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Mormonism and the ‘one true church’

Author Patrick Mason says Latter-day Saints' focus on being the 'one true church' may be missing the larger purpose of the restoration.

Author and historian Patrick Mason in 2019. Courtesy photo
Author and historian Patrick Mason in 2019. Courtesy photo

Author and historian Patrick Mason in 2019. Courtesy photo

(RNS) — “This is the restored church.”

“This is the restored gospel.”

Those are common enough sentences in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They’re in our curriculum and our General Conference talks. They’re spoken in sacrament meetings as a matter of course.

They’re not, however, from our earliest history. According to historian Patrick Mason, who holds the Leonard Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, Joseph Smith never used the terms “restored church” or “restored gospel” in what remains of his writings and speeches. Neither did he talk about “the restoration of the church.”

Is your mind blown yet? Mine was when I began editing Mason’s new book, “Restoration: God’s Call to the 21st-Century World.” It’s an accessible, brief and fascinating exploration from the author of the 2015 book “Planted,” which helped thousands of Latter-day Saints address some of the thornier aspects of church history and faith crisis.

With the new book, coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Mason investigates what “restoration” has meant in the Mormon past — and what it could become in the future.

A quick search of the General Conference Corpus website confirms “restored church” and “restored gospel” weren’t just absent from Joseph Smith’s thought; they weren’t common LDS concepts at all until the 20th century. They’ve become particularly important in the 21st century, just in the last two decades.

That’s not what Mason expected to find. “It was a big surprise for me, too,” he said in an interview. “I did that research on the phrases ‘restored church’ and ‘restored gospel’ fully expecting that Joseph Smith used those phrases. So what really interested me were the ways in which Joseph Smith did use the term ‘restoration.’ It turns out that most of the time, when he referred to restoration, he was referring to people, specifically the House of Israel and the Lamanites.”

Smith was preoccupied with a major theme in the Bible and the “Book of Mormon,” which is redeeming “Israel,” or people who have been scattered and lost. “When you look at all these references holistically, the theme that emerged for me is that of restoring God’s people, not just specific segments of it,” Mason said.

What “restoration” is about is healing the world — not unlike, Mason says, the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. It includes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but is not limited to it.

Mason says the church’s notion of restoration has tended to focus on several elements: priesthood, a church organization patterned after one in the New Testament, temple covenants, and other things. He doesn’t want to diminish the importance of any of those individual elements; he just wants to remind readers of the end game. “Those things are all restored in the service of this bigger goal that God has, which is the restoration of his people.”

Courtesy image

Courtesy image

But we have tended to focus on the church. In the twentieth century, the idea of the “one true church” became more important in Latter-day Saint thought. (Another General Conference time capsule: In the single decade of the 1970s, there were 94 references to “true church” from LDS leaders, which was almost as many as occurred in the entire 19th century.)

Mason says this focus on being the “one true church” may be missing something. First of all, he notes it’s not something many people who are not already Mormon spend much time thinking about, even if it was a question foremost in Joseph Smith’s mind when he walked into a grove of trees 200 years ago to pray.

This came home to Mason a few years ago when he was giving a lecture before hundreds of people at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state. At the end of his talk, he asked the audience of interfaith and ecumenical people, “How many of you care deeply about the question of which church is true?”

“Only one person raised their hand, and that person turned out to be a Latter-day Saint,” he said.

A second issue is too much focus on the “one true church” may also miss the point of how God is working through many different people and different religions to achieve a holy purpose.

That doesn’t mean Latter-day Saints aren’t special. In the book, Mason charts a middle course between two extremes. On the one hand is the diehard “one true church” idea from those who believe in exclusivism — as Mason puts it, “that if one thing is true, then everything else must be false.” At the other extreme is relativism, the notion “that there are multiple paths up the mountain, but they all reach the same destination.”

There are virtues and limitations in both approaches. Exclusivism denies the goodness and holiness of those outside the tiny circle of Latter-day Saints, which as Mason points out in the book is less than two-tenths of 1% of the world’s population. Relativism, though, ignores the reality, as he says, “some religions are simply better at certain things than other religions are. Buddhists have beautifully cultivated the gift of meditation and mindfulness. Jains have cultivated nonviolence. Evangelical Christians have cultivated the notion of God’s grace.”

What lies in the middle is what Mason calls particularism­: the idea God has gifted different communities of people, including different cultures and religions, with particular talents as well as unique callings, or vocations.

“So for me, the question is: What particular things has God called the Latter-day Saints to do, and gifted them with?” he said. Part of the book is about enumerating what sets Mormons apart from other religions — things like the “Book of Mormon,” the notion of priesthood as it is practiced by men and women in the temple, the idea of families being eternal, and other things. “These are specific things that Latter-day Saints can cultivate and thus be true to their calling.”

To better fulfill that calling, there is certain “excess baggage” the church has picked up over the course of its two centuries of history that could hold it back in its third century: things like racism, patriarchy, nationalism and a certain black-and-white rigidity about the world. The last section of the book discusses six of these points, with Mason noting all religions accumulate excess baggage, but the key thing is to identify it and be willing to let it go when it’s obstructing God’s larger purpose of restoration.

“There’s a mission, there’s a challenge, there’s a charge, to do some real healing of the world,” Mason said. “To participate in healing is not adjacent to Latter-day Saints’ religious obligations, but central to those obligations.”

Related content:

“Which church is true?” isn’t the right question anymore

Staying Mormon: “Planted” with Patrick Mason

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