Did the Church Lie to Me? 

Some of my dear friends and family members Augustine-Quote– people I respect and continue to respect – have decided to step away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because these are people I care about and love, I’ve wanted to better understand their experiences leading to this decision.

These conversations have been important to me, and I’m grateful for the trust and vulnerability shown by several people who have shared their experiences.  In more than one instance, I’ve heard concerns from these loved ones that the Church had deceived them by withholding information about certain things in the historical record.  The shock and pain they spoke of experiencing upon learning some additional details from Mormon history was real and intense.

An accusation of dishonesty is a sobering claim and has given me pause.  As a serious contention, it is one that I think deserves equally serious attention and exploration. With one friend in particular, Mark, I’ve appreciated a chance to begin doing just this.  He is a thoughtful professional, a father and a husband – and now finds himself hurt and saddened in relation to the same institution he used to love dearly. As we explored some specific historical questions he had about the Church, I asked him one day, “so can you help me better understand what exactly you mean when you say that the Church wasn’t honest with you?”

This question isn’t a semantic one or an attempt to mince words. It’s a legitimate curiosity. We all know that how history is approached has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades – both within the Church and across secular scholarship such as American history.  And yet, in all the discussion about dishonesty and deception in relation to certain historical questions, there has been much less attention to what exactly we mean by these hot-button terms being used. Almost always, one primary view seems to be taken for granted:

Deliberate, self-preserving deception. In most cases, the conversations about neglected historical areas seems to take for granted that those involved in producing prior histories were deliberately lying in what was omitted – especially from popular accounts.  These leaders and historians do so, from this perspective, to maintain more control and power that they might not otherwise have.

More generally, people thus talk of efforts to “whitewash” or “sanitize” history – making it seem cleaner or simpler (or more liberal or more conservative or more Christian or less Christian) than it was.  For example, voices on the political left raise concerns with conservative efforts to portray American history as exceptional. And on the other side, individuals on the political right have raised concerns at another kind of re-visioning that supports the larger progressive story – e.g., the “suppression of any information about racism towards white people” and framing history in a way that makes all white Europeans look bad. Diverging accounts of Columbus are a particular illustration, with ongoing efforts to point out unsettling elements of his story, alongside others that emphasize positive interpretations of what unfolded.  Socio-political contests aside, even the history of baseball has been critiqued for its attempt to “sanitize” its history from the indiscretions of athletes like Barry Bonds.  Says one author, “A national baseball museum that fails to adequately confront the messy nature of the past…does its sport (and the pursuit of history) a grave disservice.”

Across society, then, it’s not uncommon to hear concerns about skewing or slanting or over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing certain aspects of history in some way.  The degree to which others involved in the organization (political, business or religious) are seen as being involved in this perceived deception varies widely.  In some cases, a whole network of leading individuals are seen as working together to withhold details that would undermine power, influence or wealth.  This is sometimes how large industries such as Pharma are accused of acting – and certainly how some talk about the Church.

Most often, accusations are directed towards a select few involved in the deception.  From this perspective, most people in the organization were not party to decisions of what to emphasize (or omit) – and maintained sincerely-held, positive intentions for their work. This is how I personally view Pharma these days – namely, that it operates with less self-consciousness than it needs, with a few (and only a few) appreciating the full extent of the institutional and public deception that is occurring.

Others see the Church this same way – as having consciously and deliberately omitted certain things and emphasized others in order to maintain certain kinds of power, control and authority.  To these individuals, the Church’s new efforts to make explicit certain historical questions are inadequate – representing “tortured” attempts to wiggle away from past deceptions.

I disagree. But I write not to deconstruct and disparage this position, but instead, to point out (and flesh out) what seems to me to represent another viable understanding of why the Church has previously not talked as directly about certain aspects of its history.

Unconscious, positive-intentioned framing. From another perspective, not giving attention to certain areas of history was never a deliberate or conscious attempt to misinform or deceive or “cover up” things.  Instead, editorial choices were arguably a byproduct of a widely-accepted (almost universal) approach to difficult matters among the previous generation. Whether it was domestic violence in a community or war stories from veterans, we’ve all observed how some difficult things for the older generation were assumed best to not talk about (or to only selectively speak of them). At least for painful issues, this seems to have been taken for granted as the easiest way forward.

That didn’t make that approach right or healthy – and we tend to think differently nowadays.  But the point here is, they did not.  That’s why my wife’s grandfather never spoke of his war-time experiences, and why family abuse was often simply unacknowledged.  The problems of these omissions are obvious, especially in the case of abuse.  But when it comes to dealing with painful personal questions generally, we may be too quick to judge.

From the vantage point of our modern therapeutic share-all culture, it’s all just too easy to scold those our senior for not being more ‘open’ like we are!  It sometimes escapes us how interesting it might be simply to acknowledge the intense and interesting generational differences at hand – including others:  As with classic literature, it used to be common to try and use history to inspire people by teaching lessons, virtues, character, etc.  Obviously, this intention is increasingly foreign to modern historiography, in its attempt to paint nuanced (and objective) pictures of morally complex people and situations. With the technological advances of the last decade, we also have an access to historical details that is unprecedented in any previous generation.

To ignore these kinds of cohort differences in the judgments we make of the previous generation would be to foist our own generation’s narrative on their own – reflecting what seems a patent ethnocentrism in its own right (‘judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture’).

This all becomes another way to understand why much historical work of previous generations can tend to over-emphasize the positive, character-building elements – without always giving equal attention to the messy, complex aspects of stories.  This is true in depictions of early founding fathers and of Church leaders as well. I’ve noticed how my own 22 year old brother, who passed away a decade ago, has already come to be talked about in our family with a sort of saintly glow (never mind that he was sometimes a little cocky, and rarely  called his fouls in basketball!) (:

Should it surprise us that this same selective framing shows up in previous histories of Joseph Smith or Thomas Jefferson?  Could it be that some kind of editorial framing is inevitable, depending on the standpoint of the authors?  My friend Jay pointed out that narrative studies have even “demonstrated that we all rewrite our history daily. Each new experience causes us to reframe our past experience and therefore see, understand, and describe it a little different.”

