My raison d’ être
“… convince us of our errors of doctrine, if we have any, by reason, by logical argument, or by the word of God, and we will be ever grateful for the information, and you will have the pleasing reflection that you have been instruments in the hands of God for redeeming your fellow beings from the darkness which you may see enveloping their minds.”
Apostle Orson Pratt
I have asked many questions in my ‘A Letter to an Apostle‘ that as Orson indicates. ‘by reason and logic’ are difficult to reconcile.
I am not asking out of ignorance. As the reader will discover, I have diligently sought out, explored, researched and thoroughly investigated each of the concerns and difficulties that are at issue for me. I have tried to uncover the most recent, reliable material related to each of my interrogatories. I have also carefully cited my sources.
As I have already said, most of the facts I quote as well as the commentaries I reference come from church-friendly sources – LDS historical documents, church newspapers and periodicals, Journal of Discourses, Lectures on Faith and the History of the Church.
I have also gone to the letters of learned and even some less learned church leaders, and, of course, the Scriptures themselves.
The rest of the facts, data and information I have garnered from serious and often meticulous research conducted by many of the world’s leading scholars in several scientific disciplines and, of course, professional historians. You will not find reference to the many mean-spirited articles posted on the Internet by those whose obvious purpose is to mock and despoil.
When it comes to questions of a purely scientific nature, matters relating to archaeology, anthropology, palaeontology or genetics, admittedly I have given greater credence to the considered opinions of non-Mormon scientists because these scholars have fewer biases and predispositions that might impede their willingness to go where the truth leads them.
An examination of the confirmation bias in at least the archaeology department at BYU is reflected in the following statement from one of its professors, Kerry Muhlestein as reported in a recent Deseret News article:
“I start out with an assumption that the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon, and anything else that we get from the restored gospel, is true,” he said. “Therefore, any evidence I find, I will try to fit into that paradigm.”
It is also no secret that at BYU and all other LDS owned post-secondary institutions, criticism of the church, its policies or its leaders is ‘verboten.’ Even though those who teach at these schools are free Americans, should they espouse, even privately, any opinions of which the ‘brethren’ disapprove, they run the risk of the termination of their employment.
Ruthie Robertson, a professor of political science, discovered this was the case when she placed a post on her personal Facebook page supporting the LGBTQ community.
BYU demanded she retract her comments, and when she refused, she was summarily dismissed.
When asked by a reporter to comment on what this says about the state of academic freedom at BYU, the church released the following statement:
“All good LDS, including scholars, must accept the judgment of the Church’s General Authorities. If it is what the brethren want, then good LDS must say it is appropriate. This may be difficult for scholars, but obedience is an important concept.”
Salt Lake Tribune , May 26, 1983, p. B4
Since 1998, the American Association of University Professors, has placed Brigham Young University on its list of universities that do not allow tenured professors sufficient freedom in teaching and research.
Having taught at a large public university which, like most, placed great value on freedom of expression, and a commitment to the pursue of truth, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for some to teach at an institution where imperious efforts are made to curtail free or critical thinking.
I believe an open academic environment is important in a free society.
Having risen to power, one of the first things that Adolf Hitler’s tyrannical ‘apostles’ focused their energies on was stifling the free exchange of unfiltered ideas coming out of colleges, and universities. The Schutzstaffel (SS) which literally translates as the ‘Protection Squadron’ enforcing upon the German academic community a duty to think and act as good National Socialists are requited to think and act. Within such an environment nothing was more natural than to abolish the heritage of what for centuries scholars the world over admired: German academic freedom.
Also, one must recognize that non-Mormon archaeologists and anthropologists publish and are thereby subject to peer review. In contrast, it is extremely rare that a paper on archaeology or anthropology coming out of BYU would be accepted for publication by the three leading scholarly journals in those disciplines, let alone survive the often-withering examination by their non-Mormon peers.
Finally, before we begin, a word about a word – Mormon.
In 2018 President Russell Nelson became the seventeenth man to rise to become the president of the LDS church.
In addition to his shortening of the agonizingly long Sunday services that the faithful long endured, he also claimed to have awoken from his nonagenarian repose one night, ‘impressed,’ that, from that moment forward, the use of the word ‘Mormon’ should be removed from the lexicon.
