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Marlin Jensen’s Last Answer

The last question put to Marlin Jensen began with the questioner retelling his own struggle to adjust his beliefs after discovering new information in our history. The “new data points” required him to change his understanding. He was asking for a more broadminded approach that would allow open discussion of troubling history in church meetings.

The answer given by Marlin Jensen was very interesting and raises another matter about current church decision-making. When the idea of broadmindedness was raised in the context of church history, Bro. Jensen responded by speaking about homosexuality. Church history was gone, and instead his mind turned to the need for tolerance – and that meant homosexuals. It was almost a complete disconnect of topics, but quite important to understanding the internal discussion underway at the top of the church presently.

This apparent change-of-subject shows how important the present “tolerance of homosexuality” discussion has become. When Pres. Packer’s comments about homosexuality as sinful behavior in a general conference talk are edited before they appear in the conference issue of the Ensign, you can know there is a great deal of internal discussion underway. Editing Bro. Poelman’s talk is one thing, but editing a talk given by the President of the Quorum of the Twelve is altogether another.

Jim Dabakis is the Chairman of the Utah Democratic Party. He was a radio personality at KTKK when I did a call-in radio show for seven years during the 1980’s. He is an articulate, affable and intelligent man. He is also openly homosexual and an advocate for increased legal protection for the homosexual community. His negotiation successes include persuading the LDS Church to speak in favor of Salt Lake City’s recently adopted anti-discrimination ordinance. This ordinance protects a homosexual’s rights to housing and employment in Salt Lake. The City Council would not have voted in favor of the ordinance if the church had not spoken in favor of it. And the church would not have done so if Jim Dabakis had not successfully advocated and persuaded them to do so.

The success in persuading the church to go from Proposition 8 opposition in California, to advocating adoption of a gay-rights ordinance in Salt Lake City in just a few short months is not possible without the leadership of church at the highest level actively discussing and troubling over the issue.

When Marlin Jensen’s mind goes from a question about troubling history and tolerance of differing views of our past, immediately to tolerance of homosexuality, that is not so bizarre a jump as you might think. It is a reflection of the current discussion underway at the very top of the church.

Public opinion is shifting. Particularly among the younger Americans. The trends all suggest that acceptance of homosexual conduct as normal will be shared by the majority of Americans. Those holding contrary views are aging and dying, and those who hold the more open and accepting view are replacing them. Unless opinions change this is the inevitable result.

Any organization that is sensitive to survey’s and polling to determine public opinion on the topic of homosexuality will discover growing demographic evidence of inevitable majority acceptance. Therefore, if you are going to make decisions on the basis of public opinions, you are going to respond to this shifting view.

Given Bro. Jensen’s immediate response to the trigger word “tolerance” by introducing homosexuality into the conversation, it is apparent the church is quite actively discussing this issue. Additionally, given the censorship of the talk given by President Packer (the current President of the Quorum of the Twelve) in general conference on the subject, it appears there is an unmistakable alignment of the leadership’s inclinations with public opinion.

It will be interesting to watch this issue unfold. For those who believe the practice of homosexuality is wrong because it frustrates the Divine order, and is desolating to humanity because it ends the continuation of family life through the union of the sexes, the idea of church approval for such relations is unthinkable. For more socially progressive Mormons who wish to be aligned with popular opinion, it is a relief to have another divisive issue excised from the principles of Mormon religion.

When an abomination that renders sexual relations desolate (they don’t produce offspring) occurs in the holy place, you can know the promised destruction is soon at hand. Christ said those living in that day would live to see the end of the world. (See JS-M 1: 32-36.) The way to decide when the virtue of tolerance becomes the wickedness of permissiveness can only be done by those who treasure up His (Christ’s) words. (JS-M 1: 37.) For those few willing to do so, the Lord will send angels to gather them. (Id., see also D&C 77: 11.)

Some say it is good to be popular. It is better to not care. It is best to have an eye single to the word of the Lord.

Interpreting History, Part 10 Conclusion

Seriously studying history allows us to recognize unresolved issues or to fix our errors. With a superficial knowledge of our history we risk making presumptions and missing the mark, or risk not even recognizing there are errors to what we believe today. Isn’t the subject of our religion and its beginnings important enough to want to carefully examine it?

The mission of Elijah is so important to the wrapping up of God’s strange act that the prophecy about his return before the great and dreadful day of the Lord appears in every volume of scripture. From the Old Testament to the Pearl of Great Price, it is mentioned repeatedly.

When we discover Joseph Smith speaking of Elijah’s return as a future event in 1844, we get our first hint that our current doctrine on the subject may need further examination. However, if we only know the popular story borne out of Orson Pratt’s analysis in the Deseret Evening News of D&C 110 when it was found and first published, then raising the issue seems unnecessary. Since you think you know the truth already, a reexamination seems stupid. Do you look into the matter, and risk discovering there have been historic, and therefore, doctrinal errors made for 160 years on Elijah’s mission? Do you think this is important enough to study it again?

We are the subject and object of many Book of Mormon prophecies. Some of them hold us up in a rather negative light. They seem to suggest we are riddled with mistakes and errors. That we have gone far astray, and are being led to err in many instances. Those prophecies do not trouble us, however, if we accept the self-vindicating narrative that we’ve been headed in the right direction all along.

