A Perspective on the Church and the Gospel

An often misunderstood idea among some Latter-day Saints is that the Church has made changes for the worse in its positions since some time in the “good old days” –the early years, or the pioneer period, or any other time one chooses as a reference point. It may be worthwhile taking a short historical excursion in order to gain a more rational and enlightened perspective.

The Gospel

We may be sure that the universe operates strictly according to principles of truth—“the way things (really) are.” There is no other way it could operate. Our problem as less-than-perfect instruments for grasping truth is to align ourselves as far as possible with those truths in the conduct of our lives. God lives exclusively by truth, and he is anxiously concerned to facilitate our attempts at reaching that hoped for alignment. Left largely to ourselves in thinking about important matters, every person fumbles
around a good deal and makes many errors in interpreting how God operates His universe. He knows this is inevitable in us, given our mortal limitations in thinking/grasping. He told the prophet Joseph Smith that “every man [and woman] walketh in his[/her] own way, and after the image of his[/her] own god” (D. & C 1:16). Unaided by a universe-wide perspective, we cannot escape our own random subjectivities.

As an initial key to get on a straight track in that truth-alignment process we need to start with God’s relationship with us as individuals. The bottom rung on the ladder of truth is the gospel. The gospel is “the good news” that Christ announced to the Jews in person: that of ourselves we humans cannot even find the cosmic ladder, but by following His instructions we may grasp the first rung. The first step begins with our deciding that we must purge ourselves of error. We do so by trusting Him as He guides us step by step through a cleansing process. Rung 1 of the ladder demands that we acknowledge that Jesus Christ can and is ready to tutor us as we move along the way to enlightenment. That can only start by our shedding our pretensions about what we “know” and genuinely desire to receive greater light. We begin by believing that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is willing and pleased to aid us effectually as we commit to that quest. We start by giving up all our mistakes, misperceptions and errors in regard to light and truth and having them set at zero (“repentance”) by virtue of Christ’s atonement. This is signaled by our submitting to baptism in water, a symbol signifying that we are willingly starting over in our spiritual life as though we were newborn children. By that submission we are purified from all our old errors and untruths. Unhindered by those, the Light of Truth can then come from God to lead us, step by step, to a more enlightened state. This explanation about the process constitutes “the good news,” the primary message that Christ expects his representatives to deliver to the people of the world who are afflicted with darkness and blindness about God’ purpose.

The Church

Beyond our becoming cleansed, error-free individuals, however, there must be a social structure on earth — the Church of Jesus Christ – that constitutes the organizational instrument through which those who have found gospel truth are enabled to combine their efforts in the tasks of supporting and “perfecting the believers” while coordinating and administering the affairs of the earth-wide organization. The dual title of the present-day Church points to its unavoidably double nature. On the one hand it is the Church of Jesus Christ, a perfect being, a God, whose ideal church would be perfectly in tune with truth. On the other hand it is an organization composed of still imperfect human beings – the Latter-day Saints. They are attempting to improve and expand the organization by accessing Light and Truth from the heavenly realm to the degree they are able, striving to approach the ideal represented by its founder although not reaching that ideal in practice.

This dichotomy – the divine ideal together with the inescapable inadequacies of the human instruments involved – means that at different times and places, the church as it is manifested in human history will take different forms according to the cultures and environmental situations of the host peoples/nations. In ancient Israel the believers were organized at first as an extended family, then, as population grew, a tribal structure was possible as the social context for believers. That didn’t work very well either, but the evolutionary state of human society and culture offered no better alternative at that time. With Jesus Christ’s appearance in the flesh among the Jews, under Roman political dominance, he organized a non-political “church” as a voluntary association. But when Paul carried that same gospel to Greek-speaking peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, he had to change somewhat the emphasis of his presentation to fit their differing thinking modes. As “the primitive church” spread geographically and over time, it lacked the linguistic/rhetorical and technological capacity and administrative skills to carry out necessary communication and directing power among its branches, so it eventually proved non-viable.

God also allowed the Nephites of the Book of Mormon to maintain a version of his Son’s church, which operated according to different local parameters, rising, spreading and falling according to unique historical factors.

All these happenings were known to God beforehand (“all things are before him”) and were prophesied among men from time to time by inspired prophets. But in his economy God planned that when, at a certain time (in “the latter days”), the world’s social, economic, political and technological development would make it possible, he would cause a new/restored church to appear on earth, modeled on some of the ancient forms, that would be able to overcome the limits that had prevented previous versions of believer-associations or churches from continuing and expanding. This final church came forth in America at a unique spot where historical, cultural and geographical conditions would combine to enable it to endure and eventually to flourish until it would, as planned, come to “fill the whole earth.”

