Research is not the answer?

In the past couple of weeks the Church News reported on two different and prominent instances of church leaders teaching that researching church history is not the solution to questions about church history. My first thought after seeing the second was “retrenchment,” to invoke sociologist Armand Mauss’s piercing analysis. And as a researcher in church history, I must say I felt a twinge of disappointment. It may be that my impulse is correct, but after some reflection, it seems to me that there is more going on.

The problem raised in both discourses was the specter of doubt, either personal or of a family member, maybe even a spouse, who has shifting beliefs with regard to the church. To quote the account of President Oaks

Matters of Church history and doctrinal issues have led some spouses to inactivity. Some spouses wonder how to best go about researching and responding to such issues.

“I suggest that research is not the answer,” he said.

I think that President Oaks is likely correct, here, though it is complicated. Clearly not everyone should feel like they need to research our history to be member in good standing, and someone leaving the church over “historical issues” could mean any number of things, not all of which could be addressed by research. Moreover history is not religion (as much as we have tried to make it so). The situation is, of course, complicated precisely because of our history. There was a decades-strong movement that reigned in the past, over-simplifying (in retrospect) church narratives, and looking hostilily upon research that complicated things. One might easily relegate President Oaks’ comments to that deprecated past, though I think that is a mistake.

My challenge is that I think the seemingly popular podcasts and letters that are frequently cited as responsible for these situations are just dumb–generally a mirror to the worst thinking in our past. It is consequently hard for me to respond charitably to people in a state of “crisis” induced by them. Modeling responsible research and scholarship is my solution, when I am feeling less snarky. Clearly for me, (good) research and analysis is the answer! So, what are the limits to my default perspective, and are there limits to President Oaks advice?

I do believe that there should be options within the church that focus on experience and belief. The problem outlined by President Oaks, however, is on of relationships. And relationships are more complicated than one’s personal preference for religious engagement. So the question might be how do you navigate relationships complicated by differences in belief? I doubt that there is a single response to that situation that is widely applicable (beyond principles of love, patience, empathy, and communication). In other words, my impulse, when faced with a stereotypical faith crisis, of viewing it is the product of crappy research and thinking is not particularly helpful. My experience has also been that just telling people to pray/go to the temple/serve more without engaging the issues of history, belief, and church law, hasn’t been particularly productive. So what should we do?

First, good research should be informing our common and shared narratives. This appears to be the case more and more every year. Good research should inform our responses to questions and challenges by loved ones, and those interested in our faith. Empathy, love, and communication require us to not ignore those concerns. And with missionaries and all members having access to the Gospel Topics essays, Saints, and the associated online content, we are on the way to be able to do that. Our shared responsibility is that we speak accurately about our faith, our church, and its teachings, both current and historic. We as a people (and church leaders specifically) are making a good faith effort to incorporate good research into our lived religion.

After the quote above, President Oaks specifically acknowledged the Gospel Topics essays, but he doesn’t see them as a solution to the problem at hand:

“But the best answer to any question that threatens faith is to work to increase faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “Conversion to the Lord precedes conversion to the Church. And conversion to the Lord comes through prayer and study and service, furthered by loving patience on the part of spouse and other concerned family members.”

It is hard to argue against this statement, and in some ways it seems rather radical: Focus on faith in Jesus Christ through prayer, study and service. Have patience. Worry about the church after that. As I have confessed, my initial responses aren’t always charitable, I could use a dose of Oaks’ exhortation as much as anyone. Earlier he said research was not the answer, but here he says that study is part of the answer. And while we are seeking Christ and at a point where we can start worrying about the church, what do we then study? I imagine for some that might be the Sunday School manual that I still am rolling my eyes at, because I am a jerk. For others that might be the Gospel Topics essays. For still others that might mean the latest titles from University Presses. What I hope is that we can all (especially me) be more loving, kind, empathetic, and communicative.

And let me be clear now: no one should read “research can’t solve everything” to mean “research is bad.” I suspect that there are church members and leaders that are still discomfited by complicated narratives and unfamiliar research, but the solution to our problems isn’t in the fundamentalism mirrored by those silly podcasts and letters about which people have gotten so anxious.


  1. “Earlier he said research was not the answer, but here he says that study is part of the answer.”

    I’m not sure if ‘research’ and ‘study’ can be equated in mormon speak though.

    ‘study’ is usually used in the context of the scriptures or other such kosher materials as conference talks. ‘research’ implies the internet and ‘non-mormon’ sources.

  2. There’s a current TV commercial showing a young couple who needs car insurance. “So we asked our friends, and we did some research, and we chose Company X,” the woman says. This use of “research” to mean “I looked up some prices and reviews on the internet” annoys me — that isn’t research!

    Those who google around and accept whatever they find from whatever source, aren’t doing research either, but a lot of people feel they are. Few people are in any position (through training, aptitude, time, location, resources, mentoring) to do research — real research, not the “spent a few minutes listening to a podcast” kind, and they’re misusing the word.

    I hope it’s that kind of superficial “research” these men are dismissing, the kind that leads to what you correctly call “those silly podcasts and letters.” I like something C.S. Lewis wrote, which refers to genuine study as a calling that leads to God, both for the scholar and those who need his/your/our work:

    “The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. … We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Sometimes research is exactly what is needed. Here’s a story I’ve told before:

    When I returned from my mission in late 1979 I noticed that one of our stalwart Relief Society sisters didn’t seem to be around anymore. “What happened to her?” I asked. I was told she had lost her faith and left the church.

    What happened was she worked with a woman who was a Seventh-day Adventist. Somehow the topic of the Sabbath came up, and this other woman casually mentioned something about the Sabbath being on Saturday. Our good Sister said in effect, “No, that can’t be right, my church would have told me if that were the case.” So she starts asking at Church, and everyone assures her that yes, of course Sunday is the Sabbath.

