Introduction: Tensions in Utah
It was early 2012, and Alain de Botton had just published Religion for Atheists, a book which asserts that everyone — even non-believers — should embrace the good features of religion, like community and service.
When Religion for Atheists was published, de Botton assumed it wouldn’t have a sizeable audience in Utah (what, with all the Mormons and all), and so he didn’t include my state in the list of places to visit during his book tour.
Imagine his surprise, then, when he discovered that book sales were eight times higher in Utah than in any other state.
Eight times higher in Utah? Why would that be?
De Botton postulated that there’s a crowd of people in Utah who love the good and beautiful features of Mormonism but who struggle with some of the religion’s literal truth claims. That is, they recognize that the organization of the Church is amazing, but they’re unsettled by Mormonism’s historical narrative so much that they leave the Church.
My personal experience reflects this. I’ve seen the goodness and beauty in Mormonism, but I’ve also seen family members and friends leave the Church over the truth claims, which has in turn led me to reflect more fully on my religion.
Based on my experience, I assume that lots of people are in a similar situation, so I wrote this essay in order to navigate through some tensions and hopefully, more than anything, help the community I grew up in move forward in a healthy way.
To that end, I’ll talk about three Mormonisms:
The Mormonism of goodness
The Mormonism of beauty
The Mormonism of truth
These three ideals — goodness, beauty, and truth — were a focal point for ancient Athenian philosophers, and I’ve found that they’re just as relevant today. At the very least, I’ve found that breaking my religion down like this has helped me make sense of what’s going on in my community.
The Mormonism of Goodness
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:27
For many Mormons, church is mostly about doing good.
I’ve seen it hundreds of times: Mormons bring food to neighbors who’ve recently had a baby, spend time with the sick, help people move out of their homes, etc. The church is a well-oiled service machine, and it helps that people meet for three hours each Sunday to (hopefully!) talk about how they can serve better.
It’s one reason why when I was a teenager my family would visit the lonely and elderly in our neighborhood every Sunday afternoon.
It’s also one reason why many active Mormons are sad when people leave. They think that by leaving, the dissenters reject goodness. And that line of thinking it isn’t entirely unreasonable.
For instance, many of the teenagers in my neighborhood left the Church, and when they did they were suddenly less likely to show up for community service projects and more likely to invest their time in general punkery — you know, kicking trash cans over and smoking cigarettes by the bus stop.
So Mormons see a correlation between activity in the church and activity in good things, and they therefore worry about people who stop participating. For most Mormons the church equals goodness, and there is some legitimacy to that formula.
But goodness alone doesn’t encompass the full Mormon experience.
The Mormonism of Beauty
In addition to striving for goodness, Mormons talk a lot about the Spirit of God, which is generally conveyed in a beautiful feeling of awe.
I’ve experienced this feeling myself while singing hymns like “Be Still My Soul” and “The Spirit of God,” as well as through hearing people bear their own feelings of awe in Mormon testimony meetings.
I also felt the Spirit when, as a teenager, I watched a film about the martyrdom of Joseph Smith.
It was in seminary, the lights were out, and there was silence in the room as the events unfolded. Smith stood bravely against a mob of men who rushed into Carthage Jail and gunned him down. After he fell from a window and died, the orchestral score swelled and these words from John Taylor were shown on the screen:
Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.
It was an emotional experience for my teenage self and therefore a touchstone in my testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet of God.
The Mormonism of Truth, Part One: Discovering That I Didn’t Know
However, there was a problem with the video about Joseph Smith’s martyrdom — a problem I didn’t discover until years later when I was a missionary in California. It was my second week in the field, and my companion and I had knocked on the door of a religious nutjob who immediately and excitedly let us in (as religious nutjobs were prone to do).
For some reason our conversation centered on Joseph Smith’s death at Carthage. The guy insisted that Smith wasn’t martyred — that he instead died in a gunfight.
I told him he was wrong, and as proof I showed him the official account of Smith’s martyrdom in Doctrine and Covenants, section 135. But the guy wasn’t persuaded, and we left without accomplishing much.
A few months later I was digging around an LDS library and found A Comprehensive History of the Church by B.H. Roberts, a Mormon general authority. There I discovered that Joseph and Hyrum had pistols in Carthage, pistols they used to defend themselves.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, the fact that Joseph and Hyrum had pistols in Carthage isn’t a big deal. It was the wild west, and they were scared for their lives. It hardly makes Carthage a gunfight.
But it sparked questions. I had grown up in the Church, and yet I hadn’t known Joseph and Hyrum had guns in Carthage. What other truths didn’t I know about Mormon history?
