The New Gospel Principles

Mainstreaming

I have mixed feelings.

The LDS church has published an updated edition of Gospel Principles (already available for purchase). Sunday school teachers use this manual to teach new church members and anyone thinking about becoming a member. For the next two years, the church will also use this manual to teach the other adult members during the last hour of Sunday services instead of another installment in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series.

A number of changes have been made to the manual since it was last published in 1997. Among changes made for clarity, the church has also made changes that eliminate or significantly downplay a number of doctrines:

  • Faithful members will become “a god”.
  • God was not always a god.
  • God became a god the same way members of the LDS church can become gods.
  • Jesus Christ is our eldest spiritual brother.
  • Satan is also our brother. That makes Jesus and Satan brothers.
  • We are the children of “heavenly parents” (i.e. we have a Mother in Heaven).
  • Adam and Eve are the “parents of the human race”. They are now simply called “our first parents”.
  • The church in Jesus’ time had the same organization as the current LDS church.
  • The organization of the church in Joseph Smith’s time was completed within “several years”. Instead, the manual says that the church is still developing.
  • Faithful members must be obedient to all of the commandments in order to gain Exaltation.

I applaud some of those changes. One gives enough wiggle room that members can stop ignoring the evidence that humans evolved from apes. Another may help ameliorate the plague of perfectionism among Mormons. Others open the door to the admission that the church has changed over the years.

And hey, the new cover is an improvement.

At the same time, I’m sad to see the leaders of the LDS church continue to distance themselves from some of the doctrines that I cherished most as a member of their faith. These doctrines gave me hope and made Mormonism interesting. Without them, Mormonism becomes just another shade of Protestantism. yawn

Some will say that this doesn’t represent a change in doctrine, that the church is only simplifying things for new members. I would be tempted to accept that except for a couple of things. First, this is being used to teach all adult members, not just the new ones. If the intention was to ease new members’ learning curve, then why dumb doctrines down for everyone?

Second, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find those doctrines in any official publications. It would be an enlightening exercise to research the last official publication that explicitly mentioned, for example, that faithful LDS members would become gods and goddesses. Even the temple ceremony doesn’t present that doctrine. I’m not sure how anyone learns that doctrine anymore except by word of mouth.

More and more, the Mormonism that I grew up with is becoming an oral tradition expunged from the written record. That makes me a little sad, strangely enough.

[Crossposted at Green Oasis.]

23 thoughts on “The New Gospel Principles

  1. I admit this is a bit spooky…

    In the past, it’s kinda irked me that people have pulled up non-authoritative statements (e.g., not part of the scriptural quad canon) to bludgeon the church with. To me, I want to say, “Stick with official stuff.” Yet, to them, many of which who have grown up in different times, that stuff may have been official.

    Now, I’m kinda ambivalent to the new Gospel Principles manual, because to me, it seems that it still is nonauthoritative…so any changes to it aren’t as big as changes to the scriptural canon would be. But I can still see that this “downplaying” of unique doctrines could produce some crazy consequences for me in the future. It could be that in the future the Mormonism that I know is not the Mormonism that is taught.

  2. Spooky is a good word for how I feel about it. I thought about it this morning. The Orwellian nature of these changes struck me.

    By slipping in these significant changes (or changes to canonized scripture) without public explanation or discussion, it feels like church leadership is attempting to change history.

    “Oceania is at war with Eastasia. Do you remember that now? Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Since the beginning of your life, … since the beginning of history, the war has continued without a break, always the same war. Do you remember that?”

    And even though I now consider these doctrines little better than fairytales, they are a part of my personal history. To change the doctrines without openly acknowledging the changes feels like a denial of my history. I feel my sense of identity being threatened. How odd!

  3. This has already happened for me, just with the change that not ALL of the current Indians/Native Americans were descended from Lamanites (which I was taught growing up).

    I believe any religion/organization should be able to go through their core beliefs and make changes. The rub comes when you 1 – deny that you’ve made any changes and 2 – refuse to denounce those former beliefs officially. (I’m talking specifically about Brigham Young’s racist beliefs, which I mentioned here at MSP before.

    I believe (as I mentioned in that prior post) that it is important to denounce those beliefs. I don’t think it’s effective to simply deny they were ever there, or were ever part of the canon. It would be like denying the U.S. ever promoted human slavery (which it did).

