This session was presided over by Thomas S Monson and conducted by Dieter Uchtdorf, affectionately dubbed ‘the silver fox’ by some, and second counsellor in the first presidency. Boyd K Packer of the twelve apostles is, not so affectionately, nicknamed ‘Darth Packer’ and ‘Boyd KKK Packer,’ by critics both inside and outside the church for his unreconstructed Mormon outlook. I point this out only to say the two men represent for many the passing of the ‘old guard’ (Packer) and the coming of a softer, more acceptable face of Mormonism (Uchtdorf). Yet it might be said of Mormonism, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
In a world where many are struggling to define themselves, to identify which “tribe” they belong to, where Western Europeans (my perspective) are asking whether theirs is a local, regional, national or European identity, Mormons see themselves as a people group with clear distinctives of which they are unashamed. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang beautifully looking splendid in their matching outfits, plum coloured two piece for the women, conservative suits, white shirts, and ties for the men, and all obviously enjoying themselves.
This uniformity extends to all true-believing-Mormon attendees, as you will see from the pictures in the May Ensign magazine; it struck me as a key theme in the conference. There is apparent change, i.e. from Packer to Uchtdorf, yet there is also obvious uniformity. At a time when even Mormons are asking themselves who exactly is making doctrine for the church these days, the General Authorities or church lawyers and members of the BYU faculty, conference is where Mormons get reassuring answers. This where the Mormon world, troubled by a clear shift in the tectonic plates of their faith, find apparent continuity, a squaring of the circle, a reconciling of the old (Packer) with the new (Uchtdorf).
This uniformity, which Mormons mistake for unity, sometimes works, as in the case of Linda S Reeve, president of the Relief Society, who gave an impassioned and earnest plea for people to face up to the problem of pornography. I found myself nodding enthusiastically as she spoke reason and faith on a subject that should concern us all, and I noted how comfortable Mormons would have been with a female leader that fitted the mould of generations of Relief Society presidents.
On the other hand, Carlos Amado, originally from Guatemala City, and of the first quorum of the seventy, appeared to struggle not so much with speaking English, which he handled well enough as a second language, as with the peculiar idiom of Mormon leadership. I don’t write this to in any way denigrate the man but I considered, if he came and spoke in my church we would not expect such a performance from him and he would have been encouraged to be his native self and share his message in his own words.
He had to wrestle with the Jacobean English in the King James Bible that Mormons insist on using, but he further struggled to sound like a General Authority, mimicking tones and inflections, phrases and terminology clearly designed to give the impression of solemnity and reverence, nevertheless language that has no place in the modern world and that would trip up anyone using English as a second language. But that image of unity and continuity was achieved as he met the demands of being a General Authority, speaking Mormonese to the conference.
President Monson came out with the expected anecdote to illustrate his theme, “Live true to the Faith.” This is a Mormon trope designed to reassure people that what they are about to hear is consistent with the faith of their fathers. It is a package, and the whole package must be embraced, from Henry B Eyring (crying Eyring) and his typically tearful account of his forebears and the importance of genealogy, to Jeffrey R Holland’s call to “suffer the shame of the world,” for the Mormon faith.
So lets tick some boxes and see what Mormonism teaches because the Mormon Church has apparently shifted its position on many issues in recent times:
It was Henry B Eyring who, speaking of covenants, reminded listeners that blessings are predicated upon their keeping those covenants. He spoke of our having had a life before this one with God in a pre-mortal state, which Mormons call the first estate, and as literal children of God. We are, according to Mormonism, the same species as God, gods in embryo and, as Mormonism has always taught, God is an exalted man. It is on this very site that a Mormon insisted that this is but a speculation about God’s nature. In this conference we can lay speculation aside and identify Mormon ‘truth.’
Here on earth we are in our second estate, Eyring insists, and we got here by being obedient in our first estate. Our eternal destiny is dependent on our continuing to keep covenants, from baptism to temple, till death.
President Eyring quotes the Mormon Book of Abraham:
“And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.” (Abraham 3:26)
The Mormon ‘scripture’ declares:
There is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundation of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated-
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.(Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21)
God’s ‘Plan of Happiness’
It was Neil L Anderson who, speaking of building a foundation on Christ, came up with the statement that has all the Mormon world buzzing. After much effort in the recent past to reach out to the gay community, he states clearly that civil law cannot change moral law – something with which we would agree – and that marriage is between one man and one woman – something else with which we would agree, although I question whether Joseph Smith and Brigham Young would.
