Perception and Reality: Then and Now
Let me begin with a quote from LDS Church Historian Marlin Jensen given May 26, 2012: “Loss of members in the last five or 10 years has been greater than perhaps any period since Mormonism was founded in 1830…one reason is the Church’s failure to openly address questions about church history…”
Several years ago I worked as a missionary in the Church History Department computerizing…for public access… correspondence to and from church leaders. One letter was from the presiding authority of the RLDS Church (now the Community of Christ) to President George Albert Smith. The letter asked what could be done about a just-published book berating Joseph Smith, the common ancestor of both presidents. The other leader strongly suggested both church presidents work together to stop further publication of this incriminating work, and demand an apology. President George Albert Smith wrote back, “I don’t see the need to do anything. You are just not as accustomed to criticism as we are.”
Opinion is everyone’s right. Author Vardis Fisher gave his in the book Children of God. But at least if we are going to be criticized, let the facts be based on reality, not erroneous perception. By the latter, I mean, do members of the world’s most renowned musical group, the Tabernacle Choir, belong to a cult? And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not believe in Jesus Christ? As an aside, I think of the tremendous sacrifices made by the saints in our history–because of their belief in Jesus Christ.
These misconceptions can even today curtail missionary work and hinder the election of worthy political candidates.
So, how do such misconceptions gestate and give birth?
To answer this question, I submit that some people do not want to believe in any suggestion of divine revelation. They rejected it even with the Apostle Paul in Acts chapter 13. They continue to do so. Non-Mormon historian Bernard DeVoto praised the work of Fawn McKay Brodie (No Man Knows My History, 1945) “because she explained Joseph Smith in totally humanistic terms. Grounded in naturalism,” De Voto called it, “The first honest and intelligent biography of Joseph Smith.” But we must be aware that the sectarian world was and is looking–anxiously searching– for an answer to this man other than the answer Joseph Smith gave of himself. Many were only too eager to announce that Fawn Brodie had found that answer. We will discuss Brodie later.
For now, let us focus on those who are seeking truth…but have been misled
True, we can smugly tell ourselves that we know the truth about our church and what it stands for. But for many, perception is truth–as long as they know nothing else. A wide gap often exists between who we are and who the rest of the world thinks we are. This paper seeks to determine some of the reasons how it got that way. With some suggestions on what we can do about it.
Over the years, I’ve made what some would call a grim hobby of gathering all the anti-Mormon literature I can get my hands on. I go back to Joseph Smith. Joseph was not a Madison Avenue type public relations specialist. He did not try to varnish his story in sophisticated terms. He simply told it the way he found it: no other church on Earth at that time was accepted by Jesus Christ. He, Joseph Smith, was to take a vital role in establishing that true church upon the earth. It is understandable that many churches and their ministers and followers, who did not agree with Smith, would take umbrage. That is their prerogative. But some distorted Joseph’s words to make rebuttal an easier task. The word was spread. Those who did not personally know the saints heard or read reports like the work published in 1833 by short-time convert Ezra Booth who visited the church in Missouri and found missionary work there to be more challenging than he had been led to believe. Joseph said the following about Booth: “When he actually learned that faith, humility and patience and tribulation go before blessing…he was disappointed.” (History of Church V1:216.) But Booth wrote in bitter terms about that disappointment and according to historian B. H. Roberts, these were biased opinions which created problems for missionaries of the time. Do any of these biased opinions persist today to hinder LDS missionaries?
Some of these negative opinions–at least the basic mindset of them–began with people believing only the worst of what they had heard. For example, Dr. (part of his name) Philastus Hurlburt (or Hurlbut) who was excommunicated for moral infractions, soon began a vendetta against Joseph Smith. Hurlburt gathered many affidavits in Palmyra against Joseph and his family, even though a Dr. Robinson had (before the announced first vision) interviewed the Smith family and found them “stalwarts of the community.” Joseph’s younger brother, William, wrote that everyone spoke well of us…”until Joseph announced his first vision.” Unfortunately, many non-Mormon historians yet quote only the Hurburts of LDS history. Or those of another soul excommunicated for moral infractions, John C. Bennett.
