We have before on this blog quoted from the book "How Wide The Divide?" by Craig Bloomberg (Evangelical New Testament scholar) and Stephen Robinson (CJCLDS New Testament scholar). Specifically we quoted Robinson as follows:
Another frustration Evangelicals often experience in dealing with Latter-day Saints is the fact that we have no professional clergy, no creeds or catechisms, and no theologians in the strict sense. Pure LDS orthodoxy can be a moving target, depending on which Mormon one talks to. Indeed, my part of this book represents only the views of one Latter-day Saint, though I hope a credible one. I do not speak in this volume for the LDS Church, only for myself, but I think I qualify as the world’s authority on what I believe, and I consider myself a reasonably devout and well-informed Latter-day Saint. [Emphasis added.]
I could not help but reflect on that quote as I read the later portion of the subject book here. In the wake of the 1890 Manifesto and the Smoot hearings the CJCLDS underwent enormous change. Polygamy had been a bedrock on which the church had been built and now it was jettisoned. Flake spends roughly the last third of the book examining how president/prophet Joseph F. Smith and The Quorum were able to pull off this seeming ecclesiastical miracle without schism. (It should be noted there are schismatic Mormon groups to this day, but they are statistically and poltically insignificant, criminals in religious guise.)
To my creedal Christian eye, the astonishing fact was that it was such an amazing and difficult accomplishment. From my basic understanding of a prophetic, revelatory faith, changes in direction would be fairly easy – "the prophet says so and off we march." Which as an aside shows the utter ignorance of that South Carolina woman, Cindi Mosteller that looks like she is McCain's Mormon attack pit bull. Lowell quoted an article quoting her sometime back this way:
On Tuesday, Mosteller, who is a Baptist, said, "The question is: Does Governor Romney support Joseph Smith's doctrines? We as evangelicals don't believe we can go in and change Paul's doctrine. I don't see how you move around this."
This reveals on Mosteller's part, and I think that of many others she represents, a particular ignorance of creedal Christian faith and history, since she assumes orthodoxy never, ever changes, and Mormon faith and history since she assumes it would have an orthodoxy in the same sense we do, and that that orthodoxy had never changed. But I digress.
The plain fact of the matter is that Mormonism has an orthodoxy. It is both more plastic and more individualistic than creedal Christian orthodoxy, but it is no simple matter of prophetic declaration. This is born out in the political, liturgical, and ecclesiastical maneuvering which occurred in the wake of the Smoot hearings that Flake goes to such great lengths to examine in the later portion of the book. I am reasonably certain that her examination of such would be uncomfortable for a Mormon to read. It is my understanding that Flake is Mormon (she did undergrad at BYU) but she does not fail to turn a very scholarly eye on things that are deeply devout, making what appears to be very spiritual appear to be very pragmatic. I will leave the detailed discussion of events to the book.
These facts should, however, be a comfort to creedal Christians that fear Mormon faith in a presidential candidate. The Mormon ship simply will not turn on a dime as this history illustrates. For example, a Mormon in power would not therefore give license to Mormons to return to their polygamous ways. Forget for the fact that a President could not make it legal by Executive Order anyway; the church itself would rebel against such a thing because it would violate their current orthodoxy. Any prophet that tried to turn the church in that direction would need to be as opportunistic, shrewd, and most importantly patient, as Joseph F Smith was. Even one that is as opportunistic and shrewd could not accomplish the feat today as the cultural conditions in the church simply are not ripe for it. Such a prophetic utterance would, if I understand how it worked 100 years ago properly, create an enormous crisis in the church, but the more likely outcome would be an ousting of the current prophet and a gross weakening of the office, as would happen if any other religious figure in any other normative religion defied orthodoxy.
The events surrounding the Smoot hearings demonstrate practically that there is a Mormon orthodoxy and it is tightly held.
Lowell comments: I have one clarification. I am still reading the Flake book, so can't comment in great detail, but I will quote Richard Lyman Bushman, a Mormon emeritus professor of history at Columbia, on the question of prophetic revision of Mormon doctrine (link may require subscription):
But [the concern that LDS Church leaders will dictate policy to a Mormon president] –rooted as it is in logic rather than reality–does not take into account how revelation actually works. In Mormonism and in biblical history, the prophetic tradition itself places heavy restraints on prophets. It makes a big difference that the moral law is enunciated repeatedly in Mormon scriptures. The Ten Commandments were restated in an early revelation, installing them as fundamentals of the church. Later, the saints were told that "no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned." Could all this be overthrown by a new revelation? Linker thinks that revelation negates everything that came before, but this is not the case. The best analogy is to the courts and the Constitution. Theoretically, five Supreme Court justices can overturn any previous interpretation of the Constitution on a whim. But, in fact, they don't, and we know they can't. Their authority depends on reasoning outward from the Constitution and all previous decisions. The same is true for prophets. They work outward from the words of previous prophets, reinterpreting past prophecy for the present. That was certainly true for church founder Joseph Smith, whose most extreme revelation, plural marriage, was based on plural marriage in the Bible. Prophets do not write on a blank slate. Like Supreme Court justices, they would put their own authority in jeopardy if they disregarded the past.
So I think Steven Robinson's claim that "LDS orthodoxy can be a moving target" vastly overstates the case. LDS orthodoxy may evolve, but it does so exceedingly rarely and almost always at a glacial pace. History is full of examples: Polygamy and African-American access to the Mormon priesthood, for example. Neither change happened overnight, although both were critical to the church's continued success.
[tags]Mormon, orthodoxy, polygamy, Reed Smoot[/tags]