in Religion

Is That Doctrine?

Years ago, I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about Spencer W. Kimball’s inclusion of a goofy story about Cain in his book “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” which is (thankfully) out of print. It’s not worth revisiting at length, but then-Elder Kimball quoted from the journal of early church leader David W. Patten, who claimed to have met Cain while riding on horseback. Cain was allegedly about seven feet tall and completely covered in hair, and he lamented that he was cursed to roam the earth until the Second Coming. This story is the genesis of the Mormon folklore that Cain is actually Bigfoot.

Now we all now this story is nonsense, as Bigfoot is actually a robot creation of aliens that were eventually thwarted by Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man. You can’t fake a picture like this:

(From L to R) Bigfoot and Steve Austin, as played by Cain and Lee Majors

Anyway, my friend and I shared a hearty chuckle over the whole thing, and he concluded the conversation by saying something along the lines of, “It’s nice that we don’t have to believe this, because Spencer W. Kimball wasn’t the prophet when he wrote it.”

I didn’t say anything in response, but I should have. Because the reason we don’t have to believe this has nothing to do with whether Spencer W. Kimball was the prophet or not when he wrote it.

The reason we don’t have to believe this is because it isn’t true.

I think too many Latter-day Saints have a distorted sense of what the Lord expects from us with regard to how we accept and understand truth. At no point are we ever required to believe anything that isn’t true. That includes things that aren’t true that may be believed by people in positions of ecclesiastical authority.

I thought about this as I read this thoughtful piece on the subject of whether or not Mormons believe we each get our own planet when we die. This writer addresses this bit of folklore at length and does yeoman’s work at trying to explain it, but I think the piece falls down when it tries to justify the reasons why Mormons don’t necessarily believe it.

Some relevant quotes from the linked-to piece:

Mormons believe that all scripture is given by revelation by the Holy Spirit… However, not all scripture is equally valuable… We believe God has called prophets and apostles to receive revelation for the whole Church… However, even among these men, there is a prescribed order in the Church for receiving revelation.

The “prescribed order” of revelation adheres to the following criteria:

  1. “[N]o pronouncement by the President of the Church is considered binding on the Church unless it is supported by the President’s counselors as well.”

  2. While the writer can think of “no really significant pronouncement by the First Presidency (President and counselors) in my lifetime that was not also unanimously sustained by the next governing body of the Church, the Quorum of the Twelve,” such sustaining is “not strictly required.”

  3. “In the absence of a First Presidency, as when a President passes away, the full authority of the First Presidency falls on the Quorum of the Twelve. Their unanimous pronouncements — and only their unanimous pronouncements — are then fully binding on the Church.”

  4. “[T]he Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price… are the touchstones against which other revelations are measured. Nevertheless, we do not consider them infallible.”

  5. “[T]he Joseph Smith Translation [of the Bible]…is best thought of as a kind of inspired commentary on the Bible.”

  6. The four “Standard Works are preeminent. Only the pronouncements of the current First Presidency can supercede them or even be regarded as their equal.”

  7. “Official statements by past First Presidencies remain binding on the Church, but can be clarified or extended by the current First Presidency.”

  8. The speeches and writings of “individual prophets, apostles, and members of the quorums of Seventy… do not carry the same weight of authority. Books written or endorsed by these men are not generally regarded as scripture.”

  9. A “sermon or a lesson manual from decades ago, even when it comes from a member of the Seventy with the blessing of some of the Apostles, is not a binding statement of Mormon belief.”

  10. “Think of Mormon doctrine as a spectrum. At one end you have doctrine that is found repeatedly and expressly in the scriptures, has been repeatedly and expressly preached by the prophets from Joseph Smith to the present, is a frequent subject of exhortation from the pulpit or in Sunday School classes and other church settings, is part of the general understanding that Mormons have of the gospel, and is an integral part of current Mormonism as it is actually lived. Anything that meets all those criteria is clearly official doctrine by any standard.”

  11. “Something that isn’t expressly stated in scripture, hasn’t been preached by any of the prophets, isn’t taught over the pulpit and in other church settings, isn’t part of the sensus communis of the Mormon people, and isn’t an integral part of their lived experience, isn’t official doctrine by any standard. In between you have considerable grey area and have to exercise judgment.[Emphasis added for reasons that will become clear later]

The author goes on to make additional legalistic distinctions between what is doctrine and what isn’t. He believes the concept of a mother-in-heaven “is in the gray area of not-quite-settled doctrine,” but later concedes that it falls just within the bounds of settled, official doctrine.” (Phew! Just made it!) The “Proclamation on the Family carries an authority just short of the Standard Works.” Our “relationship to God the Father…widely viewed in the Church in terms of an intimate family relationship, of a perfectly loving character, analogous to the very best in human family relationships… is more a cultural phenomenon than a doctrinal matter.” The “doctrine that God the Father was once a mortal man comes close to being settled doctrine, [but] the further we extrapolate from it, the less settled the ground we are on.”

