This essay was originally published in the March 1992 issue (#4) of A New Direction.
I remember that as a child, I attended Primary meetings on a weekday afternoon, and attended Sunday School on Sunday, where we would all meet in the chapel with the adults, have a trial sacrament, and then the children would all file off to classes. Afterwards, we’d go home, only to return a couple of hours later to partake of the real sacrament during Sacrament meeting. And then one day, everything changed. All the meetings would be held during a three-hour block, we’d only partake of the sacrament once, and Primary would be held on Sunday now instead of in the middle of the week.
I remember the change being quite a big deal. People buzzed and talked about it for weeks, most people liking the change, but almost all of them startled by it. Sunday School had seemed so institutionalized that surely God had wanted it in the more complicated fashion. How could He just simply decide to change it and, whoosh, it was changed?
After thinking about it for a while, we figured out that a Sunday School schedule was not an essential gospel doctrine but only a policy of the Church, and policies can change when conditions require a change. But any change meets resistance because we get into habits not only of acting but also of thinking a certain way. For most of us, changing habits for any reason is not easy. As I came into conflict later with the Church’s view on homosexuality, I had to figure out if that view was based on an essential doctrine or simply on a policy, and so I began reviewing other changes in the Church’s past to see if I could make any kind of comparison.
Belonging to a religion that believes the gospel is the same “yesterday, today, and forever,” I was amazed at just how many changes had been made over the years. Certainly, many of the changes I saw in Church policies were minor ones. As a missionary in Italy, for example, I had to wake up at 6:00 every morning, morning after morning, even on our day off. Then miraculously, eight months into my mission, during district meeting, my district leader announced a new rule—we could sleep in until 6:30. There was rejoicing all around. What was a sin that very morning now became perfectly acceptable the following day.
I had made friends in the Missionary Training Center with other missionaries who were sent to another Italian mission. The sisters there reported with horror that it was a mission rule for them to cut their hair very short. Sisters in our mission could have their hair as long as they wanted. What was wrong in one place didn’t even matter in another. The same sister could be considered faithful in one area and a sinner in another, without changing her behavior in any way.
Another upheaval came about midway into my mission, when the new discussions were handed out to the new missionaries. I had learned the multi-colored, much longer discussions, and we old folks looked enviously at the youngsters whose lives were so much easier than our own. “In my day…” we boasted condescendingly. Then before my mission was over, the short discussions were shortened even more. And I remembered the elders who’d taught my family ten years earlier, who’d used flannel boards with their discussions. The substance of the lessons was always the same, but when it is one’s duty to memorize those lessons word for word, any change at all seems rather momentous.
Three-quarters of the way through my mission, however, there was a change that was in fact rather shocking. Twenty-four month missions were being reduced to eighteen months. Furthermore, those of us already out had to decide for ourselves just how long we’d stay: eighteen months, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, or the whole two years. The Church didn’t tell us which to choose. We had to decide. Didn’t Heavenly Father care? Didn’t it matter to Him? How could it not matter when we were out here sacrificing every day? “Oh, just stay however long you want.” We might have stayed two years suffering, and He didn’t care?
For us, this was a difficult change. We’d been raised to believe “Every young man should serve a mission,” and mission had always meant twenty-four months full-time. Only it hadn’t always meant that. The earliest Church missions were for various lengths of time, and the previous policy before twenty-four months had been thirty-six months for foreign missions. The Church’s policy on this had changed multiple times, but for us, the change was earth-shattering.
At the same time, most of us liked the change. It was certainly easier on us. But somehow, we also felt a loss. It was almost as if we were being told we weren’t important, that our work wouldn’t really be missed. We had an emotional stake in hanging onto the twenty-four month ideal. But the change came, we adapted, and life went on.
My mission was the first time I came into conflict with rules that were not doctrine but policy, yet which many of the rule enforcers felt were doctrine. Like our coat rule, for instance. Until our president told us officially through our respective district meeting call-ins, we had to wear our suit jackets when we left the apartment, no matter what the weather was like outside. The temperature was well into the stifling range before the “coats off” rule would be permitted in late May. Then we could decided for ourselves if we were cold or not for the next few months. When a certain day at the end of the summer came, the “coats on” rule came back into effect, no questions asked.