President Russell would have people refer to the church by its full and rather cumbersome legal name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
While not an actual name change. The church has actually gone through several iterations in its short history.
It was initially named, ‘The Church of Christ’ by Joseph Smith on April 6, 1830, The same name, incidentally, as the church at Dartmouth College, that his brother Hyrum had attended. Dartmouth also had a ‘School of the Prophets’, a term Smith also later appropriated.
This name only lasted four years.
In 1834 Joseph had to face the fact that he was not the first to coin that name and it had better be changed to avoid if not litigation, certainly confusion.
Not to be caught in the same bind again, the name was quickly changed to ‘The Church of the Latter Day Saints,’ completely removing Jesus Christ from the moniker.
That name only lasted two years however (1834 to 1836), before it would seem Joseph recalled that the Lord had stated in the Book of Mormon that His church should carry His name. Consequently, it was renamed once again to, ‘The Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints,‘ which was used for another two years – 1836 to 1838.
Although it was still being referred to as the Church of Christ and the Church of Latter Day Saints, nevertheless in 1838 it was again changed to more or less its current name, ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.’ In wasn’t until 1851 that Brigham Young signed off on the final change, ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’ adding a hyphen and reverting to the British-style lower-case “d.”
I will respectfully be ignoring President Nelson’s admonition here.
Besides taking 47 keystrokes to write each time, the loquaciousness is irritating to the reader, and the continuous use of the long version can lead one to think that I am actually mocking the church.
I also suspect there is more to the name change tale than Nelson conveys. Some Mormon neo-apologists are slowly beginning to move toward the view that the Book of Mormon is less an actual history of real people than it is an inspirational script. The use of the word Mormon unavoidably pushes the Book of Mormon to the front of people’s awareness.
I would like to tell you that I had no intention of posting my letter to president Uchtdorf. I first sought answers from others, including local priesthood leaders. I spoke with my former Stake President, a long-time friend and an intelligent, well-educated and honest man who I have nothing but the greatest respect for.
However, having taken on the task, I will try my best to provide a comprehensive examination of what are to me the major controversies with regard to the church’s dominant narrative.
The mass exodus from church pews nationwide has been studied at length in recent years by the Pew Research Center. In tracking religious trends by state, religion and faith. Pew researchers have shown that sadly many of the record number of Mormons leaving their church, abandon not only the LDS church but also vacate their belief in God.
To be fair, this is not solely a Mormon phenomenon. Ms. Hatch tells us that ‘millennials‘ of all religious backgrounds are leaving the faith of their fathers at a rate never seen before.
To give a better understanding of where LDS millennials are coming from, she shares the comments of a Utah millennial she interviewed named Shelley:
“I’m definitely not interested in any religion as far as religions that exist, I consider myself a secular humanist.”
Shelley says she has no need for religion in her life. This former BYU student joined the LDS church as a teen and said that she, “loved her church so much she wanted to be a bigger part of it. I joined what I thought was this perfect religion, the true church.”
Now, she says, “I feel like I’m way too logical now to be religious.”
Millennials like Shelley are not leaving because they’re lazy, want to sin or can’t obey the ‘Word of Wisdom‘, they have done their due diligence, they just don’t believe it anymore, and like most millenniums, once the decision is made, there is no looking back.
However, research has shown that a majority of ex-Mormons, or post-Mormons, do not self-identify as members of another faith tradition, rather choosing to describe themselves as agnostic, atheist or apatheist – someone who is not interested in accepting or rejecting any claims that God exists or does not exist.
Again, quoting Pew, in 2015 they found that 36% of those born Mormon left the religion, with 6% becoming Evangelical Protestants, 9% converting to another Protestant, Catholic, or a non-Christian faith and 58% of all ex-Mormons simply becoming unaffiliated.
I hope that if your examination of the true history of Joseph Smith and Mormonism leads you to conclude that it is not the one true church as it teaches that you do not abandon your belief in a loving God. Faith is not a zero-sum game. It is not binary – Mormonism or nothing. So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Please keep this in mind as you read on.
By all means, seek knowledge wherever you can find it. Seek counsel from those in the Mormon church that you trust and respect and whose opinions you value. But remember their personal beliefs are just that, their personal opinions. Belief and truth are two different things. Wisdom comes from knowledge, not from shared feelings and testimonies.
