Thirty Years of Lessons: Women and Gays in the Community of Christ

Recently I was invited by the moderators of the liberal Mormon blog Wheat & Tares to be a guest contributor on issues related to Community of Christ. This post, published earlier today, is my first contribution for them.

By Rich Brown

Thirty years to the week after approving priesthood ordination for women, the Community of Christ is extending the sacraments of ordination and marriage to gays and lesbians in the United States. A two-year interim period begins on Monday, March 31, after which it will be reviewed and considered for permanent status. This follows similar action resulting from national conferences in Australia and Canada.

Lessons learned from what turned out to be a tumultuous (many might say disastrous) beginning for the 1984 landmark event have been put into place by CofC leaders today. Although a few church members in recent months have either turned in their priesthood cards or left the church, it’s nothing like the major exodus that took place three decades ago.

Aspen-TreesFor starters, this time there was a three-year preparation period leading up to a special USA National Conference held right after World Conference in Independence, Missouri, last April. The 2,000 USA delegates spent several days listening, testifying, and worshiping together before overwhelmingly recommending that the First Presidency and the USA Team of Apostles issue the changes. The official conference report is here.

Here’s the specifics: The marriage sacrament is authorized for individuals in a same-gender relationship wherever such civil marriage is legal. Elsewhere CofC congregations may celebrate a special covenant/blessing worship experience. And ordination can be extended to individuals with same-gender orientation who are either in a committed, long-term relationship or who are celibate. For those wondering, the same rules apply to straight folks.

Thirty years ago World Conference delegates were caught off guard when RLDS President Wallace B. Smith presented an inspired document to priesthood quorums and orders on April 3. Two days later the document was approved by the conference as a whole and it became Section 156 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The document was mostly about a proposed temple to be built in Independence. But the last few paragraphs brought general counsel regarding priesthood, including the following:

I have heard the prayers of many, including my servant the prophet, as they have sought to know my will in regard to the question of who shall be called to share the burdens and responsibilities of priesthood in my church. I say to you now, as I have said in the past, that all are called according to the gifts which have been given them. This applies to priesthood as well as to any other aspects of the work. Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities. –Doctrine and Covenants 156:9

“Wonder” wasn’t exactly the operative word for traditionalists and conservatives. Already suspicious of what they viewed as dangerous liberalizing tendencies in the church for at least two decades, they were incensed and vowed to fight the move every way possible. Business meetings in congregations, districts, and stakes where priesthood calls for women were presented often turned into angry shouting matches. People made sure every one of their baptized children was on hand to vote yes or no depending on the parents’ direction.

My own stake (Blue Valley, which included a portion of Independence and eastern Jackson County) had its rules of operation suspended because people simply couldn’t get along. It was a sad, ugly, and unfortunate time even while marking a new era of broadened ministry in the church. Today women and men serve alongside one another. If you didn’t know what happened decades ago, you’d probably never suspect there was anything unusual about the way priesthood functions now.

Numerous resolutions on same-gender issues were submitted to the past few World Conferences but were ruled out of order by the First Presidency, mainly because they were considered important to church members in a select few nations rather than as something critical for the international church. The CofC has an official presence in more than 60 nations.

In 2010 inspired counsel to the church called for creation of national conferences, specifically to consider issues related to same-gender orientation. With somewhere around half of all CofC members living outside the Western, industrialized countries in North America, Australia, and Europe, this was believed to be the only way same-gender issues could be dealt with in the church.

Delegates at the USA National Conference engaged in a unique process aimed at reaching “common consent.” This meant that a significant majority (at least 66 percent) would have to make a recommendation for top church leaders to act.

In mid-March of this year, the five apostles responsible for USA mission centers sent a copy of President Stephen Veazey’s “Statement to the Church: National Conference Recommendations and Interim Policies” to priesthood members. It was mailed to all USA pastors and high priests, evangelists (referred to as patriarchs before women were ordained), bishops, and seventy. They presented the president’s statement as “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” A DVD titled “President’s Reflections” will be available in April to church members and include four sections: Let Me Be Clear, What Does the Lord Require of Us, My Personal Testimony, and Room for Everyone.

President Veazey’s statement, which spills over onto a fourth page, is essentially a point-by-point counter to criticisms of the new same-gender policies.

To those who argued that these new policies were in opposition to previous revelation given to the church, President Veazey had this to say:

Doctrine and Covenants 111 provides instruction regarding marriage in the church. It is a statement written in the mid-1830s to counter rumors about adultery and polygamy in the church. Same-gender marriage was not conceivable, much less a question, in early 19th-century thought. To conclude that Doctrine and Covenants 111 definitely resolves the question of same-gender marriage ignores its historical context and stated purpose. Also, although Section 111 was included in the Doctrine and Covenants, its historical preface clearly states it was not a revelation.

To those who have pointed to certain Bible verses used to condemn same-gender orientation and relationships, he offered this:

Let me be clear. Continuing Revelation approved by the World Conference means those particular Bible verses are not the final word on these matters. Such verses now are understood through insights offered in Continuing Revelation approved by the church…. However, the real issue was not just several Bible verses, but how we understand and apply scripture.

