Joseph Smith and the Worst Case Scenario

My friend Sam and his family came over yesterday evening; and after dinner Sam and I, social misfits that we are, slunk off and went out on the deck to talk. (Yes, it’s February, but it’s also San Diego.) We started off wondering whether BYU’s narrow one-point win last Saturday over lowly USD (my school) would hurt their chances of making the NCAA tournament. But then somehow the conversation wound around to people we know who have “left the Church,” as we say, because of doubts about Joseph Smith. In a couple of cases these were seemingly faithful members, and their departures have had painful consequences both for their families and for their own lives. I commented that this seemed sad, and Sam said, “Yes. Tragic, really, because so unnecessary.”

“Unnecessary why? Because there are satisfying answers to the questions about Joseph Smith?”

“There may be,” Sam said. “But even if there aren’t, that’s not a good reason to leave the Church.”

“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” I answered. “I didn’t take you for one of these ‘Mormon is who I am, doesn’t matter whether it’s true’ members.”

“I’m not,” said Sam. “Truth is the essential thing. It’s just that the truths of the Church and the Gospel aren’t dependent on the truth of claims about Joseph Smith. Joseph isn’t like Jesus. We never believed that we are saved through Joseph Smith. Joseph was just a messenger. What matters is the message. So it doesn’t ultimately matter if the messenger was flawed. (I understand that the Church is more than just a ‘message’, but you get the point.) 

“Here’s an example,” he continued. “That bread we ate for dinner; it was delicious. Your wife said she bought it at Garbaldi’s bakery. Suppose we learned midway through the meal that Garbaldi is a crook and a gangster. Wouldn’t it be just stupid to throw away the bread? The goodness of the bread and the moral character of the baker are distinct things.”

“Okay,” I said, “but it isn’t a good example. Because in the case of Joseph Smith, the messenger and the message are closely intertwined.”

“We say that,” Sam acknowledged. “But we shouldn’t, because they don’t need to be. To illustrate: let’s take the worst case scenario. Let’s suppose that incontrovertible evidence were somehow to emerge proving that Joseph Smith was a simple fraud. I don’t believe he was, you understand– let me be clear about that– I’m just doing what you law teachers do, imagining far-fetched hypotheticals to test a point. But let’s suppose. The evidence shows, let’s say, that Joseph and Oliver found some dusty old book along the lines of the Spaulding manuscript or View of the Hebrews but even closer to the actual Book of Mormon, and they thought ‘You know, we could make some money with this,’ and so they invented a story and fabricated plates and all that.

“This would be a very disconcerting discovery, obviously. But how would it change anything that people love in and about the Church? The teachings would still be true– the basic doctrinal and moral and spiritual teachings, I mean. The fellowship and service would still be good. The hymns would still be inspiring. We could even still take pride in a heritage of courageous forebears who faithfully crossed the plains at tremendous sacrifice to themselves. I understand: a lot of people probably would leave the Church once the fraud became incontrovertible. But they would be making a tragic mistake– gratuitously giving up on so much that is true and good.”

“But surely you can see, in your worst case scenario, that the truth of our beliefs and our doctrines would be fatally undermined?” I objected. “How could we go on after that sort of discovery, as if everything were still intact?

“Take the ‘witness of the Spirit’ that many people talk about in testimony meetings. Why are they faithful members of the Church? Because they prayed and received a spiritual witness that Joseph was a prophet and the Book of Mormon is true. All of that would be gone.”

“No, it wouldn’t be,” Sam answered. “They might draw that conclusion, but they would be making a mistake.

“Let me be clear,” he went on.  “I believe as much as anyone in spiritual witnesses. In divine inspiration. But inspiration isn’t self-interpreting. And we often find that we need to reinterpret a spiritual experience that at the time seemed to mean X but later comes to mean Y.

“This happens all the time, in relatively mundane matters. You are agonizing over which job to take, agonizing and praying. And you receive what you take to be a spiritual prompting that you should take the job with Employer A. You take this to mean that Employer A is going to be great, is going to use your talents, etc. It turns out that Employer A sucks, and you quit six months later. But while you are there, you meet a wonderful woman who becomes your wife. You don’t conclude that your spiritual prompting was fake; you just come to understand it to have had a totally different purpose and meaning than you initially supposed.

