The Only Truly Creedless Church on the Face of the Whole Earth

January 15, 2008
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“[Unlike the Latter-day Saints] Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled [sic]. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”
- Joseph Smith (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 288)

In my last post I explained why I believe the creeds of Christendom were an abomination in God’s sight. To summarize: I believe the content of the creeds are, for the most part, harmless. The real problem with the creeds is that they are used as a litmus test of one’s allegiance to Christ. Thus the creeds are treated as equivalent to revelation/scripture and are used as a basis for determining other people’s salvation.

In this post I will discuss what I see as one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths: our non-creedal nature, or attempts to be so in any case.

Now depending on how you choose to personally define the word “creed” the LDS Church does have creeds, after a fashion. The word “creed” can mean simply “what a religion believes.” In this sense, Mormons have a “creed” because we have a body of beliefs. Surely this is not what I meant.

A “creed” might be viewed as being anything written down that summarizes beliefs. Mormons have that too: the Articles of Faith. And modernly we have the young women recite the young woman’s theme in creed-like fashion.

If one wants to call these “creeds,” fine, they are creeds. But they aren’t the problematic type I was describing in my previous post. Why? In the case of the Articles of Faith our prophets, through revelation, intentionally canonized it and made it scripture. No, “wink wink, nudge nudge,” going on here. If it acts like scripture, its scripture and we took the pains to get God’s approval before making it normative.

The young women’s theme is non-problematic because it does merely summarize scripture and also because it’s not used to cut off people who believe differently from those reciting it. Well, accept for the young men, of course. Would anyone really want to argue that “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us, and we love Him” is anything but a straight up scriptural pronouncement? (See, for example Acts 17:29.)

Some might define First Presidency statements as “creeds.” But just like the Articles of Faith, Mormons do not hide the fact that we see these as being extensions to scripture. Mormon First Presidency statements are the equivalent to the council of the Apostles held at Antioch as described in Acts 15. The Apostles and Prophets came together to seek guidance of the Lord and in the end added to scripture to resolve the situation. The church leader’s “decree,” and this is translated from the greek term dogma which is the same word as the legal and binding decrees Roman made, was sent to the Churches with expectation that they would be obeyed. But this wasn’t an interpretation of scripture – it was new scripture. Mormons claim the same authority here.

When I say Mormonism is “non-creedal” what I mean is that we strive to only believe that which is actually in the revelations from God and refuse to take a permanent definitive stance on anything else.

The problem with my definition is, well, that the LDS Church hasn’t always qualify. We “strive” for this, but sometimes fail.

But consider this quote from Joseph Smith: “It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty.” (The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 320) The need to form a “creed” – a non-scriptural but authoritative statement of belief by which to command  what everyone should believe – is so deeply embedded into human nature that it’s amazing that a creedless Church could exist at all! Much of the discussion I see on the Bloggernacle is really moaning that the Church won’t give out definitive answers on some subject or other.

Despite our problems, be they very real, the Mormons Church does strive to avoid creed-making to fill in the blank where the Lord hasn’t spoken. And we are getting better at this with time.

When Brigham Young decided to advance his now infamous Adam-God doctrine, Orson Pratt had no problem advancing his Brigham-Young-doesn’t-know-what-he’s-talking-about doctrine. Pratt was never excommunicated for teaching against Brigham Young’s pet doctrine.

When Joseph F. Smith and B.H. Roberts nearly came to blows (I’m only partially kidding) over the existence of death before the fall and pre-Adamites, the first Presidency resolved the breech by… get this… declaring there was no official doctrine on the subject. Can you imagine the Nicene Council coming up with this innovative answer?

When William and Ralph Chamberlain, in 1909, decided to teach at Brigham Young University that evolution was inline with LDS beliefs, though they were asked to leave BYU or stop teaching this, Leonard Arrington summarized their situation as follows: “the trauma could have been worse; there were no books banned, no excommunications or schisms. No official church position was taken with regard to evolution or higher criticism. In a church magazine… President Joseph F. Smith wrote that the decision had only been not to discuss evolution in church schools.” (The Mormon Experience, p. 260) While it may have felt like the Spanish Inquisition at the time, the Spanish Inquisition it was not!