Many faithful Mormons are taught that if they even entertain a question regarding the church’s official narrative, they will be sucked into an abyss of disbelief, resulting in a disruption of their comfortable homeostasis.
Sadly, the vast majority of Mormons are remarkably ignorant of the history of their religion as well as the behavior and character of its founder Joseph Smith Jr. Even bishops and stake presidents are knowingly unaware of many of the facts that I present here.
It has been my experience that when Mormon leaders cannot refute the facts, they invariably retreat to ‘just pray about it and look for a warm feeling or take it on faith and someday you will know the ‘truth.’
So, absent any help from ward or stake priesthood leaders I published this open letter in 2017. I did so with the faint hope that Elder Uchtdorf might come upon it and care enough to leave the ninety and nine and reach out to one who is lost.
While I am yet to receive any response to my Letter to an Apostle; I believe he is aware of it. It has certainly gotten the church’s attention as FairMormon published a lengthy ‘rebuttal’ to it. To view their confutation, click below:
I think the church’s responses to my letter through their apologists at FairMormon are somewhat disingenuous. Therefores, since their rationalizations may confuse or mislead some, I have chosen to follow their lead and comment on them also in the form of a rebuttal rather than a conversation.
In the interest of fairness and openness however, unlike FairMormon itself, I have endeavored to show both sides by adding their refutations at the end of each of my interrogatives.
Out of the gate, FairMormon describing my letter to President Uchtdorf as,’ an online document which is critical of Latter-day Saint truth claims.’
I would contend that my directness in asking WHY or discussing troubling, hypocritical and contradictory evidence associated with the church’s history is not, as FairMormon suggests, prima facie evidence of criticism. By FairMormon’s logic, if your son asks, “why did our dog have puppies?” he is criticizing reproduction.
And I am not suggesting that all of FairMormon’s responses to my online letter were of no value. Some of their explanations were reasonable and even instructive.
However, too often when these anonymous defenders of the faith, lacking any convincing answer would nevertheless proffer a defense, no matter how irrational or implausible, rather than just say, “we don’t know.” In these cases, if FairMormon’s goal is member retention, I wonder if they, like FARMS before them, they are doing more harm than good.
FairMormon is preaching to the choir; their raison d’etre is to justify any and all statements made, and actions taken by church leaders past and particularly present and to protect the church’s good name. You will never hear them say, ‘that was probably a mistake;‘ or ‘president Nelson is no expert in that area,’ rather they dispense superficially plausible apologetic ‘snake oil,’ that they know will be eagerly swallowed by members who just crave enough elixir to dull their pesky cognitive dissonance.
I think FairMormon correctly recognizes that true believing or chapel Mormons are not looking for a deep dive into truth, truth is frightening and destabilizing. Rather they seek just enough conjectural adhesive to keep their shelves from altogether collapsing.
FairMormon searches for, interprets, and favors only that information and just those data which confirm their pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. Their conclusions had been set before they have given ear to any argument or evidence. This is called ‘confirmation bias, ‘and it is intellectually dishonest.
I have been around long enough and have studied history and human nature long enough to feel that well-meaning zealots seldom do much to advance the cause of truth and often do much to harm it. Examples range from the church’s sexually incursive and psychologically harmful youth interviews to the obscenity of the Mountain Meadows slaughter of more than 120 innocent men, women, and children by pious Mormon priesthood leaders.
So, instead of taking these apologists’ avowals as ‘gospel,’ I have commented where I feel their responses to what I have written are misleading or lack credulity or plain old common sense. My standard is simple – what would a reasonable man or woman find more compelling and believable.
To apply this standard, I have devised a rating system based on Occam’s Razor.
As you are no doubt aware, Occam’s Razor (also Ockham’s Razor) sometimes the “Law of Parsimony,” is a philosophical problem-solving principle first attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher.
His ‘law’ can be interpreted as, ‘from among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.‘ It is the most likely to be true or at least the most correct – until proven otherwise. It is the same principle taught in medical school, “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras!’
‘Occam’s Razor’ then is the test, and I have distilled it into the following rating scale to test the apologist’s efforts.
