Evil-speaking History

The Mormon Times features an address by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, which is of extraordinary interest to those with a penchant for LDS Church History. Here’s what I would consider the money quote, in which Elder Oaks refers to a 1985 BYU Symposium address:

Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true.

This statement — particularly the whopper at the final sentence — may raise the hackles of some historians, but I agree with Elder Oaks.

First I believe we need to differentiate between history that criticizes, or that has a political end in itself, and history or biography that tells a complete narrative of a person or event, “warts and all.” The former leads to a nefarious kind of history, a Krakauer-esque amalgamation that begins a priori with a given thesis and tends to adapt itself to suit that thesis. It’s poor work, I think, if a history steps out of analytical shoes and slips on instead the noisy clogs of the author’s pet peeves (1).

Going beyond that, I do think that LDS Church members have an obligation — for some, a covenant — to avoid practices that tear down the Kingdom of God. It is an ongoing temptation to be cruel to past leaders for their limited understandings; sometimes it appears to be like shooting fish in a barrel, particularly when policies or doctrines have changed, and we can look back with the benefit of hindsight. I believe that in most cases it’s inappropriate to criticize or tear down the Church for its past mistakes. This may smack of intellectual dishonesty, but I am not speaking of covering up the truth or whitewashing history. Certainly I think we should be able to call a spade a spade. I guess I am thinking more of casual pot-shots or pithy put-downs, which tend to serve little purpose than to establish the moral superiority of the speaker.

Let’s take a pretty obvious example: Elder Bruce R. McConkie. Mormon Doctrine was (and in many ways still is) an erroneous book, and certainly one that presumed to speak in authoritative terms where the Church itself did not tread. I don’t know if the community of saints today is served well if I only remember him to scoff in a blog post, or if the only quote of him we keep is:

Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

I guess my view (because of COURSE you all are dying to know it!) is that generally, (a) in the absence of certainty, we should be willing to give the Church the benefit of the doubt, (b) it speaks poorly of us if all we can remember from our history are goof-ups (and worse), and (c) we can tell a lot about ourselves and our relationship to the Church by the way we approach our history.

Over the weekend I bought Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball. I know, I know, I should have read it months and months ago. But if any readers would be interested, I’d be up to blogging from my reading of it as I go. Consider it putting Elder Oaks’ advice into practice.

(1) I suppose the same criticism could be leveled at “believing history” or “faith-promoting history,” and I have to admit that I am suspicious of the ability of an historian to be faithful to the full spectrum of detail while still knowing that the work as a whole must end up being laudatory of a given person or doctrine.


  1. I am fascinated by his use of depreciate, which also came up in his interview with Helen Whitney:

    HW: You used an interesting phrase, “Not everything that’s true is useful.” Could you develop that as someone who’s a scholar and trying to encourage deep searching?

    DHO: The talk where I gave that was a talk on “Reading Church History” — that was the title of the talk. And in the course of the talk I said many things about being skeptical in your reading and looking for bias and looking for context and a lot of things that were in that perspective. But I said two things in it and the newspapers and anybody who ever referred to the talk only referred to [those] two things: one is the one you cite, “Not everything that’s true is useful,” and that [meant] “was useful to say or to publish.” And you tell newspapers any time (media people) [that] they can’t publish something, they’ll strap on their armor and come out to slay you! [Laughs.]

    I also said something else that has excited people: that it’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord. One can work to correct them by some other means, but don’t go about saying that they misbehaved when they were a youngster or whatever. Well, of course, that sounds like religious censorship also.

    But not everything that’s true is useful. I am a lawyer, and I hear something from a client. It’s true, but I’ll be disciplined professionally if I share it because it’s part of the attorney-client privilege. There’s a husband-wife privilege, there’s a priest-penitent privilege, and so on. That’s an illustration of the fact that not everything that’s true is useful to be shared.

    In relation to history, I was speaking in that talk for the benefit of those that write history. In the course of writing history, I said that people ought to be careful in what they publish because not everything that’s true is useful. See a person in context; don’t depreciate their effectiveness in one area because they have some misbehavior in another area — especially from their youth. I think that’s the spirit of that. I think I’m not talking necessarily just about writing Mormon history; I’m talking about George Washington or any other case. If he had an affair with a girl when he was a teenager, I don’t need to read that when I’m trying to read a biography of the Founding Father of our nation.

    Now, in regards to respecting Church leaders, I agree completely. We should be compassionate and not maliciously take away from our leader’s effectiveness. I don’t think I agree with him on his perspectives regarding the usefulness of history.

  2. J., is it only the living leaders whose effectiveness matters?

  3. That is a thing, isn’t it?

  4. merrybits says:

    Okay, I’ll bite, but I must add the disclamer that I’m not very bright.

    How are we defining “criticism”? In our hearts and minds(good luck controlling that)? On a blog? In church or to our neighbors? Do we write our leaders a letter? On a local (ward/stake) level, I never criticize the efforts of our brothers and sisters who work so hard to make the programs go smoothly. We have all had our success and failures at our callings. That said, I understand our leaders encouraging the we-need-to-stick-together mentality, but they also encourage a seek-out-and-pray-for-the-answer-yourself mentality. Are these not at odds at times? If so, what does one do?

  5. Yeah.

    Plus, I am not sure we can approach past leaders critically (in the pejorative sense) without affecting the effectiveness of our current ones.

  6. merrybits, you have to be bright — any time someone answers a question by getting down to definitional ambiguity, you know they’re bright! Or, a lawyer.

    To answer your question, I think Elder Oaks gives somewhat of an answer in his address: LDS members are to be guided by the Spirit as they research history or consider the problems they find.

  7. I was also interested in Elder Oaks’s use of the word “depreciate.” I wondered at first if the Deseret News had just got it wrong. (Is it ok to be always critical of that rag?) J’s quotation from the other interview suggests that they were correct.

    Since Elder Oaks and I went to the same law school and he did a lot better than I did, I will readily concede that he’s a whole lot smarter than I am. So I looked up “depreciate” to see what meanings it had, other than the common tax accounting one.

    At dictionary.com, the fourth definition is “to represent as of little value or merit; belittle.”

    I also checked “deprecate”–one of its definitions is “to depreciate; belittle.”

  8. Mark, if you choose to depreciate your leaders you can amortize your faith over the lifespan of the leader in question — which, in our religion, is a very long time.

  9. Sorry, but the analysis in the Helen Whitney interview quote is a red herring.

    Elder Oaks sets out that not all true information should be disclosed. That is correct. He points out, for instance, attorney-client privilege.

    What he fails to mention, though, is that attorney-client privilege is an extremely narrow and tailored exception. And in many, many instances, it does _not_ apply. As anyone who has litigated a case knows, the vast majority by far of relevant, true information _is_ discoverable. Privilege — attorney-client or otherwise — applies only to a very small slice of information.

    “It’s bad for my client” is NOT a privilege, and never has been. If your client has skeletons in the closet, they ARE discoverable if they relate to the case.

    And it’s extremely easy to blow privilege — in many jurisdictions, there’s a cat’s-out-of-the-bag rule that once privileged information has been disclosed once (even by accident), it cannot be clawed back or claimed as privileged in future filings.

    So DHO’s illustration is an extremely poor one for the broader point. A/C priv (or husband-wife, attorney-work-product, etc) are extremely narrow and tailored exceptions to a broad rule of discoverability of all relevant information. And “it’s bad for my client” is absolutely not a privilege basis.

    Now, which of these two do most of the problematic facts about church history look like? Is MMM or polyandry or whatever else really within the narrow confines of some privilege? I’ve argued sketchier priv arguments while in practice — hey, you do what you for the client — but I would not consider those to be very strong arguments. They look a lot more like relevant discoverable (albeit harmful) information. In which case, you tell your client, brace yourself, you won’t like it, but we’re really going to have to turn this stuff over to plaintiffs.

  10. The Right Trousers says:

    In the D&C, “evil speaking” is grouped with lying and backbiting. I’ve always considered it as being approximately equivalent to libel or slander. “Defamation” is the encompassing legal term. In most defamation cases, the truth or untruth of the dirty secret doesn’t matter at all.

    The analogy breaks down eventually. Being dead might expose you to legal defamation, but I’m not sure about evil speaking.

  11. Kaimi, your argument is true, but not useful.

    Actually I mean it – your analysis is correct, but it’s a bit of a threadjack and I don’t think the atty/client privilege was central to Oaks’ overall point either in the Whitney interview or in his recent remarks.

  12. “In most defamation cases, the truth or untruth of the dirty secret doesn’t matter at all.”