    This was long ago pre-Google, but she did what people used to do in the stone age and went to the library. And lo and behold she found out for herself that historically the Sabbath was indeed on Saturday, just as it is for Jews and Seventh-day Sabbatarisns to this day. At about this time the local Mormons had found someone in the far reaches of the stake that knew about this subject and could talk to her about it, but the damage had already been done, and she left the Church.

    There are ways to answer that question that would be historically accurate and also satisfy someone like our good sister. This isn’t a distinctively Mormon issue, after all, as most of the Chirstian world worships on Sundays. But for the want of a little “research” this sister became a casualty.

    Which is why it makes me nervous when we start saying “research” is not the answer, because sometimes it is.

  4. Rachel E O says:

    “In other words, my impulse, when faced with a stereotypical faith crisis, of viewing it is the product of crappy research and thinking is not particularly helpful.”

    Yes. I wish that more of the more liberally minded Mormon thought leaders like Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman and others could see that. I think their subtle snide derision toward those who struggle with church history does much more harm than good. It uses shame and condescension to try to create an other that only further alienates those in pain and doubt and undermines the effectiveness of their message. I’m not sure the Givenses and Bushmans of the world even realize they do it. It’s so easy for any of us Mormons who have delved into church history and have found ways of grappling with tricky history-related issues in our own various ways to slip into such a mode. This is especially true when any seasons of struggle with doubt we may have experienced are far distant in memory, and even truer when we are trying to position ourselves in ways that disarm or curry favor with those who might otherwise view us as heretical or question our loyalty to the church. I think we must always strive to be ever so humble and gracious, never using condemnation or criticism or haughty superiority as tools to elevate ourselves over others who perhaps, as the OP says… produce “silly podcasts and letters” (language that, I would submit–with all due respect to Jonathan, who I think is generally not so flippantly dismissive–proves my point).

    Also, as Jana Reiss’s research shows, increasingly with millennials (and probably Gen Z’ers too), the sources of doubt and disaffection are not so much rooted in church history as in church culture and church policies/structures (e.g. toward women and LGBTQ members). The mentality of superiority and condescension among many otherwise liberally minded Mormon studies types toward those who struggle with doubt (whether with church history or other issues) actually just serves as evidence of some of the same cultural norms that bother these younger Mormons (motivation through shame, us-versus-them thinking, etc.). Such norms might be expected from some older general authorities, but when it comes from even the supposedly liberally minded folks who literally write the books on how to navigate faith crises and deal with doubt, it’s particularly disheartening and disillusioning. We can and must do better.

  5. Jimothy, I think you may infer that “research” means internet and “non-mormon” sources, but I haven’t seen any evidence that President Oaks implied that. Instead, it looks to me (even with some, but incomplete, sensitivity to mormon-speak) that he purposely expressed a contrast between (a) “research” alone in responding to a spouse’s history and doctrine issues, and (b) the combination of “prayer and study and service” and “loving patience” in dealing with such issues. The latter can just as well include good research, such as that behind the Gospel Topics Essays clearly linked to in the Church News report of President Oaks’ comments. It seems rather that he was saying research or study alone is not enough.
    Of course, whether the readership of the Church News will follow up on the essays link or whether they will read “study” and “research” only as you seem to have is quite another matter.

    J., Thanks for your thoughts on this. They put it in a healthy perspective for me.

  6. Good thoughts, J. I agree, and I wish the reporting had not made it necessary to carefully parse the short excerpts.

    There is certainly a problem with “bad” information out there, which needs to be replaced with “good” information, and that is done with serious research in good sources, often by professionals (in which case, it needs to be popularized via a blog post, podcast, Ensign article, Deseret Book, open/popular conference, etc.) And lest anyone wonder about my quotation marks, I use “bad” information to indicate inaccurate, off-base data and “good” to indicate solid data and well-thought out, charitable analysis, regardless of who is doing it. I’ve seen non-LDS do great research and provide “good” information, and plenty of LDS who don’t, so this isn’t a bias thing about who is doing it or what limited conclusions they draw.

    “In other words, my impulse, when faced with a stereotypical faith crisis, of viewing it is the product of crappy research and thinking is not particularly helpful.”

    It may not be helpful, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. On the other hand, if someone is desperate for Joseph Smith not to be a polygamist, good solid research isn’t going to help them at all.
    I think part of the problem is we preach revelation, prophets, scripture, etc. but we never really elaborate in any kind of depth. This creates a theological vacuum and lack of framework which are then easily and unconsciously filled from Protestant or Evangelical cultural osmosis. Elder Maxwell talked about our lack of “doctrinal sophistication.”

    I would like to think that P. Oaks intent was something like the following, from E. Eyring. Yes, we need good research, and the best data available. But that’s not necessarily going to fix everything, nor should we make it the sole pillar of our faith.

    “even at its best, the resolution of doubts by reason and appeal to evidence cannot take us far. It is helpful to meet a brilliant mind who defends gospel truths with fact and logic. There is comfort in finding that such a person has confronted the same questions with which you struggle and has retained his faith. But there is a hazard. Even the most brilliant and faithful person may defend the truth with argument or fact that later proves false. The best scholarship has, at least, incompleteness in it. But even flawless argument has a weakness if you come to depend on it: What happens to the next doubt, or the next? What if no physical evidence or persuasive logic can be produced to dispel it? You will find then what I have found-that faithful scholar who reassured you with logic did not base his faith there. It was the other way around. His faith reassured him that someday, when God told him how it was all done, he would see all truth as perfectly logical, transparently reasonable. In the meantime he was enjoying discovering what he could with the logic he could muster.”

