I was tagged in a post on a Facebook thread by Bill Reel where he asked:
For believers, how do you solve the Lucy Walker conundrum. Do you choose to believe Joseph Smith lied to Lucy about what God told him OR Do you believe God encouraged Joseph to get sealed/married/Have sex with a 16 year old girl who the prophet Joseph Smith was raising and identified as his daughter?
I believe Joseph Smith had real spiritual experiences that led him to produce the Book of Mormon and start something that has evolved into a vibrant, valid religion where millions of people use it to honestly seek God and participate in the Christian mandate to right the wrongs of the world, care for the needy, and create a heaven on earth. We’re not perfect as a Church but we think we’re on the right track and getting better. I don’t think everything Joseph said or did came from God in a direct, God-breathed way. I think it was more like general impressions where he was left with his own ingenuity how to implement it. I think he made mistakes in implementing the religion and this episode likely represents one of those mistakes. Ultimately what’s important to me in my religion is not what happened in the past involving other people, but what happens inside my heart and mind when I attend church, pray, read scripture, serve, and otherwise attempt to live my religion.
It’s a great feeling when after writing a hilarious facebook post you get a few haha reactions.
But it kind of sucks when you bear your testimony and nine people laugh at it. I was accused of dodging the question and being too vague. So I followed up with this reply.
You asked how I solve the conundrum. I answered that question. But more specific to what I think happened related to Lucy Walker, I said think what he did was likely a mistake and not directed by God. I would have to refresh my memory on this particular episode, but I’ve frequently admitted that I think Joseph lied about some things related to polygamy, was deceptive about hiding it from Emma, and was manipulative and coercive with some of the girls. I think the church’s essay is actually refreshingly revealing on this. That said, I also don’t think his motivations were *purely* sexual or sinister (while admitting at least partially they likely were). I think he had a powerful spiritual revelation related to eternal marriage and sealing, and the whole polygamy episode was a bad implementation of that general revelation. We as a church eventually got it right, but it caused a lot of heartache along the way.
I thought that was a pretty direct answer, but I still got several people wanting me to clarify my position and accusing me of dodging.
This is so interesting and ironic to me, because when I went through faith crisis, my biggest complaint with LDS defenders, both the traditional Apologists like FARMS and Dan Peterson and the new school Neo-Apologists like Givens, Bushman, Miller, were that they were too vague in how they answered many of these questions. That became my primary goal in coming online and starting to post and blog about faith crisis issues. I was determined to never dodge and always give my direct opinion.
Easier said than done. When you answer a tough question, you know there are a lot of people potential hearing your answer. Exmormons wanting you to admit fault, faithful LDS wanting to know if you’re one of them, your wife (is she going to kick my butt for this?), your stake president, your kids. Every word is power packed with implications that might not be intended. I want to be direct. But it’s hard to articulate a position without misunderstanding.
I still have the goal to answer questions directly and never dodge. But I have more sympathy for people I used to criticize.
Speaking of “vagueapologetics”, Terryl Givens is someone I love now but someone who used to frustrate me due to this. I’m trying to understand the new project from the Bruce Hafen family Faith is Not Blind. More on that later, but here are a couple interesting quotes from Givens in an interview for this project. Givens is interesting in that to me he is clearly unorthodox/nuanced on a lot of levels. But then others argue with me saying he’s not unorthodox at all, and I’m just reading more into what he says.
When asked what the most troubling aspect of the BOM was from critical perspective, Givens said it was that some critics claim there is source material for the BOM like Solomon Spaulding, View of the Hebrews, and The Late War (a psuedo-biblical text written in Joseph’s day). I also would add to that generically the Protestant sermon language, doctrines, and phrases floating around in Joseph’s time and the New Testament itself. Givens admits that there seems to be “some striking congruences at times–or borrowing.”
But I came to a place where I believe and continue to believe that Joseph received impressions. He received ideas, glimpses, pictures, images, concepts. But that the Lord had to work through the cultural and intellectual vocabulary that was available to Joseph Smith. And so the particular means and wording I think aren’t the things on which we should hang our faith.
This is a more intellectually sound way to deal with this issue than to imagine God putting those words down specifically for him to copy as if he was dictating and not contributing any creative element. How unorthodox is this? You be the judge. I don’t hear a lot of other people talking this way about the Book of Mormon translation, but I hope we hear more of it. I would also love Givens to explain with a little more specificity how this would work and maybe a theoretical example. When I worked through this exercise, I ultimately decided it was easier to picture it as a purely non-historical text, while still allowing that it could be inspired and more relevant–inspiring.
Here’s another quote from the interview I thought was very interesting.
I know that many millennials especially bridle at the phrase “the only true and living church”. And that can create an impression of tribalism, exceptionalism, and pride. But on the other hand if you consider that officially Latter-day Saints are members of the only church that officially teach the preexistence of the soul, a Heavenly Father who feels our pain, a Heavenly Mother who lives in union with a Heavenly Father, a plan of salvation that envisions the eventual salvation of the entire human family without any barriers erected by death, the family as an eternal unit. There is something fairly unique about this conglomeration of doctrines taken together.
I don’t believe our church is the one and only exclusively true church of God in the same way that most members would view that. Based on this answer, I’m inclined to think Givens is closer to me on this than most of the people we sit in the pews with on Sundays. But I can’t say for sure. You be the judge.
At any rate, I love how he talks about the restored gospel, and I hope more will follow along, despite how vague it feels to some. One more quote from Givens from the interview which I 100% agree.
It (LDS Church) has what I consider to be the most profoundly satisfying, intellectually rigorous system of thought associated with any religion tradition I’ve studied…it is almost impossible to fully appreciate the majesty, and the clarity and the logical consistency of Joseph Smith’s restored system of thought.
Amen Brother Givens, thank you for your contributions.
Welcome to the first blog edition of Rob’s Take. Rob’s Take first started when as a college student and still living at home, I shared a bedroom with my younger brother and would stay up late providing my opinion on various subjects like BYU football, Ross Perot, what girls like, who would in fight anaconda vs crocodile, things like this. These takes were neither super informed or super welcomed, but I had a captive audience and an opinion, just like I do now.
I liked this recent blog post from Rosalynde Welch on LDS patriarchy and the state of female equality in the Church. I like the style of working from within as a faithful LDS, appreciating the good, but also pointing out areas that need change.
Elder Ballard, speaking to future mission presidents in the MTC, talked about the problems that are caused by baptizing investigators too early and said.
Church leaders don’t know where these practices began, but “it was never our intention to invite people to be baptized before they had learned something about the gospel, felt the Holy Ghost, and had been properly prepared to accept a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus Christ,”
Some Exmormons on social media are feeling gaslighted over this. Gaslighting is the newest pop psychology term coined from the movie with same title where someone is intentionally made to feel crazy by another who talks and acts in a way that makes them question reality.
This is not gaslighting, in any shape or form. Ballard is 1) not talking to Exmormons, he’s talking to future mission presidents 2) he is not denying that the Church is responsible for the practice, he’s simply stating he doesn’t know where it began, likely to create an ease for his audience that it’s OK to change this policy without a revelation or other formal action. 3) even if he were, it would require a little bit higher threshold to accuse him of gaslighting. Come on, people. No one is trying to make you crazy.
It’s tough for the church to make progress. Any time we change anything, the first question is “why didn’t you have it right earlier? does that mean revelation can’t be trusted?” So, the church has an extremely hard time making any change. These announcements are unfortunately going to be awkward and likely have some elements that feel manipulative. I think it’s important for progressive, faithful members to try to adopt a positive outlook on these not a negative outlook. We want to encourage more change like this, not make it impossible by slamming on the church with claims of gaslighting and manipulation every time they try to change something.
There was an interesting survey on BCC on BOM historicity. Is it theologically necessary for the Book of Mormon to describe actual, objective history for it to be divine in origin? With 696 votes currently, votes for No won 59% to 41%. I would vote yes if by “divine origin” you equate that to traditional views of Joseph as the prophet of God’s one, true church restored from the original. I would vote no if by “divine origin” you can allow that it is a human production but that during the creative process, the author intersected and was influenced by the divine. That describes how I view it.
This blog post from Jeff Lindsay was interesting. Here, he criticizes Robin Jensen and Brian Hauglid for taking too liberal of an approach with Book of Abraham translation apologetics, conceding too much ground to critics. This is a part of a larger dynamic of discussion between conservative LDS scholars who would take a fundamentalistic, literal view and more moderate LDS scholars who take a more modern approach. What I find most interesting and promising for the church’s future, is that 30 years ago the conservatives were fully aligned with the church and the moderates were being labeled apostate and facing excommunication. Things have changed. The moderates here now are representing the Church in official capacity. The conservatives are frustrated with their positions being pushed out into the fringe and with the Church adopting the position of the moderates.
