October 2nd, 2006

History of the Church

Packer

We need not apologize for the church or its history. Willingly defend the history of the church. We will face the challenges; we cannot avoid them.
—President Boyd K. Packer, “A Defense and a Refuge”, October 2006 General Conference

Wow. This quote was quite interesting. After listening to his thoughts and counsel in his talk “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect” (posted here), it was awesome to hear Pres. Packer say this.

The fact is true that we don’t have to apologize for the Church’s history. Regardless of what may or may not have happened in the past that intrigues the Church’s critics, the fact remains that the Church is true. God spoke to Joseph Smith. We have the Book of Mormon. We have a prophet today. We have the priesthood.

So my question when these little nit-picky historical items are brought to people’s attention (in an often vituperative manner) is so what?

Perhaps it is better summarized by a commenter over at the Times and Seasons:

I think President Packer was referring to events that others have actually heard of. Unless you read some amount of anti-Mormon stuff, you will likely never hear a thing about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. That particular event could be explained sufficiently in a few words really—something along the lines of ”Members of the church, particularly these, were far from perfect.” —Bruce

Another good comment was the following:

You found what you were looking for in Pres. Packer’s talk, as did I. But what I found was a call to stand steady in spite of the perplexing and troubling elements of Church History as they come up. Those elements are there, along with a lot of miraculous and useful, and saving events and truths. In practice, that means that when you bring up the Mountain Meadows Massacre or what have you, I should be inclined to counter with “That is an appalling and horrific aspect of Church History that reflects the limits of the understanding of early Church members.” And then I might remind you of the miracles and other wonderful things that also took place in Church history, and articulate the spiritual reasons why I think those things actually happened and why they are the more useful things for you to focus on.

I think that’s what Pres. Packer was asking for in defending Church history; to assume he was asking for us to lie or obfuscate or what have you implies that he is a liar and that he is intellectually dishonest himself. My study of his life and teachings (flaws and all) has changed my spirit dramatically for the better, so I am inclined to think that my positive and generous interpretation of his remarks is the more realistic one. —Dan

Men make mistakes. Even those called by God. Shocking, I know… God commands us to do something, and then lets us use our own abilities and talents to carry it out. In Rough Stone Rolling, the author describes this in relation to the Prophet Joseph Smith:

Although [Joseph] never doubted his revelations, he was less certain about everyday events. The periodic instructions from heaven were beacons for the Church, but Joseph was on his own in carrying out the commandments. (Rough Stone Rolling, p. 240)

God commands, and we obey. Being commanded to do “many things of [our] own free will“, we have to make decisions. Sometimes we make the wrong ones. Sometimes we make mistakes. We’re imperfect. So are our Church leaders. Big whoop.

To those who bring up these historical facts so as to shed the Church in a negative light, I ask: what do you expect? Perfection?

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother: Let me pull the mote out of thine eye—and behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (3 Nephi 14:3-5)

UPDATE: Margaret at T&S posted about this too.
NOTE: The text of Pres. Packer’s talk differs from what I cited at the beginning. While giving his talk, he included the first sentence, “We need not apologize for the church or its history.” I take that to mean that although his talk was previously prepared to be read verbatim, he was prompted by the Spirit to include this line. That makes it all the more powerful.

17 Responses to “History of the Church”

  1. fontor
    October 2, 2006 at 7:34 pm #

    What you’re saying makes some sense, but there’s something I’m struggling with.

    Let’s say there’s a certain belief system. And the people in it aren’t perfect, and they do bad things. Maybe even some of the leaders are corrupt. How bad does the behaviour of the members have to get until you say, “Well, I think this belief system has forfeited its right to being true or helpful”?

    You seem to be saying that if the belief system is ‘true’, then it could never be ‘disqualified’ by the actions of its members, and I’m not sure that’s the case. It would be possible to excuse even massive amounts of corruption at the highest levels using this logic (which I’m not saying is the case with the LDS Church).

    For example, on 9/11, a lot of American Christians threw up their hands and said, “Well, that does it. Islam sucks.” (To which I, as an atheist, heartily concur!) But a Muslim apologist might say, “Well, Islam is still a peaceful religion, but people aren’t perfect and atrocities will happen. C’est la vie.”

    We also see this in the ‘few bad apples’ argument in the wake of Abu Ghraib.

    At some point, the theological rubber has to meet the behavioural road. I just don’t know where that point is.

