The Mormon Jesus

I tried to ask this question earlier, in the context of The Passion, but it pretty quickly got lost in another round of beating the moribund R-rated movies horse. So I’ll ask again, without the attempt at pop-culture referentiality.

How has Mormon Christology changed in the last half-century or so? And why?

My sense is that there is not only a new emphasis on Christ, but also a shift in the aspects of Christ’s role and maybe even his personality that are privileged. I haven’t done an analysis of General Conference sermons, but I have spent some time looking at the Jesus Mormon children learn about in Primary songbooks. (I know–when I talked about the research of this summer’s Smith Institute Fellows, not one commenter expressed interest in my paper; I am now forcing you to be interested!!)

In 1951, when The Children Sing was published, there were 16 songs about Jesus in the songbook. Of these, many were rather vaguely about “the Lord;” the ones that were specifically about Jesus dealt almost exlusively with either Christ’s kindness to children during his earthly sojourn or about his life as a pattern to be followed (e.g. “Jesus Once Was a Little Child.” Sing With Me, published in 1969, added 11 Sacrament Songs (for Jr. Sunday School) to these 16. However, even the sacrament songs don’t refer specifically to Christ’s death–only three mention that he died, and only one contains the word “cross.”

The 1989 Children’s Songbook, in contrast, contains 49 (!) songs about Jesus, many of which are quite specific about Christ’s death, even describing the wounds in his hands, and even more of which teach about the atonement–the role of Christ’s death in the plan of salvation.

It seems to me that this example (and I feel certain that an analysis of GC talks, Ensign articles, etc. would demonstrate similar trends) reflects a real change, perhaps not in the fundamental doctrine of the Atonement, but certainly in our understanding of its centrality. Also, it seems to me that we are much more comfortable with talk about the cross and about grace, which used to seem too Catholic and too Protestant, respectively, to fit into Mormon discourse. It’s hard for me not to think that this change makes a big difference in how people are talking about “The Passion of the Christ” and in how many Mormons will see it. Even the Church-produced “Lamb of God” is hard to imagine in the Church of the early 70s. As late as the 80s, we made “Easter Dream,” which was all about families and the resurrection, and kind of skimmed over the crucifixion.

So, I’m interested in your speculations about where this change comes from (if, indeed, you agree that there is some change). Is it just a refinement of our understanding, the natural progression of a young church? Is it related to our missionary program, either an attempt from our direction to reach out to other Christians in a way they will understand, or, from the other direction, an assimilation of the understandings of converts to our church? Is it actually doctrinal change, or does it grow out of the means of cultural production? That is, does the fact of artists and poets and filmmakers being drawn to the cross make a difference in how the rest of the church membership perceives the doctrine?

17 comments for “The Mormon Jesus

  1. Gary Cooper
    March 11, 2004 at 2:31 pm


    I’m glad you’ve posted on this subject, because I’ve wanted to see it discussed for some time. I do not believe there has been a doctrinal change here, but without question there has been a powerful change in emphasis on the Atonement and Grace, changes to the way we express ourselves, etc. I welcome these changes, and I think they are directly linked to the renewed emphasis on the BoM that President Benson instituted. I have contact on a regular basis with very devout members of other churches, and they are beginning to take notice, and I’ve found that there is increasingly more acceptance of us as (at least) well meaning people and maybe even that we MIGHT be some kind of Christians! I’ve now found that I can quote BoM passages to these people, and rather than have them cut me off in fear, they actually listen and say, “Gee, that sounds Evangelical!”, or, “You mean Mormons believe in being Born Again?” I have always since I first joined the church and began reading the BoM that we were neglecting our emphasis on Christ and the Atonement, and was overjoyed with President Benson’s call for us to get back in to the BoM. I firmly believe that the best missionary tool we have to work with Evangelicals, for example, is the BoM itself, the one thing we’ve assumed was an impediment. The BoM actually uses the language of evangelicals, helps them to see that there are key areas in which we don’t disagree as much as they have assumed, but the BoM corrects a lot of the misunderstandings they have about Grace vs. Works.

    It would be very intersting to see what your research turns up, but I’ll bet that the change in how we are expressing our Christology “takes off” from President Benson’s adminstration.

  2. March 11, 2004 at 5:53 pm


    I think Christology is too big a word for the topic, as Mormons have never bought into the terminology or definition of the traditional Christian Christology (shared substance with the Father, separate person, two natures). I don’t really think any underlying Mormon doctrines regarding Christ have changed.

    What may have changed is how Mormons talk about Christ. Certainly there has been an effort by leaders to emphasize to the general public that the LDS Church is truly Christian. Part of that effort is to redirect curriculum material and hymns away from a focus on the Mormon heritage and toward a conspicuous focus on Jesus Christ. I can’t say I have noticed what has happened in Primary, but I think the children are better off singing Jesus songs than singing Mormon pioneer songs.

    One discordant note about 20 years ago was Bruce R. McConkie’s highly public reprimand of a BYU religion teacher who made Jesus Christ too prominent a feature of his teaching. That episode was an aberration that was quickly forgotten, I think.

