Taking Aim at Mormon Folklore

There has been some recent discussion of faith-promoting stories and other Mormon folklore, including its complex relationship to factual history, the difficulty of finding an original source, and the tension that skepticism can incite. My question is: if you can prove that a faith-promoting story is false, should you tell anyone? Is there any need for a Mormon Mythbusters? This is not a hypothetical question.

It started with an e-mail from my mother about an inspiring story someone had sent out on her Relief Society mailing list. It wasn’t just a “once upon a time there were two missionaries” kind of story, but rather one that makes verifiable–or in this case, falsifiable–historical claims. There’s a reasonably good chance you’ve heard it before or read it somewhere. My mother asked me if I thought the story was true. I wasn’t sure, but I asked a friend who was in a better position to know. He checked with a couple of Mormon folklorists, who didn’t have anything useful to say, so he inquired with a few more people who would presumably have known the answer. Initial responses weakened the story’s credibility. Inspired by my friend’s example, I started investigating the same topic. And so a research project was born.

It has proceeded in fits and starts, but now, with the help of this friend, I have amassed enough solid evidence, based on serious bibliographical and archival research and inquiries with reliable witnesses, to drive a stake through the heart of the legend. There is a kernel of truth to it that is no more and no less remarkable than a true conversion and a firm testimony, but the details that make the story memorable and worthy of repetition are almost entirely false.

So now what? Should I try to have the results published? Who publishes notes debunking Mormon legends? Most of the venues that come to mind are not places I would want to publish something like this. Or should I just stick it on a web page and let Google do the rest?

Maybe I shouldn’t publish it at all. I’ve satisfied my curiosity and answered the question my mother asked. Now, as my mother reminds me, there might be someone whose faith or feelings could get hurt by the truth. Is it better for me as a member of the church to deflate the story, before an axe-grinding anti- group points out that its claims are unsupportable? I’m skeptical on that point. I could claim that I was merely serving the cause of Truth, but let’s face it: the chance to prove that I’m right and someone else is wrong, for all the world to see, exerts a strong attraction. I also can’t pretend that the stakes are all that high: nothing FARMS has ever published will get called into question, no general authority will suddenly get emeritus status if I publish. At the worst, some institute teacher will end up looking foolish.

As with other posts like this, I’m not going to identify the specific legend in question or describe my evidence in more detail. Speculation is not welcome and is subject to deletion. A very few readers I’ve talked or written to will know more. Please, keep that knowledge to yourself. (There is one person for whom I will make an exception. This person has never, to my knowledge, posted here, but may well be lurking, and has a personal stake in the matter. That person is aware of my research, disagrees with my conclusions, and didn’t respond to my last e-mail over a year ago. If that person decides that this is the place, I’ll respect that wish and lay all my cards on the table.)

Should I publish? If so, where? Or should I just keep quiet?

72 comments for “Taking Aim at Mormon Folklore

  1. You should make it a post here and let google do the rest. We believe in being honest, true, and all that. Someday, somehow, a seminary student is going to find out that this story was false, and it may cause her to question everything else her teacher taught her. Better to nip it in the bud as much as possible. I thought of several other mormon legends that I’d like to bring up as long as we’re talking:

    (1) There is a footnote in the official history of the RS (_Women of Covenant_) that debunks the oft, oft, oft told story of the women donating their china to be ground up to add sparkle to the paint of the Temple. (Or, at least, points out that no contemporary sources know of this practice. I don’t remember the exact wording and I am too lazy to look it up.)

    (2) Has anyone heard the one about the GA or Church employee who went to inspect a property the Church was going to purchase (something along the Mormon Trail . . .) and the nonmember guy was very hostile to selling, dragged him around in a jeep allllllll day with nothing to drink but Coke and was so impressed when he didn’t drink anything all day that he decided to sell to the Church after all? Someone told me this very earnestly but it just didn’t have the ring of truth to it.

    (3) This isn’t quite the same league, but has anyone ever sat through a SS class where the passage about ‘it is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle . . .” was discussed where someone DIDN’T say that ‘the eye of a needle’ was a gate into Jerusalem tha camels had to enter on their knees? What amazes me about this one is that there was an Ensign article debunking the myth but you still hear it all the time.

    Great post, by the way.

  2. Seems to me there was a website around that confirms or debunks folklorish GA statements. Maybe there could be something comparable for these urban legends.

  3. “Seems to me there was a website around that confirms or debunks folklorish GA statements”

    It’s called http://www.lds.org! If you cannot find it there (assuming it is from 1971-), you shouldn’t be quoting it.

  4. It’s a hard question.

    When I was teaching institute, a friend of mine brought her nonmember friend and wanted me to discuss the day when, after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon both addressed assembled saints, and many were swayed to follow Brigham because the Spirit caused Brigham to appear and sound like Joseph.

