Uncovering a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?
A Brief Review of ‘Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium’
Several recent reviews of Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium have recommended the book. Being students of doctrinal issues, we were intrigued enough to give the book a second look. Unfortunately, that second look didn’t show the book to be deserving of the glowing reviews it received.
|Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium
|Gary James Bergera
For instance, in his cursory review for the Deseret News, Dennis Lythgoe states that the compendium is a “great resource,” in part because the author “declares his intentions to be strictly educational and he does not add any editorial comments whatsoever.”1
J. Stapley provides further support to the book and praises it because of its layout, which is similar to the Church’s own True to the Faith, and contains statements from documents under the imprimatur of the First Presidency, including the Church Handbook of Instruction–albeit, according to Stapley, the 1998 edition.2
Though nearly convinced, we were bothered. It is often said that if something looks too good to be true it usually is. So we decided to examine the book for ourselves, and found that the book was, indeed, too good to be true. So we decided to write our own review, documenting our own findings.
Of course, such a decision raises a very pertinent question: “How does anyone review a compendium?” First, we checked for a definition from Webster’s dictionary and found the following that a compendium is “a summary or abstract containing the essential information in a brief form; concise but comprehensive treatise.”3
We focused on the words “essential,” “concise” and “comprehensive.” Perhaps we could find a way to determine if, indeed, the compendium contained essential, concise and comprehensive statements from the First Presidency?
Next, we thought to examine how the publisher was positioning the book with the buying public. We discovered an advertisement for the book in Sunstone magazine. The ad stated, in part:
For members of the LDS Church, the authority to speak for God rests with the First Presidency, who hold the exclusive prerogative to interpret scripture and doctrine for the church at large.4
Further, the advertisement included the following endorsement:
This volume should therefore be of interest to church members and scholars looking for official views on doctrinal questions and contemporary issues.5
The wording of the advertisement sounds like an invitation to members of the Church and scholars to accept the compendium of First Presidency statements as a definitive collection of the Church’s position on various issues, and perhaps even as the Word of God.
Such a view is also consistent with the statements of the author, himself. In the compendium’s introduction he states the following:
Most often, the Presidency addresses practical matters of administration, governance, and policy. Periodically, but no less importantly, the Church’s governing priesthood quorum offers pronouncements of belief, doctrine, theology, and morals. The present compilation gathers together these latter statements into one volume.6
So what the author is doing is selecting those statements that he believes reflect the “belief, doctrine, theology, and morals” of the Church. In other words, since the book provides statements from the First Presidency, it should be viewed as the accurate, unadulterated word of God on whatever issues are presented.
The Sunstone advertisement’s positioning and endorsement, coupled with the statements of the author, created some level of discomfort as we continued to search for a way to review this compendium. In our wanderings, we came across an article on the FAIR Web site by Davis Bitton titled “Spotting an Anti-Mormon Book.”7 At last, here were some guidelines that might prove helpful. According to Bitton, these are things that can be checked:
- Consider the publisher. Familiarity with the publisher seemed to be an important consideration.
- Inaccuracy. Bitton suggests that the reader turn to a section with which there is some familiarity and check for accuracy.
- Telling us what we believe. Does the author tell us that we should just believe what he has written?
- Principle of selection. Are the selections actually representative of and consistent with the author’s stated purpose? Are there omissions?
- Interpretation. Does the author offer an interpretation through the selection process? Does author include or exclude in order to create an impression?
- Private life of the author. Bitton’s guideline here is worth quoting in its entirety:
Since good books can be written by bad people and bad books by good people, I prefer to evaluate a book in its own terms. But if the author participates in anti-Mormon activities, denounces the Church, or engages in behavior defiantly contrary to Church standards, his portrayal of Mormons and their history will probably not be warm and friendly. If he presents himself as a Latter-day Saint when in fact he has not set a foot inside a sacrament meeting for twenty-five years, if he pretends to be in the know because he comes from pioneer stock, we should have a right to be suspicious. If he indulges in snide, disrespectful, cruel comments about the Saints and those they sustain as prophets, we should not be surprised if his book is anti-Mormon. I am always happy to be proved wrong in such expectations, but when an author makes no effort to hide his contempt of Mormons and what they stand for, his predisposition is hard to ignore.8
So with the definition of compendium from Webster and these helpful guidelines from Davis Bitton, we began our review. Here is what we discovered.
