[The Juvenile Instructor is pleased to have Greg Prince guest post on what has been termed “inoculating” in Mormon History. He received doctorate degrees (DDS, PhD) at UCLA in 1973 and 1975, and spent his career in biomedical research. He has authored two books on Mormonism, Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood and David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.]
In the early 1950s teachers in the Church Educational System met in Provo to write curricula for the Seminaries. The committee assigned to address church history quickly became divided into two factions. The “alpha” members of the two factions, both of whom became General Authorities a decade later, argued for opposing philosophies of how to portray our history. One later observed:
“We were writing a Church history unit, and he didn’t want anybody to know that coffee was part of the overland trek. I said, ‘What if the kid finds out five years after Seminary? What are you going to do? You’ve got a bigger problem then than if you just tell him the first time. And you can tell them why, that the Word of Wisdom didn’t really get sanctioned until 1918. So quit worrying about it.’ ‘I know, but we’ve got to protect their faith.’”
There is no question which faction won—at least for the time being. As long as the Church generally controlled the data—and it did for well over a century—well-meaning leaders and teachers could shield church members from what Al Gore famously called “inconvenient truths.” The Internet changed the game. No longer is the Church able to shield members from problematic aspects of our history and doctrine. And as the seminary teacher said over a half-century ago, “You’ve got a bigger problem then than if you just tell him the first time.”
Most of the readers of this blog can name friends, and perhaps family members, whose encounter with inconvenient truths caused them either to stumble or to leave the Church entirely. Recently, the problem was given a new face in the person of Hans Mattsson, a former Area Seventy from Stockholm, Sweden. Hans was the focal point of a recent front-page article in the New York Times that described his struggle with points of history that, as a third-generation Mormon and Area Seventy, he had never heard of. His struggle almost resulted in his leaving the Church.
The question facing us now is how to move forward when the Internet has changed the game forever. How can we “inoculate” church members with essential information in advance of their confronting it on the Internet in a form that shakes or destroys their faith? And at the same time, how can we respect the fact that many other church members will never care about such issues, regardless of where or if they encounter them? To expose them to the inconvenient truths may cause the very problem that we are attempting to address in others. Is there a one-size-fits-all approach? If not, what are the facets of a multi-faceted approach and how can it be deployed in such a way as to help those in crisis while doing no harm to the rest?