LDS Perspectives, Episode #57: The Evolution of Temple Doctrine

Sarah Hatch and Jennifer Mackley

Host Sarah Hatch discusses Jennifer Mackley's book, Wilford Woodruff's Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine. Jennifer, now our Executive Director and co-founder of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation, explains how her mother introduced her to Wilford Woodruff's vision of the Founding Fathers in the St. George Temple, and how her interest grew from there.

Transcript

This is not a verbatim transcript. Some grammar and wording has been modified for clarity. 

 

Sarah Hatch: Hi, this is Sarah Hatch, and I am excited to sit down with Jennifer Ann Mackley, Wilford Woodruff expert and aficionado and author of Wilford 

Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine. Sister 

Mackley was trained as a temple worker twenty-seven years ago and has 

served in the Provo, Washington, DC, Chicago, Seattle, and Salt Lake 

temples. She began her research into the development of LDS temple 

doctrine in 1997 and published Wilford Woodruff’s Witness in 2014. Her 

work has been quoted by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher 

Ulrich in her book A House Full of Females

Jennifer is an attorney and lives in Seattle, where she and her husband are raising their three children. Welcome. 

Jennifer Mackley: Thank you very much, Sarah. 

Sarah Hatch: I’d like to first start with Wilford Woodruff, as his name is in the title. Why Wilford Woodruff’s witness? 

Jennifer Mackley: That’s a great question. Do you want the long version or the short version? Sarah Hatch: Oh, the long version. 

Jennifer Mackley: It is a story that began with my mother. She’s the one that introduced me to his experience in the St. George temple, which is I guess, a famous or 

notorious story. I was curious about the women, because there have been 

books and articles written about the men — the eminent men that he 

describes (the founding fathers are well known). But nobody had written 

one about the women. 

I wanted to learn more about them — not to write a book, just to learn 

more about them. It was in starting to study those women that I started to ask, “Why Wilford Woodruff?” So it became more an understanding of 

the history to put that experience into context. In order to do that, I had 

read everyone else’s writings and interpretations — and I found out that

Episode 57: The Evolution of Temple Doctrine 

they were wrong, because the women didn’t appear to Wilford Woodruff. To discover what really happened, I had to go to the source. 

As an attorney, for me, the primary source is the best — not the hearsay or the interpretation. And not just the primary source, but a firsthand witness contemporaneous to the experience. So I began reading Wilford 

Woodruff’s journals, then discovered that he’d given over 3,200 

discourses in the course of his church service and wrote more than 11,000 letters. The theme through it all was the salvation of his family — of every person on the Earth. That was the focus. I’d always heard about him as a 

great missionary — all the years that he’d spent and then his devotion to 

missionary work for the living. But for him, it was to every living soul, 

which meant on both sides of the veil. 

When I initially began writing down what I had learned as I researched, 

the first publisher approached me to publish it as a book. Their proposal 

was, “Can we just take Wilford Woodruff out of it and just stick to the 

facts, the doctrine?” I had to regrettably decline their offer to publish, 

because it has to be his story. He was the witness from the beginning to 

the end. And it wasn’t just because he outlived Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, but because he was instrumental in the development, in the whole course of events that occurred. He brought it full-circle to the end. 

Sarah Hatch: I have to say, the early life of Wilford was fascinating to me, from how his childhood near-death experiences shaped his faith to him living to ninety 

and serving as the prophet the last ten years of his life. What are some of 

your favorite fun facts or stories regarding his life? 

Jennifer Mackley: He is a fascinating man, and I’m sure that if I studied John Taylor or Brigham Young for fifteen years, I would appreciate them as well. But 

after having said that, Wilford Woodruff was unique to me, not just 

because of the crazy things that happened in his life — he broke almost 

every bone in his body, and yet lived to be ninety without a limp. He was a worker. Of course, he had to be an administrator as well, but he never 

stopped working. He was in his 70s before one of his grandsons could out hoe a row in the garden. (He was sad about that.), He was a miller growing up, and he worked hard at that, but also because he was a horticulturist and a gardener. He had orchards and was a farmer. To me, the fascinating part 

of his life was that he became an individual more than just a prophet. And I shouldn’t say “just” a prophet, but he’s a full person. To me, he’s like a 

Renaissance man. 