Having grown up in New Orleans, I certainly knew if I was hot or not and felt confused that there had to be a rule about such a thing. But it was definitely a rule, one kept hard and fast if one didn’t want to be reported to the president as a rebellious, slothful servant. Still, the sisters didn’t have to wear jackets, only the elders. And yet our spirituality was at stake here over a policy that these people felt was doctrine.
It reminded me a little of the time the first New Orleans ward building was constructed, and the local leader petitioned for funds to buy an air conditioning unit. They were told by the Salt Lake leaders that air conditioning was an extravagance, that no church building needed such a thing. The local New Orleans leaders, drowning in the 95 degree heat with 97% humidity, knew better and insisted. New Orleans became the first LDS chapel with air conditioning. But it didn’t come without a fight. And without a change in policy.
As I said, these are all relatively minor changes, despite how important they might have seemed to the people directly involved at the time. And there have been many, many other such changes in the Church over the years. But the Church has had its share of larger changes as well.
Since “the Church” technically began with Adam and Eve, really any changes in policy (or what we often believe is doctrine) are important to consider. The most obvious change was that God’s followers used to have to sacrifice a live animal as part of their repentance process. If I was shocked by a change in the length of missions, we can only imagine how people felt when this policy changed after four thousand years of practice. Surely, they felt, this was doctrine, not policy.
And yet, times changed and needing to follow that particular rule, which had been the right thing to do for millennia, was no longer necessary as a part of living the gospel. In fact, to continue this policy, despite all those thousands of years of tradition and habit, would have been wrong.
Peter was one of those who resisted change, when he was told that it was no longer important to keep kosher, and yet Peter was the man who would soon lead the Church. Even after Christ’s death when he became the presiding religious leader of the time, he continued to cling to tradition and oppose change. He had a dream in which he was shown “all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” (Acts 10: 12-14) He is telling the Lord no? He’s correcting the Lord? The fact is that he had to be told three times in this vision before finally accepting a shift in policy.
If the earthly head of the Church resists a direct order from God in a dream, we can imagine that other Church leaders and average members are resistant to change as well. After all, these people were formally ostracized and made outcasts for breaking these same rules they were now told were no longer important. For sure, there had been a time when those rules were necessary, but that time was no more.
So, too, other religious laws which seemed eternal, only because they had endured so long in earthly years, were found simply to be policy and not essential, eternal principles. Women who gave birth to male children were considered unclean for one week (Lev. 12:2). Perhaps that was just to help them avoid infection. But why were these women considered unclean for two weeks if they gave birth to female children? And why did the new mother have to bring a sin offering after giving birth in order to be judged clean again? Was it a sin to bear a child? Women also had to give a sin offering after menstruating.
It was a sin to “shave off the corner of [one’s] beard” (Lev. 21:5), and one could be stoned to death for being disrespectful to one’s parents. The handicapped could not partake of certain rites (Lev. 21), and members who missed a Sabbath meeting were stoned to death. It must have been quite a shock to the Jews to change the Sabbath day, and adapt when other centuries-old policies such as jubilee years were discontinued. And it is interesting that those who today condemn homosexuality use as a basis this same Levitical law in which at least a hundred other “doctrinal” commandments are no longer current.
A huge host of sins which were once seen as horrible were either now minor sins or not even sins at all. The idea was so difficult to accept that most of God’s followers in fact didn’t accept it. They refused to realize that policy could change. Millions of these people rejected Christ and his new policies, unable to face the difficult process of adaptation.
We look back in disbelief at how they could have turned away from such “obviously” unimportant changes, seeing these people as unrighteous and hard-hearted, and yet how many of us murmured when the temple’s live program was first filmed, and when the film was changed later and the program shortened further? How many of us murmured when The Improvement Era became the Ensign? Maybe we didn’t murmur much when missions were shortened to eighteen months, but how many murmured when they were lengthened back to twenty-four months again? These are all much more insignificant changes than the Jews faced, and theirs came all at once.