Consider the publisher
Signature Books is a small niche publisher located in the Salt Lake Valley. They have been publishing books of interest to Mormon studies since their inception in 1980. In exploring the publisher’s Website, one can find information about their various authors over the last quarter century. Prominent among their authors are a number of Mormon “intellectuals,” several of whom have been stripped of their Church membership. As stated on their website,
The excommunications, which have affected Signature authors Maxine Hanks (Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism), Paul Toscano (Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology), D. Michael Quinn (The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past) and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Religion, Feminism and Freedom of Conscience) as well as Wright, are according to Ron Priddis, v-p finance and a member of the board of Signature, “the direct result of these writers’ Signature publications and of the papers and articles preliminary to them.9
Further, from the Web site, “Signature Books has also published work done by many former church members who have recently been excommunicated.”10
Finally, Gary Bergera, author of the compendium under review and identified as the director of Signature Books, was quoted as saying:
Of the six individuals who were disciplined by the LDS church recently, we have published, or are in some way affiliated with most of them.11
Thus, judging by information published on Signature Books’ website, both the publisher and the compendium’s author are affiliated with Church detractors. It would appear that when heeding Bitton’s advice to “consider the publisher,” the compendium already has one strike against it.
Meeting the Guidelines
Several of Bitton’s reviewing guidelines seem to overlap a bit. Inaccuracy, authors telling readers what to believe, the principle of selection, and interpretation are four areas that are relatively easy to evaluate at the same time.
As reviewers of this book, we come from different backgrounds but they both converge on the importance of accuracy and truth. One (Byrd) is a social scientist as well as a mental health professional with training in the area of human sexuality. The other (Peterson) is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic. Both consider ourselves to be orthodox members of the Church.
Following Bitton’s guidelines, we decided to select an area with which one of us (Byrd) had some familiarity. In doing our evaluation of the compendium for these areas, we decided to examine how the author represented the First Presidency’s statements on sexual immorality–specifically, homosexuality. We first turned to the listing on chastity, which referred us to the section on sexual relations. We searched for homosexuality and were also referred to the section on sexual relations.
The very first statement in the section on sexual relations addressed homosexual relationships (without using the word, “homosexual”) with the following:
The Church does not have a position on the causes of…susceptibilities or inclinations…related to same-gender attraction. Those are scientific questions–whether nature or nurture–those are things that the Church doesn’t have any position on. “Issues Resources,” 2006.12
It was interesting that the entry focused on homosexuality (same-gender attraction), especially since there were no other references to homosexuality or same-gender attraction in the entire compendium. In other words, these two simple sentences represent what the author feels is important to convey about the First Presidency and Church’s stance on same-gender attraction.
Should readers believe that the most concise, the most comprehensive, and the most essential First Presidency statement on homosexuality is limited to one that states the Church has taken no position on the genesis of same-gender attraction?
Interestingly enough, we know of no positions the First Presidency has taken on the causes of any challenges, regardless of what they may be. In fact, that is the full point of the edited comment included in the compendium. Looking at the full, original statement by Elder Oaks, one can clearly see this:
The Church does not have a position on the causes of any of these susceptibilities or inclinations, including those related to same-gender attraction. Those are scientific questions–whether nature or nurture–those are things the Church doesn’t have a position on.13
This is a follow-up response to clarify a statement that the Church views same-gender attraction the same as any other “susceptibility or inclination,” as the bold text, omitted by the author, clearly shows. Why would the author select this one etiology statement, which came from a media interview and clearly applies to many “susceptibilities and inclinations,” edit it to narrow the focus to only same-gender attraction, and present it as the essence of the First Presidency’s statements on homosexuality? Does such an editorial decision by the author represent a prime example of the “principle of selection” for which Bitton advised his readers to watch?
The truth of the matter is that the First Presidency has issued many statements on the immorality of homosexual activities and has made strong statements against marriages between persons of the same gender.
