Is Mormonism a “read-only” religion or a “read-write” religion? I can certainly see evidence for both, and the emphasis may be shifting as leaders change. First, a few quick definitions.

  • A “read-only” file is one that does not enable you to make edits. It can be read by the recipient, but not altered by them.
  • A “read-write” file is one that can be updated, edited, or even erased by anyone with access or “permission” to do so. If a file is “read-write” and is shared or sent to another person, that person can make changes to it.

At first blush, the idea of religion as read-write sounds like madness! Any fool can alter it, whether they know what they are doing or not? Ridiculous! Or at least we’d better be super careful who gets permission, right?

But when you consider religion as read-only, that’s something that’s incredibly inflexible and will become obsolete quickly. It can’t be perfect for every age and every circumstance without some input and notation and interpretation at the very least, and it probably more likely needs revision as society evolves. Humans make mistakes, even when operating under inspiration. Part of the point of the divine is its ineffability.

In religion, we call the ability to revise or edit revelation, or at least we often call it that. If we want to downplay the edit we might call it something else like a policy change, or a news release, implying that this is just a comment added to the document of the Church, not something that alters, deletes or replaces something fundamental. Even when it does.

For example, the Priesthood & Temple Race Ban that was ended in 1978 was a fundamental shift in theology, hailed as a revelation. Prior to that, Church leaders justified the existing policy with doctrine (teaching) that supported it. After 1978, like a Jedi mind trick, we were supposed to completely forget those justifications because they were all wrong. Well, actually that instruction to forget it all was 8 years later, indicating that there were plenty of people out there with older versions of the document still on file. Which indicates a read-write approach.

By contrast, the Proclamation on the Family was not (successfully or officially anyway) hailed as revelation. It affirmed the Church’s position that 1950 gender roles are eternal in nature, and that gay marriage was not. But it wasn’t trying to overwrite existing doctrine. It might have been more overt and explicit, but it didn’t alter any prior teachings; it just shut a few open doors. It was a strong affirmation of the status quo, a calcification of the existing assumptions and practices, not a repudiation or change to them.

In short, it’s probably true to say that all religions are read-write to some extent, but that conservative religions are more invested in the narrative that they are read-only: the same today, yesterday, and forever. Joseph Smith did not create a conservative religion; he routinely made significant doctrinal alterations. But subsequent leaders were invested in “what Joseph created” as their source of authority, and therefore, some were more inclined to consider the faith read only. They could possibly comment on it, or clarify a doctrine here or there, but always with an appeal to authority from those who prededed them in leadership (including scriptural authority). To those types of leaders, the idea that church members might contribute to the narrative of the church is anathema. It undermines their authority.

And yet, as members, we are basically running the church, at least locally. We are the ones whose ideas and experiences make up the content of meetings and gospel discussions. We are the ones who are teaching the young. Depending on how you look at it, the membership is the Church. Certainly without a membership, there is no Church. We are where the theological ideas are tested and refined. Our lives are where the rubber meets the road. If the Church’s teachings don’t work there, maybe they need to be altered.

When I was growing up, my impression was that there was at least as much focus on personal revelation as there was on prophetic revelation, possibly more. The gospel had to be meaningful in our daily lives; it wasn’t a static thing left on a shelf until Sunday. Every person who was baptized was entitled to revelation tailored to their own personal circumstances. Over the years, I’ve seen this focus being de-emphasized and replaced with the idea that if your personal revelation differs from the “rules” for everyone, that your personal revelation is invalid or you are fooling yourself because you desire to sin. Only the institutional revelation is valid.

That’s definitely the opposite of what I was taught growing up. Perhaps that was a local ward thing, or maybe different leaders have emphasized things differently. The Church can’t preach to the exception, but personal revelation would instruct a person when their choice was an exception. They would feel good about the deviation from the norm.

In a Relief Society class about ten years ago, three of us mentioned that we had pursued careers because we felt that we had personal revelation that it was right for us. One sister, the bishop’s wife, wearily said she didn’t know we were allowed to ask for things that were different from what Church leaders taught (referring to Pres. Benson’s infamous “Mothers Come Home” talk of the 1990s). The three of us vehemently said that we were taught to seek personal revelation for our own individual life choices, and if we didn’t, who would on our behalf? Nobody, that’s who. We saw our religion as read-write, not as read-only. But that doesn’t mean we were in the majority.

I was listening to an interview with Carol Lynn Pearson yesterday in which she talked about the pain that the doctrine and history of polygamy has caused countless women in the Church, and she said she is an example of not having to believe that polygamy is a true principle yet still believing in the Church. In that instance, she sees the Church as read-write. Her input matters. Her experience with it can be unique and different and therefore more meaningful.

Many issues people have with the Church experience seem to be tied to the correlation effort that continues. As I’ve often said, they can correlate the manuals, but they can’t correlate my thoughts. If you see the Church as read-only, your charge is to alter your thoughts to conform to the Church and its leaders’ ideas. If you see it as read-write, you see yourself as contributing to the Church’s ongoing narrative and progression toward being Christlike. It seems quite clear from some of the news stories about firings at BYU-I that some Church leaders do want to police and correlate members’ thoughts, at least regarding culture wars. If Twitter is any indication, quite a few members agree with this belief, and most of the ones who disagree leave the Church. That doesn’t really seem like a recipe for success to me.

  • Do you see the Church as read-write or read-only?
  • How do you think Church leaders see it? How do you think your fellow members see it?
  • Have you noticed less emphasis on personal revelation over time? If so, why do you think that is? If not, explain what you are seeing.