The Mormon church is an immensely wealthy, powerful and secretive organization seeking to secure the time and acquire the treasure of sincere, honest people who are, more often than not, no match for the church’s well-oiled and highly funded PR machine. So, forgive me if I do not pull any punches in presenting facts and evidence that raise doubts about the church’s narrative or the truthfulness of its past or present leadership.
Many times, I sang the touching LDS hymn, “Oh Say, What is Truth?” The first verse reads:
Oh say, what is truth? ’Tis the fairest gem
That the riches of worlds can produce,
And priceless the value of truth will be when
The proud monarch’s costliest diadem
Is counted but dross and refuse.
It continues, praising the value of truth beyond all else.
Notwithstanding the sentiments expressed in this hymn, I don’t believe it unfair to point out that honesty has never been a core value for the Mormon leadership; and I am not just talking about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor who it can be easily proven made statements that were untrue, but recent, LDS prophets as well.
It would seem that at the top levels of the Mormon church, truth accedes to expediency.
That was Boyd Packer’s message in his fabled talk, “The mantle is far, far greater than the intellect.”
When Packer said, “Sometimes the truth isn’t very useful,” he was really saying that the truth often fails to serve the church’s interests, ergo we, as Latter-day Saints, should promote pragmatism, so that we only communicate what is advantageous to the church, rather than what is fair, just, or even true.
Gordon B. Hinckley is viewed with great affection by many members, and I am sure he was a good man, I met him once. But president Hinckley was certainly a practitioner of, “situational ethics.”
In an interview with Time Magazine in August 1997, president Hinckley was asked, “Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?”
He responded, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.”
“I don’t know if we teach it?” Could he have missed what Joseph Smith said about it:
“God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret, and He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did; and I will show it from the Bible.”
Joseph Smith (“King Follett Discourse,”
Journal of Discourses 6:3-4, also in Teachings
of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 342-345)
Or Brigham Young, “He [God] is our Father – the Father of our spirits and was once a man in mortal flesh as we are and is now an exalted being.” [emphasis added]
Brigham Young, successor to Joseph Smith
(Journal of Discourses 7:333):
Or Bruce R. McConkie, who wrote and preached, “…God… is a personal Being, a holy and exalted man…
Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon apostle and
theologian (Mormon Doctrine, 1966 ed p 250
Or, Joseph Fielding Smith who also taught, “God is an exalted man. Some people are troubled over the statements of the Prophet Joseph Smith … that our Father in heaven at one time passed through a life and death and is an exalted man…”
Joseph Fielding Smith, Mormon apostle and theologian,
later President of the church (Doctrines of Salvation 1:10):
Had he forgotten what he had written himself just a decade before this interview:
“The whole design of the gospel is to lead us, onward and upward to greater achievement, even, eventually, to godhood. This great possibility was enunciated by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the King Follett sermon and emphasized by President Lorenzo Snow. It is this grand and incomparable concept: As God now is, man may become!”
Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 179; “Eternal Progression.
Does president Hinckley’s deceptive statement jive with what the church preaches on honesty? Is this an example of Standing for Something as he titled his book?
“Lying is intentionally deceiving others. Bearing false witness is one form of lying. There are many other forms of lying. When we speak untruths, we are guilty of lying. We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth. Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest.”
Was Gordon B. Hinckley, like many of his predecessors, “lying for the Lord?”
Further evidence of this type of deception is found in Jeffrey R. Holland’s discussion with John Sweeney of the BBC about Mitt Romney’s temple oaths. Did Holland lie or attempt to deceive?
- SWEENEY: Let’s talk about Mitt Romney, the man who may well become the most powerful man on earth. As a Mormon, in the temple, I’ve been told, he would have sworn an oath to say that he would not pass on what happens in the temple lest he slit his throat. Is that true?
- HOLLAND: That’s not true. That’s not true. We do not have penalties in the temple.
- SWEENEY: You used to.
- HOLLAND: We used to.
- SWEENEY: Therefore, he swore an oath saying I will not tell anyone about the secrets here lest I slit my throat.
- HOLLAND: Well, the vow that was made was regarding the ordinance–the ordinance–of the temple…
Was brother Holland acting in accordance with what the Gospel Principles teaches on honesty, “…Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest.”
President Nelson seems to have a gift for ’embellishing’ rather pedestrian events and experiences to make them, if not out-and-out miraculous, at least faith-promoting.
