I recently did a quick read of John G. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet and posted notes here. Here is my one-sentence summary: “Turner gives a balanced if candid portrayal of Brigham, one that mainstream Mormons should be able to read without serious difficulties.” But not everyone agrees. Some very bright people think the book might very well cause problems for mainstream Mormons and should therefore perhaps be avoided. It’s a serious question: Can books cause problems? If so, what do we do with those problem books: Ignore them? Hide them in locked cases? Burn them?
Here are some reasonable arguments suggesting caution is warranted. In a review posted earlier at T&S, Julie said:
I have serious reservations about recommending it to the average church member; if you need your prophet to be larger than life, or even just better than the average bear, this book is not for you. I think there is a substantial risk that people raised on hagiographic, presentist images of prophets would have their testimonies rocked, if not shattered, by this book. Perhaps this is just an idiosyncratic reaction, but I felt an increased appreciation for Joseph Smith, David O. McKay, and Spencer W. Kimball after reading their biographies. I can’t say the same for Brigham Young; I liked him–and respected him–less. Much less.
Another LDS reviewer noted, “Upon finishing the book, I thought to myself, ‘why would anybody follow this Brigham Young? He’s kind of a jerk.'” He concludes his review:
In the end, then, I do not recommend the biography for believing Latter-day Saints. The Arrington biography, Brigham Young: American Moses, should suffice if you want the more historically accurate, yet still faithful, point of view.
Now one general rationale for recommending a book not be read is that it is a poorly written book: inaccurate facts, or good facts with poorly reasoned conclusions, or even good facts with good arguments on irrelevant or misleading questions or issues. But both reviewers (indeed, all reviewers I have read) think BYPP is a very well written biography. A second general rationale for dissuading others from reading a book is that the book, whether well or poorly written, is potentially harmful. Most parents would not buy their teenager a book titled The Joy of Hallucinogenic Drugs regardless of the reviews or quality of research. So is objective LDS history that kind of a topic, a harmful one that should be avoided by mainstream Mormons?
I’m sure you are familiar with some of the counterarguments. Books don’t kill testimonies, people kill testimonies. Knowledge is power. Inoculation: better to hear the bad news issues lurking in objective LDS history from friends (or at least neutral professionals) than from the president of the local Protestant anti-Mormon club or the latest New Atheist author, packaged to suit their respective agendas.
A more sophisticated reply is that the warning depicts reading primarily as a functional enterprise: read books that improve your life, avoid books that create problems. Taken to the limit, we’d all be reading mostly self-help and how-to books. Who knows, maybe we’d all be richer and thinner. But there are alternative theories of reading, one of which is that we read to broaden our horizons and increase our knowledge. New perspectives and new information sometimes creates problems, but generally these are just growing pains. While “ignorance is bliss” is often quoted, few people really believe it. Few people would actually opt to lose painful knowledge in favor of blissful ignorance. Ignorant bliss is, in any case, unstable: it evaporates when knowledge intrudes, invited or not. One might even argue that one of the primary purposes of reading is to cause ourself problems. That’s often how we read the scriptures: to jolt us out of our self-satisfied complacency (all is well in Zion) and direct us toward thinking and doing things that really matter.
Which is not to say there aren’t books that are better avoided than digested. There’s no particular reason the average Latter-day Saint should go looking for books that attack the Church or LDS beliefs. But almost invariably the agenda of those books undermines their quality. The primary reason they are better left unread is that they often misstate or distort the facts, or use arguments against Mormon beliefs or history that aren’t used against anyone else (so they aren’t really principled arguments, just variations on “we don’t like Mormons”). A book that criticizes LDS beliefs or practices using good facts and good arguments might very well be a beneficial book for Mormons to read. Maybe someone will write one someday.
