in Religion

Lessons from the Tidy Church

While much of the world has lost interest, the topic of Joseph Smith’s polygamy that I raised in my earlier post remains white-hot in various pockets of the Internet. As the Church wrestles with how to confront the thornier elements of its history amid the scrutiny of the Digital Age, many of its critics gleefully paint a picture of a corrupt and dishonest cult ruined by a past that is finally catching up with it.

Yet The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints stubbornly refuses to collapse on cue.

Indeed, record numbers of Mormon missionaries are taking the message of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ to every corner of the globe. There has been no mass exodus. To the contrary, the Church continues to grow. Most of its members blithely ignore the latest online controversy and quietly go about their lives striving to emulate the example of the Master.

There are a handful of us, however, who still pay attention to the arguments and feel an almost irrational need to push back against the detractors. And as we do so, every once in awhile, we have a moment of weakness where we wish the Church were something other than it is. I don’t like polygamy, so why do I have to defend its 19th Century practice? Why do we even have to consider the possibility that Joseph Smith may have had sex with young girls? Why do we have to deal with the reality of Brigham Young’s racism infecting the church as a whole? Wouldn’t the church have been better off if it had never practiced polygamy, never denied the priesthood to black people, and never pushed all of the strange and unusual doctrines that get people so riled up?

With so much messiness in our history, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a much tidier church?

Believe it or not, there is an answer to that question that isn’t hypothetical. Because that tidier church actually exists.

These days, it’s called the Community of Christ, but from 1860 until 2001, it was known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (RLDS.) Their church is a whole lot like our church, with a First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 Apostles and everything. In fact, they’re more directly connected to Joseph Smith than we are, since the first president of their church was Joseph Smith III, and for over a century, each president was one of his direct descendents. Their church has operated with essentially an identical organization and hierarchy to the one familiar to Mormons, except they’ve smoothed away all of the rough edges that get the Mormons into trouble.

For instance, they believe that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy and that plural marriage was an invention of Brigham Young. Their priesthood has always been open to men of all races, and now it’s open to women, too. In their history, they haven’t generated even a fraction of the kind of opposition the Mormons have seen, and today, they are respected members of the National Council of Churches. No one questions whether or not they are Christians – they are – and their temple is even open to the public.

So where has that more inclusive, inoffensive, tidied-up history gotten them?

Let me take a moment to say that if I’d been an impartial observer back in the day when the two churches split, I’d have probably put my money on the RLDS church being the one more likely to do well. They had membership numbers that nearly rivaled those of the Utah church, and they had Emma Smith and Joseph Smith’s posterity leading their cause. They were also respectable, as opposed to the Utah heretics trudging out into Mexican territory to practice polygamy in the wilderness.

But it’s a funny thing. The LDS Church has expanded exponentially since those earlier days, whereas the Community of Christ has faded into almost complete obscurity. Where the RLDS was once competitive with us so-called “Brighamites,” they’re now barely clinging to life, with only about 200,000 members and falling fast.

I think people should remember that when they hear Kate Kelly saying the Church is doomed if it doesn’t ordain women to the priesthood, or they hear John Dehlin say the Church needs to abandon claims to the Book of Mormon’s historicity to remain relevant, or they hear Abby Huntsman say the church needs to open its temple doors for everyone to come inside if it wants to continue to grow.

The Community of Christ did all that, and it’s dying. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, with all its historical untidiness, continues to thrive.

Why is that?

There are a number of answers, but the one that rings true to me is the one Jesus provided in the Book of John. “If the world hate you,” He told his disciples, “ye know that it hated me before it hated you.” We should not be surprised that our faith is the object of so much derision – Jesus told us to expect this and wear opposition as a badge of honor.  “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own,” Christ taught, “but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”

There are worse things than being hated. One of them is abandoning everything you believe in a foolhardy attempt to be loved. Once the Community of Christ started smoothing everything away, it didn’t know where to stop. They have all but jettisoned the Book of Mormon and any revelation that makes people uncomfortable, and now they’re virtually indistinguishable from any other conservative Protestant denomination. This process has made them irrelevant, not beloved.

So if you’re tempted to follow that route in order to avoid opposition, always remember that it was the untidy church that came out on top.

The evil that is "Christmas Shoes."
I hope I'm wrong again

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  1. Here in Kansas City there is a larger RLDS population, and we have a few members of our ward who have converted to our church recently from the faith. Just this last Sunday, Joseph Smith III’s great-great grandson spoke in our sacrament, having joined our church about a year ago. I have made friends with a few RLDS folks, and they all seem like wonderful people. So far all of them have had nothing but respect for our faith, to the point that one of them asked me to come speak to their congregation about my “mission trip to Finland”. I made the same observation that you have in your piece- when they have given up their unique qualities, why should someone choose their church over another? But it must be said that my friends are Christian, wonderful people, who probably do more good than I do.

