International Ignorance

Someone mentioned in a blog post that I read recently about how accessible materials and information about the Church are for us these days: blogs, books (official and unofficial), news, the internet in general.  I couldn’t agree more.  There’s a wealth of information about the Church at our fingertips and goodness knows that many of us spend hours reading, analyzing, discussing, and debating it all.  I’m often surprised that more Mormons don’t take advantage of it.

There is one problem, however.  This wealth of information is NOT equally available to members of the Church.

If you are reading this, you are someone who is now perhaps a minority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: an English-speaking member with access to the internet, probably living in America.  This means that you are able to read virtually everything that has ever been written about Mormonism.  And if you can’t find it online, chances are that your local library can get it.  If not, you can buy it on Amazon and have it shipped to your home without having to worry about crazy shipping costs or customs duties.

Over half of the Church’s membership now lives outside of the US.  Many of these members have little or no knowledge of the English language.  Their resources in terms of information regarding their own religion is scarce.  Often the only things they have in their own language are official materials put out by the Church: the scriptures (sometimes only an incomplete translation of the Book of Mormon, and perhaps no Bible Dictionary or Topical Guide), the RS/Priesthood manual, other auxiliary manuals, and maybe the Liahona.  No Journal of Discourses, no Jesus the Christ. Forget Rough Stone Rolling and don’t even think about Mormon blogging.

A bit over year ago, I barely knew what a blog was and the term “Bloggernacle” was a foreign word to me.  Back then, I still told my non-member friends who asked that the Church allowed polygamy to take care of all the spinsters and singles and the suggestion that Joseph Smith married women who were already married to other men would have just been anti-Mormon rubbish to me.  I wondered how my Baptist friend in high school who told me years ago that Joseph used a hat and stone to translate the Book of Mormon ever got wind of such a crazy idea which, of course, I denied. Never would I have believed that any Church leaders could have possibly been against black civil rights in the 60’s because they were all too “nice” or “enlightened” to have such backwards views.  Probably the only thing that would have surprised me more was that our “politically neutral” Church sent a letter to California wards telling members how to vote.  But of course, if I had known about the ERA then I wouldn’t have needed to be so surprised.  Yes, it’s been an action-filled year for me.

Sometimes when I sit in church on Sundays, I feel like I’m in a different world than that of my fellow branch members.  Although most of them have a good grasp of the English language, most of them are not at the level that they would be able to read Bushman or listen to Mormon podcasts.  They would know about as much about Prop 8 as you all know about ekteskapsloven and probably assume that The September Six were a rock band.  Tell them that Emma wasn’t Joseph’s only wife and some of them would surely deny it.  And I’m sure that they’re still telling their friends that polygamy was needed because of all the widows and singles.

When I think about it, I’m not sure who is better off: them or me?  Would I be better off if I could go back to the days when I had no clue about any of this stuff?  Or should they have the opportunity to know more about the history and current events of the Church that they claim is true?

Since the majority of Mormons in this world do not have access to and/or do not have the language skills to read anything other than the few official Church publications in their own language, are they at a disadvantage?  I certainly don’t expect the Church to start broadcasting news to its international membership or sponsor the translation of Rough Stone Rolling into 85 languages.  Perhaps the Church really can’t do anything more in the case of non-English speaking members.  But is it thriving as a result of their ignorance?  And if so, does it really matter?

So who is better off?  Them or us?  We’re always told that we should acquire as much knowledge as possible since it’s the only thing we will take with us from this life.  Is Church history an exception?

Who will be able to withstand the challenges that the Church faces in the future?  Will it be those who have a solid knowledge of the real Church history so that they have a chance to distinguish truth from rumour, or will it be those who stick to the official publications?

Does the history of Mormonism stand in jeopardy of being forgotten or altered as the non-English speaking membership of the Church abroad continues to grow and become a clear majority?

Comments

comments

28 comments for “International Ignorance

  1. Zzzzzzzz
    March 13, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Zzzzzzzzzzz.

  2. Russell
    March 13, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    I do wonder about that…quite often. It honestly makes me wonder how relevant our janglings our in plan of happiness (assuming there is one, which I do). If indeed the plan is universal, then that means there must be some common denominator…something that applies to AFrican, Latino, and the urbane of Europe.

  3. MH
    March 13, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    So who is better off? Them or us?

    It depends who you talk to. If learning about church history makes one less likely to help those in need, and be more Christian (as is the case with some), then I would say ignorance is better. However, if one can better appreciate church history and continue to take care of the needs of the poor, then “the glory of God is intelligence.” Too many of us (and I’m pointing the finger directly at myself) spend time on church history, when we could be working in a soup kitchen, or other noble cause. In that situation, ignorance is probably better.

