Latter-day Saint activism — See what it’s done for the church

From LGBTQ and racial issues to art and aid, faithful members can influence if not inspire change.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approved revised dress guidelines, allowing full-time female missionaries to wear dress slacks at times. This was a change advocated by many members for years.

It is clear from the hierarchical structure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — with a “prophet, seer and revelator” at the top — that many members see all changes as coming from God’s mouth to the president’s ear.

They then are communicated to the faithful.

Indeed, that is how change was described in a recent speech by Ahmad Corbitt, first counselor in the church’s Young Men general presidency, to a group of Latter-day Saint chaplains.

While activists within the faith may be promoting good causes, Corbitt said, they should not do anything that would undermine confidence in the faith’s leaders.

Such efforts “effectively but subtly undermine the doctrine of Christ,” he said, “which is God’s plan for changing, saving and exalting his children.”

It’s not that simple, says historian W. Paul Reeve, who teaches Mormon studies at the University of Utah.

The church is both hierarchical and democratic at once, Reeve says. There is “dynamic tension between those two forces.” Corbitt stressed the top-down over the bottom-up approach, but, the historian says, “many accepted changes came from members with no leadership position.”

Here are a few Latter-day Saints developments that either fall into the grassroots category or were at least influenced by voices outside the top leadership:

• Creation of the children’s Primary association in 1880. It was the brainchild of Aurelia Rogers, who wanted Latter-day Saint kids to be taught church principles. She floated her idea by President Eliza Snow, then the head of the women’s Relief Society, and it eventually was approved by the church president.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) A Primary class in the English-speaking Latter-day Saint Cairo Branch in Egypt, April 2022.

• Weekly Sunday school instruction. Scottish convert to the faith, Richard Ballantyne is credited with holding the first Sunday school in the Salt Lake Valley in 1849. It was copied throughout the valley. By 1867, church President Brigham Young established the Deseret Sunday School Union.

• The end of the priesthood/temple prohibition on Black members. Although it was announced in 1978 by then-President Spencer W. Kimball, several prominent members, including Latter-day Saint Institute director Lowell Bennion, spoke forcefully against the ban in the 1960s, and Lester Bush wrote a lengthy report on the origins of the racist policy for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

• The establishment of a church humanitarian arm. In 1985, Latter-day Saints flooded church headquarters with queries about what their faith was doing about the horrific Ethiopian famine that left millions of starving people looking for food. In response, church leaders asked members to fast for one day and give their savings to relief efforts. That produced an unexpected $6 million, with which the church launched its humanitarian wing.

• Changes for women. Even before the Ordain Women movement, many feminists in the faith advocated for more gender equity, such as lowering the age of “sister missionaries,” permitting female missionaries to wear slacks, crafting gender-neutral language for temple rites and allowing women to serve as witnesses to ordinances. All of those are now in place.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune_ Protester holds a rainbow flag during a mass resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near Temple Square in Salt Lake City in 2015. More than three years later, the church reversed its LGBTQ exclusion policy.

• Reversing the 2015 LGBTQ exclusion policy. Many Latter-day Saints joined protests, made public statements and even resigned their memberships over this stance, which deemed same-sex married couples “apostates” and generally barred their children from baby blessings and baptisms. The church dropped this policy in April 2019.

• Allowing an adult to sit in on interviews between children and bishops. Sam Young, formerly a lay bishop, led protests for this change, including staging a hunger strike. He was excommunicated.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters, led by Sam Young, march to the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City in 2018 to request that the faith's leaders put an end to bishops meeting one on one with children for interviews.

• Preservation of Manti Temple murals. When church leaders announced last year that wall paintings — including a “world room” scene painted by the famed Minerva Teichert — would be removed from the historic central Utah temple as part of its renovation, many members and preservationists were outraged. Several months later, church authorities did an about-face, explaining that the treasured murals would remain and a new temple would be erected in nearby Ephraim.

In his speech, “Activism vs. Discipleship: Protecting the Valiant,” Corbitt acknowledged that some activist causes are “important or good or often pursued in good faith/”

Yes, “a lightbulb must be changed to avoid darkness and restore light,” the Black Latter-day Saint leader said. “My simple point is a hammer is not the right tool for that job.”

Believing members should sustain the status quo, he argued, and wait for the prophet to “change the lightbulb.”

To Darius Gray, a longtime Black Latter-day Saint and self-described activist, that approach could mean living in the dark for a lot longer.

Activism among members that addresses social, cultural and doctrinal matters can be, Gray says, “genuine discipleship.”

Read the full story on Corbitt’s speech and reactions to it.