“Theological Re-Symbolization of the RLDS Tradition: The Call to a Stage Beyond Demythologizing” by W. Paul Jones

W. Paul Jones

In the 1960s the Joint Council (First Presidency, Council of Twelve, and Presiding Bishopric) all agreed that they needed some continuing theological and historical education and to understand how they could grow into being a 20th century church. Several of the men in the Joint Council were qualified to provide this education, but everyone felt a little uncomfortable with one person having such a sway over the future of the church. The Joint Council decided to contract Saint Paul School of Theology, a Methodist seminary, to give these lessons.

Among these teachers was Professor W. Paul Jones, who was educated at Yale and taught philosophical theology at Saint Paul. After getting to know each other, he was well liked and respected by the church’s leaders. After a while Jones asked W. Wallace Smith, “If our mutual studies of Christianity and the RLDS church were to discover that there was a discrepancy between what Jesus taught and what Joseph Smith taught, which would you accept?” This was a profound question whose answer had major implications. Smith responded, after a long sigh, “We would go with Jesus.” This set in motion the church’s growth into the future and willingness to critically examine its past.

Jones’s lessons ended up helping the Joint Council realize they needed to revamp the church’s curriculum, which ultimately led to the Position and later the Presidential Papers which massively influenced the direction of the church.

This article from the Vol. 16 (1996) edition of the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal is where he lovingly told about our growth from his perspective. While Jones was never a member of our church, he was a beloved friend of it who helped us grow. He watched our church grow out of its literalistic phase to more of a demythologized phase. He then and encouraged us to take our next step: Re-Symbolization. He challenged us to reclaim and breathe new life into what made is unique and distinct from other religious movements.

I feel like Jones’s challenge is just as relevant to us today as it was in the 1990s. I would be thrilled if you read this article!

A couple of side notes:

  • If you’re interested in this article, a similar one can be found in Restoration Studies V
  • At the time of writing this article, Jones was living as a contemplative hermit, and alternated his time between his hermitage and a monastery in the Ozark mountains in southern Missouri.

“Theological Re-Symbolization of the RLDS Tradition: The Call to a Stage Beyond Demythologizing” by W. Paul Jones

it was a deep honor to be chosen to represent the RLDS tradition as the plenary speaker for the joint (John Whitmer Historical Association / Mormon History Association / Canadian Mormon Studies Association joint meeting) in Kingston, Ontario, last June. I must have represented you with some success, as I was asked to share that basic message againat this your spring banquet.

I must tell you, however, as I told the historians in Canada, that I am a weird choice. I am an ordained United Methodist clergy person, and yet have taken life vows as a Roman Catholic Trappist monk. I have been a professor at Yale, Princeton, and Saint Paul, and yet have recently opted for the silence of a hermitage in the Ozark mountains. I formerly lived and struggled in the urban inner city of Kansas City but now live in a county so poor that even the liquor store went bankrupt. I am an extrovert, yet have now chosen a life of introversion, where as a hermit I have only myself as a roommate.

More than this, I am not a historian at all, but a philosophical theologian-one who is suspicious of historians. A Calvin and Hobbes cartoon speaks for me. In the first picture Calvin is in school: …


I am a big picture person who gets particularly uneasy about historians who think they can objectively reconstruct the past-telling us what really happened. There is no such thing as objective history, only a description of what is seen from a particular perspective. What one sees is determined by where one stands. Thus the past is an ongoing happening in the present as lured into reconstruction by the future.

So with such demurrers as these, what do I have to bring to you? Only one thing: a thirty-year-old love affair with your tradition, one to which I do not belong but which I greatly admire – most of all for its possibilities.

My presentation tonight is an alarmed plea to the RLDS Church. The announced task of your tradition has been to restore the Church founded by Jesus Christ. I believe this can only be done by means of profound vision; and the RLDS Church which has within its tradition such a vision is on the edge not only of squandering it, but of losing it permanently.