A bit closer to home is this post on Delbert Stapley’s letter to George Romney to discourage his activity in the civil rights movement. The maximum “heat” Romney takes over his “dissent” is a rather friendly letter that was sent “not in… official church capacity” and that affirmed the “right of [his] position if it represents [his] true belief and feelings.” Of course Stapley’s views were also at odds with several contemporary church leaders, including then President David O. McKay who actively sought to end the priesthood-ban. (See Adventures of a Church Historian, chapter 11)

The LDS Church was founded on the idea of doing away with creeds. This consists of new revelation to remove debate on some subjects (Calvinism anyone?) and open acceptance of differing opinions where God hasn’t spoken. While human nature is to fill in the blanks with creeds, God’s will is apparently that we do not. The LDS Church gets at least a passing grade historically for staying creedless and modernly is finally arriving to the full understanding of this very important doctrine.

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25 Responses to The Only Truly Creedless Church on the Face of the Whole Earth

  1. John Nilsson
    January 15, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Bruce,

    This is a great follow-up to your first post.

    I am ambivalent on this creed issue. I love Joseph’s statement which you quote at the beginning. As such I prefer to think of the temple recommend interview as the best creed we have, light on doctrine but heavy on good behavior to God and our neighbor.

    At the same time, I wonder how much our reluctance to take positions on issues like evolution, the age of the earth, when human life begins, etc. stems from the fact that our theology has sealed itself off from contact with any secular conversation partners, especially in the sciences. John Widtsoe’s book Joseph Smith as Scientist was the last attempt by a General Authority to connect some kind of secular relevance to anything in our theology, and that was published in the 1940s.

    I also have to say that you slightly mischaracterize the threat contained in Elder Stapley’s letter to Romney. Stapley insinuates at some length that early death has come to politicians who aid black people. Stapley considers himself the messenger, not the executioner, to be sure, but his letter is sent as a warning, not an exchange of views. This kind of soft, friendly warning laden with hints of divine retribution is common in Mormon culture. I have heard it from mission presidents, seminary teachers, home teachers, and General Authorities.

  2. January 15, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    What about the RS Declaration? (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)

  3. January 15, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    I once heard a bit of folklore to the effect that once upon a time, there was an elderly High Priest who began a discourse in quorum meeting by announcing, “I will now exound on what God has not seen fit to reveal.”
    I think it wise for the Church not to try to fill in the gaps in our understanding of such subjects as you mention in the absence of revelation on the subject. The whole spiritual realm, including the miraculous, is inaccessible to the ordinary methods of science. Furthermore, science is alway at lest somewhat tentative, and always subject to revision based on new evidence. Especially when it comes to prehistory, it is not hard at all to find supposed experts contradicting one another and supposed experts who are far more certain about their opinions than the hard data warrants.
    Until Christ comes to tell us such things how the earth was made, and its perpose and destiny (D&C 101:32-33), any theoretical attempts to reconcile revealed truth and discovered science must remain tentative.
    That’s not to say that such attempts are worthless, but they should probably not come from General Authorities lest they be taken for doctrine when they are not.

  4. January 16, 2008 at 6:57 am

    This is a great post. I was drawn to the church as much because of what it did NOT teach as what it did.

  5. January 16, 2008 at 7:25 am

    Fantastic post. I will have to make a note of that quote by Joseph Smith.

    Richard Bushman, in Rough Stone Rolling, details the anti-creedal beginnings of the LDS Church. Something I wish we had stuck to more closely or understood more because we do seem to have so many points of doctrinal alignment that we have to adhere to.

    Bravo again.

  6. Doc
    January 16, 2008 at 10:02 am

    It does seem to be that orthodoxy/orthopraxy tries to rear its ugly head in our church as much as anyone’s. I don’t think we have yet reached the point were some is welcomed at Church when proclaiming doubt that Joseph Smith is a prophet, for example. What would it do to our religious identity if we did accept such individuals, I wonder?

    At the same time I see so much in the story of the first vision that is a condemnation of contention. I really don’t think God likes to be at the center of so many wars and conflicts through the ages. It is an all too human tendency to take the traditions of our fathers and use them as the defining point between good and bad, us and the other.

    I love the Universalist strain in Mormonism. I have to believe that with so few of us, we are going to be outnumbered in the CK in the end (with of course post-mortal embrace of truth.) I feel that to truly follow Joseph’s direction, eveb we members of the church will need the humility to discard our incorrect “folk” traditions of our fathers after this life to move on.

  7. January 16, 2008 at 10:44 am

    The position of the church today is that you can believe whatever heresies you want and retain your membership, as long as you keep your mouth shut. If you believe the official doctrines of the church, and even faith-promoting folklore, you are encouraged to open your mouth to everyone around you.

