One of the more interesting non-profits in the US today is the “Long Now” foundation. Funded by the Silicon Valley types that want to find a more interesting use for their money than library naming privileges, it is concerned with a more long-term approach to thinking about human problems and threats to civilization, and by long they mean long. While concerns about nuclear exchanges or climate change operate on a scale of decades or centuries at the most, what are the biggest threats to our species in, say, the next 100,000 years? Many of their concerns deal with low probability, highly catastrophic events. Even if we get the chance of an apocalyptic nuclear exchange down to very small percentages, given enough time it will eventually happen, same thing with an asteroid strike.
What would an analogous, extinction-level event be for the Church as an institution? Every now and then there’s something that happens that triggers some of the more histrionic corners of the Internet into saying that the Church is doomed; however, as long as you have a critical mass of true believers, established religions tend to be quite robust. For example, if you look at the growth rates for Jehovah’s Witnesses around the time of the failed second coming prophecy of 1975, when Witness leadership was strongly promoting the idea that the Second Coming was going to happen in 1975, they plateaued for a bit, but then kept on following the same trend shortly thereafter. Evidently they shook it off pretty easily.
Still, in our thought experiment of the Church in 2080, it’s worth thinking about what kind of events would be, if maybe not existential-level, then foundation-shaking. We’ve gone through such events before during the Church’s early days when believing that the institution would be around in a couple of years took quite a bit of faith, but it’s been a while. (Note, I’m not talking about a slow atrophy and decline into nothingness. I don’t think that will happen, but my discussion about that will come later in the series).
Here I’m talking about something that would be foundational or at least majorly ground-shaking. Occasionally we get some medium- or low-grade scandal about this or that in the Church, but if you objectively compare it to the kind of existential scandals other organizations go through then it’s clear that trying to draw comparisons with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint scandals is more wishful thinking on the part of people that want cracks in the foundational zeitgeist (possibly so they can then try to remake the institution in their image). Unfortunately for them, in most cases the Church can just wait a week or two and then it gets buried in the relenting onslaught of the news cycle and is quickly forgotten. No, here I’m talking about something bigger. What could those be in the context of the Church? Given the amount of time between now and 2080, the chance that one of these low-probability events might happen might not be insignificant.
- Apostle is excommunicated.
The past half century has seen a handful of these cases at the General Authority level, but we have not seen an Apostle get excommunicated since Richard Lyman in 1943. They are humans too, and with the level of adulation they get in some corners (although presumably counterbalanced with the hatred that they get in some corners of Salt Lake City), I could see that wearing on a lot of people. As far as I know, the only two cases of Quorum of the 12 excommunication that did not involve a theological dispute were Albert Carrington and Richard Lyman for adultery (although Richard Lyman’s dalliance could be considered a theological disagreement as well since it was with a plural wife). So it’s rare but not unheard of. If an Apostle was excommunicated for adultery it would be ground shaking and would affect the respect afforded to the office in and of itself, but again, it’s nothing we haven’t gone through before.
- General Authority or Apostle becomes antagonistic towards the Church.
As far as I know the closest we’ve seen to this recently are two Area Authorities (Tom Philiips and Hans Mattsson) plus George P. Lee, but what would happen if a General Authority or Apostle went full anti-? Again, it’s happened before, but it has been a while, especially for Apostles.
- General Authority or Apostle stops believing.
It’s interesting to me that in a lot of the cases of Apostles going anti- the person in question didn’t stop believing as much as they disagreed with the Church leadership, but what if a General Authority or even an Apostle lost their testimony, as it were? The fact that certain corners of the Internet are preoccupied with showing that this happened to BH Roberts shows the power that this even would have in a Church that is strongly anchored in concrete truth claims.
Given that people’s personalities and perspectives basically stop changing around 35 (can’t recall the exact number) I find it unlikely that somebody who spent their whole life dedicated to the institution would decide that it was just a big fraud after they reached the age and experience level needed to be an Apostle. Occasionally new information comes in that might problematize somebody’s testimony at a late stage in life, but nowadays I think that being caught off guard at the age of 80 with some historical detail that’s a dealbreaker is much less likely since all the information would have been out there and circulating for decades. If that kind of thing would happen it would happen around now, as we’ve seen with Tom Philips and Hans Mattsson.
There is a kind of folklore that to be an Apostle you require a personal visitation from the Savior. That may or may not be true, but even if it is it may not matter as much as we might think in terms of the durability of their testimony if they let the spiritual things in their lives slip.
Einstein said that he wouldn’t believe in ghosts even if he saw one, and our memories are malleable and fragile, so while we might think Apostles are inoculated from simply not losing their testimony, I’m not so sure.
Of course, the truly fatal circumstance is if the President of the Church stopped believing in the truth claims. (I suspect this is kind of what happened to the Community of Christ). In that case, pivoting towards a more allegorical or symbolic interpretation of the Church’s truth claims would be absolutely fatal to the long-term vitality of the institution. Sorry, but the President of the Church has to believe that there were Nephites.
- New historical data point comes to light that undermines the Church narrative.
I’ve talked about this before, so I won’t repeat myself too much, suffice it to say that this is a fantasy of certain types that want to shine the blazing light of intellectual truth on the dark superstition of religious belief. (I can’t help but think the Mark Hoffman incident involved some wishful thinking in this regard). However, unfortunately for the Robert Langdons among us, I kind of think all the big, potentially zeitgeist-shifting narratives have happened. Occasionally a new document here or there might come to light, but the chance of something really ground shaking coming to light from some dusty attic decreases drastically the further we get out from the events in question.
- Church splinters.
