Romancing the Stone
In the news recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has released photographs of Joseph Smith's seer stone as part of the next volume of the Joseph Smith Papers project. I'm not sure how many people besides Mormons and Mormon critics actually noticed or cared, but it happened. The stone is very pretty, isn't it? To me, it looks like a big polished wooden marble.
The stone has been kept in a vault by the First Presidency for quite some time. I certainly never expected to see what it looked like. Of course, a lot of people didn't even know that it existed. And so I think now is as good a time as any to build off of a post I made a couple months ago that ended up being one of my most popular. Obviously that's not saying a lot, but whatever. Not everyone can be Matt Walsh.
To recap, although the post jumped between several topics as I too often do, one of its main points was that nothing in history either proves or disproves the LDS Church (or any other religion). The facts never speak for themselves; one way or another they are always interpreted by someone with a bias and can fit into various paradigms. (This isn't why I'm bringing it up again, but I'd like to add as an aside now that humans are not rational creatures. Reading about confirmation bias is enough to convince me that all my opinions on everything are probably wrong and doomed to remain so. Also, memory is inherently unreliable. Your brain might seem to record stuff like a camera, but in reality your memories are reconstructed from sense fragments and emotions every time they're accessed, and the way they are constructed has a great deal to do with what you've experienced since then.)
The post was true, and I'm glad people liked it, but I was dissatisfied with it because time and tangent considerations prompted me to touch so lightly on what I personally consider to be the elephant in the room that most people wouldn't even notice. I am rectifying that now for my own peace of mind despite the fact that very few people will care nearly as much as me. The elephant is this question which someone might sincerely ask: "If this stuff isn't inherently a threat to the Church, then why have they been covering it up?"
This person may have grown up in the Church, served in several callings, and never heard about certain strange or uncomfortable aspects of church history until one day an innocuous Google search for a Sunday School lesson brought them to an anti-Mormon site. Here, those facts were presented in a faith-destroying paradigm. The person experienced an almost physically unpleasant sensation of cognitive dissonance, and perhaps worse still, a feeling of intense hurt and betrayal that the Church never told them these things. They realized they faced a choice. They could, of course, take the facts out of the faith-destroying paradigm and construct a faith-promoting paradigm around them instead. But they would mostly be on their own in doing so. The Church didn't offer such a paradigm ready-made because it wasn't forthcoming with those facts in the first place. And they weren't even sure if they should trust it anymore anyway.
On the one side there are the critics who say things like, "The Mormon cult has swept all its uncomfortable history under the rug, but now that it's all being exposed by the internet, the gig is up!" Then, on the other hand, plenty of Mormons say things like, "You didn't know about that? I thought everybody knew about that. The Ensign devoted a whole sentence to it twenty years ago. If you didn't know about that, it's your own fault for not reading everything the Church has ever published."
To be perfectly honest, notwithstanding I am a Mormon and intend to remain one, I actually empathize far more with the former group. I can actually grasp why they feel that way, whereas I'm incredulous at the latter group's incredulity (not to mention annoyed by their self-righteousness and lack of compassion). But both groups are wrong. The Church has not actively hidden its history, but that certainly doesn't mean it's been candid or transparent, either. That gradually started to change around the 1970s with the efforts of Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington and others like him to bring about more modern and responsible scholarship (albeit with no small amount of opposition from members and leaders alike who thought they were wolves in sheep's clothing), and now it's changing at a much faster and more widespread pace in the hopes of stemming the tide of such faith crises. Virtually everyone is happy about this shift, and I am no exception. But I struggled for a long time to wrap my head around why it was necessary in the first place.
Of course, there are plenty of legitimate reasons why the Church's approach to history was less than candid. Perhaps the best one is that it was largely following what used to be standard practice for American history writing in general, which has obviously changed quite a bit in recent decades. Christopher Columbus used to be just a swell guy, and now he's a genocidal creep. But of course, the Church is not just any American institution. Its claim to fame is being led by prophets, seers, and revelators. And if that is the case then why, I've wondered, didn't they foresee that this approach would cause problems, and change it earlier, before so many people were adversely affected?