    Does the history of Mormonism stand in jeopardy of being forgotten or altered as the non-English speaking membership of the Church abroad continues to grow and become a clear majority?

    I highly doubt it. There will always be plenty of antagonists to spread the word.

  4. Hawkgrrrl
    March 13, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I’m with MH. The point of religion is to be more Christlike. Frankly, an understanding of polygamy, JS’s translation process, or the truly rocky nature of Joseph & Emma’s marriage does nothing to bring anyone closer to Christ. Yet, I think a critical mind is important so that we are continually progressing and learning. If you can’t read what you read with some level of skepticism, you’re probably missing the point, regardless of what you are reading.

  5. March 13, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    The benefit of Church History (and the scriptures) is that is shows how God has worked with people over time and gives me some ideas on how he may work with me as a result. I’m saddened by those who take a fundamentalist view of scripture (and history) because they know of no other way to be “faithful”, especially since all they need is generally to be shown a different approach and they can have more realistic expectations of God and of the church as a result.

    Most people in developing countries live in a fundamentalist worldview, especially since they don’t have the tools to deal with different ideas due to lack of training. The gospel doesn’t thrive because of ignorance, it thrives when people realize they need something they don’t possess. I’ve had people get baptized after being exposed to anti-Mormon stuff because they don’t care about the past, they just want to continue to feel the Spirit. Anti-Mormon literature mainly does well where people have a modernist worldview, and many countries just don’t hold similar assumptions.

  6. Aboz
    March 13, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    This is probably positive in some ways, because those outside of the Church won’t be faced with many tough questions posed by such knowledge until such time that they get access to it. There is something to be said for the lack of info on church history for so long before the 1960’s and 1970’s in the US, for example, because people in their ignorance didn’t question anything because they didn’t have anything that would lead them to even think of questioning, and so they went about their business without worrying about such things.

    An example is how so many apostatized in Kirtland and Nauvoo because of first hand knowledge of what was going on, and the people had to choose their side. If knowledge does anything, it forces people to choose sides. The people from Europe that eventually came to Salt Lake to repopulate a lot of the Church who never knew much of anything of the controversies of Kirtland and Nauvoo didn’t apostatize in that way. There were plenty of controversies to go around after that, of course, but these people stayed strong throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s perhaps precisely because at the time they WEREN’T in Nauvoo.

  7. How Shocking
    March 13, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Oh, look! It’s another “I’m so filled with internal turmoil and cognitive dissonance because now I KNOW so many things that hardly anybody else in the Church knows, and I no longer KNOW what I used to profess I knew for years. I’ve been lied to my whole life! And nobody around me even realizes it! And even fewer people realize it outside the U.S. cause they’re so technologically and informationally impoverished! It’s like I’m trapped in some bizarre Mormon Twilight Zone episode where everyone’s acting like everything is so normal but I KNOW the REAL TRUTH about it all! ‘Cause now I’ve read a few books and I believe everything I read! Oh the Humanity!!!!!!!!!!”

    Please, could we have a more original topic next time? This tired old whine is the hair fibers and bone fragments of a dead horse that’s been decomposing for years.

  8. March 13, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Like beards and blue shirts, the issue of “would I be better off without knowing XX” is a perpetual go-to issue here in the ‘Nacle. Sorry to be a party-pooper, but it always rankles me. Underlying this discussion is the notion of “us vs. them.” No matter how it’s phrased (well-informed vs. less informed Mormons; liberal vs. TBMs, etc.), this dichotomoy always smacks of elitism. It assumes that every Mormon wants or needs the “higher knowledge” (my words) you reference. I, for one, find great spiritual and intellectual nourishment in such materials. But I don’t assume that everyone else (or anyone else, for that matter) cares or wants the same experience. Furthermore, why should I assume that my particular path to enlightment is so AWESOME that others are somehow deprived if they don’t have the same opporunity to pursue it?

    As to this:

    “Will it be those who have a solid knowledge of the real Church history so that they have a chance to distinguish truth from rumour, or will it be those who stick to the official publications?”

    I say, “phooey.” The notion that you can only learn “real Church history” from non-correlated materials, and non-correlated materials alone, is ridiculous. Also, how does the mere fact that one reads non-official publications necessarily give them a heightened ability to “distinguish truth from rumor?” Same old elistism, differnt post title . . .

