The three most significant changes within the LDS Church

It was a big year for Mormonism; it started with Mitt Romney moving away from the pack toward getting the GOP nomination for U.S. president and ended with some women wearing pants to Sunday church services to draw attention to what they claim is institutional sexism within the LDS Church. For what it’s worth, here’s what I regard as the three most significant changes within the Mormon Church the past year.

1) The lowering of ages for missionary service (read). Not surprisingly, lowering the age of full-time missionary service to 18 for males and 19 for females caused a surge in mission announcements. The change, to me though, seems more an attempt by church leaders to maintain church activity among young adults and get more 20-something Mormons married in a church temple. Young adults who might have been active as high-schoolers are encountering a society, when they enter college or university, that is more secular and even hostile to the idea of organized religion. Having qualified young men and women starting a mission soon after high school can stem the tide of inactivity. Having young adults of both sexes returning from missions at relatively the same time (women serve 18-month missions) and near the same age may result in an increase of temple marriages at a younger age. To sum up, the policy can be seen as a defensive measure against young LDS adults entering a world either hostile or indifferent to faith.

2) The LDS Church’s increasing tolerance toward gays and lesbians has been slow, but steady. The emergence of a website that encourages love and compassion toward persons with same-sex attraction, (read) as well as the church’s support of legal rights for non-traditional couples, seems part of a serious effort to repair relations hurt by the Proposition 8 battle of a few years ago in California. Although I’m hesitant to say that the church may one day accept gays and lesbians as worthy of marriage and temple blessings, the slow movement toward toleration and acceptance may mirror the long movement toward acceptance of black members of the church.

3) The publication of serious, popular, peer-approved, scholarly, in-depth biographies of LDS historical figures, and these non-hagiographies being eagerly accepted by church leaders, who provide research material, offers strong evidence that the church is more comfortable with its past. There’s never been a shortage of quality LDS scholarship (Fawn Brodie, Leonard Arrington, Richard Bushman, Juanita Brooks, Signature Publishing, magazine such as Sunstone and Dialogue …) but the widespread interest in two recent biographies, of Brigham Young and Parley P. Pratt, indicates that interest in the church, its doctrines, history and leaders — bad traits as well as good traits — is moving well beyond Mormons and Mormon history enthusiasts.

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29 Responses to The three most significant changes within the LDS Church

  1. Nancy says:

    Very thought provoking and it does make sense that this can help with keeping the youth in the church. It is a hostile toward religion and faith world out there.

    • Elder OldDob says:

      I remarked to myself the other day (and apparently I paid attention to me!) that when I served my mission, 1965 to 1967, I taught that the Church was perfect and unchanging, because we had the rock solid, eternal truth! As part of that rock solid, eternal truth, I taught that the Church was the fastest growing church on earth, that Blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood and that you couldn’t drink ANY caffeinated beverage. I didn’t mention the Blood Oaths I’d given in the Temple. If I go on one of those creepy Old Person missions, I’ll have to revamp what I tell people.

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    1. You nailed the motive right on the head. Get them young before they think too much!

    2. I’d hardly call it a serious effort. More like crumbs to massage their reputation. Just PR. There’s nothing in any of these “steps” that changes anything. It’s what their doctrine said they should do all along–be loving and compassionate toward anyone. They’re just emphasizing it now to save face. The only exception is they did finally concede that maybe homosexuality is more ingrained than they previously claimed, and that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to try and terrorize–excuse me–treat gays into being straight.

    Welcome to the party, church–late as usual! Glad you finally figured out what we’ve all realized for some time now.

    3. This is also more damage control. The church apparently has finally realized what the rest of us have known for some time now: the suppression of troubling facts doesn’t work anymore in the age of the Internet. They’re coming to the party late again, deciding that their only recourse is the one they should have been doing all along: acknowledging the facts so members don’t go finding them on their own, becoming shocked, and feeling lied to and betrayed by the church.

    Too bad they went and viciously excommunicated several people before they figured it out.

    P.S. Why didn’t you include D. Michael Quinn and Grant Palmer in your list? They had a huge impact on historical scholarship into church history. More than Bushman or Brooks.

    • Robert Bridgstock says:

      Absolutely correct Martin — could not have said it better myself. As an exMormon with a lifetime of full involvement and activity within the Church, he has hit the nail on the head.

