DKL is a familiar Bloggernacle presence. We solicited him to write the following obituary.
Jerald Tanner, that icon of anti-Mormonism who founded the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, died Sunday evening, October 1 at 7:20pm.
I’m well known for making fondue jokes about Jerald and his wife Sandra, but I don’t know a lot about Jerald Tanner. I went to the bookstore at their house in the early 90s, when I was still a student at BYU, and at that time I had the opportunity to speak with his wife at length (Sandra is a charming and intelligent woman). With the exception of his Salt Lake City Messenger newsletters, I’ve probably read as much of what he’s written as anyone. I own boxes of his books and publications.
Let me state up front that I have no sympathy for, or affiliation with, the Tanner’s work. This does not, however, entail that I must demonize them or mischaracterize their work. Many of the Brethren frequently speak of the war that the church fights against evil. Many among the Brethren seem to place the Tanners in the enemy camp that we are fighting, and they even have an oversight group to track activities of members who tread too far into the boundaries of heterodoxy.
It is customary to demonize anti-Mormons. And quite a lot has been said to attack the Tanners. There’s no need to go into all the mud that has been slung at them through the years. Suffice it to say, it is widely recognized, as Daniel Peterson noted, that “The Tanners, pound for pound, year after year, have been the most successful opponents of the church.” In my experience, anything positive said about the Tanners is viewed with suspicion, even among most “intellectuals.” This tendency to villianize people merely for being opponents of the church is one of the more cult-like tendencies of Mormonism.
Today, anti-Mormon literature tends to be dominated with salacious portrayals like “The Godmakers,” “The Godmakers II,” or other material that implies that Mormons worship the devil, that Mormons plan to take over the US government, or that Mormon leaders consort with prostitutes. But Jerald Tanner was neither a persecutor of Mormons nor a purveyor of salacious lies.
Jerald Tanner provided a good life for his family. As much as he opposed the teachings of our church, he certainly didn’t slander the church like other anti-Mormons. He opposed the church because he sought to lead its members to Christ. He was a missionary for the other side of Christianity — the side that we proselyte among. He did not try to lure away worthy LDS members with lies and misinformation, or seduce them with pornography, or attract them with promises of easy pleasure through personal immorality and hedonism, or discourage them from supporting their family, or tempt them with drugs or alcohol, or ensnare them with gambling, or encourage them to abuse their spouses and children. We should be ashamed to make the same mistake that the Catholic church makes when it condemns heretics, but refuses to discipline those, like Cardinal Bernard Law, whose actions lead to palpable evil and suffering.
Jerald Tanner was, at worst, a heretic, but in all likelihood he was not even that. In fact, he didn’t believe anything that most Americans do not already believe; viz., that the doctrines and traditions unique to Mormonism are not based on historical truth. He was just more informed and more aggressive in advancing his view. At this time when headlines shout bad news about people like Mark Foley and William Jefferson, and when a significant fraction of a major world religion seems devoted to a violent war against the west, it’s downright refreshing to know that there are rather decent people out there who merely seek to persuade us that we’re misguided.
To be sure, Jerald Tanner always saw what was worst about Mormonism, but his vision was limited by an integrity sorely lacking in many other anti-Mormons. Jerald’s career was replete with examples of his honesty. When the opportunity arose to use the Hofmann forgeries to undermine the LDS church, Jerald Tanner was the first to express doubts about their veracity at a time when even the foremost Mormon scholars believed them genuine. And Jerald Tanner argued as often and as vehemently as many Mormon apologists–he even wrote a book–against Ed Decker’s slanderous misrepresentation of Mormonmism in “The Godmakers” and “The Godmakers II” (like Decker’s accusation that Gordon Hinckley had a gay lover in the 60s and that Joseph Smith brought a piece of Alvin’s dead body with him to obtain the plates.)
Jerald Tanner’s primary tool was the truth that he believed — a truth that even many Mormon apologists acknowledge: The Book of Mormon has had thousands of changes made to it. Joseph Smith was a treasure digger. The portions of the Chandler papyri in the church’s possession do not contain the writings of Abraham. The church has excommunicated members for doing good scholarship. The Kinderhook plates are forgeries. What’s more, Jerald Tanner responded to all comers — so much so that the LDS church’s quasi-official response (written anonymously by D. Michael Quinn) charged that the Tanners argued too much with the opinions of famous members rather than the church’s official doctrines.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d like to think that in the past decade our church’s leaders have shifted thematically away from the inward-looking critique of member faithfulness, the one that finds fault with members based on the minutiae of their historical or philosophical or scientific outlook. Not only would such a shift be an important step in Mormonism becoming accepted as a mainstream religion, but it would also open up room for us to take a more balanced view of our opponents.
At this time of loss, let us remember the Tanner family in our prayers.