He identified Doctrine and Covenants Section 163 as important counsel in these matters:

Scripture is an indispensable witness to the Eternal Source of light and truth, which cannot be fully contained in any finite vessel or language…. Scripture has been written and shaped by human authors through experiences of revelation and ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the midst of time and culture. Scripture is not to be worshiped or idolized…. It is not pleasing to God when any passage of scripture is used to diminish or oppress races, genders, or classes of human beings. Much physical and emotional violence has been done to some of God’s beloved children through the misuse of scripture. The church is called to confess and repent of such attitudes and practices. –D. and C. 163:7 (excerpted)

President Veazey concluded that Section 163:7

applies to the verses used to deny persons of same-gender orientation access to all sacraments. It also applies to situations where scripture verses are used by some to dominate, oppress, or exclude others who are different from them. Because the World Conference approved Section 163:7 as an expression of God’s will, the Bible verses most often used to categorically denounce same-gender orientation and relationships no longer should be presented as the final word on these matters.

He said it “is clear that God is maturing us as a `prophetic people’ who discern divine will by responsibly engaging scripture, tradition, Continuing Revelation, knowledge and reason, personal and community experience, and Spirit-led consent…. I believe more-than-sufficient revelation has been received to resolve issues about same-gender relationships in nations where those issues are pressing matters.”

Near the end of his official statement, President Veazey wrote: “As I have continued to seek direction on behalf of the church, the Spirit has brought assurance that questions about same-gender orientation and marriage are primarily related to life on Earth. They do not have necessary bearing on salvation, the divinity of the church and the sacraments, or the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes.”

No doubt people both inside the CofC and outside it will be examining these words and trying to read between the lines. For me, it’s clear that “Continuing Revelation” is the most important consideration for the church as it deals with these and other critical issues.

It reminds me of an essay by theologian David Ford who described religion as God speaking to us from the past. Think of that as the accumulation of scripture, church tradition, and wise people who’ve used reason and intelligence to bring the church to where it is today. Ford identified revelation as God speaking to us from the future.

If God is free to open history from the future then the future need not mirror the past. In the Church this combines with the message of the cross to allow for discontinuities and innovations. –David F. Ford, `Faith in the Cities: Corinth and the Modern City’ in “On Being the Church” (1989)

Ford cited the example of the apostle Paul who claimed authority as an apostle through direct revelation from the risen Christ rather than an institutional authority handed on to him from Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem. To that I would add the experience of Joseph Smith Jr. in the early 19th century, who served as God’s instrument in bringing forth a “great and marvelous” new work.

We are all caught somewhere in between religion and revelation, and every church/denomination finds its own point on the continuum. With this “Statement to the Church” President Stephen Veazey is not only prompting the Community of Christ in an obvious direction but in a curious way he mirrors the examples of Apostle Paul and Joseph Smith in challenging the church to understand more fully what it means to be a prophetic people.

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John Hamer in Mormon Podcasts

I’m continuing to update this post, originally posted by in 2013, to have a convenient place to list the various podcasts in which I’ve participated.  Over the years, the list has grown to include a vast number of shows and a wide array of topics within the field of Restoration history, culture, and theology. If you’re interested in listening to me talk about a host of issues for hours on end, you’ve come to the right place.

podcasting


Mormon Stories

Mormon Stories Episode 116: “John Hamer (Part 1) The Succession Crisis of 1844 and the Beginnings of the RLDS Church”. January 24, 2010. John Dehlin and John Hamer talk about the succession crisis from the RLDS perspective, including the early history of the Reorganization.

Mormon Stories Episode 117: “John Hamer (Part 2) From RLDS to Community of Christ”. January 27, 2010. John Dehlin and John Hamer continue their discussion about the history of the Reorganization and its modern transformation into Community of Christ.

Mormons Stories Episodes 422–423: “John Hamer on Returning to Mormonism through the Community of Christ”. June 14, 2013.  In a 2-part series, John Hamer tells his own “Mormon Story” to John Dehlin.

Mormon Stories Episodes 426–429: “A Visual History of the Community of Christ (RLDS)”. July 9, 2013. John Dehlin and John Hamer engage in a 4-part YouTube video series on Community of Christ history, including dozens of original maps and charts, along with historic images.

Mormons Stories Episode 503: “Discussing the New LDS.org Polygamy Essays (Part 1)”. October 23, 2014.  John Hamer joins John Dehlin, Jay Nelson-Seawright and Lindsay Hansen Park to discuss the LDS Church’s essay about polygamy in Kirtland and Nauvoo.

Mormon Stories Episodes 526–527: “John Hamer on Community of Christ as a Church Home for Transitioning Mormons”. March 19, 2015. John Dehlin and John Hamer engage in a 4-part YouTube video series that discusses the differences between Community of Christ and the LDS Church in the 21st Century, examining the case for Community of Christ as a spiritual home for Latter-day Seekers.

Mormon Stories Episodes 586–587: ” Responding to the LDS Church’s Clarification on its Same-Gender Marriage and Children Policies”. November 13, 2015. John Dehlin is joined by John Hamer, Debra Jensen, James Ord, and Daniel Parkinson to respond to the LDS Church’s “clarifications” of its policies on marriage equality and children of LGBT people in committed relationships.

Mormon Stories Episodes 612-613: “Reviewing 2015 with J. Nelson Seawright, John Hamer, Jamie Hanis-Handy, and Marisa Calderwood”. January 12, 2016. John Dehlin assembled a panel to discuss the events of Mormonism in 2015, including the November 2015 LDS policy change naming same-sex married individuals as mandatory apostates, and preventing their children from membership in the church.


Gay Mormon Stories

Gay Mormon Stories Episode 43: “John Hamer talks more about being gay and his journey as a gay man in the Community of Christ”. July 8, 2013.  In a follow-up to Mormon Stories Episode 423, Daniel Parkinson talks to John Hamer about how being gay has informed his path in the Restoration.