    The standard hymns still have references to those things, btw. Like the hymn “Oh My Father” (and “Praise to the Man”, I may be mis-remembering some of the lyrics to that hymn, however). The references in the hymns just aren’t backed up by standard official documentation in class resources.

  4. The change about the Lamanites might also be reflected in the new GP manual.

    “Nephi, a Book of Mormon prophet, sailed journeyed from Jerusalem to the American continent about six hundred Americas 600 years before the birth of Christ…”

    Maybe I’m making too much of that change, but it seems that they’re trying to distance themselves from the whole-continent theory of the Book of Mormon.

    The hymnal was last revised in 1985. That’s over 20 years old! Just wait until the next revision, and we’ll see what changes they make.

    (BTW, did you know that only 26 of the hymns in the current hymnal were used in the 1835 edition (which had 90 hymns)? Also Praise to the Man and Come, Come Ye Saints were originally sung to completely different tunes.)

  5. As long as we have gotten rid of the mind numbly boring Teachings of the Presidents of the Church. Is it me or has church gotten more boring over the last 10-15 years?

  6. Is it just me or are all references to Heavenly Parents being removed? So is the church going to bury teachings about Heavenly Mother?

  7. I actually found the Teachings of the Presidents manuals somewhat interesting for individual study. The way they were implemented for group study sucked Lucifer’s left nut.

    The way leaders discouraged teachers from bringing in outside material or riffing off the theme of the chapter meant that most teachers ended up reading the lesson each week. People realized this and it killed any small chance that they might read the lesson ahead of time, which in turn killed off any worthwhile discussion outside of the lesson materials.

    I ended up wondering why I should bother to come to church to have someone else read a book to me that I was perfectly capable of reading for myself. Having a teacher that couldn’t express their individuality added no value to the material in the book.

    Ergo boring.

  8. They’ve apparently remove references to “heavenly parents” throughout the book but added one reference in chapter 2. So this is one doctrine that hasn’t been eliminated but seriously downplayed.

  9. I don’t see any conspiracy here. I see these is minor wording changes that don’t reveal any change in doctrine. This is a basic manual to present basic doctrines in a simple way. It seems to me that they are just trying to explain things in a simple way–presenting milk before meat.

  10. Good to meet you, Bill. From the perspective of a convert, milk before meat is a manipulative practice.

    Converting to Mormonism in Germany came at a steep price for my family. It transformed our relationship to our peers, our extended family, and required us to adapt to different niches in the economy.

    Is it really asking for too much that the Church disclose its agenda fully?

  11. I only spend a short time analyzing the changes. The most important change is that the new manual is deemphasizing god’s love for us. In the old manual, love is god’s defining property. In the new manual, love is submerged in a list of other properties.

    The new view of god’s love adjusts to Russell Nelson’s teaching that god’s love is conditional.

  12. Besides god’s conditional love, the new manual also places greater emphasis on Boyd Packer style obedience.

    The liberating aspects of the gospel are carefully removed in favor of more authoritarian attitudes, which adulate and idolize the brethren.

  13. Bill,

    No one can say I didn’t call this one: “Some will say that this doesnt represent a change in doctrine, that the church is only simplifying things for new members.” 🙂

    Starting out simple is fine, as long as there is adequately full disclosure prior to baptism. It makes sense to me (if the church is really concerned that people will learn and live the LDS gospel) that an investigator should receive a thorough education over the course of six months to a year prior to baptism.

    Of course, lifelong members don’t receive “adequately full disclosure” during Sunday services, so I have little hope that this will ever happen.

    Some say that it’s important to baptize a person as soon as possible to make sure that they receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost to help sustain them. Poor retention numbers tell me that this strategy leaves much to be desired.

    I think it’s a question of marketing. The LDS church is giving membership away too easily. Make them work for it, and maybe they’ll stick around.

    Hellmut,

    I haven’t taken a bird’s-eye view of the changes (too lazy I suppose). You’ve made me want to take another look.

  14. BTW, I don’t mean to imply that their is a conspiracy to alter LDS doctrines. I only mean that the LDS culture encourages secrecy in the dealings of the church. It also encourages denials of any changes. Cumulatively, the LDS church exerts an Orwellian influence on its members. I suspect that LDS leaders are as much the victims of this Orwellian influence as any ordinary member.

  15. It seems to me that Gordon Hinckley was quite insecure during the last decades of his life. Of course, his children and grandchildren did very well thanks to daddy’s connections.

