Several years ago, I had a conversation with co-worker from outside of Utah about various Mormon churches that existed in Utah. He had been doing some research and we were discussing fundamentalist Latter-day Saint groups (ones like the FLDS or the Apostolic United Brethren that promote polygamy and other doctrines from the early Utah era) when he made the remark that those groups had stayed more true to early Mormonism. I paused for a moment, then explained that it depended on how you looked at it. They had stayed true to specific beliefs and practices from the Church from that time, while we had stayed true to others—with accepting revelations from the prophets who lead the Church (such as the one that led to the end of plural marriage) being one of the key points that our religion valued over staying the same in belief and practice. In a way, it could be said that there is a paradox at the heart of our religion that causes the tension displayed in that conversation—the belief in a restoration that has recreated the primitive Church of Christ, and the belief in ongoing revelation that leads to changes from time to time.
On the one hand, we have the concept of a restoration, which leads to conservatism in how we view our religion. The term restoration, at its heart, means a return to a former condition—a recovery, a re-establishment, or a renewal of something that has changed from what it used to be by returning it to a state that is similar to what it was when it started out. When we think about restoring a building or a piece of furniture, we think about trying to undo changes that have happened to them—either by time and the forces of nature or by human action—in order to bring them into closer conformity to how they were originally built. A restoration of health or friendship means that you have repaired a friendship that had deteriorated or regained health that you once had but lost for a while due to illness or other maladies. Thus, a restoration of the Church of Christ is based on the idea that there was an earlier, ideal state in which the Church had once existed and from which Christianity has strayed and to which it needs to return. Joseph Smith most frequently looked to what he called the “Primitive Church,” “the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament,” or “the Apostolic platform” from New Testament times as this ideal church. In our day, the Restoration Proclamation states that: “We declare that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, organized on April 6, 1830, is Christ’s New Testament Church restored.” In this sense, the goal of the Restoration was to revive the earlier Church of Christ in the modern era through conformity to the Bible (which ended up including both restoration of aspects of the New Testament and the Old Testament) and through revelations that Joseph Smith believed gave insights into this earlier Church of Christ.
I say that this concept of restoration leads to a conservatism because it creates a sense that there is one perfect, static state in which the Church of Christ should always exist and from which it should never deviate. A truly ongoing restoration to a New Testament Christianity would focus on seeking more information about early Christianity (whether through scholarship on early Christian texts, beliefs, and practices or through revelation about that period of Christian history) and then seek to align current Church beliefs and practices with that information. Regardless, in my experience, Church members frequently speak in terms of an eternal gospel and how “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” and therefore His Church must be as well. We frequently point to aspects of our beliefs and Church structure as evidence that we are a restoration of the Primitive Church, such as the Restoration Proclamation’s mention of how “Jesus Christ has once again called Apostles and has given them priesthood authority.” We also often assume that anything else that we practice was what they did in the Primitive Church. For example, Joseph Smith taught that the Lord’s “purpose in himself in the winding up scene of the last dispensation is, that all things pertaining to that dispensation should be conducted precisely in accordance with the preceeding dispensations. … he set the ordinances to be the same for Ever and ever.” In that sermon, ordinances practiced in the Church today, such as baptism, are taught to have been practiced in all prior dispensations going back to the time of Adam. In another example, President Eliza R. Snow said, concerning the Relief Society, that: “Although the name may be of modern date, the institution is of ancient origin. We were told by our martyred prophet that the same organization existed in the church anciently.” A modern organization within the Church today is taught to have existed anciently as well. Hence, it can be difficult to navigate changes in the Church today, especially changes to ordinances like the temple endowment, because we assume, at any given point, that we have achieved the proper return to the eternal, proper state of the Church that existed in earlier times and that we should remain the “same yesterday, today, and forever.”
On the other, there is revelation. Revelation allows for change as a means of knowing what we should do to adapt to the here and now. As President John Taylor taught:
[We have] always required new revelations, adapted to the peculiar circumstances in which the churches or individuals were placed.
Adam’s revelation did not instruct Noah to build his ark; nor did Noah’s revelation tell Lot to forsake Sodom; nor did either of these speak of the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt. These all had revelations for themselves, and so had Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, and Joseph. And so must we, or we shall make shipwreck.
One of the major examples of revelations that changed the course of the Church’s history include Joseph Smith’s revelation(s) about instituting plural marriage and President Wilford Woodruff’s revelation that ultimately led to the end of polygamy in the Church.