One of the things that helps orient an historical analysis is the language of scripture. If the scriptures warn us against thinking all is well in our version of Zion, and tells us to never resist hearing more of the word of God, and further tells us (repeatedly) not to trust the arm of flesh, what does this mean? We have a popular account of events that more or less suggests all is well. We are God’s chosen. We have the power to save ourselves. We have a great body of revelation to guide us and don’t need much revelation anymore. And some of what Joseph Smith talked about we don’t really know much about and aren’t sure we believe anyway. We are safe, and the odds are we’ll all be exalted. Those ideas are the polar opposite of what the Book of Mormon says about us. Should the Book of Mormon provide us the themes to apply to our history, or do they not matter at all? If we allow the Book of Mormon to inform the dialogue, then do we reconcile the disparity between our claims and the prophetic text by re-looking  at our history, or instead merely by trusting we are led that in no instance do we currently err?

People of good faith, who believe in Mormonism, can differ in their conclusions about matters. Those differences are not signs of apostasy or evil. They are, in fact, healthy. They ought to be the source from which stimulating discussion and deep thought comes. An unexamined and superficial belief system is always vulnerable to collapse. A thoughtful and reflective believer does not fly to pieces when something new is told to them. They are already acquainted with the idea and practice of prayerfully and through personal revelation considering and reconsidering their faith. New ideas do not cause despair, but become part of the normal process for them. They consider, suspend judgment, study, reflect, pray and then reach a careful conclusion. The conclusion is put into the larger framework and any necessary adjustments are considered, adapted or corrected, and faith improves. This process is allowed to work over and over as they explore their faith more deeply.

The environment of Mormonism is not conducive to healthy discussion at the moment. Correlation and the need for central control has preempted the kind of healthy intellectual inquiry that is needed to solve the present crisis of apostasy. History should be allowed to be merely our true, unembellished, unprotected history. Not a tool for propaganda used by central planners to accomplish a desired end. Using it that way in an information-based society invites the disaster presently unfolding.

I believe in Mormonism. I cherish the faith. It is vibrant and resilient. It does not need institutional protection – borne out of fear. Efforts to protect have, in fact, injured the faith and discredited this approach.

History matters. May we allow it to become the source of truth informing our open discussions, rather than a tool to be manipulate and manage people. Managing people is a dark enterprise. Inform them and allow them the freedom to choose to govern themselves. That is what the Prophet Joseph Smith did. The mere ambition to control people is the beginning of a dark trail that leads to the imprisonment of souls. Not just those who are the targets, but more importantly the souls of those with the ambition. It should be repugnant to anyone claiming to be a saint to allow anyone to control them. Unless they are willing to retain for themselves their right to choose, and then exercise their choice in a responsible and well informed way, they deceive themselves. Saints are made of sterner stuff. They do not recoil from the obligation, difficulty, pain and work necessary to have their minds mirror the mind of God. Surrendering to other men the responsibility devolving on yourself will never happen. But, then again, mankind rarely produces a saint.

Vanity and pride are no substitute for sainthood. Arrogance and flattery from leaders will not produce a saint either. It comes from man reaching up to God, and God answering the honest petition of the humble soul, reaching down to him. Contact with God will inevitably lead to sainthood. False ideas and incomplete or misleading history will prevent that contact from happening.

Interpreting History, Part 9

History and doctrine are linked. To alter history is to alter doctrine. You can see the links throughout scripture. Just one example from the New Testament illustrates the point:

Jesus was confronted by the Pharisee lawyers and accused of breaking the law. He and His disciples had taken plucked wheat (labor of harvesting), then rubbed them in their hands (threshing), and eaten it on the Sabbath. (Luke 6: 1-2.) As His explanation Jesus reminded the accusers of an earlier incident involving King David and his men. They had eaten the showbread which, under the law, was forbidden to be eaten by any but a priest. (Luke 6: 3-4.) This incident involving David was the precedent Jesus pointed to as justification. (1 Sam. 21: 1-6.) The law said only Aaron and his descendants could eat this bread. (Lev. 24: 5-9.) However, Jesus relied on an incident from history to justify His and the disciples’ conduct. If the history showed it could be done, then Jesus questioned the “righteousness” of complaining about the matter.

There are hundreds of other examples to draw from, but this illustrates the point. History is the mill whose grist is the stuff from which we construct doctrine. It matters. If we do not comprehend it, we cannot sort through the dangling statements that get tossed about unanchored. We do not understand their original real meaning. One of the problems of fourth phase Mormonism is the apparent corruption of our vocabulary. We use the same words as the first phase, but we have adopted altogether different meanings for them. Meaning arises from context. Context comes from history.

Joseph gazed into heaven for more than five minutes. He knew more than if you had read everything that had ever been written on the subject. (TPJS p. 324.) He was succeeded by Brigham Young, who lamented he had never seen an angel or entertained a heavenly being. Therefore, it is important to study Brigham Young’s qualifications in contrast to Joseph Smith’s qualifications. If you understand Joseph had the heavens opened to him a number of times, including several audiences with both the Father and Son, you put Joseph’s remarks into one category. If you understand that Brigham Young never had a similar experience, then you put Brigham Young’s into another category. When Joseph is contradicted by Brigham, the first effort should be to reconcile or attempt to harmonize the two men’s statements. If you cannot reconcile them with one another, you can use the knowledge you have about each of them to choose which one you will rely on. The same would also be true of others. We study the history to learn what the qualifications are/were for any of God’s chosen leaders, what God showed to them, whether the heavens have opened to them, and exactly what they knew, or did not know when they contradict Joseph.