Listened to a lot of the Jared Lusk podcast series with John Dehlin on Mormon Stories. Another great family that left the church. Jared was facing excommunication for some things he’s been posting on facebook. The outcome was that he was disfellowshipped. That’s a new one. Usually these have ended with excommunication or no action. I wish there were no courts and no punishments, but this is a better outcome. The Church gets to mark someone as someone that doesn’t represent the church and the individual is not excommunicated. I saw a rumor that there has been recent leadership training from Salt Lake to stake presidents that that is an intentional direction.
My wife was released after four years as Gospel Doctrine teacher. That was really fun for us.
I’ve now been “out” attaching my real name to my facebook profile for a few months with still no crossover between real life and internet life. I’ve been promising/threatening a podcast for more than six months now. It’s in the works but not ready for prime time yet. I will start out with 10-12 episodes that will be kind of like an audio book of the entire churchistrue paradigm.
I was going for Lebron when he joined the Lakers, hoping he could create a super team that could knock off the evil Warriors. But now with the Warriors falling apart and especially if they create their own super team with Kawhi, the Lakers will be back in the villian role where they belong. I’m excited to see how the Jazz will look with all these changes.
I’ve been opting for Audible books instead of Mormon podcasts lately. I’ve always felt lacking in not having read the classics, so I’ve been doing some of those. I loved Steinbeck’s East of Eden last year and just finished Cannery Row. Loved it. I tried Faulkner. That was torture. I might try Hemingway next. Loved Anna Karenina. Loved Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. Trying The Idiot now and it’s been hard to get started. Any suggestions?
Women’s world cup has been fun to watch. Let’s go beat Netherlands.
Last year, FairMormon had a big win for their organization when LDS General Authority Kevin Pearson came to speak at their conference and endorsed them. I consider myself an LDS Apologist. I was moved by Elder Pearson’s words at that conference as he encouraged all LDS with the ability to act on their own to publicly defend the Church. I felt a spiritual prompting to do more than I have been in my efforts to provide intellectual answers and paradigms for those in faith crisis.
In his talk, he identified three organizations that the Church in some degree officially endorses. He thanked those organizations and encouraged others to support them and to direct questioners to those resources. FairMormon, the journal Mormon Interpeter, and BOM Central.
My position is well known (like beating a dead horse some would say). I don’t believe the BOM is historical. I don’t believe the LDS Church is God’s one, exclusively true church. I believe most scripture should be taken metaphorically and not literally. But I have a testimony of the restored gospel, I love the church, I’m an active, faithful LDS with a temple recommend. I love the Book of Mormon. I love the teachings of Jesus Christ. I love the unique teachings and practices we have in the church, coming through Joseph Smith and modern prophets that lead us today.
I want to be more aligned with the traditional Apologists like those three organizations. I feel like I’m more like them than different. We all attend church together. Serve together. Try to figure out how to keep others in the church together. Together, we are trying to figure out how to overcome all the opposition the church is facing on truth claim issues.
Much of what FairMormon, Mormon Interpreter, and BOM Central put out, I can support. Some of it I like a lot. Some of it, I may not feel it is compelling. But rarely do I find the material bad.
With Elder Pearson’s endorsement comes a level of responsibility. We can’t provide ridiculously bad arguments that critics slice up and mock us for it. We can’t go for the cheap, easy wins that might appeal to a mass, uneducated audience when the people that are actually in faith crisis seeking to know the right answers read both sides and have to admit the critics are right. We can’t come across so bad that we seem dishonest and break trust with honest seekers.
With that long introduction, I wanted to put some context into what I’m going to do next, which is criticize these three organizations for some recent bad Book of Mormon apologetics.
The gist of the article is that the Dales took 131 positive correspondences and 18 negative correspondences between the Book of Mormon and ancient Mesoamerica, using non-LDS and Book of Mormon critic Michael Coe’s book on Mesoamerica. They assigned probabilities to each of these and calculated what they call the probability that Joseph Smith could have guessed these correctly.
A lay reader might get confused by the math and the discussion of statistical principles in the article and the critiques of the article, but it’s not that complicated. If a basketball player shoots 80% from the free throw line, the probability he makes both when he shoots two is 0.8 * 0.8 = 0.64, 64% chance. The probability he misses three in a row is .2 * .2 * .2 = .008 = .8%. That’s all the math you really need to know. The Dales strung together a bunch of probabilities like this to develop a probability the Joseph Smith could have “nailed this” so accurately.
The result of the calculation according to the Dales:
We find that the likelihood that the Book of Mormon is fictional is about 1.03 x 10–111, less than one in a thousand, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion.
The criticisms are in many different categories. 1) the arbitrary allocation of probabilities most of which seem way too favorable for the author’s desired outcome 2) capping the max probability negative correlations at 50 3) the arbitrary inclusion of 131 positive vs only 18 negative correspondences—obviously going to manipulate the outcome especially given the previous 4) the failure to identify combined probabilities, and treating all 131 as completely independent.
I like to look for simple test cases in this kind of analysis. For example, consider this little hypothetical account discovered with unknown origins.
Sam rode on his horse on the road from his home to the big city where he would he planned to sell the grains he collected from his corn, wheat, and barley fields in the marketplace. He took a detour to visit the partially destroyed monument to his famous great-great-grandfather, got lost, was attacked by a group of bandits shouting at him in a foreign language, they threw rocks at him, afraid to get to close when they saw him draw his steel sword, but he was stung by a poisonous snake and died.
This little story contains 10 positive convergences (bullseyes) from the Dales’ list of 131 totaling 1 in 6.25 trillion probability to guess right and four negative convergences (anachronisms) offsetting this by 10,000. Doing the math, this says the author of this little story nailed ancient Mesoamerica to the tune of 1 in 625 billion. You might say, no, that story has a bunch of generic sort of details that might be the case for any story setting. And several anachronisms that would pretty much rule ancient Mesoamerica out. I think you’d be right. But this model was published in the Mormon Interpreter and claimed to be peer reviewed.
Being as generous as possible, this article is the most laughable, embarrassing article I think I’ve ever seen pushed by a group of serious scholars that I usually respect. Instead of taking the article down after the reviews started rolling down, the article is getting pushed more aggressively. FairMormon and Book of Mormon Central shared the article. Daniel Peterson summarized the article in LDS Living, which at last count was shared 536 times. Others in various forums have called Daniel Peterson dishonest for this. That’s very cynical. I don’t see it that harshly, but this episode was every difficult for me.
Book of Mormon Central
Matt Roper and Paul Fields did a study on Book of Mormon Wordprint patterns, ie computer statistical analysis of word pattern to determine authorship and other attributes of the book. Book of Mormon Central have done various blog posts and videos that promoted what they saw as very impressive results of this study.
They claim their study shows that each Book of Mormon “voice” (Mormon, Alma, Nephi, Pahoron, Zeniff, etc) has word patterns that are statistically different and that the combined voice diversity is greater than 8 total novels from four 19th century writers (Cooper, Dickens, Austen, Twain). Huck Finn has a unique voice compared to Tom Sawyer. And Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy have unique voices. And when you take all the voices of 8 sample novels, they have many unique voices, similar to the chart below, but the combined diversity of all 8 is even less than the Book of Mormon. Here’s the chart from the Youtube video they showed.
Impressive! At least until I noticed the chart looks very similar to charts I’ve produced, playing with the same data in my own way. Here’s my chart.
The methodology for my chart is as follows:
This gets a little complicated, but I will try to explain this easiest as possible for a lay reader to follow along. When I studied word patterns in the Book of Mormon, I found two distinct patterns. These patterns are charted X and Y. (Bubble Size is the number of total words for each voice)
X axis on the chart. Narrative vs Sermon. The Book of Mormon consists of large blocks of narrative, written largely by Mormon but also Moroni, Nephi, and a few others. I call this Narrative Voice in my studies that you can read more about here. And also inserted sermons, discourses, or letters from Alma, Amulek, King Benjamin, Samuel the Lamanite, etc. The narrators Mormon, Moroni, Nephi, etc, sometimes go back and forth between narrative and sermon. Narrative is generally written in third person past tense with Sermon written in first person present tense. Words heavy in the Narrative portion are: the, and, to, it, did. Words heavy in the Sermon portion for example are: if, for, ye, unto, shall, which. The degree to which a bubble on the chart is left or right is simply the degree to which they use this simple set of words. Which also correlate strongly to whether they are pure narrative vs pure sermon or some combination.
Y axis on the chart. A pattern that changes from the beginning to the end (Mosiah Priority), which could be attributed to authorship contribution or could be considered in a single author/translator model to be normal voice creep or drift where vocabulary patterns change naturally and linearly as one writes. I have referred to this as Original (O) Voice and Late (L) Voice in my writings on this. Words weighted towards the beginning: now, on, or, might, therefore, thus, took, caused. Words weighted towards the end: my, did, unto, behold, wherefore, because. The degree to which a bubble on the chart is up or down correlates to the usage of these words, which strongly correlates to where the words appear in the Book of Mormon chronologically (Mosiah Priority).
