Introduction – Section One
On June 18th, 2017, I wrote to President Dieter Uchtdorf, then Second Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the sincere hope he might take the time to respond to several specific concerns I had about the truth claims of the Mormon church.
Uchtdorf was my choice, as I viewed him as one of few General Authorities that might have the intelligence and courage to attempt to address my concerns.
A colleague remarked to me that not only would Elder Uchtdorf not respond to my questions, but he would likely never see my letter. Instead, I could expect a form letter response from an underling and a missive from my Stake President.
Sadly, and it would seem predictably, that is just what happened. I did receive a rather terse ‘form-letter’ riposte from Uchtdorf’s secretary who copied my Stake President.
I certainly do not take offence and understand that in an organization the size of the LDS church their C-level officials cannot respond to every letter they receive regardless of the solemnity of the writer.
I can also accept that the senior leadership of the church has no answers beyond those they encourage their apologists to propagate; but I believe that, as the ‘Hofmann Affair,‘ illustrates, they may be privy to other data and documents that might help complete the picture.
Occasionally I have heard an intrepid member muse, “Do you think they, that is, the general authorities, believe the LDS church is true, or are they, victims of self-delusion, the affluent lifestyle the church provides them; or is it about ego and avarice, ignited by all the bowing and scraping of true believers on the Wasatch front?” Is it ‘fortune and men’s eyes‘ that drives them?
The late Grant Palmer, author of An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins spoke about several meetings he had with a general authority, who told him straight up that he didn’t believe the church was true and went as far as to suggest that the apostles all learn within a year or two of being called that the Mormon church is a fraud.
Was Palmer’s general authority lying, deluded, or had he an axe to grind? Perhaps, but having read Grant’s books on the Savior, and knowing of his service to the least among us – inmates in the Utah prison system; I do not doubt that Grant Palmer himself was telling the truth.
In spite of the cynical view this anecdote suggests, I think it wrong or at least premature to go as far as to assume ignoble motives on the part of all the ‘brethren.’
When I was a child, Hugh B. Brown, served in our little Canadian branch. My father knew and revered him, describing him as a man of God, someone without guile.
Elder Brown who later served as both an apostle and member of the First Presidency, confessed to moments of grave doubt about the Mormon church, as he expresses in the following letter to a friend who was going through a faith crisis:
“I was really glad to get your letter of October 25th, and I appreciate your confidence. The revelation of your mental and spiritual struggle does not come as a surprise, that the waters of your usual placid soul had become somewhat, roiled and disturbed. Would you be surprised if I should tell you that I, too, have had periods of perplexity, uncertainty, and doubt; that I, too, have known the darkness, fogginess, and chill of the valley which lies between illuminated peaks of faith and confidence, and that only the memory of the hilltops along the road over which I have come coupled with the somewhat misty vision of others still ahead has given me the courage to plod on when I was tempted to “chuck it all,” to wrap myself in the comfortless blanket of doubt and self-commiseration and just quit the field.
Well, I have had that experience. But this I can say positively, that each peak which I have climbed has seemed higher and more inspiring than the last, due at least in part, I think, to the dark background of the valley through which I came. Sharp contrasts are sometimes most revealing.
In view of the above admission, you will not expect an argument or a brief on faith in God and immortality. However, and I hope it may be so, a relating of some personal experiences and observations may give you a fellow-feeling and bring comfort, courage, hope, and faith may renew in you the spirit of adventure, of zest for the quest of truth.”
I find Elder Brown’s honesty not only refreshing in today’s church but stirringly human. If this good man said he believed the Mormon church was true, I don’t doubt that he genuinely believed it to be true.
Are brother Brown’s personal beliefs enough to convince one that the Mormon church is true?
They are not, but perhaps one should keep the declaration that Palmer’s anonymous general authority makes in perspective.
Nevertheless, let’s put this aside for a moment, for all is not well in Zion. I suspect that there have never been so many people abandoning the church since Joseph’s Kirtland crisis of 1837.
In a recent article by Jana K. Riess, a writer on American religion entitled, “The Next Mormons,” she indicates proportionately why members today are leaving the LDS church.
