Before I converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1989, I took an undergraduate class on Mormon history (I majored in History and minored in Religious Studies). The class was not taught by a Mormon but the professor was fascinated by early Mormonism, both for what we could learn about the religion and what we could learn about the early American republic through the study of this nascent American sect. I read a number of books on early Mormon history by both LDS and non-LDS scholars. It’s fair to say that I knew a fair amount about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young prior to my baptism, certainly more than the typical convert. I had also read a decent amount of what could legitimately be called “anti-Mormon” material. These works generally were written from an evangelical Christian point of view and were, for the most part, strident in tone, unimpressive, and unpersuasive. It was easy for me to dismiss them as agenda-driven screeds. After I joined the church, I continued to learn more of the history and the doctrines taught by past prophets and apostles. I read most of the 26-volume Journal of Discourses. I read everything I could find by Orson and Parley Pratt, etc. I knew that Joseph Smith, not Brigham Young, had instituted polygamy. I knew that Brigham Young had taught some sort of strange doctrine in which he posited that Adam was God, the Father of Jesus and of us all. I knew that Brigham Young had been accused of being complicit either in the carrying out or the cover-up of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. And though I had questions about some things and was deeply troubled by others, I still remained fervent in my testimony and diligent in my service in the church. I was a true believer. So, the question naturally arises: why did the problems in church history not matter to me then but in recent months these same issues have been so troubling to me as to cause me to re-evaluate my belief and activity in the church? What changed?
In exploring this question, I came to realize that the answer gets at the heart of other questions often raised such as: what differentiates a TBM from a NOM? Why do some people with substantial knowledge of the “uncorrelated” history of the church maintain fervent testimonies and a zealous devotion to the church while others become sorely disaffected and experience a diminishment of faith? And are the General Authorities deliberately leading people astray? Is belief a choice? I think I have discovered an answer to my first question that has implications for the other questions raised.
A TBM may know about: Joseph Smith’s marriages to teenage girls; his marriages to other men’s wives (while still living); his crowning himself “King of the World;” the problems with the Book of Abraham; the numerous conflicting versions of the First Vision; the real story of how the Book of Mormon was translated; and the many nineteenth-century parallels to events found in the text of the Book of Mormon (e.g., camp meetings, slippery treasures, commonly held beliefs about the Indians, the theology of Sidney Rigdon). A TBM may know all these things and more but not be concerned about them for the simple reason that testimony trumps facts. A TBM might say, “I know the church is true because I have a testimony I received through a spiritual experience while praying about the Book of Mormon. If the church was true the day I received my testimony, no historical fact I might learn subsequently can change that.” That was the attitude I possessed for a long time. I was able to continue believing in the church despite the many evidences to the contrary because, figuratively, I put my concerns in a box on a shelf in deference to my testimony. I chose to give greater weight to my spiritual experiences than to any other facts or evidence regarding the foundational truth claims of Mormonism.
As long as a person has a testimony, then, there is really no historical fact or doctrinal incongruity that will deter such an individual from practicing Mormonism with zeal. But this begs the question: a testimony of what? I submit that it is a testimony that God speaks His mind and reveals His will exclusively to the church’s Prophet. That the church is led by divine mandate and not the wisdom of man is the fundamental element of a Mormon testimony. All else flows from it. A basic tenet of Mormonism is that God speaks to his Prophet, the President of the church, who is the only person on earth who actively holds all the keys of authority to provide the ordinances required for the salvation of all humanity. Though others may receive inspiration from God through the “light of Christ” or may occasionally be touched by the Holy Ghost, only the President of the church acts as God’s official mouthpiece on earth; only he receives continuing revelation to guide not only members of the church but, indeed, all the world. If a person believes this assertion, absolute adherence to the doctrines and absolute obedience to the commandments and policies promulgated by the Prophet, his counselors in the First Presidency, and the Twelve Apostles can be reasonably expected. It’s not so much that the thinking has already been done when the Prophet speaks, it’s that the speaking (by the Lord to the Prophet) has already been done. Recognizing this basic principle, it is not hard to understand why so many Mormons so willingly follow the Prophet: they really believe he speaks for God. Given this belief, would it be rational to do anything but follow the Prophet?
