President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s talk has sent a shock wave of sheer joy throughout the Latter-day Saint community, ranging from conservative housewives to liberal academics. One blogger used Park and Recreation’s Ben Wyatt to demonstrate the dramatic impact of Uchtdorf’s talk:
For others, it was more like:
But what did he do? Among other things, he said that church leaders might actually make incorrect decisions and that expressing doubts is ok. It doesn’t (necessarily) mean that you want to get high and sleep with prostitutes. It’s hard for a person to listen to it without feeling just a little more welcome in Church.
But was he revolutionary? Is he the first, second, or even third general authority to express an inclination towards inclusion of people coming from different ideological perspectives? In this regard, Uchtdorf’s talk was remarkably unremarkable.
Am I suggesting that it’s been 180-some years of utopia? No. But the reality is that the ideas that Uchtdorf gave us do have a history, and one needn’t dig very deep to find it. I am excluding my list to those individuals who, like Uchtdorf, held positions of priesthood authority.
1) Elijah Able[s]. Yes, he comes up again. But there’s more to the “first black Mormon” than being the first black Mormon. He was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy in Cincinnati from 1842-1853. He was an ardent defender of the Twelve’s claims to authority following the death of Joseph Smith; yet he managed to maintain a positive relationship with William Smith, brother to the Prophet and one of the Twelve’s most vitriolic critics. When Smith’s church in Covington, KY church fell apart amid a sexual scandal, Smith went to Ables home for help. Ables allowed him to live there while William got back on his feet. He also had the chutzpah to prophecy that over the long game, his legacy would be resurrected. In 1973, Lester Bush proved him right.
2) Lorenzo Snow. This diminuitive man probably associated more closely with social radicals than anyone else in church
leadership. From 1834-1835, he attended Oberlin College, the school founded by abolitionists’ abolitionists. Committed to the immediate cessation of slavery in America, their views made most of church leadership feel uneasy; Joseph Smith himself denounced them, saying that God would end slavery in his own due time. While Snow found the Oberlin student body to be hypocritical (“If there is nothing better than is to be found here at Oberlin College,” he wrote to his sister, “goodbye to all religion”), his own edginess surfaced on occasion. In February 1849, it was he who pressed Brigham Young to articulate a position on blacks being taught the Mormon message. In his later years, Snow accepted the race-based priesthood exclusion but believed that African-Americans had willingly assumed the burden as part of the cross of mortality. Not exactly guns-a-blazing activism, but compared to his contemporaries’ views (who tended to think that blacks were less-spiritually-inclined because of some sort of premortal fall), it definitely puts him in the Win column for inclusiveness.
3) B.H. Roberts. As the President of the Southern States Mission, Roberts crossed swords with critics, mobs, and everyone in between. Self-taught in history, theology, and science, Roberts made the first real effort to incorporate evolution in the Mormon narrative, allowing for the possible existence of pre-Adamites. His writings so annoyed other church leaders that they were suppressed, not to be reprinted until the early 21st-century. He was also the first to address the myriad scientific and linguistic criticisms of Book of Mormon historicity; so effective was he that several readers have questioned whether he lost his faith in the sacred volume (for a treatment of Roberts’ intellectual contributions, see chapter 4 of this book)
4) David O. McKay. McKay was something of a flawed titan, as Gregory Prince renders him. Though uncompromisingly opposed to the civil rights movement for the African-Americans, he exhibited remarkable openness and compassion for the Church’s growing academics who had tendencies towards the out-of-the-box thinking that made local church leaders uncomfortable. He also engaged in unprecedented ecumenical outreach with other religious denominations in Salt Lake City.
5) Hugh B. Brown. Though born in rural Utah, Brown grew up in the shadow of Canadian liberalism. While opposed to political non-affiliation (being an “independent” in the 1960s, he felt, probably meant that you were looking for an excuse to “do your own thing” a la drugs and sex), he was a committed Democrat who supported government spending on anti-poverty programs (Prince provides a good treatment of Brown’s contributions as well).
6) Sterling W. Sill. On the one hand, Sill was the consummate booster of the American success story, with an undying faith in the availability of opportunity. But for all his commitment to financial success, he also demonstrated a remarkable durability for engaging ideas not in-line with conventional Mormon doctrine. He cited famed atheist Robert Ingersoll approvingly, calling him a “great orator” and a “great architect of speech.” When Sill read his works (nearly 20,000 pages worth, by his account), he didn’t “read his works to try to out-argue him or to find fault with them. I read them actually to try to help him persuade me that there was something better than those things that I believed.”
7) Stanley Roberts. As bishop of the Berkeley single adult ward in the 1980s, Roberts pioneered what would eventually become the Saints’ position on homosexuality. In a time when homosexuals were demonized, Roberts sought to increase the church activity of homosexual men. When questioned on his inclusiveness (one leader said that homosexuals should be “kick[ed] out of the Church”), he said only that the Church was not “a country club for people who are perfect.”
8) Robert S. Wood. A highly-accomplished academic in military science, Woods has had extensive experience engaging
with thinkers who fundamentally disagree with him and with Mormonism. As a young graduate student, he wrote a scathing review of a well-known political theorist. When reviewing his work, his professor taught him an important lesson: “Before you launch into your criticism,” the professor told him, “you must first present the strongest case for the position you are opposing, one that the philosopher himself could accept.” Woods took this lesson to heart and incorporated it into a General Conference address: Latter-day Saints, he declared, “should avoid caricaturing the positions of others, constructing ‘straw men‘…and casting unwarranted aspersions on their motivations and character.
9) D. Todd Christofferson. In April 2012, Christofferson became notable for acknowledging that church leaders might say things that don’t accord with doctrine, observing that “it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine.”
Perhaps Uchtdorf’s words don’t call for us to change the Church but to rediscover what has always been there. And as we can all rightly assume, these leaders were not seeking to diminish their brethren in our eyes; rather, they wanted to show, as Boyd K. Packer put it not “that prophets were men but that men could be prophets.”