Guest Post: Greg Prince on Hans Mattson & Inoculation of Church History

By August 6, 2013

[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?

Article filed under Current Events Reflective Posts


  1. Greg, you raise great questions, and I think there are no easy answers. As a professional educator of teens and pre-teens, I have to weigh some of the same questions in relation to American history: should I tell them about Jefferson fathering children with Sally Hemmings, or the other infidelities of important leaders? Can they handle the truth about the brutality of the fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, or the atrocities committed by American GIs during the occupation of Japan?

    When I was a youth I fortunately had a Sunday School teacher who wasn’t afraid to address controversial Church History topics. From Bro. Hansen I learned about Joseph Smith’s plural wives, the Solomon Spaulding Manuscript, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He taught us about the Deseret Alphabet and even had us complete a few lessons from photocopies of an original Deseret Alphabet Primer. But everything Bro. Hansen taught our awkward group of teens was previewed with the sharing of his testimony.

    Of course, not everyone has been or will be as fortunate in their teachers. What I sense Church leaders emphasizing in recent years is the importance of developing a skill set that will help them weather storms of confusion and doubt; a skill set that includes meditation, prayer, scripture-driven study, pondering, earnest inquiry, and testimony cultivation.

    What the Church can do better on a local level, I think, is teach members that challenges will come, and continue to help members hone their skills in combating the doubt and confusion that can arise from exposure challenging topics in Church History. There’s no way to expose members to all the controversial stuff that’s out there–nor should the Church have to. Just like I try to equip my 7th and 8th grade students to be critical readers and thinkers, that should be a major goal of the SS program.

    Comment by Nate R. — August 6, 2013 @ 9:42 am

  2. Nate, i wish i could just hug you now. I think Church leaders should be more informed on how to handle questioning members – everyone in doubt need some sort of mentor to guide him/her to the shores of greater faith.
    Then we should be more frank with the rising generations – i try to do that at FHE

    Comment by FrancisE. — August 6, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  3. I believe that this may be the most important question that the Church will face in the generation to come. We need to find appropriate ways to openly and honestly discuss the difficult, sometimes contradictory, and often fluid aspects of our history and doctrine. I would love to see the traditional method of teaching church history in the church in general (during weekly meetings and otherwise) change dramatically toward a more fully-fleshed, realistic presentation of the facts. I believe that even the thorniest of church history topics, when contextualized and studied in the right spirit, testify of the veracity of some of the most foundational of LDS teachings (i.e., natural man, eternal progression, continuing revelation, etc.) and that truth – hairy, ugly, disgusting, and human – is always better than a half-truth that ignores key facts; no matter how warm or fuzzy or little and white this is still a lie. Finding out that Joseph Smith was involved with the Danites or that Brigham Young was an ill-tempered man with a penchant for the finest brandy is to me proof of the ability and willingness of God to work with fallible, foible-laden humans and to still accomplish greatness.

    Comment by Ryan — August 6, 2013 @ 10:36 am

  4. I think that the church needs to balance the teaching of church history. I don’t think Sunday school is the place to teach all of our history, though I think it could be a place where some of the history is discussed but it should be mostly for teaching of doctrine and the context in which we understand who we are. Then, we should get everyone–or those who want to–to attend weekly history discussions in which we deal with the problems of our history. we should incorporate those discussions in our seminaries and our institutes. Over time, enough of our people will know and learn to deal with the problems that it will not be such a big problem. I don’t think that we can eliminate completely the fact that some people will lose their testimonies because of what they hear, but at least they will not be able to say that the church was hiding it from them.

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — August 6, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  5. I like all the responses so far. I think that outside of Sunday School, BYU can and should be a place where “inocculation” takes place. In theory, it should be one of the best places to address matters of both faith and history.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 6, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  6. I can picture a class, similar to temple/mission prep or gospel principles, that is concurrent but not combined with the Gospel Doctrine class. The class would be filled by invitation or request as needed to serve individuals who struggle. Were this class to exist, I would hope it would be as much about how to think of historical issues and flaws in leaders, using specific examples, rather than a laundry list of potential grievances or issues. The list of potential faith challenges seems never ending and teaching people how to think about the the Church?s history would probably be more effective than a gripe session (I?m thinking of Terryl Givens? Letter to a Doubter as a model). I have found that there is usually one or two people in every ward who are conversant in Church History and they could be used as a greater resource to those who are unfamiliar with it.

    Comment by Noah Read — August 6, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

  7. Thanks for this post Greg. I enjoy your books and appearances on podcasts.

    I agree with the above comments regarding the great importance of this question and the absence of easy answers. I only have general thoughts. Hopefully these help.