History must be true to be useful. If it is inaccurate or incomplete we can reach one conclusion only to find we have made a mistake because there was much more (or less) to the event. The events on August 8, 1844 are critical. If there was a transfiguration of Brigham Young on that day, then we can assume God was directly involved in solving the succession dilemma. If there was no transfiguration of Brigham, then God was not directly involved, and the outcome is a product of our common consent and still binding on the saints. Although binding, if the transfiguration did not happen, then the “precedent” is administrative and voluntary, and not a sign of God’s desire to have the precedent followed forever thereafter. It is nothing more than an agreement among the saints on how to proceed

This is important. Before June 27, 1844, the question of who would succeed Joseph Smith as the church president was known. Joseph’s successor would be Hyrum Smith, but Hyrum died with Joseph. Before June 27th, the question of what was to be done upon the death of both Joseph and Hyrum was never contemplated. There was no answer to the question.

In the debates of August 8th no one urged the provisions of Section 107 as a revealed outcome for succession. The language of that revelation has since become the scriptural basis for how we proceed, but it was not thought to be relevant in the first debate over succession. Section 107 is anything but a definite answer to the question. If you adopt our system, and then use 107 to justify our system, it seems to fit, but there is another, more relevant solution found elsewhere. Doctrine & Covenants 43: 3-4 was used to appoint Hyrum Smith to succeed Joseph. The appointment was made by revelation in Section 124: 94-95. This was the scriptural pattern, and the pattern followed in the case of Hyrum.

Brigham Young’s arguments at the time were not as clear about succession as we have made them by our adopting the method of apostolic succession based on seniority. Brigham Young admitted that Joseph Smith’s sons had a right to be the church’s leader and he was only a caretaker awaiting their development. He explained that since they had never converted to the church, they were not able to lead, and so he served in their absence.

History and the scriptures allow for a different method for succession. In the final analysis it is nothing more than the common consent of the church that has elected Brigham Young and all his successors to the offices they have held. Our last descendant of Hyrum Smith, occupying the office of Patriarch to the Church, is now 105 years old, emeritus, and not likely to be succeeded when he passes. The Smith Family male line will be out of the top level of the hierarchy. Of course, there are female line descendants who are there, including Elder Ballard. But direct male line descendants are gone or will be when the Patriarch Emeritus passes on.

Does that matter? What was the point of having that office? Was it important to the church’s organization? Why was Hyrum the successor to Joseph? Why did Brigham Young expect a son of Joseph to come and preside over the church? Does history shed any light on these questions? Do they even matter? What purpose was originally served and does that purpose remain today? Why was the Patriarch sustained as a “prophet, seer and revelator” in general conference right up until he was made emeritus? Could a general conference sustain him as the church’s president, or does the system presently preclude anyone other than the nominees of the sitting president from being considered? Why did the local congregations once choose their own bishops? When did that change? Why did it change? Does the original history matter? Once we give common consent to what is done, are we accountable for the changes that occur?

There are a lot of interesting history-based questions that could be explored. But the questions themselves require us to study something that no longer even gets mentioned.

Well, I’ll be wrapping this up in Part 10.

Interpreting History, Part 8

When you come to understand something in our history as an actual event then you need to understand the event. What are its details? How important are differing accounts? If there are contradictions among witnesses, how are they harmonized? When you’ve sorted through the material and arrived at the most accurate version, what does the incident mean? If you change the details does the meaning change?

In the King Follett Discourse, for example, there were several note-takers who left accounts of the sermon. Most people are acquainted with this talk through The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. That version is an amalgamation of the various notes of those who were present. In compiling the consolidated version, some of the trimming and harmonizing left details out of the final transcript that may be important. Almost all of the notes from that day have been gathered by Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook in their book The Words of Joseph Smith. That very valuable book allows you compare what one person preserved of the talk with what another person preserved. The contrasts are important and make actual doctrinal differences.

If you are content with the TPJS version and have developed some of your religious views based on it, then discovering that it may have omitted details from Joseph’s talk may alarm you. You must decide whether you want to know what Joseph actually said, and perhaps what he actually meant, or if you are only interested in keeping what you already believe.

Many people “feel” the truth. They determine what they believe by how it makes them feel. Their “truth detector” is not rational, but intuitive. I’ve been involved in litigation for long enough to realize there is an irrational component to every conclusion we make. Despite the effort to be rational, we always have our personal filters and our hidden biases. Humans are rational, but not entirely so. Therefore this “feel” for truth happens in us all. Malcom Gladwell has written several books exploring this trait.

The challenge is to control your impulse to come to a conclusion about something before you let all the available information develop. You may come to a conclusion that you can defend rationally and emotionally, but it may not be true. If, instead, you suspend your impulse to decide something and let information expand, you may still reach the same conclusion, but it will be deeper, richer and more complete.

I’ve found that since my conversion, the simple stories told in 1973 have remained basically intact. But they are now much more complex, more nuanced, poignant and wonderful. Sometimes it has been painful to approach a new and expanded account of familiar events. D. Michael Quinn’s work has sometimes left me wondering how he could make such mistakes. But I’ve never doubted the impressive, even amazing capacity he has for gathering information and adding new sources to tell the stories of our history. He is valuable and almost irreplaceable as a pioneer in moving our understanding of Mormon history forward. I still disagree with some of his conclusions, but I respect and admire his work. Some of what I originally thought were mistakes by him I now find I accept and believe to be true.

