Saturday, February 13, 2010
The Best Conference Talk You Never Read
One of the little ironies in modern church history was that In The Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Four, someone in the church hierarchy pulled a stunt right out of George Orwell's totalitarian novel 1984.
It was in October conference of that year that Elder Ronald E. Poelman of the First Quorum of the Seventy delivered an address that was hailed by many members as one of the best conference talks they had ever heard.
But the following month when those members picked up the conference issue of The Ensign magazine to read the text of the speech, they were baffled to find that the words on paper bore little resemblance to the televised talk they thought they remembered hearing the month before. What's more, anyone seeking the video record of Elder Poelman's talk would find that Poelman's segment had been pulled from the official Church archives and replaced with a counterfeit.
Thus one of the most interesting -and some would say most important- conference talks of the latter half of the twentieth century simply disappeared down the memory hole.
You'll remember that George Orwell first coined the term the memory hole in his novel 1984 to describe what became of information deemed unworthy by The Powers That Be. Whenever a particular truth interfered with the reality put forth by Big Brother, a new version of "truth” was created to replace it. The old evidence was dropped into a slot leading to a series of pneumatic tubes, “whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.”
What had once been common history gradually faded from the collective memory. Eventually it was forgotten altogether.
Something similar occurred with Elder Poelman's conference talk. Someone or some committee -we still don't really know who- consigned the original record to outer darkness and replaced it with some type of evil twin.
Video Cassette Recorders in the early 1980's could cost anywhere from 600 to 1300 dollars, and by 1984 fewer than ten percent of American households owned one. The number of Mormon households with VCRs at that time would have been minuscule. So unless you were one of those privileged few and you happened to use your machine to record general conference, you were not likely to ever see that conference talk again.
So What Was The Big Deal?
There was nothing unusual or radical about the talk itself, although Poelman did introduce some concepts that had not been openly discussed in the church for a while. The address contained pearls of pure Mormonism; treasures of truth that could just as well have come from the lips of the prophet Joseph Smith during a conference at Nauvoo. Church members old enough to remember how things were in the 1950's said that listening to Poelman's talk took them wistfully back to the days of President David O. McKay.
Elder Poelman began his talk by reminding the congregation that there is an important difference between the gospel and the Church. "There is a distinction between them which is significant", he said, "and it is very important that this distinction be understood."
Poelman cautioned that failure to distinguish between the two, and to comprehend their proper relationship, could lead to "confusion and misplaced priorities".
The gospel, he explained, is the substance of the divine plan for personal, individual salvation and exaltation. The Church, on the other hand, is the delivery system that provides the means and resources to implement that plan.
As Elder Poelman explained it, the gospel of Jesus Christ is eternal and unchanging. The Church of Jesus Christ is not. “Policies, programs, and procedures do change from time to time as necessary to fulfill gospel purposes.”
“When we understand the difference between the gospel and the church and the appropriate function of each in our lives, we are much more likely to do the right things for the right reasons.”
Elder Poelman admonished the congregation to remain mindful that every church member has not only the right, but also the obligation to exercise his free agency and receive a personal witness not only of gospel principles, but also of Church practices. “In response to study, prayer and by the influence of the Holy Spirit we may seek and obtain an individual, personal witness that the principle or counsel is correct and divinely inspired.”
Makes perfect sense, right?
Well, not to everybody.
Someone sitting on the stand that day was apparently not too keen on the idea of the common folk thinking about questioning Church practices.
But what really seems to have set off alarm bells among the The Brethren was this bombshell: According to Elder Poelman, the ultimate goal of each of us should be to eventually get to that point in our spiritual and intellectual growth where we will no longer need the institutional Church in our lives. Here is how Elder Poelman put it:
“As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs. Our lives become gospel centered.”
Whoaaa, Nelly! Hold the phone and stop the presses!
Members of the church not needing the church? Who is this guy?!
If you had been one of the pontifical poobahs sitting on the stand that day overlooking the crowd below, I suppose I can understand how you might have thought Poelman's words bordered on heresy. You may have come to believe during your lengthy career of service in the church that you and your vatic brethren had the sacred responsibility of protecting the testimonies of those beneath you. People do make unwise decisions for themselves, after all. They do not always choose the right. Many members are new to the fold and should be fed milk before they are exposed to the meat of the gospel. They need looking after. They need supervision. They need to be taught to obey.