      • Robert Bridgstock says:

        Sorry… meant to say Michael.

      • Brian says:

        How do you have a lifetime of full involvement and activity within the Church, yet claim to have left it before, I presume, you were dead? By that logic I guess I have two lifetimes of full involvement and activity within the Church. ;-)

        • Erick Kuhni says:

          Brian…is your concern about substance or grammar? If he had said, “after x number of years of full activity in the Church”, would you be more satisfied? (Smiley Face).

  3. Ramon says:

    Good points, but viewed differently they suggest that very little has changed. Consider this:

    1) The Church has always tried to indoctrinate kids thoroughly and then force them onto missions. It has now decided that it must accelerate the missions to achieve the same end. No new insight, no new freedom. If anything, the chains are now tighter.

    2) There is nothing on the gay-friendly website that indicates progress. Some leaders have acknowledged the genetic component of sexual orientation for some time; others have not. Now there is a website that is publicly acceptable but has no doctrinal status at all. The only subtle change I’ve noted was an apostle’s (Oaks’s?) recent statement that people have a religious right to marry, not necessarily a legal one. Is that not a lawyer’s attempt to redefine the Mormon position by saying that gays don’t have a right to marry in the Church though they soon may in US law? Watch this spot. We could be seeing the first stage of the inevitable transformation to “we never taught that.”

    3) Mormon research and writing has never been scholarly, with the exceptions of Brodie and Brooks. Arrington always sugar-coated his work; and Bushman acknowledged one or two instances of Joseph’s marriages to other men’s wives but explicitly failed to address the scale of the problem: 11 men’s wives, girls as young as 14, constant deception about polygamy to Emma and the broader community. Bushman is indeed faithful, so faithful that he minimizes unpleasant facts in order to inoculate people while de-emphasizing the bigger and more important questions.

    And do the Young and Pratt biographies symbolize any change “in the Church?” I think not. If they did, the books would have been published by Deseret Book or BYU. Harvard and Oxford may be interested in Mormon history, but the Church’s attitude can be inferred from the Lorenzo Snow textbook. Precisely how many times will polygamy, post-Manifesto polygamy, and the continuing ban on giving the priesthood to African-Americans receive in that august tome–or should one say “tomb.” Sure Mormons are interested in reading about early Church leaders, but like the Bushman book most of those bios are destined for coffee tables and bookshelves. Remember that Church policy at this particular instant prohibits the use of outside materials in Sunday classes.

    Let’s watch the legal sophistry surrounding homosexuality. The Church picked yet another fight with American society that it will lose. Having now seen the (blinding) light, the Lord is in retreat. Unlike Ballard’s proud statement that “we know how to get things done,” Wyckman now tells the Church channel that the Church was not involved in Prop 8 after all: that was done by individual members. And Oaks (?) hints at a change in LDS policy that will de-emphasize national politics and focus on maintaining discrimination within the Church alone. That puts us in about 1970, with anti-Mormon protests on the issue likely to increase until, in the modern equivalent of 1978, the Church announces a new revelation saying that gays may now get married in the temple. That will be followed, within a decade or two, by claims that the old homophobia was “folklore” and not doctrine. This vista strikes me as the single most significant change in the Church in 2012.

  4. Nicole says:

    Bitter commenters, as usual, Doug. Nice piece. I served a mission at age 23. I left the church at age 34, and came back at 38. Church is about being a better person and serving others. I think it will really be sad if gay rights trump religious freedom. Gay is a behavior not an identity. No one is born gay or straight, and judging from the wide range of sexual behavior, it is completely fluid. Why force churches to condone behavior that contradicts longstanding teachings? This isn’t like racism. It’s about marriage that in all cultures has been between opposite sex partners.

    Ironic that the govt imposed its view of marriage on early Mormons, to preserve traditional marriage. Now opposite is happening. Might as well get ready for polygamy again, because if gays succeed in forcing church marriage, polygamists will be next. Or any other manner of relationship.

    • lynn says:

      Well said Nicole and interesting perspective Doug! It is an exciting time to live in and I truly wonder how the world will develop in this century. It will be even more overwhelming I suppose. All I know is that I joined the Church in my teens, left the Church before I turned 20, came back about 18 years later, and have never regretted it. I’ve never had more peace or felt more free than I do today. It’s a tough thing to do, but I don’t let what I don’t get distract me from the bigger picture (as my non-member husband and gay friends can attest). And by the way, they love me and I love them, no strings attached.

