Mormon Doctrines Changed in my Lifetime

Gordon B. Hinckley, who was president of the Church during my teenage years and my mission, liked to emphasize that the Church offers an anchor of timeless truths.

Given this theme, repeated almost as an article of faith by Church leaders before and after Hinckley, it’s easy not to notice when doctrine actually changes out from under us, usually gradually but sometimes suddenly. We convince ourselves that the new model does not conflict with the old; maybe we even forget that the old ever existed. (“We have always taught a limited geography model of the Book of Mormon.”)

Thus, it’s instructive for me to review some of the Church teachings that have changed during my own forty-year lifetime.

Contraception is gross wickedness

Until the late twentieth century, Mormon apostles and presidents consistently taught that birth control was wicked and sinful.

Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, writing in Mormon Doctrine: “Those who practice birth control are running counter to the foreordained plan of the almighty. They are in rebellion against God and are guilty of gross wickedness.”

Apostle and future President Joseph Fielding Smith, writing in Doctrines of Salvation: Birth control is wickedness. The abuse of this holy covenant has been the primary cause for the downfall of nations. When the sacred vows of marriage are broken and the real purpose of marriage abused, as we find it so prevalent in the world today, then destruction is inevitable.” (Emphasis in original.)

Apostle and future President David O. McKay, in General Conference: “The trends of modern life are tending to disintegrate the very foundation of the Christian home. Sexual laxity among young people, birth control, and intemperance are its insidious and vicious enemies.”

First Presidency letter from David O. McKay to bishops and stake presidents, republished in the Ensign: “We seriously regret that there should exist a sentiment or feeling among any members of the Church to curtail the birth of their children. We have been commanded to multiply and replenish the earth that we may have joy and rejoicing in our posterity. Where husband and wife enjoy health and vigor and are free from impurities that would be entailed upon their posterity, it is contrary to the teachings of the Church artificially to curtail or prevent the birth of children.”

Apostle and future President Spencer W. Kimball may have felt the strongest about this issue, as he saw modern society becoming increasingly comfortable with the use of birth control in the 1970s. “Childbearing should not be delayed for convenience. After marriage young wives should be occupied in bearing and rearing children. I know of no scriptures or authorities which authorize young wives to delay their families or to go to work to put their husbands through college.” And, “How do you think that the Lord looks upon those who use the contraceptives because in their selfish life it is not the convenient moment to bear children? … How do you think the Lord feels about women who forego the pleasures and glories of motherhood that they might retain their figures, that their social life might not be affected, that they might avoid the deprivations, pains, and agonies of childbearing and birthing?” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, pp 328–329.)

Dozens of other references to birth control were made in general conference during the 60s and 70s, all of them directly or indirectly condemning its use.

What happened?

The last explicit condemnations of birth control in General Conference were in 1980. The Church quietly started de-emphasizing its previous hardline position after the deaths of Presidents Kimball and Benson, and by the mid 90s President Gordon B. Hinckley was able to teach, “We don’t dictate family size. That is left to the father and the mother, the husband and wife.”

Today, the official Handbook of Instructions reads,

It is the privilege of married couples who are able to bear children to provide mortal bodies for the spirit children of God, whom they are then responsible to nurture and rear. The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter.
Married couples should also understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a way of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.

The Lamanites are the principal ancestors of the American Indians

From “Who and Where Are the Lamanites,” The Ensign, December 1975.

The Book of Mormon declares that the American continent “was choice above all other lands, which the Lord God had preserved for a righteous people.” Nephi confidently asserts that “the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.”