“Same in religious matters. You are reading Third Nephi, say, and you feel a sense of spiritual confirmation. You take this to mean that the Book of Mormon is true and that Christ visited the Americas. It might mean that. But it might mean that the particular passage you were reading conveys an essential spiritual truth. Or it might mean that God approves of your efforts to learn and live by His will. God might be patting you on the head and saying, ‘Steve, my son, you are pitifully ignorant and confused; but I am pleased that you’re trying.’ Maybe that is what the Spirit was saying.

“Some of these people who leave the Church have had spiritual experiences. We’ve heard them tell about these experiences– sincerely, movingly– in testimony meetings. Then they encounter problems with Joseph Smith, and they forget the experiences, or conclude that they must have been deceived. I’m saying this is a tragic mistake. They should hold onto the experiences, even if these have to be reinterpreted.”

“Well, but what about priesthood?” I asked. “Priesthood is very important to us. And if it could be proven that Joseph was a fraud, what would be left of that?”

“Everything,” said Sam. “Everything that you directly know and care about anyway.”

“No, because—“

“Let me ask you this,” Sam broke in. “Have you given priesthood blessings?”

“Of course,” I said. “Lots of them. Healing blessings. Blessings of comfort. Confirmations. Setting people apart.”

“And in giving those blessings, did you feel the influence of the Spirit?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes quite strongly.”

“Now, given your understanding and what you’ve been taught, you might naturally explain and interpret this feeling by saying that Peter, James, and John appeared to Joseph Smith, who later ordained so-and-so, and so forth. But you don’t know any of that directly. What you know immediately and directly is that you gave a blessing and in doing this you felt the influence of the Spirit. You felt God working through you to bless someone. And if it turned out– still our worst case hypothetical– that Joseph and Oliver conspired to invent the story about Peter, James, and John, what you did and felt would still be real. Some reinterpretation would be called, obviously. Or maybe you could just confess that you don’t know exactly what the priesthood is or where it comes from. But it would be a mistake to reject the experiences you actually had– and that you know you had– just because the assumed explanation turned out to be mistaken.”

“Well,” I said skeptically, “it seems to me that your view is going to require some massive reinterpreting, not just of particular experiences, but of our whole understanding of the Church.”

“Maybe so. Although don’t forget that this was a hypothetical, worst case scenario: I don’t believe the truth will be nearly so unsettling. But my basic point is just this: we have experienced what we have experienced; we know to be good things that are good; and we shouldn’t be pushed off of those important understandings of what is true and valuable just because some received explanation or story turns out to be in need of revision. Even major revision.

“And there’s a more general point here, I think. We say this life is a probationary period, and a test. Sometimes we think of this as solely a test of our wills, or our obedience. Will we jump when the command is to jump? Well, obedience is important, I think, but it’s only a part of the probation. This life is also a probationary period– and an opportunity for progress– for our minds, and our spirits. We go through life trying to collect what we experience and know and believe– through spiritual promptings, through experience in general, even book learning– and we try to put this all together to figure out what we really believe and what is true. It’s an ongoing process of searching and reinterpreting. Reinterpretation is not an unfortunate necessity; it’s an indication that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do in this life. That’s been the story of my life, anyway.”

I had more to say; I thought Sam was overlooking some serious difficulties. But it was getting late, and chilly (even in San Diego), and Sam’s teenage son Heber (who obviously hadn’t wanted to come over in the first place) was demanding to leave. So we called it a night and said we would continue the conversation next time we got together.

28 comments for “Joseph Smith and the Worst Case Scenario

  1. I think I align with Sam on this one. The problem comes down to hero worship. People have problems when they discover that their hero has flaws. Yes, the church primarily focus’s on uplifting things that Joseph Smith did, because the church is trying to uplift us. The downside is that now socialized members feel like they’ve been punched in the gut when they have to consider a non-hero Joseph Smith.

  2. I think there’s a lot of validity to this. But it can be pretty hard for a reinterpreter-type to remain engaged when current church leadership is overwhelmingly literal. I also think that for many people, the history isn’t really why they leave. I think that what happens to many is that things in the present—exclusion of women from leadership, harm to LGBT folks, treatment of minorities, $100B tithing stockpile, handling of sexual abuse cases, etc.—are incredibly troubling. If you believe in the “one true church” you hang on anyway. But once you see the history problems it gets a lot harder to stomach the present issues. So I would say for many people the historical problems allow them to make peace with leaving over the current problems. I have seen a lot of good approaches to wrangling with the history—such as this one. I am still looking for a good approach to wrangling with the here and now in light of the history.