    I’m not a torts/privacy guy, but isn’t it just the opposite? Isn’t truth a defense in general in defamation cases?

    (Actually, I’m pretty sure it depends to some extent on the type of claim — libel, slander, false light, etc.)

  13. The other night I went to a fireside with Elder Quentin Cook and one thing he mentioned to us that I thought was very interesting was when he related the experience of being called as an apostle. He said that President Hinkley called him into his office and with (somewhat uncharacteristic) seriousness said he was being notified of his appointment to the 12 apostles. This wasn’t a “will you accept this calling?
    meeting. This was a notification that Christ had appointed him.

    My point is, that our general authorities are actually appointed by God and Christ, and I think nit-picking them and speaking ill of them is akin to dissing the Savior.

    I know we’re talking about intellectual honesty and correct historicity, and everyone’s getting all lawyerish, but I agree with

    It is an ongoing temptation to be cruel to past leaders for their limited understandings; sometimes it appears to be like shooting fish in a barrel, particularly when policies or doctrines have changed, and we can look back with the benefit of hindsight.

    I dunno. I guess I’m just pretty much in awe of everyone who at least tries to magnify their callings and teach, preach, lead, guide, and counsel… all for my benefit.

  14. In the Bible, Jude has a couple of fascinating verses concerning those who “speak evil of dignities” and “speak evil of those things which they know not”. When you couple these descriptions with the general counsel of Jesus to “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” I think it is apparent that the worst thing about “evil-speaking history” or criticism of religious leaders is that generally it is undertaken and compiled in a spirit of expose rather than understanding. The result almost always of this type of work is the depreciation of which Elder Oaks speaks.

    All of us are fallen and come short of the glory of God, so it isn’t necessary to focus or dwell on the proof of that fact – particularly if all it accomplishes is to dull our appreciation for the wonderful things some have done. Does knowing Winston Churchill was a rude drunk make any difference in the grand scheme of things? Perhaps so, if it is used to point out his greatness despite his weakness and encourage greatness from us despite our weakness, but if it is used purely to denigrate him, of what use is it?

  15. Nice thoughts, Steve. My own thoughts on this are too scattered, so I’ll have to leave it at that.

  16. The Right Trousers says:

    Ah, Kaimi, you’re right. I learned something new today. There are classes of invasion of privacy that are as I claimed, but defamation ain’t one of them.

    Thus we see where drawing legal analogies to the commandments of God gets us.

  17. Going beyond that, I do think that LDS Church members have an obligation — for some, a covenant — to avoid practices that tear down the Kingdom of God.

    What if you are criticizing a practice of the Church iniated by The Brethren that you strongly believe is retarding the building of the Kingdom of God. For example, many Church members leaders were very critical of the ban.

    Or what about other Church leaders? Are they banned from criticizing their colleagues (ex. Brown occasionally publicly criticized Benson’s over-the-top anti-Communist practice and rhetoric)?

    Over the weekend I bought Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball.

    If you wait a little. An “author’s cut” is in the works for publication that will replace Deseret Books many edits and extremely odd warning/preface.

  18. Elder Oak’s argument itself — the mere existence of this reasoning — shows how far the debate has moved.

    In the Good Old Days — to simplify horribly — there were two common responses to questions about church history. “It’s all anti-Mormon lies,” and “just ignore that stuff.” And they were relatively effective responses, too. They fit the then-extant facts. A few decades back, the New Mormon history was still in its adolescence, and professional anti’s like the Tanners — easy to dismiss — were a much greater proportion of people discussing problems in church history.

    And a few decades back, the limits in technology meant that it was really easy to go through life without ever hearing the problems — and relatively difficult to look things up, even if one was curious. If I wanted to know about JS wives in 1980, but didn’t know about Sunstone or Dialogue, what was I to do? Read Brodie? Brodie is easy enough to marginalize — and then, what’s left?

    Those conditions have changed, completely. Today, there is a variety of very good, well-written history out there — non-axe-grindy, professional, competent stuff like Helen Whitney or Richard Bushman. There are a variety of very good books from scholarly presses like Illinois and Oklahoma and Oxford. And it’s all very, very easy to access. The books are easy to find, thanks to Google and Amazon. They’re made even easier by the proliferation of blogs. The same for good material at Sunstone or Dialogue or JMH.

    The appearance of Elder Oak’s argument is, I think, a tacit admission that previously effective lines of defense may no longer be effective in some (many?) cases, and thus there is a perceived need to develop more complex, sophisticated arguments for the new environment. “Ignore it” and “it’s all lies” will not be effective defenses against potentially harmful, true (and easily verifiable) information in the information age. Elder Oaks’ statements represent an attempt to develop new counter-arguments.

    (These actually date back to at least the 80s and the original true-but-not-useful statement. Their revival now may signal a new prominence for this idea.)

    He’s got his work cut out for him. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young could damn their enemies with much simpler arguments. “It’s all lies, damn you” is extremely clean and easy, as argument goes.

    (Did Joseph Smith or Brigham Young ever say, true-but-not-useful? Not that I’m aware of — but I’d love to see a link, if they did.)

    On the other hand, Elder Oaks’ “it’s true, but it’s not something that should be talked about” is an argument that can be asserted — and is potentially conceptually coherent — but which is much less intuitive, and is therefore, I think, harder for people to accept.

  19. First I believe we need to differentiate between history that criticizes, or that has a political end in itself, and history or biography that tells a complete narrative of a person or event, “warts and all.”

    Steve – I’m not sure we can separate these things as neatly as you posit. Historical narratives, and the arguments they make, are the results of the questions that historians ask, which invariably resemble any particular historian’s ideas about what is important about the past. What is important about the past to a believing Mormon historian is different than what is important to a Lutheran writing a history of the settlement of the West or a Catholic writing about nineteenth century communal experiments. The important thing – on the part of the historian as well as the reader – is to be aware of these sorts of biases.

    The problem is, of course, when the bias becomes so large as to corrupt the way evidence is handled. There is no hard and fast rule here; it’s something that has to be taken case by case. A relevant distinction here might be between Mormons who want faith promoting history and Mormons who are striving to work according the standards of the professional historian, who cannot footnote the hand of God. The first doesn’t even attempt to grasp at objectivity; the second tries (because we must try), but of course there’s seepage, and the boundaries between the two are blurred because of that. Folks like Richard Abanes don’t try for objectivity either, of course, and their history is flawed for the same reason as Church History in the Fulness of Times is, just at the opposite end of the scale.

    Anyhow, you also use words like “cruel” and “criticize” and “tear down” and “pithy pot shots.” I’d actually argue that these are already bad historical practice; being charitable with your subjects means attempting to understand their motivations, and treating them as fairly as possible. Is it cruel to point out that Brigham Young shared in the biases of his time? I don’t think it is. It is cruel, but also bad history, to breathlessly cry, “Look! Brigham was a RACIST!” while pretending that the mores of his time were the same as our own. So on this, I think I’m on board.

  20. I’d be up to blogging from my reading of it as I go. Consider it putting Elder Oaks’ advice into practice.

    I vote yes!

    Kaimi: I think you make a mistake by assuming that Oaks’ point is a defense to “problems” in church history. That horse is out of the barn. Rather than a belated attempt to slam the barn door, Oaks seems to me to be trying to accomplish something completely different. We can argue about what his goal is, but “an attempt to develop new counter-arguments against potentially harmful, true (and easily verifiable) information” would be a fools errand and, as Oaks is no fool, I think we can be sure that is not what he is after here.

  21. MCQ,

    Perhaps it’s better characterized as damage control: Elder Oaks gives reasons why, even though the horse has left the barn, we ought not talk about the horse. And perhaps by implication, why those who _do_ talk about the horse may potentially find themselves in trouble.

    If those who do talk about the horse can be delegitimized (as speakers of the un-useful) then perhaps not as many other members will notice the horse.

    But you’re right — either way, the horse isn’t going back into the barn.

  22. The Right Trousers says:

    When exactly did the horse leave the barn, anyway? I mean, it’s obviously out frolicking amongst the daisies as we speak, but when did it leave? Also, what exactly is the horse?

