I am a Mormon. The church I belong to, support, and believe in has intentionally kept a good deal of its history concealed. The archives are not completely open, and have never been available to the public. One of the reasons Assistant LDS Church Historian Davis Bitton “did not have a testimony of church history” was because our history has yet to be fully written. It is a work yet to be discovered and revealed. Right now we have only glimpses and excerpts, not the full panoply of material to draw from in order for any of us to reach fully informed conclusions.
The church could remove this impediment by opening its archives. However, it is apparent they aren’t going to do this. Therefore, we all live (and I’m talking about all of us, including the ones defending this faith among our peers and friends) with the justified concern the church has something it thinks it must hide. Although I can use the materials that were released, or information that has leaked out, to show there are believers who can tolerate the foibles and weaknesses of humanity and still retain strong faith in the religion and confidence in the church, I can never advance a good enough argument to overcome the perception that there is embarrassing material that won’t see the light of day. In Passing the Heavenly Gift I show that, to the extent the history can be reconstructed from what is now available, even the moments of profound human failure are not a good enough reason to abandon belief in the faith. That is a defense of the faith, not an attack on it. I reject the idea the book was intended as an attack. It wasn’t. So, from the scattered comments I’ve heard let me continue to address concerns about that book as I understand them:
I did not criticize President Harold B. Lee about his development of Correlation. That was President David O. McKay and his counselor President Moyle. I quoted them. They were opposed to the Correlation program that Elder Lee was advancing. They thought it would lead to the apostasy of the church from abuse by future hierarchies using their position to control and dominate other, equally deserving branches of the church. They thought it was improper for the central priesthood to claim the right to control everything instead of the separate branches having independence. I only quoted these former members of the First Presidency. (It was President Harold B. Lee who presided over the church when I joined.) Therefore, if you think that is an inappropriate idea, your quarrel is with a church president and his counselor, not me.
I did not characterize President Grant as being more interested in money than religion. That was his mother. I quoted her. Or, to be even more exact, it was President Grant quoting his mother in his own diary that I quoted. I made no independent accusation. I reported what he said about himself (and what his mother accused him of in her communication with him). Then I defended his candor and integrity because he made this self-revelation of his weakness. If you think that is an inappropriate assessment of President Grant, your quarrel is with him and his mother, not me.
It was President J. Reuben Clark who compared the modern church president to the Pope. I merely quoted him. It was LDS Church Historian Marlin Jensen who called the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve “the fifteen men.” I only quoted him. I do not think either President Clark or Elder Jensen meant any offense. Nor do I think offense should be taken. But most of all, if offense is to be taken, then place it where it belongs: with the LDS leaders I quote, and not me. I am trying to make sense of the things they have said and done from a faithful perspective. Be careful who you damn, because you are actually turning on the very leaders you think you are defending. What I have done in Passing the Heavenly Gift is to defend the faith I believe in and accept, despite human weaknesses and failings. I am realistic about the shortcomings of mere men. This is why our faith must be centered in Christ, rather than foolish and weak mankind.
Is it really impermissible for a faithful member, who wants those who are worried about history, to quote from the diaries and letters of former First Presidency members? Have only the critics the right to tell more accurate history of our faith? Do those who believe have no permission to also be candid with the public while defending the faith? How, exactly, is that supposed to work out in our favor? I’m willing to be enlightened about that approach, and if you can persuade me the truth must be avoided then I will fall in line with what I’m required to do; but with all due respect the problem is not me. The problem is that from top to bottom our faith must be more truthful in this Internet age or we risk being mere charactures and not real functioning adults with bona fide and defensible beliefs. We risk putting “fiction and fairy tales” above a sound defense of the faith. We begin to look as foolish and as immature as our critics want to paint us. Is that the goal? If not, then how should we deal with problems in history? Are we only allowed to ignore them? Or to tell versions of events that can be easily disproven? Does not the current collapse in faith among adult members who have been previously lifelong active members raise the concern that we must be more truthful? How much more damage are you willing to inflict on the religion before you reach the conclusion we must be truthful, even when the truth is unflattering?
All of the “problems” are already before us on the Internet. If you only study what is Correlated and sanitized, your children won’t. If you have no answers, then you will find you are unequal to the challenges that lie ahead of you and your family. Whether you are ready for it or not, the waves of challenges are breaking upon us. Our missionaries return with more questions than answers because there is an organized opposition working to challenge all of our teachings, doctrines and history. We MUST be better prepared. Not from composing more limited fiction, but from facing what is known to be true.
I am not worried about the faith collapsing under the weight of truth. It will instead be vindicated by the truth. It is far more handicapped by the fiction we presently serve as the defense of our faith than by a rigorous application of truth in examining the failures of men. Even when men fail, the faith is unaffected.
