What exactly is the Proclamation, or, to use its full title, The Family: A Proclamation to the World? It is not scripture. It is not a revelation. It is not even a Conference talk. What is it? What status does the Proclamation have at present in the LDS Church?
Before you, dear reader, respond with a comment telling me how obvious it is that the Proclamation is (a) inspired, or (b) a revelation, or (c) uncanonized scripture, or (d) how dare you ask about the formal status of this sacred document, let’s read a few sources that might upgrade the discussion.
First, here is the very short explanation provided at the bottom of the current LDS.org presentation of the Proclamation: This proclamation was read by President Gordon B. Hinckley as part of his message at the General Relief Society Meeting held September 23, 1995, in Salt Lake City, Utah. That description isn’t particularly helpful — “message to the Relief Society” certainly doesn’t sound like counsel binding on the entire Church. On the other hand, it was apparently issued over the signatures of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve (although the LDS.org presentation does not so indicate) and, unlike official Letters from the First Presidency, which are read from the pulpit once by local leaders but are not published to the general membership of the Church, the text of the Proclamation has been published and is regularly cited.
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry titled “Proclamations of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles” is helpful and informative about this strange category of LDS pronouncement, “proclamation.” But, like most EOM entries, it deftly avoids tough questions. Here is the first paragraph of the article:
In performance of their calling as apostles, prophets, seers, revelators, and spokesmen for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have from time to time issued formal written proclamations, declarations, letters, and various public announcements. These have been addressed sometimes to the members of the Church (as a type of general epistle) and sometimes to the public at large. All such declarations have been solemn and sacred in nature and were issued with the intent to bring forth, build up, and regulate the affairs of the Church as the kingdom of God on the earth. Subject matter has included instruction on doctrine, faith, and history; warnings of judgments to come; invitations to assist in the work; and statements of Church growth and progress.
Only a few of the many formal declarations have been labeled “Proclamations.” Others have been characterized “Official Declarations,” “Doctrinal Expositions,” or “Epistles.” Some have the signature of the First Presidency, some of the First Presidency and the Twelve, and some of the Twelve only.
Solemn and sacred language, yes, but what is it? Revelation, declaration, exposition, letter, memo? The EOM article lists four previous official proclamations (issued in 1841, 1845, 1865, and 1980), none of which serve any ongoing normative role in the Church. Generalizing from the four previous proclamations listed in the EOM article and ignoring the commentary, it is reasonable to conclude that proclamations are documents of lofty prose (“solemn and sacred”) designed for official events or announcements but *not* intended to have ongoing significance for the Church or its membership. Plural marriage was not ended with a proclamation. The priesthood ban was not ended with a proclamation.
How about that repository of all knowledge, Wikipedia? The article “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” describes it as “a 1995 statement issued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints … which defined the official position of the church on family, gender roles, and human sexuality.” Wikipedia thinks it is essentially a consolidated policy statement.
Claudia Bushman provides some commentary on the Proclamation in her book Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America (Praeger, 2006).
Speaking to Church members as well as to the world, written in the solemn tones of Old Testament prophets, the proclamation lays out the ideal family style and warns against other options. … Speaking against family disintegration, same-sex marriage, and abortion, declaring gender to be an eternal characteristic, the policy is more conservative that anything found in the Scriptures. The document restates the desirability of eternal marriage, the equality of partners, and the need for loyalty and faithfulness. (p. 38-39.)
Bushman also notes that in some ways the Proclamation is a quiet retreat from earlier conservative positions.
Though highly conservative, the language of the Proclamation broadens the acceptable limits of the ideal LDS family. Within its parameters is the assumption that sometimes two incomes may be necessary and that creative solutions where partners “help one another” to raise and teach children may be needed. Church teachings formerly urged young people to marry early and not to postpone or limit their families. Birth control was then officially proscribed. Now it is not mentioned. The large LDS families of the past are shrinking along with others in the nation. Families are told to make their own decisions based on Jesus Christ’s teachings. (p. 42)
In the essay “LDS Family Ideals versus the Equality of Women” (in Revisiting Thomas F. O’Dea’s The Mormons: Contemporary Perspectives, U of U Press, 2008), Carrie A. Miles discusses the Proclamation in the context of the Church’s efforts to defend traditional family and gender roles against the tidal wave of social change that began in the Sixties. One problem was that the scriptures provided little support for that effort.
Though as Dallin H. Oaks said in 2005, “The theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints centers on the family,” I suggest that church leadership found it difficult to support either this high view of family or the historic sexual division of labor from its scriptures. No biblical passage demands marriage and family as essential for salvation or requires the sexual division of labor — Jesus in fact says that following him will set family members at war with each other. Nor can support for these views be found in uniquely LDS scriptures … (p. 122).
The Proclamation was, according to Miles, essentially the solution to the problem that the scriptures don’t say (or at least say rather obliquely) what LDS leaders want them to say.
The church solved this problem in 1995 with the publication of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Neither sermon, revelation, nor manifesto, the proclamation was issued in the name of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and appeared as a new and unique form of communicating God’s will to church members. … [I]t covers all of the issues with which church leadership has been struggling since the 1960s. … [It] provides, finally, a scriptural basis for the sexual division of labor: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over the families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection of their families. Mother are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” But though defining gender roles as absolute, the proclamation still gives a nod to modern economic forces … (p. 124).
Miles concludes, “Although the proclamation has not been officially canonized, it serves the function of scripture in offering an authoritative reference for Mormons concerned with family issues” (p. 124).
Finally, there is President Julie Beck’s recent article in the March 2011 Ensign, “Teaching the Doctrine of the Family,” which includes the following paragraph citing a November 1995 statement in the Ensign by President Hinckley.
What is it we hope this rising generation will understand and do because of what we teach them? The answers to that question as well as the key elements of the doctrine of the family are found in the family proclamation. President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) said that the proclamation was “a declaration and reaffirmation of standards, doctrines, and practices” that this Church has always had.
So what is the Proclamation?