Monday, January 18, 2010

Myths And Facts About The Community Of Christ (Formerly The Reorganized Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints)

The Community of Christ, once known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), evolved separately from the mainstream Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after the main body of Saints began emigrating to Utah in 1845. It grew from the remnant Saints who did not accept the leadership of Brigham Young and chose to remain behind in Illinois and Missouri; the church formally organized in 1860 in Amboy, IL under the leadership of Joseph Smith III.

While the official C of C website provides good information about the church's beliefs, it leaves a number of questions unanswered for the casual inquirer. To fill the gap, three members of the C of C attempted to debunk some myths and answer additional questions about their church on several LDS-oriented blogs in 2008-2009. The sources include:

-- “LDS Myths about Reorganized Latter Day Saints”: Mormon Matters, January 27th, 2008.
-- "Interview with the Community of Christ": Mormon Heretic, June 9th, 2009
-- "John Hamer returns (sort of)! A Look at the CoC": Mormon Matters, June 14th, 2009

The respondents to the questions are John Hamer, Margie Miller, and FireTag, all identified as observant members of the Community of Christ. They speak as individual members, not as official spokespersons for the church. The purpose of this post is to get the pertinent information scattered through the three sources listed above under one roof. FireTag also maintains a personal C of C-oriented blog, The Fire Still Burning, updated regularly. There is no editorialization about the C of C on my part included in this post.

The Q & A begins after the jump.

Myth: The mainstream LDS church donated $100,000.00 per year to the Community of Christ for the upkeep of the Kirtland Temple, which is owned by the C of C. Fact: This is false, according to Barbara Walden, who is the director of the Kirtland Temple.

Myth: The mainstream LDS church was once “in negotiations” to buy the Kirtland Temple for the sum of $40 million. Fact: This is false; Grant McMurray's response was "Hell, no!"

Myth: The RLDS church only gave women the priesthood because they ran out of male Smiths to lead the church. Fact: This is false. It’s true that the Prophet Wallace B. Smith, great grandson of Joseph Smith Jr. — who is still alive and serves as Emeritus (or retired) President of the church — had daughters, but no sons. However, there are plenty of male descendants of Joseph Smith Jr. who are members of the Community of Christ and who are even major figures in the church. It would have been very easy to continue to keep the presidency in the Smith family. However, President Smith did not feel called to do so; rather, he felt called to end the practice.

Myth: The Community of Christ scrapped the Book of Mormon in order to join the World Council of Churches (WCC). Fact: This is false. The Community of Christ has not scrapped the Book of Mormon. I do think people who view the Book of Mormon as a literal history book are in the minority in the Community of Christ. However, these same believers have a generally more sophisticated view of scripture in general. Much of the events of the Bible are not literal histories, from Adam and Noah to the Judean kings. There doesn’t have to have been a real person named Job to make the scripture inspired. What the Community of Christ has scrapped is the exclusivist claim to be “the one and only true church.” The church now understands that while its own heritage has been inspired by God, other churches and individuals have also been inspired and are valid.

Myth: The RLDS church changed its name because it wants to become another Protestant church. Fact: This is false. Charles D. Neff, who was one of the more important RLDS apostles in the later 20th century was actually a convert. He told the story that when he first heard the name of the church, “The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” his reaction was, “that is a terrible name for a church.” And he was right. Frankly, the LDS church has a terrible name too. The church was established in 1830 as the “Church of Christ.” That name was indistinct and was often confused with other churches of the same name, especially the Campbellite Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ). So, in 1834, the name of the church was changed to “Church of the Latter Day Saints.” That change upset members who had come to believe the Campbellite doctrine that God’s true church must have Christ’s name in it, so in 1838 the name was changed to “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” (The spelling “Latter-day Saints” was used occasionally in the early church, but LDS church only formalized that spelling in Utah.) “Reorganized” was legally added to the name in the late 19th century in order to protect church property from the Federal anti-polygamy legislation. The change in 2001 to “Community of Christ” was meant to evoke the church’s heritage (by returning close to the original name), while emphasizing one of the core values that Reorganized Latter Day Saints have always drawn from their organization: the special sense of community.