Of course, we’ve faced a few big changes of our own. The Word of Wisdom was a significant change. This was not simply a “restoration” of a lost principle because the rule against tobacco, coffee, tea, and alcohol had never existed before for the Church. Clearly, what seems terribly important at one time can be quite unnecessary at another. Thus, one of the fundamental tests of our worthiness and spirituality (we can’t go to the temple without passing this test) didn’t even exist for the Church for the previous 5000 years or so. But this is the dispensation of the fullness of times, so we should have all the necessary rules already, and what we have now is what is the ultimate, perfect system.
Yet even in this perfect system, a policy as fundamental as marriage has undergone some of the most major changes of all. One man can marry one woman at this point in Church history. It was the same at the beginning of the restored Church as well. But in between, there was that anomaly called polygamy. I expect Emma Smith murmured when that policy was first announced, and we know Brigham Young did. But the policy was implemented and life went on.
Eventually, a federal law began creating havoc in the Church, with many members being forced into hiding, into lying, into divorce, or into prison. The policy remained in effect for years, however, until finally the prophet received a revelation in which he was told to change the policy or the Church would be destroyed.
The policy of polygamy wasn’t wrong, mind you. It was only because of political pressures that the Church had to change. I personally always felt that this law was an invasion of government in the area of separation of church and state, but constitutional or not, moral or not, the Church changed a major policy. Now members practicing polygamy are excommunicated, where before they were considered righteous for the same action. Love itself rested on a policy change. The same action approved in a temple setting one day became a grievous sin the next. And we are told that at some future date the policy will be implemented once more. We will one day be free to do what today is too sinful to consider.
Meanwhile, life goes on. When detractors confront us with these facts, we shrug them off. We can accept such major changes with almost no problem. In the same breath, we think the Church could never make any other kind of major change.
But how about some of those other changes which did in fact occur in our perfect system, such as the law of consecration and sharing of all goods? The Lord wanted us to accept this and we refused. Could He not want us to accept other of His ideas, but we resist, telling the Lord as Peter did that we know better?
What about the “doctrine” which didn’t allow blacks to hold the priesthood for almost 150 years? “It just wasn’t time yet,” many members say, defending the former policy. Perhaps. But if so, then this dispensation of the fullness of times is subject to significant changes in the definition of “fullness,” even a century and a half after its inception. So why couldn’t we have another big change again? Clearly, the Church as it exists now is not The Perfect Institution that should never be touched. If it is, then it has existed as such for only a handful of years. And when some future policy change does occur, as it surely will, shall the Church no longer be perfect because it won’t exist then as it does now?
Hugh B. Brown, an apostle for twenty-two years, and a member of the First Presidency for nine of those years, the senior counselor to President David O. McKay, tells us in his memoirs (published by Signature Books) just how these policy changes come about. Though many members feel these changes come through revelation, President Brown shows us that this is not at all the case.
These decisions were thoroughly thrashed out by the Council of the Twelve and the First Presidency. It wasn’t just a matter of quiet study, prayer, and waiting for an answer from the Lord. It was a matter of convincing one another in verbal debate as to what decision to make. President Brown was in no sense trying to disparage the Church in making these comments, insisting that the decisions were “no less revelatory” because of the process through which they came. He simply wanted to make it clear that “it is simplistic to think that it [a decision] comes as a bolt out of the blue,” as his grandson, Edwin Firmage, the editor of the memoirs, points out.
Some will be surprised to learn that blacks were almost granted the priesthood in 1969, when President Brown pushed for acceptance during the temporary absence of President Harold B. Lee. The Council approved the ordination of blacks, but then Lee returned and persuaded some of the others to reject the proposal. Brown did manage to add an endorsement supporting full civil rights for all people, but he still resisted signing Lee’s statement, hoping for a chance to again argue for full priesthood blessings. But he was in his 80’s, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and fighting the Asian flu at the time. He says that under “tremendous pressure” from Lee to sign the statement, he finally gave in and did so. Church members, of course, saw only the “unanimous” decision of the top Church leaders.