Her work shows 6% of respondents said they left the church after discovering Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by looking at a “magic stone” in his hat. Another 3% because of the overwhelming DNA evidence showing absolutely no Hebrew nexus with the aboriginal peoples of North America; but one-third, over 30%, reported that they left because they could not trust the leadership of the church to tell the truth.
Clearly, the church’s current raison d’ être, fails on several fronts.
Firstly the church, in spite of her recent forced revelations, still sees open, honest dialogue as a real and present danger.
I don’t think it is unfair to say that the ‘brethren’ have always been on the defensive when it comes to dissent. Their fear is reflected in such Orwellian avowals as, “Not everything that is true is useful,” or “When the prophet has spoken the thinking is done,” or, “It’s wrong to criticize the leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.”
President Gordon Hinckley once said, with a straight face, “We have nothing to hide, our history is an open book.”
I suspect that one time church historian, Dr. Leonard Arrington might take issue with Hinckley, having written in the first issue of dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in 1966:
“It is unfortunate for the cause of Mormon history that the Church Historian’s Library, which is in possession of virtually all of the diaries of leading Mormons, has not seen fit to publish these diaries or to permit qualified historians to use them without restriction.”
It was Arrington’s remarks that prompted Boyd K. Packer to voice his now infamous statement, “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”
Nevertheless, I have taken brother Hinckley at his word and delved into that ‘open book,’ he speaks of, and I am troubled by what I find on its pages.
In this letter, I pose what, from my perspective, are the most important unanswered questions and fundamental problems relating to the historicity of Mormonism, its foundational claims and the Joseph Smith story itself.
I have attempted to be fair and balanced, presenting the most intelligible rebuttals that FairMormon, the LDS church’s current leading cadre of apologists have published regarding my interrogatories. I hope that this methodology might help others, who, like myself, are experiencing honest doubts, or a crisis of faith, to answer Freddie Mercury’s question, “‘Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?
I make no apologies for seeking the truth. The Second Epistle of Peter warns us that, ‘In their greed teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories.” This warning comes from the man Simon, son of Jonah, a true Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ who He renamed Peter.
The Lord himself warned, ‘take heed that no man deceives you.’ We have a lot of deceivers today, as the Lord teaches, ‘many false prophets will rise and deceive many.’
In Matthew 7:15-20 the Lord again warns us to ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.’
I have never had, nor do I now have an agenda beyond a genuine search for truth, nor am I animated by the comforting but self-serving motivations that Mormons often jump to when someone leaves or begins to question their church:
1. Someone gave offense: No one hurt me, Not one. I love and respect my friends and family, many of whom are committed members. Everyday Latter-day Saints are good and kind people, most of whom are living honorable lives.
2. A desire to sin: I am in my seventies as I write this, so it’s a little late for that!
3. Never had a testimony in the first place: Wrong again, I would not have served in stake and ward callings, paid a small fortune in tithing or attended the temple with my wife and five children if I had not at one time, truly believed the church to be true.
4. Lazy, not reading the Scriptures: No, I love the Bible, particularly the New Testament, I like the Jesus therein contained, and I read it often; admittedly the Book of Mormon, not so much.
5. Seduced by anti-Mormon literature: Hardly. It is easy to identify those who hate and those whose purpose is to destroy. I would not consider writers and researchers such as Richard Bushman, Thomas Stuart Ferguson, Fawn Brodie, B. H. Roberts, Dan Vogel, Greg Prince, Thomas Murphy, or Grant Palmer to be ‘anti-Mormon’ because they have dared to question.
Maybe it’s the Irish in me, but I have never been afraid to confront my supposed ‘adversaries,’ including those who have taken issue with the church’s truth claims. I recently spent an afternoon with Sandra Tanner, who the Mormon church has demonized, but, as those who know her will attest, is, in truth a knowledgeable, sincere and rather sweet Christian woman.
I wish to state here at the beginning that I feel nothing but love and affection for my fellow Latter-day Saints. But history has shown that we are not a virtuous people. In the Greek virtuous (ενάρετο) means more than good, it means courageous, it connotes someone who has the audacity to stand up to authority, who demands truth and personal freedom, someone who will question the status quo. And, if you will forgive me, few Mormons are that. Latter-day Saints are largely a tractable lot. Obedience has replaced critical thinking and conformity has replaced courage.
