Mitchell McClellan and Dr. Keith Wilson, Religious Education
Change is inevitable. Yet the direction of the change is influenced by who is steering. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints experienced major doctrinal changes throughout its institutional history, especially during the 1960s and 19070s. The types of changes intrigued Dr. Keith Wilson and myself. In particular we wanted to determine who influenced the changes and why they shifted from more traditional beliefs.
Our research method was to first identify the agent of change, second analyze his past and third determine why he was successful. In September 2009, we traveled to Independence, MO to do preliminary interviews with two former Presidents and two Historians for the Church. As we analyzed the results of our interviews, we were pointed towards Clifford Cole as the prime mover of the RLDS church during our time frame. Holding many important leadership positions within the RLDS church, Cole guided change. He served as a Director of Religious Education, Apostle, and President of the Twelve Apostles.
Back in Provo we started to review the academic literature on this era to place Clifford Cole into context. We discovered much had been written but very little highlighted the work of Cole. Next we read and analyzed the various documents written by Cole himself. During this process, we developed a hypothesis that Cole’s leadership positions and leadership style allowed him to change the doctrinal direction to follow his personal preferences. At this point we knew we needed further primary source research to support our claims and also establish why he sought change.
Through the contacts we developed during our first trip to Independence, we returned to examine the churches archives. Additionally, we interviewed Stephen Veazey, the current Prophet-President of the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) church, to understand his perspective on Clifford Cole and disucess changes of doctrine and direction. While searching in the archives, we found evidence the confirmed our hypotheses. Also, the various oral histories of Cole and his contemporaries provided the insights we need to postulate why Cole desired doctrinal changes.
The trip to Independence helped us see the various lenses that one could use to view change in the RLDS church. We chose a hierarchal approach, but one could make an argument that a popular ground swell changed the church. The Mormon Historical Association (MHA) meeting in May 2010 provided an excellent venue to present our findings and also results of other scholars studying the same topic but through a different lense. We decided to create a session on the various models to explain change in the RLDS church during the 1960s and 1970s. Other historians quickly agreed to join us. The MHA grateful accepted our proposal.
After identifying our agent of change, analyzing his past and determining why he was successful, the paper quickly took shape. Dr. Wilson wrote the section on his past and perspective and I contributed the section on his formal leadership years and the change that occurred and why it was successful.
In essence we found that Clifford Cole exerted tremendous influence over the RLDS Church during his 35 cumulative years as appointee, Director of Religious Education, Apostle and President of the Council of Twelve. More specifically he reshaped the church’s religious curriculum, led the effort for creating new objectives for the church, and rewrote the church’s basic doctrinal positions with his own theology as the chairmen of the Basic Beliefs Committee. In short Clifford Cole more so than perhaps any other individual member of the church effectively steered the RLDS Church onto a different course during his 29 years in Independence.
On May 28, 2010 we presented our paper at the MHA session and received a positive response. Afterwards we were approached to contribute our paper to forthcoming volume on change in the RLDS church. The main source of papers and ideas for the book stem from the session we assembled for the MHA conference.
This unique experience would have been impossible without my ORCA grant. I wish to extend my sincere thanks to those who made this possible. Presenting a paper at an academic conference has always been a strong desire for me. This experience also afforded the opportunity to meet important individuals, furthered my research skills and developed a determination to help students in a similar fashion to the way I was aided