Mormon history and the Internet
While there is a lot of good information on the Internet concerning the Church, it tends to be consolidated in just a few websites (Mormon.org, LDS.org, JesusChrist.lds.org, etc.) By comparison, there are hundreds of websites re-circulating the same old negative information about the Church. A quick Google search turns up dozens of sites opposing the Church for each one supporting it.
Some of these sites are outright critical of the Church, but many take a deceptively mild approach to Church members. They mislead by saying, “We love everyone, and we are also Mormons,” and “We just want to help you find truth.” They then go on to present a very one-sided view and build a case against the Church based on their interpretation of a particular event or set of occurrences. These sites are craftily written to turn legitimate questions and questioners away from God at the very time they need Him the most. The goal of this site is very different. Our purpose is not to try to write and discuss answers to every individual question one might have, but instead provide a scriptural framework whereby sincere seekers of truth can get answers. We’re not ducking to avoid specific challenges as some have accused us of, but instead we say, “Questions are a wonderful thing; come let us reason together, but let us get the ultimate answers from the Source of all knowledge and truth.”
An understanding of Mormon history, or any historical event, and the intentions and desires of those who have played a part in it are subject to interpretation and debate. These interpretations will always be clouded, for better or worse, by one’s own experiences. Fortunately, we have a merciful and loving Heavenly Father who has promised to help the sincere seeker of truth find answers and understand.
“Will asking questions about Mormon history destroy my testimony?”
Occasionally, Latter-day Saints come across something they are unfamiliar with and have sincere questions regarding some event from Mormon history. Armed with accurate information, a quest to answer these sincere questions becomes a testimony building experience that leads to greater understanding of the world in general. However, Satan is indeed clever and can twist accounts of events to make even the most innocent moment seem monstrous.
In short, “no,” asking questions does not have the power to destroy one’s testimony. However, our actions can. Being casual in our observance of sacred covenants, spending most of our time giving first-class devotion to lesser causes, allowing intense cultural or political views to weaken our allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ — these things can erode testimony. Some have immersed themselves in Internet materials that magnify, exaggerate, and, in some cases, invent shortcomings of early Church leaders. When incorrect conclusions are drawn from such shady sources, testimony can be affected. Any who have made these choices can repent and be spiritually renewed.
Since most concerns over Mormon history share common elements, I will first lay out some general questions that members may confront. Then, in the next section, we can talk about specific issues.
“I thought that our church leaders and the Church itself were infallible. If so, how do you explain X or Y event from Mormon history?”
If the question of truth as applied to the Church leads one to believe that the Lord will not allow those who lead his Church to err in any minute-by-minute sense, then infallibility is being claimed for the Church and its leaders in a way that they would never claim for it or for themselves. For better or for worse, the Lord is raising and teaching the leaders of the Church just as much as He is any of the rest of His children. And they (we) have and will continue to make all sorts of mistakes. In spite of all the human errors that come from being mortal beings having a mortal experience, it is truly remarkable and inspiring to me to watch the workings of the Church and to see the inspiration and guidance of the Lord at work even in small things on a day-to-day basis.
But since the days of the early apostolic church and on into the present, the Church has been administered by real people doing the best they know how and seeking the guidance of the spirit with varying degrees of success and attentiveness–and mistakes have been, are being, and will continue to be made. That there are mistakes is not the question. Whether they result in doctrinal or procedural errors that compromise salvation is quite another. Moreover, that there are so few in an organization so large, so multicultural, so expensive, and so very personal in its reach is quite remarkable I believe, and witnesses to the Divine inspiration involved.
“Do Mormons really know the ‘secret doctrines’ that were taught in the past? If so, why would anyone stay LDS?”
This statement is often brought up by those who don’t understand the difference between the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ and the opinions of its members. In the October 2012 General Conference, Elder Neil Anderson of the Twelve reaffirmed the definition of doctrine. He stated, “There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.” This is not a new concept, but it is the core to understanding many of the problems brought up by those seeking to discredit the Church.