  23. Steve,

    This is an important discussion; I think the evil speaking phrase means imputing evil motives or a lack of authority to a leader in the Church, so as to give the impression that s/he is not worth following. The tricky thing is, context matters a great deal here. If I were to publish Brigham Young’s racist statements without accompanying those statements with a recognition of their context in frontier America, people in our time might arrive at the conclusion that he was unfit to lead, or that his calling was somehow a mistake.
    I wholeheartedly agree with the “true but not useful” phrase, but unfortunately, thanks to Google, that phrase is now true but not useful. Anyone with a question about Mormonism and an Internet connection is likely to come across the ugly facts of Church history, and when they do, they will be much better off if they can arrive at spectacular LDS blogs like Mormon Mentality, where the permabloggers show an awareness of the ugly facts but also a steady commitment to the Church. Saying “ignore it” will not help the Googler; only an honest recognition of the warts coupled with a testimony of the greater gospel.
    Lengthen Your Stride is one of my favorite books, probably because SWK is my favorite prophet of our dispensation. He’ll probably be yours as well by the time you’re finished with that book. Also, watch for some serious coolness on the part of Bruce R. McConkie and Boyd K. Packer in the chapters that deal with the priesthood ban.

  24. I heard once in RS that one of our Prophets used to pull little girls braids when he was in elementary school. This came from the daughter of one of the little girl victims. That may be true but it is certainly not useful information. However I can see it potentially being used as an example of his “attitude toward women” if an unsympathetic historian were to hear it. GAs are human and their foibles are no worse than most of our own. What is worth discussing is the affect the mantle of leadership has on them.

  25. I guess I am thinking more of casual pot-shots or pithy put-downs, which tend to serve little purpose than to establish the moral superiority of the speaker.

    I think we could all agree that this is wrong, but it seems inappropriate to do really to ANYONE, and hence it may not be what Oaks is getting at since he is clearly setting apart church leaders from other leaders, I can’t imagine an apostle of Christ would suggest pot-shots are ever okay.

    (a) in the absence of certainty, we should be willing to give the Church the benefit of the doubt, (b) it speaks poorly of us if all we can remember from our history are goof-ups (and worse),

    Shouldn’t we try to understand EVERYONE and their actions in context, giving them the benefit of the doubt, not just limiting ourselves to church leaders?

    The issue is, Oaks is drawing a distinction for church leaders and he must be getting at something more limiting than the ideas you have suggested, because they could fairly be applied to everyone – hence, no reason to make a “class by itself” for church leaders.

    It’s pretty easy to talk about what we shouldn’t do to church leaders, but nothing suggested so far shouldn’t really be applied to the rest of humanity. I am interested in criticism that is okay of my boss and my neighbor, but Oaks would not have of my church leader because they are in a class by themselves.

  26. Steve Evans says:

    Great thoughts guys, keep em coming.

    Matt (#19), I know what you mean about bias recognition; of course anytime history is written by humans we’re going to run into that problem (which is why I read only robot-compiled history!). But sometimes recognizing the bias is just not enough. You can’t compensate for omitting key facts or demonizing people just by saying in a preface or conclusion, “btw I am not objective.” But I suspect we’re largely in agreement here.

    The comment re pot-shots, etc. is largely aimed at blogs, brief articles and shorter publications where the dialog tends to become more, er, informal. We let our guard down a lot more in blog comments, and sometimes it’s easy to get carried away… speaking from experience.

    Mel S, good thoughts – I agree that the Gospel (and Elder Oaks) imposes a burden to be kind to everyone, for that is right, you see.

  27. My favorite biographies up to this point have been the ones of Kimball and McKay, as well as the memoir Arrington did of himself. I didn’t enjoy RSR as much, but I think it has more to do with the period of time and familiarity with the material than with the book itself. The one I like the most was McKay’s book, which is also the one I disagree with the most. (Lingering Questions remain as to why McKay’s vision of Christ was not mentioned, and as to why Hugh B. Brown is sometimes characterized as being conspiratorial despite what he himself said) But still, it was extremely interesting and well written, and gave me a greater love for McKay than I otherwise had.

    My point being that some find this biography too critical of the church. I guess I wonder where the line is between being critical and telling it like it is.

  28. A couple of points – first, Elder Oaks could make this much easier for me if he would clarify what is doctrine. For example, was polygamy/polyandry doctrine (i.e. god given revelation) or was it a mistake that we really don’t need to bring up over and over again? If it was a “folly”, then he’s right….let it alone. If it was/is doctrine, you can’t just say “don’t talk about it” because it is restorationally relevant. Second, while I very much respect Elder Oaks and those here who seem to agree with him, this whole “true but not useful” mantra simply sucks and I wish it would go away. It feels dirty to me when applied to anything except personal folly/weakness (Elder Oaks seems to be applying it much more broadly). And even then, who cares if people figure out church leaders were human? That too is inspiring! Elder Oaks (Elder Packer and others) seem to feel that if people find out our church leaders are/were anything but the Disney-like image we have created for them, the world will end. I humbly disagree…and feel that we do a huge disservice by not letting our members see more imperfection.

    Finally, I personally know corporate officers who have tried to conceal things that were true, but not very useful. The business world and justice system do not tolerate this theme, why should mormonism?

  29. Steve, I enjoyed this post. I’m wondering how much this should apply to our local leaders, our EQP, our bishop, our stake president, etc.

    In a free society, I think it’s silly to say we should never question anything they say, offer positive advice, etc. But I think we can safely say we should not gossip, blatantly put them down or deliberately try to undermine them, either in conversation or in a blog post or even in our thoughts. I have personally found that when a local leader does or says something I disagree with or find silly, if I concentrate on their positive characters the overwhelming desire to criticize them kind of dissipates.

    Just yesterday my quorum leader held a meeting that was definitely a half-hour too long. Now, the spiteful old me would have gone home and complained to my wife about it and said what an idiot the guy is. The new hopeful me decided to just push those thoughts out of my mind and concentrate on doing my calling as best as possible, and, guess what, I didn’t even mention to my wife anything negative about the guy.

    Again, this does not mean positive, constructive criticism should not be encouraged. At some point, in the right setting, I might say, “hey, is there any way we can make the meetings a bit shorter?” But we can all see the difference between a positive approach and a murmuring approach.

    It seems to me that this is exactly what we should be doing with the prophet and his counselors and the apostles and on down. There are times when constant criticizing, complaining, murmuring says more about the complainer than it does about the complainee.

  30. Geoff B., I tend to agree. I would also think that we should have active consciences and should be able to decry real abuses, crimes or other substantive problems if they arise — but I don’t think that’s what Elder Oaks is really getting at.

    re: 1/2 hour too long, you’re a far more patient man than I.

  31. Wow. That last sentence. Just wow. It’s all very Orwellian. Sorry Oaksie, I’ll keep my truth, you can coat the rest of them with sugar if you’d like. That’s what I thought religion was all about…truth. Otherwise it’s just a cult of personality (cult of personality, cult of personality, cult of personalllllity.)

  32. lol Ronito, Living Colour!

    I have to agree that the final sentence is a real doozy. Context matters, though, and I am willing to admit that not all truths about all things should be shouted from the rooftops.

  33. Steve–I think we agree, though we might phrase things differently. Obviously, I am in favor of making specific critiques of _MD_ because I truly believes it damages the Church. But I try (and there are moments I fail) to remember one of the great moments in Mormon history–the moment when Elder McConkie bore his last testimony. When I met with some sister missionaries last Thursday, we sant “Oui, je croix en Crist” (correct the French if I’ve got it wrong). I have a memory which they don’t have: that of Elder McConkie rising with great difficulty–he had been advised against attending conference because his cancer had spread lethally–and speaking the words of that song. It is a tender memory.

    My own way of addressing the one issue I am now so tightly bonded to is to provide context. If we present BY as a uniquely racist man whose every action was colored (no pun intended) by his hatred of Blacks, he becomes a straw man. If we put him in the real time frame, within a nation which was on the verge of Civil War over the issue of states’ rights and ultimately of slavery, he is speaking from the same tradition most other religious leaders spoke from. I view BY as a remarkable leader and colonizer–who happened to share the common racism of his day.

    One of the great fears of loyal Church members is that if their children or their congregations learn that a Prophet said one thing which wasn’t true, a level of trust has been violated–so it’s better to never reveal anything which a Prophet did or said which wasn’t right and good. Thus we open the door for our children to discover it all on their own (easy to do) and feel betrayed not only by Church leaders, but by us. Kevin Barney has talked eloquently about inoculation. I think your post and his should be read together.

  34. StillConfused says:

    Telling someone not to criticise, even if true, confuses me. If something is bad/wrong/offensive and we turn a blind eye in the name of religion, I view that as the bigger sin. It makes me think of the sex crimes that get glossed over in the name of religion.

  35. StillConfused says:

    If BY was a bigot, I say call him on it. He is human, not Christ. (The more I learn about the early prophets, the more disillusioned I become).

  36. #28 – “Elder Oaks (Elder Packer and others) seem to feel that if people find out our church leaders are/were anything but the Disney-like image we have created for them, the world will end.”

    adcama, that simply isn’t the sentiment anywhere in Elder Oaks’ words.

