Freak Out! Handling History

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What do you do when you learn about something shocking that you did not previously know in Church History?  Freak out?  Retreat into a stupor of thought?  Pray for comfort?  Shrug and say “who cares what happened to dead people over a hundred years ago”?  Search anti-Mormon sites to get the “real deal”?  Talk to your bishop?  Call Ed Decker to see if he’s hiring? This post comes from guest blogger Matt.

Upon engaging unsettling historical evidence, most people will fall into one of roughly four groups:

  1. The “Blind Faith” approach. Reject the evidence out of hand as “white noise” from Satan. Continue to accept the official church party line as 100% correct.  Steer clear of further information on this topic because it is apostate or unhealthy.
  2. The “Have Your Cake and Eat it Too” approach. Accept one of the many apologetic explanations that attempts to reconcile the evidence while still hoping for additional information to exonerate.  In the end, the authenticity of the actual story is held more or less in tact.
  3. The “Post Modern” approach. Realize that many factual and historical claims are simply unknowable and contingent on other unknowables, so it probably doesn’t matter.  What matters is what you think and do because religion is nothing more than personal/spiritual feelings about the Divine put into story, symbol, ceremony, and covenant.  All of us adopt some stories and reject others. This approach moves the focus away from Joseph Smith and onto you.  What has God told you? Do these stories resonate with you and help you become a better person?
  4. The “See You Later Alligator” approach.  Accept the evidence as pretty damning and reject the church’s claims out of hand.  Likely reject Joseph as either delusional or very calculated.  Reject believers, especially those in categories 1 and 2 above, as seriously biased, or even deluded or calculated.

Obviously there are subcategories and various permutations to the above approaches.  Feel free to add categories I may have missed or to think of this as a sliding scale.  If your initial approach was to “ask of God” as Joseph Smith did, regardless of your answer (or lack thereof), you still likely fall into one of these categories.  Does that experience color where you fall on this scale?

The interesting thing is that you’ll probably use the same approach to any of Mormon issues you encounter (i.e. BOM historicity, polygamy, patriarchy, priesthood restoration, first vision, blacks and the priesthood, translation methods, etc.) and possibly to any Christian issues you encounter (i.e. creation story vs. cavemen, age of the earth, miracles, Christ’s conception, the concept of atonement when viewed as a historical event, etc.) or religious issues in general (i.e. the inability to empirically prove the existence of God, the inability to statistically prove the power of prayer to heal, etc.).

I’m not making any value judgements here. There isn’t a “correct” approach, only an approach that allows you to better engage with God.  Which do you choose?

Comments 31

  1. Here is how I generally approach it;

    1. Where does the information come from – Is it a legitimate source or is it from someone with an ulterior motive? What do I think is the motive behind the disclosure?
    2. I give the church the benefit of the doubt. In other words, I try to be open-minded, but I use my experience with the church to favor it. I do not immediately accuse the church of a cover up.
    3. If it is about an individual, how does the information square with what I already know about them? Balance the good with the bad. Does this information change my impression of that person? Is there more information that is needed to make a good judgment about the new information and is it available? or do I have to make a judgment without it?
    4. If required, pray about it.
    5. If required, put the new information aside until I learn more before rendering a final decision.

  2. Sounds like you’ve been blind sided with some Church history that hasn’t been talked about too much in Sunday School. I’ve had this happen to me my entire life. I was several months into my mission before an investigator taught me that Joseph Smith had more wifes than just Emma. I knew that they must be into some anti-Mormon lies because I had gone to every single possible meeting, graduated seminary, attended a few religion classes at BYU and had never heard a single thing about this. So after promising the investigator that Joseph only had one wife, and went back to the apartment and had a talk with the AP’s the night. I got over that just fine, but felt a little betrayed by my Church upbringing for not preparing me for something like that.
    Events continued like this for years to come. I was really caught off guard by Brigham Young’s many divorces, Brigham Young’s stances on Blacks and other Minority groups, Joseph’s marriages to several young teenagers, and the fact that many early male members would beg BY for more wives. I had always been taught that these polygamous marriages were only for the benefit of old women would could not care for themselves.
    It was way worse for me to learn about these events from neighbors, friends, and email forwards than from my parents or YM leaders.
    So back to the point of the original post… Which one of those methods do I choose?….. I suppose I’m a #3-The “Post Modern” approach. I love the Church and many of its teachings, but can’t really say I believe in God, JC, or JS. I try to take from Church good stories, good values, and good beliefs.
    I really like #1 Jeff’s approach. His first point about the source of the history is of the utmost importance. I can’t stand Anti’s and their “Mormon history”. It usually makes my skin boil or makes me laugh. The Church, while usually trying to hide or conceal truths, doesn’t seem to be in the business of fabricating outright lies. So I usually give them the benefit of the doubt, like Jeff. I don’t pray about it because I’ve found that to be a waist of time, but if you feel you’ve received answers to your prayers in the past, then that sounds like a good plan.