It made me nervous to read some of Quinn’s work at first. I was afraid I would encounter something that would break my heart and show there was nothing to this faith I had adopted as my own. That would be difficult for me. I stared down that dark corridor and decided to proceed anyway. As I did there were painful moments, and anxiety-filled nights. I know the bitterness expressed by some of the people who have fallen away from our faith and now are vocal critics. If Mormonism is a fraud and I was certain of it I would also probably express a vocal opposition to it. Therefore, if that is their conclusion, they are coping with their sense of loss by venting. I understand it. I was willing to risk it too. But my faith has remained intact.

I still believe God spoke to young Joseph Smith, and that Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris saw the angel Moroni and the gold plates. I’ve also very much appreciated the “apostasy” of both Cowdery and Whitmer and their post-church affiliation writings. They remained true to their testimony as witnesses of the Book of Mormon, even if they left the church. That enhances their credibility in my view. In my opinion, if they hadn’t seen the plates and the angel, they would have denounced Joseph as a fraud after they were disaffected toward him.

These three witnesses make a formidable obstacle to dismissing Joseph Smith. As a result, there have been efforts to diminish the significance of their testimony. I think the best summary of the reasons to question their testimony can be found in Grant Palmer’s book An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. He does a good job of putting together the best way to disregard the Three Witnesses’ Testimony. But his work is entirely derivative from other critics and therefore you need to begin with Palmer and work your way back through the footnotes to the earlier stuff to arrive at the point of departure. In the case of his book, I was already acquainted with his sources and therefore found nothing new in it. The approach is basically to discount the idea of “second sight” and to “spiritualize” away the event. For me it was not a problem. I’ve seen angels. I’ve been taught by them. I know what the experience is like. Therefore, I know what the challenge is to convert the otherworldly into this-worldly. That other world is more real and even more concrete than this. But it isn’t here. It is more tangible, but not the same as what we experience here. Joseph taught about “shaking an angel’s hand” (D&C 129: 4-5) so you can know it is possible to touch and feel them. They are tangible. But if you’re quickened and they are quickened then it is not like this place. So how do you make it possible for someone else to understand. Paul says “whether in the body or out I cannot tell” (2 Cor. 12: 3) and that’s a pretty good way to put it. He just couldn’t tell. Because it is concrete even if you want to say you saw it with “spiritual eyes.” So Grant Palmer takes those statements and turns them into the ephemeral, then into imagination, and dismisses the Testimony of the Three Witnesses. In that way he hoped to evade the Book of Mormon by turning it into a work of fiction. None of that persuaded me. I know better. Not only do I have experience in studying history, and the lives of Cowdery, Whitmer and Harris, but also in comparing other scriptures and experiences of Paul, Daniel, Joseph, Abraham, Enoch, Moses, and so many others. In addition to all the rest I have personal experience.

On the matter of “feeling” things to be true and right, we should not be hasty about closing the door on additional information. New information may change your view dramatically, and then with the new insights you will “feel” right about another, better informed view. When you deal with less information you may think in your heart that everything is just as you believe it to be; only to later find that good-faith belief was sadly under-informed or misinformed. You can only proceed on the basis of what you know, and never on the basis of what you do not know. This is why our good-faith critics who advance honest objections are not evil. They even raise questions we should ask ourselves and try to provide an honest answer.

I do not believe it is possible to acquire the faith necessary to arrive at the truth unless you are willing to know the truth. I believe that history is intended to be a test of faith and we bar ourselves from heaven and heavenly messengers through our fears. Fear is the opposite of faith.

All I’ve written has been done in the hope I can increase faith in others. I understand why I have been denounced, accused of being apostate, and had claims that I’m disrespectful of the church authorities. It is always easy to allow your fears to interpret my motives. But I can tell you that I hope to save souls. The way I write is intended to accomplish that end. If it were possible to do it in any other way I would do it differently. But I don’t intend to be popular. I only want the Lord to approve what I’ve been able to do with what I’ve been given.

Interpreting History, Part 7

The topic of our history becomes even more challenging when it is overlaid with emotion and fear. Since the study of Mormonism is also the study of what will save your soul, we associate grave importance to being “right” about things. Therefore, when we make up our mind about a storyline, we defend that story against any challenges offering another view.

As is apparent from the last question posed to Marlin Jensen in the interview referred to previously, there are painful adjustments involved in going back into your belief system, taking part of it down, or adding something new, and then adjusting everything else to accommodate the new data. It is upsetting. We don’t like to unsettle what we thought was settled. This is why once a tradition takes hold it is almost impossible to make changes to it.

In the Book of Mormon, the word “tradition” or the phrase “traditions of the fathers” is almost always used in a negative way. Do a word study yourself and see how “tradition” is used. That is one of the Book of Mormon’s warnings to us. We have to be very cautious about accepting something as true because it came to us through tradition. Every one of us needs to be converted to the truth.

Also, the “converts” in the Book of Mormon were almost always religious apostates. They had been part of the truth and fallen away. Notice how the splinter groups who were converted were almost without exception being re-converted. From the macro-level (with the Lamanites) to the micro-level (with the Zoramites–who were dissenters from the Nephites (Alma 31: 8)), the missionary effort was to bring believers back to the truth. These apostates were religious. They were firm believers in all kinds of religious ideas handed to them through incorrect traditions.