  7. Threadjack warning:
    Kevin: “historically the Sabbath was indeed on Saturday, just as it is for Jews and Seventh-day Sabbatarisns to this day”
    But, of course, the notion that it is still the same seventh day doesn’t work at all for those in what was the 1752 British empire whose calendar dropped 11 (not 7 or 14) days in 1752, resulting in the pre-change Saturdays (after September 2) becoming the post-change Wednedays (assuming Wikipedia on 1752 has the 1752 September calendar right). I wonder how the Jews and 7th-day sabbatarians dealt with this. Were they all wrong before September 2, 1752 or are they all wrong after that date.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, all. Kevin that is such a fascinating case!

    Rachel E O, guilty as charged!

    Ben, that is very helpful. Thank you.

  9. Kristine A says:

    As a non-academic, former-faith-crisis person (who was often probably looked down on by mormon studies types) I think I was lucky enough that my instinct was to try to follow mormon studies types and see how they were reconciling all of the information they already knew that I was just learning. Somewhat post-faith-crisis, I value religious studies (esp biblical scholarship outside the church, and esp anything not produced by the church) because it feeds my spiritual development and growth and I value mormon history because I think it gives me clearer lenses with which to see the church of now. Beyond that they don’t hold capital-A “answers” to anything faith-wise for me because I’ve come to the conclusion that all mortals see through a glass darkly and even those who’ve had visions don’t completely understand them and the “best” we have seems to be muddling along as best they can. So I find loving others and seeking justice and liberation to be my best christian discipleship I can offer. In that I agree that research is not an answer, in that way. But I will continue to both research and study nonetheless. I’m not sure I’m as generous with charitable interpretations of Oaks and others’ words as other commenters have been, but I’ve also moved on from ever thinking our leaders will have valuable advice for those in a crisis of faith.

  10. Mr. Schmidt says:

    I’m glad the OP went on to dwell on the encouragement of faith combined with study. And FWIW, I believe that he is using “research” and “study” interchangeably here. This is not a new concept, but it is one that resonates with me – and Ben’s quoting from Pres. Eyring sums up my feelings nicely.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Ardis, I hope the same thing. And that CS Lewis wrote is a beauty.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    Kristine A, I never had that sense, but I’m glad you landed well.

  13. I will join the discussion as a spouse whose husband left the church over “historical issues”.

    Some of his concerns were polygamy, Brigham Young withholding the priesthood from those of African descent and women and the priesthood. He thought the Proclamation to the World on the Family was outdated, prophets and apostles made mistakes, and like Rachel has mentioned he questioned “church culture and church policies/structures (e.g. toward women and LGBTQ members).” In other words, his study was primarily fixed on anything that has been or is controversial. Elder Renlund and his wife call this “an ecclesiastical form of whack-a-mole. Elder Renlund also said, “doubt never leads to faith”. I believe this to be true.

    In my case I believe my husband used these topics as evidence to prove to himself he did not need to follow the leaders of the church. My husband came from an active family and served as a Bishop for more than 5 years. I believe he became exhausted trying to live a fraudulent life.

    Eventually he stopped attending his meetings, left the family and moved in with another woman.

    For me it comes down to the heart. What is the reason for the research? Is it to find weaknesses and faults to excuse personal behavior or is it to study history independent of one’s testimony?

    And another thank you to Ben for Elder Eyring’s quote.

  14. It is very hard to do adequate study all by yourself. We need teachers, mentors, and companions in study. If you send me off to research a problem that’s troubling me, my first questions should probably be these: who will teach me, who will guide me to find the best information, and who can I trust? Answers to these questions have to come before we can study properly. We answer these questions partly through the kind of faithful action that I think Elder Oaks is advocating. Through service, prayer, and honest, humble engagement with others, we learn where to find trustworthy sources of help. Personal connections with people we love and trust are the grounding that gives meaning to religious study.

  15. I’ve seen a lot of different interpretations of this today. This is what I wrote about it on r/lds (Reddit ):

    In other subs, this is being made out to be Pres. Oaks telling people not to research their questions. They’re completely missing the point of this paragraph:

    “But the best answer to any question that threatens faith is to work to increase faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “Conversion to the Lord precedes conversion to the Church. And conversion to the Lord comes through prayer and study and service, furthered by loving patience on the part of spouse and other concerned family members.”

    Spiritual conversion needs to be the foundation of our faith. Not every intellectual question is going to be answered immediately. But if we can look to spiritual experiences in the meantime, it will help us keep going until the answers are received (some of which may not even come in this life).

    Also notice that he said “conversion to the Lord comes through prayer and study and service.” He’s not saying don’t study. He’s saying also do the other necessary things for spiritual growth.

  16. I appreciate the researching spirit in this community. But some of the comments give of this air that a lot of research is good but a on the road little research is bad since it tends to lead people from the church and is the basis of most ex- Mormons’ experience. The idea is that the ex-Mormons don’t do enough research and that if they would they would find themselves back in the church.

    My interactions with the ex-Mormon is that while many aren’t too well researched in the LDS Church, they tend to be much more knowledgeable about the LDS Church than the average church member. Furthermore many of them are leaders in the field of Mormon history (I.e. Dan Vogel). I know very few cases where ex-Mormons have come back to church from doing more research. Many ex-Mormons seem to be quite obsessive about reading Mormon history of all sorts as well.

    Yet believers have published more on Mormon history than non-believers. This has to do with the fact that there is simply more money and better infrastructure for believing history. BYU has created a significant number of positions for believing scholars whose and hires people on the tacit agreement that they will publish narratives that are favorable to the LDS Church’s image. The LDS leaders have excommunicated and fired scholars for publishing narratives deemed antithetical to the LDS Church’s image.

