The Great Divide
By Sean Allen
Members of Restoration branches everywhere continue to watch with interest the development of the Joint Conference of Restoration Branches (JCRB). Some are confident that the hand of God has been ever present in its inception and progress. Others are sharply critical of the conference, citing a conspicuous lack of signs preceding or following. Some are assured that the conference has been organized agreeably to the will of God and the laws set forth in His Church. Others will argue that while branches meeting in conference are certainly within the purview of the law of the Church, the JCRB has far exceeded the limited privileges afforded such local associations. Some believe the conference to be, perhaps, the Restoration's last best hope at securing a unity amongst its members that has, for many years now, been tenuous at best. Others believe that if the conference accomplishes anything at all, it succeeds in further dividing us.
There are, of course, many varied opinions that lie in between the polarity of two prominent groups that continue to form within the Restoration Branch Movement. These two groups are easily identifiable and aptly designated by their convictions for or against the JCRB. Hence, if members of the Restoration branches have not already, they probably will soon find themselves falling under the heading of one of the two groups—pro-JCRB or anti-JCRB. This statement may appear startling to some; especially those devoted to establishing unity amongst the branches at all costs.
Let me here state that it is not the purpose of this article to stake out middle ground concerning this issue. That is not to say there is not currently any middle ground to displace, Allowance may still be made for those who continue undecided towards the conference—but this allowance is narrowing. You may also be one who has maintained an apathetic posture towards the JCRB, but this posture becomes less neutral as the days go by. Apathy's alignment within this issue will certainly be determined according to the strength or weakness of the conference's claim to divine origin. If the conference claims to have been ordered and organized by God, when indeed it has not, apathy sides with the conference, for apathy is one of error's great accomplices (ignorant and careless though it may be). If, however, the conference's claims to divine origin be true, then is apathy its enemy, for, it is too shiftless to promote anything of good report. The spirit of apathy is currently one of the Church's most formidable foes, but it is not the intended purpose of this article to decry its poisonous effects upon the hearts and minds of this people (though the time would be well spent). It is, rather, to call the Church's attention to another enemy no less devastating to the history of this Church—the spirit of individualism. To be more specific, this article is intended to further heighten the senses of the Church to another impending division amongst its members.
Some, to this day, will deny that the JCRB has been or will be a divisive force in the Restoration. Their words seek to assure us that the conference will eventually unite the Church and enable her to carry on her work, less the discord that has been so prevalent in her ranks. They counter claims about the divisive nature of the JCRB with their assertions that it is those who refuse to associate with the conference who are causing the division. To those of us who have chosen not to participate in the conference, this assertion is amazing to our ears. This certainly is not in keeping with the conference's expression of goodwill to the residue of the body of Christ on November 11,2005 (see Minutes, Conference of Restoration Branches, Friday, November 11, 2005; Section 6, pages 1–10).
The fact remains that most of those who have chosen not to bid the conference Godspeed have done so on account of a number of startling aberrations that appeared while the conference was still in the planning stages. Most of these (if not all) still form the grounds upon which we not only refuse the conference our participation, but also protest against the foundations upon which it rests. Many pleas to "Come and see, come and see" have seemed empty to us when set against the actions of recent years on the part of some to effectively deny any and all attempts at meaningful dialogue on the subject of the JCRB.
It appears that there remains little room amongst many JCRB supporters for critical examination towards the makeup of the conference. Those who continue to question the conference's authority to effect any higher-standing organization, other than itself, are treated with contempt by some of the leading figures behind the JCRB.
They are deemed discordant, disrespectful, uncharitable, and are quickly marked by the conference. It should be no wonder that the men outside the JCRB have fashioned such strong opinions against it. As plans for the conference began to materialize, many appeals were made to postpone those plans until a firmer consensus and more understanding could be had amongst the branches.