    1) If I could only make one point it would be “trust.” We got into this mess because church leadership did not trust the general membership to handle difficult information. We will only move forward if members are trusted to work out their own testimonies. Only then will their trust in the leadership be restored.

    2) Generally speaking, learning new information does not alone harm members’ testimonies. The harm comes when the information conflicts with church teachings. For example, learning of the stone in the hat is weird. But members do not leave because of that. They leave because they were wrongly taught otherwise.

    3) When you find yourself in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. We need to excise the erroneous information in our teachings and – this is important – expressly state that it is incorrect. If we simply remove it and try to forget it, we will be dealing with the fallout for years to come (see, e.g., Bottgate).

    4) We also need some type of “innoculation.” I personally dislike this term because it erroneously implies that knowledge is damaging, even a virus. We do not need protection against knowledge. We need an entirely different educational paradigm werein context, questions, doubt, conflict, and resolution are part of the process. We need to leave the Primary black/white model of the gospel (at least for those of us no longer in Primary).

    5) We need to provide a skillset for dealing with challenging information. Importantly, this does *not* mean providing a catechism of answers from Adam-God to Zelph. Rather, we must teach the members how to swim on their own. Start by including within the normal lessons a few basic examples of challenging information, appropriate to the student’s age, and then allowing the members to come to terms with the information on their own. Do not simply present the information and then immediately jump to the “answer.” That only makes the members dependent.

    Providing a skillset does not mean addressing every historical, cultural, or other issue. There is no way to cover everything. And we don’t need to. If we teach the members to swim, they will find their own answers when issues arise in the future. We don’t even need to supplement current manuals to begin the process. Our scriptures already contain enough difficult information if we will only use them – e.g., conflicting commandments given to Adam/Eve, Abraham lied about his marital status, WOW was not initially a commandment, Mormon acknowledges that the BOM contains errors, etc. Another option is the recently created “scriptures in context” on the church website.

    6) We need to strongly shut down the culture in our church wherein questions, doubts, and differences of opinion are seen as dangerous – so dangerous in fact that it is better to cut the person from the faith than dialogue with them. Just listen to Brother Mattson’s story to understand.

    7) There is the saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I don’t agree with that, but I do sense concern that older members may struggle more with “innoculation” than younger ones. If that is the case, so be it. It sounds harsh, but the youth are the future of the church. I very much want to keep both, but if we have to err on one side, err on preserving the rising generation. In other words, move faster than we are comfortable with.

    8) Finally, if this is going to work, it will take buy-in from the local leadership. That requires being specific about what is happening. No more vagueness. No placing the information online and assuming the members will just find it.

    Comment by Dave K — August 6, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

  8. I am one of those who has left the church, and certainly the historical issues played a part in my decision to leave. I am a 5th generation Utah Mormon, returned missionary, seminary graduate, etc. but I had never heard that Joseph Smith had multiple wives, including sisters, mother daughter pairs, teenagers, and several who were at the time married to other men. That revelation led to other troubling discoveries about the many inconsistent versions of the First Vision, problems with the Book of Abraham, institutional racism, etc etc. Once you go down the rabbit hole there is no coming back.

    Inoculation may be good for some, but it will take an extremely skilled teacher to navigate these historical landmines without causing mass defections from traditional members – let alone leaving him or herself. I’m sure the Church would love to clone the Givens and send them out to the whole world, but as we all know the vast majority of teachers in the church are mediocre at best. Lay clergy has its downsides. And even if you were able to identify the right teachers, I don’t see how Joseph Smith’s troubling sexual proclivities can be “contextualized and studied in the right spirit.” Good luck with that, especially with the good sisters in your ward!

    But I really do not think that these historical issues are the biggest problem facing the church today. My decision to leave the church was not based on these issues at all. I believe the Church’s biggest challenge, at least with the younger generation, is its monumentally misguided decision to support Proposition 8 and its continued failure (inability? refusal?) to support the LGBT Community, particularly gay and lesbian members of the church who are committing suicide every day. Marriage equality is coming, and before long it will be the norm. THAT is the issue of our day. And the Church’s intransigence on this issue will be the cause for thousands if not millions of LDS young people to leave. So inoculate away! The Church might win a few battles over history, but the war will be long over.

    Comment by Porter — August 6, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

  9. I think Noah Read’s idea is more workable than J Stuart’s – not everyone goes to BYU, but everyone should have the opportunity to explore these issues in a safe & smart environment. As FrancisE’s comment shows, sometimes that’s in the home, but sometimes, as NateR’s comment shows, young people want/need information from a good, caring teacher. I would hate to partition off the history-savvy into an intellectual ghetto within a ward, because I think that inoculation is different from quarantine… but I like the idea of a “Beyond Gospel Basics” class of some kind.

