Rethinking the Proclamation

May 19, 2011 | 41 comments
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What exactly is the Proclamation, or, to use its full title, The Family: A Proclamation to the World? It is not scripture. It is not a revelation. It is not even a Conference talk. What is it? What status does the Proclamation have at present in the LDS Church?

Before you, dear reader, respond with a comment telling me how obvious it is that the Proclamation is (a) inspired, or (b) a revelation, or (c) uncanonized scripture, or (d) how dare you ask about the formal status of this sacred document, let’s read a few sources that might upgrade the discussion.

First, here is the very short explanation provided at the bottom of the current LDS.org presentation of the Proclamation: This proclamation was read by President Gordon B. Hinckley as part of his message at the General Relief Society Meeting held September 23, 1995, in Salt Lake City, Utah. That description isn’t particularly helpful — “message to the Relief Society” certainly doesn’t sound like counsel binding on the entire Church. On the other hand, it was apparently issued over the signatures of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve (although the LDS.org presentation does not so indicate) and, unlike official Letters from the First Presidency, which are read from the pulpit once by local leaders but are not published to the general membership of the Church, the text of the Proclamation has been published and is regularly cited.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry titled “Proclamations of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles” is helpful and informative about this strange category of LDS pronouncement, “proclamation.” But, like most EOM entries, it deftly avoids tough questions. Here is the first paragraph of the article:

In performance of their calling as apostles, prophets, seers, revelators, and spokesmen for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have from time to time issued formal written proclamations, declarations, letters, and various public announcements. These have been addressed sometimes to the members of the Church (as a type of general epistle) and sometimes to the public at large. All such declarations have been solemn and sacred in nature and were issued with the intent to bring forth, build up, and regulate the affairs of the Church as the kingdom of God on the earth. Subject matter has included instruction on doctrine, faith, and history; warnings of judgments to come; invitations to assist in the work; and statements of Church growth and progress.

Only a few of the many formal declarations have been labeled “Proclamations.” Others have been characterized “Official Declarations,” “Doctrinal Expositions,” or “Epistles.” Some have the signature of the First Presidency, some of the First Presidency and the Twelve, and some of the Twelve only.

Solemn and sacred language, yes, but what is it? Revelation, declaration, exposition, letter, memo? The EOM article lists four previous official proclamations (issued in 1841, 1845, 1865, and 1980), none of which serve any ongoing normative role in the Church. Generalizing from the four previous proclamations listed in the EOM article and ignoring the commentary, it is reasonable to conclude that proclamations are documents of lofty prose (“solemn and sacred”) designed for official events or announcements but *not* intended to have ongoing significance for the Church or its membership. Plural marriage was not ended with a proclamation. The priesthood ban was not ended with a proclamation.

How about that repository of all knowledge, Wikipedia? The article “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” describes it as “a 1995 statement issued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints … which defined the official position of the church on family, gender roles, and human sexuality.” Wikipedia thinks it is essentially a consolidated policy statement.

Claudia Bushman provides some commentary on the Proclamation in her book Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America (Praeger, 2006).

Speaking to Church members as well as to the world, written in the solemn tones of Old Testament prophets, the proclamation lays out the ideal family style and warns against other options. … Speaking against family disintegration, same-sex marriage, and abortion, declaring gender to be an eternal characteristic, the policy is more conservative that anything found in the Scriptures. The document restates the desirability of eternal marriage, the equality of partners, and the need for loyalty and faithfulness. (p. 38-39.)

Bushman also notes that in some ways the Proclamation is a quiet retreat from earlier conservative positions.