    Except, it’s not true. I read some contemporary account from someone’s journal that I had in the books I brought with me that day. Both men did address the assembled saints, and many received a witness that enabled them to consider Brigham in the new context of leader. The many good things I could say about the event were not enough to satisfy my friend, who left disgruntled and feeling let down, and let down in her missionary moment.

  5. Johnna, not to debunk a debunking, but there are a lot of historical documents relating to this event. One-hundred and twenty-one separate accounts of the passing of the mantle to Brigham are collected in the new BYU Studies full-length volume “Opening the Heavens” (along with a whole lot of other material; it’s a pretty impressive collection, quantitatively) (see here for more info). Not all of them describe a physical transformation, though many (most?) do, and of course not all are eye-witnesses, many accounts were recorded long after the fact, etc. So it’s not undebatable—but it’s far, far more substantial than a faith-promoting rumor.

  6. When I was about, oh, eighteen or nineteen years old I read a book called “Bermuda Triangle–Mystery Solved”. The approach was almost shamefully simple. The writer, a librarian from somewhere in Arizona, simply ordered every note worthy occurrence chronologically, gave a brief description of each, and then followed up with his own research. About 80% percent of the occurrences where discredited. The remaining 20% were left hanging with either to little or no information available by which to make an informed judgement. I’ve been a firm non-believer ever since–not that I was ever a true believer.

    I liked his approach–very straight forward, allowing the facts to do the judging, and yet, still somewhat open ended in that there remained a number of occurrences which could not be accounted for. I don’t have a problem with a similar work being published which addresses essentially the same breed of mythical silliness in our religious culture.

  7. I haven’t posted in a thread in a month or two, but you really got me thinking tonight. I find it unnerving that we fear people becoming offended by the truth. If these stories are faith-promoting because of the principles they espouse, then they should continue to be offered — but as parables, analogies, etc. There are so many of them I recall hearing about, some of which I even passed on to others before later learning they were not true. And as inspiring as some of them are, if they are ultimately based on lies (to take it to the extreme) then the Spirit cannot testify of their veracity. I think it better to shine a little light on them. Let the true conversion stories be told rather than dramatized folklore.

  8. “Is it better for me as a member of the church to deflate the story, before an axe-grinding anti- group points out that its claims are unsupportable? I’m skeptical on that point.”

    I’m much less skeptical than you. I just think if we’d all do our part to promote a culture of more open inquiry and less sentimental tripe, we’d all be better off as a religious community. Whether through anti-Mormon propaganda, or self-study, or what have you, there are so many roads to disillusionment, and I think we’d all be better off inoculating ourselves early on so that we don’t have to go down those roads.

    This isn’t to say that there aren’t better and worse ways of telling hard truths. (I’m really good at telling them badly). Surely there are. But the issue worth discussing, as far as I’m concerned, is how best to engage in tactful and careful presentation of troublesome realities, rather than debating whether accurate truth-telling is desirable in the first place.

    Aaron B

  9. Amen to Sister Welch. The temptation, myth-wise, to oversimplify can be just as strong in debunking as it is in propagating. The passing of the mantle story is a good case in point. That some present did not witness it, that some did but failed to record their impressions right away, has led others to conclude that the event never took place. But nothing in the collective testimonies even suggests, much less demands, such a cynical interpretation; it is perfectly reasonable to believe that a miracle took place that day. Zeal without knowledge plagues the naive and sophisticated alike.

  10. My vote is for publishing. I think that there are way too many “theological twinkies” floating around the Church. They find their way into our Sacrament meetings and classes where they are used as a substitute for the scriptures by speakers and teachers who are too lazy to tell the true stories of the gospel found in our standard works.

    Elder Holland spoke of this in a General Conference a few years ago, and I was so pleased that I put up my Theological Twinkies page several years ago. Shortly afterwards I got a few angry telephone calls from people who like these twinkies, but I left it up. And perhaps I flatter myself, but it seems to me that I don’t hear these same stories told in our meetings nearly as often as I used to.

    By all means, put your research up on the Web. I believe that false stories that masquerade as true stories damage testimonies and work against the spread of the real gospel.

  11. Here’s an anecdote of my own. My wife and I were in SLC visiting my family and one of my wife’s nonmember friends had joined us for the trip. On a tour of temple square, my dear mother (whom I love and GREATLY respect) proceeded to tell my wife’s friend about this miraculous fact about the building of the Salt Lake Temple. Apparently, the builders felt inspired to leave a large square shaft in the building, not knowing what it was for. Many years later it turned out to be the perfect size for an elevator! I quickly (and I hope smoothly) interjected that I thought that was a wonderful story but that I thought that story was probably a “mormon myth”. I think (hope) that I said something affirming about the temple and my mom. Anyway, it just didn’t feel right to let it go, I guess for a number of reasons.