  37. Ronito-

    It’s true, that last sentence is radioactive, but I personally try to apply the Golden Rule here. On my mission and afterwards, I have served in callings where I have had amazing experiences in Church service. But I wonder- would I have had some of the experiences I’ve had if the people I was serving thought my calling was a mistake because they found out what a turd I had been just a few years previous in my teenage years?
    I have plenty of unfortunate episodes in my past, instances where I have said or done things I really regret. I don’t think it would help anyone I serve in the Church to know those things, even if they are true.
    With the general authorities of the Church, I like to know the regrettable things they have said or done, primarily so I can keep from being blindsided by critics of the Church. Prophets and apostles have said and done things in the past that affect the Church negatively to this day, and they need 1) our forgiveness, and 2) our ability to offer thoughtful explanations and context on their behalf, like Margaret did for BY in #33.

  38. Krys Corbett says:

    It seems different to me to deprecate or depreciate or devalue an office — or what the office represents — than to mention that someone is wrong.

    So if we point out a weakness of Brigham Young’s that doesn’t really take away from the prophetic role, shouldn’t that be okay? Say he was a bit overweight (judging from historical photos, could be true). That is only a problem comes when everything — including what BY ate for breakfast — somehow becomes part of his prophetic role.

  39. Okay, Ray….maybe they don’t believe the world will end, but surely you get my point. What does EO mean by “true but not useful” if it’s not create an image of a person or historical occurance by only telling “positive” or “faith promoting” or “heroic” events to present the audience with a Disney-like (i.e. feel good, only positive, Little House on the Prairie) impression? Why, pray tell, even bother bemoaning the apparent tell-all-ing of those “un-useful” things if the point is not to push for church history/leaders to be portrayed in a certain…ahem, Disney-like way?

  40. Margaret, I really appreciate your thoughts on this. Clearly the issue of blacks and the priesthood is one context where the temptation to speak ill can arise, and I think your remarks were pretty thoughtful. I love the idea of pairing Elder Oaks’ ideas with Kevin’s regarding inoculation. The two concepts are fairly complementary, I think, and would lead us to both appreciate a fuller view of history and a more faith-enhancing one.

    Krys, I am not sure that we can differentiate so easily between a given office and the person in that office. If we completely conflate the two, suddenly a prophet is always a prophet. But if we form some artificial dividing line in our minds between a leader and their calling, then we risk error in discarding important truths as that person’s individual musings, as well as completely opening the door to all sorts of ad hominem attacks under the pretense that we’re not depreciating the “office.”

  41. #39 – We simply disagree on this one. There is a huge difference, imo, between bringing up negative things that have no bearing on one’s prophetic calling (like Dan’s description of himself in #37) and painting a Disney-esque picture of glossed-over perfection. Rough Stone Rolling is a great example, and I’ve never heard any apostolic attacks on it.

  42. Dan,
    The golden rule is golden but it’s also at times yellow. If I was a bigot then reformed, then called me a reformed bigot. If I was a bigot that didn’t then call me one that didn’t. Keep in mind there were plenty of people in BY’s time that were not racist.

    I get called out on my past mistakes and I don’t mind it. It’s part of my mistakes and it’s just to call me what I was. Also it’s not like people jump on BY, Ezra Taft, or other prophets for things he did during his teenaged years. He/they were adult men, accountable for their choices just as I am and in most cases kept to the .

    Fact is if I say something bigotted or sexist, or grossly unfair then I expect to be called on it. It’s part of being an adult. Why should prophets be excluded? If anything they should be held to a higher standard than me, do they not have more “light” than me?

    Voltaire said it best when he said, “We owe respect to the living, to the dead only truth.” The mantle of priesthood responsibility is not a cape to hide behind. Call a spade a spade.

    As for offering explanations and context. At a certain point it’s hard to tell where context and explanations end and where excuses begin.

  43. Ray, check out Bushman’s “On the Road with Joseph Smith.” He’s careful in what he says, but it is clear that not all GAs were happy with the frankness of his book. I think it would be a mistake to suggest that there is unanimity on where the “line that can’t be crossed” is, even at the highest levels of the church.

  44. Ray, if we’re simply talking about mistakes that have no bearing on one’s propehtic calling, then you’re absolutely right. No need to bring up the fact that Elder So-and-So committed sin x, y or z, if it’s not relevant to the church as a doctrinal issue. It’s pointless and doesn’t bring us closer to Christ.

    Where I part ways is when that “mistake” had/has direct bearing on church policy, was laid out as a “revelation” or is directly linked to our restorational history. As I said in my original comment, “true but not useful” would be better tolerated if there was a clear distinction between what was “revelation” and what was “mistake” (take the polygamy/polyandry issue for example). If it was a mistake, fine….no need to keep rehashing it – bringing attention to Joseph’s frailties, etc. But if it was revelation and doctrine – the church has some sort of fiduciary responsibility to tell all relevant/contextual details so that people can decide for themselves what to do with that revelation….or with the church as a whole. To tell only positive facts when telling a restorational story with doctrinal relevance, is not honest….and that’s the line I feel EO, E. Packer and others come too close to crossing.

  45. Ronito, I don’t think anyone is really disagreeing with you here. But I do think that context and purpose matter a great deal. Mormon historians have a particular burden, I believe, to tell the truth but to also consider their truth-telling within the context of what will best serve future generations of Church members.

    adcama, “that’s the line I feel EO, E. Packer and others come too close to crossing” is a pretty funny turn of phrase. I think you’re misapplying the concept of fiduciary duty, fwiw, although I do agree that all Church leaders have a duty of real candor and honesty that is integral to their direction of the Church as a whole. This duty to be truth-tellers, however, is not their sole duty, nor is it ours.

  46. #43 – I never said there was unanimity on where the line is. I simply said I believe there is a line – that what Elder Oaks said has merit and is correct in principle.

    #44 – “As I said in my original comment, “true but not useful” would be better tolerated if there was a clear distinction between what was “revelation” and what was “mistake”.”

    That’s where we differ. I don’t think there is any way that anyone can make that distinction without the aid of revelation. All we can do is examine everything available and reach a personal conclusion. I wish it were as easy as letting modern prophets tell us exactly what was right and wrong from other prophets’ words, but that would require trusting one prophet’s words in critique of another’s. Do you really think you would blithely accept the modern prophet’s words if you didn’t agree with them?

    I don’t mean that as a snarky comment; I’m dead serious. In essence, what you are saying is, “I reject the words of a former prophet, so I wish a modern prophet would publicly agree with me and let everyone know that I am right.” Do you think you would thank the modern prophet if the line he drew (for example, regarding polygamy) didn’t match your view of it?

    That ain’t gonna happen without direct revelation – like with the lifting of the priesthood ban. Everything else is left up to us to determine on our own, and I am glad of that.

  47. Ray (#44) wonders if plural marriage may have been a mistake. Do most here believe that it was? Do most here believe that the ban on priesthood was a mistake?


  48. Oops that was adcama in #44. Steve

  49. Steve, you gotta do something to make your nickname a little more distinctive….

  50. Here’s one to chew on: in his memoir, An Abundant Life, Hugh B. Brown frequently and almost savagely criticizes some of his colleagues in the Quorum of the Twelve. It’s wrong to publicly criticize the Brethren, but what about publicly criticizing a member of the Brethren for publicly criticizing other members of the Brethren? I’m not going to touch that one myself, but if someone else wants to have at it…

  51. Jamie, and yet that memoir was really, really great and uplifting, too, wasn’t it. Odd stuff.

  52. It isn’t just HBB. Think about the public feuds between BY and O. Pratt, B.H. Roberts and Reed Smoot, J. Rueben Clark and Reed Smoot, etc.

  53. Yeah….in every general conference, ‘been warned against crossing lines. Perhaps informed consent….hell, I don’t know other than it feels wrong for church leaders to be anything but completely honest and candid…even when it hurts.

  54. Steve Graham says:


    How about this?

    Steve Graham

  55. I love it.

  56. Utahn in CT says:

    Regarding Steve’s question (#47), I’d counter with another question: can one be a believing Mormon (however one defines “believing”) and be agnostic on the rightness/wrongness of plural marriage and the priesthood ban? One can give all sorts of historical, sociological, etc explanations for them. For each issue “It is what it is”, as people say around here.

  57. #53 – and I go back to charity. Truth is truth, but truth used only to hurt is more than truth. It is a weapon, and sometimes it’s best simply to lay down one’s weapons and refuse to fight.