Though highly conservative, the language of the Proclamation broadens the acceptable limits of the ideal LDS family. Within its parameters is the assumption that sometimes two incomes may be necessary and that creative solutions where partners “help one another” to raise and teach children may be needed. Church teachings formerly urged young people to marry early and not to postpone or limit their families. Birth control was then officially proscribed. Now it is not mentioned. The large LDS families of the past are shrinking along with others in the nation. Families are told to make their own decisions based on Jesus Christ’s teachings. (p. 42)

In the essay “LDS Family Ideals versus the Equality of Women” (in Revisiting Thomas F. O’Dea’s The Mormons: Contemporary Perspectives, U of U Press, 2008), Carrie A. Miles discusses the Proclamation in the context of the Church’s efforts to defend traditional family and gender roles against the tidal wave of social change that began in the Sixties. One problem was that the scriptures provided little support for that effort.

Though as Dallin H. Oaks said in 2005, “The theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints centers on the family,” I suggest that church leadership found it difficult to support either this high view of family or the historic sexual division of labor from its scriptures. No biblical passage demands marriage and family as essential for salvation or requires the sexual division of labor — Jesus in fact says that following him will set family members at war with each other. Nor can support for these views be found in uniquely LDS scriptures … (p. 122).

The Proclamation was, according to Miles, essentially the solution to the problem that the scriptures don’t say (or at least say rather obliquely) what LDS leaders want them to say.

The church solved this problem in 1995 with the publication of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Neither sermon, revelation, nor manifesto, the proclamation was issued in the name of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and appeared as a new and unique form of communicating God’s will to church members. … [I]t covers all of the issues with which church leadership has been struggling since the 1960s. … [It] provides, finally, a scriptural basis for the sexual division of labor: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over the families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection of their families. Mother are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” But though defining gender roles as absolute, the proclamation still gives a nod to modern economic forces … (p. 124).

Miles concludes, “Although the proclamation has not been officially canonized, it serves the function of scripture in offering an authoritative reference for Mormons concerned with family issues” (p. 124).

Finally, there is President Julie Beck’s recent article in the March 2011 Ensign, “Teaching the Doctrine of the Family,” which includes the following paragraph citing a November 1995 statement in the Ensign by President Hinckley.

What is it we hope this rising generation will understand and do because of what we teach them? The answers to that question as well as the key elements of the doctrine of the family are found in the family proclamation. President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) said that the proclamation was “a declaration and reaffirmation of standards, doctrines, and practices” that this Church has always had.

So what is the Proclamation?

41 Responses to Rethinking the Proclamation

  1. jks on May 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Perhaps I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you that I believe it and agree with it.

  2. Ben Park on May 19, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I find the idea of the Proclamation as fulfilling a doctrinal void quite provocative.

    What I find interesting is the roll today’s publishing and media may play in how the Proclamation is interpreted in later generations. We don’t know of the past proclamations today because, well, they can’t spread as far as today’s messages: they weren’t printed in cute, decorative, single copies to be hung in everyone’s home; they weren’t broadcast in numerous internet forums; they weren’t known as well to the common member who didn’t have much contact with Church media. Perhaps these conditions will redefine how the Proclamation is understood as much as anything else.

  3. Paul on May 19, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Nice discussion. I think Sister Beck’s citation of President Hinckley resonates well with the faithful, who acknowledge that we live in a time of modern prophets whose inspired words can guide the church to a place of safety in a society of eroding values.

    It is also true that those for whom precise labels are important to understanding may be frustrated trying to understand the role of the proclamation.

    And while Carrie Miles may be correct about no biblical passage’s requiring marriage, it is not true that no LDS passage of scripture does.

  4. Matt W. on May 19, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    In that it was read at the general relief society meeting of general conference in 1995, isn’t it incorrect to say “It’s not even a conference talk?”

  5. Janell on May 19, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    I classify in my mind as an uncanonized “Official Declaration.” In the same classification is “The Living Christ,” that was issued a decade ago.

    Though a primary difference is that the two Official Declarations demonstrate a major shift in policy and teachings whereas “The Family” and “The Living Christ” are meant to clarify and affirm current teachings.

