I have done a fair amount of research on your faith and have found it to have many merits. My question has to do with Joseph Smith’s revelation that all denominations were “abominations” in the eyes of God. From further readings it appears that Joseph Smith singled out the Roman Catholic Church as the “worst” of the denominations. Yet I came across an article in a Catholic magazine that had an interview with the Catholic bishop of SLC and the President of LDS, who described their denomination’s relationship with each other as good, and noted that the LDS church assisted Catholic Charities in aid projects. Does the LDS Church still teach that other churches are an abomination? Is this still a key tenet of the faith?
With the Romney campaign rolling along, lots of non-Mormons are wrestling with what it would mean to have a Mormon president—and it’s certainly fair to ask if you might be electing a man who thinks you are, well, abominable.
There’s a passage in the Book of Mormon—1 Nephi 13—that talks about a “great and abominable church,” a passage interpreted by some early Church leaders as a reference to Catholicism. It’s possible to view this as a reflection of anti-Catholicism pervasive in Joseph Smith’s 19th century America. But like other prejudices, it obtained a foothold in LDS thought. A nineteenth-century Mormon thinker named Orson Pratt reiterated the link between Catholicism and “the great and abominable church” in 1854. Another major LDS thinker named B. H. Roberts rejected the idea outright in 1906. New life was breathed into it when in the 1950s, an LDS Church leader named Bruce R. McConkie published a book entitled Mormon Doctrine that was regarded decades as an unofficial guide to Mormon theology, even though it contained some very hurtful non-doctrinal assertions, including a passage in which McConkie famously linked Catholicism to the “great and abominable church” described in the Book of Mormon. That reference was edited out by the time its second edition appeared in 1966, and the whole book was removed from publication and circulation just a few years ago.
So given this conflicting record, what do Mormons really believe? Mormon thought rolls along through a process Church members describe as “continuing revelation,” and different teachings emerge or fade into the background over time. We are not a creedal religion–there’s no uniform statement of belief Mormons around the world recite on Sundays—so it can be difficult to know which beliefs are “really” still held as doctrine, and different Mormons will answer some questions differently. Generally, though, canny observers of Mormonism note that if the Church’s top leaders have not discussed an idea at the Church’s semi-annual General Conferences for more than a few decades, it may no longer hold a central place in the doctrine. That’s not an official rule, but it can be a help to understanding what matters in Mormon doctrine today.
There’s a nifty on-line tool at Brigham Young University in which you can track the actual usages of terms in Conference talks from the 1850s onward. Find it here. And using this tool, I see that it’s been a long time since anyone talked about a “great and abominable church” in General Conference—as in 1988, when Boyd K. Packer used the phrase, but insisted that it applied to anyone who opposed the work of God. And before that, it was 1949, when, yes, J. Reuben Clark strongly hinted that the “great and abominable church” was the Catholics. But that was 60 years ago.
I’m sure you can find older Mormons who, when pressed, will take a J. Reuben Clark / Bruce R. McConkie approach to Catholicism and other religions. There were shades of that in my own Mormon upbringing, but they always felt mean and rude, and so I set them aside. The fact is that most Mormons today live in places where we are a small minority, and we live our lives getting along with and looking for the best in others, even when there are elements in our religious tradition that suggest a harder line position on other faiths. Indeed there may be some older Mormon types out there who might cough up a grouchy line from Bruce R. McConkie. But when pressed, even very orthodox LDS types will likely say that they believe the LDS Church has the most “complete” truth of any religion on earth—skipping that whole grisly “abomination” bit. And Mitt Romney did, after all, pick Paul Ryan, a Catholic, as his running mate.
It’s funny what gets remembered from a religion’s history. Because the same Joseph Smith who reported that God told him other “creeds” were an “abomination” also said this: “Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, &c, any truth? Yes. They all have a little truth mixed with error. We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons’” (History of the Church, 5:517).
That’s a definition of “true Mormon” I strongly prefer.
What do you think, readers? How were you raised to regard other faiths? How thick is anti-Catholicism in Mormon thought and culture to this day?
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