To most of us listening, Elder Poelman's reminder was consistent with what we had been taught all our lives growing up. Didn't Brother Joseph preach similar distinctions? Are we not on our individual paths to perfection? At some point in our progress shouldn't we expect to no longer require someone holding our hand?
Sadly, there have always been those in positions of authority who are suspicious of unsupervised freedom and see it as a dangerous thing. And so it was that within days of the close of general conference, when the tabernacle was pretty much empty except for a cameraman and a teleprompter, Elder Ronald E. Poelman of the Quorum of the Seventy was secretly escorted back to the podium and instructed to deliver his talk a second time. Only this time it wasn't the same talk. The text had been fundamentally altered to make it more palatable to the corporate Church.
Afterward, an audio "cough track" was added into the background to give the impression that Elder Poelman was speaking live before a full auditorium. This reworked video was then spliced into the existing conference record where it replaced the original, then it was filed with the Church archives. Copies were dubbed into foreign languages and sent to missions abroad. This new version was now the official truth.
Meanwhile the original, true, and accurate video record of Elder Poelman's conference address simply disappeared.
Vanished down the memory hole.
Except not quite.
Rise Of The Machines
As it turns out, there actually were a handful of church members here and there who owned some of those expensive video cassette recorders, and some of them had used their machines to record general conference. The disparity between the words spoken by Elder Poelman on their video tapes and the redacted text in the Ensign were glaringly obvious. They didn't match up at all.
Sensing an awkward controversy developing, Church spokesmen trotted out a statement to the effect that Elder Poelman had decided, on his own, to revise his address for purposes of clarity.
But few were buying it. Those who read the bowdlerized do-over in The Ensign could tell that it didn't clarify a darn thing. This re-edit of the talk entitled The Gospel And The Church was a rambling muddle of platitudes. Elder Poelman seemed to be saying the exact opposite in the text from what he had asserted from the pulpit.
L. Jackson Newell described it like this: "The text was not edited -his ideas were turned inside out.”
Indeed. Poelman's conference address, originally a rare and inspiring defense of free agency became "yet another cry for obedience.”
In recent years there has been a subtle shift in the way some in the Church hierarchy have come to view their relationship to the rank and file membership. The once pre-eminent doctrine of free agency has been, shall we say, “de-emphasized” in LDS teachings for almost four decades now. Joseph Smith's view that his role was to “teach the people correct principles and let them govern themselves” has been supplanted by the relatively new dogma that asserts obedience as the first law of the church. It goes without saying that we ought to render obedience to God. But more often than not these days what is expected is obedience to Church authority.
From "The Gospel And The Church" To "The Gospel IS The Church"
So it was that the entire meaning of Elder Poelman's inspired dissertation was palpably inverted. For example, in his original address, Elder Poelman declared that “it is not enough that we obey the commandments and counsel of Church leaders.”
That line was changed to “We should obey the commandments and counsel of Church leaders.”
Poelman's statement that “the orthodoxy upon which we insist must be founded in fundamental principles and eternal law, including free agency and the divine uniqueness of the individual,” became this:
“The orthodoxy upon which we insist must be founded in fundamental principles, eternal law, and direction given by those authorized in the Church.”
Every reference to free agency in the original was deleted except one, and that had been altered to imply that free agency is only effective under Church aegis.
The new version completely eradicates any distinctions between the church and the gospel. One would get the impression from Elder Poelman's new talk that the church and the gospel are one and the same. In the redacted version, allegiance to the corporation had become no less important than adherence to the gospel.
Happily, someone has now posted both the original and the revised texts of Elder Poelman's talk online, and you can read them side by side if you click here. All the changes, deletions, and alterations have been highlighted, so you can determine for yourself which version you feel was actually inspired from on high.
Also, thanks to someone on YouTube, the original address before the congregation in the tabernacle is finally available for viewing here and here. If you want to see the censored version, contact Church headquarters and ask to see the original talk. You'll be directed to the fake one.
The Cheese Man Cometh
How's this for a metaphor:
As I've sat at my desk this morning writing the words above, I've also been excitedly awaiting the arrival of a special visitor. His name is John, and he's my local UPS driver. I'm looking forward to John's visit because today he is scheduled to deliver me a case of cheese. Real cheddar cheese packed in tin cans.
