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Wednesday, July 24 2013

Facing Down the Doubters of Our Mormon Heritage

By Juli Caldwell Notify me when this author publishesComment on Article
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Exodus-Pioneers

Recently the New York Times published a piece on lifelong members of the Church who find themselves doubting their faith after years of service and dedication to the gospel. This article argued essentially that it is because we whitewash our history, fail to teach it accurately, and instead of teaching truth we teach propaganda. Writer Laurie Goodstein argues in “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt” that we have ignored some of the darker events in church history, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and excluding some men from the priesthood based on ethnicity, and teach inaccurate fluff while wearing rose-colored glasses.

This academic and accusatory approach to our history is quite frankly off the mark. It shows a serious lack of understanding of who we are as a people, what our ancestors endured, and what we still endure daily to remain faithful. Despite Goodstein’s indirect assertion that we’re all brain-washed lemmings, many of us have suffered our own crisis of faith, like those featured in the article, and come out on the other side stronger for it.

Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

Imagine that you are a simple farmer who just joined this new religion, and your neighbors are ticked about it. So you move from your little farm in New York and even though you lost everything, and you make a new start in Kirtland, Ohio. People there don’t like you taking up all the land and are suspicious of your leader, so they force you out as well. You take what little you have left and you move to a pretty little spot in Missouri where others you know and love, those who share your faith, have gathered. It’s called Haun’s Mill and you just want to recover from all the persecution and libel and hatred you’ve endured for nothing more than living your religion (in a land that guarantees freedom of religion, no less!). After mobs come in, burn your farm, and shoot your family, you retreat to Nauvoo, where a few years later the devastating events replay like a horror version of deja vu. You walk across the Great Plains and over mountains with all you own strapped to your back, and hope that you have finally found a safe haven.

We are well aware of our history of persecution. We do teach that our ancestors have suffered for our beliefs. We simply choose not to focus on the grave injustices we have suffered because we live the New Testament teachings and believe turning the other cheek, as the Savior suggests, is better. We can trace doctrinal and scriptural evidence as to why, but it all boils down to one thing: optimism. Hope. We focus on the bright side because we’ve found what we believe is the surest path to happiness. Why worry so much about the bad when we have so much to be happy about?

Mountain Meadows

Goodstein also briefly mentions the Mountain Meadows Massacre and states as fact that general authorities at the time directed the slaughter of non-Mormon pioneers passing through what is now Southern Utah. I find it ironic, then, that she would criticize us for believing blindly in our own history without bothering to check out other versions of this horrific event in Church history. She is guilty of what she accuses us of being.

I’ll give you the Sparknotes version if you are unfamiliar with it:

A party of immigrants moved from Arkansas to California and crossed through Southern Utah. The settlers down there were understandably nervous, given the history of persecution and violent expulsion the Church members had suffered in the previous decades. They were forced out of their homes and essentially out of their nation, remember? The pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley when it was still the property of Mexico. Who knows what happened that horrible day at Mountain Meadows, or who decided what, but several men dressed up like natives and slaughtered many of the travelers. What happened was shameful. There’s no way to make it better or make up for the loss of life. Of 137 travelers, only 17 small children survived.

Some people argue that Brigham Young’s assertion that the Saints should do what they must to protect themselves amounts to a smoking gun and a directive to the southern Utah settlers to attack. It doesn’t matter to outsiders that a man named John Lee was convicted of leading the attack and executed in 1877. It doesn’t matter that the metal plate someone claimed to discover in 2002, with a note purportedly from Lee himself claiming that Young was the massacre’s mastermind, was very quickly declared a hoax by historians.

Those who would point fingers at the church are going to do so despite evidence to the contrary. They choose to believe in the darker side of our history despite evidence of the light. We can’t make them believe that our version of history is balanced, but be assured, prominent historians, both secular and LDS, have strong evidence that there was no conspiracy and no cover-up[i]. In the end, some people are going to hate because they choose to misunderstand our beliefs and our thought processes, and they will use their version of history to justify it.

Priesthood and Polygamy

Goodstein also argues against our practice of polygamy and the 1978 official declaration as official proof that we hate women and everyone who isn’t white. This is more of the same—taking the version of history that supports a particular world view and using it to justify your own decisions and declare them superior. Jim Crow laws were being passed in some U.S. states up until 1965, and it took years of legislation to undo the damage those laws did.[ii] A March 2013 article in Huff Post Politics even discusses the efforts of the North Carolina state legislature to remove Jim Crow language still sitting on the books which prevents some from voting. In 2013!