    That said, however, I think that a believer is more likely to leave the church than remain in it from doing research. And that the more in-depth the research is the more likely that person is to leave and remain out of the church. It should also be recognized that the drivers behind much of the believing scholarship are social factors. There is a high social price to possibly be paid if a believing scholar whose job, career, reputation, marriage, retirement, and friendship network are often contingent upon him or her publishing narratives favorable to the LDS Church’s image publishes our says something that comes into too much conflict with the traditional truth claims. Believing scholars have a little bit of leeway in challenging the official truth claims but are very careful not to cross a certain line.

  17. I am a lazy researcher. I just read the compilation of what others have spent countless hours researching. I am a little like Kristine A. I was lucky enough to find this community. I was also lucky enough to be “silently pushed” towards diving into the Old Testament and my studies have deepened my conviction of our fallen nature, the need for a redeemer, the value of covenants and ordinances, the messiness of scriptures and the impossible job of being a prophet.

    Could the problem be that we have a couple of generations of really poor researchers because of books like Mormon Doctrine that have simplified answers to every gospel question slammed into a couple of paragraphs? This same attitude and searching habit is then used to exit. They read the CES letter and all of the sudden they are experts and “know” everything is false in a short period of time.

    I do fear that the members see a lot of people that start studying and reading leave the church. I am betting that most wards have family members who have gone down this path and they warn others about it. This discourages any study of non-church approved material and our Gospel instruction suffers because of it. My Gospel Doctrine class is beyond pathetic at this point. I don’t see it getting better any time soon and these warnings against researching are not going to help.

  18. In saying “research is not the answer” President Oaks clearly has something in mind. The problem is that “research” does not have a culturally cohesive meaning. I don’t know that it ever will, but at the moment we are left filling in with conversations that start to feel like “what I do is good and not what he’s talking about, what you do that has cause you trouble is that thing he means.”

    Given the freedom to fill in the blanks, my interpretation, my ‘mind reading’ for the day, goes like this:
    >The decades-long simplified story has crumbled. So that kind of “research” is out.
    >The essays are current and have an imprimatur, but we know they are causing a stir. We can’t really disavow them, but “research” in the sense of reading the essays is a mixed bag.
    >There’s a lot of talk about “research” beyond the essays, whether that’s pursuing the footnotes, or letters and critiques that circulate on the internet, or apologetic literature, that seems to be unsettling and generally not helpful. My guess is that’s what President Oaks really want to get at. (This is my personal opinion too, so probably I’m projecting.)
    >There is good work (that I associate with J. Stapley, and Ardis, among others), but it has limitations that lead it to be too-often ignored in these discussions. First, too little, too obscure, too ‘hard’ for people to get into. (I do wish it were different, but this is a mind-reading exercise about where we are today.) Second, it is a common experience that people come away from that good work with a believing-but-different view of the Church than the Church has said about itself for some time now. That believing-but-different view is unsettling, uncontrolled, outside the box, from a Church leader or spokesperson’s point of view.

  19. It seems to me that things are different in Seattle and Salt Lake, but where I live it is likely that there will be a significant faction of the active membership who will read President Oaks’ remarks and determine that research is, in fact, bad. In the past, when I have shared some of what I have found from faithful sources I have been told that I need to repent. I guess you’ll have to trust me that i don’t raise ruckuses in Sunday School. If I have concerns, I talk privately to the teacher, who is a good friend, outside of class. My faithfulness was still questioned. It sucked. I admit that questioning my faithfulness now is entirely justified.

    I am jealous of those of you who have those around that you can discuss issues with and reconcile what you know. Many of us don’t get that. I am afraid of how President Oaks’ words will be used. I would refer those who use this quote in that way to this blog, but they will think you guys are hopeless apostates regardless of the facts.

  20. Last Lemming says:

    The Oaks quote in the OP places the research question in the context of how one spouse responds to the other spouse’s loss of faith. J reframes the question as ” how do you navigate relationships complicated by differences in belief?” I think that Oaks’ suggestion is spot on–research–as in reading Gospel Topics Essays–is not going to help you navigate such a relationship. “…prayer and study and service, furthered by loving patience on the part of spouse…” is much more likely to help one navigate the relationship. (And I’m agreeing with Jimothy here that “study” in this context refers to the scriptures.)

    None of which should be read as discouraging research in the abstract. Academic research, or any type of research undertaken independent of a faith crisis is simply outside the scope of Oaks’ comments. How his comments apply to the person actually undergoing the faith crisis is arguable. The second quote in the OP can be read as applying to the person experiencing the crisis, in which case I would switch sides and disagree with Jimothy on the meaning of “study.” Of course, study and research in that context must not devolve into the “crappy” stuff that J rightly denounces.

  21. My challenge is that I think the seemingly popular podcasts and letters that are frequently cited as responsible for these situations are just dumb–generally a mirror to the worst thinking in our past. It is consequently hard for me to respond charitably to people in a state of “crisis” induced by them.

    You need to be a bit more forthright about this situation. You denigrate these podcasters and authors for producing “dumb” content or poor-quality research, but until relatively recently, those were practically the only sources (or at least the only easily-accessed sources) of information for controversial events in church history. The church’s recent movement toward transparency is likely in response to these sources. So, dumb or not, they have served an important purpose.

    The “over-simplifying” movement you refer to went much further than that. Recall that professors at the church’s own university were excommunicated for publishing information that ran counter to the preferred narrative. One assumes that these works would be counted among “good research,” at least by the standards of the day, unless your criteria for “good” necessarily include “faith promoting.”

  22. Rachel E O says:

    I also agree with J. Stapley that President Oak’s statement that “Conversion to the Lord precedes conversion to the Church” is quite radical, and very welcome. I also believe it carries far-reaching implications, for here’s the rub: in the experience of some of my loved ones, their conversion to the Lord has genuinely led them away from the Church, to other spiritual/religious communities and modes of being. Whereas my conversion to the Lord leads me to conversion to the Church, though as Christian writes, with a “believing-but-different view of the Church than the Church has said about itself for some time now.”