The things that made me laugh in reading his journal were things like 

when he was building his house in Nauvoo. Of course, they had to hand 

kiln the bricks and he said, “I flung over 5,000 bricks today. I nearly 

melted myself.” He would do that over and over again, where he would

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just put his all into something and the next day, say “I can’t even walk 

because I worked so hard yesterday.” It didn’t stop. He never stopped. 

Sarah Hatch: When we look to the history of temple doctrine, I was surprised at how incremental the revelations were. In Wilford Woodruff’s words, he talked about the Saints acting upon the light that they had. There was some trial 

and error involved, though, and there were some things that kind of seem 

odd and foreign to us now. What are some of those things? 

Jennifer Mackley: You’re right. When we talk about “line upon line and precept upon precept,” it wasn’t this grand staircase where one step led to the next and 

you could see the top of it and this goal that you were trying to reach. I 

kind of think of it like a puzzle: they were given pieces but they had no 

box — like we have the box with the picture on it so we know what we’re putting together. They had no idea. It took such incredible faith to take 

that step into the darkness. Of asking the question, first of all, and then 

acting upon the answer. You can see God’s wisdom in not showing the 

whole puzzle because it would have been overwhelming. I mean a 

daunting task that would have been so discouraging or so unbelievably 

complex that it had to be one step at a time. 

Some of the things that people are surprised at when they study church 

history are things like rebaptism. We think of baptism as this seminal 

experience, this moment in our lives when we make this covenant. We’re so young and yet we know it is part of the process. We understand that 

you take this step and you don’t have to know everything but you know 

enough to know that you can promise to God that you are going to do your best. 

Wilford Woodruff was rebaptized nine times! We think of rebaptism today only if you’re excommunicated and you are rebaptized to renew those 

covenants and start over again. But for them it was if they moved, if they 

were recommitting themselves to the gospel. Maybe it was before they 

went to the temple for the first time. That’s not something we do today. 

That is a surprise to most people. 

There were other ordinances that we are only promised today, that they 

actually received. People are concerned about that, as if they’re missing 

out on something. Polygamy is one that I’m sure many of us personally 

are grateful we don’t have to engage in. But still, that was something that came and went. And those are all, to me, not necessarily trial and error, 

but were a part of the process. The process was, like Joseph Smith did, to ask the question. For example, “How do we baptize?” Then in answer to 

that question the priesthood was restored. They continued to ask those 

questions and, once they had an answer to something like, “How do those who were born and then died before the gospel was restored, how would 

they be baptized?” and you find out about proxy baptism. But the next step

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was, “Yes, we do that, but how do we do it in an orderly fashion?” Then 

the next revelation comes about witnesses and recording baptism for the 

dead. Then the next step is, when you receive the revelations on 

endowment and the sealing; that men perform the proxy baptism for men so when they go to the temple, they can go through the proxy ordination, 

the endowment, and the sealing. 

So each step was a step in the right direction, but it was not a straight line. The detours, in my mind, were necessary because they had to have time to be baptized themselves and then to be ordained to the priesthood, and take that to the world. Then they could bring those converts back so that they 

would have the mass of people to build the temple and be able to be proxy for others. Then when the endowment and the sealing ordinances were 

revealed, to know, “We have people who have those ordinances and 

understand them, and can administer them — and we have people to even be sealed to.” There had to be enough time pass for there to be multiple 

generations in the church. 

Sarah Hatch: Could you give one example of how the ordinance may have changed from how they first did it to how we now observe it? 

Jennifer Mackley: I think baptism for the dead is a good example. To explain how it was received, to me, is an amazing story. And of course, every example I give has to be Wilford Woodruff because that’s the one I know. 

