The Wilderness of Faith
Edited by John Sillito
Some Reflections on the Mormon Identity Crisis
Richard J. Cummings
How can organizations such as the Association for Mormon Letters, the B. H. Roberts Society, the Sunstone Foundation, and the Mormon History Association, organizations which are independent from the Mormon church, justify their existence? How can groups which have no official ties presume to serve as outlets for scholarly and creative writing on Mormon subjects and as constructive forums for significant Mormon issues?
I think that such associations are the direct outgrowth of a creeping identity crisis which is gnawing at the heart of Mormondom and that such groups provide partial but salutary resolutions of that crisis. Let me explain by relating a personal anecdote. As a graduate student at Stanford University, I belonged to a study group which was inquiring into the LDS concept of deity with all the zeal one might expect of a group of devout former missionaries. We needed to locate the King Follett discourse and thought we could find it in Joseph Smith’s History of the Church, edited by B. H. Roberts. We did find the discourse listed in the table of contents of the first edition, but the pages listed in the table of contents were missing in our copy. They had been omitted at the time the volume was printed. Other copies of the volume had the same apparent defect. The page was numbered 301 on one side and 318 on the other.1
Frustrated and intrigued by this circumstance, we sent an inquiry to Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who was then supposed to provide “Answers to Gospel Questions.” We received a reply, which [p.62] was as terse as it was prompt. The King Follett discourse was not published in the History of the Church because President Joseph F. Smith did not want it included. Of course this reply raised more questions than it put to rest, since no explanation was provided for President Smith’s decision to delete the discourse.
I have since learned that B. H. Roberts, who believed the King Follett Discourse contained “many wondrous truths,” was infuriated at the highhandedness of his publisher in deleting these pages. Roberts, who was a member of the First Council of Seventy, had been assigned to tour a mission just before the volume went to press and discovered the crucial omission quite by chance after his return. The only reason given for this action was a vague hint that “the Brethren” questioned the authenticity of the discourse. Roberts immediately had 10,000 copies of the discourse printed and distributed throughout the church at his own expense.2 It is interesting to note that after all these years, B. H. Roberts’s thirty-two-page pamphlet is still on sale at the Deseret Bookstores.3
This incident can serve as a paradigm of the phenomenon which concerns me. Roberts valued the truth as he perceived it, and he felt that the King Follett Discourse belonged in the History for two reasons. First, it was an integral part of church history. Second, it set forth theological truths which, however radical or controversial, were essential to a grasp of Joseph Smith’s teachings concerning the nature of humanity and of God. President Joseph F. Smith, for reasons he never explained, decided that the historical and theological truths which Roberts prized so highly in the King Follett discourse could be overridden by considerations of personal or ecclesiastical expediency, and he suppressed the entire chapter. Although most of the doctrines contained in the discourse were already available to the public in the Pearl of Great Price and in the hymn “Oh, My Father,” one can speculate that President Smith feared publishing it might prove embarrassing because it set forth the radical notion of a plurality of Gods and stressed literal anthropomorphism. The simple fact remains that the president of the church chose to exercise his prerogative as arbiter of all religious matters without apology or even the courtesy of an explanation.
However, it is also significant and reassuring that nothing indicates Roberts was taken to task for his rebellious gesture in publishing the pamphlet. He was fully vindicated posthumously in [p.63] 1950 when the King Follett discourse was restored to its rightful place in the second edition of the History of the Church.4
What does all this have to do with an identity crisis? This incident provides a prototypical example of the clash between institutional authority and individual integrity and between the imperative of blind obedience and the claims of reasoned belief. Ultimately it exemplifies a fundamental conflict between a metaphysical pluralism emphasizing the eternal autonomy and the divine potential of humankind and a hyper-orthodox, theistic absolutism underlining the subservience of humanity to deity and the subordination of individual members of the church to the hierarchical superstructure.
