In 19th century England, hounds were often used for hunting foxes and other game for food or sport, a tradition that survives in some parts of that country even today.1 According to legend, sometimes as the hounds went off in search of animals scent, saboteurs would take smoked fish (usually herring turned reddish in color because of the smoking process) and drag it along the hunting route but away from the game. Perhaps they were other hunters wanting the trophy for themselves, or maybe just mischief makers–––the story doesn’t specify. Whatever the motivation, their ploy would cause the dogs to abandon the trail and follow this new and alluring scent. Unfortunately, this would sabotage the hunt, and the dogs would be left empty handed, so to speak, because they had lost sight (or smell) of the true prize.2 Although the origins of this story are dubious, the phrase “red herring” has stuck to refer to using false or misleading information to redirect attention away from the real issue.
In our parable we are the hounds and anti-Mormon critics are the saboteurs who use (figurative) strong-scented fish to lead us away from our real treasure: the core doctrines and ordinances of the Gospel. There are many examples of this, and they are too numerous to mention here, but always the goal is the same: distract from the critical issues (is the Book of Mormon true? is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints God’s Church on the earth? is Joseph Smith a Prophet?) by getting us to focus all of our time and energy on infinitely less important ones (Joseph Smith’s character flaws, translation “issues” with the Gold Plates or the Book of Abraham, polygamy, etc.). We start to ignore what really matters–––the things actually important to our salvation–––to focus on these other issues, and in the process allow our testimonies to wither and die. Unfortunately, it can be easy to take the bait and fall down this false trail. I would like to offer up a few suggestions that might be helpful as we find ourselves dealing with this problem.
First, a common red herring that gets thrown around is that if we don’t have the answers to every question an anti-Mormon critic brings up, then the Church obviously isn’t true. This is just ridiculous. The Church has never claimed to have the answers to everything. In fact, it is commonly taught that we don’t have all of the answers and probably won’t in this life. Scientists don’t have all of the answers about science, yet you never hear anti-science critics decrying all their findings as false. Doctors don’t have all the answers about medicine, but you don’t hear critics portraying every medical professional as a fraud. You get the idea. Not knowing everything is part of the Plan of Salvation. If we did know everything then we would have no need for faith, and faith is a crucial part of our mortal experience. Without it we cannot be exalted.
That being said, there are good answers to almost all of the questions posed by critics, and even more answers will come with additional research. A good example would be the supposed anachronisms found in the Book of Mormon. The more we have learned about ancient America, the more they have disappeared.3 We would do well to follow the counsel of Sister Camilla Kimball, wife of President Spencer W. Kimball: “I have always had an inquiring mind. I am not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I could not answer. I had a shelf of things I did not understand, but as I have grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I have been able to understand them better.”4 Just because we don’t have the answer to a question right now doesn’t mean we won’t later, and as such is no reason to leave the straight and narrow sniffing after smoked fish.
Second, we need to be careful to not sacrifice our study of the things that really matter as we search for answers to less important issues. Just as our bodies require constant physical nourishment to survive and thrive, our testimonies need the constant spiritual nourishment that the scriptures and words of the living prophets provide. It can be easy to get so wrapped up in an issue that we obsessively read every article and blog post on the subject–––taking up hours of our time and neglecting the scripture study we so desperately need. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we shouldn’t find answers to issues that trouble us. But I am saying that we should not sacrifice the “best” for the “good.” I think that scholarly research about the Church is critical, and I spend a good amount of my time studying it, but when all is said and done, it will be the study of spiritual things that draws us closer to Christ and ultimately saves us. It is not something we should abandon, especially when there is an issue we are struggling with. The more we let the Spirit into our lives, the easier it will be for Him to teach us the truth.
Third, when we are seeking answers to questions that may bother us, we owe it to ourselves and to our Heavenly Father to use sources that will build up instead of attempt to tear down our testimonies. This is critical. How information is presented, whether it is true or not, can have a significant impact on how it is received and interpreted. A good example of this is found in a recent FairMormon podcast by Ned Scarisbrick. Even something critical to life itself (like water) can be given such a negative spin as to make is seem reprehensible. The same is true about things of the Spirit. As Elder Stanfill of the Seventy eloquently explained during this most recent General Conference:
When we consider thoughtfully, why would we listen to the faceless, cynical voices of those in the great and spacious buildings of our time …These ever-present naysayers prefer to tear down rather than elevate and to ridicule rather than uplift. Their mocking words can burrow into our lives, often through split-second bursts of electronic distortions carefully and deliberately composed to destroy our faith. Is it wise to place our eternal well-being in the hands of strangers? Is it wise to claim enlightenment from those who have no light to give or who may have private agendas hidden from us? These anonymous individuals, if presented to us honestly, would never be given a moment of our time, but because they exploit social media, hidden from scrutiny, they receive undeserved credibility.5
Let us be careful not to give these critics power over us that they don’t deserve and instead seek answers from good, qualified, uplifting sources of which there are plenty.
Lastly, remember that the things that really matter, spiritual truths that can save and uplift us are only understood by spiritual means. It is not a sign of weakness or lack of intelligence to rely on God for this; it is a sign of faith. These truths can only be revealed by His Spirit, and when we have gained our testimony the other issues don’t seem to matter as much, for we know that we are on the right path and that all of our answers will come in time. It’s not so much that our questions disappear, but we gain a greater peace and understanding that overcomes our uncertainties. On the other hand, if we allow them to, red herrings can take us away from those central, core truths that bring to us light and life, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Consider the following quote from President Uchtdorf:
I wish I could help everyone to understand this one simple fact: we believe in God because of things we know with our heart and mind, not because of things we do not know. Our spiritual experiences are sometimes too sacred to explain in worldly terms, but that doesn’t mean they are not real. Heavenly Father has prepared for His children a spiritual feast, offering every kind of exquisite food imaginable—and yet, instead of enjoying these spiritual gifts, the cynics content themselves with observing from a distance, sipping from their cups of skepticism, doubt, and disrespect. Why would anyone walk through life satisfied with the light from the candle of their own understanding when, by reaching out to our Heavenly Father, they could experience the bright sun of spiritual knowledge that would expand their minds with wisdom and fill their souls with joy?… Skepticism is easy—anyone can do it. It is the faithful life that requires moral strength, dedication, and courage. Those who hold fast to faith are far more impressive than those who give in to doubt when mysterious questions or concerns arise.6
Let us be careful that in our search for truth that we do not fall into the trap of the cynics. Rather, let us see these red herrings for what they truly are–––stinky fish–––and follow instead the path that will lead us to eternal life.
- Foxhunting (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/sports/foxhunting
- Jack, Albert (2004). Red Herrings and White Elephants. The Origins of Phrases We Use Every Day [Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader] pp. 188-189. Retrieved from http://leafo.net/hosted/ase/WhatCD
- Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Basic Principles (n.d.). FairMormon Answers. Retrieved from http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Anachronisms/Basic_principles
- Caroline Eyring Miner and Edward L. Kimball, Camilla (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1980), pp. 126–27
- Stanfill, Vern P (2015) “Choose the Light.” Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/print/2015/10/choose-the-light?lang=eng
- Uchtdorf, Dieter (2015) “Be Not Afraid, Only Believe.” Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/10/be-not-afraid-only-believe?lang=eng