Just Whom Are We Inoculating?

inoculationLast week, Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote another of her typically insightful surveys of current trends in Mormon life–this one focusing on the impact which the LDS Church’s recent openness regarding various complicated historical and theological issues (from the origin of the priesthood ban to the historicity of the Book of Abraham to Joseph Smith’s personal involvement in plural marriage) are likely to have as the church continues to grow and change. It was widely shared on social media–and that sharing led an old friend of mine, who no longer associates with the church, to share some thoughts with me:

Regarding Peggy Stack’s article in the Tribune: in my experience, the people who have the biggest problems with historical issues in the LDS church are ones who have already noticed a mismatch between their own world view, fundamental philosophy, way of life, etc., and the one proposed by the church. I’ve found very few people whose path away from the LDS church started with learning troubling historical facts. In other words, the people who have fully bought into the church’s proposed worldview, etc., are the ones who roll with the punches when these things are openly discussed (some through nuance–“I just focus on the meaning/perfect work through imperfect people”–and others through denial “these are not new things/anyone paying sufficient attention would know these things”). The ones who are not as bought in to Man’s divine future, this particular notion of eternal families, the contractual relationship between us and deity, the need and exclusivity of proper authority, etc., etc., are the ones who tend to look at problematic histories and apply a different interpretation than the one sculpted by correlation.

All of which is to say, that I don’t really buy into the notion that the church needs to do anything to address “these issues”. The only thing the church can really do that might be productive on these historical and doctrinal matters is to try to make the church experience more welcoming for people who don’t buy into all the theological underpinnings. That might result in fewer people feeling like they need to leave. But given the hardline, literalistic approach taken centrally (through policy and correlated curriculum), it seems unlikely that this is going to happen. Uchtdorf’s proclamations (and my faithful intellectual friends’ protestations) notwithstanding, the church promotes a literalistic approach that precludes for some the option of living in a nuanced space. I tried that for 30 years and it required increasing amounts of effort for reduced payoff. How you and others (my wife included) do it is astonishing to me, and something I don’t have an explanation for. But in my way of viewing the world, Peggy Stack’s reporting on this is not in the least encouraging.

My old friend’s comments gave rise to a discussion between us–and eventually, between myself and several other BCC bloggers. While I can’t make any definitive judgment about either my friend’s perceptions or those of any of the rest of us who have read (and, for most part, been delighted by) the church’s recent efforts to faithfully incorporate more serious and honest scholarship into the official narratives about our past and our doctrines, some general points seem fairly clear:

1) Probably only very few people honestly believe that a bunch of online essays talking about the racist realities which shaped the priesthood ban, etc., is going to reach into the hearts of disaffected Mormons and change their estimation of the church. The huge majority of those who leave the church probably do so–to make an inevitably complex process much too simple–for reasons similar to what my friend sketched out: because their lived experiences and their understanding of them no longer sufficiently matched the cultural, theological, and practical implications of the official LDS worldview to make the social or emotional benefits of sticking around worth it.

2) But just how huge is that “huge majority”? My friends suggested that it is large enough that the number of Mormons or no-longer-Mormons who don’t fit into that binary is almost non-existent; I, by contrast, think that the number may be small, but isn’t insignificant for all that. That is, I really do think there are people out there for whom a more honest approach to “these issues” will result in a real benefit to their faith.

3) In conversation with others, it was pointed out to me how much this sort of debate overlaps with a long-standing argument (here’s an example from nearly eight years ago) amongst online-savvy Bloggernacle-types: does providing a faithful online context for troubling historical and doctrinal matters which some members will feel impelled to hit the internet in search of answers to constitute a form of “inoculation”? If so, who is being immunized by these sort of correlation-approved-yet-necessarily-much-more-doctrinally-and-historically-ambiguous treatments, and what are they being immunized against? Because, after all, if you’re already experiencing enough of a mismatch between your own life and the life you believe the church is programming for you that you feel impelled to search around the internet looking for supplements to the too-often simplistic proof-texting to be found throughout our Sunday School curricula, all in the hope of finding something more substantive to hang on to as your own life points you away from these claims, aren’t these officially-sanctioned acts of inoculation a little late?

4) Clearly, immunization is something we do for children. The essays which Peggy Fletcher Stack reported on, and which have been much discussed online, clearly weren’t written for children…and yet, maybe that’s who the real target is, practically speaking. As there was close to a hundred years ago–through the 1920s, 30s and into the 40s, as the last vestiges of earlier theocratic Utah Mormon world were officially thrown off–a “lost generation” of literate and searching Mormons, so perhaps future historians will speak of another lost generation, the people who grew up hitting the internet through the 1990s and early 2000s, searching for answers, and discovering the limitations and inaccuracies of cultural and institutional Mormonism’s Official Narrative right and left. These historical essays–of which there will be more to come, and which will someday, we hope, make their way into the regular Sunday School curricula of the church–aren’t for us: they’re for our children, particularly the ambitious yet orthodox ones, in the hopes that they will grow up in a church that, because the occasional failures and inconsistencies of our prophets and their teachings will have become more accepted, will be a little less “literal,” and thus perhaps a little less prone to giving rise of feelings of mismatch amongst folks who genuine want to believe, but find the world of ambiguities they see around them getting in the way.

To be honest, I don’t know how well any of all that describes what I see going on in my own family, amongst my own children. Yet it seems to make sense as a broader explanation of our moment, all the same. Thoughts, anyone?


  1. A few random thoughts:

    1) The primary purpose of the essays is not to provide answers to the hard issues (how many time do they admit “we don’t know why”), but to provide the basic facts underlying the issues, spun in the most faithful light, and thereby provide a resource where leaders can direct struggling members rather than have them turn to the Tanners or online equivalents. On the whole, I believe the essays do a decent job of this, though they leave off some key information (e.g., the 1949 FP letter regarding the racial priesthood ban) and choose not to open some very tough doors (e.g., changes to wording in the temple ceremony).

    2) I generally do not like the term ‘innoculation,’ as it implies some easy fix that will save everyone if only we can get enough of the herd immunized. The reality is that there is no ‘MMM vaccine’ or ‘polygamy vaccine.’ If there was, the church would be running with it. Unfortunately, openly discussing hard issues, even in a faithful church setting, is as prone to kill off young and new members as to save struggling ones.

    3) I believe that the only real solution comes in allowing members – particularly youth – to struggle with hard issues as they confront them, and thereby build up a skill set to deal with nuance and uncertainty. For me, as a youth I struggled with the conflicting commandments given in the Garden of Eden. Thankfully, my parents and leaders allowed me to struggle rather than dismiss the concerns or attempt to provide an easy fix. I was allowed to develop a skill set that serves me well to this day.

    In teaching the YM in my ward, I frequently bring in small hard facts if they fit with the lesson (e.g., stone in the hat, multiple first vision accounts, pioneers carrying booze). I have yet to outright teach the YM lessons on the essays (though my wife and I are doing that with our own kids in FHE) – but something needs to be done as they are guaranteed to learn of the hard facts from people they confront on their missions.

    4) While there are many different reasons for people leaving, in my (limited) experience, the primary one is not the historical issues themselves so much as the reaction by local leaders and families when one asks questions or expresses doubt. Quaranteening people – either by treating them as enemies or just as spiritually unhealthy – is the largest factor that kills off testimonies.

  2. I am not sure it’s going to reach anyone honestly. So many of my children’s peers are already walking away, not just for historicity/history issues – though the issue’s are hitting some youth. Young Women, especially don’t buy the polygamy thing. Anyway, in my estimation it’s a complete miss. If it’s for the next generation, the church needs to get on the dime and promote the essays. Too many parents and adult leaders of today know nothing about the essays or the issues around them. If the parents don’t know, then the kids won’t know. So now it’s two generations lost.

    On the other hand I agree with your friends assessment, we are such a strident religion and our rules and practices appear to be much more important than hearts and spirits. This I think will be the eventual fall out. You can’t inoculate against that. We aren’t an Amish type religion where we tuck in tight as a community. We function in a non-LDS world. The next generation have gay friends and the LDS kids aren’t freaked out. The LDS kids know too much science they don’t buy the 6,000 year narrative.

    If the church really wants to keep members it’s probably going to need to make some large directional changes. Those aren’t likely though. It’s sad, too, because Mormonism has the potential to be something beautiful, healing and expansive. It’s all in the scriptures, but the next two generations won’t experience it.

  3. Clark Goble says:

    I think you’re friend is quite right although I think he misses the point of inoculation. Rather than providing reasons for people to stay it’s supposed to act more like an early childhood vaccine. That is expose them to these ideas so that they won’t shock them later. You’re friend is probably right that when people leave it’s for a wider gulf of worldview either due to political views, how well they feel socially integrated, or issues like sex (which ultimately is really just social integration).

    What I think defenders of the inoculation theory think though is that by exposing people to these ideas it’ll make it less likely that people will find themselves moving out of the mainstream of the church. Especially in their early 20’s. That is why people move away socially is complex but inoculation is one way to make people feel more comfortable in the mainstream despite knowing these issues. Put an other way, the issue is how to deal with what your friend calls “hardline literalistic approach.” By showing that things are more open, allowing more acknowledgement of the human weakness of saints, that whole move is broken. I do think that a big problem is simply a silly near Evangelical Christian view of the gospel. When anything breaks that whether it be sin, history, or just disagreement then people move away because they feel that sort of simplistic inherency is necessary to be in the mainstream.

    Now I really don’t like the term “literalist” since I think that obscures the real debate. But the idea is much more a simple univocal way of reading the commandments and scriptural texts. I think we can adopt historicity and even the simplicity of the gospel without embracing a kind of legalism based upon simplistic exegesis. (There’s a big distinction between the gospel being simple and the texts of the gospel being read in a simple naive fashion)

    Of course for inoculation to work it must be functioning well for people between 15 – 25. I’m still a little skeptical that is happening. I have heard though that CES at BYU is much better than it used to be in discussing these issue. (Which isn’t to say it’s where it should be) How well CES for High School students is working or Young Men’s and Young Women’s is an other matter. I do think though that by exposing the youth to these ideas rather than trying to make everything black and white we will help them a lot more when they are older to stay active in the Church.

    One problem I had with Stack’s story (beyond the nebulous “intellectual” category) was that it seems to miss the whole youth aspect. You note that. I’d love to see a followup story that focuses in on this.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    I should add that for some topics, as Cat noted, I think the current efforts are insufficient. It’s helpful to explain a logic behind actions. That is given explanations. We aren’t doing that as well yet. For instance it’s helpful for polygamy to think of it in terms of remarriage when a partner dies. Were I to die I’d want my wife to remarry. But I’m sure whomever she’d remarry she’d love. (At least I’d hope so) What does that then mean regarding the resurrection? I think when we think of it in this way it’s far less disturbing. (Not totally of course – it still disturbs me) Of course for this explanation to work well some of the policies regarding sealings in remarriage would have to change. And I suspect the GAs can’t do that without a formal revelation. Still just pointing to this sort of logic would be helpful. Perhaps not as much to the youth whose view of love is perhaps not as mature as a couple who have been married a while and have responsibilities. I do think it’d help though.

    Likewise with regards to racism it’s useful to contextualize this. Note that even the great hero of emancipation, Lincoln, held extremely racist views by modern standards. I find it helpful to note the racism Nephites often held towards Lamanites and then note the exclusion of Samuel’s story that Christ demanded the Nephites put back into their scriptures. It gets at the fact God deals with us in our weaknesses and that it is up to us to overcome our weaknesses. Further than change out of our weaknesses often comes a little bit at a time rather than all at once. As great a change as Lincoln wrought it still required the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King to even start to get us to where we needed to go. And we’re still not there yet. (At this point I like to ask, how will future generations look at us?)

  5. I don’t think the inoculative force of these essays is in “answers” as much as faithful framing, modeling thinking through hard issues, and managing expectations. I think the latter is a serious problem that we’ve created for ourselves, that prophets are essentially perfect, entirely consistent in every way, get their script from Jesus each morning, the Gospel is unchanging, etc.

    With strong expectations like that, people aren’t equipped well to deal with change, things from the past they find unethical or distasteful, and so on, especially when they come from the mouths of virtually inerrant prophets.

  6. Also, I’m with Clark, frowning on tossing around “literalist” without defining our terms or making any actual arguments about them.

  7. I think the essays are primarily for adult members who have strong faith in the church and are gradually learning things they may first have denied and that might make them feel threatened or defensive. As these members learn about these issues, learn not to be afraid of them, and develop a capacity to accept nuance (and humility), they’ll not only grow stronger in the faith, but they’ll be able to reach out and relate more to those like the friend who feel the church’s worldview doesn’t fit. In other words, I don’t believe the articles are for inoculation (they’re clearly not targeted towards youth), they’re there to create a gradual increase in the understanding of the body of the church and move us closer to Zion. There will always be those who feel the worldview of the church doesn’t match their own, but I expect with time that will be less because the worldview of the church is off.

  8. It seems that there were many reasons to produce the essays: inoculation seems to be one; a place to have plausible explanations for what really happened as opposed to the myth the church has created and sells throughout the world; also, it seems to be defensive in nature because in an ever increasing secular world, one never knows what the state of the law will be in 30 – 40 years and maybe somewhere in the world a court will buy into the “I was lied to” claim and cause the church a lot of damage.

  9. Ben S is correct about managing expectations. I’ll share a real life example of this. Last year I taught an FHE lesson to my kids about the racial priesthood ban. My goal was to provide historical context, teach the principle that God is no respecter of persons, and testify that God always keeps his word, though it may take time as he works through men. After spending several hours preparing, I was amazed at how quickly my lesson plan blew up. In a nutshell:

    Me: Tonight we’re going to learn about a time when our church did not allow black men to be ordained or black families to be sealed in the temple. To help the discussion, I’m going to take 5 minutes to tell you some history you need to understand the …..”
    13-year-old son: “But why?”
    Me: “Why what?
    13-year old son: “Why did church keep out black people?”
    11-year old son: “Yeah, why would God do that?”
    Me: “Well, it’s sort of complicated. The church did let black people be members. Let me share the history and then we can discuss all your questions. One of the earliest members was a man named Elijah Able …”
    13-year old son: “Dad, just tell us why and then tell us the history.”
    Me: “Well, the answer is that we don’t know why. Some people think …”
    11-year old son: “What do you mean we don’t know? We have a prophet. He can just ask God.”
    7-year old daughter: “Yeah Dad, follow the prophet.”
    Me: “Well …. he hasn’t done that.”
    11-year old son: “Why not?”

    Eventually I finished the lesson. The kids now know more facts. But they’re also somewhat less sure about prophets. Thankfully we still have more years to continue the innoculation.

  10. Count me as one among those who remain a bit mystified by both the intended audience as well as the methods employed.

    For example, Emma Smith’s account of her husband using “seer stones in a hat” to translate the religion’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, is “one of the most powerful testimonies of the book that we have,” Bushman says. “The information about the seer stone in the hat is integrated into this testimony. It only makes the translation story more concrete and real.”

    For skeptical and sophisticated young people (and most young kids seem to be these days) is replacing an already implausible story with an even more incredulous story going to be effective in the long run?

    “They are learning lots of marvelous things. A few more are not hard to take,” Bushman says. “The real problem is for the people who were taught in the old way not to get anxious.”

    Young people learning “marvelous things” particularly about translation would do better to learn about Champollion and compare that to the experience of Joseph Smith.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Why is using a seer stone somehow more difficult to believe than using the urim & thummim or just receiving it by pure revelation? I confess I don’t quite understand why people finding out about the seer stone is so difficult. Again, I think some inoculation would be helpful here to explain why God sometimes has prophets use tools to aid with revelation. The Liahona being a classic example.

  12. Right on, Dave K. That’s Primary doing too good of a job. Yes, we have prophets. No, they don’t have direct access to God’s Inerrant and Omniscient Encyclopedia of Answers, or a red bat phone. It just doesn’t work that way.
    I’ve written about this from various angle, here , here,, and here.

  13. (I’m in the queue. Links)

  14. “The kids now know more facts. But they’re also somewhat less sure about prophets.”

    No guff, Chet.

  15. Clark –

    My point about Champollion is that it is unequivocally clear in his case that he was given the gift of translation. Joseph Smith may very well have been endowed with other gifts, but translation as we understand it was not one of them. Inoculation may help with some young people, but rest assured there are plenty who will view the Liahona as equally problematic when taken literally. Whatever it is that is beautiful, powerful, and insightful about Mormonism will need to eventually transcend its dependence on stories that young people will not accept as being real.

  16. I think you’ve got it pretty much right, Russell, and I am grateful for this post. To repeat a point I made in my post from 2007 that you linked in your (3), “Truth is not a disease and therefore this metaphor is inappropriate if this is its focus. If inoculation is to be used as a metaphor, then it is more properly expressed as the Church inoculating its members with the Truth against error or at least against negative inferences and speculation. In other words, Truth itself is the vaccine, not the disease.”

    I still take this view, and would further support it with some of the things I said in the comment thread to that same 2007 post (it would be worthwhile for anyone to scroll through that comment thread as it provides an excellent snapshot of the state of discussion of inoculation on Mormon blogs at that time) — they accord nicely with your observation at the end of the penultimate paragraph of your post that the Church’s new Gospel Topics historical essays are “for our children, particularly the ambitious yet orthodox ones, in the hopes that they will grow up in a church that, because the occasional failures and inconsistencies of our prophets and their teachings will have become more accepted, will be a little less ‘literal,’ and thus perhaps a little less prone to giving arise of feelings of mismatch amongst folks who genuine want to believe, but find the world of ambiguities they see around them getting in the way.”

