When Casey Griffiths first visited the Community of Christ Temple (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or RLDS), the professor of religious education at Brigham Young University acknowledges he scoffed a bit at the faith’s official seal — an image of a child, a lamb and a lion along with a banner that reads “Peace.”
“Everybody, wants peace,” he thought at the time, dismissing the message as “the standard beauty pageant answer” designed to avoid offending anybody.
Griffiths has since revised his thinking, so much so that, he said, “I seriously envy their emphasis on peace and peacekeeping.” All it took to change his mind was listening to members of the other faith on the subject.
Inspired by his own transformation, Griffiths, together with former Community of Christ apostle Andrew Bolton, has co-edited a volume of essays he hopes will help clear some of the tripwires of misunderstanding that exist on both sides of the divide that emerged after the slaying of Joseph Smith in 1844.
Published in September by Deseret Book, “Restorations: Scholars in Dialogue from Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” delves into many of the two faiths’ most contested questions, from the nature and role of prophets to continuing revelation.
Creating a place for dialogue
The book represents the latest milestone in a sustained effort to thaw a historically frosty relationship between the Utah-based faith of 16.8 million and the Missouri-based church of 250,000.
According to Bolton, this process didn’t really get underway until the presidency of Gordon B. Hinckley, who he said “encouraged a greater openness in the LDS Church.”
Scott Esplin is the dean of BYU’s department of religious education and the author of the book “Return to the City of Joseph: Modern Mormonism’s Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo,” which explores tensions between the two churches over the historic sites in the Illinois city.
Esplin agreed that relations between the groups have “come a long way, especially in the last 30 years,” thanks to “more frequent interactions.”
Even so, Bolton said that formal interfaith work did not officially begin until around 2015, when he approached Robert Millet, a former religion professor at BYU, about initiating a dialogue between Latter-day Saint and Community of Christ scholars and academics.
“[Robert] checked with a member of the Twelve Apostles,” Bolton said, “and I talked with our First Presidency and we both found support.”
The first group of bridge builders met in August 2016 in Independence, Mo., at Graceland University, run by Community of Christ.
“We have been meeting ever since,” Bolton said, explaining that the book “grew out of that fellowship and conversations together.”
‘Of course we disagreed’
Even with this foundation of dialogue in place, Bolton said, the work of committing such conversations to the page became tense at times.
Some challenges arose over historical topics, while others — including issues around the LGBTQ community (Bolton explained that unlike the Latter-day Saint faith, Community of Christ practices “full inclusion”) — had a more contemporary bent.
“Of course we disagreed,” he said, “but there was always this commitment to civility.”
Lachlan Mackay, a Community of Christ apostle who directs that church’s historic sites in Nauvoo, said he was surprised by “how honest” his Latter-day Saint counterparts “were able to be, and how vulnerable they sometimes were” during the writing process.
“I have worked closely with members of The Church of Jesus Christ on a daily basis since 1991,” he said. “And I thought I knew them, and I think I did in the ’90s. But it’s abundantly clear through the process of this dialogue that faith and belief in The Church of Jesus Christ has become far more complex and diverse than it used to be. It’s still not particularly diverse compared to some other traditions, but far more diverse than I had experienced in earlier decades.”
As an example, he pointed to the topic of Joseph Smith’s 1820 encounter with God known as the “First Vision.” Throughout his life, Smith recorded at least four versions of the experience with differing details, including the number of divine beings who appeared to him. In 1880, the Salt Lake City-headquartered faith canonized the 1838 telling. In the past, Mackay said, he found his Latter-day Saint counterparts reluctant to dwell on any other.
That seems to be changing.
“It’s clear that there is dialogue even within The Church of Jesus Christ about” the fact that there are multiple accounts, he said, and perhaps “things we can learn” from them.
This is not to say all writers enjoyed perfect freedom to express themselves, Bolton said, citing an “unspoken dynamic” in which the Latter-day Saint professors “felt, I think, much more constrained” about what they could say on the record.
What comes next
Going forward, Bolton hopes the two groups can continue “being annoyed with each other, being frank and asking for forgiveness” as they meet and learn from one another.
For his part, Griffiths hopes to see greater humility on the part of his fellow Latter-day Saints when engaging with members of Community of Christ.
“Every time I’ve introduced my Community of Christ friends” to Latter-day Saints, he said, “it isn’t long before someone says, ‘When are you going to sell us the Kirtland Temple?’ It feels like we’re transactional at best.”
Esplin expressed even higher aspirations for the relationship between the two faiths.
“Because of our shared heritage,” he said, “we can be each other’s closest faith allies in a world that could benefit from increased faith.”
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