Category Archives: LDS History

Book Review: Letters to a Young Mormon

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Title: Letters to a Young Mormon
Author: Adam S. Miller
Publisher: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship
Genre: Religion – Faith
Year Published: 2014
Number of Pages: 78 pages
Binding: Paperback
ISBN-10: 0842528563
ISBN-13: 978-0842528566
Price: $9.95

Reviewed by Trevor Holyoak

This is the first book in a new “Living Faith” series from the Maxwell Institute. While reading it, I struggled to determine just who the “young Mormon” is that the book is aimed at. Is it for teenagers, or perhaps for 20-somethings? I think I actually understand it much better as a 40 year old father than I would have at a younger age, mostly due to the knowledge and experience I have since gained. Then I discovered, thanks to Amazon, that there has been a whole crop recently of books entitled “Letters to a Young XXXXX” (for example, Letters to a Young Contrarian by the late atheist Christopher Hitchens). Briefly looking at some of them, it appears that this book may have been loosely modeled after them. However I still question exactly who the intended audience is.

The book covers a wide range of topics of interest to Mormons, including agency, work, sin, faith, scripture, prayer, history, science, hunger, sex, temples, and eternal life. While I did find some new insights in some of these letters, much of what is contained is vague enough that any parent who shares the book with their teenage child may want to read it themselves so they can discuss it together. The chapter on sex, in particular, warrants this, as the only thing really clear in it is an admonition to avoid pornography, and then only for some of what I consider to be the right reasons.

I asked my two teenage daughters to read a couple chapters each. My 17 year old chose the chapters on history and hunger and thought they were too vague and wished the author had connected the dots. She is probably more familiar with some of the things mentioned (but not explained) in the history letter – such as “Joseph Smith’s clandestine practice of polygamy, Brigham Young’s strong-armed experiments in theocracy, or George Albert Smith’s mental illness” (page 48) – than many young LDS people her age because I have tried to teach her about some of the more difficult topics, yet she had questions about the usage of the word “clandestine” and about George Albert Smith. In fact, with that kind of loaded wording, someone picking it up off the shelf and glancing casually at the page might get the initial impression that it is anti-Mormon material. This chapter may provide an opportunity for a parent to teach their child how to find trustworthy answers for any questions that are raised.

On the other hand, my 16 year old (who doesn’t like to read and appreciated the shortness of the sections) read the prayer and the temple sections, and found she could actually relate to some of it. I think the temple chapter is one of the better ones in the book, and it was particularly timely for her because the material in it complemented what I told her in a discussion we recently had after she stumbled upon a critical video on YouTube.

There are a few other places in the book where I feel good answers are given to common issues. One example is an explanation for the seemingly unscientific account of the creation found in Genesis. The author begins by explaining that the Hebrews “thought the world was basically a giant snow globe. When God wanted to reveal his hand in the creation of their world, he borrowed and repurposed the commonsense cosmology they already had. He wasn’t worried about its inaccuracies, he was worried about showing his hand at work in shaping their world as they knew it” (page 53). Miller continues through the creation sequence as the Hebrews would have understood it, and then follows up by relating his experience in changing his point of view from a literal one that he retained beyond his mission to one that allows more for the scientific explanations of today.

In regard to some of the struggles we might have when learning about church history, he points out that “it’s a false dilemma to claim that either God works through practically flawless people or God doesn’t work at all…. To demand that church leaders, past and present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel’s most basic claim: that God’s grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols” (page 47).

Where Miller is clear on things, he excels by providing much food for thought and discussion. And in spite of its weaknesses, the bright spots in this book make it a worthwhile read for people who will not be troubled by its overwhelming vagueness, although I do believe a parental advisory may be in order.

FairMormon Frameworks 14: Mark Ashurst McGee Church History

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Today’s episode is an interview with Mark Ashurst-McGee.  He is an employee of the Church History Department.  He is also one of the editors on the Joseph Smith Papers project.

Bro. Ashurst-McGee received a B.A. and B.S. from Brigham Young University (BYU) in 1994, and an M.A. in History from Utah State University (USU) in 2000.  His master’s thesis on Joseph Smith’s religious development won the Reese History Award from the Mormon History Association.  His dissertation was on Joseph Smith’s early social and political thought, and won the Gerald E. Jones Dissertation Award from the Mormon History Association.  Through this training, he became a “specialist in documentary editing conventions and transcription methodology.”  BYU professor of religious education and colleague in the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Steven C. Harper, stated Ashurst-McGee “probably knows the field of documentary editing better than anybody that I know.”

Ashurst-McGee is a member of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Along with Richard L. Jensen and Dean C. Jessee, he co-edited the first volume to be published from the series, which was on the early journals of Joseph Smith. Released in 2008, the book became very popular and sold very quickly, prompting expanded additional printings. In 2009, it received the Steven F. Christensen Best Documentary Award (Mormon History Association) and a Special Award in Textual Criticism and Bibliography (Association for Mormon Letters).  Bro Ashurst-McGee is expected to edit future volumes of Smith’s papers.