Given the rich unfolding of events across each era, shouldn’t we expect significant differences in the histories each generation produces? If so, could it be that not hearing in U.S. history class about America assassinating foreign leaders was a function of something other than being “lied to” by our American history teachers or the U.S. government?  Might we at least agree that the standards of acceptable history have changed significantly over time – and appreciate the benefits that brings?

University of Utah historian Paul Reeve argues that “The rising generation craves a more complicated narrative. Their lives are complicated; they are dealing with real struggles and real sins and a whitewashed version of the past with pioneers who only sang as they walked and walked and walked gives them nothing to identify with and sometimes even feels alienating. We can do better. We must do better.”

As quoted in a fascinating article by Peggy Fletcher Stack, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, Terryl Givens, co-author of “The Crucible of Doubt” and “The God Who Weeps” acknowledges that some Mormons may want to hear and tell stories about “exceptionally godly individuals … to make God real in their lives.”  But he added, “Many of us aren’t built that way. Many of us feel more disappointment, perceive more acutely human failings, feel more skeptical about claims to human godliness. … Such stories don’t seem real to those listeners, they seem misleading or made up.”

Melissa Inouye, history professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, is likewise quoted as encouraging movement beyond a “heavy oversimplification” that portrayals of individuals as “nearly perfect” (Think Nephi or President Monson!)  In contrast to what the columnist calls ‘excessive veneration,’ Inouye points out that “Even in small, episodic doses, ‘messy’ history is so interesting because it involves real people and real problems, with which everyone can identify. What we see when we learn all of our history is, as in the scriptures, a narrative of God’s dealings with real people as they make mistakes and try again.”

Could these historical improvements be something to be celebrated and relished?  And at the same time, might we show a little generosity with the editorial decisions of previous generations?

In summary, rather than being malicious, I would argue that certain emphases in previous histories (of the Church and elsewhere), reflect what scholars and leaders understood at the time as historical “best practice” in terms of its legitimate purpose and scope.  Rather than power-hungry men trying to white-wash things out of fear, this raises the possibility of white-haired men simply being a product of their age, and doing the best they could to guide the Church forward – this, despite some difficult things in its history.

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It’s at this point in an essay that I’m supposed to make it clear how all the rational, faithful and good-hearted people will surely see this question the way things I have!

But, of course, I can’t say this.  And I won’t – even if I may have wanted to do so in the past….

The reason for this is simple:  It’s because of Mark.  And Lisa. And Matt.  And Anna.  And Scott.  Friends who I find deeply sensitive and thoughtful – who have had differently life experiences and have come to see this same question quite differently.

Significant disagreement with reasonable people is now something I’ve come to expect. It doesn’t surprise me anymore.

In relation to these friends, my primary aim is not to have some kind of contest to ‘win.’  Even while still caring a great deal about the truth of the matter (and having my own convictions), I write here with a primary aim of contributing to a more thoughtful discussion about how we talk about these historical questions.

As that happens, both the understanding and intimacy between these groups of beautiful, thoughtful people (Mormons and former Mormons) can, I hope, continue to grow.

And that goes both ways.  I would hope my active Mormon friends will pause the next time they have a chance to talk with someone who has stepped away from the Church.  Before trying to respond with our own thoughts and feelings, maybe experiment with making lots of space to hear out the other person’s experience on a deeper level.

That’s something I’ve felt from these friends and family members who have stepped away from the Church as well.  To them, I would ask: Does this (above) seem like a fair distinction to make? Is it fair to make more space for the acknowledgment that our grandparents’ generation thought about history in a way very different way than our own?

If nothing else, perhaps we can agree that if we’re making serious accusations, we better have a serious conversation about the details of these claims. Unlike the political sphere, where accusations of deceptions fly right and left, perhaps we can be measured and attentive to what precisely we mean by our words.  And who knows, we might even start listening to each other in these conversations!

You gotta dream!

56 responses

  1. Holy crap! Of course the church lied and continues to lie. Gordon Hinckley went on national TV and said we don’t teach about becoming gods. Of course we don’t right? Right? Oh except for in the temple and every time we say “families are forever.” He also said that the the churches financial records are open to any member that wants to see them. If I’m mistaken please direct me to where I might view such records. It never ceases to amaze me how smug and flippant believing Mormons can be about blatant and outright untruths told directly or indirectly over the years. THE CHURCH LIED, LIES, AND WILL CONTINUE TO LIE ABOUT ITS HITLSTORY UNTIL ITS LAST MEMBER FINALLY RESIGNS OR DIES.

    • I’m familiar with the interview you mention. As I understand it, the question asked to President Hinckley actually focused on whether the idea that God was once a man is a “teaching of the Church today.” Although insinuated and alluded to at times, I’ve never heard it actively taught over the pulpit by any prophet in my day – perhaps because, as President Hinckley pointed out, we simply don’t know a lot about it?

      The other part of the John Taylor’s couplet – that we can become like God, is emphasized quite a bit – although that wasn’t the focus of the question (nor of his answer).

      I haven’t ever heard the claim about the financial records – but I’d be open to seeing it.

      I hope you see that I find these claims sobering – and certainly don’t feel in a position to be “smug and flippant.” This is painful stuff (on both sides, frankly).

      What would happen if both sides agreed to acknowledge this pain (and anger, and fear), etc – agreeing to meet each other as human beings, on a human scale?

      Mark has been challenging me to consider this. I, for one, am curious.