Publishing the BOM Central bubble chart and making the claim that it represents complex, unique voices is weak. The trends I identify are quite simple and should come out in this kind of data analysis. But similar to the Interpreter article, what I am very disappointed by is that when the model’s weakness is shown, instead of quietly taking the work down and stopping the promotion, the decision is to ignore the correction and continue to promote the work.
Note of clarification: I do not mean by this that the BOM is not complex or that the nuances between the Narrative and Sermon voice is not complex. But the Fields-Roper claims, ignoring this more obvious explanation for the data distribution, are seriously flawed.
Tad Callister’s new book A Case for the Book of Mormon is making a splash. Brother Callister is General Authority Emeritus. I don’t want to pick on Brother Callister. He’s not a scholar. He’s writing to a popular audience. He shouldn’t be evaluated the same way as scholars who are at the forefront of these discussions. He’s the grandson of Legrand Richards, author of Marvelous Work and a Wonder. That book, was for my generation something very comparable to Brother Callister’s book on the apostasy and this one on the Book of Mormon for this day. They are works that are quasi-intellectual, inspiring for LDS, good for introducing one generally to some issues that you can follow up through other sources to get more up-to-date scholarship. But they are not aware of current scholarship both pro-LDS and critical, full of prooftexting scripture out of context, using parellelomania concepts, and generally just not good Apologetics.
I wrote on this previously. Another review from a more critical perspective which I don’t agree with completely but shows many of the flaws is here. A quick example is that Br. Callister points out various doctrines of the Book of Mormon that he says are unique and says “how could Joseph ever known this?” When an advanced google book search query shows hits on each one.
… and to a post mortal spirit world in Alma 40. Where did Joseph Smith get these profound doctrinal truths that were in fact contrary to the prevailing doctrinal teachings of his time?
Here’s a little graphic I did comparing one of the hits from an advanced google book search query to Alma 40.
Brother Callister seems not aware of Brant Gardner’s work on translation and retaining Hebraisms. He’s not aware of the work of Nick Frederick and Thomas Wayment that have identified numerous allusions to the KJV New Testament. He’s unaware of Richard Bushman’s concessions to modern Protestant material in the Book of Mormon. He’s not aware of Blake Ostler’s Expansion Model. He’s not aware of Skousen-Carmack’s work acknowledging modern elements that must have come through a loose translation. He’s using Smoot’s imperative for a historical BOM, but wielding it in an extremely dangerous and hopelessly naïve way, claiming none of the book came through the mind of Joseph.
If a regular guy without credentials wrote this book, FairMormon and Book of Mormon Central would ignore it, mock it, or even blast it for being weak on scholarship, similar to how Book of Mormon Central recently blasted the FIRM Foundation Heartlander Group for the same kinds of problems.
But for some reason, FairMormon has latched onto this book. Promoting it on their website, doing podcasts and blog interviews, sharing it on Facebook, and also invited Brother Callister to speak at the FairMormon Conference. Last year Elder Pearson spoke at FairMormon and this year Craig Christensen appears to be on the schedule in the role as General Authority speaker. I think that’s great. They’re not scholars, but they come in official capacity from the Church, and it’s great to hear the church’s perspective on the Apologetics landscape. But Callister is not appearing in that context. He is presenting actual apologetic material.
Good Book of Mormon Apologetics
Before I get accused of being a hater of these three good organizations, I want to reiterate my stance. I’m an LDS Apologist. I’m a Latter-day Saint. I’m not a critic. I share much more in common with the good people that work for and volunteer for these three organizations than the Exmormon critics who they spend much of their time addressing. I love a lot of what they produce. I wish they’d let me in and collaborate with them.
There are bad Book of Mormon Apologetics. That is what I focused on here. These cause us to lose credibility. They win points with the uninformed, but they hurt us more in the long run. Many people accuse LDS Apologists of “lying for the Lord”. LDS Apologists have a pretty bad reputation among non-LDS, and it’s not just a good vs evil thing. It’s because there are times we sometimes use bad arguments and bad manners (I empathize with the LDS Apologists on this and have written on this elsewhere, but it’s outside the scope of this post) . I don’t think that’s necessary, and I hope we can improve this reputation.
Then there are Book of Mormon Apologetics that I don’t personally find super compelling but I wouldn’t call them dishonest or bad, and I acknowledge they are compelling to many others. I don’t criticize these. I even sometimes point some people in faith crisis to these arguments. LGT to explain DNA and other evidences, loose translation to explain anachronisms, chiasmus and other Hebraisms, Nahom and other old world stuff, emphasis on the witnesses.
Then there are what I would call good Book of Mormon Apologetics. When the Interpreter, FairMormon, or Book of Mormon Central focuses on these things, I’m always a big fan.
Good Book of Mormon Apologetics
–complexity of the text in terms of characters, geographical setting, time span, intertextuality within itself
–inspiring, spiritual, transformative nature of the text
–showing character of Joseph and those close to him as being pure and believing. I think it’s dangerous to focus on character, because Joseph clearly did things that showed questionable character. But I think he believed in what he was doing and so did those closest to him that knew him the best.
–doctrinal profundity. 2 Ne 2, 2 Ne 9, King Benjamin’s address, Abindadi’s preaching to King Noah’s court, Alma’s discourse on faith in Alma 32, Alma 34, Moroni 7, the visit of the Savior in 3 Ne. These are some of the greatest religious texts that exist in the world, in my opinion.
–Bible intertextuality—this is what I think might be most impressive, how the Bible is alluded to and expounded on seemingly very complex and intentional
–general concept that the sum total of this complexity and impressive output is outside the natural ability of Joseph and must be inspired somehow
When I defend the Book of Mormon, these are the arguments I use. I’m not opposed to the Apologists who argue for BOM historicity. I know that’s where the mainstream of the church is and likely will be for a couple generations at least. What I do feel compelled to speak up against are bad arguments that cause us to lose trust with the honest seekers. This article summarizing some research from Jana Riess backs up what I’ve seen time and time again in the faith crisis world. Difficult historical issues are hard to deal with in a faith crisis. But the trust and feeling lied to or misled is more dangerous and more likely to cause someone to leave the church. Let’s not create that.
Cody and Leah Young were excommunicated from the LDS Church last week. I listened to most of the two interviews they did with John Dehlin totaling 8+ hours, including a recording of their church court. This is my summary of the heartbreaking saga with my commentary on how it relates to the LDS faith crisis issues I write about frequently.
Cody and Leah Young are good people. You can’t help but fall in love with them through these interviews and relate to the heartache they experienced and the wrestle and purity they had with trying to do the right thing through this entire ordeal. They were active, faithful LDS, raising a beautiful Mormon family in Columbus, Ohio when Leah stumbled upon some “anti-Mormon material”. She read the CES Letter, as an attempt to minister to a family member who left the church over loss of faith due to church historical issues. Like many others, including myself, she started her research with full expectation that she would find the right answers, because, well, we all know “the Church is true.” And like many others, including myself, the research turned into a never-ending rabbit hole, where the questions mounted and the answers never came. Book of Abraham. Polygamy. Book of Mormon historicity, multiple First Vision accounts, etc.
Long story, short. Cody and Leah lost their belief in the truth claims of the LDS Church and felt compelled to leave the church. The pain and trauma they experienced led them to start a support group for other people going through the same experiences. They shared their experience with John Dehlin in a Mormon Stories episode. And shortly after, they were called into a church court and excommunicated.
I differ from the Youngs on a couple points, but most of what they did and said I think is exemplary and nearly exactly how I might have done and said things.
Where I have agreement or sympathy:
In the court, one of the stake leaders was critical of their decision to not resign, “If you don’t believe, why don’t you just resign?” I think that was a bit of a flippant question. Their answer was perfect. Paraphrasing, they said, “We don’t believe anymore, and we’ve disassociated ourselves with the church, but we were raised this way, we still want to associate in some ways with our kids going to some activities, and we still have family and loved ones that would be deeply hurt if we resigned or were excommunicated.”
Some Ex-Mormons are highly critical, even venomous, towards the Church. I did not feel that tone from the Youngs. At all. They occasionally were mildly critical. More critical than I would be. But compared to many, many others I’ve read online or heard in podcasts (including many who are still on the rolls of the Church officially as members), they weren’t harshly critical at all.
They do not appear to be evangelizing to gain recruits to leave the Church. Their group was private and small and they didn’t appear to be encouraging anyone to leave. Nor did the stake leaders accuse them of such.