    I hesitated to submit my last comment, because, while I feel it is true, I also feel like it was right on (or over) the edge of becoming a personal attack. It was a bit of a struggle, but I ended up deciding to leave it as worded. I’m not certain that was the right decision, but . . .

    I really don’t have any more to say, since anything more really would become no more than a fight. It might be true, but it wouldn’t be useful.

  58. #44 – love the distinction between revelation of doctrine and mistake, and if it is doctrine, I want the truth, and I’ll decide if it is useful or not.

    We have an obligation to assume the best motives for church leaders and to consider them and their statements and decisions in context, but I don’t think that puts them in a class by themselves, so isn’t EO asking for a degree of white-washing? What determines whether the truth “matters”?

  59. Mel S, you are asking a tremendously important question. I would imagine that the answer is inevitably determined by following the Spirit, but I recognize that’s not a particularly helpful answer in terms of pre-establishing criteria for what truth gets disclosed.

  60. adcama, I just reread #57 and realized I didn’t type my very first thought after reading your #53. It was:

    Thanks. I understand and can respect that.

    I’m sorry I forgot that. It makes #57 a very different comment – the one that I intended when I wrote it.

  61. Wait. If we’re all afraid of the truth and setting conditions on it….isn’t that a bad sign?

  62. Pretty good post, Steve, an idea that I have been thinking about recently. I once took personal umbrage at a similar comment by Elder Packer, where he said “Not all truths are of the same value”. Sorry, don’t have the current reference to that, but I’ll try and dig it out later.

    This is a complicated issue, as the comments have shown, but I think that the key is in motive, as you indicate in this comment from your post:

    Going beyond that, I do think that LDS Church members have an obligation — for some, a covenant — to avoid practices that tear down the Kingdom of God.

    If I sometimes get frustrated, I think it is important to remember that my ultimate reason for being a member of the church is that to me it is the only way to exaltation and eternal life. There are so many ways that I am currently “depreciating” that reason in the things that I sometimes say or do. Truth is good, but I know my own weaknesses, and I should be as charitable as possible about the weaknesses I perceive in others before opening my mouth. The wording of Elder Oaks comment gives me heartburn at first glance, but I totally understand it in context, I believe. Thanks for this intelligent post, and the great responses from all.

  63. ronito, I think your criticism here is an interesting illustration of the problem. For the most part you seem adversarial, argumentative. It is one thing to disagree and an entirely other thing to be disagreeable. You offer much in the way of criticism (using words about Disney, etc.) but do nto offer a viable alternative solution with any solid reasoning behind it. In this way, you are criticizing, but for what purpose? To tear down? I would ask, in offering criticism, “what good can this do? How can I best approach this?”

    A good example comes from a young woman I spoke with at a student ward function. We were talking about different apostles and she brought up a fireside at Utah State where an apostle had made a comment to the women, that some of them could stand to try a little harder in the way of looking presentable, rather than walking around with wet hair and sweat pants, etc. He said some of them looked like “death warmed over.” This young woman was the type who never wears makeup, etc. (mildly feminist as well) and she was pretty offended.

    Now what could she do? She could start a blog about it, make a lot of noise, dislike the apostle, etc. Instead, she wrote him a letter expressing her sadness at his remarks, that she thought the pressure shouldn’t be on for women to try to be more worldly, etc. This apostle contacted her and had her meet with him in person where he explained and also apologized.

    Anyway, take it for what it is worth.

  64. Ronito,

    I’m not sure that we are “afraid of the truth”. If I find evidence that Brigham Young spoke and acted with racist undertones, do I decide that is the most important aspect of his work and accomplishments? I think not.

    My dad had racist tendencies, and I still respect and love him for all the good things he did. He was a great example in so many other ways. I put his occasional comments in context with the rest of his life, including an award from the Air Force for his work with a group of black workers in the 1950’s. He’s complicated. But he ultimately turned away from those statements, and all the good he did and taught becomes way more important to me.

  65. Ronito,

    I agree- if a Church leader’s mistakes affect our doctrine or policies, then they are both true and useful, as is the case with Church leaders’ racism.
    That said, this doesn’t not free us from an obligation to provide context.

  66. INTJ Mom says:

    It seems to me that Oaks and other church leaders make a mistake by expecting people to start from the premise “the church is true”, therefore anything that is true, but not faith promoting, isn’t useful and needn’t be talked about.

    However, that’s faulty reasoning. In order to attempt to discern the truth about something, you have to start from a neutral position and then examine all the available evidence to see where it leads.

  67. INTJ Mom, it’s not a mistake for Elder Oaks to start with the premise that the Church is true, particularly when they are addressing Church members in their capacities as Apostles of that religion. I think you are perhaps confused.

  68. BHodges. Put simply, as Tom Cruise would say, I want the truth! Isn’t that what religion is all about? The quest for truth.

    I’m saying we should treat apostles and presidents with the same amount of deference as we treat ourselves. As a grown man, I can take my hits. They should take theirs. As is often stated the difference between catholics and mormons is that Catholics say the Pope is infallible and none of them believe it. Mormons say their prophet is fallible, and none of them believe it.

    I don’t want facts to be shunned, glossed over, sugar coated or whatever. We owe it to our church to have the truth. Yes, context is part of it, and it is important to put things in their time, but to qualify and make excuses is just as bad as demonizing. But to make cautionary statements concerning facts is like saying, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”. I expect better. The truth is what it is.

  69. BHodges, Disney is on me….no offense intended.

  70. ronito, no offense is meant here, but your #68 is the kind of trite refrain about intellectual honesty that I have heard a million times. It sounds really great in the abstract, but once you start getting into the weeds of Church history and consider whether or not you are doing the right thing, the concept of “taking hits” seems facile.

  71. True, but I’m not a historian. I can afford to be trite. Ha ha!

  72. heh!

  73. Re #66 – It’s perhaps not reasonable to expect Elder Oaks to begin from a neutral position. But is it reasonable/right for Elder Oaks (and church leaders) to expect those still learning and evaluating the church’s truth claims to start from “the church is true” premise?

    And it doesn’t seem right to provide only “useful” truths (again, relevant, blah, blah) to those starting from a neutral premise in order to….well, you know.

  74. adcama, the question isn’t really relevant. Elder Oaks and church leaders will use that premise; they always have and always will, and when their remarks are directed to adherents of a religion that they lead, it’s entirely reasonable for them to start with the premise that their religion is valid and true. Honestly I am struck that anybody would expect otherwise. But don’t confuse the context; when speaking to those investigating the Church or to those outside the Church, LDS leaders are typically very careful about their assumptions and premises.

  75. I think the demand for the unvarnished truth is naive and simplistic. In the first place, it is harder to get at than many people seem to think. Ask three eyewitnesses about something they saw this afternoon and you will get three different versions. And if we all told our spouses every day exactly what we were thinking and pointed out every single instance where we thought they were in error, we would all be divorced within the month.

    I love my wife, so it is worth it for me to give her the benefit of the doubt. And even when it is necessary to acknowledge error, it is possible to do it in a way that maintains and builds the relationship.

    I think the church is worth loving in the same way, and I believe that is what Elder Oaks is asking for.

  76. To Steve’s question (#47), if we can know the truthfulness or goodness of something by its fruits (Alma 32), what fruits do we see from polygamy and from the priesthood restriction? Some good, some bad? Some hidden, some obvious? All bad? All ambiguous? All two-sided? Can good come from both of the practices–even if they were wrong?

  77. Margaret, could you please instead post some goofy youtube links or something? I am not sure that I can handle any more reasonable and profound comments today.

  78. Wish I had time to craft a decent response to this important topic. Both DHO’s comment and your recapitulation still feels too black and white to be useful. Dozens of caveats spring to mind. Without more nuance, I feel the blanket “no evil speaking” or “no criticism” tenor creates just as many new/different problems as it was seeking to avoid.

    As for Lengthen Your Stride, count me in the “go for it” camp. I’ve skimmed through it, both the printed text and the CD-Rom text. Which text will you be reviewing?

  79. Matt, I’ll go off the printed text and supplement with CD-ROM finds as I go, I think.

  80. Krys Corbett says:

    Steve (evans, #40) —

    At the risk of being way behind here in the discussion:

    You’re right that it isn’t easy to differentiate between a given office and the person in that office. It sounded like you thought it was necessary to have some distinction, but you didn’t think “person/ office” was the right one. (I agree, saying “I respect the office of a bishop but my bishop is an evil person at his core doesn’t really respect the office.)

    For example, we can say that parts of Mormon Doctrine are (at least with benefit of hindsight) wrong — without denigrating/deprecating/depreciating/disrespecting the office of apostle.