  3. Once again. Thanks for these thought-provoking posts. A couple of points for me.

    “In a couple of cases these were seemingly faithful members, and their departures have had painful consequences both for their families and for their own lives”

    The question is why. I’m assuming these members had family who was deeply rooted in the church. For many members who don’t have family in the church, leaving the church doesn’t come with too many social consequences. Why does it have to be so painful for those who do have family in the church? The church teaches agency, and it can be inferred from that teaching that it is a voluntary organization and an individual choice. It teaches that God and Jesus are our only judges. Members don’t have the right to judge whether or not someone is going to the celestial kingdom or even if they broke a covenant. It doesn’t have to be so painful. And from the many departure stories that I’ve read, it more often than not seems to be the believers’ inability to accept the agency of the departer that makes it painful.

    As for Sam’s position on the church, I think he is wrong and the analogy with the baker just doesn’t work. Now if you said that it was discovered that the ingredient that made Garibaldi’s bread taste so good was discovered to be slowly poisoning people who consumed it and Garibaldi knew that and was concealing that fact, I think that would be a more fair comparison. In that sense, if Garibaldi went down as a fraud for poisoning the bread, then by all means I would stop eating there. Members can tolerate an imperfect and flawed Joseph Smith, but only to some extent and in some aspects. Let’s say we had an angel appear to us to reveal exactly what was right and wrong with Joseph Smith and this angel revealed that the essential pillars of Joseph Smith’s message were true, but that he made up some peripheral stuff out of mistake. I could live with that. Maybe the angel could slice the data up differently and show me a pie chart where 20% of what Joseph Smith taught was false, but 80% was true. I could also live with that. 60% true and 40% false. That’s harder. 30% true and 70% false? You see my point. What if the angel revealed that Joseph Smith really, really believed himself to be having revelations commanding him to marry lots of women, but it was mostly a delusion. That is more forgivable but still hard to accept. But then what if the angel revealed that Joseph Smith had an excessively high libido and he deliberately made things up as an excuse to get with lots of women. Not so forgivable. What I gather from reading the 100s and 100s of stories of departers online is that they could tolerate a flawed Joseph Smith, but there was a breaking point, a proverbial last straw, if you will. And that is why the CES Letter was so effective in causing doubt. Not because it brought up a flaw or two, but because it juxtaposed the myriad flaws of Joseph Smith and it became too overwhelming to accept. This idea that departers were expecting perfection from Joseph Smith is a mischaracterization. The most common analogy I hear from ex-Mormons to describe their faith transition is that of a shelf collapsing, suggesting that they could understand some imperfection and ignore some unexplained or seemingly false ideas, but it just became too much at some point.

    Lastly, there is a Mormonism, or a sort of Mormon culture, that exists apart from Joseph Smith’s teachings, for sure. Sam is right in that regard. But this Mormonism owes itself so much to Joseph Smith and is based so much on the idea that most of what he taught was true that once you claim that the fundamentals and main ideas of Joseph Smith were based on subterfuge, it is very, very difficult to maintain the integrity of Mormonism. Many Mormons claim that Jesus Christ is the central teaching of the church. That’s not true. It is Jesus Christ as portrayed by Joseph Smith and who appeared to ancient Americans and was the revelator of most of the D&C, not just a general Bible-based teaching of Jesus, that is central to the Mormon church. Mormonism has long distinguished itself from Protestantism/Trinitarianism and called their teachings about Jesus Christ half-truths and falsehoods. It has only been very recently since the rise of secularism that secularism and not other religions has become perceived as more of a threat. Consequently the church in recent decades has tried to emphasize more common ground with other churches. If what Joseph Smith taught about Jesus is mostly false (or at least the aspects that make it distinct and unique is false), then you can still have Jesus Christ as taught by other churches and the Bible, but not the more vivid, revealed, and distinct Jesus of the Mormon religion.

  4. As someone who has left, (well, emotionally. I stay on the records for my husband) I think Sam is wrong. I think most who leave can tolerate a lot of mistakes on Joseph Smith’s part. But when you combine the total of all Joseph’s lies about polygamy and the fact that he broke all his own rules about how it was to be done, that there is no archeological evidence to the B of M, that there are animals in it that were simply not on the continent at that time, that the B of A does not match the papyri, and on and on, you pretty much do have Sam’s “worst case scenario”. Then, add that to a person who is not happy with what the church is today, and there is nothing to stick around for.