    Btw, if someone jumps in and tells me that this story is actually true I promise to apologize to my mom and go bear my testimony of the story to my wife’s friend. :)

  12. Many years ago, I was working in a ward calling with new members. During that time, a RS teacher used a doctrinally unsound and potentially hurtful faith promoting rumor to emphasize the potential of Satan to appear as an angel of light during a lesson about gifts of the Spirit. In a later social setting, I pointed out the problems with the “story” to a new member (who had heard the story in RS) and her husband. They were VERY upset by this. The husband asked “If it wasn’t true, why did she tell it?” Good question. I have since wondered if I should have even brought it up. Or if the manner in which I did so was damaging in and of itself.

    Since that time, I have tried to “resist not evil, but overcome evil with good” like so: Rather than trying to poke holes in a story that may or may not be true, or which seems dubious at best, I instead find the falsehood in it and testify instead of the opposite truth that eradicates that falsehood. In the above case, testifying that gifts of the spirit operate worldwide and without regard to religious affiliation since we are all God’s children might have sufficed.

  13. The question of doing this for new members is an interesting one. I don’t care so much about telling some life-time geiser that the story they are telling is false, but the feelings of new members are much more fragile. In our ward, a new member sent out an email over the ward email list telling the faith promoting rumor about Eistein proving the existence of God to his teacher as a young boy. I think someone else responded that it was baloney, but I felt really bad.
    Btw, the problem of faith promoting stories is not just a Mormon one, but is especially a problem in conservative christianity. I remember being at an evangi-event on my mission where a kid witnessed about a boy who had heard about the gospel and was thinking about changing his life by accepting Jesus, but decided to wait. The problem was that he was killed on the way home in a car accident. Now he is burning in hell.
    I must say that I am really glad that we don’t have this type of story!

  14. Something that prepetuates these myths is the lack of records. The passing of the mantle to Brigham is a perfect example. If those who were there had not written down what had happened this miracle might have been thought of as false. I believe there are enough true stories out there that would put most of these false ones to shame. I for one have had many faith promoting experiences in my life but have failed to document them yet. Perhaps there could be a gathering place for true first-hand faith promoting stories that could be drawn from rather than word of mouth stories.

  15. Well, it’s not Snopes, but SHIELDS has a page exposing various Mormon Urban Legends. It’s funny but every time this subject comes up I learn yet another story from my youth is false. I just assumed that the “Eye of the Needle” being a gate was legit.

    I really do think these stories are pernicious and we should do our best to stamp them out.

  16. But we DO have the dying in a car crash after not getting married in the temple-type stories!

  17. Ultimately, the continued existence of faith promoting rumors hurts the truthfulness of real experiences. If we’re so used to a Seminary rumor view of the world, full of dramatic irony and flashy witnesses, we may become hardened to the actual still small whispering of the spirit. One of the most difficult transitions in the gospel is accepting the existence of contradictions, gray areas, and uncertainties. If we have built up a body of folklore that is so tempting in its simplicity and drama, we may become immune to more subtle personal spiritual experiences, and ultimately conclude that we are not actually experiencing them. We should embrace the truth, and confusing quasi-truths and dramatic stories can get in the way of our own personal spiritual journeys. The continuing existence of these stories ultimately helps no one.

  18. Lisa (#20),

    Part of the reason there are car crash after getting married the the temple stories is that some of them are true. My best friend from my mission died in a car crash on the way to his reception.

  19. I am certain I read about the gate in Jerusalem from Talmage’s Jesus the Christ (possibly circa pp. 485-6). If it’s not true, then it’s not true, I guess, but if I can’t trust Talmage to avoid faith promoting rumor, who can I trust?

  20. Jonathan, your admission that “the chance to prove that I’m right and someone else is wrong, for all the world to see, exerts a strong attraction” is a poignant reminder of a question that is often swept under the rug: What are our motives? Do we truly care about those who will be affected by the information we disseminate? If not, then perhaps some repentance is in order before we decide whether or not to publish.

  21. I think the best thing to do would be to publish it without proselyting it and show a lot of sensitivity to people who heard this story and believed it (e.g., affirm the principle the story is meant to affirm, explain why you think a reasonable person could have believed the story, explain that faith-promoting stories shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, which is why you took the trouble to investigate this one, etc. The more you do it this way the less likely you are to feel yourself the Great OZ enlightening the common folk and the more likely you are to contribute to the cause of truth. I say go ahead. Do it here).

  22. jimbob,
    Talmage was written a long, long time ago and he relied entirely on late 19th-century sources, who, frankly, had grossly incomplete information about archeology and geography in the middle east. Most of the good archeology wasn’t done until much later. I wouldn’t be surprised if the “gate”-theory for the eye of the needle is found in all of these early sources because they were all relying on each other with no one to be able to verify its truth or falsity.