1. Restoration

To understand this situation, it is important to recognize that your church has passed through two stages and is on the edge of a third. Stage 1 was that of restoration. After the Joseph Smith era, the RLDS reorganization consisted of restoring the tradition largely in terms of affirming what it was not. We can call this the apophatic stage, in which the Mormons functioned negatively for the RLDS tradition much as Protestants expressed their identity originally in terms of Roman Catholics. “What do you believe?” “Well we certainly don’t believe in a pope…or idols….” This process was still visible when the revelation of a new temple occurred. After a wild scramble to discover a reason for even having a temple, the knee-jump reaction was to use the Nauvoo temple as a foil – identifying what the new temple would certainly not be. If the Nauvoo temple was closed, exclusive, and focused on secret rites, then our temple will be wide-open, inclusive, with no secret rites – and for good measure, no rites at all. Whatever “they” are is what we are not.

This restoration stage was characterized not only by this negativity in regard to Mormons. Restoration in regard to other Christian churches became a defensive insistence upon uniqueness, centered in the Book of Mormon. This gave to the period a penchant for “literalism.” The justification for the whole tradition depended on the objective truth of voices, gold tablets, spectacles, direct miraculous interventions and thus a defensiveness concerning the Joseph Smith of Nauvoo.

2. Demythologizing

The second stage we may call that of demythologizing. I can give this era a date and a place. It began in 1967 in the president’s office of Saint Paul School of Theology. There I met three of the highest RLDS officials dressed as if they were morticians, who after a handshake politely rejected all offers of coffee. When I think back upon their willingness to seek help for their church from a denomination that their tradition held to be in apostasy, I admire their profound courage. Their request was for help in “entering the twentieth century,” especially theologically. Just as Schleiermacher became the father of modern Protestant theology by introducing subjectivities into Reformation objective doctrine, so what happened in the training sessions that followed was similar. The unspoken result was that increasingly the literal uniqueness of the RLDS tradition came to be seen as “broken myth” (Tillich). Whatever truth might remain in that tradition would have to be symbolic, not literal. Equally important was an exposure to liberation and feminist theology, the implications of which were to lead eventually to tension, even schism, within the movement.

Accompanying this intellectual transformation was also a sociological one. Troelsch described all historical movements as inevitably involving evolution into institutions, forced into a structuring process for the sake of survival. Likewise, he recognized that every religious movement which begins as a “sect” evolves inevitably into a “church.” This occurs as disciplined exclusivity gives way to an accommodating inclusivity. Many of you in the RLDS tradition have experienced this personally when-after the first generation passion of your conversion or that of your parents tended to fade-there is a second or third generation embarrassment over “being different.” For many children of “Saints,” uniqueness is experienced as liability. The way in which movements escape this original parochialism, negativism, and literalism which separates them from others, is by trading uniqueness for acceptability-both intellectual and cultural. By acknowledging the mythological dimensions of one’s historical roots, one is able to exchange the embarrassment over concretes for more commonplace spiritual principles and truths capable of making a more universal claim.

This demythologizing stage of RLDS history was energized also by the upward mobility of its members, and especially its leadership. Hardworking Saints increasingly earned their place economically in the solid middle class. And with such success comes the respectability of conformity.

The intense struggle of this period, however, was such that the emphasis fell more upon demythologizing itself than upon the meaning which could be evoked through the liberated symbols. In the win/lose conflict of liberal versus conservative that followed, a fear of reversion to the former restoration stage encouraged the liberal leadership to adopt a stance of “reactive minimization.” Instead of dealing symbolically with the central features of the RLDS tradition, key terms (such as Zion) were increasingly marginalized, and references to uniqueness faded in favor of the more universally acceptable features of mainline Protestantism.

3. Re-Symbolization

We are on the edge now of a new period-one upon which I hope we can look back some day as a time of re-symbolization. My hope is that the dynamic of your tradition will be such that the movement the Temple poses powerfully the problem. You have been gifted with an incredible Temple, but one with a theology in search of a viable tradition. What will you do? It is an invitation either to cast aside your tradition by regarding the Temple as symbol of a new beginning; or it can evoke in you a commitment to resymbolize your rich tradition into new viability.