  6. SusanS on May 19, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I’ve always seen it and the Living Christ as supplemental, like the ‘Lectures on Faith.’ Whenever I suggest this in Sunday school, I’m always shouted down saying that it’s scripture and will be included in the standard works, and likely very soon. Last time I checked, we’ve had reissues of the D&C, and it’s still not in it. I’m in the group that says its supplemental commentary.

    Although, there is a new original doctrine presented in it—that as intelligences we had gender, something that the likes of McConkie and BH Roberts had debated quite a bit.

    Regardless, given how reluctant the church leadership is to add anything to our scriptures, I will be very, very surprised if it shows up at the back of the D&C someday.

  7. Adam Greenwood on May 19, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    In the hierarchy of Mormon authority, it ranks between (a) canonized scripture and (b) a principle that has been taught multiple times in general conference, like staying out of debt or having a garden.

    Its beta scripture, or general conference plus.

    Good job laying out the issues, by the way. Excellent post.

  8. MC on May 19, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    I suppose that many people in Jesus’ time considered the Sermon on the Mount to be “the solution to the problem that the scriptures don’t say (or at least say rather obliquely)” what Jesus wanted them to say.

    Then, as now, those who don’t like what they hear from the prophets and apostles are bound to view continuing revelation that way.

  9. Adam Greenwood on May 19, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    MC,
    people who do believe in continuing revelation can also see it that way. If there weren’t doctrinal lacunae, the case for continuing revelation would be less compelling.

  10. Dave on May 19, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Thank you, Adam. I generally try to “lay out the issues” in a way that gives everyone something to agree with.

    “Beta scripture” — I like the term.

  11. Anon on May 19, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    My understanding is that the Church needed some kind of definitive Church statement about gender and such to enter into particular legal discussions. There wasn’t one, so one was produced. I won’t say more than that because I’ve lost my source.

  12. geoffsn on May 19, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    It seems that either someone more senior than Elder Packer or the correlation committee (do I need an or there?) decided in the wake of Elder Packer’s talk in October’s General Conference that the Family Proc is not revelation, but is a “guide” .

    Fifteen years ago, with the world in turmoil, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” the fifth proclamation in the history of the Church. It qualifies according to the definition as a revelation and would do well that members of the church to read and follow it. It is a guide that members of the Church would do well to read and to follow.

    http://mormonsformarriage.com/?p=299

  13. Bro. Jones on May 19, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    #7: “Its beta scripture, or general conference plus.” Excellent assessment. :) We may then term non-authoritative pronouncements by General Authorities and Stake Presidents as risky alpha scripture, which may be followed but should ideally be shelved until a stable release.

  14. Kaimi Wenger on May 19, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Good point, Geoff SN.

  15. Kaimi Wenger on May 19, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    There’s a good write-up in the Church News about prior proclamations, at http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/36742/Proclamations-declarations-clarify-reaffirm-LDS-doctrine.html .

    Some of the prior proclamations are fascinating, like the proclamation during World War II (http://lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,4889-1,00.html) or the 1916 proclamation on the nature of Jesus (I didn’t see it at LDS.org, but it’s available through a lot of 3rd party website, e.g. http://www.schoolofabraham.com/fatherandson.htm ).

  16. MC on May 19, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Adam,

    Maybe this comes down purely to semantics or tone. When I read someone’s speculation that the Proclamation was issued because the scriptures “don’t say […] what LDS leaders want them to say,” I don’t read that as “LDS leaders saw a gap in in revealed knowledge that they prayerfully sought to fill in their priesthood capacity as seers and revelators.” I read it as “LDS leaders wanted quasi-scriptural underpinnings for their own personal doctrinal preferences.”

    There’s room to read it more charitably, and maybe I should have, but I have my doubts that a university professor such as Ms. Miles is so deferential to the inspired judgment of Church leadership. Also, perhaps Mr. Banack was just being a little flip in his characterization of Ms. Miles’ views, which I have not read.