A statement spoken or written by a member of the Church, even if that person happens to be a presiding authority in the Church, does not necessarily make it a pronouncement, or even correct explanation, of doctrine. Elder McConkie was free to write whatever he chose in his book Mormon Doctrine, but the members of the Church are not bound to follow it or even agree with it. There are many examples on the Internet of statements by Church leaders expressing their opinions on a subject, and a few are even quoted correctly. To somehow construe that a man or woman expressing his/her opinion on a subject is giving anything more than just an opinion is not honest.
The Church’s archives are open six days a week, and most items can be viewed by anyone. Even the older and more fragile sections of documents are available to be viewed to anyone with a good reason. And increasingly, the documents in the archives have been and are being digitized and published to the world. It’s my understanding that all the Joseph Smith papers are now digitized and available to the world. There is nothing secret or hidden about our history, and it has been available, flaws and all, for a long time.
“But what about the story written in book X about an event in Mormon history? I hear it sheds a lot of light on current Church practices.”
The idea of taking one anecdote from the past and interpreting it in the context of today’s mores and values is fundamentally flawed. This is true in the study of any event from history, not just LDS history. There is great risk of inaccuracy and distortion in drawing sweeping conclusions about people’s actions in the past based on isolated historical information largely taken out of the context of its actual time and circumstances—many of which we simply do not now know in full. Even if some of the information is accurately presented and interpreted (which only time will tell), to make sweeping generalizations from such isolated incidents is not intellectually honest.
We acknowledge that specific historical information related to every concern may not be available at present. It would be unrealistic to expect that we would have access to all of the relevant information to see every historical issue in its true, complete, and concurrent setting. So, sometimes the most honest answer is that we must withhold judgment pending more complete information rather than rushing to conclusions based on limited and potentially biased information.
“But I know the motives behind X were just wrong.”
The same can be said for making general assumptions about the motives or reasons behind someone’s actions. It is impossible to know, without asking, the motivations behind someone’s actions. Even if they expressly state their motives, there is no guarantee that what is said is true. There is a danger in making assumptions based on a few perceived facts. There is an old Welsh story from the 13th century about a prince who returned home to find his dog with blood dripping down its face. The man rushed inside and, to his horror, saw that his baby boy was missing and the cradle overturned. In anger the prince pulled out his sword and killed his dog. Shortly thereafter, he heard the cry of his son—the babe was alive! By the infant’s side lay a dead wolf. The dog had, in reality, defended the prince’s baby from a murderous wolf.
Though this story is dramatic, it demonstrates a point. It opens the possibility that the story we tell ourselves about why others behave a certain way does not always agree with the their intentions or facts regarding their motivations—sometimes we don’t even want to know the facts. We would rather feel self-justified in our anger by holding onto our bitterness and resentment. Sometimes these grudges can last months or years. Sometimes they can last a lifetime.
Cherry picking stories for which we don’t know all the circumstances also completely discounts current facts. How sad it is to ignore all that the Church is and does—its fruits—based on isolated events drawn from its history. This is true even if one only considers the tangible and temporal effects of the Church. None of this changes what the Church is today and the effects it has in people’s lives. Its fruits are visible and persuasive.
“So, even if we don’t have all the facts, isn’t it true that Mormons are just plain weird because X was once taught?”
Generalizations like this seek to use a single event to negate all the doctrinal truths of the Restoration without addressing them individually. No matter how negative a given event may be made to seem, it does not automatically negate everything else. Such an argument is based on the premise that everything about the Church’s history, members, culture and practices must either all be true or all be false. This is simply nonsensical, for all the reasons just cited about supposed—and erroneous—claims of infallibility.