      • the financial comment is in the same interview. its not hard to find. they ask “why secret finances” he says “that information belongs to the tithe payers” . which, as you know, the church shares none of that, with a single member and hasnt for years. that seems like dishonesty to me. im glad you’re trying to listen, and glad youre trying to understand, but the church hasnt been honest with its members according to their own definition of honesty.

        trying to understand hurt members =a good thing to do
        trying to argue that the church has been honest = not a winning battle. they just haven’t. and if you have to tear words up and bend yourself in a million pieces to argue that they have been, that kind of flies in the face of your quote about lions.

        a plain reading of the scenario is that the church was piously fraudulent about a ton of stuff. they thought it was for the best, but they still covered stuff up, intentionally. they lied to the feds about polygamy, because they thought they were justified in it, for example. joseph smith was dishonest in his discussions about polygamy as well. it starts at the beginning.

      • You don’t seem to be understanding the essence of my argument, Pangwitch. Defending the honesty of the Church is not a “battle” that I’m attempt to “win” as you state – nor am I trying to ” tear words up and bend myself in a million pieces.” I’m simply pointing out that there is another way to interpret some of the non-disclosures throughout history, period. I’m not asking people to agree with this other interpretation – only to understand that it exists.

        What’s more, I’m not denying that there have been instances where information wasn’t disclosed (Joseph’s polygamy, for instance) – nor that we should defend the Church’s honest at all costs. I’m not interested in that either. What I’m arguing for, once again, is that there are different ways to understand some of these historical decisions to withhold information. And that arguably, a simple “The Church is a liar” cannot satisfy all (or most) of the nuances. I feel the same about people who accuse Obama of “just being a liar” or Bush or Pharma, etc. If we cannot agree that there are thoughtful, reasonable differences in how to interpret these decisions, then it’s hard to have a conversation that goes beyond the fight or flight (testify or attack) mode. Let me say that in another way: If no space is allowed for legitimate difference in interpretation, then it seems to be very few thoughtful conversations between Mormons and Post-Mormons have much of a shot…I’m wondering if that resonates with you, or not?

        By contrast, if we could agree that there is space for different interpretive stances on this all, it opens up lots of questions I’d like to ask.

        To your specific point, I’m curious was President Hinckley implying that all financial information would be released – or simply a general audit of sorts?

      • “REPORTER: IN MY COUNTRY, THE…WE SAY THE PEOPLE’S CHURCHES, THE PROTESTANTS, THE CATHOLICS, THEY PUBLISH ALL THEIR BUDGETS, TO ALL THE PUBLIC.

        HINCKLEY: YEAH. YEAH.

        REPORTER: WHY IS IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR YOUR CHURCH?

        HINCKLEY: WELL, WE SIMPLY THINK THAT THE…THAT INFORMATION BELONGS TO THOSE WHO MADE THE CONTRIBUTION, AND NOT TO THE WORLD. THAT’S THE ONLY THING. YES. ”

    • I am always amazed at how often a strongly opinionated person displays the same qualities as the person or group which they are attacking. Yes, there are many members of the church who have chosen their stance and will never hear or respect opposing views. To them there can never be anything imperfect in the Church. There are also many others who have already decided that the church is bad and so will always search for something wrong. The same can be said for politics and many other aspects of our society. The truth generally lies somewhere in the middle, but a great number of people on both sides will never accept open and intelligent dialouge, such as the above. How can you not see that your thought process is similar to the “smug, flippant believing Mormons,” but oriented in the opposite direction?

  2. “Presentism”, viewing and judging history and past generations from contemporary practices and values, is always an issue people have a hard time overcoming. Like looking at old hairstyles and clothing fashions. We love to laugh about the popularity of 70’s blue polyester leisure suits or 80’s big hair styles now, but that misses the point that back then you would have been laughed at to think they were ludicrous. I like how the author focuses on understanding this when judging the motives of past generations approach to viewing history. Bringing up Jefferson in the article was a great example. Do we reject The Constitution and Declaration of Independence after we find out about his affair with Sally Hemmings? Do we only show respect and honor historical figures if they happened to be anomalies of their generation and just happen to match today’s mores and values?

    • Thanks for the note, Kelly. I’ve never heard the term “presentism,” but I think you get what I’m saying.

      It’s in the political sphere that I most often hear accusations of lying – usually, these days, directed at President Obama. I generally don’t know enough to be able to gauge how often our leaders (politically or religiously) consciously stretch something. But when it happens, I’m definitely open to acknowledging and exploring it (including within the Church).

      For me, at least, this will be easier to do when I have relationships with people and a sense of safety in the exploration. To my mind, if we can take steps to deepen the quality of our conversation, our ability to explore this question and others will only improve. I think the same thing is true politically – e.g.,
      https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/jacob-z-hess/american-politics-beyond-angels-and-demons

      • Yes, absolutely. Safety is key. Some who question LDS doctrine/historical accounts etc are met with statements such as “you really do believe the Book of Mormon is true, in your heart” or “you must want to sin” or “Satan is leading you astray”. This is not a basis for safety or deepening the quality of conversation. I think it must be because to start from a place of being open to someone else’s perspective can make your own vulnerable, and that not a place most of us wish to visit.

    • Smith and Jefferson differ in that we are raised to believe that Joseph was a prophet and was basically perfect. We are told the story of brave young Joseph refusing the alcohol during his leg operation, but we aren’t told that Joseph and his fellow inmates all shared a bottle of wine the day he died.

      I’m hurt by the truths I’m learning reading Rough Stone Rolling, but I still regard Joseph as a prophet in his early years and the BOM as scripture. However, I am extremely distrustful of the church organization that spends billions of dollars building a shopping mall and condo tower but is too cheap to pay for professional cleaning service at its chapels. How can they ask people to pay tithing even if it means not being able to pay for rent, utilities or even FOOD!? I have a hard time accepting that the mouthpieces of God- who taught such horrible and racist things about blacks and other nationalities- are prophets, seers and revelators.

      The peep stone, the alcohol, the Book of Abraham papyrus and all the anachronisms in the BOM… I can live with those. I have a hard time with the leaders of the church who, as we are constantly reminded, are human too, but declare themselves above reproach and chastise those who criticize them.