It should be noted that although the tension between these conflicting views has greatly increased within recent years, it has always been present in the church. For instance, in support of the integrity of the individual, Joseph Smith stated categorically that “all men have the privilege of thinking for themselves upon all matters related to conscience. Consequently, then, we are not disposed … to deprive anyone of exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.”5 On the other hand, a few years later Apostle Heber C. Kimball admonished the membership of the church to “learn to do as you are told both old and young.… [I]f you are told by your leader to do a thing, do it. None of your business whether it is right or wrong.”6 He went on to justify this approach, re-echoing rationalizations for unthinking obedience offered over the centuries by totalitarian regimes: “If you do things according to counsel and they are wrong, the consequences will fall on the heads of those who counseled you, so don’t be troubled.”7
If over the years this conflict between enhancing and disparaging personal integrity has been seen at the highest levels of church leadership, then it stands to reason that it also will be found in the lower echelons. I know of no better example of this replication of the issue at the middle-management level than an unfortunate incident which occurred toward the end of my Uncle Benjamin F. Cummings’s life.
Although Uncle Frank, as we called him, served many years as chair of the Department of Languages at Brigham Young University, his first love was teaching—particularly his courses on religion [p.64] and ethics. As a natural outgrowth of that teaching experience and in response to requests from many of his former students, he spent his post-retirement years on a manuscript containing the fruit of his efforts over the years to synthesize his insights into “the origin and destiny of Man, the nature of God and Man, the creation, and meaning of existence.”8 His main concern centered around “the concept of the nature of the Self,” and in developing this concept, he drew heavily on Joseph Smith’s King Follett discourse.9
Since he was a member of the church in good standing and had enjoyed a distinguished career on the BYU faculty and since his manuscript provided affirmative and perceptive insights on the Latter-day Saint system of beliefs and values, he naively assumed that it would be publishable with some measure of official endorsement. He sent it through channels for consideration. After a year of the most tedious and disheartening bureaucratic runaround imaginable, he published the book at his own expense, entitling it Eternal Individual Self. Then came the crowning blow. He approached the man then serving as manager of Deseret Book—an individual he had always considered a friend—to ask if he could place a few copies there on consignment. After polite temporizing, this individual told him his request could not be granted. The only reason given for the negative decision in both instances was that “it might not meet with the approval of the Brethren.” There is something heartrending about a benevolent old man, a kind of intellectual “true believer,” having his life work rejected by the church which mattered to him more than all else. As Samuel Johnson wrote to Lord Chesterfield in response to the latter’s belated offer of patronage, “I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.”10 Uncle Frank died, literally nursing his wounds, a short time after this final indignity.
With all due allowance for the unusually personal nature of this second anecdote, I would submit it can be seen as an updated lower-level recapitulation of the first anecdote. Both incidents led to the publication of an officially unapproved document bearing on the King Follett discourse, and although publishing the first was a gesture of defiance whereas publishing the second was an act of resigned desperation, both represent individual initiative and personal integrity in the face of hierarchical hostility or indifference.
[p.65] The theological and ecclesiastical dichotomy producing this identity crisis can also be recognized in a fundamental split among members of the church. You can either lose yourself in the church, or you can find yourself in it. Many of those who lose themselves do so by renouncing their autonomous identity through blind obedience and mindless activism. Those who find themselves through Mormonism do so by taking literally the LDS maxim, “The Glory of God is Intelligence,” and also the ideas in the King Follett discourse. We have an innate capacity which has been ours for all eternity and a God-given mandate in the gospel plan, urging us to think for ourselves and work out our individual salvation as we see fit.
