The Mormon site, however, has two distinctive features that separate it from others. One is its well-known free access to the LDS online genealogy library. The other is a declaration about the "Living Christ," which LDS leaders, known as the Twelve Apostles, placed on the web on Jan. 1.
The document serves two purposes: it underscores the Christian dimensions of LDS theology at a time when the church is assailed in some quarters as a non-Christian cult. And it helps solve the problem of what to do when leaders believed to be "prophets, seers and revelators" by the Mormon faithful--including both the governing First Presidency and Quorum of Twelves Apostles--become infirm.
Let me explain.
Because this document affirms what Latter-day Saints who grow up in the church are taught about Jesus, many of the web surfers who read it will conclude that it is little more than a summary of LDS doctrine about Christ. But a careful examination of the "Living Christ" document reveals that something more, something of signal import, is going on.
Its oath-like character indicates that this is not merely a description of what the members of the hierarchy presume to be true. It is not simply a Mormon Apostles' creed that begins with "we believe." Instead, this statement bears witness to what the Apostles know to be true. It is presented as a deposition, an affidavit of what its signatories have seen and heard.
What this means is that, although it's not identified as such, it is considered modern revelation. If Mormons follow tradition, this statement will have to be sustained by members of the LDS Church before it can be added to the Mormon canon. But there is no gainsaying the significance of the fact that the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have put forward something that will have far more meaning for the members of the LDS Church than a simple summary of LDS belief about Christ.
The Apostles' decision to place this message on the web is a reminder that the Prophet Joseph Smith made use of the popular media to place his revelations before his followers and the world in general. They appeared in the newspapers and periodicals of the 1830s and 1840s-the 19th-century counterpart to the Web.
But there is one thing that is clearly different about the appearance of this new revelatory material. Joseph Smith, the prophet, was the one who spoke for God in the church's early years. That pattern continued throughout the 20th century, even though revelation was sometimes the product of intense prayer and fasting among the Apostolic brotherhood. Apparently this was the case with the 1978 revelation announcing that all worthy men could be ordained to the LDS priesthood--but even so, that revelation was announced by the church's president, who is considered a prophet. Tradition dictated that it could only be added to the canon after it was sustained by the members of the community, but it was announced unilaterally.
The Apostles' new collective testimony may anticipate a shift away from that pattern. But the promulgation of this Apostolic testimony certainly reflects another shift in emphasis that has also been taking place in the church. Where once the Church President was the mainspring of authority, church teaching now places great stress on the LDS understanding that all 15 of the men in the apostolic hierarchy are prophets.
Perhaps this has always been the case, but the emphasis on the prophetic collective seems as new as it is fortuitous. Without removing authority from a particular church president as he becomes aged and infirm, this shift helps solve the church's so-called "gerontocracy problem."
And so we have it: the appearance of an LDS apostolic witness to Christ on the web that neatly ties up two of the church's knottiest problems. It shows the importance of Jesus to the Saints, and it foreshadows a new form of revelation for Mormonism's new age.