How LDS Censorship May Have Led to Less LDS Faithfulness: The Ronald E Poelman Conference Talk of 1984

In a 1984 LDS General Conference talk, Elder Ronald E. Poelman of the Quorum of Seventy made a statement that is exactly what the Church needed to hear at that time.  And it's especially something that would assuage a lot of anger between warring camps in the Church today.  Why don't we know about it? Because someone (it's not clear who) in the general leadership of the Church didn't like it, and required Poelman to re-deliver the talk with that part of the talk replaced by something different.
In 1984, video cassette recorders were becoming more common.  Some Mormons had taken to recording LDS general conference for later playback.  A handful of those Mormons noticed something odd about the talk that Poelman had given.  It was quite different in the Church's Ensign magazine than the one that they had recorded on their VCRs.

Here is the statement that Poelman made, which I think would be so cathartic to the Mormon Church if more people knew about it (which is WHY I am sharing it here):
"Sometimes traditions, customs, social practices and personal preferences of individual Church members may, through repeated or common usage be misconstrued as Church procedures or policies. 
Occasionally, such traditions, customs and practices may even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles 
Under such circumstances those who do not conform to these cultural standards may mistakenly be regarded as unorthodox or even unworthy. In fact, the eternal principles of the gospel and the divinely inspired Church do accommodate a broad spectrum of individual uniqueness and cultural diversity."
I have no evidence that Poelman's censor(s) included Ezra Taft Benson, but based on how the talk was changed, it reminds me of the dogmatics of Benson's "14 Fundamentals in Following the Prophet" talk. I'll explain why, after this quote (which was what Poelman's statement was replaced with):
The eternal principles of the gospel implemented through the divinely inspired Church apply to a wide variety of individuals in diverse cultures.
Now, is what it was REPLACED with a true statement? I think so. But was what Poelman ORIGINALLY said a true statement? Absolutely. And interestingly, taken together, I think we would have seen far more of the world taking the LDS Church seriously than they do now.

But a small group of apostles (including Benson, Mark Peterson, and Boyd Packer) had a difficult time with anything that could be perceived as "unfaithful". And someone (perhaps them?) required Poelman to redo his talk (see links at the end of this article.) This censorial behavior, ironically I think, has led to a slower spreading of the faith than otherwise might have happened.

In the same way, there wasn't any untruth in Benson's "14 Fundamentals" talk that I spotted. Rather, I found problematic that in his dogmatic sort of way, he didn't elaborate on some key issues, leaving them open for easy misinterpretation.  The two addition that I think would have solved most of the concerns that many have with the "14 Fundamentals" talk are that 
  • prophets don't always claim to be speaking for God, and 
  • individual members of the Church are entitled to the same revelation that a prophet is.
It was, at the time, unfortunate that Poelman's talk was censored in the way that it was. It was, however, fortunate that the changes to his talk have come to light.  There is great wisdom in the original talk he gave, but I also think that, joined together with the edits that were made to the talk, there is even greater wisdom in the talk.  Improvements to the talk could be made through praise of Poelman's original insights, rather than attempting to censor them (which may easily have succeeded if video cassette recorders hadn't been in existence).

Nonetheless, the way that the censorship happened does not distract from the truthfulness and authenticity of the doctrines that were promulgated by Joseph Smith and continue to be taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today. But this episode accomplishes two things:
  • It distinguishes clearly that those chosen by God to administer his Church are fallible, that they have emotions, and that they may not always do the right thing.  
  • Poelman's talk (specifically the paragraphs quoted above) highlights clearly that confusion still exists--among both members of the Church and non-members--just what "doctrine" is in the Church.  (I am of the opinion that there is much less doctrine and much more policy and culture than most people are either aware of or willing to admit.)
Despite all of the human foibles that exist in the Church's members, it is remarkable to observe that the Church of Jesus Christ continues to roll forward, spreading the truths of his gospel and making a huge difference for good in the world.

Postscript: I share here one great statement from Poelman's talk that mostly survived the cutting room floor, primarily because a fair number of LDS Church members still do not seem to grasp its importance:
We should obey the commandments and counsel of Church leaders; but also through study, through prayer, and by the influence of the Holy Spirit, we should seek and obtain an individual, personal witness that the principle or counsel is correct and divinely inspired. Then we can give enlightened, enthusiastic obedience, utilizing the Church through which to give allegiance, time, talent and other resources without reluctance or resentment.
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Here's a link to the textual comparisons of the two versions of the talk.

Here's link to the video of Poelman's original talk.

Here's a link to the video version that was published by the LDS Church.


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