LDS Discussions Blog
Rebranding Revelation (October 9, 2018)
One of the biggest stories out of the October General Conference was Russell M. Nelson's insistence on not using the names Mormon or LDS to identify the church. Speakers during the weekend called it revelation, and Nelson himself has proclaimed it to be revelation when saying that the Lord “impressed upon [his] mind the importance of the name He decreed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (lds.org)
Here's the problem that most members are not aware of: Nelson has been pushing this line of thought now for 28 years, long before he was sustained as the prophet of the church. In April 1990, Nelson gave a talk appropriate called “Thus Shall My Church Be Called," where Nelson maps out the exact same arguments he made this weekend as a prophet.
There are a lot of elements in Nelson's 1990 talk that are of interest, but for the sake of this post we just want to point that this talk clearly defines the same arguments being made now by Nelson. Furthermore, this next talk was given in 1990 by Gordon B. Hinckley, who would be prophet five years later, and during this same General Conference Hinckley gave a talk called "Mormon Should Mean “More Good.”"
In this talk, Hinckley discusses how they will likely never get the world to call the church by it's official name, but that the nickname of Mormon is not a bad one to have:
"I suppose that regardless of our efforts, we may never convert the world to general use of the full and correct name of the Church. Because of the shortness of the word Mormon and the ease with which it is spoken and written, they will continue to call us the Mormons, the Mormon church, and so forth.
They could do worse. More than fifty years ago, when I was a missionary in England, I said to one of my associates, “How can we get people, including our own members, to speak of the Church by its proper name?”
He replied, “You can’t. The word Mormon is too deeply ingrained and too easy to say.” He went on, “I’ve quit trying. While I’m thankful for the privilege of being a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of the Church which bears His name, I am not ashamed of the nickname Mormon.”
“Look,” he went on to say, “if there is any name that is totally honorable in its derivation, it is the name Mormon. And so, when someone asks me about it and what it means, I quietly say—‘Mormon means more good.’” (The Prophet Joseph Smith first said this in 1843; see Times and Seasons, 4:194; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 299–300.)
His statement intrigued me—Mormon means “more good.” I knew, of course, that “more good” was not a derivative of the word Mormon. I had studied both Latin and Greek, and I knew that English is derived in some measure from those two languages and that the words more good are not a cognate of the word Mormon. But his was a positive attitude based on an interesting perception. And, as we all know, our lives are guided in large measure by our perceptions. Ever since, when I have seen the word Mormon used in the media to describe us—in a newspaper or a magazine or book or whatever—there flashes into my mind his statement, which has become my motto: Mormon means “more good.”" (lds.org)
The truth of the matter is that even in 1990, it was more than apparent the Russell M. Nelson was the only one who felt this change was necessary and vital. He was the only one who felt that it was revelation from God to make this change, and it begs the question of why God felt it was so important to tell him, but not the ones in charge of the church that could have made the change at the time.
Flash forward twenty years, when the "I'm a Mormon" campaign was launched as seen in this Mormon Newsroom release. The following paragraph is from the Mormon Newsroom page: "The Church's national media campaign called “I’m a Mormon” (launched in 2010) included television spots, billboards, and ads on buses and on the Internet. The ads give a glimpse into the lives of Latter-day Saints from all over the world and refer people to the mormon.org website, where they can read the profiles of tens of thousands of Mormons, chat live with representatives who will answer questions about the faith and watch dozens of videos about members of the Church."
Again, if God was so offended by the nickname of Mormon as Nelson has proclaimed, why in the world would He allow the church to run a campaign such as the "I'm a Mormon" one, where it was broadcast through TV, internet ads, on billboards, and on buses. We are told constantly that church leaders pray about every major decision, and this would be no exception as tithing dollars were spent to help boost the image of the church. If God felt this was an error that had "crept" in over time, clearly the leaders would have received a response to not move forward with this campaign.
But it doesn't end there. In 2014 the church released the movie "Meet the Mormons," which followed six members of the church so that the public could better understand what it was like to be Mormon. Again, tithing dollars were spent and leaders implored church members to see the movie in the opening weekend to help boost the ticket sales in the hopes it would generate buzz for non-members to see it.
