A few years ago, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf shared the following thoughts in general priesthood session:
Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us—Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he received priesthood keys, the Church was organized. In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now. It includes “all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal,” and the “many great and important things” that “He will yet reveal.” Brethren, the exciting developments of today are part of that long-foretold period of preparation that will culminate in the glorious Second Coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Drawing on the nineth Article of Faith, President Uchtdorf talked about the Restoration of the gospel as an ongoing process, even today. Since then, the idea of ongoing Restoration has caught on as a paradigm to discuss changes in the Church that result from continuing revelation and changing circumstances in the world.
One of the paradoxes of the Restoration of the Gospel that I’ve discussed before is that there are both concepts that the Church has to change and adapt through continuing revelation and that there is a “perfect state” that needs to be restored (and thus must also stay static to maintain that perfect state after it is achieved). The goal of restoration in general is to return something to a former condition. Joseph Smith looked to return to the Christianity practiced in the New Testament era, as indicated by his statement that: “We believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church, viz: apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists &c.” The basic idea seems to be that if “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” then His Church must be as well. And, to some degree, that seems to be what Joseph Smith taught, stating that the Lord’s “purpose in himself in the winding up scene of the last dispensation is, that all things pertaining to that dispensation should be conducted precisely in accordance with the preceeding dispensations. … therefore he set the ordinances to be the same for Ever and ever.” This sets up an ideal state (a perfect, New Testament-style church and gospel) that must be returned to and maintained forever as the restored church.
At the same time as restoration, ongoing revelation is a necessary part of the Church’s DNA, even though it does lead to some instability. Joseph Smith indicated as much when he wrote that: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” And a part of that need is that the context that we live in changes as societal norms shift or various situations arise. That’s why President John Taylor taught that:
[We have] always required new revelations, adapted to the peculiar circumstances in which the churches or individuals were placed.
Adam’s revelation did not instruct Noah to build his ark; nor did Noah’s revelation tell Lot to forsake Sodom; nor did either of these speak of the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt. These all had revelations for themselves, and so had Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, and Joseph. And so must we, or we shall make shipwreck.
There is a need for that revelation and that change, even if it runs against the concept of a restoration in some ways.
The reality is that things change with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For example, at this last general conference, President Russell M. Nelson discussed changes to temple ordinances. A change in ordinance seems to contradict Joseph Smith’s statement that the Lord “set the ordinances to be the same for Ever and ever.” I.e., if there is one perfect state that must be restored, a change indicates that either the old way of doing things was wrong or the new way is a mistake. But the Church has made several changes to temple ordinances, even during my lifetime. In his address, President Nelson draws a little on both sides, initially stated that: “Temple ordinances and covenants are ancient. … In the house of the Lord, we can make the same covenants with God that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob made. And we can receive the same blessings!” That takes the restoration-centric view that what we do in the temples is a return to ancient and eternally correct process.
Later in the address, however, President Nelson noted that: “Under the Lord’s direction and in answer to our prayers, recent procedural adjustments have been made.” He positioned these changes as being due to ongoing revelation: “Current adjustments in temple procedures, and others that will follow, are continuing evidence that the Lord is actively directing His Church.” To navigate the gap between those views, he does indicate that some things never change: “The procedure changed, but the covenants remain the same.” He also chose to describe changes to temple ordinances over the course of the Restoration as a process of them being “gradually refined.” Ultimately, President Nelson focused on changes to temple ordinances as being set in a context where: “The Restoration is a process, not an event, and will continue until the Lord comes again.” And, when looking to accomplish the central goals of the restoration more effectively, “the Lord reveals more insights. The ongoing Restoration needs ongoing revelation.” In many ways, it felt like President Nelson was walking a tightrope in explaining beneficial changes that were concerning to some members of the Church because they contradicted the idea of a restoration for reasons described above.
Now, I remember being asked one time while discussing the idea of an ongoing restoration whether the concept was based on the idea that the initial Restoration under Joseph Smith was deeply flawed (and it takes revelation and restoration to fix those flaws), or whether it was rooted in the idea that the initial Restoration was correct and it just needs minor tweaks and adjustments here and there to make it work a little better. To be honest, I feel like it is some of both (depending on the example), as well as shifting context and circumstances that come together to make change necessary.
A prime example of changing circumstances is the Church’s history with polygamy. Although illegal in the United States throughout the entire period it was officially practiced, pressure from the federal government to abandon the practice was gradually ratcheted up over several decades until it became unbearable. The Latter-day Saints believed, however, that they were doing God’s will by entering plural marriages and kept doing so as long as possible. By 1890, however, things reached a point that President Wilford Woodruff felt that: “I have arived at a point in the History of my life as the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints whare I am under the necessity of acting for the Temporal Salvation of the Church. The United State Governmet has taken a Stand & passed Laws to destroy the Latter day Saints upon the Subjet of poligamy or Patriarchal order of Marriage.” He issued the Manifesto (known today as Official Declaration 1) as a result, which sounded the death knell for plural marriage in the Church. In describing his rationale to the Saints in Cache Valley, Utah, President Woodruff stated that: “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for … any of the men in this temple at Logan; for all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice.” Circumstances had changed as more and more laws had been passed and enforced by the U.S. government prohibiting polygamy, requiring a change in Church practice.