The writer admits that all this “may seem a bit confusing to a non-Mormon.” I submit that they’re a bit confusing to this lifelong Mormon, too.

Apparently, if a prophet says something, but his counselors don’t say it, it’s not doctrine, but if his counselors do say it and the Twelve don’t, it is doctrine, although it must be measured against the four Standard Works of scripture, which are not infallible and can be superseded by the very statements that are being measured against them, although those statements can be later “clarified or extended,” but not in books or writings that don’t have universal endorsement or official lesson manuals that are old, although the Joseph Smith Translation can provide an inspired-but-non-doctrinal commentary. Also note that the Proclamation on the Family is, maybe, 94% doctrine, Mother-in-Heaven is approximately 87% doctrine, and the idea that God was once a man is on a sliding scale of 73% to 22% doctrine, depending on how it’s extrapolated.

With everything else, you have to exercise judgment.

I don’t mean to pick on this guy, as I think his piece is a well-written, good faith effort to clarify what’s doctrine and what isn’t. But I think he makes a mistake that a vast number of other members make when they ask the question, “Is that doctrine?” Because what they actually seem to be asking is, “Can I believe this without any additional thought or consideration on my part, or do I have to exercise judgment?”

The answer to the first part of that question is “no, you can’t,” and the answer to the second part is “yes, you do.” You always have to exercise judgment if you want to know the truth.

Moroni 10:5 states that “by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.” Indeed, throughout the scriptures, the Lord makes it clear that the Holy Ghost is the only way to know truth. In Doctrine and Covenants Section 50, versus 19 and 20, the Lord asks, “he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? If it be some other way it is not of God.” That includes discussions where people are browbeaten into accepting something as “doctrine” because it fits some arbitrary list of criteria, no matter how well-reasoned that list may be.

So whether or not the Cain-as-Sasquatch story fits any or all of that criteria is not at all relevant. Whether the Holy Ghost will testify to the truthfulness of the Cain-as-Bigfoot story is the only thing that matters. In my admittedly fallible experience, I have received no such confirmation and therefore feel entirely justified in rejecting such nonsense freely.

And yes, you still have to exercise judgment about issues that clearly check all the right doctrinal boxes. The fact that Jesus Christ the Savior of the World is at the heart of all Mormon doctrine, but the Lord requires each member to receive an understanding and testimony of that truth from the Holy Ghost. It is not enough to know that the all prophets have said it or it appears in every lesson manual, even the new ones. You are not absolved from exercising judgment about this bit of doctrine simply because its official status is beyond dispute.

As for Mormon ideas are not quite as doctrinally authoritative as Christ’s divinity, the question shouldn’t be “Is this doctrine?” The question should be, “Is this true?”

And if the answer is yes, than it doesn’t matter whether the truth appeared in the fully authoritative-but-fallible Standard Works, an almost-fully authoritative Proclamation on the Family, a quasi-authoritative Deseret Book publication written by an emeritus Seventy, or a completely non-authoritative Six Million Dollar Man episode. For truth is truth. To the end of reckoning.

Shakespeare said that, but I’m not sure if his counselors agreed, so you don’t necessarily have to believe it.

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Leave a Reply

  1. Lovely comment.

    It is indeed unfortunate that Spencer Kimball included that silly story about Cain, thus resurrecting a tale that had been buried for over a century.

    Do you know what else he included in that book? A speculation that Navahos are getting whiter as the generations pass. Well, I cannot imagine how this can happen except by intermarriage. We have a lovely family in our ward where the father is a Navajo from Kayenta AZ and the mother is Caucasian. Their four little girls are beautiful.

    But I am pretty sure that this is not what SWK meant.

    Still, Pres. Kimball is my favorite prophet, because I came of age when he was President, when I went on my mission, and when I met and married my wife. And he presided over the most marvelous revelation of the 20th century, that of extending the priesthood for all eligible males. So I can forgive him his foibles at believing weird things.

    • And I love your comments with that picture (L to R) is just too funny. I mean good point with regards to: I am only required to believe truth and the Spirit trumps (if I can use those tow words next to each other) everything.

  2. These types of legalistic gnat-nose-hair splitting expositions you’re responding to here (in a very gracious way) just weary me. I struggle to think of a response, and end up just looking at the person (if in person) and hope for a rapid-but-gracious way of ending the conversation and getting on with my life. When reading them, my boiled-down take on them is that they don’t increase faith, but instead take faith away. When I’m having a bad day, I may even put them in the great and spacious building, except that sometimes they are quite innocently arrived at.

    Thanks for your efforts to keep the world a saner place!