    Without something separating what is intended to be prophetic counsel from personal musings, then what do you do when an apostle is objectively and verifiably wrong? If intellectually my only choice is to say “apostles are never wrong,” then as soon as someone makes a mistake about whether a man will be on the moon, or the meaning of a greek word, or some piece of archaeological evidence, and I can’t separate the person and the position, what do I do?

  81. Steve Evans says:

    Krys, I have no non-glib answers for your question, unfortunately, except to suggest that I don’t think apostles are wrong with extremity and regularity such that rational people couldn’t figure out how to deal with it.

  82. As per your request, Steve, here is a you-tube which shows the dangers of becoming angry. It applies to everything. It also shows the dangers of deception. There are some bad words in it, but they’ve been bleeped out.
    [embarrassingly profane and secular link deleted at poster’s request]

  83. Oh dang! I didn’t look at the comments! They have bad words which have NOT been bleeped. Steve, delete that comment (#82), please. You can find the you-tube on a google search of Edward Norton and Kimmel .

  84. Margaret Young: You being worried about non bleeped out bad words has got to be one of the cutest things I’ve seen all day.

  85. Peter LLC says:

    I’m talking about George Washington or any other case. If he had an affair with a girl when he was a teenager, I don’t need to read that when I’m trying to read a biography of the Founding Father of our nation.

    Ain’t that the truth. I once told a sweet young woman of Zion about my teenage romps (She asked–what could I do?) and it went over like a lead zeppelin. That was the last time I ever played it slow and tight with the truth. Now when asked, my past is a burnished trajectory moving from good to great.

  86. David Clark says:

    You being worried about non bleeped out bad words has got to be one of the cutest things I’ve seen all day.

    It also goes right to the heart of this whole post. If we are going to be so worried that we hear a few naughty words is it any wonder that our history will be given to us whitewashed and sugar coated?

  87. David, time for us to all become J. Golden Kimball researchers.

  88. I’m left with many unanswered questions in regard to Elder Oaks’ comment. So is it the media, scholars, bloggers, the haters, or the mormon faithful at large he’s targeting with this comment? and does he mean that its unhelpful to criticize or depreciate a church leader that is dead or living, or both? And does criticism for him always constitute “evil speaking”?

    I understand that sometimes the truth hurts, and we all tell white lies to avoid offending others. You know you do it; most of you did it just yesterday when your spouse asked you how she looked right before walking out the door to go to church! Haha, just kidding, but you know what I’m talking about.

    But how far should we extend Oaks’ remark? According to the article, he was warning the members “to be skeptical when reading media stories about church history.” Do blog posts constitute media stories? What about scholarly works? or Sunstone papers? I can see how the sloppy, sensational journalism of the popular media can lead to mischaracterization, decontextualization, etc., all of which can be detrimental to the Church and its leaders. But what about publications that attempt to responsibly use facts? In this circumstance, who decides which are the “helpful” facts and which are not?

    So many questions, so few answers. I hope my tone suggests that I’m speaking in earnest here, not in derision. I WANT to understand and support E. Oaks here. There’s just this nagging feeling inside that makes me uncomfortable with that “money quote”.

  89. The 1985 CES symposium address is available here.

  90. Steve…#74, that’s what I thought I said.

  91. David Clark says:

    David, time for us to all become J. Golden Kimball researchers.

    Correction: it’s about damn time for us to all become J. Golden Kimball researchers.

  92. Thanks Justin, I was hoping you’d help.

  93. Latter-day Guy says:

    Thanks, Margaret, for that link. (Or, I suppose, the allusion to that link.) It brightened a day which had been spent mostly at Lucifer’s own lasagna factory. Bless you.

  94. Lucifer is Italian?

  95. That’s a spicy-a meatball!

  96. Steve, I will no longer be able to participate in BCC if you allow words like d–n to be used. If David Clark wants to use that word in the privacy of his own home, that’s fine, but BCC could be accessed by NON-Mormons, who could infer that we all sanction such language. FOR NON-MORMONS: WE DON’T.

    P.S. to David (#91): You’ve just tapped a subject I can speak to for hours. It is magnificently addressed (though with great subtlety) in Reynolds Price’s “Endless Mountains.” But that’s for another time.

  97. oh great, now we can’t even say din at BCC, first Oaks and his sugar now this…oh wait…

  98. Thanks for the laugh, Margaret.

  99. Latter-day Guy says:

    RE 94,

    I don’t think so, but the lasagna (such as it is) isn’t very Italian either. Frozen, extraordinarily substandard. It is pseudo-lasagna, twisted for evil.

    “Do you know how [this frozen food] first came into being? They were [lasagnas] once, taken by the dark powers. Tortured and mutilated: a ruined and terrible form of [cuisine].” Perhaps the factory is just owned by Sarumon, not Melkor himself.

  100. Kevin Barney says:

    I like Margaret’s idea of responding to this issue not by absolute omission of uncomfortable facts, but by putting such facts in a full (and non-presentist) context.

  101. According to the article, he was warning the members “to be skeptical when reading media stories about church history.”

    It seems to me that the church, under the direction of it’s leaders has been able to “spin” church history, while crying foul when the media, historians and others “counter-spin” material illustrating an earthier reality.

    And; the church’s leadership has discipled or censored it’s own historians who have sought to reduce “spin” by telling a more complex and complete accounts of it’s history.

    With the advent of the internet, a new information age is forcing the church and it’s leaders to begin to more honestly and fully portray it’s history. Obvious changes are occurring.

    When E. Oaks and others claim special privilege — that they are exempt from criticism — while their approach towards truth in history have been questionable — seems somewhat ironic.

  102. Coming too late to the discussion, as usual, I think there are a few things that we all need to remember when evaluating history. First, that historical narrative and truth are not synonymous terms. Historians come to every historical narrative critically because we know how much humanity is involved in the creation of historical accounts. We also know how much humanity existed in the past. Second, we must always remember that history is created for a reason–even if that reason is neither antagonistic or faith-promoting. There is no such thing as value-neutral history. That being said, I think Elder Oaks is trying to help us, who have faith in the Church’s spiritual claims, to give its leaders the benefit of the doubt. Yes, BY might have said some racist things, but if he was a prophet of God such statements only go to show the humanity of someone like me who was trying to do his best to follow the Lord. By focusing exclusively on the negative, it makes it hard to believe that he had any redeeming qualities at all and could serve as a heavenly appointed leader. I think the only way to truly evaluate spiritual claims is through spiritual discernment because it is only through the spirit that we can get enough of the full picture to make a truly informed decision. History as a intellectual endeavor is equipped only to recognize and document the human and sociological elements of the past. I find that EO has a much more nuanced understanding of what history truly is than most.

  103. …discipled or censored it’s own historians who have sought to reduce “spin” by telling a more complex and complete accounts of it’s history.

    Honestly, I can’t think of a single case when the Church has disciplined one of it’s historians for reducing spin.

  104. #103 – and I can’t think of any instances where anyone has been discipled for doing it, either. (Sorry, the typo is just too good to ignore.)

  105. While I’ve been frequenting this blog for several years, this is my first post. While I understand this is not a simple issue, but I have a concern akin to that expressed by adcama (#73).

    Given that the Lord has told us that an important litmus test for discerning true prophets from false ones is objective analysis of their fruits, it’s a little disconcerting when our apostles and prophets justify censoring information about their fruits. DO doesn’t seem to be advocating merely for fair or charitable history. IMHO, it seems to betray a worry that examination of our leaders’ fruits might undermine their prophet status. On a gut level, that lack of confidence just doesn’t sit well.

    I take much more comfort when our leaders express a willingness and openness to be judged by their fruits. As J. Reuben Clark might say: “If we have the truth, [it] cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” Let chips fall where they may.

  106. Novice, I agree with J. Reuben Clark’s statement 100%. I don’t think it’s in opposition to what Elder Oaks said.

    There is a huge difference between “by their fruits ye shall know them” and looking for ways to diminish their calling by searching for things they did prior to their apostolic calling or words they said after that calling that later turned out to be incorrect. (Iow, to use their humanness against them.) I think Elder Oaks is saying, “Judge us by our fruits – not by isolated things we say or do.” I think he is asking us to allow them their humanity – to not hold them to an impossible standard of infallibility.

    Brigham Young is an easy target for us in our time, but when I examine his “fruits” as a whole I walk away amazed at the prophet and the man. If I focus solely on his role in the Priesthood ban and his more unique theological views, it is quite easy to believe he wasn’t divinely inspired. That is the central message I get from Elder Oaks’ words – don’t let the human weakness and mistakes become the focus and take away from the overall body of “fruits” produced by the Church leaders.