Mormon Stories Sunday School

Engaging Gospel Doctrine Episode 40: “This Generation Shall Have My Word through You (D&C and Church History Lesson 13)”. March 22, 2013. Jared Anderson lays out information for LDS Sunday School, including a discussion on the nature of the scriptures composed by Joseph Smith with panelists Jessica Duckett Finnigan, Ben Bernards, and John Hamer.

Engaging Gospel Doctrine Episode 62: “Brigham Young and the Succession (D&C and Church History Lesson 33)”. August 28, 2013. Devery S. Anderson lays out information for LDS Sunday School, including a discussion on the Succession Crisis and Brigham Young, with panelists Konden Smith, Cami Alex Thurman Ashby, and John Hamer.

Engaging Gospel Doctrine Episode 71: “Continuing Revelation through Prophets (D&C and Church History Lesson 42). November 2, 2013. Jared Anderson discusses the topic for LDS Sunday School, followed by a panel discussion with regulars Brent, Amy, and Patrick. John Hamer joins in to bring a Community of Christ perspective.

Excavating Scripture Episode 39: “Deeper Introduction to the Doctrine & Covenants, Text and Context (Part 1)”. March 19, 2013.  Hosts Laura and Brian discuss the history of the early D&C along with the LDS, Community of Christ, and other variants with John Hamer.


Project Zion Podcast

Project Zion Episode 3: Redefining Faith. September 29, 2015. Host Seth Bryant joins John Hamer and Miles Fuller in an exploration of how believers can navigate Restoration faith apart from institutional definitions and culture. This means something more than just “cafeteria Mormonism”—which might fall within the ruts of traditional definitions, even if involvement is selective. Instead, we’ll examine the ways in which frustrated members of the Restoration, and those who have moved beyond faith, can redefine terms and claim new forms of interaction that—despite the unorthodox journey—are deeply rooted in tradition, community, and identity.

Project Zion Episode 8: Supporting LGBTQ Individuals in the Wake of the LDS Church’s New Policy. November 10, 2015. Katie Langston interviews Seth Anderson, Michael Ferguson, and John Hamer on what it’s like to grow up gay and Mormon, how Community of Christ has evolved as a denomination to support full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in North America, and what all of us can do to support our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who are most harmed by the LDS Church’s exclusionary new policy targeting the children of same-sex couples.

Project Zion Episode 40: Problem of Evil — Suffering with John Hamer. August 16, 2016. Josh Mangelson sits down with John Hamer after the 2016 Sunstone Symposium to revisit the topic of the problem of evil-suffering, following up on a previous Project Zion Podcast with Tony and Charmaine Chvala-Smith on Community of Christ understandings of the Problem of Evil.


Feminist Mormon Housewives

FMH Podcast Episode 36: “An Elect Lady, the Story of Emma Smith (Part 1)”. February 15, 2013. Lindsay Hansen Park talks to John Hamer about Emma Hale Smith Bidamon.

FMH Podcast Episode 37: “Meet Emma Hale Smith Bidamon (Part 2)”. February 16, 2013. Lindsay Hansen Park and John Hamer continue their discussion about Emma and her life.

FMH Podcast Episode 42: “The Succession Crisis and LDS Priesthood”. March 4, 2013. Kaimipono Wenger hosts a discussion on the 1844 Succession Crisis with panelists Ben Park, John Hamer, and Danielle Mooney.

FMH Podcast Episode 94: “Polygamy Controversies: Joseph Fought Polygamy?”. April 24, 2015. Lindsay Hansen Park and John Hamer discuss the actual historical evidence that counteracts the faith claims made by Richard and Pamela Price in their book, “Joseph Fought Polygamy”.

FMH Podcast Episode 95: “Dueling Cousins: How Two Smith Cousins Shaped Modern Polygamy”. May 19, 2015. John Hamer and Don Bradley join Lindsay Hansen Park to talk about Joseph Smith III and Joseph F. Smith, first cousins who were adamant opponents on the issue of Mormon polygamy.


Mormon Expression

Mormon Expression Episode 36: “Mormon Schismatic Groups”. January 5, 2010. John Larsen and Tom talk to Newell Bringhurst and John Hamer, co-editors of Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism, to discuss the various branches of the Latter Day Saint movement.

Mormon Expression Episode 58: “The Doctrinal Differences in the Community of Christ”. May 25, 2010.  John Larsen, John Hamer, and David Howlett discuss differences in doctrines and practices between the LDS Church and Community of Christ.

Mormon Expression Episode 92: “The Kirtland Temple”. November 9, 2010.  John Larsen, John Hamer, and Barbara Walden (former site director of the temple) discuss the history of Kirtland Temple.

Mormon Expression Episode 192: “Myths Concerning the Community of Christ”.  March 19, 2012. John Larsen and John Hamer discuss popular Mormon myths about Community of Christ.


Infants on Thrones

Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? (Part 1).  September 30, 2013. Hosts Glenn and Randy interview John Hamer about the authorship of the Book of Mormon, outlining the evidence for Joseph Smith as the author and why the Spaulding Theory can be discounted.