Wilford Woodruff heard about baptisms for the dead from his wife. So 

when you think about 1840 and Joseph Smith giving a conference address or a Sunday discourse, people in the audience were those who had to 

absorb this new information. Every one of these ordinances were 

revelations! I mean, we look back with this perspective of maybe some 

people think it was like the Ten Commandments and carved in stone, and everything was laid out and they could just follow this script. But that was hearing it for the first time. When Phoebe wrote to Wilford and told him 

about it, she called it “strong meat.” So this was radical doctrine. Truly, 

baptism for the dead changed the church and made it unlike any other 

then, and unlike any other now — and it was only the beginning. 

After this news was received by the Saints, they were thrilled because, like Wilford Woodruff, they had been introduced to the gospel and wanted to 

share it with everybody they could. For Wilford Woodruff, the first 

thought that he had was about his own mother, who had died when he was one-and-a-half years old. To think that he could do something for her, 

even though she wasn’t there to receive it, was the most thrilling thing that he’d ever heard. Then there was a new revelation, and another one. 

But those Saints acted immediately. The first one to walk in the river, she did it without Joseph Smith there — he wasn’t the one that performed the

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baptism. They went to Joseph Smith afterward to explain what they’d 

done, and he said, “Great! Sounds good!” There was no manual; there was no instruction. So they started to perform the baptisms in the Mississippi 

River. For Joseph Smith, the excitement was palpable and wonderful, then it was, “We need to make sure these are done correctly. So if everybody’s doing them in every river and stream, we need to go back and make sure 

that this is what the Lord wants.” The revelation received was, “You need to do it in a special place, and that special place needs to be the temple.” 

That was their motivation for building the temple. All baptisms were 

stopped until the font was ready. They finished the basement, finished the font, and started doing baptisms for the dead. Women were being baptized for men, and men for women. Again, they didn’t have detailed 

instructions. So then there was revelation that the witnesses had to be there to make sure that the instructions were being followed. They had never 

done this before. 

I can’t speak for the Saints in the 1840s, but even today, things are 

changing, and it’s hard to reconcile the perfect principles with continuing revelation, even. Yet, we believe in that, and we believe that God will give us what we need, when we need it. They kept asking, and we still have to do the same, because I don’t think we’ve got it all yet. 

Sarah Hatch: There were a few elements that were new to me: one being rebaptism, which we touched on, and the other being priesthood adoption. Could you speak on priesthood adoption a little bit? 

Jennifer Mackley: Priesthood adoption, I think, is the best example of how things had to change. Maybe I can best explain it by having you imagine that you’re a 

convert, like so many, who came alone. You were disowned by your 

family, or they didn’t gather with the Saints, or maybe you and your 

spouse were both converted, yet one of you decides not to be as committed as the other. So when the endowment is introduced, that’s something you can do as an individual, without any family. The sealing ordinance is 

introduced, and you can’t do that by yourself. So the idea that you want to be a part of that and be sealed into the family of God, that’s what they 

faced, those individuals who either didn’t have a spouse to be sealed to or parents to be sealed to in the church. 

The sealing had to take place in the temple, and the idea was that it was a “spiritual sealing,” not a physical sealing — it wasn’t a family sealing or 

biological sealing as we think of it today. But if you could choose to be 

sealed to somebody, you would want to be sealed to the most righteous 

person that you could be sealed to because your eternal life depended on 

that connection, that righteousness. So they would choose the prophet 

Joseph Smith or choose one of the apostles, like Heber C. Kimball, or 

Brigham Young.

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It was called “priesthood adoption” because you were being adopted into 

their priesthood line and that was the connection back to God. So the idea that Joseph Smith bridged the gap of the apostasy and the priesthood that had started with God, with Adam, up until Jesus Christ and His apostles 

— we had to get past that somehow to make that connection, and that was how you did it: through the priesthood. We think of sealings now as you 

finding your father and grandfather and great-grandfather and great-great grandparents. We connect that way, and we can do that now. But at that 

point, they only had one choice, and that was to find someone who was 

righteous that they could be joined with. 

