Breaking the Rules: Critics of the LDS Faith

J. Cooper Johnson

Breaking The Rules: Critics of the LDS Faith

When was the last time you were told, by someone of another faith, what you believe? How many times have you attempted to clarify the religious doctrines of your faith, only to be told, “that is not what you believe”? Have you ever told an uninformed person that they misunderstood our religious beliefs, only to be corrected with, “Oh, I understand your beliefs all too well.”

Needless to say, these kinds of situations can lead to some frustration. Imagine being in a group setting with many people you don’t know. and the following conversation commences as one person approaches you:

“Hi, Scott, how are you?”

“I’m doing well, thank you…and actually, my name is Mike.”

“But the person on the other side of the room said your name was Scott.”

“Oh, well…I get called a lot of different things. But my name is Mike.”

“I don’t think so. I have it on pretty good authority that you are really Scott.”

“I’m telling you, my name is Mike…seriously.”

“No, I don’t believe you. I say you are Scott.”

Might this be a bit frustrating? This person has decided to believe someone else, when you are telling them the truth about your own name. What are you to do?

This is an all-too-common situation, unfortunately, for anyone who gets involved in gospel conversations with those not of our faith. As much as we try to clarify our beliefs and teachings, we are constantly rebuffed and told that we are wrong.

Stendahl’s Rules

Dr. Daniel Peterson, BYU Professor and Director of FARMS and ISPART, opened his presentation at the 2000 FAIR Conference with a story about an experience of Truman G. Madsen that can help all people in trying to understand other religions.

Let me just start out by mentioning an experience that Truman Madsen told me about a few years ago. He said that about the time the Stockholm Sweden Temple was about to be dedicated there was some controversy. As you know, sometimes there is controversy in connection with the dedication of Latter-day Saint temples. Krister Stendahl, who is the Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm and the former dean of Harvard Divinity School, called him up and said he would like to hold a press conference. He wanted to hold it in the LDS Stake Center, which was relatively near to the temple there in Stockholm. This was a very deliberate choice. He invited all the press to come and he offered his position as the Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm on the building of that LDS temple and he endorsed it very strongly. Then he said that he wanted to give them a little bit of guidance on how to deal with other religions and on how to understand other religions.

He laid down three rules which might seem obvious but they are often ignored in trying to understand other faiths. One of them, the first rule was that when you want to learn about a religion you should ask the adherents to that religion and not its enemies. Now that seems fairly obvious but it is ignored an awful lot.

The second rule was a little more interesting. Don’t compare your best with their worst, which is often done. You know, we Christians believe in the ideal of loving everyone, but the Muslims, look at those terrorists in Algeria. What you do is take the worst example of the other guy’s religion and compare it to the ideal, almost never reached in your religion and that’s apples and oranges, right? If you are going to compare terrorists, you should compare Christian terrorists with Muslim terrorists. If you are going to compare ideals, you should compare the ideal in the other faith with the ideal in your faith. If you are going to compare your saint to something in their religion, find one of their saints and compare them. That’s the only fair way to do it.

The third one, I think, is even more interesting. His principle was [to] leave room for what he called “holy envy.” By holy envy, he intended the idea of looking at another faith and saying, you know, there is something in this other religious tradition that I really envy. I value it. I wish we had it. I can learn something from it.

Can you imagine what conversations with people of other faiths would be like if they followed Dr. Stendahl’s three rules? What a much better dialogue we would have. Many more meaningful and deep discussions would be enjoyed.

How do our critics score in using Stendahl’s rules? Based on the examples that are on the shelves of Christian bookstores, examples that are preached over Protestant pulpits, and examples splattered all over the Internet, we find, as does Dr. Peterson, that the critics of the LDS faith fail miserably. Surprised? Let start with the first rule and go in order.

Rule 1: Ask Adherents, Not Enemies

This makes some sense, doesn’t it? If I truly want to understand Catholicism, I should use Catholic sources, not enemies of the Catholic religion. If I want to learn and understand more about the new Ford Mustang, I won’t go to Chevrolet to gather my data.