BYPP is not the first book to pose this issue for LDS readers. Similar questions were kicked around about Rough Stone Rolling. Just last week, as I was sitting in the hallway at church reading BYPP, a friend spotted the cover and said he just bought a copy. He was in Utah visiting his old mission president and mentioned he was going to buy a copy of RSR. The mission president talked him out of reading RSR (some variation on “you don’t need that kind of stuff”), so instead he bought a copy of BYPP. I think he’d have been better off with RSR, but that’s not really the point. I think the point is that Mormons need to read more. Maybe we should start putting books back in the ward library.
I think the biggest error one can make in reading a book is reading it unprepared. It is one thing to pick up a fictional book for entertainment, it’s another when you pick up a book expecting to learn something and get more than you bargain for. I believe the hesitancy to recommend historically accurate biographies to the average member is because most members read prophet biographies expecting to walk a way liking the person more, and having a few fun facts to throw in during lunch break. Which is probably why the average member would only stick to Deseret Books for church history.
I’m prolonging my order for the book until I feel ready to handle the painful knowledge that will come.
I have ordered BYPP and plan to read it over the holidays. As a result, I can’t comment on it quite yet.
With regard to recommendations and whether books can cause problems, I think the answer depends on who you are recommending (or not recommending) the book to. I am a believer in the line of thought that people don’t run into issues with their testimony from reading too much; rather, they run into issues when they only read a little. Thus, if a book purports to be a biography of a prophet but fails to dig deeply into (1) the spiritual aspect of the man’s life and leadership and (2) why people followed him (both criticisms that I have heard of BYPP), then I would not recommend it to someone who I suspect does not read much and who may never read another book about that man.
The author John G. Turner was on C-Span a few weeks ago, talking about his new book to an audience at the Salt Lake City main library. It was very interesting. Turner said he is not LDS and knew very little about Mormonism prior to writing this book on Brigham Young. He seemed very sympathetic to Brigham Young, which was disappointing I’m sure to some in the audience who were obviously anti-Mormon by the questions they asked. For example, he stated clearly that he believed Brigham Young did not give orders for the Mtn Meadow Massacre.
It was clear that Turner had respect for Brigham Young after writing BYPP. He said that a big mistake we make is to judge people who lived many years ago, by the standards of today.
I am looking forward to reading BYPP, and by the way, it is available at Deseret Book.
“A book that criticizes LDS beliefs or practices using good facts and good arguments might very well be a beneficial book for Mormons to read.”
Indeed. I’ve only begun reading it, but certainly don’t think BYPP falls into the category of anti-Mormon. Nibley opined “We need more anti-Mormon books. They keep us on our toes.” Stirling Sill had said as much a decade earlier. “Even our enemies help us by keeping us alert and on our toes.” We need things to challenge us, to spar with and against. Growth only comes against resistance.
Oh please! Prophets are human who eat, sleep, get indigestion and do other things humans do. They also have prejudices and foibles. Since when does prophethood bestow perfection. Brigham cussed, had prejudices common to his fellow human beings of the 19th century and was imperfect. The LORD uses imperfect people to accomplish his purposes. Obviously some readers are not acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures.Do you remember what Elijah did with the false prophets?
Thanks, Dave. I’ve been thinking about this as well after reading the two reviews you point to. While I certainly don’t think that everyone should be required to read historiographically rigorous studies, I do think that an inability to empathasize with historical figures (as presented in such studies) and integrate them into our personal narratives/world-views represents a fairly dramatic religious failure. Now, we all experience (or at least I do) spectacular religious failures on a semi-regular basis. But a broad inability to process such a volume is symptomatic of broad problems, I think.
I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but it sounds brilliant. I loved Rough Stone Rolling too. In my view, these types of books are beneficial to the LDS and help maintain activity. They help the LDS develop a more real-to-life historical picture of how the LDS church came to be. If LDS people believe only a rosy colored picture of church history, they are bound to get their bubbles burst at some point. Too many members so badly want to accept past and present church leaders as nearly infallible human beings, but they only mislead themselves and set themselves up for future shock by believing so.