    I think we have to learn to see that difference as affirming evidence of the beautiful diversity in the hearts and spirits of God’s children, rather than evidence of weakness or defection in those hearts and spirits. A blessing rather than a threat or a problem to be solved. Conversion to the Lord will lead some people to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, others to Islam, others to Catholicism, others to nondenominational evangelicalism, others to the Community of Christ, others to Buddhism, others to the Society of Friends, and others to a very personal and quiet spirituality that engages in community with others in less traditional forms.

    Indeed, as John W suggests in his comment, sometimes people who leave the Church are very well-versed in its history, have done a lot of research, even in the ‘right places’ and with the appropriate nuance, sincerity, open-mindedness, and sophistication that Mormon studies folks advocate. But their conversion to the Lord still leads them elsewhere — because they have found that only outside of the Church can they find true spiritual connection to deity, while also more fully and equally and honestly connecting with and serving all of God’s children without regard to gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, or religious affiliation. I, meanwhile, feel that staying in the Church is the best place to do those things, for me personally. But I respect and love those who feel differently, and I honor that they are engaging in such a thoughtful and committed spiritual journey, motivated by a thirst for truth and a need for spiritual connection and a love of their fellow children of God.

  23. Stapley, I would agree that, in the context of a married couple where one moves toward inactivity or “faith crisis” or flat out exit, reading and research is not going to solve the tension that generally arises. Patience, love, and tolerance are a much better prescription. Somehow the average Mormon often thinks of religious tolerance (particularly with family members) as something like a compromise with the devil. Better to think of religious tolerance as a Christian virtue, even a Christian duty. Quoting Mormon apologetic arguments to a spouse in “faith crisis” is more likely to undermine a marriage than to bolster it. I shudder to think of what screwy alternative advice Mormon bishops give to spouses who come for counsel.

    In a different context, just focusing on an individual who develops historical or doctrinal issues, reading and research is a much better strategy. Richard Bushman counseled diving into the literature on a troubling topic, but reading all sides of the question or issue, not just the critical side. That still seems like good advice.

  24. Jack Hughes says:

    It’s not really the historical issues that are pushing people out of the Church. It’s the fact that inconvenient truths were whitewashed or intentionally kept hidden for generations, and that for years the Church’s official version of it’s own history was not entirely truthful, while it’s leaders asked members to build lifelong testimonies upon it. Betrayal is traumatic, and often the discovery of dishonesty or deception is more damaging than the original lie. I don’t blame anyone for leaving the Church over feeling betrayed, no matter what the specific lie or omission was.

    The antidote, I believe, is transparency. The publication of “Saints” is a baby-step forward in historical transparency. Pres. Oaks’ suggestion to avoid historical research completely is a step backwards. I’m trying to view his remarks through a charitable lens, as he represents a generation that does not fully understand the value of warts-and-all transparency, and at his age is not likely to change or back down.

    As an example, I knew a kindly older gentleman in a previous ward, who is about the same age as Pres. Oaks. He is a widower, having lost his wife 10 years ago due to complications from MS. She was first diagnosed with MS in the early 1970s, when the disease was not well understood and considered to be a death sentence. The man and the doctor conspired to keep the diagnosis a secret from her, and was successful in hiding it for many years. By today’s standards of ethics in medicine, such a practice would be highly inappropriate. But at the time, this was a fairly common way of handling terminal and life-threatening conditions–“what you don’t know can’t hurt you” and all that. Pres. Oaks seems to be of a similar mindset, but the prevailing culture now demands more honesty and transparency, and he can’t quite reconcile himself to it. An apology, with an admission that “in the past we were not entirely truthful about X…” would be an easy thing to do, and would go a long way toward healing. But we already know how he feels about apologies.

  25. Brother Re: says:

    Great counterpoints to both the “crisis” community and to Pres. Oaks.
    In many cases, investigating church history and listening to shallow podcasts (can you provide a list, please?) are lagging indicators of what has been termed a “faith crisis”. When members feel a lack of spirituality, authenticity, connection, or friendship at church, the crisis has begun.
    Some simply don’t connect with the divine using the spiritual tools provided by Mormonism. After years of concerted effor and feeling blamed for not finding connection in the prescribed ways, those brave enough will seek their own path to oneness with heaven.
    What follows may include rationalization through study of church history, and an awareness that the rigid “truths” taught as doctrine are quite brittle under test.
    Yet those in charge continue to fight against the result of a faith crisis, labeling it the source.
    It is high time to recognize and legitimize the diversity of spirits among us.

  26. Beautifully said, Rachel E O.

  27. You forgot to mention silly blogs.

  28. Truth should be sought after and honored no matter where it leads. People who claim that faith, prayer, and ‘spiritual’ learning are superior to historical facts, reason, and logic are somewhat fooling themselves. We need to admit that our faith and spiritual impressions are conditioned by and effected by our knowledge of facts and our reason. They cannot be separated.
    The challenge is in deciding if you accept a piece of information as fact. But once a piece of information is accepted as fact it cannot be separated from influencing your spiritual faith. Some people allow their reason to influence their faith. Some people allow their faith to influence their reason.

    The most telling test of this is how people react to the historical accounts of Joseph Smith’s practices with polygamy. A reason-dominant person will accept the historical accusations as fact and reject Joseph as a prophet. A faith-dominant person with accept that Joseph was a prophet and therefore reject the historical accounts as lies, misunderstandings, or incomplete accounts of the ways of God.