  3. I guess I would label myself as #3: “Post-Modern”

    My first reaction is to curse and say, gosh darn it brother Joseph (Young, Grant, etc.)! Why are you making it so difficult for me? Then I calm down. I realize that I am not any better than them. Do I allow myself to get things wrong or not completely understand things? I try to.

    My other thought is the personalization aspect you mentioned. Yes. Things back in “the day” were a lot different. They were downright whacky at times. *SHRUG* I go to Church TODAY. The LDS Church that is “real” is the one I attend every week (mostly). I totally understand the logic when people say that all the past is what created the present. There’s a connection. I get it. Most of the stuff that is so challenging to accept wasn’t a part of my worship last week at Church. It’s history. I think it’s fascinating.

  4. I grew up with a lot of the things that some people seem to have never encountered until later in life, which leaves me quizzical at times. However, I don’t treat the flood like I treat Blacks and the Priesthood (which I’ve written about) like I treat Polygamy (which I’ve written about) like I treat pre-adamic man (of which I agree with Hugh Nibley).

    The Hill Cumorah Pageant, when I was there, had a large selection of materials on Joseph Smith talking about his own imperfections. He always seemed like an Old Testament prophet to me, though I’m glad he never had a Zipporah moment.

    I think it is what God speaks to us that is important, it is what the Church is all about, to lead us to Christ so that we can find God.

  5. First, source is paramount. There have been lots of fabrictions over the years. Some of very good quality (Mark Hoffman), and others not so much. It should be followed up on by independent research if possible. I wouldn’t go to Utah lighthouse ministries or FARMS for an objective opinion.

    If something is found to be true, don’t be afraid of it. All earthly organizations, the Church included, are run by mortal men and women. Imperfections (an intentionally very, very broad term) happen. Every organization has moments it’s not proud of. If you are looking for perfection in a religion, you will not find it and if you think an organization is free of imperfections, you are decieving itself.

    How you respond to it just as important as where it came from. If someone is hammering you (I won’t use “anti-mormon” because it’s used too much and it’s too much of a label) with it, don’t respond in kind. Far too many of our people have are too thin skinned when it comes to religious disagreements.

  6. Honestly, I grit my teeth and keep reading…(I’m assuming that the reading being done here is in a scholarly monograph done in good taste). I consider such moments like my church history weightlifting time…

    Pretty soon, you develop a certain level of toughness…you have to start creating more nuanced doctrinal superstructures that can absorb stress. New knowledge never was a bad thing, or even a thing to “freak out” about. We love the truth, right? The documents say what they say. Though my friends would call me obsessively addicted to documents and evidence, one might not be wrong in calling me anti-intellectual…I’m not keen in coming up with “new interpretations.” The only interpretation that matters to me in a meaningful way is that it comes down to “trying to be like Jesus.” I want to know all of what’s being said, but that just comes down to tactics, building up one’s credibility as a thinker.

    You want to know what REALLY freaks critics out?? When you know more than they do (a LOT more), and you still believe. Tis they who are on the defensive…they’re even a little mind-boggled. Such are the fruits of merely “knowing the documents”…

  7. Russell, There have been times when I have responded to an accuser by saying, “Yeah, I know. So what? Why is that any big deal?” The reaction is almost always fun to see. Often, I just don’t care.

