Some Things Cannot be Changed

Poor Wayfaring Man

Here is another post inspired, in part, by a reader’s comment.  Deep Throat in the Deep South,1 in a comment rich with interesting Mormon cultural material, wrote the following:

Every blessing we have is predicated upon a law. You break the law, the blessing is gone.

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated— And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130: 20-21)2

One must be intelligent not to confuse administrative actions with the Gospel of Jesus Christ (i.e. truth) in its purest mode. There is a different between administration of earthly issues, the Truth of the Gospel, and, and what I call the “Doctrine of the Culture,” that some people cling to instead of the doctrine.

As a Mormon, I struggled with the legalistic LDS belief that all blessings a person receives from God are actually dependent upon his or her obedience to a specific Law (or body of Laws) of Heaven.  The reason I struggled is that I could never pin down exactly what the Law was, despite the fact that I was desperate to follow it.  (That seems to be a common theme in the LDS Church.) I studied the teachings of Mormon prophets over the 150+ year life of the LDS Church and found that certain Laws (or doctrines) they emphasized as “eternal” and “fundamental” to God’s plan for humanity had changed over time.  This was very distressing to me, as I had been taught my whole life that God’s Laws are eternal and unchanging, because they are based on Truth, which is eternal.  I was taught that the doctrines of Mormonism embody the sum of those unchanging Laws.  Clearly, however, doctrines had been changing and evolving the whole time.3

Once I realized this was the case, the contradiction between reality and what I had been taught and always believed about the LDS Church caused me to lose much of my confidence in the Church as the one true organization of God on Earth. I tried to figure out ways to reconcile the contradictions, trying to make distinctions between them that allowed both to be true at the same time.  My mind was working in ways similar to Deep Throat above, conceptually separating “doctrine” and “Truth” from “Mormon culture” and “folklore” in an effort to define the consistent Laws in LDS teachings upon which all blessings are predicated.4  Despite my best efforts, I was largely unsuccessful at convincing myself that the contradictions weren’t really contradictions, and that there was a consistent Law of the Gospel buried in Mormon beliefs.

When the believers in my family learned of my confusion, they pulled all of the strings they could to get me some help.  They put me in contact with Max Anderson, an LDS apologist, who had published a book defending mainstream LDS beliefs by deconstructing Mormon Fundamentalist claims to divine authority.  Max and his wife were very kind to me, and they had me over to their house on several occasions to sit in their living room and talk through my concerns.  A few times, Max invited other apologists to join us and discuss issues they had researched.  These meetings presented me with various ways of parsing the contradictions so that they made more sense.

One meeting in particular really blew my mind.  At that meeting, Eldon Watson, who had compiled a book of Brigham Young’s writings, attempted the mindbending feat of explaining how everything Brigham Young taught is in harmony with mainstream LDS beliefs about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I was flabbergasted to learn that what made it all fit together for him was to draw a distinction between “LDS doctrine” and “Truth”.  The key, he explained, is to understand that Truth is eternal and unchanging, but LDS doctrine is only an expression of the Church’s acknowledged beliefs at a specific moment in time.  Thus, LDS doctrine when Brigham Young was alive included polygamy as a requirement to get into the highest part of heaven, but current LDS doctrine does not.

This idea was shocking to me because, despite its (semi)effectiveness as a logical solution to the problem of contradiction in authoritative LDS teachings, the concept is clearly heretical.  All LDS Church leaders I know of, and regular members alike, have talked about LDS doctrine as embodying “the fullness of the Gospel”.  Any past changes have been carefully characterized as adding more previously unrevealed Truth to the doctrine, because Truth is what LDS doctrine is all about.  Watson was explaining that doctrine freely changes with the needs of the Church at the given moment–things that are Truth, like the divine nature of polygamy, can be taken out and disavowed.

I’m pretty sure that Watson, in offering up his idea, was mainly just trying to accommodate the fact that Church President Gordon B. Hinckley had recently blurted out, on international television, that polygamy is not doctrinal5 when it had clearly been doctrinal (though not always practiced) during the previous 100+ years of LDS Church existence.  I think, however, that drawing a distinction between doctrine and Truth is just an apologetic invention, and has never been part of Church teachings. As far as I know, President Brigham Young never made that distinction, and Apostle Boyd K. Packer (currently the next in line to be President of the Church) doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo either, because he has taught that Some things cannot be changed. Doctrine cannot be changed. And understandably so.  Malleable doctrine undermines the authority of Church leaders, because it means that at least sometimes what they teach is not the real Truth, and therefore need not be obeyed.  This is also the reason why Mormons almost never admit (with any specificity) that Church leaders make mistakes.  Changing doctrine is just a slow-motion mistake.

Funny, though, because now that I have apostatized, I agree with Elden Watson.



  1. Yeah, the irony of an apparently straight-laced Mormon naming him or herself Deep Throat hasn’t escaped me.  I assume the name is referring somehow to the Watergate informant, rather than the classic porn movie from which the informant’s pseudonym was derived.  Then again, either reference is kind of random. []
  2. By the way, this section of the Doctrine & Covenants (which is LDS scripture on par with the Bible or the Book of Mormon) is a treasure trove of canonized Mormon oddities, like Joseph Smith’s unfulfilled prediction about growing unrest in the American South (that eventually developed into the Civil War) being a precursor to the second coming of Jesus Christ, his cautiously hedged prediction that Jesus Christ’s second coming would happen prior to his 85th birthday (1890), his explanation for why the Holy Ghost is incorporeal, his insight into the planets that God and the angels live on, his view of what the afterlife is generally like, and other fun stuff.  Definitely worth a read, since these things are part of the “meat” of the Gospel that Mormons don’t share with outsiders very often (the “milk” always comes first). []
  3. For example, the importance of polygamy in attaining the highest glory in the Celestial Kingdom, the meaning and importance of Doctrine & Covenants 89 (the “Word of Wisdom”), the role of Blood Atonement in the Gospel, the meaning and importance of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the role of seer stones and other implements of folk magic in the Gospel, the role and meaning of race in determining worthiness to hold the Priesthood, the ancestral origins of the American Indians, the location of lands and people featured in Book of Mormon, the eternal and unchanging nature of LDS temple ceremonies and other Priesthood ordinances, etc. []
  4. I never went as far as Deep Throat has, however, in making distinctions between “administration of earthly issues” and “the Gospel of Jesus Christ (i.e. truth) in its purest mode”, probably because that contradicts the basic Mormon belief that God doesn’t give any exclusively “earthly” rules–they are all applicable to spiritual matters (see D& C 29:34-35). []
  5. Larry King: You condemn it [polygamy].

    Gordon B. Hinckley: I condemn it, yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal. It is not legal. And this church takes the position that we will abide by the law. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, magistrates in honoring, obeying and sustaining the law.

    –1998 Larry King interview of Gordon B. Hinckley, prophet and President of the LDS Church []

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