COMMUNITY OF CHRIST TIMELINE
1830 (April 6): Joseph Smith Jr. and five associates founded the “Church of Christ” in upstate New York.
1844 ((June 27): Joseph Smith Jr. was assassinated in Carthage, Illinois, leading to a succession crisis in what by then was called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
1860 (April 6): Joseph Smith III was ordained in Amboy, Illinois as the prophet and president of the group that would eventually be named the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
1865 (May 4): Ordinations of men of color was formally authorized.
1873 (December): Polynesian saints in modern-day French Polynesia affiliated with the RLDS Church.
1895 (September 17): The first day of classes was held at Graceland College, the RLDS-affiliated liberal arts college.
1920 (May 2): Independence, Missouri became the headquarters for the RLDS Church.
1925 (April): A schism took place over centralization of leadership (“Supreme Directional Control” crisis).
1960s: A church presence was established in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central America, East Africa, West Africa, and South America.
1966 (April 14): The “Statement on Objectives for the Church” was issued by church leaders; its contents signaled the growing liberalization of the denomination.
1970s: A church presence was established in Central and Southern Africa.
1984 (April): A schism occurred over women’s ordination and general liberalization of church policies and beliefs.
1985 (November 17): The first women were ordained in the RLDS Church.
1994 (April 17): After four years of construction, the Temple in Independence, Missouri was formally dedicated.
2001 (April 6): The RLDS Church changed its name to Community of Christ.
2010 (April 10): The validity of some other Christian baptisms for individuals joining Community of Christ was recognized.
2010 (November 10): The National Council of Churches approved the Community of Christ as a voting member.
2013 (April 21): LGBTQ marriages and ordinations were recognized by the U.S. National Conference of Community of Christ; similar policies followed from conferences in Australia, Canada, the U.K., and Western Europe.
Community of Christ, until 2001 known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is an American-based global denomination that traces its historical roots to Joseph Smith, Jr.’s church in the 1830s. [Image at right] With 200,000 members and a presence in sixty nations, it is the second-largest denomination within the larger family of churches descended from Joseph Smith, Jr.’s Mormon movement. Today, Community of Christ is probably best described as “an American progressive Christianity with Mormonism as an option” (Vanel 2017:91). The latter was not always so, and the church’s evolution, as well as marked divergence from other “Mormon” groups, demonstrates that founding resources within a movement do not result in inevitabilities, but possibilities.
Religious studies scholar Jan Shipps distinguished between the Mountain Saints that immigrated to Utah and the Prairie Saints that stayed in the American Midwest after Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr.’s 1844 assassination in Illinois. The Mountain Saints became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Prairie Saints formed a variety of smaller groups in the subsequent decades, many of them eventually coalescing under the leadership of Joseph Smith III, the oldest son of the founding Mormon prophet (Shipps 2002). Smith III had been a reluctant leader, [Image at right] continually turning down invitations to lead groups in the 1850s until he answered the call of a miniscule Midwestern group calling itself “the New Organization” in 1860. This changed the fate of this group. During his tenure as its leader, the small group, eventually known as the RLDS Church, grew from only 300 members to well over 74,000 by Smith III’s death in 1914 (Launius 1988).
Initially, Smith III and other RLDS missionaries sought to meld together Latter Day Saints who had been followers of various claimants to Joseph Smith Jr.’s prophetic mantle, claimants like James J. Strang, Alpheus Cutler, Lyman Wight, David Whitmer, and Brigham Young. The church had remarkable success with converting members of all of the aforementioned groups, except for Young’s group, a church that was and would remain the RLDS Church’s larger, better resourced, and better known rival. While most RLDS members had been members of a variety of Mormon groups after Joseph Jr.’s death, some who affiliated with the new church had remained independent of all other prophetic claimants until they joined the RLDS Church (Launius 1988). For example, several thousand Tahitian Latter Day Saints in the Tuamotu Islands, converts from the 1840s, chose to affiliate with the RLDS Church when its missionaries stopped in the islands on their way to Australia. The Euro-American elders who initially had evangelized the Tahitian saints had been loyal to Brigham Young, but they were long since gone, and the Tahitian saints affiliated with the RLDS elders who claimed to be the successor of Joseph Jr.’s church (as did all Latter Day Saint churches). This gave the small RLDS Church a global presence beyond its Midwestern heartland, and Tahitian RLDS saints, known locally as Sanitos, remained the largest Latter Day Saint church on the islands until well after World War II (Saura 1995).