I haven’t read the big yet, but I think I’ve read most of the reviews that have been posted on various Mormon blogs, as well as notes someone took of a talk the author gave about the book sometime in the last few months.
Having not read the book, my comments may not be worth much.
However, I have to say that from what I have read and understood, John Turner appears to have approached Brigham Young with a balanced perspective, without an apparent agenda, and more importantly, without a vendetta.
I disagree with the writing of Mormon history that ignores pertinent facts or twists facts to create false, but very positive images of individuals and events. I also feel sometimes that in this generation’s attempt to write about Mormon figured, ‘warts and all,’ that sometimes things can trend towards ‘warts only’ in an unspoken effort to balance out some of the faith-promoting, yet less-than-straightforward work that has been so prevalent in the past.
(By the way, for those who are in the field, I’d be interested in knowing if you think that comment has any validity.)
Turner’s book doesn’t appear to have fallen into either group. It surely isn’t hagiography, but the balanced events I’ve heard are in the book also lead me to believe this could be a ‘warts-and-all’ v. ‘warts-only’ biography. Furthermore, Joseph Stuart was kind enough to mail me a transcript of his notes from a forum with Turner at BYU earlier this year, and I came away really impressed that Turner seemed to set out with a conscious desire to approach Brigham Young with balance.
Dave, your post is very interesting. This is topic I have thought about quite a bit. As it relates to Turner’s book (again, without having yet read it), I think the conscious attempt to portray balance is a variable that should be considered when individuals decide whether or not they feel comfortable reading Pioneer Prophet. Especially for books where one decides the question needs to be asked before reading the book, I agree with COMMENT #1 that it’s important to do some pre-reading research to get a general idea for what you’re getting.
Nice ideas Dave. A good friend called recently about his crisis of faith, caused by tough things he’d heard about Joseph Smith, many from assorted sites on the internet, and my response was that there were indeed tough things, but the best way to decide what to think about them was, to begin with, to get them as historically right as possible and try to understand them in context, which meant that he might want to read Rough Stone Rolling and the Turner biography… He still might not like what he reads, but ironically those give him the best chance to save some faith.
Dave, this is an important topic. I have a brother who left the church because of a journey which began with reading Rough Stone Rolling, and The Rise of Modern Mormonism. He said he felt he had been deceived by the church all these years about the true history of Mormonism.
My parents have been devastated, and, needing something to point the finger at, have determined that RSR is full of terrible bias against Joseph Smith and the church, perpetuating anti-Mormon perspectives and misrepresentations.
But from my point of view, my brother’s apostasy is natural and rational. The truth about LDS history, is that it was a mess, and if it was inspired, then God intended for it to be a mess. He intentionally created a church that would be a “stumbling-block,” that would challenge people with it’s peculiarities, and force people to be humble enough to embrace “the foolishness of God over the wisdom of men.”
But in seeking to become more mainstream and popular, the church has tried to smooth over it’s messy history, and this has created a false sense of security in the myth of the rationality and perfection of the Restoration.
RSR and perhaps this new book on Brigham Young are inspired, because they restore the church to it’s “stumbling-block” status, as it always was, and always was meant to be. God will have a humble people. He will have a people who choose faith over reason and doubt, and who rely upon personal revelation, not the arm of the flesh, or the wisdom of man.
From Donn Pearce’s 1965 novel Cool Hand Luke:
All day Boss Kean stood over Luke, assigned as his personal guard. Boss Kean has served on the Florida Chain Gang for twenty-two years. Before that he was on the Georgia Chain Gang for eleven years. A true Cracker, he was born and raised on the edge of the Okeefenokee Swamp, a dedicated, hard working, God-fearing man.
Boss Kean believes in work. And any time he catches either of his two no ‘count sons fooling around reading or if he just finds some old book or magazine or one of them newspapers laying around the house, why he just throws it out into the yard, that’s all. He never had no use for reading himself. Never did have time to bother learning how to do it. Too busy out doing a man’s work. In fact, he don’t believe in nothing that takes a man’s mind away from his work. No sir. A man should never let nothing take his mind away from his work.
