From RLDS to Community of Christ — How the church has evolved and why some Latter-day Saints are converting

Female ordination and friendly LGBTQ policies are drawing away more and more liberal and disaffected members of the larger Utah-based faith.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elder Brittany Mangelson and Elder Steve Otteson ordain Tyler Marz to the office of elder in the Salt Lake City area Community of Christ church, on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021.

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W. Grant McMurray jokes that for much of his church’s history, its name was “the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — We’re Not the Mormons.”

The former church president says his fellow believers eventually decided it was time to be identified for what they were, rather than for what they were not.

So, in the late 1990s, McMurray launched a conversation about their identity and what their universal message would be.

“We engaged in a lot of challenging work about the social issues of our time, including women’s ordination and homosexuality,” says McMurray, a scholar with a master’s in divinity who led the church from 1996 to 2004. “For some, it was exciting; for others, it was painful getting past their history.”

By 2001, the name the Missouri-based church chose was “Community of Christ” — to emphasize that members “proclaim Jesus Christ and promote communities of joy, hope, love and peace.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Then-President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, stands with W. Grant McMurray, then-president of the Community of Christ, at the graves of Joseph, Hyrum and Emma Smith in Nauvoo Ill., in 2002.

Looking back, the gentle, good-humored historian is grateful that a “little outfit that formed and developed in Independence, Missouri, was able to find its way to a new identity ... and a place in the larger Christian community.”

Confusion over the name “is not a bad thing,” says McMurray, who acknowledges that use of the former RLDS moniker is not likely to be eliminated anytime soon. “It can help us develop a clearer sense of our identity.”

And, though members don’t see themselves as sisters or even cousins of the larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for many Utahns, that link is inescapable — and, at least here, the denomination is growing.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Faithful gather for a church service at the Salt Lake City area Community of Christ church on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021.

More and more Latter-day Saint liberals and other disillusioned members of the Salt Lake City-based faith are finding a home in the Community of Christ, which shares some of Mormonism’s roots and optimistic beliefs, while preaching what they see as Christ-centered beliefs about peace, gender equality and social justice.

California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman; the Ordain Women movement within the faith, seeking female priesthood; the November 2015 LGBTQ “exclusion” policy — all these propelled a steady stream of Latter-day Saint defectors into the Community of Christ, which, as of 2018, was reported to have 250,000 members in 1,100 congregations in 59 countries.

During the coronavirus pandemic, a Toronto Community of Christ congregation created a YouTube channel, “Beyond the Walls,” to livestream its services and sermons.

“It is the [church’s] largest online ministry — with 21,800 subscribers and 2.9 million views since October 15,” says John Hamer, a former Latter-day Saint and now a Community of Christ pastor. “Given that no substantive reform is possible within the LDS Church, the only hope for reform of the Latter Day Saint movement (Mormonism or the Mormon people in a broader sense) must come from outside the institutional church.”

The most “obvious vehicle for reform,” he says, “is the second largest institution within the movement, Community of Christ.”

‘Prairie’ versus ‘mountain’ Mormons

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Emma and Joseph Smith. Emma eventually joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints after Joseph's death.

After church founder Joseph Smith was killed in 1844, his burgeoning movement split into various factions. The main body of followers trekked west with Brigham Young — the “mountain” members, as some have dubbed them — while smaller groups, “prairie” saints, spread across the Midwest, particularly Missouri, Iowa and Michigan.

Smith’s wife, Emma, and her children were among those who would later form the RLDS community, the largest of the sects. In 1860, her eldest son, Joseph Smith III, stepped up to become its president.

This group rejected what it saw as Smith’s “Nauvoo” innovations — including polygamy, plurality of gods and the Book of Abraham, to name a few.

“Reorganites,” as they were sometimes called, eschewed the concept of plural marriage as practiced by Young and the Latter-day Saints in Utah. They believed Smith had never practiced polygamy, taking his public statements opposing it — rather than private confirmations — as fact.

“We wasted generations arguing about polygamy,” says Lachlan Mackay, an apostle and one of the Community of Christ’s historians in Nauvoo.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City area Community of Christ church on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021.

These days, the Community of Christ takes no position on Smith’s plural marriage, says Mackay. Members are “all over the place on it.”

Some believe Smith never practiced polygamy. Some think he was involved in it early on but later tried to stop it. Others say he was “all-in” until his death, Mackay says. “My personal perspective is that prior to his death, he decided it was a mistake.”

