We are very excited to have as our guest, long-time friend, fmhLisa.
Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.
To help class members understand how they can avoid deception and apostasy.
As you might guess from the outset with a title like that, this lesson is a challenging one for someone who has been accused of being an apostate more than a few times myself.
The very word Apostasy is a super heavy word in the Mormon world. As a tight knit community where belonging is vitally important, an apostate is (painfully) no longer one of us. And I think it implies something even stronger than that, going along with the idea of deception, I think being an apostate implies that he is not only no longer one of us, but he is actively working toward hurting us.
I don’t doubt that people like that exist, I’ve met a few. But it’s probably not a word we should throw at each other lightly.
Almost all of us have friends and family members who have left the church or who have gone inactive (as they say). This can be an intensely painful experience for everyone involved. This process of leaving is as varied as the people involved, some leave angrily, some leave quietly, some would harm our testimonies and some still cherish their own. An interesting meta question to ask ourselves about apostasy is if we perhaps create our own small deceptions in the stories we tell ourselves about the reasons for these painful losses. (Hint: this gospel doctrine lesson is about to provide us with some interesting object lessons on this very subject.)
And yet this lesson’s purpose is that we learn to avoid deception and apostasy and how do we do that without constantly judging people to be apostates and deceivers? Because constantly judging folks seems pretty spiritually dangerous. Plus depressing and fear-mongering. Best to avoid that sort of thing.
It’s interesting ask about apostasy and deception: which direction is this question supposed to face?? Inward or outward? When we look outward– As we try to judge what is truth and who it telling lies, we judge others to be apostates. Or we can look inward, look into our hearts and into our minds to judge if we are honestly meekly seeking truth or letting ourselves get proud and comfortable in the answers we think we already have. Are we supposed to be diligently seeking to root out apostates among us, or are we to root out any self-deception or pride that might be stifling our own growth?
Luckily The Lord has provided us with a pattern. It’s all about the fruits. This fruity pattern is laid out many times in scripture, here it is in D&C 52:
14 And again, I will give unto you a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived; for Satan is abroad in the land, and he goeth forth deceiving the nations—
18 And again, he that is overcome and abringeth not forth fruits, even according to this pattern, is not of me.
Fruits of praise and wisdom. I don’t think this pattern is about looking outward and judging other people at all. This pattern is very internal. We must be contrite, we must be meek, neither of those sound like a big pointy finger toward other folk’s opinions with a loud and confident “you’re wrong apostate!”. But rather we are seeker, looking to be edified, willing to learn. And we judge those things we seek by their fruits. If they bring forth fruits of praise and wisdom, then those things are good and we will not be deceived.
So how do we recognize good fruits? How do we discover truth?
There is a freakin’ fantastic talk from everyone’s favorite Apostle (I know you know who I’m talking about!) all about discovering truth. Uchtdorf, after telling the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant:
“We look at this story from a distance and smile. After all, we know what an elephant looks like. We have read about them and watched them on film, and many of us have even seen one with our own eyes. We believe we know the truth of what an elephant is. That someone could make a judgment based on one aspect of truth and apply it to the whole seems absurd or even unbelievable. On the other hand, can’t we recognize ourselves in these six blind men? Have we ever been guilty of the same pattern of thought?
I suppose the reason this story has remained so popular in so many cultures and over so many years is because of its universal application. The Apostle Paul said that in this world the light is dim and we see only part of the truth as though we are looking “through a glass, darkly.”2 And yet it seems to be part of our nature as human beings to make assumptions about people, politics, and piety based on our incomplete and often misleading experience. . . . .
“The “truths” we cling to shape the quality of our societies as well as our individual characters. All too often these “truths” are based on incomplete and inaccurate evidence, and at times they serve very selfish motives.
Part of the reason for poor judgment comes from the tendency of mankind to blur the line between belief and truth. We too often confuse belief with truth, thinking that because something makes sense or is convenient, it must be true. Conversely, we sometimes don’t believe truth or reject it—because it would require us to change or admit that we were wrong. Often, truth is rejected because it doesn’t appear to be consistent with previous experiences.
