“Come, Follow Me” and The Family: A Proclamation to the World

The “Come, Follow Me” manuals for 2021’s course of study are available online now.  Looking ahead to the next year, I have been curious to see if they were going to stick strictly to the scriptures related to the history of our modern dispensation (Doctrine and Covenants and parts of the Pearl of Great Price), or if they were going to focus on our Church’s history via the Saints volumes and have relevant sections of the scriptures discussed along the way.  The authors the manuals chose to go with the former, focusing on the scriptures—with a major exception.  On the week of December 13-19, 2021, rather than studying canonized sections of the Doctrine and Covenants or the Pearl of Great Price, we’re studying “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”  The implications of the proclamation being the one of only two documents that is not part of the Standard Works being studied as the central text for a week sends a signal—the manual’s authors seems to feel that the proclamation is on par with the canonized scriptures in importance.  Yet, the proclamation is not officially accepted as part of our canon at this time.  To me, this indicates that either someone in Salt Lake City has possibly set a goal for the document to join the Standard Works by the end of next year or this is a move in a process of essentially canonizing the proclamation without actually putting it to a vote of common consent in the Church.

The standard procedure that has crystalized around canonization in the Church is to have the general membership vote during General Conference to accept a document into the Standard Works.  An early revelation to Joseph Smith declares that: “For all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church by the prayer of faith” (D&C 28:13).  Similarly, later leaders of the Church have affirmed that Church membership needs to accept something as binding and authoritative for it to be authoritative.  For example, President Joseph F. Smith stated that: “No revelation given through the head of the church ever becomes binding and authoritative upon members of the church until it has been presented to the church and accepted by them.”[1]  We see this being followed in the procedures used to canonize the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835,[2] the Pearl of Great Price and additional sections of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1880,[3] the addition of two accounts of visions to the scriptures in 1976,[4] and both Official Declarations.[5]  In all of these cases, they were accepted as binding and canonical through a vote during a General Conference of the Church. By this reasoning and precedent, in order for “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” to become binding and authoritative upon Latter-day Saints in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we would need to vote on it.

Of course, we’re not entirely systematic in our beliefs as Latter-day Saints, so there is some disagreement about the approach described above for canonization or acceptance of something as authoritative and binding.  For example, President George Q. Cannon stated that: “It seems nonsensical that the Prophet of God should submit to such a test as [common consent], and not deem the revelations he received authentic until they had the approval of the different quorums of the Church.”[6]  Elder Bruce R. McConkie likewise wrote that:

Members of the Church may vote to publish a particular revelation along with the other scriptures, or the people may bind themselves by covenant to follow the instructions found in the revealed word. But there is no provision in the Lord’s plan for the members of the Church to pass upon the validity of revelations themselves by a vote of the Church; there is nothing permitting the Church to choose which of the revelations will be binding upon it, either by a vote of people or by other means.[7]

These statements indicate that the authority of a revelation does not originate with the general membership of the Church, but in its nature as a revelation.  The logic can also be extended to other documents produced by Church leaders.

We see that the authority of documents issued by Church leaders comes before they are voted upon by the Church on a number of occasions.  For example, the policy announced in Official Declaration #2 came into effect when it was announced by Church leaders rather than after it was voted on during a general conference—the first ordinations of black men after the press release on 9 June 1978 took place on 11 June, while the official acceptance of the declaration by the Church took place months later, on 30 September 1978.[8]  Likewise, many of the revelations accepted as authoritative when the Doctrine and Covenants was voted upon in 1835 were put into action and practice long before that vote was taken (sending people on missions, organizing the Church’s structure and systems, etc.).  What this indicates is that the authority of a document within the Church and whether it is printed as a part of the Standard Works (canonized) are two separate, though interrelated questions.

This creates something of a hierarchy of authority when it comes to texts used within the Church, with the official Standard Works at the pinnacle as our primary canon.  In other words, canonization and printing in the Standard Works is important for establishing which texts are considered to be most authoritative and widely-studied in the Church, but not the only authoritative documents in the Church.  There does seem to be a secondary canon of publications and texts that are regarded as authoritative in the Church, but subject to change over time (such as the study helps published with the Standard Works, the current hymnal, the current handbooks of the Church, the current official history of the Church, etc.).  You can go further down that rabbit hole and create a whole tiered system of authority for Church texts, but the relevant point is that “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is one of these documents that is being treated as authoritative but not part of the Standard Works.  It seems less likely to be subject to change than the examples given above, though, which makes its position different.  It isn’t really a revelation either—more a summary statement of doctrine.  Over a decade ago, Nate Oman suggested on this blog that “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” might be seen as being similar to “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve”—”not a revelation but an authoritative interpretation” that is highly influential in the Church because it “serve[s] to orient us collectively toward interpretation” of our sacred texts.[9]  To a certain degree, however, the level of dedication to referencing and bolstering the authority of the proclamation displayed by Church leaders over the years since Oman wrote that OP may have pushed the document further towards becoming a sacred text in and of itself rather than merely an authoritative interpretation of our sacred texts.