Just to be clear (and maybe it wasn’t clear from my review, as quoted above): I don’t think this book is bad, or a problem, or to be avoided. I think the approach that the church has been taking (or: has taken in the recent past; things seem to be changing) to its own history is the problem that needs to be fixed, because it has created a situation where I can’t recommend this book to the “average” church member.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
J (#7), I do think there is an element of “religious failure” in how the Church approached its history in the past, but I hope it is changing. The Church has backed out of dead-end situations before.
Craig (#10), that’s nice to hear coming from you. Historians obviously have something to say on this topic, but there’s not much of an institutional role given them from which that informed opinion can be delivered or circulated. Only someone with the stature and respect of a Bushman can get an opinion into the debate. Or maybe I’m wrong and staff historians within the Church History function have a voice that’s not evident to the general membership.
Nate (#11), sorry to hear. No general rule is going to work for everyone. I’m not sure I agree the Church is supposed to be a stumbling block — I’m inclined to think it tries to be welcoming to people in a wide variety of situations, including those who have doubts or other problems. I’m familiar with the Christian idea of the gospel as a scandal; maybe we should distinguish between the gospel as a scandal (I can see this) and the Church as a scandal or stumbling block (not so good).
John (#12), I didn’t know it was a book, too.
Julie (#13), thanks for the clarification. Again, it’s hard to give a general rule or recommendation when people come to an issue or book in such different situations. But we probably agree that if RSR is rocking some people’s worlds, then the current curriculum presentation of Joseph Smith probably needs a review.
Dave, I agree with your response to Nate. I also wanted to follow up on my comment as in rereading it, I think it sounds more jerkish that I intended. I meant to say that I have a lot of failings, as I suspect that we all do. The inability to empathize with our religious progenitors and integrate them into ourselves is symptomatic of a problem (or problems). I agree that the church as an institution (or at least parts of it) has contributed to that problem, but I think that there is a personal valence to it as well. Moreover, it is very difficult, I think, to decouple one from the other.
“Books don’t kill testimonies, people kill testimonies.” Now that’s the money quote. Great post Dave — I completely agree.
“One might even argue that one of the primary purposes of reading is to cause ourself problems.”
I’m in the middle of this book, loving it, but surprised at how much problems it creates in my mind. I’ve obsorbed and sought out anything Joseph all these years and found RSR faith promoting (offending many people I highly recommended it to). But im glad I’ve discovered this weak link in my historic understanding of the early church. But I realize I have to step it up.
Julie said it great in her comments. The church’s approach to brigham and the historic approach to brigham are too different. Not very comfortable to learn after the fact.
I feel like I am in Mississippi again on the mission and I just tracted into a baptist preacher.
Of course books can cause problems. That’s why we should stay away from them, avoid them at all costs, burn them. Just do what we’re told, believe what we’re told. We don’t need problems in our lives. We need to be comfortable and secure, and books just create problems for us. And who needs problems?
I’ve read BYPP and Bushman’s biography of Rough Stone Rolling, and I share the general consensus that both works are fair, honest, scholarly and enlightening. There is no question that the Church has done a disservice to itself and its members by portraying its history and the lives of its leaders in a dumbed-down, homiletic manner. As both Bushman and Terry Givens have recently noted, the CES manuals are replete with errors and disinformation that distort our history and the evolution of our doctrines. This was either by design or the result of incompetence of extraordinary proportions. Both are equally damning.
Yes, there is some indication that, perhaps, the Church Education System is changing. This, however, is not the result of some celestial epiphany. Rather, CES has realized that sanitized and homogenized history, combined with the deliberate concealment of embarrassing historical events, inevitably backfires—drawing heightened scrutiny to the very thing you were trying to suppress and irreparably undermining your integrity. As Givens and Bushman have acknowledged, this has caused many members to feel betrayed by an institution in which they had placed their faith and their trust.