  29. Tim, Nope. There are other alternatives to the all-or-nothing thinking you (and some Church leaders) have espoused.

  30. Let me clarify, it is not all or nothing. But you cannot separate reason from feeling (spirit). A person can be intelligent and faithful, reasoned and spiritual, learned and prayerful. Knowledge, book learning, and historical facts do not rule out spiritual learning of faith. What I tried to say was that we cannot deny that our knowledge of facts influences (strongly) our faith. This is why so many leaders warn against ‘research’ and studying history. They know all too well how once certain facts are accepted they cannot coexist with a contrary faith. Some facts complement faith aspects, other facts will only challenge them. That is the point. Some people will start with a faith foundation and then force the facts to fit into their spiritual paradigm. I think this is what President Oaks espouses. I prefer the opposite. I prefer to use reason and facts as the foundation, then allow faith to flow within the context of the facts.

  31. J. Stapley says:

    John W, while I agree that all sorts of people end out leaving the church, including some that are well read (and some that even produce) scholarship, I reject your categorization of believing history and the incentives you ascribe to it. When you look at who is producing scholarship, the vast majority are not at BYU. Thatcher-Ulrich, Bushman, Flake, Taysom, Reeve, Mason, Brown, up until recently Givens and Barlow, (and for vanity’s sake even me). The same institutions that support the publishing by these folks largely support the scholarship of non-believers, and we are better for it. Think of Turner, McDannel, Maflie-Kipp, Farmer, Newell, etc. Now the field has also been greatly buoyed by things such as the JSPP, which clearly exists within the institutional church’s control. And while the footnotes and intros don’t delve in to religious ideas as much as I would have liked, the project is generally above reproach. They have set a scholarly benchmark. And I am cognizant that I am ignoring authors who sometimes veer into polemics (on all sides).

    Christian, et al., I agree that the sometimes chaotic results of study are not widely appreciated.

    Dave, I think I agree.

    Lucas, I honestly think that to say those sources were the only source of information is just plain wrong.

  32. A big “here here!” to @Brother Re: ‘s comment. I quote here for emphasis

    “In many cases, investigating church history and listening to shallow podcasts (can you provide a list, please?) are lagging indicators of what has been termed a “faith crisis”. When members feel a lack of spirituality, authenticity, connection, or friendship at church, the crisis has begun.”

    Rather than viewing “research” (regardless of whether it’s high-quality academic stuff or the “silly” podcasts and letters the OP doesn’t care for) as the single catalyst for faith crisis (it certainly could be in some cases), we need to realize that research can often be the consequence of other things that don’t sit right with some members.

    In other words, there are different motivations for pursuing research (in whatever form) into topics that may challenge the Mormon narrative. Some may do it to liven up stale discussions in Gospel Doctrine. Some may read blogs like this to connect with others over Mormon-y things in ways that are more playful and unscripted than what is acceptable at church or with family. Some may do it because they want to understand others’ points of view. Some may do it to support a decision they’ve already made to get offended/leave the church/sin/whatever. I don’t think it’s important for us to know their exact motivations for engaging in such research (maybe they don’t know them exactly, either), but I think it’s reasonable they could be both a cause and consequence of disaffection.

  33. Geoff - Aus says:

    If I leave the church it will be because of Pres Oaks. I see him as an idealogue like climate chang deniers. Who research to support their view. Im sure if he researched homosexuality or gay marriage, it would be like that.
    When I read the essays they also seem to be bending the facts to suit the modern church. As someone said above, feeling betrayed, or lied to reduces credibility, and there isn’t much left. In a recent SS lesson for example the scripture referred to Anna the prophetess, the manual couldn’t cope with a female prophet. Just another deception.
    If it weren’t for Uchtdorf I would dispair for the church, though I believe the gospel was restored, it is not the version Oaks teaches.

  34. it's a series of tubes says:

    But you cannot separate reason from feeling (spirit).

    Sorry Tim, gotta disagree vigorously with you here. One can have a spiritual experience uninformed by prior reason, an experience that remains ineffable no matter the amount of post-experience reason that is applied.

    I had one, once. I’d try to explain better, but, you know…ineffable.

  35. In line with Jack Hughes’ comment (@9:28), I concur that the whitewash is a serious concern. Nixon was brought down not by the break-in to do with the Watergate scandal, but by the cover-up. When I come across some controversial item from church history, I’m always more unnerved by efforts to explain it away than by the thing itself.
    Good research can help me with both of these layers. Here’s the documentation about the regrettable incident, and here’s the documentation outlining the various attitudes toward the regrettable incident, including hand-waving, denial, distraction, etc. Those aspects are part of our history, too, a part I hope we are learning to acknowledge, learn from, and move past.

  36. Dog Spirit says:

    Thank you, Rachel E O, for your comments that echo my feelings.

    I don’tt see how anyone can really expect the average person whose interests and skills lie outside of historical research to read enough scholarly articles and monographs to achieve what is deemed an appropriate level of study by folks whose living or main hobby it is to keep up with the astonishing number of new and excellent entries into the field of Mormon studies every year. I have a PhD in another branch of history and even I don’t have the time to develop what amounts to another field of expertise! The stack of unread Mormon studies titles takes up more and more space in my house all the time. Would you really expect your undergraduates in theatre, engineering, and elementary education to do the equivalent research of an advanced degree in history?

    It accomplishes little to refuse sympathy to those whose crisis was triggered by nonscholarly but accessible sources, no matter how annoying said sources are. I think we have to accept that not everyone with doubts is going to read a short, painstakingly compiled list of the ten most important monographs and twenty most important articles in the field to answer their questions. I hope Oaks is sincere in prioritizing spiritual connection with deity over faith in the church, because I think that might be one of the best approaches for a lot of people in crisis, if implemented with genuine respect for their path if they should find that connection outside the church. At the same time we have to be willing to accept that reading all the faithful scholarly sources in the world also won’t necessarily lead everyone to the same spiritual and religious conclusions. The “some knowledge is bad and will lead you out of the church, but lots of knowledge is good and will keep you in, see, look at Richard Bushman” approach to the problem has got to go; it isn’t helpful or even always true.