The "Appeal Resolution," presented to the Pastors of Zion, was perhaps the most articulate and coordinated attempt at urging caution against moving ahead with plans for a conference (see Vision 50:19–21). This appeal, however, was swiftly discredited and brushed aside, though it represented the strong concerns of many branches that recognized many troubling details in the conference's design. To date, most of the "whereases" contained in that document remain unaddressed, though the collective concerns they represent have been confirmed by recent events.
The idea that the JCRB would bring about another great divide in the Restoration is as old as the conference itself. Many were well aware of the intended purpose of such a conference, whether that purpose was consistently conveyed to the Saints or not. Quorum organization, including most significantly that of the seventy, was one of the main motivating desires driving the push to conference. That many of the men most intimately involved with the conference had strong convictions concerning the formation of districts, stakes, etc., was also well known. Let me here state that quorum organization and the formation of districts and stakes is something we look forward to with longing. We differ nothing from the men we speak of in this respect. However, the point of separation comes upon a matter of no little importance; that is, concerning these privileges, is it God's will that they now be ours?
As was stated before, many have refused to support the JCRB because they have not seen that the Lord has favorably recognized its formation and subsequent activity. After all, for anyone to countenance its organizational nature, God's hand would of necessity have to be palpably present throughout its progression. Supporters of the JCRB would argue that God has already spoken and directed, for instance, in the formation of stakes in our past, and also that the Reorganization moved forward with ordinations to higher offices and quorum organization without a prophet, first presidency, etc. Herein is portrayed one of the more serious objections that we are wont to raise against the JCRB when comparing it to the early conferences of the Reorganization, but we will do so later on in the article. Our criticism that the hand of God is disturbingly absent from the rise of the JCRB is generally countered in one of two ways, one of which we shall now attempt to address.
We have long understood that a branch may be formed by six or more members in good standing, one of whom must be a member of the priesthood. Branches are the primary organizational unit that composes the organic structure of the Church (see Joseph Smith and Thomas W. Smith, A Manual of Practice and Rules of Order and Debate for Deliberative Assemblies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [Lamoni, Iowa, 1891], 9, section 4). Should any of these branches deem it beneficial to the well-being of their collective membership, they may enter into a common association of a local disposition as described in the following language from the Rules of Order and Debate: Branches have the right to hold a joint conference, "by the common consent of two or more branches lying in near proximity to each other. They may meet for mutual improvement, and for the permanent organization and direction of the local ministry" (ibid., 12, section 10). This provision forms also the basis upon which some supporters of the JCRB will counter those critical of the conference. They will ask, "Well, don't you believe that two or more branches may meet in joint conference?" The answer must always be, "Yes, of course we do." However, posing such a question to those critical or undecided towards the JCRB reveals two fatal flaws in its continuity. It is detrimental for JCRB supporters to hold up the above-mentioned provision found in the Rules of Order and Debate as advocating what they have done, while concurrently proclaiming that God is laying the pavestones to organization through the conference. Let us look again at the language of the rule: "...by the common consent of two or more branches lying in near proximity...." It does not appear that our forefathers envisioned that the conferences they describe were to acquire their legitimacy according to the number of participating branches. Two would suffice, and these must be "lying in near proximity to each other."
Early in the JCRB's development, it was well advertised that twenty-eight local (i.e., national) branches were represented at its proceedings in the fall of 2005. By April of 2006, this number had jumped to eighty-nine branches from around the world, though participation of "national" branches held steady at twenty-seven. It should be clear that at this point the JCRB had already far exceeded the definition of a joint conference as found in the Rules of Order and Debate. It had, according to its own description at a later date, become an "international" conference. How branches of the church hailing from such places as Kenya, Belize, Liberia, etc., could be considered as "lying in near proximity" to those in Independence is beyond reason.
Interestingly enough, enrollment of the "national" branches dropped to twenty-three a year later, and no records have been made available concerning participation at the fall 2007 Conference. Could that be because numbers continue to decline? If, however, the JCRB truly sought to remain in keeping with the definition of a mere local branch conference, neither rising nor declining participation would much matter for, admittedly, these conferences should be formed for the sole purpose of "mutual improvement, and for the permanent organization of the local ministry," and not to conduct the business of the whole Church.
