The Rebranding of an American Religion

Posted: April 5, 2015 in Carl Wimmer, Mormon Studies
Vintage-Harley-Davidson-Jersey-Shirt-6_EDITED

“Like the motorcycle company before them, the LDS Church is at risk of disappearing”

by Carl Wimmer
According to a February 2011 Business Insider article, in 1985 Harley Davidson was “at risk of disappearing from the highway.”[1] Its quality was terrible, the company was almost bankrupt, and product was not selling. Fast forward thirty years, and Harley-Davidson is the envy of every motorcycle enthusiast, even those who have never ridden a motorbike, wear Harley brand clothing. What happened? Only one of the most successful rebrands in the history of free-capitalism, that’s what happened!

Harley knew they had lost some customers, in fact they knew they had lost many customers, so they improved quality, changed their mission, brought in Richard F. Teerlink as CEO, and the company grew. It is likely that many old-time customers who had lost trust in the company never went back, but Harley-Davidson’s vision was on the future, not necessarily on the attrition they had faced.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “the Mormons,” is going through similar circumstances in the 21st century as Harley-Davidson did in the 1980’s. In 2012, in what can only be described as a rare candid moment, LDS Historian Marlin K. Jensen admitted that, “more members are falling away today than any time in the past 175 years.”[2]   The article also stated that it is likely the number of active LDS members world-wide is as low as 5 million members.  Furthermore, a Reuters article in 2012 stated that census data from foreign countries showed that the retention rate for LDS converts is as low as 25%.[3]

Like the motorcycle company before them, the LDS Church is at risk of disappearing from the “religious highway,” and in similar fashion, they have embarked on an aggressive rebranding of the religion. As with any company facing a re-brand, the LDS church seems willing to accept a certain level of attrition from its older members, in order to rebrand for the future generation.

Over the last 18-months the LDS church has released a series of “essays” which are meant to clear up doctrinal questions for those members who run into difficult issues. The church has tackled such topics as the multiple and varied first-vision accounts of Joseph Smith, blacks and the priesthood, polygamy, the book of Abraham, becoming like God, and others. Furthermore, in a recent LDS conference talk, Dieter F. Uchtdorf who is in the first presidency of the church admitted that church leaders have “made mistakes.”

Bruce R. McConkie was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The LdS Church from 1972 until his death

Bruce R. McConkie was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The LdS Church from 1972 until his death

Each of these essays, as well as the talks given in conference are a part of the great LDS rebrand. And by the time it is done, the church that your parents and anyone over 30-years-old grew up in will be a thing of the re-written past. Allow me to lay out the argument for the rebranding and see for yourself.

1958 marked the pinnacle of what some would call the “McConkie era.” This was when Bruce R. McConkie, a member of the LDS church leadership, published his epic book, Mormon Doctrine. This book was vastly popular with the church members as it laid out in black-and-white the doctrine of the LDS church. Mormon Doctrine derided the idea of being saved by grace through the atonement of Jesus Christ, made it abundantly clear that black people were less valiant in the pre-existence and were, therefore, cursed with a dark-skin, it also clearly made known the prophetic decree which kept blacks from holding the priesthood and going to the temple.

The book was changed and revised several times, and in 2010 Deseret Book halted sale and publication of Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, citing “low sales,” but the fact was that this book, had to disappear into the annuls of church history in order to pave the way for the future LDS model.

Rebranding a fallible Prophet
In October of 2013, Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the LDS Church First-presidency said, “To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”[4]

This revelation should have rocked the LDS world, because prior to this admission, the members of the church were taught that the Prophet was completely infallible when it came to leading the church, and if he wasn’t God would take him out! Compare what President Uchtdorf said with these quotes which I, and everyone else of my generation, grew up to believe and accept:

“Keep your eye on the prophet, for the Lord will never permit His prophet to lead this church astray.”
– Prophet Ezra Taft Benson, (Conference Report, Oct. 1966, pg. 123)

“It is the Lord who is directing this Church.  You don’t need to worry very much about Gordon Hinckley.  The Lord is directing this work, and He won’t let me or anyone else lead it astray.”
– Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, (Fireside in Crawley, England, Aug. 26, 1995)

Ezra Taft Benson, Thirteenth LDS President

Ezra Taft Benson, Thirteenth LDS President (1985–1994)

“I think there is one thing which we should have exceedingly clear in our minds.  Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord.”
– Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, (Conference Report, April 1972, pg. 99)

“I testify in the name of Israel’s God that he will not suffer the head of the church, whom he has chosen to stand at the head, to transgress his law and apostatize; the moment he should take a course that would in time lead to it, God would take him away.”
-Prophet Joseph F. Smith, (Journal of Discourses 24:187-194; June 21, 1883)

Even the LDS Church’s own Doctrine and Covenants 1:38 says in part, “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” So why the shift in October of 2013? Because two months later, the LDS Church would re-write history…

Blacks and the Mormon Church
In December of 2013 the LDS Church released their essay on the history of the church in regards to black people entitled “Race and the Priesthood”. Prior to this date, the doctrine of the church was that black people were less valiant in the “pre-existence” and therefore received the “curse of Cain,” a skin of blackness.

