Whenever a controversial position is held by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, detractors point to what they see as changes made in its history as evidence pressure tactics can work. They believe if there is enough “agitation” from without, with help from within, that doctrines become malleable. All it takes is for the prophet to “get a revelation and God’s mind will change on a dime.” Get the government involved, such as threatening tax exemption, and its a sure thing. Views like this are understandable for non-Mormons who have tentative grasp of Mormon history and doctrine. Members who believe this have no excuse other than blind devotion to personal presumptions. They set themselves up as wiser than the Prophets and Apostles chosen by God to be His representatives. Looking closer at the end of polygamy and Priesthood ban used as examples to prove LDS doctrine can easily be changed, it becomes less obvious there really was much of a difference.
Revelation is the foundation of the Gospel. This is not in dispute. A belief in prophets opens up the possibility of new understanding and the changes that can come with greater knowledge. To study the Doctrine and Covenants is to learn of doctrinal and procedural growth and expansion. Priesthood did not come out of whole cloth, but line upon line as the membership increased requiring new needs. Even up to the late 20th Century Priesthood organization was transformed as one set of positions were discontinued and another developed. Theological changes are not outside the realm of possibility, with questions about the afterlife following a pattern of questioning and then learning more. Damnation to an eternal lake of fire is transformed into a period of punishment and refinement before the final judgement. Heaven has multi-layered meaning with the traditional dichotomies of the soul’s fate a temporary condition. Too many mistake learning more as a sort of repudiation of former beliefs. The two most abused examples don’t prove this notion.
Wrestling the Mind of God
Can God change His mind? That seems to be the crux of the arguments. Many will point to the idea that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever as evidence that change of any kind is impossible. He is set up as a mute idol unable to move. Once a path is set, there is forever only one direction He can point. This is true to a degree, because the Scriptures are clear He does not waver and can be trusted to do what He says. On the other hand, there are certainly examples that seem to indicate the possibility of a changing mind. For instance, the prophet Jonah was tasked by God to warn the people of Nineveh they had to repent or be destroyed. For the prophet it was a sure thing and he was ready to watch the city burn after giving them the news. When it didn’t happen he was angry that God’s promised wrath was discontinued. It was a needless disappointment as Elder Juan Uceda explained:
When the anticipated calamity did not come to pass, Jonah complained to the Lord, saying that he knew the Lord was merciful and that He would never destroy those people. Jonah also claimed he had fled originally because he knew his preaching to these people would do no good. He then asked the Lord to take his life, for he felt it was not worth living anymore (see Jonah 4:2–3). How sad that Jonah could not rejoice in the success of his missionary labors!
To put it another way, Jonah accused God of lying. All this because God changed His mind because the people changed their ways. The prophet could not see beyond his understandable fear and bias of the violent and murderous assyrian empire.
Saving Nineveh isn’t the only example in the Bible of God changing his mind to grant more blessings. According to Christianity, the old law of works was replaced by the new one of faith and love. More importantly the membership was expanded to allow inclusion of Gentiles. How Jewish the fledgling religion was to remain became a heated debate. During Jesus’s lifetime, he sent out missionaries, but, “These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6). After his death and resurrection there was contention if the Gentiles were worthy to be taught. Like any time God changes His mind, a revelation gave new directions. Missionary efforts and religious practices were about to change as Robert J. Matthews explains:
However, the conversion of Cornelius and his family at Caesarea, recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts, was a major step for the new church’s missionary system—a full step toward taking the gospel to all the world. A vision (see Acts 10:9–18) taught Peter not only that the Mosaic law’s strict prohibition of certain foods was about to end, but also that he and the Church must be ready to accept all those whom God was willing to cleanse.
Cornelius’s baptism is the first clear case of a Gentile coming into the Church without having obeyed the requirements of the law of Moses—circumcision, the law of carnal commandments, ceremonial law, and so forth. Many Jewish brethren in the Church objected to this direct membership process and complained to Peter, but he answered their criticism with a recital of his vision and of the workings of the Spirit in the matter (see Acts 11). Despite this divine direction through the Lord’s anointed, however, some Jewish members of the Church remained reluctant to accept the change, “preaching the word to none but … Jews only” (Acts 11:19).