    In many cases, their mistakes were “great”, but their contributions were “greater”. I can’t think of a single apostle whose mistakes I view as more important or voluminous than their contributions – whose “fruits” as a whole don’t support their apostolic calling.

  107. President Hinckley seems to agree with Kevin and Margaret (or vice-versa) regarding facts in context.

    “I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts to be in their proper context, with emphasis on those elements which explain the great growth and power of this organization. I have felt the need to say these things because there are those today who are emphasizing the negative and seem to miss entirely the great inspiration of this work.”

    FP message, reprinted from a 1983 address at BYU.

  108. Nitsav, that’s a great quote. I don’t think it’s inconsistent with Elder Oaks’ remarks, either.

  109. I only got to comment 40 before this thought came to me, so I am sorry if it has already been written, but don’t have time at the moment to read through all the comments (I will later!) :-)

    In my mind, I am comparing Elder Oaks comments to the scriptures. For instance, when we read about the B of M prophets, we don’t hear about all the mistakes they made in their lives, or how they made judgment errors, unless it is specifically for the benefit of the situation (ie… Alma the Younger and his conversion.)

    Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he made the comments about truth that is useful.

  110. As far as Mormon Doctrine goes, let’s be sure not to throw out the baby with the bath water, which is the feeling I get from:

    “Mormon Doctrine was (and in many ways still is) an erroneous book…”

    There is much of value in Mormon Doctrine that shouldn’t be dismissed because of some errors.

  111. Bryce, that was kind of the point of the post — you should read the rest of it as well, I think.

  112. There is much of value in Mormon Doctrine that shouldn’t be dismissed because of some errors.

    Meh. I really think the book is flawed on many, many levels.

  113. So was Elder McConkie an apostle, or not?

  114. Bryce, I think you are on the wrong thread.

  115. Sure, but he wasn’t when he wrote it, nor did he write it with the permission of the Church. Have you read MoDocs reception history by the First Presidency? Orson Pratt (and others), who I greatly admire, wrote plenty of stuff that is flawed on many levels. What does that have to do with their apostolic calling?

  116. Re: #106 and #108

    Ray and Steve, to the extent that Elder Oaks is discouraging only nitpicking about minor human imperfections, or focusing on significant problems without the benefit of context, I do not disagree with you at all. And I hope that is all Elder Oaks meant to include.

    I also agree that a person’s fruits should generally be judged in net sum. Yet, it is still reasonable to regard some single acts as potentially disqualifying of prophet status. (See, e.g., David and Bathsheba.) Do you believe Elder Oaks would exclude from his counsel historical issues that might reasonably fall into the latter category of material problems?

    I don’t mean to imply that I believe our leaders are not prophets. Rather, it just strikes me as troublesome if Elder Oaks is suggesting that our leaders should not be subject to fruits testing by members and nonmembers alike.

    Ultimately, I’m afraid the Lord will hold us accountable for our exercise our judgment in considering the fruit of purported prophets and our decisions to subject our will to mortal leaders. Although I find many scriptures telling us to beware of false prophets, I find none that excuse us for following a false prophet that we should have recognized was not.

  117. Novice, I can’t argue with that.

  118. “Mormon Doctrine”? So why hasn’t the Church just declared it ” Out of Print” and ended the debate? #115: If McConkie’s thinking was so flawed, why was he called as an Apostle? I think he would have written the book the same anyway(?)

  119. Bob, the Church doesn’t own the copyright, so can’t declare it out of print. However, I understand that it will not be printed again and that once the copies currently printed sell, there will not be more. There is also no question, that despite his early controversy, his views became very popular for a period.

  120. Does every LDS author need to write books with the Church’s permission?

    Mormon Doctrine is, and will probably forever be, a part of GospeLink (owned by Deseret Book). I don’t see them removing it there anytime soon.

  121. Bryce, you didn’t answer my question (#115). I am admittedly perplexed by your comment (#113).

    As to whether LDS authors need Church permission to write, we are currently showing that this is not the case. However, due in part to the MoDoc incident, General Authorities do.

  122. Interesting Bryce, I suspect you’re right re: MD in Gospelink. Of course, the odds of that product lasting forever are pretty slim…

  123. Bryce, in the case of Mormon Doctrine, your question about permission is moot. The FP requested specifically that he NOT re-publish it, and he went right ahead and did it anyway.

  124. Let me just add that I don’t think we should be burning MoDoc volumes. It is an important historical source and I am glad to have it on Gospelink. I would just add that they also include titles by Martha Nibley Beck.

  125. “I would just add that they also include titles by Martha Nibley Beck.”

    Point. Set. Match.

  126. Not to be to melodramatic, but Judas was an apostle.

  127. Not much to say here, except that the comments regarding Mormon Doctrine are in a way illustrative of Elder Oaks’ point. It is very easy to get carried away both in praise and vituperation of something like that book, and neither approach is (IMHO) helpful or accurate.

  128. Eric Russell says:

    Steve, as long as its IMHO, instead of the arrogant IMO, we’ll take your point.

  129. I put the h in ho.

  130. Cynthia L. says:

    Steve, I think that’s the kind of “truth” that the rest of us don’t care to know about.

  131. I put the h in ho.

    Steve, I was going to point that out, but I didn’t want to speak evil of you.

  132. Let me just add that I don’t think we should be burning MoDoc volumes. It is an important historical source and I am glad to have it on Gospelink. I would just add that they also include titles by Martha Nibley Beck.

    Speaking of which, when is Gospelink going to drop Leaving the Saints?

  133. Don’t be dissin’ on Gospelink, yo. I testify that it is a true link.

  134. Are books authored by Martha Nibley Beck, which she published before her apostasy, off-limits? I don’t see “Leaving the Saints” on GospeLink, but I do see a book she authored with her husband in 1990 about “Breaking the Cycle of Compulsive Behavior” – relying on the atonement of Jesus Christ to break the cycle of addictions. It was dedicated simply “To our parents.”

    What about D. Michael Quinn’s writings before he apostatized? Should we remove them? BYU hasn’t.

  135. Bryce, I think the point is that these books and authors all have some good qualities and some qualities that are not so good. And one purpose of discussions like this is evaluate them in a charitable light while still being able to acknowledge the weaknesses.

  136. Mark, I think that’s spot-on. In any event, I see no need for us to bait each other by speaking ill of anyone, be it an apostle or an apostate.

  137. Agreed Mark. That is the point.

  138. I know that this topic is nearly dead and been covered on multiple angles, but a thought occurred to me when re-reading the post. Is it possible that Elder Oaks is simply reminding endowed members of covenants that they have made to not speak evil of the priesthood leadership. Maybe the brethren have noticed a recent trend of Monday Morning quarterbacking…

  139. Steve Evans says:

    Yes, Hans, I noticed that, hence that “for some, a covenant” language in the original post (sorry to burst your bubble regarding your assessment of how we’ve managed to miss the obvious).

  140. Actually I wrote that before I saw this post and wasn’t referring to this but was happy to see a post in a larger place for more commenting. I guess after reading through all the comments and the tangents it felt as is I hadn’t seen that. Thanks for pointing it out.

  141. Steve, I know I’m way late here, but I really liked this post, and intend to give it some thought.

  142. Aaron Brown says:

    Mike Quinn may have been excommunicated, but it is accurate to say he “apostatized”? Me thinks no.


  143. Re: #103, J. Stapely replying to Zamb:

    …discipled or censored it’s own historians who have sought to reduce “spin” by telling a more complex and complete accounts of it’s history.

    Honestly, I can’t think of a single case when the Church has disciplined one of it’s historians for reducing spin.

    Do you think Linda King Newell, co-author of Mormon Enigma would fit the bill? The book was a candid appraisal of Emma (and subsequently of Joseph Smith). Certainly the attempt to accurately portray Emma & her relationship to Joseph Smith was an honest appraisal and a solid academic book, with far less “spin” than biographies by Gibbons (or other “Deseret Book” books about Emma or Joseph). Yet Newell was treated poorly, censored without notification, & banned from speaking engagements, etc…

    For other examples, see Lavina Fielding Anderson’s “The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership – A Contemporary Chronology”.

  144. Steve Graham says:

    Utahn in CT (#56):

    I don’t understand why we can’t take the prophets’ words for what they are – That the commandment authorizing plural marriage and the ban on the priesthood came from our Heavenly Father.

    Steve Graham

  145. Steve Graham says:

    Margaret (#76):
    The fruit of which Alma spoke was internal, so I’m not sure that we could see such in a person’s life normally.