Elder David A. Bednar encouraged members to flood social media with the #MeetTheMormons hashtag, and members were asked to post about the movie to friends and family to increase awareness. The movie sold just over $1.2 million in tickets on the first Friday and Saturday, followed by just $64,956 on the first Sunday, showing the power of asking members to see the movie, but the inability to reach those beyond the church.
Again, the question is raised as to why Thomas S. Monson undertook these two massive campaigns to promote the Mormon name when God felt it was offensive. These are not small undertakings, and yet the church leadership felt they were both vital to the work of growing the church and spreading the Book of Mormon.
One of the first priorities of Russell Nelson upon becoming prophet was to revisit this issue that he started 28 years earlier. It truly begs the question as to what revelation is. As a member of the church I was told that the prophet of the church had the equivalent of a "direct line to God," where important questions could be answered to guide us throughout difficult times.
But what we have begun to see is that prophets are just like you and me, and our personal interests are what influence the choices we make. Clearly Nelson believed that the name was an important issue as he brought it up 28 years ago in the same fashion that he has brought it up now. The only difference is that as president of the church, he has the authority to make this is a policy as opposed to just a powerful suggestion.
Nelson's current wife, Wendy Nelson, put it best when she described what revelation is in the church. Here is Wendy talking about her husband after becoming the prophet of the church:
“It is as though he's been unleashed. He's free to finally do what he came to earth to do. … And also, he's free to follow through with things he's been concerned about but could never do. Now that he's president of [the Church], he can do those things.” (Latter-day Saint Prophet, Wife and Apostle Share Insights of Global Ministry)
In other words, Wendy is stating the obvious: Russell Nelson is now able to make the changes he always wanted to make because he lived long enough to be the prophet. It doesn't matter anymore than both Hinckley and Monson rebuffed his desired change, now that he was prophet he could implement those ideas under the premise of revelation. As Wendy her said best, now that Nelson had the authority, he was "unleashed" to do the things he was powerless to do before.
When Joseph Smith began the church, he received revelation frequently and often would receive it immediately upon asking. He spoke often of conversing with angels, and even told many that he "had seen God frequently and personally." (Palmyra Reflector, February 14, 1831)
But after Joseph Smith, the method of revelation changed, getting less grand as time went on. As the Reed Smoot hearings, Joseph F. Smith was asked about receiving revelations in the following exchange:
Senator Dubois: Have you received any revelation from God, which has been submitted by you and the apostles to the body of the church in their semiannual conference, which revelation has been sustained by that conference through the upholding of their hands?
Joseph F Smith: Since when?
Senator Dubois: Since you became president of the church.
Joseph F Smith: No, sir; none whatever.
Senator Dubois: Individual members of the church can receive individual revelations, can they not?
Joseph F Smith: If I may be permitted, the word "revelation" is used very vaguely here all the time. No man can get revelations at his will. If a man is prayerful and earnest in his desire and lives a righteous life and he desires information and intelligence, he will inquire of the Lord, and the Lord will manifest to him through the presence and influence of his Spirit, his mind, and his will. That would be a revelation to that individual.
The Chairman: What is the answer to the question?
Senator McComas: Is not that an answer?
Senator Foraker: I think it is an intelligent answer, and a very satisfactory one.
Senator McComas: It seems to me it is full.
The Chairman: I want to hear what the question was. Mr. Reporter, will you please read it? (the question is read).
Joseph F Smith: I think I have answered that.
The Chairman: Very well; if you think that is an answer.
Senator Dubois: Have you received any individual revelations yourself, since you became president of the church under your own definition, even, of a revelation?
Joseph F Smith: I cannot say that I have.
Senator Dubois: Can you say that you have not?
Joseph F Smith: No; I cannot say that I have not.
Senator Dubois: Then you do not know whether you have received any such revelation as you have described, or whether you have not?
Joseph F Smith: Well, I can say this: That if I live as I should in the line of my duties, I am susceptible, I think, of the impressions of the spirit of the Lord upon my mind at any time, just as any good Methodist or any other good church member might be. And so far as that is concerned, I say yes; I have had impressions of the Spirit upon my mind very frequently, but they are not in the sense revelations.
Apologists will argue that the Reed Smoot hearings were antagonistic towards the Mormon church, and I think we can all agree that they were. But that does not mean that Joseph F. Smith was lying about the process here. The truth is that only Joseph Smith seemed to get revelations "at will," and that once he died the concept of revelation has been constantly watered down to what it is today. There is a focus today that "impressions" on the mind constitute revelation, but as we can all attest to, impressions are often our own bias being confirmed upon reflecting on problems of the day.
