Mormon Founder Joseph Smith Built a House on Shifting Sand

Ever since its founding by Joseph Smith two centuries ago, the most constant aspect of Mormonism is doctrinal change.

An earthquake-damaged golden Moroni statue sits atop the Mormon Temple during the 190th Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 4, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
An earthquake-damaged golden Moroni statue sits atop the Mormon Temple during the 190th Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 4, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (photo: Photo by George Frey/Getty Images / George Frey/Getty Images)

On March 18, 2020, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake rocked Salt Lake City. There were widespread power outages and the airport was shut down. The Salt Lake City Temple, which was undergoing a seismic retrofit, lost stones from its spires, and the golden statue of the Angel Moroni perched atop the tallest spire lost his trumpet.

These dramatic ruptures were geological, but 200 years after Joseph Smith’s purported “First Vision” in upstate New York, the theological ruptures have been even more striking.

The largest branch of Mormonism, the Utah-based “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” announced in 2020 that their logo featuring the Salt Lake Temple would be replaced by one incorporating a drawing of the “Christus” statue — according to current President Russell M. Nelson, to “emphasize the centrality of the Savior.”

“Centrality” seems to have its own Mormon definition. In January 2020, LDS-affiliated Brigham Young University allowed same-sex couples to compete in the U.S. National Amateur Dancesport Championships, the largest amateur ballroom championship in the United States. Then, the next month, Provo-based BYU removed “homosexual behavior” from its Honor Code. Some saw this as allowing same-sex physical affection and dating, but no sexual acts.

However, the month after that, Elder Paul V. Johnson, commissioner of the LDS educational system, clarified that same-sex behavior is incompatible with the Honor Code because it cannot lead to eternal marriage. He continued, “There is and always has been more to living the Lord’s standard of a chaste and virtuous life than refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage.” Johnson argued that Mormon moral standards hadn’t changed. Since then, there have been protests.

On March 31, 2020, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah signed a bill that reduces polygamy from a felony to an infraction. Though polygamy once kept Utah in territorial status, polygamy is now the legal equivalent to a traffic ticket. It is now a felony only if there is abuse and coercion.

LDS officials have been strangely silent on Utah’s decriminalization of polygamy. Nelson and the General Authorities said nothing in support or opposition when the law was debated; it contrasts with their public statements on pornography and marijuana. The subject went unaddressed at the recent General Conference in April 2020.

As recently as 2012, LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley denounced polygamy from the pulpit, saying that those who practiced it would neither be accepted into LDS membership, and that any members engaged in it would face excommunication. Of polygamy, he said, “It is now against the law of God.”

Ever since Joseph Smith’s “vision” in Palmyra, New York, in April 1820, the most constant aspect of Mormonism is change. Smith had several different versions of his “vision” and varying accounts of his first meeting with the Angel Moroni. These shifts would logically develop in Mormon beliefs as well.

The constant shifts on polygamy began within Joseph Smith’s lifetime. In August 1835, Smith was denouncing polygamy. However, by July 1843, he was openly proclaiming it. The LDS article “Plural Marriage in Kirtland (Ohio) and Nauvoo (Illinois)” is equivocal about whether Smith’s polygamous (and sometimes polyandrous) marriages were intimate or not. According to the article:

 He (Joseph Smith) may have believed that sealings to married women would comply with the Lord’s command without requiring him to have normal marriage relationships. This could explain why, according to Lorenzo Snow, the angel reprimanded Joseph for having ‘demurred’ on plural marriage even after he had entered into the practice. After this rebuke, according to this interpretation, Joseph returned primarily to sealings with single women.

Smith himself claimed that an angel with a drawn sword threatened to hurt him unless he practiced plural marriage. Sam Brannan, the colorful founder of the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, was initially punished by Mormon leaders for openly teaching polygamy in New York City and Boston in 1844. However, in May 1845, he was reinstated in good standing.

Scripture and natural law are clear about monogamous marriage. When Our Lord was questioned about divorce and remarriage, He told the Pharisees (Mark 10:6-9,11-12):

 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined let no man put asunder… Whosoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

St. Paul teaches self-sacrifice between monogamous spouses (Ephesians 5:21-33).

Back in 2008, LDS members heavily bankrolled Proposition 8, a measure to ban same-sex marriage in California. In November 2015, after the May Obergefell ruling of the Supreme Court, the official LDS handbook deemed same-sex marriage “apostasy,” excommunicated those who practiced it, and prohibited their children from receiving baptisms and blessings.

But now, in April 2019, same-sex marriage has been reduced to a “serious transgression” instead of apostasy, and children of such unions (along with those from polygamy) can be blessed. These are major changes within a decade.

On the issue of homosexuality, natural law and Scripture provide stability while the LDS teaching is ambiguous and inconsistent. St. Paul left no room for confusion in his Epistle to the Romans (Romans 1:24-28). St. Jude, the patron of desperate causes, wrote of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction due to indulgence in “unnatural lust” (Jude 7).

The Catholic Church’s unambiguous “no” to polygamy and same-sex marriage points to a greater “yes.” The Song of Songs shows the nuptial joy of the Bride and the Bridegroom. Rebecca’s love for Isaac consoles him after his mother Sarah’s death (Genesis 24:67). The Books of Ruth and Tobit are great love stories. Our Lady is Spouse of the Holy Spirit, whose “yes” helped make the Word flesh.

The Catholic Church is built on the firm foundation of Scripture, Tradition and natural law. Its teachings on marriage and family are protected by the Holy Spirit from the whims of popular demand. Mormonism, with its constantly changing doctrine, is like the house built on sand (Matthew 7:26-27) — not the Church rooted firmly on the rock (Matthew 7:24-25).

Scripture, Tradition and natural law provide stability in an uncertain world. People change, but God does not. As Our Lord preached in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-18), “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until it is all accomplished.”