Purchase Joseph Smith Papers Project Books

Joseph Smith Journals by Mark Ashurst McGee

The opinions expressed in this podcast and in the referenced books, presentations, podcasts and articles do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or of FairMormon.

Mormon Fair-Cast 185: Race and the Priesthood

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RussellStevensonIn this episode of the Mormon History Guy podcast, Kate Kelly Harline interviews Russell Stevenson (author of Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables and author of the forthcoming, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Documentary History of Blacks and Mormonism,  1830-2013). They discuss the meaning and ramifications of the LDS Church’s new statement on “Race and the Priesthood.”  Russell traces the origins, course, and trajectory of the Saints’ relationship with the black community and racial exclusion.

This podcast is posted here by permission of Russell Stevenson. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of FairMormon or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

FairMormon Frameworks 11: Brant Gardner Gift and Power

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brant-gardnerWe sit down with LDS author Brant Gardner to discuss his book  “The Gift and Power – Translating the Book of Mormon,” and ask him tough questions about the translation process. We delve beyond the surface to try to understand the context of Joseph translating using the “Urim and Thummim.” We touch on topics like Joseph’s Scrying or mystical use of the seer stone and skins of blackness in the Book of Mormon.  We also touch on the Meso-American Setting model for the Book of Mormon.

The opinions expressed in this podcast and in the referenced books, presentations, podcasts and articles do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or of FairMormon.

Grant’s Book is available here: The Gift and Power : Translation of the Book of Mormon

Mormon Fair-Cast 179: FairMormon Support Board

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Welcome to our community! This is not just our community, but it is yours as well. It is a safe place for you to explore with others the questions and challenges that confront you as you live a life of faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are here to help you and to support you as you seek continued participation in the Church despite questions or doubts you experience.

No question or concern is off limits. We do ask however, that you approach every issue you face with an eye towards reconciling your questions with the faith you have felt in the past. Our goal is to help you regain, maintain, or increase your faith in the restored gospel. If this is your desire, this is place where you will find help in your journey.  Check it out now at  FairMormonSupport

Welcome Page

Faith Crisis 101

The opinions expressed in this podcast and in the referenced books, presentations, podcasts and articles do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or of FairMormon.

Egyptology and the Book of Abraham: An Interview with Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein

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Kerry Muhlestein, associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

Mormon fascination with the ancient world stems largely from an exotic corpus of writings found in the canon of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One book in the Church’s canon, the Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith claimed to be an inspired translation of some ancient Egyptian papyri, has captured Mormon imagination with a vibrant narrative involving the eponymous biblical patriarch, human sacrifice, far-off lands, divine encounters and a grand cosmology.

One BYU professor, Kerry Muhlestein, has devoted a good portion of his academic career (over a decade) investigating the saga of the Book of Abraham. Muhlestein, who holds a PhD in Egyptology from UCLA, is an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU. According to his faculty bio on the BYU Religious Education website, Muhlestein “is the director of the BYU Egypt Excavation Project,” which has led successful archaeological digs in Egypt, and has academic expertise in fields including “Ancient Egypt, Hebrew Bible, [and the] Pearl of Great Price.” Continue reading

FairMormon Frameworks 10: Terryl Givens Crucible of Doubt

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Givens-TerrylTerryl Givens, is professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, where he holds the James A. Bostwick Chair in English.  He is the author of several books including “By The Hand of Mormon” and has a book approaching publishing called “The Crucible of Doubt”.  Terryl has been part of a series of firesides given to helps doubters address their framework and talks to us today about Faith and Doubt and how we might better navigate these issues.

Terryl’s books can be purchased here

By the Hand of Mormon

People of Paradox

The God Who Weeps

Biography of Parley Pratt

and his talks

Letter to a Doubter

When Souls Had Wings

Lightning Out of Heaven



FairMormon Frameworks 9: Richard Bushman – Helping Those in Doubt

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RoughStoneRollingRichard Bushman, one of the foremost scholars on Joseph Smith and author of “Rough Stone Rolling,” sits down with me to discuss the experience of a faith crisis and how to support those who are in doubt.  He shares his ideas on what helps and what doesn’t and how we need to deal with the historical issues head on!

Read the 2008 article referenced in the Episode here – 2008 Joseph Smith and His Critics

Purchase his Book “Rough Stone Rolling” – Click Here

The opinions expressed in this podcast and in the referenced books, presentations, podcasts and articles do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or of FairMormon.

FairMormon Frameworks 8: Seer Stones and Treasure Digging

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TranslationCritics cite the Church as intentionally creating a simple sanitized view of the translation of the Book of Mormon.  But what really happened?  Here is one believer’s personal take on the translation process when all of the historical record is taken into account.  Did the Church intentionally hide information?  What are we to make of Joseph’s “Treasure Digging”?  What did the witnesses say? We discuss this and much much more.

Resources  < —— witness accounts

The opinions expressed in this podcast and in the referenced books, presentations, podcasts and articles do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or of FairMormon.

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.


* 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).