  8. Ray,

    I’m glad that you find it amusing to say “Yeah, I know. So what? Why is that any big deal?” If you are talking with an ‘accuser’ it probably is a good response. If you are talking with someone who is a member of the church who is possibly ‘freaked out’ and is trying to understand the issue, it probably isn’t a very good response at all.

    If you take the book of Abraham, for example, some members are ‘freaked out’ when they learn that the facsimilies don’t have anything to do with Abraham and that missing portions of the facsimilies were filled in with random text from other parts of the papyrus. These members are interested in an explanation. I’ve heard FAIR people respond with something like, ‘Yeah, I know. So what? Why is that any big deal?’. It isn’t very effective.

  9. If you take the book of Abraham, for example and realize that it is an endowment text, and start correlating it with something like the King Tut exhibit, the grips, the gods, the Egyptian Endowment and such, it creates resonances that are really interesting. Freaks the critics out.

  10. Bill, I agree completely that my response would not be appropriate for members who are just being exposed to certain things. Stephen’s general response method is one I’ve used before with Abraham, and it really does freak out the critics.

    My other response that I use sometimes (like when people throw out Adam-God or some obscure wackiness from an individual apostle or Prophet) is to say simply, “Yeah, isn’t that cool?! They felt comfortable throwing out all kinds of speculation back then. Sometimes I wish we didn’t know as much as we do now, so we could come up with all kinds of wacky theories.” Most critics just don’t know how to respond to that.

  11. Matt,

    I have pushed past the point of being freaked out by our LDS history by developing mental callouses. But I have been at this since high school, so they’ve had plenty of time to grow.

    What I find interesting is that we LDS use the term “imperfections” so often when describing in general the warts and all approach to church history, as if religious faith is injured most by learning about the dastardly deeds of individuals. For me, topics like the Mountain Meadows Massacre or polygamy, while deeply disturbing, only rocked my faith in the authority of individuals like Brigham Young or Joseph Smith. While disgusted by their behavior in certain situations, I find it important to remember they are creatures of their time just like I am. This ties in to Valoel’s comment above.

    What using the term imperfections, flaws, or frailties does is minimize the true impact of the evidence on religious faith. The things that make it difficult for me to believe in a literal reading of scripture are much larger issues than those found in church history. For instance, reading the creation myths of other, non-Jewish cultures was more shocking to my childhood literal faith than finding out Joseph married teenagers.

    An obsessive concern with our own history obscures the larger issues that make a traditional Christian or even benign monotheistic faith difficult to comfortably hold in the twenty-first century. I am not saying this to minimize the shock one must feel when realizing the Church has painted a certain picture on Sunday which is not as colorful and complete as what you can find out about on Monday when you head to the local library. I am saying the intellectual capital of apologists might be better spent in the fields of evolutionary biology, or developing the idea of physical constraints, or dealing with the problem of evil using the tools we have at our disposal. Hat tip to Blake Ostler for making some good efforts in this area recently.

  12. I am an LDS member, thinking about having my name removed from the church. Since I found out about The shaky beginnings of the church and Joseph Smith’s questionable intentions, I find it difficult to maintain membership. I’ve read every article in defense of the most controversial subjects (polygamy, the translation of the papyrus) and none of them were really explanations or even valid arguments. It seems to me that Joseph was if not lying, misleading people for his own gain. People often say, “He got tarred and feathered and starved and beaten! How is that in his own interest?” Well I thought about that for a long while and it was fairly clear to me after a few days. Joseph didn’t know he was going to be tarred and feathered it was merely the result of his behaviors and actions. Marrying young girls and being innappropriate with women will never yield anything good. He was killed by a mob which may or may not have had at least an emotional right to punish him (for let’s say sleeping with someone’s daughter or young sister. Murder was clearly too far, but to say he died a martyr is just plain odd. A martyr is someone who is killed only for their beliefs or virtues (please don’t grab your dictionary we’re going on the socially understood meanings).
    I stay in the church mainly for my mother and father’s sake but not for my own which can feel very shallow, hence the pondering over resigning officially. I just hope that everyone can read history for what it is! Keep an eye out for crooks and liars, people eager to bend the truth for their own benefit. Watch your sources; though many sources have been labeled “anti” Mormon, they are not always such. Take the time to research deeply the early days of the church and its leaders. It does matter that Joseph married young girls (let alone anyone other than Emma) He should have been ashamed of himself and I’m certain Emma loathed him, yet still was in love with him and came to lean on his name for her own succes (community of christ).
    If this church is true, it will be vindicated. But I fear it is not true and no one wants to say it cause it means its time to get off the merry-go-round.

