Advice from a Pentecostal to the LDS: Fly the Freak Flag!
It’s a true honor to respond to prominent LDS scholar Robert Millet, dean emeritus of religious education at Brigham Young University, the flagship of LDS higher education. Dr. Millett has spent decades explaining the faith to Latter-day Saints themselves, as well as patiently representing LDS beliefs and practices to those on the outside. I appreciate so much his teaching.
Let’s be honest: years ago, an LDS representative would not have been invited to the table for a respectful conversation like this. (I’m not sure a Pentecostal would have been invited, either.) Mormons lived under the ignominious charge that they weren’t really Christians, so who cared what they say about following Jesus? The inclusion of Millet’s voice is a welcome reminder that many American Christians are no longer invested in the suppression of Mormon ideas and practices. And that is a sea change!
Millet’s treatment of the question at hand – what does it mean for a Latter-day Saint to follow Jesus? – seems to me prescriptive rather than descriptive. I hear authoritative voices, including his own, telling Latter-day Saints how they ought to follow Jesus: Members of the Church are encouraged . . . We are counseled to . . . God and Christ are in the “business” of people, and so must we be . . . Without the Church and Church affiliation and involvement, one simply cannot . . .
I realize these statements perform the pedagogical functions of faith formation. After all, Christians teach each other how to follow Jesus. Yet what might change in our understanding if Dr. Millet had included other voices from the LDS – from the grassroots up, from the margins toward the middle, rather than exclusively from leadership down? I strongly feel the absence of the witness of “ordinary” Saints who, as in the rest of our traditions, follow Jesus . . . sometimes ambivalently, sometimes with fierce devotion, sometimes stumblingly and with confusion, at other times faithfully, and still at other times, in ways that challenge the teaching authority of the church’s hierarchy.
Along with several other folks in this conversation series, I’ve repeatedly called attention to the importance of context in our articulations of what it means to follow Jesus. And I do that here as well. How have the life circumstances of the Saints in different contexts shaped the way they follow Jesus? Have those ways shifted over time and across place? What does it mean to follow Jesus now amid the inevitable changes in a tradition that reveres progressive revelation?
Speaking of context: for much of U.S. history, from the founding of the Church of Christ in 1830 well into the late twentieth century, white Protestant “mainline” leadership led a damnable and sometimes violent smear campaign against Mormons. Protestant leaders anathematized Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and their followers, castigating Mormons as, at best, misguided believers following a charlatan and, at worst, a cabal of dangerous misfits, neither true Christians nor real Americans.
The LDS practice of plural marriage was particularly galling to white Protestant leaders who cast Mormons as a religious, racial, and sexualized “other” not unlike Middle Eastern “Mohamedans,” complete with harems of women. Attitudes like this did nothing to tamp down the violent rhetoric that ultimately paved the way for Joseph Smith’s lynching at the hands of a mob in 1844 and the departure of the Saints to lands outside the boundaries of U.S. polity.
I recount this history because it’s important not to forget the lengths to which some Christians have been willing to go – slander, anathema, banishment, even murder! – to punish challenges to so-called “orthodox” faith and practice. So much for following Jesus.
Yet I’m also interested in what it cost the LDS to “normalize” themselves in the eyes of their white Protestant detractors, to downplay theological differences and suppress practices that most American Christians found strange, even abhorrent. The LDS movement from outsiders to insiders is one of the most fascinating of all transformations in the landscape of American religious life. What was gained in that long and complex process? And what was lost?
A point related to context: Millet’s focus on LDS perspectives means that there are Mormon voices that he doesn’t attend to at all. What about other heirs to Joseph Smith’s teachings and prophecies, from Mormon “fundamentalist” groups to the old “reorganized” church, now called the Community of Christ? To include other Mormon perspectives risks challenging the LDS’s claim to be the authentic heir to the tradition, and I’m left wondering: Would widening the lens change anything Millet has taught us about following Jesus?
Finally, and I’ll say more about this in my own upcoming post about Pentecostals, I’m curious about what it would mean for the LDS to “fly the freak flag,” as the saying goes. To willingly embrace the “weird” aspects of one’s tradition, the ideas and practices that make you and your tradition less palatable to whatever constitutes the “mainstream”? (For Pentecostals that might mean owning our dreams and visions, speaking in tongues, and healings, all integral aspects of following Jesus for most Pentecostals.)
