The following series of articles is a fictional dialogue between Shane and Doug, two former missionary companions many years after their missions. Shane writes to his friend Doug who has posted comments about his on-going faith crisis on Facebook. The characters are fictionalized composites of members who have faced these same dilemmas but the issues are based on very real problems which have caused some to stumble. Likewise, the responding arguments are based on the author’s own personal engagement with these same concerns as well as his discussion of these issues with other members who have struggled. (By Michael R. Ash, author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, and Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith.)
I’m glad to hear that you received my previous letter and have thought about some of the things I mentioned. I can certainly appreciate how overwhelming this can be. You are getting different information from different sources and it’s difficult to know what information (or really which conclusions based on the information) is reliable. The turmoil you are engaging will eventually drive you to seek relief—most likely by choosing one side or the other. Since I’ve been there myself, I hope that I can show you how I found this relief and strengthened my testimony.
In my last letter I explained how I discovered that the Church was not involved in a “cover up” regarding the truth–––and especially the truth of early Mormon history. I mentioned that my studies have shown that many of these things have been discussed in previous official LDS publications as well as publications officially associated with the Church. In response to your query about where you can find such pro-LDS discussions, let me offer a few sources. A 1993 Ensign article by Russell M. Nelson (“A Treasured Testament”) mentions Joseph Smith’s use of a stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon. The Kinderhook Plates were addressed in an Ensign article in 1981. Joseph’s revelation about plural marriage was discussed in the Sunday School manuals in 1979 (and that manual was used for many years) and again in 1986 (which, again, was utilized for many years). The changes and revisions made to the Book of Commandments and early editions of the Doctrine and Covenants have been addressed in Ensign articles published in 1984, 1985, 2009, and 2013. The various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision were examined in the Ensign in 1985 and again in 1996. Joseph’s treasure digging days were discussed in 1984 in a series of articles in BYU’s own BYU Studies. Many of the tougher issues have also been discussed in the earlier FARMS Review (mentioned in my previous letter)—a group that is officially under BYU’s umbrella (currently known as the Maxwell Institute).
You ask, “Why aren’t these things discussed in Church? Why should someone have to be a scholar and read the FARMS Review to find discussions on these topics? Why can’t we discuss them in Sunday School?” Those are good questions, Doug, and questions I’ve contemplatedmyself. Think about it though. We’ve both taught Gospel Doctrine classes, and if your priesthood quorums are anything like mine, do you really think these topics are the best way to spend two thirds of our three-hour block? When I go to Church I want to be spiritually renewed. I want to hear things that will lift my soul, to help me contemplate areas in my life I need to change, to feel fed as I contemplate Christ’s sacrifice, atonement, and the goodness of God. I want help in overcoming my weaknesses. I want spiritual enlightenment of how I can be a better father and husband, and to feel the peace that comes when I know I’ve recommitted myself to the Savior.
As a universal Church, the correlation of materials and teachings is aimed at harmonizing lessons and instructions and to accommodate the tender new member with basic Gospel principals—those teachings that affect our relationships with God and fellow brothers and sisters. Thousands of virtually untrained volunteers, with varying degrees of gospel and historical knowledge and education (or lack thereof) attempt to bring the Spirit into the classroom so that class members can be spiritually edified. While some Gospel Doctrine teachers may be knowledgeable enough to share detailed historical information (Dad could have), the manuals generally give basic historical outlines that specifically relate to lessons focusing on one or more gospel principles and how to apply those principals in the lives of members. In short, Church is a place for worship, spiritual edification, and enlightenment, not for in-depth historical discussion.
That’s why I used to think that my Dad was really just pursuing fluff in his spare time. The historical, scientific, and scholarly things don’t really matter in the end. In the end, it’s about relationships. Relationships with your parents, children, and spouse; relationships with those who are in need, as well as your enemies.Most importantly, your relationship with Heavenly Father and His Son. None of the secular stuff will secure those relationships.
Having said this however, I know only too well from firsthand experience that my relationship with Heavenly Father took a hit when I began struggling with critical arguments. How ironic, right? The secular stuff cannot create those relationships, but they can hinder those relationships. Conversely, I’ve found that some secular information can strengthen those relationships by giving them an environment wherein the testimony can grow. In Matthew13 we find the parable of the sower. In that parable the seed (the Word) grew or died depending on the soil (which allowed the seed to take root or not) as well as well as if it was nurtured or killed off by thorns. So likewise with a testimony: the Word of God may or may not take root and may or not may not flourish depending on if it is nurtured or chocked off by thorns. Our relationship with the divine needs to be nurtured spiritually, and for some people intellectually. A lack of spiritual and/or intellectual nourishment can stunt or kill growth. The thorns, thistles, and weeds–––the challenges to our testimony–––can kill our spiritual growth. When these weeds appear there is a need to do some gardening and weed pulling. While some intellectual arguments can cause a testimony to wither and die, other intellectual arguments can pull those weeds and allow growth to take place.
Many years ago the Church didn’t need to discuss the difficult issues. The events happened and the Church moved on. In the context of the day, histories were written as evangelizations of movements–––political or religious. Strict accuracy was less important than retelling events in heroic fashion. This wasn’t limited to Mormons but was the typical style of most historical biographies. Subsequent histories drew upon earlier histories. The more critical details of the events weren’t so much buried under the rug as they were all but forgotten (mentioned only in scholarly literature).
For the average member, there was no need for Sunday lessons to address the fuller historical accounts–––which required greater historical understanding for context and background. This would have been a waste of valuable (and limited) time which was better utilized for perfecting the Saints. The Internet, however, has brought these issues to the forefront among new generations that aren’t always familiar with the past events or issues, and I can guarantee the Church is noticing the problem and is finding ways to address them. Policies and procedures change according to changing needs. Not every generation needs an Ark. In past times bishops didn’t need much in the way of policies on pornography–—sure there were always a few guys that read girlie magazines, but because of the pervasiveness of Internet porn new policies and procedures have been established. The Church is currently addressing many of the historical issues on the LDS.org website and we will likely see more open discussion in future Sunday School classes—not because it was purposely covered up in the past, but simply because in previous years there was no immediate need to address the issues. Now there is.
The more we (as in the World) learn, the more answers we’ll have on some things and the more questions will be raised for other things. The great thing about a living Church is we have not only the ability to receive new revelation as new questions arise, but also to receive inspiration for changing circumstances. Lastly, we Latter-day Saints don’t believe that all truth is contained within the walls of the Chapel. We acknowledge and welcome the discoveries of science and secular scholarship. While such secular findings may present temporary speed bumps or unseat erroneous traditions among the faithful (both within the Church as well as among the members of other denominations), we can welcome truth from all sources knowing with confidence that all truth ultimately comes from God.