Those who elect to stick their heads the sand—or those within the institution who try to poor sand over our heads—are building testimonies on a foundation composed of the same substance. It cannot stand the test of time.
We are taught in the temple that ALL truth will be circumscribed into one great whole—not just the feel-good, homogenized version that has ben the staple of our Sunday school classes, seminaries and institutes ever since the advent of the correlation program.
SS and CES are very different contexts (although they can and should be quite similar, and should be, sometimes).
SS is so brief, covering this stuff would not be very constructive, and I see no need for SS reform. You have a chapter outline, and most use that as a loose framework. CES materials are the ideal setting to make these improvements, as participants are generally more active and there the setting is longer and more supplemental, whereas in SS you’re trying to edify people that may not study the Gospel at all during the week, regardless of how active they are.
Thanks for the comments, everyone. n8c (#17), I hope your goal is to integrate the history you read into the testimony you already have. At least that is what most LDS readers are able to do with it.
Eric and Cameron, the question of where institutionally within the Church the problem can be addressed is not often discussed. I agree Sunday School is not ideal, but the manuals could at least be upgraded. CES needs an overhaul — just fire whoever is running it and demand change from the new director — why is this so difficult? The real need, I think, is at the local level, where local leaders often see the problem in local members but have no resources to help those who struggle.
Dave & Cameron, though I agree that certain historical and biographical topics are better addressed in seminary and institute than in Sunday School, nevertheless there is room in the church classroom for some of these issues. For example, it would not be inappropriate to discuss some of the mistakes surrounding the planning and leadership of the Martin and Willie handcart companies. We too often glorify the suffering of participants in such tragedies instead of asking the unpleasant question: how could this have been avoided and who was responsible?
Where the SS manuals are woefully deficient is in their simplistic presentation of Church doctrine and their sometimes questionable interpretation of scripture. Professor Harrell’s outstanding new book, “This is My Doctrine,” powerfully illustrates the magnitude of this problem.
When it comes to religious education in the Church, Matthew Bowman, in his recent book, “The Mormon People,” hit the nail on the head when he said: “The Church Educational System today espouses not only the conservative theology of Bruce R. McConkie but also his lack of interest in scholarship outside his own tradition. CES’s work resembles a youth ministry more closely than it does the seminaries of other faiths.” If we stop trying to look at everything through the Mormon prism, we will see the truth more clearly. After all, every prism, including our own, distorts light.
Eric – if the goal of SS is edification through the Holy Ghost and building faith, I don’t see how evaluating things like organizational mistakes involved in the Martin/Willie handcart suffering can either be fully covered in the time allotted or appropriate.
CES would be a great context for that, however, and such healthy discussions happen often at BYU in my experience.
I take your point, Cameron. Except that I think that historical episode provides an excellent opportunity to teach the principal of agency. When the handcart companies paused in Iowa and convened a meeting for purposes of deciding whether to press on or wait out the winter, there were some members who opted to wait, i.e., drop out. Most of them were castigated and vilified by the Church leaders in charge of the companies, and even threatened with a loss of fellowship. We laud the perseverance of those who pressed on but we ignore courage exhibited by those who placed family responsibilities before obedience to priesthood authority. I think it would be instructive to ask the members of a gospel doctrine class what they would have done when confronted with this choice. On a side note, I have often wondered whether those who persecuted the dropouts, when they later found themselves trying to carve a shallow grave in the frozen soil in which to bury their infant child who had just died from exposure, if they ever said to themselves: “Maybe we made the wrong choice.”
Very poignant questions to be sure Eric. I could not begin to fathom such hypothetical questions regarding death/vs obedience to leaders. On one hand, we know that death is not the ultimate tragedy. Of course, I say this typing on a computer in a first-world country in 2012…to me this falls in the realm of ‘only God can begin to judge this fairly.’ I think church leaders today are lucky to learn from early church history’s lessons when available.
