The two major denominations tracing their origins to Joseph Smith are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with over 11 million members, and the much smaller Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with 250,000 members. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, as of April 6, 2001, the RLDS Church will now be known "as the Community of Christ.... The RLDS name still will be used for some legal and official work." The article went on to state:
The RLDS and LDS churches share common terminology. Both have a First Presidency composed of a church president and two counselors, a Council of Twelve Apostles which helps administer church programs and organizational units such as Seventies, Quorums and stakes.
Scriptural canons of both faiths include The Book of Mormon and versions of the Doctrine and Covenants, along with the Bible.
However, the two churches have some radically different practices. The RLDS Church has ordained women as priests since 1985, while the LDS Church does not. The RLDS Church contends it has never banned blacks from its priesthood; the LDS Church did until 1978, when the prohibition was lifted.
"'You have to understand that the RLDS Church and the Mormon church share a 14-year slice of history [during Joseph Smith's lifetime], that's it. We separated in 1844 and have developed on entirely different tracks in all the years since then," McMurray said. (Salt Lake Tribune, April 6, 2001, p. A1)
RLDS historian Richard P. Howard explained the ways the RLDS Church sought to distinguish itself from the larger LDS Church:
To a greater degree than that of any other descendant of the early Mormon movement, the history of the RLDS Church in that early period [1800's] is the story of a people in search of their personal and corporate identity. The search for identity first occurred in terms of what might be called the "Mormon boundary"—that is, the RLDS Church tended to identify itself in terms of what it was not, by contrasting itself with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints... ("The Reorganized Church in Illinois, 1852-82: Search for Identity", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 61 )
Later in the same article, Mr. Howard observed:
At the initial conference of the new organization the following resolution was passed: "That this conference regard the pretensions of Brigham Young, James J. Strang, James Colin Brewster, William McLellin, William Smith and Joseph Wood's joint claim to the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints as an assumption of Power in violation of the Law of God and consequently we disclaim all connection and fellowship with them." Such an action clearly established the RLDS Church at its inception in an antagonistic position with regard to every other descendant of the original church. As if to further underscore that stance, it was also "Resolved that the successor of Joseph Smith, Jr., as the Presiding High Priest in the Melchisedek Priesthood must of necessity be the seed of Joseph Smith, Jr. in fulfillment of the law and the promises of God."
After 1852 there were several official attempts by the fledgling organization to persuade Joseph Smith III (who was born in 1832 and who was the only surviving son of Joseph Smith, Jr.) to accept his place as prophet. The record shows that at first he was repulsed by the idea, but that he responded to repeated importunings. On April 6, 1860, at a conference held in Amboy, Lee County, Illinois, Joseph Smith III was accepted and ordained as "prophet, seer and revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ and the successor of his father." (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 67)
Besides the RLDS rejection of Brigham Young's leadership, there are other differences between them and the larger LDS Church. The RLDS Church rejects the teaching of plural gods, polygamy, temple ordinances and the Book of Abraham. Richard Howard, RLDS historian, explained:
As the severe scrutiny and judgment of the nation and the world was turned increasingly upon the Mormons of Utah in those early years the RLDS Church was caught in the cross currents. During this period, the RLDS Church categorized a number of "Utah Mormon" beliefs and practices as heretical, even those which were originally common to both churches. For example, early RLDS literature spoke of the Book of Abraham being divinely inspired, a position long since abandoned. The doctrine of a plurality of Gods, given considerable support by early RLDS writers, is now considered scripturally unfounded. (Dialogue, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 69)
RLDS historian Roger D. Launius wrote about the changing character of the RLDS Church:
The movement of the church into foreign missions, its rise in income and economic position, the development of an organized bureaucracy, the increasing ecumenism, the concern with social issues beyond the church as never before, and a series of other changes arising during the decade all suggest a coming of age for the Reorganized Church. It progressed from a sect to a denomination with a vision broader than itself and it has rarely looked back. Whether the age drove the changes, prompting the church to react, or whether the church took the initiative and could have chosen to ignore what was taking place around it is a moot point. The Reorganization's traditional openness to Protestant religious influences probably aided in its willingness to move toward greater ecumenism. Several years ago Clare D. Vlahos described what could only be considered a tightrope upon which the Reorganized Church had tread since the 1850s as it both sought 'to be reasonable to gentiles and legitimate to Mormons.' In the 1960s the church began to abandon its traditional goal of "legitimacy" to Mormons in favor of a greater reasonableness to other elements of Christianity. That step was probably not conscious and undoubtedly those who began the process did not anticipate that it would extend as far, too far according to some, as it has. The turbulent era of the 1960s set the stage for the continuation of the shift from sect to denomination that has been so much a part of the Reorganization in subsequent years. For good or ill, the course marked in the 1960s has been followed into the 1990s. It was a critical decade in the maturation of the movement, a tumultuous, confrontational, bewildering and also exalting time in which the Reorganized Church fundamentally altered its structure and pattern of behavior. ("Coming of Age? The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the 1960s," Dialogue, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer 1995, p. 56-57)
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Stack observed:
Church groups used to be called "branches and missions"; now they are known as congregations. Leaders once called "presiding elders or branch presidents" are now referred to as "pastors."
