First I belong to the church that was founded by Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith, who as a 14-year-old boy, felt uncomfortable with the popular teachings of the time and took his questions to God in prayer. Who came out of the grove of trees with a remarkable story of being visited by God and refused back down from his story, even when it would have been easier to keep his words to himself. As he said, “I knew it, and I knew God knew it, and I could not deny it.” Many people probably thought he was crazy, or deluded, or misguided. They may have even thought he was being led by Satan. This did not stop him.
In today’s church, we’ve become a church of conformists. There is a strong emphasis on obedience and on following our leaders. Some popular quotes from general authorities include “Obedience is the first law of heaven” and “When the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done.” We are told that we are all capable of receiving our own personal revelation, but it is not emphasized.
In the early church, they recognized and valued the input of the young, not just the old and wise. Joseph Smith was only 24 years old when he officially organized the church, and many of the early converts called to leadership positions were in their 20s or even teens. Early accounts show that part of the charm of Joseph Smith was his sense of humor and fun; there are stories of him playing ball, running footraces, and wrestling.
Today, the majority of our leaders are in their 70s, 80s, even 90s. Don’t get me wrong, I believe they are inspired men, but the things a 75-year-old thinks are important are often very different than the things a 25-year-old thinks are important. I see this when people my age speak their mind and are labelled as fringe thinkers, and I often feel in my YSA ward that we are treated as as extension of Young Women and Young Men and not valued as full adults.
In the early church, they were not afraid to experiment with new and untested ideas. The early saints tried out the radically new idea of communal living in the Law of Consecration, nearly a century before communism did. They challenged current race relations by being abolitionists, and several black men were even ordained to the priesthood in Joseph’s day. They challenged the social norms associated with monogamy and experimented with polyandry and polygyny. They built a temple in Nauvoo and began performing an endowment ceremony which was unlike any religious ceremony being done at the time.
In today’s church, we tend to lean very conservative. We were behind the times in race relations (I’m told there is a BYU manual being used even today that discourages interracial marriage). Our elected officials are among the most conservative in the country, voting against anything that looks even remotely like socialism. In 2008 we became infamous for our unquestioning loyalty to “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all other forms of marriage.
In the early church we were once on the forefront for women’s rights. Women in Utah were given the vote a half century before the rest of the country. Mormon women were becoming doctors, running for office, working in journalism, and doing business outside the home long before these occupations became socially acceptable for women in the rest of the country. The Female Relief Society was organized as a “kingdom of priests” before any other churches began to push for women’s ordination.
In today’s church stay at home motherhood is touted as the ideal for women. Women are encouraged get a college education “just in case” rather than for a career, and women such as Kate Kelly who push for more equal treatment for women are threatened with church discipline.
In the early church the heavens were opened for all to see. There are accounts of angels, of speaking in tongues, and of heavenly visions. New revelations were received frequently, and while revelation for the whole church was received by the prophet it was often prompted by others asking questions, as in the case of Emma Smith and the coming about of the Word of Wisdom.
In today’s church I know that people still have spiritual experiences, but they tend to stay silent about them. New revelations are few and far between (or if they are more frequent, we are not told of them), and always seem to be top down, rather than the bottom up that we used to get.
Putting these two churches together, side by side, they can be hard to reconcile; it is hard to believe that they are in fact the same church. And yet I do see glimpses of the early church in today’s church. I see members who are willing to go against the grain and do things that are unpopular with their neighbors because their conscience tells them to. I see bishops who are making an effort to include all people, not just the ones who fit a certain mold, and individual members who reach out to their ostracized neighbors, be they black, poor, feminist, gay, disabled, transgender, or otherwise different from the norm. I see groups like Ordain Women who are ready and waiting to receive further light and knowledge from God. And it is these glimpses that give me hope for the future.