Two weeks ago I didn't even know canned cheese existed, and if the reports are true, this variety of cheddar cheese is going to suit me just fine. People say it's firm and delicious like regular cheddar, and just like deli cheese it can be shredded, sliced, and melted. Best of all it can be stored almost indefinitely. I ordered this cheese because I love, love, love cheese; I eat it every day. If the day arrives when fresh cheese is hard to come by, I'll now have something other than a No.10 can of dehydrated cheese powder on hand. I'll be able to retreat to my precious stash of cheddar 'neath the stairs, thanks in part to the noble efforts of John the UPS guy. I can't wait until he gets here.
Now, it should be obvious that it's not really John that I'm excited about seeing today; what I'm all a-dither about is what he's bringing with him. When John arrives I'll answer the door and sign his electronic gizmo, he'll hand over the box, then he'll leave. He will be entitled to, and he will receive, my effusive thanks.
Every couple of months or so John brings me something. Sometimes it's food. More often he brings me books that teach me things I didn't know or hadn't thought about before. So I suppose you could say that in some small way I am indebted to John for my spiritual and intellectual edification. I like John. John and his wonder truck are part of an impressive system that delivers sustenance to me. But neither John, nor his truck, nor that system is the actual sustenance.
You would certainly think it odd if I were to fawn all over John and his delivery truck to the point of forgetting all about any package he's trying to hand me. Likewise I would think John a bit screwy if he were to hint that I should accept deliveries from no other source but him, or that I obey his pronouncements and follow his counsel because he is so adept at getting stuff to me. I greatly appreciate the role John plays in my life. But I keep that role in perspective.
So here's my point. As Poelman taught, the Church as an institution has a divine function. It provides resources and materials that edify us and enrich our lives. The intrinsic purpose of the Book of Mormon is to bring people to Christ, so by publishing and distributing that book, the Church is providing an incalculable service. The Church also manages a way for us to gather together as a community of fellow believers. Perhaps most importantly, the Church disseminates the word of God and boldly proclaims the gospel of the restoration.
The Church provides us with spiritual sustenance. But the Church is not the sustenance. The Church is merely the vehicle that delivers the sustenance. As Elder Poelman insisted, it is very important that this distinction be understood.
How often do we hear our fellow saints extol the virtues of The Brethren and remark upon what a blessing they are in our lives? It's been my experience that few of these adulators exhibit the same high level of passion for Christ and His gospel. They seem to have a crush on the delivery man.
I have remarked elsewhere on the curious practice a lot of members have of bearing testimony of the delivery system while virtually ignoring the plain and precious goods being delivered by that system. Or even forgetting to mention the name of He who is the source of all those goods.
The people of George Orwell's futuristic dystopia had come to believe that they existed to serve their leaders, rather than the other way around. They were not concerned that knowledge was being kept from them; their daily mantra included the slogan, "Ignorance is Strength". Some of these people would have been right at home with those among us who insist that "not everything that is true is useful".
All truth is useful to those seeking their way back to The Father. That is why we are taught that the very essence of eternal progression is to be ever increasing in knowledge. Ignorance is not strength, it is weakness. Ignorance is not power; Knowledge is power.
We Mormons are a peculiar people indeed. We join the Church because the Book of Mormon brings us to Christ. But once we are enveloped in the church we often allow our allegiance to be nudged ever so gently away from Christ and directed toward the institutions of men.
Update February 22, 2013:
At the time I wrote this piece, it was quite difficult to find a video of the do-over, though the text of both talks has been available for side-by-side comparison. Yes, it's odd, because the do-over is supposedly the "official" video. My guess is the news of its fakery has motivated the Church to keep it on the down low as best they could. But now eagle-eyed viewer BNI has located a video of the notorious fake that has been sitting on Youtube without my knowledge since June of 2012. When comparing it with the original, live version, you'll note that the background behind Elder Poelman is completely blacked out, while in the original, members of the Tab Choir can be seen behind him. Here is that re-do:
Update March 4th, 2015:
Again that do-over video seems to have disappeared from the link above, but fortunately eagle-eyed reader Dave Butte has located it on, of all places, the Church's very own official website. I had not been able to find it there when I first searched for it lo these many years ago, but for now it resides at this link: