BYU Studies has posted an understanding, helpful response today to the article in the New York Times (“Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt”) that has caused some stir in Mormon circles online over the weekend.
BYU Studies’ Editor-in-Chief, John W. Welch, notes that “BYU Studies may shed some important light on those subjects. While no one has all the answers to every question, the BYU Studies website, together with many other resources and publications, are now easily available to provide many well-researched and well-written treatments of topics of current interest. We invite people to familiarize themselves with this website. It may come in very handy.”
I really like the BYU Studies response and the selection of potential starting points for reading about certain historical issues offered there. Reading about and candidly discussing our history is the perfect response to this problem.
As long as I am putting up a post highlighting BYU Studies’ charitable and helpful response, I might as well include some of my own thoughts on the situation, naturally not in any way representative of the view that people at BYU Studies may or may not take.
The New York Times article describes a problem entirely of our own making. For decades CES and the Curriculum Committee have exercised enormous influence on what information Mormons have access to in official settings and, more importantly, have actively discouraged members from seeking information or knowledge about the Church or its history from “outside sources.” It should come as no surprise, then, when a prime example of an active, faithful local church leader like Hans Mattsson (a former Area Authority Seventy featured in the New York Times article who became emeritus after heart surgery in 2005 and then began to learn about puzzling and problematic episodes in Church history on the internet) devotes a significant portion of his life to Church leadership and service but still does not know about difficult aspects of Church history or wrinkles associated with particular doctrines/teachings — and feels betrayed when he learns them, leading to a “crisis of faith,” despite his spiritual experiences in the Church.
Even someone with a simple and pure testimony, like Hans Mattsson (see an example of Elder Mattsson’s testimony in this short 2004 Ensign article: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2004/12/book-of-mormon-principles-how-could-i-testify?lang=eng), can feel that “everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance” if they believe that historical information that they come across online or elsewhere contradicts the official, hagiographic portrayals of Church leaders or the Correlated discussions of doctrines/teachings they have been assured are trustworthy.
Those of us who were lucky enough to have parents or teachers who were informed about these things and integrated knowledge about them into regular discussion about broader Gospel topics have an unfortunate tendency to kick those like Mattsson while they are down. We scoff “how could Mattsson (or others like him) not know about Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone in a hat to translate most of what we currently have as the Book of Mormon? How could someone grow up Mormon, serve a mission, and then only find out in their mid-20s after reading critical websites that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy?” We are being neither charitable nor realistic in doing so. (Some of us are not even ourselves aware of the issues that are causing the problems and kick them while they’re down anyway, disregarding them simply as apostates, apparently never truly converted, etc., despite all evidence to the contrary.)
The Influence of Correlation
At Times and Seasons, Ben Huff has posted a thought-provoking discussion examining the influence of the Correlation Program on this dynamic, sensibly pointing out that it arose as a response to the rapid international growth of the Church. As members joined the Church in far greater numbers outside the “Mormon Corridor” (from Alberta Canada in a more or less geographically sound line down to the “Mormon Colonies” in Northern Mexico) it became clear that more average members would not benefit from having relatives at family reunions or parents during discussions of Genealogy at FHE talking about being descendants of so-and-so’s third (or fourth, or fifth) wife, completely normalizing the fact of polygamy in our past. Ben observes, “Correlation was designed to make an information-lean approach to Mormonism viable. This required emphasizing core principles and minimizing complexity, leaving obsolete practices like polygamy and historical peculiarities like Joseph’s seer stone to be addressed by historians, not Sunday School manuals.”
Ben suggests that a cooperative approach reflecting the earlier communitarianism and cooperative efforts of our Zion-seeking early Mormon forebears will ameliorate the difficulties currently facing the Church as a result of the kinds of information-based faith-crises described in the New York Times article. To fill the gap created by Correlation’s official “information-lean approach to Mormonism,” Ben argues, “we need more unofficial auxiliaries. In addition to church sources like the Ensign or BYU, we need independent institutions like Southern Virginia University, like FARMS or Interpreter, like the bloggernacle, like Halestorm Entertainment, like the Mormon Scholars Foundation.”
A commenter on Ben’s post, however, bitterly notes that Ben “makes it sound like having non official groups carry the culture was part of the churches [sic] plan. That isn’t true at all. We’ve been instructed for example not to have private study groups and the like. Sunstone and Dialogue were given the villian [sic] treatment in conference.” As painful as it is to accept, I think it is accurate to observe that we have indeed placed great obstacles in the way of Church members accessing information or historical treatment from unofficial sources, and the official sources have almost entirely omitted information or analysis of some of the puzzling issues that often cause believing members cognitive dissonance (some key examples are listed in the New York Times article).