Myth: The LDS church should not end priesthood discrimination on basis gender (or adopt any other progressive ideal); look at what happened to the RLDS church. Fact: Whereas the other myths are relatively harmless, I find this one to be pernicious. The problem with this comparison is that it assumes that at some point in the 1970s, the LDS and the RLDS church were in the same place and their different paths almost function like a controlled science experiment. The reality is that the organizations aren’t comparable and never were.

Question: Did the Salt Lake church make a large financial contribution towards the construction of the temple in Independence? Answer: The LDS church did not make a financial contribution toward the construction of the temple in Independence and the Community of Christ did not contribute financially to the construction of the new Nauvoo Temple. However, both churches swapped land in order to make both temples possible. The RLDS church owned some of the land that the Nauvoo Temple is on and the LDS church owned some of the land that the Independence Temple is on. My understanding is that it was a straight swap and that money didn’t change hands.

Question: Who owns the Independence temple lot that Joseph Smith himself dedicated? Answer: The Independence Temple, the Auditorium and the LDS Visitor Center are all located on the “greater Temple Lot” — the parcel that Bishop Edward Partridge purchased for that purpose. However, the actual spot that Joseph Smith Jr. and others dedicated for building the first of the planned temples is owned by the Church of Christ (Temple Lot). It’s a separate Latter Day Saint denomination. The LDS church are Brighamites, the RLDS are Josephites and the Temple Lot church are Hedrickites, so named for an early leader, Granville Hedrick.

Question: I’ve heard that the LDS Church owns the mortgage on the RLDS sail shell in Independence, as well as on the Kirtland Temple, because the COC needed an infusion of cash, and the LDS stepped up to provide it. Answer: The financing myths do not hold water. The LDS church does not give money or loan money to the Community of Christ. When the Community of Christ decided to build the Independence Temple, it had the experience of both the Kirtland Temple and the Auditorium. The Kirtland Temple bankrupted the 1830s church and the Auditorium nearly bankrupted the RLDS church in the Great Depression. Because of that, the Community of Christ raised twice as much money as they needed to build the temple; paid for the whole thing in cash; and used the extra money to invest in an endowment that pays for its upkeep w/o the need for any additional tithing revenue. The Kirtland Temple is likewise owned outright. The Community of Christ just built a $5 million Visitor Center in Kirtland, which again was bought outright.

Question: Do Community of Christ members like to be called Mormons, or some other nickname? Answer: Community of Christ members use the term “Latter Day Saints” to refer to themselves, but they only rarely use the term “Mormon” to refer to themselves. Generally speaking, only LDS members, fundamentalist Mormons and Strangite Mormons use the term “Mormon” to refer to themselves. The reason for it is that members of the early church used almost always put quotes around the term and said “so-called Mormons” or emphasized that it was outsiders that called the Saints “Mormons.” Then, during the late 19th century, LDS Mormons were reviled nationally because of polygamy. RLDS people who were violently anti-polygamy wanted no share of that opprobrium, so they tended to say things like “we believe in the Book of Mormon but we’re not the Mormons.”

Question: Do CoC members observe the Word of Wisdom? Answer: Some do, some don’t; it’s not a test of fellowship. Ron Romig (who is church archivist) doesn’t smoke, drink or drink coffee. However, other Community of Christ friends of mine do drink and drink coffee. (the respondent doesn't know any who smoke.)

Question: Do C of C members practice baptism for the dead? Answer: The Community of Christ does not practice baptism for the dead, although it was not opposed as a practice with the same kind of vehemence as polygamy. The sections of the D&C on baptism for the dead were only removed in the 1970s.

Question: Does the CoC preach from the Book of Mormon in its Sunday meetings and are there Sunday school curricula that teach out of the Book of Mormon? Answer: There is a lot of local control, so meeting styles vary at the congregation level. Talks I’ve listened to seem just as likely to quote the Book of Mormon as any other scripture. Possibly they have the most emphasis on the New Testament, followed by the D&C, with the Book of Mormon and Old Testament taking up the rearguard. The services I’ve attended are somewhat like an LDS service: there is congregation business, hymns, musical numbers and prayers and there’s a main talk. They do sacrament/communion once a month and they use the same prayer that other Latter Day Saints use, so that’s familiar. Their offeratory is not familiar to LDS service. They can have a little bit of litergy, which is definitely unfamiliar to LDS ears.