And, while initially the change was entirely pragmatic in its presentation, time and reflection have led to a refinement in doctrine. Within the past few years, the Church has clarified that plural marriage is the exception, not the law, and indicated that it was rescinded on a permanent basis. Gordon B. Hinckley laid the groundwork in his 1998 address when he gave his reasons for having nothing to do with polygamy: “More than a century ago God clearly revealed unto His prophet Wilford Woodruff that the practice of plural marriage should be discontinued, which means that it is now against the law of God.” The Gospel Topics essay on Plural Marriage confirmed that this was the official stance of the Church, stating that: “Latter-day Saints believe that the marriage of one man and one woman in the Lord’s standing law of marriage,” but noted that plural marriage was instituted for a time by revelation. More recently, Kate Holbrook (a church historian) spoke at a face to face event at the time Saints, vol.1 was released, stating that: “Our church leaders have taught us that monogamy is the rule and plural marriage is the exception. And our Church leaders have taught us that plural marriage is not necessary for exaltation or for eternal glory.” Elder Quentin L. Cook backed up her comments by stating that: “In the senior councils of the Church, there’s a feeling that polygamy as it was practiced has served its purpose, and we should honor those saints. But that purpose has been accomplished and that, that it isn’t necessary.” As a gradual refinement of the reasons for abandoning the practice of polygamy, Church leaders have embraced the idea of monogamy as God’s law.
At other times, things were brought into the Church that should not have been incorporated and it has taken time to sift them out. In January 1858, an early Church leader named Zerah Pulsipher told his family that: “Most of you are young therefore you have the advantage of me because [yo]u have less Gentile Traditions to over com[e].” The Saints who joined together to form the Church (Joseph Smith included) came from an existing religious tradition and were part of an Anglo-American culture, and they brought many of their “Gentile Traditions” in with them as they entered the Church. One of the most toxic examples of this centers on concepts of race that early Latter-day Saints brought with them into the Church. In the second volume of the official history of the Church, this came up in a discussion about the position early converts to the Church that were Black, such as Jane Manning James, found themselves in: “Jane … knew that white Saints generally accepted black people into the fold. Like other groups of Christians at this time, however, many white Saints wrongly viewed black people as inferior, believing that black skin was the result of God’s curse on the biblical figures Cain and Ham. … Brigham Young shared some of these views.” These concepts of a curse on Cain and a curse on Ham being linked to individuals of black African descent were originally developed and spread as a justification for transatlantic slave trade and the ongoing enslavement of black Africans. The ideas were imported into the Church as part of the general cultural assumptions of early members and were used as the supporting ideology for a race-based priesthood and temple ban.
When Official Declaration 2 was released in 1978, that began to change. Because of the declaration, “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” This removed the need to draw on the rationalizations to defend current Church practices. Beginning in the late 1980s, Elder Dallin H. Oaks began to proclaim that while “some people put reasons to” the priesthood and temple ban, those reasons “turned out to be spectacularly wrong.” In 2013, the Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood was published with the approval of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and declared that: “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” Between these two statements and the one found in the official history of the Church, it is clear that it is the stance of the Church today that earlier views about race commonly held and taught by Church members in times past were wrong—they were dross that had been wrongly integrated into the Church but have since begun to be purged to fix the flaw.
In any case, one way that I’ve thought about this ongoing process of creating the Church through restoration and revelation is the concept of iterative equations. When modeling complex processes mathematically, such as fluid flow, sometimes an equation with a lot of variables is needed. And, once in a while, when an estimate of a specific variable is needed, there isn’t a perfect equation available to just spit out the answer. So, instead, an equation is used where an estimate of the value is plugged in with all the other variables to produce another estimate of the answer that is, ideally, closer to reality. That new estimate can then be plugged back into the equation to generate yet another estimate of the answer that is, ideally, closer to reality than the previous answer. Over time, if all goes well, the estimates being produced will converge and stabilize to a point that they aren’t changing significantly and you have what is likely a pretty close answer to reality. To some degree, I think of the Church and Gospel that we experience as being an estimate of the truth. Each generation, that estimate is put through the equation and churns out a refined version of the gospel that, if all is going well, is moving us nearer to the truth and life that God wants for us. While the current version is only an estimate (and thus has flaws and problems), it is the best estimate we have available and we need to keep living and working with it to try and further the Restoration as an ongoing process, leading up to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Perhaps it’s just me that finds looking at it that way beneficial, but it has proven helpful to me in understanding changes and concerns about the Church.