Dr. Peterson makes the point that, many times, our critics operate on the following premise:

It’s not only that we [Latter-Day Saints] are innocently misled and stupid, it’s that, in many cases, we are downright dishonest. Mormons can’t be trusted to state their beliefs accurately. Steve Robinson [co-author of How Wide The Divide], for example, is lying. He is misrepresenting his beliefs. He’s deliberately deceiving people, and that poor benighted fool, Craig Bloomberg [co-author of How Wide The Divide], was duped. He was taken in by those suave and sophisticated Mormons, or whatever you call them.

Or listen to these titles. Here is one…I’ve always been charmed by his book title, Deception by Design: the Mormon Story. That pretty well sums it up. Or this one, as some of you know, a book I am particularly fond of, Behind the Mask of Mormonism: From Its Early Schemes to its Modern Deceptions. That’s by Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon.

When it comes to scholarly defenses of the LDS faith by LDS scholars, Dr. Peterson correctly points out that all too often our critics dismiss them altogether as “nothing worth looking at.” This popular view allows our critics to avoid all LDS scholarship while relying heavily on works produced by those on their side of the fence. This produces, what Dr. Peterson calls, a “kind of intellectual incestuousness among our critics.” In other words, dismiss out of hand all that the LDS camp produces and simply use and support only sources that agree with the critical conclusions.

Rule 2: Don’t Compare Your Best with Their Worst

The violation of this rule, Dr. Peterson warns, leads to the necessity of double standards on the part of our critics. For example, as shown in Anti-Mormon Approaches to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon, by William Hamblin, the Book of Mormon critics “refuse to apply to the Book of Mormon the same kind of standards they would to the Bible, or apply standards to the Book of Mormon they wouldn’t apply to the Bible.”

We see this often when the critics take the “worst” of the Book of Mormon, which has a few thousand changes from the original manuscript, and hold it up against the “perfect and inerrant” Bible, which has between 150,000 and 250,000 changes in it from the oldest manuscripts available. Do you see the double standard caused by comparing their “best” to our “worst?”

It is the critics who claim to have a “perfect and inerrant” Bible. We don’t make such a claim for it or the Book of Mormon; neither is inerrant. Yet they take the “you have thousands of changes in your book” club and start beating us over the head, when the Bible that has more changes than the Book of Mormon. What’s more, the critics can’t even agree on one particular translation of the Bible, nor can they agree on how it is to be interpreted. If they applied their own standard to their perfect and inerrant book, it would be condemned.

Another example of the violation of this rule:

Or, for example, the rather incendiary charge that Mormons believe that Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer, which I think is designed to inflame not to inform. People are never given the theological context in which that proposition makes some sense and they are never really told what the alternative is. It has always seemed to me rather odd to say that one view is blasphemous but the other view is not blasphemous. You see, it is one thing, as some of you have heard me say, to believe that Satan or Lucifer is the spirit brother of Jesus, the Son of Heavenly Father went wrong. That’s an explanation, maybe, of evil in one sense. We don’t typically hold parents responsible if they raise their children well and the child simply takes a bad turn–becomes a serial killer or something like that. On the other hand, if the parents raise the child to do what he ends up doing, we regard the parents as morally culpable.

More comparable to what I see as the traditional theological view is that Jesus is the Son of God but Lucifer is the creation of an all-powerful, all-knowing God. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly what would happen (because he sees the future perfectly), and created Lucifer out of nothing. That seems, to me, to create at least a dilemma, a little problem, called a problem of evil. Because then God knowingly is leading down the path that will lead to Auschwitz and the Killing Fields of Cambodia. And I’m not sure that’s a real improvement over the Latter-day Saint view. It just seems to me that if you are going to look at theological problems that you perceive with one view, you have to acknowledge that there are some real dilemmas connected with the other view as well.

