Guest Post: The Doctrine Does Change
Guest Post by Nicole Sbitani. Nicole is an adult convert, a non-Black woman of color, and a professional diplomat. She blogs at nandm.sbitani.com and writes microfiction @nsbitani on Twitter. The content of this post does not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or any other U.S. Government agency, department, or entity. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and in no way should be associated with the U.S. Government.
I’ve recently had several difficult conversations with members regarding the stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on same-sex marriage. One common refrain I heard over and over again is: “Policies change, but the doctrine doesn’t.” This is frequently coupled with a variation of the following: “If the Church allows same-sex marriage, I’ll leave. Not because I oppose LGBTQIA+ rights, but because that would mean the doctrine changed and the Church isn’t true.”
Your friendly convert with a passing interest in Church history is here to tell you that, in fact, doctrine and not just policy does change. It has changed many times and it can change again. The narrative that doctrine never changes is harmful in two ways. First, it closes members’ minds to the possibility of truer, more correct doctrine. Second, it incentivizes members to dismiss any accurate theological history of the Church.
Because the context where I hear this falsehood the most is in conversations about same-sex marriage, let’s focus on the doctrine of marriage. Here are a few examples of times that the Church’s marriage and sealing doctrine deviated from what we now understand it to be, backed by faith-affirming and Church-approved sources:
- Plural marriage as infidelity to living husbands: Zina D. H. Jacobs Young married Henry Jacobs in 1841. Months later, she was “sealed for eternity to Joseph Smith.” She was then “sealed to Brigham Young in 1846 [for this life] while still civilly married to Henry [Jacobs].” She had children with both Henry Jacobs and Brigham Young.
- Sealing to prominent, familially unrelated Church leaders: The Law of Adoption practiced in the early days of the Restored Church engendered political squabbles, power struggles, and a mistaken belief that sealing to powerful Church leaders would be necessary for exaltation. This also included the practice of not sealing children to deceased non-member parents and not sealing wives to deceased non-member husbands because the non-members’ lack of belief was seen as a threat to the members’ salvation.
- Sealing of at least one member as an eternal “servitor”: Jane Elizabeth Manning James, pioneering African American woman in the early Restored Church, fought for decades to receive her Endowment and be sealed in the Temple. She was denied those ordinances for being Black, and she was eventually sealed in proxy to Joseph Smith not as an adopted daughter as she requested but as a “servitor” in eternity.
The Restored Church is one of revelation; it is one of the theological miracles that drew me to the Church and continues to bolster my testimony. Revelation has changed doctrine, and I am hopeful it will do so again. As just one example, President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation on the aforementioned Law of Adoption that he announced in the April 1984 General Conference. He said:
“We have not fully carried out those principles in fulfillment of the revelations of God to us in sealing the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers…the duty that I want every man who presides over a Temple to see performed from this day henceforth and forever unless the Lord Almighty commands otherwise is let every man be adopted to his father…that is the will of God to this people…Have children sealed to their parents and run their chain through as far as you can get it. When you get to the end let the last man be adopted to Joseph Smith who stands at the head of this dispensation.”
Even this portion of the changed doctrine on adoption has changed yet again. (Or did I miss the part of the Family History lesson where they said I’m supposed to seal all the ancestors at the top of my family tree to Joseph Smith?) President Woodruff himself leaves that door open in his revelation when he says “unless the Lord Almighty commands otherwise,” an important reminder that even when changes come they may not be the Lord’s last word on the subject.
Most members of the Church today would agree that our current understanding of marriage and sealing is much closer to what our Heavenly Parents would want for us than the previous examples I mentioned. Asking women married to non-members to cheat on their husbands, ignoring the exhortation in the Scriptures to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers by cutting non-members out of sealing ordinances, and sealing anyone in eternal servitude clearly do not match our modern doctrine.
Something as monumental and fundamental to our religion as the nature and practice of sealing is not a mere policy. These are core doctrinal changes. Moreover, this changing doctrine should be celebrated rather than feared because it is bringing us closer to where God wants us to be.
Let’s not rob ourselves of the opportunity to benefit from the truer, more correct doctrine God is waiting to reveal unto us. If we close our minds and refuse to believe we have anything to learn, then we will not have the meekness of heart to receive the truth even if it is delivered line upon line, precept upon precept. Only with a clear-eyed view of our own complicated history and improving doctrine can we open ourselves to all the possibilities of what and who we can be.