Guest column by Mary Lynn Hutchison
In the last few years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons or LDS) has begun, very quietly and sometimes haltingly, to discuss some of the more problematic elements of Mormon history and past practices. Essays on such topics as race and the priesthood, polygamy, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and the translation of the Book of Mormon have appeared on the Church website. In conjunction with the Community of Christ, the Church has embarked upon the Joseph Smith Papers, an extensive project to publish every existing document and manuscript relating to Joseph Smith. The latest volume of the papers, announced last month, included pictures of the seer stone used by Joseph to translate the Book of Mormon.
My Mormon roots go six generations deep. My great-great-great-grandfather, Cornelius Peter Lott, joined the Church soon after its formation in 1830. His daughter Melissa was one of Joseph Smith’s polygamous wives, a fact of which my grandmother, who was not particularly devout, was inordinately proud. Thus, much of the information about Church history that is coming to light now has long been a part of our family lore.
Not all members of the Church are so fortunate. These publications have generated a shock wave that rumbles through the general membership of the Church, many of whom are confronting these parts of our history for the first time.
During the 1950s and 1960s, membership in the Church tripled. To meet the needs of an expanding international membership and to streamline administering a growing global organization, the First Presidency of the Church instituted the Priesthood Correlation Program, which centralized and coordinated the production of consistent instructional materials throughout the Church. Up to that point, the instructional and activities of the Church had been administered by independent auxiliary organizations: the Relief Society oversaw programs for the women of the Church, the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Associations for teenagers, the Primary for children.
Add to this the very human desire common to all organizations and individuals to present themselves in the most favorable light, exacerbated by all-too-painful memories of the conflict with the US government over the practice of polygamy, and the result was a coherent official presentation of history and doctrine that glossed over the complexities and difficulties of the past. The full story was available for those who were willing to search for it, but until the advent of the internet, it was the province of serious scholars and historians and not the general membership of the Church.
For believers, there is always a certain amount of tension between seeking knowledge and holding onto faith in the mysterious and supernatural. Faith is not a passive state of being. It is meant to be exercised, to be practiced, and, yes, to be tested. Mormonism’s unique scriptures honor that tension by proclaiming, “The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words light and truth,” (Doctrine &Covenants 93:36).
By training and inclination, I am a physicist. In college, I studied under four gifted professors/mentors, three of them devout, orthodox Mormons. From them I learned that it was possible to be both a scientist and a believer. In addition, I became acquainted with Henry Eyring, a prominent physical chemist and father of Henry B. Eyring, the First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church. Eyring related a conversation he had with his father shortly before he left for college. “Son, you don’t have to accept anything that is not true to believe the Gospel. Learn all you can. . . .” In his book “Faith of a Scientist,” Eyring explained in detail how he reconciled scientific and religious principles: “Here is the spirit of true religion, an honest seeking after knowledge of all things in heaven and earth,” and “The Gospel embraces all Truth.”
I also take great comfort from this statement by J Reuben Clark, a counselor in the First Presidency from 1933 to 1961: “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.”
More recently, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency admonished us, “Brothers and sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?”
Truth is good. It is also remarkably sturdy. Transparency is not easy, either for those who lift the curtain or those who must make sense of the view from the window beyond. To quote Dr Eyring again, “History, unlike laboratory experiments, cannot be tried over again, just because we are not quite sure what the happenings meant. In this sense, religion differs from such laboratory sciences as chemistry and physics, and is more like astronomy or historical geology, where we must depend in part on inference. In the end, however, if the inquiry is broad enough and careful enough, we need be no less sure of our final conclusions.” Transparency sets a difficult task for our maturing faith: we must somehow comprehend complexity, learn to live with ambiguity, and discern the divine in words and actions contaminated by human frailty.
For human frailty is the key component of all histories, whether religious or secular. As much as we might wish the world were simpler, wishing will hardly make it so. People will make mistakes, misinterpret instructions, and confuse their own desires with the whisperings of the spirit. They are fallen creatures. They will sin. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Council of the Twelve Apostles counseled, “So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”
While this is a disorienting shift for some, I find great comfort in the view through this transparent window. If God can use weak and imperfect people like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to bring forth and establish a great work, maybe, just maybe, there is hope for me.
In a former life, Mary Lynn Hutchison was a physicist. She is now a professional grandmother and a quilter. A lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she has served in many positions in the Church, including teaching weekday early morning seminary classes for teenagers and, at various times, Sunday classes for age levels from toddlers to adults. Since the late 90s, she has been involved in amateur LDS apologetics on Internet discussion forums. She and her husband Frank live in Spokane Valley.