  3. March 11, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    I don’t think “Christology” is too big a word to use in discussing the Mormon doctrine of Christ, especially since there isn’t really another word to use.

    I don’t think using the term needs to mean that we buy into the fourth century debates about Christ’s substance and nature–although some of those debates are very interesting and I think instructive. I used “Christology” in a Sacrament talk I gave last month which I entitled “Christology in the Book of Mormon.” I only had one person tell me to repent afterward (he was serious!) but, most others were intrigued, appreciative and understood what I meant.

  4. Kristine
    March 11, 2004 at 6:35 pm

    I’m not sure the McConkie-Pace incident was such an aberration. It was longer ago than 20 years (late 60s/early 70s??), and I think that Pace was articulating what has now become the dominant understanding of Christ as personal Savior and friend (he would have died for me if I had been the only person who needed it…), rather than McConkie’s view of Christ as somewhat distant, to be appreciated and worshipped for his role in the plan of salvation, but not necessarily loved in a personal way. This is exactly the doctrinal tension I’m trying to understand. Gary may be right that it has to do with the renewed emphasis on the Book of Mormon, but I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that it occurs (mostly) after Elder McConkie’s death.

  5. March 11, 2004 at 7:10 pm

    Indisputedly there has been a change in emphasis, and possibly even doctrine too, depending on how one defines “doctrine.” Many scholars have noticed and accounted for it in one way or another: Kendall White and Thomas Alexander on the “New Mormon History” side, Louis Midgley and Robert Millet on the “traditionalist.” It’s very real, and I agree with Brent that the real source for the change was President Benson’s emphatic pushing of the BoM. As the BoM, through FARMS and the reform of church materials, became more and more central to our collective self-understanding, the BoM’s very strong, arguably more “mainstream” (certainly less Nauvoo-periodish, however you want to account for that) Christology came to the fore. I’m not sure I agree with how you fit the McConkie-Pace incident into this story though Kristine. Elder McConkie’s teachings always put the sacrifice of Christ front and center; his final testimony was extremely personal. I suspect that to understand Elder McConkie’s and Professor Pace’s disagreement you need to look beyond their specific statements on Christ, and look instead at their notion of authority. Pace’s vision of Christ bordered on the charismatic: Jesus loves you, and will help you, directly. Whereas McConkie distrusted any sort of unmediated authority or grace: for him, Jesus’s love was and is the Father’s love, first and foremost.

  6. March 11, 2004 at 7:26 pm

    Kris, The McConkie talk was in the fall of 1981. I had just been baptized, and I was there. It was electric, even though I did not understand at the time what I was watching. I have since read that George Pace was completely blindsided by the talk, and many people think that McConkie oversold the topic.

  7. cooper
    March 11, 2004 at 9:34 pm

    What cannot be ignored or underestimated is the tenure of our dear prophet. He has been the author of educational materials for the church since his return from his mission. Certainly President Benson’s emphasis on the BOM was inspired; the ground work being laid for the nations of the world to accept the message. In steps President Hinckley to administer the message to the world. Under his direction the website of the church has been developed with tremendous care being taken in presenting the gospel through this medium. I am a firm beleiver in the “there are no mistakes” process through this life. President Hinckley was preserved and brought forth at this time for this very purpose.

    I also agree with Russell about Elder McConkie. His testimony of Christ is without question.

    Pace definately was blindsided by the incident. I think the comments by Elder McConkie at the time were knee jerk reactions to the world and the young people of the church beginning to see Christ as their elder brother “what a guy!” attitude that was prevalent at the time. Coming off of Jesus Christ Superstar and the message of the day, Elder McConkie was under obligation to nip the casual approach to diety in the bud,

  8. Kristine
    March 12, 2004 at 12:11 am

    cooper, I don’t think there was any question about Elder McConkie’s testimony of Christ. And it’s striking that his final testimony stands as one of the most personal, most intimate examples of a personal relationship with the Savior.

    Russell, I’m not at all committed to my description of how the Pace-McConkie incident fits in (and, since I didn’t even have the right DECADE for the talk, it should be abundantly clear that I’m making this up as I go along.) Still, I’m not sure the change stems from the emphasis on the Book of Mormon, at least not entirely. Kendall White, for instance, puts the foregrounding of the “un-Nauvoo-periodish” doctrine of Christ much earlier. The songs from the Primary songbook are written several years before their publication in 89, several of them in the 70s.

    I wonder if there’s some split in when we started preaching Christ to an outside audience to help advance missionary work and when that message really makes it into the internal discourse.

  9. VeritasLiberat
    March 12, 2004 at 1:23 am

    Could it be that the increased emphasis on Christ that you all mention is not just the CAUSE of higher conversion rates, but also a RESULT of them?

    For example, as a recent convert and a somewhat, although not excessively, youngish person, I’m much more prone to be interested in and talk about Christ and his message (both in the Bible and the BoM) than I am about the pioneers, etc.