  13. Shadow: “How you respond to it just as important as where it came from.” Agreed. “Consider the source” should not mean “dismiss the source out of hand.” It just means that it is one factor to understanding the information you are reading. It’s true for contemporary as well as historical information.

    Benjamin: I feel for you. I understand why some have drawn the conclusion that he was not sincere, although I disagree with that assessment. Joseph was not blameless in the circumstances that led to his death, although he obviously didn’t deserve to be killed. He made poor choices, some disastrously bad ones. The polygamy issue is not as cut & dried as it sounds, either, IMO. It’s not all or nothing. He did marry young wives, old wives, single wives and married wives. He seemed confused about what he was supposed to be doing in marrying them; maybe he thought it was the “endowment.” We have to remember that there was no handbook of instruction. Honestly, he seems confused to me, trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do. Some of the marriages have evidence they were consummated, others were clearly not. Given that Emma was pregnant constantly, it’s interesting that the plural wives were not.

    I find Oliver Cowdery to be the most compelling figure in the history in terms of understanding Joseph. Oliver was more educated and more steady of temperament, IMO. He believed Joseph was a prophet, yet found the translation process confusing. He thought polygamy was adultery and left over it, but did not renounce the Book of Mormon or the church. Eventually, he came back, but only after Joseph was gone.

  14. Benjamin, Essentially what Hawkgrrrl said. If it were easy to understand simply through reading everything available, that would be wonderful.

    I wish you the best in your searching.

  15. Benjamin:

    I don’t ever “defend” Joseph…I defend Jesus. Joseph is not who has made me who I am today. While I find Joseph to be a flawed man (in many, many ways), that does not negate the teachings of eternal families he brought us. An idea is not responsible for its proponent (quoting someone there, can’t quite remember). While one can talk about Ethan Smith or Solomon Spaulding (while I find both parallels to be seriously wanting), that simply cannot compete with the Book’s transformational power. And trust me, I don’t have to say that. I worked as a researcher for BYU’s Mormon Studies division…I have more than enough ammo to freak any member out if I wanted to.

    One can speak of Joseph’s errors and often be correct. But I have yet to hear someone make a compelling argument that “the Restoration”–the principles we live–are not 1) revolutionary and 2) powerfully Christian.

  16. Hawkgrrrl said:

    “I find Oliver Cowdery to be the most compelling figure in the history in terms of understanding Joseph. Oliver was more educated and more steady of temperament, IMO. He believed Joseph was a prophet, yet found the translation process confusing. He thought polygamy was adultery and left over it, but did not renounce the Book of Mormon or the church. Eventually, he came back, but only after Joseph was gone.”

    That’s an interesting take on Oliver and Joseph. One that I had not thought through before. I appreciate you taking the time to write that up. That’ll give me something to think over for a little while. I’ll have to look at Oliver and his story a bit closer on your recommendation.

  17. Oliver Cowdery is something of a metaphor for many “open” Mormons. He clearly had spiritual experiences with the Book of Mormon specifically, and with the Church of Christ (later LDS church) generally. But some things rocked his world and he experienced something of a Fowler Stage 4 crisis, cognitive dissonance, etc. and left the church. Had I been Oliver and witnessed the same things, I think I would have made the same decision. But ultimately, his need to reconnect with the Spirit/Divine lead him back to the fold (or so the story goes… we’ll never know for sure because he died before reconnecting with the Saints.)

    I know a lot of Oliver Cowderys.

