Two Responses to NYT Piece on Mormon Doubt

2013-07-23 Hans Mattson
Hans Mattsson with his wife. Hans is featured in the NYT piece on Mormons and doubt.

There’s been a lot of reaction to an NYT piece from this past weekend called Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt. The gist of the article is that a relatively high-ranking Mormon (Hans Mattsson) found out about Joseph Smith’s polygamy on the Internet and it shook his faith. The general idea is that the Church has a whitewashed view of history, but you can’t hide stuff in the Information Age, and so now people are learning all sorts of uncomfortable truths and it shakes their faith. First, because they didn’t know, but secondly and more importantly because they feel betrayed.

There’s absolutely some truth to the description, but there’s much more to it than simply “Mormons fear history”. My friend Ben Huff wrote an excellent response for Times And Seasons in which he outlined an overview of the context in which these problems have played out. Ben’s primary point is that the “whitewashed” view of the Church is coming from the Church’s standard teaching documents, which are documents that were designed to help the Church transition from a homogeneous culture located in the Mormon Corridor of the American West to an international religion full of converts who didn’t have family, social, or cultural roots in Mormonism. As such, the goal of these documents was not purely informational, but also to serve as an absolute bare minimum of shared information upon which to build the Mormon faith tradition.

Emphasis on bare minimum.

Much of the problem seems to arise from the expectation that anything that’s worth knowing would be in those core teaching manuals, but that doesn’t seem like a very realistic expectation. These are the manuals that are supposed to be used in every congregation around the world and–as any document with such a general audience must be–they are stripped to the absolute bare essentials.

This is highlighted in another response to the NYT piece, this one from John Welch. Welch lays out the fact that–far from actively hiding things like Joseph Smiths’ polygamy or the fact that he used a seer stone in a hat to translate much of the Book of Mormon–these things are readily available in a wide variety of Church-sponsored publications such as BYU Studies Quarterly and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

In other words, the Church didn’t put ambiguous and admittedly dismaying historical facts front-and-center in the standardized lesson manual, but far from a conspiracy to hide the truth, these facts (and many more) were freely available to anyone who looked.

And that’s where the debate is really going to hinge, at least among the Mormon community. To what extent where members discouraged or encourage to actually go beyond the lesson manuals and do additional research? To what extent where the manuals presented as a bare minimum (which is how I’ve always thought of them, personally) and to what extent where they treated as sufficient and, indeed, the only really safe sources of information? In terms of the theology, I think the answer is crystal clear: Mormons are commanded to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom”, and it’s clear from context (and historical quotes) that “best books” here refers to works outside the scope of the Mormon canon (D&C 88:118). But whether or not this teaching was actually emphasized is another question altogether.

My position, which I apparently failed to clearly articulate in my most recent Times And Seasons post, is that members are always ultimately responsible for their own beliefs, their own knowledge, and their own obedience. Some have seen this as a defense of bad behavior from Mormon leaders, but I’m not trying to excuse anyone. I just think the issue of blame is largely irrelevant. I think it’s obvious that Mormonism’s recent history has had some unfortunate strains of anti-intellectualism and that leaders have not addressed some issues as well as they could have, but I just don’t really care that much.

2013-07-23 10 Virgins

Rather than look backward, I would rather look forwards. The fundamental lesson I hope Mormons learn from this conversation is not “we need better manuals” (although it’s true that we do), but rather “we can’t depend on the Church to tell us everything we need to know”. That’s because, speaking practically, “the Church” is just plain old folk. It’s other people. At least, when we complain about how our leaders haven’t done their jobs, that’s what we’re saying. We’re saying that these other humans let us down. No kidding! People do that. Even the really nice ones. But the scriptures are perfectly clear on this account–see the Parable of the 10 Virgins–that in the end we must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling”  . (Philippians 2:12).

What I’m saying is just this: all disciples of Christ are fundamentally responsible for their personal relationship with Jesus. Friends, family, and official Church leaders all can and should help, but–as human beings–sometimes they won’t. When they do, they perhaps deserve blame. But that’s not the important thing, because no matter how much they perfectly fulfill their roles or screw up in the end we shouldn’t be distracted from the real point, which is that discipleship is our job. No one else can take that from us.

6 thoughts on “Two Responses to NYT Piece on Mormon Doubt”

  1. I’ve taught the Young Men, Sunday school to youth and young adults, Elders Quorum, and seminary. The truth is that there just isn’t time to talk about Joseph Smith’s wives and his occasional glass of wine at dinner or the Mountain Meadows Massacre. There are so many more important things to cover and talk about and these things just don’t even hit the radar.

    And why should they?

    Sunday meetings and the Liahona are about being spiritually uplifted and so naturally the focus will be on parts of the history and the scriptures that serve that. Does that lead to an overly rosy view of church leaders and history? Probably, but that’s not necessarily being dishonest, just having a particular focus for a particular purpose.

    When I come to church after a hard week, I’m just not that interested in hearing about all the controversial things Brigham Young said. I want to re-engage myself with faith and mercy and Christ.

    I could see these issues coming up appropriately in an Institute class and I think the manuals could be improved to give a more complete perspective on church history. But it sounds like the the church is steadily making its history more open and accessible and that’s definitely the way to go.