From the start, the proclamation was intended to be an authoritative statement of belief by the Church.  As early as 1984, Dallin H. Oaks wrote a document based on the idea that “it may be desirable for the Church to make a public statement on proposed legislation affecting the rights of homosexuals,” making suggestions about what to include in a public statement of this sort that foreshadowed the proclamation.[10]  Following this, during the 1990s, the Church attempted to intervene in Hawaii’s first same-sex marriage case, Baehr v. Lewin, but was thwarted in their first attempt on the grounds that the church couldn’t demonstrate that it had any “property or transaction” in the case at hand.[11]  Around the same time, President Boyd K. Packer recalled that: “There came a movement in the world having to do with the family. The United Nations called a council on the family in Beijing, China. We sent delegations to that council on the family and to other councils that were held.”  The leaders of the Church felt that the council was actually anti-family in its orientation, “and then it was announced that one of them would be held near our headquarters, and we thought, ‘Well, if they are coming here, we had better proclaim ourselves.’”[12]  The two moments in history came together—the need for something authoritative for the Church to use in legal battles over LGTBQ rights and the opportunity to take a stand for traditional families on an international stage—and seem to have served as a catalyst for the proclamation to be crafted as an official statement of belief.

The statement was written by the Quorum of the Twelve with input from the First Presidency.[13]  President Hinckley announced the document at a general Relief Society meeting in 1995, prefacing it with the remark that the proclamation was meant to be “a declaration and reaffirmation of standards, doctrines, and practices relative to the family which the prophets, seers, and revelators of this church have repeatedly stated throughout its history.”[14]  Since then, many voices have pushed for it to be treated as quasi-scriptural, without the formal vote of Church members accepting it as binding upon them.  Today, foremost among the advocates of viewing the proclamation as nearly canonical in authority is President Dallin H. Oaks.  For example, just one year ago, he stated that:

The wise cautions of Elders D. Todd Christofferson and Neil L. Andersen in earlier general conference messages are important to remember. Elder Christofferson taught: “It should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.”

In the following conference, Elder Andersen taught this principle: “The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk.” The family proclamation, signed by all 15 prophets, seers, and revelators, is a wonderful illustration of that principle.[15]

While tangential to his main topic, the passing reference to the authority of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” was an intentional effort to bolster the document, reminding Church members of the unified front that the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency took in crafting the document at its outset and the weight and authority that approach gives to the document.

Elsewhere, President Oaks has been even more strident in his efforts to convince members to treat the proclamation as authoritative.  In another general conference talk, he proclaimed that:

Those who do not believe in or aspire to exaltation and are most persuaded by the ways of the world consider this family proclamation as just a statement of policy that should be changed. In contrast, Latter-day Saints affirm that the family proclamation defines the kind of family relationships where the most important part of our eternal development can occur. …

Converted Latter-day Saints believe that the family proclamation … is the Lord’s reemphasis of the gospel truths we need to sustain us through current challenges to the family. …

… The proclamation on the family is a statement of eternal truth, the will of the Lord for His children who seek eternal life. It has been the basis of Church teaching and practice for the last 22 years and will continue so for the future. Consider it as such, teach it, live by it, and you will be blessed as you press forward toward eternal life.

Beyond his somewhat harsh efforts to cast those who view the document as “a statement of policy that should be changed” as standing outside the ranks of converted Latter-day Saints who are seeking eternal life, he went on to make embracing the proclamation a litmus test for faithfulness in the Church, expressing that he “believe[s] our attitude toward and use of the family proclamation is one of [the] tests for this generation.”[16]  (And yes, that last litmus test quote is included in the “Come, Follow Me” manual for the week studying the proclamation.)  This approach to addressing the subject of the proclamation is a strong-armed tactic aimed at making members view the document as the authoritative statement on family values in the Church.

It may be that “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is more analogous to two declarations added as appendices in the original edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.  These two declarations—one on government and law and the second on marriage—were added, almost as an afterthought, during the canonization of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835.  Both were statements of belief, or summaries of the Church’s position on the issues their titles indicate.  The former is still around as Section 134, and the latter was dropped from the Doctrine and Covenants at a later date (marriage practices in the Church changed a bit after 1835).  They served as responses to legal needs and public accusations against the Church.  They also weren’t technically revelations, but included nonetheless as authoritative declarations of where the Church stood on the issues discussed in each.  Whether or not “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is ever added to the Doctrine and Covenants is subject to debate (there was an excellent opportunity to do so when the 2013 edition of the scriptures was being prepared that was not taken, for example), but it does serve as similar function to these older declarations.