  37. Truckers Atlas says:

    “It accomplishes little to refuse sympathy to those whose crisis was triggered by nonscholarly but accessible sources, no matter how annoying said sources are.”


  38. Elder Oaks has an accomplished legal background. Why are we left parsing his words like this? I understand that this subject is complicated, but it’s still somewhat depressing that this is the state of rhetoric on faith/doubt in 2019.

  39. J Stapley, that is true that there are believing scholars across many disciplines who publish about Mormonism and that their publications are widely accepted as valid and reputable by the larger scholarly community. What I am taking issue with is this idea that ex-Mormons haven’t researched enough and that if they would just research more they would return to belief, simply because some of the leading scholars on Mormonism are believing Mormons.

    Some points on the believing scholars such as Bushman, Givens, and others.

    1) They all grew up LDS or at least converted at an early age and have been deeply socialized into LDS belief and culture.

    2) They built a reputation as believing Mormons and most of their followers and readers are believing Mormons. As far as I know most are married to believing Mormons and have/are raising their kids as believing Mormons. The have built their lives in such a way that the stakes have become very high if they leave the church or even just publish something that could be construed as challenging in a significant way the official narrative.

    3) It can’t convincingly be argued that they are arriving at any assertions that verify the veracity of the LDS Church’s truth claims (at least the claims that are supernatural) were arrived at strictly through objective reasoning. They were socialized and conditioned into these beliefs at early ages. I hardly know of a case where an already established scholar arrived at a belief in Mormonism because of the arguments for Mormonism on its merits. I’m sure we might find a couple of examples but it is an extreme rarity.

    4) I don’t know of a single peer-reviewed publication by a non-Mormon academic press where they try to argue that something like Nephites actually existed or the veracity of other LDS Church truth claims.

    Bottom line is that in-depth research of Mormonism is more likely to lead people to reject it rather than accept it as true. As for the leading scholars off Mormonism who have accepted Mormonism as true, this has more to do with social phenomena within the Mormon community and the high stakes of leaving Mormonism than it does the merits of traditional LDS truth claims.

  40. J. Stapley says:

    John W., again I’m just going to disagree. Religious History and Religious Studies just doesn’t ask the types of questions you seem focused on. You don’t see those questions about Mormonism, but you also don’t see those questions about Catholicism or Judaism. I also think the speculation about motivations is just not a viable line of inquiry. Judge the work on its merits.

    And more broadly, I agree with those who have repeated that (even though it is hard for me to do) having sympathy and empathy for folks in crises related to what I have described as silly podcasts and letters is important. However, it is also important that folks not be lazy in their approach to these topics and do the work necessary (assuming that this is important to them, something evidenced by the existence of a crisis) to dig into them.

  41. Followed the footnotes says:

    I submit they do not point people to the essays because the essays, and the way top leaders handle changing the historical narrative, caused (causes) people to leave the church.

  42. Followed, if “they do not point people to the essays”, what do you think was happening when the Church News reporting on President Oaks’ talk, pointed people to the essays and linked to where to find them? (That is, however, a change from what happened when the first of the essays became available on

  43. Deborah Christensen says:

    Thank you Rachel E O! That is perfect.

  44. If I didn’t research I would have left the Church

    Whatever happened to Shari Dew’s “engage in the wrestle?”

  45. J. Stapley, motivations mean everything, and the best motivations are philological and those seeking full objectivity. Normally we assume such motivations from scholars, but when there are clear factors that could compromise objective motivations, we should be cautious. For instance, We should be very cautious about accepting studies where the possibility of bias is high. We should be less prone to accept studies done on the efficacy of pharmaceuticals that are funded by pharmaceutical companies. Similarly we should be less prone to accept the validity of studies on the question whether there is evidence to back Mormon truth claims (a claim which countless Mormon scholars are interested in and publish articles and books on, so this idea that Religious Studies aren’t interested in such questions doesn’t make any sense) when the authors could face ostracism, divorce, job loss, and discipline by the church for publishing ideas that come into too much conflict with the LDS Church’s official narrative.

    You want to try to make religious claims off limits and beyond scholarly inquiry. You want to try to say that religion and history are different. No. Religion, particularly Mormonism, is largely about making claims about nature and history. A key Mormon claim is that ancient proto-Christian Jews inhabited the Americas as early as 600 BCE. This claim appears to be there basis of Mormon testimonies particularly when members say that they know That the Book of Mormon is true. That is a historical claim worthy of scholarly evaluation. It isn’t off limits. The LDS Church claims that patriarchs can actually reveal a person’s distant future. That again is a question worthy of scholarly attention.

  46. J. Stapley says:

    John W., we should be critical of any scholarly endeavor. But you do realize that essentially every pharmaceutical you have ever taken had its clinical studies paid for buy corporations. A blanket statement about church members’ scholarship would similarly cover non-member and former-member scholarship. Similarly, I guess, scholarship by an identifiable interested demographic would be suspect. But if you actually look at the scholarship, you will find Catholics doing amazing work on Catholic History and Religious Studies, and Jewish folks doing the same, etc. That is what things like peer review are for. Criticize the scholarship and find faults with it. Don’t try to denigrate the work of an entire demographic categorically.

    You seem to be particularly interested in Book of Mormon historicity issues, which for a lot of reasons don’t particularly interest me. There is something of a split in Religious Studies as a discipline, and while generally scholars aren’t looking to find naturalistic explanations for miracles or to find scientific bases or alternatives to founding myths, there is a cohort who does. On BoM stuff you probably would like to read Ann Taves, whose recent work falls in that camp. It seems to me we are talking about far more than that sub-genre. There are massive swaths of scholarship that looks at what work religion is doing in the lives of believers, and what the history of believers are that takes the experiences of believers as they describe them as valid. To tilt your lance at entire fields of inquiry and scholarship is just not going to do much.

