The RLDS church was founded in 1860. Joseph Smith III was the first prophet. Recently, they have changed their name to the Community of Christ (CoC), and have begun to distance themselves from former beliefs and teachings. I found the following statement issued by their current prophet, President Stephen M. Veazey, quite startling. The RLDS church had long held a position that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy. Many thanks go to FireTag for letting me know about this statement. I want to quote a small part of the interview here, but the full interview can be found on the CoC website.
Your address called the church to put our early history into informed perspective, including being open to new information and insights. You cited how we have typically talked about violence in the early church as one example. What is another example?
Another example is how we have viewed the origin of celestial or plural marriage in the early church. There is no doubt the early Reorganization endeavored to distance Joseph Smith Jr. from the doctrine and practice of plural marriage. Such separation was viewed as critical to church identity and survival.
However, during the past fifty years or so, RLDS/Community of Christ historians cautioned us not to be so certain in our conclusions. Unfortunately, many ignored their findings. Even worse, some attacked their integrity and harassed them and their families.
The vast majority of church historians have persuasively concluded that Joseph Smith Jr. was involved prominently in the doctrine and practice of celestial or plural marriage. There is also some evidence that shortly before his death, Joseph approached William Marks, Nauvoo Stake president, and said that he (Joseph) had “been deceived” in the matter of plural marriage and that every effort must be made to rid the church of the doctrine. Unfortunately, he was killed before anything could be done.
So, where does this leave us? The Reorganized Church has always said that plural marriage in the early church was wrong, regardless of its origins. We need to let it go at that. Reigniting old debates over this issue will be unproductive and only serve to distract us from more important endeavors.
There is another step we can take. As we continue to take the path of healing and reconciliation, it would be good to say how sorry we are for the hateful actions of some toward those who sought to bring uncomfortable historical information to the church’s attention.
Why might the idea that “our history does not have to be without blemish to reveal the hand of God working in the movement” be so difficult for some in the church? How does affirming both their shortcomings and triumphs reveal the true character of Christian discipleship?
As I indicated in my address, we have had a tendency to write church history in a way that placed the church and its leaders in the most favorable light possible. This kind of approach is not unique to the church, but can be seen in various biographical, cultural, and national histories that are meant to affirm certain origins or ideals. Unfortunately, one outcome of this approach is that we do not always hear “the rest of the story” that may include information that is not as favorable. If we have placed our faith in a person or institution based on a polished version of history that is eventually found to be incomplete, we can become anxious or fearful that our faith has been misplaced.
The church’s “History Principles” offer a different perspective that I think is helpful as we attempt to be more open about our history. [See October 2008 Herald, p. 10; www.CofChrist.org/OurFaith/history.asp.] Instead of placing our faith in a particular version of history, we are encouraged to see the ultimate source of our faith as God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Having established “first things first” we are then able to put our history into proper relationship with our faith. This frees us to view personalities from our past as inspired without having to deny their humanity and struggles which is also part of the story. In fact, their humanity and struggles become an opportunity to see more clearly how God worked in their lives and in the movement. This hopefully encourages us that we too can become instruments in God’s hands despite what we perceive to be our human limitations or weaknesses.
So, what do you think of the CoC’s perspective? How would you react to a similar statement by the LDS church?