If, however, one doubts that God speaks to the Prophet (or that God speaks exclusively to the Prophet) then such strict obedience is irrational and even foolish. This is not to say there is nothing good in the church. But if one doubts that the Prophet has some sort of cosmic Batphone that God uses to deliver His messages for the world, then one is free to question the policies and pronouncements that radiate from Salt Lake City. If at least some of what is spoken by the Prophet and his fellow travelers is the “wisdom of men” and not the “revealed word of God,” then the door is open to at least occasionally disagree with the Brethren. There may be times when the Prophet’s counsel is wise or reasonable and following such counsel may be beneficial. But in rejecting the notion that when the Prophet speaks he is necessarily communicating God’s will opens up the door to question. And questioning sometimes, perhaps often, leads to disagreement.
So, how does one go from being a TBM who believes that the prophets speak for God to being a disaffected member skeptical of the foundational truth claims of the church? For me, it began with my observation and experiences over several years that steadily chipped away at this foundation of my testimony. Through these observations and experiences, it became increasingly difficult for me to maintain a testimony that the church is led by ongoing, continuous revelation from God. Principally, it was Gordon Hinckley’s tenure as church President that fed my doubts. I have written somewhat about this here and here Others have made similar observations and reached similar conclusions. See here, for example.
Although I can’t locate it with precision, at some point my doubts about Gordon Hinckley led me to entertain the idea that there was a chance that maybe, just maybe, the church might not really be led by an “uninterrupted” “continuous melody” and “thunderous appeal” of revelation, as the church claims. At the very least, some parts of the whole story might not be true. I began to consider the many contradictions in church doctrine and practice over the years: prophetic statements that contradicted the scriptures or other prophetic statements. I had always tried to rationalize these by saying that God gave different commandments at different times to adapt to changing circumstances. But, of course, not all the contradictions could be explained that way. I looked to apologetic site like FARMS and FAIR to see if I could find answers that made sense. These sites introduced me to the concept that “a prophet is only a prophet when he is speaking as a prophet; when he speaks as a man, he may make mistakes.” There are a couple of problems with this line of thinking: how do you know when he was speaking as a prophet or as a man, and if you can’t tell, how can you know when to follow him? Was Joseph Smith acting as a prophet or a man when he allowed a black man, Elijah Abel, to hold the priesthood? Was Brigham Young acting as a prophet or a man when he reversed that course and instituted the priesthood ban for men of African descent? Were the prophets who followed, from John Taylor through Harold B. Lee, acting under God’s command or their own wisdom in perpetuating the ban? And did Spencer Kimball receive a revelation from God to lift the ban or was he acting on his own? The TBM answer is usually some variation of “God’s ways are higher than man’s ways” or “the past prophets may have made mistakes, but God eventually made it right” or “we’ll understand it all in the Millennium.” But these answers, for a variety of reasons, are unsatisfying and, indeed, only raise more questions.
My doubts about whether Gordon Hinckley really was communicating with the heavens prompted me, eventually, to take that box of issues down off the shelf, empty it out, place my testimony in the box, and put the box back up on the shelf. I believe this is the pivotal break that separates a TBM from a NOM: the ability to set aside one’s testimony for a moment and consider the “box of issues” in a fresh light. A TBM will always view all information about the church through a lens with a “testimony filter” that God is at the helm leading the church by revelation and has been without interruption since the days of Joseph Smith. A NOM will remove the testimony filter, effectively holding in suspension his or her testimony, and look at the information in direct light—light that is not filtered by the lens of testimony.