  2. Connor
    October 2, 2006 at 8:48 pm #

    How bad does the behaviour of the members have to get until you say, “Well, I think this belief system has forfeited its right to being true or helpful”?

    Truth is truth, regardless of how close its followers adhere to and live it. However, we are told that “by their fruits ye shall know them”, so one would assume that people who proclaim the truth would live exemplary lives.

    At some point, the theological rubber has to meet the behavioural road. I just don’t know where that point is.

    That point is in the life of each individual claiming to know such truth. Once that person lives it, it radiates outwards. First to their family, then to their congregation, then to their community, and whole societies are changed based upon how well people live according to truth. As Confucius said:

    To put the world in order we must first put the nation in order;
    to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order;
    to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life;
    and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right.

  3. Steve M.
    October 2, 2006 at 10:27 pm #

    I’m puzzled. I think we all agree that men are imperfect, even if they’re prophets. I think we also agree that these men may, on occasion, make some mistakes while acting on behalf of the Church. That’s fine; I don’t think anyone should lose their faith over it.

    But for what reason do these men, or the institution which they represent, not have to abide by the law of repentance? If the Church makes an institutional blunder now and again in its history, and if this blunder is harmful or hurtful in some way, why is the organization absolved from the responsibility of admitting, apologizing for, and repenting of this sin?

    I don’t see how admitting and apologizing for any harm caused by the Church or its leaders is in any way inappropriate. You can still believe the Church is true, even if it has to correct its mistakes from time to time. Refusing to correct, or even admit, such mistakes makes me think of D&C 121:37. Why are we undertaking to cover our institutional sins?

  4. Connor
    October 2, 2006 at 10:50 pm #

    why is the organization absolved from the responsibility of admitting, apologizing for, and repenting of this sin?

    In response to this, I agree with Wade’s comment on the Sustain’d post:

    “Where there are wrongs, repentence is necessary.”

    Correct. And that is why the CHURCH need not apologize! Sure, its members may have made mistakes; but there is no need to apologize for history or doctrine. This is what President Packer explicitly declared for the world to hear. For example, those who reference the Moutain Meadows incident are disingenuously attempting to attack the Church instead of a few loose cannons who happened to be members of the Church.

    Since when has the church, as “an institution”, committed an “institutional blunder”? If their policy or practice were out of line, then yes, public apology would be warranted. But when it is the counsel, advice, or command of a single men or group thereof, it is their own fault and responsibility. There is no upward transference of guilt to the institution they associate with.

    And yes, Steve, I saw your post about the D&C reference on Times and Seasons. And your blog. And now here. Are you trying to steady the ark? Are you speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed, categorizing them as unapologetic miscreants seeking to “cover [their] sins”?

    Let us all remember the Lord’s own testimony about this Church:

    …the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually (D&C 1:30)

    If He was pleased with it “collectively” on November 1, 1831 (when He said this), rest assured that He’s still pleased with it today.

  5. fontor
    October 3, 2006 at 12:34 am #

    Chiding someone for ‘speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed’ isn’t an argument. Often used to indimidate people who are ‘getting out of line’.

    Truth is truth, regardless of how close its followers adhere to and live it.

    Good point — the truth of a proposition has nothing to do with the behaviour of someone who espouses it. Although I’m actually talking about organisations, not propositions.

    So it sounds like you’re saying that because the Church is true, it’ll stay true, independent of any behaviour of its members. Perhaps even independent of any (possible) corruption of its leadership. (Again, all hypothetical.)

    If that’s the case, how do we explain the Apostasy? The standard explanation is that the early Church fell away because of the wickedness of its members. But how could this happen if the Church was immune to wickedness, and true no matter what anyone does?

    It’s been argued that the Church will never fall away, and that the President of the Church is incapable of making mistakes (on pain of death). Because I view the Church as a human organisation, I don’t hold either of those views, and it seems incredibly dangerous or naïve or both to give any organisation this much latitude. It’s just asking for one’s faith to be abused. Unless… you offload any wrongdoing onto individuals so that the purity of the organisation can be unsmirched.

    Wow. I feel like I’m gazing straight into a psychological defense mechanism.

    Carry on, then.

  6. Connor
    October 3, 2006 at 7:20 am #

    Chiding someone for ’speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed’ isn’t an argument.