      • Confused. that’s where it becomes so painful for so many members. To see deeply flawed decisions made but be told to toe the party line. the question then is are you going to go the way of Protestantism where you vote in your leadership. I think the real answer is a reformation that happened in 1852 for the church but focused at its leadership. I remember seeing in an interview elder ballard finally admit to calling on the heavens to bring rain in a drought and it raining . Make the leadership say when something is the divine will of the lord. Release things as revelations. And when not say we have prayed and we are left to our best efforts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_7jzM7kVmY

      • We could compare the two in that we believe that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were divinely inspired documents, therefore Jefferson was chosen by God to draft those documents just like Joseph was chosen by God to restore His church in that latter-days. So can inspired men do things that may be unseemly to certain audiences? If someone believes the Bible to be of Divine origin and the prophets therein called of God, then one has to accept that Moses murdered someone, but was chosen by God. Samuel told King Saul to kill all the men, women, children and babies. Noah got so drunk he cursed his son for mocking him for being naked. Jeremiah had so many false prophecies he called God a liar. Jonah was a jerk and sat to watch the people of Nineveh burn. Nathan told David that God had taken all the wives from one man and gave them to him. The point is, any of Josephs “transgressions” aren’t any worse than the men that have been canonized for thousands of years. Yet many members, both disaffected and active, insist on holding Joseph to an impossible standard. One that he didn’t even claim for himself.

  3. Sure we all try to make the best possible impression we can on our resumes and in job interviews. BUT we don’t get to fabricate our credentials.

    The church isn’t what it claims to be, no matter how much you want to wring your hands and parse the church’s words, its claim to revealed scripture, restored keys, priesthoods and divine authority is fabricated.

    To have real free agency you have to be able to question the church’s claims. If you can’t even think the hypothesis “The church isn’t true.” you don’t have free agency. If it’s an “unthinkable thought” that causes great emotional distress, you will be too filled with anxiety to really examine the evidence. If you want/need it to be true, you will find justifications and interpret the evidence in a biased manner. You are unable to test the hypothesis. (This was me for years. )

    That’s why there’s a historical method, rules for examining the historical record and creating a reliable history.

    • Of course I questioned the Church, that’s how I gained a testimony of it. Then I made a commitment to God because of what I knew. Like a marriage, we don’t know everything going into it but that’s doesn’t change our commitment. I know the Church isn’t perfect, but I know it’s true. It’s not easy to stay married, and it’s not easy to stay a member, but I thank God that I am.

      • I applaud your desire to be true to your commitments. But, to use your analogy, if you discovered that your new husband had neglected to mention that he had $250,000 in gambling debts and had fathered 6 children with 4 different women, you might conclude that you had made a commitment without all of the necessary information.

    • What to make of the Church and its claims are something up to each individual’s judgment. I think I agree that if people are so fearful of thinking otherwise or raising a question, there isn’t sufficient “agency” to really explore anything. Frankly, I think that applies to a lot of different socio-political and health questions today. Have a question about climate change? Or evolution? Or gay parenting? Or vaccines? Or whether a child should receive chemotherapy? Good luck finding the open space to explore that. And too often, religious convictions put us in the same boat.

      So in addition to (various) historical methods, I love the growing number of deliberative methods that help us put our heads together in the most productive ways possible. In the absence of these “human methods” we too often revert to the fight or flight DEFEND or ATTACK THE ATTACKERS modes.

      Your reference to a job interview is a helpful one, I think. Another poster said, “When I apply for a job I can write an honest resume without sharing every mistake we’ve ever made. If people want every organization to openly show every flaw, then the people complaining should do the same.”

      • “What to make of the Church and its claims are something up to each individual’s judgment.”

        This is an institution that enjoys a great deal of authority over the spiritual and secular lives of millions. That authority emanates from the Joseph myth. If a member concludes that any part of it is not of God, it undercuts the myth and is a threat to that authority. Trivializing it or ignoring it are acceptable, but not rejecting it.

  4. How else but deliberate lies do you get from Urim and Thummim with Gold Plates to interpret on the table to a Magic Peepstone in a hat with o plates nearby?

    • Jim, I agree. It is upsetting to learn what you’ve been taught all of your life, i.e. Joseph reading from gold plates to a scribe, is now his face in a hat looking at peep stones. Good grief! Since some are using historical figures to compare history, what if a president Lincoln had looked into his top hat to determine if abolishing slavery was worth a war to keep our country from being divided and men and women being enslaved?

  5. You’re hung up on the wrong thing. The issue isn’t a person finding out they were lied to. That is what starts the process and allows critical thinking to finally consider all the churches claims. Once your eyes are open, the jig is up. History may be one of the ways someone opens their eyes, but it’s what they see when finally open that makes them leave.

  6. When I apply for a job I can write an honest resume without sharing every mistake I’ve ever made. If people want every organization to openly show every flaw, then the people complaining should do the same.

    • I agree, but I also find it bothersome to read the extremely racist rantings of the apostles in the 1960s and then listen to modern apostles chastise people who are critical of “the Lord’s anointed.”

      I think our church history curriculum went too far in portraying JS and others as nearly perfect saints, and church leaders have acknowledged as much. I don’t think there was any malice intended when the curriculum was created decades ago. However, it is pretty jarring to grow up being taught that JS did more for the salvation of man than anybody other than Jesus, then learn he did some pretty terrible things. We think the worst things he did in his life were losing the 116 pages and the time he got mad at Emma and couldn’t translate.

      We weren’t told that Joseph drank alcohol throughout his life.
      We weren’t told that Joseph was a polygamist.
      We weren’t told that Joseph married women behind Emma’s back.

      In the church there is this obsession with exact obedience and the idea that the more exactly you follow the rules the more God blesses you. We are told repeatedly that we must suffer for our sins. I think if we portrayed a more accurate history of Joseph, maybe we would be a little more accepting and tolerant of our own and others imperfections.

