(The following is excerpted from Joe Geisner’s upcoming article ” ‘Very Careless in His Utterances’: Editing, Correcting, and Censoring Conference Addresses,” to be published in the December 2011 issue of Sunstone. Click here to subscribe.)
On 16 November 1984, the Salt Lake Tribune broke a story about changes in first quorum of seventy member Ronald E. Poelman’s 7 October 1984 General Conference address, “The Gospel and the Church,” with the article, “Elder’s Address Rewritten from Conference Version,” by Rodd G. Wagner (B-1, B-4). Wagner wrote that not only was the address heavily edited and partially rewritten for the November Ensign, it was also re-videotaped, with “the new version [being] spliced into the conference tape” for church distribution. In response, Church spokesperson Don LeFevre stated that “the most obvious place to retape [Poelman’s] talk was from the pulpit,” but when Wagner asked if this could give a “false impression” about this being the original, LeFevre said, “It could.” The Deseret News ran a similar story on 17 November(B-5) and the Provo Daily Herald on 18 November.
Some months later, in Sunstone 10:1 (1985), editor Peggy Fletcher wrote that “Poelman returned to the Tabernacle a few days after conference and retaped the speech with the changes. This tape was then spliced into the original conference tape replacing the previous address. In addition, a “coughtrack” was provided to make it sound more like an audience was present.” Stack also points out that “the cost of this video editing was between $10,000 and $15,000.” Church spokesperson Jerry Cahill was quoted as saying, “I don’t think that $10,000 is too much to pay to correct a possible misinterpretation. Besides, if the Brethren require it, we comply.” (The Daily Herald reported “Poelman redelivered his speech in the studios of the Mormon Church-owned Bonneville Media Communications,” but this is likely an error.)
Apparently Church leadership’s main concern centered on how Mormon fundamentalists would interpret the talk. For years, General Authorities had been countering fundamentalist claims that there were in fact two true churches: one church that was a part of the world and another that followed a higher spiritual law. Stack wrote “that Apostles who regularly deal with Mormon apostate groups ‘pointed out’ to Elder Poelman that his remarks might be misinterpreted.” Poelman’s brother, Stuart, is quoted in the Tribune saying that Ronald Poelman “was concerned his remarks would be used by Mormon apostate groups.”
Some of the changes support this concern:
A portion of the original speech reads, “Both the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ are true and divine. However, there is a distinction between them which is significant and it is very important that this distinction be understood. Of equal importance is understanding: the essential relationship between the gospel and the Church. Failure to distinguish between the two and to comprehend their proper relationship may lead to confusion and misplaced priorities with unrealistic and therefore failed expectations.”
That portion was revised to read: “Both the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ are true and divine, and there is an essential relationship between them that is significant and very important. Understanding the proper relationship between the gospel and the Church will prevent confusion, misplaced priorities, and failed expectations and will lead to the realization of gospel goals through happy, fulfilling participation in the Church.”
Another section reads: “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.”
The section was revised to read: “As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we can more effectively utilize the Church to make our lives increasingly gospel centered.”
The treatment of free agency also seems to have been a concern. Of the three times the word was used in the original talk, two were removed and the third modified. Poelman stated in the original talk that people should not use their free agency to invent their own values and principles. However, the edited version read, “The Church aids us in our effort to use our free agency creatively, not to invent our own values, principles, and interpretations.”
After the revised talk had been published, “the church public communications office” released a statement saying Poelman had decided that his talk “might possibly be misinterpreted” and “any editorial changes were his own.” In the Salt Lake Tribune article, Stuart Poelman “said he understood the changes were his brother’s idea and not due to pressure of other church officials.” Poelman did not speak in General Conference again until April 1989, four years after he revised his speech.
A side-by-side comparison of the originally delivered talk and the edited version can be found in the October 1990 issue of Sunstone.
I prefer the original talk. To my thinking, the editing and censoring are evidence that Church leaders do not want members to think for themselves too much. The whole episode reminds me of Moses smashing the first set of tablets containing the higher law of the Gospel, then going back for a lesser law.
Elder Poelan was a product of his generation. If you look through & play the conference talks from the 1970’s you will see a lot of them are really bold and outspoken. In the 1990’s they are less so, due to the growth of the church into many lands. I remeber Elder Poelman came to Ottawa Canada around 1988 or so and he was very funny, as well as inspirational. I think maybe his character was a bit jaded at this time of his life due to being a widower, but I admire how he soldiered on.
I think you are requiring the Church to hold to impossibly high standards which nobody else has to. Just look at the advertizing on television and how they run slightly differing versions – ostensibly to test their effectiveness. Live TV news stations often have a multi-second lag to bleep out problems. It is all part of the business now, and usually runs so seemlessly that nobody notices. But at General Conference there is no lag so problems at times do show up. It is to their credit that the Church has posted all the talks from the early 1970’s on, warts and all. The publishing of the Joseph Smith Papers is also something that might be twisted and distoirted as well, but to their credit they have not altered them. You guys are the proverbial straining at gnats but swallowing camels.
Ronald E. Portman was one of the finest men I have ever known. His courage to speak his convictions regarding free agency without fear of censorship inspires many of us to this day— long after he was corrected and asked to sanitize his original talk that displeased church officials. Surely he remains an example to all who desire to live an examined life. That he was chastised on any level demonstrates how afraid the church leaders are to allow free discussions that encourage honest debate among it’s members. All “doctrine” is rhetoric. The church changes its own policies when it feels the urge to reign in its members, especially the ones who dare give voice to feminism and to those who support gay rights. Free agency and how to enforce it— a better topic of discussion that is far more honest— is what the church really insists upon. Members are expelled for thinking and speaking outside of the narriow confines that imprison “fold” intellectually. Why do these men fear losing their members? There is the real question.
Gaining a testimony of the restored gospel is not an easy thing to do. However, magnifying that testimony through an apostate Church requires a lot of pondering, a lot of study and a lot of praying, with a truly penitent heart. In the spirit of searching out the truth, I have sought these answers, whilst navigating through the limitations of the inevitable apostasy that Paul prophesied of in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.” I should also point out, at no stage have I gone inactive, in any way whatsoever, but truth I shall seek and will favour no man or woman in search of it. I would say, the path I walk, the testimony I bear and the course that I navigate is like walking upon a razor’s edge amidst a storm-tossed sea raging on either side. For it is through this image of my discipleship that I have had it revealed to me that whosoever sincerely seeks to labour in the Lord’s vineyard is someone that I can greatly love as a true brother or sister or a beloved son and daughter of the most high God. Knowing this truth enables me to see through all their politics, prejudice and general limitations, in seeking to gain a transcendent and visionary understanding of this marvelous work and a wonder: the plan of salvation and the atonement.
I would also add, the heart of the apostasy is the Church’s alignment with and allegiance to the Anglo-American, Corporate Empire, which is the latter day incarnation of the Gadianton robbers that operate through the secret combinations. Moreover, we will never have the law of consecration revealed to us all the time this false narrative and mind-controlled paradigm prevails amongst us. Whereas the true indication of discipleship is an ever increasing capacity to show and manifest unconditional love. And this is why it feels like one is walking along a razor’s edge, cos you’re really taking on the powers of evil and darkness with a soaring testimony of all that is true.
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