Black and White thinking
The biggest difference between me and the Youngs is that I see the potential for nuance and gray when it comes to these historical issues. Where the Youngs appear to only see black and white. It’s either ALL true historically, factually, religiously, and spiritually. Or it’s completely false. At one point, Leah said, referring to another person’s faith loss, that they tried their best to make it work but “the information is such that it just can’t work”. I understand that mentality, because I used to see it that way. And the Church seems to reinforce this binary thinking a lot of the time. But I disagree completely. Every religion’s origination stories are sketchy, historically. Every single one. But that doesn’t invalidate the goodness and value and truth and beauty a religion can have in the lived experience of its adherents.
The Youngs never once in the 8+ hours mentioned any attempt at a nuanced way of thinking. They never mentioned nuanced Mormon thinkers like Patrick Mason, Adam Miller, Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Dan Wotherspoon, churchistrue blog, etc. I’m very curious to know if they tried that and why it didn’t work for them. I know it may not work for everyone, but it’s sad to me it didn’t even come up in the conversation. This tells me the Middle Wayers are not doing a very good job making these perspectives more widely known. I’m motivated to work harder on this. Who’s with me?
Honesty was a big theme in the interviews, for the Youngs. They seem to equate staying with dishonesty and leaving with integrity. They felt if they didn’t leave the Church, they were being dishonest with their children and others. This comes out of the black and white thinking. I feel very sad that someone would think it’s dishonest to stay in a Church if they didn’t see everything the same as other members. There are challenges with staying in the Church after losing belief in many of the foundational claims, and how to handle things with children is one of them. But there are many who are doing that with integrity and honesty.
Promotion of known critics of the Church
I have a habit of going too far in criticizing Church critics in the ProgMo-ExMo world. I love my church. And I sometimes get overly defensive. I will try to be careful here.
The Youngs mention the CES Letter as a source that they apparently view as accurate and helpful for Mormons to understand difficult Church historical and scriptural issues. In my view, the CES Letter is slanted unfairly against the Church. It’s a long list of all the difficult issues without any counter balances showing the positive sides of any of the issues. It’s manipulative. In it Joseph Smith is accused of being a pedophile. I don’t disagree with all the facts in the CES Letter, but it’s not a document that should be shared among LDS Church members or lauded as a good source. Regardless of whether its creator or the people who promote it should be considered “Anti-Mormon”, the document is used as an “Anti-Mormon” document, specifically meant to persuade people against the Church.
The Youngs did the interviews with John Dehlin and frequently mention his helpfulness to them in their faith crisis. They promote him as a valuable source for those in faith crisis. This appears to be the primary reason they were excommunicated. The Stake President focused on this in their court. During the portion of the court where the Stake President listed the apostasy allegations, he focused on the relationship with John Dehlin.
You have linked yourself with John Dehlin, a former member who was excommunicated for apostasy, whose beliefs are clearly contrary to the Church. He openly promotes and markets those beliefs and seeks donations to continue his work, which constitutes priestcraft…You hosted a dinner for your facebook support group and introduced John at that dinner to your group. You allowed John to record a seven hour interview with you in which you provided further details of your faith crisis and your transition from the church. With your consent this interview has been posted on his website which serves to further his work of destroying faith…Throughout the interview, John Dehlin continues to promote his work. He stated that his objective is to reach new people who don’t know the truth about the Church. He mentions they have a billboard along 1-15 which asks “Was Joseph Smith a treasure digger?” He states that it drives people to his truth claims content and references his Mormon Stories podcast. John also suggests that his listeners create a facebook group like the Youngs did and that he will help them market it.
Many of us remember Greg Smith’s hit piece article on John prior to his church court. I thought it was unethical and disgusting. I don’t do include this next quote to pile on John. I do it to answer the question “what’s so bad about promoting John Dehlin?” I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the Church would be very concerned about its members promoting John as a resource to help those in faith crisis.
When John Dehlin announced the Youngs excommunication, he included the following rant in this youtube video:
The Mormon Church is scared. Mormon Church leaders are terrified. The Mormon Church is hemorrhaging members…The Mormon Church is collapsing, it’s in free fall…The Church is only growing in Africa and the Philippines where people are the most vulnerable…Pres. Nelson changed the name of the church because the names Mormon and LDS have become so soiled. It’s running from its own reputation…Women are waking up to the church’s oppressive patriarchy…The Church is being more open about its history, not because it has a desire to be honest, but because of Google, the internet [etc], and with a heavy dose of contextualizing, gaslighting, and continued deception through the Gospel Topics Essays. The Church is reversing its homophobic LGBT policies…but it’s not doing this out of love for LGBT people. LGBT people have simply been downgraded from worse than murderers, worse than rapists, worse than pedophiles to equal with murders and rapists and pedophiles…[due to backlash from millennials and Progressives] the Church is backtracking some of its most cherished, homophobic, anti-LGBT doctrines and policies (yes John actually implied the Nov 2015 policy was among the Church’s most cherished policies)…The Mormon church excommunicates its real prophets out of fear and out of some delusion that by excommunicating some of its best and brightest it will somehow slow the decline…The Mormon Church is trying to do what all unhealthy organizations do. They try to control their members through fear, through coercion and intimidation…By using fear, they control behavior, so ultimately they can control the thoughts of its members.
I invite John to try harder to see the good the Church does, try harder to see how Church leaders could be good, honorable, loving men doing the best they can to follow Jesus Christ, and to include balance–especially including nuanced and Middle Way views–when he reports on these stories. I think if you position yourself as a mental health professional who can help heal trauma and relationships during an LDS faith crisis, that you need to approach things more balanced.
I track these apostasy excommunications somewhat closely. I have often defended the Church by claiming that these sorts of excommunications have decreased significantly in recent years, and only done in rare cases where the member has repeatedly and vocally been very extreme and harsh in their criticism of the Church. This has been really hard for me, because I just don’t see that at all in the Youngs. I hope this is not a trend.
In the spirit of Elder Christofferson stating that it’s OK to disagree with the brethren, it’s just not OK to harshly criticize and oppose them, I will say I generally am against excommunication in these cases. Dehlin stated a few good reasons why he disagreed with the excommunication, which I happen to agree with wholeheartedly.
Strategically, it backfires because through these high profile excommunications, more people become aware of the critical things the person is saying about the Church.
Strategically, it backfires because many members have sympathy for people like the Youngs and it causes bad feelings for the Church that people have to struggle with.
It feels aggressive and violent and doesn’t feel Christlike to harm members this way.
That said, I don’t know all the reasons, and I support and sustain the brethren, though I disagree generally on this point.
The Youngs plan to appeal their excommunication to the First Presidency. I hope they get the decision reversed. Our Church needs good people like the Youngs in it.
Total membership: 16,313,735, raw growth of 1.21% on prior year
Wards and Branches: 30,536
New children of record during 2017: 102,102
Converts baptized during 2017: 234,332
Full-time Missionaries: 65,137
Total Units (Wards and Branches) was 30,536, just 30 more than last year, an increase of 0.10% from the previous year. This is a good indicator of growth in active members. There are new converts but also new people going inactive to offset some, but the increase in total wards and branches should be pretty close to a true growth indicator.
Stakes came in at 3,383. An increase of 1.26%.
This next chart is a fun one, which I’ve put some effort into modeling. I had been running my own Excel model predicting and forecasting inactivity/activity rates. I combined this model with two other models. One by Matt Martinich, the premier LDS membership data guru, who is involved with the popular church demographics site Cumorah.com and has a personal blog on LDS membership data. The other by Kimball who provides a lot of analysis at his site Fuller Consideration. All three models were pretty close, but I refined my model based on information from all, and I think I have a pretty good model now, which essentially categorizes US and International wards and branches and then allocates an average member size to each and floats with unit changes broken out by US-Intl. I get the following chart this year.
Total active members: 4,789,800 with increase of 0.40% over the previous year and overall activity at 29.4% down from 29.6% last year.
Missionaries are down to 65,137. This is down 2.9% from 2017. We know 2014 was a false peak because the age change caused missionaries from multiple age classes serving together, so we expected a decrease after that. It’s hard to know for sure, but I think most likely that has flushed out of the data, and the last couple years decline represent a true decrease in the number deciding to serve.
New converts were 234,332. Two years ago, the 240K number was the lowest number since 1987. Now, we have two years in a row that have sunk lower.
Next is total resignations. I am reporting 42,000 for 2018. This is very controversial and very difficult to model. The number is not reported directly. The number comes from total reduction in membership. Reduction in membership is calculated by taking change in membership less new converts less new children of record. The number this year was -140,868. This “plug” number includes: deaths of members that are known, inactive members that can’t be located that reach age 110, children of record that turn age 9 and haven’t been baptized, excommunications, and resignations. This number of -141K is quite a jump from last year’s -105K, and the preceding four years with average of -108K and high of -122K. This caused me to go back and bump prior numbers up a little so smooth it out. I reported 22K resignations last year. I’m adjusting that to 31K.
