LDS elder — a former college president — may have plagiarized General Conference talk

Elder David Bednar, a former BYU-Idaho president, failed to tell listeners he was using material from an obscure religious teacher and other sources in his address.

Elder David Bednar speaks at the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held Oct. 1-2, 2022, in Salt Lake City. Video screen grab via Intellectual Reserve Inc.

(RNS) — A leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appears to have plagiarized a portion of his address at a national church gathering, passing off the words of an obscure religious teacher as his own.

During the church’s recent General Conference, held Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 1-2), Elder David Bednar, a former university president and a member of the body known as the Quorum of 12 since 2004, preached to church members about a well-known New Testament parable about a king who throws a wedding for his son, only to have none of the invited guests show up.

The king sends out his servants to invite the general public to the party instead, but one of them shows up without wearing the proper attire and is cast out.

That guest, said Bednar, should have known better, but “did not want to follow the custom of the king.”

“He wanted to do things his own way,” Bednar told the biannual General Conference, broadcast around the world. “His lack of proper dress revealed his inner rebellion against the king and his instructions.”

What the former university president did not tell those listening is that the interpretation of the parable was not entirely his own. Instead, his analysis was taken, often word for word, from a 2016 article about the parable written by John O. Reid, a leader in a little-known sect referred to as the Church of the Great God.

Bednar also read several quotes from Reid and from Elder James E. Talmage, an LDS leader who died in 1933, crediting some, but giving the impression that the ideas were his own. Footnotes to Reid’s article and Talmage’s work, as well as other sources, do appear in the published version of Bednar’s talk — but material from both appears without quotation marks.

RELATED: If you have eyes, plagiarize’: When borrowing a sermon goes too far

“In his global address this past weekend, Elder Bednar made reference to and quoted insight provided by Christian author, John O. Reid,” said Doug Andersen, a church spokesman, in an email. “Mr. Reid was mentioned by name and referenced on multiple occasions in footnotes. The transcript of his remarks is published for all to see. For those who would try to find fault, we would invite you to consider the spirit of his message.”

Religion News Service first contacted church leaders about Bednar’s address on Wednesday (Oct. 5). At that time, the transcript had one mention of Reid and no quotation marks around material taken from his work, according to screenshots of the transcript and an internet archive of the page. The mention of Reid appeared after several paragraphs of material lifted from Reid with no attribution.

Within hours, the transcript was updated with four additional footnotes linked to Reid’s article as well as quotation marks around one phrase from his work. The other material taken from Reid’s writing remains in the transcript without any quotation marks.

Ben Park, a scholar of Mormonism at Sam Houston State University, said Bednar’s lack of proper attribution was troubling. A former university president and an influential voice in church education, said Park, should have known better.

“This is disheartening to see,” he said.

The academic honesty policy at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where Bednar was once president, warns about both intentional and unintentional plagiarism.

Elder David Bednar's published speech, with footnotes at right, on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website. Screen grab

Elder David Bednar’s published speech, with footnotes at right, on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website. The footnotes linked to an article by John O. Reid were added after RNS asked about unattributed material in the speech. Screen grab

Questions about Bednar’s remarks come at a time when preachers from many backgrounds are under scrutiny for plagiarism. Alabama pastor Ed Litton, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, apologized in 2021 for using sections of a megachurch pastor’s sermon without attribution, leading to a national controversy known as “Sermon-gate.” A Christian publisher canceled a devotional book several years ago by Hillary Clinton’s former pastor after learning that some of the devotions were plagiarized.

It’s not uncommon for preachers to repurpose ideas or situations from other sermons in their own, but the question of when the borrowing goes too far is the subject of some debate.

Park said that early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were seen as religious innovators, deeply interested in matters of theology and doctrine. Today, however, church leaders are more likely to come from business or corporate backgrounds and are charged with managing a church that has become global and corporate. While they are often called on to speak in public, their messages are frequently about inspiration and morality rather than interpreting biblical texts.

“In the modern church, leaders have become more like bureaucrats than theologians,” Park said.

Bednar’s use of Reid’s article, which appeared in a magazine called Forerunner, was also puzzling to scholars. Reid was a leader in the Church of the Great God, a sectarian group that broke away from the Worldwide Church of God, founded by the late Herbert W. Armstrong. An end-times radio preacher, Armstrong rejected the Trinity and believed in “British Israelism,” the idea that Anglo-Saxons were descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

Reid and others who formed the Church of the Great God broke away after the Worldwide Church of God began to abandon Armstrong’s teaching after his death. The group has no ties to Latter-day Saints or more mainstream biblical scholarship. 

General Conference speeches, which receive a great deal of scrutiny and are translated and published in many languages, often form the basis of the talks given by lay leaders in local congregations, according to Patrick Mason, a professor of Mormon history at Utah State University. As such, he said, these addresses are tantamount to Scripture for Latter-day Saints. 

While church leaders are expected to read and research their talks, said Mason, the talks are seen as inspired. “There would be a sense among many members of the church that these words are given to the apostle from heaven,” he said.

Andersen pointed out that the remarks were made in a religious setting—not an academic one.

“It is worth noting that this was not an academic conference, or a scholarly publication, but rather a pastoral sermon delivered in a religious setting,” he said. “Elder Bednar utilized conversational language while remaining true to the source of the topic being addressed.”

Church leaders have made mistakes in their General Conference addresses, though it’s rare for the church to cite them. One of the few examples, he said, involved the late Paul H. Dunn, a former church elder who was censured for making up stories about playing major league baseball and serving in combat.

They are even more reluctant to admit if they have made a mistake or were careless with their words, said Mason.

“They are just not wired to do that,” he said.

After this article was published, Anderson said the transcript had been updated again to make the attribution clearer.  He blamed an “editing oversight” for the missing Reid footnotes and attribution.

“Once errors were pointed out they were corrected.”

This story has been updated with new details about the change to the transcript of Elder Bednar’s address. 

RELATED: New SBC President Ed Litton apologizes for using JD Greear sermon quotes without credit

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