We should be clear that never once was there an official declaration by the prophet speaking on behalf of the Lord that said only white men could hold the priesthood. Some of our leaders did express ideas that would most definitely be called racist using the ruler of today’s societal expectations. They are a reflection of the mindset of the time—this isn’t an excuse, just a reminder not to use our modern litmus test to judge people 150 years ago.

Remember that Joseph Smith did employ a man named Elijah Able, a black man and temple-endowed priesthood holder, as a bodyguard. I wish our church had stories of dozens of Elijah Ables instead of a single proclamation that people will hold against us. Instead I focus on the positive: that since the proclamation by President Kimball ensured that all worthy males could hold the priesthood, our church has exploded in growth, in missionaries serving worldwide, in temples dotting the globe. We are being blessed for making it right, and the priesthood is able to bless the lives of many millions in return.

And polygamy. Yes. It happened. Many of us are descendants of polygamists. We practiced it until the

36 Comments

  1. Great rebuttal article Sis. Caldwell. Thanks for taking the time to articulate a reasoned, measured response to a half-baked, shallow and frankly tired set of belly-aches. I fear your article will fall on deaf ears to those who need it most, but it will also bouy up the faithful and for that you will be blessed. Let us be judged today for our fruits, past AND present...in their totality. This faithful Mormon will sleep very well at night.
  2. I've recently read Wallace Stegner's (1964) The Gathering of Zion. It was written when we still sanitized our own accounts, by a non-member with no ax to grind. I found his account very much more believable than the sanitized versions I've never been able to identify with in my 54 years in the church. His praise for the Saints has no self-serving bias, and I found myself for the first time wishing I had pioneer ancestors, imperfect, but incomprehensibly strong. We don't have to face the doubters down, that's just the combative stance they have trouble with. Anyone's doubts need acknowledgement, and the doubters our honest friendship.
  3. In the Old Testament, Jehovah gave the power and authority of the priesthood only to the tribe of Levi. What about the other 11 tribes? Since race couldn't possibly be a question in this instance, it must be an example of prejudice. Then the Lord himself must be prejudiced since he wouldn't give the priesthood to anyone except Levites. We know that the Lord couldn't possibly be prejudiced so how do you explain it? The Lord gives and takes as he sees fit. Whatever he does is perfect and just even though we may not understand it. Robyn Leesburg, VA
  4. Good one. Thanks for a thoughtful and positive article.
  5. The time for a weak knee approach to our critics is long past. Personally, when anyone attacks my church and my beliefs to I respond without consideration of "a soft word turneth away wrath". I respond in a very in your face, confrontational way. It works. I am 73 and it works.
  6. With all due respect, the writer of this article seems oblivious to the point raised by the people mentioned in the New York Times article. The point isn't that things like polygamy and racial exclusion happened. The point is that some people who have had their faith shaken by history feel, rightly or wrongly, that the church has been dishonest about its history and/or that it has failed to acknowledge some of the most troublesome aspects of its history. Nobody is expecting that the church will include in its latest missionary lessons anything about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young marrying barely pubescent girls or women married to other men. But when people find out about these things, why do they have to find them out from people hostile to the church? Why can't we, and I say this as an active, temple-attending member of the church, make accurate history a part of our narrative? While we need not dwell on the troublesome aspects of history, neither should we pretend they didn't happen.
  7. Juli: I liked your article as far as you took it. In "Facing down the doubters" you focused on the doubters OUTSIDE the church. I agree with your basic sentiments and approach on how to deal with them. But the article also referenced high-ranking doubters INSIDE the church. To me, this looks to be the more complicated issue. The area authority quoted was not some casual "Johnny-come-lately" Mormon, but someone who had given deeply of his time and resources, only to leave the church based on conflicting data he found at non-LDS sources. It is a problem that afflicts many apparently good and sound LDS believers, and presents a challenge both to those individuals and the body of the church. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on how to approach that problem
  8. The only thing the New York Times is good for is lining the bottom of your bird cage... and it isn't really very adequate for that!