Due to changes in methodology in the way the church reports, and also due to so many factors that go into modeling these five categories, it’s very difficult to peg this number accurately. I’m not sure if the peak 2014 and 2015 is meaningful or if it’s due to some change in membership accounting (probably the latter). The Church seems to occasionally do “true ups” or or other strange things to the data, and since this is a plug, it all flows through to this number. Very volatile and likely inaccurate. But I’ve talked to the other data modelers and looked at various analysis and feel it’s about as good as we can guess.
Tithing. I estimate total tithing in 2018 at $8.3B. That’s an increase of just 0.21% using constant dollars on prior year. Almost flat.
I took a report from a study by Reuter’s in 2011, and modeled out estimated tithing dollars. That study estimated tithing dollars by USA and International. I trended it out using activity estimates. Something insightful here is to compare the blue-red USA-Intl split here to the total membership in the first chart. If these estimated numbers are correct, then it shows a major issue the church faces. I imagine the growth that is coming internationally in membership is quite a burden of expense, considering the tithing appears to be minimal, relatively.
Here’s the same look in current dollars.
Why is the Church’s growth slowing? Some will say it’s related to CES Letter type issues. But this seems to be a global issue affecting all churches. Church growth may be solid when compared to other churches struggling to grow in an increasingly secular world. I give my insight into some of the growth challenges in a previous essay titled Why are people leaving the Mormon Church?
Here’s one final chart for fun showing probabilities for the current apostles to ascend to become the prophet of the Church based on seniority. This chart is using actuarial chart published by US gov for death probabilities for certain age. If everything goes perfectly according to expectations, Pres. Nelson would be replaced by Oaks in 2022, then Holland in 2025, Bednar in 2031, Stevenson in 2044, and new apostle and possibly first international prophet Soares in 2046. Uchtdorf and Andersen also have pretty decent shots at becoming the prophet.
This is a groundbreaking book that we have anticipated for a while. I think this will be very helpful for LDS leadership to understand concerns and motivational factors for millennials (and many just older and younger) on why they stay or leave the church.
Riess and her co-researcher Benjamin Knoll used the definition for millennial as born between 1980 and 1998.
I hope to do a more thorough treatment of this research in the future, but for now, I will list some of the key takeaways I got through skimming through.
Millennials are not as sure about their testimony.
70% of millennials answered yes to “Do you know God exists and have no doubts about it?”, compared to 85% of Baby Boomers and 76% of GenX.
Millennials are less literal about their testimony.
For a question with literalness at the core, the range varied more. “Jesus Christ was literally resurrected and rose from the dead.” Boomers: 83%, GenX: 70%, Millennials: 57%. (these are all who self identified as Mormons for these questions–I’ll note if it’s including or isolating former Mormons or non-Mormons)
Millennial Mormons feel they are part of a culture of responsibility.
Due to being raised in larger-than-average families where they’re asked to pitch in for family duties more, and church activities like Scouts, service projects, and preparing for missions, LDS millennials feel they were raised with a higher than average responsibility level.
Millennials that served missions view them positively.
Here’s a cool chart that I loved showing the high regard both current and former Mormons have for their mission experience. This includes those who came home early and charts the answers for “very positive” and “somewhat positive” for the question What impact did your mission have on the following.
Millennials are not so sure about the temple and garments.
They came in much lower on all the questions related to how comfortable they are with the temple ceremony, wearing endowments, attending the temple often, etc. Interestingly, GenX’ers came in closer to millennials than the older Boomer generation on these.
Males doubt more.
Male millennials averaged about 10-12 points higher on testimony related questions, ie “Is the Mormon Church the only true faith”, “Joseph Smith was a prophet”, etc. For example, the question “God has a plan for my life and I will be happier if I follow that plan.” Males: 60% answered “confident and know this is true” compared to 73% of females.
Millennials differ from other groups in what they think is the best aspect of the Mormon Church.
Their top three: emphasis on Jesus Christ, families can be together, peace that faith brings in hard times.
Millennials vary most from older generations on social issues.
This is probably the key takeaway. They will not stand for female inequality, racism, and discrimination of LGBTQ. They range 20-30 points difference on these types of issues compared to the Boomer category.
Millennials don’t keep commandments as much: tithing, law of Chastity, Word of Wisdom.
For example 39% of self defined Millennial Mormons drink coffee compared to 24% of Boomers. GenX’ers are more in line with Millennials on this, at 40%. Blame the Millennials’ parents I guess.
Millennials trust their own personal authority more than church culture on traditionally Mormon but non-commandment topics.
Not surprisingly, Millennials are much more likely to trust their own moral authority and go against the mainstream on topics like: watching R-rated movies, voting Republican, viewing America as superior, Sabbath activities, etc.
When people leave the Mormon Church, they often turn atheist.
Only 47% of former Mormons answer “Confident and Know This is True” to the question “Is God real?”
When women leave: more likely because of judgement/social issues. When men leave: lack of positive experiences in church, faith crisis.
When former Mormons were asked what could have helped you to stay, the top answers for females were: “if ward members had been more loving and less judgmental” and “if the church had more inclusive positions on social issues such as same-sex marriage or women’s roles n the church.” For males, the top two answers were “if I had more enjoyable experiences attending church” and “if the church had provided better answers to my questions on faith crisis”.
So, through Jana Riess, the Millennials have spoken. I think part of the difference in these polls is simple age difference. As we age, we have different perspective and different things are important to us. But I think a lot of this is a very real perspective difference that Millennials have, which if the church wants to remain strong in future generations, it must adapt and grow.
I also was given topic of charity with scriptures 1 Corinthians 13 and Moroni 7.
I love these two passages. I love how they interact with each other. The Book of Mormon is quoting the Bible here. And that’s a common criticism of the Book of Mormon, that it’s plagiarizing the Bible. But that criticism misses the point that it’s not just that the BOM is quoting the Bible, but how it’s doing it, the subtle differences, and what the Book of Mormon adds or emphasizes. The intertextuality is genius.
Both Paul and Mormon use the same language to describe charity. Moroni’s writing but recalling his father Mormon’s previous sermon.
1 Cor 13:4-7 and Moroni 7:45
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity denvieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
I found this note on this verse that was insightful. The end there. Instead of “believing all things” which makes charity seem naïve, that can actually be translated as, “endures all abuse, never loses faith, is always confident, and remains patient no matter what happens.”
And it’s Mormon that gives the perfect definition in v. 47
“charity is the pure love of Christ,”
In English, we are using the word charity. In Greek, the word is agape. This word appears 106 times in the New Testament. And is usually translated as love.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
It also appears 340 times in the Septuigint, which is the Old Testament translated into Greek that the people of Jesus’ time used most commonly as scripture.
I love seeing how in the Old Testament they had the seeds of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
34 But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt
You’ve probably heard this before. There are three words in Greek that can be translated as love. Eros meaning romantic love. Filia meaning brotherly love or love that’s on a more equal footing, love between friends, family, etc. and agape. which is has a connotation of a more selfless, benevolent love, one that’s offered without expectation of any return.
In the hymn Poor wayfaring man of grief based on the parable of sheep and goats, a man comes across a person in need and nurtures him, but the amazing thing is that with each act of service, his own position is increased.
He gives him drink and then when he drinks from the same cup, he never thirsts again.
He offered his bed and he slept on the floor. Yet
“and seemed In Eden’s garden while I dreamed.“
There’s a transaction taking place. Each time he serves, he’s getting back something greater. This is the promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
It’s exactly opposite of what we think it should be.
We live in a world of scarcity. Our inclination is to protect what’s ours. The pie is only so big, so if I want a bigger piece, I have to take from someone else. But Jesus is offering a way out of that world of scarcity.
I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
In verse 5 of the hymn. He finds the man beaten and dresses his wounds and fixes him up and what happens? “I had myself a wound concealed, but from that hour forgot the smart, and peace bound up my broken heart.”
I’m wounded. we’re all wounded. we’re all hurting. But I think what I find is that if I have faith. And act with love and get outside myself and think about others and stop worrying about my wounds. And stop demanding things that I think will help those wounds, if I can stop and serve, I forget about those wounds.
OK, but there’s another element to this. Sometimes we feel like we are giving. We are giving and serving. But we don’t feel like we’re getting anything back. Our sleep is restless not like in Eden’s garden. Our wounds don’t feel bound up. They’re bleeding and gaping. We watch the neighbor’s kids, volunteer for the PTA, stay up all night doing a science fair project, we’re giving as much as we can, but we don’t feel like that exchange is taking place. Instead of a transformed heart, we just feel taken advantage of and burned out.
I don’t know the answer. But I think Paul and Mormon try to address this.
1 Corinthians 13:3
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the apoor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
That phrase “give my body to be burned” is literally talking about dying as a Christian martyr. We sometimes feel like martyrs when we get in this mentality.
Mormon goes into more detail on this. And this is the Book of Mormon’s genius to me, when it’s taking a verse like this and expounding on it.