Our story is similar to the Nephite story. It has been marked by traditions that have time and again discarded what we were originally given through Joseph Smith, and are foundational to the restoration. To go into our history is to discover wonderful, exciting things that were once taught, but now are either slowly or quickly being lost. We need to ask why they were lost? If they belonged in the first place, why did we discard them? When Joseph introduced the teachings and claimed they were from God, why did we fail to preserve them? Did we lose them because we heard from God and He said, “don’t do that,” or “don’t believe that anymore?” Was it because we were jarred from our settled places in Kirtland and Nauvoo, and in the forced migrations had a hard enough time retaining part of our religion? Is our forgetfulness perfectly understandable?

To be able to discuss this openly we need to stop reacting with emotion and fear at the thought of the discussion. We can go back and consider what happened and suspend judgment about the correct narrative until we have studied and discussed the matters more fully. It should be fun. It should be wonderful. It should excite us, but instead we fear it. That is not healthy and will only preserve a continuing dwindling tradition of the faith. The process of Correlation has enshrined the process of dwindling. Go to the Book of Mormon and look up “unbelief” and you’ll find it almost invariably associated with “dwindling.” That is, the apostates of the Book of Mormon got out of line with the Lord because they “dwindled in unbelief.” They lost truths they were supposed to have remembered. Look at the word “remember” in the Book of Mormon and you’ll also find it is a very important principle. How can we ever avoid dwindling and be able to remember if we fear a close scrutiny of our history? They go hand in hand. Once again the Book of Mormon proves to be the “keystone of our religion” because it bravely faces the very problems we are currently struggling with but are afraid to discuss openly. We fear what the Book of Mormon expects us to discuss.

If you love your faith, you will allow it to inform you. You will not fight against it and only look at part of it. If you insist it can only conform to your present notions, then you do not really believe the religion at all. You only want to hold to your traditions. You are like the Book of Mormon apostates who have dwindled in unbelief because they refused to remember the original faith given to them by the Lord. None of us should want that. Open discussion should not threaten Latter-day Saints. Nor should those who are willing to engage in the discussion be called apostates or wolves in sheep’s clothing. That only ensures we will continue to ignore problems, and as a result of ignoring see a collapse in church membership.

We should be open to discussing our history in our church meetings. We should not be afraid. The discussion itself is healthy even if nothing changes in the lives of most saints. It will leave them better informed and allow those who are struggling a safe place to voice concerns and help find answers. At present, our church meetings are pretty hostile to the whole history discussion. We tolerate only centrally approved propaganda which some good-hearted people have found to be more fiction than fact. The people who view it as fiction shouldn’t be renounced for their honest questions. Instead they deserve answers from a friendly, open church.

Interpreting History, Part 6

There will always be those who are skeptical about our history. Converting someone to believe (a process I underwent to become LDS), cannot proceed without facing critical examination of the stories. On occasion I think about what would have happened if I were investigating the church’s claims today for the first time. Without question I would use the Internet to check what the missionaries were telling me. Given the fact that I would have to decide whether to believe this new faith, and the troubling perception our critics urge that it is being offered by a Fortune 500 corporation, I do not think I would trust anything on the church’s own website. I think I would avoid considering that until I had first been convinced of the missionaries’ message.

I think my approach would be typical. There’s nothing more troubling to someone thinking about changing their religion than the risk of being duped by foolish believers in some nonsensical cult. And like it or not, Mormonism is thought of in those terms. I know. I’ve been there, but I came aboard in the days of flannel board missionary lessons and computers driven by punch cards. There was no Wikipedia or Google. The world changed. So Mormonism must face down the challenges of widespread information. This information challenges the traditional stories and presents very different views of the events. Missionaries must be able to overcome these many honest questions. I’m certain today I would ask a good deal more than what I asked in 1973. Church members also must become part of the solution.

When a prospective convert comes to hear our lessons, observe our meetings, and talk with our members they come equipped with a body of questions arising from the acidic environment of the Internet. Every omission in our story can become the stumbling block to accepting the challenge to convert. I would never have prayed and asked God if Mormonism was true until after first inspecting enough of the Mormons to determine they were sound people. Sound in their lives, marriages and teaching. The “weirdness gauge” was employed. Any strange, aberrant behavior would have sent the alarm sounding and I would have been unwilling to proceed further; but I found the church quite likable. Understand I did NOT want the Mormons to be likable. I wanted to dismiss them, and continue on with my happy life. However, they satisfied the initial concerns enough that I was willing to consider it seriously.

Today, when asked about troubling matters, every Mormon should to be able to show the faith in a positive light. In a very real way the only progress we can hope to make in today’s environment will come through an educated population of believers. Myths and half-truths may be “inspirational” and keep immature faith around for a while, but sooner or later the acid of today’s information age will burn away anything that is not gold. We have tens-of-thousands of adults now leaving the church after having spent their lives believing Mormonism. They are discovering the information exists to challenge every step of our faith, from Joseph Smith’s youth to the 1978 revelation on priesthood. Members are vulnerable and they are leaving. The problem is already well underway. What we’ve been doing with our history has not prepared us for what is now happening.