The Mormonism of Truth, Part Two: Asking Questions about the Truth Claims
I began to be more inquisitive. I dug into extraneous church materials whenever I could (which wasn’t often because missionaries don’t get access to a wide range of books), and I discovered enough questions to fill my head:
Why are the scholarly translations of the Book of Abraham so different than the translation from Smith?
Why did Smith have to marry more than 30 wives?
Why hasn’t anyone seen the remnants of the concrete box that the golden plates were buried in?
I won’t repeat the full list here. I just mean to say that I filled my head with questions and this was a good thing. As Dieter F. Uchtdorf says, “I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. … Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a precursor to growth.”
Unfortunately, my questions largely faded away when I returned home from my mission.
At that point I was focused on school, work, and dating. I shelved my religious inquiry and stopped reading church history altogether. It’s incredible how quickly worries disappear when you ignore them.
And then, about five years later, my sister left the church. Shortly after that, a best friend from high school did too. In both cases, they weren’t leaving because they were rejecting the goodness or the beauty of Mormonism, but because they were rejecting the truth claims of Mormonism.
To understand their concerns, I dove back into church history in earnest, reading books like Rough Stone Rolling, People of Paradox, David O. McKay and The Rise of Modern Mormonism, and so on. I also read about different Mormon topics across the Internet, topics that revealed truths about the origins of the church that were (once again) new to me.
Around the same time, I was randomly chosen by the Church to participate in a lengthy six-part survey. One part asked for my thoughts about the historicity of Mormonism. I responded with candor, saying the Church should be as transparent as possible when retelling its history so members won’t feel hurt when they discover (as they eventually will) more details about the Church’s truth claims.
I suspect a lot of people share my feelings because the Church is starting to open up more and more.
The Mormonism of Truth, Part Three: The Church Opens Up about Its History
The Church has recently been publishing articles about controversial topics.
For example, two months ago they published an essay on the differing accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision. You can now read each account on the Church’s own site, and you can see that the official version (the one most Mormons have read) differs from the original version.
Whereas the 1832 account says Joseph saw Jesus, who forgave him of his sins, the 1835 account says Joseph saw lots of angels who testified that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Both of these obviously differ from Joseph’s 1838 account, where Joseph saw God and Jesus Christ together. Many other details differ as well, as you can see in the accounts.
Something similar happened for lots of events and revelations in early Church history. Two more examples: The original version of the Book of Mormon repeatedly says that Jesus is God the Father (three times in 1 Nephi 11, and many places elsewhere), and chapter 28 of the Book of Commandments doesn’t say that Peter, James, and John ordained Joseph Smith to the priesthood while section 27 of the Doctrine & Covenants (the equivalent revelation) does.
It turns out that the first account of almost every step of the restoration —
The First Vision
The Book of Mormon
The Restoration of the Priesthood
The Doctrine and Covenants
The Celestial Law of Marriage
— differs from the official account most Mormons read.
My guess is that the Church will soon publish articles about each of these topics (though they may remain sensitive to some changes in the endowment ceremony and the Book of Mormon).
For instance, they recently published an article describing how Smith looked into a hat to translate the Book of Mormon and an article about how church leaders continued to allow new plural marriages even after the 1890 manifesto banning polygamy was revealed.
We’re moving toward a more transparent era in Church history, and as a result people are discovering more about the Church’s truth claims.
What should we Mormons do as a result?
A Possible Way Forward for a Maturing Faith, or: Goodness, Beauty, and Truth Redux
For me, the answer lies in the three Athenian ideals — goodness, beauty, and truth.
First, we should recognize that no organization has fully reached any of these ideals. While the Mormon Church tends to prioritize goodness and beauty over truth, it has shortcomings in all three areas — the same way all of us do.
Second, we should recognize that people who prioritize goodness and beauty over truth might resonate more with Mormonism than people who prioritize truth over goodness and beauty. (Again, that’s truth in the scientific and historical sense.) We should accept that people may see religion differently, and that what matters most is how they pursue the three ideals.
Third, we should recognize we all need to pursue goodness, beauty, and truth — regardless of our religious belief. Those who stay LDS shouldn’t shirk from learning about the truths of Church history, and those who leave shouldn’t let go of the goodness and beauty (and truth) they’ve found in the Church. Whatever our decision about belief, we should be moving forward with each step.
To do so, we can consistently reflect on how we’re doing by asking ourselves:
Is my desire to be good (to family, friends, and strangers) growing or diminishing?
When was the last time I really experienced beauty?
Do I hide from truth, or do I seek it out?
If we can respond positively to these questions without deceiving ourselves, we’re moving forward. That goes for everyone, across the world.