    Comment by Tona H — August 6, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

  10. Also, just in general – I think members should feel freer to have questions and doubts. A lot of church rhetoric is oriented around “answers” and certainty rather than “inquiry” and searching. If I’ve learned anything from educational theory, it’s that inquiry-based learning is better learning.

    Comment by Tona H — August 6, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

  11. I’m an ardent feminist and have been a frustrated member, staying faithful yet hoping for change in the culture. Mission, BYU, years of activity and tithe paying.

    In the same year I learned about Joseph Smith’s disgusting behavior and read, “A Mormon Mother” which shed light on the sad lives of polygamist wives. I no longer believe.

    My opinion: If I would’ve found out earlier, I would’ve left earlier. The church received years of bountiful tithing from me as a result of hiding the truth. So…. their end was met, albeit through dishonesty (yes, hiding the truth is dishonest).

    Joseph Smith’s behavior was so unsavory. I believe few would remain faithful if they knew, other than those fully entrenched in Mormon society, families and cultural status.

    Comment by Andrea — August 6, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

  12. Tona: You are, of course, correct. Not everyone can or should go to BYU. I like the idea of a “beyond gospel principles” class, but it would take a specially trained teacher. I think your call for an “inquiry based” model of learning would be very successful.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 6, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

  13. This has been going on in the Naccle for a while. I remember this post.

    Nice comments Dave K. I agree that BYU is a great place to address these. I see a very mixed battle there going on under the surface, so here’s hoping.

    I think Institute is also a good place, and can reach more people than BYU.

    Comment by Nitsav — August 6, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

  14. Andrea, I can’t say anything about your personal views of Joseph Smith except that I disagree that the story of polygamy will necessarily drive people out of the church. I have seen a recent example to the contrary of new converts, intelligent, religious people, who have dealt with the issue fairly easily since they are very familiar with the Bible and the complexities of the lives of the prophets.

    On the topic of the original post, an interesting point came up in a discussion elsewhere. Someone mentioned that it is more important that people feel like they can ask questions than that they find definite answers to their questions. I wonder if this is the case for everyone, or if it’s a personality-based trait.

    Comment by Amy T — August 6, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

  15. Nice post.

    A lot of church rhetoric is oriented around ?answers? and certainty rather than ?inquiry? and searching.

    Uchtdorf has had some good statements about this in the last year or two. He’s almost Hugh B. Brown lite.

    Comment by Ben S — August 6, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

  16. Also, it’s interesting that the two posters who have left both identify their issue as the one issue that really puts the nail in the coffin. We all have a way of personalizing the world through our own issue/speciality.

    Comment by Ben S — August 6, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

  17. The real problem is the Church’s longterm dishonesty. The Lord’s Church has consistently misled its membership on its history. A mention of the truth here or there over a multi-decade period does not offset thousands of factually deceptive representations.

    That pattern has been repeated over and over again on issue after issue. That is the tough part.

    Comment by Steve — August 6, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

  18. Trying to be objective,

    I would appreciate a more honest and direct approach from the church in handling the issues. While it may cost some membership similar to the Community of Christ, in the long run, I think there would be a solid core of members whose belief runs deeper than just faith. It would also allow the church to regain its intellectual integrity. One of the reasons the early church did so well in its early years (especially in areas away from the Midwest, like England, East Coast, etc) was because it appeared to be a very reasonable faith. Reclaiming that element of reason would definitely help.

    Amy T, the reasons for and practice of polygamy are subject to some debate. For the most part though, it is necessary to concede that many troubling acts resulted due to it, regardless of motive. Nonetheless, I agree when you say that it will not necessarily drive people out and nor do I think it should. However, I disagree with the appeal to the Bible. The way I see it, the Bible is much more the story of a human reaction to the world, interpreted through an effort to understand a divine being. Essentially, what I am saying is that one cannot just appeal to the Bible to make their argument. I also think it was the Bible’s influence (Joseph’s effort to restore all things), the presence of pro-polygamy literature in the media, and the sexual experimentation of other groups (Harmony Society, Shakers, Cochranites, etc) which led Joseph to enact the practice.

    Overall, inoculation would be a vital step in the right direction. At the very least, a step away from exclusivity and having a better understanding of why people leave or struggle would also help. The psychological toll is taxing on those who struggle (myself currently), and a move away from strict orthodoxy could make the church more palatable for those who try to stay.