  23. I say publish.

    There is a myth about the crowds of heaven bowing down to us because we are of the last generation (in the time of president hinkley, oohhhhhh). It was widely taught that this story was by president monson, who sent out a letter to the church debunking this and instructing people not to repeat this false myth. So if its good enough for Tommy, then its good enough for me.

  24. Jonathan, I think Adam’s suggestion is absolutely spot-on. You should publish what you’ve found, because in the long run it does no one any good for Mormonism, whether in the eyes of its enemies, its investigators, or its individual believers, to be associated with a demonstrable falsehood. But do it as part of an explanation and an affirmation of the point of the story’s existence in the first place. That way, those who stumble upon it and are shocked that anyone could ever have believed it will come away (hopefully) with feelings of sympathy, while those who stumble upon and are shocked to learn it isn’t true won’t feel foolish and bitter about the exposure. (And, of course, T&S wouldn’t mind the exclusive.)

  25. Paradoxically, your concern about publishing shows you can probably go ahead and publish. Those people who are angry at church members for believing faith promoting rumors; who think that truth is all, never mind the consequences and the feelings; and think highly of themselves as devotees of truth; never stop to think whether they should publish.

  26. I’m glad someone brought it up the idea of a Mormon Snopes. I was thinking the same thing.

    I think it would be very healthy to debunk faith-promoting falsehoods. Mainly because it would make LDS people more skeptical of these kinds of stories. A dash of skepticism mixed in with the faith is, I think, quite healthy. The point is not to disprove the Church but to disprove the false ideas, maxims, analogies, folklore, etc. that naturally arises in any human element.

  27. Travis (#15): On a tour of temple square, my dear mother … proceeded to tell my wife’s friend about this miraculous fact about the building of the Salt Lake Temple. Apparently, the builders felt inspired to leave a large square shaft in the building, not knowing what it was for. Many years later it turned out to be the perfect size for an elevator!

    Funny thing, I was just reading about this last night in the book The Salt Lake Temple: A Monument to a People. It explained that the shafts were designed for elevators in the first place.

    A check of the relevant Wikipedia article shows that elevator shafts with cable-driven cars were first installed in New York City in the mid-1850s, so the technology was certainly known by the designers of the Salt Lake Temple.

    Oh, and I say publish.

  28. The Talmage cite is on pg. 450. To his credit, Talmage explains what some thought about a gate and then goes on to qualify the interpretation by prefacing with, “If this conception be correct…”

  29. This reminds me of the stated duty, according to Elder Packer, of the members of the church to not put “faith threatening material” in the hands of Church members. The question becomes one of “which is more faith threatening: to believe a story only to find out later that is was not true, or to be told the truth in the first place?” Seems to me that the second alternative is better, although

  30. I’ll bet a Mormon Snopes blog would really take off. I know I’d pay attention to it and enjoy learning the myriad traditions that would be discussed there. Part of the purpose of a Mormon Snopes site would of course be to prove as well as disprove. If a faith-promoting story is true, we’d hear about it also. Half the trick would be collecting and compiling all the stories (as much as possible) into one place. That itself would be an amazing and endless endeavor.

    Sometimes when I head over to Snopes to check on something, I’m surprised to learn of strange things I’ve heard about that turn out to be true.

  31. LDS World used to have a sort of Mormon :Snopes, which has now been archived by SHIELDS at the link given above.

    I remember a recent example of such a story. It had something to do with Mormon soldiers in Iraq, although I don’t recall the details. We looked into it a little bit, and it appeared to have a kernel of truth with lots of way exaggeration and fabrication around it.

    On the subject of overzealous debunking, I remember debunking the idea that “atonement,” obviously a $5.00 latinate theological term, was related to the simple English expression “at one.” Boy, did I have to eat crow over that one (it was a long time ago in my undergrad days).

    If anyone is interested, here is my little web article on the camel and the needle thing:

    Footnotes: A Camel through the Eye of a Needle

    All three synoptics recount an episode during the Perean ministry of the Saviour where a rich young man (called a “ruler” in Luke) approaches Jesus and asks what he can do to have eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and in response to a request for clarification refers to the Ten Commandments. The young man replies that he has kept these from his youth, and then asks what yet he lacks. The reply is to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. The young man then walks away sadly, because he had great possessions.

    Following this story is a section where Jesus utters the now famous proverb, which I will quote below as it is given in each gospel:

    “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mt. 19:24)

    “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 10:25)

    “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 18:25)

    This saying does not appear in the Gospel of Thomas.

    These statements are virtually identical in English. There is a little variation in Greek; in particular, the needle in Matthew and Mark is a raphis, while in Luke it is a belone. This is not a significant difference, however; both refer to needles used for sewing.

