The topic of “Mormon folklore” seems to be a popular one right now, following on the heels of the racially offensive comments made by BYU Professor Randy Bott last week (see “Did the Mormon Church ever discriminate against black people?” on Mormon Coffee). As Mormons scramble to try to distance the LDS Church from its past, over and over they tell the world that the things taught by now-gone Mormon leaders regarding the priesthood ban–and about black people in a broader sense–amounts to nothing more than “folklore,” “speculation” and mere “opinion.” In an official statement the LDS Church said,
“It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church [i.e., the ban against blacks holding the priesthood] but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine.”
The use of the that’s-not-official-that’s-just-his-opinion defense among Mormons is not limited to the priesthood ban. For example, if you were to tell a Mormon that LDS apostle Orson Pratt taught that the Virgin Mary was the lawful wife of God the Father, or that Brigham Young taught that interracial marriage between Caucasians and Africans would forever carry a penalty, under the law of God, of death on the spot, more often than not you would hear, “That’s not official. That’s just his opinion.” (Sources for the teachings cited: Orson Pratt, The Seer, 158; Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 10:110. See also John Lewis Lund’s The Church and the Negro, 1967, 54.)
In an article addressing this common Mormon objection to many early LDS teachings, Vincent McCann from Spotlight Ministries makes some good points. He notes several reasons Mormons cannot really rest in the idea that “official” Mormonism is only found in the Standard Works of the Church:
- The absence of doctrines essential to Mormonism in the Standard Works makes it necessary for Mormons to accept so-called “unofficial” sources as authoritative
- Statements from LDS leaders indicating the unequivocal authority of their teachings as the very word of God
- The current/ongoing official LDS Church pronouncements that the inspired words of living prophets “become scripture” to Latter-day Saints (Mr. McCann cites an older edition of Gospel Principles; in the current edition the teaching can be found on page 48)
One point Mr. McCann makes is often overlooked by Latter-day Saints. That is, Mormons who want to downgraded the doctrinal teachings of past prophets to mere “folklore” generally fail to consider the effect these teachings had on real people who believed their Mormon prophets. Mr. McCann writes,
“Although many Mormons do not view other LDS writings as official Scripture (for example, The Seer or The Journal of Discourses), it should be remembered that many of these writings consist of the words of very prominent leaders in the Mormon Church. As such individuals commanded great respect they were certainly influential over the rank and file. Their statements must have carried some weight. Mormon leaders in prominent positions, like Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, and Bruce R. McConkie, influenced those who looked to them for leadership. The words of these early LDS leaders did not just go out into a vacuum, they went [into] the hearts and minds of the Mormon people and were incorporated into their beliefs.”
Therefore, when Mormon leaders taught people born with dark skin were reaping punishment for premortal behavior, Mormons then treated these people as an “inferior race.”
When Mormon leaders taught Adam was God, Mormons then worshiped a false god.
When Mormon leaders taught that polygamy was required for gaining eternal life, Mormons then submitted to behaviors contrary to biblical teaching.
If Mormons want to say certain LDS teachings were merely the non-authoritative personal opinions of the men who taught them, these Latter-day Saints must come to grips with the fact that these so-called prophets, while claiming to speak for God (but presumably knowing otherwise), led thousands of people astray.
Both options – that these teachings were mere (faulty) opinions or that these teachings were at one time official doctrines of the LDS Church – place a heavy burden on today’s Mormons to explain.
The truth is, these prophets (and their teachings) were untrue. They did not speak for God or represent Him in any way.
God calls us to turn away from false prophets:
“Thus says the Lord GOD: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations… that [you] may be my people and I may be [your] God, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 14: 6, 11)
May we all, at all times, heed God’s call.