    This would be a very, very good thing, particularly the point emphasized in bold. In my 2007 post on inoculation (and in one from 2006 or 2005 at Bloggernacle Times, which no longer appears online), I argued that we shouldn’t be speaking about historical truth as a disease that needs to be inoculated against; rather we should be speaking of Truth holistically (historical truth and doctrinal truth together, not suppressing or ignoring the former for the sake of the latter, which has been the established procedure for most of the twentieth century and particularly after Correlation) as the vaccine itself, inoculating against error or, at least, unnecessary inferences. In the last paragraph of my 2007 post, I made a point very similar to the one I’ve highlighted in bold from your post above:

    Humble presentation of historical facts [through official Church channels], some of which seem just as alienating to us today as they did to key Church members who chose to leave the Church at the time, would make it impossible to base a testimony on the virtues of a fallible human being or on the supposed perfection of an institution that, although truly the vehicle of God’s restored Gospel, has nevertheless been constructed organically by those who have been called to lead it, despite their individual weaknesses, such as in having bad judgment on certain issues, having unethical or prejudiced views as to some things, not treating everyone exactly right all the time, not understanding some things entirely, not being great administrators or leaders, etc.

    We really, really need to come to grips with this as a people. It needs to start with the leaders themselves no longer being happy with allowing our cultural GA worship to continue as it has but rather to showcase the offices and callings more realistically, in the light in which they are actually held, complete with much trial and error, much experimentation with policy and administration, and the genuine love and care that they devote both to the office they hold and to the individuals to whom their ministries are focused (and the fact that they view their responsibilities primarily as spiritual ministries). This “showcasing” is simply necessary so long as we retain the absolute conflation of Church bureaucratic administration with spiritual priesthood leadership, resulting in the shift observed by Hugh Nibley from pastors to managers (i.e. allowing the image of corporate executives, CEOs, or board of directors that attaches by virtue of their function in leading the bureaucratic administration to eclipse their ministries as Christ’s pastors to the world).

    I think you are correct that the minimization of the “mismatch,” to use your word, would be the primary outcome. This is exactly what I meant in the comments I made in the discussion in the comment thread that followed my 2007 post. The first and foremost effect of such an environment would be that people would no longer feel betrayed by the Church when they find out difficult facts in uncorrelated sources and they feel the mismatch is too stark to avoid a conclusion that the Church has hidden or intentionally obscured such facts or historical narrative. But more substantively, our members would simply know more, would be better informed, would be more astute consumers of information, better able to judge for themselves issues of provenance and bias in presentation of the historical narrative.

    This doesn’t mean no one would ever end up concluding that the “correct” historical narrative is one of those in which the Church appears as dishonest or outright wrong or bad. As I said in 2007, the “broader point” that the post was trying to express was that

    even though choosing to leave the Church or stop believing in the Church’s truth claims upon learning of complex and difficult details of Church history and development is certainly a reasonable choice for a person to make, others might not see this as the necessary conclusion to draw from these complex and difficult details and choose to stay. In other words, based on facts in the historical record, it is understandable that some have felt that the only logical implication is that the Church is not what it claims to be. This is particularly understandable when people explain that they felt betrayed or lied to when they learn through personal study of these complex and difficult issues that the Church did not focus on during Sunday School or seminary. As noted, the fact that people feel betrayed or lied to by the Church because of this shows that there is a problem with the current approach of only including faith-promoting aspects of Church history in teachings manuals. Thus, bringing the complex and difficult issues into regular Church discussions of doctrine would serve as a vaccine against feeling betrayed by the Church. The hope would be that, although some will still choose not to believe or be associated with the Church based on those aspects of the history, many others will choose to stay, having not felt betrayed.

    Ultimately, the goal should not be to “inoculate” members with a small amount of our history so that they don’t catch the “disease” of our full history. I can’t emphasize enough that this is the wrong metaphor. Instead, we simply teach historical truth and doctrinal truth together (not ignoring the former for the sake of the latter, as has been the case in much of our Correlated discourse). This approach takes Truth itself as the vaccine against error, whether that error is a misconception of what can actually be known from the historical record about a historical episode or the intentions of the main characters in the episode or drawing unnecessary inferences based on learning facts that seem to contradict or undermine the Church’s narrative about its truth claims.

  17. The OP and the comments completely overlook the fact that what has driven so many out of the church is not any particular embarrassing episode in our history or the convoluted evolution of a given doctrine; rather, what offends them so deeply is the church’s concerted effort, for decades, to conceal, distort, and suppress these events and to punish those who have the temerity to bring them to light. Michael Ash, in his 2006 article in Sunstone, said it best:

    “From my more than two decades of dealing with “ex” (or struggling) Mormons, I’ve found that feelings of betrayal and being lied to are the most frequent emotions felt by those who leave the Church for “intellectual” reasons. When feelings of betrayal overpower belief, faith is often lost and the original challenging discovery is no longer the issue; the greater issue becomes the feelings of infidelity and deception—feelings that are not easily overcome, even if serious answers are forth- coming later on. A testimony lost at this stage can be hard to restore. What might have been sufficient answers earlier become insufficient once resentment—as a result of presumably being deceived—replaces faith. As LDS scholar Kevin Barney once remarked to me, ‘People can absorb hard facts when presented in a context of faith. But they can’t absorb the feeling of being lied to.'”

    Inoculation will not work on people you have already infected with the disease. When you approach them with your professed “cure,” they will not believe you. Yes, I was pleased to see the the church, with the publication of the essays, finally begin the process of coming to grips with its past, but I will never—and I do mean never—take at face value anything it publishes on these or any other topic.

  18. FarSide, excellent point — as many parents teach their children from even the youngest age, trust is something that, once lost, is very difficult or even impossible to regain. As I mentioned in my comment above, “The first and foremost effect of such an environment would be that people would no longer feel betrayed by the Church when they find out difficult facts in uncorrelated sources and the mismatch is too stark to avoid a conclusion that the Church has hidden or intentionally obscured such facts or historical narrative. But more substantively, our members would simply know more, would be better informed, would be more astute consumers of information, better able to judge for themselves issues of provenance and bias in presentation of the historical narrative.”

    Nevertheless, and here’s a shameless proselytizing plug, I believe it is correct doctrine to seek to overcome the natural man through the grace of Christ, and part of that might well be forgiving past breaches of trust, in defiance of the natural man’s tendency to be forever wronged. I have observed many who have found that such forgiveness can indeed bring or restore much lost peace to one’s life.

  19. Sticking with the betrayal idea, in relationship counseling a key part of reuniting a betrayed relationship is the abandonment of the betraying act. Whether that be adultery, lies, distortion. For trust to be established the party that caused those breeches must make a full change before the other party can begin to build a relationship.

    This is the key problem as I see it. The church has a betrayal that they need to vigorously fix. Because it’s not just a stone in a hat. It now covers women’s laying on of hands, of leaders leading with accurate information and more.

    The essays were like a quick apology from a betraying spouse, who keeps their “flings” phone number or email account just to be nice.

    I have a friend who kept open the idea of returning to church but eventually she realized the church wasn’t really interested in a relationship with her. As she saw it, they never really worked to come half way. She most likely will never return.

  20. hope_for_things says:

    I want to inoculate my kids in the context that I find most plausible. The essays provide some framework as Ben S. points out, but my problem is that I frequently disagree with the premises found in the essays. I want to teach lessons in FHE discussions like the example Dave shared, but it’s hard because I find myself questioning what is appropriate to share and how to tie it all together. Here is a brief draft of how I’m looking to introduce the BoM translation topic:

    God loves everyone, and inspires people in all walks of life and disciplines. God communicates to us through our cultural understanding (2 Nephi 31:3). Joseph’s family and culture believed in visions, angelic visitations, seer stones, divining rods, buried treasures and spirit guardians etc. God worked within Joseph’s cultural expectations to inspire Joseph in unique ways which produced the BoM that we have today. This book has many inspiring moral lessons that focus on and teach the gospel of Jesus.

    Some members theorize that God actually blessed a seer stone with magical properties that allowed Joseph to see each distinct word clearly on a stone. Others believe that Joseph received thoughts and ideas in his mind and then formed these into sentences as he dictated the contents to his scribes. I find this second explanation most plausible for me personally. The book isn’t perfect, and may not even be a historical account, but my experience is that God works with humans through their cultural understandings. We all make mistakes on a regular basis, and Joseph did as well, but I believe that we can learn from these mistakes and this will help us to be more charitable to others.

    Does this downplay the church narrative too much? I have felt that this BoM has been net positive inspiration in my life, but I don’t want my kids to view the story of its origins as naively as is taught in Sunday school. Would this cause distress and too many questions for a young child? Would it be better if I just affirmed all the mythological elements of the story that have been traditionally told, and then expect that my kids will later find out the messy history that I see now? These are important questions, and I’m really wrestling with how to address these as a parent.

  21. john f., I concur with your “shameless proselytizing plug” about forgiving past breaches of trust. But I believe forgiveness would pour forth in great abundance, if only those responsible for the betrayals and deceptions would accept—perhaps, just a smidgen—of responsibility.

    A leader who openly acknowledges his past errors and promises to do better, that man (or woman) I will follow to hell and back. Not so the one who tells me he is incapable of leading me astray and, ergo, there is no need for him, or the institution he represents, to apologize for anything.

    P.S. I did not see your first comment until after I posted mine; obviously at least one other person, apart from me, picked up on that pesky trust issue.

  22. great point, FarSide

  23. “Some members theorize that God actually blessed a seer stone with magical properties that allowed Joseph to see each distinct word clearly on a stone. Others believe that Joseph received thoughts and ideas in his mind and then formed these into sentences as he dictated the contents to his scribes. ”

    These are not incompatible, per Stephen Ricks and others.