By sheer virtue of the exclusive elements of its identity we should all be enabled to disabuse ourselves of the idea that the JCRB is nothing more than a mere local branch association. Why is it called the Joint Conference of Restoration Branches? Is there no allowance for other conferences? USNCR 10, enacted at the recent fall conference, would probably be put forward as evidence that not only does the JCRB make allowances for such conferences, it actually encourages them. This, however, begs the question—must these conferences report and answer to the JCRB as their apparent head?
We believe the resolution speaks for itself.
USNCR 10 General Conference, National Conference (JCRB TB 16)
Resolved that the JCRB shall encourage and assist in the formation of national conferences to be convened in October of each year or more often if necessary; and be it further
Resolved that the JCRB shall lend assistance in the form of providing presiding ministers for organizational purposes; and be it further
Resolved that such conferences may authorize the formation of quorums for the support, training, and guidance of the ministry; and be it further
Resolved that minutes and resolutions approved at these conferences shall be forwarded to the JCRB secretary and that a report shall be made to the JCRB identifying actions requested by these conferences; and be it further
Resolved that the JCRB shall organize an October conference in Independence, MO, for all branches and missions in the United States; and be it further
Resolved that the JCRB shall convene an international, General Conference each April in Independence, MO, where the entire church shall come together to direct the work. (Resolutions from the US National Conference, Independence, MO, October 18–20, 2007)
The JCRB is too overgrown to find shade under the slender branches of the provision found in the Rules of Order and Debate when seeking to disavow itself of the notion that its aim is higher organization. Supporters of JCRB would do well to distance themselves from the limited scope of this provision if higher organization is indeed what they desire. It makes the current conference appear dishonest given its current objectives, while enfeebling the claim that God is in the details of its progression.
Besides the governing policies that are found in the Rules of Order and Debate, historical precedent has also often been appealed to in an attempt to validate the rise of the conference. We cannot help but appreciate the desires of those who want to make certain that their actions are in keeping with history's example. It seems, however, that while the JCRB has shot far beyond the mark of local branch associations, it continues to fall short of the 1852–53 conference models. We would not urge this comparison if it were not frequently urged by so many JCRB supporters, and as we find it often made, we find it also wanting.
Most notably from its inception, the Reorganization begun by the 1852 conference grew in participation and estimation among the scattered of that day; and how could it not, as God favored its rise with many choice blessings which they had for some time been largely without? The gift of tongues and of prophecy attended those early conferences, as did also angelic visitation—these all bearing witness to God's favor upon their proceedings. And what of the origins of their proceedings? They were borm of an assemblage of signs all converging, it seemed, upon a future event of paramount importance—the emergence of Young Joseph as the rightful heir to his father's office.
It was apparent to many in that day that the appointed time had come for God to move on behalf of His Church, and yet their testimony concerning this period in our history clearly states that reorganization was not their aim when they entered into that June 1852 conference. They were merely "acting as members and officers of the original church, regulating and setting in order the church, according to the law, as they understood it, and in harmony with instruction given to them" (RLDS History of the Church 3:211; italics added). This, then, is perhaps the strongest reason why we do not support the JCRB. According to this record, even after these Saints had received a direct communication from Heaven, they testify that they had no intention at the time of organizing a new church. Today, we find a group of men bent on inhabiting a stake and organizing the seventy with nothing more than a pittance of light from above to act upon! These testimonies are held up as evidence that God has purposed to use the JCRB as an instrument in His hands for the revival of His work. Calling these testimonies into question will surely be viewed as a purely subjective exercise, if not offensive and improper, but far from agreeing with each other many of these testimonies actually contradict themselves or are confused as to what they intend to communicate. For example, the purported revelation through Vernon Darling at the mass Sacrament service of 2003 has taken on many roles in pointing to this assembly or that conference (see Vision 45:23). Some believe this alleged revelation has run its course, while others believe it has yet to be fulfilled. Some claim the JCRB is the realization of the injunction found in the revelation; others claim that the conference will, in time, fulfill its demands. This is to say nothing of the apparent discrepancies with the verbiage of the revelation. We only seek to call attention to the contradictory "Lo heres," "Lo theres" plaguing the Church today. Some point to the "divine counsel" received through Neil Simmons as legitimizing the JCRB. Others point to messages received by Marlin Guinn or Richard Neill. Very well, brothers and sisters, but none of these can compare to what God delivered to Jason Briggs on the plains of Wisconsin. Again, we have no difficulty with branches meeting in conference, but for us to justify the scope of organization that is currently being pursued by the JCRB would require a "more sure knowledge of the word of prophecy" than is currently extant. This is not to diminish from the essential role revelation must continue to play in the unfolding of our history, but there is little distinction to be made in these sounds. Much of it is painfully dissonant.