Many neighbors of the Smiths who claimed to know them had unkind things to say. But how can we ignore an overwhelming majority who knew the family, 800 of them according to author Mark McConkie, who had nothing but praise for all of the Smith family, and especially Joseph and Hyrum?
This paper cannot review all the misconceptions about the LDS Church. But we can look at those which seem to have most seriously eroded the truth about this church. Such as the Cincinnati Journal of 1833, a newspaper published in Ohio warning Missourians that a scourge was coming… the Mormons. It read, “Their success here shows conclusively that we have a class of community, who from their ignorance and degredation, offer an easy prey for those who wait to deceive…almost without exception they are ignorant and fanatical. These hypocrites etc.”
A non-Mormon Far West newspaper said, “No greater curse could befall any people than to have these fiends in human shape settle among them.” But church members must bear some responsibility here, for high-ranking Mormons Thomas B. Marsh and Orson Hyde, apparently in an effort to appease persecution, wrote Gov. Boggs that the Mormons were preparing to burn Independence. Boggs would know that the impoverished and beleaguered saints were in no condition to do anything of the kind but the words were used to enflame the local citizenry. Note: Gov. Christopher Bond in 1976 set the record straight and repealed Bogg’s order… Bond felt “deep regret for this injustice.” But much damage was done…still, we should applaud Bond’s action and seek more restitution of accurate history. During this period one Samson Avard decided to lash out at Missouri enemies with his so-called Danite movement. He was reprimanded by Joseph Smith for so doing. But the Danites didn’t go away in the minds of many non-Mormons. It was the act of one man, Samson Avard; should we claim the Christian church to be reprehensible because of the act of one man, namely Judas Iscariot?
Blood atonement? No such thing according to Bruce R. McConkie and he was known for being a thorough researcher.
What the Missourians did is well known and little will be repeated here. But it is ironical that Fawn Brodie should argue the Book of Mormon carried nothing but the common beliefs current of the day in upstate New York…and yet, the Mob Manifesto in Jackson County demanded removal of the Mormons because their religion was so different from others of the time as to “constitute an evil no one could have foreseen.”
Forgotten, nay, betrayed, was their State Constitution which read, Article 13, section 4: “That all men have a natural and indefensible right to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience…no person can ever be hurt, molested, or restrained in his religious sentiments.”
It is interesting that Gov. Wilburn Boggs in his infamous Extermination Order not only tried to drive the saints out of Missouri but included language to “intercept them at the border.” That is, to not merely push them out, but punish them for following the dictates of their own conscience as explained I in his own Missouri Constitution.
But let us move on to Nauvoo. Even today misperception follows the saints. I picked up a pamphlet several years ago published by the Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center which reads: “Mormon publicity promotes the unfounded idea that they were forced to leave their homes…this is a radical departure from recorded history.” The National Park Service is then quoted to say that it was to “maintain the cohesiveness of the Mormon community.” The Center quotes Samuel Taylor that the Mormons simply couldn’t get along with their neighbors anywhere.” Or they couldn’t get along with us. It would seem all they had to do in order to get along with everyone was to renounce their religion.
I find It interesting that my wife’s great grandfather Enoch B. Tripp went to Nauvoo as a non-Mormon businessman to buy up cheap homes and furniture from the saints preparing for exodus. He was told in Carthage that as a gentile he would be shot on sight. Bodies of gentiles lined the streets etc. Tripp not only found this untrue but joined the church two days before the exodus. In Iowa he met with one George Hinckle who had been a Mormon but betrayed them to the Missouri militia. Hinckle told Tripp, as recorded in his dairy, that he had been haunted by that act ever since and could find no peace. “If only, I could go back and undo that,” Hinckle said.
This is an important admissions in LDS Church history and I know of it being mentioned in no other place but in the diary of E. B. Tripp, my wife’s great grandfather.