      • Joseph marrying women behind Emma’s back (let alone his abusive manipulation of 14 year old girls to sleep with him using talk of drawn swords and threats of death) … isn’t that more than just “not being perfect”? The church today would not tolerate such behavior from ANY member …. why then not the same with Joseph? We’d never tolerate, let alone follow or venerate, such a person today … so how is it any different for Joseph? Such things were NOT acceptable then either, that’s why they kept them secret and lied about it in the newspapers of the day …. how CAN we rationalize this stuff?

      • Saladspoon, you’ve got some errors with the history of Joseph Smith’s sealing with Helen Mar Kimball. The sealing wasn’t Joseph’s idea, it was her father’s idea. Heber C. Kimball wanted to unite the two families. They were sealed but it was never consummated, and Helen lived at home with her parents. There was no talk of drawn swords and manipulation from Joseph. If anyone was coercive it was from her father, but that was for the sealing itself. Even Todd Compton, who has written extensively about Joseph’s plural marriages wrote, “there is absolutely no evidence that there was any sexuality in the marriage, and I suggest that, following later practice in Utah, there may have been no sexuality. All the evidence points to this marriage as a primarily dynastic marriage.” (Todd M. Compton, “Response to Tanners”)

      • To the points “Confused” raises, I think the revelations about more of the historical context behind the priesthood restriction DOES raise some valuable questions – and challenges for us all to explore, ‘Confused.’ I also agree that the church “went too far in portraying Joseph Smith and others as nearly perfect saints” – something that I point out above is easy for any of us to far into.

        Whether Joseph Smith actually did some “terrible things” is a judgment that varies depending on the historical interpretation we give it. His polygamous sealings are so interpreted in our sexualized culture as only meaning ONE thing – when, in fact, there are other ways to interpret the data that are legitimate and arguably most fair to the details and context.

        I actually quite resonate with your final paragraph about “obsession with obedience.” Thanks again for sharing here in the comments. I find you quite thoughtful.

    • You mean like when apostles teach things like this (from Mark E. Petersen):

      “Let us consider the great mercy of God for a moment. A Chinese, born in China with a dark skin, and with all the handicaps of that race seems to have little opportunity. But think of the mercy of God to Chinese people who are willing to accept the gospel. In spite of whatever they might have done in the pre-existence to justify being born over there as Chinamen, if they now, in this life, accept the gospel and live it the rest of their lives they can have the Priesthood, go to the temple and receive endowments and sealings, and that means they can have exaltation. Isn’t the mercy of God marvelous?”

  7. I was never at peace with church history until I left the church. I used to be ashamed or apprehensive of early church figures and history. Now, I actually admire and appreciate what I used to find intellectually painful to think about. Church history is wonderfully colorful and instructive. It is full of superb, intelligent, courageous characters who came from nothing and overcame tremendous obstacles to achieve unbelievable successes. I am more a fan of church history than I ever was before.

  8. Curious as to where you would place 14 year-old bride in your definition of presentism. How about Mohammed’s 9 year-old bride? I mean if we are trying to relate on a human level I have 3 daughters that all would be married if the past were the “acceptable” thing. BTW. There were 14 year-olds who got married then but they represent 1% of all the marriages. Now ask yourself how many of that 1% were to adults 35 and older?

    • Presentism falls easily into the 14-year-old girl issue. For example, the age of consent in the 1800’s was 12-years-old. Today it is 16-18 depending on the state. Today it’s against cultural norms to marry girls in their early teens, but it wasn’t uncommon in the 1800’s. When Martin Harris married his wife, Lucy, he was 25 and she was 16. Today, people would freak out, but not only was that not scandalous in the early 1800’s, Martin was elected to public office. William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) was 37 and his wife was 16. Edgar Allan Poe was 26 when he married a 13-year-old. Thomas Edison was 24 when he married a 16-year-old. John Milton (who wrote Paradise Lost) was 34 when he married a 17-year-old. Another example from history is Mary the Mother of Jesus. She was 14 when she carried Jesus and likely 15 when she bore him. Joseph, depending on the source, was either in his 20’s or 50’s when they married.

      Sealings to young girls weren’t the norm, and it was the custom to not consumate the sealings nor for the girl to live with the husband until they turned 18. All evidence points to Helen Mar Kimball’s sealing to Joseph never being consumated. And she never even lived with Joseph. He was killed before she turned 18. She lived with her parents (the sealing was her dad’s idea btw to link their two families) and married someone else later on.

  9. I absolutely loved this article, thanks Jacob! I think I especially appreciated the fact that the author chose to focus solely on the different ways that history can be presented rather than attacking individual issues people have with Church history. I love how they pointed out that this is a problem with reporting history as a whole and is not a uniquely LDS issue.

  10. This is a nice sentiment, and I understand what you are doing, I think. But you are rather misguided (also my opinion). Until you understand ALL the issues, it’s intellectually dishonest to say, “well, things are different, they were just being positive, etc, etc”. With little research, it becomes apparent that the Book of Mormon is a fabrication. That means Joseph made it all up. Plain and simple. For example, if there is even one anachronism (or item that didn’t exist in that place at that time) in the Book of Mormon, any historian would declare it false. Conjure up all the apologetics you would like. It’s still false.

    Let’s say I came to you and said, “I have here the journal of George Washington!”. You read through it believing it’s real, because of what was written and how it was written. Then you come across something that clearly didn’t exist in his time. Let’s say he spoke about taking a train. That was the only error in the book that indicates its lack of authenticity. You would be able to conclusively determine that “journal” to be a fraud. No questions, no “well, it was just the one completely impossible item…”. It’s fabricated, erroneous, fraudulent. That’s it, that’s all. It really is as clear cut as that. And that is just ONE way we can prove the BOM was made up. Horses? Iron? The list goes on.

