It has long been apparent that the phenomenal success of the Mormon Church is in no small measure due to its ability to change and adapt. Mormon leaders have long been image conscious and anxious to own the correct reputation. Such concerns have been the driving force behind some remarkable changes in policy and practice over the years.
The nineteenth century Mormon Church was isolationist and aggressive, much in the traditional style of new religious movements. Speeches and statements from church leaders frequently reflected inflated ambitions to "rule every nation". In that rare atmosphere of triumphalism all sorts of wild statements of doctrine and belief were made, leaders never imagining that the world would change so much as to be able to put Mormon claims to the test (a singular absence of prophetic foresight here). One classic example is the following extract from a contemporary journal:
“Inhabitants of the Moon are more of a uniform size than the inhabitants of the Earth, being about 6 feet in height. They dress very much like the quaker Style & are quite general in style, or the one fashion of dress. They live to be very old; comeing [sic] generally, near a thousand years. This is the description of them given by Joseph the Seer, and he could "See" whatever he asked the Father in the name of Jesus to see.”
(Journal of Oliver B. Huntington)
And again, from the Journal of Discourses we have this from Brigham Young:
“Who can tell us of the inhabitants of this little planet that shines of an evening, called the moon?…when you inquire about the inhabitants of that sphere you find that the most learned are as ignorant in regard to them as the ignorant of their fellows. So it is in regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it. It was not made in vain.”
(Journal of Discourses,Vol.13,p.271)
Thinking that their 19th century world-view would endure they never imagined that one day "the most learned" would land on the moon and find it barren and uninhabited. Trusting in their splendid isolation amongst the Rocky Mountains they defied the world and developed many of the doctrines and practices for which they are still famous. One notorious teaching was Brigham Young's Adam/God doctrine. Young stated on April 9th, 1852:
“Now hear it, O inhabitants of the earth…When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives with him…He is Michael, the Arch-angel, the Ancient of Days!…He is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.”
(Journal of Discourses,vol.1,pp.50-51)
Today what the church calls the Adam/God "theory" is stridently denied and those who teach it are excommunicated. Along with polygamy, blood atonement, and men on the moon, Adam/God was dropped, and the church buried its 19th century mistakes with its 19th century dead. One commentator observed that "The [Mormon] Church entered the twentieth century in anxious pursuit of respectability."
This century, however, has also seen the Mormon Church face controversy. One notable hangover from the days of Brigham and Joseph has been the church's stance on Negroes. One noted Mormon leader stated:
“As a result of his rebellion [in a pre-mortal existence], Cain was cursed with a dark skin; he became the father of the Negroes, and those spirits who were not worthy to receive the priesthood are born through his lineage.”
(Bruce R McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p 102)
Another leader declared:
“Is there any reason then why the type of birth we receive in this life is not a reflection of the worthiness or lack of it in the pre-existent life?…We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in the pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Latter-day Saints. These are rewards and punishments.”
(Mark E Peterson, Race Problems - As They Affect the Church)
According to performance in a pre-mortal state men and women are born into different races. The Negro is the lowest of these and not deserving of Mormon priesthood blessing. Clearly to be born White, Anglo-Saxon, and LDS puts a person at the top of this caste system.
In 1978 the then prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, announced that "all worthy male members of the church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard to race or color", claiming to have received revelation on the matter (There is no evidence of a revelation and Mormons continue to work from a closed cannon). This has opened up a whole new mission field to the church, which is now expanding at a phenomenal rate amongst African nations.
Once again the Mormons are digging graves for past mistakes. Dead and gone are key portions of the temple ceremony. Notably the blood oaths were removed in 1990, and a controversial section portraying the typical Christian clergyman as a lackey of Satan, who taught a "ridiculous and incomprehensible" philosophy, which he called "orthodox religion", was removed.
The Journal of Discourses was once a key source of doctrine. It has recently been demoted to the position of interesting but uninspired teachings, which may, or may not, be reliable. Many of the problems they are trying to bury are from this, once unimpeachable, source. (The preface to volume eight of the Journal states "The Journal of Discourses deservedly ranks as one of the Standard Works of the Church")
Bruce R McConkie simply shares the fate of all past leaders. While his writings were once essential reading in every seminary and institute class, he is increasingly marginalised as his teachings fall behind current Mormon thinking. As with the prophets of the nineteenth century, the Mormons seem to be burying their 20th century mistakes with their 20th century dead.
What Christians Should Do
So Christians may understandably be quoting apostles McConkie and Tanner and Talmage etc. as authorities, naively thinking that they are endorsed by a church that itself extensively quotes them, only to be told, "but that is just his opinion." In manuals, periodicals and journals we are led to believe that, if an apostle says it then it must be so. But the frustrating experience of so many Christians is that nothing is carved in stone - especially not the modern revelation of the Mormon Church; A far cry from the experience of Moses and the Israelites. I am afraid the Mormon Church wants the penny and the bun. It wants apostles and prophets but it does not want to be held accountable for what they say when what they say is no longer politically correct.
In light of the above what are we to make of a recent statement by Gordon Hinckley:
“In bearing testimony of Jesus Christ, President Hinckley spoke of those outside the Church who say Latter-day Saints 'do not believe in the traditional Christ.' 'No, I don't. The traditional Christ of whom they speak is not the Christ of whom I speak. For the Christ of whom I speak has been revealed in this the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. He together with His Father, appeared to the boy Joseph Smith in the year 1820, and when Joseph left the grove that day, he knew more of the nature of God than all the learned ministers of the gospel of the ages.'”
Church News (6/20/98, p.7)
Was this just his opinion or is it official Mormon doctrine? If the latter then why on earth have Christians suffered grief all this time at the hands of Mormons who insist "of course we believe in the same Jesus!" who accuse us of knowingly deceiving people when we dare to insist otherwise? It is not we who are telling less than the truth but Mormons who do indeed believe in a different Jesus and insist that they don’t.
But then Hinckley could be simply expressing an opinion. And no doubt at some point in the future, when a Mormon is backed into a corner over worshipping a different Jesus, and this quote is brought up as "proof", the well worn riposte "that was just his opinion" will be trotted out once more; Because any point, quote, verse or question that is raised in such confrontations is always labelled out of context, misquoted, misrepresentative, misunderstood or mischievously twisted. And, whatever the source, every quote is up for negotiation and can be devalued at a stroke - as expediency demands.
As Christians we should be aware of the slippery nature of so-called Mormon doctrine and not be put off by accusations of misrepresentation. Mormonism attempts to appeal to converts by claiming consistent and reliable guidance from God, which they claim is absent from the Christian churches; however they also use the claim to prophetic guidance to change "restored" truth when it suits them and defy their followers to dare question the living prophets who alone speak for God.
Caught between their faith in the prophets of Mormonism and their experience of inexplicable change and doctrinal inconsistencies Mormons are forced to excuse, explain, conceal and deny the pronouncements of their own leaders in an attempt to keep the faith. In the face of such circumstances Christians should be ever more patient, prayerful and consistent in their witness.