The discussions continued over the years, even after Brown’s death, and finally in 1978, after another roundtable discussion, President Kimball announced a new policy. Don LeFevre, press relations manager for the Church, put it in a slightly different way: “When the change in the status of blacks eventually did come it was the result of divine revelation to the prophet.” Well, perhaps, but it’s certainly not the whole story.
Another point to this “thrashing out” debate is that it was Brown who felt there was no doctrinal justification for the ban on blacks. Lee, however, wanted to have the other Council members reaffirm the ban as doctrine, not policy. So was it doctrine or was it policy? Did the same scriptures support the ban one day and not the next? If even the apostles and prophet can’t always tell, surely it’s easy for us as regular members to be confused. And did the General Authorities become perfect overnight? Is it not even remotely possible that they are still unsure of a policy or two? Or that, as has happened numerous times in the past, that as conditions change, certain policies may need to be amended as well? “But he’s the prophet. He can just ask God about it.” Is that how it worked for the blacks?
President Brown stated, “I think there has been and is now too much of a tendency to cater to the wishes and decisions of one [political] party as against the other. This must be changed.” A Democrat, he faced continual opposition from the other General Authorities as he petitioned for softening the Church’s position on other political matters such as birth control and divorce. But the Church did change. And life went on.
Perhaps it is useful for us to remember the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith, in whom we must all, if we consider ourselves Mormons to any degree, place at least a little trust. He himself stated that, “What is wrong at one time can be, and often is, right at another.” Was that statement only true at one time and not at another?
I remember seeing on the news in the mid-1970’s a segment about a white Latter-day Saint excommunicated for baptizing and then ordaining to the priesthood a black man. The white member of the Church had hoped to bring about change and was promptly cast out. That wasn’t the appropriate way to bring change. Yet it seems odd to think that someone could be excommunicated for doing what now happens routinely in the Church. What the man wanted was not wrong and was in fact accepted very shortly thereafter.
But why did the Church’s policy change so soon afterward? Did the man and the adverse publicity force the Church to action? Public reaction to polygamy was certainly the driving force behind that policy change. But the Church can’t really operate like that, can it? There’s no doubt that the Church never faced pressure on the race issue anywhere near as strongly as it did on polygamy. And, too, the Church has already faced at least as much pressure on the gay issue as it ever did on the black issue, and the Church has remained steadfast, so pressure alone is not the answer.
Clearly, the leaders won’t change no matter what the pressure unless they feel it is right to do so, and if that were not the case, they’d hardly be worth following in the first place. Since homophobia is so much more deeply rooted, and society in general is still very unaccepting, there is no public pressure for change, only pressure from the outcast, which really isn’t that much pressure after all. Pressure can’t force a change, but it can force the General Authorities to at least begin talking seriously about the issue amongst themselves.
Elder Boyd K. Packer and other General Authorities publicly admit they don’t understand homosexuality, and these are the people who are supposed to convince each other in debate on policy changes? It is only a matter of time before a new “President Brown” finally meets with the right group in the right setting, and this steadfast, unshakable “doctrine” becomes another of the many policy changes in the Church’s history.
When the policy changes, and it will, some people will murmur, as we missionaries did when missions were shortened, because leaders, too, have an emotional stake in believing that the rules are as they should be. Otherwise, they have to consider that they may have been hurting people needlessly all these years. But that is the conclusion they had to come to in 1978, and they were able to change their hurtful, unnecessary priesthood policy without losing face. As soon as they can open their minds to really discuss the gay issue, and can find a way to save face yet another time, I fully believe they will do so. And the Church will go on. People will adapt and life will continue.
I think back on my mission and the earthshaking importance of the “coats on” rule for the elders and the “short hair” rule for the sisters. And I hope the General Authorities will come to realize one day that we really don’t need rules for every aspect of our lives, that maybe we’re mature enough to realize on our own who we want to marry and spend our lives and our eternity with, and that the Lord really doesn’t mind if the members make some of these decisions on their own.