It also discounts the spiritual power of this work by implication because it cannot address it with facts. It ignores or seeks to invalidate by unjustified generalization the spirit, life, miracles, authority, ordinances, joys, and blessings available through the Church. While we are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” who testify of the power and divinity of this work, it is simply intellectually dishonest to say, “because of this past matter, none of the doctrines or ordinances are true.” Profound miracles occur often, and every day lives are blessed and changed for the better because of the actions of the Church and its members.
This attempt to avoid dealing with the real and substantial power of this work by implication should not persuade people. Indeed, through an honest intellectual approach it would not; instead one would address each of the evidences or concerns about the truth in its own right. Purposely exaggerating a single event, which is probably misunderstood, only seeks to arouse the emotions of people and persuade them to discard actual substance.
“If this man was really a prophet, why was he fooled by X or Y?”
Neither the Church nor its members were ever purported to be perfect. A fair and balanced analysis of the history of the Church will indeed reveal more than a few incidents where members, specific leaders, or the Church as a whole made mistakes. We neither hide nor deny this fact. On the contrary, the Church has gone to great lengths to make its history fully available to academics and to the public. We have never claimed that the Church, its leaders, or its members were perfect. We do claim that its scriptures, doctrines, authority, and ordinances are true and valid in time and eternity. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “We consume some precious emotional and spiritual capital clinging tenaciously to…[some] incident in Church history that proved no more or less than that mortals will always struggle to measure up to the immortal hopes placed before them” (Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012).
“But this wouldn’t happen in a church really led by Christ, would it?”
We sometimes miss the mark by imagining that it was the Lord’s purpose to establish or operate a perfect church program. Such was never the case. The Church, meaning the organizational structure of programs and policies, is a tool for training and preparing the Lord’s children to live again in His presence. As such, some struggling and even some mistakes might be anticipated to be a part of this learning and preparing process. It is the purpose of the Church to make the valid priesthood authority, ordinances, and doctrines available. But perfection of the programs and policies of the Church is not and never was the goal.
The history of this Church would be very different indeed if the Lord’s purpose had been to “make things look good” or to “run a perfect program.” A retrospective analysis of those mistakes looking for evidence to discredit the validity of the Church’s doctrine will miss completely the saving power of the experiences through which He has tutored us. None of us would like our current characters nor the value of our entire lives to be judged by an isolated analysis of our past mistakes or learning experiences. Similarly, such an analysis of the history of the programs of the Church is of dubious value. The programs of the Church exist to help us learn and grow, which also implies that mistakes can and will be made.
“Is the Church embarrassed by Mormon history and trying to hide it? As a lifelong member I was shocked when I discovered the ‘secret history’ of X or Y.”
The information being referred to in such statements is generally not “new.” A casual analysis of anti-Mormon literature since the time of E. D. Howe (1834) will show that by the same methods, and largely using the same old information, events have been repackaged and “re-discovered” generation after generation to the astonishment of those caught unawares by it. While there may be some incidents that have been brought to light based on the efforts of the Church to make its history fully accessible, these are relatively few and generally insignificant. A cursory reading of Jacob 7, Alma 1, and Alma 30 will show that essentially this same approach and the same arguments were used by Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor. The names and faces have changed, but the method and the intent have not.
The fact that some Church members are occasionally surprised by cleverly packaged bits of misinformation is also concerning. The scriptures are available to all, and many of these “secret issues” are addressed in The Doctrine & Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, The Book of Mormon, and The Holy Bible, which members are encouraged to read and study regularly. Individuals who limit their gospel learning to what is taught on Sunday will find themselves at a disadvantage. Our Heavenly Father has from the very beginning encouraged and commanded His children to seek learning, to study, to ponder, and to pray regarding the scriptures and to ask questions. Christ taught in parables so that He could teach His doctrine to different people at different levels of understanding at the same time. This principle is still true today.
“So where can I go to find truth?”