That started in 1846 in the Nauvoo temple and continued until Wilford 

Woodruff’s revelation was received in 1894. The understanding by then 

was that there were multiple generations, members of the church that you could be sealed to, and that you could be sealed to your own biological 

family (or adopted family as in the case of those who were part of a family and were not biological, as my daughter.) They had been baptized by 

proxy, they had had endowments by proxy, and they could now be sealed by proxy. So multi-generational sealings didn’t begin until the 1890s, and that, in my research, was a surprise to me because we look at it now and 

think, “Of course that’s what you do.” It doesn’t make sense any other 

way. But at the time, they didn’t have that option. 

The question occurred in the 1890s, as it does to people today, “Well, 

what do you about all those sealings?” The answer is nothing. It didn’t 

hurt them to be sealed into/adopted into a priesthood line of authority. 

Those connections were made, but once they could be connected to their 

own biological family, they were — including Wilford Woodruff. He said, “We are to honor our parents, and we honor them by believing that they 

will accept the gospel.” People were afraid if they were sealed to their 

parents who had said, “I want nothing to do with the church. You’re 

disowned from the family for joining it,” that they wouldn’t accept the 

gospel in the Spirit World. Wilford Woodruff said, “Let’s give them the 

benefit of the doubt and trust that they will.” 

Sarah Hatch: Our current day understanding of sealings is quite different from the Saints' experience, especially when it comes to, as we say, our “eternal 

companion.” Would you speak to some of those differences of how we 

view it now versus how they experienced it? 

Jennifer Mackley: Sealing, as a concept, even in the church in Kirtland was completely different than we have now. It was limited. Sealing meant that you were 

recognizing a bond. In Matthew, the sealing power is the key to the 

kingdom of Heaven. We understand the phrase, “what is bound on Earth is bound in Heaven.” Sealing changed from sealing an ordinance — like 

sealing a blessing, which we still do — or sealing up to eternal life. Those are things that occurred before Elijah’s return of the sealing keys to Joseph

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Smith and before sealing was understood to be something more. So 

sealing an ordinance means that that ordinance is going to be recognized 

by God. 

When the sealing of individuals was introduced, initially it was understood the same way. It was simply a sealing of the marriage covenant made in a non-religious ceremony or a non-LDS ceremony. You still make that 

promise to each other. So initially, it was just sealing that promise so that God would recognize the promise that a couple had made to each other. 

But again, Wilford Woodruff was the first one to record that sealing was 

of an individual: the husband and wife, together, to each other. That’s an 

understanding that didn’t occur until the 1840s — the idea that you seal 

one individual to another and then you seal children to parents. That 

changed everything. It wasn’t just, “God is recognizing the promise that 

you’ve made,” but you’re actually bound together for life and for eternity. 

Some of the surprising things too were when Joseph Smith talked about 

baptism for the dead as “the welding link.” There had to be something that linked us together. You read that in the Doctrine and Covenants 128, and 

you think, “Well, of course. That’s the sealing power of Elijah.” But, in 

1840, the sealing ordinance hadn’t been introduced yet, so when he said, 

“That’s how we’re bound together,” it’s because baptism meant that we 

were baptized as brothers and sisters, as children of God, and we are part 

of His family. So of course we were bound together, but he had no idea 

that there were better things coming. We look back and can see it now, but it’s an amazing evolution of understanding and of blessings that they 

understood as a radical shift in their own thinking and how things would 

work. 

Sarah Hatch: When we look to the sequence of revelations and the introduction of different temple doctrines, would you speak to priesthood authority and 

the importance of the keys with the ordinances? 

Jennifer Mackley: Talking about the importance of the priesthood, Wilford Woodruff is a perfect example of someone who understood its connection to the 

ordinances. He was a scriptorian. He studied the scriptures for years, 

growing up seeking what he’d read in the scriptures — and he hadn’t 

found it. He hadn’t found a church that believed in all those New 

Testament doctrines and practices. He was a true believer in “By their 

fruits ye shall know them.” He and his brother Azmon were seeking 

together. He’d been baptized as an infant, but not by immersion. His first 

quest was to find somebody who could baptize him by immersion. When 

he went to the minister, he actually wrote him, and said, “Will you do 

this?” The minister said, “Are you joining the church? That’s great!” And he said, “No, I just need to be baptized by immersion” — so the minister 

was hesitant to do so. Wilford said, “Are you going to deny me this 

ordinance?” The minister said, “Okay, I’ll do this.”