Thomas Murphy elaborates:

Prophecies in the Book of Mormon tell of descendants of Israel who will live to receive the Book of Mormon, build a New Jerusalem, and even persist to the end of the earth. The angel promised Nephi during his vision that “the Lord God will not suffer that the Gentiles will utterly destroy the mixture of thy seed, which are among thy brethren. Neither will he suffer that the Gentiles shall destroy the seed of thy brethren” (1 Ne. 13:30–31). Nephi prophesied to his brothers of a day when “the remnant of our seed [shall] know that they are of the house of Israel… then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers” (1 Ne. 15:14). Lehi blessed the “children of Laman” that “the Lord God will not suffer that ye shall perish; wherefore he will be merciful unto you and unto your seed forever” (2 Ne. 4: 3–7). Ether 13:5–8 prophesied that “a remnant of the seed of Joseph” would come out of Jerusalem, occupy “this land,” build a holy city, and most importantly “perish not… until the end come when the earth shall pass away.” The prophet/general Mormon offers a parting sermon addressing the remnant of the people who survive the apocalyptic ending to the scripture, explicitly identifying them as “the house of Israel,” calling them to the knowledge of their “fathers” (Mormon 7:1-5). The Book of Mormon clearly does not describe a small population which fails to leave genetic descendants.

Joseph Smith repeatedly referred to the American Indians as Lamanites in revelations: “This testimony shall come to the knowledge of the Lamanites;” “Behold, I say unto you that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites;” “you shall take your journey into the regions westward, unto the land of Missouri, unto the borders of the Lamanites,” etc.

On one of these early missions to the Lamanites, Elder B. H. Roberts records that “President Smith addressed the Indians at some length, upon what the Lord had revealed to him concerning their forefathers, and recited to them the promises contained in the Book of Mormon respecting themselves. … How their hearts must have glowed as they listened to the prophet relate the story of their forefathers — their rise and fall; and the promises held out to them of redemption from their fallen state!”

Later, en route from Kirtland to Missouri, Zion’s Camp unearthed a skeleton and an arrowhead in a burial mound. According to journal accounts from Apostle Heber C. Kimball and future President of the Church Wilford Woodruff, “It was made known to Joseph that he had been an officer who fell in battle, in the last destruction among the Lamanites, and his name was Zelph. This caused us to rejoice much, to think that God was so mindful of us as to show these things to his servant. Brother Joseph had enquired of the Lord and it was made known in a vision.”

Joseph did not record the Zelph vision explicitly, but he did write to his first wife, Emma, the following day: “The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest and sincere men, wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity… all serves to pass away time unnoticed.”

Subsequent leaders continued to affirm the continental interpretation of the Book of Mormon peoples.

Wilford Woodruff: “We believe in the Book of Mormon as containing a record of the ancient inhabitants of this continent… The American Indians are a remnant of the ancient inhabitants of this continent… The Lamanites, now a downtrodden people, are a remnant of the house of Israel.”

Spencer W. Kimball, in General Conference: “The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos; five were darker but equally delightsome. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.”

Kimball also taught in the Ensign, “The term Lamanite includes all Indians and Indian mixtures, such as the Polynesians, the Guatemalans, the Peruvians, as well as the Sioux, the Apache, the Mohawk, the Navajo, and others. It is a large group of great people.”

In 1974 the Church published a pamphlet, Lamanites and the Book of Mormon, dedicated to the premise that the Lamanites were the heirs of North, Central, and South America:

You native Americans who are called Indians…your ancestors were once a mighty nation upon the American continent… The Book of Mormon is a history of your people. The Book of Mormon tells how your forefathers came from Jerusalem about 600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ… You are descendants of the Lamanites.

What happened?

The first cracks appeared as archaeologists and anthropologists had difficulty reconciling what we know about American Indians with the Book of Mormon narrative. James E. Smith explains, “until the early twentieth century, the traditional hemispheric interpretation dominated, but by the mid-twentieth century, most [Mormon scholars] believed Book of Mormon history took place primarily within the more limited confines of Central America.”

However, this evolving scholarly consensus was at odds with the initial hemispheric interpretation from Joseph, which continued to be given credence by the leading councils of the Church. The traditional orthodoxy reached its peak in 1981, with Bruce R. McConkie penning in the near-canonical introduction to the Book of Mormon that “After thousands of years, all [Lehi’s descendants] were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

But just three years later, BYU anthropologist John Sorenson’s limited geography theory was published by the Ensign, and endorsed by prominent Mormon voices like Hugh Nibley’s.

Absent an authoritative pronouncement from the Brethren, the debate burned quietly for two more decades. The death knell for the hemispheric model finally came when in 2003 and 2004 anthropologist Thomas Murphy and geneticist Simon Southerton, respectively, published studies explaining why the DNA of American Indians was incompatible with theories that their ancestors came from the Middle East.