When the Manifesto was issued, many Church members felt betrayed by the Church because of the change that was being made. Elder B. H. Roberts recalled that when he initially heard the news, he initially had the impression flash through his soul that: “That is right.” Yet, afterwards:
I began to reflect upon the matter. I thought of all the Saints had suffered to sustain that doctrine; I remembered my own exile, my own imprisonment; I thought of that of others. I remember what sacrifices my wives had made for it; what other had made for it. We had preached it, sustained its divinity from the pulpits, in the press, from the lecture platform. Our community had endured every kind of reproach from the world for the sake of it—and was this to be the end? I had learned to expect that God would sustain both the principle and his saints who carried it out, and to lay it down like this was a kind of cowardly proceeding that the more I thought of it the less I liked it.
While Elder Roberts eventually reconciled himself to the idea, others did not (hence the existence of many different splinter groups that still practice plural marriage). That is perhaps understandable, given how much emphasis had been placed on the practice as being an eternal principle that was necessary for exaltation. Even for members that stayed with the institution, however, many found their faith shaken. For example, my great-grandfather felt that the “Mormon leaders’ final abandonment of two defining principles—plural marriage and a communal economy—allowed statehood but altered the church irrevocably.” It turned inward,” my great aunt recalled him saying, “and became too ‘hidebound.’” While he “believed in the ‘original thought’ behind Mormonism” and that “Mormonism was a good religion,” he rarely attended or felt comfortable at Church meetings. Both of these individuals had difficulty reconciling changes in the Church brought on through revelation and adaptation.
Looking to the earliest days of the Church that we are discussing in the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum this week, we can find another example of struggling with change in the Church. David Whitmer and his family were big believers in the use of seer stones to receive revelation. Decades later, in defending his belief that Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon and early revelations were from God, but later ones were not, David focused on how Joseph Smith stopped using the seer stones and started relying on inner dialogue with the Holy Spirit for revelations. Whitmer recalled a revelation that Joseph Smith gave about selling the copyright for the Book of Mormon in Canada that ended up not coming true, and that when “he enquired of the Lord about it, … behold the following revelation came through the stone: ‘Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil.’” This was a point he returned to repeatedly.
David Whitmer used this experience to outline his argument that some revelations (particularly those from 1830 onwards) recorded by Joseph Smith were not from God. Whitmer emphasized that “early in the spring of 1830, before April 6th, Joseph gave the stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone any more.” He remarked that: “All his revelations after that—including the one on polygamy—he gave by his own mouth.” Those late revelations were received through a process where Joseph Smith “would enquire of the Lord, pray and ask concerning a matter, and speak out the revelation, which he thought to be a revelation from the Lord.” Of course, David felt that “sometimes he [Joseph] was mistaken about it being the word of the Lord.” This approach, David felt, was untrustworthy because “when a prophet, or any other man, prays to God and asks wisdom concerning a matter, his conscience will reveal an answer to him just according to the desires of his heart. If his desires are in any way carnal, he being deceived, an answer will be revealed to him accordingly; and he will think it is the revealed will of God.” His remarks show a strong distrust of revelations received in the mode Joseph Smith seems to have shifted to around the time the Church was founded in 1830.
In fact, it was at the founding of the Church of Christ that Whitmer felt that things really began to go wrong. During the proceedings of the meeting, Joseph Smith “received a revelation that he should be the leader; that he should be ordained by Oliver Cowdery as ‘Prophet Seer and Revelator’ to the church, and that the church should receive his words as if from God’s own mouth.” He felt that “this was the first error that crept into the church,” and that the process of Latter Day Saints embracing this revelation was “the great curse of the work of God in these last days. Nearly all of the church have continued to heed the words of men as if from God’s own mouth—following man into one error in doctrine after another.” While this reflects decades of time reflecting on his early experiences and justifying the existence of his own Church of Christ, it does lay the groundwork for the context of Section 28. Things had begun to change, and David wasn’t fully onboard with those changes.
With this background in mind, it probably isn’t surprising that David’s brother-in-law, Hiram Page, challenged Joseph Smith’s authority by receiving his own revelations through a seer stone. As Joseph Smith recorded in his official history: “Brother Hyrum [Hiram] Page had got in his possession, a certain stone, by which he had obtained to certain revelations.” The initial response on the part of the Whitmer family seems to have been resistance to a change in the Church (Joseph Smith receiving revelation directly via the Holy Spirit rather than a seer stone) by having one of their own try to maintain the earlier approach (Hiram Page receiving revelations via a seer stone).