For evidence, Mackay points out that Smith took no more plural wives after 1843.

The Community of Christ’s views of Smith’s boyhood epiphany in a Palmyra, N.Y., forest, known as “the First Vision,” have “significantly evolved” as well, he says. In 1920, it was the center of an RLDS conference and included in the faith’s first non-English pamphlet.

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In the 1950s and ‘60s, as the church started engaging with non-Christian cultures, Mackay says, “we realized that an exclusive message — ‘the only true church’ — wasn’t working for us.”

Plus, he says, some members were converted by Smith’s experience, rather than their own.

As church historians discovered various versions of the First Vision, the RLDS shifted to the 1832 account, which was young Joseph’s appeal to deity about his own sins and need for forgiveness.

The Community of Christ used that to reestablish the core of the “gospel message,” Mckay says, “more Jesus- rather than Joseph-focused.”

The church is a “big believer,” he says, “in continuing revelation.”

Then came the question of women’s ordination.

Change through ‘revelation’

By the 1970s, feminists in the then-RLDS Church were “pushing for a more equal distribution of authority and responsibility,” writes historian William Russell. “Every world conference between 1970 and 1984...dealt in some way with women’s issues.”

The question was settled in favor of women’s ordination in 1984 by then-President Wallace B. Smith — the son of W. Wallace Smith (who had opposed such a move) — with a divine “revelation,” which conference delegates ratified that year.

Approximately 20% of the delegates, though, “voted against accepting Wallace’s statement as a revelation to be added to the Doctrine & Covenants,” Russell reports. “These dissenters felt that the church leadership was simply caving to recent social trends instead of staying true to Holy Writ.”

He estimates that “the majority of the people who voted against Wallace’s revelation soon left the church,” he writes. “There are a number of reasons for the intensity of this fallout. One was that very little was done to prepare everyone, especially our more conservative members, for this new policy.”

Mackay concurs.

“We didn’t do a good job of giving members tools to process change,” he says. “Had we helped our members with some of those sources [about women holding the priesthood in Nauvoo], it would have gone much better.”

In 2013, the faith’s National Conference in the United States accepted same-sex marriage “as a sacrament of the church,” Russell writes, which “seems to show that the Community of Christ has learned much about how to foster fellowship among its saints even during times of disagreement.”

Such decisions have had a wide and direct impact on women and LGBTQ members who feel called to serve as priests.

Like Robin Linkhart, one of the faith’s 12 apostles, Bishop Carla Long, pastor at the Salt Lake City area church, and Tyler Marz, a gay man who was just ordained there as a priest last week.

Serving in the Beehive State

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bishop Carla Long addresses the congregation at the Salt Lake City area Community of Christ church on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021.

Linkhart was born and reared in the Community of Christ, mostly attending tiny congregations wherever her family landed, while her dad was in the U.S. military.

Her only experience with a congregation with a full-time pastor was outside Philadelphia, which was unusual for her family of six.

Linkhart was in the eighth grade when a Latter-day Saint Young Men group visited the church, and she noticed that one of them who sat on the front two pews, went to school on the same bus as she did.

After that, she would bring her Book of Mormon on the bus, she recalls, thinking she could bring him back to “the one true church.”

These days, though, the church has given up that teaching and the attendant missionary zeal — which “liberated us,” she says, “from constantly comparing ourselves” to the Utah-based church.

“We are not sheep stealers. We just want a safe place for people to worship,” the apostle says. “We feel deeply called to stand in this place, to offer a hand [and a light] to anyone who feels they are in the dark.”

Describing the Community of Christ’s story and principles to Latter-day Saints who come to them, Linkhart says, “has helped us reclaim the framework, core and essence of our journey and heritage in the context of Christian tradition.”

And many do come.

From fall 2012 to 2015, Linkhart served a Utah congregation of just six to 10 believers who had been meeting on the first and third Sundays of the month.

“We grew the congregation, which sometimes reached as many as 75 attendees in various venues,” she says. “All of those relationships grew as we sought just to be with people in the area and be available.”

Long, a lifetime member now in charge of a Utah congregation, comes from a family of female Community of Christ priests.

“My mother is a priest. I have two older sisters and one of them is an elder as well,” she says on a recent Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast. “So we are very much a Community of Christ family.”

[Listen here to The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast with Community of Christ Bishop Carla Long.]

Long has been working for the church for 16 years now — six years in California as a financial officer and five years in Western and Eastern Europe before the church asked her to move to Utah in 2016.

