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FUNDAMENTALISTS VOW TO RETRIEVE REINS OF RLDS CHURCH

Richard Price sees no end to the turmoil afflicting the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, unless its liberal leadership resigns or does a doctrinal about-face.

"We don't know exactly how we will get the church back, but we intend to do it," says Price, one of thousands of former or dissenting members, called fundamentalists, who want the church to return to its 19th century roots.Just as firmly, the faith's president says that while discontent among a small minority is regrettable, their departure from the main body has unified those who remain.

"I hate to say that it helps us, because it certainly does not," said Wallace B. Smith, RLDS president. "At the same time I would have to say that to the extent there is less contention, less day-to-day bickering . . . it could be advantageous."

Many of the issues dividing the American-born church's mainstream and between 150 and 200 dissenting congregations, called Restoration Branches, have been brewing for decades. But discontent rose sharply in the wake of Smith's announcement in 1984 of a revelation encouraging priesthood ordination for women.

"That was just the last straw because it was a very tangible issue," said William Russell, a professor at church-operated Graceland College in Limoni, Iowa, who is writing a book about the split.

The 243,000-member RLDS faith shares a common 1830 origin with the 7.3 million-member The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church. The Mormons followed pioneer leader Brigham Young to Utah after the death in Illinois of church founder Joseph Smith Jr. in 1844.

The RLDS Church was organized in 1860 by followers of Smith in the Midwest with his son, Joseph Smith III, as its prophet. Its canon of scripture includes the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, but its theology differs substantially from that of the LDS Church.

Sharp differences over the future of the RLDS church and interpretation of its past, including the historicity of the Book of Mormon and its author's visionary claims, have fractured many RLDS congregations and families.

Fundamentalists say the hierarchy has de-emphasized the Book of Mormon and ignored Joseph Smith's divine mandate to restore the true gospel to a Christian world fallen into apostasy since New Testament times.

Moderates counter that churches change with the times.

"The conservatives seem to me just to kind of want to freeze the church at a point they feel represents kind of an ideal . . . doctrinal position," Wallace B. Smith said. The RLDS majority believes that through divine inspiration, "gospel principles can be subject to further interpretation in order to meet the needs of a changing society."

That kind of liberal thinking, fundamentalists say, eventually will bring the RLDS into the World Council of Churches and further swell dissident ranks. Smith said there are no plans for such a move.

Since 1984, the conservative movement has grown to include some 20,000, a majority in the Independence-Kansas City area, according to a Price survey. Russell believes the figure is accurate and that fundamentalists make up about 15 percent of the regularly attending RLDS membership.

Through his Independence publishing company, Price has printed dozens of books, pamphlets and a 7,000-circulation magazine aimed at showing, point by doctrinal point, how the church is being led toward mainstream Protestantism by leaders who ignore or distort the faith's founding beliefs.

"It took 30 years for the hierarchy to inject this humanistic theology in the church, and we're prepared to wait even longer if necessary to take it back," said Price, who was expelled from the church in 1987, in part for his practice of running full-page newspaper ads challenging RLDS leaders.

Price, 66, said that in 1985 he and his wife, Pamela, were "inspired" with the idea that dissenting church members should not leave the church, but organize "restoration branches."

"The thing that made it take off was the actual ordination of women," he said, and the movement has been growing ever since.

Smith and other church leaders dispute the size of the insurrection but have acted decisively to quell it, seizing the chapels of dissident congregations and officially silencing rebellious elements of the lay ministry. In 1988-89 alone, 1,242 men were silenced or released from the priesthood.

"We have particularly expected our priesthood members to be supportive of our actions and not use the pulpit to oppose them," said Smith, 60, a former ophthalmologist who has been RLDS president since 1978.

The church's current $75 million temple-building project illustrates the distance between the church and its conservative critics. Scheduled to be completed in 1993, the 300-foot-high monument to world peace will house the faith's Temple School, a sanctuary, a chapel, offices and classrooms.