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But when Wilford heard the gospel for the first time, he understood that he needed to be baptized, not only by immersion, but by the proper authority. That was something that he recognized from the scriptures. He wanted to do what Christ had done, and Christ had found someone with authority. It was a process for him in that regard, and it was the reason that he’d been 

baptized so many times. For him, he finally felt like he had done it the 

right way with the right person. That was something that he repeated and 

taught for the rest of his life. 

Sarah Hatch: What are some things that we can be cognizant of regarding historical context and perspective when we look to the development of temple 

doctrine? 

Jennifer Mackley: For me, this is the reason I wrote the book and is perhaps why I am so passionate about sharing it at firesides and with podcasts, and continuing 

to try to draw people into the context. 

I have children, and they don’t ask me questions. They go to Google. I 

have discussed this with people in the Church Historian’s office, with 

stake presidents, and even with apostles, to say, “If we don’t talk about 

this, they’re going to find the information out of context. Everything is on the internet.” 

I wanted to put the development of temple doctrine into perspective, just 

like I did with Wilford Woodruff’s experience in the St. George temple. 

That was a moment in church history that a lot of people are familiar with, but taken out of context, it’s an odd story. People write on the internet 

about it all the time, because “the founding fathers are Mormon now.” 

That’s how they look at it, which is not what we believe. We believe that 

everybody needs the opportunity to choose, and Wilford Woodruff had 

come to the point where he said, “I have been so focused on my own 

family that I didn’t even think about expanding this.” It was a revelation 

because he learned that it’s okay for us to help each other and that we 

don’t just have to focus on our own biological connections. 

Putting these things into context, to me, is vital to understanding church 

history and the truly remarkable revelations that occurred. If we don’t 

teach that — if we don’t talk to our kids about that; if we don’t put these 

things into context — then these revelations are odd and strange; they are parts of history that don’t make sense. I was surprised when I was doing 

my research — and I was just doing it out of curiously for myself — that 

there wasn’t a book out there that put it all in one place that you could read it. So many books only focus on Nauvoo or Kirtland or one ordinance. For me, it was that contextual understanding that made sense. 

I think it’s critical to do that and help ourselves understand why things 

happened the way they did — to understand that it wasn’t perfect and that

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they weren’t perfect. We certainly aren’t. But also, Wilford Woodruff, like Joseph Smith, with each revelation, said, “You don’t have to trust me. In 

fact, don’t trust me; don't take my word for it. Go to God yourself and get confirmation for what’s happening.” Then you’ll be comfortable with 

continuing revelation. 

Sarah Hatch: Although very integral to Wilford Woodruff’s life, I think polygamy is probably the least interesting. When we look to his family, the amazing 

and interesting thing is his desire to do family history work and then his 

revelations to go onward. What are some of your stories about the sheer 

amount of work that he did that you found interesting? 

Jennifer Mackley: You’re right that his desire, from the moment he was baptized, was how to share this amazing restored gospel with his family. He wrote letters to his siblings, to his parents, to his in-laws, and to his extended relatives to 

basically beg them to join the church and to share his testimony with them. The years he spent on missions doing that, his focus was on his entire 

family — and that meant those living and those who had already passed 

  1. He spent years doing the genealogical research, contacting everybody he knew, ordering books to find out their names. 

So when the St. George temple was built, that was the first temple where 

every ordinance was performed, but for both the living and the dead. 

Finally, he was able to do the endowments and the sealings by proxy for 

his relatives. At that point, in the 1870s, he had over 3,000 names that he’d prepared. Between the Nauvoo temple and the St. George temple, 

although they’d had the Endowment House, it was only for the living. 

