Building the Kingdom with Total Honesty

From Dialogue Volume 31, Number 3, Fall 1998 "Letters to the Editor"

I enjoyed and empathized very much with Robert Anderson's article on "The Dilemma of the Mormon Rationalist," and appreciated the response of Allen Roberts, both in the winter 1997 issue. I wish to Comment on two of President Hinckley's recent statements cited by Roberts.

The first was President Hinckley's response to questions asked by the national media about the Mormon doctrines of God having once been a man, and about the potential of humans to become gods (on p. 99). Roberts found Hinckley's responses, which seemed to be questioning the validity of these ideas, to be "refreshingly honest and human." However, I believe his equivocating to be just an extension of Mormon leaders' efforts since the turn of the century to publicly distance the church from its more radical teachings, in order to make it appear more mainstream. It's difficult for me to imagine that President Hinckley seriously questions doctrines which have been central to the Mormon concepts of God and man ever since Joseph Smith proclaimed them in Nauvoo. The second statement of President Hinckley referred to by Roberts was his seemingly callous dismissal of the five intellectuals excommunicated by the church, explaining "... that given the baptism of hundreds of thousands of new members that year, the loss of five was insignificant" (on p. 100).

Roberts wonders if "the worth of souls is no longer great in the eyes of God." I wondered the same thing many years ago as a result of my own inquiries of the brethren regarding an issue then troubling me. Ironically, that issue also concerned church leaders' public equivocation on the topic of the Mormon doctrine of God.

For several years, beginning with challenges presented to me in the mission field, I had been struggling with the many conflicting statements of church leaders about the Adam-God doctrine. Initially, I deemed the subject to be one of those dangerous "mysteries" best left to the proverbial "backburner." Much new provocative material on the subject was coming to light in the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, however, and was being used very effectively by anti-Mormons to attack the church and its leaders. Concerned, and feeling my own testimony challenged, I wrote a letter to President Spencer W. Kimball in the summer of 1980, asking why he, as well as Mark E. Petersen, Bruce R. McConkie, and other general authorities, had been so vocally denouncing the Adam- God doctrine, while at the same time denying that Brigham Young had been the source of the idea, when there was an abundance of good evidence to the contrary (for example, see Kimball, Ensign, Nov. 1975, 77: Petersen, Adam: Who Is He? [Deseret Book, 1976], 7, 13-24; and McConkie, "Adam-God Theory," Mormon Doctrine [Bookcraft, 1966], 18; "The Seven Deadly Heresies," 1980 Devotional Speeches of the Year [BYU Press, 1981]). I pointed out that this approach created a double dilemma for church members aware of the facts: first, how a prophet (Brigham) could claim as revelation and promote to the church an idea deemed by later leaders to be a dangerous heresy: and, second, why later church leaders would dishonestly deny the true source of the "heresy," claiming it originated with "enemies of the church." Neither proposition felt very comfortable to me, a faithful member raised to believe that church leaders, particularly the prophet, could never lead the church astray, and that they were honorable, trustworthy men. I indicated in my letter, and truly believed it at the time, that I felt this dilemma was simply the result of a misunderstanding or lack of information on the part of the brethren. I suggested that a thorough investigation of the subject might be undertaken by the church historian's office to provide better information to the general authorities.

My letter received no response, and in that fall's general conference both brothers Petersen and McConkie again spoke out strongly against the Adam-God doctrine in their usual forceful manner (see Ensign, Nov. 1980, 16-18, 50-52). Dismayed, I phoned the First Presidency's office and spoke with their secretary, Michael Watson, about my letter, asking why I hadn't received a response. He indicated that the brethren had intended to write to me, with the recommendation that I read Mark E. Petersen's book Adam: Who Is He?, but when it was pointed out that I had already read the book, and felt it to be part of the problem, they felt they had nothing else they could say to me. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I felt I had somehow failed to properly communicate the problem. At Michael Watson's prompting, I met with an informal committee answering to Mark E. Petersen, which had been set up to help members confronted with issues raised by fundamentalist Mormons (the Adam-God doctrine being one of the chief of these). I'll spare you the details here, but the net result of my meetings with these people began to make me realize that Brother Petersen wasn't acting out of ignorance of the facts regarding the Adam-God problem, and neither was Bro. McConkie. I still wondered about the extent of President Kimball's knowledge of the subject, however. I suspected that my letter had never reached him.

In February 1981 I again phoned Michael Watson, and urged him to grant me a personal interview, which he did. He was surprisingly candid with me, revealing that my letter to President Kimball had been forwarded to Mark E. Petersen. Brother Watson showed me a memo written by Brother Petersen to the First Presidency with his recommendations as to how to respond to me. He informed them that the issues I had raised were real, that Brigham Young had indeed taught these things, but that they could not acknowledge this lest I would "trap them" into saying this therefore meant Brigham was a false prophet (which, of course, they did not believe). He therefore recommended that I be given a very circuitous response, evading the issue, which he volunteered to write. I asked Brother Watson, as well as members of the committee I had previously met with, how this approach would help people like myself who knew better? Wasn't there concern that some might be dismayed and disillusioned by their church leaders' lack of candor? Their response was very similar to President Hinckley's statement mentioned earlier about losing a few through excommunication: they said, in essence, "If a few people lose their testimonies over this, so be it; it's better than letting the true facts be known, and dealing with the probable wider negative consequences to the mission of the church." I said, "What about Jesus' parable where the shepherd leaves the ninety and nine of his flock to pursue the one who has gone astray?" Again the response was that the brethren had to be more concerned for the majority of the flock.

Since it became abundantly clear to me that I would never find the answers I was seeking from church leaders, I continued to pursue the subject on my own. The end results were three essays published in Sunstone and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, two of which were later published in Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, edited by Gary Bergera and published by Signature Books (cited by Anderson, 80n35). So it is from this perspective that I have difficulty accepting at face value President Hinckley's hedging about the Mormon doctrine of God. I have it on very good authority that building the kingdom is a greater priority than total honesty. Joseph Smith had already set that precedent with his public denials about polygamy when he was secretly practicing it in Nauvoo. The ends justify the means.

And looking back on this episode now, I see how incredibly naive it was of me to expect it to be otherwise.

Boyd Kirkland

Newhall, California


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