  9. March 13, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    (7.)

    (struggling to restrain my need to laugh)
    .
    .
    .
    (feeling guilty about laughing when someone teases a person for writing something sincere and genuine, if unpleasing to said person)

  10. Ray
    March 13, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    An interesting fact:

    Darius Gray knows our history of race perhaps as well as anyone who has lived since the LDS Church was founded. He faced crap in his life inside the Church that makes everything every one of us who comment here (except perhaps a few of you are are gay) has faced pale in comparison. He is a faithful High Priest.

    Likewise, the common answer to the question of past racism by most black converts outside of the US now is, “So, what? Almost everyone was racist back then.”

    Church history is a REAL and HARD problem – for those for whom it is a real and hard problem. It isn’t for those for whom it isn’t.

  11. Cowboy
    March 13, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    7 – 8:

    If Faithful Dissident’s post is the tired moan from the elitist and disenchanted, then your responses are the classic hyper defensive attacks (which always seem to hunt in pairs) that push the whole matter to complete distaste. Yes, this sounds like the same old, “wow, the Church never told me that, I must know more than the average Mormon”. Even still if the moan is feeling a bit tired, that may be because the circumstance is just all too common, and all too real. For most of the last 110 years the Church has had majority control over it’s story and presentation to the world. Outside of scholars and those few inclined to find and read scholarly works, most members got Church history through controlled mediums. Obviously the internet and electronic age has rendered information easily accessible, and this has been a catalyst to breed interest in LDS research and Scholarly works. I wonder how many people would be reading Bushman were it not for the information age. I doubt I would have even known about him. Naturally, this has placed the Church in an awkward position, and frankly robbed them of the former comfort of control. What makes this post relevant is the comparing of the international Mormon markets to the US. Would the Church be growing so fast outside of the US if the same type of information available to Americans were available to foreign members. I won’t attempt to prognosticate here, but it does beg the question, particularly where rentention rates seem weaker where the members are not entrenched in Mormon heritage.

  12. Steven
    March 13, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I’m glad the schadenfreude has been both pointed out and thoroughly derided.

    Nothing to add here.

    Well, I did LOL. Hope you all did too. It’s good for the heart, don’t you know.

  13. March 13, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    #11 — “Would the Church be growing so fast outside of the US if the same type of information available to Americans were available to foreign members.”

    While the materials you may be familiar with (e.g., Bushman) are not yet available in othe languages, have you or the author actually attempted to figure out what “real history” materials are available internationally? I’m sure than we Yanks have access to more such information than some groups but that does not mean the rest of the world’s knowledge is limited to the four corners of the latest Ensign issue. In Central Americam where I served my mission, I had more than one occasion where folks presented me with materials raising “difficult” history issues.

  14. Scottie
    March 13, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Hey How Shocking and Scott,

    Way to represent your faith. Truly impressive behavior.

  15. Cowboy
    March 13, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Shawn:

    You will notice, I posed the question, and said it was worth considering. Faithful Dissident drew the conclusion that Foreign, which I assume means largely non-English speaking members, are at a disadvantage.

    you seem to challenge the assertion that Faithful Dissident has been enlightened by “real history”. I assume your quotations were intended to convey sarcasm. I wonder why this always seems to be a point of argument. Most of us are smart enough to know that even a discipline like history is rarely cut and dry as-matter-of-fact. We also recognize the presence of bias, and general subjectivity projected by the author/teller. Understanding this, the sarcasm serves as a less than acceptable criticism within the context of LDS Church history. Yes, we may debate whether Joseph Smith had a conjugal relationship with Helen Mar Kimball, but Polygamy is an accepted fact. We may debate Brighams intentions behind the contents of sermons, but often time not the sermons themselves. We could debate, whether Joseph was within his legal rights regarding the destruction of a printing press, but not that the said press exposed accepted facts. Perhaps just a final example, there has been a lot of argument lately behind the actual translation process of The Book of Mormon. Did Joseph primarily use the Urimm and Thummim, or the Seer Stone, was there a curtain between Joseph and the scribe, or just around the perimiter of the room (to cover the windows). Did Joseph see actual words/letters, or was the revelation presented through ideas which Joseph put to language, etc. Still, when a person comes to Church, or any Church facility, or participates in lessons, what odorns the wall, movies, etc? Constant images of Joseph and Oliver sitting at a table both within view of the plates while Joseph appears consumed in thought/prophecy. While we can’t argue with absolute certainty the method employed, we can say that the impression which is carefully left is the one which is, by all accounts, least true. So, Faithful Dissident catches up to the debate and says that he has learned “true history”, a statement which you criticise for it’s literalness. Perhaps what was meant was that he has learned, “more accurate history”, which in any case stands at great odds with the impressions intentionally left by the Church.