From this we learn the more things change the more they stay the same. Many Jews both in and outside the Early Church were critical of these revelations to expand preaching to the Gentiles. No doubt there were criticisms that the changes existed for mere convenience sake, or because of social pressure.
The End of Polygamy
During the 1880s the U.S. Federal Government declared de facto war on the Mormons with legal challenges against the practice of polygamy. The final blow was a Supreme Court ruling (that might in modern times eventually come under review) making cohabitation and multiple marriages unconstitutional. It didn’t matter if the participants asked for official recognition, so long as they acted married. The full force of the law put unrelenting pressure on the Mormons to renounce the practice by jailing those who taught and lived the principle. The LDS Church came close to losing everything they earned and owned.
Under the threat of losing even the most basic freedoms, President Wilford Woodruff wrote a manifesto discontinuing the practice of polygamy. What is currently contained in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 1 is both a secular and a religious statement of reasoning. For the secular audience he wrote:
Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.
He expanded on the discontinuance of polygamy as a revelation to the membership:
The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice . . .
. . . I saw exactly what would come to pass if there was not something done. I have had this spirit upon me for a long time. But I want to say this: I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do; and when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write. …
I leave this with you, for you to contemplate and consider. The Lord is at work with us. (Cache Stake Conference, Logan, Utah, Sunday, November 1, 1891. Reported in Deseret Weekly, November 14, 1891.)
Both the secular and the religious reasoning is published as Scripture so that members of the LDS Church have no excuse to reject the change. No honest refutation for believers can exist that the discontinuance of polygamy was only pragmatism. Political pressure most assuredly brought about the new directives, but the proclamation came from the Lord.
Despite the clear call to end polygamy, at no time did the revelations or manifestos discount the original doctrine of Temple marriage. In fact, what is known as Doctrine and Covenants section 132 that outlines plural marriage remains as part of Scripture. There have been a few requests to have it removed or seriously amended because of the clear implications of its continued publication. This action is doubtful to happen considering the doctrine of Temple Sealings for Eternal Marriage and Family is based on the section. The New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage is considered an essential and basic Mormon belief; ironically the one that the discontinuance of plural marriage sought to save.
The practice of polygamy might have ended while in mortal life, but it seemingly still continues in the next. For instance, none of the polygamist unions from the past have been revoked. A person can be excommunicated for practicing polygamy. Theologically, a man who marries another living woman in the Temple after the previous has died will not have the original sealing dissolved. There are recognizable problems and questions if a woman does the same. The point is that the doctrines have not changed, only the mortal practice.
Blacks and the Priesthood
Surely the blacks and the Priesthood is a sign of “God turning on a dime and changing His mind.” Again, that is a deceptively imprecise argument. Human rights for blacks came to the forefront in the 1960s and 1970s with demonstrations and boycotts. Not since the U.S. Civil War was the plight of blacks placed so high on the national stage. A significant number of Republicans helped pass legislation widening the freedoms of blacks to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Caught in the crosshairs of human rights activists was the LDS Church still holding the official position that blacks could not be given the Priesthood, even if baptism to become a member was permissible.
The lack of permission for blacks to receive the Priesthood became a political liability. Some colleges refused to play sports games with BYU in protest. A few Mormons also spoke out against the Priesthood prohibition with mixed results for their own membership. Years earlier it has been reported that President David O. McKay prayed about granting the Priesthood to black and was inspired that the time had not yet arrived. Eventually and with much praise President Spencer W. Kimball received the revelation, now known as Official Declaration 2, that, “He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.”