Digging in, a vocal segment of faithful Mormons who are active online immediately began responding to the New York Times article by reviving a certain type of old-fashioned Mormon anti-intellectualism. Our history is irrelevant, according to this line of reasoning, because all that matters is conversion, which results from personal experiences with the Spirit. Although it is certainly true that conversion is a process guided by the Holy Ghost and ultimately founded on personal revelation about key Gospel truths (primarily in the reality and efficacy of the Atonement of Jesus Christ), this line of reasoning raises the question of whether true conversion can occur in the absence of Truth. Also, this approach seems premised on the idea that true historical facts can in some way undermine or conflict with the Spirit’s mission to teach us the truth of all things. But if something is true, it is true. Our mandate is to circumscribe all Truth into one great whole, whether such Truth is particularly useful at the moment or not. And this Truth is found in every field, every endeavor, whether within or without the Church. This includes historical facts even when compiled into historical narrative which necessarily involves interpretation (which is another criticism leveled at “our history” in this mindset — all history necessarily involves interpretation, see below).
My sense is that Mormons currently advocating this approach in response to the New York Times piece would also, inconsistently, teach that students preparing for a test cannot skip studying and then simply pray before the test that it will work out and expect to pass based on the Spirit revealing the answers to them; to the contrary, I envision these critics vigorously denying that this approach would work, teaching instead that a student must study as hard as he or she can for that test before he or she can expect to rely on the Spirit making up the difference and supplying answers in a pinch. Their current approach also seems to vary from the pattern for revelation found in Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9 where Oliver Cowdery is taught that he could not translate the Book of Mormon because “you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.” Like the students in the example above, Oliver seems to have thought he could just kneel down and pray, asking God to reveal truth to him. Apparently, seeking and obtaining personal revelation requires more work than that: “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.”
Admittedly, this revelation in D&C 9 is context-specific — this is counsel given to Oliver Cowdery in the context of his attempt and failure to translate the Book of Mormon. But we often use this passage of scripture as general guidance for how to seek out revelation in our lives. Study is part of the process, and I submit that studying our history can actually be part of the process in building strong testimonies — in becoming truly converted to the Gospel because such conversion also requires a knowing submission to the Church as an institution and sustaining its leaders despite their human fallibility. In fact, our current Doctrine and Covenants Sunday School curriculum is focusing on the Restoration of the Gospel and on inspiring historical episodes that played a part in bringing about this Restoration. The dilemma described in the New York Times article is that one can work through that curriculum a dozen times (as Hans Mattsson no doubt did as it recurred every four years throughout his entire adult life in the Church) and never hear about difficult issues in our history that often become stumbling blocks even to the earnestly converted (like Hans Mattsson).
Our Faithful Historians
This approach of dismissing our history as irrelevant (and criticizing those who find our history important and perhaps even part and parcel to the Gospel as unduly relying on “the arm of the flesh”) also makes me uncomfortable because it slurs our faithful historians who are working furiously to produce top-notch historical scholarship that is slowly filling the gap left by our correlated “information-lean approach to Mormonism” (to use Ben Huff’s description). According to this line of reasoning, history and information are always fallible. History is always an act of interpretation. (As if receiving and acting on personal revelation is not also always an act of interpretation.) As such, history is unreliable and, in fact, it can be dangerous.
It is certainly true that a particular historical narrative necessarily arises from that historian’s own inferences based on an often incomplete, contradictory, or confusing historical record. So, of course all history necessarily involves interpretation! But there are also ascertainable historical facts underlying the narrative, and good historical treatments document these facts and their sources in footnotes or endnotes, or in explanations in the actual text. Readers can be trusted to examine and weigh the credibility of the historian’s presentation of facts or, rather, the historian’s interpretation of the facts. In fact, we as Mormons should have extra confidence in this exercise since we can rely on the Holy Ghost as our guide, even when studying history! So, for example, consider the following hypothetical: Fact: Joseph Smith was a polygamist. Fact: Some of his wives were very young, and it appears with near certainty that at least one or more already had a husband. [Insert other puzzling or uncomfortable facts that appear clearly established by the historical record about Joseph Smith's experience with polygamy, such as arguably coercive methods documented in convincing some to participate.] The Holy Ghost is not going to tell you that this did not happen because it did happen. Which, then, is more likely — the Spirit will testify either (1) that regardless of how this historical information looks to us at this point through our current lens and based on the currently available facts, Joseph Smith is still a prophet and was God’s instrument in the long-foretold Restoration, in which case, the historical research was helpful in building a stronger testimony; or (2) that we should avoid uncomfortable truths in order to believe in God? I am confident that the Spirit can be our companion in our study of history and will guide us more in line with the first hypothetical rather than the second. If the Spirit whispers the second, this implies bigger theological problems than insights into puzzling episodes in Church history or fallible people being used as instruments in God’s hands for God’s purposes.