A symptom of your identity crisis is the proposal to create a new name for your church. “Community of Christ” could hardly be more generically innocuous. It is really a vestige of the restoration passion of stage one, severing yourselves totally from the “taint” of Mormonism. But the price is severing yourself as well from the very tradition which has made you who you are, and why you are. When I objected to the First Presidency, a friendly letter in return stated: “We are not wedded to that particular name; but we feel that if we could just find the right name, we might be freed to be quite a new and vibrant organization.” My reaction is that the stage of demythologization was sufficient to give that freedom. Thus to become vibrant does not require a wholesale abandonment, but, instead, a rediscovering of the charism that was once the energy of the movement-now reappropriated through a process of re-symbolization.

This is not the first time that I have challenged your leadership in this manner. In the past, however, the response has tended to be a fearful one. Their uneasiness is that my proposal of a positive resurgence of tradition might encourage a reactionary return to stage one. Such restoration would undo the important gains of the demythologizing process. Such a situation is not unlike that of today’s mainline Protestantism in which the resurgence of interest in spirituality tends to threaten liberals who feel that their social justice battle against the fundamentalists will be undone by a restoration of individualistic piety.

What may be promising for the RLDS Church is that two days from this very evening a new, young prophet will be ordained-one who has not been scarred in the harsh struggle that the demythologizing pioneers underwent. My prayer for Grant McMurray is that, freed from the personal need for defensiveness, he may be imbued by the Spirit with a massive dose of imagination.

I admit that what I am asking means risking reaction. Some of the things I have said and written have already made me the “darling” of the conservatives in some quarters. But I tend to interpret their response positively, as a sign that many conservatives are ready for creative dialogue. The condition for this to occur, however, will be some indication from the new world leadership that we have passed beyond the stage of “take away,” into an era of creative re-appropriation. There is much less reason to fear reaction today than a decade ago, for the church has been purged of the most reactionary element by the conflict over the ordination of women. The people remaining are in for the long haul, ready for visionary leadership.

What I am calling for is a new coalition established through dialogue in which the essential gifts of stage one, distilled through the purgation of the demythologizing stage, become invitations to re-restoration through re-symbolization.

An analogy is provided by the present struggle in modern theology. On the one hand are the “revisionists” who, in continuing the liberal tradition, insist upon a common religious experience that can provide an understandable and defensible foundation for all religion. On the other hand, the “post-liberals,” as phenomenologists, see the theological task as descriptive-articulating a vision of the world as it appears when one stands within the uniqueness of a particular tradition. What I propose is to use the latter method as a way of reaffirming the RLDS call to restoration. This call should no longer be permitted to mean being different from all the others as a way of being the one true church. It should mean the rebirth of a movement committed to a vision it believes to be powerful enough to be significant in the restoration of Christendom. Whether this is possible or not, yours is a tradition founded on restorative vision.

The present-day suspicious standoff between conservatives and liberals begins with the conservative question, “What uniqueness is left?” When the liberal response seems to devalue all uniqueness, the defensive overreaction is to clutch onto a literalism of former times, as a last ditch defense against liberal minimization. In related fashion, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Protestant conservatives, faced with a relentless undercutting of Christian uniqueness, adopted the strategy of drawing a line of “fundamentals” in the sand-beyond which the fight would be to the death. Thus was born a fundamentalism of literalism – with the litmus test being one of historicity regarding the virgin birth, physical resurrection, miracles, etc. In contrast, I am intrigued by what might happen if liberals whose orienting perspective has been that of demythologizing the RLDS tradition by reducing it to “only symbols” would relax sufficiently to explore what it might mean to affirm it imaginatively as truly symbolic.

My fear is that unless that happens, there will be an increasing liberal dilution until the RLDS Church simply becomes one more Protestant denomination of which we already have too many.