Again, this has been used to indicate the LDS Church can be pressured into changing its doctrine. Like polygamy before, the facts are more complicated than a simple flipping of a revelatory switch. The recent myth that the LDS Church faced dissolution of tax exemption is completely false. Even if it were true, such a move by the U.S. Government would be considered unConstitutional by meddling in Church affairs. At worst the government could hold back giving any funds to BYU, although that would probably be a minor setback for limited departments. The real reason, if there is one, most likely came from the 1978 opening of the São Paulo Brazil Temple the same year as the revelation on the Priesthood for blacks. As historian Dr. Jan Shipps in an article for explains:
A revelation in Mormondom rarely comes as a bolt from the blue; the process involves asking questions and getting answers. The occasion of questioning has to be considered, and it must be recalled that while questions about priesthood and the black man may have been asked, an answer was not forthcoming in the ‘60s when the church was under pressure about the matter from without, nor in the early ‘70s when liberal Latter-day Saints agitated the issue from within. The inspiration which led President Kimball and his counselors to spend many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple pleading long and earnestly for divine guidance did not stem from a messy situation with blacks picketing the church’s annual conference in Salt Lake City, but was “the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth.”
Most especially, the black man’s having been “cursed as to the priesthood” had made for difficulty as the church expanded in South America. In many cases there, determining who has African ancestry and who has not presents serious problems. If a pragmatic reason for the revelation must be found, it is better found in the fact that on October 30 an LDS temple will be dedicated in Sao Paulo, Brazil — and making sufficient determination as to which Mormons were racially acceptable to enter the holy place could have proved a horrendous task. Since revelation now has established the doctrine that worthy men of any race can hold the priesthood “with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with [their] loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple,” such difficulty is avoided. At the same time the way is opened for stakes and wards to be organized where adequate local priesthood leadership might have proved a problem heretofore, and the path is cleared so that LDS temples may be built in any place in the world and universally used by all worthy Mormons in the area.
Christian Century, August 16-23, 1978, pp. 761-766.
The prohibition history of blacks receiving the Priesthood is of questionable origins. Joseph Smith never gave a recorded sermon or instructions on the subject. Reminiscences that he did were given after the ban was put in place. In fact, he ordained Elijah Abel who was black without any opposition. Others like Q. Walker Lewis that Brigham Young praised as a good Elder of African ancestry were also given the Priesthood. Seven years after Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young declared in 1852 during government hearings on the subject of slavery that blacks could not hold the Priesthood. He never claimed to have gotten this from Joseph Smith, “. . . if no other prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ.” (1852 journal entry of Wilford Woodruff). They still joined the LDS Church with baptism and receiving the holy ghost.
Priesthood restrictions for blacks were not meant to remain in force as an eternal condition. When Brigham Young gave the restriction, he also said that in a future date they will be able to receive it again; although he and other prophets didn’t envision this until the millennial era. Even after the ban, Abel’s son Enoch in 1900 and grandson Elijah in 1935 were ordained to the Priesthood (Newell G. Bringhurst, “The ‘Missouri Thesis’ Revisited: Early Mormonism, Slavery, and the Status of Black People” in Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (eds.) (2006). Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) pp. 13–33 at p. 30). The ban did not reach beyond the African race, “The Church had always allowed Pacific Islanders to hold the priesthood, and President McKay clarified that black Fijians and Australian Aborigines could also be ordained to the priesthood and instituted missionary work among them.” That there was “new light and knowledge” from the “limited understanding,” as Bruce R. McConkie said in an Aug. 1978 BYU speech, does not take away from the fact that the lifting was expected eventually. It didn’t come from nowhere changing course on a dime.
The idea that Mormon revelation is against the nature of God is based on a poor understanding of the Biblical record. It is true that God is trustworthy and His Word an eternal standard. What can also be established is that this world is ephemeral and He must work with mortals of limited understanding. That means that from our perspective things that seem certain can quickly become temporary. Our limited understanding plays tricks on eternal perspectives, making variations on doctrine and practice seem larger than they actually are. A closer look at both the polygamy restriction and lifting of the Priesthood ban for blacks reveals that a perceived 180 degree turn is only slight course corrections.
And that is the danger of having a belief that revelation comes from nowhere, ungrounded, and unmoored from past precedent and Scriptural justifications. People start to believe anything can be reversed and nullified with the snap of a finger or enough social agitation. A prophet simply “asking questions” on a topic that there is already ample answers for will not receive a diametrically opposing revelation. Slight tweaks are the norm, and even groundbreaking knowledge must build on what already exists. The prophet works for God, not the other way around.