When the opinions or “truths” of others contradict our own, instead of considering the possibility that there could be information that might be helpful and augment or complement what we know, we often jump to conclusions or make assumptions that the other person is misinformed, mentally challenged, or even intentionally trying to deceive.”
So Brother Uctdorf teaches us many things here. We can’t know or see all truth. Sometimes partial truth can blind us to larger truth. All the truth we have is through a glass darkly (as Paul so beautifully put it) , sometimes we accept things as true because they are convenient, or because they confirm what we already believed or because it is self-serving or comfortable. And we are much too quick to assume those who disagree with us must be ignorant, stupid, or evil rather than entertaining the possibility that we might be wrong. (I seriously love Uctdorf!)
So keeping in mind these difficult lessons about truth from Uctdorf, let’s take a look at one of the cautionary tales about apostasy that the lesson provides. This is one of the legendary Mormons stories: Thomas Marsh and the pint of cream (Stay with me here)
If you are teaching this lesson, I think it would be interesting to ask the members of your class how many remember having heard the story and see if they can recount any of the details.
Here is how the lesson manual recounts the story under the title “Pride” :
Some members are deceived because of their pride. The following story illustrates how pride led Thomas B. Marsh, who was President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and his wife, Elizabeth, into apostasy.
While living in Far West, Missouri, Sister Marsh and Sister Harris decided to exchange milk so they could each make a larger cheese than they otherwise could. They agreed to send each other both the milk and the cream from their cows. But Sister Marsh saved a pint of cream from each cow and sent Sister Harris the milk without the cream.
A quarrel arose, and the matter was referred to the bishop. When he determined that Sister Marsh had violated her agreement, she and her husband were upset and appealed the matter to the high council and then to the First Presidency. Each council approved the original decision that Sister Marsh had been in error.
Thomas B. Marsh declared that he would sustain the character of his wife. Soon afterward, he turned against the Church and went before a government official to declare that the Latter-day Saints were hostile toward the state of Missouri. (See George A. Smith, in Journal of Discourses, 3:283–84.)
This is a story that I have heard a hundred times as a cautionary tale about how small and inconsequential things can lead us to apostasy. Unfortunately this is much like the blind men and the elephant, only a small fraction of the story. There was in fact a pint of milk and a kerfuffle surrounding it, but there is far more to this story than a husband and wife so shallow and silly that they would abandon the Gospel for a pint of milk.
You can read about many of these details on the churches own history website.
The truth is Marsh did leave the church in 1838, but it had little to do with a pint of milk. He left because the Mormons had formed mobs, had kicked out all the non-Mormons from Daviess County, had stolen their property and burned their homes and towns. There were mobs, there was fighting, there was pillaging and violence and the Mormons were terribly outnumbered (though not innocent of wrongdoing) and the outcome was by no means clear. Marsh left the Church, but it is clear that his reasons were not petty and silly and inconsequential.
Certainly there are people who leave for foolish petty reasons, but this story is not one that we should use to illustrate that. As Uctdorf stated so beautifully, . “ . . it seems to be part of our nature as human beings to make assumptions about people, politics, and piety based on our incomplete and often misleading experience. . .”
As a culture we have been telling a story incorrectly for generations. Uctdorf also told us . . . “ we sometimes don’t believe truth or reject it—because it would require us to change or admit that we were wrong.”
And the funny thing is, that several of the other historical examples included in this lesson are also oversimplified and incomplete. For instance under the heading “Critical of the Leader’s Imperfections” Symonds Ryder’s is said to have left because if “the spirit’ could make an error in the spelling of his name, then it may have erred in calling him to the ministry. But historical documents show a much more complex story involving property interests and friendships. There are more examples of oversimplified history in this lesson but I see no reason to belabor the point.
But I do think it is important for us to ask, if so many of our stories about apostasy aren’t entirely accurate, what does that say about us and what do we need to learn from this? Where is the truth and the lesson? Remember the Elephant analogy? “We believe we know the truth of what an elephant is. That someone could make a judgment based on one aspect of truth and apply it to the whole seems absurd or even unbelievable . . . Have we ever been guilty of the same pattern of thought?” If many of our most famous stories about apostasy have been over-simplified and contain only a portion of the the truth then clearly there is more that we can learn here.
“ The thing about truth is that it exists beyond belief. It is true even if nobody believes it.