    In my experience teaching in the Church, this verse is a “hot button,” and when it is read in class it will almost invariably elicit some sort of comment. The comment might be a generic defense of riches, for instance, to allow the fortunate bearer of such to build up the kingdom of God. More likely, one of two very specific comments will be offered.

    The first is something to the effect that there was in the city wall of Jerusalem a narrow gate known as “The Eye of the Needle.” It was very difficult for a camel to pass through this gate. I have heard variations on this explanation; according to one, the camel would have to be unburdened before it could pass through, while according to another, the camel could only pass through on its knees (!). People are very fond of this explanation, but there is one small problem with it: there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there was such a gate. As Hugh Nibley puts it in his own inimitable way, this gate idea was “invented by an obliging nineteenth-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation.” See CWHN 9:168. This is one of those notions Nibley calls a “para-scripture”: a tale that is widely but wrongly circulated among the Saints as scriptural.

    Well, if we cannot enlarge the size of the opening, the other logical way to rationalize the passage is to reduce the size of the object that must pass through it, and we see this in our next common comment on this passage. The Greek word for camel here is kamelos. This is based on Semitic gamal, and is recognizable as English “camel.” There is another Greek word, only one letter different, kamilos, which means “rope, ship’s cable.” In fact, as Greek pronunciation changed from the “common” dialect of the New Testament toward what would eventually become the modern demotic Greek, at some point in time the two words would have been pronounced the same way. The idea, therefore, is that the text originally read kamilos “rope,” which was corrupted over time to kamelos “camel.” This notion is adopted by John Widstoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 117, although he misapprehends the problem as being one of Aramaic rather than Greek.

    Unlike the narrow gate notion, this is an argument that actually has some ancient evidence to support it, as a number of manuscripts do in fact read kamilos here. The earliest such evidence is found in the Armenian and Georgian versions, both of which date to the fifth century C.E. It also appears in the uncial S (949 C.E.) and a number of miniscule manuscripts of the Byzantine tradition, including 13, 59, 124,130, 437, 472 and 543, all dating considerably after the turn of the millenium. Three considerations, however, make it highly unlikely that kamilos was the intended text. First is the limited nature of the textual attestation for “rope,” which includes (1) the small number of manuscripts supporting that reading, (2) the lateness of those manuscripts, and (3) the narrowness (both geographically and in text type) of that evidence. Second is the principle commonly referred to as lectio difficilior, which is that in the absence of other deciding factors, the reading that is more difficult from the standpoint of language and subject matter is more likely to be the earlier reading. (I realize this is contrary to the common assumption among Latter-day Saints that scribes actually preferred, gremlin-like, to make the text more difficult as they did their work.) Third, the meager textual evidence that does exist is most likely to be accounted for by the influence of a number of Church Fathers, who had speculated about just such a possibility. See Origen, Catena, frgs. in Matt. 19.24 (Griechische christliche Schriftsteller 41.166); Cyril of Alexandria, Comm. in Matt. 19.24 (Patrilogia Graeca 72.429D); and Theophylact, Enarr. in Matt. 19 (PG 123.356D). For a bibliography of secondary literature, see Joseph Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible commentary on Luke, ad loc.

    Well, now we are in a pickle. How are we to interpret this passage in a way that makes sense? I will suggest three (certainly non-exhaustive) possibilities here; you make the call which you prefer, or mix and match if you like.

    First is what I would call the “united order” interpretation, which is favored by Nibley. That is that Jesus really meant it; you have to give up everything and follow him. I can tell you that this does not play well in wards such as mine, which are frequented by captains of industry, but God bless Hugh Nibley for staking out the high ground so effectively.

    The second is to recognize the camel saying as an example of hyperbole; that is, an intentional exaggeration for rhetorical effect. (Such hyperbolic statements are common in the Talmud.) This requires us to trust that the preceding verse articulated the “real” meaning of the saying, as in Matt. 19:23: “a rich man shall hardly (duskolos “with difficulty,” but not impossibly) enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Of course, our linear western logic demands that the saying match the principle, but it does not. Rather, it describes an impossible process, not one that is difficult only. Thus all the gyrations to try to modify the meaning of the proverb. Given the tremendous amount of discussion and soul searching this verse has engendered over the centuries, if it were intentional hyperbole, in my estimation it was fabulously successful.

    Third is what we might call the “grace” interpretation. Recall that when they heard the saying, the disciples “were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?” This shows that they recognized it as a difficult saying, and is further evidence against the softening explanations described above. Jesus answers: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” That is, the camel saying really is supposed to describe an impossible process, because it has not yet factored God into that process. Once God is factored in, it becomes indeed possible for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven (but even then only with difficulty).

    However one chooses to understand the saying, it should not be cheapened by the easy rationalizations that have accrued around it over time. It is intentionally a hard saying, and to contemplate it requires hard thought, study and prayer.

  32. “It was widely taught that this story was by president monson, who sent out a letter to the church debunking this and instructing people not to repeat this false myth.”