Later in England, a well-known novelist of the late 1800s, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with the very first of his popular Sherlock Holmes series, A Study in Scarlet, has a Mormon woman forced to marry a high-ranking church official, a polygamist, rather than the man she loved. She dies of a broken heart and her lover later makes his way to England to murder the man who caused her death. True, this was a novel. But how much does fiction influence the human mind? One of the most successful novelists of the early 1900s was Zane Grey who sold nearly two million copies of his Riders of the Purple Sage. Its account of Mormon Jane Withersteen being told she must marry locally presiding Elder Tull, according to church rules from headquarters, had to influence many readers. I would have had no quarrel with Tull acting on his own, or even local directives, but the damage was done when readers were told the edict came from Salt Lake City. Such cruelty in polygamy was deemed a common practice of the LDS Church.
There were a few early objective non-Mormon historians but not enough of them. Said a Rev. Beer in 1872, “Just let me say that the people should be on their guard as to what they believe concerning the Mormons.” Amen. This caution was given after one Judge Cradlebaugh went to Washington with accounts of the many “depravities” existing among the Saints. The judge was so discredited in time, however, that even the non-Mormons called for his removal.
I should insert here that Cradlebaugh blamed the massacre at Mountain Meadows in 1857 as ordered from Church headquarters. Some believed it and some believe it now according to two recent “histories.” (Note quote marks). But even the non-Mormon prosecutor, Sumner Howard, at John D. Lee’s second trial dismissed involvement of church leaders. (insert: I spent eight months at Church History headquarters examining exactly what happened at both of Lee’s trials. We can blame local Mormon settlers for the Mountain Meadows Massacre but no way Salt Lake City.
One of the most distorted histories I have ever read of the LDS Church was this from the Dictionary of Biography by the American Council of Learned Societies: “His [Joseph Smith] boyhood was spent among a footloose class, semi-illiterate, excitable, superstitious, in a part of the country that produced a great many of the irregular sects and experimental societies of the first half of the century. An attack of melancholy etc. He also contradicted his own history. (No mention how this was done.) “That the Book of Mormon could be a work of so ignorant a man as Smith appears strange—probably the book is a fantasy catch-all of frontier Protestant doctrine…” Yet, the Missourians termed it so different that there was no remedy for it in their Constitution.
No mention of the Three and Eight Witnesses who never denied their testimonies about the divine origin of the Book of Mormon. But that would have made the straw man concocted by the Learned Society much more difficult to push over.
By the way, where did I obtain a copy of the American Council of Learned Societies? From the LDS Church History Library. So much for the idea that the LDS Church has tried to hide or conceal anything negative about its history.
One of the most earnest detractors of LDS history was a man by the name of Dale Morgan. He spent much time, money and effort to take the wheels off the Joseph Smith story but all he did was turn it into a chariot of fire with stallions in the lead. He praised Fawn Brodie’s No Man “biography” which turned out not to be a documentary but a novel with such statements as “Emma thought she knew that Joseph knew that she knew he was not…” She made many such statements and yet she received honors for historical objectivity from no less than the New York Times…and Time Magazine, who called it “thoroughly researched, scrupulously objective with admirable detachment.”
My master’s thesis made a study of objectivity in print journalism. If this was objective history, then anything can be called such.
My own research on Brodie’s book resulting in Critiquing the Critics of Joseph Smith indicated that some of her sources were non-existent, some were the result of exaggeration, and some the result of her own brand of interpretation. For example, we can say that in the three trials of Joseph in South Bainbridge, New York (now known on the map as Afton) and Colesville, the prophet from Palmyra was acquitted from lack of evidence. Or you can assert, as Brodie did, that the judge let him go because he was a minor and the judge felt sorry for him. But why does not Brodie mention that non-Mormon John Reid had this to say about it. “I was called to defend Joseph but declined because I was not a sophisticated lawyer as was the accusing prosecution’s lawyer. But I knew Joseph and I knew that his character was irreproachable; he was well known for truth and uprightness; spoken of as a young man of intelligence and good morals, expressing an anxious desire to know the will of God.” He was an instrument “in the hands of God to do a good work, I knew not what.” (History of Church, V1:94, footnotes by B. H. Roberts)
But non-Mormon John Reid said he was called in the night to defend Joseph…”a peculiar impression struck my mind that I must go and defend him…I did not know what it meant but thought I must go and clear the Lord’s anointed.”