Consider the following examples, for which we used the same resources referenced in the compendium:
Like other violations of the law of chastity, homosexual activity is a serious sin. It is contrary to the purpose of human sexuality (See Romans 1:24-32). It distorts loving relationships and prevents people from receiving the blessings that can be found in family life and the saving ordinances of the gospel.14
Homosexual and lesbian activities are sinful and an abomination to the Lord (see Romans 1:26-27). Unnatural affections including those toward persons of the same gender are counter to God’s eternal plan for his children.15
Homosexual activity is a serious sin.16
None of the above First Presidency statements made it into the compendium, in any manner.
The selective manner in which the author decided to editorially abridge his selections is evident in an additional First Presidency statement excerpted in the section on sexual relations:
The Lord’s law of moral conduct is abstinence outside of lawful marriage and fidelity within marriage. Sexual relations are proper only between husband and wife appropriately expressed within the bonds of marriage. [First Presidency to All Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nov. 14, 1991]17
This statement is rather clear, but the author omitted the following from the same letter:
Any other sexual contact, including fornication, adultery and homosexual and lesbian behavior, is sinful. Those who persist in such practices or who influence others to do so are subject to Church discipline.18
The author cites a general statement on morality in 1975 from President Kimball (p. 421) but omits all of Presidency Kimball’s statements on homosexuality, including those found in The Miracle of Forgiveness, A Letter to A Friend, as well the Ensign article where President Kimball stated,
The unholy transgression of homosexuality is either rapidly growing or tolerance is giving it wider publicity. If one has such tendencies, he overcomes them the same as if he had the urge toward petting or fornication or adultery. The Lord condemns and forbids this practice with a vigor equal to his condemnation of adultery and other such sex acts.19
Lest anyone doubt that President Kimball’s words are still relevant and that, perhaps, this is why they were completely ignored in the compendium, the following quote from the current priesthood and Relief Society manuals (a source referenced throughout the compendium) will serve to remove those doubts.
If one has [homosexual] desires and tendencies, he overcomes them the same as if he had the urge toward petting or fornication or adultery. The Lord condemns and forbids this practice with a vigor equal to his condemnation of adultery and other such sex acts… Again, contrary to the belief and statement of many people, this [practice], like fornication, is overcomable and forgivable, but again, only upon a deep and abiding repentance, which means total abandonment and complete transformation of thought and act. The fact that some governments and some churches and numerous corrupted individuals have tried to reduce such behavior from criminal offense to personal privilege does not change the nature nor seriousness of this practice. Good men, God-fearing men everywhere still denounce the practice as being unworthy of sons and daughters of God, and Christ’s church denounces it and condemns it… This heinous homosexual sin is of the ages. Many cities and civilizations have gone out of existence because of it.20
Many other statements on homosexuality have been issued by the First Presidency, including the following:
Prophets of God have repeatedly taught through the ages that practices of homosexual relations, fornication, and adultery are grievous sins. Sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage are forbidden by the Lord. We affirm those teachings…21
The false belief of inborn homosexual orientation denies to repentant souls the opportunity to change and will ultimately lead to discouragement, disappointment and despair.22
Bergera omits every statement issued by the First Presidency or deletes any reference from quotations that mention homosexuality. As an example of the latter, the author partially quotes the “same-gender marriage” statement of March 10, 2004,23 and omits or ignores the following from the statement:
Homosexual, including lesbian behavior, is a deviation from divine law in any age regardless of its private toleration, popular promotion, or legal sanction. Society may redefine deviation, but God has not repealed His commandments.24
As well, he omits the very clear statement under “Issue Resources” on the Church’s website, “Same-Gender Attraction”:
Homosexual behavior is and always will remain before the Lord an abominable sin.25
Certainly, such a concise yet comprehensive statement would meet the criteria for essentiality in a compendium. In addition, though the author elected to quote from the 1998 edition of the Church Handbook of Instruction, he omitted any references to homosexuality.
