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.