I think the most common answer for such a hypothetical situation would be based on BY’s quote along the lines of ‘ I expect you to vet everything I say for yourself through personal prayer. Don’t take my word for it.’ I’d be interested to hear more quotes from handcart veterans. The most well-known one is the man defending it in church at the end of his life.
I have some old thoughts on this question. http://www.millennialstar.org/wheres-the-right-place/
Also, this post talks about some related issues (and see links in the first paragraph as well.)
The most significant thing the Church does to educate its members about the fact that humans can exhibit both fallability and inspiration in tgeir church callings is to give us those callungs so we learn this yruth from the inside. That education becomes even more acute when we become adults and receive serious responsibility for the exaltation of other people. In particular, the experience of serving as a missionary, and the experience of serving as a parent, should teach us humility and our need for inspiration, and the feeling of making decisions with imperfect knowledge, and of others suffering because of our own sins of omission or commission.
If we have learned the lesson of humility in our church service, we should not be shocked that men called as prophets can be less than perfect in their knowledge or temperament. Any church member who has reached 25 without beginning to acquire some humility, and recognizing that they themselves have plenty to repent of, is too prideful to recognize that Joseph and Brigham might have some choice observations on our own inadequacies.
After all, what great things have WE done, what revelations have WE received, that qualifies us to pass judgment on the Church or its leaders? Moroni makes clear in his writings, including in Ether 12, that those who out of pride reject the Book of Mormon are failing the test that Christ has posed, by which we will be judged before the pleading bar of the great Jehovah. Moroni was explicit about his own imperfections, even in carrying out a divine mission. It behooves us to have more humility, so that we can ultimately be strengthened as Moroni was.
“Joseph and Brigham might have some choice observations on our own inadequacies.”
Love it! So easy to throw stones and see motes!
RTS (27), I’m not sure I understand your point. You insinuate that the leaders of the LDS church are “less than perfect in their knowledge or their temperament”, but then say that they are beyond any sort of critique or criticism. It is almost like you are saying that the leaders of the LDS church certainly have some flaws, but we should regard them as infallible nonetheless, since we should not “pass judgment” on their character or their pronouncements.
I get the sense that so many LDS want to just openly declare that the LDS church leaders are in essence infallible and that their flaws and weaknesses are trivial: i.e. they occasionally get impatient with someone or didn’t get the history right on an insignificant matter. Indeed some foibles are insignificant and the greater sin is upon those who do not overlook the shortcoming. But at what point is the sin upon the follower who does not hold church leaders (both general and local) accountable for flaws and mistakes? I won’t answer the question, but I think those who have troubles with matters like Joseph Smith’s affair with Fannie Alger and subsequent polygamy or his destruction of the press have a point.
Excellent points, Steve. As has often been observed, the Catholic Church teaches that the Pope is infallible but nobody knows a single Catholic who actually believes it. The Mormon Church, by contrast, concedes that the prophet isn’t infallible but so many members refuse to believe it.
The one thing so many Latter Day Saints hate more than anything else is their own agency. Simply stated, they don’t want to wrestle with difficult historical and doctrinal issues; rather, they want someone to do their thinking for them. Some, I suspect, would have been happier had they voted for Lucifer’s plan in the preexistence.
We can study the missteps and blunders of our apostles and prophets while still acknowledging their accomplishments as ecclesiastical leaders. Ideally, we can learn from their mistakes and not repeat them ourselves. Also, we can gain a greater appreciation for the importance of our moral agency, and realize that it is foolish to blindly follow the words of any man no matter his position of authority. Finally, we can discover that the pursuit of truth, regardless of how it reflects on our church or our beliefs, is a noble endeavor that never requires any defense or justification.