    Comment by Jeff — August 6, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

  19. There is an easy solution. Just don’t teach them as issues. I’ve heard lots of arguments about when to include things like Joseph Smith’s polygamy or the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Why not primary? We learn there that the Israelites were constantly wicked, that the apostles never understood Jesus, and that Mormons were kicked out of Missouri because of wickedness. Nobody calls these “issues.” I never knew that Joseph Smith replacing the 116 pages with other books prepared for that eventuality was an “issue” until South Park told me so. Why? Because it’s right in the D&C and we covered it in Primary and Sunday School. That’s the whole point of incoculation. It’s already ingrained in you.

    Comment by Larrin — August 6, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

  20. I know this sounds simplistic, but ‘honesty is the best policy’ in my book. No more hiding embarrassing history. Just tell the truth, warts and all. Folks are going to find it on the Internet eventually, anyway. So just be upfront, and I think the Church will be better off in the long run. Will the Brethren ever adopt this view? Methinks not. Sigh …

    Comment by Rollo Tomasi — August 6, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

  21. ” I disagree with the appeal to the Bible. The way I see it, the Bible is much more the story of a human reaction to the world, interpreted through an effort to understand a divine being. Essentially, what I am saying is that one cannot just appeal to the Bible to make their argument.”

    Tyis is now what I heard Amy T. Saying. What I got from her appeal to the Bible was the fact at e Bible is full of very imperfect people doing God’s work. Sampson was no saint, but he was chosen by God. Most of the prophets of the Bible are shown with their human weaknesses on full display. If we could recognize that God called/used an imperfect Joseph to bring about new doctrines and then an imperect Brigham to lead his people west, and other imperfect prophets to do their best to lead, it makes Joseph’s polygamy and Brigham’s racism easier to deal with, they weren’t called because they were saints. They were called because God needed them to bring about new doctrines of salvation.

    Comment by Gilgamesh — August 7, 2013 @ 2:04 am

  22. A provocative post.

    One question I have about it is who “we,” “them,” and “us” are. I think this is part of what Ben S. was trying to get at.

    Really good history is about understanding context, thorough research, and engaging in conversation with other historians. I think the real problem is that we don’t teach people historical thinking in the church and in the world in general. Most people don’t have the tools to evaluate the various types of history they encounter whether such accounts be institutional or academic.

    Comment by Joel — August 7, 2013 @ 2:53 am

  23. Everything Mattson “learned” from the Internet, I learned as a young person in Utah. I am 52, and a faithful member of the Church, and I can declare with absolute proof that, back in the late ’70’s things like Joseph Smith’s unique approach to translating the gold plates were well known. Shame on Mattson for choosing to follow blindly and then getting upset because no one told him the truth.

    Comment by Lynne Cropper — August 7, 2013 @ 6:33 am

  24. Maybe it would be good to put this in perspective. We believe that some poor Jewish girl got pregnant by God and the death of that Child somehow expiates our sins and makes it so everyone will resurrect. We believe that the father of the faithful was told to murder his son. We believe God walked on water, fed 5,000 with some take out from Panera and Red Lobster, and changed water to wine, which, by the way, we would not be slowed to drink. Mormonism is only slightly more offensive than Christianity in general. And yes, we talk about it every Sunday, teach it, affirm it, and find that, daily, the Holy Ghost witnesses that all of this outrageous, offensive, absurd, and seemingly irrational stuff is true. It is all as true as the wild, mind-boggling notion that all of us, each one of us, is a cherished daughter or son of Heavenly Parents. Could anything be more potentially absurd, hubristic, and just crazy but at the sane time real, reliable, and true.

    Comment by Shawn Tucker — August 7, 2013 @ 7:29 am

  25. Gilgamesh,

    I agree with you saying that religious leaders are fallible. However, regarding the Bible, you have to begin with the question: What is a prophet? Old Testament prophets were religiously inclined Jews living in their own era with their own individual, familial, and/or social dilemmas. However, their purpose was not so much to predict the future or introduce new doctrines to the entire church; they were individuals who recorded their own understanding of God and his relationship to Israel. Much of their work was edited later, but besides that, their so-called prophecies often speak of things past, present, or of the near future. Isaiah 53 is a great example of this; a chapter in the past tense speaking of the redemption of Israel, which early Christians interpreted as being a prophecy of Christ. I do not think it was as much of a divine book, but the human interpretation of a perceived divinity.

    Like I stated in my first post, if polygamy or the priesthood ban were the only troubling historical problems, fewer people would be struggling. As Joel stated, understanding context is important. However, those aren’t the only two things which people have difficulty reconciling.

    Comment by Jeff — August 7, 2013 @ 7:42 am

  26. And if we stopped singing “Praise to the Man” that might help too. Seriously. I understand why W.W. Phelps felt moved to write it, and why people who knew and loved Joseph enjoyed singing it. But it sends the wrong message (akin to adulation) to generations who didn’t know him that sets them up for disillusionment when they learn more about his human nature.