    Now I’m sure you are cursorily aware of a few of the issues. Good. Learn about them all. It’s all available in church approved materials, if you look hard. Read the church essays that were recently created. You seem like you want to understand the struggle of Mark and others. You cannot, and will not, until you study the issues. It’s not a positive spin, without intentional deception. Joseph made it up. Whether he was just trying to do good, give people hope, he was nuts and actually believed it, or he was just looking to get busy is irrelevant. An honest person cannot continue to support the institution he created when there is overwhelming evidence that its all make believe. The problem is, we have been taught and conditioned not to look, not to think about the hard topics for ourselves.

    I know of the pain you speak. I know the struggle these people feel when they discover the things I’m talking about. I know about the nights spent crying yourself to sleep. Days of anxiety, moments of terror wondering if your eternal salvation was at risk because you have legitimate questions about the church, its doctrine and history. There’s no real forum for that in person. Discussing those things is not encouraged. I know, I was there. It was akin to losing. A very close loved one at that. Maybe worse. It’s who I was. And I appreciate that you aren’t there yet. But just the fact that you care enough to write something like this, means you very well may be someday. Maybe you make it there, maybe you don’t. Either way, I hope you continue to be loving and listen to those with doubts, and encourage others to do the same.

    • I definitely will continue to listen, Peter – and enjoy my loved ones who don’t see the Church the same way. In company and collaboration with Mark (and others), some exciting things are starting to emerge to help open up this space further.

      If that is to happen, however, there’s going to have to be more conversation about the intepretative nature of history and science. I experience much of what you raise here to be quite absolute and aggressive in its conviction that no thoughtful person, with sufficient study, could ever see anything other than you have – e.g., “An honest person cannot continue to support the institution he created when there is overwhelming evidence that its all make believe.”

      Do you really believe that? Or perhaps might an honest, thoughtful person carefully review the same evidence and come to a different conclusion? Ironically, it almost seems as if you’re making a similar argument that many members make – on the other side: “if you are honest and pursue this particular method, you WILL KNOW what I do…”

      To my mind, history and its intepretation is not so cut-and-dried and positivist as you’re making it out to be. It would be nice if one piece of evidence conclusively disproved a particular theory, but complex narratives are not based on single points of evidence – and cannot be written off (OR accepted) on the same. Even one single point of evidence can be interpreted in a great many ways. So I would ask again – might a thoughtful person have space to disagree with your conclusion?

  11. Thoughtful article and very nice to read. I no longer consider myself a member of the church and it was precisely these reasons that started me thinking. The response from members to my leaving has been startling and painfully full of fear, resentment and confusion. Its sad that we can’t simply part ways as most mature adults would. I know many other people that have left their churches and gone looking for more fulfilling religions and never have had family or friends give it a second thought. Yet as mormons we practically burn questioners and dissenters at the stake! The Church fails to present thinkers, liberals, feminists et al with a forum for their questions to be heard and respected. As a result they are leaving to find places that will fill their spiritual needs. I dedicated my life to the Church and yet, at the first sign of unorthodoxy (see thought-crime), my bishop kicked me to the curb and made it clear that questions are not tolerated in this organization. Revisionist history is a problem in that it leads questioners to the conclusion that they have been lied to. But the bigger problem in my mind is a culture of fear, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia.

    • Of all the responses to the blog, this is the one that makes me want to hear more. I’ve got a dear friend right now who has felt a lot of resistance to questions he is raising – and it’s been hugely helpful to hear more of his story.

      Would you be willing to share a bit more what exactly the reaction has been to your questions. You say “kicked to the curb” but I’m not quite sure what that looks like…I can imagine a Bishop getting fearful and perhaps saying something that feels unhelpful. What was your experience? Would you say more?

  12. Interesting comments. I only have two comments. 1 Do not lose faith in what you do know, because of what you do not know or understand. 2 We must all attend the Church that takes us closer to our God. (You can resolve the second statement by asking your self the question, “Am I
    closer to God today than I was yesterday?”)

  13. First, I really like your tone. My wife & 4 young kids left a year ago. The reason: systematic deception.

    Please explain (justify) this: ALL (as in no less than 100%) of church art depicts JS translating actual plates. There is no greater than 0% that depicts how the so-called translation actually occurred, reading a stone in his hat. If that’s not overt deception (as defined by the Gospel Essentials manual), what is?

    I would very much appreciate a response.

    • It sounds like this is a question that has meant a lot to you and your family – and so I want to take it seriously. You feel deceived because the art depicting the translation don’t show him looking through a hat, correct?

      I’d say that’s definitely a mistake – and one I hope future artists correct. I guess it doesn’t shake me because artists try to paint pictures in our mind – and this is the image that apparently felt most compelling. Is this an instance of ugly deception?

      While it’s true many written accounts describe the hat, others have depicted the translation process involving Joseph studying the characters on the plates. I can’t help but think it was a complex process that involved various approaches – and cannot be rightly described in a simple image.

      So yes – I hope future artists capture the hat image as well. I’d be interested to imagine more what that looked like….

      To your larger claim of systematic deception, I’ve probably written enough about that in the essay above.

  14. The church would do well to practice what it preaches, yes?

    Gospel Principles chapter 31 “Honesty”

    “We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth. Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest.
    To become completely honest, we must look carefully at our lives. If there are ways in which we are being even the least bit dishonest, we should repent of them immediately.”

    • I’m curious WWhite, did you even read the essay? I noticed someone trolling for an “answer to this friend of mine” on an ex-Mormon Reddit post. And this passage from the Gospel Principles is what someone proposed.

      However good it might feel to come up with a clever answer suggested from elsewhere, I can assure you that it feels even BETTER to actually read something and respond with your own thoughts and feelings…try it sometime! (:

  15. So many words trying to make something rather simple much more complex than it ever was. The reason the church has become more transparent with its history in recent times is sheer expediency. The Internet has made so much information that once was obscure and buried now out in the open for everyone to see. Church leaders are not so ignorant to think that even now they can control the narrative as they did in the past. The church’s lack of candor and transparency in the past has NOTHING to do with the member of the church during those times. Most members had no clue about the church’s history, so there was never any reason for the church to offer anything other than their self-serving narrative. If the Internet had exited in the 1940s, then Heber Grant and co. would have commissioned apologetic essays like those being produced today.