This truth is different from belief. It is different from hope. Absolute truth is not dependent upon public opinion or popularity. Polls cannot sway it. Not even the inexhaustible authority of celebrity endorsement can change it.
So how can we find truth?
I believe that our Father in Heaven is pleased with His children when they use their talents and mental faculties to earnestly discover truth. Over the centuries many wise men and women—through logic, reason, scientific inquiry, and, yes, through inspiration—have discovered truth. These discoveries have enriched mankind, improved our lives, and inspired joy, wonder, and awe.”
Here Uctdorf lists some of the tools that we can use to uncover truth: Talents, Logic, Reason, Science, and Inspiration. I think this holistic approach is vital. We can not rely only on our emotions, but is equally foolish to worship pure logic. The Lord gave us all of these capacities, and we need to employ them all in our search for truth.
So circling back around again to the notion of apostasy and deception. These historic cautionary tales were all focused outward, making a judgement about other people’s righteousness and making those judgements based on incomplete and somewhat misleading information, and I think the lesson to be learned from this is how very careful we need to be when we judge each other and draw conclusions about each other. It’s so easy to get it all wrong.
One question I think we need to ask ourselves: Is there is a difference between folks that disagree with us, and folks who are trying to hurt us ? I believe there is and it’s a distinction we should draw more carefully. A friend who struggles with doubt should not be lumped into the same category as and a (not) friend who wants to undermine our testimony. We do not find truth when we oversimplify the faith journeys of our loved ones. And we can do great damage when we label folks who need our love and support as dangerous enemies.
What would happen if we instead focused that gaze inward, and took responsibility for our own small apostasies?
D&C 50 tells us:
10 And now come, saith the Lord, by the Spirit, unto the elders of his church, and let us reason together, that ye may understand;
11 Let us reason even as a man reasoneth one with another face to face.
12 Now, when a man reasoneth he is understood of man, because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I, the Lord, reason with you that you may understand.
The Lord tells us that we much communicate with each other with reason and logic. And further he will communicate to us in a way we can understand. We must use our Logic.
13 Wherefore, I the Lord ask you this question—unto what were ye ordained?
15 And then received ye spirits which ye could not understand, and received them to be of God; and in this are ye justified?
Further we must communicate using the spirit. Our emotions and our spirituality must also be part of how we learn.
21 Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth?
And once again it is clear that it is by the fruits that we can judge truth. If it is something that edifies, and makes us rejoice together, then it is the spirit of truth. If it brings further light, it is of God. Shunning anyone who disagrees with us, avoiding anyone who has doubts . . . I do not think those actions edify or bring light. We must judge each person, each interaction by its own merits, by its fruits.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:
“Mormonism is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or … being … prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men.”20
I think one of the biggest fears we struggle with as Mormons is that we will be deceived– not by incorrect facts– but that we will be turned aside by wrong standards, that we might misapply information and lose essential principles because we don’t have a proper guide. And the guide has been provided, over and over the scriptures given for this lesson tell us: Fruits of Praise and Wisdom. And the mindset of truth-seeking demands that we be earnest seekers of knowledge. If we take a defensive stance and refuse to listen to and to learn from people who think differently from us, we are blocking ourselves off from potential sources of truth.
Apostasy is about creating boundaries, who are we, what do we believe, and this is something we have to do to make a healthy community. We do need to know the boundaries of what makes us who we are. But I think the lesson I learned from these stories of apostasy is that while the boundaries may be necessary, if we are going to be truth seekers, we must rethink the way we approach learning across those boundaries. We can’t change people’s stories to fit our preconceived ideas about why people leave. If we do that we are *blindly* embracing a very incomplete picture of truth, and creating our own small internal deceptions.
We must be willing to rethink mistakes, be open to new truths, and to learning to judge these things by their fruits.
In conclusion more Uctdorf :
“Yes, we do have the fulness of the everlasting gospel, but that does not mean that we know everything. In fact, one principle of the restored gospel is our belief that God “will yet reveal many great and important things.”21
The Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ came about because of a young man with a humble heart and a keen mind seeking for truth. Joseph studied and then acted accordingly. He discovered that if a man lacks wisdom, he can ask of God and the truth really will be given unto him.