  9. I live in North Carolina, and although I love the state, for many years (before I moved here), it was a common practice to sterilize people who were deemed "unfit" for whatever reason to have children - mostly African Americans. The victims (or their descendants) only recently have been compensated for this travesty. It is a shameful part of NC history, yet does that make it a horrible state to live in? No! That was part of our history, but that is not who we are. That being said, although the history of the church has some questionable moments, times have changed. The internet is available to all, and even now in Primary the children are shown the picture of Joseph Smith looking at gold plates. I was SHOCKED when I learned only recently that Joseph Smith did indeed look into a stone into a hat. So what? But why are the Primary kids taught something else? My great grandfather was Joseph Smith's bodyguard and performed some of his marriages to teenagers. I don't know why-it doesn't shake my testimony. BUT at the root of my concern is having some reasonable, logical explanations for questions that any investigator can easily find on the Internet. I appreciate the efforts of Church leaders to bring these things into the open so we can all understand them for what they are rather than being blindsided by a skeptical investigator who looked to the internet for answers.
  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I had read the article and felt so frustrated. You answered with that article with power and conviction. I know that even the elect will be deceived. I 'm sure we will see more of it.
  11. It's true that we can choose to be optimistic or accusatory in our approach to church history. Doubters are not the enemies of truth though. Joseph Smith himself doubted and questioned. His sincere search for truth is what started the phenomenon that would later become Mormonism. It is only through doubting and questioning (pondering and searching) that truths can be discovered. Joseph Smith challenged the very foundations of Christianity, and nothing was too sacred for him to not reconsider it. That's how he became the man he became. Similarly, nothing in Mormonism's own history should be beyond questioning or reconsidering. There is still much to learn that way. Curiosity, doubt, and questions are not antithetical to virtue or truth. They are the foundations upon which truth is built. And yes, faith plays a role: faith in the process of discovering truth and setting aside false preconceptions. Also: I've met and talked with Hans (the man featured in the NY Times article), and heard him speak at length. He is a good man. His motives come from the right place. What would you gain by "Facing him down" as the title of the article says? Nothing. He's not trying to destroy the church. (No, really. He's not. Spend any time actually listening to him and you'll know that's true.) But there is much to be gained by listening to him and others who have had similar experiences. The more we put people in the "enemies of the church" category, the more we lose out on the ability to learn from them and move forward in positive, optimistic ways, which is what you seem to be saying that we ought to do in this article.
  12. Now that's said, I hope no one will bring up those black days again. They were bad, bad, but don't cause my faith to shake, either.
  13. Elijah Able was not a "temple-endowed priesthood holder." He was given the priesthood, but was never allowed to go through the temple. Despite a lifetime devoted to Church service, his plea to receive his endowments was denied.
  14. And you didn't even get to the ridiculous libels that still resurface every few years that have been shown to be frauds for 150 years! I know people who read on the internet the very libels of William & Wilson Law's in the Expositor without attribution and just believed it uncritically. And any lifelong Mormon who doesn't know Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage is not living his or her religion. What else are we directed to do but learn learn learn? You're always going to find some ulterior motive in that situation. Nobody can be that blind on purpose.
  15. I agree hole heartedly. It isn't our falt that our ancesters were polygynist. Lots of people were, and we should respect the dead and there choices. What we need now is to focus on the present and the future, and how to live are lives like Chris.
  16. As an active and believing Latter-day Saint, I understand the feelings behind this article. I believe, however, that a "look on the bright side" approach to troubling issues and honest questions rubs salt in the wounds of our struggling brothers and sisters in the gospel. I hope we can resist dismissing them as pessimistic or not hopeful enough and instead wrap our arms around them and accompany them on their faith journeys.
  17. As an active and believing Latter-day Saint, I understand the feelings behind this article. I believe, however, that a "look on the bright side" approach to troubling issues and honest questions rubs salt in the wounds of our struggling brothers and sisters in the gospel. I hope we can resist dismissing them as pessimistic or not hopeful enough and instead wrap our arms around them and accompany them on their faith journeys.
  18. Good to read some intelligent comments about Mormon history..
  19. Those who criticize and find fault, including member of the Church, should take a second look at the Bible. Adam and Eve's children paired off to produce offspring. How do you explain that? Great Biblical leaders practiced plural marriage, and one of them, Abraham, drove one of his wives with a small child into the desert. Explain that. Moses was commanded to destroy entire cities, including men, women and children. Christ was born of Mary, a daughter of God, with God as the father. Explain that. Will the critics then abandon the Bible? Give up on Christianity? We must be consistent in our application of standards, rather than picking at some and ignoring others.