Rule 3: Leave Room for Holy Envy

Dr. Peterson accurately points out that many of our critics refuse to see anything good in the LDS faith; certainly nothing worth “Holy Envy.” There are many that will say it’s not really a church or really even a religion.

Well, since this is Stendahl’s rule, one may wonder what Holy Envy does he have for the LDS faith? Dr. Peterson shared this story of Stendahl’s remarks at a press conference:

He [Stendahl] said, “You know in my religious tradition, our dead are forgotten. We don’t think about them. They’re gone. But the Mormons want to bring the benefits of Christ’s atonement even to their ancestors. That,” he said, “I envy and admire.” That does not necessarily mean that he believes in it, although he is much more sympathetic to the idea of baptism for the dead in early Christianity than a lot of our critics are.

You may remember his article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. In fact, there is a story behind that, which I also got from Truman Madsen, where he first approached Stendahl and asked him would he be willing to write an article for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism about baptism for the dead in ancient Christianity. Stendahl said “No.” Truman re-approached him and said, “We’d really like to have you involved. Would it be possible, could I maybe write an article on the subject, just a brief little thing, and send it to you and you just make any changes you want to and you can put your name on it?” Stendahl said, “Oh, all right, send me an article.”

When Truman wrote the thing up and sent it to him, Stendahl immediately fired back and said, “This is a terrible article; it’s not nearly strong enough; your case is much better than you are letting on; don’t be so reticent,” and wrote the article you now see in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which is a quite positive thing saying, “Look, the consensus of all informed biblical exegetes is that early Christians did practice baptism for the dead and it was a rite essentially as the Mormons describe it.”

Dr. Peterson uses this rule as a jumping off point to demonstrate the leanings of our critics to invent facts or experiences, when faced with the lack of them. This invention of facts is not a new approach by anti-Mormons. As a matter of fact, we can go back to one of the first critics of the LDS faith, Philastus Hurlbut and his affidavits, which turned out to be absolutely false. Or, as Dr. Peterson points out, one could go back to “the American Anti-Mormon Association (in 1906) which discovered that wonderful Oliver Cowdery confession, which turned out to be a forgery (probably forged by the general secretary of the Anti-Mormon Association).”

Of course we are all familiar with the Hoffman forgeries. We are all familiar with the more recent document that was discovered this year that verified and confirmed Brigham Young’s involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacres. Of course, that was also found to be a forgery.

Dr. Peterson shared his experience of listening to an audiotape lecture by Sheila Garrick, a leader of Ex-Mormons of Jesus, entitled:My Years As a Mormon:

I learned that one can be a devout Mormon without believing in Jesus but that faith in Joseph Smith is mandatory. The Savior, she explained, is “not important” in Mormon theology. In fact, during her 13 years as a Latter-day Saint, she never heard the name Jesus Christ in any Mormon meeting except as appended to prayers, which can only, by the way, be offered by males. She didn’t own a Bible during that time because Latter-day Saints are not encouraged to read the Bible. And when her non-member husband rather abruptly became a committed fundamentalist Protestant, her bishop explained her options to her. One, she could divorce her husband; two, she could remain in her marriage and after death become a ministering angel to better Mormons than herself; or three, she could remain in her marriage but at her death be sealed to a faithful Mormon man as his plural wife. She initially chose that latter option. So, with her bishop’s encouragement, she telephoned a Latter-day Saint man that she had once dated before her marriage and he happily accepted her request to be his plural wife in the life to come. Now, I can tell by your laughter that this does not strike you as plausible. I found myself kind of pounding the dashboard as I was driving along.

From Kurt Van Gorden, in a lecture at Calvary Chapel in Chino, California, June 1, 2000, Dr. Peterson learned the following Mormon doctrine:

Latter-day Saint men have the option of resurrecting their wives–or not. Naturally, as Rev. Van Gorden explained, this puts LDS women in a “precarious position,” for if a wife does not treat her husband well enough, he may be inclined to simply let her “simply lay in her grave and rot.” Now, I really liked this. I immediately announced to my wife that I was never going to eat cooked carrots again. I don’t like them, I’m tired of them, and she had better not put them on my plate.

