Summary and Review of John Hamer’s JWHA Lecture

John Hamer is a dear friend of mine who played a pivotal part in me revisiting the spiritual merits of the Restoration. John’s accomplishments within our religious movement need no introduction, as he is a bit of a paragon of knowledge and has touched nearly every facet of the movement. John was invited to present as the 2023 Wallace B. Smith Lecturer on April 21st, 2023. This lecture informally acts as the beginning of Community of Christ’s conference. Previous lecturers include other noteworthy people such as Wallace B. Smith, Stephen M. Veazey, and Alma Blair.

The title of John’s lecture was “The Past and Future of the Prophetic Monarchy in the Latter Day Saint Tradition”, and the formal abstract is found here. In short, John compares the leadership across the different denominations to a monarchy. He then hones in on his own, Community of Christ, and examines the particulars of the leadership through the lens of monarchy. If this sounds familiar, it may be because John gave a similar lecture on November 1st on his congregation’s youtube channel.

Comparing the power struggles between Brigham Young and Joseph Smith III to a monarchial struggle was quite interesting. It allowed me to examine these power dynamics in ways that I had not before, and in the process helped me understand them better.

One of the most fascinating insights was on Joseph Smith III’s motives. John was able to explain that he was not as concerned about freeing people from the autocratic tyranny that Brigham Young has seized. Instead, Joseph Smith III’s primary focus was on morally condemning polygamy and clearing his father’s name. For those in Utah who knew for a fact that Joseph Smith Jr. was a polygamist, this undercut young Joseph’s claim to the prophetic mantle. John then speculate that if Smith had displayed his characteristic pragmatism in regards to this topic and was open to hearing from those who were involved in polygamy during the Nauvoo era he might have come to a more accurate conclusion regarding his father. Armed with knowledge and more empathy, he then might have been able to strike a better balance for the families who were now intertwined with polygamy. Such a balance could have led to the RLDS church gaining more traction than it simply becoming an anomalous mid-western church.

John said “all officers in the Reorganized tradition effectively serve at the will of the president who can choose to release them from their callings. This prerogative has sometimes been used aggressively”. I believe this was a great way of summarizing the problems of Supreme Directional Control. This is something I have noticed people either didn’t realize or thought was only a relic of a bygone era. However, there is really nothing that made this situation go away; there are functionally no checks and balances for the President of the church to this day. Hypothetically, if the entire Council of 12 were to disagree with the President of the church vocally, the president could remove them all from their post and there would be no formal repercussion for such autocracy.

John explained how the prophetic mantle’s authority was ultimately founded upon 2 pillars:

  1. The prophet being from the Smith Family
  2. In-coming prophets being appointed out-going prophets

W. Grant McMurray was the first to only have one of these claims, namely the latter. McMurray was also seen as a visionary for his time. John explained how McMurray’s rally cry to be a “prophetic people” was a call to move from a theocratic monarchy to a theocratic commonwealth. That is to say, the source of the prophetic mantle’s authority could come to rest in the common consent of the church members instead of prophetic appointment.

When McMurray stepped down as president, he left no successor. The church claimed to undergo a “church-wide discernment process” to choose the next president. The general understanding is that there was a democratic element to this, as McMurray had seemed to imply was the future for the church. However, this was ultimately pretense, as the Council of Twelve is who picked Steve Veazey to be the church’s new president. Thus, Veazey was the first president of the church to have neither traditional claims to the prophetic mantle.

In the aftermath of the canonization of D&C 156 and the ordination of women in 1984 and the schisms that followed as a result, there has been a constant fear of further schisming that has preventedleadership from making much further progress, and Veazey’s tenture has been no different.

Arguably the biggest leap forward in Veazey’s tenure was the canonization of D&C 164, which allowed individual nations to consider ordaining LGBT folks to priesthood and solemnizing our marriages. However, as I and John have explained in the past, Veazey ensured the global default was still exclusion and discrimination, and it remains so to this day.

Veazey’s administration also took many years to lay out the path for how these national conferences could operate, and once these conferences finally took place the nations who held these votes voted to be affirming by an overwhelming majority. This indicates that rights and inclusion could have been extended sooner if the First Presidency had taken a more active role in this progress. Instead, the First Presidency was sparse on details, and the proceedure on how to finalize these policies took over 6 years of advocacy from grassroots members.

John also brought this to the attention of the reader:

“Be that as it may, the years have continued to elapse without any further progress, meaning that the relatively slow previous pace has effectively ground to a halt. For context, thirteen years after women were first ordained to priesthood, the first two women were called into the council of twelve. We are now thirteen years past 2010 and no similar calls have been extended to any openly gay or lesbian member of the church. Nor is it even clear that such calls are possible.”

John spoke about how this and other more conservative actions are alienating the younger generations from even wanting to nominally participate in Community of Christ. John said that unless this trend is reversed “The church in North America is on the verge of demographic collapse”, and there are not enough young people to replace their dying predecessors.

John spoke about how Veazey’s tenure is ultimately marred by squandered potential.

John then concluded on what he envisions for the future of Community of Christ. As previously mentioned, Steve does not technically have either traditional claims to prophetic authority (Smith heritage or prophetic appointment). Steve was ordained under a democratic pretense, and to legitimize Veazey’s own authority, he would have to follow suit. However, Veazey announced that he is declining to implement a more formalized democratic system and reverting to prophetic appointment as the source of legitimacy.

This lack of a democratic future regarding the highest office in the church gave Hamer a fair amount of anxiety. Of this, Hamer said:

“Given the background and analysis I have presented today, I am worried that this process, if enacted as proposed, will not be effective in conveying legitimacy upon Steve’s successor. Worse, it may have the retroactively delegitimizing Steve’s own succession — after all, he never enjoyed prophet appointment.”

With the “demographic collapse” visibly on the horizon for Community of Christ, the next presidential succession may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Schisms have occurred in religions, even in the RLDS tradition, for less than this. I believe that John’s words here may be prophetic, either because a progressive contingency who wants their religion to actually reflect the values of common consent will break off or they will simply just leave the RLDS tradition. This is especially a possibility, considering the continued alienation of the progressive and young contingencies that occurred in the World Conference following his presentation.

John’s presentation was extremely well researched and well articulated; this summary and review does not do it justice. I highly encourage folks to read the complete transcript when JWHA inevitably publishes it. I believe it may be a document that gains a prophetic reputation in the years to come.