Those who lose themselves in the church constitute the majority. Some of them minimize or even disregard the identity crisis because they find it convenient to refer their problems and worries to the “sure voice of authority” and let the Brethren think and plan for them. Those who seek to find themselves in the church have difficulty basing their convictions solely on faith-promoting experiences but must also wrestle with their misgivings, reach their own thoughtful conclusions however painful, and forge their individual testimonies in the crucible of private doubt and personal despair. As A. C. Lambert, former dean at BYU, aptly put it, those who seek to find themselves are “gnawed inside at times by … clear fallacies or even tyrannies in the strictly authoritarian pattern.”11
One of the current trends in Mormonism which reinforces the tendency to lose oneself in the church can best be described as a kind of “cloning from the top.” This trend probably follows from the rapid growth rate of the church, which produces a practical administrative need for increased conformity at all levels. A dramatic instance of this cloning trend was related by a close friend, who visited the office of one of the high-ranking apostles some years ago when Joseph Fielding Smith was president of the Council of Twelve Apostles. At one point in the conversation, the General Authority in question, wishing to dramatize the need for zealous obedience, pointed to a decorative picture hanging on one of the walls of his office. “If President Smith came into my office and expressed displeasure with that painting, the next time he came in it would have been replaced!” Contrast this ethic of total compliance even in areas of personal taste with the attitude of Brigham Young when he [p.66] declared: “My independence is sacred to me—it is a portion of that same Deity that rules in the heavens.… The Lord has not established laws by which I am compelled to have my shoes made in a certain style. He has never given a law to determine whether I have a square-toed boot or a peaked-toed boot.”12
So far I have given the Mormon identity crisis a predominantly anthropocentric focus. What I hope will be a fruitfully provocative question can shift the discussion to a more theocentric perspective: Do we worship the God of Truth or the God of Expediency? A scriptural basis for this question can be found in John 16:7 where Christ at the Last Supper declares: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you.”13 The Savior speaking of his divine calling uses “truth” and “expedient” in the same sentence and thereby suggests that at least for deity it is possible to reconcile the two. This reconciliation is further encouraged by the etymological fact that in 1611 when the King James version of the Bible was completed, the word “expedient” had only the positive meaning of being “clear of difficulties, fit and proper.”14 It was not until the eighteenth century that the term took on its pejorative and even Machiavellian meaning of being “conducive to advantage by going counter to that which is right.”15
There is a tradition in the church that when literal truth and practical ecclesiastical advantage come into conflict, it is more godly to seek the advantage than to tell the truth. A classic example of this tradition occurred in 1850 when one of the leaders, though an ardent practicing polygamist with six wives, found it expedient under admittedly extenuating circumstances to deny the facts in these terms: “Inasmuch as this Church of Jesus Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy, we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife and one woman but one husband.”16
A more recent example which demonstrates that the tradition of expediency is alive and well in the church today can be found in the strictures of President Ezra Taft Benson on what has been called the “New Mormon History.” In an address delivered to religious educators in 1976, he said that “facts should not only be taught as facts; they should be taught to increase one’s faith in the Gospel, to build testimony.… We would hope that if you feel you must write [p.67] for the scholarly journals, you always defend the faith. Avoid expressions and terminology which offend the Brethren.”17 There is something disquieting about the manner in which that term, “the Brethren,” can be invoked within the church as a vague sanction or threat. The phrase suggests a kinship not so much with the brotherhood of humanity as with the ubiquitous “Big Brother” of George Orwell’s 1984. It epitomizes the perverse arbitrariness of what Joseph Smith termed the “unrighteous dominion” exercised by “almost all men as soon as they get a little authority.”18 Such authoritarian expediency negates the fundamental truths embodied in the King Follett discourse. Theologically there can be no conflict between what is true and what is expedient, but in the realm of practical affairs, whether ecclesiastical or secular, we must guard against a natural tendency to sacrifice truth to expediency.
Joseph Smith declared, it is “the first principle of truth and of the Gospel … to know for a certainty the character of God, and that we may converse with Him the same as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us.”19 If this statement is being supplanted by a definition of our nature as compliant pawns of an awesome God who is as inscrutable as he is inaccessible, then our identity crisis suggests that we are losing our unique theological moorings and are drifting into the mainstream of traditional Christian belief.