    It wasn’t an effort to further the argument. It was simply question so as to ascertain the intention behind his stance.

    If that’s the case, how do we explain the Apostasy? The standard explanation is that the early Church fell away because of the wickedness of its members. But how could this happen if the Church was immune to wickedness, and true no matter what anyone does?

    Elder James E. Talmage does an excellent job at explaining this in his book The Great Apostasy. The apostasy took place because of corruption from both internal and external sources.

    We seem to be talking about the same thing in two different ways. There’s the Church, which is the established institution (the “kingdom of God on the earth”), and then there is the gospel.

    The gospel will always remain true. The Church may come and go, depending on the faithfulness of those attempting to live the gospel. If there is nobody worthy to hold the priesthood, the Church cannot exist, since there is nobody worthy to administer in the ordinances to keep it in existence. See D&C 84.

  7. Steve M.
    October 3, 2006 at 8:49 am #

    Since when has the church, as “an institution”, committed an “institutional blunder”? If their policy or practice were out of line, then yes, public apology would be warranted.

    Witholding the priesthood from blacks for over 100 years was an institutional blunder, in my eyes. The historical context for the ban’s origins seems to back this up.

    Why are we undertaking to cover our institutional sins?

    Even if the Church is true, that doesn’t make it perfect. By denying that the institution has done anything to apologize for is like saying that it has never taken a misstep or that it has never caused harm. By glossing over our mistakes, and by refusing to accept responsibility for them, I think we can be said to be covering our sins.

    If He was pleased with it “collectively” on November 1, 1831 (when He said this), rest assured that He’s still pleased with it today.

    First of all, I don’t see how that is logical. Once the Lord has declared that he’s pleased with an organization, He cannot later become unpleased with it? But that’s beside the point. I’m not saying God is not generally pleased with the Church today. The Church does a lot of good. I love the Church. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have room for improvement, or that we’re perfect.

    Are you speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed, categorizing them as unapologetic miscreants seeking to “cover [their] sins”?

    Not in the least. Why are we so fast to cry “apostasy!” here? I think the Brethren are good men who are doing their best to lead a complex organization. On the whole, I think they do a darn good job, and I don’t envy them in the least. But I don’t see how we can expect the Church to improve when we aren’t willing to admit its imperfections, both past and present.

  8. Connor
    October 3, 2006 at 9:02 am #

    Witholding the priesthood from blacks for over 100 years was an institutional blunder, in my eyes.

    Keyword being “in [your] eyes”.

    By denying that the institution has done anything to apologize for is like saying that it has never taken a misstep or that it has never caused harm.

    Any mistakes or faults have been those of the individual leaders or members, not the Church has a whole. If you believe otherwise, then we’ll just have to agree to disagree, since you’ll have a near impossible time convincing me that the Church as a whole has gone astray in the past or present.

    By glossing over our mistakes, and by refusing to accept responsibility for them, I think we can be said to be covering our sins.

    Sure – but only when applicable to the individual.

    Once the Lord has declared that he’s pleased with an organization, He cannot later become unpleased with it?

    He can only become dipleased with those administering it, and if they go astray, He takes away the priesthood (and consequently the Church).

    But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have room for improvement, or that we’re perfect.

    We, being the individual members that compose the Church—not the institution.

    But I don’t see how we can expect the Church to improve when we aren’t willing to admit its imperfections, both past and present.

    Again, I suppose we have a fundamental disagreement as to the source of the imperfections. I see the individual members as responsible for such mistakes. As I understand it, you are transferring these issues to the institution, saying that the Church at large is to blame for them.

  9. Steve M.
    October 3, 2006 at 9:23 am #

    I don’t generally distinguish between the Church and its members; the Church is its members. D&C 10:67 says, “whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.” They are not just of the Church, they are the Church. Therefore, I have treating the Church as a separate entity, distinct from its members. That is, I have a hard time saying that the individuals that compose the Church are imperfect, but the Church is perfect.

    I agree that the Church at large should not be held responsible for the sins of its individual members. However, when someone in a prominent position, who represents and acts for the Church, makes some kind of mistake while acting on behalf of the Church (while declaring official doctrine, while making policy decisions, etc.), then I do think that an institutional apology is appropriate, not just an individual apology–especially if that mistake is carried on by successive leaders within the Church.

    But I think we may just have different perceptions of things, so we may have to agree to disagree.