Today, the official Church essay agrees that “the evidence assembled to date suggests that the majority of Native Americans carry largely Asian DNA. Scientists theorize that in an era that predated Book of Mormon accounts, a relatively small group of people migrated from northeast Asia to the Americas by way of a land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska. These people, scientists say, spread rapidly to fill North and South America and were likely the primary ancestors of modern American Indians.”

And in 2007 the Book of Mormon introduction was amended to suggest that the Lamanites were among the ancestors of the American Indians, even if to such a small degree as to be genetically undetectable.

Blacks are the seed of Cain and an inferior Race

The most obvious example of changing doctrine is that until 1978, the Church consistently taught that blacks were the seed of Cain, as recorded in the Book of Moses:

Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.

The Book of Abraham elaborates:

[The] king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth. From this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land… Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry.

The Book of Mormon also confirms that dark skin is among the ways that God signals His displeasure with an entire race:

And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

Church leaders took these scriptures at face value, extended the priesthood ban to encompass temple attendance, and taught that blacks must have been less valiant in the premortal existence to deserve this fate.

President Brigham Young:

If there never was a prophet, or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are, I know that they cannot bear rule in the priesthood, for the curse on them was to remain upon them, until the residue of the posterity of Michael and his wife receive the blessings, the seed of Cain would have received had they not been cursed; and hold the keys of the priesthood, until the [Millennium] shall come, and the curse be wiped off from the earth, and from Michael’s seed.

President John Taylor:

After the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God.

Apostle N. Eldon Tanner:

The Church has no intention of changing its doctrine on the Negro. Throughout the history of the original Christian church, the Negro never held the priesthood. There’s really nothing we can do to change this. It’s a law of God.

A statement signed by the entire first presidency (George Albert Smith, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay), in 1949:

The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time…
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality…

Starting in the mid twentieth century, some particularly brave and outspoken members of the Church challenged this thinking. The response to Lowry Nelson, again by George Albert Smith and his presidency, is typical:

The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things… this is contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel dating from the time of His promise to Abraham regarding Abraham’s seed and their position vis-a-vis God Himself. Indeed, some of God’s children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed…
From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel…
We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the Church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasonings of men however well-founded they may seem to be. We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.

(For another example, see “Do Not Lecture the Brethren”: Stewart L. Udall’s Pro-Civil Rights Stance, 1967.)

What happened?

In 1978, facing the impossibility of determining African ancestry for temple attendance in heavily mixed-race Brazil, Spencer W. Kimball delivered Official Declaration 2 to the Church, abruptly abolishing the practice of excluding blacks from temples and priesthood.

The official Church essay on this change explains that today “the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse… or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else” but stops short of offering an alternative justification.

There shall be a Patriarch over the whole Church

President Joseph F. Smith with his half-brother, Presiding Patriarch John Smith

Shortly after Joseph Smith established the Church, he called his father as patriarch over the whole Church:

Blessed of the Lord is my father, for he shall stand in the midst of his posterity and shall be comforted by their blessings when he is old and bowed down with years, and shall be called a prince over them, and shall be numbered among those who hold the right of patriarchal priesthood, even the keys of that ministry… [As it was with Adam,] So shall it be with my father: he shall be called a prince over his posterity, holding the keys of the patriarch al priesthood over the kingdom of God on earth, even the Church of the Latter Day Saints; and he shall sit in the general assembly of patriarchs, even in council with the Ancient of Days when he shall sit and all the patriarchs with him — and shall enjoy his right and authority under the direction of the Ancient of Days.

At the same gathering, Joseph blessed his brother Hyrum to succeed their father in this office:

[Hyrum] shall stand in the tracts of his father and be numbered among those who hold the right of patriarchal priest hood, even the evangelical priesthood and power shall be upon him, that in his old age, his name may be magnified on the earth.

Irene Bates explains (Lost Legacy, p 35):

It was understood that the office would pass to the oldest son, Hyrum, and on to his descendants upon the death of Father Smith … It was soon implicitly accepted that the calling included the right to bestow blessings upon all members of the church, as well as to preside over any other patriarchs who would be called on a local basis.