That was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but of course the story does not end with its founding under the leadership of Joseph Smith. Somehow, through unique socio-cultural forces, it had to become transformed into an organization that could and would carry the gospel message worldwide. The position it has occupied in United States history has allowed it to ride the (now waning) wave of American expansionism as a force in the world. But it now exists on its own terms in many lands. To get to this condition Mormonism has had to follow its own unique path. A painful process of adaptation began as it attempted to find a viable path within the United States itself.

Its early career hardly boded well for its continuance, let alone flourishing. Under Joseph Smith, in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, his emphasis on some of the movement’s exotic, marginalizing features of social structure and belief threatened its continued existence amidst a hostile American population that would not tolerate the faith’s oddities. As a result Brigham Young moved the core population to the Great Basin, at that moment (1847) outside the United States, although the Mexican American War resulted in U.S. annexation of the refugees’ settlement area shortly after their arrival there. The church could not long escape the forces of “Manifest Destiny.” Those “Deseret Mormons” were forced to accommodate bit by bit to their new political situation during the next 40 years, the pioneering period. (Walter van Beek, an Africanist anthropologist, and also a former stake president in the Netherlands, has written a brilliant paper on how much pioneer Utah under B. Young resembled an African chiefdom, as a temporary structural adaptation.)

By 1890 further geographical flight was out of the question. The only course open was painful abandonment of the parochial agrarian pattern of life that had come to characterize the intermountain west in the late nineteenth century, but that soon would be forced to evolve away in any case. The arable land was essentially filled to capacity; it could not accommodate more immigrant farmers by that time. (My own father, born in 1875, was one of that generation who could neither find place on Deseret’s crowded farmland nor obtain productive work in the still non-industrialized hinterland). The “gathering” had effectively come to an end.  Under immense pressure from the “Gentile” political and economic structure of the USA, LDS Church leaders realized that no choice was open to them but to reach an accommodation with the American Establishment. Many of their leaders were “on the underground” (fugitives from prosecution for practicing polygamy), the Mormon people were severely disenfranchised, and the Church’s property was largely taken away by legal enactment.  Under such duress the leaders were forced to strike an implicit deal with the superior power structure. They agreed generally to conform to the American social, political and economic apparatus; in return they were granted statehood and allowed to operate as a church in the American sense of that term.

During the next 60 years the Church slowly turned itself around, for survival’s sake giving up or muting social and doctrinal features that had been most objectionable to the greater society, and by accepting (they had no choice) “Gentiles” and their businesses in their midst Mormons eventually became “good American citizens” — a minor regional group in the USA. By actively launching some capitalist enterprises and participating in two world wars Mormons managed to allay latent suspicions held by Americans about the genuineness of their accommodation to the “capitalist”/”free world” structure.  By the 1950s as a people they were at least, and at last, considered a relatively harmless regional minority in the USA.

One solution to local over-population and unemployment was the growth of Utah’s own industrial sector, limited though it was (my first wife’s father, a veteran of World War I, worked at Kennecott Copper in the Salt Lake Valley all his life beginning in the 1920s). Growing commercial and transportation services around focal Salt Lake City also increased non-farm employment. The growth of government defense facilities in northern Utah in World War II also moved the urbanization process along.  A burgeoning number of second-and third-generation Mormons had already been forced to disperse to other urban areas seeking employment, especially to California and eastern cities, starting in the O20s and O30s. The same pressure to find occupations beyond agriculture also led many to embrace higher education, in accordance with one aspect of Mormon ideals. (The educational alternative was pursued of necessity by all my siblings; I was the last, entering the university at Logan in 1941.)

This reorientation of Latter-day Saint life from farm to town and city obviously entailed many modifications to the structure of domestic life and the pattern of worship in the new context. (Just as one example, consider the substitution of tithing paid in cash versus formerly in kind.) My doctoral dissertation (at UCLA in social anthropology, “Industrialization and Social Change: A Controlled Comparison of Two Utah Communities”) analyzed some of those consequences based on the building of the Geneva Steel plant in Utah Valley in the 1940s that transformed the quintessential “Mormon villages” of earlier days. The new way saw a highly literate population learning to cope with industrial and commercial employment, suburban dwellings, and the anonymity of urban life.

