RLDS prophet on Book of Mormon historicity (or lack thereof)
Published: 06/29/96Page: D1RLDS Head Downplays His Role as a Prophet
RLDS Moving Further Away From Utah Mormons
BY PEGGY FLETCHER STACK THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
It makes W. Grant McMurray uncomfortable being called a “prophet, seer, and revelator.” The title “creates within me unimagined turmoil,” said the recently elevated president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
McMurray told the faithful at April’s General Conference that the RLDS church needs to move from being “a people with a prophet” to being a “prophetic people.”
This fundamental shift is another move away from the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Both religions trace their history to Joseph Smith. But the nearly 10-million-member Mormon church celebrates the concept of a prophet who talks with God as he directs the church. It was a title and task that Joseph Smith relished.
McMurray says these times call for a new understanding of prophesy.
“We are called to be a prophetic people, witnessing to the world that this small band of believers is ready to stand up and make a difference,” McMurray said.
Bill Russell welcomes the change. The professor at the church’s Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, said this week: “It’s not for us to wait around for Gordon Hinckley or Grant McMurray to tell us what we need to do to combat racism or sexism.”
McMurray, a lifelong church member, grew up in Ontario, Canada, where his family was deeply involved in the life of the church. He moved as a teen-ager to Independence, Mo., where his mother worked at church headquarters.
At Graceland, McMurray majored in religion. He then decided to pursue a theological education. Because the church has no graduate theological schools, he got his master’s of divinity degree at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, a United Methodist seminary.
McMurray, the first RLDS president to be seminary trained, sees theological education as invaluable to those who would lead the church at the top levels, called appointees. “I put a high value on that kind of training and education,” he said.
“In this complex world, it is important that there be a foundational base of skilled people to convey the message in a theologically coherent manner.”
At barely 26, McMurray went to work for the RLDS Church’s historical department. He was church archivist for a decade, focusing on church history.
In 1982 he was appointed World Church secretary, where he was responsible for much of the church’s administration.
In 1992, McMurray became a counselor to church President Wallace B. Smith, a direct descendant of Joseph Smith. Last fall, when the 66-year-old Smith announced his retirement, he named McMurray as his successor.
McMurray is the first RLDS president who is not a direct descendant of Joseph Smith.
The RLDS church split from the LDS church in 1844. The larger body followed Brigham Young to Utah. A small group remained in the Midwest and reorganized in 1860 under the leadership of Joseph Smith III.
Since that day, leadership of the RLDS church has come through the Smith family.
But McMurray said, “it is not an essential part of church doctrine.”
From September through April, Smith circulated a pastoral letter regarding McMurray’s appointment, giving members a chance to comment on it. But few objected so McMurray was ordained in April.
“The transition was seamless,” he said.
Changing Views: The RLDS church has three books of scripture: the Bible, The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.
Joseph Smith said he was directed by an angel to a set of gold plates that contained the history of an ancient Hebrew civilization living in the Americas.
Smith’s translation of the writing on the plates became known as The Book of Mormon.
Both LDS and RLDS believe it is scripture. But in recent years, The Book of Mormon has been de-emphasized among RLDS.
Members hold “a fairly wide range of views about it,” McMurray said in a KSL radio interview on June 9.
Some consider it a historically accurate book of scripture and faith, while others accept it as being an important part of the canon but not literal history.
McMurray’s view is that The Book of Mormon “falls outside the traditional standards of historical documentation and veracity.”
Though McMurray said the book is often used in RLDS sermons and ministry, the new president did not mention or quote from it in his opening address.
He also announced a change in procedure regarding Doctrine and Covenants, a record of guidance to the church through modern prophets.
The early sections of the book were compiled in the 19th century and the LDS church has added few sections since then.
In the RLDS tradition, however, nearly every letter from a church president has been inserted permanently into Doctrine and Covenants.
McMurray specifically asked that his new appointments not become part of the Doctrine and Covenants, “leaving for the permanent canon of scripture words of counsel that may have a more enduring purpose.”
McMurray’s Legacy: If the RLDS church is to survive into the 21st century, McMurray said, it will have to constantly assess its mission and meet the changing times. In the last decade, membership has declined from 350,000 to 250,000 and operating expenses have outstretched income.
At the same time, costs will continue to go up as RLDS converts new members from outside the United States. But the church does have a solid financial reserve to draw on. Future RLDS vitality will depend on the church’s ability to move into global concerns.
McMurray said he wants “nothing to do with plain vanilla, one-size-fits all, generic expression of the Christian faith that has no story, that has no heroes and villains, that has no sacred places, that has no soul.”
“I am a restorationist,” he said. “I have embraced as mine the story of this people who struggled to understand God’s call to them.”
The RLDS story is one McMurray describes with pride.
“Here you have a relatively small movement, founded and fostered in the Midwest of the United States with every reason to be parochial and self-serving,” he said. “The natural instinct would have been to turn inward.”
Instead, the RLDS movement has chosen to confront the world and to deal with “vast cultural differences,” he said.
“We find ourselves in 36 nations of the world, a diverse group of people, called to be actively involved in the pursuit of peace and justice that come ultimately from the love of God and the gospel and community.”