My uncle emailed me the other day. The bishop in his ward gave a talk about the Kirtland Temple and explained how the LDS church donated $100,000.00 per year to the Community of Christ for its upkeep. My uncle wanted to know, “is that true?”
I knew it wasn’t. My work with the John Whitmer Historical Association for the last few years has allowed me to form close connections with a number of Community of Christ leaders. But since this had been preached from the pulpit as a fact, I wanted to respond with definitive facts. So I talked to my friend Barbara Walden who is the director of the Kirtland Temple, and I put the question to her directly.
Of course the answer, unequivocally, was no. But it’s no surprise that she’d heard the question before. This particular canard has had a long enough shelf life that the Community of Christ probably could justify adding it to an FAQ list on their website. My friend Steve Shields who works at church headquarters in Independence, Missouri, loves to tell a much better variant of this Kirtland Temple story. One of his LDS friends had it on good authority that the LDS church was “in negotiations” to buy the Kirtland Temple for the sum of $40 million. Again, Steve knew this wasn’t the case, but he called the office of the First Presidency to confirm or deny the rumor. Grant McMurray, who was then one of the counselors conferred with his colleagues. President McMurray told Steve that he could tell his LDS friend that the answer was, quote: “hell, no!”
This is hardly the only faith-promoting LDS rumor that is frequently repeated about the RLDS/Community of Christ. LDS Mormons seem to know a lot of facts about their Reorganized Latter Day Saint cousins. The only problem is that most of these facts aren’t facts at all.
Let me cover a few more myths that I hear all the time:
* The RLDS church only gave women the priesthood because they ran out of male Smiths to lead the church. 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 descendents 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.
* The Community of Christ scrapped the Book of Mormon in order to join the World Council of Churches (WCC). 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.
* The RLDS church changed its name because it wants to become another Protestant church. 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.
* 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. 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.
The two have always been composed of extremely different types of Mormons. RLDS members at their core are dissenters and free-thinkers — the Mormon value they have always put first is free agency. For the RLDS, William Law (the editor of the Nauvoo Expositor) is a hero because he fought against creeping theocracy and corruption in the church, even though it meant taking on Joseph Smith Jr. himself. The people who became LDS, by contrast, were the mass of movement’s obeyers. For the people who joined Brigham Young’s organization, William Law was a Judas. It doesn’t matter that he was exposing terrible abuses of authority because it is of paramount importance to obey the hierarchy, right or wrong: Enter into polygamy because the leader commands it; cease polygamy for the same reason.
The fact that the two groups have always had this fundamentally opposite market differentiation means that the LDS organization has nothing to learn whatsoever from the RLDS organization’s experience. It would be impossible for MicroSoft to emulate Apple’s business practices because Apple has always been a niche player, while MicroSoft is working as the broad-based establishment. Let’s say Apple successfully branded itself to a particular niche of young, trendy professionals. If MicroSoft attempted to ape that success with similar marketing schemes, it would most likely only succeed in alienating its much broader client base.
Does the Community of Christ’s experience (for good or ill) presage the results the LDS church can expect to reap when women are eventually ordained and welcomed into the leadership? In the words of the RLDS First Presidency, the true answer is: “hell, no!”