On Needing to Know Where the Bodies are Buried

(This is a story about how I bought and read the anti-Mormon opus Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? on my mission, but for the story to make sense I need to give you some personal background.)

A. My Youth

I grew up in a small branch in Illinois. And I kind of thought I knew everything there was to know about the Church. This was due to the pedagogical penchant for teachers to use what I call catechism questions. As in Teacher: “Johnny, could you read that verse, please?” Johnny: “Jesus wept.” Teacher: “Very good. Now what does it say Jesus did on this occasion?” [crickets] Teacher: “Anyone? Bueller?” Johnny “Uh, he wept.” Teacher: “Excellent! Here’s a lollipop.” 

Man, I hated that. And those lessons had the perverse effect of making me think I knew pretty much everything there was to know about the Church, because the questions we got in class were so infantile.

Occasionally I had some really good teachers who didn’t do that. I’ll mention three. First, my seminary teacher for my first year of seminary at age 14 was excellent. (As I would much later learn he was John Hamer’s uncle, so that should be no surprise.) I still recall learning the difference between “apocrypha” and “apocalypse” in that class; no childish catechisms there. Second was my own father. He was never a full-time teacher in a class I was in, but a few times he subbed. He was a professor of education, so teaching was his jam, and he was very good at it. Third, we had a family that had converted from the RLDS. The son of that family, not much older than us, was our SS teacher when I was older, probably a senior in high school. And he was excellent, giving very substantive lessons, which I attributed to his RLDS background.

B. The Mish

In October 1977 I left for a domestic mission. After five days in the old Salt Lake Mission Home I flew to Colorado, where I would spend the next two years. And I kind of thought I knew pretty much everything I needed to know about the Church from all those catechism lessons I had absorbed as a boy. Wow, was that ever a mistake. I doubt that I have uttered the words “I don’t know” more often in any week-long segment of my life. I thought I knew everything about the Church, only to find out I knew next to nothing. All those catechism lessons had not prepared me to deal with genuine questions from a position of at least mild skepticism. I’ve never felt so uninformed in my entire life. 

I knew I was going to have to undertake a program of remedial education about the Church. This was tough at first, because I had to devote most of my time to learning the discussions and memorizing the discussion scriptures. (We were supposed to know the discussions 95% word perfect and the 75 discussion scriptures 100% word perfect (some as long as ten verses).) I also had to read the scriptures. I had only read the NT and D&C, so I needed to read the BoM right away, and the OT later in the mish.

I had a collection of books called the missionary library, consisting of Jesus the Christ, the Articles of Faith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, Gospel Doctrine, Doctrines of Salvation, and maybe a couple of others I’m forgetting. The missionary apartments all had stacks of old Ensigns and even some Improvement Eras, and back then the church magazines were more substantive, so I read those. In my second area, someone had left a copy of The Story of the Latter-day Saints, so I read that.

My instructor introduced me to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. At first I didn’t believe him that such a book existed. C.  Wilfred Griggs came and gave a Know Your Religion address in our area, at which he translated the NT on the fly from what I would later recognize as the maroon United Bible Society edition of the Greek New Testament. I thought that was insanely cool and that send me on the path of learning biblical languages.

My companion gave me the idea that the New International Version was a superior translation of the Bible than the KJV, so I wanted to pick one up, and we had a Christian bookstore in our area boundaries. While we were there, I saw a copy of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? By now I knew who the Tanners were, and I decided that if I were going to be teaching people about the Church for two years I needed to know what could be said against it, so I bought it. It was pretty massive, velobound with a plastic green flyleaf. I realize it might seem strange for a missionary to buy that book, but it made sense to me.  I’m glad I bought the book. And while it was definitely eye opening, I was on a campaign to open my eyes, so that was fine. And I wasn’t too thrown by it. In a way my fundamental ignorance was an advantage; I didn’t really know enough to be too scandalized by it.

C. Adult Life

I am naturally a person of faith. Faith comes pretty easily to me. But for me to have faith I need to know where thee bodies are buried. I do not want to be blindsided by some weird thing I didn’t know about. If there is weird or negative stuff in the Church’s history (and there certainly is), I want to know about it. In my adult life I have read the books, subscribed to the journals, attended the conferences. For me reading the Tanners was in a weird way just as positive an experience as reading Nibley was, because they helped to give me confidence that I at least know where the bodies are buried.


  1. Aussie Mormon says:

    “I thought I knew everything about the Church, only to find out I knew next to nothing.”

    Definitely an issue I can see in myself too.

    We’re now 130+ years from OD1. More and more members are not products of pre 1890 plural marriage relationships. So stories haven’t been passed down. They might know it happened, but just consider it part of church history.

