The Community of Christ and Other Restoration Movements
Keith J. Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
Richard G. Moore (email@example.com) is a retired Seminaries and Institutes instructor, author of Know Your Religions, vol. 2: A Comparative Look at Mormonism and the Community of Christ, and a member of the Religious Education Outreach Committee.
Devan Jensen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive editor at BYU.
Jensen: How did you get involved with the Community of Christ and Restorationist movements?
Wilson: I wrote a question to someone online with a website. I asked about the different dissenting RLDS groups and the Community of Christ. This individual started to correspond with me, and before long he invited me to speak at one of their symposia. They have a group that had coalesced around the Book of Mormon and keeping the Book of Mormon strong amongst their following, so I thought, “You know, this is a good outreach.” I asked one of my other colleagues, and he said yes at first, but then he withdrew. I thought, “Who can I get that would be willing?” I went down the hall, and there was Rich Moore. He was here as a Seminary and Institute instructor on loan to BYU. I asked, “Rich, do you want to go to Independence with me?” and he said yes. Rich, had you been involved in RLDS studies up to that time?
Moore: Yes, I wrote a book comparing the Community of Christ and the LDS Church, and I had received a lot of help from Community of Christ scholars and leaders because I had some of them go over each chapter to make sure I was representing them correctly. After it was published, they invited me to attend the John Whitmer Historical Association conference to participate in a session called “The Author Meets His Critics.” I went out there pretty nervous about the whole thing, but my wife and I had such a good experience and made so many friends that we have continued to attend the conference each year since then. Eventually, I was asked to be on the board of directors of the John Whitmer Historical Association, and have been serving on that board for the past two years. That was how I became involved with Community of Christ. It was about a year after my first JWHA conference that Keith came to my office and said, “Do you want to go out to a Book of Mormon conference in Independence?” And that is when I got involved with the other Restorationists.
Jensen: For our readers, can you help us understand some of the sweeping changes that have taken place? Just a thumbnail sketch of some of these changes?
Moore: I’ll start. I think that most LDS Church members are at least aware of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now called Community of Christ, which had its beginnings in the 1850s but didn’t officially become an organized church until April 6, 1860, with Joseph Smith III as its president. Over the years it grew through missionary efforts, and branches were established in the United States and in many parts of the world. But about mid-twentieth century, their leadership began to make some significant changes.
Wilson: What happened was they galvanized around the principle of lineal succession through Joseph Smith III. His son and second president was Fredrick Madison Smith. But then Fredrick Madison did not have any male heirs, so they followed the Smith lineage laterally, and they appointed Frederick’s younger brother Israel. But Israel didn’t have capable male descendants, so they passed the leadership to a younger half brother from Joseph III’s third wife. This was not a polygamous wife but simply a marriage after the deaths of his first two wives.
What happened then was that the line of descent diffused some, and men who never dreamed that they would ever be in church leadership were called to be in the First Presidency and eventually became the President of the Church. Feeling very inadequate, these leaders naturally delegated lots of responsibility to secondary leadership. And what happened then was that these secondary administrators often were not well grounded in the Restoration, and some even had Protestant backgrounds and leanings. They then began to introduce Protestant doctrine back into the RLDS Church. In the ’60s the Church rewrote the Articles of Faith and republished them. During this time the leadership even had some Protestant theologians come from a seminary in Kansas City and doctrinally instruct the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve! So Flots of changes came into the church through this impetus of these outside sources. By the time you get to Wallace B. Smith, who was the grandson of Joseph Smith III, he introduced in 1984 the revelation extending the priesthood to worthy women. This action produced the first of many fractures in the RLDS Church.
By 1990 it became really intense, and some of these dissenting members started to form different groups. In the ’90s and the early 2000s, you have three major groups forming. The first is a group that coalesced around the powers vested in the elders of the church, and they took the title of Conference of Restoration Elders. The second major group formed about 2001 when Fred Larson, a maternal descendant of Joseph III, formed the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And finally in 2005 a group emerged out of a collection of independent branches that formerly were members of the RLDS Church. Today they are known as the JCRB, or Joint Council of Restoration Branches.
Jensen:What is your interaction with these Restoration movements? What are your goals and hopes?