    Not that I’m not grateful for the sacrifices of the pioneers, but they’re not nearly as “close” to me as they are to multi-generation LDS, because they aren’t MY ancestors. I’m not from Utah, and I have no blood ties whatsoever to anyone who ever did ANYTHING in Church history.

    As the Church gains more converts, we get more people like me, who lack a personal tie to Church history, and so there is more and more of an emphasis on Christ’s Restored Gospel, rather than on the history of the Church itself.

  10. Kristine
    March 12, 2004 at 8:20 am

    VeritasLiberat (nice handle, btw),

    I think it is possible that the change in the composition of membership from 6-generations-in-the-Church-pioneer-ancestor types to 1st and 2nd generation converts makes precisely the difference you suggest–that’s why I tried to ask initially about the directionality of the change.

    I’m from Nashville, and certainly there it seems that Protestant converts are likely to bring a strong emphasis on Christ and the Atonement, as well as (often) a more thorough grounding in the Bible, especially NT, with them. But I’m not sure how much that process operates in Utah and other established centers of Church population. It can’t be the only factor, although I suspect it is definitely one among many.

  11. ed
    March 12, 2004 at 9:06 am

    I’m not sure why anyone would point to increased emphasis on the BOM as a reason for the “increased conversion rates.” In fact, convert baptisms per missionary and per member peaked in the 80’s and have been in decline ever since.


  12. Kaimi
    March 12, 2004 at 10:03 am


    1. Nice paper. (Yes, someone did read it!).
    2. I think you’re on to something. It seems that a lot of incidents start adding up: the switch to “The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-Day Saints”; the emphasis on the Christus statue; the removal of pictures of hammered metal from the BOM (“Look, proof that people hammered metal in ancient America!”) replaced with pictures of Christ. It’s an interesting shift.
    3. The old (prior to green) Spanish hymn book has a hymn called Let’s Brush Our Teeth. I believe the hymn book served as a primary book as well, which may explain why this is in the regular hymn book. The lyrics are great. I don’t have a copy with me, but they’re along the lines of: “I won’t brush my teeth today / said a child / and all the germs in his mouth / started to rejoice. But he heard them / and ran to brush his teeth / and he killed them / every one.”

  13. lyle
    March 12, 2004 at 10:20 am

    Kristine noted:

    Could it be that the increased emphasis on Christ that you all mention is not just the CAUSE of higher conversion rates, but also a RESULT of them?

    1. I don’t note an increased emphasis in Christ. I think the discussion is very anachronistic as a whole…and have yet to see any evidence of any such ‘shift’.
    2. The #s of converts may be immaterial to what is being preached. While it makes more sense that “more Christ, more BoM” = More spirit, less trying to prove, less contention = more converts…but that pre-supposes an unlimited # of individuals who are disposed to listen to the gospel.
    3. Your suggestion re: Converts moving the Church closer to Christ is interesting. It reminds me of Jacob 5…ALOT. However, rather than positing that this is due to their evanglical/protestant christian background…perhaps it has EVERYTHING to do with the fact that they have just found a major new fount of Christ-centered teaching and that they naturally gravitate towards, and emphasize that, portion of the Restored Gospel?

  14. VeritasLiberat
    March 12, 2004 at 7:52 pm

    Hey! (waves at lyle)

  15. Visiting comments
    March 14, 2004 at 2:38 am

    As to the “the McConkie-Pace incident” since I was there and had taken a class from Pace, I should note a couple of things.

    First, it did blindside him completely.

    Second, McConkie got disciplined over the talk.

    Third, there was a very important problem that the talk was supposed to address, and that it managed to affect, the “My husband isn’t perfect because Christ doesn’t darn our socks for us” theme that was developing in a couple of the married wards.

    Is Christ a personal savior? Yes. Does that mean a personal relationship on the level of Christ darning your socks for you while you sleep? No.

    An interesting and complex matter, with all of its humanity, was the the McConkie-Pace “incident.”

  16. VeritasLiberat
    March 15, 2004 at 12:22 am

    Well, *somebody’s* been darning them.

  17. Thom
    March 16, 2004 at 5:00 pm

    I’m sure in the first couple of dozen generations after the Israelites were led out of Egypt, Moses and the Wanderers were all anyone could talk about at church. Appropriately, the focus eventually shifted to the coming Messiah.

    Similarly, I can’t help but see the church’s shift in focus towards Christ and away from the pioneers as a good thing, likely a result of the church maturing over time and trying ever harder to reach out to people beyond the intermountain west. The pioneers are a powerful illustration of faith and sacrifice that all people can benefit from. They are not, however, the only illustration.

    Faithful saints all over the world are facing modern hardships for their testimonies of Christ. Constant talk about pioneer heritage doesn’t resonate in the rest of the world the way it does in the intermountain west. Talking directly about Christ and his mission does. Focusing our teaching too much on the physical hardships and faithful examples of the pioneer saints can leave little time to teach about the living Christ that inspired them to sacrifice so.

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