We need to pass beyond the battle between an objective defense of a literalized history and an aggressive minimization born of a secret hunch that Joseph Smith Jr. may be a charlatan. What is called for is re-symbolization as an imaginative re-appropriation of the Joseph Smith SAGA. There is no way of discovering the “real” Joseph Smith, even if that would be desirable. Rather, what we have, and what we need to deal with creatively, is the saga of a unique event which has had the power to evoke in millions a renewed sense of what Christianity is called upon to be. It is not the particular events of Joseph Smith’s life that need to be historically defended. The truth of your tradition is the power of your vision. Real restoration means rediscovering in the unique RLDS saga a means for re-calling the Christian Church to a wholeness of renewed faithfulness. The call of your church is no longer to be unique from the others, but to be unique for them. Then may the new name of “Community of Christ” become appropriate for all of us, together.

4. Discerning the Viable Uniqueness of the RLDS Tradition

This call to re-symbolization brings us to the task of discerning the viable uniqueness of the RLDS tradition. Since liberals tend to balk even at the word uniqueness, we can talk about discerning your distinctiveness. If that makes you uneasy, then let us speak of your particularity. If even that won’t do, let me ask you to identify the gifts for which you are thankful – and thus have to give.


First, and by far the most overwhelming uniqueness, is the symbol of ZION. It is a multifaceted image, which is what makes it so rich for re-appropriation. I remember first encountering the book Kingdom on the Mississippi (Robert Bruce Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1965)]. Even more than the content, what grasped me was the inside cover. There was Zion with a street map, complete with sewers, street lights, vistas, stores, and temple. Previously the kingdom of God for me had been some sort of vague reality, maybe another name for heaven. That map made me face the fact that the good news which Jesus came to declare was that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” But if the kingdom is no more than a vague generality, then it is Jesus who is the charlatan. His prayer says it straight out: “Thy Kingdom come on earth…” Here the vision of Zion makes concrete William Temple’s declaration that Christianity is the most worldly of religions.

Five interrelated symbolic manifestations give richness for the resymbolization of Zion. These are Zion as:

  1. Countercultural Vision
  2. Model or Signal Communities
  3. Holistic Process
  4. Æsthetic expression
  5. Sanctification

1. Zion as Countercultural Vision

The RLDS perspective is unabashedly linear-moving from someplace to the place. The only real home is the Zion yet to be, so that any other ultimate allegiance is idolatrous. That is why Joseph Smith insisted upon Nauvoo as a separate nation, permitting no rival allegiance, reflecting what H. R. Niebuhr called living the stance of “radical mono-theism.” The “theology of hope” speaks of the resurrection event as the center point of history, providing foretaste of the kingdom as the end-point, the promised fulfillment of history. This foretaste as leaven lets the future flow back as vision, testing and transforming every partial realization of genuine humanness. Those of you in the RLDS tradition know full well that the resurrection as foretaste needs to be enfleshed again and again so as not to be lost in abstraction. The name for this is Zion.

Thus, it turns out after all, you are a peace church–for your symbol of the lion and the child expresses the vision of Zion as the promised end-point of history, calling Christendom to concrete transformations within history.

2. Zion as Model or Signal Communities.

The theology of hope can be quite irritating if all that its adherents do in the light of the final vision is to declare that every concrete effort at incarnation is insufficient. In frustration, one finally screams, “Here’s the chalk; let’s see what you can do!” This the RLDS tradition understands-for Zion as vision is an invitation for the Saints to be concrete visionary pioneers in behalf of all of society. Christianity has done well in the past in creating things which society lack, such as schools and hospitals. Yet when society begins to assume responsibility for such social needs, the church tends not to go on in pioneering but becomes defensive in a reactionary attempt to preserve its institutions as rivals. But Zion is the call always to be out front, mid-wifing what is not yet. Zion today might mean living a Christianity that is social to its core, in prophetic contrast to today’s rampant individualism, nonecological consumerism, and self-serving egoism. Its expressions might come by decentralizing Zion into communities of organic caring. Just as I personally find in the monastery a signal community of restoration, so it is through Zionic experiments such as Harvest Hills that the RLDS tradition can be re-symbolized and thus, in turn, become the tradition which might begin to function as model for Christendom.

