When I was doing my undergrad at BYU, I spent some time working with a non-profit that taught entrepreneurship and gave microloans to underprivileged would-be small business owners. It was a wonderful experience and I made several close friends among the other volunteers as we did our (often inadequate) best to fulfill a mission we believed in.
The founder of the non-profit, a long-time professor at the BYU’s Marriott School, had led (and continues to lead) an extraordinary life. The word consecration comes to mind; he had dedicated a large portion of his life to serving the world’s poor, and perhaps more broadly, he fought for equality among classes that, for far too long, have been easily forgotten.
He was never one to give an inch on principle. He was the founder of dozens of non-profit organizations, author of several books, and a world traveler who was close friends with and introduced me to one of my heroes, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The non-profit I worked with held planning meetings after regular working hours in the Tanner building on BYU’s campus, where the Marriott School is housed. Those meetings would more often than not veer wonderfully off track as this professor regaled us with stories of his exploits over the preceding decades preaching social change in a socially conservative environment.
I remember one occasion in particular, where we began talking about the Church’s 126-year ban on men of African descent from being ordained to the Priesthood. He told us about the protests in the 1970’s that he participated in and even helped organize, fighting actively for the Church to change its policy.
I sat transfixed as he told his story. The casual way that he spoke about pushing for change within the Church, and the causative relationship he implied between that push for change and the change itself, was outside my paradigm. In my understanding, God communicated so clearly and so regularly with the leaders of the Church that nothing happened until the exact moment it was meant to.
At the time, I wondered if it was possible that the rank-and-file agitation he related to us had actually had an effect on Church policy or doctrine.
Over the last several years, this has become a personal issue for me as I’ve felt some of my own convictions conscientiously wrenched in unorthodox directions. I’ve wondered who I would have been had I been an adult in the mid-20th century. Would I have accepted something I felt was wrong in order to remain faithful? Would I have needed to? And more generally, is there a faithful way to push for change in an institution one believes is divinely guided?
The revelatory process
One thing is certain: Church leaders have the final say on that policy and doctrine. The Church isn’t a democracy. We don’t vote on propositions, or elect representatives, or engage in robust debate. Leaders aren’t accountable to members: they’re not likely to be thrown out if their conference talks aren’t inspiring, or if they’re not adequately representing member interests.
As an aside, just in case this appears to be a criticism — not every good institution is a democracy. Most great businesses and non-profits aren’t democracies. Nor are most families (Aubrey and I are now outnumbered 2:1 and we’d be eating sugar cookies at every meal if they were).
Rather, faithful Church members believe that Church leaders determine policy and doctrine based on the principle of revelation: communication from God to humans authorized to act for him.
But how does that revelation happen? On that answer hinges the larger question of whether agitation and provocation are, or can be, helpful or appropriate.
Though there’s certainly much more nuance to it than this, it may be fair to consider two competing revelatory schools of thought; let’s call them the text message theory and the buffet theory.
In the text message theory, God sends communication similar to how we send text messages. The message is clear and free of much need for interpretation. The receiver has no control over where or when they’re received, much less what they say. The text message theory is communication from God, in God’s own way and on God’s own timing; free of context, free of outside pressures, free of the opinions or bias of the person receiving it. It’s God’s will, unfiltered.
Subscription to the text message theory requires, more than anything else, a belief that there is a crystal clear channel of communication between God and person — that the sender sends unambiguous messages and the receiver is able to understand them.
The buffet theory stands in contrast to the text message theory. Imagine how you eat at a buffet — you make your way between tables, considering at a variety of options, until something grabs your attention and get a little nudge toward a particular item. You take some of that, because it was there, in front you, and it felt right at the time.
In the buffet theory, revelation works similarly. Our communication with God doesn’t happen in an unfiltered, clear, and contextless channel. Rather, we have in front of us a variety of options; these options could be situational, placed in front of us due to circumstances beyond our control; they could be logical, having arrived at them by study and analysis; they could be interpersonal, as we’re urged and persuaded by others to take a particular course. They could be right, or they could be wrong. We look at the available options, ask for guidance, and, hopefully, get a nudge in the right direction.
While I don’t believe that either method is the only way to receive revelation (and perhaps, someday, I’ll share my one personal experience that felt like a text message), I’d guess that most faithful Latter-day Saints relate more to the buffet theory than the text message theory. My own consistent experiences and many of those shared privately with me tend to fall within those parameters. The stories I hear related during fast and testimony meetings are often similar and seem to follow that pattern as well.