Moore: Well, I think when we attended our first Book of Mormon conference in Independence and became friends with people from other Restoration churches, suddenly, for me, it was this realization that there are people outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are firm believers in the Book of Mormon, who are believers in Joseph Smith, who are believers in the Restoration, and are very faithful, good people. We started associating with them, thinking, “There have been such bad feelings for so many years—such bad blood; and this should not be the case.” For example, when we were first invited to go back and speak, there were people from a number of groups that said they would not attend if there were LDS people there. But we seem to have moved past that, and now we’ve become pretty good friends with people from the various groups. My basic goal is just to open up lines of communication so that we have a better understanding and appreciation of each other, to develop associations and friendships. We have more in common than we have differences. We recognize and are aware of the differences, but we don’t focus on them. We focus on the similarities of our beliefs and the common goals we all have. This has made for really warm relationships, not only with the various independent restoration churches, but also with members of Community of Christ. Keith and I are part of a group that meets with Community of Christ leaders and scholars in an ongoing dialogue to improve the relationship between the two churches.
We have also made friends in other schisms of the church founded by Joseph Smith. For example, within the Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite) and the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), we have some very good friends. My wife and I went to Independence about a year ago and spent an entire month there for the sole purpose of building relationships and making friends. We went out with no particular plan and not knowing beforehand the things which we should do, you know? But we were busy every day, involved with many different groups. And we have made some really good friends. That has been my major focus—just the relationship building and the tearing down of walls that have separated us for many years.
Wilson: Mine has been just a little different tack because I am associated with the university still full time and can’t go out and do the kinds of things that Rich has been able to do. Mine has been to use the resources of BYU—particularly Religious Education—but all scholars in the Church who have written quality materials on the Book of Mormon, and I share those materials with the goal of strengthening their belief in the Book of Mormon. So that’s been very fun to do because we have so much that’s cutting-edge information. We’ve been able to take some of our colleagues and, they have been well received. When Rich and I presented at our first conference, all the other groups were watching closely as to whether or not we would teach the “Brigham version” of Mormonism. We did well in that first encounter. Afterwards in the foyer, a lady came up to me and said they had been thinking, “Oh no, here come the Mormons, and what are they going to do?” And they liked us because we didn’t really teach them about our particular brand of the Restoration but talked just about the Book of Mormon. To this day, every time we have a great Book of Mormon symposium back there, they always come up and say, “You know, we have our differences, but when we are together we feel the Spirit so much, and we just love that.” That is so exhilarating to have them feel the Spirit through the Book of Mormon, and it becomes a common bridge for all. We obviously still have our individual differences, but we have much more and in common, and we celebrate that when we are together.
Moore: One of the most spiritual experiences of my entire life took place at a Book of Mormon conference. We met on a Friday night in the historic Stone Church (RLDS), and the next night we met in our LDS stake center. The LDS stake center is just across the road from the Community of Christ temple. I didn’t speak at the conference, but I conducted the meetings. The speakers were all very good. Brother Robert Millet was the concluding speaker, and his words truly brought us all together. The Spirit was so strong that when the congregation sang the closing hymn with the choir, which was “The Spirit of God,” I was overcome. I looked around that room filled with people of different Restorationist beliefs, all joined together—some people who would have never entered an LDS Church door before that time.
Jensen:So really we’re talking about, in a big sense, mending some fences that have been in need of repair for some time. And you are also building friendships that will produce fruits.
Wilson: Yes. The fences quite honestly began right back in the nineteenth century with Brigham Young and Emma Smith. And it was very difficult for the first one hundred years, you know. Moore: Several years ago, I attended the Joseph Smith Senior–Lucy Mack Smith Family Reunion. Neither my wife nor I are members of the Smith family, but we were invited to attend the family reunion with them in Independence. The family consists of members of various Restoration churches, but they are united as one family. On a Saturday morning, there was a meeting where Lachlan Mackay (currently an Apostle in Community of Christ) and I were the speakers. I spoke about Emma and Brigham, and I was nervous because there are still some sensitive feelings there. After the meeting, a woman who was the descendant of Emma came up and just shook my hand and said that she agreed with everything I said, and that it was just right. Just right. I was so relieved. These kinds of things open up communication and friendships. Perhaps the first time when something like this happened was when we first spoke at the Book of Mormon Conference. Keith and I and others spoke in the Remnant Church’s gathering place. After my presentation, there was a break. As I walked off the stand, a man came up to me quickly. He approached and got right in my face so quickly that it almost scared me. He said, “You are a Brighamite! I am a Josephite.” Then he paused and said, “But today I call you brother,” and he shook my hand. It was great moment.
Jensen: Fantastic. Well, now that we have established what friendships you’re forming, where do you see this going from here? I mean, it’s hard to anticipate what will happen, but do you have any feeling of what can happen in the next few years? Maybe continue the same kind of work or involve other people in this work?