    And another Mormon legend is born.

    (A little. I’m overplaying this for effect.)

    It was President Packer, who had it printed in the Church News. (Info on the SHIELDS page linked above.)

  33. A few months ago, I picked up a hitchhiker. As we were driving along, he suddenly said, “Tell Green to publish the truth.” And then he vanished without a trace!

    I had no idea what he was talking about until I saw this thread today.

    Now, I’m not going to claim he was one of the Three Nephites, because we have too many Three Nephite stories floating around out there.

    But I think you should publish the truth, Jonathan, because when the Apostle John says to do something, you should do it.

    Unless it was Cain….

  34. My dad used to write a newsletter for all of the missionaries in the field that he knew in which he would include exclusive articles about things like the archeological finding of Laman’s wallet in a dumpster in Albuquerque, or the discovery that Nephi’s wife’s name was Trixie. Also among the favorites were stories of the early Mormon pioneer Amassa Fortune. My mom made him stop after his three-part series on the Gay Mormon Handcart Company. (The basic story was that they were stranded on the plains in a blizzard so they all huddled for warmth. They got so cozy that they told the rescue party sent by Brigham that they were already quite comfortable, thanks.) These are I suppose “faith-dissipating rumors.”

  35. The other day I was talking to Cain, and he was saying how the Three Nephites think they’re all that for not being covered with matted hair and having huge, yellow, uneven teeth etc. Then he said how when President Monson was a young bishop he was forever visiting him and trying to set him up with this one really lonely, hairy widow. He claimed that Pres. Monson got most of his orphan stories from him. I was like whatever, Cain.

  36. “Oh, and Cain isn’t black, by the by. He looks sort of like John Kerry.”

    I’m afraid you’ve been cunningly decieved. My sources say he’s a little more like Ross Perot and that there’s lots of smoke and mirrors to make him appear bigger.

  37. He was wearing a battered Perot for President hat, but he said he bought it at D.I. where there isn’t a huge range of choices.

  38. That the philosophy section of the BYU-Idaho bookstore consists entirely of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, scattered Og Mandino, and a C.S. Lewis coloring book is not a myth.

  39. Thanks for all the responses. All the cries of “publish, publish!” have something of the same tone as “jump, jump!” to a first-time cliff-diver, not necessarily standing above deep water. I’ll think about it.

    A couple comments have suggested that Mormon legends have the pernicious effect of blinding us by their flashy details to the quieter truths. This is true, but I also think that truth can be just as awe-inspiring, just as flashy, it just requires more work to dig up.

    Another factor affecting the decision to publish is my responsibility towards the people who have gone out of their way to dig up information. I have no qualms about citing printed sources. It is the calling of archivists to answer questions, so I suppose that archival material is fair game, but I’m not sure that an obscure archive in an out-of-the-way town really wanted to be involved. I’m especially reluctant to drag the witnesses I contacted into it, especially people who went way beyond their duty to check up on what must have seemed like bizarre questions about the past. My evidence is solid, but I also have a responsibility towards these people. Journalists have to deal with this all the time, I suppose, but I am not a journalist.

  40. Keith, this doesn’t relate to this thread, but to another one. Now that certain facts have been explained to me, I owe you not an apology, but a concession: you’re a good man.

  41. The phenomenon of historical “myths” is not confined to Mormon history, or religion either. It occurs everywhere. I remember reading a book years ago (the exact reference now escapes me) on myths in American history, which argued that many cherished stories of the founding of the United States (such as the prayer at Valley Forge, Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death”) either never happened or rest on slender evidence. It seems to be a human trait (which most of us have probably experienced firsthand!) to find it hard to resist embellishing stories, with the result that stories tend to improve over time unless there’s good contemporary evidence to keep them pinned down.

    How much damage debunking myths does depends on how it’s done and the level of emotional investment someone has in a particular idea or story. Whether George Washington offered a prayer at Valley Forge doesn’t bother me as an Australian in the slightest, but it could be much more confronting to an American brought up on it.

    Another example from our own history that I personally think stands on slender legs is Brigham’s famous statement from his sickbed in Wilford Woodruff’s wagon: “This is the right place. Drive on” (or variations thereof). There’s no contemporary documentation for it. He certainly did utter similar sentiments several days later in remarks at a public meeting, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the two occasions have been confused. But, barring further documentation coming to light, we’ll probably never know for sure. And does it really matter? The statement is “true” in that it correctly sums up Brigham’s attitude, whether or not he actually said those particular words.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s better to try to be as accurate as we can, because myths do set up their believers for a fall. I’m constantly surprised at how shocked lifelong members can be when they discover how many wives Joseph or Brigham had, for example. We haven’t yet learned how to deal successfully with these sorts of issues from our past.