    Brigham did speak of fruits or results if we were to extend the priesthood to those of the forbidden lineage – We who did so would lose our priesthood. How does one check for that loss with the natural faculties?

    The fruits of plural marriage was to be exaltation. Again, how does one verify that naturally?

  146. Steve Evans says:

    Steve G., are you suggesting that the Official Declarations are both in error? Your stance on this thread is somewhat alarming to most modern sensibilities of both racism and marriage.

  147. Steve G, Elder McConkie explicitly said that the justifications used to explain the ban were ALL wrong. That certainly includes “the forbidden lineage”. I couldn’t care less – and I really mean that literally – about whether or not we can check for a spiritual loss with our natural senses, since a direct revelation and subsequent statements of the apostles and prophets has repudiated Brigham’s statement directly.

    If your racial views are not in line with the modern prophets, so be it; just don’t try to present your question as legitimate for those of us who accept the 1978 revelation and subsequent statements as inspired and binding on us in this day and age. That boat don’t float.

  148. Steve G, read Elder Holland’s statement quoted by m&m (comment #123) in the “Does One Smudge Ruin It?” thread. It is even more directly on point.

  149. Easy, Ray.

  150. Sorry, Steve. I just can’t stand that “forbidden lineage” crap. It really emphasizes the point that some words really are as long-lasting as inappropriate pictures.

  151. Going back, the comments earlier focused on the idea that the GA’s speak from the premise that the Church is true, therefore “not everything that is true is useful”, especially if it does not help to build the kingdom. If we “know” the Church is true, then I would posit – and Church doctrine concurs, that said knowledge is not the product of well read Church history, but some level of communion on the divine plane, ie revelation. If our foundation is Church history, then we are dealing with faith and belief, and in that case there is very little that is not useful or revelant about Church history in every aspect, so long is all information is properly contextualize.

    I find myself in the faith and belief crowd (as are I think, a great many people in the Church – if not all), so DHO’s comments are very troubling to me. Knowing the details of the Prophets lives are essential to formulating my faith and understanding. I have no problem accepting that the man Brigham Young was a product of his time and culture, and therefore espoused the racist notions of his day. I do have a hard time accepting that Brigham Young the Prophet (and all prophets down to SWK) were allowed to continue in that vein and to implement it into Church policy for over one hundred years. Since I don’t know for certain that the Church is true, issues like this become very relevant to the conclusions I make. Attempts to ignore or conceal these details really causes me to question the integrity of the Church.

  152. But, cowboy, those details have never been ignored or concealed. If anything, they have received attention ad nauseum. I would say that Elder Oaks is saying almost exactly what you said – that non-contextualized, random, twisted, etc. tidbits of truth often aren’t useful, but rather literally harmful when they would not be in proper context. The point of his entire statement (start to finish) seems not to be that certain truth should be concealed, but rather that no “truth” should be isolated and presented in such a way as to lose all usefulness – as often is the case with media and other presentations.

  153. I used the Priesthood ban issue because it has been used throughout this thread. Perhaps that was not a good example. DHO’s comments, however, were not a caution against isolating truths from their context, but rather a call for historians to avoid revealing too many truths that could hinder faith, by labeling them as not being “useful”. He clarifies that in his fictional example about George Washington, if he were to have had an affair, revealing that fact would only serve to undermine the good which he stood for. Therefore that would be true, but not useful. If he were urging that historians be as accurate and unbiased as possible in the efforts to retell history, then I would have no problem with his comments.

  154. addendum:

    I think I spoke too soon, I was under the impression that we were talking about DHO’s talk given in 1985 entitled “On Reading Church History”. I realize that this talk was an extension of that, but my last rebut that DHO was not calling for contextual accuracy was incorrect, he does speak in detail about that. That was not the entirety of his point though, but rather a point on his list of criticism’s regarding the media. These points of media criticism had a let of relevance in 1985 during the Mark Hoffman trial. Due to the competitive nature of news outlets there was a rush to get the story out, and therefore accuracy took a back seat. I don’t think many of the criticims however apply today. Most of what is being written and discovered is coming out in books, and for the most part that material is being carefully weighed and checked before it is released, since there aren’t any corporate pressures to be up to the minute right now.

  155. #153 – I see what you mean and agree with the overall idea, but the exact example Elder Oaks’ used was that if George Washington had had an affair as a teenager it wouldn’t be a useful piece of information to be included in a biography.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, the process of writing history almost never (perhaps never) is a process of including every single detail possible about the subject. There simply is no way to do so and limit the writing to a reasonable length. Therefore, “history” is the subjective practice of identifying, compiling and publishing the “useful” and “important” details – and, by extension, not publishing the rest. History itself, as an abstract, is objective; it is whatever it is. History as a published account, however, is subjective to its core.

    If the purpose of a biography of George Washington is to show his faults and weaknesses but focus on his great accomplishments despite those issues, then an affair as a teenager might be relevant and useful. Otherwise, given the voluminous detail available, I agree with Elder Oaks that such an event would be neither useful nor important enough to be included in a biography.

    I just think there is plenty of room to be true to objective history and still honor Elder Oaks’ core message. I’ve also said all I can on this topic.

  156. Obviously, I was typing #155 without having read #154. Sorry, cowboy. I think we agree on this at the core level.

  157. Steve Graham says:

    #146 – My stance is that the Lord was responsible for the institution of plural marriage and for the ban. Many prophets and/or apostles agreed. Why is that stance alarming?

    #147 – Elder McConkie and others had opinions about the ban. So did Pres. Young and others. Were there any authoritative statements to the effect that God did not authorize the ban?

    #148 – I know a number of brethren gave reasons for the ban. I don’t know if they were right or not. Elder Holland dismisses them all. Perhaps he is right; perhaps he is wrong. The reason to me does not matter nearly so much as whether we dismiss the ban itself. It was given by a prophet of God, was it not?

    In regards to OD-2, even Pres. Young said that there would come a time when the black man WOULD receive the priesthood. You could say that SWK simply thought it would come sooner than what had been predicted by BY. In regard to OD-1 or OD-2, did either of them go so far as to say that the commandments they were suspending/rescinding had been in error? If not, why do I get the sense that most in this group feel they were not of God and would just as soon that they had never existed?

  158. Steve Graham says:

    Ray (#150) – Why do you object to the concept of a forbidden lineage?

  159. Because it has been explicitly repudiated by modern prophets as having anything whatsoever to do with race or ethnicity. If by “chosen lineage” you mean nothing more than some generic spiritual link, fine; I won’t agree or disagree with that. If, however, you mean that there was a mortal, physical lineage into which some were born in order to keep them from holding and exercising the Priesthood of God, then that has been repudiated by none other than Elder McConkie himself – as well as multiple times by other prophets since then.

    Such a concept simply is not in accordance with the revealed word of God as we have it in our generation, and Elder McConkie said it was crafted in our dispensation according to lesser light and knowledge. I object to it because it is wrong, according to the prophets and apostles of our time, and because I personally find it repugnant.

    That’s the end of my participation in this particular discussion. Race and lineage were not the underpinning point of this post.

  160. “If the purpose of a biography of George Washington is to show his faults and weaknesses but focus on his great accomplishments despite those issues, then an affair as a teenager might be relevant and useful”.

    I agree with your comments about the subjectivity of written history, but I think DHO’s comments here, in his interview, as well as in his 1985 talk, are full of red herrings. Using the your example quoted above, I would ask, what is the purpose of LDS historians (not always, but almost) in writing Church history, if not to teach and make a case for the divinity behind the calling of Prophets, the restoration, and the current Church with its leadership. In that case, controversial doctrines, policies, revelations, practices, and conduct of the Church and its leadership is all very relevant.

  161. Steve Graham says:

    #159 – Ray, you said the following:

    Such a concept simply is not in accordance with the revealed word of God as we have it in our generation, and Elder McConkie said it was crafted in our dispensation according to lesser light and knowledge. I object to it because it is wrong, according to the prophets and apostles of our time,

    Ray, you may or may not read this based on your last comments. But I would like to know how you can say such, when just minutes ago I read about a lineage forbidden to hold the priesthood in the book of Abraham, which is part of our cannon of scripture. How can anything an apostle would say trump what is contained in the standard works?

  162. Steve Evans says:

    Gang, get your angst out now, because I’ve decided to close this thread in fifteen minutes. I believe at this point nothing new (or virtuous, lovely, good report, praiseworthy, etc.) is being said.

  163. Because the Book of Abraham is OT scripture. Sorry, it really is that simple. The OT is canon, as well.


  164. Btw, dude, read my full comments. It might help.

  165. Cynthia L. says:

    Wait, don’t close the thread! I have to add one last comm…

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