“Flying the freak flag” means to turn unabashedly toward rather than away from some of the more arcane, less “mainstream” aspects of doctrines, covenants, and practices. Mormon rejection of the Trinity? Jesus as Jehovah? A multi-tiered heaven of multiple gods who were once like us? Sealed marriages that last into eternity rather than “till death do us part”? Playing up rather than down such ideas would mean puncturing the bubble of respectability LDS leadership, in the face of fierce opposition, has so carefully (and understandably) constructed over the decades. To “fly the freak flag” does not mean rejecting commonalities, but it refuses the domestication of distinctiveness and difference and embraces the risk of being misunderstood, even rejected.
What might it mean for Mormons – for Latter-day Saints as well as other heirs of prophet Joseph’s teachings and revelations – to “fly the freak flag,” to step off the path to respectability and reclaim what is strangest, most haunting, and most insightful about their teachings and continuing revelations? Is it even safe to do so?
June 29, 2022
Thank you, Terry, for your response. I particularly appreciate your sensitivity to some of my Church’s challenges during the almost 200 years of our history.
Your assessment of the challenge in years past that Latter-day Saints have had in being excluded from many of the larger religious conversations is right on target. It just seems easier for people who didn’t want to turn directly to us for answers to their questions to simply call us a “cult” and dismiss us out of hand. But times are changing. I began doing interfaith work in January 1991 when I was appointed dean of Religion at BYU, and I have had the opportunity to witness a significant change in people’s perspectives about us during those 30+ years. There is still suspicion toward us on the part of some of the more conservative elements of Christianity (the “counter cult” crowd), but many of the prejudices and much of the misinformation of the past seem to be fading away. This is largely due to the efforts of both Latter-day Saint Church leaders and scholars in building bridges of understanding and friendship with various Christian leaders in recent decades.
You made reference to “other voices” or “ordinary Saints” beneath the Latter-day Saint umbrella (or under the Latter-day Saint tent; choose your metaphor) that you wish I had discussed. To be totally honest with you, what I described as “following Jesus” would be the beliefs and practices of the ordinary member of our Church; those practices are encouraged and repeated in every general conference and in our Church magazines and handbooks. Now, are there members of the Church who have differences with the beliefs and practices of the Church and its leaders? Yes, of course there are, but not on those practices that I named in my essay. Those are standard and fundamental.
There are members who want the Church to change its position on sexual morality and same-gender marriage so as to be in harmony with current American culture and values. While members are counseled to be more loving, respectful, open, and inclusive, we cannot change our moral standard, which we believe is consistent with the teachings of Biblical Christianity and what has been taught by our senior Church leaders from the beginning. There is only one standard of morality within our Church: the only sexual relationship approved of God is that between one man and one woman who are legally and lawfully wedded. That will not change. While there are many members who clamor for change, the large majority of Saints are in complete harmony with the current Church standards. We believe there are absolute truths and absolute values which do not change. And yes, there are members of our Church who do not accept the prophetic call of Joseph Smith or the historicity of the Book of Mormon, do not attend worship services, do not contribute to tithing and other offerings, etc., but they are definitely in the minority of our nearly 17 million totally members.
One fascinating development within the Church during the last 30-40 years is a stronger emphasis on Jesus Christ, His atoning sacrifice, and the lifting and liberating power of His grace. We believed in these things in the past, dating back to the early 19th century Church, and they were a part of, not only the teachings of the New Testament, but also a part of what we call Restoration scripture. These matters have been in our scriptures from the beginning, but they now receive a stronger emphasis than any time I know of in my 74 years of Latter-day Saint living. The question might be raised: Wasn’t this stronger emphasis on redemptive theology a product of the ever-present chant of our critics that we are not Christian? I suppose that had something to do with this gradual change in perspective, but it definitely has not been the overriding reason for a stronger Christ-centered religion.