I’m assuming many of us have had the same questions. For example, I, like you, wondered about the cement/stone box the plates were found in. It would have taken several men with a team of horses to break that thing up and haul it off the hill, some insistent work with a sledge hammer to pulverize it, and who knows how many willing conspirators. The verses about Jesus being the Father really stuck with me after my mission. It seemed too fishy to ignore. So not too long ago a wrote this blog entry about it: http://doubtyourdoubts.blogspot.com/2013/12/book-of-mormon-christ-father.html
I greatly appreciate the sincerity and feel of truth, beauty, and goodness which graces this nice essay! I give thanks to the Creator and to you for cooperating in developing your gifts.
A friend told me to look at amazon for a new review of my book (which has in fact not yet appeared), and I saw yours (for the first time). Thank you very much!
Please get back in touch if you feel the leisure (my computer has not saved your email address): email@example.com.
All good to you and yours,
Oddly enough, much of what is “hidden” about church history is actually readily available and has been for decades. For example, I’ve an article in a file somewhere from The Improvement Era Magazine (predecessor of the Ensign) published in the 1960s or early 70s that discusses eight versions of the first vision. That’s at least 40 years longer than the last two months. The same can be said of many of other, so called, secrets. I believe many of these things are not talked about as much as some would be like is found in this simple admonition: “And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.” D&C 19:31. Why muddy the message and hurt tender testimony?
Oddly enough, I too had a mission experience that gave me information about Joseph Smith that was new to me. I asked my mission president about it and his reply was, “I wondered when that would turn up.” He (Phd in Church History) had first learned it the year before when some New York records were discovered. He gave me some background that provided perspective. Done. It would not work nearly as well in a Sunday School class. It did not change any essential truths of the gospel but was not what I’d been taught for 21 years.
Incidentally, Joseph Smith wore a yellow shirt at Carthage and I’m okay with that even though that fact is never in any of the pictures I’ve seen.
STW – My sentiments exactly. None of the points listed are “new”. We’ve covered all of it and more over the years and it’s all available for research if someone is motivated. I had one RM get upset because Jesus never said, “It won’t be easy, just worth it.” Some how he thought it was scripture.
This post so perfectly encapsulates my sentiments. thank you. I would note that the Mormonism that I was raised focused more heavily on being “true” than good or beautiful. Truth was what set us apart. We/I conflated the “church” with the Kingdom and that the Kingdom was built on foundation of “truth.”
Now I see his Kingdom as built on foundation of goodness, virtue, and beauty—and that is the only truth ultimately as I see it now
I can’t begin to say how much I appreciated this post! I am a convert to the church, almost 7 years now. The goodness and beauty part was something I feel I always had. It was the truth and lack of transparency that has been the most difficult. The more questions I asked, it seemed to those in my ward I was lacking faith. Or, that the past didn’t matter! What keeps me moving forward is in fact the goodness and beauty, because the truth has been heartbreaking for me! I thank you so much for this, it has helped my heart in many ways!
I think your way of separating Mormonism into three impulses is a very interesting strategy for dealing with cognitive dissonance. One point that really bothered me, though, is your choice of the word “religious nutjobs” to describe people (I’m guessing evangelicals?) who argued religious points with you on your mission. You were a 2 year missionary going door-to-door to share your religion with strangers, a religion most people in America have been raised to view as suspect. And yet this person who simply opened their door and shared their opinion with you, in their own home, is a nutjob? Glass houses, friend.
What a wonderful article. I love how you break down what we love about the Church and rationally explain the things that some of us have trouble with. You actually reaffirmed why I am still here. Thank you so much for putting things into perspective.
Anonymous said, “Glass houses, friend.”
Touché. Thank you for the well deserved reprimand!
This was a wonderful post and so timely for where I am in my faith transition right now. Thank you!
It is interesting that you didn’t know about the pepperbox pistol Joseph had and the singleshot pistol Hyrum had. They reside in the church history museum in SLC and are one of the first displays you see on entry. They were hardly weapons worthy of a gun fight. Joseph failed to hit anyone and the effort was put into using the walking stick to bat away the musket barrels sticking through the door. Seems more like a vain effort of self defense rather than the wild west.
I heard he hit a few people, one of whom died later as a result of the wound.
How then should we reconcile the ugly portions of church history and present practice, such as the treatment of black, gays, and women? Such treatments/doctrines/policies are based on truth claims and I do not see these as being beautiful or good?
Thank you for a very thoughtful and well-reasoned essay.
I have some concern with the title of the last of your “Three Mormonisms.” “Historical Mormonism” or “Social Mormonism” might be more appropriate than “The Mormonism of Truth.” I understand what you’re saying, but “truth” misses the mark.