Descended from a common church, the nineteenth century RLDS Church and LDS Church shared many doctrines and practices. They both embraced the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants as Scripture. They both had a complex church hierarchy led by a prophet and twelve apostles, and built upon a multi-tiered priesthood structure divided between the Melchisedec and Aaronic priesthoods. Both believed that they were the restoration of Christ’s new testament church and claimed to be the “one true church.” And, both believed that someday a New Jerusalem would be built by a gathered community of saints in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
However, nineteenth century RLDS were at pains to distinguish themselves from their ecclesiastic (and sometimes literal) cousins in Utah. First and foremost, RLDS opposed polygamy and many even went so far as to claim that Joseph Smith, Jr. did not originate the practice. Though historically untrue, this claim was relatively unchallenged within the RLDS Church until the 1960s. This rejection of polygamy also led to a rejection of the emergent “heaven family” among 1840s Nauvoo saints, a cornerstone of Mountain Saint doctrine and practice. Second, nineteenth-century RLDS embraced the doctrine of lineal succession in church leadership; that is, they believed that Joseph Smith III was the leader of his father’s church by right of lineal descent. This claim stood in stark contrast to Brigham Young who claimed the right to lead the Latter Day Saints by virtue of having the correct ritual power, given to him and the other apostles, he claimed, in a blessing from the early Mormon prophet (Launius 1988; Brown 2012). Third and related to its rejection of polygamy, RLDS largely rejected the temple cultus, its liturgy, theology, and rituals, which had developed in 1840s Nauvoo, Illinois and been further elaborated by Brigham Young’s church in the 1850s and beyond. RLDS believed there would be a temple in Zion someday, but their theology of temples was inchoate. For example, the RLDS Church owned and operated the earliest Mormon temple, the Kirtland Temple in Kirtland, Ohio. [Image at right] The latter structure had been dedicated by Smith III’s father in 1836. However, unlike LDS temples in Utah, RLDS treated the Kirtland Temple much like any other meeting house structure and held public worship meetings in it every Sunday (Howlett 2014).
The lack of a temple cultus had ritual and theological consequences and, consequently, established a clear break between the RLDS and their LDS cousins. For example, Smith III embraced the possibility of baptism for the dead (proxy baptisms of the deceased), but taught that there was neither a revelatory directive to do so at the time nor a rightly consecrated place. LDS in Utah, in contrast, practiced baptism for the dead with great enthusiasm, linking it to their emerging ideas about heavenly families and eternal sealings. Smith III’s elision in practicing baptism for the dead eventually led to the RLDS Church rejecting the doctrine outright, even though they acknowledged it had been taught and practiced by Joseph, Jr. Smith III also initially gave place to the doctrine of theosis (the ability of saints to become divine beings in the afterlife) but charged his elders to teach it only infrequently, as it was a “mystery of the kingdom.” In time, this meant that belief in the doctrine effectively died out in the RLDS Church as the earliest RLDS generation, formed by various doctrines in Joseph Jr.’s Nauvoo, died, too. Some of the latter also believed in baptism for the dead. In both cases, Smith III chose to outwait his opponents on doctrinal issues rather than force a church controversy. The rejection of theosis, in particular, had another effect. RLDS were functionally trinitarian Christians, even if they did not proclaim themselves as such until the late twentieth century (Launius 1988).
One area where Smith III did not outwait his opponents was on the subject of the ordination of men of African descent. By the 1860s, Brigham Young, the leader of the LDS Church in Utah, had instantiated a doctrine that banned the ordination of any men of African descent. Some early texts from Joseph Smith, Jr., like a few passages from the Book of Abraham, seemed to support Young’s reasoning, while actual practice in Smith Jr’s church did not (several men of African descent had been ordained). Early RLDS leaders themselves were divided on the issue. To break the division, Smith III issued a revelation in May 1865 authorizing the ordination of men of African descent. By the 1870s, several African American RLDS priests were evangelizing African American communities in the North and South, though RLDS missionaries never did make many conversions among African Americans (Scherer 2000).
Around the issue of women’s participation in the church, Smith III equivocated on several issues. Initially, he opposed the right of women to be voting delegates at church conferences, but conceded when the church’s General Conference itself overruled him. By the 1880s, some church members began to support women’s ordination. Smith III largely stayed out of the debate, but, by 1905, he and other church leaders issued a statement saying that there was no way to ordain women to the priesthood unless the church received a revelation authorizing it. As there was no revelation forthcoming, women were not ordained during his tenure (Ross, Howlett, and Kruse 2022).