Nauvoo Polygamy Smackdown.  October 23, 2014. John Hamer joins hosts Glenn, Jake, Matt, and Randy to discuss the Mormon Church’s recent LDS.org essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo.”  Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

King Follett Revisited.  November 18, 2014. John Hamer joins hosts Glenn, Chelsea Shields Strayer, and Jake Frost to discuss the theology of Joseph Smith’s famous King Follett Discourse. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

The Problem Makers.  December 7, 2014. Hosts Glenn, Randy, Alison are joined by Mike Bohn and John Hamer to discuss Mormon doctrine and the difference between doctrine and theology, including the difference between the Mormon concept of afterlife and godhood and the concept of God and afterlife in the broader Christian tradition. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

The Christmas Jesus and Stuff.  December 21, 2014. John Hamer joins hosts Glenn, Bob, and Alison to discuss the question of the historical Jesus, the origin of the Christmas stories, and how progressive religion differs from fundamentalism. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Excommunication the Musical.  December 21, 2014. Glenn, Jake, Matt, and John Hamer give a dramatic reading of the transcript of John Dehlin’s disciplinary hearing, prior to his excommunication from the LDS Church. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Saturday’s Warrior Smackdown.  March 29, 2015. John Hamer joins the cast of Infants on Thrones, joining Glenn, Matt, and Randy to perform a sing-along smackdown of the campy 1970s Mormon musical, “Saturday’s Warrior”. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

John Hamer PPI.  May 26, 2015. Randy and Glenn interview John Hamer about his Mormon childhood, leaving the Mormon church, and present-day metaphysical explorations. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Church House Rock: Priesthood Power.  June 10, 2015. Glenn and John reminisce about School House Rock and sing a song that parodies the ideas that priesthood in the Restoration includes exclusive keys of authority and physical magic to the tune of “Elbow Room.” Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

De-Romancing The Stone.  August 11, 2015. In order to fill out the complete story of Joseph the Seer and his recently unveiled seer-stone, John, Glenn, Matt, Randy, and Jake dip into the rich historical record and read witness accounts of Joseph’s contemporaries, in a documentary minisode that “De-Romances the Stone.”

Disney Songs for Alienated Mormon Kids.  November 9, 2015. In response to news of the LDS Church’s new policy of denying baby blessings, baptism, and priesthood ordination to the children of gay parents, John and the Infants have produced a satirical singalong to Disney favorites. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

The Historical Easter. March 27th, 2016. It’s Easter. And that means it is time for John, Randy, Heather and Glenn to talk about Easter. And Easter customs. And the historical Jesus. And death. And chocolate. And The Life of Brian. And a bunch of other stuff, too. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Priesthood Power and the Magic Worldview. June 26th, 2016. John Hamer teaches Glenn, Randy, and Jake a thing or two about the LDS priesthood. And its origins. And its authority. And its power. And the magical-ness of the Mormon Worldview. And it is funny. And informative. And will tickle your ears, warm your hearts, and engorge your brains. Do not seek the treasure (we thought you was a toad). Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Apocalypse.  October 9, 2016. Randy, John, and Heather welcome siblings Jimmy and Ben to talk about the End of the World and to laugh and giggle.  A lot.  It’s a smart, funny discussion that will have you hoarding wheat, powdered milk, and liquor in no time.  Enjoy. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

The Definitive Meaning of Life. Period.  November 27, 2016. John and his brother Ben Hamer join Randy & Jimmy Snyder Heather Craw to discuss The Meaning of Life: both the Monty Python movie and the actual meaning of life. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.


Mormon Expositor

Mormon Expositor Episode 54: Who are James J. Strang and the Strangites?  November 6, 2013. Hosts Clay Painter and Brandt Malone talk to John Hamer about the 1844 succession crisis, why and how James J. Strang emerged as a serious rival to Brigham Young and the history of the Strangite Church since Strang’s martyrdom.


Sunstone

Sunstone Symposium 2013 Session 111: “Neither Protestant nor LDS; Community of Christ’s Unique Understanding of Scripture”. August 1, 2013. In a presentation at the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City, John Hamer discusses the ways in which the Community of Christ conception of scripture differs from both the LDS and Protestant conceptions.


Radio West

James Strang’s Brief Kingdom. February 19, 2014.  Doug Fabrizio of National Public Radio and KUER interviewed John Hamer about the history of James Strang and the Strangite Mormon Kingdom on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.


Back Story with the American History Guys

A Strangite Time. March 20, 2015.  As part of their exploration of the history of American islands for NPR, the American History Guys interview John Hamer about Beaver Island and James Strang’s kingdom in Lake Michigan.


Interesting Canadian Mormons

Interesting Canadian Mormons Episode 12a: John Hamer and Community of Christ (Part 1) and 12b (Part 2). August 3, 2014.  Host Sampson Nordquist interviews John Hamer about misimpressions Mormons may have about Community of Christ.


Naked Mormonism

Naked Mormonism Episode 43: Schism Grenade with John Hamer. November 1, 2016. Beginning with the transition time from Kirtland to Far West in 1837-38 host Bryce Blankenagel and John Hamer have a wide ranging discussion that includes major moments of schism in Mormon history.


Rational Faiths Episodes 22, 30, and 39: “Diverse Mormons at Sunstone”: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 2014.  Brian Kissell interviewed John Hamer and 33 other individuals at the 2014 Sunstone Symposium to create an audio mosaic of the diversity of thought present.

Rational Faiths Episode 32: “Scriptures What Are They Good For?”  November 9, 2014.  John Hamer joins host Brian Dillman along with Mormon scripture scholars Colby Townsend and Joseph Spencer to discuss the purpose of scriptures in the Restoration context.

Rational Faiths Episode 40: “Seek ye out of the best [podcasts]”: Charity 101 January 3, 2015.  John Hamer joins host Brian Dillman along with Lori Burkman and Paul Barker to talk about charity and ways to maximize giving.


