The Perils of an Open Canon

On Tuesday, the Washington Post published an article on Mormonism and race that included controversial statements from BYU Religion Professor Randy Bott concerning the Mormon Church's restriction of the priesthood from black members, a restriction that lasted until June 1978. Echoing statements from Mormon leaders voiced prior to the restriction's end, Bott spoke of the relationship between priesthood and lineage, compared those of African descent to children too young to drive a car, and even noted that the ban "was the greatest blessing God could give them" because they would not be held accountable for the responsibility. Unsurprisingly, an immediate firestorm ensued as numerous columns denounced the remarks as racist, and the Mormon Church proclaimed that they "absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

The details over this controversy and the complexities of Mormonism's history of racial relations have been expertly handled by able writers elsewhere. But it is also important to understand the doctrinal culture in which this debate was birthed. For Bott's statements were indeed merely recitations of ideas previously offered by LDS leaders and, though the priesthood restriction was lifted, the specific ideas were never specifically repudiated—and indeed, even with the new statements by the church, they still haven't been officially renounced. So, the question can rightfully be asked, could those controversial beliefs still be considered part of Mormonism's doctrinal canon, albeit on the fringe? The simple answer is "no," as several individual and unofficial statements by General Authorities have pushed back against what they call "folklore," but the more complex answer requires a deeper look at how the Mormon tradition conceives of and defines its own "canon."

The Mormon Church has long celebrated its revelatory potential, and missionaries exuberantly proclaim to anyone who will listen the importance of a capital "P" Prophet on the earth who can speak to God, proclaim new doctrine, and hold the same authority as the biblical prophets. One of Mormonism's thirteen Articles of Faith, penned by Joseph Smith and memorized by all Mormon children, declares, "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."

This is one of the distinctive doctrines that separate Mormons from average American Christians—the audacious belief that Thomas S. Monson, a man currently living in Salt Lake City who wears a three-buttoned suit, attends Utah Jazz games, and tells stories about his pigeon collection, can legitimately claim the exact same prophetic tradition as ancient figures who wore sackcloth and ashes, regaled Babylon, and led the Children of Israel through the desert. Such a belief offers sacred continuity from the Bible times to the present.

But the belief also introduces a paradox. If prophets of the past have already declared definitive truths, must current and future prophets maintain those same truths as binding? If the prophet today proclaims new doctrine, what does that mean for past prophets who taught different ideas and for future prophets who must perceivably follow that same trajectory? In an interview late in his life, Joseph Smith explained that the "most prominent difference" between Mormons and other Christians was that the former were not "circumscribed by some peculiar creed," and were thus left to "believe all true principles as they exist." This kind of a sentiment offers many believers, particularly progressive thinkers, confidence in seeking truth in many forms, but it also leaves the question of doctrinal definition unanswered.

This tenuous relationship between past, present, and future, as well as a lack of defined boundaries, has led to such ambiguity that some critics compare identifying Mormon doctrine to nailing Jello on the wall, and orthopraxy (correct practice) to be just as important as orthodoxy (correct belief). Similarly, the lack of a systematic dogma forces some observers to say Mormonism claims a history in lieu of a theology.

Indeed, while modern-day prophets and an open canon promise sacred continuity and a collapse of distance between the Bible and modernity, it also theoretically implies instability through the potential for change. How can one know if present practices are God's will when the future could bring something drastically different, and how does one contextualize different beliefs of the past when they were voiced by prophetic leaders? This ambiguity may be one of the reasons behind Mormons using a language of certainty—once a month at worship meetings, members take turns expressing their heartfelt conviction that they "know" the gospel is true, presumably as it is currently understood—as well as the constant emphasis on obeying the words of the current prophet as opposed to relying upon past leaders. Even within a tradition that boasts an open canon, a sense of finality and closure offers comforting stability.

3/1/2012 5:00:00 AM
  • Mormon
  • Canon
  • History
  • Leadership
  • Prophesy
  • Racism
  • Sacred Texts
  • Mormonism
  • About