Confining the church’s educational efforts to “faith promoting” stories may have been enough in the 1950’s through the year 2000, but it is absolutely not enough now. If the church insists that this must continue, then the church will become a tiny organization of myth believers who cloister together and repeat endlessly a litany of imaginative stories. That is the course we are on at the moment. The great apostasy underway is because the environment changed. The church’s opinion polling and focus group testing is not adequate to adapt to the real challenges. The real challenges are to undergo the rigors of opening the history up to deal forthrightly with our past. The church needs to undergo a metamorphosis into the most open, most candid, most self-critical and inviting faith on earth. We must allow ideas to be expressed in an environment of tolerance and learning. Militant insistence on following a centrally produced lesson manual as an unyielding standard will not be enough. People are walking out of those classes. Either they are turned off and mentally checking out, or they are physically leaving. This is not their fault. They cannot control the fact they are bored.

What is almost impossible to accomplish has been accomplished by the central planners of Mormonism. The most exciting thing in the world is to learn new truth. Nothing is quite as delightful as finding new truths. The Gospel contains all truth. Our lessons and meetings should be celebrations of truth. Instead they have become wary gatherings of fearful people who are on the lookout for unorthodox comments. Some feel  Mormon meetings are held inside a police-state. The central planners are fearful of new ideas. They guard against freedom of thought precisely because they are living in a bunker, trying to uphold a dishonest or incomplete history. It will not work. We must openly discuss our history. We must return to delighting in the doctrine. The Gospel is wonderful, not oppressive. It is not mere tradition to be guarded or defended. It is Christ’s message of love and hope for all mankind.

Our history has influenced who we call to leadership positions because it has affected what the leaders responsibilities are. They MUST administer a far-flung corporate empire with almost unmanageable human resources challenges. Budgets, staffing, property management, liability management, accounting, banking and legal concerns are overwhelming. These are the realities of the top leadership’s job. It is the result of the events in phase 2 and 3, and the explosive growth in phase 4. There aren’t many mystics available in our ranks who have enough banking, accounting, legal, business management or personnel competence to occupy the present leadership responsibilities. That is a product of the church’s history. But it is also the church’s present reality.

The church itself has a great challenge now directly bearing down on it. I sympathize and lend my prayers to its success. The struggle will require perhaps more from it than the church is willing to change. One great advantage grows out of one of the church’s apparent weaknesses. We elevate to the highest position a man who is almost always elderly, frail and beyond the age of most unhealthy appetites. Such a man will consider carefully his proximity to the judgments of God, and likely will be willing to do what is right, even if painful.

Interpreting History, Part 5

In the search through our history, at some point you must reach conclusions on events. The weight of the evidence accumulates and you reach a conclusion. Your conclusion may be different than mine. Each of us is free to find something persuasive and believe it. But we all must make our minds up about the events.

The evidence you find convincing may be based on what a single person had to say. Even if there are fourteen witnesses saying something else, you may choose to believe a single witness telling a story you are willing to accept as the truth. The reasons for that are personal. For example, your own great-grandmother may have told a story that was handed down within the family and now you cherish that version of the events because it was told to you when you were a child by people you love. Other proof may never convince you otherwise because you have an emotional need to believe that story. For you to think otherwise would feel tantamount to rejection of your own family.

However, suppose you learn that the great-grandmother’s story originated with the popular retelling of an earlier event. The actual event was in the 1840’s but it was popular to retell it in a much more inspirational way some twenty years after the event, in the 1860’s. The push to belong among the saints was so compelling they began to compete with one another to embellish the retelling. As a result the story grew well beyond anything that was recorded contemporaneous with the actual event. Even after learning this, you may still resist changing your view because you worry it makes your great-grandmother a liar. It really does no such thing. Her faith produced a culture. She lived inside that culture. The culture encouraged her to say faith-promoting things like others in the culture. She succumbed to the temptation, joined in the recasting of the event, and it helped secure both her own faith and the beliefs of her children. Your life and your parents’ were all enriched by the story.

But when it comes to your understanding of history, something more than traditions ought to at least be considered. If that is impossible for you, then at a minimum you must allow others who do not share your great-grandmother in their genealogy to explore the question and reach their own conclusion. You can believe as you do for the reasons you find convincing, but others should not be required to join you. They do not share your emotional need to believe the retelling, and therefore ought to be free to consider other sources. What we all share, however, is faith in the religion. We all believe this is a true faith restored by God through the Prophet Joseph Smith. I can have tolerance for your view and your needs, but you should permit me to believe as I do. My beliefs should not threaten you. Yours do not threaten me. I freely allow you to hold onto the family tradition, and respect the value that has provided your family. I am a convert. There are no family traditions I need to honor when it comes to Latter-day Saint history. I am not being negative when I think differently than you. Instead I am honestly trying to grapple with the events to reach my own conclusion about the truth. When I read the fourteen other witnesses I may disregard the one you believe.

As people of good faith attempt to retell Mormon history, there will always be events some people view differently than others. For example in Richard Van Wagoner’s book Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess, he puts Joseph and Sidney into the underground Danite movement in Missouri. I was surprised he did that. I don’t agree and thought he was wrong, but I don’t for a minute doubt he believed his conclusion.