    Are there people like Sam who stick around because, in spite of all the problems, they see a lot of good in the church? Yes, probably more than you could guess. I was one for a long time. I didn’t believe Joseph Smith was anything but a clever fraud, but I stuck around because I saw a lot of good in the church. Then I decided that the church was actually harming me emotionally. That is a long and complicated story that I won’t get into. But it was the combination of the problems with the history and what the church is today that made me decide to leave.

    And there are people who are quite the opposite of Sam. People who do not like what the church is today, who stick around because they have a testimony of Joseph Smith. There are a lot of that kind of member on the feminist blogs. There are also gays who stay because they believe Joseph was a prophet. When this kind of person discovers the history, they often leave.

  5. Joseph said he saw God. Joseph said that he asked God which church to join. God said none. Later, God gave Joseph exclusive power to seal on earth and in heaven.

    If the preceding statements are not true then there may be reason to celebrate the community and community ties found the organization(s) that relate back to the church Joseph organized, but there is no unique salvation in any of them – and perhaps no salvation at all.

    On the other hand, if the gifts of the spirit are present among us, then maybe we ought not be shy about standing up for what God told Joseph: “This generation shall have my word through you.”

  6. I’m not sure that all we are calling history is necessarily true. I don’t approach Joseph Smith from a historian’s perspective; rather, I want to receive him as the great prophet of this dispensation. If the Lord our God spoke well of him, well, then I won’t speak ill of him.

    Perhaps historians are getting some of the facts wrong.

  7. Great OP! I love the logic, very thought provoking, and a potential good way to make sense of all the clamour and discontent and deep realy passionate concern about Mormonism. I’m liking Sam’s arguement. Some great comments here that probe further and all good things to deeply wrestle with in my opinion.
    In Sam’s hypothetical extreme the challenge is for me if I believed and logic’d this way, I would have no sense of fidelity or commitment or belief in the insitutional church. And if I understand correctly that is basically David Whitmer’s testimony, although of course very early on in the church. He had no sense that any of his spiritual witnesses meant that Joseph would found the true Church, priesthood restord, and all that comes with it. This may be Sterlin McMurrin’s sense of Mormonism as well. And I see many former LDS reinterpreting in a meaningful, values based, thougtful, and faith based way their spiritual experiences in Mormonism. I would hope that there can be a full place at the table for any of us that would believe roughly similar to Sam. Reinterpretation of spiritual and religious experiences seems necessary to growth, development, and hope to me. Especially, and perhaps necessarily, if those reinterpretations become more and more broad and inclusive, approximating more and more a radically broad, inclusive, loving God.

  8. I have the strong impression that there is some serious concern trolling here and planting of seeds that are designed to sow doubt under the guise of building a new kind of faith. The reality is that as many people who allegedly update their faith paradigm from reading this, there are likely as many or more who read this who have the seed planted to question the church and normalize “defaithing” of members looking for a pillar of strength.

    If you are sincere, you’re not giving them a rock to anchor to, your at best asking them to join you in building in the foundation of sand.

    You invoke Jesus, without any acknowledgement of his saving power and the reality of sin and our burden of discipleship. Because you don’t know him as much as you know talking about him.

    Harsh, and I’m sorry to say that’s the true impression I get. I want it to be wrong, and I hope this is a slice of your gospel personality, but you’re not showing much else here other than a little attempt over time at your counter culture thinking.

  9. Thanks as usual, all, for some thoughtful and heartfelt comments. I’m reminded yet again that the participants on a blog like this know a lot more than I do about many of these matters. The truth is that for the most part I don’t read a lot of LDS blogs, publications, etc. Most of what I know about current church issues is just what I hear from people at church, and what I read on this blog.

    I want to try to respond briefly to the comments by Anna and sute (and I wish I could respond more adequately). Anna: you are surely right that someone who doesn’t accept the historical claims and also doesn’t find current church meetings or activities to be uplifting would have little reason to remain committed. My own experience is different. I go to meetings in my ward or in some prison ministry services that I do, and I mostly perceive a lot of people who are trying to live good lives and who seem to get a lot of assistance in this from church fellowship and church teachings. Of course these people are also imperfect and they (or now I should say we) can sometimes be insensitive or hurtful in some of our dealings with others. I’m sorry about that, and genuinely sorry if that has been your experience. But mostly I perceive basically good-hearted and sometimes quite wonderful people for whom the church is a great blessing. So that’s the perspective I’m writing from.

