Freedom and Church membership

This is a guest post by Michael Davidson, who is a friend of the Millennial Star and occasional contributor.  He also blogs at occasionally.

In October 1905, Matthias Foss Cowley and John Whitaker Taylor resigned from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles over their disagreement with the Church’s decision to abandon the practice of polygamy. As the Manifesto was issued in 1890, this was clearly a long time coming, and the historical record makes it clear that Cowley, at least, had persisted in solemnizing plural marriages through 1905 even though he had been instructed to cease the practice and lacked the authority to do so.

In my study this morning, I was reading the remarks made by the Pres. Joseph F. Smith in the October 1903 General Conference, as he was getting ready to present the General Authorities and General Officers of the Church for a sustaining vote.  Elders Cowley and Taylor were among those to be sustained that day, two years before their resignations.  I can’t help but wonder if Pres. Smith had these two men in mind when he said the following:

“The freedom of the Latter-day Saints has never been curtailed or lessened one whit by their becoming members of the Church of Christ. Rather has it been enlarged. There are no freer people upon the face of the earth today than the Latter-day Saints. They are bound to the Church by no ties or strings, but their own conviction of the truth. And whenever a man makes up his mind that he has had enough of what is called “Mormonism,” all he has to do is to make it known and we will sever the bond that unites him with the body, and let him go his own way, only bearing toward him the feeling of sympathy and of true brotherly kindness, and wishing him still the mercies of God. We will cry, Father, have mercy upon him, because he knows not what he is doing. For when a man denies the truth, when he departs from the right way, when he rejects the right of God to counsel in the affairs of men, he is either ignorant or wilfully wicked, and it only excites our pity for him. As the Savior cried upon the cross, so will we cry in the same spirit, Father, forgive him; have mercy upon him; for he knows not what he does. Therefore, we expect only those to vote at this time who are members of the Church in good standing; but all such we do expect to vote, according to their own free will, whether it be yea or nay.” (a PDF of this talk can be found here)

I found myself wondering about what must have been going through the minds of these two men sitting on the stand and listening to the President of the Church say these words.  No doubt these men chafed under the direction given by the First Presidency on the matter of plural marriage and they clearly couldn’t be said to be one with the rest of the Quorum of the Twelve.  I suspect that they felt that their freedom to do as they wished was very restricted and that perhaps unrighteous dominion was being exercised over them.

As I consider this, it occurs that not much has changed.  There are some in the Church today that feel like it controls their lives, that feel constricted in their freedom.  Many, too many, of these individuals cut themselves off from the Church, either in name or just in deed, and gleefully proclaim their newfound freedom.  This exercise, by itself, merely indicates that they were never in bondage because they are always free to go.  I feel to echo Pres. Smith’s thoughts in this, as my heart goes out to these people in ways that they would not accept, and likely would not understand.

But, it is true that there are consequences to actions and words and thoughts.  Those that choose to take a path contrary to the doctrines of the Church; contrary to he warnings and admonitions of the prophets and apostles; will find themselves cutting themselves off from the blessings of the Church and the Gospel, irrespective of whether they are still on the earthly membership rolls of the Church.

Movie Review: Heart of Africa

Movie Review: Heart of Africa

In 1899, Joseph Conrad published his serialized novel, “Heart of Darkness.” It is the tale of British entrepreneurs  who go up the Congo River seeking to expand the ivory trade. Instead, they find disillusionment and death.

In this new film, written by my friend Margaret Blair Young* and produced by her husband, Bruce, we get a Latter-day Saint recreation of Conrad’s novel. In this film, entirely filmed in DR Congo, we find a young Congolese man, Gabriel, who runs away from the destiny thrust upon him by his foster father, a tribal leader who seeks revenge from Belgians, Rwandans, whites, and others who enslaved and brutalized their people.

In running from his home, Gabriel encounters missionaries, who take him to their home and feed him. Soon, he is baptized, though the conflict of his former life and the life he is entering in cause giant conflicts in his life. The mission president, who knew him as a child, sends him on a six month mission back to his village to build an orphanage.

Conflicts occur, as he immediately hates his white American missionary companion, and his foster father and older brother come on the scene to stir the pot. We get a real feel for modern African tribal tensions that still exist because of colonialism and tribal feuding over the past centuries. At the same time, we see how distrust and conflict can turn to forgiveness, understanding and love.

In Conrad’s novel,  in Africa we only find darkness and despair. Heart of Africa shows us the continued struggles and hardships seen by Conrad a century ago, but offers us another ending, one of love, hope, healing and redemption.

The film has received excellent reviews at the festivals where it has been presented, and in the theaters over the few weeks it was seen, until the Corona virus pandemic shut theaters down.

Fortunately, Living Scriptures quickly offered to provide its streaming service for us to see this marvelous film in the comfort and safety of our quarantined homes. 24 hour rental is only $5, and you can own it for $16.

It is mostly in French and Congolese, still it was a marvelous film, even reading the English subtitles.

* I met Margaret, along with Darius Gray, at the 2004 FairMormon Conference, when my dear friend, Renee Olson (who informally adopted me as her brother), introduced us. Young and Gray are the co-authors of a series of historical novels on early LDS black members: Standing on the Promises

Oh, How Lovely!

Two centuries ago a young man went to a grove near his home to plead with God for guidance.

Ten years later, this young man published a book of scripture from ancient peoples who had lived in the Western Hemisphere and have believed in the Judeo-Christian God in ways surprisingly resonant with long-forgotten teachings of early Church fathers.

Twenty years later, the now-mature man would reiterate the necessity of baptism, 1 declaring that this salvific ordinance could and must be performed on behalf of all God’s children who had died without having received this ordinance. 2

Oh, how lovely God’s love for us, that He would make it possible for all His children to return, no matter how much His good news was forgotten or misunderstood or denied us in this life!


  1. Joseph Smith addressed the need for baptism during the Spring 1840 General Conference, citing Jesus’s teachings to Nicodemus.
  2. The concept that individuals could perform proxy ordinances on behalf of deceased loved ones was first articulated at the August 1840 funeral of Seymour Brunson.

Book Review: Theological Introduction to First Nephi, by Joseph Spencer

Joseph Spencer is a theologian. He does theology. What exactly, though, does that mean and what does that mean for the average reader?

Theology is the study of God and his works. When I joined the Church at the age of 16 in 1975, I became enamored with the Book of Mormon. However, after a few years of studying it, I got stuck. The stories and teachings all seemed to be the same.

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