  47. I think you have rather missed Elder Oak’s point. I am currently studying – in depth – Church history. My faith and testimony of the Restoration, which is strong, is as strong now as it was 15 years ago, Why? because we can never expect to fully resolve doubts and crisis of faith by simply studying church history. I agree with Elder Oaks, and I speak from experience. However I do encourage it nonetheless because once you have faith, the facts will support it. This is his point: if I say to myself, “I wonder if the Book of Mormon is true? I know, I’ll study the Joseph Smith Papers to find out”, then you quest will be a lost cause. If you want to know if the Book Of Mormon is true, then do what it says in Moroni 10:3-5. Then you can know – for sure. Then you can approach your in depth study of Church History with Faith. My study has added depth to my testimony, and has clarified my understanding, and I find what I discover interesting and enthralling. BUT, every day, I also study the Scriptures, and read from the Book Of Mormon with my wife daily, and we are both blessed.

  48. J. Stapley says:

    Apparently, folks at ex-Mormon reddit have link to this post multiple times and the commenting dynamics reflect that. No thanks. I’ve deleted a number of comments. I’m not interested.

  49. Also, I have read Ann Taves. She seems to belong to the school of thought that it is wrong to criticize religion because of supernatural truth claims, which appears to be a common sentiment in religious studies. In one article that I read she agrees with Dan Vogel that the golden plates were probably fabricated, but then goes on to a work of incredible mental contortionism to make the case that Joseph Smith wasn’t a fraud or delusional. Fabricating plates would make one a fraud by definition so I fail to understand her point.

  50. John W, I don’t buy Taves’ argument, but it’s not hard to understand. You might try reading it again.

  51. I didn’t get here from ex Mormon Reddit. I’m a frequent reader and commenter here. I think the commenting dynamics reflect the continued use of terms lazy and silly.

    Please pull my comment out of moderation.

  52. I didn’t get here from ex Mormon Reddit either. I’m just trying to humbly assess where I’m at as a descendant of pioneers.

  53. I’ve never been to ex Mormon Reddit. What is frustrating to faithful attending Mormons, trying to figure it all out, is when leaders say “Don’t worry about the history. Just pray and have faith.” It’s like saying, “Ignore that man behind the curtain.” I believe that facts matter. I know not all the “research” is factual. But neither is everything in the SS manuals. I am wrestling by going to multiple sources, searching diligently, trying to uncover biases and let the facts lead me to the truth, whatever that might be. Ignoring information that contradicts an emotionally held belief is lazy.

  54. After almost 50 years of studying Church history, my advice is that if you find something that bothers you, study more Church history. Frequently I have read one participant’s report on a disturbing event, only later to find the reports of others who were there to be very different.
    Were the leaders flawed? Definitely. Does that affect the truthfulness of some of the claims they made? Judge for yourself. But do it fully informed, not led down the garden path.

  55. I’ve never been to an ex Mormon reddit and my comment was pulled.

  56. Thank you Dog Spirit Feb 6th at 1:24 pm. That was a perfect reflection of my own feelings and experience.
    There seems to be an assumption by faithful scholars and apologists that the default position in this life is to be a Latter-day Saint. So whether born-in or a convert, you should never leave. You’re an idiot for leaving. We keep being told that that if we only studied as they did, we would remain in the Church, as they do. The constant condescension and belittling are getting tiresome.

    This world and universe are so much bigger than Mormonism.

  57. Kristin Brown says:

    I believe Elder Oaks is advising couples to stay together although differences concerning the church may arise.

  58. Amy, You’re not wrong. I am one of those that left, but the reason I began doing the research was because I was unhappy and questioning at my core whether I could raise my daughter in the same way that had made me so unhappy. I read many books and consumed any information I could find in 2005. I knew I was going to find problems. I was pretty sure they were going to be serious, but I had determined they would need to be overwhelming for me to abandon belief. I’m sure you can guess how that turned out. My husband (now ex) was much happier in the church than I had been. He did leave over the historical issues, but unlike me he didn’t seek them out on his own and if I had been able to reconcile my issues I have no doubt we would have stayed.

    At this point, the issue for me has become one of agency. When I didn’t have the information, when it was taboo to seek out any non-approved information, I don’t feel I had agency and not having agency put me in a situation where I followed a path which looking back, simply wasn’t right for me. This has the net effect of people who love LDS life organically getting thrown together with people like me, who have to make ourselves do it. At some points having to hourly convince ourselves we’re “happy” living the plan. This gets exhausting and now that the information is so readily available, well it’s being sought out more often. As it is sought out by those who are unhappy in the church, it is then introduced to those who are, at which point, those people have to decide if they’re okay knowing there’s a lot of unhappy people out there behind the smiles at church. This is basically why my ex left. He was uncomfortable that the church seemed to hide things in order to keep members in and on the path instead of encouraging them to research it all and come to their own conclusion.

    In 2005 I couldn’t imagine a member telling me, “Maybe the church just isn’t the right fit for you.” About a year ago my next door neighbor, who’s husband was technically my bishop at the time, told me exactly that. That’s the agency I’m talking about it. I’m glad the church makes her happy. I’m also glad members seem to be moving to a place where they are okay if it doesn’t make everyone happy, even people they know and love. I hope the net result will be more informed members who are in the church because they love it and want to be there.

  59. I highly suspect that a confirming feeling from revelation, telling you to be active in the church, will override any amount of research.
    Sometimes more research will give context to something that looks bad, and normalize it. But that’s not going to motivate you to change your life style. Having spiritual experiences will change your lifestyle.
    I certainly don’t want to be ignorant about history; but even if I “discovered” the most damning of all evidence, if God told me to stick with the church; I’m sticking with the church.

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