If you regularly talk with members of the LDS Church (Mormons) about their beliefs, you likely have already discovered you can’t assume you know which official doctrines of their church they believe (which is why it’s always best to ask them questions about what they think before offering rebuttals!). Now a new book by Jana Riese titled The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church offers some insight into the statistics on their changing beliefs, and Eric Johnson (of Mormonism Research Ministry) summarizes its findings here.
The changes in beliefs, in some cases, are simply following the culture and are probably similar to trends in Christian churches (e.g., changes in views on homosexuality and sex changes). But some of the changes are baffling. For example, according to Johnson’s review of the book, only 51% of millennials are “confident” that “Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, ” 53% that “LDS First Presidency are prophets today,” 55% that “God is exalted person of flesh and bone,” and 50% that the “Book of Mormon is literal/historical.” The numbers for Gen X are similar.
After the baby boomers are gone, one wonders how long the LDS Church can survive with only half of its members being confident that the foundational beliefs that distinguish it from other churches are true. But what isn’t a mystery is one reason why their beliefs are changing. I think the answer can be found here (from Johnson’s article):
LDS leaders are very clear that what they say should be taken seriously. However, when individual Mormons were polled, the general authorities came in fifth on the list of authority. The top five were
- Own conscience
- Promptings from the Spirit
- Family members
- LDS General Authorities
It would seem that “one’s own conscience” and “promptings from the Spirit” are closely related, with both based on one’s feelings.
I wasn’t surprised to find “conscience” and “promptings from the Spirit” at the top of the list (since Mormons place a great deal of emphasis on receiving personal revelation), but I was very surprised to see “LDS General Authorities” so low. During the year and a half when I regularly visited with LDS sister missionaries, I considered the most encouraging progress to be when one of them became convinced she should place the Bible above her prophets, judging what her authorities tell her by what she finds in the Bible. Now, nearly 20 years later, it appears the general authorities have lost their position of influence—not officially, but in practice.
Even back when I was meeting with the missionaries, though they placed the Bible below their general authorities, they placed “promptings of the Spirit” above their general authorities, saying they would pray about revelations in order to receive confirmation from the Spirit. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that this practice of judging their church officials (which, in effect, meant placing themselves above official revelations) eventually relegated those officials and their teachings to an even lower status of authority.
As fallen human beings, our feelings are unreliable (even for those who have the true Holy Spirit), so it’s not hard to see how placing the priority on those first three sources of authority will lead to more fluid doctrine as people are influenced by the culture around them. Of course, placing anything other than an objective, unchanging text at the top of the list will lead to changes in beliefs (see “The Danger of Building Your Theology on Anything Other Than the Bible” for an example from the Christian community)—even church authorities, as they are also human beings who will be influenced by culture—but placing one’s own opinions and impulses at the top will do this even more so. And now that it seems even family members are taken more seriously than the general authorities, even that somewhat-stabilizing influence of older officials committed to traditional LDS doctrines is being lost. “Everyone doing what is right in his own eyes” has never turned out well for anyone, certainly not for keeping a church together, so it will be interesting to see where this leads.
See the rest of Eric Johnson’s article for more statistics and analysis, and for more on official Mormon beliefs and suggestions for your conversations with Mormons, see “Who Is the God of Mormonism” and “Verses for Your Conversations with Mormons.”