United Brethren has retired.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines ecumenical as follows:

Belonging to or representing the whole (Christian) world, or the universal church; general, universal, catholic; spec. applied to the general councils of the early church, and (in mod. use) of the Roman Catholic Church (and hence occas. to a general assembly of some other ecclesiastical body); also assumed as a title by the Patriarch of Constantinople; formerly sometimes applied to the Pope of Rome.

Many open-minded people, including Latter-day Saints, see e.g. here and here, are enamored with the idea of ecumenicalism, a movement in which various denominations of the modern splintered Christianity attempt to reach over schism and accept each other back into this "whole (Christian) world, or the universal church" as defined by the OED. But this universal church is not the Catholic Church; rather, it is an invisible, far-reaching Christian church united by the lowest common denominators of Christian faith, i.e. authority from God is necessarily side-lined in the interest of unity or redefined to include anyone who has accepted Christ.

Is this an appropriate endeavor for Latter-day Saints? What makes Latter-day Saints "a peculiar people"? Does a rejection of ecumenicalism per se, as advocated by ecumenical enthusiasts and some Latter-day Saints, contain any implications for a commitment to religious pluralism, choice, and acceptance (i.e. maintaining all of those but rejecting ecumenicalism as currently pursued)?

Personally, I am of the opinion that ecumenicalism is not something that Latter-day Saints can participate in: LDS claims to authority and prophetic guidance are mutually exclusive to the ecumenical platform of erasing schism. That does not, in my opinion, lessen Latter-day Saints' obligation to treat everyone in a Christ-like manner and love their neighbors. It just means that Latter-day Saints don't need to make themselves any less peculiar in the interest of good feelings with other denominations.

At any rate, Latter-day Saints have a little known duty that works against ecumenicalism as currently known. The Doctrine and Covenants speaks of this duty in no uncertain terms in Section 123, verse 7:

It is an imperative duty that we owe to God, to angels, with whom we shall be brought to stand, and also to ourselves, to our wives and children, who have been made to bow down with grief, sorrow, and care, under the most damning hand of murder, tyranny, and oppression, supported and urged on and upheld by the influence of that spirit which hath so strongly riveted the creeds of the fathers, who have inherited lies, upon the hearts of the children, and filled the world with confusion, and has been growing stronger and stronger, and is now the very mainspring of all corruption, and the whole earth groans under the weight of its iniquity. (emphasis added)

So what is this duty that the D&C speaks of so forcefully? It is a duty to keep a record of the abuses suffered by the saints at the hands of adherents of these other Christian denominations. Section 123 explains in the first six verses:

1 AND again, we would suggest for your consideration the propriety of all the saints gathering up a knowledge of all the facts, and sufferings and abuses put upon them by the people of this State;
2 And also of all the property and amount of damages which they have sustained, both of character and personal injuries, as well as real property;
3 And also the names of all persons that have had a hand in their oppressions, as far as they can get hold of them and find them out.
4 And perhaps a committee can be appointed to find out these things, and to take statements and affidavits; and also to gather up the libelous publications that are afloat;
5 And all that are in the magazines, and in the encyclopedias, and all the libelous histories that are published, and are writing, and by whom, and present the whole concatenation of diabolical rascality and nefarious and murderous impositions that have been practised upon this people
6 That we may not only publish to all the world, but present them to the heads of government in all their dark and hellish hue, as the last effort which is enjoined on us by our Heavenly Father, before we can fully and completely claim that promise which shall call him forth from his hiding place; and also that the whole nation may be left without excuse before he can send forth the power of his mighty arm.
(emphasis added)

Verses 7-11 reinforce the notion that this is "an imperative duty" and not a mere suggestion. These verses necessarily highlight the emnity between the other Christian denominations and the Latter-day Saints. Verse 12 further works against the spirit of modern ecumenicalism:

For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it—

To my mind, particularly this verse seriously contradicts the mission of ecumenicalism. Implicit in this verse is (1) a necessarily exclusive claim to Truth (though it neither says that others might not have portions of the Truth nor that the Latter-day Saints already have the "whole Truth"), and (2) an indictment on the rise and subsequent corruption of the multidude of teachings that has resulted in the myriad contending sects and denominations. These two implicit premises are incompatible with ecumenicalism. To pursue ecumenicalism together with other Christian denominations would require a rejection of the language in this section of the Doctrine and Covenants. That is not a problem for some Latter-day Saints, I am sure. The problem for me, however, is that I believe that this is scripture and not so easily dismissed.

