I was recently told that earth stewardship is not a doctrine nor a principle of the gospel; rather, it is a heritage. I was shocked. Injunctions to exercise stewardship and the related idea of accountability for our stewardship abound in the scriptures. From the command to keep and care for the garden of Eden to exercising righteous dominion, the Mosaic laws regarding harvest and gleaning and allowing the land to lie fallow, the order of jubilee, to the laws of tithing and consecration and the parables of fields, vineyards, and talents, we are told, over and over, in many ways, that the earth and all things created thereon are God’s, that we are to both enjoy it and use it well, for our benefit and the benefit of others.
I was raised in Primary on the Plan of Salvation where I learned that we have come to live on this earth to become like our Heavenly Father. In Young Women I learned about the values of choice and accountability, good works, and integrity follow faith, divine nature, individual worth, and knowledge. Once we know who we are in relationship to our Heavenly Father, we have the obligation to learn what is best to do, and to make our actions consistent with our knowledge of right and wrong. The idea of stewardship fits seamlessly into this worldview.
I did a quick dictionary (WordBook app) search of the words “doctrine,” “principle,” and “heritage.” When I was told that stewardship of the earth is not a doctrine, I asked what a doctrine was. The definition I received was that doctrines are things save souls, and I was then referred to conference talks and Ensign articles. The key point in my dictionary definition is that a doctrine is a belief that is accepted as authoritative. With those two sources, I have to conclude that the idea of stewardship for the earth lacks authoritative support within our church, and our church respects authority. In our hierarchy of authority, we give precedence to the words of the current prophet, the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and then to the other general authorities and general auxiliary leaders. The words of current leaders weigh more than those of past leaders, especially if that past leader never became prophet. If these leaders are not speaking about this concept, then it lacks doctrinal weight, despite the attention that latter-day prophets paid to it in the past. (On the other hand I appreciate the narrowing of the the definition of doctrine in this post-McConkie age.) The talk by Elder Nash made many people, latter-day saints and gentiles alike, hopeful that earth stewardship was being given the authoritative attention necessary to raise it to the level of doctrine in the collective awareness of church members. Being told it is not doctrinal is a step back.
On to “principle.” A principle is a basic generalization, accepted as true, used as a basis for reasoning and conduct, a rule or standard of good behavior, and so forth. This definition actually fits very well with the ideas of stewardship described by Elder Nash, George Handley, and many other faithful latter-day saints. It fits so perfectly, in fact, that I must conclude that stewardship is a principle through all commonly accepted uses of the word, if not within specialized church jargon.
As for the idea of earth stewardship being a heritage, I think that is wonderful. We do have very clear statements from past leaders about our responsibilities to care for the land we live on, and to use its abundance to care for each other. We have a history of self-sufficiency and community reliance. We attempted to live the law of consecration. We have been taught to live providently, to plant gardens, to learn to grow and make and preserve our food. The insight from my dictionary app is that heritage are those practices handed down from the past by tradition. I would love to call earth stewardship a heritage of the latter-day saints, but a heritage that has been neglected or forgotten is no heritage at all. We need to revive these aspects of our heritage. This definition will fit well only if we actively recognize earth stewardship as a part of our heritage and choose to live by those principles and practices so that they will be part of the heritage that we pass on to our children. And as much as some saints may do in their individual lives, this will not be an active part of the common heritage of the church unless our leaders and those in authority bring it to our remembrance and make it so.
The real problem with saying that stewardship of the earth is not doctrinal is that it makes stewardship seem relatively unimportant to the work of salvation, and as a result, may be regarded as absolutely unimportant in the daily lives of latter-day saints. It reinforces the false either/or dichotomy that we must either care for creation or for the salvation of humanity. But modern revelation has told us that the spirit of man is the union of the soul and the body, and the body and spirit both require this earth for experience and development so that we may become like our Heavenly Father. We must care for the earth, not for the earth’s sake, but for our own, because it is setting of this temporal phase of the plan of salvation.
And now I open the subject to you. Which words would you use to describe the ideas of stewardship?