In a similar vein, under the compendium topic Marriage, the author omits all references to First Presidency statements on same-gender marriages, including the February 1, 1994 statement. In this strong statement, the First Presidency declares:
We encourage members to appeal to legislators, judges, and other government officials to preserve the purposes and sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, and to reject all efforts to give legal authorization or other official approval or support to marriages between persons of the same gender.26
The author also excludes portions of the First Presidency statements on same-gender marriage. For example, Bergera references the news release of October 19, 2004, expressing the Church’s support for marriage between a man and a woman (p. 257), but omits the following part of the news release,
Any other sexual relations, including those between persons of the same gender, undermine the divinely created institution of the family.27
Using Bitton’s criteria for inaccuracy, telling us what to believe, the principle of selection, and interpretation, it seems clear that the compendium’s author omitted, distorted, or grossly misrepresented the First Presidency in matters relating to homosexuality and same-gender attraction. Such omissions and distortions are curious, and naturally lead to the question of why they would occur.
A Consideration of Other Actions
In searching for some explanation or motive for Bergera’s omissions, we followed Bitton’s last guideline to examine the “private life of the author.” Surely such an examination, besides fulfilling Bitton’s guidelines, would lead one to understand why a particular path was chosen. To avoid any potential assertions of argumentum ad hominem from any quarter, it was thought prudent to forego examination of the author’s life and examine, instead, other public statements and actions by the author that might shed light on his bias and intent.
Based on our search, the following conclusion finds much support: Bergera has more than a passing interest in homosexuality. For example, Bergera is included among the presenters at Affirmation conferences.28 A brief review of the Affirmation website quickly reveals the organization’s venomous attitudes toward the Church in respect to homosexuality.
Both Signature Books’ and Bergera’s public attitudes toward those who support the Church’s position on homosexuality are quite revealing. Consider the response to Orson Scott Card’s essay on “The Hypocrites of Homosexuality.”
For instance, Signature Books responded to the publication of ‘The Hypocrites of Homosexuality’ by suggesting to Sunstone magazine, where the essay appeared, that Signature might not be able to continue distributing that magazine if they continued to publish essays by me–a thinly veiled attempt to suppress my ability to get my writings published, even when Signature was profiting from the publication of my book Saintspeak, which I had sold to them under different editorial leadership. When I called Gary Bergera, editor of Signature Books, about his letters, he seemed apparently incapable of seeing that his attempt to get Sunstone to cease publishing my writings had anything to do with oppression. In his view, the cause of freedom requires Signature to make every effort to stop me from having a chance to speak a single word that might persuade someone that being a Latter-day Saint means trying to live the gospel as taught by the prophets, while they insist on their own freedom to continue with their clear and relentless crusade to persuade Mormons to take currently fashionable worldly wisdom as a better source of truth than the teachings of the prophets. Fortunately, freedom of the press still prevails on both sides, and I have no fear that given equal freedom to speak, the teachings of the prophets will continue to prevail in the Mormon community.29
This report from Card readily demonstrates that Signature Books, through the managerial actions of Bergera, was preoccupied with homosexuality. It also reveals the depth of their feelings toward the Church’s statements on homosexuality and their contempt for those who support Church doctrine.
Further clues to Bergera’s motives for excluding First Presidency statements on homosexuality can be found in Brigham Young University: A House of Faith (Signature Books, 1985), a book he co-authored with Ronald Priddis. It includes many direct references to homosexuality (pp. 83, 84, 122, 126, 324) as well as references to “deviation from heterosexual norms” (p. 310) and “sexual perversion” (p. 338).30 This provides additional support for a conclusion that Bergera was not only aware of First Presidency statements on homosexuality but perhaps held some animosity toward such statements.
Based on our sampling of just two topics (sexual relations and marriage) in the compendium, the following conclusion finds much support: The author misleads readers and scholars by creating the impression that the First Presidency has issued no definitive statements on those topics.
Although Bergera patterned his compendium in a layout similar to the Church’s book True to the Faith, ostensibly to create a Church-like impression for Church members, he deliberately omits any specific references to homosexuality and same-gender marriages. It is only natural that such deceptions call into question the author’s motives and cause readers to question whether there are other distortions or misleading omissions in other parts of the book.
