Monday, November 1, 2010

Reaction to the Labels Iron Rod and Liahona

In 1967 (the year I was baptized), Richard D. Poll delivered a sermon in the Palo Alto ward in which he coined the terms Iron Rod Saint and Liahona Saint. The sermon was reprinted in Dialogue and the Saints' Herald, and was also later published in the essay anthology A Thoughtful Faith (1986, Philip Barlow, ed.). What follows is the last of a four entries on the iron rod, the liahona, and impressions about Brother Poll's essay.

Brother Poll's response to his own 1967 article was published in Dialogue in 1983. Brother Poll summarizes one result of his original article, "The article did little, I confess, to make Mormons of the two tendencies feel more accepting of each other. Its most significant contribution. . . was to help make the Liahonas more accepting of themselves" (1983, p. 70).

Poll summarizes some responses he received, including defensive ones from self-declared Iron Rods and sympathetic ones from self-declared Liahonas. He then maintains his characterization and provides more texture to the differences between the two.

In a subsequent article, "Explorations in Mormon Social Character: Beyond the Liahona and Iron Rod", Jeffery Jacob (June 1989) attempts to categorize the social structure of the church even more by expanding on Poll's binary model. And I'm sure that others have also tried to characterize members of the church. (Frankly, I didn't get Jacob's article; it was far more technical that I was ready to try to comprehend.)

The key premise – and to me one of great value -- of Poll's analysis, however, was the faithfulness of both of his groups. They did not differ so much in the what but the how as it related to gospel living. He contends that both groups attend the temple, serve in the church in various positions, and attempt to lead honorable lives. He also notes that members of both groups also fall away.

In the end, if the symbols are to be helpful to us, I believe they are so personally. I can judge where I am on the spectrum, but I need not judge where someone else is. Recognizing that faithful members can be at either end or somewhere in between suggests to me that I can also be accepting of others as they are. It is not mine to judge someone's motives or even his or her actions. Even those called to judge do so within a relatively limited set of circumstances.

As a comment to my first post on this subject, one respondent said, "Creating dichotomies … seems to me more divisive than unifying, which kind of hurts the purpose of the Church." I agree that concentrating on differences is not always helpful, especially when we are trying to be "many members, yet but one body" (1 Corinthians 12:20).


  1. Paul,
    I've heard people use "Internet Mormons" and "Chapel Mormons" as a new divide. I have to agree with your commenter that these labels are too reductionist. I don't really believe in the divide. At best, I think, Liahona and Iron Rod describe how we approach the gospel in certain situations, but I think most church members vacillate between the two frequently.

  2. I am finding this series interesting.

    This post touches on symbolism, which is something that's interested me for quite some time, especially considering how it is used in religious worship and cultural interactions. One thing I've noticed is that symbolism is immensely powerful, but like most power it can be good or bad. Symbols can help us examine a concept in a new way, leading to greater understanding. They can also limit understanding if taken too far. Labels have a tendency to the latter, because most people take labels as definitions of rather than aspects of a person.

    In essence, if you label yourself a "Liahona" for example, you are likely to tend against using the word of God and towards going off of your own feelings. The same is true in the other direction. In reality, according to the doctrines of the Gospel, both have their place . . . not to be "vacillated" between, but to be used at the same time. Wielded together.

    The laws of God are better understood through the impressions of the Spirit, and vice versa.

  3. John and SR, I think together you raise a good point. There's a difference between symbols and labels. The first can illuminate a discussion (as far as the symbols go) but the latter tends to reduce the discussion.

    Chapel & Internet Mormons -- interesting dichotomy. More geographic than symbolic?

    My concern is at least as much for how the symbols themselves are interpreted (as I said in the second post, I think we attribute more to the Iron Rod than the text intends, for instance), but also for the polarization that binary symbols suggest.

  4. SilverRain--that's not really an accurate description of what Poll meant by "Liahona," and it's an unfortunately common interpretation. His major point is that, in fact, "Liahona" Mormons do rely on the word of God just as much as "Iron Rod" Mormons, although they tend to interpret it differently--Iron Rod and Liahona describe hermeneutic approaches, more than anything.

    John, the "Internet" and "Chapel" divide is getting at something completely different, I think. Dr. Shades, the obnoxious ex-Mo who introduced the terminology, meant
    "Internet Mormons" to refer to people who are well-informed about unsavory episodes in Mormon history, problems in textual criticism, etc. and "Chapel Mormons" to mean the poor sheep who only know what CES teaches them. It's an altogether uglier and deliberately more divisive classification scheme.

  5. Kristine, I think your description of Poll's intent is accurate. He makes clear that he does not intend to suggest either group ignores the word of God. It is more about how one comes to that word. And, as he says, both can be (and are) faithful as far as observance goes.

    But I think the point that labels (versus symbols) have the potential to divide in a way that the chapel / internet designation does (thanks for that explanation), which seems to be more value laden than just observational. I don't believe Poll intended to judge either of his groups as superior to the other.

  6. Sorry -- I sort of lost myself in that long run-on sentence in the beginning of the second paragraph. Should read:

    But I think the point that labels (versus symbols) have the potential to divide has merit, just in the way the chapel / internet designation does. The chapel / internet designation seems more value laden than observational.