Beyond that, several uniquely Mormon ideas have been rejected, said Sid Troyer, RLDS district president.
"As a child I was taught that the only way I could get to heaven (attain celestial glory) was as a member of this church," Troyer said. Now most RLDS have discarded the one true church concept. (Salt Lake Tribune, June 29, 1996, p. D1)
The president of the RLDS Church was always part of the Smith family. However, in 1995 W. Grant McMurray became "the first RLDS president who is not a direct descendant of Joseph Smith." (Salt Lake Tribune, June 29, 1996, p. D1)
Several years later Pres. McMurray stepped down and was replaced in 2005 by Stephen M. Veazey. The Deseret News reported:
The Community of Christ on Monday named Stephen M. Veazey to lead its 250,000 members.
A group called the Council of the Twelve chose the 47-year-old Veazey to serve as the church's president, who also carries the position of prophet. Veazey, president of the Council of the Twelve, replaces W. Grant McMurray, who resigned in December for health, family and undisclosed personal reasons.
McMurray did not name a successor, marking the first time the succession decision had been left to the leadership of the denomination, which has a shared history with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Veazey's appointment still must be approved by church delegates at a June meeting. . . .
James Slauter, secretary of the Council of Twelve, said, "As Brother Veazey's friends and colleagues, we affirm his gifts of visionary leadership, prophetic insight, humility, integrity, compassion, missionary passion and commitment to Jesus Christ. These spiritual gifts are accompanied by the wisdom he has gained through many years of experience serving and witnessing in many nations."
Veazey had been serving as the church's director of field ministries, a position that required him to travel around the world and work with established and developing congregations. He was appointed president at a time when the church's overseas membership is growing. It's membership in the United States and Canada, however, remains stagnant. . . .
Generally, church leaders have been successors of Joseph Smith Jr. and have served until their deaths. Veazey would be only the second person who is not a descendant of Smith to hold the position. (Deseret News, March 8, 2005)
While the RLDS Church still retains some of Smith's revelatory writings in their canon, they are not emphasizing them as they once did. The Salt Lake Tribune reported:
Both LDS and RLDS believe it [the Book of Mormon] is scripture. But in recent years, The Book of Mormon has been deemphasized among RLDS. ...
Some consider it a historically accurate book of scripture and faith, while others accept it as being an important part of the canon but not literal history.
[President] McMurray's view is that The Book of Mormon "falls outside the traditional standards of historical documentation and veracity." (Salt Lake Tribune, June 29, 1996)
In another article the Tribune reported:
The Book of Mormon remains a part of the RLDS Church's heritage, but the Bible has supplanted it as the faith's principal scripture.
"The Bible is probably an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, the Doctrine and Covenants a 1.5 and the Book of Mormon a .5," [RLDS employee] Spillman said. (Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 3, 1994, p. D3)
This shift has caused a great division within the RLDS ranks. Peggy Stack reported:
Nearly 15 percent of formerly active RLDS now attend "dissent congregations," possibly as many as 150 congregations, according to [RLDS historian Bill] Russell,... (Salt Lake Tribune, April 25, 1992, p. A13)