A close friend of mine holds a PhD. in geology. He says, “Through my professional training, I know that the story of Noah and the ark is simply impossible. Yet with all my heart, I know the story is true.” Harold B. Lee’s definition of testimony — “when your heart tells you things your head doesn’t know” — feeds into this understanding of truth. There are any number of moments when my heart tells me truths that fly in the face of reason (and I’ve no doubt that my friends and loved ones who are Catholic, and Muslim, and Baptist and of no particular faith at all have exactly the same experience, only their hearts are telling them different truths, which is why it falls to us to respect everyone’s faith).
The problem is our culture. We are a people steeped in absolutism. Absolutism implies fear: fear that our truth might not be all that we hold it to be; fear that others might disagree with us, and disparage us; fear that we won’t be able to control the path others take on their search for truth.
Absolutism also breeds literalism. Take the First Vision. A kid in mid-teens has a transcendent experience. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that it’s going to take him years to process it, and that his understanding of it, his explanation of it will evolve? What does “I saw” mean? Joseph also describes returning to his senses. Does that mean his vision was a literal thing, or a spiritual event? Does that change the power or the import of the experience? Section 76 was received in the midst of a room full of people, but no one else could “see” what Joseph (and evidently Sidney Rigdon) saw. Was the First Vision like that?
Those questions are anathema to Social or Cultural Mormonism. In Social Mormonism, The Father and The Son literally made a day trip to upstate New York, dressed (as they always seem to be in LDS depictions of them) like ethereal Bee Gees. And that’s it. Those who attempt to understand it another way, no matter how devout, are distrusted outsiders, “walking the slippery slope of apostasy.” It’s not an apostasy from Truth; it’s an apostasy from the culture of Mormonism.
The problem is that the “Free Thinkers” on the other side of the equation are just as guilty of absolutism, literalism and obfuscation. Every troubling detail, every puzzling inconsistency leads to only one conclusion: It’s all a LIE! It’s the most brilliantly constructed bamboozle in history! That’s simplistic. And lazy, as lazy and simplistic as the Literalists’ refitting of the disastrous Willie and Martin misadventure (which, if studied carefully, is a powerful lesson in the dangers of Priesthood leader malpractice) as a Triumph of Monumental Proportions, one which can only be honored by dressing our teenagers in gingham and calico and having them pull handcarts for a long weekend.
Others have very ably pointed out that much of what has become controversial in “Historical Mormonism” has actually been easily accessed for decades (I vaguely remember Richard Lloyd Anderson writing an essay about the multiple accounts of the First Vision for the Ensign, at least a quarter century ago). Those historical details undermine the literal-minded, prosaic, Parson Weemsish underpinnings of Cultural Mormonism, so they get squelched, not so much by the Church, as by the Church members.
I’m troubled by a lot of the ugliness of our history. I am sympathetic to those who feel that the only right response to their discomfort is to detach themselves from the Church. But when I pray, when I read the Book of Mormon, and most importantly, when I serve, my heart tells me things my head does not understand. I feel, like Chekhov’s student, that the world is “enchanting, marvelous, and filled with lofty meaning.”
It ain’t “Mormon Truth” that’s problematic. It’s the Mormon Culture that messes about with our search for Truth.
The moment we stop being Mormon and consciously try our best to be the saints set apart to live in the last days, prior to the Second Coming, is when we abandon our quest for truth, as we picture it to be, and embrace Truth, as the Lord commanded us to do: “know the truth, and truth shall make you free”. We are way too attached to this insane search for truth, and truth is right before our eyes: the trembling hands of a poor widow who needs help; or children who need to be nurtured by us; or spouses who need or love and devotion… There are save but two churches only… In 3Nephi, Jesus taught us that we should do the things which we saw Him and His Father do; and truth will unfold before or eyes. Goodness, Beauty and Truth, altogether. Thank you for the post. It has greatly helped me in my own faith transition. Mormon culture is what keeps us from being saints…
I understand the desire to find a nuanced version of Mormonism that will allow someone to maintain some level of belief and affiliation with the church. However, I left the church for the following reasons.
Church leadership claims the church is the “one true church on the earth.” It’s not.
Church leadership claims the Book of Mormon is “the most correct book of any on earth.” It’s not.
Church leadership claims they speak the mind and will of God. They don’t.
Church leadership claims to hold the only valid authority of God. They don’t.
Church leadership claims to know what is best for every member of the church. They don’t.
I could write out a list of hundreds of things the church leadership claims, but is demonstrably false. And no amount of meals delivered to new mothers or billion dollar luxury malls will change that.
I cannot associate with an organization that claims so many things that simply aren’t so. There is no real beauty or goodness in false claims.