Elder Walter Gonzalez covered this very well in the October 2012 General Conference. He said:
“Today, surrounded by so much information, we might think that navigating millions of web pages will give us all that we need to know. We can find good and bad information on the web, but information alone is not enough. God has given us another source for greater knowledge, even knowledge sent from heaven. Our Heavenly Father can give us such knowledge when we navigate the celestial web in our hearts and minds. The Prophet Joseph Smith said that he had ‘the oldest book in [his] heart, even the gift of the Holy Ghost.’”
“We access this celestial source when we do things such as reading the scriptures, hearkening to the living prophet, and praying. It is also important to take time to be still and feel and follow the celestial promptings. When we do this, we will ‘feel and see’ things that cannot be learned with modern technology. Once we have some experience in navigating this celestial web, we will discern the truth, even when reading secular history or other topics. The honest seekers of truth will know the truth of all things by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
“Now, a word of caution: access to this celestial web is marred by iniquity and forgetting the Lord. Nephi told his brothers that they ‘could not feel [the Lord’s] words’ because they were ‘swift to do iniquity [and] slow to remember the Lord.’ Iniquity hampers our ability to see, feel, and love others. Being quick to remember the Lord by praying ‘with all the energy of heart’ and bringing to mind our spiritual experiences expands our ability to see and feel the things of Christ. Now I ask you:
- Do you remember the peace you felt when, after much tribulation, you cried out unto the Father in mighty prayer?
- Do you remember changing your to-do list to follow a prompting in your heart?”
“The great men in The Book of Mormon fostered access to a greater knowledge by bringing to mind their key spiritual experiences. Alma fortified and strengthened his children by reminding them about his conversion experience. Helaman taught Nephi and Lehi to remember—to remember that it was upon the rock of Christ that they had to build their foundation so the devil would have no power over them. We must do the same. Remembering God helps us to feel and live. This gives deeper meaning to the words of King Benjamin, who said, ‘And now, O man, remember, and perish not.’”
“By coming unto Christ, every soul can see, feel, and know of a surety that Christ suffered and atoned for our sins that we may have eternal life. If we repent, we will not suffer needlessly. Thanks to Him, wounded souls may be healed and broken hearts may be mended. There is no burden that He cannot ease or remove. He knows about our infirmities and sicknesses. I promise and testify to you that when all doors seem to be closed, when everything else seems to fail, He will not fail you. Christ will help and is the way out, whether the struggle is with an addiction, depression, or something else. He knows ‘how to succor his people.’ Marriages and families that are struggling for whatever reason—economic challenges, bad media influences, or family dynamics—will feel a calming influence from heaven. It is comforting to ‘feel and see’ that He rose from the dead ‘with healing in his wings,’ that because of Him, we will meet and embrace again those beloved ones who have passed away. Verily our conversion unto Him is rewarded with our healing.”
“All this is helpful, but I am still confused. I sincerely want to keep my testimony. Is there any peace to be found while staying active in the Church?”
The peace of God is available in this matter. One who is troubled by these things must be willing to ask himself honestly, “Is there anything about the way I am living—or want to live—that makes me want and need for the Church not to be true?” The peace of God concerning such things will come to those with “real intent.” That is to say, that the person who is not seeking to “cover [his] sins, or to gratify [his] pride, [his] vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness” (D&C 121) but who with a broken heart and a contrite spirit just wants to know and fully follow the truth from God will come to receive that calm assurance in his heart that by being true to the Church and its ordinances and teachings he is on the right path. The words of King Benjamin on this subject are very helpful (See Mosiah 4:9).
A sincere review of the many ways that God has intervened in and blessed one’s life will help to reestablish gratitude and balance and a recognition that “God is in his heaven; all’s right with the world,” even though each of us must come to understand that the world is not as simple nor as untroubled as we might have supposed. Of course this requires both patience and faith, that is, a willingness to believe and obey while seeking additional understanding and while the Lord answers our sincere concerns in His way and on His time. Such a course is not easy, but it is right, and it does lead both to peace and truth.