One example is the story he tells about his experience in Korea, that appeared in LDS Living and was scheduled to appear in his book published by the church owned Deseret Books. I won’t take the time to detail it here but those interested can read the April, 2019 article by Ryan McKnoght:
But it was Joseph Smith Jr. who institutionalized the practice of, ‘lying for the Lord.’. He instructed church leaders to deny he was practicing polygamy and polyandry. The prophet’s stamp of approval allowed church leaders to deceive with a clear conscience; blasphemously believing that God permitted and even encouraged lying.
When accused of practicing “polygamy” Smith always denied it, rationalizing that it was “celestial marriage” that he was engaged in, something Smith reasoned was altogether different than marriage.
If his accusers in and out of the church did not frame their allegations using precisely the right terms, he and his followers felt justified in prevaricating.
Like many, I have never been a fan of Boyd Packer, but since we are discussing truth and honesty among the ‘brethren,’ let me provide one of his gems:
“I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting. It destroys. I could tell most of the secretaries in the Church office building that they are ugly and fat. That would be the truth, but it would hurt and destroy them. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting.”
Boyd K. Packer, Faithful History:
Essay on Writing Mormon History, p.103, fn.
Does this sound like something Peter or Andrew or a true Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ would utter?
But Boyd Packer is hardly representative of rank and file Latter-day Saints, and we should not of course condemn a whole church because of the imprudent pronouncements by one man.
As I say in my letter to President Uchtdorf, which follows, I have always found that, with few exceptions, everyday Latter-day Saints are honest, kind, sincere and decent people. But religious fervor, or a strong, “testimony” should not be our only standard when searching to know what is true, the only arrow in our quiver?
Romans Chapter 10, Verse 2, tells us, “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.”
Nor do I accept the Orwellian mantra hoisted on an already cowed people by Dallin Oaks that, “Not everything that’s true is useful.”
Useful to whom and for what purpose?
It would seem that Oaks has not considered that the corollary to his puerile statement must also hold, “That not everything that is false is NOT useful!”
Is it possible that president Oaks never heard of the ‘Law of the Excluded Middle,‘ espoused by Bertrand Russell? The law states that if ‘A is B’ is false, then ‘A is not B’ must be true.
If we accept that Oaks statement in the affirmative that, ”A – Not everything that is true” is ”B – Useful,” then the negative corollary, ‘ ‘Not everything that is false is not useful,” must also be true. But then again, perhaps Oaks does, in fact, believe that. There are many examples in the Mormon experience where things that are known to be wholly untrue are nonetheless very useful.
Joseph Smith’s denials of his illegal polygamous and polyandrous marriages, and the lies he told the Saints and even his wife. False statements? Certainly, but very useful – to him and his agenda!”
The many paintings hanging in Mormon chapels, visitor centers and temples across the globe and the pictures still being reproduced in Church books and manuals, showing a young strong-chinned Joseph Smith studiously examining the ‘Reformed Egyptian’ characters on the golden plates while his faithful scribe sits across from him writing down his ”translation.” A much more inspiring image than reality – Smith bent over, with his hat in his lap and his head in his hat.
Which of the following two images might move an ”investigator” more?
The church has always known that the images it prints, and displays are not true representations of reality, but they continue to be reproduced and hung because they are useful.
FairMormon in what seems to me a rather desperate attempt to justify the use of these inaccurate, misleading images suggests that the church wanted their artists to create something closer to reality, but their artists simply chose not to.
Anthony Sweat in his essay “The Gift and Power of Art” quotes artist Walter Rane as saying:
“At least twice, I have been approached by the church to do that scene [Joseph translating using the hat]. I get into it. When I do the drawings, I think, “This is going to look really strange to people.” Culturally from our vantage point 200 years later, it just looks odd. It probably won’t communicate what the church wants to communicate. Instead of a person being inspired to translate ancient records, it will just be.”
Does FairMormon really expect us to believe that the brethren, would defer to the imaginings of their retainers, in something this significant? Are we to believe that in an organization where decision-making is more centralized than North Korea, that those in power would hand over this kind of control to their outside retainers?
So, forgive me, but I intend to call bullshit where I find it, whether it comes from Dallin Oaks, FairMormon or Joseph Smith himself.
That said, in the words of that great dame Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts, this is going to be a bumpy night!”
Paul A. Douglas