Every religion has dark corners

Mountain Meadows massacre
Mountain Meadows massacre

Every religion has its dark corners, its shameful episodes in the past — or present  — that its members find embarrassing at best, faith-shattering at worst. Mormonism is no different.

A recent New York Times article featured Hans Mattsson, a high-ranking leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Sweden, whose faith was shaken when he learned about some aspects of our history that troubled him or didn’t match what he had been taught (Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the mechanics of how the Book of Mormon was translated, and the priesthood ban on members of African descent, to name a few). I deeply sympathize with him.

While I knew from a very young age that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy — my ancestor, Melissa Lott, was one of his plural wives — I was a college graduate before I learned about the Mountain Meadows massacre. I was horrified when I realized the role that faithful, active Latter-day Saints, members and leaders, played in the murder of over a hundred men, women and children. And I was upset that in two solid decades of weekly church attendance, four years of seminary during high school, and four years of religion classes at BYU, I had never heard this tragedy mentioned.

Similarly, the daughter of an active LDS friend of mine came home from middle school in tears one day. She had learned in her U.S. history class that Mormons used to practice polygamy. It simply hadn’t ever occurred to my friend to bring it up and, apparently, the topic hadn’t been broached at church either.

Frankly, our church needs to do better educating its members of every age about their own history. Our current church-wide correlated Sunday School lessons are woefully inadequate for that purpose. Every four years, we spend 40 minutes each Sunday studying the Doctrine & Covenants, a collection of revelations mostly received and recorded by Joseph Smith.

Ostensibly the lessons include historical information, but the lessons are arranged thematically to make doctrinal points. The historical narrative is secondary to the doctrine, and stories are almost always taken out of context, described as if they were discrete events, unconnected to anything before or after. Troublesome aspects are usually omitted, glossed over, or grossly simplified to keep the focus on faith-promotion.

But there are positive signs. For the first time this year, the church is issuing a series called Revelations in Context which provides in-depth historical information related to each section of the Doctrine & Covenants. In fact, the entire website at history.lds.org is well worth investigating. Recent updates to section headings in the Doctrine & Covenants reflect the most current and accurate historical research and correct errors perpetuated in previous editions. The Joseph Smith Papers Project, sponsored and supported by the Church History Department, is publishing a wealth of information, letters, minutes, notes and other documents from the early history of the church.

We seem to be entering a renaissance of sorts for LDS history. Numerous other projects, undertaken over the past several years with the good will and cooperation of church leaders, include professional historian (and faithful Latter-day Saint) Richard Bushman’s cultural biography “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” a 2008 study of the Mountain Meadows massacre (which I recently reviewed here), and a new biography of Brigham Young published last year by a historian not affiliated with the church.

Just as the church has a responsibility to be forthcoming and make accurate historical information available, it is incumbent upon us as Latter-day Saints — and members of every faith, for that matter — to accept the obligation to educate ourselves. We are a faith that believes that “the glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth” (Doc & Cov 93:36). Rather than weakening faith, I believe that open, honest and transparent discussion of our past, especially the darkest corners, can strengthen and renew faith by helping us come to a better understanding of truth and a greater appreciation for our flawed, human predecessors.

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  1. Emily is a friend of mine. Accordingly, I write this comment with all due respect to Emily, and find myself in general agreement with her last three paragraphs. I would just comment, however, that the Church has not been silent to the extent that the article portrays. The Church has published on the “Mountain Meadows massacre” in its official periodical, the Ensign; specifically in the September 2007 issue, November 1999, and December 1990 issues, to identify some instances. These gaps in publishing dates serve to help individuals in multiple generations to understand the tragedy. Has everything in Latter-day Saint history been transparent from the church? No. But a lot of information that I’ve seen in the form of accusations against the Church has been addressed through the Church’s official publications (the Ensign is published monthly and dates back to January 1971 – all issues are free online) and other venues.

    I would also comment that while the Church’s history is inseparably connected with “the gospel,” the purpose and mission of the Church is to bring souls to Christ and teach soteriological doctrine and principles, and administer its ordinances. Accordingly, the encouragement to emphasize church history, and especially controversial items has only relative importance within the larger picture. I don’t condemn the Catholic Church for neglecting to devote their Sunday School programs on the Inquisition. I don’t suspect that Emily is doing the same thing here either, but I do want to add that the church isn’t as quiet on these issues as is generally perceived, or sometimes misconstrued, even by well-meaning individuals. Everything should be taken in context, without undue emphasis on controversial issues that have varying degrees of relevance to the church’s mission.

  2. Hi Tim! You’re absolutely right – the purpose of the Church is to bring souls to Christ. And I see teaching accurate history as part and parcel with that goal, not as a distraction from it. Of course, I’m not advocating throwing out the doctrinal and scriptural basis of our Sunday School curriculum in favor of an in-depth study overturning every rock of our past, but we can do better than we are right now.

