(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this blog, click here.) In Matthew Bowman’s book “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” the Mormon business/educational strategy of correlation is explained. The business advantages of correlation are offset by an educational culture that stays, by design, into narrow theological positions that are not open to debate. In Bowman’s book, he also spends some time on the LDS retrenchment movement among its hierarchy, a conservative movement to interpret doctrine strictly according to Scriptures and revelation received through modern LDS prophets and apostles.
In what serves as a definition of retrenchment, Bowman recounts a message conservative LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie sent to an LDS academic (Eugene England). “God has given us apostles and prophets. … It is my province to teach to the church what the doctrine is. It is your province to repeat what I say or remain silent.”
Retrenchment, with its emphasis on simplistic answers to questions that could be debated thoroughly, fit well with correlation, a concept that by its nature was hampered by multiple alternatives. Retrenchment, which flourished through the last half of the 20th century, was a wish to return to the theological days of Brigham Young, a strong leader who brooked little dissent.
According to Bowman, the father of retrenchment was the late LDS apostle and president Joseph Fielding Smith. Fielding Smith was an opponent of colleagues in the LDS ecclesiatical hierarchy, such as B.H. Roberts, who in an attempt to explain evolution, “posited that generations of human, or human-like, beings had lived and died long before God sent Adam and Eve to earth,” writes Bowman, who adds that “… Fielding Smith, convinced that Roberts was promulgating false doctrine and suspicious that he was secretely promoting evolution, accused Roberts in a public lecture of desiring ‘to square the teachings in the Bible with the teachings of modern science and philosophy …” An offended Roberts, as well as apostle James Talmadge, complained to LDS Church President Heber J. Grant.
Grant wanted no part of the debate and advised the principals to drop the dispute. As Bowman notes, though, Grant’s reluctance to take a side essentially turned the LDS Church into an institution where, “No longer would church authorities debate matters of doctrine in public.” Because the world was slowly moving toward an era of post World War II Cold War conservatism, it’s not surprising that the conservatism that Fielding Smith favored became the ideology most popular among the LDS leadership.
Under Fielding Smith, his son-in-law, apostle Bruce R. McConkie, apostle and future prophet Ezra Taft Benson, current apostle Boyd K. Packer, and other leaders such as BYU President Ernest Wilkinson, Mormon theology was “characterized by an exclusive focus on the canon of Mormon scripture. They sought to grant it as much authority as possible and to take its claims as literally as possible,” writes Bowman. The new retrenchment conservatism of 1960s Mormonism echoed Fielding Smith’s disdain for Roberts’ pre-Adamic ideas. In his iconic book, “Mormon Doctrine,” McConkie describes the theory as “satanic.”
One aspect of retrenchment was a belief in dispensationalism. As Bowman writes, “Dispensationalists believe that because of human wickedness, the world was doomed to decay and degeneration before Christ’s return to save it; for them, the Bible taught of war, famine, conspiracy and disease.”
As early as 1946, Fielding Smith had written “Signs of the Times,” a dispensationalist tome that provided a pessimistic blueprint of the future. The Cold War, anti-communism, the counterculture movement, all served to fuel retrenchment efforts in the LDS hierarchy. W. Cleon Skousen, police chief, BYU professor, dispensationalist and anti-communist, became a best-selling LDS author. (Recently his books, long consigned to basements and Deseret Industry shelves, have regained popularity with the rise of Glenn Beck, a modern-day LDS dispensationalist).
As Bowman points out, the popular LDS musical play, “Saturday’s Warrior,” is a creation of retrenchment and dispensationalism. In the play, former pre-mortal spirits sent to earth are pressured by wicked earthly peers to be “cool.” In one now-dated scene, a Mormon is taunted because his parents’ are expecting an eighth child. Bowman points out that one of the play’s songs, “Zero Population,” is sung by “his villainous teenage friends (who) impropably praise birth control.”
Ezra Taft Benson was a major player in the retrenchment movement for a couple of generations. An impressive leader who was tapped by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be secretary of agriculture, Benson later exemplified the LDS Church’s opposition to communism, atheism and liberal initiatives to expand government. As Bowman writes, “To some Mormons, communism appeared to violate the principle of free agency, human beings’ right to choose their own destinies that derived from their divine heritage.”
David O. McKay, for example, LDS leader during retrenchment, was a strong opponent of communism. McKay was willing to incorporate that activism into major areas of the church he led, such as the McCarthy-ite investigation of professors at BYU, who were suspected of weak loyalties to the Gospel and patriotism
However, Benson took the LDS hierarchy’s opposition to communism to extreme levels. Had it not been for the wisdom of President McKay, Benson might have caused the LDS Church embarrassment that it would still be dealing with today. For example, Benson became a disciple of the conspiratorial anti-communist group the John Birch Society, an organization which had already been politically excommunicated from the Republican Party. As Bowman relates, Benson was so impressed with John Birch Society founder Robert Welch — a man who accused his former boss Eisenhower of being a communist — that he lobbied McKay to allow Welch to speak at the church’s semi-annual general conference and lobbied to have the LDS leadership endorse the Birchers. Fortunately, McKay resisted those efforts.
As Bowman relates, McKay also nixed Benson’s desire to be the vice presidential nominee of segregationalist third-party candidate George Wallace in 1968. It’s likely that the LDS Church would still be dealing with such an ignoble action today had not the wise McKay told Benson no.
Nevertheless, retrenchment did lead the LDS hierarchy into politically based decisions that extend from the 1970s (opposition to the ERA), the 1980s (opposition to the MX missile system construction in Utah), the 1990s (the excommunication of several LDS dissident academics) and even a few years ago, with its stance against gay marriage in California.
Retrenchment, however, is an ailing, perhaps dying ideology among Mormons. While there are still factions, usually older Mormons, who adhere to the rigidness of a Fielding Smith, Benson, Skousen and McConkie, most Mormons today have moved toward the liberal ideas of Roberts once denounced. In 2010, Deseret Book announced it would no longer print “Mormon Doctrine.” Harsh statements on homosexuality in General Conference by Packer were toned down for revised official publication.
History often repeats itself; it appears Mormonism’s leaders have tired of retrenchment. However, the impact of retrenchment should not be downplayed. It’s worth noting that at the end of the LDS era of theological debate, 1935, only 36 percent of BYU students believed that “creation did not involve evolution.” As Bowman notes, by 1973, “81 percent (of students) felt that way.”