Peterson’s Rule

During his presentation, Dr. Peterson presented one more rule that I will call “Peterson’s Rule.” Dr. Peterson shared a personal experience he had in Cairo, Egypt:

I remember going with a Muslim friend of mine to visit a chemistry professor at the University of Cairo. And this is a very educated man, obviously, holder of a doctorate, I think European educated, as I recall, and we got to talking about what I was doing there, that I was studying Islam, and so on, and he asked me, “Are you a Muslim?” and I said “No.” And he asked me the question that I always dread, “Why not?” which can get you into a very awkward position. Well, I tried to answer it positively and said, “I’m a Christian, I believe in the divinity of Christ and, therefore, I can’t be a Muslim.”

He said, “How can you possibly believe in that? Everybody knows that God doesn’t have a son. God can’t have a son. ‘He nether begets nor is he begotten’,” he quoted from the Koran. And then he said, “And let me tell you something else. Is this what you believe? Do you believe that God had a son and that to buy himself off because he wanted to destroy and damn everybody, he had to send his son down and make sure he was tortured to death so that he wouldn’t have to damn all of humanity?”

I said, “Well, that’s not quite the way we typically put it but that’s a relatively fair statement of the idea.”

He said, “Well that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Everybody knows that’s not true. It’s absolutely inconceivable.”

Well, what struck me about that was that religions often look silly to people outside. He said no intelligent person could possibly believe in a doctrine like that. Well, besides the fact that it was somewhat personally insulting, I thought, “But intelligent people have demonstrably believed in that doctrine, whether you think it’s right or wrong.” I mean, St. Augustine wasn’t stupid. Thomas Aquinas wasn’t stupid. Calvin wasn’t stupid. Kierkergaard wasn’t stupid. There are a lot of bright people who have accepted a doctrine much like this.

Does this approach sound familiar? Dr. Peterson makes an excellent point. Outsiders view particular religions as just plain silly, one that no person in their right mind would believe. But, in fact, there are many people–good intelligent people–who believe in that particular religion. I’m sure you have had times where you have asked yourself, “how can they really believe that? I just can’t believe it.”

So, what is Peterson’s Rule?

So the principle that came to me on this was that if you are looking at a religious tradition that has a large number of adherents…then there must be something in it that appeals to different people.

Mormonism, for example, has clearly lasted long enough and has clearly appealed to a wide enough cross section of people that you don’t have to concede that it’s true to say there must be something there that appeals to people; bright people, practical people, highly educated people, uneducated people; all sorts of people in all sorts of cultures have found something appealing in this movement. The same is true of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.

An Examination of Anti-Mormon Tactics

In conjunction with presenting the four rules thus far cited, Dr. Peterson turned his attention to many of the efforts made by anti-Mormons, and whether those efforts comply with the rules. Examining two of the examples presented by Dr. Peterson will give a flavor for how anti-Mormons operate.

Selective Research by the Tanners

Let us turn our attention to “the greatest of all anti-Mormons,” the Tanners. Dr. Peterson really exposes several of the Tanners’ sad attempts at “selective” research. One argument the Tanners are well known for, and numerous subsequent critics of the LDS faith have used this argument, is that Joseph Smith’s First Vision account was not well known and was misunderstood by many early leaders of the Church. If this was such a grand event, the linchpin of our faith, then why didn’t the early leaders know about it? Good question. Let’s look at how the Tanners document their claim, courtesy of Dr. Peterson:

The Tanners quote an 1868 passage from George Smith, the prophet’s cousin, in order to suggest that he didn’t know the traditional version of the First Vision as late as 1868. He didn’t, even though it had been published many, many years before in various forms. But he thought that it was only an angel that appeared to Joseph Smith. But they fail to mention the following passage from Elder Smith in a sermon delivered four years earlier, in 1864. Which, you know how long it took me to find this with my computer? Thirty seconds. Now, the Tanners, I think, could do this.