His reason for insisting on this male/female partnership is the fulfilment of God’s great plan of happiness, the creator’s plan for his children to go through this testing second estate and prove worthy. You don’t hear so much these days about the ‘duty’ of having children to bring people from the spirit world (the first estate) to this (the second estate), with even Mormons being given licence to limit their family size, yet this is what is in view here. So we have a pre-mortal existence where we are literally spirit children of God, and a testing ground (this world) in which we prove ourselves fit and worthy to go on to receive glory for eternity.
It was the aforementioned Carlos Amado who spoke movingly of Jesus going “to face his most demanding trial, in the Garden of Gethsemane, in all the loneliness he suffered the most intense agony, bleeding from every pore, in total submission to his Father he atoned for our sins…”
But it was in Gethsemane that Jesus, comforted by an angel, prepared for his most demanding trial on the cross. Remarkably, Mormons don’t lay great store by the cross of Christ. In a special broadcast in 2001 entitled Special Witnesses of Christ, in which Mormon ‘apostles and prophets’ testify to their faith, the cross is absent as the story leaps from the Garden to the tomb. You can read about this peculiar treatment of a key Christian and biblical doctrine on The Mormon Chapbook Nevertheless, the atonement achieves for everyone a general resurrection, which Mormons call ‘salvation,’ but what Christians call eternal life Mormons achieve by obedience not faith.
Carlos Amado goes on to describe Christ as spending three days setting up missionary work among the dead so that those who did not hear the Mormon ‘gospel’ in this life might have a chance to hear and accept it there. This raises, of course, the question of original sin and whether we are saved by the grace of God from a just but terrible punishment, or saved by hearing and having the sense to accept a message.
This is an issue with which some Christians struggle but lets be clear, we are not in a neutral place, innocents, until we accept or reject the Christian message, we are sinners bound for condemnation unless someone steps in and, by his grace, saves us. It is that saving that is the message, not some system of eternal attainment. Faith in Mormonism appears to be, not the Christian settled trust in the finished work of Christ on the cross, but a determined conviction that these Mormon teachings are true and should be acted upon in order to obtain blessing and glory.
There are now apparently 142 operating Mormon temples across the world we are informed. When all planned temples are completed that number will rise to 170. President Monson insists that Mormons are a temple-building people. Later it is Neil L Anderson who reminds us that it is in these “holy places” faithful Mormons are to stand and he celebrates the proliferation of temples since his youth. “The Lord has given this generation greater access to temples than any generation in the history of the world.” Both men overlook the fact that, in the history of the Bible, the only temple-building people of the sort described are the builders of the ziggurats on the plains of ancient Mesopotamia, out of which Abraham was called.
Finally, we are reminded by Jeffrey R Holland that Mormons have prophets to guide and inspire. Referring to the spirit of this age he speaks of prophets that say pleasing things, that “not only don’t rock the boat, they don’t even row the boat,” the irony of which obviously escaped him. Mormon prophets these days appear to have a great deal of time on their hands – perhaps to open temples and shopping malls – as BYU and amateur Mormon apologists do most of the doctrinal heavy lifting.
Nevertheless, Mormons attend and/or listen to conference twice a year to gain the reassurance that, despite the fact their prophets don’t actually prophecy any more (don’t rock or row the boat), nevertheless they have prophets; that despite more recent public prevarication on the issue they can look forward to godhood as did their forebears; that regardless of more recent obfuscation on the subject they are of the same species as God, and God is an exalted man; that they have already proved ‘worthy’ as evidenced by their presence in this ‘second estate’; that by their obedience they can be entitled to blessings; that they can attain an eternity with God, not because of God’s undeserved grace, but because they have passed the test set for them by the one who was their literal father in the first place.
In all this, of course, one wonders what room there is for the grace of God. What significance has the sacrifice of Christ in a system where he conquers death without conquering for us the sin that brought death into the world. Where the problem is not our slavery to sin but the prospect of a test.
The Mormon answer is, once again, the squaring of a circle. In Mormon thought “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, we are saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” (third Article of Faith)
What is the point of the atonement if we are “saved by [our own] obedience?”
Mike Thomas was a Mormon for 14 years, became a Christian in 1986 and for many years worked with Reachout Trust speaking and writing about Mormonism. He still researches Mormonism and occasionally posts his thoughts on Mormon issues at The Mormon Chapbook