  16. March 13, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    Actually, I think y’all need to back off a bit. What Faithful Dissident is going through may be old hat to you but it’s quite new to him, and his questions and concerns are valid. I daresay most of us here have made our own individual peace with these issues, but that does not make FD’s own concerns magically go away, and frankly the sarcasm is rather (dare I say) unChristian.

    FD, here’s my own $0.02 worth: no, it doesn’t matter. Not that the historical and doctrinal issues aren’t real, but they are to a large extent irrelevant. I’ve written elsewhere about visiting Utah 25 years ago and attending church with an acquaintance — a BYU professor with a PhD from Harvard — who marveled (and not in a kind way) that the same Church and Gospel could encompass people like him and the high-school-only, 3rd-generation farmers who were also in his High Priests group. My response to him was that from the Lord’s perspective, there wasn’t much difference, an answer he didn’t like.

    The flip side came several years later, when my wife and I traveled to Guatemala for the end of our daughter’s mission. We attended a session at the Guatemala temple, and when we got to the celestial room, the only other person in there was an elderly Indian woman who was probably all of 4’6″. Having served my own mission in Central America some 20+ years earlier, I knew that she likely had very little education, that she almost certainly lived in poverty, and that she not only did not speak English, she probably didn’t even speak much Spanish. And yet there we both were, in temple robes, in the celestial room of the temple. In that moment I understood viscerally what I had quipped to my acquaintance years before: in the eyes of God, there wasn’t a spec of difference between the two of us, except that the Lord probably thought more highly of her because of her faithfulness in the light of much greater adversities than I had ever known.

    That same principle apples across time and space. We tend to think that we are wiser, more knowledgeable and more sophisticated than those who had the gospel in past centuries and millennia (or, for that matter, than others in our own ward), but from God’s perspective, I suspect there is very little difference between highly educated Mormons in the 21st Century AD and Israelite villagers in the 9th Century BC, much less between individual Mormons today. Where we see vast differences, He (I believe) sees dust motes. Why? Because the gap between any of us and God Himself is so mind-boggling vast that all our individual, cultural, and technological differences vanish in comparison.

    Finally, I think some of your premises are wrong, or at least a bit overstated. If you travel outside the US and Canada, I think you might find that both internet access and English reading comprehension are remarkably widespread and become more so each day. They’re also pretty widespread within the US and Canada, even among your fellow ward members. The Church has been aggressively using the internet for over a decade — back in the late 1990s, we would listen to General Conference via streaming audio, since our local (Dallas, TX) cable company didn’t carry the broadcasts — and as you noted, lots of LDS information is out there, right, wrong, accurate, distorted, and otherwise. A lot of your ward members might know a lot more than you think — almost everything you cite I knew decades ago, all without the magic internet — and/or they just might not care. I suspect God largely doesn’t care, either; He’s mostly concerned over a broken heart, a contrite spirit, and kept covenants. ..bruce..

  17. Ray
    March 13, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    Just for the record, Faithful Dissident is a woman.

    I wouldn’t want to be accused of hiding the truth or intentionally deceiving anyone 150 years from now. 😉

  18. Ray
    March 13, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Well said, Bruce.

  19. March 13, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Cowboy (11) said: If Faithful Dissident’s post is the tired moan from the elitist and disenchanted, then your responses are the classic hyper defensive attacks (which always seem to hunt in pairs) that push the whole matter to complete distaste.

    and

    Scottie (14) said: Way to represent your faith. Truly impressive behavior.

    Wowzer folks. Speaking of “classic hyper defensive attacks (which always seem to hunt in pairs) that push the whole matter to complete distaste.” Seriously. Let me explain:

    I thought it was hilarious that someone would write as long of a comment as (7) just to say, “I disagree.” Apparently you took my response as an attack on FD, whose stuff I happen to really like, and whose blog I’ve been reading for a long time. Sadly, no…I just thought the angst in (7) was memorable.

    But THANK YOU BOTH for rebuking me betimes with sharpness.

  20. March 13, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Now that I’ve repented of my hyper defensive attacks and poor representation of my faith, let me be responsive to the post itself:

    I think that FD raises a valid question but over estimates the number of people who are likely impacted by this. While what she says regarding unavailability of texts in certain languages is true, almost every problem she poses could be equally applied to many members of the Church inside the great state of Utah–truly, how many people in the average southeastern Utah ward could “intellectually” appreciate some of the more academic-leaning texts FD notes on any higher of a level than a mid-range English speaker in Switzerland? The internet, Amazon.com, and the blogging world are, in my opinion, far more uhhh…far-reaching than FD has speculated here.