    We’re 43 years from OD2. So unless the youth had a (grand)parent who was subject to the restriction, they might have very little knowledge apart from the fact the restriction existed.

    We see artwork as doctrine (particularly around BoM translation methods etc).

    This is one of these areas where I think getting the youth (and adults) in the church to know the gospel topic essays can be incredibly useful. They don’t go as deep into things as journals etc, but it at least introduces them to the fact that messy parts of church history exist.

  2. Aussie Mormon says:

    The third point should be “We see some people take artwork as sources of doctrine”

  3. ushallbcot says:

    I’m older than Kevin is. I served a mission in Germany, 1967-69, BoM chiasmus era. As an Utahan: my father, was a nonmember, always calling himself a heathen. His mother, a convert, came to Utah from Holland when she was 14. She became disaffected and married a gentile. Not sure if my mother, who was a member, ever regularly attended. Her siblings and parents always mocked the church and many of its active members. All this is simply to say I got exposed to varying viewpoints. It gave me a desire to know, as you say, where the bodies were buried.

    I got my copy of M:SorR?, the 1972 enlarged edition, in about 1979 or 1980. I bought it in a Christian bookstore someplace in Washington, the tri-cities area, Yakima or Wenatchee, I’m thinking. (I was holding hearings for work in those cities.)

    Can’t say I’ve ever kept up as diligently as Kevin, but the principle at play still applies.

  4. I’m happy that we really don’t have to turn to the Tanners or their more questionable ideological descendants any longer. Those of us who read the books and journals and attend the conferences today learn where all those bodies are buried, with far better scholarship (the Tanners were often, not always, reliable; many of their present-day kin are not), without the concentrated venom and ground glass, and with access to defense attorneys — reading the anti-Mormon stuff can be like going on trial without counsel but with a full team of prosecutors who have no obligation to present authentic testimony or allow exculpatory evidence.

    I’ve never shied away from any topic, but I do shun untrustworthy voices. I only hope that your readers understand that the quality of the research/writing matters, even for roadmaps to bodies; that today’s conferences and journals scrutinize EVERYTHING without the need to turn to materials whose authors have other than scholarly goals; and that there is no inherent virtue in anti-Mormon exposes, especially to someone whose interest lies more in sensation than in reading widely enough to be able to recognize what today’s version of the Tanners get wrong, or slyly forget to tell you.

    Cue a chorus of dismissal of this position as goody two-shoes pro-Mormonism. I can take it. Like Kevin, I know where the bodies are buried; like Kevin, I’m still here.

  5. I know where the historical bodies are buried and have read from a variety of sources, friendly and less friendly. I don’t care that much about the historical bodies. I tire a little of the LDS intellectuals who wear it as a badge of pride that they know about all the bodies and they still stay. Ok – gold star? I am not sure what they are trying to prove? That they are better than both the ignorant Mormons and the ignorant ex-Mormons, neither of which can handle the truth? Maybe I am misreading their intent and I would do better to assume good intent – so I’ll try harder to assume good intent.

    But I do care about the LGBTQ bodies. The black bodies. The female bodies. Those broken bodies and spirits I’m not cool ignoring or rationalizing away.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I should be clear that I’m not recommending this particular reading program for students today, who have access to a cornucopia of readily available resources. If you’re choice is to read MSOR on the several thousand changes to the BoM text or Royal Skousen’s many volume critical text project, obviously Skousen is the state of the art today. But on my mission I just didn’t have much access to anything else.

  7. Elisa, since I read your comment as a direct response — and slap — to me, I’ll respond: It isn’t offered as a badge of pride, and I don’t want or need your condescending gold star. My remark is a direct response to all those anonymous would-be commenters on my blog, and the nasties who email me directly, who have read two cents worth of shoddy work from hostile sources and send it to me gleefully, so sure that they know something I don’t know, and oh, if I only just knew this one thing they want to tell me, I would run screaming from Mormonism.

    I don’t ignore or rationalize the things that bother you. I’ve tackled some of them — many of them — directly, offering additional examples and sources that others have not yet brought to light. But because I focus on history, and on evidence, I seldom write a post that is mere editorializing, and I need some historical hook, some new document, to offer before I write about something. Women crushed by plural marriage? the ugliest examples of racism in official church sources that aren’t merely quoting the same examples everybody else uses? the refusal to take women seriously, or to use the gifts we so want to share? the blanket of silence thrown over the lives of single Latter-day Saint adults? I’ve tackled those, with candor, but without the nyah-nyah I-told-you-so of too many hostile voices.