The answer that gives me the most peace of mind came from one of these prophets, seers, and revelators himself: Elder Dallin H. Oaks, one of my favorite Apostles because he is so clearly a thoughtful and intelligent man with a great respect for secular learning and members of other faiths. General Authorities are often more candid outside of General Conference or similar contexts, and this was one of those times; it was an interview with PBS in 2006(?). Elder Oaks said:
"It’s an old problem, the extent to which official histories, whatever they are, or semi-official histories, get into things that are shadowy or less well-known or whatever. That’s an old problem in Mormonism - a feeling of members that they shouldn’t have been surprised by the fact that this or that happened, they should’ve been alerted to it. I have felt that throughout my life. There are several different elements of that. One element is that we’re emerging from a period of history writing within the Church [of] adoring history that doesn’t deal with anything that’s unfavorable, and we’re coming into a period of 'warts and all' kind of history. Perhaps our writing of history is lagging behind the times, but I believe that there is purpose in all these things - there may have been a time when Church members could not have been as well prepared for that kind of historical writing as they may be now.
"On the other hand, there are constraints on trying to reveal everything. You don’t want to be getting into and creating doubts that didn’t exist in the first place. And what is plenty of history for one person is inadequate for another, and we have a large church, and that’s a big problem. And another problem is there are a lot of things that the Church has written about that the members haven’t read. And the Sunday School teacher that gives 'Brother Jones' his understanding of Church history may be inadequately informed and may not reveal something which the Church has published. It’s in the history written for college or Institute students, sources written for quite mature students, but not every Sunday School teacher that introduces people to a history is familiar with that. And so there is no way to avoid this criticism. The best I can say is that we’re moving with the times, we’re getting more and more forthright, but we will never satisfy every complaint along that line and probably shouldn’t."
It would seem that the risk to payoff ratio has been evaluated for some time and only recently has shifted enough to justify overhauling the system. This transitional period will probably make more sense in a few years. Though it seems like a big deal now, it's important to remember that the Church is really still in its infancy, at less than two hundred years old, and some growing pains are inevitable no matter what precautions are taken. We just happen to be in a spotlight that no other religion has dealt with so close to its founding era. The major issue, really, is those many faithful members who have sincerely lost their faith during this transitional period when they otherwise wouldn't have. Are they just inevitable collateral damage? Perhaps, but I'm certain that in the long run the God who knows their hearts will make everything right.
Of course, while each one of those people is important, their actual numbers have been greatly exaggerated as well. Elder Marlin K. Jensen referred to this as the greatest period of apostasy since Kirtland, but what is usually overlooked is that during the Kirtland era the percentage leaving the Church was in double digits and included several high-ranking leaders. It isn't nearly that bad now even if it's the worst it's been since then. (Of course, the percentage of membership that actually self-identifies as LDS and attends church could be a lot better, but that has a lot more to do with people outside the US being baptized as quickly as possible and then falling away almost immediately, not being disturbed by church history.)
I love history, especially church history, and I am very excited about the changes going on and I hope that we can all accept it, own it, take pride in it when we can and learn from it when we should. In closing, I will reiterate what I said last time, that nothing in history stands as definitive proof or disproof of this or any other religion, because supernatural events and personages cannot be tested except by individuals seeking their own communion with the divine. And now I'm going to stop before I come across as any more pretentious than I probably already have. (Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens can say stuff like that without being pretentious because they're way more educated than me.)
It's a very pretty stone, isn't it?
(About the title: I finally watched that movie, on the same day the photographs were released. I thought it was decent but not great, and some parts were a bit shocking for a PG movie, owing to the lack of a PG-13 rating in 1984. It was much less of an Indiana Jones ripoff than I anticipated, but that was actually kind of a disappointment because Indiana Jones is awesome.)
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.