This is why Brigham Young began the ban on blacks but framed it as doctrine from God using LDS scriptures to confirm his own biases. It is why the November 15 policy is so harmful to the LGBT community as the current church leaders do not believe the overwhelming consensus that being gay is not a choice, but how we were born. But because of their personal bias, they feel that God "impresses" on their minds that these harmful policies are actually the will of God.
As revelation continues to rebranded not as much as being directly from God as Joseph Smith claimed it to be, but as a mere impression in our minds to make a change, we can see how small it seems for a church that claims to be the only one that has direct authority from God.
In 2018 since Nelson became prophet, the biggest changes to the church have been organizational: Replacing home teaching with ministering, and lowering the church services on Sunday from 3 hours to 2. Both of those changes have been piloted around the country for years, long before Nelson took over as prophet. One could make the argument that they began with revelation, but if so no one recorded it as such.
The church continually sends out surveys to members to find out what they like, what they don't like, and what would help them stay more involved in the church. As someone who works in marketing research, I can guarantee you that these surveys, interviews, and focus groups are absolutely being used to dictate church policy when it comes to ministering or the two hours block. They might not be the only factor, but member retention is a major issue for any church and no different here.
Furthermore, if we are to believe that the recent changes are from God, why are the surveys even being sent? We have the recent Mormon Leaks release of a survey of Mormon teens, and there was an even a recent survey on garments, as many millennials have given up wearing them due to discomfort and how they make choosing clothes difficult.
Many critics of the church have mocked Nelson's focus on the name of the church as a grand effort to rebrand the image of the church to outsiders, but the reality could not be further from the truth. What we are seeing is a rebranding of the definition of revelation, as members are forced to accept that our leaders do not receive instructions from God as Joseph Smith claimed, but as we all do in our lives. This follows the rebranding of "translation" as noted in our annotated LDS essays on the Book of Mormon translation and the Book of Abraham translation.
We are constantly told to believe in personal revelation, but that if it contradicts church teachings that the revelation is not from God but from Satan. If this were true, then we could safely assume that Russell Nelson's 1990 talk was from Satan, because church leadership continued to embrace and promote the Mormon and LDS names for the church until Nelson became the most senior member of the First Presidency and was able to finally claim the authority to make this policy.
One of the biggest struggles of my faith crisis was trying to figure out what the feelings I have had throughout life mean. I think in a weird way Russell Nelson has confirmed to me what I already knew: personal revelation is our minds confirming to us what we know to be right and what we believe is worth fighting for. That doesn't mean there is or isn't a God, but it does show that if one prophet could receive revelation so differently that prophets before him, that these "impressions" are not direct communications from God.
Nelson has also made me realize that the reason Joseph Smith's revelations were so different than every other prophet's is not just because the prophets after Joseph Smith did not have the true authority (please see our Faith Promoting Stories page for information on the transfiguration of Brigham Young), but because Joseph Smith was doing the same thing himself. Whether he believed it to be from God or not we will never know, but when you read the Doctrine and Covenants, study the changes he made from the Book of Commandments, and understand the context they were written in, you can see that Joseph's revelations were constantly moving forward the beliefs he was incorporating into the church from outside sources. On our summary page, we detail in point 22 (Joseph Smith Mixtape Theory) how Joseph Smith implemented the three tiers of Heaven using the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, created the temple ceremony by implementing the masonic ceremonies he learned just weeks earlier, added the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods that were preached of by the Campbellites (Sidney Rigdon was a Campbellite preacher), implemented the temperance movement in the Word of Wisdom, and even had a similar First Vision account to Solomon Chamberlain's own vision that he shared with the Smiths just years before Joseph wrote down his experience.
As the days of magic has subsided and camera phones are everywhere, the church is now coming to terms with the idea that the miraculous stories that Joseph Smith told just have not happened since we have had the ability to document and record such events. Furthermore, we are learning with every new prophet that revelation does not match what Joseph Smith taught us it was, which begs the question as to what exactly modern day revelation is. And that is why the church is working so hard to redefine what constitutes revelation, and why the impacts of this rebranding will be felt for generations to come.