  8. January 16, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Well done.

    Actually there is a Mormon creed. Both Brigham Young and Joseph F. Smith acknowledged it. The Mormon Creed is:

    ‘Mind your own business’.

    I’m not kidding, look it up.

    With a church that believes in Modern revelation, we must be somewhat open ended in our beliefs. Remember, God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. Hopefully these future revelations will not force any of us into to much of a paradigm shift.

  9. Bruce Nielson
    January 16, 2008 at 10:55 am

    >>> I don’t think we have yet reached the point were some is welcomed at Church when proclaiming doubt that Joseph Smith is a prophet, for example. What would it do to our religious identity if we did accept such individuals, I wonder?

    This could be a blog post in and off itself. It seems to me that it would be inappropriate for a person that has doubts about Joseph Smith to proclaim them during the 3 hour block. But it also seems to me that outside of the 3 hour block we should expect them to express their doubts in a thoughtful and respectful way and we all need to adjust to the idea that a good member of the church won’t necessarily believe everything.

    >>> The position of the church today is that you can believe whatever heresies you want and retain your membership, as long as you keep your mouth shut. If you believe the official doctrines of the church, and even faith-promoting folklore, you are encouraged to open your mouth to everyone around you.

    But this makes sense to me, actually. Lame faith promoting folk lore doesn’t disrupt attempts at zionish unity nor sow doubt amongst those that are striving to believe, though it might have it’s own issues and problems. (Again, I’m thinking inside the 3 hour block here, not outside of church conversations.) Not that I’m in favor of faith promoting folk lore… but it’s certainly not going to cause the same sort of problem as someone disrupting things via sowing doubts.

    I also disagree with the word “encouraged” here. Obviously the real issue is the difficulty of fact checking. If a story is known to be false, it would generally get corrected, even if it was ‘faith promoting.’

  10. January 16, 2008 at 11:26 am

    “Again, I’m thinking inside the 3 hour block here, not outside of church conversations.”

    It applies to any conversations. Just ask the September Six, or the BYU professors who lost their jobs or did not get promoted, etc. But there are lots of other stories even lower profile than those. What matters is if people are listening to you.

    I agree though that church is probably not the place for really exploratory discussion which might be damaging to some. What I’d like is for church not to be so much of a place where orthodoxy is promoted by ignoring reality. I wish church discussions focused more on the central and crucial ideas of the gospel, like learning how to love each other. There are times when that happens and I love it. But a lot of the time church seems like a support group for people to vent on people who live differently (gays, secularists, other Christians, liberal mormons, Democrats, etc.)

  11. John Nilsson
    January 16, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Huh? False faith-promoting stories are simply never mentioned again, not retracted. Our Church culture forbids contention, hence the Bloggernacle.

    This is why false faith-promoting stories do more harm than good. I bet many folks had their faith shaken when they found out Paul Dunn’s stories were “exaggerated” because they had thought they felt the Spirit when they heard the false story the first time around.

    A local example: My wife and I were sitting in church right after 9/11, and a respected member of the ward and temple worker stood up in Sunday School and told us on good authority from the temple president that President Hinckley told all missionaries not to fly that day. This was believed by many members of the congregation and never retracted. When President Hinckley later said in General Conference that he had not foreseen the tragic events of that day, conversations we had with some of our friends indicated they were less willing to believe many other so-called faith-promoting temple stories this member previously and subsequently told.

    Falsehoods end up doing more harm than honest doubts in the long run…

  12. Bruce Nielson
    January 16, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    >>> But a lot of the time church seems like a support group for people to vent on people who live differently (gays, secularists, other Christians, liberal mormons, Democrats, etc.)

    Wow! I’m glad I don’t attend your ward! I’m glad I’ve never attended any ward like that!

    >>> Huh? False faith-promoting stories are simply never mentioned again, not retracted.

    If I said that, I’ll eat my computer screen.

  13. Bruce Nielson
    January 16, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    >>> but his letter is sent as a warning, not an exchange of views.

    There is a difference between me giving a sincere warning, if that is my honest view, and an exchange of views? Please explain further. I think my preceptions of this somehow differ from yours.