Reid said not one spot or blemish was proven against Joseph and he won an acquittal on all charges. Afterward, a swarm of onlookers sought to do Joseph harm but Reid said some divine source protected him and he walked unharmed through the mob. I take no glory to myself for the acquittal. it was the Lord’s work and marvelous in our eyes.”
Those who once questioned Josephs’ story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon should be asked to explain how it came to be…if his story is not accepted. How do they explain it? No one has yet given a satisfactory explanation in what is probably the most scrutinized publication in all history.
In his official history of Illinois, Gov. Ford wrote that Joseph “drank like a sailor and swore like a pirate.” His followers were, of course, dupes etc. How much does Ford’s “official history” of Illinois influence the public mind today of those who study the chronicles of that state?
For that matter, have we checked into what today’s history books are teaching our children? One day in substitute teaching a history class, I looked at the text they were studying. It read: “President Buchanan had to sent a military force [Johnston's Army] to quell the Mormon rebellion against the United States of America.” Would it not have better served historicity to add the word “perceived”? Even some non-Mormon historians labeled the $20 million expedition as “Buchanan’s Blunder.”
Failure of the Kirtland Safety Society? Joseph is blamed for it, but research by R. McKay White shows that employees embezzled some one hundred thousand dollars. Would this have contributed in some way to the bank’s failure?
In more than one history, Jim Bridger claims the Mormons stole Ft. Bridger from him. He apparently forgot he was paid $8,000 for the fort.
Non-Mormon historians sometimes insist that the church gave up polygamy only to gain statehood in 1896. Forgotten are the words of President Wilford Woodruff that he received a revelation on the matter. Mere convenience? Church presidents do pray about such things. As with prayer leading to blacks receiving the priesthood.
One thing the world forgets, or never knew, is the humanitarian aid given out by the LDS Church. It began early…as in 1871 when church members gathered $20,000 to send victims of the Chicago Fire. Who knows of this… should the church do more to toot its own horn?
Lastly, let’s look at DNA testing. A video I watched several years ago from a Brigham City church showed a Mormon bishop departing the church because, allegedly, this testing showed no link between Indians and Jews. But a molecular biologist says 97 per cent of DNA signaturing is lost within fifty generations. This bishop should find some other reason to leave the church. It should be noted that FARMS (now Maxwell Institute) has done much to expose this truth to the general public.
The Book of Abraham has come under attack. A nephew of mine said he left the church because of a disputation here. But does he know as much as a Harvard-trained Egyptologist Dr. Hugh Nibley? And we have scholar Dr. Sami Hanna who was asked to translate the Book of Mormon into Arabic. He found it to be the “most Semitic book I have ever read.” And joined the church. Why do we not hear more about such conversion stories?
Hopefully, these highlights in Mormon history give us a greater idea of the falsehoods perpetrated over the years…how they came to be accepted in many cases even today…
What can we do to correct these errors in LDS history? Well, I wrote a long letter to the aforementioned Learned Society. In it I asked how they could call themselves “Learned” when they not only had their data misconstrued but clearly had an agenda to try and belittle it, etc. I did not hear back from them. But they heard from me.
Years ago I came across a Police Gazette magazine which showed five pages of a non-member modeling Mormon garments. They had distorted the purpose and meaning of this sacred practice among the saints. I spent six hours writing to all their advertisers asking how they could seek to promote their product by so flagrantly misrepresenting any religion. Would they do this to the Jews? Catholics? Blacks? It may have been a coincidence but a month later the Police Gazette went out of business.
As we have seen in the past year, many people in the world of history or politics…will make a statement little knowing that they are in error. And many will continue to do so if not met with truth.
There is much we can do. First thing is to become more educated ourselves in LDS history, as FAIR is attempting to do. FAIR does this every day on e mail. I submit that many of our members seem well acquainted with the scriptures…less so about our history. But the latter is who we are.
I submit that we go about correcting these errors which have been mentioned with courtesy and patience…avoiding any disputing about what we regard to be truth. But to do so in a spirit of honest and objective history. To transform perception into reality.
For as Edmund Burke once said, “All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”