Although they were doing sealings between 1846 and 1877, it was just 

couples; it was not families. Children were not sealed to their parents until the St. George temple was built. That’s why he was so focused, and that’s why he went to God to say, “I’ve got over 3,000 names. There’s men and women. I can’t do this myself. How do I accomplish this? What do you 

want me to do?” The answer was, “It’s okay to get help.” We think about that now and how we go to the temple and take any name, but back then it was an individual responsibility. 

Sarah Hatch: I found the material in this book timely. I’ve been endowed for a year now, and I didn’t know much of the history that you wrote about. As I 

read and began better understanding the story of how doctrine developed, I did gain additional context to the sacred ordinances in the temple. Because the temple is so sacred to our faith, we often hesitate to be specific 

regarding ordinances in the temple. How do you think learning more about the development of temple doctrine can help those preparing to go to the 

temple or those who are newly endowed? 

Jennifer Mackley: That’s a great question. It is something that we need to talk about so that it’s understood in context. We do hesitate, because every person who goes

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to the temple understands the sacred nature of it. It’s not something we’re supposed to reveal, in a sense, for several reasons. One is to have the 

experience of the temple — receiving the endowment is to be a spiritual 

experience. So if it’s something that’s talked about casually, discussed in a disrespectful way, or shared with those who would treat it disrespectfully or take it out of context — those are all things you need to be concerned 

about. But for me, it is something we don’t talk about enough. 

I just had a conversation with somebody a couple days ago about Boyd K. Packers’s book The Holy Temple. That’s kind of the line that’s drawn to 

say, “If he talked about it, we can talk about it.” I think you can discuss 

temple things in the temple with those who are there, but that doesn’t 

mean that you don’t talk about it in family home evening; it doesn’t mean that you don’t talk about it in Sunday school; it doesn’t mean that you 

can’t share it with your children. Read the book of Abraham and talk 

about those things that you’re going to hear again in the temple. The 

preparation is more than spiritual. You’re supposed to understand it in 

your heart and your mind, and that means doing a little homework. 

Think of the divine, incredible mercy of Heavenly Father to say, “No 

one’s going to understand it the first time. We need to be able to go back.” We go for ourselves the first time; we go for someone else after that — yet we benefit every time we go. My children have grown up with Wilford 

Woodruff and discussions about the temple. I don’t think they’re going to be surprised when they get there, and I don’t think anybody should be or 

that anybody needs to be. So yes, we need to discuss it respectfully, but 

most of all, we need to discuss it. 

Sarah Hatch: To conclude, would you sum up some of the most significant takeaways you’ve had from better understanding the development and the history of temple doctrine? 

Jennifer Mackley: I have been asked many times what I learned in my research. It’s hard to say after 15 years of reading and amassing 27,000 documents. The most 

significant thing or personal thing that I learned was that it’s a process that we all go through. The questions and the answers are available to all of us. We all have access to that revelation and to God, and it’s personal. To 

know that I have the same access — that everyone has the same access — to that process, and that we can trust that process, was the first and most 

significant personal thing I learned. 

The second was that everything we do — every ordinance we perform, 

every lesson we teach — is to help us return to God. We will behold His 

face at some point, whether we’re ready or not. The idea of the gospel is to prepare us for that. Initially, the early Saints hoped it would occur 

physically right then and right there. If we understand that it will 

eventually occur for all of us, then we know that every day is preparation

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for that moment in our lives, whether in the flesh or the spirit, that we will see God. What we can do to prepare for that is what we do to prepare to go to the temple. If seeing God occurs for us in this lifetime, then we are as 

blessed as Joseph Smith was. If not, then we have a little more time to 

prepare. They lived that every day. 

I learned a third lesson about just the faith to know that you can take a step and the light that you gain as you draw closer to God and it will illuminate the next step. If we truly believe that, then we’ll keep moving forward. 

Sarah Hatch: Thank you so much for your time. 

Jennifer Mackley: Thank you, Sarah. 

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