  24. FarSide, in thinking about it for a few more minutes, I think that it is probably the case that no Church leader has intentionally misled or withheld or obscured information. And they don’t view themselves or their predecessors as having done so, either. (Some who knew some facts, like Elder McConkie, wanted to write a new kind of history, to create scripture. Many others simply didn’t know about the history themselves, having themselves been raised on the same Correlated information that the rest of the membership has, and not necessarily learning anything new about historical facts once being called as General Authorities, though they undoubtedly learned much about how the sausage of Church administration is made.)

    It does indeed seem to continue to evade many that the narrative resulting from the decades-long Correlation process, together with admonitions by Church leaders not to consult “outside” sources for information about Church history (out of genuine concern for people’s testimonies arising from a lack of trust in members to be able to be critical consumers of information in the narratives they would find), ended up appearing to obfuscate and “hide” messy, unsavory, or difficult to understand or explain details. Then the members get blamed for being lazy or for wanting to find fault. All of it has come about very organically without any straightforwardly bad actors. Perhaps that is why many appear to believe that an apology is neither necessary nor appropriate.

    I agree that it is a real shame though. Modeling humility and repentance could be seen as a feature, not a bug, of the current situation.

  25. martha my love says:

    Dave K, can’t wait to hear how to goes when you teach them that the church expects gay members to live their adult lives celibate and without companionship and women to remain second class members. Will you do those lessons before or after the one in which you discuss Joseph marrying a girl only 1 year older than your son?

    Not trying to pin this on you. This is stuff we all have to deal with now, but there it is!

    There was a time when we were all supposed to go out and tell our neighbors that CA wanted to teach this stuff in schools. And, back then, it was supposed to be wrong. Now it’s right in our own newsroom and, since The Brethren haven’t signed off on it or breathed a word about it, we’re the ones who have to figure it out.

  26. It has been observed (for me this was in a speech by John Caputo, an American philosopher of religion speaking from a Roman Catholic background, but probably not original or unique to Caputo), that history is threatening to any revealed religion. If your foundational premise is “truth from above” then any and every story that tells of something that was but is no longer is challenging. In other words, the “complicated historical and theological issues” that we’re talking about are deep issues. Not tinkering around the edges, but striking at long-held beliefs and testimony about the nature of the Church, prophets, revelation, revealed truth, and restoration.

    To put it another way, I wouldn’t use “inoculation” at all, as though a de-natured virus (online essays?) will serve as a proof against infection. I think we’re in the midst of a revolution, toward a new paradigm for the Church. And that we’ll get there stumbling and bumbling, in fits and starts, over years and even decades. Not by a thunderbolt from heaven or a master sermon or single publication.

  27. There are many morally questionable stories our kids learn to internalize early in a context of faith: Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Nephi killing Laban, etc. They can grasp even at a young age that God sometimes asks people to do some really strange things. As adults they can go back and mull over the moral implications of those stories, but there is no feeling of betrayal in the process – these stories are openly taught from day one. I think this is the type of inoculation that people are referring to. Often when people encounter the difficult issues later in life, they must grapple with the moral ambiguity on top of that feeling of betrayal that FarSide and John F. have highlighted so well. Also, in most of the cases of people learning about these issues, they weren’t looking for them (for me it was working on family history that dumped me square in the middle of the secretive early polygamy, for someone else it was listening to a history show on PBS that came on after Caillou). The shock value at that point can amplify the other reactions.

    You can’t take away the moral ambiguity of the stories, or the implication that church leaders are a bit more fallible than we might be comfortable with. But the idea that the church has official public positions on these hard issues (as whitewashed as they are) is a good first step towards preempting that feeling of betrayal. Incorporating the info into CES and Sunday curriculum would be even better. Using media (pictures and video) that do not contradict the information in the essays would also help (depictions of the translation process, deemphasizing Joseph and Emma’s relationship as an romantic monogamous ideal, etc.). With how much the church has been teaching girls to look up to the positive role model of Emma in the past couple decades, it is surprising that they did not anticipate how acutely those same young women would empathize with Emma’s very negative feelings towards Joseph’s polygamy.

  28. Christian J says:

    FWIW, finding out about the priesthood ban at a young age and being told by my parents that I did not have to believe it was from God, did me wonders later in life, when confronting difficult details. It means you have to be comfortable separating your own beliefs with official rhetoric – and being ok with the cultural backlash that often follows, but I have no bitterness toward the humans that have tried to direct this work, because my expectations have been tempered, line upon line.

  29. john f., I must respectfully disagree. I believe some church leaders have deliberately suppressed elements of Mormon history and have persecuted members who have published accounts that vary from the homiletic, neutered version propagated by CES.

    In a recent issue of Dialogue, Stan Larson chronicles how an account of the First Vision that is considerably different from the “official version”—and the only one written in Joseph’s hand—was ripped from a journal in the church archives and then hidden way in the President’s office for decades until this concealment was exposed in the 1960s.

    Michael Quinn’s Dialogue article about post-manifesto polygamy clearly factored into the church’s decision to excommunicate him.

    The authors of “Mormon Enigma,” the seminal biography of Emma Smith, were castigated by Dallin Oaks for writing “nontraditional Mormon history.”

    And as you, yourself, noted, church members have often been discouraged from seeking out “alternate voices” that offer a different interpretation of church doctrine and history.

    I could go on, but I really don’t think it’s necessary. You can quibble about whether these were acts of deception, concealment, suppression, distortion, etc., but at the end of the day you have a pattern of behavior that simply does not inspire trust. And I must confess that I doubt whether the recent Glasnost would have occurred if it hadn’t been for the Internet, which has pulled back the curtain on the church’s past.

  30. Christian J says:


    I’m hoping the new paradigm can change statement like this:

    “Nephi uses the same spelling of the English word as Jesus did in the Bible!”


    “Joseph Smith received revelation concerning the text of the Book of Mormon and
    often used English that he was familiar with – like in the KJV.”

    And it be ok…

  31. Angela C says:

    IMHO, Martin has hit the nail on the head. These essays are for the adult members of the church, to get them to understand that the “anti-Mormon lies” that are all over the internet are often more factually correct than what they were taught through CES materials. Since this is being done without admitting any wrong-doing, it does have a Jedi mind trick component that feels a bit . . . off. But the real point is to get the older adults, many of whom are in local leadership positions or just the self-appointed Dolores Umbridges of the wards (who are less aware of these issues) to quit shooting the messengers (often the younger, more internet-savvy generations) when they bring up information that is accurate but uncorrelated.

    I was released from teaching RS in part due to bringing up these types of issues (albeit in a faith-promoting way) which was reported to ward leadership who were nervous about anything outside of the manual being said. The essay on the 4 accounts of the first vision is almost verbatim what I taught.

    To me the real transition is when we give up on trying to have the best answers in favor of trying to have the best questions. If church were thought provoking again (I say again because it truly used to be more about questions and discussion, not “same Sunday School answers”), we would be engaging both young and old alike in some very interesting thinking that would help us grow as a people and as individuals.

  32. I’m hard pressed to think of much the church is actively hiding. However, women giving healing and other blessings is one of those things that they do not know how to approach right now, so I’d label it as “actively hiding.”

  33. We did a FHE lesson this month on prophets. The lesson included a slideshow presentation that featured a latter-day prophet on each slide. I included a few “facts” about each prophet and decided to include references to plural marriage – Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor etc – and Official Declaration 2 (blacks & the priesthood).

    We have 3 children under 12. It was an opportunity to discuss plural marriage and blacks & the priesthood. They did ask questions. I think it is important to be open and honest – what we know, what we don’t know and (most importantly) what the doctrine is. I imagine these topics will come up again in years to come – here and there – in our home. And I believe the best place to have these discussions is in the home, at least as a starting point. I think it is best to “first hear” these things in the safety of the home.

    We have also taught them about how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.

  34. I can echo a few sentiments of others on the thread. For me the issue isn’t mostly history itself but the wild disconnect between how leaders allow themselves to be portrayed and what history tells us is reality. There is an institutional arrogance that is simply jarring when confronted with historical facts around say the priesthood ban or the actual reality of polygamy or the careful cultivation of past prophets’ image. For me when I then feel like I see history repeating itself – such as the fumbling, prejudiced and sometimes blatantly anti-Christian handling of homosexuality or in the blatant refusal to openly consider gender inequality and bias except when forced – then the essays in some way rankle even more. The priesthood ban is perhaps the best of the lot because it almost…almost feels like there is some real institutional humility involved. The polygamy essays are the worst since they are one big effort in trying to justify what is pretty unjustifiable, not just the fact that polygamy happened but also trying to justify its most awful excesses of coercion and dishonesty – pinning those on God. The Law of Sarah? Really? To me what it says is that for the central leadership the reputation of past dead men is far more important than actually facing up to the cold hard facts that leaders in the church can make big, huge mistakes. It really feels to me like they can’t admit this because they fear it will call into question their own authority and leadership on the matters of the day. And you know what it does! At least for me. I no more think our leaders have any substantial insight into the eternal place or ramifications of homosexuality than I think J Reuban Clark or Mark E. Peterson had any insight into race. I think the cold hard historical facts of the systematic stripping of women’s autonomy and priesthood privileges speak directly to the process of apostasy whereby precious truths are lost. (Ie actively hiding female healing blessings). The rhetorical claiming of equality for women in the church while the objective reality says otherwise is just disheartening. It is in this sense that I don’t trust the central leadership of the church anymore. I sympathize with them. I feel I can understand them, sociologically speaking. I can try and support them to the extent they try and make things better. But I simply don’t trust them to be honest with me or with themselves in the ways needed for true leadership or at least leadership I can really get behind. I don’t in anyway expect perfection in my leaders but I expect far, far better than what we are getting. God bless them but my kids won’t be marching lock step to “Follow the Prophet” and I can only sit through so many 14 Fundamentals lectures and lessons which have worked their way back into the manuals, GC talks and mainstream Mormon culture. If I felt the church were actually learning anything by studying its history I would be far less disheartened.