Mormon Matters

Mormon Matters Episode 1: “An Introduction, PBS’s ‘The Mormons’, and an Ensign Article”. June 7, 2007. In this initial podcast, John Dehlin introduces Mormon Matters and discusses the PBS documentary “The Mormons” with panelists Julianne Hatton, J. Nelson-Seawright, Ann Porter, and John Hamer.

Mormon Matters Episode 3: “The Mountain Meadows Massacre”. June 25, 2007.  At the 150th anniversary, John Dehlin recalls the history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre with panelists John Hamer, J. Nelson-Seawright, and Ann Porter.

Mormon Matters Episode 6: “LDS Church Finances and the ‘Approaching Mormon History’ Press Release”. July 14, 2007.  John Dehlin discusses whether the LDS Church should be required to reveal its finances with panelists Ann Porter, John Hamer, Paul M., and Blake Ostler.

Mormon Matters Episode 9: “Big Love and Mormon Fundamentalist Polygamy (Part 1)”. August 7, 2007. John Dehlin talks about fundamentalist Mormonism and its depiction on the HBO series “Big Love” with panelists John Hamer, Ann Porter, and Tim Grover.  The discussion was continued in Episode 10 (Part 2).

Mormon Matters Episode 13: “Our Discussion on Inoculating the Saints (Part 1)”. August 29, 2007. John Dehlin reviews a Sunstone presentation on the idea of teaching Mormons uncomfortable truths (rather than white-washing history) in order to “inoculate” them against later faith crises with panelists David King Landrith, Blake Ostler, and John Hamer. The discussion continued in Episode 14 (Part 2).

Mormon Matters Episode 14: “Inoculating the Saints — Listener Feedback”. September 9, 2007. Eric Soderlund (who blogs as “Equality”) and “Mayan Elephant” join the conversation on inoculation with John Dehlin, Ann Porter, and John Hamer.

Mormon Matters Episode 17: “Book of Mormon, Introduction, Lamanites and Native Americans”. November 9, 2007. John Dehlin talks about the LDS Church’s change in the wording to the introduction of the Book of Mormon and the implications for literalist interpretation that Native Americans are Lamanites with panelists Ronan James Head and John Hamer.

Mormon Matters Episode 18: “Same-Sex Marriage and Mormonism”. November 16, 2007. J. Nelson-Seawright discusses the controversial topic of marriage equality and Mormonism with John Hamer, David King Landrith, and Rosalynde Welch.

Mormon Matters Episode 19: “An Analysis of Mitt Romney’s ‘Faith in America’ Speech (Part 1)”. December 7, 2007. John Dehlin discusses Mitt Romney’s speech on his Mormonism with panelists John Fowles, John Hamer, Tom Grover, and Russell Walker. The discussion continued in Episode 20 (Part 2).

Mormon Matters Episode 209: “New LDS Statement on the Book of Mormon.” January 6, 2014. Host Dan Wotherspoon is joined by panelists Katie Langston, John Hamer, and John-Charles Duffy in a discussion about the LDS Church’s new statement on the Book of Mormon “translation” process.

Living Scripture and a Vision of the Living Restoration

Note: The following are my thoughts on Living Scripture and the Living Restoration in Community of Christ.  I’m excited to share them, but (as always), you are not obliged to agree with me to be in communion with me.

Vision

The seekers in upstate New York who came together on April 6, 1830, wanted to restore the true church of Christ, which they believed had been lost to the Earth. They called the new church they founded the “Church of Christ” because they believed (based on scripture) that Church of Christ was the original name of the “primitive”* Christian church in 1st century Palestine. In the 19th century seekers’ view, they weren’t “founding” a new church, they were merely “organizing” the old church that had fallen into error and become disorganized. As they moved onward from New York to Ohio and Missouri, and ultimately to Nauvoo, Illinois, they earnestly believed they were literally restoring (and experiencing once again) the church of the 1st century.

And in this belief, they were quite literally wrong.

The restored Church of Christ was not the primitive church reborn again identically from where it had left off. There were no high priests, no patriarchs, no First Presidency or Stake High Councils in the primitive church. There were no Stakes, no wards, no relief societies. There were no Christian temples in the primitive church. The Nauvoo endowment had no precedent whatsoever in antiquity. Rather, the Nauvoo endowment was based directly on the rites of Freemasonry, which likewise (despite Masonic claims) were entirely modern. And, of course, no notion of Joseph Smith’s late theological speculation on eternal progression had ever been imagined among primitive Christians.

The fact that the Restoration was not literal shouldn’t come as any surprise to us. “You can never go home again” is an aphorism, but in history it’s true enough. When Community of Christ re-built Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store in Nauvoo on the foundation of the original Red Brick Store, the original Red Brick Store didn’t come back into being. When the LDS Church re-built the Nauvoo Temple, the original temple was not somehow resurrected. Rather, in both cases, new replicas were constructed. Both new buildings have all sorts of differences from the originals — not the least of which being that the original buildings were original, while the new buildings were structures that were deliberately patterned on structures existed in the past. By their very natures, a replica (in the case of a building) or a revival (in the case of an idea or institution) are inherently different from something original.

I don’t point this out to dismiss the latter-day Restoration or the earnest faith of its early adherents. While they got some things very wrong, I believe they also got some things very right.

