Mormons Don’t Have A Theology — They Have a Prophet
When I attended a local United Methodist church, I was struck by how different it felt from a Mormon Sacrament Meeting. Every single hymn was about Jesus. The sermon was all about Jesus. In a way, it was annoyingly repetitive, in comparison to Mormon church service, which contains a lot of stories that aren’t in the Bible, nor even in Mormon standard works. Mormonism is a “restoration church,” which means we believe that it is closer to the church Jesus originally established, and that it doesn’t come from other strains of Christianity, but is completely new and restored by God. We also believe that the prophets of the Mormon church have special access to God and that they speak with authority that no one else on the planet has.
It amuses me sometimes when the PR department of the church produces yet another video or ad campaign that is all about how Mormons are Christian, and normal and just like every one else. We want to be accepted. In particular, we’d really rather our young missionaries not have to deal with accusations that polygamy is still part of the church, that Mormons have horns, or that we teach things like Jesus and Satan were brothers, that Jesus was married, or that God has a male body and is married to a woman with a female body (all things that we pretty much believe in, though we don’t want any stigma attached to those beliefs).
Mormons want to be seen as Christian because it’s a nice perk to be accepted into the group. But the moment that Mormons are given an inch, they take a mile. Because then they begin pointing out that our Christianity is better and clearer and is the one and only true church, that we have proper authority, direct from God and from Jesus and from Peter, James, and John. And also, we don’t accept the baptisms of other Christian religions, though that is the foundation of ecumenism. If anyone in our church is baptized into another Christian church, they can be excommunicated for it. Also, we don’t believe in the Nicene creed and not believing in it is a foundation of our church.
I’m not saying Mormons aren’t Christians. It’s clear that Mormons believe in Christ. We belong somewhere in the narrative of the history of Christianity. I don’t know if we’re really Protestant, and we’re clearly not Catholic. The truth is, we don’t really want to be categorized with other Christian churches and most of the time, we get our own special category. (If you want to write a book about Mormons, just try putting it under “Christian” on Amazon — I dare you!)
It’s not just that Mormons have added The Book of Mormon and The Pearl of Great Price and The Doctrine and Covenants to be equal in status with the Bible (if not greater, since our new scriptures aren’t plagued with “translation errors”). Mormons believe that anything that is said by the current prophet/President of the Church, as well as any of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve and arguably any General Authority (male or female) who is asked to speak in General Conference is all scripture. In fact, the newer the declaration, the more pertinent it is to the modern-day. And if there are contradictions between what past prophets have said and what current prophets seem to be changing to, it’s not a problem that has to be worked out by trained theologians with doctoral degrees. You just take whatever the new prophet has said and it’s the one you should follow
But this essay is less about our Christianity than it is about the shifting doctrine of Mormonism. One of the weird quirks of Mormonism is that we don’t have a theology in the way that other Christian churches do. Other Christian churches have people who go to university to get a degree before they become pastors. But Mormons are very proud of their lay clergy that means anyone, any plumber, businessman, or teacher, can become a bishop — and then later, even the prophet of the church. There’s no requirement or even sense that learning about the history of even our own church, let alone other churches, or the Bible and its various translations, or what others may have said in the past about God, would be at all helpful to these leaders in their process of “discernment.”
Instead, they have hands laid on them, and the power of God descends. After that, they can speak with the voice of God and are to be trusted far above anyone who has any worldly learning or degrees. Ezra Taft Benson in 1980 spoke at BYU in very strong terms about what qualifications are necessary to become a prophet of God: only worthiness and being called of God. Anyone who suggests that the prophet doesn’t have the proper expertise to know about any area of knowledge of any kind is strongly commanded to repent, because the prophet speaks with God’s voice in every situation about everything and no one is to consider their knowledge superior to God’s/prophet’s.
What this has led to over the years is a kind of forgetting about what previous prophets have said. Everything is new with a new prophet, and whatever old prophets said before suddenly does not matter. Conveniently this means that no new prophet has to apologize for anything previous prophets have done or said, no matter how horrible or egregiously racist it is. We don’t need to think about it because it doesn’t matter in the present day. All that prophet said is as if erased, and we move forward with the new prophet, even if that new prophet was part of the administration of the previous prophet. Some call this a kind of “gaslighting” and I’m not sure they’re wrong.
It’s frustrating as a member, trying to make sense of what I was taught in my childhood, then in my youth, then in my young mother years, and to reconcile it with what the new prophet is saying. It feels like the current administration of the Mormon church is very invested in keeping us from talking about new temple changes, for instance, by reminding us we supposedly made covenants not to speak about anything in the temple (when in my recollection, those promises were about very specific things in the temple, not everything). We are sometimes told that the new leadership doesn’t know where we got ideas about certain things, when those ideas came directly from the church itself (like that Joseph Smith translated The Book of Mormon by using the Urim and Thumim and looking at the plates instead of into a hat or that missionaries should ask investigator to be baptized on the first meeting).
In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mormonism has no standing theology. The current prophet does not want us to read old histories of the church, or anything but what is currently being published. When Mormon Doctrine ceased to be published by Deseret Book, we were also supposed to stop quoting it or even remembering that things it said have been repudiated. We aren’t supposed to notice racist quotes by Brigham Young or Joseph Fielding Smith. We aren’t supposed to ask questions about Joseph Smith’s insistence that an angel with a sword would destroy him if he didn’t enter into polygamy. Because none of that matters now.
Ezra Taft Benson in 1980 said that the living prophet is more vital to us than the Standard Works” and that “the living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.” The example he gives is that God didn’t tell Adam how to build an ark. That was for Noah’s time. But when you continue reading his talk, you begin to wonder if there is anything the prophet could say that wouldn’t count as something that you must follow as if God said it. And this seems a dangerous precedent to set, in particular, the insistence that a prophet cannot lead the church astray. I also wonder if we are not given minds of our own, and the capacity to be given our own revelation, yes, even if it contradicts the prophet? But apparently not.