Betrayal and Our Relationship with Church History

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Ash (newer) Picture(This is the second half of an article based on a 2013 FairMormon Conference presentation)    

In any relationship, one of the things that seems to cause the most pain and anger is the feeling of betrayal. This same problem can surface in our relationship with the Church. For example, if a member finds information that conflicts with his or her assumptions about Church history, they may feel that the Church has lied. The pain and anger of feeling betrayed may take the leading role in the desire to leave the faith while the original troubling issue or issues may become secondary. A testimony lost at this stage can be hard to restore. What might have been sufficient answers earlier become insufficient once resentment—as a result of presumably being deceived—replaces faith. At this point logic and rationale take a back seat to emotion and answers to the original challenging issues are often met by a litany of other issues.

When potentially troubling information is presented in faith-promoting ways, the information—accompanied by the weight of a faithful context—often helps members understand difficult issues within a framework of their beliefs. When hostile sources present the same information, they frequently claim or imply that the Church hides this information from members. The critics supposedly are merely exposing a “cover-up.” This may add weight to the contra-LDS source and give the impression that they (the critics) are really the objective truth-seekers who are merely uncovering the facts. It’s often not the information that makes people leave, but the perception that the information was “hidden.” The feelings of deception and betrayal ultimately drive many people out more frequently than the discovery itself.

Is there any truth to the charge that the Church has withheld challenging details of the past? The answer is both yes and no.

Information can be withheld intentionally or unintentionally. First we will discuss the intentional reasons. In the context of early creations of LDS history, we find a tradition among most nineteenth-century biographies (the primary form of historical creations) that emphasized the positive aspects of heroic figures in the hopes of inspiring readers while often exaggerating or even fabricating anecdotes—such as George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree. Frequently, in cases of early American biographies involving religious or philosophical movements, the movement took center stage and the “history” was a tool for evangelizing the movement. Any information that might harm the movement was withheld from the biography/history.

Early Mormon historians, like many historians of their era, were not trained in history but were instead influenced by the English Puritans whose histories were written as faithful explanations of their events. These Puritans (as well as early LDS historians) believed that, like the Hebrews before them, they were God’s chosen people whose coming to America was part of God’s unfolding plan. “Their history and biography,” note three prominent historians, “told the saga of God’s dealings as seen in their personal lives. In short, Puritan biography and autobiography were simultaneously scripture as well as history.” “Accuracy and realism were …largely things of the future.”[i]

Apostle George Q. Cannon, whose faith-promoting stories were intended for the youth of the Church, wrote some of the more popular historical accounts of early Mormonism. Such works, like many other non-LDS works of the nineteenth century, were defensive in tone, biased, one-dimensional, and devoted to evangelizing a particular perspective. Today such writings are often referred to as hagiographies. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that the modern biography—critical, multi-dimensional, and objective (at least in principle)—“began to take its present form.”[ii] The early faith-promoting histories, however, became the source of historical knowledge for many Church members, launched similar popular works for decades to come, and influenced the versions of history that were taught in Church and official Church publications. While it can be said that early LDS histories intentionally withheld challenging and non-flattering information, in the context of the times this was not unique to Mormonism and is to be expected.

As for the unintentional censoring of information, we turn to the Church curriculum. Some ex-members complain that they never heard certain aspects of Church history from the Sunday School classes they attended. The purpose of Church curriculum, however, including Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society, is to support the mission of the Church: to bring people to Christ. Very little actual history is discussed in Church classes. Even every fourth year when the Doctrine and Covenants is taught (which includes some Church history) the primary goal of the class is to help members draw closer to God, seek the Spirit, and understand gospel principles.

As an international Church, the correlation of materials and teachings is aimed at harmonizing lessons and instruction, and in accommodating the tender new member with basic Gospel principals—those teachings which affect our relationships with God and our fellow brothers and sisters.

Thousands of virtually untrained volunteers, with varying degrees of gospel and historical knowledge and education (or lack thereof) endeavor 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, 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.

Despite the primary foci of Church curriculum and official Church publications, the vast majority of challenging issues have seen brief discussions or notes in a variety of LDS-targeted publications, conferences, and programs.

If these topics have been mentioned, why are some members shocked when they first encounter them in LDS-critical publications? Americans, unfortunately, are by and large, literate but uniformed. We tend to spend less time reading than watching TV or surfing the Internet. Several studies show that fewer Americans read books, and many are severely uninformed in regards to significant historical issues, current events, or scientific facts. According to Carl Sagan, 63% of Americans are unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first humans lived, and nearly half of American adults do not know that the Earth goes around the sun and that it takes a year to do so.[iii]

According to one author who wrote about the decline in American religious knowledge, 60% of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments and 50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.[iv] Another study claims that one third of Americans polled believe that evangelist Billy Graham delivered the Sermon on the Mount.[v]

With such non-reader ignorance, is it really any wonder that a number of Mormons are unfamiliar with some of the more difficult issues that have been discussed in Church publications? To repeat a comment generally attributed to Mark Twain: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”[vi]

The charge that the Church has hidden the truth has not landed on deaf ears.The Church “has made no effort to hide or obscure its history,” elder Marlin K. Jensen said, but some aspects “haven’t been emphasized often because they were not necessarily germane to what is taught at present.”

Can the Church do better to explain its history, even to its own members? Sure, Jensen said. “Can we weave some of this into our seminaries, institutes and adult curriculum? I think we can, and efforts are under way to do that.” The church has assigned a staffer to create “a strategy to get church history onto the Web,” he said. “We are also working on an initiative to answer some of these more pressing questions.” [vii]

We need better inoculation and I think the Church is making, and will continue to make, efforts to see this happen. The Joseph Smith Papers Project is a great start. This project has digitized a huge amount of early Mormon documents including early copies of the Book of Mormon, early revelations and letters, and even copies of the surviving portions of the Joseph Smith papyri. And it’s all available on-line, free for anyone who wants to study them.

While the Gospel is rich, simple, and the singular path to everlasting happiness, Church history is rich, complex, and multi-dimensional. Unfortunately, many past and current members have conflated the two by expressing historical narratives in a manner that undervalued their true complexities. The unfortunate consequence of circumscribed historical narratives resulted in the frustrated testimonies of twenty-first century members (both lay members and leaders) who first learned of the historical complexities on hostile websites.

The same twenty-first century technology which has contributed to member feelings of betrayal, however, is now being used by the Church (both in current and future projects) to help struggling members as well as to inoculate members before they stumble.

The entire world’s history of God’s involvement with His children is a story of imperfect humans accomplishing the work of the Lord even while continuing to struggle with sin, misunderstanding, feeble attempts, and weakness. The wonderful thing about such a realization is that God can also work through me—and each of us—despite our own weaknesses, sins, and faults.

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* This article also appeared in Meridian Magazine.

[i] Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker, and James B. Allen, Mormon History (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 117.

[ii] Ibid., 117, 119–120.

[iii] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 324.

[iv] Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Americans Get an ‘F’ in Religion,” USA Today (14 March 2007);available online  (accessed 17 September 2012).

[v] “What Americans Should But Don’t Know About Religion,” Pew Research Center Publications (6 February 2008) (accessed 17 September 2012).

[vi] While this quote is almost universally attributed to Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), I have been unable to find the original source for this quote. See James Glen Stovall  (accessed 14 December 2012).