Those who imagine change in the Church are fond of hanging their hat on the principle of continuing revelation, arguing that it allows us a tremendous amount of flexibility to reformulate our doctrines and practices. This is, I think, far too simplistic, a fact that is illustrated by two of the most dramatic shifts in Church policy: the end of polygamy and the end of the priesthood ban.
Both of these events are marshaled in support of the Mormonism-can-change-easily-if-it-wants-to claim. In both cases long standing practices were apparently reversed by simple prophetic fiat. The problem with this view of things is that it is wrong. In reality, the end of polygamy and the end of the priesthood ban were very different sorts of events and thinking about their differences is important for understanding the nature of continuing revelation in the Church.
Let’s start with the end of polygamy. The simple fact of history is that polygamy did not end in 1890. It did not even end in 1904, when Joseph F. Smith issued the so-called “Second Manifesto.” Mormons were incredibly ambivalent about the end of polygamy. Many regarded the 1890 Manifesto as a ruse, or at best a prohibition only on polygamy in the United States. New plural marriages were more or less openly performed in Mexico and Canada, while post-Manifesto polygamous unions were contracted more discretely within the United States. A significant number of Apostles and members of the First Presidency were involved in either performing or entering into these post-Manifesto marriages. Ultimately, in the face of a threat of renewed federal pressure, Joseph F. Smith moved to decisively end polygamy among mainstream Latter-day Saints, forcing the Quorum of the Twelve to drop two members — John Taylor, Jr. and Mathias Cowley — whose post-Manifesto polygamy become public knowledge, and eventually — perhaps as late as 1911 — instituting a rule requiring the excommunication of those performing or entering into new plural marriages. The move precipitated a crisis of authority for Joseph F. Smith, which resulted in some vocal apostasies and a concerted effort by the general authorities to demonstrate to the Saints that the current leadership maintained continuity with the past prophets, even as they rejected key teachings of Joseph and Brigham. Kathleen Flake has persuasively demonstrated, I think, that our current official history of the Restoration — most especially our focus on the First Vision — dates from this period and was part of Joseph F. Smith’s efforts to show that the current prophets and apostles maintained the same authority as past prophets.
Compare this long, messy, and painful process with the end of the priesthood ban. To my knowledge, it precipitated no mass apostasies, serious questions about prophetic authority, or resistance to implementation. Where polygamy’s end was bitter and difficult, the end of the priesthood ban seems to have been comparatively easy. Let me suggest that the difference lies in the differing roles that these two practices served. Plural marriage was a central marker of Latter-day Saint identity that became tied up in the basic stories that Mormons told in the 19th century about the plan of salvation. Furthermore, by arousing intense legal persecution, plural marriage became sanctified by martyrdom. In contrast, the priesthood ban never seems to have taken central stage in the same way. Indeed, it frequently wandered around as a practice furtively in search of some explanation. Ultimately, jettisoning it did not require a dramatic revision of the central stories that Latter-day Saints told themselves the way that polygamy did.
What all of this illustrates, I think, is that continuing revelation cannot be thought of as a simple “reverse course at will” button. After all, change can be evidence of apostasy as well as further light and knowledge. History teaches us that our prophets have not blithely abandoned past teachings or revelations, nor have Latter-day Saints been willing to accept any and all changes without a second thought. Rather, revelation requires a certain kind of integrity to the past. It is not that the past provides immutable standards to be slavishly followed, but rather than it acts as a kind of ballast, a set of authorities that must be accommodated and reinterpreted rather than simply rejected. In this sense, the development of our doctrine and practice is much like the development of the common law. A common law judge may make new law. He may reverse previous precedents and announce new rules. Yet this creative power is constrained, not by per se prohibitions on innovation, but rather by a due regard for past cases, and the requirement that new holdings demonstrate some continuity and respect for that past. So it is, I think, with continuing revelation.