The question remains, though, if those we consider prophets receive revelation that way too: by examining the options around them — some of which are right, and some of which are wrong — and doing their best to follow a divine nudge which, at times, can be hard to discern.
I think there’s often a sense that while we rank-and-file members may be dining at the revelatory buffet, our leaders more often receive divine text messages — messages that are free of ambiguity or need for interpretation, and that take place completely independent of the receiver’s cultural context or chronological whereabouts.
I think though, that with some examination of history and Church leaders’ own words, we may come to a different conclusion.
Freemasonry and the temple
In March 1842, the Nauvoo temple was under construction, and Joseph Smith’s recent revelations had implied that there was more knowledge for the Saints to receive (D&C 124). At the same time, freemasonry was at the beginning of a resurgence that would see its 2,500 members in 1840 members skyrocket to over 6,000,000 by 1900. A masonic lodge was established in Nauvoo that month, and, his brother Hyrum already a member of the fraternity, Joseph immediately took to it; he rose through several ranks in just the first two days of exposure.
Two months after the establishment of the Nauvoo masonic lodge, the ceremony that Joseph called the “endowment” was established, its own first rituals taking place on May 4 in the upper floor of Joseph’s Red Brick Store. Joseph chose nine elders, all of whom were masons, to be the first to receive it. Parts of the endowment ceremony bore marked similarities to the masonic ceremonies to which Joseph had recently been introduced.
Importantly, Joseph was not in any way shy about that fact; he wrote that masonic ritual “was taken from preasthood but has become degen[e]rated. but menny things are perfect.” Soon, eleven of the twelve apostles were freemasons; within a few months, the Nauvoo lodge had over 250 members.
In other words, this was no fraud in which Joseph stole masonic ideas and tried to pass them off as his own: hundreds of people witnessed an obvious relationship which Joseph made no effort to hide. Rather, by Joseph’s own account, this was revelation by nudge. This was context-ful, situationally driven inspiration — and to Joseph, that was simply how things worked. In Richard Bushman’s words, Joseph “had a green thumb for growing ideas from tiny seeds.”
The Church’s new essay on freemasonry and the temple endowment states that “Joseph’s encounter with masonry evidently served as a catalyst for revelation,” and even indicates the possibility that “the ideas and institutions in the culture that surrounded Joseph Smith frequently contributed to the process by which he obtained revelation.”
The Word of Wisdom
Earlier, in 1833, a similar process happened with the Word of Wisdom. The introduction to section 89 of Doctrine and Covenants euphemizes Joseph Smith’s prompting inquiry in the following way:
“As a consequence of the early brethren using tobacco in their meetings, the Prophet was led to ponder upon the matter.”
Brigham Young described the situation in plainer terms:
“When they assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first they did was to light their pipes, and, while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often when the Prophet entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor, made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the Elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry.”
According to Brigham, it wasn’t just the cloud of tobacco smoke, but Emma’s complaints that were causative factors that led the prophet to make his inquiry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer that came as the Word of Wisdom addressed and alleviated those complaints.
Just about everything Brigham Young said
Further historical examination reveals many other indications that even those we consider prophets are often more aligned with buffet theory than the text message theory, even when they might get something wrong — and even on topics of incredible importance.
The flamboyant and irrepressible Brigham Young is the easiest example to point to; his inflammatory teachings on women, for example, reflected the biases of his time, as did his teachings on black people, as did his teachings on Native Americans.
How we judge him, given his context, and whether our judgment is fair or presentist is beyond the scope of this article; the point that I’m making here is that Brigham Young was walking among a buffet of ideas, many of which were put in place by his situation as a white man in the latter half of the 19th century, placed in power and tasked with founding a new civilization in an unforgiving desert, all while solidifying and furthering the doctrine and practices of a fast-growing religious movement.
Among this buffet created by his situation and his analysis of it, and by the people and the environment that surrounded him, Brigham Young grabbed some of this, and some of that. Some ideas he doubled down on, and some never really went anywhere. Regardless, it seems clear given the Church’s own modern positions on women, black people, Native Americans, and several disavowed doctrines — Brigham Young wasn’t always receiving divine text messages.
The Doctrine and Covenants
Some may point to the entirety of the Doctrine and Covenants and argue that the book itself is the best evidence that prophets subscribe to the text message theory (the text is literally in front of us). But by the Church’s own account, Joseph didn’t receive those revelations word for word: in fact, many sections of the D&C were edited, in some cases significantly, after they were first recorded. To quote an article from LDS.org:
“Each of the sections has been edited to some degree, demonstrating that Joseph Smith did not receive all these revelations as word-for-word dictations from the Lord (although he may have received some this way). Rather, he received inspiration and wrote the revelations using his own words, often couched in Victorian English.”
