One of the things that the Mormon interwebs do is imagine change within the Church, lament the lack of change within the Church, and (at times) agitate for change within the Church. Certainly there is historical precedent for change within the Church, the most dramatic recent example being the 1978 abandonment of the Church’s racial priesthood ban. This is an example worth thinking about.
First, the shift came relatively late if you super-impose the Mormon timeline on the civil rights timeline in the United States. The Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the 1950s, although it didn’t do much to actually end it. During the same period, Martin Luther King’s mass movement was getting under way. By the 1960s you had rioting and – not coincidentally – congressional action. By the early to mid-1970s segregation was thoroughly discredited and almost all of its formal structures had been dismantled. Hence, for many a Mormon – especially those of a liberal variety – the timing of the 1978 revelation is an embarrassment. The prophets, rather than moving in the vanguard of history seem to be trailing in its wake.
Second, the shift exacted virtually no ecclesiastical costs for the Church. There were no mass apostasies in 1978. There were no splinter groups that formed as a result. Indeed, the overwhelming response to the revelation among conservative rank and file Mormons was relief and joy. There was no serious challenge within the Church to the authority of President Kimball. Crucially, there was no split within the hierarchy on the matter. Not a single general authority dissented in word or practice from President Kimball’s revelation.
These two facts lead to a fairly standard narrative about change within Mormonism, one that from the liberal perspective is a bit demoralizing. First, Mormon prophets have enormous power. Enjoying virtually unlimited legitimacy among the Mormon faithful and the Mormon hierarchy, they can at any time announce virtually any change with the expectation that the change will be implemented. In effect, the prophet can dictate anything that he wishes to (or feels inspired to) on the mass of faithful and active Latter-day Saints who actually make the Church function week-to-week. These people are the automatons of the Gentile imagination, eager to do anything that they are told. Second, because the Mormon prophets are reactionary old men, they will not use this enormous power until long after society has already moved on, condemning liberal Mormons to perpetual ideological embarrassment.
I suspect that this narrative is wrong. To see why, it’s useful to compare the 1978 revelation to the end of polygamy. Unlike the announcement in 1978, the 1890 Manifesto did not cleanly and costlessly end past practice. For starters it didn’t even end polygamy in 1890. Some Mormons took it as a declaration that the Church had abandoned plural marriage in toto, but not every Mormon understood it this way. Within the hierarchy there was disagreement about what the Manifesto meant, and indeed different leaders had different opinions about its meaning at different times. It took nearly twenty years after the 1890 Manifesto for the Church’s position to stabilize around a decisive abandonment of the practice and a concerted effort to end new plural marriages by Latter-day Saints. The ecclesiastical and communal costs were very high. One member of the Quorum of the Twelve were excommunicated and another member was dropped. Numerous, high Church leaders – bishops and stake presidents – were excommunicated for opposition to the abandonment of polygamy. Numerous splinter groups formed as a result. President Joseph F. Smith was widely attacked by rank and file members, some of whom started talking about initiating procedures for his excommunication. (Yes there is a mechanism for excommunicating a sitting president of the Church.)
Once you see 1978 against the backdrop of 1890-1911, it should be obvious that there was nothing inevitable about the smoothness of the 1978 change. The abandonment of polygamy literally tore the Church apart. The end of the priesthood ban didn’t. Why? I suspect that the answer lies in the fact that it took so long for the revelation to come. By 1978, I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of members wanted the change, longed for the change, were praying for the change. This in large part was because by that point in time the Church’s position was so out of sync with social expectations that Latter-day Saints felt a palpable sense of embarrassment and moral anxiety about the ban. In effect the prophets pointed them toward someplace they already very much wanted to go, and they went in a willing, unified block. Imagine, however, that instead of coming in 1978 the end of the priesthood ban had come in 1945 or 1955. This would have placed the Church at a more ideologically pleasing point along the time line of American history. Ecclesiastically, it also probably would have been deeply destructive. In 1945, many Mormons would have been horrified by the idea of racial equality. There would have been strong opposition within the highest councils of the Church. I could imagine, for example, J. Reuben Clark and Joseph Fielding Smith being strongly opposed to such a move. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which you would have had schisms and large-scale excommunications from General Authorities down to rank and file members. This, after all, is precisely what happened when the hierarchy sought to end polygamy in the face of a membership that was far from unified in its silent discomfort with the practice.