    I love that we aren’t commanded in every little thing but, rather, given general commandments and expected to use the physical, intellectual, and spiritual faculties God has given us to figure the rest of it out. It’s both just and merciful.

  2. Nice article. I think you make good points about the responsibility being ours to learn. Real learning requires independent initiative on our parts anyway, I think. Even if the Church started expanding the canon and giving us “more information” to master or consume, I’m not convinced the membership would be all that much better off. We need to explore on our own to really learn.

    I think I’d add to the end of your first paragraph a “thirdly” (which may not have been spelled out enough in the NYTimes article) that says “because no one is telling them how to deal with this stuff when they actually do find it out.” I mean, even I don’t really know how to deal with Joseph marrying a 14 y/o girl without Emma’s permission.

    I know it’s a little much to expect the church to drag out all of its skeletons for prospective members to see, handle, and hold up in the light, but for a church that locates so many of its claims in its own history (the first vision, restoration of priesthoods, ordinances, etc) and its own prophetic authority, it seems like there’s something wrong when it’s not making some space in the manuals for an introduction to its own historical problems. In other words, I agree with you “that members are always ultimately responsible for their own beliefs, their own knowledge, and their own obedience,” but if someone gets baptized because they have a witness that Joseph was a prophet (and that’s what the missionaries tell them they need), shouldn’t there be a lesson that explains how he was both a prophet and marrying a 14 y/o girl without Emma’s permission (or at least a lesson on prophetic fallibility with some other really challenging case studies)?

    For me the big question is, if there are facts about the Church that would make it hard for someone to stay in the church when they learn them, is it okay for the Church to never actively (“actively” is an important word, I think) teach them what those facts are or how to deal with them? Granted, I can understand waiting a while by, say, teaching it in Gospel Doctrine, but, on the other hand, for the Church to never actively make this stuff easy for people to find (and deal with), feels a little like a salesman who selectively leaves out certain of his product’s faulty features in order to close the deal. I mean, I get that Joseph Smith isn’t exactly a “feature” of the Church, but when so much rests on his experiences, his revelations, and his teachings, he sort of is. I don’t know. What do you think?

    *Btw, I keep citing Joseph’s polygamy and the girl he married, but I think we could substitute for it most any of the questions in the article (Abraham, Blacks and the priesthood, etc)

    Anyway, yeah, nice article. I’ll start checking back here to see what you’re up to. Didn’t realize you were such an active blogger :)

  3. Nice post, Nathaniel. And nice comments, Bryce. I agree with Bryce that the absence of certain information in our missionary efforts sometimes can feel like a salesman’s approach. What to do about it? I’m not sure.

    I was actually very glad on my mission when investigators had come across troubling information because then we had a reason to talk about it, and I felt like they were making a more informed decision. One 26-year-old black woman who had been raped as a teenager asked us point blank about polygamy and the priesthood restriction. I couldn’t reproduce the conversation if I tried because there was something remarkable about it, but we showed her the Manifesto and the Official Declarations. And she did get baptized.

    So I don’t necessarily want to bring up historical challenges, but perhaps the availability of all of this information is actually a good thing for the Church. At any rate, I’m not afraid of it. Also, I don’t believe in the “inoculation theory” (or the idea that we have make sure that people hear about the problems first from the Church) because such a strategic necessity would imply that truth is not on our side, that you have to make people immune to the actual truth out there in the dangerous world and keep them in a blissful but make-believe, protective bubble. Still, people shouldn’t feel betrayed.

    By the way, I met Rachael at the 2011 Gold Plates Summer Seminar.

  4. Bryce-

    For me the big question is, if there are facts about the Church that would make it hard for someone to stay in the church when they learn them, is it okay for the Church to never actively (“actively” is an important word, I think) teach them what those facts are or how to deal with them?

    I think it’s a good question, and I also think that it’s one that we ought to keep in context. The Church does make important historical claims, but so do all religions. Christians that Christ died and was resurrected, Muslims that Allah dictated the Qur’an to Mohammad, Jews that Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt to take possession of the Holy Land, etc. All these religions also deal with similar problems, such as the bad behavior of their founders and/or early followers. The Old Testament describes Hebrew genocide of local tribes, Mohammad’s youngest wife was 8, and what Christian really wants to stand by everything Paul had to say about women?

    In other words, what I think the Church ought to focus on is not necessarily the specific issues per se, but rather the broader struggle of maintaining faith in a world that is not conducive to naive trust.

  5. Elizabeth-

    So I don’t necessarily want to bring up historical challenges, but perhaps the availability of all of this information is actually a good thing for the Church.

    I definitely think that it is. I think that it’s forcing us to mature as members and seek greater spiritual independence. (I see that independence as a prerequisite rather than an alternative to spiritual community, by the way.)

    To me the whole issue of faith crises is a sign that we–not just Mormons but human society in general–are growing up. I wrote a little more about that for Times And Seasons last week.

  6. No contest regarding church manuals to establish uniform doctrines. But if I search about polyandry will it have information about JS marrying already married women? That JS’s translation of the facsimiles is problematic at best? No because the church does not want that information public ally available.

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