Smith III attempted to build a church community that avoided what he saw as some of the excesses of his father’s church, particularly around its militancy, theocracy, and massive communitarian efforts. Smith III, who had memories of the uniformed Mormon defense force in Nauvoo led by his father, steered his church clear of any such associations. The motto of “peace” adorned the official church seal in 1871, [Image at right] and no RLDS community ever formed a militia like Nauvoo’s militia. Second, though his authority was from a decidedly undemoractic source (ritual imposition and lineal descent), Smith III embraced the democratic ethos of the saints who came together to form the RLDS Church. This meant that all major church decisions were voted upon by elected delegates to an annual church conference, much like other Protestant groups of the era. The conference could even overrule Smith III, as it did on several occasions. Finally, Smith III embraced the general idea of a gathered communitarian Mormon community (known as Zion) that would someday be built in Independence, Missouri. Weary of the communitarian failures he had lived through as a child, he advocated for a course of gradualism. Only a gradual moral perfection of the saints could effectuate the conditions to build an actual physical community of Zion, he taught. In the meantime, his followers should live among other people, showing through their daily conduct what “Zion” could be (Launius 1996). In practice, this meant that the RLDS church was largely a church of congregations, a garden variety sect among others in the soil of America. As such, the RLDS Church was not a church with the soul of a nation, like the Utah-based LDS Church that held sway over a massive part of the intermountain American West.
Even so, a small group of RLDS built a town on the border of Iowa and Missouri, known as Lamoni. The community had a limited number of collectively owned enterprises, such as a mill, grocery store, and hardware store (Launius 1984). In 1895, an officially affiliated liberal arts college was established there, Graceland College, that paradoxically claimed it was a “non-sectarian institution.” Lamoni became the headquarters of the church in 1880 when Smith III moved there, and, at the very end of his life, Smith III moved his family to join a growing community of RLDS in Independence, Missouri, the promised site for the Latter Day Saint New Jerusalem (Launius 1988).
The founding of a church-owned liberal arts college marked the RLDS Church’s quest for larger legitimacy with their neighbors. This in part explains Smith III’s attendance and talk at Parliament of World Religions (1893) and the church’s application to join the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 (the group denied the RLDS request) (Launius 1988; Scherer 2013). However, the RLDS Church was not simply asking for legitimacy; they were also entering an age in which many church members believed they needed more educational training and specialized knowledge to accomplish the church’s mission in the world.
When Smith III died in 1914, his handpicked successor and oldest son, Frederick Madison Smith [Image at right] took as the RLDS saints’ task to “Zionize the Church and evangelize the world.” By the late nineteenth century, the latter goal had resulted in a modest church presence in places like Germany, Palestine, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Hawaiian Islands (Scherer 2013). In an age of Protestant missions, Smith himself only half-heartedly pursued global evangelism. He pursued his second goal for RLDS saints, “Zionize the church,” with the obsession of a reformer. By “Zionize the church,” Smith meant creating the conditions necessary for the kingdom of God on earth. He attempted to do so through very modern means: centralization of church processes, the professionalization of church employees, and the specialization of church bureaucrats. While this did not necessarily mean seminary training for priesthood, it did mean that the highest church leaders pursued graduate degrees in education and social science fields. Smith himself earned an MA in sociology from the University of Kansas and PhD in social psychology from Clark University where he studied under G. Stanley Hall. Church leaders like Smith began to metabolize liberal Protestant theology, especially the Social Gospel theology of their age, a trend that would be magnified many times over in the second half of the twentieth century (Howlett 2007).
No issue created more controversy in the early twentieth century RLDS Church than the centralization of church power. Early in his presidency, Smith clashed with members of various church leadership groups and he created a crisis in 1925 when he gave a revelation stating that the “supreme directional control” for the church in administrative matters lay with the First Presidency, rather than dispersed among other groups. The fallout was immediate. His brother (and future successor) and the entire Presiding Bishopric (the financial officers for the church) resigned in protest, several apostles resigned, and several thousand RLDS members began meeting with other “Prairie Saint” denominations. Smith saw himself as a modern executive officer, but RLDS dissenters, including his brother, felt that ecclesiastical power should be distributed across the church rather than concentrated in one office (Mulliken 1991).