Occasionally a leader or lay person might come around with enough of their own charisma to develop their own following away from the Church. The Godbeites drew a lot of people in their day, we have some of the more conservative splinter groups of the 2020s, and the post-manifesto FLDs are an example of this, but as a percentage they are always a fraction. In the days before instantaneous communication local Church leaders could start their own alternative fiefdoms like they did in Hawaii, California, and India, but advents in travel, communication, and a professional bureaucracy make this much less likely in the 21st century.
The institutional rules around succession are well-established now, and the institution is based on those rules much more than personal charisma. Even if the most charismatic 1st Counselor in the First Presidency were to try to split off from the least charismatic President of the Church, I doubt it would go anywhere. I have a hard time seeing this happening absent some major shock that forces it.
- President of the Church incapacitated for a long time.
We’ve seen a version of this before. President Hinckley did an admirable job as a counselor to President Kimball by sincerely respecting his authority as President of the Church while working around the reality of his declining mental state. (Had he been a bad actor it would have been the easiest coup ever to pull off.) However, this happened for a few years. What would happen if a President of the Church, say, had dementia for decades? If the President was in a long-term coma I assume most would feel okay about releasing him, but if a “Mad King George” situation were to happen it would be difficult to know how to handle that legally/theologically, and could cause some crises in the meantime. For example, a President of the Church starting to lose it wants to appoint his ne’er do well nephew at the Q12 at an age that would nearly guarantee him being President, the Q12 try to have him declared incapacitated, he releases them, etc. It could get messy.
- Major theological change (e.g. restoration of polygamy, female ordination, or same-sex sealings).
I’m more open to the possibility of polygamy being restored by the President of the Church than some. The reasons given by the Lord for polygamy might become operable again (but, to be clear, it would only be so if it was duly communicated through the President of the Church), but it would definitely count as ground shaking, of course by then maybe the standard marital models will be so watered down that it wouldn’t be as much of a scandal as some might think. I’m also more open to female ordination if it did come from the right channels, but I’m also open to it/okay with it never happening.
In terms of same-sex sealings, there’s so much selection on orthodoxy for leadership positions on this particular issue that that, combined with the aforementioned lack of change after a certain age, means that somebody would have to be disingenuous about their support for the Proclamation for a very long time before they got to the the Presidency of the Church. I just don’t see it happening. Ultimately, if there is a major theological shift before 2080 I suspect it will be something that nobody is predicting in the year 2023.
- Financial Scandal.
Frankly most Church “scandals” around finances so far have revolved around the Church being too careful or good about accumulating money. It’s hard to see a case where there is a major case of a high Church leader stealing significant sums. However, 50 years is a long time for institutional norms to shift, so who knows.
Again, do I think these will happen by 2080? No, but even low-probability events are more likely to happen when given enough time, so they’re something to think about.
Especially if you look at what other churches have survived, as you do with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it seems unlikely that any of these scenarios would represent an extinction-level event. I’d worry more about something like a charismatic visionary apostle or three with strong appeal among conservative members and a halfway plausible claim to succession (like a popular first counselor to a beloved deceased prophet vs. the longest-serving apostle) deciding to set up their own thing, particularly if they could talk a few Seventies or auxiliary presidencies into going along. It would set up decades of nasty legal and doctrinal battles that would tear apart every ward and branch. Medieval Catholicism survived worse, though.
Given that the Book of Mormon was written to be a warning for our times, if the church does face an extinction event it will be because we make the same mistakes that the Nephites did.
Their most common mistake? Individuals becoming wealthy, and then forgetting God and persecuting/neglecting the poor. Often the wealthy claimed they were worshipping God, but their treatment of the poor evidenced otherwise. We sometimes call this the “Pride Cycle” but in many cases we could also call it the “Wealth Disparity Cycle” because it involved the wealthy caring more about their fancy things than the welfare of the poor.
@ Jonathan: I agree, I think the “halfway plausible claim to succession” is one of the highest probability “existential crisis” options, but yes, ultimately I think the stone cut out of the mountain without hands is too big at this point to just stop because it hit some boulders on the way.
@ Tim: At some point I’m going to do a post along the lines of “the benefits of being unpopular.” We don’t think that much about why God waited 1800 years to restore the gospel, but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that, while religion, state, and wealth were tightly intertwined, ambitious characters would strive to capture Church offices. It basically takes freedom of religion and being unpopular to avoid the trap of conflating the honors of men with the honors of God.
The only church splinter case that I could see wouldn’t be from within, but from someone who spoke “our language”. Say someone not in leadership, who started out as some sort of Come Follow Me study group, that grew, became popular, but slowly started to replace members attention, until one day that group officially split from the church.
I worry that the FIRM Foundation (Heartlanders) might have that kind of potential–only there’s a strong underlying political component to their philosophy that draws likeminded people to their organization.
I think the Snufferites are kind of an example of that.
I think I’ve got one. What if the President of the church has a medical background, and in General Conference advices women to not attend University in states with anti-abortion laws, because they deserve to have medical professionals who can give them modern standards of care? Would that cause any fractures in the church?
I sometimes wish this site had a vote feature, both for the OPs and for their comments. In this case I would heartily up-vote jader3rd.
Not a big deal, but the APA disagrees that personality ever stops changing:
That said, I would also be surprised if an apostle publicly share disbelief in some core doctrine. Even if one does not believe the Church is true, the selection filters are demonstrably effective.
The church has plenty of money and enough of a loyal membership that I don’t see it going away. But at some point if there is no second coming does the church drop being “of Latter-days” and erodes both membership and growth of the church
Say more about how the church president is required to believe in BoM historicity.