Look at your locations — Kirtland, Nauvoo, Far West. What did your ancestors do? They drained the swamps, fed the people, tamed the wilds-in disciplined faithfulness to the Zionic call to incarnate a vision. Remember the Grand Hotel at Nauvoo, where Joseph Smith envisaged bringing kings and queens from every corner of the earth to experience Zion as a tangible expression of alternative sanctuaries of sanity.

H. R. Niebuhr identified Christian faithfulness as “Christ Transforming Culture.” In the 1960s we identified this as empowering the “have nots.” There is reason today to believe that transforming culture means creating visionary alternatives.

3. Zion as Holistic Process

The heart of the Gospel is good news to the poor, release to the captives, and liberty to the oppressed-as ways of declaring the year of jubilee (Zion) to us all. Has anyone ever seen God? In as much as one feeds the hungry and clothes the poor, you “have seen Me.” The Zionic task is that of being the salt, the leaven in every sector of human life-as instruments of wholeness. In this day when health professionals are rewarded for giving minimal treatment, and treatment is synonymous with specialization, the Zionic call is for health care teams of prevention and cure, understanding profoundly that healing involves the interpenetration of the social, psychological, spiritual, and physical dimensions.

Today’s architecture of glass boxes crying out for a beauty that is answered only by neo-classic adornments, needs to experience a Zionic shaping of the human spirit through matter. Frank Lloyd Wright knew how form follows function. Zion means knowing as well how function follows form-inspiritualreciprocity. Architecture understood as mutuality is a priestly calling.

Our legal system is in shambles. The O. J. Simpson trial was a frightening disclosure that, in contrast to the Zionic process of restitution and reconciliation, our system is an economically controlled contest of winning and losing.

Public education evokes well T. S. Eliot’s question concerning how we have lost wisdom in knowledge, only to lose knowledge in information-measurable by SAT scores. Needed is the Zionic understanding of education as holistic formation. Likewise, in providing retirement villages we have reduced the “golden years” to managed “doing,” keeping folks “busy” with shuffleboard to the end. In vital contrast is life envisaged as Zionic pilgrimage-wherein “doing” moves increasingly into a spirituality of “being.”

Mormons send out their faithful two-by-two for purposes of proselytizing. Perhaps the RLDS Church needs to do this as Zionic leaven – a true peace corps.

4. Zion as Æsthetic Expression.

I don’t know if I understand fully what this means, but your tradition has always been associated with music. This is understandable since music is the expression of life under promise. Even as a child, before I had ever heard of Zion, I would listen on the radio to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And as the me lodic voice of the announcer bid us farewell from the crossroads of the West, within the shadow of the eternal hills, I somehow experienced Zion. Expressed philosophically, Whitehead understood God as the one who provides the possibility of novelty so that we in “prehending” the possibilities in each moment can enrich the cosmos within God as a process intent on maximizing beauty.

5. Zion as Sanctification

Life today is culturally controlled by the promise of power, prestige, and possession. In contrast, the Zionic call is for life as spiritual pilgrimage-as growth in grace. In contrast to a driven life of anxious self-justification, the Zionic way of existing is an intertwining of being and doing, masculine and feminine, fast and festival, isolation and togetherness, giving and receiving -in an alternating rhythm of balanced maturation.

Lay Ministry

The second circle of imagery marking the uniqueness of the RLDS tradition is that of lay ministry. While most churches today are burdened by the weight of the elaborate and costly apparatus of buildings and salaried personnel, your tradition has a masterful grasp of “tent ministry.” In this post-Christian era in which believers are increasingly becoming a remnant, we are being readied to hear from the RLDS tradition how Christians might “live off the land,” as it were, minimizing the tension of lay and clergy in a call for the priesthood of all believers. While other churches are impeded by the identification of ordained priesthood with salaried preachers, your tradition makes the creative distinction between an internal priesthood in the line of Melchizedek, and the Aaronic call to temporal priesthood. This can incarnate what Luther understood that each one of us is called to a vocation in which we act as a Christian. Calvin went zionically further, insisting that one is called to be a Christian through one’s vocation.