  42. Truth’s proper use, as well as everything else’s, is to help people grow in joy by becoming more like God. I recommend that you publish the truth, within the context of helping the people that told and heard the untruth you’re correcting. To just blast away at untruth’s heard in LDS settings could appear to be a justified attack on the person in error or on the LDS setting, not solely on the errors that crept in. It also could seem to be prideful one-upping.

    Some words Laura Davis (not LDS) wrote about reconciliation among estranged people capture the sense of what I believe here, “Reconciliation [correction in this discussion] requires both honesty and kindness. Kindness without honesty is not enough, and honesty, without the tempering of compassion, is not sufficient either. It is the marriage of the two that makes deep healing possible. ( “I Thought We’d Never Speak Again,” p. 190).

    D&C 121 tells us to reprove [correct] betimes [quickly] when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, then show an increase in love lest the person you’ve corrected esteem you to be an enemy. That is the answer that I offer — use the guidance of the Holy Ghost to improve/correct people’s understanding in a way that helps them and strengthens your friendship with them.

  43. There have been great comments on this post.

    As a practical matter, one thing that I have had success with is preempting with humor if I think a lesson might veer off into folk doctrine. For example, if you are teaching the BoM section on the Three Nephites, announce at the beginning that you are sticking to the scriptures and you don’t want to hear about how your visiting teacher’s sister’s dentist’s neighbor got a flat tire in Southern Utah and was helped by three mysterious men who told her to get her food storage in order. (You’ll get a better laugh if you can get that all out in one breath.) After that, most people will be cowed into silence.

  44. Julie, great advice. It works also when you’re teaching the Word of Wisdom lesson: “We are talking about the Word of Wisdom today, but I don’t want to talk about my cola habit, so I’m going to stick to the scriptures.” Works like a charm.

  45. “Another example from our own history that I personally think stands on slender legs is Brigham’s famous statement from his sickbed in Wilford Woodruff’s wagon: “This is the right place. Drive on” (or variations thereof). There’s no contemporary documentation for it. He certainly did utter similar sentiments several days later in remarks at a public meeting, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the two occasions have been confused. But, barring further documentation coming to light, we’ll probably never know for sure.”

    Considering that Brigham Young had a copy of John C. Fremont’s “A Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44” (published in 1845), which detailed Fremont’s exploration of the area around the Great Salt Lake, there should be little doubt that Brigham would say that it was the right place!

  46. Jonathan asks in the lead post: “if you can prove that a faith-promoting story is false, should you tell anyone?”

    The question extends beyond what we normally think of as “stories” to the stories we tell about ourselves. I speak here of our history. For years I have had to grapple with Jonathan’s question nearly every week of the year during which we study the Doctrine and Covenants in Sunday School. It seems that nearly every week the teacher, quite innocently enough, teaches some fact or gives some interpretation of church history that I good reason to believe is false. The teaching may be a simple factual error but more often than not it is a projection of security or confidence in the narrative tightness of our history.

    Here is an example. When teaching D&C 89, a teacher may introduce the topic by saying, “Emma was disgusted with the tobacco stains on the floor of her house. The men were chewing tobacco and spitting up all over the wood. She complained to Joseph and the result was this revelation.” But this much-beloved story stretched the documentary base, which turns out to be an offhand comment from Brigham Young in JD in which Young says the tobacco smoke annoyed Joseph. BY’s main point is the smoke, but he adds in passing that the smoke coupled with “”the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor” prompted Joseph to pray on the matter.

    The problem is that I differ from many of my SSchool teachers on what constitutes convincing evidence. In this instance, I think it stretches the truth to say the revelation came at Emma’s prompt. The basic problem is BY never says where he gets the story. Did Joseph tell him the story? Was it scuttlebut? BY was not in the inner counsels of the church during these years and may have heard the story from someone else. (He apparently attended some School of the Prophets meetings but he was not a leading figure.) We do know that after the Exodus BY was inclined to think of Emma as a complainer. Might he have accidentally inserted Emma into the story? Who knows. In light of the many questions, I think it is fairer to the evidence to say “Emma may have been upset about tobacco juice, but the story cannot be corroborated, so we don’t know for sure.”

    I think it’s safe to believe that many teachers don’t know the documentary base on which their church history claims are based. They tell the story of Emma and others like it because they’ve heard the stories repeated from their youth. But if we are sitting in the audience and know something the teacher doesn’t know, when do we speak up. Admittedly I correct only very rarely–and I usually feel unconcomfortable doing it. Correcting can look like grandstanding and can get inexperienced teachers flustered. Plus it breeds an impression of expertise–teachers start turning to you on everything. There is something to loose any way you turn. The unsettling cost of saying nothing is that falsehoods get perpetuated.

  47. The question is not whether or not you should tell, but HOW you should tell. Tone is everything and if you tell people in a way that embarrasses them, makes them feel stupid, or publically shames them, you probably should find a better way. If, however, you wait for the right moment and humbly let them know, I am sure that they will be more grateful than hurt.

