Historic Interview Flunks History 101: 60 Minutes and Mormonism

Timothy Oliver

Joseph Smith once said, "No man knows my history." If one relied on CBS reporter Mike Wallace's April, 1996, 60 Minutes story on Mormonism, Smith's statement would surely still be true. If there was one thing noticeable for its absence in Wallace's report, it was any significant historical perspective on Mormon founder Joseph Smith, or on Mormon church doctrines or practices. The few historical details mentioned were given no context, and their relevance to the "truth-claims" of Mormonism was completely ignored. Moreover, it is doubtful whether the President of the United States would be interviewed by Wallace with the deference he accorded Mormon church president Gordon B. Hinckley.

Conflicting Details Unnoticed

As might have been expected, some emphasis was laid on the fact that Joseph Smith was but a fourteen year old boy when God the Father and Jesus Christ are supposed to have appeared to him. Unmentioned is the fact that Joseph's age, not to mention virtually every other detail of his "First Vision" story, is uncertain.

Important and momentous as an interview with God might be, there is no record of Joseph telling his story to anyone for nearly twelve years after it is supposed to have occurred. And for another decade after that, even as Prophet of the newly restored church, he scarcely mentioned the story to anyone. Various explanations have been offered to explain this delay, the acceptability of which probably depends on whether one is Mormon or non-Mormon.

What is not explainable for Christians is why a prophet of God writing under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost about so important and sacred an occurrence would be uncertain about crucial elements of the story. The year it occurred, his own purpose in going into the woods to pray, who answered his prayer, the sacred message he received - all of these points are conflicted in the different accounts of the event made by Joseph Smith himself. And statements made by later, equally "inspired" apostles and prophets have added to the confusion.

Shifting Values Accepted

Mormons generally view favorably Joseph Smith's youthfulness as a prophet. It was necessary, they say, for God to use a boy, because more mature churchmen had their heads and hearts full of the "learning of man," making them unfit and unable to receive the new revelation.

However, when Wallace brought up the charge, "There are those who say this is a gerontocracy. This is a church run by old men," another view emerged. Undeniably with himself in mind as much as any other, Hinckley responded, "Isn't it wonderful to have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment who isn't 'blown about by every wind of doctrine?'"

Changes Unquestioned

To be sure, Hinckley has not announced any major doctrinal changes. However, two of his predecessors, both of them aged men at the time, made changes which their own predecessors would surely have regarded as false "winds of doctrine." In 1890, at age 83, Mormon church president Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto officially ending the church practice of polygamy. And in 1978, also at age 83, Mormon president and prophet Spencer W. Kimball claimed revelation ending the prohibition against giving the Mormon priesthood to Blacks of African descent.

Wallace scarcely even mentioned polygamy, despite its dominant place in Mormonism for more than half a century. And when he did, it was only to tell us the official line that it is no longer allowed - despite its continued practice in Utah today, not only by fundamentalist splinter groups, but even by some members of the main Salt Lake based church.

Mormons say the polygamy reversal was not a change of doctrine since their church still teaches that plural marriage is a true doctrine from God. Only its practice has been rescinded, and that only temporarily. It will be renewed in the hereafter.

However, during the time it was practiced, Mormon leaders insisted that the very practice of plural marriage on earth was essential to their religion and their exaltation. They also said its practice would be protected by God and never be destroyed. Thus, Woodruff's ending the practice was, in fact, a change of "unchangeable" doctrine.

Racism Unchallenged

Wallace did raise the issue of the Mormon priesthood and the Blacks. Responding to Wallace's question of why Blacks had not been allowed to become priests in the Mormon church from 1830 until 1978, Hinckley proffered, "Because the leaders of the Church at that time interpreted [hesitating] that doctrine [hesitating again] that way."

In fact, Mormon church leaders claimed it was not their interpretation, not their doctrine, but God's truth and God's command. If one expected Wallace's usual pit-bull pursuit of the truth to bring that fact to light, or to probe its relevance to whether Brigham Young could have been speaking for the same God as Kimball and Hinckley, one expected in vain. Instead, Wallace ricocheted with Young's statement that "Cain slew his brother, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin."

Missed entirely was the fact that Kimball claimed to have been aware of, and motivated by, "the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God's eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood" (Doctrine & Covenants, "Official Declaration-2").

If this was actually true, then he also must have known the time specified in those promises was not until after "all the other descendants of Adam...the last ones of the residue of Adam's children" had already received the priesthood (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 7, p. 291. This is a condition which clearly has not yet occurred.

In proclaiming that "the long-promised day has come," Kimball's wind of doctrine blew directly opposite the wind he claimed had inspired him to seek revelation on the subject. Hinckley dismissed the whole issue with, "It's behind us. Look! That's behind us! Don't worry about those little flicks of history!"

It is exposing just such "little flicks of history" on which Wallace has built his career. But it was not to be, in this interview. Perhaps seeking to avoid the appearance of a total sell-out, Wallace made one last feinting jab: "Skeptics will suggest, [not Wallace, of course] 'Well look, if we're going to expand, we can't keep the Blacks out.'" (In fact, real skeptics offer evidence of much more pointed explanations). Hinckley was again dismissive: "Pure speculation," followed by the nervous smile and laugh of one who knows he's just put one over.

Wallace Undiscerning

In fact, he had. Wallace moved on to the question of women and the priesthood. Hinckley stated, "Men hold the priesthood in this church." Asked "Why?" he responded, "Because God [slight stumbling or hesitation] stated that it should be so. That was the revelation of the church. That was the way it was set forth."

A Mike Wallace firing on all cylinders would surely have asked, "But weren't each of those statements also made about the former doctrine on Blacks and the priesthood? Didn't former Mormon prophets say the prohibition was God's doing, that it was the revelation of the Church, etc? Wasn't that how it was 'set forth'?" Earlier Mormon prophets claimed to speak for God on the issue of Blacks and the priesthood. The Wallace we all thought we knew would have noted Hinckley's explanation of those claims as simply their "interpretation," and asked if such an explanation might also justify a later re-"interpretation" of the doctrine on women and the priesthood.

Of course such questions would expose the bankruptcy of Mr. Hinckley's claim near the beginning of the interview, that the Mormon church "stands as an anchor in a world of shifting values." That Wallace did not pursue them is undoubtedly testament to the power Mormonism wields even in the secular world today. Since Mormon church leaders and proponents seek to gloss over history crucial to a real understanding of Mormonism - now, it would seem, with the collusion of national media - this issue of the Watchman Expositor is devoted primarily to an historical overview of important events and doctrines of Mormonism.

Seeing such things as Missouri Governor Bogg's much published "extermination order" (referred to by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, in Wallace's 60 Minutes story) in their historical context provides a much different perspective than that constantly put forward by Mormons. And cross-date references will allow the reader to trace the evolution, changes and reversals, etc. of important doctrines and policies throughout Mormon church history.

Mormonism's history is a history of change, from the evolution of its basic doctrine of God, to its concept of authority and structural organization, its teaching on marriage, its temple garments and ordinances, its treatment (not regard) of outsiders, even the name of the church itself. One of the few things that has remained constant (of which most Mormons are as blissfully ignorant as they are unaware of the changes) is Mormonism's "mission impossible" plan of salvation. As the following overview demonstrates, Mormonism cannot be a firm "anchor" to anyone but those ignorant of history and those who, knowing history, yet willfully "hold [suppress] the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18).

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