  8. Ardis, thanks for your explanation. I think you are misdirecting some fire at me thanks to all of those nasty-grams over the years (I certainly never sent you any of those, not familiar with your work which is why I didn’t understand your original comment in context) but fair enough. I realize my gold star comment sounded condescending and I could have asked my question better; your “I’m still here” comment sounded condescending to me and I was trying to understand what you meant by it if not to signal a special status as a smart Mormon who can handle all of the tension in ways all the rest of us mortals can’t. Your explanation in response makes sense and I can see that I interpreted your comment in a way it was not intended without that context. In any event, I definitely took this convo off topic so will move on. Just found the title for this one a bit troubling / triggering.

  9. Kevin, at the level of a memoir I find this fascinating. We grew up in similar places but with very different experiences.

    I smiled at the memory of copies of the Ensign and New Era left in missionary apartments. I “met” my future (and present) wife through an article she published in one of those left-behind magazines.

    At the level of a policy and practice discussion, I’ve got a few differences to explore.

    First, having never read any work by the Tanners perhaps I shouldn’t speak, but I would recommend lots of alternatives before Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? At the other extreme, stopping with the main text of the Saints series, or even the Gospel Topics essays and Church History essays, is not enough.

    Second, regarding the inoculation hypothesis, which I think you’re an advocate for (at least the OP serves as an argument in favor), as I listen to people in faith crisis/transition/journey I don’t hear a lot of ongoing distress about discovered facts, about the facts themselves. The distress I hear is mostly about what we do about it. It’s not “why did it happen that way?” but “why was I lied to?” and “why don’t they apologize?” and “why don’t we change?” The long shadow of polygamy and residual racism, including refusal to take responsibility for errors in the past, are major stumbling blocks. Not that they happened, but that we don’t deal with them in responsible ways today.

    Third, in a very personal way I am struggling with questions about the value and efficacy (and potential for irritation) of “I’ve figured it out and I’m OK.” My own position is that yes I’ve figured it out and I’m OK . . . but my OK looks very different than anything imagined in a General Conference address. I’m not sure that statement does anybody any good. This is a serious puzzlement–I mean 10s of thousands of words of trying, kind of puzzlement.

  10. For many of us, faith is always provisional. It is never finished, at least not in this life. I accept that some people don’t experience faith in this way, but I can’t relate very well to their experience. At church I seldom hear candid discussion about making our way through life with an ever-provisional faith, so I treasure comments like the ones here from Kevin and the others in this thread. This website is precious to me because among the many things that it is, it is a place for provisional faith.

    Chris, when I read that you have figured it out and you’re OK, I don’t hear this as a triumphal conclusion, because I know that, like all statements of faith, it must be a provisional report. I take encouragement in your success. I’m grateful that you’re sharing your strength. I hope that if, God forbid, dark times are in your future, you’ll find strength from others when you need it. I assume that most of those thousands of words you’ve written have been for you alone, unshared with others, as you’ve worked on the puzzle. But I believe that our power to help others lies mostly in our willingness to keep working the puzzle.

  11. John Mansfield says:

    The metaphor of buried bodies calls to mind a couple of compelling snares that I have to pull myself away from. One is voyeurism, a sense of entitlement to pry open other people’s lives. The other is the allure of secret knowledge, one-upping lame conspiracy theorists (in quality but not in kind) through familiarity with the real, unknown story. I think anyone who has spent time locating “buried bodies” also knows these temptations. Any helpful strategies for keeping free from their grasp, keeping your soul clean?

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    On the surface I meant to poke a little fun at my youthful self for thinking it was a good idea to buy and read MSOR. Just under the surface I meant to suggest that the Church’s recent movement towards greater transparency, even if somewhat halting, has been a very good thing. If we made a list of the smartest decisions the Church has made over the last quarter century, green lighting the JSPP would certainly be on it.

  13. Thank you Kevin for this message.

    Also thank you to the comments from Elisa, Christian, and Loursat. You’ve succinctly conveyed where I’m at in my journey right now. Church for someone who wants to believe despite knowing about the bodies can be very lonely. Your voices make me feel less lonely.

  14. I’m a big believer that if you’re dissatisfied with the church for what you perceive to be a black-and-white approach to its history, then going to a Tanner publication, or a exmormon.org website, or the like, is just trading that black-and-white for a white-and-black version, so to speak. They are two sides of the same coin, usually lacking nuance and context, and often the latter is the worse offender. So I suspect I fall in Ardis’ camp.

    That said, my father taught D&C and church history at our local institute growing up, and we had very frank conversations at the dinner table about church doctrine and history (I can remember watching the God Makers for FHE once). So I while I didn’t know as much as I do now, nothing I heard on my mission was much of a surprise. I think that may be why I sometimes still feel incredulous when I hear someone’s faith shaken by things I assumed were common knowledge. It’s not fair of me, but I still feel it.

