An LDS acquaintence of mine recently stated that the church appears to have stagnated in some sense over the past few years. He said "The scary thing to me is that really nothing about the church has changed in the 22 years I've been a member. Same hymnal. Same schedule. Same ward structure, except for the disappearance of seventies. General conference is the exact same format. Nothing changes but the faces on the old men in the red seats, and most of those guys are the same also. Same lesson manuals. Just the same thing, over and over again." I agreed with him.
Although I agree on the surface, that it appears that there are no substantive changes in the church methods and proceedings, since 1985, I also believe there have been some drastic changes, mostly outside of the official capacity of the leadership, that have affected the collective consciousness of the church. Here are a few things that have caught my eye. The looming question remains: Is the church changing in a positive way? Is there progress or stagnation?
The Hofmann episode from 1984-1986.
Mark Hofmann produced many new mormon documents. The Charles Anthon letter. The Salamander letter. The JS III patriarchal blessing. And many others that were purchased by the church. Dallin Oaks spoke specifically to the Holy Ghost being described as a Salamander by Joseph Smith. When Hofmann was proved a fraud and a forger, it was obvious to all observers that the General Authorities had been duped, to the extent that they had reframed some fundamental beliefs (i.e. the White Salamander) around Hofmann's fraudulent documents. Thus, the church leadership was exposed for not having the gift of discernment, and for re-writing church doctrine to accomodate the writings of a forger.
Emergence of the "New Mormon History"
The founding of Signature Books in 1981 was in direct response to the cancellation of Leonard Arrington's 16 volume "History of the Church" project. Signature Books wanted to provide an alternative voice for liberal thinkers in the LDS church. The New Mormon History apparently got a foothold with D. Michael Quinn's "Early Mormonism and the Magic World View" published in 1987, which cost Quinn his job as a Professor of History at BYU. Many notable authors such as Dan Vogel, Brent Metcalfe, Richard Van Wagoner, Ed Ashment, Dale Morgan, Anthony Hutchinson, and others have published little known facts to the general mormon population that are at variance with the sanitized version of church history that many of us were taught growing up in the church. This New Mormon History has had an incalculable effect upon the general membership.
The Substantial Changes to the Temple Endowment Ceremony in 1990
One of the primary examples of cognitive dissonance discussions on this board, and many other disaffected mormon boards is the extreme reaction that temple-endowed members have had to the significant changes in the temple ceremony in April 1990. I mentioned to my wife, who did not go through the temple prior to the changes, that the entire ceremony has been revised. Yes, in essence it remained the same, yet the most offensive parts that had originally caused me so much confusion, had been removed. No longer was the evangelical minister portrayed as being in cahoots with Satan. No longer were the death penalties taught and performed. No longer were the words of prayer spoken in an unknown language. And there were many parts with very close similarities to Masonic ceremonies that had been altered or removed entirely. These changes affected me deeply as a believing member, having believed that the temple ceremony could never change. The devastating effect on the entire church membership is incalculable.
The "September Six" Excommunication of 6 Prominent Scholars in 1993
Although seemingly not as part of a concerted effort, six prominent scholars who were publishing articles and books that were viewed to be too liberal, and promoting ideas at odds with the church leadership, these six members of the church were either disfellowshipped or excommunicated. The infamous September Six, consisting of D. Michael Quinn, Lynne Whitesides, Avraham Gileadi, Paul Toscano, Maxine Hanks, and Lavina Anderson, were disciplined for various publications endorsing alternative viewpoints to that held by the church leadership. Whitesides was disfellowshipped for teaching about a mother in heaven. Gileadi was disciplined for publishing a book about Isaiah and the last days. Tosano wrote about mormon theology and dissent. Hanks and Anderson wrote books about feminism and mormon culture. Quinn wrote about the magical thinking in the early church, and post-manifesto polygamy. The church leadership apparently sought a chilling effect to rational inquiry and free thinking within the scholarly members. It is ironic that the lasting effect is almost the opposite, the September Six have become folk heroes and almost martyrs to many of us disaffected members who view their intellectual honesty as a higher moral value than church orthodoxy.
