The Path from LDS to FLDS

Poor Wayfaring Man

When I was a BYU student, one of my professors was a fundamentalist-leaning member of the LDS Church. He took very seriously everything that LDS prophets have taught, from the beginning of the movement to the present. And LDS prophets have taught a lot, particularly in the beginning. Back then, they were real micromanagers, with an opinion on everything, and the expectation that their directions would be obeyed as the Word of God to His People (see e.g., this 1877 sermon, which is full of prophetic advice on domestic matters, including how to properly bake bread and feed children).

My professor was in a bit of a bind, however, because Mormons today don’t have prophets who give out that kind of advice, and modern Mormons live in all sorts of different places–not strictly the agrarian communities of the western United States, so the 19th-century advice doesn’t fit reality very well. My professor, however, solved that problem by making his reality fit the advice. He bought land 3 hours away from campus, out in the middle of nowhere, and lived a 19th-century lifestyle there. He was dead serious about following the prophets and being right with God.

Most modern members of the LDS Church do not go to these lengths to heed prophetic advice. The common reason for this is that the living prophets trump the dead prophets, and therefore the way of life lived by the living prophets reflects the “right” way to live. The living prophets and apostles are former surgeons, newspapermen, car dealers, teachers, etc., so bread-baking advice that the Prophet Brigham Young gave in the year 18-whatever probably isn’t applicable anymore.


The uncertainty embodied in that word is a major issue for Mormons who want to be sure they are living in full accordance with the will of God. To be on the safe side, some, like my professor, just go ahead and follow all of Brigham Young’s advice as if it was prophetic guidance from God. Most Mormons acknowledge that Brigham Young (and other past Church) were prophets of God, but they just arbitrarily pick and choose which advice they will take seriously enough to follow. Such pickers and choosers are, of course, never on completely safe ground. The clearest rule a Mormon has to work with in figuring out if a given statement from an LDS prophet is a revelation from God, or just some guy talking, is a statement made by the Prophet Joseph Smith himself (in his own defense against accusations of being a false prophet): “A prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.” (History of the Church, 5:265)

The question of when an LDS prophet is “acting as such” is the key issue for devout Mormons, and unfortunately something that neither the LDS Church nor any LDS prophets so far have had the inclination (or guts?) to opine on with any specificity. They simply refuse to say which “prophetic” advice from past prophets is or isn’t actually a message from God. I think they refuse because (a) they don’t know, and (b) doing so would confirm the possibility that LDS prophets sometimes think they are channeling the eternal will and mind of God, when they really aren’t, and that undermines the authority of both the dead prophets and themselves. Whatever the reason for it, the lack of official guidance on what prophetic advice to heed leaves some members of the Church with the sincere belief that a loaf of bread ought to be no thicker than two of Brigham Young’s hands, and that polygamy is the True form of marriage (even if it is not practiced by the LDS Church today).

Reverence for every word that has fallen from the lips of early Church prophets is something the modern LDS Church and the FLDS or other fundamentalist branches of Mormonism have in common. Both flavors of Mormonism are built on certainty about the nature of God, the purpose of life, the order of the universe, and the early prophets’ connection to God (though only the fundamentalists openly embrace the implications of that). When members of the LDS Church discover contradictions, ambiguities, or ridiculous bullshit in the teachings or policies of the early Church compared to that of the modern Church, their prophets and apostles offer no explanation (in fact, they don’t even acknowledge a conflict). And then those questioning members, in a sincere attempt to find answers, reach out and find the Mormon fundamentalists there waiting, happy to provide answers that bring the certainty back, and to take the questioning members out of the LDS Church. This connection–this path between mainstream Mormons and fundamentalist Mormons–is why the two movements continue to be so intertwined.

Modern leaders of the LDS Church, like the Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley in a 1998 interview with Larry King, don’t appear to perceive this connection. In fact, they seem to be altogether baffled by why people can’t clearly distinguish between mainstream Mormons and fundamentalist Mormons :

Larry King: But when the word [“polygamy”] is mentioned, when you hear the word, you think Mormon, right?

Gordon B. Hinckley: You do it mistakenly. [Fundamentalists] have no connection with us whatever. They don’t belong to the church. There are actually no Mormon fundamentalists.


Larry King: President Hinckley, when the press pays attention to [polygamy and Mormon fundamentalism], it does affect you, certainly, in a public relations sense?

Gordon B. Hinckley: It does, because people mistakenly assume that this church has something to do with it. It has nothing whatever to do with it. It has had nothing to do with it for a very long time. It’s outside the realm of our responsibility. These people are not members. Any man or woman who becomes involved in it is excommunicated from the church.

It isn’t really fair for Gordon B. Hinckley to say that the LDS Church has “nothing whatever to do with it”, when the Church leadership’s failure to disavow fundamentalist beliefs and past LDS Church practices has caused, and continues to cause, sincere believing Mormons to be curious about, or sometimes to silently support the illegal activities of fundamentalist Mormon churches. And the issue is not “outside the realm of [the Church’s] responsibility,” since the Church bears responsibility for its continuing contribution to the situation.

For example, LDS Church doctrine has never been officially changed away from its polygamist roots (see e.g., the current version of the Doctrine & Covenants 132: 34-40 and 61-65); only the Church’s practice of polygamy has changed (and it hasn’t changed as much as people generally think, but that’s a topic for a future post). With that in mind, excommunicating somebody from the Church (or invoking other forms of discipline) for having been exposed as a participant in Mormon fundamentalism is an act filled with ambiguity, because it is unclear what that discipline means. Is the excommunication simply punishing people who are caught improperly practicing current LDS beliefs, or is the excommunication also supposed to say something about the beliefs themselves? Excommunication from the LDS Church can’t alter a person’s beliefs when the Church’s own scriptures still contain the voice of the Lord clearly declaring those beliefs to be correct.

If the LDS Church really wants to avoid the bad PR that comes with being connected to fundamentalist Mormons, then Church ought to revise its scriptures, have frank discussions with its members and the media about what is and what isn’t part of the beliefs of the Church. Only then will the Church be able to say, with sincerity (as Gordon B. Hinckley failed to do in the interview above), “it’s behind us”. Until then, it’s not.


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