Yesterday Sean G, J. Stapley, and kevinf had an interesting exchange on J.’s thread Readings in Mormon History at BCC. In part:
In response to Sean G (lurker123), J, I’m just reading Prince and Wright’s McKay bio, and already in the early chapters, we have President McKay not wanting to publicly say anything about Elder McConkie after the publication of Mormon Doctrine for fear of undermining his authority as a Church leader, in spite of what apparently he and other General Authorities considered to be hundreds of doctrinal errors. To supersede a previous prophet’s doctrinal expositions (or other general authorities) appears to be something that is approached with great reluctance, if approached at all. Instead, we have a much milder response along the lines of “We pay more heed to current prophets than dead ones”. That kind of strikes a middle ground, and might seem to be motivated by a desire to not create anxieties or questions among newer converts, or members with fledgling testimonies.
This reminded me of the occasion in 1894 when Wilford Woodruff introduced perhaps the most significant change made in this dispensation to existing temple ordinance practice and doctrine.
Until that date, to the limited extent that Latter-day Saints were sealed to anyone in the parent-child relationship, they were sealed to prophets and apostles rather than to their own parents. This practice arose, I am convinced, through the early Saints’ incomplete understanding of Joseph Smith’s teachings: They recognized that they needed to be sealed into the eternal family of God with clear patriarchal lines extending back to Adam. But if their parents were unbaptized, they did not hold the priesthood. There was no point in sealing yourself to a father who was not incorporated into that eternal patriarchal line.
But Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young, or any one of a number of other prominent priesthood holders – that was a different matter. However such men traced their patriarchal lineage, they were certain of a place in the celestial chain. Seal yourself to one of those men and you were linked into the network, guaranteed. Thus arose the practice, hedged about by theological speculations that were not necessarily quite what Joseph taught, of “adoption” into the families of prominent leaders. (J. Stapley and, I think, Sam MB have a greatly different understanding of the origin and growth of adoption; I won’t argue with them – I know when I’m outgunned, even when I believe I’m right. That isn’t the point of this post, and I offer my own explanation simply because readers who might be unaware that early Saints were not sealed to their own parents need to understand that point for this post to make any sense.)
In 1894, Wilford Woodruff announced a revelation related to all this:
Now, what are the feelings of Israel? They have felt that they wanted to be adopted to somebody. President Young was not satisfied in his mind with regard to the extent of this matter; President Taylor was not. When I went before the Lord to know who I should be adopted to (we were then being adopted to prophets and apostles,) the Spirit of God said to me, “Have you not a father, who begot you?” “Yes, I have.” “Then why not honor him? Why not be adopted to him?” “Yes,” says I, “that is right.” I was adopted to my father, and should have had my father sealed to his father, and so on back; and 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.
But announcing such a change, so basic to the Saints’ conception of their eternal salvation, was a tricky thing. If this announced revelation to Wilford Woodruff was true, why had not Joseph received it? Would this development weaken the Saints’ confidence in Joseph Smith, or, more likely, cause them to doubt Wilford Woodruff?
President Woodruff began by reminding the Saints of the importance of the task assigned to them to redeem the dead. “If we did not do it, we should be damned and cut off from the earth, and the God of Israel would raise up a people who would do it.” Through the quoting of scripture and his own elaboration, he reminded the Saints of the principle of continuing revelation. “The Lord would not permit me to occupy this position one day of my life, unless I was susceptible to the Holy Spirit and to the revelations of God. It is too late in the day for this Church to stand without revelation.”
He spoke of the developments during Joseph Smith’s ministry concerning redemption of the dead – how the Saints had first baptized randomly in the Mississippi River, and how Joseph soon understood that baptism for the dead belonged to the Temple, and that witnesses should be present and a record kept. Joseph had not received a complete understanding of baptism for the dead in a single moment, but rather received it in stages.
President Woodruff then reminded the congregation that, unlike the patriarchs of old who had lived to nearly a thousand years, Joseph had had only 38 years to do his work – only 15 of which he had held the priesthood. Yet in that short time he had accomplished so very, very much. President Woodruff ticked off a list of the things Joseph had done, and those that had been continued by succeeding prophets.
Who could expect him, during the short time he lived in the flesh, to do more than he did? I received my endowment from under his hands. He brought forth all these ordinances that have been given unto the Latter-day Saints. In fact, it is a marvel and a wonder that he performed as much as he did. … [Brigham Young] organized these Temples and carried out the purposes of his calling and office. He laid the foundation of this great Temple on this block, as well as others in the mountains of Israel. What for? That we might carry out these principles of redemption for the dead. But he did not receive all the revelations that belong to this work; neither did President Taylor, nor has Wilford Woodruff. There will be no end to this work until it is perfected.
It was time, President Woodruff said, to go ahead with the work. “I want to say, as the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that we should now go on and progress. We have not got through revelation. We have not got through the work of God.”
And with that groundwork laid, both protecting the prophetic stature of earlier prophets and establishing his own authority to extend their work, President Woodruff went on to present and explain his new understanding.
I say let every man be adopted to his father; and then you will do exactly what God said when he declared He would send Elijah the prophet in the last days. Elijah the prophet appeared unto Joseph Smith and told him the day had come when this principle must be carried out. Joseph Smith did not live long enough to enter any further upon these things. His soul was wound up with this work before he was martyred for the word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ. He told us that there must be a welding link of all dispensations and of the work of God from one generation to another. This was upon his mind more than most any other subject that was given to him. In my prayers the Lord revealed to me, that it was my duty to say to all Israel to carry this principle out, and in fulfillment of that revelation I lay it before this people. I say to all men who are laboring in these temples, carry out this principle, and then we will make one step in advance of what we have had before.
I don’t know whether anyone in 1894 was upset over the development, or whether testimonies were shaken. I suspect there probably were casualties – there have been at every change of administration, every major doctrinal development. It’s clear to me that Wilford Woodruff was aware of the potential misunderstandings. By giving his listeners the answers to their questions first – by reminding them of the gradual development of the work – before he announced his “supersed[ing] a previous prophet’s doctrinal expositions,” in kevinf’s words, he provided a careful model for future prophets and future developments.
Wilford Woodruff’s talk and the supporting talk by George Q. Cannon are both posted here for your convenience.