  14. John Nilsson
    January 16, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Bruce,

    Happy to explain. Elder Stapley wrote George Romney and indicated in the letter that “no reply is necessary.” That indicates Stapley is interested in getting his warning out to Romney because, as a friend, he is genuinely concerned that something bad will happen to him as a result of his civil rights advocacy for black Americans, not to be persuaded that he is misapplying the words of Joseph Smith in the contemporary setting. The word “exchange” is the key for me here, not views. Romney’s views on the implementation of the Civil Rights Bill in Michigan were public knowledge.

    I wish we had Romney’s (unsolicited) handwritten reply as well…

  15. Bruce Nielson
    January 16, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Does such a reply from Romney exist? Or are you just guessing?

    Yes, you are right, it’s not an “exchange” in the sense that they were saying “this is how I see it, how do you see it?” But let’s face it, that type of exchange is rare.

    This is more typical: each side wanted to express their views and did so — and in a non-threatening way. And by that I mean they aren’t threatening each other. Stapley’s warning of what God might do is not a threat. It’s an explanation of his honest, but we know incorrect, world view. If Stapley honestly thought God was working to ensure segregation and did so by removing opposition, Stapley absolutely owed this warning to Romney.

    We must not, using our modern knowledge and knowledge of the 1978 revelation, judge Stapley by our understanding. As I pointed out in my article, Stapley’s view was not the same as David O. McKay’s. While this was going on, Mckay (so saying Arrington anyhow) was actively seeking to remove the priesthood ban via prayer and seeking a revelation. He, in fact, modified it to weaken it. I’m going off what Leonard Arrington says here. Arrington is a pretty independent minded guy, so I have a trust level with him on this. You’ll have to read chapter 11 of Adventures of a Church Historian for yourself and tell me what you think.

    My point being, Stapley’s view was no where near unanimous.

  16. John Nilsson
    January 16, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    The PDF shows that a handwritten reply was sent. It’s a handwritten note in the upper-right hand corner of the last page of the letter, I believe.

  17. January 16, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    “Wow! I’m glad I don’t attend your ward! I’m glad I’ve never attended any ward like that!”

    Its human nature to not see damage when you aren’t the one being damaged. Surely you’ve heard discussion at church where people start talking about other churches and the contrast between us. Or how gay people wanting to get married is proof that Satan’s influence is everywhere. Or if politics comes up at all someone usually gets to slip in an inference that Democrats are immoral, amoral, or attempting to destroy traditional families.

    We have a fascination with the Last Days and have a sort of pride in facing the challenge of evil all around us. So often when we try to demonstrate that there are spiritual challenges around us, we use real human beings (i.e. children of God) as examples of evil. That is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

  18. Bruce Nielson
    January 16, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    Yeah, I suppose I see your point, Clay.

  19. Stephen Marsh
    January 18, 2008 at 8:17 am

    “Orson Pratt had no problem advancing his Brigham-Young-doesn’t-know-what-he’s-talking-about doctrine. Pratt was never excommunicated for teaching against Brigham Young’s pet doctrine.

    When Joseph F. Smith and B.H. Roberts nearly came to blows (I’m only partially kidding) over the existence of death before the fall and pre-Adamites, the first Presidency resolved the breech by… get this… declaring there was no official doctrine on the subject.”

    Nicely said. My favorite is the sermon that went with D&C Section 77.

  20. The Green Man
    January 18, 2008 at 10:35 am

    The Latin root for the word ‘creed’ is ‘credo’ which means ‘we believe’.

    . . . sound familiar?

  21. WestBerkeleyFlats
    January 24, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    There are various non-creedal religions, Hinduism, being the most obvious. That august source, Wikipedia, quotes
    Chief Justice P. B. Gajendragadkar in an Indian Supreme Court ruling:

    “When we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one God; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion of creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.”

    The LDS Articles of Faith are in essence a creed.

  22. WestBerkeleyFlats
    January 24, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    I also learned from Wikipedia that “Articles of Faith” is a generic term for creeds. The article on the subject begins:

    “Articles of faith are formal creeds, or lists of beliefs, sometimes numbered, and often beginning with “We believe…”, which attempt to more or less define the fundamental theology of a given religion and/or church. Articles of faith are common in both Christianity and Islam.”

    Friends are non-creedal. Baptists are apparently explicitly non-creedal.

    Is the purpose of this site to spread faith-promoting Mormon folklore?

  23. January 24, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    WestBerkeleyFlats,

    “Mormon Matters is an exploration and celebration of Mormon culture from all sides of the ideological spectrum.”

    If you are not a fan of Mormonism as a culture — then this site isn’t for you.

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