  35. Clark Goble says:

    Angela C: I’m not sure it’s quite fair to say anti-Mormon lies are more factually correct. In a few cases that might be correct but by and large I think anti-Mormons have plenty of “sins of omission” – especially the more Evangelical kinds of anti-Mormonism. The secularist critiques are perhaps a bit more fair but they exclude an awful lot from discussion which is just as distorting as what they accuse “Sunday School” answers of being. The problem is of course that Sunday School just isn’t the proper forum for a lot of these discussions. I think it pretty clear that we, as active members, are supposed to be engaged in seeking our own salvation through Christ. Being upset because Sunday School is incomplete (which of course it is and always will be) misses something quite crucial in our individual responsibility. That’s not to deny many problems of avoiding issues in the church. However I think by and large things have shifted a great degree the past 15 years and its rather easy to find answers both pro and con on our own.

    By and large what inoculation does is prevent the shock that things are incomplete at Church by pointing to issues. It doesn’t resolve the individual responsibility of inquiry and balancing personal revelation and the facts.

    EmJen: At this stage I don’t think we can say they are hiding anything. In the 60’s through early 80’s I think you could make a case. (Think McConkie’s infamous letter about Adam/God) However especially since Hinkley became President I think the Church has been extremely open and making sources available. Likewise there’s been a renaissance of Mormon history in the post New Mormon history era. (Say since 2000) It’s not hard to find history and often history written from a faithful perspective. Balancing that history with critics (now primarily secular rather than Evangelical) is of course trickier.

    FarSide: I think it clear that the Church saw engaging with the controversial aspects of history differently in the 60’s through 80’s. I think that changed. I certainly disagree with that decision and think that it was ultimately counterproductive however well intentioned at the time. It’s interesting since by and large people new about all this stuff at the time. Certainly it was widely discussed at BYU when I was there. I think those of my peers who ended up leaving the church did so on more broader changes in worldview than mere controversial history. If there’s one point I disagree with the inoculation theory it is in thinking it’ll have more of an effect. The OP is correct in that I just don’t think controversial history is the problem. The issue is much more having spiritual witnesses and how to think through issues.

    The broader problem of evil is, I think, the main reason God as a whole but especially the “God of organized religion” is becoming unpalatable to many. This is why the “rise of the Nones” is happening broadly to Christianity as the United States has started to follow Europe the past 15 years with a shift to secularism. That’s the real issue rather than the more side issue of these historical controversies.

    ChristianKimball: I agree that inoculation solves just one small problem. A broader engagement with the deeper or more fundamental questions of religion is the real problem. In the past it was possible to coast through membership without really engaging with ones testimony. Not having to engage with historical difficulties is one part of that. But the deeper problem is having to have the real trial of faith such that one really knows. Anti-Mormon conflict was always helpful for leading one to that revelation. In many ways anti-Mormon attacks were helpful. We erred I think in trying to protect those weak in testimony from these conflicts because it kept people from gaining a strong testimony. That’s becoming less and less the case. Now everyone will likely reach a point where they can’t coast and have to really engage with the truth of Mormonism and find out if it’s true or false. I think that’ll lead to many more members with stronger testimonies to deal with what comes next.

    “Martha my love”: I think you’re right that simple basic ethical quandaries such as how to deal with homosexuality are the much bigger issue than history. I’ve no idea what the answer is. (I can’t wait to find out – and hopefully it’ll be revealed in my lifetime)

    John F: While it might be easy to criticize Elder McConkie, clearly he did great good. He taught a lot of important truths. Why he tried to obscure some things I can’t say – I suspect because of the threat of apostate groups he saw at the time. However let’s be clear that this selective presentation has always been part and parcel of scripture making. I’m sure that if we had a more objective history of the Nephites we’d find out things were much more complicated and perhaps controversial than the presentation Mormon gives us. He’s actively selecting what to present because he thinks it’ll teach us. Effectively that’s what McConkie was doing as well.

  36. Clark, I didn’t criticize Elder McConkie.

  37. Angela C says:

    Clark Goble: No argument here! When I put “anti-Mormon lies” in quotation marks it was because that is what some members unfamiliar with accurate historical information called any information not in the manual when in reality, a lot of that stuff is correct, just not the party line. Anyway, I certainly agree that evangelicals have an ax to grind in that they are trying to prevent their flocks from joining our church. Their spin on our history is like asking a Protestant about Catholic history.

  38. I think the value of the essays is to provide something in place of nothing ànd in doing so creates some official nuance thereby reducing the crazy making experience of doubting as those around you pretend not to and pretend there’s something wrong with you because you do! In addition it moves these discussions out of their once taboo or anti category. Inoculation is about avoiding that accute feeling of betrayal that causes one to quickly throw the baby out with the bath water. Finally the strength of our belief in the unbelievable varies throughout our lives, a static count of how many find value in essays today will be much smaller count than one taken over a generation.

  39. as your testimony of the Savior grows these correlated issues become non issues because you begin to look at others for the fault they have and see yourself with the faults you have. your love of the savior creates increased compassion for those that have come before you.

    the real problem that the “truth seekers” have in their paradigm is they are weighting historical facts greater than their faith in the Savior because with faith in the Savior none of these issues matters in the grand scheme of things. that point can be clearly seen by when you talk to a member of the church that is TBM they look at these as non issue to them. The core of the matter is a lack of testimony in the Saviors plan presented by the church.

    Having said that I love my brothers and sisters that are struggling and want what the savior wants for them. They are going through an amazing period of agency and if the lord trusts them enough to use their agency, even if they make bad decisions, then I do to and await greater faith for them on the otherside of their trial.

    The lord is waking his people up and wants them to lean on their own testimony. Generally speaking we as members of the church are participating in an adolescent coming of age. Strong testimonies will be born through this trial.

  40. I appreciate your blog post, beautifully expressed and well written.

  41. I apologize that I have been able only to skim many of the comments. I simply don’t have the time to do a deep-dive through this involved of a discussion. If I repeat points already made, my apologies.

    Whether “inoculation” is the correct term or not can be debated, as it is above. Whatever we wish to call the process of exposing young orthodox members to the complexities of history and the mortality of church leaders, however, I think my experience is worth sharing.

    My dad is unusual: a former Bishop, and as orthodox a Mormon as I’ve ever known, he has always insisted that I approach church history and doctrine from a nuanced and informed perspective. He is far from perfect but, in this one aspect, his parenting was both masterful and prescient. Once, when I was about 17, I encountered in his library (he has maybe 2-3K antique Mormon books) a book written by Hugh Nibley in which he professes to engage (and largely dismiss) Joseph Smith’s historical critics. I read it with great excitement. I knew enough at that time only to be vaguely aware that there were historical claims against JS, though I knew little of the specifics. Nibley’s work seemed a perfect find: it was easy to say upon finishing it “Nibley is as smart a man as has ever been in the church, if he has found the charges against JS to be so easily dismissed, that’s good enough for me.”

    Later that day, I mentioned to my dad how pleased I was to have “covered” this topic by reading that book and told him as far as I was concerned that issue was settled in my mind. His answer was, in effect, “not so fast.” We spent a large part of that afternoon discussing how, though Nibley was a fantastic Egyptologist and a profoundly smart and dedicated saint, he was not much of a 19th century American historian and how many of the arguments he put forth there were actually shallow and misguided. We then went on to discuss some of the difficult aspects of JS’s life and discussed what we would do with such facts in the context of a life of deepening and active Mormon Christian discipleship.

    Looking back now on this and similar experiences, I simply cannot overstate their importance. As these essays have come to light and RSR and similar works have made their way into the Mormon mainstream I have been thankful again and again and again for the sensitivity, nuance, and faith with which my father approached this part of my upbringing. There is a part of this that has to do with always having known that I could rely on his testimony as someone who was familiar with the most thorny aspects of church history, but it is also much more than this. It is also that he gave me a set of tools with which I have since been able to approach whatever difficult aspects of church history I have confronted.

    Now, to another point of this post, the Mormon worldview resonates bone-deep with me. The God Who Weeps, for instance, makes me want to proclaim our theology from the rooftops–I find it compelling, beautiful, and True. So, in that respect I recognize that I want the history to work itself out.