The one historical precedent we must be certain to be in possession of, as we seek for deliverance from our pitiful condition, is the Word of the Lord. All others pale in insignificance to this one, for it is from the Word of God that true deliverance comes. We can be sure that as we follow the path it lays before us, we may look back and find that we have been walking in the footsteps of our forebears all along. Only God can ensure that we do not abrogate His law in seeking to free ourselves from our broken and scattered condition. Only He can ensure that we "do all things according to the pattern."
Though many good desires we may have concerning organization, as Arthur Oakman once said concerning peace, "You see, men want peace, brethren and sisters. They want it passionately. There are men abroad today—clever men and devoted men, men with public spirits—who passionately want peace, but they do not know how to get it. The ways of peace they know not. You can't have peace just because you want it! You've got to know how to get it then know how to maintain it. You can't love your brother just because you want to" (Arthur A. Oakman, Sterling Avenue Series: "Is There a God?" Sermon #3—"Zion, the Kingdom of God," April 22, 1970).
So it is with organization. Nowhere is the JCRB more antithetical to unity amongst the branches than in the way it is organized. The past twenty-three years have seen the rise and subsequent separation of many self-proclaimed leaders and their followings from the Restoration. This, coupled with the devastating events of the mid-1980s, has left many members of the Church extremely cautious, if not contemptuous, of authority on many different levels. In response to these concerns, and also in acknowledging the purported need for immediate action due to the dwindling ranks of the higher priesthood offices, the JCRB was formed.
Finally, members of the Restoration had a conference of their very own. Here, it was proclaimed, the various members of the Church could come and conduct the business of the Church as they saw fit without fear of domineering on the part of the authorities. In fact, the people could rest assured that if the conference had any leaders at all, they were the people themselves. Hence, we hear such recent questions as, "Do we want the seventy to form a quorum?" or "Do we want the high priests to consider their presiding responsibilities?" Again, we ask, does it matter at all what "we want" if it is not God's will that these things come to pass? Where, in all of the history of this Church, is there a precedent for such an arrangement?
Surely the January 1853 meeting of the Saints will not be put forward as precedent, for there is certainly a great line of distinction to be drawn between these two instances (see RLDS History of the Church 3:214). Indeed, in all examples that could be cited from that day, the fundamental difference is that they presented the question to the Lord of Hosts, and not to themselves! It makes not one particle worth of difference whether we want to do something or not if it is not God's will that we do it. The supreme question of overriding importance is this: Does God want us to do it? This is perhaps the most despicable display of what the spirit of individualism has done to this Church to date. The clarion call of this spirit is, "Every man for himself!" It has long been at work since the dawn of this present dispensation.
It is the spirit that caused many to rebel against the Lord's choice Seer, Joseph Smith, Jr., and ensured that the Church should grapple with many opposing viewpoints during the presidency of his son, Joseph Smith III. It is the spirit that has labored tirelessly to cause every heart to lose confidence in those whom God has called to lead them as shepherds. It has induced us to corrupt our inheritances through our unlawful acquisition of a supposed right to be the directors of our own spiritual destiny. It has set every man against his brother, every member against his minister, every branch against every other branch to the point that the only conference that we will consent to in this day is the one for which there exists no provision in the law, the one in which we preside as president and prophet.
