Many years ago, a Protestant told me a joke about a man who goes to heaven and while walking around notices that there is a group of people mingling with each other away from everyone else.
He asks someone who they are. He is told: “Oh, those are the Mormons. They think they are the only ones here.”
The sense that God has a unique relationship with Latter-day Saints has been a facet of the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since its inception. But a recent statement by President Russell M. Nelson may be taking that view to the next level, i.e., that God loves Latter-day Saints more than he does other people.
In the October issue of the church’s magazine for adults, Nelson states that “all those who have made a covenant with God have access to a special kind of love and mercy.” Then he describes what covenants he is referring to: baptism, temple endowment, a marital sealing in the temple. All of those require membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This is not a new idea for President Nelson. He made a similar assertion in a conference talk in 2003 when he was Elder Nelson. But it is new in his role as church president.
The idea that God loves Latter-day Saints more than others has not been part of church doctrine in the past. When then Nelson gave his conference talk in 2003, no other church leaders affirmed what he said as church doctrine, including the First Presidency. It has been a tenet that God blesses people who keep his commandments more than those who do not, but not that he loves them more. And that did not refer only to church members.
It will be interesting to see if Nelson’s proclamation becomes church doctrine or not. One example of a proposed church doctrine that never became one was the Adam-God theory, which Brigham Young promulgated. Young announced in talks that Adam (of the Garden of Eden) was the God of this earth and “the only God we had anything to do with.”
At the time, Elder Orson Pratt rejected the doctrine and disputed with Young over it. Subsequent church leaders did not mention it until, in 1976, when President Spencer W. Kimball announced that it was not church doctrine.
According to Elder D. Todd Christofferson, the way for members to judge whether a statement by a church leader is church doctrine is to see if other church leaders repeat it over time — in other words not just at one time by one person. Using that standard, we can assess whether this concept becomes church doctrine. Whether the response this time is unlike the response to Nelson’s 2003 talk will be interesting to watch.
However, there may be some unintended repercussions if this becomes church doctrine. One may be in the church’s ecumenical outreach. A doctrine that God loves Latter-day Saints more than Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., may not be received well by leaders of other churches. It could create the kind of criticism the LDS Church received over proxy baptisms of Holocaust survivors.
It also could impact missionary work. Claiming that God loves Latter-day Saints more may be a decided turn-off for people investigating the church. This could be problematic in an age when people expect religions to teach God’s unconditional love regardless of what religion someone belongs to. Will those outside the church view church members more negatively because of the message that God doesn’t love them as much as he does the Latter-day Saints?
The conversion rate right already is anemic. Could this produce one more reason for people not to join?
The future of this concept as church doctrine is yet to be determined. If this is a new church doctrine, it will appear in church publications and lesson materials. If it is not, but is just the personal opinion of President Nelson, it will not be widely repeated and will disappear after his presidency. According to Christofferson’s measure, only time will tell.
Richard Davis, Orem, is the author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics.”