  17. Martin on May 19, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    When the Proclamation came out, I read over it and pretty much concluded that was simply a summary of what I’d been taught, kind of like what Sister Beck said, which would imply that it wasn’t intended to introduce new doctrine (which some would argue “the eternal nature of gender” is). Kristine Haglund in her recent Mormon Matters Podcast suggested that it came out at the time of the gay marriage debate in Hawaii, which implies it might have been more of a press-release than a revelation.

    I’ve got to say, though, that it seems unlikely that a press release would need to be signed by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. I really would like to know whether the brethren felt they were simply re-stating what we already new, or whether they really were trying to solidify doctrine.

  18. mrsbrittdaniel on May 19, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    “But, like most EOM entries, it deftly avoids tough questions.”

    Good one!

  19. Left Field on May 19, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I was a missionary when the 1980 proclamation was issued. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Wow! The first proclamation in over a century. And to think it happened in my lifetime! My grandchildren will probably ask me if I remember the conference when it happened.

    But within a few months, people acted like they’d never heard of it. “Proclamation? Oh yeah, I think I remember something about that.” Within a year or so, if I mentioned the proclamation, I got nothing but blank looks. Eventually, I got old and jaded and cynical, and I decided that everyone was right; it wasn’t that big of a deal.

    Then the 1995 proclamation was issued. I wasn’t impressed. Yawn. Yet *another* proclamation? What? Are they going to do them once a *decade* now? Big deal.

    But everyone else freaked out. “A PROCLAMATION! Oh my gosh! This is IMPORTANT! Everyone must get a copy and post it in their house!” But I was done following the crowd. The membership of the church decided by fiat in 1980 that proclamations were No Big Deal, so dag-nab it, as far as I was concerned, proclamations were going to be No Big Deal.

  20. wondering on May 19, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Excellent post, interesting topic. Two questions:

    1. I would like to know who, exactly, wrote the proclamation. (I find it very interesting that President Packer doesn’t seem to be clear on whether it is a “revelation” or not, even though he was one of the original proclaimers!)

    2. It is often said that the proc contains no new doctrines. But where else can I find the doctrine that “gender” is an essential and eternal characteristic?

  21. Cameron N. on May 19, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    “A declaration and reaffirmation of standards, doctrines, and practices” that this Church has always had.” I’ll take President Hinckley’s word for it, but I’m just one of those silly members who does that kind of thing.

    Do we disagree with President Hinckley’s statement? Does its title really matter if it is true (or false)? What part exactly do we have doubts about?

    If the Savior decided to be merciful and told church leaders through the Spirit to avoid calling it ‘scripture’ so a few more souls are not offended and stay faithful, I’m all for it.

  22. Cameron N. on May 19, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    @wondering (20) – Assuming you believe in a pre-mortal existence. If you were a female in heaven, would your gender change upon entering mortality? Many doctrines can be inferred from the scriptures with common sense and logic, without the scriptures spelling out every last principle.

    Sorry for the double post. =)

  23. hawkgrrrl on May 20, 2011 at 12:26 am

    “The Proclamation was . . . essentially the solution to the problem that the scriptures don’t say . . . what LDS leaders want them to say.” I find the notion fascinating and totally consistent with church history that the POF was written to fill a perceived gap in scripture (JST anyone?). BKP and others working together to write the POF and BKP considering it revelation while the others felt that was going too far? That raises some questions around the threshold for revelation that each revelator self-imposes.

  24. Dave on May 20, 2011 at 12:29 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Wondering (#20), the fact that Elder Packer had some difficulty nailing down the proper words for expressing the status of the Proclamation should make our own confusion on that point more understandable. If he doesn’t know exactly what the Proclamation is, how can we?

    Left Field (#19), you win the trivia prize for having a personal memory of the 1980 Proclamation.