A more detailed answer was provided by another respondent. [We] do serve open communion. Worship practices vary widely throughout the church, not only from country to country but from congregation to congregation. Most of our congregations are very small; the respondent hasn’t had an actual home church that wasn’t in a converted home or a school since he came to the East Coast 35 years ago. That certainly affects the form of worship; since there are often not enough priesthood (because priesthood calls were in no sense fairly automatic), we’ve long extended worship leadership to non-priesthood. You will also notice a much greater emphasis on the most recent D&C sections (we’re up to 163 now) and the New Testament than on any works of Joseph Smith. We are certainly Christ-centered in all of our teaching.

There is absolutely no emphasis on the afterlife …The Book of Abraham is not regarded as Scriptural, so there is no doctrine of exaltation or sealing for eternity. There are no special Temple ordinances at all, and we, in fact, encourage the use of our Temple for interdenominational gatherings whenever possible.

Oh, and Bishops are financial specialists, not congregational leaders, and Stakes no longer exist. You will notice Bishops are not in the administrative line. They are Financial Officers, and pretty well stay in that role. The respondent was the presiding officer of what you would consider a small congregation – in fact so small that he often had to preside over the service, preach the sermon, and teach the Sunday school class on the same morning. We’ve gone back and forth over the years between the terms “pastor” and “presiding elder”. We’re currently in a “pastor” phase, and in fact often have to share the role among two or three priesthood.

We no longer had the personnel concentrations anywhere but in Independence, and consequently changed the administrative structure to “fields” administered by 1 of the Twelve assisted by a President of a Quorum of Seventy. The equivalent of a Stake President would be a Mission Center President, a High Priest who has administrative control over as large as a multi-state area in the US and sometimes half a continent overseas.

Question: Are local C of C leaders “professional” clergy (i.e., trained, paid ministers) or are they laypersons, as is the case in local LDS wards? Answer: The Community of Christ has the same general priesthood offices as the LDS church without the Utah-era practice of title inflation. It’s quite normal for adult men and women to be teachers or deacons. Bishops are financial officers at the Stake (“Misson Center”) level, rather than “ward” leaders. They have “Pastors” — a title that was also used in the early church — which is effectively “Branch President” or “Presiding Elder” of a congregation. Most Pastors are volunteer lay ministers. They do have some paid pastors in large congregations. Church headquarters has full-time paid employees like the LDS headquarters. The leadership includes the First Presidency, the Council of the Twelve, the Presiding Bishopric, the Presiding Evangelist (patriarch), the Presidents of the Seventies, the presiding Quorum of High Priests and the Standing (presiding) High Council.

Question: How do the RLDS/CofC regard the revelations from their president? Do they regard their president as a prophet like the Utah LDS do? Are their apostles regarded as ’special witnesses’ in the same way most LDS would regard their own Quorum of Twelve? Answer: President Veazey is the Prophet, yes, and the Council of the Twelve Apostles are special witnesses for Christ, yes. Community of Christ members often use the title “Prophet/President” with a slash to refer to their church presidents. All of their prophet/presidents have been inspired to give revelations to the church, which are included in the Doctrine and Covenants. In their version, the D&C has 163 sections, the most recent of which is only a year old.

However, there is an intimacy with the leadership that would be very alien to LDS members. I know and work with several of the apostles and I’m on a first name basis with all of them. You don’t say Elder this or President that. It’s always Steve, Dale, Susan, Andrew, etc. The First Presidency and the Apostles are generally all in their 50s or 60s because they serve for a number of years and then they retire.