    The Internet was and is the game changer. It’s really not any more complicated than that.

    • I disagree, Aaron, as you know. I think you’re over-simplifying and minimizing a potentially viable interpretation. That being said, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

  16. I, for one, am so encouraged by increased openness and acknowledgement that church history is not all heavenly choirs and venerated saints.

    For the most part, these were rough frontiersfolk and poor immigrant converts bringing with them all sorts of ideas, philosophies, virtues and vices. The more we can eliminate the idea that you have to be a perfect saint in order to be saved, the better off we Mormons will be.

    When I understand that many early leaders of the church were just as “screwed up” as I am, and yet were able to be God’s tools in bringing forth his church to do so much good, I lifts me up. It doesn’t tear me down.

  17. I’m seeing justifications based on the concept of “presentism”. One must use this idea fairly and unbiasedly. Don’t forget that while marrying a teenager was not unheard of, marrying 10 of them was. Marrying women with living husbands (husbands who had not abandoned their wives) is NOT the norm of 1840’s Illinois. Do not trivialize or normalize what is in fact a very radical practice and concept. It was only the norm later in the State of Deseret where half the population lived this principle and all were required to proclaim it was true.

    Presentism cuts both ways. Church materials are also guilty of portraying some aspects of Joseph Smith’s story as more unique/miraculous than they are. Visions, additional scriptures, revelations and even prophets are more common than I realized. Concepts that I thought existed only in Mormonism or the Book of Mormon have their precedents elsewhere.

  18. Hi, I’m the Mark mentioned in this post. Jacob, I’m sure you can guess how I might respond to this. You and I have been hashing this out for months now–and to our mutual credit, we’ve both been “staying in the saddle” despite the sometimes rough ride.

    As many have already responded here, I’m of the opinion you’re missing the forest for the trees. However believing members may want to believe otherwise, the church explicitly proclaims itself, through its prophets, temples and scriptures, as the mouthpiece for God and purports to interpose its leaders and the institution itself between the member and the divine, exerting unilateral authority over their temporal and eternal salvation. It’s my opinion that the standard by with its specific truth claims (Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, Adam and Eve, etc) and history (polygamy, polyandry, racism, violence, doctrinal changes) need to be judged is very high. After all, I’m just a confused dude trying to make consequential decisions about how to spend my time, talents, money, energy, and life–a life that, despite whatever other hopes and faiths I might have about it, I can only know one thing for sure: it is shortening by the day, and death will one day bring it to an end. So I need to know, my friend! I need to know if this organization, or any other organization on this planet, knows the “real truth.” I need to know if this church that claims to exclusively possess knowledge, keys, and the authority God, of the gateway to the straight and narrow path and the eternal plan of salvation, that calls itself “the only true and living church on the earth”, the organization that I worked for, sweated for, proselytized for, wept for, cleaned the toilets for–I need to know if it’s trustworthy.

    So to hear about “unconscious, positive-intentioned framing” doesn’t cut it for me. One one level, of course, you’re right: the church, like any other man-made organization, if going to trying to cast itself at every opportunity in the most positive light. Can’t fault them for trying. But that’s not my urgent question: Can I trust it? Do I need it? Is it just another manmade organization, or does my eternal soul, and the salvation of my children, hang in the balance? Can I trust the men who place themselves at its head and call themselves special witnesses of Christ to lead me and my family in the way of truth and light? You know that my answer, arrived at after decades of the most fervent searching, pondering, and praying, has been a soul-shattering no.

    And yet . . . like you, I can appreciate that others will come to different conclusions, and that I have to find a way to maintain functional (and hopefully warm) relationships with those who do. Stunningly, what is so heart wrenching, testimony-destroying, and now so obvious to me is seen as heartwarming and faith-building to others. That’s just the way it is. We’re all looking through this glass darkly, and on some level, we’re going to see what we want to see.

    So having said what I just said, and knowing that you, Jacob, specifically, in dramatic contrast to my own family and friends and every other believing Mormon I’ve ever known, have made the sincere, sustained, and difficult effort to hear me out, even letting me rant and ramble from time to time, and to acknowledge my own sincerity and the legitimacy of my concerns (even if coming to a different conclusion) . . . within that friendship and level of trust we’ve built, I can commit to meeting you here, in this “Third Space” that we’re discussing. A place where we can put aside dogmatic belief, sit down at the table of brotherhood, look at each other man to man without the filter or pretense of divine authority, and find a way to listen and learn, hopefully to find a practical path forward, if not together, then at least respectfully and supportively.

    Honestly not sure where this project will go, or even what success would look, but looking forward to the journey . . . May the listening and good will continue.

  19. JZHess, I’m active, primarily because I still have a testimony of the Book of Mormon. I’m put off, however, when we don’t call a spade a spade. Did the church lie about the practice of polygamy in its early days? Absolutely. Did Joseph deceive Emma about his polygamous relationships. Yes he did. So unfortunately, I don’t accept your thesis that we just have a framing issue. I acknowledge that there are many church leaders who have made statements, in good faith, that have turned out to be wrong. I don’t hold them out to be liars. But here is the underlying problem: Our leaders have made statements and declarations that are wrong and members are trying to reconcile this with a doctrine of infallibility we as LDS have built up over the years(i.e. we’ll never be led astray, “it’s not in the program”, when the prophet speaks the debate is over, etc…). If our leaders were wrong about blacks and the priesthood, what else might they be wrong on? Despite these past errors, the mainstream church acts as if everything said over the pulpit today can be set in stone. The only reason I don’t blow my gasket is I’ve realized our leaders can continue to be wrong over the pulpit. Yes, they are in charge, but sometimes they are wrong.

