Lifeblood Battles: Ronald E. Poelman

Poor Wayfaring Man

As noted in a previous post, Church leaders often struggle to control how the lifeblood of the Church (i.e., personal reassurance that one is on the path to salvation in the Celestial Kingdom–a concept I’ve termed “Hope”) is distributed to, and apportioned among, the members of the Church.  Below are two examples of such battles.

Example 1:  Elder Poelman’s View of Divine Love:

About a month after McConkie’s speech excoriating George Pace for promoting the concept of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Elder Ronald E. Poelman, a fairly new member of the First Quorum of the Seventy (one level below the apostles in the Church hierarchy) gave an address in General Conference which appears to have been carefully worded to imply the existence of a personal relationship with the Lord, without crossing any of the lines that McConkie had drawn.  Elder Poelman’s talk included the following statement:

By disobeying the laws of God and breaking his commandments, we do offend him, we do estrange ourselves from him, and we don’t deserve his help and inspiration and strength. But God’s love for us transcends our transgressions.

God’s Love for Us Transcends Our Transgressions, General Conference speech, delivered April 3, 1982

It’s possible that I am reading too much into Poelman’s choice of words in this talk, but I note that he used concepts commonly reserved for personal relationships, like “estranged”, “reconciled”, “God wants us to return to Him”, and “God’s love for us, his children”, without using the actual word “relationship”. He also used the words “Lord” and “God” interchangeably, blurring the line between “God the Father” and “Jesus Christ”, a line McConkie had been very careful to draw in his BYU smackdown speech. Poelman suggested a concept of God’s love that was like a parent’s love: liberal, unconditional, and independent of any sins or disobedience we may engage in. This concept effectively takes God’s love out of the control of the Church by removing the possibility that conditions could be placed upon it by Church authorities.

If George Pace’s experience is any indication, Elder Poelman was skating on thin ice with this concept. But would Poelman’s status as a General Authority of the Church (rather than a religious educator) save him from the harsh correction of the top leadership? Well, McConkie didn’t crucify him for the speech, if that’s what you’re wondering about.  Years later, however, Poelman’s concept of divine love as unconditional in nature was definitively superseded by a 2003 article written by Apostle Russell M. Nelson, which places God’s love back in control of the Church by explicitly conditioning it on obedience:

While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional.


Why is divine love conditional? Because God loves us and wants us to be happy. “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.”1

–“Divine Love”, Ensign, Feb 2003, p. 20 (emphasis added)

I’m not saying that Elder Nelson’s article was specifically prompted by Elder Poelman’s view of God’s love (I don’t think Poelman’s 1982 talk was especially influential in 2003), rather, Poelman’s view is symbolic of the very common belief among members of the LDS Church that God has unconditional love for them. They aspire to model their own love for others based on this unconditionality. The persistence of that belief is what, I think, prompted Elder Nelson’s article, which puts an official stamp of disapproval on the concept, reclaiming for the Church (and its leaders) its traditional place between the Latter-day Saints and God.

Example 2:  Elder Poelman’s View of the Gospel and the Church:

On October 7, 1984 (an appropriately Orwellian year), Ronald E. Poelman’s General Conference talk became the most famous casualty to date in the ongoing battle for control over the lifeblood of the Church.

His talk was titled “The Gospel and the Church”, and it was about recognizing distinctions between the Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Poelman emphasized, among other things, that following the Gospel makes members of the Church less dependent on the Church for fulfillment, and that concepts of Mormon “orthodoxy” and conformity should be founded on the eternal laws of God, like free (moral) agency, rather than the institutional Church.  Prior to publication and distribution of the talk (in print and video format) to members of the Church worldwide, the talk was drastically rewritten, and the new talk was refilmed (and spliced into the conference program tape as if originally delivered there).  The edited talk now focused on the harmonious “essential relationship” between the Church and the Gospel, and it emphasized the members’ dependence on the instruction of the Church and its leaders in order to correctly follow the Gospel.  The original version of the talk, as far as the Church was concerned, disappeared down the memory hole.

Fortunately, however, people had recorded the original television broadcast of the talk (see [Part 1] and [Part 2]), and in November 1984, when the Church published the altered version of the talk, people transcribed the original talk and compared the two versions.2  For a side-by-side comparision of the entire talk, Click Here.  Below are some highlights:

1)         Original quote (deletions marked):

As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs. Our lives become gospel centered.

Edited quote:

As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we can more effectively utilize the Church to make our lives more gospel centered.

2)        Original quote (deletions marked):

The conformity we require should be according to God’s standards.  The orthodoxy upon which we insist must be founded in fundamental principles and eternal law, including free agency and the divine uniqueness of the individual.

Edited quote:

Therefore, as we live the gospel and participate in the Church, the conformity we require of ourselves and of others should be according to God’s standards.  The orthodoxy upon which we insist must be founded in fundamental principles, eternal law, and direction given by those authorized in the Church.

3)        Original quote (deletions marked):

When we understand the difference between the gospel and the Church and the appropriate function of each in our daily lives, we are much more likely to do the right things for the right reasons.

Edited quote:

When we see the harmony between the gospel and the Church in our daily lives, we are much more likely to do the right things for the right reasons.

4)        Original quote (deletions marked):

Institutional discipline is replaced by self discipline.  Supervision is replaced by righteous initiative and a sense of divine accountability.

Edited quote:

We will exercise self discipline and righteous initiative guided by Church leaders and a sense of divine accountability.

The details of how a completely new version of Poelman’s talk came about are not publicly known, and it is doubtful that the folks involved in the censoring will ever explain what happened, as Elder Poelman was, and continues to be, a loyal General Authority of the Church.  Clearly, however, the edits made by the Church to Poelman’s talk demonstrate Church leaders’ insistence on asserting themselves into the middle of the relationship between Church members and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  By doing this, the Church leaders retain control over Hope, the lifeblood of the Church system.



  1. As an aside, this statement quoted by Elder Nelson comes from a letter written by Joseph Smith to 19 year-old Nancy Rigdon, in an attempt to persuade her to be his secret polygamous bride, using the rationale that anything God commands is automatically moral and right. She was ultimately unconvinced, and showed the letter to her father, Sidney Rigdon (Joseph’s second-in-command). Joseph allegedly told Sidney that the letter had just been a test of his daughter’s virtue. The episode remains one of Joseph Smith’s creepiest alpha-maleish abuses of power.  With that context in mind, Elder Nelson’s use of the quote raises questions. What kind of “happiness” was Elder Nelson thinking of? The kind that comes only through fully submitting to the authority of Church leaders? Very clever, Russ. []
  2. The incident was reported in Sunstone Magazine. []

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