6 For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good (and where it says man is evil, I think that sounds more harsh than it’s meant, I think it’s just meant to say humans are weak compared to God who is perfect); for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.
8 For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly;
Are we a martyr in Paul’s words or in Mormon’s words do we offer service without real intent, or grudgingly?
That sounds judgmental to accuse all the good people (and I’m trying to do this too) that are struggling with doing good works and sometimes not feeling like we’re getting anything out of it, just getting taken advantage of and run down. But I think there’s some truth there to think through.
I find it interesting that neither Paul nor Moroni command us to do good works in these passages or give a list of examples. The command is to have charity. The good works will naturally follow.
Where does charity come from?
Mormon in v. 48 says we must be first “filled with this love”
That’s the key. Charity is the pure love of Christ. It comes from him. If we don’t have it, then it means we don’t understand his love for us. We’re not experiencing and walking in the love of God. First his love comes into us. Then it goes out to others.
I have this thing where asking do you love your life ie equivalent to “do you love your wife?” Love your life. Love your wife. Hate your life. Hate your wife. Maybe that’s because I’m a little too codependent, but it seems how that relationship goes with my sweetheart, is reflective of my general state. It’s hard to love anyone or serve anyone or think about others when you don’t love yourself.
If you’re stuck in that condition where you can’t love yourself, then pray and ask God how he feels about you. Study and reflect on the life of Jesus Christ and see how he treated people and taught us to treat others. Read about how the people closest to him felt about him. He loves us perfectly exactly as we are. And we need to be feel that love.
When we feel that love, that love transforms us, and we become a new creature in Christ.
He wants our heart. The Pharisees and others in his time had such a hard time understanding his message because they were focused on outward acts. He turned it all upside down. He wants the change to be in our heart on the inside where no one else sees it.
The old law was thou shalt not kill. The new law he gave was don’t even get angry. The old law was don’t commit adultery. The new law was don’t even lust. The old law was to treat others the way we would want to be treated. The new law was to love others. The law of Moses focused on outward actions. The new covenant of Christ has the goal of transforming our insides. We don’t need to feel guilty if our hearts are not there yet. That’s not the point. The point is the love of God can come into our hearts and transform us to be like him.
BYU professor Eric Huntsman recently gave a great talk at a BYU devotional where he talked about the example of Jesus Christ to be loving and empathetic to the marginalized people in society. When Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus died they came to him. With Martha, he comforted her with words. With Mary, he sensed that what she needed was for him to empathize with her. He sat with her and what he do with her? John 11:35 the shortest verse in the Bible “Jesus wept.”
We covenant to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Sometimes what’s needed best is to sit and experience someone’s pain with them. Brother Huntstman said the marginalized in our society that we can do better empathizing with in our own church are those with mental health problems, those suffering from discrimination due to racism or sexism, LGBTQ members, and even those who have left the church. They need our love and understanding. He quoted Elder Ballard’s admonition to be more empathetic.
These are Elder Ballard’s words also from a BYU devotional: “We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly, we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord.”
Taking this approach can work miracles in our lives.
In Moroni chapter 7 in verse 35 Mormon asks the rhetorical question is God’s great power and glory alive in the last days or have miracles ceased?
I believe that when the power of Christ transforms our hearts and enables to act with godliness in true charity for each other, that we are witnessing miracles. As in this story from someone who was reporting back to a teacher who challenged them to take an experiment with Christlike empathy in an exercise of compassionate listening.
I was very angry with my father. (this is not me, but we all can relate) I made a vow to never talk to him again. So I did not believe I could talk to him the way you told us with loving compassion. But I mustered up the courage and gave him a call on the phone. I heard his voice and I almost hung up, but I took a leap of faith. (This is the faith part of faith, hope, and charity. They all work together and we need all three to create these kinds of miracles.)
On the phone, he said to his father: “I know you have suffered a lot in these past many years. I was not able to help you suffer less. In fact, I reacted in a way to make you suffer more. I am sorry. It’s not my intention to make you suffer like that. I believe that if I would have understood your suffering, I would not have reacted the way I did and made you suffer even more. I’m sorry. Please tell me, father, of your suffering. I want to know. Because I’m sure that if I understand your suffering, I will not react the way I have in the past. Please help me understand.”
And at the other end of the line, the father began to cry because his son had never talked to him that way. No one had ever talked to him like that. His son’s kindness and empathy enabled him to apologize to his son for the suffering he caused him and healing and forgiveness was able to begin to take place.
Miracles have not ceased in the last days. I’m sure miracles will take place in each of our lives if we could talk this way to our loved ones.
I want to bear my testimony briefly as I finish and make a quick tangent. Sister Terry in Gospel Doctrine class frequently references faith crisis issues when she’s teaching. This is a topic that’s close to us. I went through a faith crisis process starting about ten years ago. I’m grateful for the opportunity to give this talk and bear my testimony of the Church today, but for many years, I wasn’t comfortable doing this. I couldn’t reconcile a lot of scriptural and church history issues until the point that I felt like maybe I needed to leave the church. This was a very difficult time for me. But during this process, I never wavered from my love for the teachings of the church and the deeply positive experience I was having on a weekly and daily basis attending church and trying to be a good Mormon. I fought hard to search for understanding that would reconcile these intellectual issues. I went through a faith reconstruction phase that has lasted many years and is still ongoing and I’m at a place where I’m mostly at peace on this. My testimony is much different than it used to be. For example, I’m now more likely to view certain things metaphorically than literally, but my love for the core teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restored church we have through Joseph Smith and led today by Pres. Nelson has never been greater.
Christlike charity and empathy are not gifts I would have or be naturally good at without working at it. I’m grateful for the pushing and prodding I get in this church to become more like Christ and become my best self.
I’ll close with Mormon’s testimony in the last verse of Moroni 7.
48 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons (and daughters) of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.
In 2013, Smoot published an article The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon, in which he lays out his case for the requirement for the Book of Mormon to be ancient and historical in order for the book to be true and Joseph Smith to be prophet.
First of all, I’d like to acknowledge the progress. Stephen, thank you for the more moderate tone recently compared to the tone of the original article. The original article was full of polarizing language like “conniving charlatan”, “creative liar”, “huckster”, “psychotic delusion”, “bamboozle”, “lunatic”, “sham”. I believe in the non-historical model of the Book of Mormon, but I love that book of scripture, I love Joseph Smith, and I would never use those words to describe him. Smoot is toning down that rhetoric now, and I appreciate that. Thank you.
In this article, I will go through Smoot’s main points and give some counter logic. I feel like I represent a large block of Mormon thought on this, however it is a very controversial subject and few are willing to publicly debate this. I wish there were a better person to represent this perspective than me, but I will give it a shot.
I wish to approach this with Stephen in the spirit of brotherly love. I appreciate Stephen’s work and his self deprecating humorous style. We are both active LDS who love the Book of Mormon and view ourselves as defenders of the restored Church.
Integrity of Joseph Smith
The main point Smoot makes in all of this is that the Book of Mormon very clearly states what it is and Joseph Smith clearly stated how it came about: Angel Moroni, ancient gold plates, etc. If we consider the Book of Mormon non-historical, then we must answer why the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith stated otherwise. We must consider Joseph Smith a fraud and a liar or crazy and deluded. All or nothing. No middle ground. If we imply he could have been lying or deluded about these angelic visits and gold plates, then his integrity is gone, and we can’t trust him for anything. He can’t be a prophet.
No, we don’t have to answer that. There are many gospel questions we simply don’t have the answer for. It’s OK to say while I don’t believe the Book of Mormon is historical, I believe Joseph was a prophet, and I neither think he was fraudulent nor deluded, and I have no idea how or why the Book of Mormon was produced the way it was. If critics tell us, “if you believe Jesus Christ was resurrected, you have to tell me scientifically how it happened”, we can say “no idea, I just believe.” If critics demand to know the logic of why we say God answers prayers and is active in our lives yet he’s allowing children to be abused and other atrocities in the world, it’s OK for us to not have a perfect answer for that. Stephen himself says “there are very strange passages in the Book of Mormon that we can’t fully explain or account for today”. We don’t need to explain everything.
Unfortunately, Joseph Smith’s character is not impeccable. It is a very dangerous argument to make it an all or nothing proposition, because a critic can easily turn this around on any number of issues, such as: polygamy, Book of Abraham, Kinderhook Plates, Zelph, Adam-ondi-Ahman, Kirtland Banking scandal, etc. I don’t think we want to draw a line in the sand and say “Joseph was very clear that an angel with drawn sword commanded him to take many girls in marriage, if he was lying or deluded about that, then EVERYTHING else he revealed is suspect.” “Joseph was clear that he was translating an ancient record written about Abraham. If he was lying or deluded about that, then we can’t trust ANYTHING he did.” Why would God choose Joseph Smith to be the prophet if he did xyz? Critics constantly ask that question, and the perfectly fine answer from Mormon Apologists is “prophets aren’t perfect and you can’t answer for God why he does something a certain way or who he chooses to be prophet.”