“But 95% of the church’s priesthood is a lay ministry,” she says, “...and about 95% of the Salt Lake congregation are former Latter-day Saints.”

Her Salt Lake City area congregation (there are five in the state) draws from 40 to 60 members in person or virtually on Sundays.

A chance to minister

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elder Brittany Mangelson and Elder Steve Otteson ordain Tyler Marz to the office of elder in the Salt Lake City area Community of Christ church on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021.

Brittany Mangelson grew up as a typical Latter-day Saint in Provo in the 2000s — attending church, marrying in the temple, accepting callings.

Mangelson had “issues,” she says, with the church’s history and scripture, as well as with its gender inequality and treatment of LGBTQ members, but tried to “carve out a place for nuance.”

That was no longer possible, she says, after the church excommunicated Ordain Women leader Kate Kelly in 2014.

She didn’t attend any of OW’s public actions, but knew some of the participants and found their treatment deeply discouraging.

“I knew in that moment that the church was not only not going to change, but it might excommunicate any amount of dissent,” she says. “If we had the same platform and audience, the church would excommunicate us.”

Within a few months, she, her husband and their children started attending the Community of Christ and never looked back.

They asked Linkhart questions about Smith, the church’s history, and practices, issues that would have identified them as “apostate,” she says, by her Latter-day Saint leaders.

Though the Community of Christ accepts any Christian baptism by immersion — including those performed by the Utah-based faith — Mangelson chose to be baptized again

“My whole theology of Jesus had changed,” she says. “It wasn’t like my sins were washed away, but I was committing to follow Jesus in a new way.”

She also earned an online graduate degree from the Community of Christ seminary at Graceland University, taking classes in Christian theology and history, Hebrew Bible and New Testament, as well as in pastoral care, leadership and preaching.

Mangelson has been an elder since 2018.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elder Brittany Mangelson celebrates after she and Elder Steve Otteson ordained Tyler Marz to the office of elder in the Salt Lake City area Community of Christ church on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021.

The ordination is “a prayer to God,” she says, “blessing the person who is being ordained and stating the responsibilities of that office, how that person is going to live out their ministry.”

For her, part of that ministry is to bridge the gap between Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ, Mangelson says. “It’s about being an interpreter, similar words used but meaning and application totally different. They can be talking over each other and then misunderstandings happen.”

‘The last straw’

Nancy Ross, a Latter-day Saint art teacher at Dixie State University in St. George, was on Ordain Women’s board, sitting next to Kelly when the latter got the news that she had been excommunicated.

Still, Ross was back in her Latter-day Saint ward the next week, teaching the women’s Relief Society — hurt and troubled, but not ready to bolt.

Then, some 18 months later, came the church’s now-abandoned stance labeling LGBTQ member couples “apostates” and excluding their children from baby blessings and baptism.

It was “the last straw,” Ross says, “and we didn’t see it coming.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ordain Women co-founder Kate Kelly speaks soon after getting word of her excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2014.

That very semester, several of her students had come out to her, and she knew this policy would “put them at risk.” Her church was “trying to kill people,” she recalls thinking, “and doesn’t care.”

The Kelly punishment was terrible, Ross says, but “this was an entirely different level of difficulty.”

She knew she was done. “I needed to do something else,” Ross says, “because I am a person of faith.”

There was an exciting Community of Christ congregation in St. George, but it was “in faithful disagreement over being LGBTQ-affirming so that wouldn’t work for me.”

So she started her own “emerging congregation,” and 2½ years later became its pastor (after also earning her divinity degree and being ordained).

It’s a small, intimate group, but she sees it as her ministry to help members “reframe and rediscover God.”

They are not looking to convert folks, Ross says, but if people need a listening ear or resources for healing, she is there.

The Community of Christ “really is a very big tent,” she says, and there is “flexibility in its church structures.”

The name, she says, is apt.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Kirtland Temple, shown in 2016, was the first temple built by the early Latter-day Saints. It was dedicated by church founder Joseph Smith in 1836. It is owned and operated by the Community of Christ.

As to whether it will ever give up the church’s historic gem, the Kirtland Temple, to their Utah cousins, Mackay says, Brigham Young sold it in 1846 and “tried to sell the Nauvoo Temple. Our people have parted with treasured properties through the years — but this is not one of those times.”

However, he says with a sigh, “words like ‘never’ are not in my vocabulary.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bishop Carla Long addresses the congregation at the Salt Lake City area Community of Christ church on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021.