    My wife is from Europe, speaks English as a 3rd language, and routinely reads those books; her family in Finland routinely requests those books from me for birthday and Christmas presents; there were more members of nearly of ward I served in as a missionary in Europe (in a foreign language) who had “Bushman-esque” books on their shelves than in any ward I have lived in in either Utah or California. Many subscribe to Gospelink. The language barrier here has been overstated for future generations–which were the focus of FD’s article–what will happen to the Church? English is not going away; the fact that membership is moving away from the US does not mean the Church is becoming significantly less English-proficient. Naturally, I am not claiming that this thinking can apply to every corner of the world…yet. However, the barrier for developing nations is not access to material–it is access to funds with which to purchase that material.

    Nevertheless, I do agree with FD’s fundamental point here–that there is a difference in the typical non-correlated library in members’ homes across international lines. I respectfully disagree about the invidiousness of the problem, however; or perhaps even that it is a problem.

  21. Carlos
    March 13, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    Very presumptuous article!

    Fact is English is still the first language for a majority of mormons plus the stats are skewed by the many stakes in the developing world that run only with 20% or less active members.

    But anyway church membership numbers should eventually reach what this article describes. But so will English continue to grow as the global language (the British version not the US one!!!) Sweeden, Denmark, Pakistan, India etc all teach English from year 1. China recently adopted the international 9-stage English language learning so eventually at least a quarter of the worlds people (ie Chinese) will understand and read English. Many nations that don’t teach the amount of English as Sweeden does still teach a fair amount during the secondary school years ie after grade 6.

    So when one considers how slowly things happen in church we can then safely assume that the worlds’ English language skills will catch up to the anti-Mormon literature long before the church or anyone else translates it all!

  22. Jeff Spector
    March 13, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    First of all, I am going with Hawk on this one. Most of the time, the history problems cause people to lose their testimony of Christ, it is never the other way around.

    Also, you are somewhat naive if you think that materials are not available in other languages. Don’t you think that the Prop 8 situation was covered outside he US? And don’t you think that Mormons outside the US might have heard about it?

    In many emerging nations, they are more concerned with the implementation of the basic structure of the Church and learning how to be latter-day saints. They have little time for the foolishness we engage in here.

    Also, you’d also be surprised that more people outside the US know English than people here in the US know another language by far.

  23. MH
    March 14, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Jeff,

    I don’t know if you followed the post on “More Open Mormon History”, but as it says at the top of the post, Elder Marlin Jensen claims that people who know more about church history are more active, and people who know less are less active. Andrew S did a pingback at the bottom, and did an informal poll asking if mormon history was the cause of some to leave the church. The consensus was that mormon history wasn’t necessarily the catalyst for leaving, but merely confirmed their choice to leave. So, a case can be made that people lose their faith first, and then use mormon history to confirm that the lost faith is well-founded.

  24. Cowboy
    March 14, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Scott:

    My comments where directed to Shane Larsen and How Shocking. While I fail to share the humor in How Shocking’s comments, I have no response to youre comment (#9).

    As for your response in (#20), perhaps it would be worth polling how many people who participate on these boards do not live in the US, and speak another primary language than english. I get the impression that the majority are english speaking Americans.

  25. Jeff Spector
    March 14, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    MH,

    I guess I didn’t pay attention to that thread. But, if the poll is any true indication, many people who have the left the Church and blog have been misrepresenting their motives for leaving then. We have a few who particpate here who have claimed the all the “false” Mormon history is the deal breaker for them.

  26. Cowboy
    March 15, 2009 at 11:56 am

    There are also countless threads throughout the Internet where opposing groups attempt to trivialize the experiences of the believer/un-believer.

    The Unbeliver Position: Most people who stay in the Church do so because they are either too ignorant of Church history, or because they are too submisive to authority. Their may be family implications as well, but if they were willing to take an objective look into Church history no reasonable person would stay.

    The Believer Position: Most people who leave the Church do so out less significant reasons, such as taking offense at someone/something, cannot live an LDS lifestyle, etc. They then use the anti-Mormon take on Church history to justify their leaving.

    I don’t know that either take represents the opposing position accurately, and I think exposes insecurities as the primary motive on either side.

  27. March 15, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    I also wonder. There are so many things available to English-speaking members that I wish I could read in German. And the German version of the Mormon website is pretty shoddy.

  28. Carlos U.
    March 24, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Carlos,

    There are at least 3 “Carlos” who post with some regularity on the blogosphere. I go by Carlos U., there’s a Carlos JC, and you. Would you mind adding an initial so that people might not confuse any of us with any other? Thank you.

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