There are some alternatives or middle ground that I think are reasonable. Maybe Joseph had a powerful spiritual experience, revelation rushing through his brain, an interaction with God, he was responsible to bring this message to the world. What a huge responsibility. Maybe God didn’t micromanage the process other than to sear in his mind the message and the responsibility. Maybe in a way scholar Ann Taves originally theorized, God transformed plates and divinely sanctioned them in a process similar to the Brother of Jared’s 16 stones. Maybe Joseph made some mistakes along the way. Only One is perfect. Our scriptures are full of stories of prophets completely mucking it up. I’m not saying Joseph did, but it would be OK if he did. There are some middle ground possibilities.
Inspired Fiction Theory
Smoot calls the theory that active LDS believers who view the Book of Mormon as non-historical scripture the Inspired Fiction Theory. He compares the spiritual value of the Book of Mormon in this to the spiritual value of the Lord of the Rings, Alma is compared to Oliver Twist, etc. I would like to request that we not use that term or those comparisons. It’s not fair to the believers that take the book as holy scripture. We don’t call the Parable of the Lost Sheep inspired fiction. We don’t compare Job or Jonah to Oliver Twist. Jesus taught nearly exclusively using parables (which you could call fictional stories) to make his doctrinal points. We don’t make fun of Christ for this method.
Impossible for a Human
We sometimes say Joseph Smith could not have brought us the beauty and spiritual value of King Benjamin’s address or Alma’s brilliant treatise on faith in Alma 32 or Jacob’s discourse on the atonement in 2 Ne 9. These are too inspiring to come from a human. They must have come from God. But wait. King Benjamin, Alma, and Jacob would be humans also. Brilliant, beautiful, inspired, genius scripture that appears to be “above human capacity” comes from humans. All through the scriptures. We don’t believe God wrote the Bible. Or the Book of Mormon. So, even if it didn’t come from Joseph, it still came from a human. That doesn’t take away the importance or the validity of the teachings. And we can still call it from God, through a human, whether it be Joseph Smith or Alma.
Belief is not a Choice
I believe the Book of Mormon is a modern work. I’m not in this essay going to provide all the evidences for why I believe that. But I can’t unbelieve that. Stephen Smoot believes the Book of Mormon is ancient. He weighs the evidence and determines that belief at a subconscious level he can’t control. He can’t suddenly choose to believe the Book of Mormon is not an ancient record. If he did change his belief on that, it would happen at a subconscious level based on new evaluations of evidence. But it would be beyond his conscious control.
Religion is about faith, which is different than belief. Faith is “acting as if one knows”. Faith is a loyalty to God and the church you believe best represents God. It is taking Alma’s experiment to live the gospel and see if it works. Faith is showing up and fulfilling our priesthood obligations, serving each other, keeping our covenants, even when belief is wavering. We shouldn’t batter each other over beliefs. Joseph Smith said:
I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.
Smoot says over and over it would be impossible for the Book of Mormon to be scripture if it is a pious fraud. A pious fraud is when someone uses deception or fraud to do something they think is good. “No honey your butt doesn’t look big in that dress” is a pious fraud. A doctor giving a sugar pill for someone with anxiety is a pious fraud. It’s not right, but you get why they do it. In a perfect world, there would be no pious fraud. As an evolved society, we understand the dangers of that and how things backfire and trust is damaged. But this was par for the course in past times. Our scriptures are chock full of pious fraud and Stephen Smoot would agree (I think).
Deuteronomy is considered by many scholars (even faithful scholars) to be a pious fraud in that it purports to be written by Moses when it was likely written centuries later. Yet Jesus quoted Deuteronomy and even attributed authorship to Moses. He did the same for Isaiah, when scholars believe the latter chapters of Isaiah were not written by him but ascribed to him in a pious fraud. Most faithful scholars believe the historical events in the Bible portrayed prior to the Kings period are highly embellished and only loosely based on actual historical events.
Our modern morals and values have changed a bit to consider this more of a dishonest and immoral act to write scripture this way than the ancients viewed it, but for most of human history, pseudepigrapha (writing scripture and falsely ascribing it to someone else) has been a common and accepted practice.
Metaphorical scripture less valuable than literal
Laura Hales asked Stephen the question. “A critique of yours of the inspired fiction model of the Book of Mormon is that as things become hypothetical, they lose their zing.” Stephen responded by telling of the story of the Gadianton Robbers, and how they caused the downfall of the Nephites.
If there were no real Gadianton robbers, if Mormon was not a historian and prophet, if his son Moroni who also emphasized this point was likewise not an actual historical person not if none of this happened outside the fertile imagination of Joseph Smith, then I don’t see how any of it could be relevant in addressing any concerns in our current society.
This argument just doesn’t ring true to me. Jesus exclusively used parable to provide very salient and relevant insights that are just as relevant 2,000 years later. Even the Book of Mormon includes metaphor as part of its teaching, ie allegory of the Olive Tree, Alma’s experiment on the word, etc. I don’t personally hold this view, but some people believe Joseph got the idea of the Gadianton Robbers from modern day Freemasonry, which used covenants and oaths of secrecy, and had a sinister reputation among some Protestants in Joseph’s day. If this were true, then the Gadianton robbers actually would be based on real life history. But it doesn’t matter either way. Some historical events teach lessons that are relevant today. Some don’t. Some metaphors teach lessons that are relevant today. Some don’t. What sets scripture apart is that we believe it is inspired, as a church we canonize it and believe God makes it holy, and we believe that as we study it, we learn insights into improving our spiritual lives and grow closer to God. It has nothing to do with whether the events portrayed in scripture happened exactly as recorded.
Gold Plates vs Book of Mormon
One thing I appreciate Smoot for doing and Laura for prompting him to do so in the podcast interview, was to acknowledge the difference between the text of the Book of Mormon and the proposed text on the gold plates. This is a critical point to understand that faithful BYU professors Nick Frederick and Thomas Wayment, among others, have been making recently. Dr. Wayment identified 400 Book of Mormon verses that contain direct textual influence of the King James Bible, both Old and New Testament. Not just phrases but ideas and logic. They argue that we should view the King James Bible as an antecedent for the Book of Mormon.
What this means is that, for example, when in the English Book of Mormon text, Jacob in 2 Ne 9 is using logic and phraseology on the resurrection of Christ from Corinthians that we should understand that it would be impossible for that exact logic and phraseology to exist on ancient gold plates. The text on the gold plates in this case could be considered a catalyst for the modern logic and phraseology that came to Joseph Smith through revelation from God. This is an extension of the Book of Mormon Expansion Theory first postulated by LDS scholar Blake Ostler in the 1980’s.
This is an important acknowledgement, because it allows for believers of BOM historicity to also allow for some–maybe much–of the Book of Mormon text to have come through the mind of Joseph Smith in a revelatory process similar to the view many LDS scholars are coming to on the Book of Abraham. So when we make arguments like “oh he was an uneducated farm boy, how could he come up with it”, that is an accurate and reasonable defense. However, it is an argument not to prove historicity but rather to prove inspiration/revelation outside of historicity, because we do now acknowledge some (or much) of it did indeed come through Joseph external of the gold plates text.
No Middle Ground — Elder Holland Quote
Smoot quoted Elder Holland.
One has to take a do or die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it. Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan. But no one should tolerate any ludicrous or even laughable middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take. Morally, literarally, historically, or theologically.
As a faithful Latter-day Saint, I sustain Elder Holland as a prophet, seer, and revelator. Though everything he says is not considered official church doctrine, I take seriously everything he says. I have a few thoughts on this quote.
He makes no mention of historicity. I know it’s implied, but he doesn’t specifically state it. One can believe the Book of Mormon is inspired scripture, that Joseph was a prophet, that the BOM has divine origins, that it DOES NOT come as a contour of the imagination of a young boy’s mind, and firmly take a do or die stand regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ, while not believing it is historical.
Elder Holland stated something similar regarding evolution and Adam and Eve and death before the fall. Which I assume Smoot probably disagrees with–or has a nuance for. LDS apostles speak very specifically on a number of issues, sometimes in contradiction with each other or past church leaders. We should take them seriously, and if what they say is difficult, we should struggle with what we need to understand, but we know that apostles are not infallible.
This quote came 30 years ago, before new information that faithful LDS scholars now believe that the intertextuality of the Book of Mormon and the King James Bible is so strong that at a minimum some portions of the Book of Mormon must have its roots in modern times. So, even if an LDS scholar Apologist accepts historicity, most likely that person (like Smoot) acknowledges some content that must have originated through Joseph Smith. We no longer should eliminate Joseph Smith’s contribution to the text, even if it is deemed minor and inspired by God.
