Transitional Mormonism and Tradition: Part 1

George Cattermole, "The Scribe" public domain.

George Cattermole, “The Scribe.” Public domain.

I wrote the last post while traveling and have just started a new and busy semester, and so didn’t respond at all to the thirty-odd comments there. I’ll address them and some related issues, instead, in a multi-part series. I’ll get into what I mean by “transitional Mormonism” in the next post, but it’s nothing to do with “faith journeys,” “stages of faith” or anything like that. 
Peter Enns is both an Evangelical who holds the Bible in very high regard and a Harvard PhD in Hebrew Bible. He has been featured in the Maxwell Institute podcast and spoken at BYU along with James Kugel and Candida Moss (now in print here). I frequently steer Latter-day Saints to his books. Back in November, I linked to a forthcoming book cowritten by a Bible scholar and a geneticist, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. Enns has now offered a brief review over at Biologos, an excellent site for science/religion issues. Although it doesn’t all apply to the Mormon worldview (e.g. the issue of every human sinning “in Adam,” or “original sin”), the whole thing is worth reading. I want to highlight one of his comments.

Any discussion of the “historical Adam” cannot proceed one step forward without taking into account the story of Adam in its ancient context. I don’t mean to suggest this is easy as pie. There is a lot to work through, and room for some variation in points of view. But the conversation cannot go on as if we’ve learned nothing in the last 150 years about antiquity and the function that origins stories played in ancient societies. Placing Adam in his ancient context immediately and significantly affects how Genesis is brought into the discussion over evolution. (My italics)

I completely agree, but want to take this in a different direction. Mormons place very high authority on tradition, and rightly so given the LDS principles of priesthood authority, revelation, etc. But we are a young Church with underdeveloped mechanisms for weighing, balancing, and adjudicating statements within that tradition. While not perfectly analogous, there is no LDS equivalent of, say, the Islamic science of weighing and judging traditions about Mohammed (hadith) or the Catholic degrees of authoritative statements. Instead we play General Authority poker.

There is a common assumption that statements made by Church leaders represent both a revelatory position (vertical, with the divine) and representative position (horizontal, that all General Authorities hold the same view). At times, something calls this into question: conflict of various kinds, both perceived and real, which exists much more than most people realize. Whether conflict between contemporaneous General Authorities (like Brigham Young vs. Orson Pratt), historical (like Bruce R. McConkie vs. Brigham Young), conflict or differing views between scripture and General Authorities, or within scripture itself (see here), or conflict between (particular readings of) scripture and well-established human knowledge (e.g. Young earth creationists vs. lots of geology, biology, etc.) Such conflicts suddenly call into question common absolutist assumptions about the nature of Church leadership (eternally unified, monolithic, consistent, and purely divine, for all practical purposes) and can undermine faith, if unexpected.

There are plenty of General Authority statements indicating that these common assumptions are wrong. To take two examples, B.H. Roberts bluntly said that

Constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs even of the Church; not even good men, no, not though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:525

That notorious liberal softy Elder Bruce R. McConkie similarly said that

With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances. Mormon Doctrine, 547.

If, as I said above, LDS Church leaders are not merely offering human views, neither (according to McConkie, Roberts, and many others) are they somehow divinely cleaved and cleansed from their own minds, culture, knowledge, “their own opinions and prejudices” in McConkie’s terms. My suspicion is that this is not an on/off switch, not a clear “acting as prophet/not acting as prophet” binary as it is sometimes characterized, but a constant divine/human mixture that fluctuates for a variety of reasons. I believe that all revelation is inflected with humanity to some degree; it must be so, or God could not communicate with us, e.g. D&C 1:24. (But that’s another post, one I’ve probably already written.)

Here’s an example I think most will find non-threatening, regarding changes in garments in the early 1900s.

Although there was opposition to such changes among some Latter-day Saints, Elder Richards [an Apostle and Salt Lake City  Temple President] had learned some months earlier that such changes were both appropriate and normal. Some older members of the Church informed him that Emma Smith and Eliza R. Snow made the original temple clothing for the Prophet Joseph Smith. The reason they used strings on the garment was simply because they were too poor to buy [page] buttons. It was not necessarily God’s will that strings be used instead of buttons. The old-style collar was included because the seamstresses did not know how to finish the top of the garment and decided to do it with a collar. Dale C. Mouritsen, A Symbol of New Directions: George Franklin Richards and the Mormon Church, 1861-1950 (BYU Dissertation, 1982), 211-212. My italics.

In other words, people assumed that the received tradition (about the temple!) was fully prophetic and divinely ordained. The reality is that this aspect of the received tradition was dictated by human choice and historical circumstances. Addressing BYU professors, Elder McConkie once said that “Certain things which are commonly said and commonly taught in the Church [that is, “tradition”] either are not true, or, are in the realm of pure speculation.” Yes, he had a particular topic in mind, but that’s irrelevant to my purposes here. Suffice to say, he recognized that Church tradition includes aspects that, while popular, do not have much real grounding.

Returning to Genesis, evolution, and Enns, “the conversation cannot go on as if we’ve learned nothing in the last 150 years. When Mormons discuss various social, economic, religious, or scriptural issues, we tend to cite General Authority views, often from the relatively distant past. Can we legitimately cite those traditions as if they were pure expressions of divine knowledge intended for all time? (I think I’ve demonstrated above that it’s dangerous to assume that uncritically.) Or should we understand them as being influenced to some degree by the context and situations of the speaker as well as “their opinions and prejudices”?