Among the most important ideas they got right was a rejection of the “Golden Age Myth.” Living, as they were, in the wake of the Enlightenment, they and people all around them had begun to read symbolic stories as though they were merely literal history. This change created new and highly distorted readings of sacred, symbolic stories in the Bible. New literalists couldn’t help but notice that in the Bible, animals occasionally talked, prophets turned sticks into snakes and caused the sun to stand still, and God talked to humans like humans talk to each other. They likewise noted (correctly) that such things did not happen in the present day. From this, many believers understandably concluded that the past era was different from the present era. In the past there had (apparently) been a spiritual or heroic age filled with miraculous, enchanted happenings — a Golden Age — while in the present age, the heavens were closed. The spiritual gifts of the past were no more.

The early members of the Restoration disagreed. “The heavens were not closed!” they declared. The same spiritual gifts that were ever available of old continued to be available. Prophets could yet respond to the Divine in the prophetic voice. When the Restoration’s first historian, John Whitmer, began his history of the latter-day movement, he used the same scriptural language — so identified in English because of the then unchallenged popularity of the King James Bible — that Joseph Smith used in composing the Book of Mormon and the revelations that formed the initial sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. For the early members of the Restoration, scripture was not just consigned to a heroic past or Golden Age — scripture could still be lived today.

This was partially because early members remained in a liminal period — they had one foot in a world of unexplained enchantment and one foot in a more fully understood and explained world. Standing on the threshold, they were not always to discern between the symbolic and the literal. For example, the witnesses who viewed the plates understood that their visions were visionary,† but many who read the testimonies the witnesses signed did not.  The members who saw angels in Kirtland temple understood the difference between the eye of the spirit and the physical eye. But early members who took up arms at the Battle of Crooked River did not understand that the Biblical account of Gideon’s defeat of Midianites (Judges 6-8) was a myth. In imagining God would similarly deliver their enemies, early members of the Restoration came close to precipitating their own actual extermination in the 1838 Missouri War.

As people in the 21st century, we have largely crossed the threshold into a post-enchanted world. And ironically, that means for the bulk of Restoration believers today, the heavens are again closed — there is no new scripture; there are no new revelations.  The early Restoration now represents a Second Golden Age whose sacred stories (in many cases) are once again misunderstood to have been literal. This is a shame because there are miracles (such as the miracles of love, forgiveness, and transcendence), even if there is not (and never was) magic (such as demonic possession or turning water into wine). The latter can still be meaningfully understood symbolically, while the former can be meaningfully experienced literally.

Fortunately, in Community of Christ, the canon continues to be open. The river of revelation is ever flowing and we are renewed with new scripture that speaks to our experience today. And we are all called to feel inspiration and respond as a prophetic people to our own individual encounters with God.  We are living scripture as our scripture continues to be living.

In my view, the Restoration was never meaningful as a set of correct answers that had somehow been forgotten were relearned. Rather, its true value is understanding that the scripture must be continually Restored as human understanding expands, so that gospel is a living thing that can still be lived meaningfully today.

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* In the 19th century, the adjective “primitive” more generally referred to the earliest form of an institution or custom.  The word in our own time has narrowed to refer more specifically to cavemen.

† The plates artifact was handled by multiple witnesses under a cloth and/or lifted while sealed shut in a wooden box; and many people were able to visually inspect transcriptions of the characters.  But there were no direct physical sight eye-witnesses of the plates; all visions of the plates were visionary.

A Mormon’s Survival Guide

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This blog entry is specifically for my friends who are LDS and may be contemplating attending Community of Christ. I hope this also is able to bring a new perspective to my friends in Community of Christ, so that they may become better at reaching out to our LDS friends and truly making them feel welcomed at the table. I hope that both communities can use these tips and hopes that we can come together in “community” of Christ.

Survival Tip One: Don’t Trust Everything on the Internet.

My journey with Community Christ started with the internet. I had been vaguely aware of Community of Christ growing up, but I had heard lots of rumors. Rumors such as: “they no longer believe in the Book of Mormon, they believe Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet, and they no longer believe in the restoration.” There are many other things I’ve heard said, but these are the main falsehoods that are spread about Community of Christ. As you search the internet, you will find some Community of Christ members who may back up these claims, but keep in mind they only speak for themselves. The church’s official webpage acknowledges the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and The Restoration. All of them are seen as very important parts to the development of Community of Christ. There are countless of people who believe in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and The Restoration just as strongly as LDS members, but there are those who don’t. This at first can be very confusing to us who share an LDS background. It’s hard for us to understand how this can possibly work and at times it can be frustrating to Community of Christ members on both sides, but remember Community of Christ affirms the Worth of All People and all our welcome at the table. If you have an LDS background and you have a strong testimony of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Restoration don’t be afraid to share that with others. There are plenty of Community of Christ members who feel just as strongly about it as you.

Survival Tip Two: Open Yourself to Receive God’s Message

When I first started attending my local CofC congregation I was listening for someone to reference the Book of Mormon. Week after week passed and I heard nothing. Then one Sunday someone spoke from 3rd Nephi and I was like “finally!” Looking back on it, I missed a lot of important messages because I was fixated on wanting a book referenced. Remember that Community of Christ does affirm the Bible as the scriptural foundation of the church. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants serve as additional witnesses of Christ’s love and mercy, so don’t be surprised if the Book of Mormon is not mentioned the Sunday you attend or if you attend for awhile and don’t hear it. Be patient and allow yourself to receive God’s message. Remember scripture is not to be worshiped.