Stung with rejection, Smith nonetheless pursued ambitious institution-building projects, such as creating multiple church departments, like recreation and youth departments; modernizing and expanding an RLDS hospital and retirement homes; building a 5,000-seat auditorium and headquarters facility; and quasi-socialist community-building experiments through cooperative farms and stores, as well as organizations that made low-interest loans so that families could own homes. These projects were all manifestations of Smith’s era in which RLDS members melded Protestant Social Gospel ideals with early Mormon notions of cooperative community. While RLDS members tended to take inspiration from less radical parts of the Protestant Social Gospel movement, RLDS projects could help inspire truly radical action, such as the career of labor organizer John L. Lewis. The latter was raised in a coal-mining RLDS family and helped run a collectively-owned RLDS grocery store in Iowa before turning his attention to union organizing (Howlett 2007).
With the onset of the Great Depression and a massive church debt due to Smith’s building campaign, Smith’s programs to “Zionize the church” faltered as funds dried up and the church entered a period of financial retrenchment. The cooperative farms, for example, ended after only operating for a few years, as the denomination had to mortgage the land. However, the church bureaucracy that Smith built, along with expectations for specialized, professional employees, made the organization into a modern American denomination. Furthermore, the notion of a “social application” of “the restored gospel” would push the church in a more socially progressive direction in subsequent generations (Howlett 2007).
In the post-World War II era, the RLDS Church rode the coattails of America’s Cold War empire to establish new congregations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Like their LDS counterparts, RLDS members, serving in the US military, established nascent communities wherever they were stationed, sometimes evangelizing local populations in places like South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Yet, RLDS expansion, particularly into Asia, went hand in hand with a new evaluation of the purpose of the church and the notion of “missions” themselves. Like mainline Protestants of an earlier generation, RLDS leaders in Asia (most of whom were initially Americans) argued that the church needed to “indigenize” itself in those places. Rather than recreate the beliefs and structures of the (American) “restored gospel” in Asia, they argued that the church should grow in culturally appropriate ways that allowed for local autonomy and respect for local traditions (Howlett 2022). Consequently, local indigenous leaders outside of North America were given power over the shape of the churches in their regions (except for church finances). In practice, this meant that RLDS groups mirrored more the practices of dominant Christian groups in their regions (Canadian Baptists in the highlands of Odisha, India, or Pentecostal churches in the River State of Nigeria) rather than the practices of the mostly Anglophone Mormon-heritage regions of the RLDS Church in North America and Western Europe (Howlett 2020; Hurlbut 2019). Added to this, by the 1970s, RLDS leaders began to increasingly engage in humanitarian missions rather than evangelizing missions. The officially sanctioned RLDS NGOs that emerged from this time were community organizing NGOs in the Philippines that drew their inspiration from Saul Alinksy and ecumenical Filipino community organizing groups, pushing the denomination itself in a new liberalizing direction (Bolton 2023).
In this same era, RLDS leaders and headquarters staff began to attend mainline Protestant seminaries for graduate degrees. The effects of this could be seen in church curriculum, conference resolutions, books published with the official church imprint, and, most importantly, church policies. Such materials and policies reflected a generative conversation with mainline Protestant theology and RLDS traditions. It also led to a questioning of earlier theological assumptions. For example, progressive leaders questioned the relevance of the Book of Mormon or suggested that it should be studied through historical critical means. They redefined their denomination as a true church, but not “the one true church,” as previous generations of RLDS leaders had. And, they began to question why groups, like women, and later, queer folks, were excluded from ordination in the RLDS priesthood (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
These last two issues, the ordination of women and queer folks, created sustained controversies within the RLDS Church in the 1970s -1980s and 2000s – early 2010s respectively. Both issues garnered considerable, organized grassroots support and organized opposition. For example, RLDS feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s pushed church leaders to reexamine the hierarchical nature of priesthood and who it excluded. When RLDS Prophet Wallace B. Smith [Image at right] in April 1984 issued a revelation calling for the ordination of women, he did so after years of worshiping with and listening to RLDS feminists. Smith’s revelation, too, galvanized conservative opposition and resulted in the largest schism in the church’s history. Up to twenty-five percent of the North American membership seceded from the denomination and started independent congregations called “Restoration branches,” some of which evolved into small denominations or loosely affiliated conferences (Ross, Howlett, and Kruse 2022). On a much smaller scale than the 1980s schism, some individuals or congregations in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., and Western Europe left the denomination after regional conferences in these respective places approved the ordination of queer individuals and queer marriages. Furthermore, the Global South Community of Christ also by and large opposed queer ordinations and marriages, though this opposition was not universal. For instance, mahu individuals in French Polynesia traditionally have served in the priesthood, and this without any policy statements or changes. (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
