In November 2015, LDS leaders sent ripples of pain and confusion across the church when they implemented a policy prohibiting children of same-sex couples from getting baptized until age 18.
Notwithstanding such suffering, especially among LGBTQ+ members, Russell M. Nelson declared in a 2016 speech that the policy reflected “the mind” and “the will of the Lord.” Just 3 years later, Nelson reversed the policy shortly after becoming church president, describing both the implementation and removal of the ban as “continuing revelation” and “motivated by the love of our Heavenly Father.”
Yet another of Nelson’s significant adjustments was his rebranding of the church’s name. In 2018, after nearly two centuries of the church’s use of the term “Mormon,” Nelson denounced the label as a “victory for Satan.” He further emphasized that Jesus is “offended” when we “allow nicknames to be used or adopt or even sponsor those nicknames ourselves,” efforts his predecessor Thomas S. Monson had poured millions of dollars into with marketing initiatives like the “I am a Mormon” campaign.
These are just several of many examples in which LDS authorities have asserted inconsistent and even contradictory positions over time, claiming that it is all part of one uninterrupted and divine flow of “continuing revelation.” I refer to this ongoing pattern as “change within an illusion of unchangeability.”
The method for constructing an illusion of unchangeability begins when leaders declare a specific practice or teaching to be divinely inspired doctrine. Next, the church begins to face increasing public scrutiny and pressure, which eventually causes them to alter the practice or teaching. Following the change, church leaders attempt to whitewash and regulate the narrative such that the original practice or teaching in question was never doctrine at all.
The church’s infamous priesthood and temple ban is perhaps the most telling example of this pattern. Implemented by 19th century church president Brigham Young, the ban prohibited people of African descent from holding the priesthood and entering the temple, both of which are considered necessary for entrance into the highest degree of heaven in LDS theology. In the nearly 130 years that the policy was operative, LDS leaders invented and propagated several theories to justify the ban, including the narrative that black people were less valiant in the premortal existence and that dark skin was the result of a divine curse.
In an official 1949 statement, The First Presidency of the church declared that the ban was “not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization…”
After decades of civil lawsuits, intense public scrutiny, and rapidly growing membership in parts of the world with large Black populations, Spencer W. Kimball removed the ban in 1978. Although LDS leaders have never formally apologized, an official 2013 essay titled “Race and the Priesthood” declared “the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life.”
Other examples of change within an illusion of unchangeability are LDS marital and gender norms. Interracial marriage was long taught as sinful and contrary to the doctrines of the church, although currently there are several high-profile leaders who are in interracial marriages. In the same vein, a “woman’s proper place in the home” was for decades taught as divine order, although nowadays the church promotes a less explicit patriarchal narrative that provides more room for women to pursue their education and career goals.
Several church leaders today adamantly insist that the church’s stance on marriage will never change. At the forefront of this rhetoric is Dallin H. Oaks, who recently declared that the church’s 1995 family proclamation, which defines marriage as being between a man and woman, is “founded on irrevocable doctrine.” He further emphasized those who consider the proclamation a “changeable statement of policy” do not understand God’s plan.
When LDS authorities proclaim that the church’s stance on marriage will never change, it is helpful to keep in mind that LDS marital, gender, and racial teachings once codified as eternal doctrine are now disavowed as “theories advanced in the past” or described as “outdated policies.” Recognizing the amorphous and blurry boundaries between so-called theory, policy and doctrine throughout LDS history has the potential to inspire more critical and rigorous discourse and ultimately the implementation of more equitable and inclusive teachings within the church.
Keith Burns is a recent Brigham Young University graduate who currently specializes in Mormonism and sexuality as a graduate student at Lehman College.