    There are several sources of great scholarship on LDS topics, and have been for years (Maxwell Institute, BYU Studies, FAIR, etc.) and yes, there have been articles in the Ensign. I don’t think there has been any recent attempt to keep history hidden at all, but when someone like Hans Mattsson, who was an area authority 70, is thrown for a loop by some of these issues, we need to take a look at how to better disseminate the information because the current method is apparently not sufficient.

    Context is key. It would be simple to insert a paragraph into a Sunday School lesson on, for example, Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon, explaining that he used several different methods to do so (seerstones/Urim & Thummim in a hat to block out light, dictation, sometimes with the plates open next to him and sometimes without, etc.). That would present the information in context, as a minor point to keep it in proper perspective, and would introduce the topic so those interested could do further research. And for those not interested in learning more on the topic, they’d at least have a basic awareness so it wouldn’t be a shock when heard from a less sympathetic source.

    It’s frustrating to me when our rich historical narrative is selectively used as a means to an end. Our predecessors in the faith were real, complex, flawed human beings, not the unwavering clichés that we have cheapened by placing them on pedestals. I have found their real stories, warts and all, to be far more faith-affirming than the airbrushed, truncated, sometimes apocryphal versions that seem to make up the bulk of some members’ historical knowledge.

    As I mentioned above, I think we are headed in the right direction. Elder Marlin K. Jensen did an incredible job as Church Historian making historical information more accessible (the Joseph Smith Papers Project seriously makes me giddy!), and Elder Steven E. Snow seems to be continuing on in his footsteps. The links in my piece above are a tiny fraction of what’s available after two minutes of looking around at lds.org.

    The information is out there. Anyone can google anything and find more than they could possibly absorb. I’d much rather that people hear difficult or confusing information presented within a faithful context, than be shocked and shaken hearing it for the first time from an antagonistic source.

    Thanks for commenting, Tim! (And, by the way, I think you do an excellent job explaining the historical context of the Doctrine & Covenants in your Sunday School lessons, so thank you for that, too.)

  3. Emily – thanks for the response, and thank you for your kind comments. I think your additional commentary will be helpful to others in clarifying perhaps what you meant with certain assertions in your original article.

    In terms of what the Church has been doing in relation to “educating its members of every age about their own history,” it would be worth the effort for any interested parties to read Ron Barney’s presentation that he gave at the 2009 FAIR Conference. Ron Barney has been connected with the Church Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for many years, and his presentation focuses on the current status of the Church as it relates to its goals and achievements, as well as past, current, and forthcoming projects in relation to church history and doctrine. I think the interested reader would be surprised to see the extent of what the Church has actually done and is currently doing to provide valuable, accurate resources to its members and other interested parties.


    Personally, I feel that the bigger issue is less with the Church then it is with many of its adherents, in that Latter-day Saints, generally speaking, need to take more initiative in learning their religious heritage and history through the abundance of these available resources, rather than relying on a very short Sunday School lesson and other church classes that primarily focus, and rightly so, on soteriology. I don’t disagree with Emily regarding incorporating topics that would be better presented from a faithful perspective, rather than through antagonistic lenses, but again, with emphasis properly devoted to Christian doctrines and principles, with history taking on secondary importance.


  4. One last comment! I do not mean to imply with my last comment that Latter-day Saints are generally ignorant of their religious past. In fact, it has been my experience that Latter-day Saints, generally speaking have a greater familiarity with their religious heritage than many adherents of other faiths. I am not making this statement to belittle other religious individuals or faiths; it is a generalization to be sure, and is only my opinion based upon my personal experience.

    While serving an LDS mission in Florida, I must have heard, more than a dozen times from good Baptists, that “John Smith is a false prophet.” This is somewhat ironic because I’m certain that they actually meant Joseph Smith (the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), whereas, John Smyth is the commonly accepted founder of the Baptist church.

    This example certainly doesn’t reflect all religious individuals, it is only meant to demonstrate one instance from my experience regarding some Christian’s awareness of their own religious heritage. My point is that it is important to understand, in relation to the above conversation and article, that Latter-day Saints have a general familiarity with their church history. They know who the prophets are, they know the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, they are familiar with Joseph Smith and other latter-day prophet’s revelations, etc. It is the overarching concern with the above article, however, that the standard Mormon’s awareness of certain issues considered to be more controversial in nature is generally lacking. To a Latter-day Saint familiar with these issues, the merited attention is of lesser importance then the doctrine of salvation and the principle of daily religious living, etc. However, these topics tend to be unduly emphasized by critics of the Mormon faith, and where minimal or no awareness exists, the result has occasionally been somewhat of a “faith crisis” for certain individuals.

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