Since Sampson Avard’s testimony before the Court of Inquiry was not believed by even the hostile anti-Mormon crowd, I discount him as a reliable source. He was trying to save his own skin. He was like a jailhouse snitch who got free for telling a lurid tale about another prisoner. Motivation, background, overall credibility and inconsistency make him an unreliable source to me. Sampson Avard was the primary mover behind the Danite group. He had a great interest in pushing Joseph and Sidney forward and retreating into the shadows. His story did that. I don’t believe him.

This issue illustrates how difficult it is to weigh the evidence and reach the right conclusion. When someone as good as Van Wagoner reaches this conclusion, any fair-minded person needs to consider his evidence. I checked his footnotes, considered his arguments, re-thought the matter and found I was not persuaded. I kept my view that Joseph Smith was not involved and was the victim of a perjured witness in the Missouri court proceedings. If someone else chooses to believe it, that is up to them. It certainly complicates Joseph Smith’s story. It does not utterly compromise it. The primary effect it would have, in my view, is that Joseph learned from the Missouri disaster that a violent response to the church’s enemies was a very bad idea. He never did it again. When the next crisis arose in Nauvoo, he surrendered the Nauvoo Legion state arms and surrendered to the authorities. He did not use his army to protect his followers.

So the choice is between what I believe (i.e., that Joseph was already pre-disposed to avoid violent reactions) and Van Wagoner’s view (i.e., that Joseph attempted violence through the Danites before learning that violence was not useful). Either way the final lesson is the same. I believe mine is more consistent with Joseph’s overall behavior and character, both during Zion’s Camp and later in Nauvoo. Van Wagoner has Joseph fluctuating in between. But there is no real meaningful difference to the alternatives.

What this issue illustrates, however, is that the matter has been out there since 1838 and remains unsettled and open for debate and discussion today. The discussion is very interesting. More information will undoubtedly arise as more of the church’s archives are made available to read. Hiding the information does not alter the truth, it only temporarily hides it. Those who distrust our leaders, resolve all questions by claiming the failure to open the complete historical records to public view is evidence there will be incriminating things found there. That argument no doubt has some weight to it, but on this point of Joseph Smith’s Danite involvement I very much doubt there’s a hidden “smoking gun” to be found in unopened archival material.

The Jensen interview ended on a troubling note to me. He explained the Church History Department was a tool for the “fifteen men” and ultimately “the Prophet” to direct. The Department was going to act in conformity with their desires, and would not proceed as an independent source of historical information. That aside puts the problem of candor and motivation back to the fore. It makes absolute sense the Church History Department supports the church’s leadership. However, for anyone interested in a full disclosure, you must remember that the Church History Department acts as an agent controlled by a group whose agenda is not always to let history be told in less than a “faith promoting” way. They feel the responsibility of promoting faith. That is natural. They don’t want to challenge people’s faith by letting out any ugliness. It risks turning the Department into the purveyor of propaganda, rather than history.

This may have worked well in the past, but in the age of the Internet there are leaks. It is all coming out. It will be better for the church to take the initiative than to let it just slip out through inadvertence. If Mitt Romney is the candidate, and even more so if he becomes the President, there will be pressure from the media, perhaps even efforts to pay church employees for copies of previously undisclosed documents. Who knows what will occur in the future to empty the vaults of the hidden materials. The recent dust-up over the Joseph Smith Papers draft volume on plural marriage between an apostle and the staff working on the project is now known by a wide group. To their credit both Dallin Oaks and Jeffrey Holland were supportive of the effort. Another member of the twelve was scandalized by it, thinking the church membership was unprepared to read the material. It will all be out there eventually. Those who advocate candor will be respected in the future, and those who insist on secrecy will be less so.

Nothing will remain hidden. Even if the Lord is the one who does it, the day will come when it will all be “shouted from the rooftops” and every hidden thing will be revealed. It will be too late to acquit yourself if you’ve been one hiding the truth. Better to do it now, before the coming forced confession.

Interpreting History, Part 4

Two great obstacles in Mormon history are institutional lying and inner secrets. Both have been built into our faith. When Joseph Smith was confronted with plural marriage in a society that would be scandalized by such a practice, he hid it from public view. We all know the public statements and even scriptural declarations about marriage between a man and one wife were belied by the private practice of Joseph Smith. Therefore, our religion’s history starts with a gap in telling the truth. We accept the fact that church leaders, beginning with Joseph Smith, lied to the public. There was an “inside” story and a “public” story. This is a problem for Mormon history.

Second, any Latter-day Saint who has been through the temple is aware there are things we regard as sacred that we just don’t talk about. We keep secrets. Our faith reaches its deepest meaning in an atmosphere of secrecy and hidden knowledge.

When these two parts of the faith are present, it creates a challenge to telling our history in a frank, forthright and true manner. You must create filters in your analysis to account for the presence of these two skewing factors. One of the most significant historic disputes between the RLDS (Community of Christ) and the LDS church arises from this very problem. Emma taught Joseph Smith III (and her other children) that their father never practiced plural marriage. So when “young Joseph” came west, he was shocked by the stories and thought (at least initially) that the Utah Mormons were lying. Emma used well known public statements of Joseph denouncing “polygamy” as well as several canonized statements on the subject to support her claim that Joseph never took other wives. To reconcile it all a person must come to grips with the fact that Joseph Smith was not telling the truth to the public. There are echoes of this disparity still today.