    At the end of the day, however, I agree with the Givens in that book that faithful discipleship as a believing latter-day saint requires some degree of such a desire–we must decide what we want to believe (and that is true no matter which side of the various debates we come down on). I suppose I believe that while part of the point of exposure to thorny issues within the church is about inoculation, it is more about an apprenticeship. It is about teaching young members how to use a set of tools that allow us to look at a church with an at-times messy history and with leaders who are mortal and to hear, nonetheless, the voice of God speaking through it all.

    I will be forever grateful to my dad (and others) for doing this for me.

  42. Sometimes I think that we are approaching another split in the church, with 2-3 branches breaking off, along doctrinal lines that this thread does a wonderful job as background for.

    I think the essay that many women and men are waiting for more doctrine on Heavenly Mother. Whether church leadership can provide that revelation or not, may have a pretty big impact on how deep and wide the split becomes.

  43. I would hope Richard Bushman appreciates the unintentional irony that these essays which are designed to partially to help prevent people from leaving the church over difficult issues like polygamy relies on the testimony of Emma Smith who left the church over the difficult issue of polygamy.

  44. Is there a higher degree of innoculation amongst certain groups of youth? For instance, early morning seminary attenders vs. released time? Those raised in the mission field? (Disclaimer – NOT trying to pass judgment, just curious…) We criticize the seminary teachers, for instance, but my personal experience and that of my children is that their (stake-called, not professional) teachers veered from the formal material quite a bit to discuss real questions.

  45. Clark Goble says:

    John F, sorry I didn’t mean to imply you had criticized McConkie. I was speaking more generally. I think he has done some things worthy of criticism such as lying about Adam/God back in the 70’s. I think he had good intentions and I’m loath to criticize him overall but he’s probably the key figure in distorting history. It is a much trickier situation of course than it appears at first glance.

    Anon, I think it’s a bit more complex than that given the ambiguities of the succession crisis. But I agree that it seems clear Emma had a great deal of trouble with that particular issue and that people continue to struggle with it.

    Juliathepoet, it seems to me that the only splinter groups claiming revelation tend to be tied to polygamy which is more troubling for most people who struggle with the church on gender issues. The only exception might be the Denver Snuffer splinter group. I’ve not seen them embrace polygamy although they are far more conservative than I suspect most with feminist inclinations would be comfortable with.

    I do agree that gender issues will be the real struggle and that historical issues are much more marginal than they can sometimes appear if only because gender issues are so big. Ultimately I think those with a testimony can weather this issue. I certainly have no idea how these will be dealt with and am fine recognizing my ignorance. It will be interesting to see how the Church adapts. I think they are honestly trying as best they can given the limited revelations on the subject.

  46. Absolutely laughable, any hope we might harbor of “inoculating” future generations against … what … information?!. ATTENTION BRETHREN: This is the BEGINNING of the Information Age, not its conclusion, it’s growth is exponential, and things historical are about to get much much worse for the LDS Church. If we think a few equivocal unsigned well-hidden essays are going to somehow shield our children from the tsunami of information roaring their way, we’re just nuts, absolutely insane. Any lingering ideas of actual historicity for primary scripture will be utterly swept away, replaced with whatever an ill-prepared rising generation can cobble together from what’s left. The Book of Mormon is an instructive example: BH Roberts elucidated the inherent problems almost a hundred years ago and was essentially ignored. In 1973 Michael Coe, the eminent Meso-American archaeologist, penned his famous sentence. Nobody in the upper echelons listened because apparently good science wasn’t considered “inspired” or even reliable. Then, abruptly, a new technology, DNA sequencing, confirmed the absence of any trace of Semitic blood in the New World – which led, in turn, not to soul-searching and truth-telling and humility, but to the formation of absurd fall-back pseudo-theories like limited-geography models.

    This is NOT the way to prepare our children for the future. What a mess! – because, in addition to the above, our prehistoric notions of gender roles/equality and homosexuality are giving way at the same time. Leadership must be grounded in reality or it is worse than no leadership.

  47. Lew Scannon says:

    Dave K (9:46 am), just wondering what an MMM vaccine is. Mumps, measles, and Mormonism? Where do I get a shot?

  48. “ATTENTION BRETHREN: This is the BEGINNING of the Information Age, not its conclusion, it’s growth is exponential, and things historical are about to get much much worse for the LDS Church.”

    Are Joseph Smith’s emails about to be released on Wikileaks?

  49. In a manner of speaking, Talon, yes, I’m afraid so.

  50. Clark Goble says:

    P, I’d simply note that there are similar discussions on how to persuade people on scientific subjects like climate warming or incorrect fears of vaccines. It’s not information. If we were all rational vulcans there would be no issue. But human psychology is an odd thing and merely giving people the truth doesn’t guarantee they’ll follow the truth. The trick is figuring out how to present the truth such that people can make a free deliberative choice to accept it or reject it but also so that it’s presented in a psychological fashion.

    While I recognize many critics of the Church like to say Mormons are hiding truth I think that is just plain false. I think some Mormons fear that myopic focus on certain things that carry an emotional weight in certain contexts means that other important and key considerations are marginalized. This is just as misleading and hiding facts IMO. Effectively I think that critics are often saying, “pay attention just to these these and let me present them in as an emotionally charged form as possible.” There’s a certain tabloid like quality to many criticisms. Perhaps we recognize the problem when we look at how facts or data are presented in tabloids but somehow miss it in other situations.

  51. Lew: MMM = Mountain Meadows Massacre.

  52. P

    He was inspired, so he probably used a private server.

  53. Clark,
    LDS apologists inhabit a strange netherworld. Their days are devoted to proving a vision of the faith that all serious empirical studies contradict. Trapped in an ever-tightening intellectual death-spiral, they can maintain their position only through a strange intellectual dissonance, appealing to more and more elaborate conceptions of how their constructs can be both true and not-so-literally-true at the same time but nonetheless completely valid – Bokovoy, Miller and Givens come to mind. Where does this lead? At some point, rapidly approaching, there will be a reckoning for which the Church and its leadership are completely unprepared.

    (I adapted the first part of above para from economist Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms in which he expresses similar frustration with those who attribute the late emergence of the Industrial Revolution to poor social incentives, when evidence points clearly to the contrary.)

  54. Clark Goble says:

    P, I don’t think that’s accurate. But of course we’re apt to disagree on this matter. What counts of course is the arguments themselves.

  55. Clark Goble says:

    I’d add that of course we have to distinguish between silence and contradictions. Critics sometimes (often) like to point to absence of evidence as if it were evidence of absence. At best it is weak evidence towards that point but it is not a contradiction. Of course individual people as they interpret the theology and history put forth theories that can be wrong. My experience is that critics like to point to mistaken theories as if they represented the full range of interpretations. Again there’s the myopia where I think critics want to distract people from certain conversations in preference to a rhetoric of their choosing where they think they have the stronger hand. Again, a common tabloid technique.

  56. rameumptom says:

    I think bigger than Joseph’s polygamy, we need to inoculate against 6 day Creationism/evolution and the like. Too many kids are raised on Creationism in LDS Church, then go on to college, where they learn it doesn’t match the evidence of science. I’ve seen more kids leave the church over that than over MMM, polygamy, etc. I hope such will be included in seminaries within the next couple years.

  57. On one hand the essays are for people like me, those you’ve weathered a faith transition/crisis or are amidst one. And the result are hit or miss: race and priesthood was faith affirming, the polygamy ones were retrenchment at its finest – and those essays and the things Richard Turley said on Doug Fabrizio’s interview were a harder thing for me to handle than any thing else in my faith transition. So seeing the mixed results the essays are actually getting . . . I think they’re actually for my kid’s generation. The topics will slowly and carefully be folded into CES and curriculum unyil 20 years from now they’ll laugh at the notion that some people claimed they were raised in the church not knowing this stuff. It will just look like that’s the way it’s *always* been done.

  58. rameumptom–I think there have been some good progress with those issues in the BYU religion department, especially as some of the old guard–Joseph Fielding McConkie and Randy Bott, to name two I’m aware of–have passed on. But I think it’s going to take a lot longer to see much progress at the CES/seminary level. When I taught high school biology, my students would go to release time seminary and tell their seminary teachers who dissed evolution that their BYU-educated biology teacher was teaching it. The seminary teachers would respond, “Well, he doesn’t really believe it. He’s teaching it because he has to.” Fortunately for me, that was six or seven years ago and I’ve since changed professions, but I’m guessing the vast majority of professional seminary teachers and CES types are going to remain anti-evolution for a very long time. I’m pretty sure they don’t consider the negative impact it can have on their students down the road.

    Thank goodness for one of my high school science teachers, a BYU grad who was serving as a bishop and who told us he didn’t have any kind of a problem with evolution. He may have been pushing the separation of church and state boundaries a bit, but I’m sure he counteracted some of what was going on in our release time seminary, and I imagine a number of LDS kids decided to stick with both science and the church because of his words, instead of leaving one or the other.

  59. “we need to inoculate against 6 day Creationism/evolution and the like. Too many kids are raised on Creationism in LDS Church, then go on to college, where they learn it doesn’t match the evidence of science.”

    Ram- I’m workin’ on it!