Recovery from Mormonism Board is launched in 1995
Whether you believe that the effects of RfM are good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, it is undeniable that its existence has had a profound effect upon mormonism. The site claims thousand of hits every day. Are these hits coming from mostly the membership, or from investigators trying to discern whether the apparently squeaky clean Elders sitting in their living room, are representing a squeaky clean religion, or not? Either constituency poses problems to the LDS faithful in trying to maintain the orthodox standards of the religion. Now there are currently players in the realm of mormon thinking, who do not possess impressive scholastic credentials such as many of the original September Six, yet who have a drive and determination to present all of the evidence surrounding mormonism to the world. There are people like Bob McCue, Tal Bachman, Steve Benson, and many others using pseudonyms who regularly contribute to the new era of disaffected mormon groupthink. RfM maintains an impressive database of historic mormon documentation, books, exit stories, and a discussion board. Many of the church's efforts on the internet were not an action, but a reaction to the Recovery from Mormonism (RfM) board.
The Gordon B. Hinckley interview with Larry King in 1998
I am sure that some would praise President Hinckley for coming forth and giving an interview to Larry King. After all, this interview set a precedent as being the first ever interview of an LDS prophet in front of a national audience. It was historical, and it was gutsy. But in the end, the church did not come out smelling like a rose. Many of President Hinckley's comments were confusing to the orthodox and the disaffected alike. In response to King's question about whether or not he was a prophet, Hinckley responded "I speak for the Church, yes, I think so, yes." Now, in deference to him as a human being, maybe he was just a bit nervous to be talking to a nationally syndicated interviewer with the stature of Larry King. But the orthodox membership could equally argue that King should be shaking in his boots to be in the presence of God's one and only mouthpiece on earth! To respond "I think so" to a direct question regarding his authority, caused irreparable damage to some testimonies which had been founded on the premise that not only was President Hinckley the representative of the church, but he claims to be the representative of God on earth. Why didn't he make this clear to Larry King? If our 57,000 missionaries are proudly proclaiming, on a daily basis, that Gordon Hinckley is the prophet of God on earth, why isn't Hinckley proudly proclaiming that fact himself? What better audience to speak to than a national audience with more listeners than any session of general conference. Obviously President Hinckley had another agenda, than proclaiming himself prophet of the world. His agenda apparently was intended to mainstream the church in American society. Here are a few other quotes from that interview. When King asked about polygamy, Hinckley responded: "When our people came west, they permitted it on a restricted scale." And this, "It was a very limited practice, carefully safeguarded." Huh? Carefully safeguarded? Hinckley added, "In 1890 that practice was discontinued" and "I condemn it yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal. It is not legal." Wow. Too bad King didn't realize that Hinckley's own grandfather practiced polygamy at Cove Fort and had three wives himself, two of them sisters. That would've been a great follow up question. This interview, and many other Hinckley interviews where Hinckley admits that he doesn't know things, have begun a new era of spin and supression built upon misinformation and innuendo. When the church President doesn't deal with the hard issues in a forthright manner, he sets the tone for how the church is going to deal with these hard issues.
FARMS and FAIR jump onboard in 1998 and 1999 to combat RfM and others
It really is intriguing that the two major websites to promote mormon apologetics got into the game after RfM. Although the history of FARMS can be traced to 1979, its internet presence did not really become available until 1999, twenty years later. Of course you could argue that the church really didn't launch these sites in response to RfM or other critical LDS sites, but the timing, and the amount of influence that these sites have had is undeniable. Now when a rational member of the church has a question, they can bypass all the platitudes and blank expressionless stares available on Sunday, for hard-hitting, tough discussions about tough topics. All of this with the impersonal, anonymous nature of the internet. Mormon apologetics, and almost more importantly, the comportation of leading mormon apologists, has had a dramatic effect on the membership of the church. The continued influence of the internet, and readily available information will continue to be the most significant factor in the dissemination of information regarding mormonism now, and long into the future.