“When the Lord appeared to Joseph Smith, and manifested unto him a knowledge pertaining to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the work of the last days, Satan came also with his power and tempted Joseph. It is written in the book of Job, ‘Now there was a day when the Sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan came also among them.’ In the very commencement of this work, the Prophet Joseph Smith was called upon to contend, face to face, with the powers of darkness by spiritual manifestations and open visions as well as with men in the flesh stirred up by the same spirit of the adversary” (I’m quoting this because I think it is relevant to the Tanners), “to hedge up his way and destroy him from the earth and annihilate his work which he was about to commence.”

He thus describes the incident, and then, George A. Smith quotes the account that we all know.

“In the spring of 1820, when I had retired in the place where I had previously designed to go,” (so on and so forth), he knelt down, a thick darkness overcame him, he exerted all his power to call upon God. Just at this great moment of alarm (I’m leaving things out) “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound….When the light rested upon me, I saw two personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me calling me by name, and said pointing to the other, ‘this is my beloved Son, hear him.'”

Now, since he read that in the tabernacle in 1864, do you think it’s likely that four years later George A. Smith didn’t know the story? The Tanners could have found that. But they didn’t because it’s not important to tell the whole story. Find a passage that’s useful, you go with it.

Dr. Peterson shared two or three additional examples of this approach on this same issue. I have only included this one example on the issue of the early Church leaders and their knowledge of the First Vision.

Peter Elias and Mormonism Web Ministries

The last example I will cite of Dr. Peterson’s review of anti-Mormon approaches is that of Peter Elias (assumed name) and his Mormonism Web Ministries. The approach in general is to selectively choose particular characters in LDS history to represent typical LDS doctrine. This would be an example of violating Stendahl’s second rule. Elias and other critics (Mormonism Research Ministries is another) will select a bad example to raise as the banner of Mormonism. In this case, the selection is Amasa Lyman and here’s how Elias has intentionally used a bad example to deceive people into thinking that Lyman’s teachings are or were representative of LDS doctrine. This was published in a newsletter called The Truth, oddly enough.

This newsletter furnishes a particularly clear illustration of the methodology employed by some zealous critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As such, it also provides a good argument for why their books, lectures, pamphlets, cassette tapes, websites, tabloids, broadcasts, seminars should not be taken at face value. The theme of this particular issue of The Truth is “Mormonism, Insulting the Spirit of Grace.” Savvy readers can guess far in advance how Mr. Elias will answer his own question.

Under the rubric of LDS, Mr. Elias has the following: “We may talk of men being redeemed by the advocacy of Christ’s blood, but the truth is that blood has no efficacy to wash away our sins. That must depend upon our own actions.” That’s signed “LDS Apostle, Amasa M. Lyman, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 7.” Mr. Elias contrasts this with the truth. “For you know that it is not with perishable things that you are redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, that is the law (works), but with the precious blood of Christ, the lamb without blemish or defect. 1 Peter 1:18.” Mr. Elias subsequently strengthens his argument with two quotations from Elder Lyman under the subheading of “Trampling on the Blood of Christ.” This scarcely seems necessary. There appears to be a pretty stark contrast between what Elder Lyman said and what 1 Peter 1:18 said.

It seems undeniably obvious that Latter-day Saint teaching as represented by Amasa Lyman, Council of the Twelve, diverges dramatically from the doctrine of the New Testament. Case closed. But is it? Can Amasa Lyman’s public musings on the redemptive power of the blood of Christ, or the lack thereof, legitimately be taken as illustrating the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Let’s look at the historical background [using] only the materials I have on the shelf of my personal library at home, deliberately excluding the Web and any data base software. Nothing among these materials is particularly esoteric or difficult to obtain. They are all certainly within the reach of someone as devoted to the study of Mormonism as Mr. Elias purports to be. An author who has found Amasa Lyman’s scattered 19th-century ruminations can also reasonably be expected to be aware of mainstream historiography on the Latter-day Saints. Most particularly, the broad outlines of Amasa Lyman’s biography.