Also, the governing body of the church is the membership, through the General Conference (which is now called World Conference). A revelation in the D&C explains that the members of the Community of Christ are called to be a “prophetic people” — thus they are all inspired and make that inspiration known through the medium of voting in Conference. If they vote to reject a revelation from the Prophet, it does not go into the D&C. So, the informal, intimate way Community of Christ members view their leadership is probably one of the biggest differences between them and their LDS cousins.

Question: What is the C of C position on the Plan of Salvation/Three Degrees of Glory? Answer: The various glories exist in our belief system, but the respondent hasn't heard anyone teach anything about them since he was a teenager.

Question: Does the Community of Christ believe they are the “one true church”? Answer: What the Community of Christ has scrapped is the exclusivist claim to be “the one and only true church.” The church now understands that while its own heritage has been inspired by God, other churches and individuals have also been inspired and are valid.

Question: Could you explain a little on how the RLDS church approaches the issue of GLBT persons in comparison to the LDS SLC church? Answer: Read the book, "Homosexual Saints: The Community of Christ Experience", edited by William D. Russell with a preface by D. Michael Quinn. You may be interested in getting it: . This is a book of 26 personal essays about the lives of gay, lesbian and transgendered RLDS members and their friends, relatives and allies. It also has a detailed historical overview of the evolution of RLDS thinking and practice on the issue.

The back cover has an endorsement from retired Prophet/President Grant McMurray: "I have always believed that the pathway to understanding the issue of homosexuality is in the telling of personal stories. Decisions about policy and law, whether religious or secular, must first have a human face. Bill Russell’s compilation of personal essays – some courageous, some tragic – provides an excellent resource for the dialogue that has only just begun.”

There is also an endorsement from Apostle Susan Skoor, one from Dr. Don Compier Dean of the Community of Christ Seminary, and one from Richard Howard, Historian Emeritus of the church. That’s a lineup that you would be unlikely to replicate in an LDS context.

Question: What about the CoC granting women the priesthood (revelation of 1984)? Answer: The debate at the time was traumatic (and even schismatic) for the church, but I don’t recall the arguments specifically debated. It was finally settled by the church’s acceptance of our Section 156 of the D&C which encompassed direction for the ordination of women in a larger document related to initiation of building our Temple and the purposes it was to have. There was a strongly organized attempt to rescind Conference approval of the revelation at the next world conference, but that was beaten down by about a 4:1 margin on a procedural vote. Interestingly, 25 years later, those who stayed all pretty much take it for granted; we see the same power of priesthood in men and women, if the gift and talent mix has different emphases.

We extend opportunities for Evangelist’s Blessings – we found it awkward to refer to women “Patriarchs” or “Matriarchs” – or baby blessings outside the church whenever possible. We regard the sacraments as present helps along the path to follow the Lord, not things to be checked off in this life as requirements for the next. So, when feminism forced us to reconsider the issue of priesthood for women as an issue of theological principle rather than cultural tradition 30-40 years ago (easier to do since we have no doctrine that focuses on family roles in the hereafter), the church decided it was God’s will that women should be ordained the regular way, and that we’d simply been blind to it all along. I don’t have general statistics on women in the priesthood, but 1/3 of the Apostles and First Presidency [are women].

There are a number of other more specialized and esoteric questions and answers appended to the Mormon Heretic post, but this additional information is more of interest to the serious researcher.


thefirestillburning said...

Thanks for the reference.

I would only add that my blog is really intended to discuss science as it affects RESTORATION beliefs. Topics come from the interface of science and Mormonism, rather than from the doctrinal perspective of either denomination.

So you'll see everything from cosmology to MesoAmerican archeology and wierd mathematics.

If you look at Mormon Matters or Mormon Heretic, you'll find more doctrinal discussions, including right now some discussion of the CofChrist's proposed Section 164, which may be of interest to the LDS community.


Jack Mormon said...

Thanks for your response. Even though your blog is more geared towards the scientific aspect, the C of C links on your sidebar will prove useful to those seeking information about the C of C.

I have read President Veazey's latest missive, which is apparently a precursor to your April World Conference, and I look forward to seeing the new Section 164 of your D & C.

thefirestillburning said...

Thank you, Jack.

The document you are referring to will BE Section 164 if the April or future conferences approve it as such.