  10. Connor
    October 3, 2006 at 9:35 am #

    That is, I have a hard time saying that the individuals that compose the Church are imperfect, but the Church is perfect.

    Where, then, do you draw the line? If a man was baptized last month, and just last week committed fraud, adultery, and murder, how does the Church as a whole become responsible? At what point does transference become an issue?

    Yes, the Church is a group of individuals. However, the actions of a few cannot speak for the majority. For example, one does not say that Utah is a polygamous state simply because a small minority of its citizens practice polygamy. Similarly, one does not accuse the Church of “covering [its] sins” when a few of its members are doing so.

    Sure, it’s a bit different when the few members you feel are in the wrong are at the head of the Church. Even those men make mistakes. But I still feel that their mistakes are their own.

    When Ken Lay flushed his life down the toilet, he was the one that needed to apologize—not Enron. He was in control of Enron, made policy decisions and established business practices, but his faults were his own, and when he was caught, it was up to him to apologize and make the needed corrections. Likewise, I feel it is the same way with the Lord’s organization. Imperfect men should apologize for their own erroneous actions, but I see no reason right now for the Church to make any blanket apology for something in the past. Again, we’ll likely just have to agree to disagree on this.

  11. Steve M.
    October 3, 2006 at 10:20 am #

    Yes, the Church is a group of individuals. However, the actions of a few cannot speak for the majority.

    I recognize that. If I make a mistake, I don’t expect anyone else in the Church to apologize for it. But I’m not making mistakes on behalf of the Church. If we’re talking about a few individuals who are the ones guiding the Church, the ones making policy, the ones declaring doctrine, the ones determining the “official” position of the Church that will be promulgated throughout the organization and which will be presented to the world as Mormon belief, then I think when they make a mistake while acting in this capacity, as the stewards of the institutional Church, then I believe an apology is appropriate, not just as individuals, but as those who have been appointed to represent the Church and determine the policies and beliefs that define the organization.

    We made a big deal when the Missouri government finally rescinded the extermination order. Nobody in the government at the time had anything to do with the extermination order, but they were the successors to those who had previously used their authority to issue a hateful order, in the name of the government. I think it was very respectful of them to rescind the order and apologize to the Mormon people, even though none of them could be held responsible for the original incident. Likewise, while the modern perhaps Church shouldn’t be obliged to take responsibility for sins of past authorities, I think we can at least admit that mistakes were made by those acting in the name of the Church, and express regret for any harm done. I don’t think it’s in any way inappropriate to try to right the wrongs of the past, or at least admit that they happened.

  12. Steve M.
    October 3, 2006 at 10:24 am #

    In other words, institutional apologies for mistakes made on an institutional level in the past (e.g., mistakes made in relation to official policy, practice, and doctrines) are totally appropriate.

  13. Connor
    October 3, 2006 at 10:25 am #

    We made a big deal when the Missouri government finally rescinded the extermination order.

    We do? I think it was great. I don’t know of anybody still upset with the Missouri government because of something their predecessors did. Do you want President Bush to issue an apology on behalf of America for the slavery issue of yesteryear? How about Germany issuing an apology for that whole Jewish extermination thing?

    Sins and problems are the responsibility of those who caused them—not their successors. Likewise, I see no need for President Hinckley to apologize for anything that the Prophet Joseph did, nor any of his successors. These men will be judged of the Lord for their stewardship just as we will.

    I think we can at least admit that mistakes were made by those acting in the name of the Church, and express regret for any harm done.

    In other words, institutional apologies for mistakes made on an institutional level in the past (e.g., mistakes made in relation to official policy, practice, and doctrines) are totally appropriate.

    What apology(-ies) are you looking for, Steve? What institutional mistakes are you accusing the Church of?

  14. Steve M.
    October 3, 2006 at 10:59 am #

    When I mentioned that we made a “big deal” over Missouri rescinding the extermination order, I meant that it excited us, that it made us happy, that we appreciated it and considered it a great thing. And you’re right–I don’t know of any Mormons who are still mad at the Missouri government. I think rescinding the order was a really respectable, courteous thing for the modern government to do.

    Let me sum up my ideas.

    – I recognize that it’s not right to hold President Hinckley responsible for President Young’s personal mistakes. That’s fine. But past leaders leave an institutional imprint on the Church, in terms of policy, practice, and belief. For instance, the traces of racist teachings by early Church authorities were carried on for decades, both in teaching and official Church practice. Who can right these wrongs, if not these leaders’ successors? But you’re right; I admit that these successors don’t have to act as if they themselves were responsible for whatever mistakes were made in the past.