  48. I keep hearing the one about how Joseph Smith supposedly said that the Telestial Kingdom is so glorious that you’d commit suicide to get in (were you ever granted a glimpse).

    I think “truth” is highly overrated in our society. It’s not truth, but how you use truth that is important. A blackmailer tells the truth. But that doesn’t attach any sort of morality to him.

  49. “Another example from our own history that I personally think stands on slender legs is Brigham’s famous statement from his sickbed in Wilford Woodruff’s wagon: ‘This is the right place. Drive on.’ ”

    This actually paraphrases Pres. Young’s comment. He was planning a very comfortable retirement for the Saints at the ocean’s edge; he already had Sam Brannon scouting for California’s gold. Pres. Young looked at the single-tree valley with its saline-laced lake, compared it to his mind’s image of California’s gold, surf, and redwoods, and said, “This is a disgrace, drive on” — to celestial comforts on the beach. (The Hoffman Museum of American History has unpublished documents confirming this).

    However, Orrin Porter Rockwell had his land scam going in Utah and was offering $1k for the first corn. By the time Pres. Young recovered his strengthen, the Saints were up in the hills mining water for the Valley.

    Then came LaVell to the valley. He needed thin air to fling footballs past sucking-wind defensive backs, so we were done.

  50. CES has a system in place fir just this reason: debunking stories when sufficient evidence has been found. Just send in your findings to LDS CES, who in turn will, upon finding your info correct, disseminate memos to CES teachers and bishops, etc informing them that x story is incorrect.

    Testimony killer!

  51. Re: Comment #15

    The story about the elevator shafts is true. My Grandfather, who passed away this past weekend, was a safety inspector who did a lot of work in and around the Temple. The shafts were pre-positioned, and exactly large enough for the elevators of the day. When larger elevators were installed, it took the workers weeks to chisel room in the shafts for the counter-weights to go along side the larger elevators.

    In addition to elevators, wiring conduits were also found – with strings running through them so all the electricians had to do was pull the wires through and hook up the power.

    There were a lot more “pre-positioned” aspects of the Temple, those are just the ones I remember, as I’m working on Grandfather’s obituary at the moment.

  52. The quote about committing suicide in order to get the Telestial Kingdom faster I think can be proven to be bunk by just following the logic of that statement. Think about it, how would killing yourself get you to the Telestial Kingdom faster? You would have to wait until the end of the Millennium for you resurrection anyway, right? I’m sure Joseph Smith would have the better judgement than to say something like that.

  53. “As a practical matter, one thing that I have had success with is preempting with humor if I think a lesson might veer off into folk doctrine. For example, if you are teaching the BoM section on the Three Nephites, announce at the beginning that you are sticking to the scriptures and you don’t want to hear about how your visiting teacher’s sister’s dentist’s neighbor got a flat tire in Southern Utah and was helped by three mysterious men who told her to get her food storage in order. (You’ll get a better laugh if you can get that all out in one breath.) After that, most people will be cowed into silence. ”

    I’d probably do this myself. But with regrets. Because ex ante discrediting all Three Nephite stories is only useful if you have reason to believe that there are NO true stories of the Three Nephites. Which I don’t.

  54. Adam–

    Not true. I believe that there are true Three Nephite stories. I also believe that it would be highly unlikely that someone with actual experience with them would blab about it in Sunday School.

    (You’ll notice that I didn’t ‘discredit all Three Nephite stories.’ I discredited eighth hand accounts of Three Nephite stories. Big difference.)

  55. Surprise, surprise. John Roberts Jr was just named the new Supreme Court Justice. George W. is a loyal son who keeps daddy’s promises. Edith got snubbed.

  56. “I also believe that it would be highly unlikely that someone with actual experience with them would blab about it in Sunday School.”

    Right on Julie. I think that principle in and of itself disqualifies most of the stories we hear.

  57. The general strategy of preempting undesirable outcomes in Sunday School is a good one, I think. For the lesson on the creation, I started off by telling the literalists not to treat the metaphorists as faithless apostates, and telling the metaphorists not to regard the literalists as ignorant fundamentalists. A rewarding lesson ensued.

    When teaching D&C to the same class, I asked if anyone had first-person experience with dusting one’s feet on a town, rather than having a second- or third-hand story to related. One elderly brother, the stake’s first president many years before, volunteered that he did have such experience, but could not divulge any further details. Things like that make teaching Gospel Doctrine one of the best callings in the church.

  58. Even our church leaders perpetuate myths and FPRs. Parley P. Pratt was not killed by *just* any old angry mobster–it was some guy whose wife Parley P. Pratt had STOLEN as his bride.The church leaders should tell the truth about this and all such stories, instead of making them “faith promoting”.

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