I think it is really looking beyond the mark to assert that a conscious decision of a member to not dwell for extended periods of time on a particular prophet’s flaws is in the realm of sinful behavior. Paul was on to something when he talked about looking for the good. You look for every good example and strive to emulate it. That takes up most of our waking lives. I think most members just don’t have time to dwell on trivial and vague historical evidence of leaders’ mistakes. They’re too busy trying to be good, do good, and feel the Holy Ghost. True doctrine, understood, makes us behave better, not studying sin in detail.
I don’t think it’s possible for us to fully understand seemingly indiscrete acts in church history that are loosely documented and happened over 200 years ago. The Holy Ghost is real, its fruits are in the church and its worthy members, and I commune with Him (albeit on too low a level) regularly, so I really don’t care about detours and distractions. Whether Joseph or Brigham are a Davidic paradigm or not, matters not to me. I try to be merciful to both the living and the dead (as Raymond so nicely pointed out) so that I can maximize the mercy extended to me.
In conclusion, books can cause problems, but only if you have forgotten your lifetime of experiences with the Holy Ghost either through slothfulness (no journal) or rebellion (willful forgetfulness). I can read anything about the church or its members, but that can’t change my tangible experiences with the Holy Ghost.
“Vincenzo, You MUST BURN the Book!” ;)
Cameron, I agree that religion is more of a lifestyle than a body of knowledge. But I think you might agree with my point in the case of the Catholic church. The lay Catholics shouldn’t let priests guilty of child abuse slide simply because the priests have a few weaknesses. The lay should hold the clergy to the same standards to which the clergy hold them.
Now as for history: I agree that you don’t have to dwell on historical matters at all to follow a moral path inspired by the Holy Ghost. Most LDS don’t think much about history and appreciate the LDS church for the structure it provides in their day-to-day lives. I can certainly value that. However, my issue is that LDS church uses a sort of rose-colored picture of its history as an instrument to persuade people to devote lots of their time and resources to support and grow the church institution. It paints Joseph Smith as a nearly infallible person, albeit with minor and trivial personal shortcomings. Hence it is the church that is pushing a narrative of its history that I partly feel coerced to accept lest I be declared a doubter or a heretic.
Am I wrong in pronouncing Joseph Smith’s affair with Fannie Alger as wrong and sinful? I can’t imagine that I, even in the 1830s in Ohio when community norms and laws were different, would be dealt with kindly for having a sexual encounter with a 16-year-old girl who worked as a maid in my house. And what happened in church history isn’t some loosely documented abstraction that can be treated as anyone’s best guess. The ‘what’ of church history is well-established and actually isn’t widely debated; rather, it is the how and why.
The bottom line is that we need to accept that many of our early church leaders weren’t infallible. They sometimes abused their power and made many bad decisions that had negative effects on the community. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be LDS or that you should reject the church over its history, but your reason for being LDS probably shouldn’t be based on some notion that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young were essentially infallible gods among humans whose actions were beyond reprimand. And if it is, then get ready for a wild ride of cognitive dissonance upon reading Turner’s book or Bushman.
When I speak of my dad to my son, I tend to omit the negatives and share the positives — my purpose is not teaching my dad’s history; rather, it is building character in my son. And that is a wholly honest approach.
Steve, you say that we need to accept that many of our early church leaders were not infallible. I believe your observation should be broadened to include our modern-day leaders as well. They are no better, and no worse, than Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. They have made, and will continue to make, mistakes, sometimes serious ones, although their errors may differ in character from those committed by their predecessors. (As an aside, one of the blessings of the Internet, the proliferation of the mass media, and the “Mormon Moment” is that our leadership, whether they like it or not, will have every word the say or write, and everything they do, closely scrutinized. This, I think, is a wonderful development, a true blessing that will reduce, though not completely eliminate some of the questionable doctrinal and historical pronouncements uttered by past general authorities.)
ji’s analogy to what he tells his son about his own father is flawed. He is not asking his son to embrace the religious doctrines of his grandfather, to revere him as an ecclesiastical figure, or build his testimony on his life and teachings. Further, if ji’s father were a public figure or had engaged in questionable conduct that his son would likely discover as he comes of age, at the appropriate time, ji would need to explain those circumstances to his son or risk losing the faith and trust of the boy when he discovers them on his own.