    • Ken says:

      Where to begin with your comments, Nicole. No one is born gay or straight? Surely you jest–at a minimum you show your incredible ignorance on the subject.

      There are a number of cultures going back to the dawn of man which have recognized and practiced same sex unions. The modern Roman church was the initial source for demonizing and outlawing same sex unions. The Ming Dynasty of China, the Roman Empire, even Spain in 1061 have written records of same sex unions.

      Even in the early Mormon church, sealings were done in Mormon temples binding same-sex male friendships for eternity. Joseph Smith participated in many.

      Study history. It will help you come out of the dark ages.

      • LMA says:

        Well, I’m not sure what Nichole said to warrant the “study history” admonition. She said that “marriage … in all cultures has been between opposite sex partners.” That’s a true statement. If you think that there were cultures in which homosexual relationships, as such, could also be regarded as legally and morally equivalent to husband-and-wife marriages, they were few and far between. The scholarship I’ve seen concerns adelphopoiesis, which is not the same thing. Since she didn’t say anything contrary to that, you were just being intentionally unpleasant, it seems.

        Now, she did say, “Gay is a behavior not an identity. No one is born gay or straight, and judging from the wide range of sexual behavior, it is completely fluid.” As sympathetic as I am to her point of view, I would say, rather, that homosexuality is a behavior but predispositions toward that behavior can be congenital and most often are. It seems clear that there are tendentious reasons to treat those predispositions as binary (you either are or you’re not) rather than as expressed to varying degrees across a population. While “completely fluid,” I would not agree with, “variably expressed across populations, and subject to influence by environmental factors and lifestyle choices” would be a better way to make the same point.

        Hope that helps.

  5. Neal Humphrey says:

    You neglected to mention D. Michael Quinn, historian and scholar, and probably the best of the lot when it comes to current researchers on Mormonism.

    • Doug says:

      Neal,

      While I agree that D. Michael Quinn is a major force and influence in LDS scholarship, my reasons for citing the biographies of Pratt and Young is that these works of scholarship have influence beyond the Mormon scholarship community, which is a new development.

      • Neal Humphrey says:

        Curious response since Quinn has been excommunicated. And I would argue that since Quinn published Early Mormonism and the Magic World View that book and his subsequent historical works have largely been influential outside of the Mormon scholarship community.

  6. wes says:

    Nicole – you really ought to research what you are talking about. The world will never be flat just because you say it is. Science continues to prove your bigoted and intolerant opinions wrong. However, I never want to force your church to condone anything it doesn’t want to -just like I don’t want your church forcing it mythological thinking onto the civil rights of others. There is not one instance of any gays ‘forcing church marriage’ – NOT ONE!!!! However, there are many churches who have no problem conducting and blessing such unions. It would be nice if people like you would stop trying to push your views on their religious beliefs.

    As for polygamy – should it become legal again, how would you and your church respond? Since your canonized scripture demands it, it would be rather difficult to continue to not practice it ‘because it is against the law of the land’.

  7. Bob Becker says:

    Doug:
    Regarding change 1: I wonder if the “git ‘em hitched quick” policy will result in more successful marriages. (I have no idea. Am just wondering.) For example, do Mormons who first marry at say 22 or 23 have a higher or lower divorce rate than those who first marry at 20 or 21? Might lowering the average age of marriage for RMs by two years result in a higher divorce rate because more people will be less mature when they first wed? Might be worth tracking going forward.

    • Doug says:

      Those are legit questions. I do know though that there is real concern over young adults leaving church activity and I suspect that the feeling is having younger, active couples, with missions logged, might improve things.

      • Erick Kuhni says:

        Perhaps “getting them married younger” is part of the strategy, but I would guess that it is more about increasing missionary numbers among the prospective missionary population. I would wager that serving an “honorable” mission is as strong of a correlation for lifetime activity, as is temple marriage. Of course, the two eventually go hand in hand in most instances if return missionaries end up following the plan of salvation they spent two years preaching about. For me though, the distinguishing question is whether temple marriage without missionary service would be as effective in ensuring lifetime Church activity.

      • tom says:

        Doug

        Doesn’t this “get em young” thing sort of fit in with early church history and practice? Seems I recall one of those old and wise bearded ones even saying: “Don’t care how you bringem, just bringem young” – or was he only referring to potential brides?