  25. wondering on May 20, 2011 at 1:41 am

    Cameron, I would like to see exactly which scriptures (I assume you mean from the standard works?), and which principles of common sense and logic, you would employ to prove that gender is eternal. I think that would be an interesting exercise.

    FWIW, the 2009 Primary Sharing Time Outline specifically stated that the Proclamation is a “revelation,” as did the October 2009 issue of “The Friend”:

    http://lds.org/library/display/0,4945,2045-1-4962-1,00.html

  26. geoffsn on May 20, 2011 at 2:54 am

    @wondering (20): Not sure what his source is, but Loyd said the Family Proclamation was written by a committee of Seventies headed by an Apostle:

    …to say that “the Proclamation fits the definition of revelation” is to be ignorant of the complexities of revelation and the origin of the Proclamation. The Proclamation was written by a committee of Seventies, headed by an Apostle. It was never received as a revelation, nor was it originally presented as a revelation. It is only recently that rhetoric of it being a revelation has appeared–rhetoric that has been quite officially snuffed, as was done in Packer’s talk.

    http://loydo38.blogspot.com/2010/10/proclamation-on-family-is-demoted-from.html?showComment=1291762367804#c944265231252346949

    It’s so specific; seems unlikely that he just made it up. We’d have to ask him.

  27. Grant on May 20, 2011 at 8:32 am

    There is strong evidence in the new Church Handbook for the assertion that “The Proclamation was . . . essentially the solution to the problem that the scriptures don’t say (or at least say rather obliquely) what LDS leaders want them to say.”

    The first chapter of Volume 2, “Families and the Church in God’s Plan,” is a reaffirmation of core principles and doctrines, which are supported by specific scriptural reference in nearly every paragraph. The first subsection, “The Premortal Family of God,” references the Proclamation, presumably because there were no scriptural verses that made the point quite so clearly.

    The subsection “Parents and Children” cites the Proclamation three more times, which is a reflection of the fact that families in the scriptures (with polygamy, women as property, arranged marriages, few public roles or employment opportunities for wives, the absence of mother-daughter relationships in the Book of Mormon, no reliable birth control, non-companionate marriages, etc.) do not provide adequate role models for families in today’s society.

    One might view the Proclamation as a convenient solution to the problem of scriptural lacunae, or it may be seen as an example of continuing revelation (or at least inspiration). In a similar fashion, the Book of Mormon clarifies and expands upon a number of ambiguous or incomplete teachings in the Bible.

  28. Jonovitch on May 20, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Adam, I love “beta scripture”! I’m totally going to use that. Here’s a handy version guide:

    Official releases:
    Scripture 1.0 OT
    Scripture 1.5 OT + NT
    Scripture 2.0 OT + NT + BoM
    Scripture 2.5 OT + NT + BoM + D&C
    Scripture 2.6 OT + NT + BoM + D&C + PoGP and ODs
    Scripture 3.0 (release date and final build still pending)

    Beta scripture (close but not official — may be added to an official release at some future date):
    – The Family: Proclamation to the World
    – The Living Christ
    – Jesus the Christ
    – Lectures on Faith

    Alpha scripture (not ready for a stable release, but still quite popular in some circles):
    – JST
    – Church teacher/leader/youth manuals
    – Mormon Doctrine
    – Stuff your stake president said
    – Stuff some general authority said at your stake conference

    Nightly builds (install at your own risk):
    – Stuff your seminary teacher said
    – Stuff you found on the Internet
    – Stuff on sale at Deseret Book
    – May 21, 2011

  29. Cynthia L. on May 20, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Scripture.

    According to the annual Primary Sharing Time curriculum manuals. Each month they provide a “scripture of the month,” and for at least the past couple years, there have been quotes from the Proc cited there for one or two months of the year.

    So there you have it: OFFICIAL!