    It’s hard to tell, but most of the people I associate with in church contexts don’t seem to worry about or even to be aware of the kinds of questions and difficulties that get discussed here. And in those contexts, I feel that it would be wrong to bring up any of these difficulties. Which leads me to sute’s comment, or suspicion. I had– and still have– serious misgivings about taking on this guest blogger gig, for just the reasons you describe. My assumption is that the people who read a blog like this one are already pretty familiar with the questions I raise here; otherwise, I would not feel that it is right for me to raise them. And I’ve also thought that some people, including me, do struggle with these questions, and that it may be a good thing to have a place where we can reflect on such matters. But I hope that I can contribute to this reflection in a generally faithful rather than a subversive way. Because I honestly believe, as I’ve said more than once here, that God is at work in the church, that the church is mostly a great blessing for those who are able to try to participate in and follow it, and that often (not always) when people leave the church, they move in the direction of less rather than more light. I really, really don’t want to contribute to that sort of movement, and I will think seriously about whether my efforts here are ill-advised for creating that possibility.

  10. Sam has a very similar argument to Brigham Young. In the Journal of Discourses he said,

    “I recollect a conversation I had with a priest who was an old friend of ours, before I was personally acquainted with the Prophet Joseph. I clipped every argument he advanced, until at last he came out and began to rail against “Joe Smith,” saying, “that he was a mean man, a liar, money-digger, gambler, and a whore-master;” and he charged him with everything bad, that he could find language to utter. I said, hold on, brother Gillmore, here is the doctrine, here is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the revelations that have come through Joseph Smith the Prophet. I have never seen him, and do not know his private character. The doctrine he teaches is all I know about the matter, bring anything against that if you can. As to anything else I do not care. If he acts like a devil, he has brought forth a doctrine that will save us, if we will abide it. He may get drunk every day of his life, sleep with his neighbor’s wife every night, run horses and gamble, I do not care anything about that, for I never embrace any man in my faith.”

    Journal of Discourses, Vol. 04: 77-78.

  11. I’m that person caught in the middle between finding JS story too far-fetched to be believable and having a sense of spirituality that was formed through the church. I spent years (12 and counting) working to a place where I can have a deep connection to God that stands on its own and is entirely okay being based on uncertainty rather than “I know…” testimony.

    But I can’t do it within the church. There’s just too many people coming at me on Sundays and beyond with messages that say my spirituality is fraudulent – both overtly and in more nuanced ways. I’ve been told that my connection to God and my personal ‘revelations’ (Bishop’s words, not mine) aren’t real because they don’t match what is supposed to happen for people on the covenant path.

    For a long time I saw the church as my foil (in a literary sense), but I’m past even that now and am trying to see it as a way to love/serve my neighbor. But I’m exhausted. Trying to do what the OP’s chat advocates is exhausting, not uplifting.

    “But how would it change anything that people love in and about the Church ?”

    This is super cynical, but I’ve read enough books about human nature that our negative traits as a species can’t be entirely discounted: What it changes is a person’s ability to feel morally superior to the rest of Christianity and ‘The World’.

  12. ReTx: I don’t know you or your personal situation, but I do sincerely sympathize; and I believe I’m able to sympathize on the basis of my own history. (I will spare you any rendition of that.) I hope you’d remember a couple of things. First, as you say, the church does provide opportunities for service. That’s not unimportant. Second, whatever your particular doctrinal or historical doubts may be, the church does teach the essentials of the Christian Gospel. That’s even more important. You can go every Sunday and take the sacrament, which is what Jesus instructed his disciples to do.

    I can attest from my own experience that it’s possible to embrace these minimal but essential elements and go on for years, or decades, quietly and on the margins, so to speak, while maintaining serious doubts (and doubts may be too weak a word) about much that is said and done in the church. That’s hardly an ideal way to live. And it can be psychologically taxing. Even exhausting, as you put it. But what are the alternatives? In my observation, some people who “leave the church” remain interested or even obsessed but become embittered or critical. That seems like a sad way to live. Others (and this seems more common) pretty much adopt a non-religious life. Depending, they may have comfortable and happy lives. Or not. But either way, for those like me who believe that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, this is not an enviable way to live. A few may find other Christian churches more consistent with their beliefs. But that seems to be relatively rare. So it might turn out that the “exhausting” path is still the best one. And who knows? Maybe there is even virtue in and reward for enduring to the end in that difficult path.