Two material manifestations of the church epitomize its rapid late-twentieth-century liberalization, a new official denominational name and a massive new building at church headquarters. On April 6, 2001, the RLDS Church officially changed its name to Community of Christ (Scherer 2016). The name itself seemed to channel the liberalizing currents of its age, such as faith in community organizing, the valorization of relationality, and, perhaps, neoliberal corporate rebranding. Nonetheless, it also recalled the simplicity of the first name for the denomination, “the Church of Christ.” The Temple, [Image at right] dedicated in 1994 and costing $60,000,000, is a soaring, three-hundred-foot tall spiral structure that houses headquarters offices, a museum and archives, a library, the denominational seminary, and a devotional “worshiper’s path” leading to 1,600-seat sanctuary. Consecrated to “the pursuit of peace,” the Temple reflects the denomination’s ecumenical-Protestant inflections and incorporates new traditions. For example, a daily “prayer for peace” service is held at the Temple at 1 p.m., the only regular ritual practice done in the Temple outside of occasional worship services during conferences. Yet, the Temple is also shaped by the imprint of the past. The Temple itself sits on part of the original sixty-four-acre plot that Joseph Smith, Jr. dedicated in 1831 for a temple complex in his hoped-for earthly New Jerusalem community of “Zion.” So, while the Temple itself functions much like an Episcopal cathedral, it also carries with it the traces of the Mormon past, an apt way of summarizing the shape of Community of Christ in the early twenty-first century (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
While Community of Christ is not officially a creedal church, it has created various statements, including a current “Basic Beliefs” statement that it frames for its members “not as the last word, but as an open invitation to all to embark on the adventure of discipleship” (Chvala-Smith 2020:!). This follows a long line of other statements formed by the church, dating back to the nineteenth century. In what follows, I draw upon these statements to explain Community of Christ doctrines and beliefs through six key theological terms: God, revelation, scripture, salvation, reign of God/Zion, eternal life.
Community of Christ is trinitarian, defining “the one living God as a community of three persons.” Since the 1980s, official church documents have used inclusive language for God, de-emphasizing gendered, male language for God and reflecting trends in other progressive Christian groups. Reflecting historic formulations in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed, the church affirms Jesus as fully divine and fully human, as well as Jesus’s death and resurrection. No official position articulates a particular theology of Jesus’ atonement, and this can greatly vary in the global Community of Christ, from evangelically-influenced notions of substitutionary atonement present in many Global South Community of Christ groups to progressive-influenced notions of Jesus as moral exemplar. The third member of the trinity, the Holy Spirit is affirmed in classical terms as “giver of life,” “true Wisdom,” and “true God.” As the most recent Basic Beliefs statement affirms, “we find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control, there the Holy Spirit is working” (Chvala-Smith 2020).
Like other progressive American Christian communities, Community of Christ affirms that God still speaks. As the Basic Beliefs statement affirms, “The church is called to listen together for what the Spirit is saying and then faithfully respond” (Chvala-Smith 2020). While this statement fits well with other mainline Protestant theologies, Community of Christ adds a unique twist to this; it adds statements given by its prophet and approved by its World Conference to its book of Doctrine and Covenants, a text in its canon of Scripture.
Officially, Community of Christ recognizes three texts as scripture – the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. Scripture itself is seen as “writing inspired by God’s Spirit and accepted by the church as the normative expression of its identity, message, and mission.” This is not to say that Community of Christ officially embraces Scriptural literalism or thinks Scripture is inspired word for word from God. While individual members may embrace both, the denomination’s official statement on Scripture states, “Scripture is vital and essential to the church, but not because it is inerrant (in the sense that every detail is historically or scientifically correct).” Rather, Scripture keeps Community of Christ “anchored in revelation, in promoting faith in Christ, and in nurturing the life of discipleship.” Furthermore, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants do not supplant the Bible. Rather, they are affirmed as Scripture “because they confirm its message that Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God.” No one in Community of Christ is required to use either the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants as Scripture, and the church assiduously avoids taking a position on the historicity of the Book of Mormon (Chvala-Smith 2020).
