There has been a bit of buzz (mostly amongst ex- and anti-Mormons) recently over some remarks of Elder Marlin K. Jensen, an emeritus member of the 1st Quorum of the Seventy and former Church Historian and Recorder, who is alleged to have said that, thanks to Google, the omniscient fount of all knowledge, members of the Church are leaving “in droves”. A titanic exodus of members, the likes of which have never before been seen, are leaving the Church, Elder Jensen is reported by many on the Internet to have said. This, the claim on the Internet goes, is because the seedy truth of Mormon history and doctrine, kept secret by a conniving leadership, has been exposed by intrepid researchers on the web.
Some critics of Mormonism usually throw into the scenario the claim that the abject failure of apologetic institutes such as the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research to retain members’ testimonies in the face of this overwhelmingly damning evidence is further proof that the Church is on its last leg. But let us look more carefully at what precisely Elder Jensen said, and the implications his remarks have for Latter-day Saints to be more proactive in sharing accurate information about the Church and being more informed on some of the controversial issues raised by critics.
The first myth that must be dispelled is the claim that Elder Jensen said members of the Church are leaving “in droves”. In fact, Elder Jensen said no such thing. Rather, it was at a fireside in November of 2011 at Utah State University that Elder Jensen, in responding to someone else in the audience saying members of the Church were leaving “in droves”, acknowledged that the role of the Internet in bringing up controversial aspects of Mormon history and doctrine has become significant, and has led to what he called a period of apostasy in the Church. Below is a transcript of the fireside:
Q: Has the Church seen the effects of Google on membership? Have there been…is the Church leadership aware of—and, I don’t know, maybe I’m overstating what’s going on, but it seems like the people I talk to about Church history are people who find out and leave, quickly—
Q: Is the Church aware of that problem? Is there anything…I mean, the new manuals would help, I guess, “inoculation” within terms of youth would help. What about people who are already leaving in droves?
A: We are aware. Maybe I’ll just say this: You know what, I often get this question, “Do the brethren really know?” They do.
Q: [obscured by cross-talk]
A: And I’m not speaking of me; I’m speaking of the fifteen men that are above me in the hierarchy of the Church. They really do know. And they really care. And they realize that, maybe, since Kirtland we’ve never had a period of—I’ll call it apostasy—like we’re having right now, largely over these issues.
So we do have another initiative that we’ve called “Answers to Gospel Questions.” We’re trying to figure out exactly what channels to deliver it in and exactly what format to put it in, but we want to have a place where people can go.
We’ve hired someone that’s in charge of “search engine optimization.” The Church is very tuned in to the world that we’re living in, and we realize that people basically get their information through Googling. They don’t come to LDS.org; if they get there, it’s through Google.
Q: Yes. [?]
A: So we are trying to create an offering that will address these issues and be available for the public at large, for Church leaders, because many of them don’t have answers either, which can be very disappointing to Church members, and to people who are losing their faith or have lost it and we hope to regain to the Church.
So we’re right in tune with you. We know it’s there. It just takes awhile.
A: It’s one thing of a number that we’re working on, but you’re very much in point with what we’re talking about.
From this we see that Elder Jensen was clearly concerned with the many individuals leaving the Church after encountering negative information about the Church, but nowhere does he say members are leaving “in droves”. In fact, as reported by Peggy Fletcher Stack with the Washington Post, Elder Jensen himself was careful to later clarify his off-the-cuff remarks at the fireside.
Jensen insists critics overstate the LDS exodus over the church’s history. “To say we are experiencing some Titanic-like wave of apostasy is inaccurate,” he said.
So while it is true that Elder Jensen, as well as other Church leaders, including the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency, are concerned with the level of members leaving the Church over anti-Mormon material on the Internet, and are currently enacting measures to combat this material, to insist, as some anti-Mormons do, that the Church is on some sort of crash-course with oblivion seems to be a great exaggeration. As reported by the Washington Post:
Church officials say the growth of [certain Internet sites] does not point to a corresponding growth in the number of Mormons leaving the church, whose membership has burgeoned to more than 6 million in America. “Those leaving the church are a fraction of 1 percent each year and it is a trend that is decreasing rather than increasing,” said Michael Purdy, a church spokesman.
In fact, while loss and inactivity of Church membership is a pressing concern, recent reports actually show that the 2012 was a very productive year in Church growth. One website that tracks Church growth reported the following.
2012 was a significant year for stake growth. The Church organized more new stakes in 2012 than in any year since 1998. . . . No other year in Church history has had as many countries have a new stake created in a single year as in 2012. . . . The Church also created its first stake in more countries in 2012 than any year since 1977 as the first stakes were organized in Botswana, Cape Verde, India, New Caledonia, and Sierra Leone
The current statistical report of the Church is impressive, with high expectations in the near future for further Church growth on account of President Thomas S. Monson’s announcement of the change of the minimum age of prospective missionaries.
And so we are left with a choice. We can believe the words of Elders Jensen and Purdy, two individuals who are directly involved in dealing with this issue, that, while indeed a significant challenge and very unfortunate, the loss of Church members over anti-Mormon material on the Internet is not so great that the Church is teetering on collapse. Or we can believe (mostly) anonymous critics who are relying primarily on hearsay, anecdotal, or other flimsy evidence to support their assertions that the Church is suffering irreparable membership loss. (Bear in mind that many of these critics seem to relish any sign of the Church losing membership, and are, I believe, more prone to exaggerate the situation facing the Church.)
This isn’t to say that the increased exposure of the Church on the Internet isn’t significant, and that Mormons shouldn’t be active in clarifying misrepresentation online. This also isn’t to say that there is no need to combat anti-Mormon material online. Groups such as FAIR exist exactly because online anti-Mormonism is a problem that needs to be addressed. (Incidentally, reports from some, including one prominent anti-Mormon who has now decided to join the ranks of Ed Decker, that FAIR is in danger of closure because of some alleged failure to adequately answer anti-Mormon accusations are fabrications. FAIR is doing just fine, with no plans of closing shop any time soon. So too is the Interpreter Foundation, which continues to publish new articles every week.) This also isn’t to say that Church members couldn’t do more to be better informed of LDS history and doctrine, including controversial and sensitive issues. I’ve said before that recent efforts by the Church to make more readily available better scholarship on Church history, such as the wonderful Joseph Smith Papers Project, are a great positive. We’ve even seen some positive improvements in the January 2013 Ensign on addressing Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones and revisions made in the Doctrine and Covenants, and a thoughtful article on how to balance faith and reason in acquiring and maintaining a testimony.
There certainly is much more to be done in meeting the challenge of Internet anti-Mormonism, and all is not necessarily well in Zion. However, the Latter-day Saints need not worry about some impending apocalypse that will see the Church fracture and withdraw back into obscurity because of the efforts of some cabal of anti-Mormon crackpots on the Internet. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s quip upon seeing his obituary accidentally printed while he was still alive, reports of the Church’s death are greatly exaggerated.