  13. They call it “enduring” for a reason…

    If it were easy, I don’t think the scriptures would make such a big deal about it.

  14. SDS, I appreciate your kind and thoughtful tone but at the same time you did the very thing that makes interacting with other church members difficult. You acknowledged my hardship and then over-rode my experience with information that you see as more important and your experience. You did this without considering that these are already topics/issues that I have already prayed about and received my answers.

    Dr.C’s comment pretty much encapsulates this. Enduring was one of the things I saw myself doing for the first 7-8 year of faith-struggles before I realized that enduring my worship interactions with Deity and being changed (uplifted, transformed) by worship couldn’t happen at the same time (at least within me, perhaps others are different).

    The ‘where would you go?’ question also leaves me wanting to answer: my town has an amazing church whose primary goal is ministering to the homeless and teaching them how to worship. Totally puts LDS worship services to shame (and make them seem rather dry and worship-less). But my spouse can’t handle me not being LDS and that relationship is important enough to me that I can’t switch.

  15. Steven, I for one appreciate the perspective you wrote about here. There are many, many members who find the fruits of the gospel as taught by the Church to be worth the hassle. I wonder, however, if Sam’s thought experiment were real, whether we would find more “cafeteria-style Mormons.” Yes, we all pick and choose which commandments we will follow to some extent, but I believe a demonstration that the founder of Mormonism was not what he said he was would lead those willing to stay to ask themselves exactly what about the Church makes them happy and reconsider whether to do the things that don’t. Much has been said about the changing perspective of younger generations of Church members on such things as WoW, temple attendance, marriage equality, etc., and I can’t shake the feeling that such a “revelation” about Mormonism’s founder would accelerate the trend of choosing what to accept and reject. The question then is whether members will continue to get the same satisfaction from doing only the things they enjoy and not the things they don’t.

  16. ReTx: I can see that you’re in a difficult situation, and I won’t try to offer any advice. Except to say that I do hope you won’t be too critical of people (like me, or maybe family or ward members) who try to help by offering suggestions or sharing experiences that may not actually be helpful. What else could they/we do? A very good friend of mine was in the hospital for a long time with what looked like a fatal case of cancer. He said that it used to make him angry when friends or ward members would visit him and try to help out with “I feel your pain” type comments. Because there was no way that they could feel his pain, or experience what he was experiencing. He was probably right, but I wondered whether this might be just a bit unfair. They were trying to help in the best way they knew how. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say that might be of help.

    For me, the “one step enough” of “Lead, Kindly Light” is sometimes the best I can do with problems for which there just doesn’t seem to be any good solution. I take comfort in thinking that although “the night is dark,” if I try to be humble and prayerful (as it seems that you have been), God will ultimately guide me according to His designs. I’m sure this is not a new thought to you either, but at least in my case I find I have to remind myself of this over and over again. Pretty much every day. So just in case . . . .

  17. Thank you, SDS. “God will guide…” is my path too. I totally get that the ‘I feel your pain’ and even the suggestions on how to fix me can come from a place of kindness (and hopefully mostly does). But I also have acknowledge that none of it really about me, which feels similar to the object of your friend. The subject of the sentence is “I” (feel your pain).

    Then again, we have to say something to that cancer patient in the hospital, and I don’t have this any more figured out than anyone else. So going easy on each other seems the better path.

    The one thing I do try to do is make room for others to have a different experience than me. This is what I wish the church would do too. So much of it comes down to just adding a little ‘Other people may see it differently and still heave a deep and abiding faith.’ But I recognize that even acknowledging that is a step too far for many members in my ward.

    Anyway, I’ll leave it at that.

  18. I have had a very similar conversation with a stake president. If the church brings goodness and faith into your life, why leave? I think there are innumerable assumptions in that question. If, in the worst case scenario that is described above, there are no unique claims to salvific power in the church, then the church becomes one more organization in the religious marketplace. Why would you not then explore other traditions to see if they can provide more – particularly if the social or communal aspects don’t work well or if you feel its current cultural practices or institutional machinations are inconsistent with your understanding of the will of God. In this worst-case scenario, the church’s “where would you go philosophy” is essentially a guilt trip since it is predicated on the assumption that it only can provide access to exaltation. If that isn’t the case and the church is simply a vehicle where you can develop and exercise faith (the same way an evangelical or catholic or protestant could), then the answer to where would you go becomes anywhere I want.