  18. So let me shamelessly “label” everyone… 🙂

    1.) Jeff is 1 or 2, we’ll split the diff and call him a 1.5.
    2.) Nazenail is a 3.
    3.) Valoel is a self-described 3, but probably more of a 3.5.
    4.) Stephen M is a 2, but on certain issues he’s a 4.
    5.) Shadow, tough to say, so I’ll just call him a 2.5 for no particular reason.
    6.) Ray is a 2, but he’s cool with 1’s and 3’s.
    7.) Bill, not sure, though he talks like a 4, but is probably something else.
    11.) John N. is probably a 3.
    12.) Benjamin seems to be leaning towards 4, but would probably like to try to be a 3.
    13.) Hawkgrrl is a 2.5.
    14.) Russell is a 2.
    15.) Matt is obviously, and irrevocably a 3.5.

    Relax, I’m just playing around. I have no idea. 🙂

  19. I fluctuate between 2 and 3, depending on the issue. Either is fine with me, since I can remain firmly in the Church as a fully active member at either one. In the end, I really don’t hang much significance on the details, and I really am totally comfortable with the idea of mortal uncertainty.

  20. Jeff is 1 or 2, we’ll split the diff and call him a 1.5.

    I’d say closer to 2.5. I have no blind faith, except on CD. 🙂

  21. Another thing I really like about Matt’s scale is that it brings up the question about what one’s approach is. We’ve talked on this site before about those who start out as a 1 on everything, but end up as 4s when they are confronted with the unpleasant inconsistencies in historical accounts. The beauty of this scale is that it provides a good description of alternatives.

    While you might be prone to be at a certain place on the scale, you could opt to be at different places for different issues. For example, if I tend to be a middle-of-the-road type between a 2 and 3, I can choose to be either a 1 or a 4 for something I don’t care much about (e.g. polygamy) because life is just too short to give a darn about stuff that I’m unlikely to have to deal with directly. Oddly, while a 1 (or 4) may sound like the most decided and/or engaged, it’s really the least effort you can apply.

  22. I subscribe to the “I do not know the meaning of all things” approach.
    See 1 Nephi 11.

    I assume that all facts are not yet in evidence and that we are here to be tried and tested. Having previously received a sure answer to the core question of the truth of the Book of Mormon and the divinity of Christ and the authenticity of the call of Joseph Smith I then reserve judgment while attempting to gather all relevant information.

    I have read widely on both sides of the question. I do not know the meaning of all things but my testimony is not only intact but expanding.

  23. So a lot of 2.5’s. That’s good. I hate to make value judgements, but that is probably the optimal position to be in as a Mormon/Christian and simultaneously function in the world and relate to other believers/non-believers. Such people have a lot of flexibility in their faith for multiple or simultaneous points of view, while still remaining loyal to the church. I wish all Bishops and Stake Presidents were 2.5’s, but I’m guessing a ton of them are actually 1’s and 2’s.

    Agree with Hawk about the “least effort” of 1’s and 4’s. It takes a lot of work, patience, uncertainty, and vulnerability to be in the middle.

  24. Having said this…

    “Agree with Hawk about the “least effort” of 1’s and 4’s. It takes a lot of work, patience, uncertainty, and vulnerability to be in the middle.”

    …I’m not saying this is the right place for everyone. For some 4’s, the cost/benefit of being in the 2-3 range just isn’t worth it. Not sure 1’s have a good excuse though.

  25. I agree completely with Hawk on certain issues not being worth it. I am decided (1 and 4)on a few issues and don’t think much about them.

  26. While I agree with Russell that it is Christ and his gospel that transforms us, I have to remember the the teachings of Christ were conveyed to us by Joseph Smith.

    I have read enough to know that he was imperfect, but I know enough to realize that I have yet to meet a perfect man or woman, except when I read about the Savior. I also know that every rite, ordinance, key, power and priesthood office funneled through Joseph.

    My Son is finishing a Master’s degree in American Studies and then pursuing a doctorate in American Religious History. He got his bug for the subject from me. We have spent hours discussing these things. I have a son-in-law who worked in BYU special collections and I have been down in the vaults with one of the professors that he worked with. So from conversations with them and my own studies I have found plenty of controversial material. Since I wasn’t there when the things written of happened, and since I can’t understand the totality of the happening without being in the skin of the person making the record, “I know that God loves his children, nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things.