Hyrum duly assumed the office of Church Patriarch upon his father’s death, but Hyrum’s death when his oldest son was only twelve caused an early hiccup in the smooth transitions. Brigham Young told the Twelve,

We shall have a patriarch, and the right is in the family of Joseph Smith, his brothers, his sons, or some one of his relations. Here is Uncle John, he has been ordained a Patriarch. Brother Samuel would have taken the office if he had been alive; it would have been his right. The right is in Uncle John, or one of his brothers.

In fact, the oldest of the surviving Smith brothers, William, next became patriarch, followed by Uncle John, before the office returned to the oldest son of Hyrum, also named John, with whose descendants the office remained until it was eliminated.

What happened?

The second Patriarch was the brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and was set apart to be his successor as President. The early Church accepted this from Joseph and Hyrum, but the Patriarch’s potential as a rival to the Twelve, and the office’s hereditary nature, caused problems after the death of the founding Smith brothers.

A quirk of the close-knit nature of early Mormon leadership brought about a reprise of the President/Patriarch relationship when the fifth Patriarch, John Smith son of Hyrum, saw his half-brother Joseph F. ascend to President of the Church. Joseph F. immediately discomfited the Twelve when he requested that John ordain him as President. Given the hierarchical nature of Church organization, this could have signaled that the Patriarch stood even above the President (and thus, above the Twelve). Joseph F. further emphasized the prestige of the Patriarch by having him sustained before the other General Authorities, including the Twelve, in General Conference.

But on the death of Joseph F., the Quorum of the Twelve moved quickly to re-establish its primacy. New President Heber J. Grant demoted the Patriarch to being sustained after the Twelve, and re-organized local stake patriarchs to report to the Twelve instead.

After the death of Patriarch Hyrum, Grant tried to solve the problem of hereditary authority by nominating non-relatives to the office. The Twelve, recognizing the primacy of the Prophet Joseph’s revelations, refused to sustain this action, and the office of Presiding Patriarch stood vacant for ten years. Eventually, Apostle George F. Richards broke the impasse by recommending Joseph F. Smith II, grandson of President Joseph F., a candidate who proved acceptable to Grant.

But the tension between the Patriarch and the Twelve never entirely went away, and ultimately President Spencer W. Kimball decided that the only way to permanently remove the Patriarch as a potential loose cannon was to eliminate his office entirely. In the October 1979 General Conference, he announced that Patriarch Eldred G. Smith would transition to an Emeritus position. No replacement was ever called.

Bonus: The Book of Abraham is a translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs from papyrus acquired by Joseph Smith in Kirtland

Part of the Joseph Smith papyrus

A narrative that is in the process of changing today is the one describing the authorship of the Book of Abraham.

Joseph Smith taught that the Book of Abraham was “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt… written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”

This remained the official Church narrative for the authorship of the Book of Abraham for many years.

What happened?

After Joseph’s death, the Kirtland papyri were lost, but in 1967 they resurfaced, and the papyrus corresponding to the Book of Abraham was shown to be a funeral text called the Book of Breathing. Subsequent studies have confirmed this translation and reinforced the conclusion that it bears no relation to the text of the Book of Abraham.

While this explanation is still part of today’s Pearl of Great Price, the official Church essay on the Book of Abraham acknowledges that “none of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham.”

The essay holds out hope for a literal translation when it argues that “it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments.” Alternatively, it suggests that the papyrus “catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.”

In “The Origin of the Book of Abraham” I explain why neither of these is likely. Very briefly:

  1. We know how much space would have been required to record the text of the Book of Abraham on missing papyrus fragments, and we can estimate the maximum dimensions of the original papyrus roll; there is not enough room for the Book of Abraham by a factor of ten.
  2. Besides the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith created a “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” as a translation aid derived from the fragments of papyrus that we still have, that includes many pieces of the finished Book of Abraham text. This shows that Joseph’s translation was in fact derived from the papyrus itself.

I predict that the claim of translation from ancient records will be removed from the next edition of the Pearl of Great Price.

Further Reading