As part of his efforts to reconcile the Church members who were looking to Page for revelations, Joseph Smith recorded a revelation in September 1830 that is now Doctrine and Covenants, Section 28. The revelation was directed towards Oliver Cowdery, and began by addressing some other challenges to Joseph Smith’s authority, noting that: “No one shall be appointed to Receive commandments & Revelations in this Church excepting my Servent Joseph for he Receiveth them even as Moses.” The text went on to tell Cowdery to “take thy Brother Hyram [Hiram Page] Between him & thee alone & tell him that those things which he hath written from that Stone are not of me & that Satan deceiveth him.” The revelation then reiterated the idea that only Joseph Smith could write by way of commandment for the Church, and not Hiram: “for Behold those things have not been appointed unto him Neither shall any thing be appointed unto any of this Church contrary to the Church Articles & Covenants for all things must be done in order & by Common consent in the Church by the prayer of faith.” The September 1830 revelation responded to resistance to change initiated by way of revelation by doubling down on prophetic authority, hierarchy, and established documents and procedures in the Church and casting any revelations that went contrary to that system as being from Satan.
These days, we are still negotiating how to reconcile the paradox of changes enabled through revelation in what we view as a restored Church of Christ. Conceptual constructs such as “ongoing restoration” and differentiating between “policies” and “doctrines” as a way to label things that change and things that do not in the Church are manifestations of ways in which members negotiating the tensions inherent in combining these beliefs. Ironclad insistence on following the prophets and that they will not lead us astray is another way that the institution deals with these issues, as shown by the materials included with Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants and most Sunday School manuals the Church publishes. This tension is also one of the primary factors that leads to the formation of splinter groups within Mormonism, as was ultimately the case with both David Whitmer and many of the Mormon groups and churches that continue to advocate plural marriage. It is a powerful tension that we need to navigate in our own ways as members of the Church today. This remains true in light of ongoing changes during the last decade, including doctrinal shifts incorporated into the Gospel Topics essays, administrative reforms and changes to temple ordinances rolled out during President Russell M. Nelson’s tenure, etc. How we respond to and make sense of these changes is often a display of what we value about continuity with the past (discussed here as belief in restoration) and our flexibility towards making changes for the future (which is generally done in the Church through revelation).
Book of Mormon Central: “Come Follow Me 2021: Doctrine and Covenants 27-28
Kent Larsen, “Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 27-28,” Times and Seasons, 15 March 2021
Chad Nielsen, “The Way and the Ancient Gospel,” Times and Seasons, 28 March 2020
Bishop Bill, “Doctrine Vs Policy,” Wheat & Tares, 29 November 2020
 Articles of Faith 1:6.
 “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/2
 “Letter to Noah C. Saxton, 4 January 1833,” p. 16, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-noah-c-saxton-4-january-1833/3
 Moroni 9:9.
 Joseph Smith sermon, 5 October 1840, recorded by Robert B. Thompson. In Cook, Lyndon W.. The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 1123-1134). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition
 Eliza R. Snow, “Female Relief Society,” Deseret News, Apr. 22, 1868, 1; punctuation standardized. See also https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/daughters-in-my-kingdom-the-history-and-work-of-relief-society/relief-society-a-restoration-of-an-ancient-pattern?lang=eng.
 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: John Taylor (SLC: LDS Church, 2011), Ch. 17.
 B. H. Roberts The Essential B.H. Roberts, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 45-47.
 Jean Miles Westwood, Madame Chair: The political autobiography of an unintentional pioneer (Logan: Utah State University, 2007), 10-11, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/usupress_pubs/113/.
 David Whitmer, “An Address to all Believers in Christ: By a Witness of the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon,” (Richmond, MO, 1887), 31, http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/address1.htm.
 Whitmer, “Address to all Believers,” 32.
 Whitmer, “Address to all Believers,” 41.
 Whitmer, “Address to all Believers,” 32.
 Whitmer, “Address to all Believers,” 41.
 Whitmer, “Address to all Believers,” 33.
 JS History, vol. A-1, 53–54.
 “Revelation, September 1830–B [D&C 28],” p. 40, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-september-1830-b-dc-28/1
 “Revelation, September 1830–B [D&C 28],” p. 41, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-september-1830-b-dc-28/2.