Today, across the church, the Bible is overwhelming the primary scriptural text used. In what we might call “Mormon heritage” regions of the church (North America, Western Europe, and French Polynesia), the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants may or may not be used in services. In parts of the church outside these regions, use of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants is virtually unheard (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
Community of Christ by and large uses the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible in its English-speaking congregations. Since the 1980s, this text has supplanted what Community of Christ once called the “Inspired Version,” the textual revision of the Bible undertaken and partially completed by Joseph Smith, Jr. and Sydney Rigdon in the 1830s. With Community of Christ’s alignment with mainstream Protestant Christianity, use of the Inspired Version has significantly declined among average church members in North America. Finally, there is no standard version of the Bible used in the French-speaking or Spanish-speaking Community of Christ, the two most numerous linguistic groups in the church outside of the Anglophone part of the church (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
Community of Christ talks about salvation as “healing for individuals, human societies, and all of creation.” This notion of a wholistic salvation that goes beyond human persons has its roots in the nineteenth century, but has been significantly influenced by late-twentieth-century liberationist theologies, too (Chvala-Smith 2020).
For much of its history, Community of Christ emphasized a social theology of the Kingdom of God they termed “Zion.” Until the 1960s, Zion for Community of Christ was a literal community of the New Jerusalem that they aspired to build in Jackson County, Missouri, a community where there would be no poor, where people would live in holiness, and where people would find unity and peace in God. In the late twentieth century, Zion became less a “lighthouse” and more a “leaven,” to use the terms of a 1970s RLDS theologian. That is, Zion became synonymous with a divine force for good in the world that was decentered from any one geographical place, like the diffuse leaven in the loaf of bread that allowed it to grow in Jesus’s gospel parable. Zion also became synonymous with peace and justice. The term “reign of God” is now used more often than the term Zion, though Zion is still used to articulate Community of Christ’s “commitment to herald God’s peaceable kingdom on Earth by forming Christ-centered communities in families, congregations, neighborhoods, cities, and throughout the world.” Once again, Zion, a heritage term from the Joseph Smith era, is more commonly used in the Restoration-heritage regions of Community of Christ rather than in other places (Griffiths and Bolton 2022).
Classic RLDS beliefs from the early twentieth century articulated complex afterlife in three kingdoms of glory (the telestial, the terrestrial, and the celestial) that humans could inherit after death. This reading of the afterlife was buoyed by prooftexts from the Bible and RLDS scripture and often depicted in preaching charts used in evangelism. Notably, hell was seen as a temporary place, the “prison house” in older RLDS speak. Post-1960s, this view of the afterlife has severely declined in Community of Christ. Officially, Community of Christ affirms that “in Christ, God’s love finally will overcome all that demeans and degrades the creation, even death itself.” While not a full statement of universal salvation, many members in the Mormon heritage part of the church take it as such. Again, this view is much closer to mainline Protestant understandings of eternal life than it is the mid-twentieth-century preaching charts used by RLDS elders. Nonetheless, the very plurality of heavens and temporariness of hell in older RLDS thought gestured toward a limited universalism that many Community of Christ members now embrace as a full universalism (Chvala-Smith 2020; Griffiths and Bolton 2022).
Today, Community of Christ recognizes eight rites that it defines as “sacraments.” While language around these rites has changed (before the 1960s, they were called “ordinances”), their basic form and number has remained the same. These rites are baptism, communion (the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist), confirmation, blessing of children, ordination, laying on of hands for the sick, marriage, and evangelist blessing (called “patriarchal blessing” in the era before women’s ordination).
Community of Christ practices what other traditions call “believer’s baptism,” or baptism at a minimum age of eight years old. It also recognizes the baptisms of other traditions if a person has been baptized at age eight or older and baptized under the classic trinitarian formula (“in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”). Such persons do not need to be rebaptized in Community of Christ. There is still ongoing debate as to whether infant baptisms should be recognized, too. All of this is a shift from pre-1960s doctrinal positions in Community of Christ that claimed exclusive sacramental power and mandated rebaptism for any new member (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
Communion or the Lord’s Supper occurs by tradition once a month in Community of Christ congregations, though there is no policy preventing it from happening more frequently. Communion, too, is open to any baptized Christian, regardless of their affiliation. Communion elements may consist of bread and grape juice (wine), but can be adapted to local cultural practices (i.e. coconut milk) or dietary needs (i.e. gluten-free bread). The communion ceremony itself is relatively simple, consisting of the congregation kneeling down as a priest or elder reads a liturgical blessing on the bread and wine, or a combined blessing on both. The words to these blessings are drawn from the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10), one of the few places where the Book of Mormon text still directly influences Community of Christ practice. An alternative, lightly modernized version of these prayers has been approved, too, and uses more gender-neutral language for God. Priests and elders take the blessed communion elements and directly serve congregants, though this last step is more tradition than mandate. In 2019, Community of Christ approved guidelines for the online celebration of the Lord’s Supper, a move that made its celebration during the COVID pandemic easier in the following year. Finally, congregations outside of North America may or may not follow these outlines for administering communion, offering alternative prayers or procedures that reflect local standards (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
Confirmation in Community of Christ traditionally happens after baptism, sometimes immediately after baptism. This rite recognizes a person as a full member of the denomination and traditionally was seen as bestowing the gift of the Holy Spirit on a person. Today, the denomination teaches that confirmation “seeks God’s blessing to help new members grow in their covenant and generously share their giftedness in support of the church’s mission.” Confirmation also provides a rite for those wishing to join Community of Christ from another Christian denomination. Instead of being rebaptized, they are confirmed as a member of Community of Christ. The ceremony itself consists of two elders laying on their hands and offering an extemporaneous prayer that recognizes the confirmee’s entrance into the denomination and blessing them in their further discipleship (Bolton and Gardner 2022).