Survival Tip Three: Introduce Yourself

When you attend the LDS church for the first time everyone wants to talk to you and they want to know what they can do for you and if they can share with you the “gospel.” The Community of Christ does not proselytize, so it may be likely that no one will pressure you to sit down, so they can share the “gospel” with you. Don’t take this the wrong way. They’re just not that interested in converting you. However, you may want to speak to someone about the church in further detail especially the church in your local area. There are a few things you can do. Some congregations have slips that you can fill out with your information you can do that and wait for someone to contact you, or you can introduce yourself to the “pastor” or a person presiding. Tell them you want to know more, and they will share with you. So, don’t be shy and don’t wait for someone to actively pursue you. Pursue them first!

Survival Tip Four: Jesus Must Be Your Foundation

John 14:6 clearly states: “I’m the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the foundation. While there are many things and mediums in which we can communicate with God we must acknowledge that ultimately he is what he says he is. Joseph Smith when asked about his religion said: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. But in connection with these, we believe in the gift of the Holy Ghost, the power of faith, the enjoyment of the spiritual gifts according to the will of God, the restoration of the house of Israel, and the final triumph of truth.” (Elders’ Journal, July 1838, p. 44) We make things so difficult. Tip Four is simply have Jesus as your foundation.

Survival Tip Five: What would Joseph Smith Do?

By this time you probably have a lot of questions and you probably have been dealing with the questions “What Should I Do?” “Where should I Go?” “What is right for my family?” etc. Remember you’re not alone with these questions and great men and women have struggled with the questions for centuries. When Joseph Smith was faced with these same questions, he turned to James 1:5-6 “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting…” As we know Joseph went into the grove and he prayed. He had an experience that changed his life and forever changed the lives of those who would know him as prophet. Final Survival Tip: Pray.

A Blessing for Life?

Recently, I was reading an article about the life and death of the presiding patriarch in the LDS church Eldred G. Smith. He was quite an amazing individual and during his life it’s believed that he performed over 20,000 blessings for individuals. Quite an amazing thing. I’m sure that all 20,000 blessings were unique and specifically for the individual receiving it.

When I was a teenager roughly around the age of fifteen I prepared for my Patriarchal Blessing (Evangelist Blessing) in the LDS denomination. I had only met my Patriarch maybe twice. He was not a member of my particular ward (congregation). The blessing he gave me too this day still holds meaning. I often pull out the hard copy and read it from time to time. Occasionally, I read things that were not evident to me 10 years ago or even a year ago. This man who I barely knew shared with me things that only God himself knew. The blessing stands as one of the most significant events of my life.

About eight months ago I pulled out my patriarchal blessing and began reading it. Some of the promises that were given to me at age fifteen seems to have come to past, however, there were other aspects of it that did not seem to hold the same meaning as they once did. Andrew at the age of fifteen was a very different person than Andrew of twenty-seven years of age.

Over the last twelve years I had been married, had two beautiful children, graduated from college, and at this time of reflection I was going through one of the most significant events of my life. My relationship with Christ was changing and I was about to join another faith. I was discussing with my friend of how the blessing of my youth seemed to be a little dated and seemed to speak to a different person.My friend told me “why don’t you get it re-done?” This was something that I was a little skeptical of doing at first. Though I felt my blessing was for a young teenage boy; it still held promises that are dear to me and I believe they’re promises to be fulfilled later in life. My friend explained to me that the Evangelist Blessing would not be replacing my Patriarchal Blessing it would just be another opportunity to hear what message God has for me.

I decided I was to accept this invitation and prepare for my Evangelist Blessing. I met my Evangelist for the first time in a loud and noisy Chinese restaurant. It was extremely informal and it was nothing like my first meeting with the LDS Patriarch of my youth. Roger told me of his life and his experiences and I shared with him mine. I really didn’t know Roger. Roger is part of my congregation, but prior to our meeting I had only known Roger through his sermons. I was a little apprehensive about this meeting. My fear was that my understanding of the blessing was different than his. Roger had grown up in the Community of Christ where I had my experiences in the LDS church, but during our meeting I realized we had a lot in common. Our theologies were similar and our stories were similar. Meeting after meeting I began to trust Roger and not only did I see him as this man who was going to be used as a tool of God. I saw Roger as my friend.

Despite all this positive feeling; I was having a hard time of letting the spirit work with me. I really was fixated on how this was going to work in relation to my Patriarchal blessing. I also was fixated on what message might Roger share with me. I thought about what I wanted to hear.

I stumbled across a video made by Bryce Veazey entitled “Journey of a Blessing” the video touched upon many of the same things I was struggling with in my preparation. I was struggling with what I wanted the blessing to reveal to me instead of clearing my mind, so that God can reveal to me what I needed revealed. I decided to do as Bryce did clear my mind and await to hear the message that was intended for me.

At the end of my blessing I felt an overwhelming sense of peace come over me. I was joyful and I knew that God loved me. I had just received a sacrament that came from God. It is unique and in my case it meshes very well with my previous Patriarchal Blessing. Roger was someone who I barely knew prior to the blessing, but during the experience he shared with me a sacrament that will stay with me for the rest of my life and through the power of God he knew me better than I knew myself.

If you have never received an Evangelist Blessing I encourage you to do so. You do not have to be a member of Community of Christ (I was not a confirmed member at the time). If you have received one in the past and it doesn’t quite speak to you in the same way that it used too consider getting another one. If the one you received means everything to you and you have no need to get a new one or an update. I encourage you to read it often.