Liberal Mormons too often talk about power without thinking about it very carefully. They assume that the Brethren are very powerful, perhaps most powerful of all when it comes to dictating to “ordinary” “true believing” Mormons. I suspect, however, that the reality is quite a bit more complicated. The Brethren are powerful because rank and file members follow them, not vice versa. This means that they are far more constrained that many people assume. For them to create massive, revolutionary change within the Church is to court disaster, something that Mormon history bears out. The fact that twentieth century Mormonism has been largely free of schism and mass opposition from among the membership is not mainly the result of mindless Mormon automatons brainwashed to “follow the prophet” without hesitation. Rather, it results from a hierarchy that has learned the lessons of 1890-1911 very, very well. The Brethren are powerful because they use their power sparingly and avoid deviating dramatically from expectations of the median active member.
If I am right about this, then change within Mormonism is likely to come in one of two ways. First, there is the 1978 model. The hierarchy simply waits until the – often unexpressed – feelings of ordinary members shift to the point where they are longing for change. In this situation the change will be eagerly embraced. The other alternative is to very gradually shift. This allows the hierarchy to push in a direction that is different than that expected or longed for by the median active members, without precipitating the kind of internal upheaval seen in the 1890-1911 period. There is always the possibility of radical change from the top in the teeth of widespread expectations among rank-and-file-members but I suspect that we are unlikely to see such shifts in the future. The costs are high, and I suspect that the hierarchy would have to be reacting to the kind of existential threat posed by the federal government in the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900s for the hierarchy to risk it.
This leaves Mormons – especially those strongly committed to a progressive version of history – with a spiritual quandary. If we think of prophets as the voice crying righteousness in the wilderness, then we want them to be in the vanguard of moral progress, the earliest and loudest voices for righteous social change. If what I have said about how the Church changes is true, however, then on at least some issues it is very unlikely that this is going to be the case. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve combine the roles of prophet and priest, divine messenger and caretaker of the household of God. The second of these roles places serious constraints on the sorts of things that they can do in the first of these roles. The President of the Church can be the voice crying righteousness in the wilderness if doing so does not imperil the unity of the Church, as when for example the prophets denounce the spiritual dangers of a sexually permissive society. On the other hand, they cannot fulfill this role when doing so is likely to fracture or destroy the Church. In this situation, they at best can act as patient husbandmen, slowly cultivating new attitudes among their flock.
Given this dynamic, I can offer only two bits of solace for the ideologically embarrassed and spiritually troubled liberal Mormon. First, we ought not to expect too much from our prophets. They are given enormous responsibility for a portion of God’s work, but it is only a portion of his work. The Holy Spirit works everywhere in the world and God uses many, many tools to bring about his purposes. As a faithful and covenanted Latter-day Saint, you owe the Church your loyalty, affection, and service. On the other hand, you cannot expect it to bring about all of the righteousness that you would like to see in the world. You should be anxiously engaged in a good cause.
Second, you should probably be less impressed by fervent political prophets than you are. It is easy to look at someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Susan B. Anthony and imagine that the pinnacle of moral heroism consists in being in the vanguard of history, among the brave souls who saw the light first and began the work of tearing down the structures of injustice. The problem, however, is that we pick and choose in how we see the past. The progressive narrative of history encourages us to focus only on the vanguard of the movements that we now recognize as the cause of righteousness. Most passionate voices for political and social change, however, belong to cranks. Most of these people are – blessedly – irrelevant in the sweep of history. I say blessedly because many of them are possessed of really bad ideas, ideas that were they implemented would be destructive. Finally, often the passionate hatred of injustice is simply a manifestation of a talent for passionate hatred. One also should not expect too much from these prophets, either.