  16. 15. Hellmut, what did you mean by Gordon Hinckley was quite insecure during the last decades of his life. Are you referring to his 60 minute interview, for example? I did think he emphasized kindness more towards the end of his life.

  17. And even though I now consider these doctrines little better than fairytales, they are a part of my personal history. To change the doctrines without openly acknowledging the changes feels like a denial of my history. I feel my sense of identity being threatened. How odd!

    I feel the same way.

    I also agree that it seems Orwellian that they would make these changes without highlighting them, explaining them, or discussing them. Contrast this with the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS). They’ve recently made some changes in doctrine, and they not only made the changes openly — canonizing a new section in their D&C — but they set aside time in Sunday School to discuss the changes. (I know this because I attended their Sunstone service, including Sunday School. 😉 )

    Why can’t the LDS similarly have an open discussion with the members about the changes in doctrine and emphasis? As it is, if the brethren (or whoever writes the manuals) merely stop saying a given doctrine (without denouncing it, as aerin mentions, or even stating whether or not it is still valid), that causes an enormous amount of confusion about what the LDS believe, even within the church.

  18. Many of the things you mentioned are still in the manual. Just because they have been removed in one section doesn’t mean that it was removed entirely. I’m sure you haven’t had a chance to read the whole manual yet, but just doing a simple search I found the following things:

    5 hits for “heavenly parents,” mostly in chapter 2. There is explicitly one reference to Adam and Eve being created in the image of “heavenly parents”.

    The chapter on exaltation states: “They will become gods”

    While explicit references to Jesus and Satan as our brothers has been taken out, the idea is still in there. The whole council was made up of our Heavenly Father’s children. As a side note, there has been a shift in thought because so many members used to focus on Jesus as our brother, when GA’s have tried to correct that mentality, stating while that is true, it’s more important to focus on Jesus as our Savior. The change reflects an attempt to affect the thought of the members, not a change in actual doctrine.

    I don’t see how the change from “parents of the human race” to “our first parents” is a significant change. Just seems to make it more personal to me.

  19. Greetings Dustinsc,

    My point wasn’t that all of the items have been completely eliminated. The fact that the number of references to several doctrines has been reduced cannot be disputed. The question is why these changes were made.

    It looks to me like they are de-emphasizing these doctrines. I can think of two likely reasons. Perhaps they are trying to distance themselves from doctrines that are now considered speculative. (Cf. Hinckley’s statement about the “as man is, God once was…” couplet in Newsweek.)

    Or perhaps they’re simply trying to avoid exposing new members and investigators to doctrines that cause negative reactions for some.

    I can only speculate because the church does these things opaquely.

    Regarding the “first parents” language, I’m probably reading too much into it, but this reflects the language used in the 1910 First Presidency statement:

    Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God. (emphasis added)

    Given this statement, the idea of “first parents” was compatible in the eyes of the 1910 First Presidency with evolution through natural selection. Yeah, I’m probably reading too much into it.

    Regarding the use of Mormon Research Ministry as a source, are there any factual errors in what they reported? The truth is that I spot checked what they reported against the online version at lds.org (that’s where I got the image of the book cover) and my own hardcopy edition. What I checked seemed correct.

    I do not concede the implied point that MRM is more biased than LDS Inc. when it comes to matters of changing LDS doctrine.

    Happy Da de los Muertos!

  20. I’m with Jonathan. Born and raised in the Church, served a mission, BYU, temple marriage, the whole thing. Heard all of it all my life. Watched the dumbing down of Church curriculum with increasing dismay, and even my young kids feel it, all of us to the point that we’re bored out of our minds those last two hours. So we regularly bail after Sacrament meeting and have our own gospel instruction at home.

  21. My wife and I were talking about the new manual last night. She’s her ward’s Gospel Principles teacher, and she worries that the new members will be even more bored over the next two years since they will be learning from the same manual for the last two hours. It would be a strange thing, if you think about it, to come to a new church and find two-thirds of the meetings devoted to one book that isn’t part of their scriptures. And boring.

  22. The concept that we are to be taught Milk before Meat so that we learn the simple things first and the more complex or deep doctrinal issues second is a false argument.
    Mormon beliefs and practices are quite simple, none of it is compolex. Eternal progression, polygamy in the CK, Temple rituals are all easily understood and explained.
    The only thing complex about it is how the Church presents this information.
    I could explain it all to a 10 year old in 30 minutes or less.

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