What sort of god is “Heavenly Father?” The trouble with the discontinuation of Mormon polygamy

26 Nov

I was reading the “1890 Manifesto” from LDS President Wilford Woodruff, 4th LDS president serving from 1889-1898, in which he declares that he received new revelation from God calling for the discontinuation of polygamy (eclipsing older revelation from God allowing it just 10 years or so before; see Doctrines and Covenants 132).  Here’s the relevant excerpt from the Manifesto:

I have had some revelations of late, and very important ones to me, and I will tell you what the Lord has said to me. Let me bring your minds to what is termed the manifesto. …

 The Lord has told me to ask the Latter-day Saints a question, and He also told me that if they would listen to what I said to them and answer the question put to them, by the Spirit and power of God, they would all answer alike, and they would all believe alike with regard to this matter.

File:Wilford Woodruff 1889.jpg

Wilford Woodruf 1889

The question is this: Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue—to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead?

 The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for … any of the men in this temple at Logan; for all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice. Now, the question is, whether it should be stopped in this manner, or in the way the Lord has manifested to us, and leave our Prophets and Apostles and fathers free men, and the temples in the hands of the people, so that the dead may be redeemed. A large number has already been delivered from the prison house in the spirit world by this people, and shall the work go on or stop? This is the question I lay before the Latter-day Saints. You have to judge for yourselves. I want you to answer it for yourselves. I shall not answer it; but I say to you that that is exactly the condition we as a people would have been in had we not taken the course we have.

 … I saw exactly what would come to pass if there was not something done. I have had this spirit upon me for a long time. But I want to say this: I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do; and when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write. …

Now the Manifesto is not part of the four sacred texts of Mormonism, but is considered or deemed authoritative and binding nonetheless (sacred Mormon temple duties are likewise extra-canonical, but likewise authoritative and binding over Mormons).  The problem with Woodruff’s non-canonical revelation is simple enough.  How can God, a God who isn’t like man that he should change His mind (Nu. 23:19), saying at one time that polygamy is good, right, and necessary for certain spiritual blessings, but a few decades later saying it is to be discontinued?  Not even hiding it, Woodruff says that, though he has revelation from God, he was really concerned about what fighting U.S. law and authorities would do to his people and himself (persecution).

Yet in Christian scripture, a man-made law that violates the law of God is invalid and not to be obeyed by Christians.  It is a higher law, and a Christian is to disobey it even at the cost of his life (Acts 5:29).  Moreover, this revelation of just years before pertained to the law of the priesthood, which gave Mormon believers an understanding about what they must do/believe in order to reach highest exaltation (Mormon salvation) in the world to come.  Obviously, that understanding quickly changed.  That hardly sounds like “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Early Christians, like Mormons, experienced persecution for their beliefs.  And to be sure, Mormon history is replete with acts of injustice done towards them.  But the difference is that classical Christian doctrine did not and has not changed in response to persecution — certainly not by new revelation from God contravening old revelation simply to accommodate the preferences of puny human governments.    Christ is head of the church, not Congress or the President.  So I ask, what sort of god is “Heavenly Father?”

Brigham Young (2nd LDS President) and his wives

P.S. the same thing basically happened in Mormon theology with respect to new vs old revelation on Africans holding the priesthood; once again in response to the Civil Rights movement.

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