There are many controversies surrounding various aspects of the history and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“the Church”), and I’ll try to address many of these individually in future posts. But what I want to address here is the way that the Church is misleading at best, and overtly deceptive at worst, in its treatment of these issues.
The Church claims that its teachings and practices are based on God’s word, which is Eternal, and doesn’t change, and that members can rely on those teachings and practices as a secure foundation for their lives. Members are thus counseled to obey Church leaders as if that counsel came directly from God Himself (see D&C 1:38). But they hide the fact that basic doctrine and practices have seen profound changes over time, while still expecting members to obey current teachings as if they were eternal and not subject to change or debate.
Maybe I’m overly idealistic, but I would expect any religious organization that claims to possess absolute truths, to be absolutely committed, privately and publicly, to the cause of truth, with a strict policy of honesty and openness, avoiding even the appearance of dishonesty. This is not what I find as I have studied the Church and its history for the last several decades.
To give just a few examples of these changes, ranging from fundamental doctrine to day-to-day practice:
• Birth Control was once condemned, and included in the same condemnation as Abortion; now it is left up to the discretion of the couple.
• Families were once counseled to not have “playing cards” in their homes; now this practice is no longer even mentioned by Church leaders.
• Polygamy was once considered to be an essential part of the Gospel; now the Church distances itself from this practice as something purely from the past (although it is still an integral part of Church doctrine - see D&C 132).
• Temple Ceremonies and Garments were originally declared to be revealed directly by God, and therefore could not be changed; the fact is both have seen continual and substantive changes over time.
How does one justify these examples of changing, conflicting teachings and practices that are presented as “God’s unchangeable word” at the time that they were proclaimed?
One typical Church response emphasizes the concept of “continuous revelation” where God is in constant communication with His Prophet on earth, so he can then communicate to the Church members the things that need to be understood and done at that particular point in time.
Now, if these teachings provided greater detail and depth over time, or provided new insight which expanded upon, but didn’t contradict, previous understanding, that would be one thing, and would not raise fundamental questions. But when they directly contradict previous teachings, that is quite another, and this thoroughly undermines any claims to their being ‘eternal’ truths directly from God’s mouth.
Another strategy taken by the Church and its apologists in addressing statements by previous Prophets that are no longer accepted as true, is to say they “were speaking as men and not as Prophets.” This is not tenable, however, as they said those things during official Church Conferences and meetings, in their role as Prophet, and declared that they were in fact speaking the words of the Lord. If previous Prophetic statements made in that context could be false, then we must similarly disregard any counsel given by current Prophets, even during General Conference, or in the official Church publication, The Ensign.
The Church is thus in a bind. In order to prevent its members from becoming aware of these changes and conflicts, it produces teaching manuals and other materials which effectively ignore previous contradictory teachings. These manuals often contain ‘mis-quotes,’ either overtly edited or taken completely out of context, very reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984.”
Following up on one of the examples above, a member could thus study the lives of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in Sunday School for 2 years, and have absolutely no idea that they not only practiced polygamy (not to mention Polyandry), but taught that it was an essential part of the Gospel, and a requirement for entry into the highest degree of Heaven in the Celestial Kingdom.
Further, the Church also actively discourages members from even looking for information in any sources other than currently ‘Church-approved’ publications, invoking the term “anti-mormon” to discredit any and all of those materials. (With the advent of the Internet, however, this is becoming increasingly difficult.)
Thus, the bind is that if it acknowledges that the doctrine and practices taught by previous Prophets and Apostles were in error, then it has absolutely no basis to expect members to accept current teachings as true. The whole edifice simply falls apart.
For many who leave the Church, it is as much this feeling of betrayal, that they have been lied to by those they trusted, that is the cause of their disaffection, perhaps even more than the knowledge of the actual facts and history.