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As Mormon women gathered for a general Relief Society meeting in September 1995, no one was expecting to hear then-President Gordon B. Hinckley announce what he said was a latter-day "proclamation," a carefully worded document defending traditional male-female marriage.

And few could have predicted how lauded — and, in some quarters, lamented — "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" would become in the two decades since; how often it would be quoted from an LDS pulpit, in court cases and even at the Vatican; or the central role it would play in debates about same-sex marriage.

Who, too, could have guessed that millions of Mormon homes would have framed images of the iconic text on their walls like statement art?

After all, in its 185-year history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had issued only four proclamations before "The Family" — and the previous ones were largely unknown to most members.

What, those listening on that fall evening wondered, is a proclamation?

Sure, it spells out the Utah-based faith's longstanding views on the eternal importance of marriage between a man and a woman, on roles for husbands and wives, and on the family as central to God's plan for humanity. It also declares that gender is an essential and eternal aspect of identity and that family relationships can persist beyond the grave.

The proclamation was signed by the church's highest governing bodies — the three-member First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The document doesn't mention never-married, divorced, childless or gay Mormons, saying only, "Disability, death or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation."

Those omissions have an increasing number of Latter-day Saints wondering how they fit into the model.

So, is the proclamation's specific wording a revelation, scripture, prophecy, creed, wise advice, official doctrine or just a concise summary of Mormon teachings?

LDS apostle M. Russell Ballard called the proclamation "a prophetic document," not only "because it was issued by prophets but because it was ahead of its time."

In 2010, the late Boyd K. Packer, then senior apostle, said the 1995 statement "qualifies according to scriptural definition as a revelation."

That descriptive phrase was later removed, leaving the proclamation described as "a guide that members of the church would do well to read and to follow."

How it came to be • The notion of writing a single document to detail LDS teachings about the family arose from reaction to U.N. conferences on women, especially meetings in China and Egypt.

"Some of our people were there. I read the proceedings of that," Packer told Mormon educators at a Church Educational System gathering in 2003. "It was at a conference on the family, but marriage was not even mentioned."

Those were the same U.N. confabs that propelled the late Brigham Young University law professor Richard Wilkins to join forces with the Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in creating the World Congress of Families.

The LDS Church's Relief Society became one of the group's sponsors and several high Mormon officials spoke at its international conferences. When the group meets in Salt Lake City later this month, apostle Ballard is on the program.

The congress was seeking to counter U.N. positions that it viewed as "anti-family," the Howard Center's Allan Carlson said at the time. "In recent years, the human family has been ignored and abused, particularly in certain international assemblies. We are trying to make a positive case."

Meanwhile, the fight to legalize same-sex marriage was heating up. Activists in Hawaii and other states were launching a push.

Ultimately, it is unclear whether the proclamation was prompted by legal, social or religious concerns. What is evident is that the faith's female leaders, who would be speaking at the 1995 general Relief Society meeting, were not involved.

"The Relief Society [general] presidency was asked to come to a meeting. We did, and they read this proclamation. It was all finished," the late Chieko Okazaki told Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. "The only question was whether they should present it at the priesthood meeting or at the Relief Society meeting. It didn't matter to me where it was presented. What I wanted to know was — how come we weren't consulted?"

Okazaki, then first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, wished the male leaders had sought her input.

"As I read it," she said, "I thought that we could have made a few changes in it."

Since then, affirming the family proclamation "has become a proof of loyalty, one that General Conference speakers have seized upon," said Christian Andersen, an LDS researcher in Carlsbad, Calif., "citing [it] nearly three times more than any verse of scripture since it was first read."

So why did it become so prominent among Latter-day Saints?

A ubiquitous presence • Before the document became a Mormon household word, Bonnie L. Oscarson, president of the church's Young Women organization, said in March, not many members realized "how very desperately we would need these basic declarations in today's world as the criteria by which we could judge each new wind of worldly dogma coming at us from the media, the Internet, scholars, TV and films and even legislators. The proclamation on the family has become our benchmark for judging the philosophies of the world."

Rosalynde Welch, an LDS writer and blogger in St. Louis, echoed that sentiment.

The proclamation is "quasi-scripture clearly written in modern English and addressed directly to modern lives," Welch said. "That's a rarity in the LDS canon, which is rendered in archaic English and its doctrine is often entangled in remote historical circumstances."

There also is the sense, especially during the past few years, she said, that the LDS Church "is entering a wilderness period where it will be estranged from mainstream American social norms in new ways."

Welch believes that the proclamation "is 'prophetic' in the Old Testament sense of the word: as an increasingly marginalized voice bearing an unpopular warning."

Philip Barlow, Leonard Arrington chairman of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, is also aware of modern dangers and applauds the LDS Church's efforts to promote and protect the idea of families.

"There really is an enhanced threat to intact families in contemporary culture," Barlow said. "One does not need to be LDS to understand that a rise in broken families has consequences, including lower rates of education for children and increased rates of poverty."

As with other aspects of religion, however, it is possible to take "a lovely principle of eternal relationships," Barlow said, "and transmogrify it into a species of idolatry."

In the early LDS Church, the scholar said, Mormons — as well as lots of other Americans — had a "wider sense of family" that included, for example, multigenerations, adoptions and biologically unrelated friends.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith was all about relationships, Barlow explained. "Melding, fusing, linking, sealing, binding — these became critical to his theological vocabulary in the last years of his career."

The LDS leader, who was murdered in 1844, didn't have a "small notion of family," the USU historian added, "so contemporary Mormons need to ask ourselves: Are our modern ideas a shriveled, constricted version of his vision?"

Still, some see subtle wording that moves the LDS Church away from its own past statements.

For example, there is no mention in the proclamation of birth control or the need for big families.

"Though highly conservative, the language of the proclamation broadens the acceptable limits of the ideal LDS family," Claudia Bushman wrote in her book "Contemporary Mormonism." "Within its parameters is the assumption that sometimes two incomes may be necessary and that creative solutions where partners 'help one another' to raise and teach children may be needed."

Whether the proclamation is revelatory or reactionary, most observers believe, it is likely to play a key role as Mormonism rolls into the future.

Twitter: @religiongal

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