  20. I agree, Red Black, that it’s reassuring to accept the fallibility of our human leaders – and I think you’re putting your finger on a question that deserves a lot more attention. I suppose what I’d want to explore more is what is meant by “we’ll never be led astray,” etc. Certainly it can’t be anything like the infallibility sometimes attributed to the Pope. It has to mean something more generally speaking, no? (as in, on a whole, they won’t lead us astray). In terms of specifics, there’s too many examples of just what you mention. As explored in a previous post on anti-depressants, I do believe that a prior talk by Elder Holland on mental illness included some disconcerting direction.

    My argument, by the way, is not that this is simply “just a framing issue.” I’m not attempting to write off or attribute ALL historical issues to generational tendencies. I AM responding, however, to the oft-repeated insinuation that ALL these historical issues represent deception, period. That is precisely what some are arguing, and precisely what I’m suggesting ignores lots of nuance – and the legitimacy of other interpretive perspectives.

    It’s a richer discussion I want – not a “winner” in the debate. Power-plays (on either side) short-change the discussion we could be having.

  21. This was a very well-written and interesting post and debate. All of the comments make me think of a poem I memorized when I was a child. It came from a book titled “nursing the insane” by Clara Barrus. When I was a child it made enough of an impression on me that I memorized it, and for me it answers every question/response brought up in this debate and the many debates to come:

    The centipede was happy quite
    until the frog, for fun,
    Said, “Pray, Which leg comes after which?”
    Which wrought his mind to such a pitch
    He lay distracted in the ditch
    Considering how to run
    (Barrus, 377-78).
    https://archive.org/stream/nursinginsane00barr#page/n7/mode/2up

    This poem reminds me that spiritual things are understood by the spirit. When we are living lives worthy of the spirit, we move forward naturally, with ease, even in an uneasy and volatile world.

    With a close enough look, anyone can come up with enough evidence to prove anything untrue, especially in our information age, where the worlds knowledge is simply a Google search away. The temple endowment can be found on Youtube and pops up as Facebook ads. Church history is shown today as messier than the younger church would have liked people to believe.

    All this information without the spirit reminds me of the centipede laying in a ditch, stuck because it was focusing on how to get his 100 little legs all moving together.

    Here are five of the legs of this centipede, taken from some of the comments made in this debate, that when focused on, can take us away from moving forward in life, “happy quite” as we move along naturally, with the spirit.

    Leg 1- Lots of members of the church are closed-minded, judgmental, and annoying.

    Leg 2- Some bishops are judgmental and ignorant, causing damage to struggling members, especially homosexual members.

    Leg 3- Some of the leadership of the church establishes a culture where questioning members are “kicked to the curb” or “shunned”.

    Leg 4- The church doesn’t vote for leadership, and tithing is not made available to the public.

    Leg 5- Joseph Smith wasn’t perfect, and did things that were covered up by historians to present some controversial aspects of the Church from
    getting out.

    The church being true or not is not discerned by the intellect, information, or conforming to today’s social and intellectual norms, and setting them as the benchmark by which we judge the past. The church being true or not is discerned by the spirit.

    In my life, I have had doubts. I have had questions. I have also felt the spirit so strongly as to show me see these doubts as they really are- little tiny legs of a centipede that pale in comparison to the truth of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ on the earth today. Just because I don’t understand a leg yet will not make me “lay distracted in the ditch, considering how to run”.

    To those that have questions, feel shunned, are thinking of leaving, don’t lay distracted in the ditch, stuck on some detail you can’t understand yet. Repent daily, live a life worthy of the spirit, study with the spirit, partake of the sacrament weekly, make and keep sacred covenants, and you will get the answers you seek, at the right time for you, and in the right context.

  22. I had opportunity to be around church leaders who stayed in our home or who were friends of my parents. My first impressions of them came from the perspective of a young child. I saw their flaws and strengths as regular people accordingly because my religious perspective had not yet developed.
    As a student at BYU I took a course that delved deeply into the lesser known early church history of the men and events of that time. This was the side of history not usually brought to the forefront because of the sins and tragedy that transpired. It was taught by a convert who had done all of his research prior to joining the church. I loved the class.
    I am one who found these experiences exhilirating because the facts enriched my convictions of the true and everlasting principles. It came as no shock to me to see learn the human frailties and failures of good men living in a fallen world.
    In all of my years, I have never seen attempts to hide truths or decieve the church. If anything, I have seen the church quite open and willing to discuss and show ALL of the history.
    Isn’t the responsibility an individual one to seek truth, even painful truths?
    Isn’t our ability to put people on pedestals of perfection also an individual tendancy we should resist by acknowledging that their humanity is inseparable from their Godliness?
    Good post. Good points.

  23. Lemonwader – Amazing! I’m screenshot-ing your reply and saving it in my archives. Very perceptive – and I wholeheartedly agree!

  24. I appreciate the openness advocated in the article and the emphasis for understanding to come from both sides. The problem is that the present church culture and policy, perhaps doctrine (the church is very ambiguous as to what constitutes doctrine) is not openness.

    Bringing up issues or questions, even those based off fact rather than historical opinion will likely lead to an individual being ostracized. If an individual is unfortunate enough to bring up these problems to church leaders exclusion and discipline is the most likely result. Most church leaders are also probably unaware of the Church’s past issues so expect your bishop to pull in the stake president.

    While it is wonderful to have such an open mind in this venue or in your personal dealings it is not possible in general mormondom (including outside UT). In a church where unquestioning obedience is required, even glorified and any ill speaking of the church or its leaders (the lord’s annointed) is demonized such open discussion is not possible. You cannot speak poorly of some of Joseph’s actions without a strong reaction (ironic as today’s leadership talks trash about Brigham all the time). This also applies to topics like scriptural origins, changing doctrines, or the church breaking its own policies.

    All is well in Zion, so keep your mouth shut! – the basic premise of mormon culture. You may be a wonderful person to talk to but asking these questions in any church format has negative consequences.

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