Perhaps this is why during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when men and women of good will in this country were marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seeking equal human rights for ALL of God’s children. When we saw Catholics, Protestants, Jews, even human secularists display the courage to speak up, we did not hear from Mormons. Rather, they bowed to their prophet and his apostles who continued to preach hateful and discriminatory racist doctrines and policies harming persons of color.
I am troubled by the fact that Ezra Taft Benson, later to become the president of the church, was one of the Mormon hierarchy’s most strident voices against the national crusade for African-American civil rights.
In 1965 and 1967, Benson stated in televised sermons from Temple Square that the ‘so-called’ civil rights movement, as he referred to it, was a Communist program for revolution in America. Benson’s Negrophobic rhetoric intensified after, in spite of his best efforts, the federal Civil Rights Act was ratified.
It troubles me that someone who claims to speak for the Lord would choose to write the forward for a race hate book, The Black Hammer: A Study of Black Power, Red Influence and White Alternatives as Ezra Benson did. The cover of this vile little book shows a thick-lipped, low-browed, decapitated, bleeding head of an African American man superimposed upon the symbol of Communism – the hammer and sickle.
In 1966, the NAACP issued a statement criticizing the LDS church, saying the church maintained a rigid and continuous segregation stand “and that the church had made “no effort to counteract [its] widespread discriminatory practices in education, in housing, in employment, and other areas of life.”
In the 1970s Black boys were barred by the Mormon church from becoming boy scout troop leaders. These leadership positions were reserved exclusively for White priesthood-holding boys. It took the NAACP to file a federal lawsuit against the church in 1974, to force the church to reverse this discriminatory policy.
I think this Mormon mindset – obedience over independent thought is also why during the Second World War, not only did German Mormons, ‘go along to get along’ with the Nazis, but as David C. Nelson, comments in his book, Moroni and the Swastika, “Mormons were not just tolerant of Hitler [they were] downright enthusiastic about his policies.“
Straight talk can be upsetting, cognitive dissonance is a very real thing and I don’t doubt some reading this might be experiencing it right now. I too suffered as I discovered that things are not as neat, clean or simple as I once believed. If you are a true believing Mormon this is likely the point that you may bale but I ask you to summon the courage to read on.
It is like Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
While lies and deception need to be attacked without mercy, I must tell you that the one thing that gave me pause in writing this examination, is the sad truth that when people leave Mormonism, as they are in great numbers today, they also often leave religion altogether. ‘Once bitten twice shy.’ This worries me as I do not want to lead anyone away from a belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. Mormonism and Christianity are not the same thing. If you reject the former you can still fully embrace the latter.
But the fact is, one need not read anything beyond Joseph Smith’s writings, church periodicals or the LDS scriptures themselves to come face-to-face with myriad problems and logical inconsistencies.
This is not a complete condemnation of the church. There are many beautiful things in Mormon culture. How can anyone brought up in the LDS Church not be touched by historical hymns, such as ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints,’ ‘We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet,’ or ‘The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning .’
Many sincere men and women within the church taught me as a child ‘the Mormon gospel’ as it was taught to them. These were good people and I honor them as I do my mother and father who lived and died faithful members of the church and who brought our little family from Ireland to ‘Zion’ like thousands before them.
I genuinely wish that the true Gospel is just as the Mormon church teaches; for what an amazing and beautiful future it portends. To be forever together with loved ones, walking with the Savior, growing and learning and progressing forever.
And, I don’t doubt for a moment that one can live a rewarding and happy life as a faithful Latter-day Saint. Obedient to the commands of the prophet, avoiding anything, that the brethren warn is not faith-promoting.
Ignorance really can be bliss.
But some of us believe that it is important, regardless of the discomfort, and even heartache it may bring, to reject the siren call of self-delusion; to seek a reality not based on wishful thinking, emotion or a ‘burning in the ‘bosom.’
Edward Abbey put it best”
“Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.”
Faith is important. At its core, faith is the expectation of good things to come. It goes beyond hope. Hope lives in the mind, faith resides in the heart.
Life can be hard. Faith in the Almighty can help us get through; for it provides us with the knowledge, deep down within us, that things will get better. It can provide the courage to take the next step, even when we can’t see the staircase below.