    I have often had my ponderings and prayers answered. I have no doubt that Joseph was a prophet.

  27. The history of prophets is a history of flawed men sharing God’s word with us. Moses, and the crisis his other wife and children caused him, not to mention his rocky start as a fugitive from justice wanted on murder charges … and that is all before the Zipporah incident. He makes a good metaphor.

    Once you get that far (and realize that the story of Moses is written by people who liked him, imagine the story as it would have been told by his enemies) you are faced that “through a glass, darkly” includes seeing God through his prophets, the weak tools he has to work with in this mortal life.

    I really think that missionary work is the salvation of the Church in that it exposes young men to spiritual experiences (at least many of them) and the active hand of God. People need those experiences, and to remember them.

    It is interesting how people nourish experiences up in their hearts (much like Mary with Jesus) or they let them whither. My father went through some things. Years later, those who remembered the experiences were all very active, those who had let them slip away and all slipped away. That is an angle on the parable of the Sower that I had not seen until he was reflecting on that.

  28. I appreciate finding this website and this thread. I don’t feel like I’m alone anymore.
    I’m more like Benjamin and others who find it hard to swallow ‘fact’ pills I didn’t know existed. I view myself at this point in my life as a 3.5, not wanting to be a 4 for my wife’s sake, but not sure how to associate myself with an organization that I love deeply, but has been deceitful or at least white-washing the facts from members at large and to perspective converts.
    I’ve distanced myself from where I used to be with regards to the church, and this is the result: I love myself more than I have ever in the past, I feel I know the true nature of God better and I feel more in tune with the spirit than ever before. I can point to occurrences on a daily basis where I know the spirit has lead me in the right path.
    Thanks for being there.

  29. Thanks for the excellent categorization of choices available to resolve a seeking Mormon’s quandary…

    Stephen #28 said, “…“through a glass, darkly” includes seeing God through his prophets, the weak tools he has to work with in this mortal life.”

    What you say either speaks to the frailty and weakness of mankind (and thus God’s limited choices for spokespeople) (#1) or the deliberate deception of mankind (brought to pass by a few men) with the intent of controlling the population with the fear of the wrath of God (#4). Either way, I don’t see why God needs them. Isn’t God capable of speaking to all of us “weak” men equally? Yea verily is he not a respecter of persons as has been said in old times? Why would God choose one man as the spokesperson for all…when that spokesperson’s words will only be heard by a small percentage of the overall population? Seems pretty silly to me (at least to me with where I’m at now in this whole freak-out-handling-history thingy #3.5).

    I have to say “AMEN” to Quartersawn’s post #29 as I am in a very similar situation and feel much the same way. I talked to my Bishop to express my concerns and his response was that, “to question is OK but I shouldn’t doubt and that the scriptures say to ‘be believing and doubt not'”. He also said that eventually I would not be able to continue in my present course and should either “use the pot or get off” since I have expressed a desire to severely cut back on my activity in the church. I can understand this response as I don’t want to take advantage of the church and all its resources (i.e. service of others) if I am not contributing myself. I feel this on the one hand (pushing me towards #4) but realize I am not evil enough to feel good about just taking advantage (sort of out of spite, I guess) on the other. Such a weird place to be, but sort of refreshing at the same time.

    Regardless of all the decisions people have to make about church history (and their life as a result), this much can be said; it is extremely difficult to go through the process (if it ever comes to that #1) and can be a major life-changing experience (#4). I just wish the church didn’t seem to embrace option #4 by making it so difficult for people learning these things to have to decide between their church membership or their family.

  30. Benjamin&Others, I am a convert from IN.My Grandpa was born in a log cabin, and his mother was 15 when she got married. My other great-grandmother was 15 when she got married, my grandmother was 16 when she married, my mother was 17 when she married, and I was 18 when I got married-the only difference between me and these women I have mentioned is that I got a divorce at age 31. I had the gospel, but divorce is a part of my time-the solution to many problems and the creation of many problems. My heart goes out to you, and I want you to know that I still have a strong testimony , depite illness and difficulties. Jesus is the Christ-that’s the most important thing-and in no other church will you learn more about Him.

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