  8. Ramon says:

    Nicole,

    You may want to do a bit more research. Your statement that homosexuality is not innate is false both scientifically–it appears at the same prevalence in all studied societies, has a demonstrably genetic basis in most cases, and also appears regularly in animal populations–and religiously. For if you read the Church’s new gay website, you will see that the LDS authorities now recognize the genetic, inborn basis of same sex attraction. By denying the DNA evidence, you are also denying Church doctrine.

    Second, Christianity was not involved in marriages until the 12th century, when the Catholic Church asserted a role in the process because it wanted to control the distribution of assets in the community. It was part and parcel of the introduction of priestly celibacy, also an attempt to prevent the accumulation of power and money in the hands of a few. As Mormonism itself demonstrates, notions of what constitutes a marriage–how many men and how many women–is anything but constant. Temple sealings, too, were often made between Mormon men as they “adopted” each other into their eternal families. Hence John D. Lee’s constant letters to his “father,” Brigham Young.

    Finally, if the courts allow gay marriage and that opens the way to legal polygamy, which I doubt, isn’t that cause for celebration for the LDS? If you reread the Manifesto, you will see that the Church never disavowed polygamy. Woodruff wrote, and canonized, the notion that the United States had sinned by illegalizing God’s principle and that things would not be right until polygamy were reintroduced. D&C 132 explicitly says, despite more recent attempts at redefinition, that the New and Everlasting Covenant is plural marriage and not monogamy and that the only way to get into the top part of the Celestial Kingdom is through obedience to that principle. It follows that if polygamy were legalized, the path would be opened for the Church to do what such prophets as Woodruff, Joseph F. Smith, and several others said was essential to the completion of the Church’s divine mission.

    So where’s the problem? Your nightmare scenario is precisely what every prophet from Joseph Smith through Woodruff, Snow, and Smith said was God’s will.

    • LMA says:

      You tell Nichole to do more research just before you start spouting conclusions based on feel-good junk science. The science of homosexuality (male and female) is way more complicated than you let on. None of it requires Mormons to understand the law of chastity differently than they do. None of it requires society to diminish further the significance of the institution of marriage in our culture.

      • Erick says:

        The issue of homosexuality is certainly deserving of scientific inquiry, however there really hasn’t been any of that here so far…just a bunch of spouting, and rebutted spouting (junk-science?? no real science was cited, so what was qualified?). The issue here though, was about “doctrine” and practice? In other words, what did Church leaders once teach about homosexuality, and what are they teaching now, and what are we to make of these changing attitudes? Church policies haven’t changed much, however it appears that Church leaders have recently become more sympathetic to the issue, though they certainly still must consider homosexuality to be an abberation from a person’s “divine nature”, as they have embraced the practice as a legitimate way to pursue relationships. However, they were once pretty dismissive about the cause and legitimacy of homosexual tendencies, feelings, emotions, etc, whereas now they seem to be at least recognizing the sincerity of how homosexuals explain those things, but they do so by maintaining that homosexuals are still broken…but it’s just not their fault. They are willing to be tolerant and sympathetic of homosexuals who willing eschew their preferred sexual orientation in order to maintain the good graces of the Church and community, but seem to be maintaining their overall condemnation of those who participate in homosexual relationships. They don’t seem to be spending as much effort on trying to “repair” homosexuals, rather they are giving them a “loving” ultimatum of acceptance or rejection.

      • Ramon says:

        Amusing.

        This would all be a lot easier if you guys actually knew what your church teaches. Take a look at the new website on which the church acknowledges the findings of science. The old LDS position was that homosexuality was a choice; the new one, informed grudgingly by the near unanimity of scientific inquiry, is that homosexuality is in almost all cases innate.

        I don’t have to produce references to scientific journals. In its official statements on its official websites, it says that SSA is genetic. Do you really think people should take you seriously when you are at odds with your own religious leaders?

        • x1134x says:

          Regardless of chruch “position” the “science” is bunk. it fails the simplest of logic tests.