But God gave us a mind, so we might come to know what is true and what is not. He tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 “… to test everything [and] hold fast to what is good.” In Isaiah 1:18 the Lord pleads with us to, “Come now, and let us reason together.”
As the British philosopher, Austin Farrer noted, “Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”
Humble reasoning is a vital and reliable mechanism for obtaining religious knowledge and theological truth. Religious beliefs acquired using reason as well as faith are more likely to be true and enduring.
So no matter how appealing Joseph Smith’s carefully crafted and oft-revised ‘Plan of Salvation,’ might sound, it must be authentic, it must be true, designed by Deity and not merely the musing of some ambitious, ploughboy prophet.’
Sadly, I have found that the more I have learned of the church’s true historicity, and the more I have come to know the real Joseph Smith, not the carefully constructed and correlated Joseph the church has created, the more conflicted I have felt.
Jeremiah 23:16 says, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.”
There is a wonderful allegory in Book Seven of Plato’s The Republic often referred to as ‘Plato’s Cave.‘ It tells the story of men held prisoner, chained and shackled such that they cannot look to their left, their right or behind; rather they can only see forward at the wall directly in front of them.
Behind them is a blazing fire and between them and the fire a corridor along which men walk carrying statues, tools, and all nature of objects. All that the prisoners can see, however, is the shadows of the objects that are projected on the cave wall in front of them.
Witnessing these passing, transitory shadows, the prisoners argue as to what they represent.
Some older prisoners, ‘the elders,‘ have developed explanations as to the true meaning of each of the shadows.
One day, a prisoner is released.
Now free to wander the cave, he sees the fire, and the objects being carried in front of it. This former prisoner comes to understand the origins of the shadows, and to his amazement, he sees that they had often been misinterpreted.
He hurries back to share with his fellow prisoners the true meaning of the shadows, what the truth is. But rather than welcome and embrace this new knowledge, his former friends ridiculed him, particularly the elders, who even seek to take his life.
You and I are like those prisoners. We see as it says in Corinthians, through a glass darkly. We live in a world where, like the prisoners, our knowledge is imperfect; a world of conjecture and illusion.
Some ‘elders’ presume to know what the shadows mean, but they too are prisoners, and their shackles as firmly in place as our own.
I don’t presume to be that prisoner freed from his chains who now longs to share the truth as only he can see it. I am a fellow prisoner, viewing the shapes and shadows on the wall, but seeking the truth by asking those questions that the ‘elders’ hope are never asked.
We will all leave the cave one day and will discover in that day, as we enter that new world filled with that dazzling brightness of truth that our lives have either been spent wisely engaged in a worthy cause, or that we have been well-meaning but credulous dupes, desiring so much to feel good about our present and our future, that we had become victims of an attractive fraud.
I hope that this letter and the research supporting it might provide greater clarity regarding the shadows that animate your actions and beliefs, to at least make you aware of credible alternative interpretations to those presented by your ‘elders.’
This study may very well cement your testimony as you face the greatest problems with the current LDS narrative and choose to embrace the explanations proffered by the church and her army of apologists as being altogether reasonable and acceptable.
Or, it might lead you to a place where you discover that your knowledge and the breadth of understanding based on what you have been taught is far less than perfect, complete or even true. That there is much more to the Joseph Smith story than the sanitized version presented in Sunday school, priesthood meeting, relief society or by those young fresh-faced missionaries.
So let me end this preface with a warning. There is a great line delivered by Jack Nicholson in the film, “A Few Good Men,” wherein goated by the prosecutor’s withering cross-examination, Nicholson’s character shouts, “The truth, you can’t handle the truth.”
When you view the image below, at first blush you will see either an attractive young woman with her head turned away from you, or you will see an old witch.
If you persist, you will eventually come to see both. From that point on however, anytime you again view the image you will immediately see both iterations.
So, read on at your peril, because once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you will never get it back in again.
Maybe it really would be better for you to just do as the missionaries suggest in the Book of Mormon Play whenever disquieting thoughts enter their minds; just, “Turn it off / Like a light switch / Just go flick / It’s our nifty little Mormon trick