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Anonymous Anonymous said ... (November 07, 2004 9:14 PM) 

Your blog made me also think of the WCC (world council of churches) that also tries to bridge schisms between christian denominations. To belong to this though you have to accept the Nicene Creed, something we as a church could not do, as it includes doctrine such as the Trinity, and Jesus being without body. For this same reason ecumenicalism is not possible for the church. We have fundamental differences in beliefs to most chrisitans. Technically the definition of a christian is not as we like to think - someone who follows Christ, it is defined by the creed of the WCC, and by that definition we are not christians. We of course need to point out to others that we are headed by Jesus Christ and we follow him, but we ARE different, and should be proud of those differences, and not ashamed that we are a 'peculiar people'. 

Posted by Rebecca


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (November 07, 2004 10:06 PM) 

Ecumenicalism (ecumenicalicity?) as defined above seems to be an attempt to repair the rifts and schisms between the various branches of "orthodox" Christianity. That might be a noble goal for members of those various branches... unity is good, contention bad, right? But the primitive church was shattered into a thousand shards, and no amount of conciliatory super-glue is going to restore that which was lost. When a dispensation withers away, and the link to the nourishing vine of the priesthood is cut, that tree is dead, and it cannot be brought back. A new tree must be planted. Why else would God choose an uneducated 14 yr old backwoods farmboy, rather than appear to some religious scholar, or the Pope himself? Because the old church was dead and gone, the remaining fragments bearing little resemblance to the original beautiful creation. Restoration does not in this case refer to repairing the schisms and re-uniting the splinters. It means casting them all aside, and re-creating the church anew. The phoenix has arisen from the ashes, but he is not a result of cobbling back together old burnt feathers... he is an entirely new bird.

Some see value in reaching out to scattered Christianity, building bridges of understanding between us and our oh-so-distant cousins. Others see this as a softening of our stance as "the only true and living church upon the face of the earth." I think that any effort which will help other people learn of the restored gospel, any tidbit which might pique their interest, any gesture that we can make that might stir someone's thought process and cause them to investigate just a little deeper is worthwhile. Yes, we are to keep a record of the wrongs and grievances done to us in the past, and the ones that will no doubt be done to us in the future. But this record should not serve to condemn anyone here in mortality... I believe it is a requirement of justice, but we hope that mercy will be activated, and all the old wrongs will be wiped out, swallowed up by the wonder of the Atonement, and those records of who did what to whom will be unnecessary.

Should we as a church seek to be recognized as "orthodox"... probably not, what's the point? but should we reach out to every last one of Father's children, seeking in any way possible to introduce them to the Spirit, and to the restored gospel... I believe no effort on that regard is wasted. 

Posted by Rob


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (November 07, 2004 10:24 PM) 


I remember when I was an undergrad I tried to set up a Mormon Student Association at Birmingham University. It was depressing because the Anglican Chaplain of the University was suspicious of us (will you try to convert anyone?) and my local Bishop didn't want us to be "ecumenical". All we wanted was a room to meet in and a place to post our meeting information in the campus ministry building (as was our right). I thought it would be good PR. Unfortunately it never worked out.

We can do a better job working with fellow Christians on moral and social issues, don't you think? 

Posted by Ronan


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (November 08, 2004 10:42 AM) 

The Manti Pageant is an example of how I have been tested regarding this duty. I don't have a delicate way to put it. The portrayal of the hardships and the persecutions faced by the early saints in this pageant, a work of some faith and inspiration, always makes me laugh. Sitting complacently on my blanket, the script seems over the top with its decision to put its protagonists through every possible horribly wrong thing that the early (19th century) saints had to go through. Also, I am amused by the choreography.

Part of the problem might be blamed on my not being from Utah. It was only recently that I realized that I should take the sacrifices of the 19th century saints seriously. It wasn't a factor for me growing up because I didn't come from that stock. My people joined the church in early 20th century Florida. We had our own history and our own problems. My acceptance of the responsibility that I had to consider all my ecclesiastical forebears only came with some time spent in Utah and a wee bit of maturing.

Additionally, I grew up with a bit of a persecution complex. I still have mixed emotions when it comes to Baptists and Evangelicals as a whole (hence, my feelings of unease when Mormons tell me they voted for Bush because he was a "man of God"). So, in growing up, I have tried to create some distance between myself and feelings of anger at the way I have been treated (or think I have been treated) by intolerant people in other faiths. It seems like a Passover-esque duty to remember what has been done to us would get in the way of that.