From the 1950s forward the Church has proceeded fairly steadily toward fulfilling its prophetic mission to carry the gospel to all the world, which would inevitably mean adapting its practices to fit into multiple societies and cultures as hosts. At least two major obstacles to the rise of the Church as a global force had to be modified. The first was to adopt a new internal perspective: the Church had to stop trying to iterate in detail the Wasatch Front pattern of organization everywhere else that it might spread. Starting with Pres. David O. McKay, and with renewed emphasis under Presidents Spencer W. Kimball and Gordon B. Hinckley, the perspective did change to carefully decentralize the leadership. Priesthood holders of the office of Seventy were restructured from being merely an ineffectual body of male priesthood holders scattered wherever the saints lived (I was a Seventy for 28 years, and we never knew operationally what we were to do) to a limited number of quorums of senior leaders available to assist fulltime the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve anyplace in the world. Many of the new Seventy were constituted as area presidencies (serving three to five year terms in a given area), organized so that every part of the world was covered. Those presidencies are tasked not only to supervise all church units in their areas but also to carry the gospel to all the non-members in their area as opportunities arise. For instance a brilliant Chinese-American man, a former student and friend of mine (Ph.D., Oxford), is now the Asia Area President based in Beijing; he, with two counselors, bears responsibility not only for up to 25,000 members scattered in “house congregations” in mainland China but is also tasked to spread the word as possible to the one-fifth or more of the world population in that country as well as to another fifth of the world’s population in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The second decisive change was the modification 30 years ago of the nineteenth-century policy excluding Negroes/Blacks from the priesthood (it was never clear to me the exact source of the ban, let alone why it was pronounced).   Only with that change, along with the structure of adaptation to local societies, could the way be opened for Mormonism to become a truly world church.

The point to be made is that the Church has learned by experience, punctuated by occasional explicit revelation, to exist structurally in varied milieus, to serve its resident members, and to spread the gospel as possible to those not members in more than 140 nations and territories, and beyond—Iceland as well as Singapore, Malta as much as Rarotonga, Bolivia in addition to Armenia, Russia and the EU, Mongolia and also Zimbabwe, Ghana and Kenya. Each setting has required adaptation to local political structures and strictures as well as national or local cultures. (In Israel, for instance, the sabbath day for Latter-day Saints is Saturday, the Jewish Shabat). In late-nineteenth-century Utah the central Church population had to work out compatibility with the U.S. capitalist power structure of that day, as well as subsequently with the changing modern version. But nowhere is the Church “capitalist” per se or “socialist,” or “communist,” or whatever; as Jesus told Pilate, his kingdom was neither Roman nor anti-Roman nor anything else in terms of how the world structures power. As an organization today it is adaptable to any host society that allows a measure of (religious) choice to any portion of its population. This LDS adaptation has a long though checkered history (beginning with the original “six” members, the number specified by New York state law for a new church). In addition to the continuous process of accommodation to U.S. society, an especially noteworthy case was East Germany, where (supposedly “capitalist”) Church authorities from Salt Lake City cultivated contacts in the communist state, even obtaining approval for constructing a temple before German unification took place. My grandchildren as missionaries are now or recently were living with varied current church adaptation patterns in Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Italy, Mozambique, and Taiwan. (For example, in none of those countries is there a “Church Welfare system.”)

In every land, however, the same gospel is taught. Priesthood and Relief Society instruction manuals in recent years have featured the compiled teachings of the various presidents of the Church, beginning with Joseph Smith and continuing through Gordon B. Hinckley. Each of those compilations demonstrates an essential unity and continuity of the leaders’ teachings for over 180 years, despite the local adaptations in operational procedures just discussed. Those adaptations will continue, for conditions on the ground will continue to vary from place to place and time to time.

Posted in Blog and tagged , , on . Bookmark the permalink.
mm

About John L. Sorenson

John L. Sorenson, professor emeritus of anthropology at Brigham Young University, holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles. He originated the program in anthropology at BYU and headed it for fourteen years. His academic and professional emphasis was in sociocultural anthropology, although since his retirement he has concentrated his research and writing on Mesoamerican archaeology. He was editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies for five years and is the author of more than two hundred books and articles. His book An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon sets forth criteria that cannot be ignored when searching for the geographic setting of the Book of Mormon.

4 thoughts on “A Perspective on the Church and the Gospel

  1. John, I loved this short article. It is full of truth and wisdom. I wish every non-member could read this. It starts with each individual and their “desire to receive greater light,” and what they need to do to move forward. Then you discuss the whole development and progress of the Church throughout the earth. Bravo!

  2. This is a wonderful “view from space” describing the life of Christ’s church on the earth from ancient to modern times. The challenge of taking the gospel to all peoples shows us what is essential (e.g. temples) and what is instrumental (e.g. BYU, church welfare, Perpetual Education Fund). The calling of missionaries at younger ages adapts to a world where educational and career choices for young adults within many societies (e.g. Japan) do not allow midstream interruptions for two years of missionary service, modifying the instrumental to preserve and actually implement more effectively the core missions and doctrines of spreading the Gospel. And it says that we can no longer be casual in calling on young women to contribute to missionary service.

  3. Marvelous broad-perspective overview. Thank you!

    One point: In the article you refer to the church “with its founding under the leadership of Joseph Smith. Earlier in the article, when you describe Latter-Day Saints “striving to approach the ideal represented by its founder”, I assume you mean Jesus Christ and not Joseph Smith.

    Again, thank you for your efforts in producing this article.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments are moderated to ensure respectful discourse. It is assumed that it is possible to disagree agreeably and intelligently and comments that intend to increase overall understanding are particularly encouraged.

*