Exploring Mormon Thought

Bobby recently drew to my attention a book he reviewed on Goodreads, entitled Exploring Mormon Thought by Mormon philosopher Blake Ostler. The history of Mormon publishing and commentary is both interesting and revealing and I think worth a closer look.

Mormon publishing began, of course, with the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith said that it, “was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion…” In publishing terms that has to be a hard act to follow and Smith originally had no intention of following it. Indeed, by ‘revelation’ he made clear that the Book of Mormon was it.

In the 1833 Book of Commandments (the earliest version of what became the Doctrine & Covenants) the Mormon god reveals,

“…and he has a gift to translate the book [of Mormon], and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift.”

By 1835 Smith had already started ‘revising’ the Bible and translating the papyrus he had bought and that he claimed was the Book of Abraham. In the ‘revised’ 1835 version of the Book of Commandments, now published as the Doctrine and Covenants, the same verses read:

“And you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I commanded that you should pretend to no other gift, until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished.”

Joseph Smith had experienced the power of publishing and learned quickly to harness it to achieve his developing ambitions. From the Book of Mormon to the early Mormon periodical Times and Seasons he set a precedent followed for the next century and more by those who came after him.

After Smith’s death Brigham Young took on the mantle of prophet, leading the saints to the Salt Lake Valley. Here he arranged to have recorded the public sermons of early prophets and apostles, though mostly of himself, recorded by a team of stenographers. The Journal of Discourses runs to 26 volumes, from Dec.1851 to August 1877. There has been nothing like it since in the Mormon Church.

Although the Church has proved a prolific publisher it has rarely added to its canon of scripture, effectively working from a closed cannon. This is something Mormons criticise Christian churches for doing. They do, however, publish teachings in books, manuals, compilations of previous prophets’ teachings, magazines, and conference reports.

What is striking for me, and this is a very personal comment, drawing from my own experience, is how the ‘authorities’ behind these publications have changed in my lifetime. When I became a Mormon in the early 1970’s most of the publications on any good Mormon’s bookshelves would have been written by General Authorities of the church.

There were, of course, tame and popular volumes like Rulon Howell’s The Mormon Story, The Restored Church, by William Bennett, and vanity published works such as Genet Bingham Dee’s A Voice From The Dust. Nevertheless, it was very much to the prophets that Mormons looked for their collateral reading of Mormon doctrine.

Talmage’s Articles of Faith, and Jesus the Christ were essential reading. Gospel Doctrine by Joseph F Smith, Doctrines of Salvation by Joseph Fielding Smith, a compilation of the Discourses of Brigham Young, and of The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith sat alongside the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Even the controversial Mormon Doctrine, 80% of which was a distillation of Joseph Fielding Smith’s Doctrines of Salvation, was written by a Mormon apostle.

The reasoning was sound enough. If you are led by prophets why would you seek guidance from amateur commentators? In ministry terms too, it made no sense to challenge Mormon doctrine on the basis of unofficial statements from what are easily dismissed private interpretations.

What Blake Ostler’s book reminds me of is the departure from the way Mormon leaders of previous generations were regarded as authoritative, their publications widely quoted, their written pronouncements the final word on an issue.

Today’s Mormon world is filled with unofficial commentary on and Mormon apologetic by Mormon academics and lay people. From Stephen Robinson’s Are Mormons Christian, and Richard E Grant’s Understanding Those Other Christians, through to weightier and more academic tomes like Ostler’s, and a small library of Book of Mormon commentaries by a whole raft of unofficial commentators. This is before we begin to look at what is online today, from the more combative, panegyric sites like FAIR and SHIELD, to the more carefully academic work of FARMS at the prestigious Maxwell Institute.

As I have said, this is more a personal note, and I am sure there will be those who easily find fault. But back in the day when answering the question, “What do Mormons believe about…” the go to people were Smith (a raft of Smiths in fact), Young, Talmage, Widstoe, LeGrand Richards, Kimball and, yes, McConkie.

These days their teachings seem to be carefully selected, appropriately edited, and finally brought to the world via a correlation Committee, charged with carefully crafting the perception of Mormonism, while others, freelance you might say, fill the shelves and internet bookmarks in Mormon homes.

Prophets seem to have become little more than window dressing and I would love to read how other people see this issue. Has anyone else noticed these changes? Is anyone surprised that it has not always been the way it is today? What are the most influential unofficial works you hear quoted?

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 now helps to head-up the Reachout Ministry, still researches Mormonism, delivers seminars, and occasionally posts his thoughts on Mormon issues The Mormon Chapbook

2 thoughts on “Exploring Mormon Thought”

  1. Interesting observations! I would draw different conclusions. I don’t think the prophets (The First Presidency and The Quorum of the Twelve) are window dressing at all. They are the leadership, making all of the key decisions together, in a unified way. They hold the presiding authority in the Church. No one else directs their efforts, except the Savior. One of their key responsibilities is to establish and maintain the doctrine which with today’s technology is no easy task with the ease of publishing by all. In my view, their teaching emphasis has been on the core doctrines that matter most, avoiding the speculative or non-foundational ideas, instead focusing on the principles that best assist us to move forward in our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They formally publish every 6 months in General Conference and in between they spend their time Ministering, Teaching and Administering as Special Witnesses of Jesus Christ. Here’s where you can find their most recent teachings: https://www.lds.org/?lang=eng

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  2. Thanks for your comment Michael. I see where you are coming from but you do kind of make my point for me. I am comparing the experience today with my own experience many years ago, a comparison you perhaps are not in a position to make? I am not “pulling rank” just wondering if you can make the same connections.

    It isn’t simply a case of policy but of experience. Where do Mormons today get their thinking? In my day any Mormon would be reaching for their standard reference works by the church leaders I name in the post. These days I find Mormons getting their apologetics from anyone but Mormon leaders. Yes, they are aware of Salt Lake City diktats but make no mistake they get their apologetics from elsewhere.

    In some ways that is not difficult to understand. Mormons are more sophisticated these days in so many ways. The dogmatism of Brigham Young, the ill-tempered judgementalism of Bruce R McConkie, and the shallow naivety of LeGrand Richards are out of place in this 21st century, even for the most faithful among you. My point is that these ‘authorities’ have not been replaced in modern Mormons’ collateral reading, being replaced by unofficial sources.

    Of course Mormon leaders stick to the key doctrines – after a fashion. They don’t have the capacity to develop a sufficiently capable apologetic to meet the challenges of modern evangelical thinking. Further, I find the claim that they speak with any authority, and only by the prompting of Jesus questionable. The public pronouncements of the General Authorities are governed by the diktats of the all-seeing Correlation Committee.

    Finally, what exactly is authoritative? You say Mormon leaders publish every six months in General Conference but is that Scripture? Every time I quote this source I get told that the only authoritative source is the “Standard Works” The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, The Pearl of Great Price and The Bible. So what is authoritative? The Mormon Scriptures, that have been a closed canon for 100 years. The six-monthly pronouncements you cite? The Correlation Committee? Or FARMS?

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