  2. In my first area on my mission, there was our chapel on one end of the street and then at the other end was the Community of Christ chapel. I walked past it many times, including during the times labeled as worship services. It always looked abandoned. Now, these were just the impressions of a 19 year old elder, but I always found the difference striking. We were looking for new places to build chapels and splitting wards, etc and they could barely find two or three cars to put in a parking lot of a building covered in overgrown vines.

  3. “Why do we even have to consider the possibility that Joseph Smith may have had sex with young girls?”

    So did Mohammad if I’m not mistaken.

  4. “I don’t like polygamy, so why do I have to defend its 19th Century practice?”

    Defend or not as you please. Jesus frequently chose not to defend, as for instance with Pontius Pilate. I think it depends on whether anyone can learn from it.

    I don’t care one way or the other about polygamy. It has obvious benefits and is widely found in the animal kingdom. But Brigham Young spoke on it extensively, speaking specifically of the many widows that existed in early Utah. What are they to do? They have desires and feelings that can only be expressed in the married state, he said.

    Absent government services of any kind, it makes good sense to marry those widows into successful homes. It is unclear and somewhat irrelevant if Brigham Young had sex with all his wives; it seems a bit unlikely since there were too many of them, a woman would be waiting a long time for her turn.

    It is also the case that it seems some women were being handed out as prizes or incentive, or so it seems, but I take all reports of such things with a shadow of doubt.

    With same-sex marriage now more or less legal in Utah and elsewhere, the question becomes why anyone should care what someone else does, so long as they have chosen it. Of course I will oppose subsidizing it, but what people DO they do — usually it is just called adultery or having an affair for a man to have many women (or a woman to have many men).

    Some wonder whether Mormons will re-institute polygamy, and that’s not really for anyone to say. I consider it unlikely since the unbalance that existed in Brigham Young’s day seems not to exist right now; but it could exist in the future.

    • The whole “there were too many women and not enough husbands for them” excuse was debunked by John A. Widtsoe in 1945, and that line of reasoning is specifically disavowed in the church’s recent essays on the subject. When I was on my mission, citing the “not enough husbands” theory was the most popular way to sidestep the issue. But it’s just not true.

      Brigham Young had 53 children. If he didn’t have sex with all his wives, then the chaste ones would definitely have been the exception, not the rule.

      • You are arguing with a point I have not made. I spoke specifically of “widows” and so did Brigham Young.

        Brigham Young often tried to “reason” with the church members in the case that “God said so” might not be sufficiently persuasive. A woman with children and no husband had very little chance of having her desires fulfilled.

        “excuse was debunked by John A. Widtsoe in 1945”

        Brigham Young was prophet and president. Widtsoe lacks standing to correct a prophet (even if correct).

        “If he didn’t have sex with all his wives, then the chaste ones would definitely have been the exception,”

        That would be called “celibate”. ALL of them where “chaste”, some of them may have been celibate. As I recall, B.Y. had about 50 wives and I consider it unlikely he had sex on a regular basis with all of them. “By the time of his death, Young had 57 children by 16 of his wives”

        It also identifies 16 as widows and the author has no idea how many were conjugal; but at least 16 (those that produced children). A number, at least 6, never lived with B.Y. and simply expected to be dragged into the Celestial Kingdom being sealed to him.

        From Old French chaste (“morally pure”), from Latin castus (“pure”).

        • I stand corrected on chaste v. celibate, although my point – Brigham Young had sex with his wives – still stands. If he didn’t have time for all of them, that’s one thing. But there’s no evidence that he was reticent to sleep with his polygamous wives for any other reason.

          As for the whole “lots of widows” thing, I was responding to the too-convenient explanation that polygamy was a sociological response to women outnumbering men. If that’s not the point you were making, then I’m in error then, too.

          My larger point is that I find sociological explanations for polygamy entirely inadequate. It was practiced for theological and not sociological reasons. Sociological justifications strike me as an attempt to make the practice less embarrassing, and I think they sidestep the reality.

          • “Sociological justifications strike me as an attempt to make the practice less embarrassing, and I think they sidestep the reality.”

            Quite right. That’s why I included the caveat “in case God saying so isn’t adequately persuasive” or something to that effect. Usually, but not perhaps always, God’s commandments fulfill a useful purpose. As Jacob explains, its primary purpose is reproductive advantage. An economically successful businessman can afford to bring more children into the world and, beyond that, give them some sort of a future. It was also not a general commandment (marriage is, polygamy is not for the simple impossibility of it). This appears to be the case in modern Islam as well.

            The practice clearly was intended to continue even in the case of adequate gender ratio, meaning that some men wouldn’t have wives ever which as we now see is a satisfactory outcome for at least some men.

            A problem exists with trying to explain to a modern audience a practice that no longer needs a modern explanation. That was then, this is now, and the future could hold new surprises.

            For BAC’s (Born Again Christians) one can always point to the prophecy where seven women will take hold of one man.