          There is obviously a genetic basis for heterosexuality. Males genetically want to breed with females. Females with males. Ok. now you want to go further and say there’s a genetic component to one man wanting to “breed” with another man. I’d almost be with you except for one simple overlooked fact: It takes TWO to tango. So if there is a MALE genetic component to being a “gay male” it manifests itself in wanting to, for lack of a better term, “mount” another male. If this were the case, there would just be a fist-fight between the males trying to mount each other. ONE of the males in a gay relationship chooses to be a reciever. So IF there was a genetic component to this there would be a TWOFOLD genetic component, not a SINGLE one. There’s a genetic component that makes one man want to mount, and another man want to be mounted? Obviously they are not the same set of instructions.

          Furthermore, will they purport to claim that being “bisexual” is ALSO a “genetic predisposition”, so they’re aren’t just going to need the first 2 genetic profiles, and the 2 gay male profiles, and the 2 gay female profiles, but yet another 2 genetic makeups that make a person want BOTH?

          Its not genetic. Its a choice.

          That being said, I’ve been on the other side of this argument with idiots. There *IS* a genetic component to being a particularly masculine female or feminine male. THIS is what people TRY to point to as the genetic basis for sexual choices. It has nothing to do with sex. It has to do with morphology. The person(s) you have sex with is ALWAYS a choice, unless you are raped.

  9. E B says:

    There is actually a deeper change than these ones visible more from the outside. I am Mormon, for the record.

    Church members have long been taught the gospel of Jesus Christ which includes to love and accept everyone. It’s the culture that stood in the way. Finally, members are beginning to distinguish between three separate but related entities: the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church which teaches the gospel and changes policies at times to best meet that goal, and Mormon culture which doesn’t always have to do with either the gospel or the Church, unfortunately, and is most pronounced in areas with fewer converts.

    I believe that understanding these distinctions is what most helps someone to maintain their faith (and I see plenty of signs of confusion between these distinctions in some of the comments). The gospel is truth and really never changes. Culture doesn’t match the gospel entirely, but that doesn’t mean that the gospel isn’t true.

    It is also finally being understood that a prophet speaking as the prophet says different things than he does speaking as the man. Just because a prophet said something some time doesn’t mean it is gospel truth.

    • Erick Kuhni says:

      Blaming things on the “culture” seems like a disingenuous way of distancing from that culture the influence upon it by leaders who inform the culture. In other words, it’s not like the Church leaders have been long-standing on the hill preaching the rhetoric contained on the new website, waiting for the “culture” to catch up. Rather, a broad section of the “culture” (ie, general membership) appears to have evolved a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality, and the leadership appears to be following suit. It does not take long to search the internet to find direct statements as recent as prop 8, or as significant as SWK in Miracle of Forgiveness, that do not reflect this new attitude.

  10. Ramon says:

    That is indeed the tragedy.

    The church is slowly, grudgingly embracing the science of sexuality just as it eventually and unhappily embraced monogamy and racial equality. The truth is that in all three instances secular American society led the way on these moral issues, followed by Mormon society and finally the church itself. In none of these cases did church leaders actually lead.

    One could argue, as the church often does, particularly in regard to racism, that the problem arose from a few prophets and apostles–chiefly Brigham Young and John Taylor–who were products of conservative culture and “speaking as men.” It is hard to maintain that stance given that Young and Taylor expressly attributed their teachings to God, saying in the former case that if the priesthood were ever given to Blacks God would take it away from the Church.

    But for the sake of argument, let’s say that racism, homophobia, etc., really were the result of human prejudice and had nothing to do with God’s will. Would that be acceptable? I don’t think so, for these rules did immense damage to human beings. How many families were irreparably harmed when the church suddenly turned faithful polygamists into outlaws by reversing its position on plural marriage? The only thing worse than sharing a husband and a limited income was losing both when the men were forced into hiding in the wilderness.

    Similarly, how many Stuart Matises committed suicide, how many families were permanently divided by the church’s teachings on homosexuality? If those teachings resulted from the personal prejudices of church leaders–as the new website’s embrace of science inevitably implies–then those leaders have caused immense suffering for no purpose. Why couldn’t they, prophets, seers and revelators, see that God did not condemn homosexual feelings and was only concerned with actions? It is a bit late in the day for the church to start expressing sympathy and understanding for those with SSA given that prophets could have gotten the right answer from God at any point along the way. Everything would be so much simpler, people’s pain so much reduced, if the prophets led rather than followed science and society.

  11. Stephen M. Cook says:

    I thought the most significant event was Ann Romney hating on her god, for lying to her burning bosom.

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