(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.