  60. I am always completely dumbfounded when I hear that creationism is taught by anyone who is LDS. I guess I was lucky to have a release time seminary teacher who didn’t go the traditional route. (He got a his degrees at Texas A&M, and taught at a local college before being recruited to teach seminary.) He had a huge collection of Mormon books, and I can’t remember what any devoted to Creationism.

    So for those of us who grew up with math, science, college Physics and paleontology professors as ward and stake leaders, and grew up without ever hearing anyone besides my Baptist friends take Creationism seriously, where does it intersect with Mormon thought?

    Really, where the heck does Creationism come in?

  61. Rick Chandler says:

    Inoculation worked for me to a point. My parents had enough casual conversations between themselves and with us about polygamy, etc… that most of what I ran across as an adult seemed familiar. While I wouldn’t describe my parents as liberal Mormons in any sense, they did always point out that prophets were imperfect men called of God and the common saying ‘The church isn’t perfect but the gospel is’.

    This carried me a few years into adulthood. When I hit my state college (~2000) a strident evangelical friend in my dorm threw a bunch of anti-mormon websites my direction, and I basically took everything in stride and remained very active and engaged for several years (happily so). I was fairly aware of most of the issues in church history and didn’t have a problem–I was aware of most of the “problems” in church history, I just didn’t see them as problems. Brigham Young was a racist–but God worked with what he had. Joseph Smith was unclear on the first vision–but history is messy and uncertain; I’m sure that I’ve told 6 versions of some of my major life events. Polygamy never troubled me. Adam-God? Blood atonement? That was Brigham Young speculating as a man, not speaking as a prophet.

    What stopped working for me was a slow realization that my beliefs no longer matched that of the church I was attending. I believed in a church led by imperfect men called of God, good men, but still very imperfect, very human, and often prone to mistakes, and I eventually realized that was, in the end, a very un-Mormon belief however much I could cherry pick scriptures and quotes to defend it. It didn’t help that Brigham Young’s more esoteric teachings aren’t easily dismissed as the speculations of a man given that he often very emphatically and colorfully emphasizes that these are truths from God, not just him musing aloud. But, more problematic was that Sunday after Sunday, Ensign article after Ensign article, General Conference after General Conference, I was attending a church where a core tenant was the infallibility of the Brethren. Sure, they’re imperfect–but that line is usually delivered with a wink and a chuckle, like maybe that time a couple of years back when Elder so and so was running late to a meeting and hit a yellow light and said darn before slowing down to a complete stop. And, sure, it’s fine to point to a couple of minor foibles of past prophets. Sure, Brigham Young was racist, but who wasn’t at that time, right? But, saying that the Brethren are currently misguided on a specific item is probably one of the greatest sins you can commit in Mormon culture (and, given some high profile excommunications these past couple of years, the church as well).

    And the problem is that all of the inoculation fails without a sincere belief in prophetic infallibility. Not the wink and a nod type, but the sincere faith, yes, even a sincere testimony that some, perhaps even most, maybe even all of what the leaders of the Church do on a given day is less than perfect, very flawed, and sometimes even downright wrong and harmful the the church and society as a whole.. Because while it is possible to maintain a belief in a God that works through flawed humans to themselves grow as they help others grow, it is another thing to maintain a belief in a God who will populate His hymnals with songs singing ‘Do what is right, let the consequences follow’ while telling His prophets to shun those of different colors as less worthy souls for a hundred years while racism was “in”. It is also one thing for me to believe that a church founded by a farm boy and lead across country by a country carpenter may have some warts and foibles, and another to ask me to believe that God somehow figured out how to have flawless Church leadership now, regardless of what mistakes might have been made 100 years in the past. It’s not a belief I could ever sustain, and at some point, I got tired of fooling myself into believing that my church and my religion was what I wanted to to be, not what it actually was.

  62. Clark Goble says:

    Yeah, I can’t understand people who teach Creationism. It seems so at odds with Mormon thought. I can kind of understand people who say there was no death before the fall, although I think it leads to big problems with the text. (What was the point of the angel guarding the garden of Eden from Adam & Eve if the whole world fell rather than just Adam and Eve being cast out of a different place to come to this earth?) Most significantly the Church seems to have gone out of its way to take a neutral stance and CES who teach against evolution seem to be going against the wishes of the Church. It’s easy to understand why some in CES take the stance they do – they are largely following McConkie’s views. It’s harder to see why they teach it as official church doctrine.

  63. Clark Goble says:

    Rick, did you mean a sincere belief in prophetic fallibility and not infallibility? I think people who give a de facto infallibility end up causing themselves problems. It’s also hard to reconcile with our personal spiritual development where we make mistakes.

    I do agree that it’s the broad issues of racism or sexism that pose a big problem historically. I don’t think it’s ultimately that big a problem. Rather it’s a problem for theism in general. Afterall racism is equally a problem for non-mormons. It’s the question of, “why would God allow this?” Perhaps it seems a bit more acute for Mormons since we believe God was already talking with prophets. Why not chime in and say, “I know I’ve been berating you about the members not paying tithing, but let’s talk racism and sexism here so Zion can be a stronger society.” It would have been great had God done that in 1880 for instance.

  64. Those who do generally have to rely upon particular readings of Genesis, and statements like Joseph Fielding Smith’s-
    “I will state frankly and positively that I am opposed to the present biological theories and the doctrine that man has been on the earth for millions of years. I am opposed to the present teachings in relation to the age of the earth which declare that the earth is millions of years old. Some modern scientists even claim that it is a billion years old. Naturally, since I believe in modern revelation, I cannot accept these so-called scientific teachings, for I believe them to be in conflict with the simple and direct word of the Lord that has come to us by divine revelation.” Answers to Gospel Questions, 5:112

  65. Ben S & Clark –

    People don’t have to rely on McConkie or Joseph Fielding Smith in order to support their views on creationism. Russell M. Nelson has been saying ridiculous things about organic evolution and cosmology for the bulk of his tenure. One need only look at conference from a few years ago to see both him and 20,000 other people laughing at the idea of an expanding universe (which is rather unfortunate since the observational data for an expanding universe is among the best in science).

    Although the topic of this post concerns inoculation, I think it speaks to the larger issue of credibility. Can individuals as well as institutions be trusted to tell accurate stories both about themselves as well as the universe around them?

    Ben S, as an aside to this thread I have tried to read the table of contents to your book about Genesis 1. I’m sure plenty of people will find valuable various interpretations accurately placed within historical context, but I remain a bit puzzled. At best, Genesis 1 as well as the Pearl of Great Price may portray what people from antiquity thought (most likely erroneously) about cosmology. Wouldn’t our collective time be better spent trying to understand what we currently know which admittedly would require an enormous amount of hard work? Mormons seem to pride themselves on their work ethic, but understanding the creation and evolution of the entire universe requires a bit more work than reading a few chapters in Genesis or the Book of Abraham. I’m not sure why this is surprising.

  66. Allen, my book isn’t about creation per se, but about Genesis 1 and its ancient context.

  67. That was a bit brief, but I was walking out the door.
    Many people know Genesis 1 isn’t scientific in nature, but that leaves a vacuum; they don’t know how else to read it, since science doesn’t put into place any other reading of the chapter. This book is for them.
    Now, for those who are concordists, who think that science and Genesis *must* say the same thing, the way to demonstrate the non-scientific nature of Genesis is not to lay out contradictions between them. The problems with that approach are aptly illustrated in this post on the Flood. Rather, the best way is to show what the alternative narrative is and showcase its strengths. That’s my goal.

  68. Mary Ann says:

    Elder Nelson’s dismissal of evolution is all the more unfortunate since his medical degree places him as the resident expert on the biological sciences. I will agree that the LDS version of creationism derives from the views of JFS and Elder McConkie. It’s their writings which were usually shoved in my face when people were trying to correct my unfortunate secular indoctrination. I think having parents who reminded me often that church leaders were inspired even though they sometimes held idiotic views helped me to keep things in perspective.

  69. Clark Goble says:

    I think Nelson’s comments on the big bang was just about whether the big bang alone could explain our life. If spirits are necessary to life as we live it then of course the big bang is insufficient. His oft used although perhaps misleading “explosion in a print shop” analogy doesn’t say anything about the physics of inflation that I can see. I think he’s incorrect regarding self-organization but I think his basic point is correct. Science is missing something.

  70. Regarding infallibility, this language was in the Gospel Principles manual in lesson 9 this week at church, making me very uncomfortable that it is being taught to the newest members of the church:

    “The Lord will never allow the President of the Church to lead us astray.”

    President Wilford Woodruff said that a prophet will never be allowed to lead the Church astray:
    “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place”

    This sort of things still appears frequently, including a current link on the first page of the church’s website with the caption “You’ll never go wrong by following the prophet..”

    Inoculation is one thing, but what do we do about the massive inertia of a large bureaucratic organization, that like an ocean liner, does not change direction quickly?

  71. “But they’re also somewhat less sure about prophets.”

    The bitter fruit of the bloggernacle.