    And besides, I suspect that Joseph rolls his spiritual eyes and groans every time it’s sung.

    Comment by MB — August 7, 2013 @ 7:48 am

  27. I really get annoyed at comments like the one by Lynne Cropper. Sure, I can believe that *you* knew about these things, and that they were “well known” at least to some set of people.

    Nevertheless, it is true (or at least was true) that you could go to four years of seminary, attend church every Sunday, serve a mission, and get straight A’s in half a dozen BYU religion classes, without ever hearing about any of this stuff, unless you happened to stumble upon some anti-Mormon literature, or maybe some issues of “Sunstone” tucked into the basement of the Maeser building.

    Heck, If I believe what I read on blogs, even the missionary tour guides at church-owned historical sites don’t seem to be aware of much of the historical baggage. Maybe the church could start there?

    Comment by wondering — August 7, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

  28. In Nauvoo a few years ago, the LDS guides would claim that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy.

    Down the road, the CofC folks were very upfront about his involvement.

    Comment by Steve — August 7, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

  29. Jeff,
    I actually think understanding the process of creating history is much more important than even addressing the context of the historical events. People need to understand the process through which faithful history is created and the methods utilized to create secular or academic history. The creation of history is always about myth-making to some degree or another no matter how smart or thorough the historian. The process of creating faithful history is much more about creating myth than finding big ?t? truth. That doesn?t mean what they create isn?t true, it just means that their objective is to promote faith. As a historian, I am actually pretty skeptical that any historian can find big ?t? truth. We do the best we can with the methods and sources we have at our disposal. Nevertheless, everything that we find and create is always based on contingencies. Our work is only as good as the people we cite and with whom we collaborate. It is contingent on our readings of sources and our lack of sources. Even the best history gets revised?historians write knowing that future historians will help perfect the work.
    I am not saying that this contingency should make us doubt the validity of historical scholarship which illuminates difficult moments in church history, they exist and they tax people?s faith. My point is that most people just don?t have the tools to evaluate the history, faithful or secular with which they are presented. Without such analytical tools, I?m not sure they can make an informed evaluation of either faithful or academic history.

    I wrote extensively on this subject a while ago for this blog. You can find it here

    Comment by Joel — August 7, 2013 @ 6:23 pm

  30. I like Robert Alter’s summary- “?History is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume.? This because “history” is always a selective and deliberately constructed narrative.

    Comment by Ben S — August 7, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

  31. Joel, it?s exactly that kind of thinking that I was referring to with my comment. Context, where available, and understanding the source and creation of our history go a long way to softening the blow of of uncontextualized facts.

    Comment by Noah Read — August 7, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

  32. Joel,

    Thank you for pointing me to your blog post, it was quite intriguing. One of my favorite quotes pertaining to historiography is Thomas Haskell’s line, “Objectivity is not neutrality.” I think that rings true in the application of academic, rather than devotional, standards to history. In addition to understanding the creation of history, however, context certainly follows as being essential; hence the necessity of remembering: Timing is Everything and Location, Location, Location.

    Even with its naturally evolving nature, historical scholarship still leads to a better understanding of past narratives, and how they fit in their milieu.

    Comment by Jeff — August 7, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

  33. Perhaps because I grew up as a Reform Jew and not within Orthodox Judaism, I think the only solution may be the emergence of a separate Reform or Progressive Mormonism, with the aim of trying to incorporate the best of Mormonism into this movement. Of course,there will be disagreement over what that entails. The charge of ‘Cafeteria Mormonism’ will be undeniable. Our children may marry non-Mormons. But do these issues really matter much? At least it would be an intellectually honest Church. I’ve tried the CofC, and while I respect them highly, I don’t feel at home: the culture is relatively foreign to me.

    Most congregations may be very small, perhaps for many years, but…perhaps the time has come??

    Comment by Jonathan M. — August 8, 2013 @ 7:29 am

  34. Our challenge is to be Christlike when some of our leaders have, in some cases, failed to be. Our Lord said that we could know his true servants “by their fruits.” Dishonesty is not becoming a disciple of Jesus, much less an Apostle.

    I think the way the church should handle this is pretty simple – repent and do better. Recognize the wrong that has been done. Apologize. Be honest about everything, and lets move forward. It may be painful in the short term, but the Book of Mormon warns pretty clearly about what happens to the church when it focuses more on PR and collecting money than on following the principles of the gospel. We’ve already been warned.

    I have decided to stay in the church because I believe it is what’s best for me and my family. I’m a young father in a PhD program and have been seriously considering my allegiance to this institution. The church has forgiven me and I’m prepared to forgive the church. But I really only see one way that we can move forward, and it’s detailed pretty clearly in the Book of Mormon.