Plural marriage caused the hierarchy to lie to the public. They did it when plural marriage was both coming and going. It was practiced in private, shielded from public view and shrouded in lies, both before it was acknowledged in 1853 and after it was publicly abandoned by the Manifesto in 1890. The Manifesto was a public relations document intended to hide the fact the church was continuing the practice. There are too many available sources now in public to claim otherwise. But the adoption of Official Declaration 1 makes it awkward to admit the practice continued. So most church members are unaware that it continued in secret even after the Manifesto.

Oddly, neither Joseph Smith nor the church itself could pass a temple recommend interview. (“Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow man?”) Any faithful Latter-day Saint with just a small amount of knowledge about our history knows the church and its leaders have been less than honest in the past to prevent the public from knowing what they were doing.

In saying that I want to be clear. I am not condemning the church. There were sufficient reasons for these public dis-information campaigns, and there has been a theological justification used to defend the practice. The church has pointed out that Abraham said Sarah was his “sister” rather than to candidly acknowledge she was his wife. But the theological implications are not what this line of discussion is about. So I’m leaving that topic unaddressed.

The bottom line is that when you attempt to unravel the church’s history, you must contend with the fact that the church has a history of dissembling. They publish lies to prevent embarrassment or prosecution. You must include a filter, or detector, or whatever you want to describe it as, in order to arrive at the underlying truth.

The idea something is “sacred” is also important in understanding our history. It has been used to compensate for missing revelation. At one extreme the leaders are thought to meet regularly (every Thursday) with Jesus Christ in the Temple. Under this happy view, the leaders are never wrong because they’re just doing what Jesus says each Thursday. To suggest this may not be the case is so foreign a concept to these people that anyone who does so is weak in the faith and on the road to apostasy. Therefore, you must also account for the mythical elevation of leadership through the “too sacred to discuss” veil which makes honest analysis difficult and emotionally charged.

These are two great challenges to anyone trying to know the truth. Any person seeking to understand our history must account for both as they evaluate the events.

Interpreting History, Part 3

I believe in Mormonism and want it to succeed. I am cheering for our success. I evaluated it as an investigator while taught by missionaries, and received a spiritual impression sufficient to believe in the religion. So I joined. After joining I studied the faith. A spiritual impression was not enough for me. The impression was the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry. Then the new found faith needed to be scoured to find what it offered, what great truths it held, and what mysteries were now available. Therefore, its history needed to become part of my study and inquiry.

Mormonism has an important history that has been little explored even now. Its history should be celebrated,  not cautiously guarded. The history contains wonderful lessons that will aid in moving the faith forward. But to do so it must be based on a truthful telling. You cannot create the kingdom of heaven from a foundation of lies. So history must be faced, even if it proves temporarily painful and disorienting while sorting through the errors.

Toward the end of the Jensen interview someone asked him about problems of history and mentioned his own struggle. He explained that new data-points had been disorienting to him. He had to work his way through them to emerge with faith once again. The question was more than illuminating. It was an honest Latter-day Saint who had triumphed in retaining faith in the face of troubling historic truths. This is an issue at two levels.

First, when mistakes are discovered, they require you to adjust what you believe to take into account the new information. This is work. It requires effort to sort out incorrect or false information from the information that is correct. Some ideas about your religion must now be adjusted, adapted or abandoned. It can be painful. But what emerges from the experience is better than what you started with.

Second, and perhaps much more formidable an issue is that you discover the church is not reliable on some important details of its history. You are forced to grapple with the realization that some of the people you’ve respected, even admired, either did not tell the truth or were ignorant of the truth. Whether they were dishonest or just mistaken, it is painful. No one wants a hero to fall. When the heroes are thought to be God’s agents, true prophets, bona-fide revelators, and you discover they didn’t know what they were doing the fall leaves a choking cloud of dust behind. You have to emerge from that cloud with your faith in God intact.

When stripping truth from error, we all need to be careful not to throw away perfectly sound truths because of our disgust at the errors. It is better still if you can be compassionate about the errors rather than disgusted. Unfortunately, human nature is such that we tend to start with disgust and only proceed to compassion after we’ve lived long enough to have failed repeatedly ourselves. Our own humiliating defeats permit us to gain a sense of perspective regarding other people’s failings. Compassion grows from our injuries.

Marlin Jensen’s questioner was stating his faith while asking about the possibility of broader acceptance of more accurate history by the church itself. The question is now before us all. Whether you study church history or you just see a spreading crisis of faith among your fellow ward members, it is now before you. We are all in the same dreadful mix.

What is to be done? Are we going to adopt an increasingly militant and cloistered defense of our myths? Are we going to purge our ranks so we are left only with a small handful of intensely devoted believers in faith-promoting errors? Will we become the church of Paul Dunn? Or will we allow some to search deeply into the history and reach new conclusions? Will we allow those who have different, and perhaps more well informed conclusions to teach? To defend their understanding? To speak in sacrament meetings and present new ideas to the rest of us? Will we open up general conference to allow discussion openly of the many problems of inaccurate church history? Will we break apart?

Our history is too central a matter for it to be co-opted by a central hierarchy intent on limiting, packaging and controlling the truth rather than revealing the truth. We will save the church and our own souls if we are only interested in knowing truth. There should be an eager openness about it all. The restoration of the Gospel is too wonderful a matter to be reduced to lies. We should all fight against that. It will survive. It will be vindicated. God did originate this process. It is His work, and fear does not change that.

I’ll return to two great problems with Mormons and our history in Part 4.