  15. I read more in Mormon studies than almost anyone I know, and I still don’t know where all the bodies are buried. But I’m not ever surprised when the shovel hits a new femur or skull.

  16. On my mission we used the computers at a public library to send emails. My companion used to write more and longer messages than I. While waiting him, I checked if the religion section had any books on the church. There were Book of Mormon and a translation of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. I wasn’t familiar with Krakauer’s book. During the following weeks I read much of it (I didn’t finish it, but almost). Later on my mission, I had some discussions with people who had read it. Since I have encountered the book on my first area, I knew what is was when people mentioned it.

  17. ushallbcot says:

    Don’t disagree with Ardis, except maybe the “always shunning untrustworthy voices”. Trouble is, I did have to turn to the Tanners then. On my mission we used pencils or pens to write on paper and sent them through the mail. My aunt sent me this letter after my mother unexpectedly died. It said:

    At this time, I know words are of little comfort.
    But [ushallbcot], I know a Comforter who can take the sting out of this. He is Jesus Christ.
    You see [ushallbcot], strange as it sounds, I have met Jesus Christ, and I want to tell you about it. It is a literal experience, not a visual one but a spiritual one. It is a glorious experience. It is called, in the Bible, being born again. Please read the third chapter of John, verses three through seventeen.
    Being born again is a matter between the individual and God. It is completely aside from one’s religion. I have met born again people of all faiths.
    It is a matter of prayer, [ushallbcot]. It is simply a matter of seeking God directly and most people are born again in a very few moments time when the seeker puts himself right with God. It is also a matter of 100% faith that your prayer will be answered. I prayed for five days before I was born again. I heard a lady say once that she prayed for only five minutes. God knows each heart and I guess it took me longer to put myself right with Him.
    It has nothing to do with how good we think we are, or how determined we are to be good and do good things. The Bible says “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a rift of God: Not of works lest any man should boast. Eph. 2:8-9
    Is your faith 100%, [ushallbcot]? It is when we are born again that the Holy Spirit comes to reside within us, and guides us from then on. It is not a matter of are. I have never known such peace of mind and such joy in my entire life, until I actually met Jesus Christ. He makes all burdens so light they practically melt away.
    [ushallbcot], if you were walking down the street and met Jesus, can you imagine how wonderful that would be? Well you can: All you have to do is get down on your knees and open your heart to Jesus and ask Him to tie your Lord and Savior. This must be an absolutely 100% sincere prayer. Tell Him you know you are a sinner, and ask Him to come and dwell within you and be your Guide and Counceler from now on. From then on, it will be a relationship that you can depend on totally. God never makes mistakes, and so you can trust His judgment in everything you ask of Him. Remember, I said that meeting Jesus Christ (being born again) is a spiritual experience, not a visual one.
    Please don’t turn away from this, [ushallbcot]. You can know Jesus personally, but you must decide. He can’t come into your heart unless you ask Him to. Which way you decide will be the most important decision of your life.
    My heart is so full of love for you now, in your time of sorrow, and always. God bless you.

  18. Bro. Jones says:

    John Mansfield: by the time age and bitterness take hold, you will no longer have much energy for voyeurism or oneupmanship. That’s been my solution!

    Joking aside, I’ve been studying with the Community of Christ recently, and their very different attitude about history has been a wonder to behold. While historically they’ve been just as prone to pretending there are no buried bodies as the LDS branch of the restoration, these days they’re more likely to acknowledge the bodies and then ask how that knowledge can make them better disciples.

    It’s rather refreshing. As Elisa suggested above, it’s not cultural capital or faith promotion that bothers me about church history—it’s the poison fruit of blind obedience and prophetic infallibility that the LDS church has taken from the history, and in turn, the very concrete negative impact that has had on marginalized populations within the church.

  19. Bro. Jones says:

    Aussie Mormon — excellent point about timing, but consider it this way: I was born in 1977 to a white mother and a very dark brown father (not of black or African descent). In the alternate timeline where my parents were both members of the church, I am 100% certain that leadership would have had some discussion about whether the priesthood ban barred my father or not, which in turn would have affected my own status. So at least for me, I’m zero generations removed from the issue even though I’m in my 40s.

    Then again, current generations treat VCRs as ancient history with good reason!

  20. Did the same thing with Abanes crappy One Nation Under Gods on my mission.

    Mainly wanted the quotes so I could look up references.

    I copied and cut out a quote regarding seer stone translation (“and thus the book of Mormon was translated…” which I later found out they cut off “by the power of God and not by any man”).

  21. SavedbyGrace says:

    In response to ushallbcot, I would add that being born again of the spirit strips away all the secrecy, facades and deceptions that manmade religions beat the sheep with, and leaves no doubt that sanctification by the spirit reveals the things of God so that man can ever deceive you again.

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