A Marginalized People

A third domain of symbolism is evoked by the image of a “marginalized people.” The ancestors of your tradition were exiled, persecuted, hunted down, violently abused, and your leader finally martyred. As a “final solution,” the state of Missouri adopted an “extermination clause,” giving permission to kill your ancestry on sight. You escaped over the border, and the name you gave to one of your institutions is indicative. Graceland means a safe place for the persecuted and rejected. Thus liberation theology has been in the bones of your tradition from the beginning-so that you should be able to feel deeply from within the Gospel insistence upon God’s preferential love for the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. This is the passion that needs to be heard in response to today’s social retrenchment-where 1 percent of the population not only controls 40 percent of the wealth but can finance a legislative and judicial system that justifies and preserves such inequality.


Fourth is the image of sacramentalism. Roman Catholicism is unabashedly sacramental, having seven sacraments. You have even more-with eight providing meaning to every hinge point of the human pilgrimage. When asked what evidence he had for the fallenness of existence, Tillich pointed to the distinction between the Lord’s Supper and his daily supper, between his daily shower and his baptism, between the altar and his desk. Zion (what he called “theonomy”) occurs when through imagination every meal is experienced sacramentally as a Eucharist, every cleansing is experienced as a working of the Holy Spirit, and every death is a re-symbolization of Good Friday.


Fifth is a uniqueness visible in the cross-fertilizing imagery of “storehouse” and “steward.” In today’s frightening individualism, we are reaping the consequences of our idolatry of the “nuclear family.” Rather than being an institution established by God, it emerged as an expedience during World War II. In contrast to this idolization of the nuclear family as an insulated and isolated economic unit, the RLDS tradition can understand the early church of Acts 2:44-46 NRSV-in which “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need… with glad and generous hearts.” Your paid leadership is the envy of other churches in being able to live according to a primary Christian dictum-of asking from each according to one’s ability, giving to each according to one’s need. Such economic and ecological mutuality as a stewardship of resources should inspire establishment of “extended families” in which equipment is mutually owned, purchasing is in bulk, etc., in a commonness of shared life. Yours is a tradition which can teach the rest of us what St. Benedict meant in insisting that the tools of the field are to be regarded with the same sacredness as the utensils of the altar.

Ongoing Revelation

Sixth is the symbol of a church of “ongoing revelation,” as contrasted with the rest of us who seem to belong to churches in which God no longer is believed to speak. Yet in contrast to the belief that revelation ended with the New Testament, Jesus promised Pentecost as the beginning of the presence of the Holy Spirit which would teach us all things until the end of the age. I will never leave you orphaned, he declared, but even in times of crisis will put the correct words in our mouths. The first Jerusalem Conference was called to determine if Christianity was to remain a Jewish sect or would become inclusive of the Gentile world. They did not decide according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead, they expressed their discernment this way: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …” This reflects the RLDS way of insisting upon a God who is ongoingly revelatory. Your way of symbolizing this is with a book called Doctrine and Covenants.

5. Summary

Let me summarize what I have been trying to say. I am calling you to enter a third stage of your life together, as an era of re-symbolization. This means seeking reconciliation of both sides through dialogue. We must begin to hear at soul depth the concern of liberals who have rightly insisted on passing beyond the literal stage through a process of demythologizing and thus are fearful of a return. On the other side, we must hear with equal seriousness the conservatives who rightfully fear the irremediable loss of the RLDS tradition which is their very reason for becoming Saints. I believe we are ready, maybe even yearning, to move on into a new era of dialogical re-appropriation.

Having lived through the difficult time of suspicion, even fear, of each other, this moment of passing outside the perimeters of the Smith lineage brings us to a monumental intersection. On the one hand, it could become remembered as the point of transition in which the Joseph Smith saga was definitively marginalized. Or it could come to symbolize the unprecedented opportunity when reconciliation through imagination began. Let us pray that this World Conference will mark the crossroads at which we began in earnest to re-discern together the beauty of a people once called “Saints”-who in marching to the beat of another drummer saw on the horizon a zionic vision to which Christendom needs to be re-called –again and again.