  72. Clark Goble says:

    I’d like to see more nuance in those discussions too Kevin. I think the Gospel Principles manual, while arguably one of the better Church manuals (at least I really like it), could use a little updating to avoid confusion. After all Woodruff wasn’t teaching infallibility in this incident but more the prophet leading the whole church into apostasy. Yet it’s a difficult balance since arguably the bigger problem by far is people discounting anything by the prophet they don’t like. Which is why the Gospel Principles manual takes the form it does. There is a little nuance in the text where it notes that what’s appropriate for one time need not be in an other and noting the problem of people having dead prophets trump living ones.

    I’d just like to see some of the renunciations of infallibility put into the chapter, such as Elder Faust’s that is nuanced.

    Revelation was required to establish this church. Revelation has brought it from its humble beginnings to its present course. Revelation has come like flowing, living water. Continuing revelation will lead it forward to the windup scene. But as President Clark told us, we do not need more or different prophets. We need more people with “a listening ear.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1948, p. 82.)

    We make no claim of infallibility or perfection in the prophets, seers, and revelators. Yet I humbly state that I have sat in the company of these men, and I believe their greatest desire is to know and do the will of our Heavenly Father. Those who sit in the highest councils of this church and have participated as inspiration has come and decisions have been reached know that this light and truth is beyond human intelligence and reasoning. These deep, divine impressions have come as the dews from heaven and settled upon them individually and collectively. So inspired, we can go forward in complete unity and accord.

    I witness humbly that I know the Lord still guides his church through his servants, regardless of any individual imperfections. I pray that we may be responsive to his Spirit and be found listening to the oracles he has appointed. I so pray because I know that we mortals, without the aid of revelation, cannot know the purposes of God. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

    If you focus on fallibility it’s important to also focus on how the spirit does lead them.

  73. Ben S –

    I appreciate the link to the post about the flood which references a talk by Elder Nelson entitled “Lessons From Eve” which in turn is indicative of the type of problem I’ve been talking about. I am of the opinion that as bloggers and posters we have a tendency to forget that the vast majority of people are not trained scientists, nor do they possess graduate degrees in theology or literature both of which seem to be necessary in order to navigate the extraordinarily complex ideas of creation and evolution. In my opinion the crux is this: So long as the why of the universe depends on the how, the mechanics of the how take on a paramount importance. An almost necessary consequence of believing in a literal Eve who inhabited a literal garden and ate a literal apple seems to be the deeply hurtful language and theology of the temple concerning women and their roles.

    Inoculation may serve the purpose of acclimating some to past instances of racism, sexism, mass murder and techniques most charitably described as “magic”, but it is really only a first step in a long journey towards addressing some very deep, thorny, and foundational theological issues.

    The vast majority of Mormon’s time is spent on both pragmatic, meaningful as well as monotonous endeavors: making sure a troop of Boy Scouts doesn’t burn down an entire forest, chaperoning teenage dances to make sure teenagers aren’t sneaking out to the parking lot for makeout sessions, trying to pretend that a nursery full of screaming kids should be reverent, packing up a single sister’s belongings for a cross country move, etc, etc, etc. But I don’t think that Mormons should ever forget that Mormonism is an unapologetically ambitious endeavor in that it purports to be nothing less than a grand sweeping cosmology of the both the entire cosmos and our place in it.

    Clark – as a technical aside, there are at best different models of inflation and despite many claims to the contrary it is still quite aways away from being a theory. However, using the word “explosion” displays a fundamental lack of understanding concerning expansion. And while there are many, many deep mysteries remaining concerning the physics of self organization, the emergence of consciousness, etc. quite a bit is known and significantly more so will come to light in our lifetimes. An aspect of this should be threatening in that reasonable explanations will alleviate our current reliance on symbolic stories – but only if we remain as attached to those stories as we now seem to be.

  74. Clark Goble says:

    Allen, I think that might be equivocating over the meaning of theory. Right now, as I understand it, there are very limited tests for the range of inflation models. The closest we get are predictions regarding temperature variations in the microwave background. Yet those are somewhat controversial so some see them as testing the theory whereas others (such a Woit) think much lest is tested.

    Beyond that I fully agree that to really have an opinion on most of these topics requires understanding the topic. I’ve long thought, for instance, that polls on Mormons and evolution are more than a little misleading because it’s not clear what they think the choices mean – and they probably don’t understand them the way say protestants or atheists do. Further in many cases these topics are much more about signaling ones commitment to a group identity than actually having an opinion on the topic. (I’m hardly the only one to note this)

    That said, I think it is clear that Nelson with his “explosion in a print shop” is buying into a poor argument regarding chance and complexity. It’s just a variant on the old watchmaker argument regarding teleology. While the argument isn’t good, I think the basic point Elder Nelson is attempting to make is quite correct IMO. The problem for Mormons is the distinction between what evolution can do versus there being significance to these bodies that goes beyond chance. That’s a pretty subtle point though and it’s not surprising people get it wrong in the nuance. The point is that there’s something special about our bodies and our bodies have a purpose that evolution can’t explain. Elder Nelson’s point is really about this aspect of chance and he’s fully correct in that. Even people like myself who fully accept self-organization as a basic feature of the universe typically agree that there is a planned relationship between our bodies and our spirits that makes it impossible for it to be purely by chance.

  75. Clark, I do not want to debate the point (with which it happens that I disagree), but I do wish you’d speak for yourself rather than “Even people like myself . . . typically agree”.

    Separately, in a historicity discussion that has veered into infallibility, I think it is relevant to identify and address the special form of infallibility which holds that while prophets are not infallible in general, in the special case of Joseph Smith he was infallible in the sense that everything he produced or said with apparent authority was the Word of God. I do not believe in special infallibility any more than general infallibility, but I believe that others believe, and that special infallibility is an often unstated assumption in historicity discussions and the never-ending debate about what makes a real Mormon.

  76. I’m perfectly comfortable with a reality where my Mormon forbears were duplicitous, violent, and deeply flawed. That was the nienteenth-century frontier for you, full of con men and treasure seekers and, really, rapidly changing morés after centuries of social stagnation.

    I’m very much NOT comfortable with a council of 15 men imposing dated Revolutionary Road-era strictures on my lived, twenty-first century experience. It’s as simple as that.

    A Church which once embraced radical change is now pretty much the Knox Business Machines of religion.

  77. I haven’t read all the comments, so I apologize if this is a repeat, but my interpretation is that the essays are intended to clarify the church’s stance on complicated issues. I don’t think they are intended as an apology or an inoculation or anything like that. They are just a clarification of the church’s position. My take away, on the two issues I personally have found most troubling–the blacks and the priesthood and the polygamy essays–has been that God/the church is not racist, but is deeply sexist. You see some nuance and even mild judgement of past leaders in the essay on blacks and the priesthood, but fierce entrenchment in the polygamy essay. This isn’t about preserving the authority of individual men. I think our leaders truly believe that God is no respecter of persons based on race, but gender discrimination–and polygamy–are seen as pure doctrine. Things that are hard for “the world” to accept, but which are the True Will of God.

    For that reason, the essays have actually made membership a little harder for me. The combination of the polygamy essay and the new temple video–with no script changes–were big signs to me that I can’t just sit around waiting for the church to change on this. I need to either change my own thoughts/opinions/feelings, or move on to a belief system that more closely aligns with my own conscience. I don’t honestly think that these essays are about scrambling to hold on to members who are leaving. They are about proclaiming what we ought to be believing if we are going to stick around.

  78. Matt Whiting says:

    My experience over the past two years, is that a much larger percentage of youth are paying attention than adults. That may just be my ward dynamics, but most of the adults don’t seem interested in looking at them. Teaching from the youth curriculum was a wonderful experience for me. Bring nuance into lessons and the youth are ready for it, adults is still an open question for me.

    On the topic of infallibility, I love using Jonah as an example. What a marvelous story in the old testament. God uses this imperfect prophet/missionary to bring about a whole city’s conversion and then removes rather dramatically his servant for his lack of charity. He may have “later learned to listen and obey” but he didn’t learn what would really matter in the long run. Obedience to authority, even God’s authority only gets you so far. If obedience is the 1st law of heaven, love is the last(ing) one.

    Clark Goble, Thank you for the Faust quote. That really is beautifully nuanced.

    My personal experiences in church leadership have included the challenge in moving forward when I felt no clear inspiration most of the time, just a concern for the well being of my portion of the flock; and those less commonly recognized bits of inspiration. I am amazed at the growth I had as a leader, mostly I think now, because I was not given everything by God, but that I had to struggle to find my way not just in decisions like who to call to what, but also in learning to love others and forgive myself and others when we did not live up to our commitments. I feel like He gave me enough inspiration to recognize that He was helping and in some cases correcting, but no more than I was willing to listen to at the time. The beauty of a lay leadership is that, when you are called to lead, you realize just how fallible our leaders are at the same time you experience the inspiration that also comes as a leader.

    Focusing on fallibility hasn’t been very helpful for me; focusing on good intentions and forgiving have been. To me, that is the gospel. That is the gospel that the imperfect people throughout my life in the church have managed to teach me. I love Joseph, and Brigham, Hinckley, and Monson, not because I view them as perfect, but because I see their imperfection and their devotion to Christ despite that.

    Do I want to see a change in the culture of my ward here in Utah and many wards throughout the church? Of course! But so do I within the walls of my own home and within the walls of my own body.

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