Then again, the reason that the Jews remember passover and we remember what the saints went through is not really just to catalog abuses. I think that primarily these rituals are to remind God's children how merciful he has been to us. I would say that the 19th century saints were in their own Egypt and it was only with God's help that they got out. 

Posted by John C.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (November 08, 2004 11:39 AM) 

Ronan, I agree that we can do better in working with other Christians and in being friends to them. However, I still maintain that ecumenicalism has no place in such an effort. Just because I want Christians to be my friends doesn't mean I need to act skeptical about JS's calling as a true prophet or say that an Anglican pastor has real authority from God (or that noone does).

John C. good points. I share some of your experiences. I grew up in Dallas TX and don't consider evangelical Christians proper allies on social issues. That is because I am familiar with official doctrines of their beliefs regarding Latter-day Saints, that I believe many of the saints who view them as allies must not know about. There is only one point of doctrine that the numerous and impossibly divided Christian denominations will agree on: Mormons are from the devil. I will not let that fact simply go unaccounted for.

Becky: thanks for that thought. I actually really respect the work of groups such as the WCC. I think they are making a lot of progress to lessen the rancor between the sects. But that shouldn't necessarily be a compliment to those who participate because it betrays a fundamental assumption on my part: I believe the words that JS heard during the first vision--that he should join none of them for they are all wrong. JS further informed us that their creeds are an abomination to God. This is strong language and to be taken seriously. The reason, I take it, that these creeds are not merely unacceptable to God but indeed an abomination, is that they are the philosophical works of men into which, however well-meaning these men were, illegitimate personal agendas were included. This belief in the truthfulness of JS's calling as a prophet and his words reporting God's feelings about other creeds leads to two implications: (1) I like the ecumenical movement insofar as it pertains to them because their systems are bereft of divine sanction in the first place, and (2) ecumenicalism is not the proper avenue to initiate good relations with other sects and denominations.

Rob, very good point that we shouldn't emphasize being seen as "orthodox." We markedly are not orthodox, and why would we want to be? Being "orthodox" would mean being beholded to the errors of those to whom orthodoxy is ascribed. Only if you mean orthodox in a way that none of the Christian world means it would it be appropriate to consider ourselves orthodox: adhering the the beliefs of the primitive Church as practised by the first apostles and by the followers of Christ in America, a la Fourth Nephi. I also agree that if participating in ecumenicalism would imply a softening of our stance towards other denominations (in their claims to Truth or authority), which it necessarily must, then that would definitely not be in our interest or appropriate. 

Posted by john fowles


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (November 08, 2004 1:14 PM) 

I think when it comes to other Christian denominations, many of whom hate the church, rather than ecumenicalism being practised, respect and religious tolerance is needed. I have made an effort in my academic studies to look at other religions and therefore gain and understanding of them. Having this understanding means less religious intolerance I think. As Mormons I don't think that we are particularly guilty of this, but a Christ-like attitude to those who do hate us can only help. 

Posted by Rebecca


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (November 10, 2004 4:54 PM) 

John F, of course you can support a combative sort of Mormon mentality by appeal to persecution-era scriptures, but that mindset is fifty years out of date. Mormon leaders are presently very warm toward officials of other religions--for example, there's an Evangelical preaching in the Tabernacle on Temple Square this month. Bombastic preaching about The Great Apostasy has pretty much fallen by the wayside. The Church has embraced mainstreaming, emphasizing Jesus and family values whenever possible rather than some of the more distinctive LDS doctrines. Even FARMS, hardly composed of ambassadors of friendship toward Evangelicals, is quite open toward dialogue with academics of other denominations (unless they are former or marginal LDS).

So while it may not meet with your approval, it is plain that LDS leaders have embraced a form of ecumenicalism in practice, if not in theory, and practice plays a dominant role in defining LDS positions on most issues. I think it's a very positive development. Now if we could just get Utahns nursing their martyr meme to quit talking about Haun's Mill . . . 

Posted by Dave


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (November 10, 2004 5:56 PM) 

Dave, good points, but my response is merely that what is happening (and I agree that it is good, after all, just because evangelicals continue to preach "Mormons are of the devil" doesn't mean we can't be nice to them) is not ecumenicalism, it is something else altogether. It is tolerance, open-mindedness, love, perhaps even cooperation, but it is by no means a retreat from peculiarity in doctrine and it is not an abdication of exclusiveness of authority. 

Posted by john fowles


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