In any case, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is an interesting document in its standing in the Church.  The proclamation has served as the standard of traditional family values in the Church for a quarter of a century now.  Powerful church leaders—President Oaks foremost among them—have worked to practically canonized the document in how it is treated through the means of rhetoric about its authority without actually calling for a general vote, leaving it in a position of standing outside of the Standard Works while often being treated as on par with the Standard Works in authority (as indicated by its treatment in the new manual).  It seems possible that a vote for canonization will be taken at some point within the next few years, but it will be interesting to see how voting would actually take place in the worldwide Church if that course is pursued, where only a fraction of membership is represented at the Conference Center (particularly at the pandemic-limited general conferences this year), but I am grateful to not be in the position of having to work out the logistics of that type of momentous occasion. Regardless, with this fall being the 25th anniversary of the proclamation’s announcement, I think we can expect it to be a major subject at General Conference next month.

 

Some potential questions for discussion:

  • How authoritative do you view the proclamation as being?
  • Do you think the proclamation should be added to our Standard Works? Why or why not?

Now, in reviewing Nate Oman’s post I mentioned above, I appreciated his closing caution and repeat it here:  “If past is a predictor of future, I suspect that at some point any discussion on this thread will dissolve into a slug-fest about gender essentialism. If you can, however, I plead with you to control your gender-war urges and try talking about authority, canon, and interpretation.”

 

Footnotes:

[1] Joseph F. Smith in the Reed Smoot Trial, 1904, cited in Richard S. Van Wagoner, Steven C. Walker, and Allen D. Roberts: “The ‘Lectures on Faith’: A Case Study in Decanonization,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, v. 20, No. 3, p. 74, https://dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V20N03_73.pdf

[2] The initial canonization of the Doctrine and Covenants occurred in 1835.  A group of Church leaders gathered to examine the Doctrine and Covenants and concluded that it was “necessary to call the general assembly of the Church to see whether the book be approved or not by the authoroties of the church, that it may, if approved, become a law unto the church, and a rule of faith and a practice unto the same.”  At a conference on 17 August, the book was presented by Oliver Cowdery to the general assembly, then voting proceeded by quorums and groups, followed by the entire Church membership present. See “Minute Book 1,” p. 98, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 6, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minute-book-1/102

[3] President George Q. Cannon stood with both books in General Conference, noting the precedent set by the 1835 conference and stating that: “As there have been additions made to it by the publishing of revelations which were not contained in the original edition, it has been deemed wise to submit these books with their contents to the Conference, to see whether the Conference will vote to accept the books and their contents as from God, and binding upon us as a people and a Church.”  President Joseph F. Smith motioned that the conference vote, the motion was seconded and it was “sustained by unanimous vote of the whole Conference.” (Deseret Evening News, 11 Oct. 1880, p. 2, col. 4, https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=23172309.)

[4] The Church voted on a motion to “adopt these revelations as part of the standard works of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” during General Conference.  See N. Eldon Tanner, “The Sustaining of Church Officers,” CR April 1976, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1976/04/the-sustaining-of-church-officers?lang=eng

[5] See https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/od/1?lang=eng, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/od/2?lang=eng.

[6] Juvenile Instructor 26 [1 Jan. 1891]: 13-14.

[7] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 206.

[8] See Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU 47:2, https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/spencer-w-kimball-and-revelation-priesthood.

[9] Nate Oman, “Scripture and Interpretation: Some Thoughts Inspired by ‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World’”, Times and Seasons, 13 February 2007, https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2007/02/scripture-and-interpretation-some-thoughts-inspired-by-the-family-a-proclamation-to-the-world/.

[10] See https://hwcdn.libsyn.com/p/9/1/3/913d6fed4525a85a/Principles-To-Govern-Possible-Public-Statement-On-Legislation-Affecting-Rights-Of-Homosexuals-August-7-1984-Dallin-H.-Oaks.pdf?c_id=8270928&cs_id=8270928&expiration=1599430949&hwt=66bd933a9e5e6f069ce4f4f1a9993213.

[11] See Laura Compton, “From Amici to ‘Ohana: The Hawaiian Roots of the Family Proclamation,” Rational Faiths, 15 May 2015, https://rationalfaiths.com/from-amici-to-ohana/.

[12] Boyd K. Packer, “The Proclamation on the Family,” http://broadcast.lds.org/WWLT/2008/WWLT_2008_02_00_RighteousPosterity_Complete_00383_eng_.pdf

[13] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Plan and the Proclamation,” CR October 2017, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2017/10/the-plan-and-the-proclamation?lang=eng. Chieko Okazaki—a member of the Relief Society presidency at the time—recalled that the Relief Society women were not invited to be involved in the process, stating later that “What I wanted to know was, ‘How come we weren’t consulted?’, and recalling that: “As I read it I thought that we could have made a few changes in it.” (“’There Is Always a Struggle’: An Interview with Cheiko N. Okazaki,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 2012, 136, https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V45N01_CO.pdf.)

[14] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Stand Strong against the Wiles of the World,” CR October 1995, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1995/10/stand-strong-against-the-wiles-of-the-world?lang=eng.

[15] Dallin H. Oaks, “Trust in the Lord,” CR October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/17oaks?lang=eng

[16] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Plan and the Proclamation,” CR October 2017, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2017/10/the-plan-and-the-proclamation?lang=eng

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