It is my belief that the recent assertion by the church in the Professor Bott matter did more damage to the interests of the church than anything I’ve ever done. The official statement was:
“The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”
In my view, this is no defense of the faith or our history. It is a worse condemnation of previous leaders than anything I’ve ever written. How does this kind of statement get approved as a public statement by the church? Can a “revelator” speak (as did Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and many others in the first presidency and twelve) about this crucial matter for over a hundred years “in the absence of revelation?” How, if this critical issue involving the personal lives of so many faithful church members for generations was wrong and did not represent church doctrine, can we now trust that anything that is said by anyone on any topic represent church doctrine? There were faithful Saints kept out of the temple because of this doctrine. There were heartwrenching discoveries of genealogy issues for people who were previously ordained who were told they could no longer use their ordination to serve in the church. They were turned down because these men at the highest levels were acting “in the absence of revelation?” Why? This is not a defense of Mormonism by the church, it is an abdication of responsiblity. It makes the church look far worse than quoting President McKay’s concern that Correlation will lead to apostasy.
Again, I am not worried about the faith collapsing under the weight of truth. It will instead be vindicated. It is far more handicapped by efforts to appear consistent when we are completely inconsistent than by admitting we made a mistake. We are human. We fail. That is one of the great features of humanity. We tend to let ourselves make sometimes terrible mistakes and wish we could do them over. Christ died to make that possible. He is the champion of forgiveness. Why can’t we acknowledge that from time to time the church itself needs to ask for forgiveness? It would be given. Members at the lowest level of this organization are rooting for you, supporting you, and upholding you with our prayers. We want you to do your best, and know that sometimes that won’t be good enough. We know you’re going to fail us. I am perfectly willing to forgive you when you do. It is alright. I do not expect perfection, but I do hope for honesty. Lying to cover up a mistake is not easily forgiven. That inspires contempt, not forgiveness or respect. We forgive readily your mistakes because we all make them, but not everyone is going to lie to spare themselves embarrassment. Those who do, break trust with the public and with membership of the church. The first step in repentance is confession, and we know you forsake sins when you first confess them. (D&C 58: 43.)
This is why in all I’ve written I’ve tried to tell it as truthfully and honestly as I am able. I know that the Lord will forgive me when I fall short. I hope the church is willing to allow itself, and me, to fall short and still be friends mutually supporting one another in a greater cause. That greater cause is where God is involved. Our mutual mistakes are our creation, not God’s. So we shouldn’t pretend we are better, or more inspired, or less flawed than we all are. I am certain I will disappoint you, because I have not been and never will be free from sin and error in this mortal estate. But my heart is in the right place. I’m not trying to cover anything of myself up. I’m not pretending I am better than I am. I have repeatedly acknowledged I am flawed, and not worth following. I point to the Lord, because He is worth following. I readily admit I think the church and its members oftentimes pretend to be better than we are. I still defend her and hope for her best interests. My weakness does not limit God’s grace and forgiveness. The weaknesses and mistakes of the church are able to be overcome, too, through God’s grace and forgiveness.
I am a Mormon. Devoutly and actively. I intend to die as a faithful Mormon. You should never think my form of faith is too insubordinate, too candid and too open to be endured. In my view that is not a problem at my end. Exactly what is it about the truth of human failure you find so threatening? I can associate without condemning, with fellow Mormons who advocate a very shallow view of the faith I hold as true. I can let them alone and never foist my views on them. However, in the exchange of ideas among those who are actively searching the Internet and bookstores to find truth, I should be allowed to explain how I have maintained faith and active support of the church in the face of troubling history. No one is required to read what I’ve written. You don’t have to come to this blog and let me interrupt your view of Mormonism. Go your way, believe as you like. Let those who struggle, for whom I provide some aid in coping with the difficult things they’ve learned about our past and our doctrine, be permitted to peacably consider how I’ve come to reconcile the Gospel with these many challenges.
I think those who condemn it, rather than offer a reasonable explanation and defense of their beliefs, do not understand Mormonism. They do not understand our scriptures. They do not understand what Joseph Smith said of the religion he gave his life to restore. I’ve studied for years, hours a day, to gain through hard effort and prayer the things I have learned. Then I have spent decades sincerely applying those things I learned. I am most certainly a Mormon. My faith is only gained by the kind of diligence and heed I’ve given to it. If you don’t understand or sympathize with my practice of Mormonism, that does not make me less a Mormon nor you more one. It just makes us different in how we accept this great latter-day gift from God.
The fellow-Mormons who condemn me without reading what I’ve written employ means that are brutal, unkind, coercive, and intimidating. They should be trying to reclaim me from the error they think I have made. I have tried through persuasion and knowledge to bring about understanding. I cannot be intimidated by what others say or do. I know He whom I serve. And therefore I must speak boldly about this faith I hold so dear.