Beginning in the 1980s our Church leaders established a four-year scripture study program in which the entire Church would devote one year to the study of the Old Testament, one year to the New Testament, one year to the Book of Mormon, and one year to the study of the Doctrine and Covenants and history of our Church. In other words, what has happened is that we as a people have become more scripturally literate; I was able to witness that development during my 31 years of teaching scripture courses at Brigham Young University. The very first class I taught at BYU was the second half of the New Testament (Acts through Revelation), and, interestingly enough, the last class I taught before retirement was the second half of the New Testament. The first group of students in 1983 were very sharp, deeply devoted to the faith, but their understanding of Paul’s writings was quite shallow. The members of the class I taught in the winter of 2013 were equally faithful and devout, but their knowledge and understanding of justification by faith and salvation by grace were worlds ahead of the earlier group of students. Reports by the Pew Research Foundation confirms that the Latter-day Saint young people understand doctrine and scripture as much or even more than youth of other churches.
You made reference to Community of Christ, known formerly as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Sixteen years after the death of Joseph Smith (1860), a group of Saints who had chosen not to head west under the direction of Brigham Young, and who opposed the practice of polygamy, established the Reorganized Church with Joseph Smith’s son (Joseph Smith III) as president. At first many of the beliefs were quite similar, but gradually they chose to jettison some of the more distinctive Latter-day Saint beliefs (premortal existence, the redemption of the dead, temples, deification/divinization, the corporeal nature of God, etc.). Many of their leaders were sent to Protestant seminaries for theological training, and today their belief system would probably be very close to that of the United Methodist Church. They have not grown in numbers, except in remote parts of the world, and their membership has remained about 225,000 members for half a century.
Finally, you suggested that we ought to “fly the freak flag” more openly, that is, focus more on our distinctive doctrine. We continue as a church to teach our distinctives, both to those who are investigating the Church and to our members regularly. More than one of the respondents to my essay asked me to provide a list of some of our more distinctive doctrine, which I will do now.
• a belief in a premortal existence; that we are all spirit sons and daughters of God (Numbers 16:22; 27:16; Hebrews 12:9).
• a belief in a kind of “fortunate fall” of Adam and Eve; that is, the Fall was necessary because it opened the way for the blessings of the Savior and His Atonement to be made available to all.
• a strong belief in the effects of the Fall (both spiritual and physical death) but a denial of “human depravity.”
• a belief that the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was a part of the Savior’s atoning suffering, that what began in Gethsemane was completed, climaxed on Golgotha. It was the withdrawal of the Father’s sustaining and comforting Spirit from Jesus—something Jesus had never experienced— that caused Jesus to sweat blood (Luke 22:44).
• a non-acceptance of the post-New Testament creeds and theological formulations, including the doctrine of the Trinity.
• a belief that God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons and three distinct Gods; we believe them to be one in almost every other way imaginable except for an ontological oneness. I might state our doctrine of the Godhead as follows: We believe there are three divine Persons within the Godhead—God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. We believe that each of these divine beings possesses all of the attributes and qualities of godliness in their perfection. We believe that the love and unity that exist between these three Persons is of such magnitude that they can properly be said to be “one God,” which for us means one Godhead. Our view of the Godhead resembles, to some extent, what is called social trinitarianism.
• a teaching that would definitely be one of our most distinctive differences from traditional Christianity—that God, our Heavenly, an exalted and glorified Being, has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as mortal men and women. We do not believe that a physical body limits or confines God in any way, any more than a resurrected physical body confined or limited the Risen Christ, who stated that “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).
• that with the deaths of Christ and the apostles in the first century, a period of apostasy or falling away took place in which the keys of the priesthood given to Peter and the apostles was lost, requiring more than a Reformation. A Restoration was needed.
• that certain ordinances (sacraments) are essential for salvation.
• that at the time of death we enter into a post-mortal spirit world, an intermediate state; there we learn, grow, repent, and prepare for the resurrection.
• that every person will have the right to hear the message of Jesus Christ and His gospel, either in this world or in the post-mortal spirit world (compare 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 regarding Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison).
• that in Latter-day Saint temples vicarious baptisms are performed, as well as the sealings of husbands and wives, parents and children, not just until death, but for eternity.
• that in harmony with Jesus’s teachings that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2) and Paul’s teachings about various types of bodies in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:40-42), there is more than a heaven and a hell hereafter; there are degrees of glory.
I hope the above is helpful to you. Thank you for the exchange.