  20. What is the outrage with polygamy? I just do not understand why this bugs people. Our nation, our states and our cities around us are filled with people being intimate with, and parenting children with, multiple partners to whom they are not married or legally committed -- often simultaneously. Exactly how is taking legal responsibility a worse thing? Baffling.
  21. And you didn't even get to the ridiculous libels that still resurface every few years that have been shown to be frauds for 150 years! I know people who read on the internet the very libels of William & Wilson Law's in the Expositor without attribution and just believed it uncritically. And any lifelong Mormon who doesn't know Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage is not living his or her religion. What else are we directed to do but learn learn learn? You're always going to find some ulterior motive in that situation. Nobody can be that blind on purpose.
  22. I do appreciate the "hopeful" tone of this article. However, there are many wonderful books by non-Mormon authors that are unbiased but do not accept as fact every generational recollection. Wallace Stegner, for example, in "Mormon Country" is respectful for the most part, if skeptical. His writing is superb and his skepticism tolerable because our basic difference is one of faith. My faith is not threatened by skepticism or lies. My ancestors did join the Church in early days paid the price in suffering, death, sacrifice to make the trek. Were they perfect? Of course not. But "FAITH" is the question. They had that and thankfully I have the gospel because of them and have had the opportunity to test my own faith.
  23. As an active and believing Latter-day Saint, I understand the feelings behind this article. I believe, however, that a "look on the bright side" approach to troubling issues and honest questions rubs salt in the wounds of our struggling brothers and sisters in the gospel. I hope we can resist dismissing them as pessimistic or not hopeful enough and instead wrap our arms around them and accompany them on their faith journeys.
  24. I will forever be grateful that my seminary teacher in 10th grade didn't sugarcoat anything for us. He discussed the issues openly and probably the most useful thing he did was tell us that our ancestors were not driven out of all those places because of their benign beliefs - they were chased out because too many of them said and did stupid and arrogant things that gave their neighbors cause for alarm. Brother Thompson was big on history and didn't want us repeating the pioneer's mistakes.
  25. As an active and believing Latter-day Saint, I understand the feelings behind this article. I believe, however, that a "look on the bright side" approach to troubling issues and honest questions rubs salt in the wounds of our struggling brothers and sisters in the gospel. I hope we can resist dismissing them as pessimistic or not hopeful enough and instead wrap our arms around them and accompany them on their faith journeys.
  26. I am perplexed by people who feel "the church" has "hidden" things in the past and betrayed them. I have slowly heard about the past and have been glad to know real people lived back then..with real feelings...including my ancestors at Hauns Mill...and the leaders led the best they could with the what truths they knew. Even Moses had a tough time ...Imagine what people will say of us in 150 years....maybe we should be careful what we write in our journals...LOL!!!
  27. You have died and after a time you are brought to your time of judgment. Are you really going to try to justify disobedience or doubt for your thoughts, words and actions with questions like these: Why didn't you [God] clarify with detailed evidence how exactly Joseph Smith Jr. translated the golden plates? Answer: D&C 9 Why didn't you immediately correct the policy of the Priesthood ban or give more detailed revelation for the reasons for the ban? Answer: D&C 105:6 Why did you [God] allow solid evidence of the Book of Mormon (golden plates and other records as well as historical relics), Book of Abraham, Book of Moses and other confusion by not having solid tangible proof to be examined by more than just 11 witnesses? Answer: Moroni 10:4-5 Why did you [God] have Joseph and the early saints practice polygamy? Answer D&C 132 So where is the justification to doubt and make excuses at our judgment? There isn't. Alma 43:11 - The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time; and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now, and have a bright recollection of all our guilt.
  28. I am an active member of the church who has had many of the same doubts and feelings that were addressed in the New York Times article. I was so glad to see that someone who held a high position in the church would have the courage to admit his doubts as well. I found your response to be very condescending to those of us inside the church who have come across troubling issues with church history (and not only the ones you addressed here, but many others). Optimism alone will not make these issues go away and restore our faith. "Facing Down" those who doubt is probably not the best tactic either. Doubt is an important part of learning and growing. I find this quote by Rene Descartes to be quite fitting: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Are we not all seeking after truth as Latter-Day-Saints? Members of the church should be aware that there are people in their wards who are hurting and struggling over things they have found out about the church that were never taught to them in Sunday school, seminary, or otherwise. Telling those people to dismiss their doubts and just be optimistic when they feel their whole belief system crashing down around them will not be enough to ease their pain. They need to feel love and understanding from their ward members, friends, and family and they need real answers from the church. I hope that the New York Times article will help the church see the need that faithful members have for real answers and will urge them to address these issues more publicly.