The blessing of children is in some ways the functional equivalent of infant baptism in other Christian traditions. It allows parents to present their child to their congregation for an official ritual that welcomes the child into a community. Two elders, chosen by the child’s parents or guardians, lay on hands to bless the child and offer an extemporaneous prayer of blessing. The origin of this rite can be traced to the earliest days of the Latter Day Saint movement and is probably influenced by Baptist practices of the same era. In practice, Community of Christ’s blessing of children can include children from infancy through age seven (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
Ordination is part of a process that begins when an adult member is “called” to the priesthood by their local pastor or a regional administrator. The person discerns whether or not to accept this call. If they accept, the local congregation votes on the call. If the “call” is to an office of elder or above, a regional conference (called a “Mission Center” conference) votes on it. The candidate then takes three short courses that cover topics like the duties of their office, the responsible use of scripture and preaching, and ethical and legal obligations that they have as a minister. Finally, if approved, the candidate is ordained by the laying on of hands in a public ceremony in which at least two ordained members offer extemporaneous prayers conferring the office upon the candidate. Most of those who are ordained are bi-vocational ministers who will serve in their local congregations. While ordination is not universal for adults in Community of Christ, the majority of active, contributing men and women are called to the priesthood and ordained at some point in their life. More about the priesthood structure is detailed in a section below. Since 1984, women may be ordained in Community of Christ. Since 2013, LGBTQ may be ordained in Community of Christ in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., and Western Europe (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
The laying on of hands for the sick is a sacrament that grows out of the sacramental imagination of early Latter Day Saints who read the Bible in a typological fashion. Based upon an imitatio reading of James 5:14, these saints authorized elders to lay on hands, anoint the sick with oil, and offer a prayer of healing for them. This tradition continues in Community of Christ and is a sacrament that people might ask for in times of existential crisis, as well as for physical ailments. In colloquial terms, it is called “administration” (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
Marriage is also deemed a sacrament in Community of Christ. Priests, elders, and high priests are all authorized to conduct marriage ceremonies. Since 2013, members of these priesthood offices in the U.S., Canada, Australia, U.K., and Western Europe may conduct marriage ceremonies for LGBTQ individuals where legal.
Evangelical blessings serve as the one unique sacrament compared with other non-Latter Day Saint traditions. Originating in the 1830s and then referred to as a “patriarchal blessing,” the sacrament grew out of a desire for fathers to bless their children before their deaths and quickly evolved into a ceremony in which a “father for the church” or ordained “patriarch” blessed a church member. In the ceremony, the patriarch would lay their hands upon a church member in a public ceremony and offer an extemporaneous blessing upon them, sometimes prophesying about the individual’s future or sealing powers upon them. This prayer was recorded by a scribe and a copy of it was given to the blessed individual. Today, the ceremony has gone from a public ceremony to an intimate, private ritual in which an evangelist (men and women may serve in the office) offers a prayer of blessing on a young adult that is recorded and later given to them, all of this usually occurring in a private ceremony attended by the evangelist, the person blessed, and one other person. The prayer is meant to offer encouragement and guidance to the blessed person, but evangelists no longer prophecy or seal charismatic blessings upon a person. In addition, whereas patriarchal blessings were only given to a person once in their life, Community of Christ members may ask evangelists for blessings at any time in their life, particularly around times of transition (Howlett and Duffy 2017; Bolton and Gardner 2022).