    I hope that many of you will choose to stay with me and help make the church a better place.

    Comment by Richard — August 8, 2013 @ 9:41 am

  35. *unbecoming – dont forget to proofread, everybody!

    Comment by Richard — August 8, 2013 @ 9:44 am

  36. The way forward is pretty clear: be up front and honest. Who could disagree? The problem is that such a clear statement overlooks the problems of the historical records and very legitimate disagreement over the various problems.

    Here is the problem: the sources and history surrounding polygamy are very difficult to sort out and give clear statements about what happened and why and when. Let me give a few examples. I grew up in the Salt Lake Valley. I learned of Joseph’s polygamy by reading very standard sources like BYU Studies and footnotes in seminary texts. I learned about issues with the Book of Abraham by reading the Church Published Era which gave a very complete account and even published the full statements of hostile egyptologists regarding the Book of Abraham facsimiles. So when I hear people talk about the Church somehow hiding the truth, I tend to believe that many have been much less than diligent and often adopt a victimology of their creation to excuse their lack of knowledge and then blame the church or their lack of paying attention. I understand that some feel betrayed — but perhaps personal accountability is the answer rather than blaming others.

    It is true that one could attend Sunday School for 18 years and never hear of the problems with the Book of Mormon or Book of Abraham historicity or Joseph’s polgyamy — beyond the treatment of D&C 132 which is published in the D&C to keep it secret from the church. But what would we have the church do? Many SS teachers struggle just to grasp the basics of the lesson. Many are new and overwhelmed with all of the information. They have at best 30 minutes to teach. This is not exactly a basis for a Ph.D in history and ancient Near Eastern Studies.

    I have studied about Joseph’s Polygmay for about 40 years. I believe that those who charge Joseph with jumping in bed with 14 year olds must not be aware of the sources and the fact that it is extemely likely that he never had intimate relations with the two 14 year olds that he “married”. Their “marriages” were what we would now call a sealing of families together. Whether Joseph had intimate relations with Fanny Alger is up in the air — the sources are so unreliable and contradictory that determining what happened is very difficult. It is the same with almost all of his plural wives. So what should the church teach? Perhaps that there was a lot of gossip-monguering and charges made by disaffected and hostile ex-Mormons (wow, big surprise there since the Church is pretty clear about that).

    20 years ago it was just given historical fact that Joseph had sired more than a dozen offspring with plural wives. DNA evidence has called into question virtually every one of these supposed bastard children. All but one have been shown conclusively to not be Joseph’s. The gossip and innuendo surrounding these issues is so thick that discerning what to teach as historically reliable is not merely difficult, but impossible. So it seems to me that a very tentative approach to these issues is more than warranted.

    So what should we do? Turn Sunday School into a class in advanced history and assessment of historical sources? How about classes in New World archaeology and egyptology? Of course the notion is absurd. The Church could alert its members that there are outstanding issues, but there is legitimate disagreement on the issues and leave it at that.

    Comment by Blake — August 8, 2013 @ 10:19 am

  37. Blake –

    You make a great point, and I guess I should clarify. Of course the church can not simply come clean and give the full history of everything. And in fact, I have no problem with the church advancing its own narrative history, emphasizing some things and choosing to leave out others. I have until now been a pretty staunch defender of the church in this regard.

    The church did no wrong by putting forward its version of history, regardless of how poorly it complies with academic standards. The wrong that has been done, and the thing by which I feel personally betrayed, is the deliberate concealment of the truth. That is, in my opinion, what the original post is about. No one cares about coffee – we care about honesty.

    So the history of the church is complex and messy. That’s fine. But the church should not lie and conceal the truth. The question to me is not a historical one – it’s a moral one. People can live with a messy history. What we are seeing is, I believe, a response to the dishonesty of some church leaders. The repercussions are much more serious.

    Comment by Richard — August 8, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  38. Another edit: ok, i was wrong – that’s not what the original post is about at all. I should say that’s my take on the issue we are facing.

    I guess the original post is more about what you were saying, Blake. I hope this helps, so that we’re not speaking past each other. These are two different issues. I’ve always seen them as such. And only one of them is troubling to me.

    Comment by Richard — August 8, 2013 @ 11:03 am

  39. Richard: I am not sure that the church leaders have lied. We could talk a great deal about the qualifications Joseph Smith made to his statements about plural and celestial marriage to insure that he spoke accurately even if only the initiated understood that he was not denying polygamy. Whether he hid marriages from Emma is an open issue; but once again the evidence is sparse and contradictory and really open to dispute at the best.