  30. Kristine on May 20, 2011 at 10:56 am

    #11–It was Appendix A in the church’s petition to be named a co-defendant with the state of Hawaii in the 1st gay marriage lawsuit: http://www.qrd.org/qrd/usa/legal/hawaii/baehr/1997/brief.mormons-04.14.97

  31. Doc on May 20, 2011 at 11:01 am

    You are right. We should just settle the matter by calling in a solemn assembly and haveing the general membership vote it into the canon.

  32. Ben S on May 20, 2011 at 11:18 am

    3.0 still has some bugs. Can we rebrand patriarchy as a feature?

  33. Anon on May 20, 2011 at 11:25 am

    #26, my source also had very specific information, which contradicts that of Loydo. Can’t say which is correct (again, I can’t locate my source), but I’d be happier if it were a group of 70’s and an Apostle.

  34. Aaron B on May 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    What is the Proclamation?

    I suspect the primary reason most LDS churchmembers would be interested in this question — (Revelation, declaration, exposition, letter, memo?) — is they think that once they have the answer, that answer will definitively reveal the answers to further questions that they have. For example, “How timeless are the truth claims contained within the Proclamation?” “How sure can I be that claims portrayed as eternal therein are likely to actually be eternal, or are likely to continue to be portrayed as eternal indefinitely?”

    Unfortunately, a definitive “answer” to the first question does not yield definitive answers to the other questions. So, in an important sense, the first question is much less interesting than it first appears.

    Still, good post. Excellent discussion of the issues. :)

  35. Michael on May 22, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    With the greatest respect and a very strong testimony of the Restored Gospel I just don’t understand all the mind games, purposeful ambiguity, and lack of honest candor about the basis of this proclamation and its place in Mormon theology. Why don’t the 15 most important men at the head of the Lord’s Kingdom speak forthrightly and honestly on how the doctrine of eternal gender, the necessity of marriage, and the currently defined sexual roles came about? Why can’t we just have honest discussions about all these important items that are significantly impacting Church members in their daily lives? Why all the avoidance of clarifying the impact of these items in how we understand our natures, sexual orientations, gender differences and how they fit into what was taught about the patriarchal order for thousands of years? The games drive me crazy.

  36. Unknown on May 22, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Michael,

    I agree. Why must we parse the words of our leaders to the same extent we do for sleazy politicians? Forthrightness seems to be sacrificed in maintaining the appearance of unity amongst the Brethren. While the Lord does call for unity in the Doctrine & Covenants it should not be at the expenses of clarity and honesty of language. The gospel does not require abandonment of reason when exercising true faith.

  37. J on May 22, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I’ve mentioned before elsewhere, but once in a meeting of New Mission Presidents at the MTC just a few years ago. Pres. Packer spoke of the Proclamation and said that the text was carefully reviewed by members of the quorum of 12 and that every word was scrutinized. He said specifically that words were carefully chosen, even taking into account the number of syllables they had and their intonation, but I don’t quite remember if he made mention of who exactly wrote it, but what I do remember here indicates certainly a group effort involving members of the 12. FWIW.

  38. Howard on May 22, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    If the FP was written by a committee of Seventies headed by an Apostle doesn’t that make it a creed?

  39. the narrator on May 22, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I don’t remember where I first heard about the Proclamation being written by a committee that was later presented to the Qof12 and FP. It was several years ago.

    However, a couple months ago Aileen Clyde spoke about her experience as a member of the General Relief Society Presidency when the Proclamation was announced. It was fairly clear that she was not a fan of the Proclamation nor in the manner in which it was introduced.

    Her comments are here: http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/cms&CISOPTR=27&CISOBOX=1&REC=9, a during the final minutes of the video.

  40. Believe All Things on July 15, 2011 at 10:20 am

    A few years back, a former member of the First Quorum of the Seventy taught that the proclamation is very similar to previous declarations and postulated that it may one day be canonized.

  41. queuno on July 16, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Late to the party, but I believe that the General RS Meeting is considered on par with General Conference talks…