press, the Reformation, the Revolution, the 2nd Great AWakening, and all the rest, but on the race issue we quickly reverse field and say the church should have led out in Civil Rights instead of waiting for the event. Curious reasoning. Race has always been an explosive issue in this country, and I doubt very much if the church would have survived in tact had it attempted to install 1960s-era values decades before the country as a whole came to accept them. It would have fractured the church from within and without.

    I for one find it much easier to believe God giving a revelation restricting priesthood than to imagine Him caring so little about his children that he would let “rumor” or “chance” do the work.

  44. Lorin Hansen
    April 20, 2005 at 1:46 am

    As far as the two revelations (polygamy and priesthood) are concerned, I think what happened can more easily be understood by making a clear distinction between doctrine and policy. To me doctrine represents some ultimate truth in the matter. Policy is a practical truth determined by the historical situation.

    Marriage, for example, is an eternal arrangement. The number of wives (in this life) is an historical conditioned policy. Thus polygamy was practiced in the OT, decided against in the BofM, practiced again as the Saints were about to move into the frontier, and ended again when the frontier caught up with them. Likewise, the Reorganized Church separated on the basis of the polygamy issue, but allowed it when they sent missionaries to polygamous nations. We will probably do the same. It seems the Lord, and also the Church often do not explain decisions, Polygamy among the Mormons was never explained satisfactorily. But, I believe it was essential to survival in settling the West. As I see it, women needed to always have that option so not to be alone in a hostile environment. Women could support each other. It allowed some women to have careers and a family too. It permitted men to go on extended missions, leaving their families.in a self supporting mode. The interlocking families added a cohesivness to the community. It was messy to stop, because most had to be strongly convinced to go into the practice, and ending it severely disrupted their lives. Thus a long transition period was needed, even if that involved some deception to the outside world.

    For who holds the prieshood, I believe that it is fundamental that it be held by men. But what segment of the male population should be given that calling, I think, is historically determined. In the OT it was given to a segment of the House of Israel. In the NT, as the gospel was expanded to the gentiles, I am sure that priveldge went to all, Israelite and gentile alike. Mormonism also has what we can call a priestesshood. It showed up in the old practice of women blessing the sick. You can see it in practice in the temples. I think it was not messy to make the change of taking the priesthood to the blacks because the Church membership was ready for it long before it happened. In most cases, there was a sigh of relief and a jubilation when it finally happened. There are many reasons why it didn’t happen before it did. At least one reason, I am sure, is that it must be a terrible burden to take that big a step without an explicit, dramatic revalation to do so.

    I believe that the historical necessity of a change is clear long before the explicit inspiration affirms it strong enough to overcome any retisence. The GAs could see the temple problem coming in Brazil long before the revelation was received. Pres. McKay told the South African Saints to stop requiring the tracing of genealogy out of the country years before the revelation. The flak the Church was taking over the blacks and the priesthood was ocurring years before they felt they could make a change.

    Another change in the Church which is more easily designated a policy change was the Indian placement program. When it was being used, the Church took a lot of criticism for it. The outside world accused the Church of trying to destroy the Indian culture. Finally when they ended it, the Church was criticized again..I remember in Sunstone when a writer accused Pres. Kimball of turnig away from the Indians. Actually, the beginning and ending of the program was completely historically determined. It began as a way to help Indian children get an education. There was a lack of schools on the reservations. The practice ended because the school system so improved on the reservations that it no longer seemed a policy where the good outweighed the bad consequences.

    So I think problems come when people don’t fully appreciate the historical context of policies, and in turn, they often confuse policies for doctrine. The mistake is easily made when when full expanations for changes are not given.

  45. M.J. Pritchett
    April 20, 2005 at 12:20 pm


    Thanks for the background.

  46. April 22, 2005 at 1:08 am


    I agree that the church “grew up” in a racist period. This didn’t stop other religions, notably the Shakers, from having relatively progressive views on the subjext and acting as catalysts for change.

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