The revelation of God to us is what we will it to be, and we will not be satisfied with any revelation except our hand has tuned it to become pleasing to our ears. We are done with the prophet. We are done with the priesthood. My will rules supreme with the government of the Church. The JCRB is another victory in individualism's relentless campaign to rid the Church of all submission to authority. The people are so intoxicated with their newfound liberties that suddenly they are the ones who are called by God to exhort and admonish, indeed, to call to repentance their priesthood for lack of visionary leadership, and to hold their "feet to the fire in this regard" (see the "Report in 'Bullet' format from the Saints to the Priesthood and the Church. Compiled from the Mass Meeting of the Saints on October 20, 2007, at the Joint Conference of Restoration Branches"). What sphere of authority are the people currently operating in that affords them such unprecedented sway in the affairs of the Church? Were the conferences of our early Church fathers organized in such a manner?
Though the people may be convinced that they have finally, after many long years, secured their rights through the JCRB, and that those rights are in jeopardy by no man or group of men, they are still being directed by a select few within the conference. The questions that the conference has been posing to itself of late are but the product of years of organizational musing set in an interrogative form. The difference between this attempt at organizing and those of the past twenty-three years is that, again, the people are led to believe that they remain sovereign in determining what they are pleased to do.
According to one of the conference's central figures, however, the participants in the fall 2007 National Conference had "a very poor understanding of the laws of the Church," and also did not "have a very clear understanding of the role of the Council of the Presidents of Seventy." How, then, may the conference be assured that it would be wisdom to affirm their desire that the seventy form a quorum? The answer is they cannot, not without a divine directive from the Lord or leadership from those who presumably do have a clear understanding of the law. And since it seems that a divine directive can only come at the behest of the conference, the leadership must take the helm, at the people's request, and navigate their vessel just long enough to ensure that their demands are carried out.
This is the way the leaders also achieve their objectives, and so long as the people never fully avail themselves of the opportunity to learn how to steer their own vessel, the leaders will remain at the helm. By and by, control of the ship is gradually relinquished, but the leadership must keep a constant vigil over the rights of their passengers lest they begin to suspect those rights to be in jeopardy and they rend the captains. Then, once again, it's every man for himself as they launch out, each in his own lifeboat.
The Joint Conference of Restoration Branches is, ultimately, not the product of a few men's desires for higher organization, but rather it is representative of individualism's incessant tramp towards autonomy. The Church is nearly upside down, now, in the way it is organized. Where once God was our head, making known His will to us through our earthly head, the Prophet, now we sit in that place of lofty regard. What we will becomes God's will. Our voice, united, becomes God's voice. However, not all who participate in the conference are worthy of the descriptions found in this article.
We hope that the reader will believe us when we say that it is far from being our desire to find ourselves set against any of the brethren who participate in the JCRB. Even supporters of the conference, with whom we strongly disagree, we cannot deny that the Lord has blessed them with gifts and callings not a few. It grieves us, however, to look on as the JCRB progresses, realizing that very soon it may progress to the point that it will bring about another great divide in the Restoration. We pray against that day, for we seek that the bonds of fellowship and brotherly love that the Saints once so earnestly enjoyed should be restored to us again. But should the division come, let us not permit the ravaging effects of rancor and animosity to take hold upon our dealings with one another. Instead, let it only serve to more fully convict us of how devastating the spirit of individualism has been to our happiness and prosperity as a people; and let us united and penitently set our faces toward Him who hath all power both in Heaven and on earth to restore an hundredfold what has been lost to us in these years of great division.
("We, the priesthood of the New Jerusalem Restoration Branch, agree with the sentiments contained in this article and have sought that they should be published for the benefit of the Restoration Branches during this crucial time in their history.")
(Vision 58 [February 2008]: 4-8)