Wilson: We want to continue our outreach. In fact, we have been on the phone today organizing this next year’s conference, and we want to reach as many of these Book of Mormon believing groups as we can. It is rather challenging, I can tell you, because they also have feelings about the other groups, and there is sense of territorialism. So we want to involve as many of those as we can. And there are ten or fifteen possible groups right in the Independence area. Some are quite small, and the larger groups are not really wild about taking on some small group that might be seen as sort of a fringe element. But I think that our purpose is so well served if we keep as our main objective to witness of the Book of Mormon and let the Book of Mormon convert people as it will. Let it take them where it takes them, because I just believe that as Joseph Smith said, a man will get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than any other book. So we don’t have to have a reconciliation of the churches in order for this outreach to be extremely successful.
Jensen: I think it is an important point that you’re basically trying to reinforce their testimony of the Book of Mormon and then allow them to make the decisions that will lead them.
Wilson: For the longest time in the Church, we have espoused the idea that if you believe in the Book of Mormon it will testify simultaneously of the Prophet Joseph Smith and of the truthfulness of LDS Church. That works in most parts of the world, but it does not work in Independence, Missouri, because there are a lot of Book of Mormon believers of different stripes in that area. So I think we have to go beyond the belief that the Book of Mormon is simply testifying of the Church, and we have to go to that concept that the Book of Mormon is bringing people to Christ. And somehow I believe deeply that he will mend our differences during the latter stages of the Restoration. And I don’t have to worry about whether or not their name appears on our membership rolls in order to really minister and try to just extend resources about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon to them.
Jensen: So, in a sense, as our readers would perhaps suggest, our flock is much bigger than we think of, with the Shepherd at the center, and there are many, many flocks that are out there worshipping him.
Moore: That is a good way to put it. My involvement with other churches has increased my faith in the Lord and his love for all of us. We are all children of God. There are some tremendously faithful people in these other churches; devout in their faith. It is an everyday thing, not a Sunday only thing. They go to church on Sunday, but they also go to Wednesday night testimony meetings every week, and they have study sessions together. When my wife and I were there, we met with a group that studies the Book of Mormon every week in a lady’s home. We had the chance to meet with them and study with them. These are some good and sincere people. It has caused me to examine my own personal commitment to the gospel.
The Community of Christ officially still considers the Book of Mormon as one of their standard works. They have the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. It is likely that many of their leaders do not believe that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an ancient record. They see it as more of a creation of Joseph Smith. But there is no official stand taken on this, so members are welcome to believe what they want. This is troubling to some of the other Restoration groups who still have a firm belief in the plates and the antiquity of the Book of Mormon.
Jensen:So what you’re saying is even though the larger Community of Christ doesn’t accept that that way, there are individuals in each of those traditions who say, “Hey, I still believe this is what it says it is.”
Wilson: And plenty of people who are still affiliated with the Community of Christ themselves (not just the breakoff groups) still believe, and they will come to these sessions. We have had an Apostle from the Community of Christ speak at these sessions. So this outreach is just all about whether or not you accept the Book of Mormon as scripture and with that as a basis, then, we push forward. And even if they don’t accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon, we still believe that as scripture, it will bless their lives. For us there are some real inconsistencies to have the scriptures yet to not accept them as historical; the book becomes almost like uplifting literature to us. Many in the Community of Christ view the Book of Mormon as true but not factual. For them, scripture is anything that lifts and that helps you to feel the Spirit. So we do have differences there, but where we have our commonalities, that is where we build.
Jensen:Let’s close with one last thought that you would like to share.
Wilson: I have been touched and continue to be touched by the goodness of these people. They really are not only our cousins in terms of our religious faith, but they are our brothers and sisters, and I want to do anything I can to support them in their faith in the Restoration. I just feel like it is such a privilege to be at BYU with all our resources and to be able to extend just a hand of support. And I’m grateful for these core things that unite us and that give us our common beliefs.
Moore: I have been sincerely surprised at the direction my life has taken in the last few years. I did not see any of this coming. I am so thankful to Keith for inviting me to go with him and I am also grateful for my involvement with JWHA and being part of BYU’s Office of Religious Outreach. My wife and I count these things as tremendous blessings. To a great extent, we feel that this is part of our life’s mission right now. And I still can’t get over the fact that our involvement with people of the various Restoration churches has resulted in not just acquaintances but deep friendships. That is such a blessing to us.
 See 1 Nephi 4:6.