Commitment to Commercial Real Estate Development
As mormonism evolves and matures, the leadership seems to be taking an increasing amount of money in the pursuit of large real estate ventures, specifically in Salt Lake City. For example, in 2000 the Conference Center was built at a cost of $240 million. Likewise, in 2005 the church announced the Downtown SLC Mall Redevelopment, with an estimated cost of $1 billion. While the architectural merit of these edifices is overwhelming, the priority on real estate development over other welfare needs of the world is troubling. If Christ were at the helm, so to speak, would he apportion so much money to extravagant buildings and architecture when there are so many of the world's population that is destitute and hungry? Indeed there are statistics that indicate that thousands of children worldwide are dying daily for lack of proper nutrition and medical care. Wouldn't the Lord place a higher priority on saving a life, than on creating a monument to Himself? This new priority of building temples worldwide, at extravagant costs, and multiple temples in the Salt Lake valley appears to be at odds with core Christian principles. The Lord's church certainly has had an effect on humanitarian aid worldwide, but with the vast funds of the church, we should ask ourselves if the church is doing enough? Is it possible that the church could eradicate blindness in the world's child population. Vitamin deficiencies and lack of proper medical treatment account for so much of the world's suffering. Doesn't the church feel an obligation, indeed a mandate, to be the pre-eminent provider of care and compassion for these individuals? When so much money is going toward sleek new buildings, and downtown shopping malls, one is left to wonder if real estate is a new priority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
DNA evidence against the Book of Mormon 2002
Professor Thomas Murphy's revelation that "so far, DNA research lends no support to traditional mormon beliefs about the origins of the Native Americans" has led to a firestorm of debate and research into the true origins of Native Americans. Simon Southerton jumped into the mix with his study, verifying Murphy's findings. Both of these scholars are, or were, members of the church. Scholars on both sides of the issue have explorer whether or not the claims of the Book of Mormon, regarding the Lamanites, is true, and scientifically verifiable. Other anthropologists, biologists, and geneticists have weighed in on the issue, with the majority of evidence going against the claim that the American Indian is of jewish descent. Indeed, the current church priesthood/relief society manual regarding the life of the prophet Spencer W. Kimball has no references to his interests in the Lamanites. Anyone who lived during the Kimball era recalls how adamant he was about proclaiming the divinity of the Lamanite people. There were many Lamanite church programs in place back in the 1970s, with many native american children being "placed" in LDS homes. This lamanite placement program was a mandate of Spencer W. Kimball. Also, President Kimball prophesied that the Lamanite's skin would turn white as they followed the teachings of the gospel. Somewhere since the advent of this new DNA evidence, the church's priorities in teaching about the lamanites has been lost. There is no longer an emphasis that the Book of Mormon was written specifically for the Lamanites. President Kimball's teachings regarding the Lamanites have been correlated out of the manual. There seems to be a movement toward distancing the church from the claims of the Book of Mormon regarding the lamanites. Indeed, there are new geographical models being put forth that change the whole concept of the Nephites and Lamanites covering North and South America as many of us were taught in church when we were younger. This emphasis away from the traditionally held church teachings, appears to be driven, in part, by the DNA controversy.
Lack of foresight of natural and human disasters and calamities - WTC (2001) and the Tsunami (2004)
These two catastrophic events occured without any warning from the leadership. Would not the spirit of prophecy dictate also a spirit of love, compassion, and warning? God is his everlasting wisdom has provided for the dastardly Lucy Harris stealing the 116 page manuscript, by having ancient prophets write a substitute book, for the book she would steal many thousand years into the future. But this same God who foresaw Lucy's conniving plan, and the conniving plan of others to change the words of the translation and attempt to discredit Joseph Smith, this same God did not communicate an advance warning to his leadership on earth regarding these two disasters? Over 5,000 people died in the WTC attacks in a senseless killing. Over 300,000 people died in the Tsunami. Likewise, we could look at the over 6 million Jews that were killed in the holocaust. Are the leaders not given advanced information in their position as prophets, seers, and revelators, to help out mankind in general? The church's official statement concerning the Tsunami was "In association with other relief agencies, the Church is extending substantial humanitarian aid to the stricken people of southern Asia." What about a forewarning from on high? The leadership appears to be in the same reactionary position as most other human beings on the planet when there are natural disasters or human calamities. This point was effectively illuminated by these recent events.
I do think the church has changed over the past 22 years, but most of the change was exterior and not driven by the leadership. It's hard to say where the church will be 22 years from now, in the year 2029. Hopefully some positive progress will have been made.