Hugh Nibley declared some years ago that “if Joseph Smith were to walk into a conference of the Mormon church today he would find himself completely at home; and if he were to address the congregation, they would never for a moment detect anything the least bit strange, unfamiliar or old-fashioned in his teaching.”20 However, anyone willing to face the Mormon identity crisis realistically must ask if Joseph Smith’s imagined return to the church might not bear a closer resemblance to Christ’s less-than-cordial reception in fifteenth-century Seville as conceived by Dostoevsky in the Grand Inquisitor episode of The Brothers Karamazov than to the cheery scenario depicted by Nibley. It should be clear by now that I am defending a value which I consider to be a distinguishing feature of Mormonism, which I personally hold very dear, and which makes me proud to be a defender of the faith: humans are the “eternal individual selves” and embryonic gods so stirringly described in the King Follett discourse as the core truth of the restored gospel. Of all [p.68] the teachings of Joseph Smith, it is the one completely original concept which at the time he set it forth could not be found in any other philosophy, ideology, religion, or belief system on the face of the earth. In saying this I realize that I am contradicting Sterling McMurrin, who states that there is “nothing exclusive” to the “ideas that importantly characterize Mormon theology.”21 But for me this teaching offers at least one compelling piece of evidence that Joseph Smith was at the very least a uniquely gifted religious thinker.
There are two paradoxes relating to this core concept which ought to be noted here. First, those who lose themselves in the church, readily submit to “cloning from the top,” and surrender their autonomy to the sure voice of authority, are also the ones who most readily consider themselves to be well along the way to god-hood. But there is much irony in the notion that one can develop divine maturity and insight by abdicating initiative and trading integrity for spiritual dependency. It seems inconceivable that an unquestioning devotee cultivating tunnel vision on the way to perfection can somehow be metamorphosed into a god. Conversely, those who struggle to find themselves in the church rarely receive the coveted “seal of approval” so readily conferred on the unreflectingly obedient, and yet they achieve a breadth of feeling and a measure of understanding which is far more godlike than the mimicry of the mindless activist who would toady his or her way into the celestial kingdom.
The second paradox can be seen in the fact that the King Follett discourse has been given wider official distribution in the church during the last forty years than in the preceding ninety-four years since the discourse was first delivered, and yet the practical impact of the teachings it contains is less evident now than in the past.22
At the beginning of my remarks, I said that independent Mormon groups grow out of the identity crisis which is the subject of this essay. Clearly in the tradition of nineteenth-century blessing meetings and various twentieth-century study groups, such associations provide outlets for those heirs of the Mormon tradition who wish to think for themselves and express their own creative impulses and their deepest feelings about the restored gospel without feeling diminished or passed over by the official impersonal leveling process which is epitomized by “correlation.”
[p.69] As the church grows in size and strength there is less and less room for individuality. Church leaders often like to speak of Mormons as “a peculiar people,” but woe unto individual members who choose to be “peculiar persons” in the way they view their church or practice their religion. I suppose this is simply in the order of things because, speaking in purely practical terms, if the church did encourage each member to give full expression to his or her every personal quirk and bias in doctrinal matters and religious practices, it could only lead to ecclesiastical chaos. On the other hand, those in positions of authority too often become obsessed with the fear that to tolerate even a modicum of spontaneous, individual input from the rank and file would be to open the floodgates to disaster. It would be encouraging if the leaders of the church could consistently grant to the membership the same kind of autonomy which my grandfather granted to my father as a boy of eight. Rather than impose his patriarchal will in the matter, the father simply asked the son very explicitly whether or not he wanted to be baptized and why. The fact that such autonomy is not the order of the day does create a practical and moral need for an appropriate setting in which to maintain one’s integrity as an individual in a Mormon context. Thus groups like the Sunstone Foundation, the B. H. Roberts Society, the Mormon History Association, and the Association for Mormon Letters serve not only the best interests of individual members who wish to maintain, explore, and express their individuality, but they also serve the church’s best interests. They too can help in the building of the kingdom.
16. Three Nights Public Discussion between the Revds. C. W. Cleeve, James Robertson, and Philip Cater and Elder John Taylor of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Boulogne-sur-mer, France (Liverpool: Published by John Taylor, 1850), 8.
21. Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), x.
22. For a summary of the publication history of the King Follett discourse, see Donald Q. Cannon, “The King Follett Discourse: Joseph Smith’s Greatest Sermon in Historical Perspective,” Brigham Young University Studies 18 (Winter 1978): 190-92.