  29. As a recently retired seminary and institute teacher of 42 years, I would say that all of these difficult topics were discussed either as a part of the prepared curriculum, or in response to questions students raised in class. I have always believed that our youth and new converts should become familiar with the realities of the history of the Restored Gospel in a context of faith. I am increasingly surprised to hear of life long members who were not aware of plural marriage, priesthood denial to blacks, or the Mountain Meadows massacre. Most of the published books dealing with church history discuss these issues to one degree or another. I once had a troubled student come to my office to tell me that he had never heard there were many different accounts of the First Vision, some with seeming contradictions. I opened my file on the First Vision and pulled out an Ensign article from the 1980's summarizing the various First Vision accounts. He was surprised, but a little sheepish, and agreed that perhaps he had not spent much time studying the history of the church as he might have. My heart goes out to those who hear this difficult issues from less than friendly sources, for their are plausible responses to them, for those whose hearts are still open to such explanations.
  30. The way I look at it is the doubters never had the faith to fully take on the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. They think they did. On the subject of plural marriage there is one thing people forget, it was a commandment of God for anyone to take on another wife. Everyone in the church should already know that. If God tells our leaders to do anything we are called upon to do it. You do not question the Lord.
  31. AMEN AND AMEN!!!
  32. Quite a few years back we moved from Utah's cushy comfort zone and lived a rustic, pioneer life among many "saints" who struggled and fell after experiencing great challenges such as this article talks about. A couple of conclusions: I no longer worship the "pioneers" and feel strongly they would prefer not to be romanticized and deifyed. They were just people like all the rest of us ordinary mormons . (Too much of this romanticizing has gone on over the pulpit over the years). But now I just respect the strength they had and what they had to endure and overcome and apply some of that tenacity to my life and situations now. I'll never forget in my early youth in downtown SLC the senior white haired children of pioneers hobbling to the pulpit to bear amazing testimonies of their beliefs and heritage. They literally glowed as they spoke. I'll never forget! Second - too many LDS folks slide along without taking the time to really search and study the gospel and polish their testimonies so that they know beyond any doubt that God is directing this work and when these contradictory statements and articles come out they aren't so shaken. I have seen so much of this. We were warned that the days ahead would be treacherous- not physically but instead spiritually. Lets "gird up our loins and fresh courage take". The fruits are worth it!
  33. Elijah Able(s) was not temple-endowed.
  34. "All the other kids were doing it," is an excuse my 5 year old would use to explain his behaviour. It's a poor excuse to explain the church's involvement with polygamy.
  35. If at the time of our baptism, we felt how the power of the Holy Ghost works for all of us, then there is no way we will ever deny the truth no matter what happens later. Of course we are all human here on earth and subject to human failings. There is not one of us who has not made mistakes. All we can do is try to live our lives the best way we can from the things we have learned from the past. 'A man ( or woman) convinced his will is of the same opinion still' is a true statement . The best way to learn anything worth learning is to get on our knees and talk to The Lord. If we are in tune we will know what is the truth. If we are not in tune we will have the spirit of contention with us. It is all up to each one of us. I have found that the best way to live my life is to follow The Lord Jesus Christ and to love everyone but I am now 83 so what do I know, Right?
  36. Former Church historian Davis Bitton once gave a talk titled "I Do Not Have a Testimony of Church History." The mere title of this talk should remind us all that our testimonies should be rooted in Jesus Christ. Studying history is intriguing but we should always remind ourselves that history is a series of snapshots -- NOT a video! There are many things so easily misunderstood without their proper context. Enemies of the Church are masters in exploiting these things to make them appear sinister when they are not.

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