An example of how this works can be seen in the different
responses to the book Rough Stone Rolling by LDS historian Richard Bushman. (I have written about a stake fireside I
attended in which Bushman was the speaker here. ) Some TBMs have read RSR and learned new
information they find troubling. But they
overcome this because they allow their testimony to trump anything negative
they learn about Joseph Smith. Questions
and concerns are placed in the box on the shelf. The book is read through the lens of
testimony. A NOM, on the other hand, will
read RSR with a mind open to the idea that Joseph Smith may have acted as a man
without inspiration from God on at least some things and maybe on all
things. As a NOM, the more I read RSR, the
more convinced I became that Joseph Smith’s ideas and adventures were a product
of his own very fertile and creative imagination and not the result of divine
communication. At the same time, I would
in the Bloggernacle and read the comments of TBMs who were reading the book
and claiming to have their testimonies strengthened by the book. I believe the explanation for this is really
quite simple: the TBMs who felt “edified” by RSR went into the book looking
only for validation of their testimonies of Joseph Smith as the Prophet of “the
last dispensation of the fulness of times.” Bushman carefully crafted his narrative for just such people—those who
already have testimonies of Joseph Smith. So, Bushman would present some damaging piece of information and
invariably provide some explanation of how that information did not necessarily
impugn Smith’s prophetic character. The explanations offered often seem superficial and strain credulity. But for
someone with confirmation
bias, that’s all that was required. For anyone else, though, Joseph Smith comes off looking quite badly in
RSR. The proof of this is in the fact
that the only people who come away
from RSR with a testimony of Joseph Smith as a divinely inspired prophet of God
and the exclusive mouthpiece of the Lord for the latter days are those who had
that testimony to begin with.
happens when one embraces the idea that the prophets do not have an exclusive line
to heavenly communications? The gospel and the church can then be evaluated on their
own merits. Things that have always
seemed a little harebrained, well, maybe they are. Just one example: the
problem with the priesthood being first given to black men, then denied them,
then miraculously conferred again upon them. With the TBM lenses on, there just is no way to make sense of it. God leads the prophets. The prophets won’t get important matters of
doctrine and policy wrong (and, face it, who does and does not have a right to
priesthood is pretty basic). So, the
prophets must have been right and must have been following God’s command. But God’s command, then, didn’t make any sense. If blacks were cursed, then why were they
only cursed from Brigham Young’s day until Spencer Kimball’s day? If they were not cursed, then why did God not
want blacks to have the priesthood during that time? And why would God inspire his prophets to
give widely differing explanations for why the ban was in place and how
long it would last? The answer from a TBM to all
thorny historical questions like this one is always the same: we don’t know
the end from the beginning. God's ways are not our ways nor His thoughts our
thoughts. It will all work out in the end. Ours is not to question why, etc.
And up on the shelf that concern or issue goes.
take off the TBM lenses for a moment and consider an alternate possibility: the
prophets are just men, influenced by their environment. Some are prejudiced, some are not. Some are wise, some are not so wise. And maybe God never told Joseph or Brigham or
anyone else that blacks should not have the priesthood. Maybe God
wasn’t behind that whole thing after all. Maybe Brigham Young just screwed
things up and his screw-up was perpetuated by men who believed Brigham had been
acting at God’s behest. Of course, if
Brigham screwed up, then theoretically God could have just inspired the next
prophet to set things right. Or the next
one after that. But it didn’t happen
that way. So maybe all those guys who
followed Brigham weren’t getting any direction from God, either. Suddenly, we have an explanation for the
thorny problem of blacks and the priesthood that makes some sense. The only problem is it doesn’t really fit in
well with the TBM worldview.
And once you take off those lenses and examine one issue, like priesthood and the blacks, it is almost impossible to resist examining other issues like the Book of Mormon problems, the Book of Abraham, the life of Joseph Smith, the ugly truth about polygamy, the garments, and on and on. Once your testimony and all the difficult issues swap places in that box on the shelf, once the TBM lenses come off even for a moment, you’re never the same. “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”—Oliver Wendell Holmes.