This is precisely what is occurring in the church today. Earlier this year, Elder Jensen, the Church Historian admitted that people are leaving the church “in droves” because they have discovered, with the aid of the Internet, that the correlated and sanitized version of church history and doctrine they were spoon fed in seminary and Sunday School is not accurate. Brother Jensen equated the magnitude of the problem to the period of apostasy that plagued the church during the Kirtland era. He also admitted that the church is hurriedly trying to play catch up, revising its curriculum to include things like the Mountain Meadows massacre. As Elder Jensen said: “”there’s no sense kidding ourselves, we just need to be very upfront with them and tell them what we know and give answers to what we have and call on their faith like we all do for things we don’t understand.”
The incontrovertible truth is that people are leaving the church not because of any specific historical episode, doctrinal question, or leadership character flaw they have discovered. Rather, as Terry Givens, Richard Bushman and others have observed, these people are leaving because they feel betrayed by the one institution–their church–which they thought they could trust. Regaining the faith and confidence of these individuals will not be easy and will take a long time.
Earlier this year, Elder Jensen, the Church Historian admitted that people are leaving the church “in droves” because they have discovered, with the aid of the Internet, that the correlated and sanitized version of church history and doctrine they were spoon fed in seminary and Sunday School is not accurate.
No, they are leaving the Church because their testimonies were improperly placed in the institution of the Church and Mormon culture rather than in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restored priesthood. For me, learning that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy was not a big deal and was not sufficient to upset my testimony that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, and that he restored his gospel in these latter days through a modern prophet. But then, I’m a convert. I’m not condoning the whitewashing of history (whatever history we teach should be accurate; even so, are calling is not as historians), and I have my own concerns about the CES approach, but my faith is not in the church as a cultural institution. For those whose faith is so placed, I hope they can someday transfer their faith from the social aspects of Mormonism to the very simple gospel of Jesus Christ and the priesthood restored.
Part of our problem is that we look on the church far too much as an institution — rather, we should look on the church as people. Brigham Young was a person, and he was called to a high office. He magnified his office as best as he could, I suppose, and then he passed on and someone else was called. The question I might ask for myself if whether he was approved of the Lord — I’m content to say that he was, and that we so many years later benefited from his tenure. But even if he did something differently than I might have done, with the benefit of hindsight, it is my choice to view him charitably or not.
I’m glad the book is out there.
My beef is when we pretend to have enough information to judge early Church leaders. Let’s be honest, we only have a fraction of the context necessary for that. And since it’s unlikely we ever will in mortality, I think it’s a fruitless endeavor. Like I said earlier, whether or not an early church leader had a Davidic episode or not, I don’t care, because the current church still has the fruits of the Kingdom of God.
Interestingly, I was not aware of Joseph’s polygamy as a missionary, but I had my first experience with a ‘stupor of thought’ when rashly responding to a hostile investigator that Joseph only had one wife. Weird kind of testimony builder, huh? The Lord works in mysterious ways…
Thanks for the comments, everyone — I’m surprised the conversation is still going after a week. I suspect there is broad agreement among the leadership that LDS history presents something of a problem for the Church at present. Part of the problem is self-inflicted over the last generation or two of curriculum and CES treatment; part of the problem is just that LDS history presents a variety of controversial issues.
There are a lots of possible responses or changed approaches to deal with the problem — but some of those might make the problem worse rather than better, and none of them are without some risk. Of course, when we say “problem,” we mean a statistical membership problem, losing active members. If one redefines the problem as simply that LDS history has been misrepresented or poorly covered in the curriculum, that is easy to solve: just tell the staff historians to upgrade the curriculum materials and tell it straight. Do what is right and let the consequences follow. But I know that’s a tough policy for shepherds of the flock to advocate.
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