    I ultimately think that is the direction that the church should go, but it is so incongruous to what is taught from central leadership or within the correlated messaging that if the church is to survive that kind of transition, it would need to happen very slowly from within (as opposed to the top down). Unfortunately, for people like ReTx and myself, waiting on that may not be possible or spiritually valuable. I have found much more spiritual growth, and freedom from that growth, when I didn’t have to muzzle myself or subject my personal witnesses and understandings to ridicule and curt dismissal.

  19. Once again, thanks to Steven Smith for a thought-provoking post. A few long-winded random thoughts:

    As I follow Wheat and Tares and Times and Seasons, it seems we focus ourselves so much with “what if” ‘s and hypotheticals. I think we get ourselves spun up by trying to tease out the implications of every possible scenario. It can be helpful and stimulating, but only up to a point. We live in a cancel culture, in which people refuse to emcee Golden Globe and Oscar ceremonies, because they know that things they said 20 years ago will be held against them by the outraged class. The same cultural tendency can also operate in the Church: what about this bad thing that happened? Does it mean that none of this is true? Do bad things A and B cancel it all out?

    I think our attempts to honestly discuss awkward historical Church events, and questionable actions by historical Church leaders CAN (shouldn’t, but can) give rise to two unhealthy tendencies: the long-standing defensiveness of traditional faithful Church members, and angry people who cannot bring themselves to accept that a leader called by God can
    do bad things: “My Church has to be perfect, dammit!” is the mindset informing both extremes. It is in both cases unforgiving.

    We have self-appointed orthodoxy guardians waiting to pounce on people struggling with issues in the Church, and we have people who are devastated by any and all of the unpleasant facts. It is time to move beyond what I call Tooth Fairy testimonies: people who have to have everything perfect (believe in the Tooth Fairy), and can not recover when they realize things are NOT. Paul referred to milk before meat in the NT. Well, I’m an adult now and need more in my diet than milk.

    Having read Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling,” I take it as the gold standard of historical work on Joseph Smith. It acknowledges both the good and the bad, and does not attempt to have the good cancel out the bad, or vice versa. The book quotes Joseph Smith saying that he never claimed to be a good man, but only to have been called of God. To me, the worst thing that Joseph did was to be dishonest with Emma about polygamy. So at the final judgment, we’ll allow Emma to pull out his fingernails! But I still accept him as a prophet of God.

    If we believe the Bible, how do accept Elisha calling the she-bear out of the woods to tear to death the children who mocked Elisha’s baldness? How do we accept OT slaughters of non-Hebrews? How do we accept Saul of Tarsus holding the coats of the men who stoned Stephen. If we believe the BOM, how do we accept Nephi killing Laban? God’s followers leave a messy trail. They’re still trying to serve Him.

    I have received a spiritual witness of the truth of the BOM. I accept it asGod’s word. But please don’t try to box me into a corner, and say that if I accept that, then I also have to accept B, C, D, and E. No, I don’t. God spoke to me, He did not speak to you about me and what I need to do.

    I describe myself as pretty orthodox in belief but not orthodox in personality. And at the risk of sounding cranky, I will be the one who decides what I believe. I have often been blessed in my life by following leaders’ counsel, but there were a few awful gobs of supposedly inspired advice that I found to have come from the personal oddities of the leader. So, I am the one who decides.

    For Sute: honest discussion of questions and issues is not sowing seeds of doubt. If I raise the issues SDS has raised, in a Sacrament Service talk, then I run the risk of upsetting people who have not thought about these things. But Times and Seasons is a home for people who HAVE thought about these things, and like discussing these questions in the home that T & S provides. The current exodus of Church youth, candidly acknowledged by Marlin Jensen, who said that Church leaders are aware of this and are very concerned, was caused more by shutting people down who have questions, than by the people who had the questions.
    Steven Smith’s posts create a welcome, testimony-enhancing experience for me and many others.

  20. There are plenty of people grappling with the issues that Steven Smith’s post raises. My experience suggests that among those people, the ones who are looking for ways to stay in the Church are at least as many as those who are looking for ways to leave. The problem is that a lot of people who want to stay have no one to talk to. That isolation causes a lot of silent suffering that too often festers when it could be healed, or at least helped, with some kind attention.

    So thank you, SDS, for this post. I read it as an example of faithful ministry and candid sharing. It’s the sort of thing that a lot of people need.