Community of Christ has synthesized the two great polity traditions of American denominational Christianity, polity by decision of an episcopacy and polity by decision of conference delegates. For the former, the Community of Christ has a complex priesthood structure that ranges from deacons to the office of “prophet, seer, and revelator” for the denomination’s president. This is part and parcel of the denomination’s heritage in Joseph Smith’s earliest church and his two priesthood orders, containing the offices of deacon, teacher, and priest (the Aaronic Priesthood) and elder, high priest, seventy, apostle, and president of the high priesthood (the Melchisidec Priesthood). In practice, this means that Aaronic priesthood (all of whom are adults) have authority in their local congregations. Melchisidec priesthood may do the same, but some also have regional or church-wide authority, too. At the top of this church leadership structure is the First Presidency (the church’s “prophet” and two counselors), the Council of Twelve Apostles, and the Presiding Bishopric (the church’s highest financial officers). At times, these three groups meet together to make administrative policies in a “Joint High Council.” Ultimately, the First Presidency serves as the executive leaders of the denomination, while apostles serve as regional leaders (Griffiths and Bolton 2022).
The very fact that the church’s highest leadership body is referred to as a “presidency” gestures towards the American origins of Community of Christ and its simultaneously sacerdotal and democratic impulses. The latter impulses are most fully expressed through the World Conference, a triennial meeting of elected delegates that approves all major policies in Community of Christ. Any baptized and confirmed member of Community of Christ may serve as a delegate to the World Conference if they are elected by their regional conference to do so. Legislation at World Conferences may range from official statements on social justice issues to authorization for new administrative divisions. Even revelations given by the church Prophet must be approved by the World Conference before they are included in the Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants. The latter does not always attain pro forma approval, too. Significant dissent voiced by conference delegates has resulted in past prophets pulling or modifying such documents (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
More recently, regional conferences, rather than the World Conference, approved policies around LGBTQ inclusion that had the potential to split the global denomination if approved for the entire denomination. This reversed the approach used to approve women’s ordination in the 1980s, one done with a revelation from the Prophet and voted on by the World Conference with significant dissent. Thus, significant power has been granted by Community of Christ to regional units and conferences on issues that would have been decided by the denomination’s World Conference in the past (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
Community of Christ faces both demographic and monetary challenges for the future. Since the 1980s, the denomination has had decline in both areas after peaking in the 1970s. Demographic growth outside of North America in the Global South, once touted as a major growth area, has proved ephemeral in the recent past as budgetary cuts for global Community of Christ ministers has resulted in congregations leaving as their ministers seek affiliation and income from other denominations. Within North America, Community of Christ is a graying, but not growing denomination. In 2010, an internal report by the church’s Presiding Bishopric, presented at the World Conference, revealed that the average age of a financially contributing member to Community of Christ was sixty-nine, a full ten years older than the average age of financially-contributing mainline Protestant church members. Deep cuts of the church’s administrative structure and programming have followed (Howlett 2013).
One exception to the aforementioned trends has been the influx of so-called “Latter Day Seekers,” those former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have affiliated with Community of Christ primarily due to its social justice stances and full inclusion of women and LGBTQ individuals in leadership (at least within the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Western Europe). Most of these new Community of Christ members are in their thirties and forties and have families. Whether they will offset the trend towards a graying Community of Christ remains to be seen (Howlett and Duffy 2017).
Theologically, Community of Christ still has to work out whether it will join the cadre of historic peace churches or remain adjacent to the so-called mainline Protestants and groups in the World Council of Churches who pursue a policy of “just peace.” The latter seems most likely, as the number of pacifists in Community of Christ remains small, and the denomination endorses military chaplains. Future World Conferences will decide this.
To what extent will the heritage of the Joseph Smith-era inform Community of Christ in the future? The ecclesiastical structures that Smith birthed (the priesthoods and the administrative hierarchy) live on in Community of Christ. Arguably, the Smith-era ingredients of community-building and just economic relationships, as encapsulated by Smith’s Zion narratives, shape Community of Christ’s ecumenical work and peace and justice advocacy in the present (Griffiths and Bolton 2022). Yet, are these elements catalysts or reagents, the former retaining its identity in a reaction and the latter being used up in it?
Image #1: Joseph Smith, Jr.
Image #2: Joseph Smith III.
Image #3: The Mormon temple, the Kirtland Temple in Kirtland, Ohio.
Image #4: The RLDS peace logo.
Image #5: Frederick Madison Smith.
Image #6: Wallace B. Smith
Image #7: The Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Missouri.
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11 December 2022