General authority Bruce R. McConkie said:

“Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty. The gospel message of salvation is not carried affirmatively to them…. Negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned.”[5]

The Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith said:

There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we come here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less.[6]

Any LDS adult who is honest will tell you that they had always been taught that the ban on blacks was a judgment from God, and that the church was carrying on God’s prophecy. The Mormon Prophet John Taylor took it even further by identifying blacks as being representatives of Satan:

And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God…”[7]

President David O. McKay said the real reason for “denying the priesthood to Negroes,” “dates back to our pre-existent life.”[8]

In 1978 the LDS Church under the Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, changed the policy on blacks and the priesthood. This was considered revelation by God, and President Kimball said:

I offered the final prayer and told the Lord if it wasn’t right, if He didn’t want this change to come in the Church that I would be true to it the rest of my life, and I’d fight the world against it if that’s what He wanted. We had this special prayer circle, then I knew the time had come.
– President Spencer W. Kimball, Deseret News, Church Section, January 6, 1979, p. 19

In the aforementioned Race and Priesthood essay the finger is pointed directly at President Brigham Young alluding to the fact that he was caught up in the anti-black culture of the day. They are quick to point out that the ban did not start with Joseph Smith, and that it was not prophecy but merely cultural.

President Joseph Fielding Smith disagrees when he said in 1963 “It is not the authorities of the Church who have placed a restriction on him [the black man] regarding the holding of the Priesthood. It was not the Prophet Joseph Smith…. It was the Lord!”[9]

Brigham Young, Second LDS Church President

Brigham Young, Second LDS Church President (1847–1877)

If it is true that Brigham Young started the ban due to racist, cultural feelings, you must ask yourself how it is that a church which is supposedly lead by a living Prophet, Seer and Revelator, was deceived by the racist opinions of Brigham Young for more than 130 years and through 11 of 15 Presidencies.

Every LDS President from Brigham Young until Spencer W. Kimball upheld the ban, which means that every black person who lived during this time (11 of the 15 church presidents) were denied temple marriage, temple endowments, priesthood, and by extension exaltation into the Celestial Kingdom, all because they were apparently fooled by the racist Brigham Young. What does this say about their ability to actually prophecy for themselves? What does it say about their ability to lead the church? But it gets worse.

The essay says “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse.” This is great until you realize that by saying this, the Church is now disavowing portions of the Book of Mormon and The Book of Abraham!  In speaking of the Lamanites, 2 Nephi 5:21 says “And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

The essay goes on to say, “ (We disavow the idea) that it (black skin) reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else.” Obviously this is in direct contradiction to every Prophet listed above. Who is right?

This issue has caused several active LDS members to begin to question their church, many of them have contacted us as they go through their crisis of faith. Many are leaving the church, but as with any rebrand, these are considered collateral damage in order to save the younger generation of members and hopefully save the church. Will it work?

Only time will tell…

“the LDS church seems willing to accept a certain level of attrition … in order to rebrand for the future generation”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carl Wimmer is a former member of the Utah House of Representatives. He resigned from Utah’s legislature in 2012 to run for the United States House of Representatives.  Wimmer was born in 1975 in Salt Lake, Utah. He was raised in Herriman, Utah. He attended Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training and Salt Lake Community College, and is currently working towards his B.A. In Religious studies at Liberty University. (source Wikipedia)

NOTES
[1] Judith Aquino, “The 10 most successful rebranding campaigns ever”, Business Insider, 2011, Accessed July, 2014, www.businessinsider.com

[2] Brian Carlson, “Number of faithful Mormons rapidly declining”, ABC 4 News Utah, 2012, Accessed via YouTube, July, 2014.

[3] Peter Henderson and Kristian Cooke, “Special report: Mormonism besieged by modern age”, Reuters, 2012, Accessed, July, 2014, www.reuters.com

[4] Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Uchtdorf urges questioning Mormons to return”, Salt Lake Tribune, 2013, Accessed July, 2014, www.sltrib.com

[5] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-saints, 1958), 477.

[6] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, (Salt Lake City, UT: Book Craft Publishers, 1992), 61.

[7] John Taylor, Journal of Discourses Vol 22, (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-saints), 304.

[8] Prophet David O. McKay, as quoted in Mormonism and the Negro, Part 2, p. 19; online at http://www.mrm.org

[9] John J. Stewart, The Glory of Mormonism, (Washington, DC: Mercury Publishing Company,1963), 154.

blog header(this article was originally published on the author’s “An American Dream Revealed” website, on Thursday, September 4, 2014. It is republished here with permission.)

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