While people questioned Lyman’s intent, it did take some time before Lyman was brought before the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Church, to account for this heresy. Nonetheless, the leadership of the Church had noticed his puzzling remarks. Dr. Peterson noted a journal entry by Wilford Woodruff, dated December 26, 1866:

The subject of a sermon preached by A. Lyman and published in the Millennial Star, April 5, 1862 in Vol. 24 was brought up and read and it was found to have done away with the efficacy of the blood of Christ. President B. Young said he wished to know what the Twelve had to say about it for he had a good deal to say about it. When you do away with the blood of the Savior, you do away with all the gospel and plan of salvation. If this doctrine is preached by A Lyman, be preached and published as the doctrine of the church and not contradicted by us it would not be long before there would be schisms in the church. This doctrine as preached in this sermon is false doctrine. If we do not believe that it is necessary for Christ to shed his blood to save the world, where is our church? It is nothing. This does not set well upon my feelings. It is grievous for me to have the Apostles teach false doctrines. Now, if the Twelve will sit down quietly and not contradict such doctrine, are they justified? No they are not.

Wilford Woodruff, at the time, was a member of the Twelve. He would later become the fourth President of the Church. Dr. Peterson noted a later journal entry by Elder Woodruff, this one dated January 21, 1867:

We held a meeting in the evening as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to examine the subject of Amasa Lyman teaching false doctrine and publishing it to the world. He had virtually done away with the blood of Christ saying, the blood of Christ was not necessary for the salvation of man. The Quorum of the Twelve were horrified at the idea that one of the Twelve Apostles should teach such a doctrine. After Amasa Lyman was interrogated on the subject and said these had been his sentiments, W. Woodruff (of course, that is he himself) made the first speech and all the Quorum followed and they spoke in very strong terms. W. Woodruff said that he felt shocked at the idea that one of the Twelve Apostles should get so far into the dark as to deny the blood of Jesus Christ and say that it was not necessary for the salvation of man and teach this as a true doctrine, while it is in opposition to all the doctrine taught by every prophet, and apostle and saint from the days of Adam until today. The Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants have taught from beginning to end that Christ shed his blood for the salvation of man and that there was no other name given unto heaven whereby men could be saved and I can tell Brother Lyman that that doctrine will send him to perdition if he continues in it. And so it will any man. And such a doctrine would rend this church and kingdom to pieces like an earthquake. There never was no never will be a saint on the earth that believes that doctrine. It is the worst heresy that man can preach. When the Twelve got through speaking, Amasa wept like a child and asked for forgiveness. We then all went into President Young’s office and conversed with him. He felt as the Twelve on the subject only more so and required Brother Lyman to publish his confession and make it as public as he had his false doctrine.

Dr. Peterson went on to use additional journal entries from Wilford Woodruff to detail the process by which Amasa Lyman was censured and required to publicly confess his preaching of false doctrine in this matter. Dr. Peterson went on to chronicle how Lyman apparently only repented to maintain his station in the Church, but was eventually disfellowshipped and later excommunicated.

When Lyman died in 1877, he was a practicing spiritualist and a vocal dissident of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It thus seems rather peculiar, to say the least of it, that Peter Elias has chosen Amasa Lyman as his star witness to represent the Latter-day Saints.


One would surmise if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were the horrible unchristian cult it is purported to be, its critics should be able to demonstrate it so, without resorting to deceptive practices. The critics of the LDS faith continue in this path. The research and publishing efforts of anti-Mormons show that the majority are not capable of honorable, upright work. Using selective research to find quotes from former leaders to lead audiences to believe something incorrect is not an example of what one would expect from rigorous scholarship.

Perhaps our critics can learn to understand other religions–including the LDS–from the rules developed by Krister Stendahl. Then again, perhaps not.

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