Monday, June 6, 2011

(Only?) True and Living Church

The [only] true and living church... (losing the only)

I recently had a discussion online in which a Mormon guy over-reacted to a comment from an evangelical girl. She used the phrase "false prophets" when discussing how people misunderstand the Bible. He automatically assumed she was attacking him when she repeated Jesus' warning. She wasn't even aware that he was Mormon. His long tirade was condescending and I asked him if he intended to convey that tone rather than President Hinckley's "bring all the good that you have and see if we can add to it" attitude. He responded by saying
One time Pres Hinckley was asked if all other churches were not the true church and if only the mormon church was true. He said that the mormon church was the only true church on the face of the earth. The interviewer then said "doesn't that seem prideful?" He said, "I am just quoting Jesus." That wasn't word for word, but it is the point of the message. And nothing about saying that is contrary to "bring us all the good you have and see if we can add to it." I have also heard him quoted as saying we don't simply tear down people's houses, we tear down their house and build a castle in its stead. Sometimes we need to tell people that there is more out there than they can see.
Now while one might argue that the 'bring your good, see if we can add to it' isn't substantially different from the supposed Hinckley quotes he gave, certainly everyone can agree there is a big difference in tone. Well, I decided to find his 'quotes' from President Hinckley. Big surprise, I couldn't find them.

However in looking for them I discovered that not only did President Hinckley never say "only true church" or "only true and living church" in an interview (that I could find), he also never said them in general conference (GC). I thought it a little strange and then found that he had said "the true and living church" a few times in GC. That made me curious to see how others used the term "true and living church" (specifically with or without 'only')

The graph shows the number of times the phrase "true and living church" was used in GC in each decade (per one million words, since some decades GC speakers were more verbose). The blue component represents the number of times "only" immediately preceded the phrase. The other words which preceded the phrase included:
"the" 22 times
"His" 3 times
"Lord's" 2 times
"a" 2 times
"this" 1 time
"restored" 1 time.

You can see that the number of times "ONLY true and living church" has been used in GC over the last 2 decades is lower than it's been since before 1950.

So what does this mean? Well, I'll first say what it is not. It is not an attempt to change the intended meaning of the message. It would be hard to someone to argue this. Especially given quotes like this one from President Hinckley in Oct 1998:
We respect those of other churches. We desire their friendship and hope to render meaningful service with them. We know they all do good, but we unabashedly state--and this frequently brings criticism upon us--that this is the true and living Church of our Father in Heaven and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
But certainly this shows a shift in tone. Websters defines "only" as: "unquestionably the best" This use of language certainly contributes to the perception that Mormons feel they "have a monopoly on religious truth" which is likely why Mormons are the 3rd most hated religious group in America. Simply by dropping the word 'only' the tone of the message is softened.

I also wanted to see how it broke down by person. Were people changing their use of the phrase over time or were some people always using "only" while others never used it? It turned out to be primarily the latter. Because the lists of individuals was long, I only included those who said the phrase "true and living church" more than twice in GC. The number preceding their name is the number of times they have used the phrase in GC.

When the full list is included there is a fifth category, but it only includes two individuals who each said the phrase twice, once with "only" and once without. Every other person either falls in the far left and far right categories of consistently using "only" or never using it. Again, this seems to me that those not using "only" are consciously doing so to soften the tone.

So why little to no mention of "true and living church" in the early church days? My guess is that it is the same reasons why the First Vision isn't much mentioned until the late 19th century.

(The correlation between the two phrases is 0.897, here's the scatterplot)

The large jump in mentions of the First Vision in the 1920's is likely due to 1920 being the Centennial of the First Vision itself. Also by that point in the church, the use of the First Vision to establish a list of gospel principles was well established. By 1938 J. Reuben Clark Jr. told religious educators that the second of two essentials to which Mormon teachers must "give full faith" was "that the Father and the Son actually and in truth and very deed appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision in the woods." It has been suggested that the First Vision replaced polygamy as one of the defining elements of Mormonism "and the source of the faith's perception of persecution by outsiders." (see Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith's First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought  on page 47 for more info on this shift)

If I had to guess why the major increase in use of "true and living church" didn't happen until the 1940's, I'd say it was likely that by the 1940's many knew about the Short Creek Community and the church needed to emphasize that it was the "only true and living church." While the fundamentalists shared the same founding doctrines and events like the First Vision, the LDS could then label them as perhaps a true but dead church while themselves remaining the "only true and living church." That said, the increase doesn't look too significant and is possibly unrelated to the growth of the fundamentalists.

I hope we can see this "softening" trend continue. Just 3 GC's after the earlier quote from President Hinckley about "unabashedly stat[ing]," he said the following:
Let us as Latter-day Saints reach out to others not of our faith. Let us never act in a spirit of arrogance or with a holier-than-thou attitude. Rather, may we show love and respect and helpfulness toward them. We are greatly misunderstood, and I fear that much of it is of our own making. We can be more tolerant, more neighborly, more friendly, more of an example than we have been in the past. Let us teach our children to treat others with friendship, respect, love, and admiration. That will yield a far better result than will an attitude of egotism and arrogance.

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