Apart from excitement over the fly that plagued Mormon Seventy Terence M. Vinson during his General Conference talk on Sunday (October 13, 2013), much of the Conference buzz on the world wide web (sorry – I couldn’t resist) is focused on Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s Saturday Morning address, “Come, Join with Us.” Apostle Uchtdorf (of the First Presidency) talked about (and to) Mormons who doubt and/or have left the Church. Included in his remarks was what the New York Times called “a groundbreaking admission that ‘mistakes’ by fallible church leaders in the past have sown the seeds of doubt today.” In Mr. Uchtdorf’s own words:
“And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”
According to Mormon professor, author and speaker Terryl Givens, Mr. Uchtdorf’s concession was of great importance because “In a single blow, it shattered the cultural mythology that has been at the root of the doubt and disaffection that affects our members.”
Yet I wonder – was Mr. Uchtdorf’s “admission” really all that? It seems to me that his words were quite vague. Who are these “leaders in the Church” that are guilty of having made mistakes? What, specifically, has been said or done that is “not in harmony with [Mormon] values, principles, or doctrine”?
New York Times journalist Laurie Goodstein noted that two specific things done by Mormon leaders of the past, things that today’s Latter-day Saints find especially troubling, are Joseph Smith’s polyandrous polygamy (i.e., marrying multiple women who also had other living husbands) and Brigham Young’s barring of Blacks from the priesthood. Are these things that would fall under Mr. Uchtdorf’s admission of “mistakes” made that were out of harmony with Mormon doctrine?
In May 2012 a survey was conducted to better understand Mormon disbelief and the factors that contribute to that disbelief. Topping the resulting list (in addition to the two issues already mentioned) are: the Book of Abraham, DNA and the Book of Mormon, Masonic influences in the temple ceremony, multiple conflicting versions of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and anachronisms in the Book of Mormon. A little further down the list are: Joseph’s use of peep stones in translating the Book of Mormon, changes in the temple ceremony, loss of credibility of the Three Witnesses, Brigham Young’s teaching on blood atonement, Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine, and Joseph Smith’s Kinderhook Plates fiasco. Are these the things Mr. Uchtdorf was referring to? It seems that Mr. Givens thinks so, if indeed Mr. Uchtdorf’s admission “shattered” the very thing that is “at the root of [Members’] doubt and disaffection.”
If we are to accept the interpretation of Mr. Uchtdorf’s words that is being promoted by Mr. Givens (and others), we would conclude that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, while speaking and acting within their calling and capacity as prophets, made an awful lot of mistakes that have led a lot of Mormons doctrinally astray.
I don’t think this is what Mr. Uchtdorf meant – do you?
I think it far more likely that he was referring to local leaders (like those who are blamed for the Mountain Meadows Massacre), Church-sponsored boy scout troop leaders (like those who have been accused of child sex abuse), and those unfortunate leaders who recently excommunicated Denver Snuffer for saying the exact same thing as is being attributed to Mr. Uchtdorf. As Alan Rock Waterman over at Pure Mormonism wrote, “I think what it was that put Snuffer in the doghouse with Church leadership was his assertion that Joseph Smith’s successors sometimes made mistakes.”
So, if Mr. Uchtdorf was not suggesting that Mormon prophets have made significant mistakes that were/are out of harmony with Mormon “values, principles, or doctrine” (in fact, he affirmed “an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable and divine events” spanning the Church’s 200 years of history), his “admission” that God uses imperfect people to accomplish His purposes was hardly “groundbreaking” or myth-“shattering.” For decades Mormons have told me, “The Church is perfect, but its people are not.” This is not news.
Mr. Uchtdorf should have been more specific in his comments at General Conference. As it is, he’s left his remarks open to all manner of personal interpretation. But then, maybe that’s exactly what he intended after all.