Community of Christ, Remnant Church histories recounted at Mormon History Association conference
R. Scott Lloyd
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Members of the Mormon History Association on Saturday heard perspectives from representatives of two faith groups who, like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, trace their origin to Joseph Smith the Prophet.
Steven L. Shields, director of international field ministries of the Community of Christ, and Frederick N. Larsen, president of the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, spoke at a luncheon session of the association's annual conference held June 28-July 1 on the University of Calgary campus.
Community of Christ, formerly called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, emerged in the 1850s as one of several factions stemming from a crisis in the succession of church leadership following the murder of Joseph Smith.
The Remnant Church was formed in 2000, made up of former Community of Christ members who were not in accord with doctrinal and administrative changes that had taken place in that religious body.
"Most of you are familiar with the story and the succession crisis," Shields said, referring to Community of Christ beginnings. "The basic message was this: We have the right doctrines, we're formed according to the right patterns. All the other churches are wrong and we're right, and if you want salvation you've got to join us. It didn't matter who the leader was or what the label was on the church, the story was pretty much the same."
He added, "When the new organization began forming in 1850, and then leading up to the 1860 reorganizing of the church's leading councils, there was a little bit of added message that came into that, shaped by the events of those intervening years and the leadership struggles."
For the next century, the church spent most of its time distinguishing itself "from its Utah-based competitor," Shields said, "by proclaiming itself to be the sole legitimate, authoritative and true continuation of the original church."
Literature produced by the Reorganized Church into the 1970s proclaimed that distinction while denouncing the church in Utah, he said.
"By the mid-1950s, though, the world had changed," he said, "and church leaders were beginning to sense that as a church we needed to respond to the economic prosperity that came after the second world war and the baby boom and all those things that changed so much about the world that we knew in the United States and Western Europe."
A new awareness emerged, he said, that some previous messages of gathering to a center location in Jackson County, Mo., were not resonating with some areas of the church.
"Part of it was that somehow the Book of Mormon's message that God's chosen land of the American continent, never specifying North or South, became replaced with the United States being God's chosen place in government," Shields said.
On a visit to Tahiti in 1950, church President Israel A. Smith prayed about the matter, then realized that the traditional understanding of Zion "was for a world that had largely disappeared."
"So in response to that, he received a revelation and reported that to the saints in Tahiti; July 29, 1950, is the date of that revelation. It reaffirmed the worth of all lands, peoples and cultures, and directed people to gather and build Zionic communities and centers in their places and not exclusively at Jackson County, Mo."
An even more significant shift occurred in the years following the Korean War, Shields said, with large numbers of church members seeing the world through different eyes than before.
"The church's mission became focused on the welfare of society, educational development of people, and making the kingdom of God a reality in this life rather than something to be hoped for in the next life," he said.
Expansion of the church into east Asia, rather than transforming the society, forced the church to rethink its foundational ideals, "which later proved to be a very painful process that went on for about 50 years," Shields explained.
"The church was beginning to discover that the God in whom it believed, on whom they thought they had a controlling monopoly, was bigger and broader and more awesome than they had ever imagined, and that God through the Holy Spirit had been and continues to be at work in all kinds of places around the world."
A re-thinking in the 1960s of doctrinal foundations, combined with expansion into East Asia, India and other emerging places during the 1960s and 1970s "fostered a new spirit of reflection in the church on every facet of our doctrine, our polity and how we use the history of the church," he said.
Following Shields' remarks, President Larsen of the Remnant Church said that as president he has an intense desire to understand the history of what some call the Restoration movement that traces its origins from Joseph Smith, his great-great-grandfather.
He explained the background of the Remnant Church.
"It goes back to the role in the RLDS Church, which in 1984 came out with a revelation, Section 156, which introduced the ordination of women, dedication of a temple to peace rather than to the Lord, and there were a number of other things that many of us who were members of the RLDS Church didn't accept."
An estimated 30,000 members withdrew from the church as a result, he said, and essentially formed independent branches around the center place, Jackson County.
Larsen said he and his wife withdrew but did not participate in any of the independent branches for five or six years.
"Out of that group, the Remnant Church was organized on April 6, 2000," he said.
He cited a revelation given to Joseph Smith III in 1894 to the effect that if the church should fall into disorder, it is the duty of its quorums to correct the disorder through the advice and direction of the First Presidency, the Twelve and the Seventy, or in case of emergency, through a council of high priests.
Motivated by that understanding, Larsen and other high priests acted. He said three ordained patriarchs of that group selected seven men to be apostles and administer the affairs of the church from 2000 to 2002.
"It was at that time that I came into the presidency," Larsen said. "I won't go into the experience that I had. My background is in chemistry for 55 years, and if I wasn't doing this, I would still be working in that field because I loved it so much."
He said he was ordained to the office of president of the high priesthood "and along with that office goes the responsibility of prophet, seer and revelator to the church."
The Remnant Church has the full organization that is in the RLDS Church or the LDS Church, he said. "Yes, we do believe in the Book of Mormon. We teach it. We use the New Translation or the Inspired Version (of the Bible) in our mission and preaching and teaching."
The church's membership is about 2,600, of whom 1,500 live in the United States, he said.
The headquarters building is a converted schoolhouse in Independence, Mo., near the Community of Christ temple and auditorium and the LDS Visitors Center.
The Remnant Church still believes Jackson County is the eventual center place of Zion, Larsen said.
Much of the church's budget is devoted to missionary work.
The Remnant Church, he said, finds itself somewhat in the position today of the RLDS Church in the 1880s, lacking the resources to do a great deal of missionary outreach.
"Our current approach is to curtail foreign and international efforts and emphasize the domestic outreach," Larsen said.