  21. Agree with T L Peterson that more people are looking for ways to stay in the Church than to leave it. In my experience, people who want to leave the Church eventually do. Most just fade away. A few leave more noisily. Family pressures or the pressures of the larger culture in the Mormon Belt might keep people in; or, as in Anna’s case, the person keeps their name on church records because of a spouse.

    I have chosen to stay in the Church. I can write a very good case against the Church; I think I can write an even better one in favor. The bottom line is that God continues to tell me I belong in the Church.

    The answer is not the same for everyone. For many people (in my opinion, most) people, the Church is a positive. For some people, it is a negative. My conflict-averse daughter solves the problem of male priesthood holders getting in her face and telling her how to lead her life, by taking a leave of absence. It saddens me, but I think she is better off being absent. Sin did not lead her away, as some might like to assume, but members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Pharisaical Saints. Truth is not necessarily good for one, if others ram down your throat what they think is the truth, until you gag.

    I think these posts and the comments are a healing experience for most participants.

  22. I just got home after a very long day in the (academic) mines, so I haven’t had a chance to read these posts until now. Just want to say thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Including sute’s, which did provoke some needed self-examination on my part. We live in challenging times, I think, and face some difficult questions. I’m glad I’m not responsible for deciding how to answer these questions for anyone other than myself and, to a much lesser extent, close family. I feel pretty uncertain about a lot of things (which is why some of these posts are cast in the form of dialogues). I do feel confident in a loving God, in his saving Son, and in the presence of God in this church (although of course not exclusively in this church). The discussions here have been helpful to me, and I hope they have been of some value to others, and not detrimental. In any case, thanks again.

  23. The larger question: what does it mean when the free flow of information (Internet) creates a crisis for an institution, undercutting even its founding narratives? We see this dynamic played out in the weakening & collapse of totalitarian regimes – a primary political consideration, for instance, in China, taken lately to fatal extremes w/ suppression of Corona V information. The Church’s long history of suppression of dissent has cut off valuable flows of information and insight that may have made it less vulnerable to the unique vicissitudes of our Age of Information.

  24. I think Sam and many others want all the cultural, social, and emotional trappings of Mormonism without the traditional doctrinal baggage. They want to turn it into a sort of moralistic therapeutic deism where you can believe the traditional narrative if you want (and shouldn’t have to suffer criticism for so doing) but belief in such is optional.

  25. Brandon, I don’t think it’s necessarily a simple preference for Mormon-Lite that’s driving this. People don’t know what to do w/ truth claims that are not believable, w/ official stances on social issues that seem a flight from reality, and with old-school authoritarianism that has been a source of much abuse – but love the institution and don’t want to leave. I’m a BYU grad who loves Church & school but my relationships w/ both have changed considerably in the last 20 yrs. Nonetheless they are still important parts of my life & family.

  26. Taiwan Missionary, your portrayal of what will happen between Joseph and Emma on Judgement Day is hilarious. I loved it.
    P, we already recently saw what happens with the free flow of information. The church ends up disavowing Joseph Fielding Smith quotes (and I’m sure they’ll be some Bruce R McConkie quotes thrown in too). They had to do it with the Come Follow Me manual for this year, and I’m sure it’ll happen again. What will happen most of the time is that emphasis’s will change and what might have been a hot topic in General Conference 100 years ago will never be brought up again. The end result is members having testimonies in fallible leaders, not infallible ones.

  27. Some from general conference 40 years ago too.
    The culture that refuses to talk about anything but the primary answers even in priesthood class, means that there may be a group of people who are not conventional, but you don’t know. You would think if someone says something out of the ordinary the leader might ask for more information, but the response is just to get back to the lesson.
    There is an inference in the article that there are positives that outweigh the negatives.
    The things I really struggle with are the treatment of women and gays, and the connection to republicanism, even when its Trump.
    Where I live it is on a level with racism to discriminate against women or gays. That we have people claiming to be prophets but discriminating strains their credibility.
    That members defend and support Trump, and the leaders appear to (never say not to) shows a moral vacume.
    That in the last 30 years I’ve had a branch pres try to excommunicate me, and 2 Bishops refuse me TR, and then when overruled by SP effectively disfellowship me secretly, also adds to the lack of incentive to stay.
    I have considered taking a break till some of the problems are resolved, but my grandchildren are getting married, and I believe in the restored gospel.

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