Though I spend a lot of time talking about my paradigm of the Book of Mormon and the restoration, I acknowledge to some degree it is an inferior position. It’s unorthodox compared to what is believed and taught by mainstream LDS members and leaders. Faith would come a bit easier for me if I believed in the Book of Mormon the same way I did 20 years ago. It’s easier to gain new new converts who believe the Book of Mormon literally than metaphorically. The impact of the story of the visit of the resurrected Savior to the Nephites might be more meaningful reading it as actual history than reading it as metaphor, having faith it could have happened in the same way. Maybe. I say maybe, because in some ways my faith right now exceeds the faith I had when I believed in the literal paradigm. Like Nephi and Laman and Lemuel taught us, the impact of miracles and actual events last short term, while the impact of the Holy Ghost lasts long term.
I don’t market my material intentionally to mainstream, literal believing Mormons to get them to believe metaphorically. I only do this for others who have lost belief in the literal paradigm and are looking for a different paradigm to hang onto what they believe is beautiful and true of the core message of the restored Church.
I don’t ask for equal standing from believers like Stephen Smoot. But I do ask for acceptance and a valid seat at the table.
Ultimately, I view Stephen Smoot and I on the same team. We could be sitting in the pew together on Sunday. We could be on a Friday night double date to the temple with our wives. If he could find someone to marry. We could be side by side with shovel in hands on an Elder’s quorum service project. We both feel deeply about our testimony of the restored Church. We both love the Book of Mormon and testify that it is the inspired word of God. We both get tweaked by Exmormon Reddit and defend the Church from critics. I feel this attack on the non-historical but faithful model of the BOM is an unnecessary diversion from the good work Smoot could be doing building up the kingdom of God using his talent as a scholar and persuasiveness as an LDS Apologist. My request for Smoot and others with the same perspective is to enlarge the tent of what you view as acceptable Mormon belief, avoid internal strife and boundary maintenance with other believers, and if you desire to defend the Church then to focus on defending the Church against critics who truly wish to harm the Church.
Smoot says something very important to those who are struggling with Book of Mormon historicity. He acknowledges that it’s difficult for some to believe but encourages them to work, struggle, research, be open to changing paradigms but don’t abandon historicity of the Book of Mormon. I completely agree one should work, struggle, research, and be open to changing paradigms in order to preserve testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restored Church. But part of that changing paradigm for many is to move to a non-historical model of the Book of Mormon.
I am an active faithful LDS who believes the Book of Mormon is not historical. I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. I do not think he was lying, conniving huckster. I’m offended by that. I believe he received revelation similar to other ancient and modern prophets to bring forth the Book of Mormon as the inspired Word of God. It has transformed my life and continues to turn my heart back to my Savior, Jesus Christ.
Elder and Sister Renlund spoke on faith crisis Sunday night. I wrote about that earlier. It was a very difficult talk for me. Perhaps the most difficult I’ve heard from LDS leadership since my faith crisis and reconstruction began 12 years ago. They seemed to downplay the difficulty many undergoing through faith crisis are having and seemed to ridicule or blame them for struggling with issues. As a Latter-day Saint who covenants to sustain Elder Renlund, I’m not criticizing him. But it was difficult.
Elder Uchtdorf gave a talk at BYU on the same subject, which resonated with me a lot more. He introduced the talk with an anecdote of a musician giving a world class level concert in a subway to see if people would notice. I love this concept and it has become a bit of a theme for me.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
In the talk, Elder Uchtdorf took the approach that faith and doubt are very difficult, very normal issues. His approach was to encourage the doubter to start with a desire to believe and make seeking God a lifetime pursuit. And gave an apostolic promise that if one did do that, they would eventually be rewarded.
Some of you might now say in order to have a greater belief in God I have to believe? But that’s exactly my problem. What if I can’t believe? The answer is. Then hope. And desire to believe. That is enough to start. To desire to believe means to open your heart to the possibility of spiritual things. To lay aside skepticism and cynicism. If you can simply want to believe, that can start the seed of faith.
Please understand this is not a process of once and done. It is not a process of minutes or hours. It may not be a process of months or even years. It is a process of a lifetime. We are seekers. You and I. We are light gatherers. You and I. We are on this lifelong mission to gather light and bear it to the world, which will lead us through the joys and trials of life. Don’t ever stop seeking. Jesus promised that if we seek we shall find. If we knock, it shall be opened. If we listen, we will hear… Hold onto that promise. Even if it takes your entire lives to find the precious light and truth you seek, it will be well worth the effort.
This journey is not easy. You’ll come across some real tough questions. Questions that you may never answer.
Why does the evidence seem to point to me that it is not possible that the Book of Mormon is an actual, historical record, yet why have I seen the transformational power it has in my own life and lives of others?
Why does Joseph Smith’s behavior surrounding polygamy seem so obviously scandalous and not of God, yet when I commit to and live according to the gospel and church he restored to us, my life is greatly blessed?
Why is it so hard to even believe God exists, yet I feel such a call to seek him and her?
Don’t be ashamed if you struggle with these and many other questions. They’re tough questions. But I believe as Elder Uchtdorf says, if you can suppress the skepticism and seek God, you will be rewarded. Earth is crammed with heaven.
The answers as you seek them might lead you to a different paradigm. The paradigm I’ve adopted to address those questions is to view the historical events in scripture and the LDS restoration as metaphorical. Jordan Peterson is using this paradigm in his debate with atheist Sam Harris about the value of religion and belief in God.
Sam: You say you believe in God.
Jordan: No, I say I act as if he exists.
This for me is the subtle difference between faith and belief. We can’t control our beliefs, in my opinion. They are formed at a subconscious level we can’t dictate. But we can control our faith, which is how we act.
Eric Weinstein, acting as the moderator, and attempting to summarize Jordan Peterson’s point, said:
The idea of metaphorical truth is the idea that there are some concepts which are literally false that you can falsify in a scientific, rational sense. But if you behave as if they are true, you come out ahead of where you were if you behave according to the fact that they are false. So to call these things simply false is an error. In effect the universe has left them true in some sense other than a purely literal one. Encapsulations of stories and prescriptions that if you follow them, irrespective of whether they literally describe the universe, you end up with advantages you may not know why they are there, nonetheless you are ahead of your position had you tried to navigate without these truths.
Elder and Sister Renlund spoke on faith and doubt in a world wide devotional last night. Today, there is some pretty harsh criticism of the talk from the Progmo-Exmo community.
I sustain Elder Renlund as a prophet, seer, and revelator and I try to have patience and faith when hearing his words. But I understand why people are reacting to this talk.
A couple parts of the talk that were very difficult.
The story of “Steven” who had a concern over the First Vision. Then when that was resolved, he had a concern over polygamy. Then a concern over the priesthood ban. They called this Church history “whack-a-mole” and criticized for Steven for choosing to be a “perpetual doubter”.
I think a more helpful approach is like Richard Bushman or Patrick Mason who acknowledge that because the Church has taught a white washed history for so long, that many members are being caught off guard by difficult church history questions. These are real problems that people search a lifetime without answering, and there’s not just one, there’s a series of difficult issues. It’s not a member’s fault for getting caught off guard by these or wanting to resolve each one as they arise. Rather than criticize the member, I think it’s more helpful to encourage them to seek for answers, to warn them of the spiritual danger of giving up on God and faith too soon, to testify of a higher truth, etc.
Elder and Sister Renlund talked about the danger of using non-Church approved sources or listening to those who left the Church and implied they are spiritually bankrupt and listening to them is similar to seeking out medical advice from a snake oil salesmen.
I use the word “implied” here because the words and phrases seem to have been chosen carefully not to directly state this. But it seemed to be received this way by many. Given the “white washed history” thing, it’s no wonder that members who are truly seeking God with faith would look at a number of sources to weigh the evidence and attempt to resolve concerns. Further, it’s not just Exmormons or non-approved sources that are creating questions. Many LDS did nothing more than read the Church published Gospel Topics essays to create a “whack-a-mole” issue list that eventually led them away from their faith in the restored Church. And it’s true, there are enemies of the church, there are spiritually bankrupt sources and snake oil salesmen types that are trying to persuade members to leave the Church. But going there ignores the bigger problem and sends the wrong message to those true seekers.
On a positive note, I really liked how Elder and Sister Renlund shared the stage and modeled the Adam and Eve shared-responsibility role of husband wife. And some of the talk was very helpful and very useful. The metaphor of the boat with dents and chipped paint didn’t shy away from acknowledging that there are real problems in the Church. And I liked this quote.
What we consider dents and peeling paint on the well-used boat may turn out to be divinely sanctioned and divinely directed from an eternal perspective. The Lord has either had a hand in the dents and the peeling paint or he uses them for his purposes.
I was a faithful LDS who went through a “whack-a-mole” faith crisis process that left me no longer believing in the LDS Church foundational claims I once had. But then I went through a faith reconstruction that provided a new paradigm for me to reestablish faith in the restored Church. These are tough issues, but there is a way.