    I think that most Church leaders are like Hans Mattson in some respects. Most are not historians are students of ancient languages and texts. They are often just good administrators or folks sensitive to the spirit. That does not require a Ph.D or degree in history. I have no doubt that they have mispoken. Even Bruce McConkie was ready to publish a full work on Joseph Smith’s Adam God theory (it is a good thing he didn’t do it since he had neither the training nor the background to really address it competently).

    I think that we overlook that often church leaders were finding out about history with the rest of us. Like every new generation they have to do their homework to come up to speed. Some do and some don’t.

    Comment by Blake — August 8, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

  40. Correct that: Brigham Young’s Adam God Theory — it is crystal clear that Joseph Smith had no such theory except to the extent that Adam was one of the gods in the council of gods (like the rest of us). Sorry about that.

    Comment by Blake — August 8, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

  41. Last week I came across an early 20th century letter from the Church Historian’s Office to the Salt Lake Temple Recorder asking the temple people to send the Historian records showing who had received their endowments in the Kirtland Temple. The temple people responded that they could find no such record, and they assumed everyone who had received their endowments in Kirtland had redone their work in the Nauvoo Temple; they gave no reason for that assumption.

    The odd thing, of course, is that neither the men in the Historian’s Office nor those in the Temple Recorder’s office realized that the endowment did not come in Kirtland; it was not given until Nauvoo. That fact is scriptural, and the letterwriters were the grandsons of those who had been in Kirtland and Nauvoo, yet those events had already been forgotten by the men you would most suspect would have reason to remember.

    So many who fault the Church for incomplete or inaccurate history blame the imperfections solely on deliberate lying and coverup by the institutional Church. But there are other plausible reasons for some errors. Some of those reasons — like simple forgetting — require much less effort than lying. A little charity is useful on all sides.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 8, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

  42. Some good points made here by Blake and by Ardis. I apologise: this is not the place for a post on the possible merits of Progressive Mormonism as a ‘new’ body. Such assumptions rest largely on the proposition that participants would I assume,be drawn from those who are non-believers in the usual sense in any case, and see the institutional LDS Church as essentially unreformable.

    Comment by Jonathan M. — August 8, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

  43. Blake –

    What do you think of members’ feelings of betrayal? Should we realize that mistakes were made of a more or less innocent nature? Or has some wrong been committed to justify these kinda of feelings?

    My concerns arose when I began to think about people who had been excommunicated, documents that had been covered up, etc. Now that I’ve grown into adulthood, I seem to expect more of ecclesiastical leaders – not perfection, just good faith attempts to be honest. It also concerns me when I see patterns – a culture of concealement, a distrust of the general membership who fund the church with money and support it with time.

    Comment by Richard — August 9, 2013 @ 11:06 am

  44. Sorry I’m late to this conversation. Busy trying to get another issue of BYU Studies Quarterly to press. From my perspective, which includes over seven years as an editor at Church magazines and now over seven years editing BYU Studies, the root of this issue is twofold: first, Latter-day Saints seem very inclined to hero worship; and, second, the Church has wanted to portray itself in the most glowing light possible. The convergence of these two very understandable tendencies has created overexpectations regarding the assumed perfection of leaders as well as a rather unrealistic public image for the Church as an institution. Both sides are at fault. But the Internet has now shown us the folly of our naivete.

    I explore this notion in greater detail and offer my own suggestions in “Why the True Church Cannot Be Perfect,” published recently in Dialogue (vol. 46, no. 1), available at I hope it can help bring about a more reasonable approach to how we view (and portray) the Church, its history, and its leaders.

    Comment by Roger Terry — August 9, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

  45. Thanks for the link Terry.

    BTW, your Dialogue article was a very popular one when we posted it (by permission) at Patheos, and one of my favorites.
    Frau Ruster and the Cure for Cognitive Dissonance

    Alas, all the comments have disappeared since then due to a new commenting system.

    Comment by Ben S — August 9, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

  46. Terry (#44), I also really enjoyed your article. Many parts felt like exactly what I would write. Others provided insights I had not thought of. Thank you.

    After reading your article I was struck with one nagging question: “how should a member approach a church that is imperfect in the present tense?” In other words, it’s very helpful to acknowledge that the church and its leaders were imperfect in the past. But how should a member approach situations in which they believe the current leadership are in error?

    Comment by Dave K — August 9, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

  47. “Latter-day Saints seem very inclined to hero worship”

    This strikes me as a bit disingenuous, at least as far as it is used to explain the issue at hand. It is true, members have put enormous trust (perhaps too much?) in church leaders. But why have they done so? It reminds me of Teryl Givens’ question in his Letter to a Doubter: where do we get this ridiculous notion that prophets are infallible?