    – We focus a lot on our history. It’s a frequently addressed theme. In conference, Elder Packer not only said that we don’t need to apologize for our history, but that we should willingly defend it. It’s not just critics of the Church that like to bring up history, we do quite a bit of it ourselves. We are obsessed with our past. We consider ourselves heirs of the history that was forged by our ancestors and predecessors. Now, I think it’s great to be proud of some of the things that have happened throughout our history. We should defend those things. But it’s hard to lay claim to the positive parts of history while not even recognizing or admitting our less glorious episodes. I don’t think we should give people the impression that we consider our history to be so spotless and pristine.

    – I’m not looking for Gordon B. Hinckley to take personal responsibility for the Mountain Meadows Massacre or for Brigham Young’s infusing Church policy with racism. I don’t expect him to personally apologize for the Church-sponsored abuse of homosexuals at BYU in the 1970’s (unless, of course, he actually had something to do with them). That’s not what I mean by an apology. I’m more looking for the Church to say, “Hey, we know that past Church leaders haven’t always said or done the right things. We recognize that the Church hasn’t always done or taught the right things. We regret that program X or policy Y or event Z was harmful, and we express our sympathy for those who were affected. We’ll try to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. We’re sorry that such-and-such things were taught over the pulpit in official Church conferences and in official Church publications, and we assure you that such views are not accepted or promulgated by the modern Church.”

    – Basically, I don’t see why we can’t cherish the glorious moments in our history while recognizing that certain other moments were unfortunate.

  15. fontor
    October 3, 2006 at 7:43 pm #

    It seems that Germany has apologised for the Holocaust.

    Germany’s president delivered an emotional address to Israel’s parliament Feb. 16 [2000], asking for forgiveness for the Holocaust. Johannes Rau, an evangelical Christian, spoke to the Knesset in German, a historic first, saying he bowed his head before the 6 million victims, news reports said.

    A Church apology for the ‘Blacks and the Priesthood’ thing wouldn’t go astray, and I’m sure we’ll see it right after they apologise for treatment of gay BYU students. Just before the last trump.

    People who think God is guiding their actions aren’t very good at apologising, I’m afraid.

  16. January 29, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Here’s a question for you Connor…I’ve read through the comments on this topic and think I understand your point about individual accountable for one’s own sins. That individuals repent for their own sins and that organizations/institutions don’t repent on behalf of an individual. But what I’m not understanding is this whole “gospel/institutional” perfectness.

    From the Gospel principles manual we read the following: Lying is intentionally deceiving others. Bearing false witness is one form of lying. The Lord gave this commandment to the children of Israel: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). Jesus also taught this when He was on earth (see Matthew 19:18). There are many other forms of lying. When we speak untruths, we are guilty of lying. We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth. Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest.

    And another passage from the same teaching manual:

    People use many excuses for being dishonest. People lie to protect themselves and to have others think well of them. Some excuse themselves for stealing, thinking they deserve what they took, intend to return it, or need it more than the owner. Some cheat to get better grades in school or because “everyone else does it” or to get even.

    These excuses and many more are given as reasons for dishonesty. To the Lord, there are no acceptable reasons. When we excuse ourselves, we cheat ourselves and the Spirit of God ceases to be with us. We become more and more unrighteous.
    (Both passages were from the chapter titled Honesty.)

    So here’s my question: How many paintings in the various wards, stake centers, and temples depict Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon from a peep stone while burying his face in a hat? The message that is put out there by the church as an institution is according to the Gospel Essentials manual, is a lie. Whos’s responsible and who apoligizes? I believe in this case, it’s the institution–the purveyor of the gospel– that needs to apologize.

  17. AV
    January 29, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    Swifftee,

    Great comments.

    I would also ask, how can anyone believe that Joseph Smith, let alone a true prophet, lied about polygamy when he constantly taught how evil it was?

    Either Joseph lied or Brigham Young lied, for they couldn’t both be telling the truth. They both taught completely opposite doctrines and religions.

    I believe Joseph was a true prophet and did not lie and never preached or practiced polygamy, just like he said he didn’t.

    It’s amazing what we find when we study things out for ourselves and don’t just follow leaders blindly.

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