 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Are You Sleeping through the Restoration?” General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 2014, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2014/04/are-you-sleeping-through-the-restoration?lang=eng
 “Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 709, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 12, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/4
 Moroni 9:9.
 “Instruction on Priesthood, circa 5 October 1840,” p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 12, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/instruction-on-priesthood-circa-5-october-1840/3
 Russell M. Nelson, “The Temple and Your Spiritual Foundation,” Conference Report of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 2021, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2021/10/47nelson?lang=eng.
 “Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 709, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 12, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/4
 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: John Taylor (SLC: LDS Church, 2011), Ch. 17.
 Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal: 1833-1898, ed. Scott G. Kenney, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983), 9:113-114 (September 25, 1890).
 Cache Stake Conference, Logan, Utah, Sunday, November 1, 1891. Reported in Deseret Weekly, November 14, 1891. See Also OD1, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/od/1?lang=eng
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking about Us?” CR October 1998, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1998/10/what-are-people-asking-about-us?lang=eng.
 “Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics Essays, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng accessed 14 March 2020.
 Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults: A Face to Face Event with Elder Quentin L. Cook 9 September 2018 https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/broadcasts/face-to-face/cook?lang=eng.
 See Chad Nielsen, “Embracing Jacob’s Sermon,” Times and Seasons 17 March 2020 for a more detailed discussion. https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2020/03/embracing-jacobs-sermon/
 Zerah Pulsipher record book, circa 1858-1878 MS 753 1, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Saints 2, p. 71, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v2/part-1/05-bowed-down-to-the-grave?lang=eng.
 Official Declaration 2, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/od/2?lang=eng.
 Dallin H. Oaks cited in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Daily Herald, Provo, Utah [5 June 1988]: 21 [Associated Press]; reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections [Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011], 68-69.
 https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng, accessed 7/29/2020.
Successive substitution is an interesting metaphor for revelation. It’s easy to implement but can be slow to converge or even divergent.
Thanks Chad. I enjoyed your mathematical metaphor of convergence and how plugging in a new estimate can improve the accuracy in our efforts to get to the truths of the restoration. Could I briefly add that in the arena of inferential statistics we could also consider the central limit theorem which is pretty much a miraculous notion of sampling distributions and the role they play in estimating the unknown population parameter (say one of God’s truths). Perhaps when our councils in the top leadership feel like they are receiving revelation on the Church’s behalf it would be akin to trying to estimate what God wants based on say a sample average gained from the council’s decision (may like man’s best shot at understanding). I know my metaphor might humorously break down just a bit when you consider that the central limit theorem operates on the assumption of “random samples,” but still.
Also, just a minor thing, but you mentioned in your third paragraph “continuous revelation” and I was just wondering if you have ever read what President Oaks discusses in terms of “continuous” versus “continuing” when he spoke at a new mission president seminar (it was published in the Ensign from 2013). Here’s the link: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2013/08/in-his-own-time-in-his-own-way?lang=eng
That concept fits rather well with the theme of your post regarding the ongoing restoration. We really can’t expect a continuous stream of revelation but rather a continuing one might be more realistic. Even for those who like the iron rod metaphor over the Liahona, they still have to wrestle with the fact that one needs to take the grip off of the rod temporarily or you won’t make any progress up the path.
I will always be appreciative that President Uchtdorf gave the Church a little “wake-up call” to the realities that this whole thing is a really a work in progress. We are going to get things wrong from time to time, but we can make course corrections along the way.
I like your mathematical metaphor for council-based revelations, Richard. It’s more or less how I think about it, but I’ve had a hard time capturing it in words. I was trying to get at that a bit with one of my recent posts in this series when discussing how the Quorum of the Twelve leads the Church (https://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2021/11/the-word-and-will-of-the-lord/), but didn’t explain it as well as you.
I wasn’t aware of President Oaks’s discussion of continuous vs continuing revelation. Thank you for sharing, Richard. It makes sense, and I’ve updated the post to reflect that.
What do we need revelation on? My issues are gay marriage and equality for women.
Has there been revelation to cause us to oppose gay marriage? I don’t think so, just like with the priesthood ban which is now described as the culture of the day. Except in both cases it was only the culture of the very conservative.
The only time I am aware of Pres Nelson claiming revelation was the POX and that didn’t work out too well.
He has attempted to redefine revelation as the 15 agreeing. I think the definition is when there is interpherence from God, but our leaders are not claiming that.
On going restoration is not happening, because our leaders can’t do it. They hold the title, but not the ability. So we just get the prejudices of our very old leaders.