Now, it is certainly true that people should be reading good history. But “good history” does not mean history that is only written with a faith-promoting spin, to the exclusion of other relevant details that provide the bigger picture or broader story. Such a product will necessarily leave out (or, essentially, hide) part of the story. Rather, good history is reliable history, taking such “other” details into account and contextualizing them or, at the very least, exposing them so that we can study them out and decide for ourselves what they mean. Discernment is indeed a part of this process. But limiting members’ access to only hagiographic treatments of Church leaders or simplified/homogenized discussions of particular doctrines/teachings (through official guidance to avoid “outside sources” in Gospel study and teaching) evidences a lack of trust in the membership to navigate such study with the guidance of the Spirit!
Claiming that our history is irrelevant also, unfortunately but not without plenty of precedent, frames good, up-to-date history as essentially mutually exclusive with solid testimonies based on religious experiences. But this is a false dichotomy in which we, again, see how the fundamentalist faithful and the fundamentalist formerly faithful are two sides of the same modernist coin: it is impossible to be well informed about history and still maintain a testimony. (For this reason, I think, BCC irritates — or rather, mystifies — both groups because this mutual exclusivity for the most part does not exist here and in other similar places.)
And, perhaps adding to the confusion of those advocating this approach, the Church itself is venturing into these waters where good, up-to-date history is manifestly not incompatible with strong, enduring testimonies. The work of the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSPP) implies a recognition of this mutual co-existence. Under the auspices of this Project, the Church has officially mandated historians with top credentials and professional experience to prepare history consistent with the best modern methods. Similarly, a few years ago the Church saw the need for a treatment of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and commissioned a historical study that achieves remarkable transparency even on issues that are potentially embarrassing for the Church (or at least puzzling).
Humility is key to this approach to history. This is true whether we are reading history produced by the Church’s mandated faithful historians (such as in the JSPP), faithful historians who are doing their own work relating to Church history in their respective fields (such as Richard Bushman but the number of them is growing all the time), or historians unaffiliated with the Church writing about our Church leaders or the Church’s history (such as Remini on Joseph Smith or Turner on Brigham Young). Whatever we read, we need to keep in mind the basic point made by these (overzealous?) bloggers who misguidedly dismiss our history as irrelevant in the process of conversion: that the historical record is often incomplete and that inference plays an immense role in the presentation of the record itself and in its interpretation for purposes of drafting a particular narrative from it. Perhaps a solution could be for the Church to frequently emphasize this point about humility and uncertainty in reviewing historical writing while also trusting the members to digest historical information themselves based on guidance from the Spirit rather than admonishing members not to seek historical information from “outside sources.” We need not walk by fear if we believe that we have the Gospel. We should not fear the influence of history, especially our own history, on the minds and hearts of our members!
Reading as Response
An apologetic response that attempts to rehabilitate Church leaders or doctrines in the face of unfamiliar or unflattering facts will often fail to revive the faith of people like Hans Mattsson. This is because it is not so much the existence of such information that has shaken their faith but rather the impression that they have been betrayed by the Church because such information was not provided to them earlier (and seems to have been actively hidden, though in my opinion that’s not really the case) and they sacrificed so much based on what now to them seems to have been a sandy foundation of understanding about facts, events, and the development of certain doctrines in our history. This is certainly not to say that they would not have made such sacrifices or devoted their lives to the Church to the same extent if they had been given this information in the first place. To the contrary, my impression is that early and candid discussion of these issues often sidelines most concerns about them entirely.
But for people who are currently in Mattsson’s camp, I believe it would be extremely effective if the Church issued a statement that it acknowledges that its previous approach to its presentation of its history has ultimately proved problematic in some ways and that it is sorry that people have felt betrayed as a result. I think the Church could clearly express that it never intended to hide information or deceive anyone but that this effect came about in practice in certain circumstances as an unintended consequence of the Correlation policy and its particular implementation that seemed appropriate as the Church rapidly expanded globally. The problem, in fact, was compounded outside the United States where materials in other languages were not available and so Church members really only did have CES/Curriculum Dept. materials as their only resources about our history and doctrines, especially in light of counsel to avoid seeking information in “outside sources.” (This is still a difficulty; for example, would the resources provided in the BYU Studies links be helpful to people like Mattsson if they are not in their own languages?)
It would also be helpful to begin providing resources with more complete treatments of history and doctrine/teachings. Especially for people who have not experienced this crisis of faith, such materials could go a long way in “inoculating” them against such a faith crisis. (I personally dislike the term “inoculation” in this context because it necessarily implies that Truth is a disease that needs to be “inoculated” against — but Truth is enlightening and good in and of itself, and most definitely not a disease.)
The BYU Studies statement is a good example of this approach of “reading as response.” I strongly believe that our history is not irrelevant to our belief in the Gospel. In fact, our history is integral to our Gospel beliefs and to understanding the development of our doctrines/teachings. Let’s rely on the Spirit in our study of history, introduce our history to our children and investigators early, and openly discuss any difficult issues that might arise. If we keep a perspective of humility in approaching this endeavor (for example always asking ourselves what can we actually know about intentions), I am confident that our history will only enrich us.