This sacrament is such a blessing that those of us in the Latter Day Saint tradition are able to partake of. Please feel free to write about your experiences below or share any thoughts that come to mind.

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Evolving Temple Practices: Early Church and Today

As the first temple of the Restoration (and the only one completed in the lifetime of founder Joseph Smith Jr.), Kirtland Temple holds a special position for everyone in the Latter Day Saint movement.  Although owned by Community of Christ, the temple is a pilgrimage destination open to members of all the different churches and every one else interested in history and historic sacred spaces.

The majority of visitors to Kirtland are members of the LDS Church (who make up an overwhelming numerical majority in the overall movement), but many of these visitors find that Kirtland Temple doesn’t match their expectations of what a Mormon temple ought to be.  Where are the rooms for sealings and endowments?  Did the Community of Christ folks remove the baptismal font?

As I noted with the evolution of priesthood ideas and offices in the early church period, early Mormonism was a rapidly evolving movement.  Latter Day Saint ideas of temples changed significantly between the Kirtland and Nauvoo periods and the LDS Church and Community of Christ have retained and emphasized different parts of the shared heritage.   I think this idea can be illustrated in admittedly simplified form with the diagrams attached to this post.

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Kirtland Temple was built in response to revelation and dedicated as a “house of prayer,” “a house of learning,” and “a house of order” (Community of Christ D&C 85, LDS D&C 88).  Although everything was more complex in practice, in concept the temple’s three levels were set aside for these purposes.  Assembly worship in large congregations were held in the inner court on the main floor.  The upper court of the second floor was set aside for education, for example training of missionaries called to spread the gospel.  Finally, the attic level functioned as church headquarters with offices for church leaders.

The same interior layout of Kirtland Temple with one court above the other (taking up the lion’s share of space) was replicated in the original Nauvoo Temple*, but because of the temple’s increased scale, headquarters offices were able to be moved to a mezzanine level between the two courts.  However, Nauvoo included new spaces and new functions that did not exist at the time Kirtland temple was built.  A font was included in the basement for the performance of baptisms for the dead and the attic floor had rooms for the endowment and sealing ceremonies.

When Brigham Young’s followers built the four pioneer temples in Utah, Nauvoo was their clear model.  The assembly hall was retained but the secondary hall for education was left out of the plan.  As the Nauvoo-era ordinances became the critical temple function in the Utah church more space was devoted to these practices. (Although the LDS Church has a separate headquarters building from the Salt Lake City Temple, church leaders have special rooms within the temple, which I’ve indicated with the diagram.)  With a few exceptions (like the Washington DC Temple), subsequent Mormon temples are devoted exclusively to Nauvo0-era ordinances.  For this reason, Mormons in Ohio familiar with (for example) the Columbus Ohio Temple will find little in Kirtland to meet their expectations.

Community of Christ, by contrast, has emphasized the other aspects of the temple experience of the early church.  The Temple in Independence ignores Nauvoo developments and takes Kirtland as its direct model, setting aside an inner court for special public assembly worship, and space for education (library/archives, temple school, conferences, training) and space for the offices of church headquarters.  Beyond the Kirtland precedent, in response to 20th century revelation, the Independence Temple has the added function of being dedicated to peace and the promotion of peace and justice.

As with so many things, both churches are drawing from the same shared heritage, even if the end results today look very different.

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* The new Nauvoo Illinois Temple dedicated by the LDS Church in 2002 does not replicate the original structure’s interior.  The original temple’s upper court was omitted and the lower court assembly hall is smaller than the original.

Forever Mormon

In life, we often have things that define us. People are often defined by events, education, and contributions given to society. We are defined by the people we keep and the associations we make or have been apart.

I grew up in Iowa and in my opinion Iowa is much like the rest of the midwest in that it’s very average. It’s not bad, but it’s not stellar either. For the most part, people in Iowa have the same amount of education, income, and their faith’s are pretty close to one another. Most Iowans are either Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist. My faith was very unique I was a Mormon.

Growing up “Mormon” in a place like Iowa brings a lot of questions. Questions ranging from “Do we have electricity?” to “Do you drink Coke?” I have always been met with curiosity and amazement from those who find out that I’m a Mormon.

In the last ten years America’s awareness of Mormonism has been heightened. This is in large part to South Park, Sister Wives, Glenn Beck, and Mitt Romney. I used to get questions about electricity and now I’m getting questions like “how many wives do I have?” and “why do we hate homosexuals?” These perceptions are not only damaging to the larger LDS church, but I believe it’s damaging to all who are part of the restoration heritage.

Recently, I have undergone a transition in my life. I no longer attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and now I attend Community of Christ. Although, the place where I worship has changed, I still see myself as a “Mormon.” I’ve always defined Mormon as one who believes in The Book of Mormon as scripture and is associated with a restoration heritage. Many of my Community of Christ friends do not see themselves as “Mormons” they see themselves as either Latter Day Saints or simply Christians.

Should we in Community of Christ, who are comfortable with the name, still refer to ourselves as “Mormons”? I believe we should continue to refer to ourselves as Mormons. Mormons should not be defined by the church in Salt Lake, Sister Wives, or Mitt Romney. I believe that we have an obligation to share with others what a “liberal” Mormon might mean. We may be surprised with the reaction we get. What an opportunity that we have to show that we are “Mormons” who believe women can have priesthood, accept homosexuals, and at the same time love the restoration as much as our LDS cousins. Mormonism is what attracted me to Community of Christ and although I’m very much a Christian, I cannot deny that I’m at heart by my definition a “Mormon” and will forever be.