Interesting take, but I think juxtaposing restoration and revelation as a differentiator between the main Brighamite church and other splinter groups isn’t accurate. Speaking generally since there are so many splinter groups with unique practices and approaches, but they likewise believe in living prophets and ongoing restoration. For those that continue the practice of polygamy, they have the shared belief that early LDS prophets taught an eternal doctrine, but they believe in different prophets who have not rejected or recontextualized that teaching. They equally believe in restoration and ongoing revelation, it is just a matter of whose voice they trust. We believe in our process of restoration through revelation to our prophets and they believe in a different process of restoration through revelation to their prophets.
That’s a fair point, Nemo, and I probably should have written things a bit differently to better capture the issues you bring up. I recognize that those groups do still believe in revelation alongside restoration, and I could have done a better job of addressing that. They are still Mormon, with the same roots as the main Brighamite institution. The same could be said of the Whitmer Church of Christ–including what you have brought up about having to decide whose voice they trust. That being said, it doesn’t change that they have separated themselves from the mainline institution because they reject policies and decisions implemented by the Church’s leaders, who claimed to be doing so because of revelation.
In any case, the deeper issue I was getting at was that one of the main reasons for splintering among Mormon groups is based on whether people are prioritizing continuity of doctrines and practices (which is generally rooted in how Latter-day Saints view the restoration) or continuity of the institution (which is generally rooted in viewing the leaders of that institution as being guided by revelation) and that it is a general tension that Latter-day Saints have to deal with when they realize that things change over time in the Church. But, it does all get messy when you start delving into details about the specific reasons for splits and the various ways in which different Mormon groups justify their right to exist as an organization or to be the true church within Mormon belief systems.
Interesting that you should quote Whitmer so much in this, since his beef with the Church was that it changed; he held to the idea that restoration and revelation meant getting to the ideal static state… and stopping. When it didn’t, he left.
I’m not sure how much I buy Whitmer’s historical assertions.
But on the more general topic of tension between continuity and change, I’ve found a lot of wisdom in the verbiage of the introduction to a book called Evolution and the Fall, a Protestant collection of essays.
“it is the tradition that yields its own internal criteria for what counts as a “faithful” extension of the tradition. In other words, what “counts” as a reason or warrant or evidence or a “good move” in this game is tethered to the heritage of the tradition.”
Much longer quote and discussion here- https://benspackman.com/2021/02/14/what-im-doing-here-and-what-i-hope-others-will-do/
Ben, that’s the exact reason why I quoted so much from Whitmer. He was a great example of someone who struggled to move beyond the idea of a static state of restoration. I wasn’t interested in validating his historical assertions (which I also don’t really buy) so much as showing the mindset of someone who had a beef with the Church changing and how the leaders of the Church navigated the challenge his brother-in-law posed in order to demonstrate what I was talking about.
Thank you for sharing the quote and the link as well, Ben. I do have to so say that I appreciate what you are doing and for your call to “look at LDS understandings of the nature of revelation, prophets, scripture, and interpretation,” as part of sifting through and seeking to understand what is core and what can change in our tradition. As someone with a technical background in molecular biology, I particularly appreciate your work in contextualizing evolution and how Latter-day Saints have approached that issue.
Thank you for your insights on this. I think it’s an excellent subject to consider.
I think a key question here is what the defining aspects of the Church are. If they are rites, than any change to rites would constitute a change to the Church. If the defining aspect is how it is organized, than any change to organization would constitute a change to the Church.
But that’s not how the Church is described in revealed scripture. I particularly like the implicit definition in 3 Nephi 27:8 – “it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel.” The church here is people (“they”) who have a defined relationship with the Lord (“my church”) conditional upon acceptance of his teachings (“my gospel”). A church built upon those foundational principles would be the same as that which existed in antiquity, even if there are changes to the organizational structure, the rites, common practices, leadership, etc.
I think it’s also worth highlighting the common phrase used to describe the relationship between the Lord and his people: “kingdom”. A kingdom can be a dynamic organization that sees many significant changes, even as its central defining feature – the relationship between the king and his people – stays constant. (Conversely, a kingdom ceases to be such when it is no longer led by its king, even if the rest of the organizational structure and ceremonies etc. are still in place.)
The Book of Mormon illustrates well how much change the church can go through while still retaining its essential characteristics. The church began with a single founder, Alma, operating under the authorization of King Mosiah (who seems to have retained ultimate spiritual authority, curiously enough – cf. Mosiah 25:19), to something more recognizable to us following the visit of Christ, with leadership shared among a group of leaders, operating independently of the political leadership. But the authors of the Book of Mormon recognize it as essentially the same organization both before and after the coming of Christ.