Let me get very specific. Our knowledge of biology, biochemistry, genetics, evolution, and human origins, the topic of the book Enns is reviewing, have exploded in ways unimaginable in the early 1900s and even mid-1900s. (The timeline of this knowledge-production is quite interesting to study but secondary to my purpose here. Perhaps I’ll post a book list later.) The Church’s statement from over one hundred years ago was “that which is demonstrated, we accept with joy.”  Can we simply cite these and other such statements opposed to evolution as if they were purely divine and context-free declarations, and put the issue to bed? Or rather, are we obliged both to acknowledge them and their concordant authority and wrestle with what has been demonstrated and well-established in the last decades? Has the state of “demonstration” changed in the last hundred-plus years?

As a believing and orthodox Latter-day Saint, I take seriously the injunctions to study my scriptures and the words of the prophets, both living and dead. Indeed, it is precisely because I take it seriously that I study closely our religious tradition and have become aware of (as I mention above) the variety of views and opinions, sometimes even on central doctrinal issues, within scripture and LDS history. One of my old BYU professors quipped that “when it comes to church history and doctrine, you can have it all, or you can have it consistent, but you can’t have both.”

True indeed.

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9 thoughts on “Transitional Mormonism and Tradition: Part 1

  1. Well said, Ben. And thanks for the heads up on the new book referenced in your first paragraph and the link to Enns’ overview.


    1. That’s a very odd comment.

      Are you suggesting that Enns somehow does *not* hold a very high opinion of the Bible? That Westminster’s issue (which revolved around whether Enns was transgressing the Westminster statement of faith) is somehow relevant for Mormons? The whole thing has been well chronicled online, e.g.

      Enns remains an Evangelical with a high regard for scripture, if you read his books and blog.


  2. Ben, let us also be realistic about the human interpretation and prejudices that go into modern science. It might be possible that regarding evolution, not everything is God’s pure unadulterated word either.


  3. Ben
    Who is the most highly regarded biblical scholar among the Mormons and how many would you say are credentialed enough to be taken seriously by evangelical scholars?


  4. I agree with you that this is a sticky, messy issue with no easy, comfortable answers. I appreciate your willingness to hash out the details and wrestle with them. I believe that God wants us to learn to be comfortable with tension, to accept that not everything can be neatly tied up in pretty bows yet. And maybe I’m simplifying your argument too much, but it almost sounds like you’re saying “let’s re-interpret scripture based on the light of science,” which sounds only subtly different than “I believe the scriptures as long as they don’t contradict science,” which is only slightly different than saying “scriptures are nice, but science is where we learn real truth”


  5. My head is spinning… but I get the conundrum that you are working through, which you haven’t solved yet. Ultimately you are trying to work out the “flaws” where there shouldn’t be any. It’s the same feeling I get when I learn that NOAA has been manipulating the data. As an environmentalist, I can’t tell you how disappointed I am when I learn that the things I have held dear were founded on bad science. NOT COOL! I still love the environment… it’s just falseness doesn’t cut it with me.

    The ultimate form of enlightenment is when a persons cognition and morality are fully enjoined with truth. At the heart of every conflict that you are struggling with are some lies and some truths.

    John 8:31-32
    31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;
    32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

    There is only one way to work out the problem… but I don’t think you will be able to go there because it takes a lot of courage. In the meantime, all of your issues will go unresolved. The only way to solve your problem is to re-test all of your assumptions with rational thought and prayer.


  6. I endorse the nod to Peter Enns. L.D.S. could learn a lot from him. His book “The Bible Tells Me So” is a good place to start.


  7. The idea that LDS doctrine is inconsistent and that its history is messy appears to be commonly asserted by believing LDS intellectuals. While I certainly commend the ownership that believing intellectuals are taking of what is rather apparent upon any close investigation of LDS church history, I would be interested in intellectuals trying to identify what IS consistent about LDS doctrine and history. For instance, the idea that every person needs to be baptized by immersion by someone with priesthood authority appears to be fairly consistent. Could believing intellectuals not compile a list of such teachings, and then take ownership of that?

    Whenever I read writings by believing intellectuals about how the prophets are human and make mistakes, it appears to be partially in response to critics and ex-Mormons who cite historical inconsistencies as a justification to leave. What is revealed partially by such writings is an attitude among believing intellectuals that the ex-Mormon critic shallowly expected the prophets and leaders to be perfect and because of such high unreasonable expectations felt betrayed upon finding out about an inconsistency and left for emotional and not well reasoned justifications.

    In my many experiences and interactions with critics and ex-Mormons, I have found this characterization of them to be generally incorrect. I commonly hear the analogy of the shelf collapsing as a reason for leaving the LDS church. What this suggests to me is that the ex-Mormons at some point would have been fine with a few inconsistencies and mistakes. But it is the plethora of inconsistencies and mistakes and their magnitude that has caused them to decide to leave.

    Seeing as how you referenced McConkie in your post, it would seem that the narrative that the prophets are just humans as a subtle slight against critics is a bit tired. I would be more impressed to read a post about what is consistent and true in Mormonism and the evidence for such.


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