    We get it from the leaders themselves. We have been told (and we have believed) that they are watchmen on the tower, that The Lord will never permit them to lead us astray. We have been told that when they speak, it is as good as if it were from the mouth of The Lord. We’ve been told that they may speak on any subject with authority. We have been told that if we do what they say, we will return to live with God; if we do not, we will lose the spirit. I always sang Follow the Prophet and believed it.

    This is what I was taught growing up by parents, not who sought out heroes to worship, but who believed and wanted us to be happy. It has been difficult for me now to realize that the prophets, seers and revelators have given us bad direction on politics (prop 8), social issues (racial equality), sexuality and morality (better to die than to be raped, gays can overcome their attractions, masturbation leads to homosexuality) and so on. I seriously doubt that anyone can look back on many attitudes of the past and say that church leaders were not misguided, while many honest members believed and trusted them.

    We did not place them on a pedestal. They placed themselves on a pedestal with respect to these and other issues. To partially blame the members for believing and following as “hero worshiping” really sidesteps the reality of the rhetoric and culture that emanates from church leaders.

    We believed them on historical matters because we believed them to be the mouthpiece of The Lord, not because we illogically worship heroes. Should we have distrusted them? Should we have questioned them? What happened to those who did?

    If a person has lied, you can’t blame the other person for having believed it.

    Comment by Richard — August 9, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

  48. Thanks, Dave and Ben. (Also good to know the Frau Rüster essay was posted by permission. I was flattered, but I never knew how it got onto Patheos!) Regarding Dave’s excellent question, I believe the answer lies in somehow reversing what I’ve elsewhere called de facto infallibility. Because there is no official mechanism for questioning leaders’ decisions or edicts, and because we keep getting told that revelation is always top-down (contrary to both experience and common sense), we get stuck in situations where we sometimes have to live with very imperfect programs and policies. And believe it or not, this is a much stickier problem in the corporate (employment) side of the Church than in the ecclesiastical (volunteer) side. I could tell stories, but I won’t.

    I’ve heard teachers and leaders claim that we will be blessed for obeying our leaders, even if they are wrong. This just doesn’t set well with me. I don’t think the participants in the massacre at Mountain Meadows are going to get any eternal rewards for their obedience. Nor is any woman required to follow her husband to hell. Of course, we have to have some perspective. Sometimes it’s best to go along with imperfect programs simply to preserve harmony, but now and then we probably need to speak up and take a stand. Still, it’s very hard, even when you’ve picked your battles carefully, to stop a moving train. Prophets have repeatedly insisted that they are not infallible and that we need to judge for ourselves (with the assistance of the Spirit) whether our leaders are right or not. But in reality, the weight of organizational momentum sometimes just steamrolls any effort to question the wisdom of top-down directives. Ironically, this is a dilemma that probably has to be solved in a top-down manner.

    Comment by Roger Terry — August 9, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

  49. #41 Ardis as always brilliant.

    Greg, I also really appreciate your questions at the end of this post. Very complicated questions and as we see there are a lot of opinions out there on how to approach the Great Inoculation that is to occur.

    It is also refreshing/encouraging to me that apparently we are not the only ones asking such questions and attempting to help seekers of truth get the truth. I’m thinking of the JSPP…of Richard Turley’s books on Mountain Meadows, How we Got the D&C, etc..Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling…Harper’s First Vision book…Terryl and Fiona Given’s book “the God who weeps” and excellent books like your own..the new approach to teaching the youth, the updated history website the church has, Revelations In Context, updated D&C scripture headings, etc etc.

    I know we want all of this now, we might have needed it yesterday, but great efforts are underway from what I can see to help us choose faith in the information age.

    We might have to be patient, and even a little forgiving.

    Comment by n8c — August 10, 2013 @ 2:33 am

  50. I find most of the Old Testament unsavory. It doesn’t negate the truths I read while studying, though. I keep my own counsel, and realize more and more, as I age, that we’re all whacked. Moses had “issues” but he still did a great thing. I cling to the 4th Article of Faith, with my eyes open. God’s going to have some ‘splainin’ to do when this crazy ride is over.

    Comment by annegb — August 11, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

  51. Most any question a member can have has already been answered. Careful research has already been done all over the interwebs using many of the church’s own resources. Lose your fear and google your question. The truth will stand and everything else will fall away. You have a choice.

    Comment by Lynn — August 15, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

  52. My solution to these problems is to turn to Jesus and Jesus only.
    No Joseph, No Thomas Monson, just Jesus.

    Comment by Grigg — August 22, 2013 @ 11:27 pm

  53. […] Hans Mattson & Inoculation of Church History (Greg Prince, Juvenile Instructor) […]

    Pingback by Volume 2.32 (August 5-11) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law — September 8, 2013 @ 10:25 pm


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