President Eyring also spoke to this in the October 2012 General Conference. His comments are particularly applicable to those who are staying away from the Church because of the actions, or perceived intentions, of other members. He said, “The pavilion that seems to be hiding you from God may be fear of man rather than this desire to serve others. The Savior’s only motivation was to help people. Many of you, as I have, have felt fear in approaching someone you have offended or who has hurt you. And yet I have seen the Lord melt hearts time after time, including my own. And so I challenge you to go for the Lord to someone, despite any fear you may have, to extend love and forgiveness. I promise you that as you do, you will feel the love of the Savior for that person and His love for you, and it will not seem to come from a great distance. For you, that challenge may be in a family, it may be in a community, or it may be across a nation.”
“But if you go for the Lord to bless others, He will see and reward it. If you do this often enough and long enough, you will feel a change in your very nature through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Not only will you feel closer to Him, but you will also feel more and more that you are becoming like Him. Then, when you do see Him, as we all will, it will be for you as it was for Moroni when he said, ‘And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead. Amen.'”
In the final analysis, answers to such matters are only found using the laws and the tools that apply. This should not surprise us; it is so in any field of endeavor. One cannot discount the laws and tools of physics and expect to understand, much less solve, the problems of physics. If one refuses to believe or master the principles of medicine, he should not be surprised when all but the most rudimentary illnesses fail to respond to his efforts. Paul summarized this overarching truth succinctly:
9 But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
10 But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
11 For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.
12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:9 – 14)
Many have gone down this path, sought answers to their questions, and have come out stronger because of it. You can as well. Keep doing the things you have covenanted to do, keep looking to God, and your questions will be answered.
Discipleship is a Journey
“A friend of mine recently wrote to me, confiding that he was having a difficult time keeping his testimony strong and vibrant. He asked for counsel. I wrote back to him and lovingly suggested a few specific things he could do that would align his life more closely with the teachings of the restored gospel. To my surprise, I heard back from him only a week later. The essence of his letter was this: “I tried what you suggested. It didn’t work. What else have you got?”
“Brothers and sisters, we have to stay with it. We don’t acquire eternal life in a sprint—this is a race of endurance. We have to apply and reapply the divine gospel principles. Day after day we need to make them part of our normal life. Too often we approach the gospel like a farmer who places a seed in the ground in the morning and expects corn on the cob by the afternoon. When Alma compared the word of God to a seed, he explained that the seed grows into a fruit-bearing tree gradually, as a result of our ‘faith, and [our] diligence, and patience, and long-suffering.’ It’s true that some blessings come right away: soon after we plant the seed in our hearts, it begins to swell and sprout and grow, and by this we know that the seed is good. From the very moment we set foot upon the pathway of discipleship, seen and unseen blessings from God begin to attend us.”
“But we cannot receive the fulness of those blessings if we ‘neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment.’ Knowing that the seed is good is not enough. We must ‘nourish it with great care, that it may get root.’ Only then can we partake of the fruit that is ‘sweet above all that is sweet, and … pure above all that is pure’ and ‘feast upon this fruit even until [we] are filled, that [we] hunger not, neither shall [we] thirst.’”
“Discipleship is a journey. We need the refining lessons of the journey to craft our character and purify our hearts. By patiently walking in the path of discipleship, we demonstrate to ourselves the measure of our faith and our willingness to accept God’s will rather than ours. It is not enough merely to speak of Jesus Christ or proclaim that we are His disciples. It is not enough to surround ourselves with symbols of our religion. Discipleship is not a spectator sport. We cannot expect to experience the blessings of faith by standing inactive on the sidelines any more than we can experience the benefits of health by sitting on a sofa watching sporting events on television and giving advice to the athletes. And yet for some, ‘spectator discipleship’ is a preferred if not a primary way of worshipping.”
“Ours is not a secondhand religion. We cannot receive the blessings of the gospel merely by observing the good that others do. We need to get off the sidelines and practice what we preach.” (President Dieter F. Uchtdorf)
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