Given the lack of objectivity evidenced in examining these two limited areas, we elected not to proceed further. We thought that would be of little value. Others, however, may disagree and may want to perform their own reviews, also using Bitton’s guidelines or another methodology for evaluating compendiums.
Because the evidence we uncovered makes it questionable as to whether Bergera’s book really qualifies as a “compendium” according to Webster’s definition, perhaps a new title would be appropriate. It seems reasonable to suggest that a more fitting title might be “Selected Parts of First Presidency Statements Along with Certain Omissions to Fit an Agenda.”
Unfortunately, Stephen Robinson’s famous quip relating to a different Signature Books offering is just as relevant today as it was in 1991: “Korihor’s back, and this time he’s got a printing press.”31
1 Dennis Lythgoe, “Statements Great LDS Resource,” Deseret Morning News (July 8, 2007).
2 J. Stapley, “Review: Statements of the LDS First Presidency,” (March 27, 2007), http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/03/review-statements-of-the-lds-first-presidency/, accessed 8/11/2007.
3 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (New York: Macmillan, 1998), 284.
4 Sunstone, Issue 146 (June 2007), 4.
6 Gary Bergera, editor, “Sexual Relations,” Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2007), ix.
7 Davis Bitton, “Spotting an Anti-Mormon Book” (first appeared in Meridian Magazine on September 22, 2003), http://www.fairlds.org/Anti-Mormons/Spotting_an_Anti-Mormon_Book.html, accessed 8/5/2007.
9 Phyllis Tickle, “Mormon Church Excommunicates Five Scholars Over Their Books” (Publisher’s Weekly review, original date unnoted), http://www.signaturebooks.com/sigstories2.htm, accessed 7/13/2007.
10 Ribert Rigney, “Signature Books Carries on Despite Rebuff from Mormon Leaders, Excommunications” (Daily Utah Chronicle, original date unnoted), http://www.signaturebooks.com/sigstories2.htm, accessed 7/13/2007.
12 Gary Bergera, editor, “Sexual Relations,” Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2007), 418.
13 Public Affairs department interview with Dallin Oakes and Lance Wickman, available at http://www.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=27f71f1dd189f010VgnVCM100000176f620aRCRD &vgnextchannel=726511154963d010VgnVCM1000004e94610aRCRD&vgnextfmt=tab1. Accessed September 22, 2007.
14 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, True to the Faith (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2004), 30-31.
15 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, For the Strength of Youth (Salt Lake City: The Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990), 15.
16 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, For the Strength of Youth (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2001), 28.
17 Gary Bergera, editor, “Sexual Relations,” Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2007), 419, brackets added for clarity.
18 “Standards of Morality and Fidelity,” First Presidency statement, Issued November 14, 1991.
19 Spencer W. Kimball, “Special Message to All Latter-day Saints, President Kimball Speaks Out on Morality,” The Ensign, 10 (11), November, 1980, 94-98.
20 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Teachings of Presidents of the Church, Spencer W. Kimball, (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2006), 181.
21 Gordon B. Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 8.
22 James E. Faust, “The First Presidency Message: Serving the Lord and Resisting the Devil,” The Ensign, 28, 11, 70-72.
23 On page 258 of the compendium there is a quote from the June 1996 Ensign. This exact quote was repeated in the First Presidency’s March 10, 2004, statement on same-gender marriage. While the author quotes the 1996 Ensign statement, he omits reference to the March 2004 statement that repeated and clarified the Church’s position on the matter.
24 Same-gender Marriage statement issued by the First Presidency, March 10, 2004.
25 Same-Gender Attraction, Issues Resources, newsroom.lds.com, August 14, 2006.
26 Same Gender Marriages, First Presidency statement issued February 1, 1994.
27 First Presidency Statement on Same-Gender Marriage, Press Release, October 19, 2004.
28 Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons, found at http://.affirmation.org/conferences
29 Orson Scott Card, “The Hypocrites of Homosexuality,” A Storyteller in Zion (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993), 187-188.
30 Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young, A House of Faith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985).
31 Stephen E. Robinson, “The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1991), 312.