I am one of a quarter-gazillion (well, a round dozen, anyway) Gospel Doctrine teachers in my ward, teaching every other Sunday. While I sometimes try to supplement the lessons in terms of historical and cultural setting, or literary structure of the scripture, I usually stick very close to the manual in terms of lesson purpose and material covered. I don’t introduce speculative doctrine, or encourage my personal interpretation of scripture, or replace “boring” manual material with my own “more exciting” topics and theories.
Ward members are free to choose any teacher they want to listen to. Those who choose to attend my class regularly range from their 20s through their 90s, couples and singles, perhaps a few more women than men. We have great discussions. I sometimes have to steer discussions back toward the point, but only when some class member wants to dwell on a minor illustration instead of moving on with the major idea.
You could videotape any class session and show it to anybody, and I wouldn’t be ashamed. I’m orthodox, they’re orthodox, and if sometimes I’m a little clumsy, more often than not there’s at least one moment when a familiar idea suddenly snaps into greater clarity and meaningfulness for us all.
Then the bell rings, and we move together down the hall toward Relief Society and Priesthood meetings.
And that’s when it happens.
Someone who has just been participating in the most orthodox manner imaginable will take me by the elbow, lean in close so that only I can hear, and say, “I know we’re not supposed to talk about this, but you know …”
Following the lesson on miracles, it was a man who said “I know we’re not supposed to talk about this, but you know that it was Jesus’s own wedding when he changed the water to wine, don’t you?”
When Mary and Martha and Lazarus guest-starred in the lesson a few weeks ago, it was a man who said, “I know we’re not supposed to talk about this, but you know that Jesus was married to Mary and Martha, don’t you?”
After the resurrection lesson, it was a woman who said, “I know we’re not supposed to talk about this, but you know that Jesus came to Mary Magdalene first because she was his wife, don’t you?”
It isn’t always something about (one of) Jesus’s supposed marriage(s), but it’s always something. “I know we’re not supposed to talk about this but …”
After the first hallway whisper, where I replied by mumbling something incoherent, I’ve just replied, firmly, “Thank you for not derailing the class by repeating that non-doctrinal nonsense.” (All these people still come to class – curiously, my branding of their confidences as nonsense hasn’t driven them away.)
You probably already know that all of these specific “you know … don’t you?” whispers was actually suggested by early Church leaders – Orson Hyde, one of the Pratt brothers – over the pulpit or in writing, with the ideas repeated and repeated and repeated by later speakers so that what was nothing more than speculation took on the weight of doctrine. For the most part, those introducing these novel ideas did not claim to have received them through revelation. Rather, they were attempting to reason logically from what we do know from revelation (that marriage in the new and everlasting covenant, say, is essential to exaltation) to derive new truth or fill in the historical gaps (that Jesus, who certainly would be exalted, must therefore have been married).
We’ve seen this tendency throughout our history:
Pre-1978, black men could not hold the priesthood, not for anything they had done in mortality but simply by virtue of being born black. Therefore, the reasoning went, it must have been due to something they did before being born, and therefore [insert any number of false “doctrines” about pre-mortality here].
God created this earth for man, in its celestialized form this earth will be the inheritance of the righteous, therefore, man has no business seeking to leave this earth, and therefore man will never walk on the moon.
Baptism is associated with the forgiveness of one’s sins, therefore, the woman in Luke 7 who anointed Jesus’s feet and wiped them with her hair, of whom Jesus said, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven,” must have been baptized by John the Baptist.
And on and on. I’m sure that if we could step back and see our own individual beliefs clearly, every one of us believes something that is not doctrinal, but which seems to be a logical extension of something that is doctrinal.
I don’t recall ever having been told in so many words that “we’re not supposed to talk about” these speculations from the past, but we all recognize that these ideas are no longer taught in General Conference, in lesson materials issued by the Church, or through any other sort of official channel by men whose callings it is to keep the doctrine pure. For me, that’s sufficient evidence that these ideas are not doctrinal, but are speculative at best, and perniciously false at worst. I don’t believe them, and I don’t teach them, and I don’t discuss them except, as in this case, as a reflection of our cultural past, clearly labeled as something that is no longer taught and should no longer be believed.
Yet these ideas persist, not as quaint and curious artifacts of the past – none of them have been whispered to me in the hallway with any sense of conspiratorial absurdity, as when we all pretend to believe in Santa when small children are about – but as doctrinal fact, something that we know but aren’t supposed to discuss. They are offered to me in the hallway with a sense either that “we’re both in on the secret of this doctrine that we both believe but cannot discuss,” or else that “I know this secret thing, and I want to be sure that you know it, too.”
Why the heck do we do that? Why do we perpetuate these wild speculations from the past, when we know, or ought to know, that they aren’t true?
I’m not so much interested in compiling a list of these underground “doctrines,” but I’m very interested in hearing why you think they persist, why people insist on perpetuating them, and, more than anything, your suggestions for stamping them out, or at least firmly branding them as dead historical artifacts.