Said another way — the inquiries Joseph made were often driven by his situation, his context, his people. The answers he received were, too.
What does this mean for us?
My point is not just that prophets sometimes get things wrong. That point is no longer novel and the Church itself has been leading the charge there: we’ve been reminded several times recently that we’re led by divinely called, imperfect men and women.
My point is that when our prophets make pronouncements, right or wrong, they often seem to do so in ways that reflect their own context: their upbringing, their culture, their biases, and their situation.
When prophets reverse course on an earlier doctrine or policy, it appears to happen similarly: they shed the biases and prejudices of the past, just as the world around them has.
Of course, this begs the question: who am I to say that prophets, past or present, are “right” or “wrong”? The first answer is straightforward: in a church that believes in continuing revelation, “current” is always the most “right.”
The second is that in a life full of difficult choices and where mistakes are bound to happen, I’m trying to err on the side of more inclusion and more love. If we look closely at the history of divisive social issues in the Church, and we assume that we’ve been getting it more right as we go along, “rightness” always correlates strongly with inclusiveness.
Black men got the Priesthood in 1978. Women have been gaining equality around us as we speak, with recent changes to General Conference procedure and to temple ceremonies. We’re now being encouraged to accept and love LGBTQ individuals, when a mere twenty years ago, the idea was to change them.
The timing of these advances, I’m arguing, isn’t dictated by divine text message. Because prophets subscribe to the buffet theory, as we do, those advances are dictated by an impossibly complicated and interwoven set of contextual variables, one of which is us.
In other words, we can be Emma, who loved Joseph but hated the tobacco on the floor. And complained about it. By all accounts, Emma was as committed to Joseph as any spouse could be: her purported final words, more than thirty-five years after his death, were “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!”
The Church is changing, and will continue to change. It will become more loving and more inclusive. And as people who love it, and sustain (in the true sense of the word) our leaders, we can be part of that. We often hear and see and feel that others are the answer to our prayers; couldn’t we, the membership and body of the Church, be at least a portion of the answer to our leaders’ prayers as they struggle for direction on the most difficult issues of our time?
We may not protest. We may not picket. We may not feel called to do those things. But by teaching our kids conscientiously rather than obligatorily, by being an example of love and inclusion to those historically and still marginalized, by gently and lovingly sharing thoughts in Sunday School that point to a big-tent version of our religion (especially if we have the credibility to do so by having consistently demonstrated love and service to our ward members), we can create a cultural milieu in which our current and future leaders will have been immersed during their own formative processes; one that they will have no option but to dip into as they find inspiration all around them and get those nudges that turn into official change.
LDS historian and Seventy B.H. Roberts said this:
“I believe ‘Mormonism’ affords opportunity…for thoughtful disciples who will not be content with merely repeating some of its truths, but will develop its truths …The Prophet planted the germ-truths of the great dispensation of the fullness of times…The disciples of Mormonism, growing discontented with the necessarily primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed in sustaining the doctrine, will yet take profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the church; and, departing from mere repetition, will cast them in new formulas…until they help to give to the truths received a more forceful expression, and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of its development.”
It’s my strong belief that if anyone is born into our church — regardless of whether they’re black or white, gay or straight, female or male or anything else — and wishes they hadn’t been, we’re doing it wrong. I’d take it a step further, really: if anyone is born into our church and doesn’t feel lucky that they were, we’re doing it wrong.
Our doctrine demands nothing less. We believe — yes, I truly believe — that God is an infinitely and unconditionally loving parent who both rejoices with us and weeps over us. God’s institutional representation, then, should be a manifestation of that infinite and universal love — that drawing love which is so magnetic and forceful that departing from it would be masochistic.
The “primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed” have left us often falling short of that vision, but we’ve moved a lot. Over the roughly two hundred years of the Church’s existence, many brave activists and allies have created an environment that those who make the final call have had to participate in. They created new options at the buffet and made nudges in those directions culturally acceptable.
We can carry the church beyond its “cruder stages of development.” Though it won’t happen all at once, we can be — in the words of one of my favorite LDS thinkers — “faithful provocateurs” who directly or indirectly recast the Church more fully in the image of the God we believe in; one who is no respecter of persons, prejudices, or past; one whose love is unlimited and extends to enfold each of his children.