I have always been Mormon. I started with the primary basics and grew in faith and testimony. I was raised at the height of correlation – where only faith promoting stories were given to me as part of my heritage. There was once a moment in my life where I claimed that I KNEW every part and story of the Church was true, and I could not deny it. I saw everything in black and white; those who weren’t for us were against us. I’d been taught that no leader could ever lead us astray and that when a leader has spoken, the thinking had been done. I was raised to not trust any source of information not published directly by the church. I passionately defended all of my beliefs from those out to destroy them with lies and misinformation.
In the fall of 2011 I received an answer to prayer that shook the foundation of my faith because my personal revelation conflicted with what the prophets had always said: womanhood = motherhood; and that God wanted me to not have more children. I looked at the Teachings of the Living Prophets manual and wondered how the answer to my prayer had been so clear – and in opposition to what I thought I knew to be true: that prophets could not be wrong. I decided to embark on more study, and I ran into some dirty details that had been scrubbed from the Church History I’d been taught. I felt betrayed, like I’d been lied to. For heaven’s sake, even our artwork was a lie! Joseph translated the Book of Mormon with his head in a hat! I discovered more and more, including that Joseph married teenage girls, sealed himself to married women, lied about his polygamy, and kept most of it secret from Emma. I was angry. They didn’t tell me about that! As I prayed and pondered over the matter I realized that possible errors and sins, even grievous ones, did not negate the fact that Joseph was the prophet of the restoration or that he restored the priesthood to the earth.
This perspective required me to develop a complex faith and understanding of human prophets, a complex understanding of how revelation may or may not work, a deeper commitment of love and forgiveness to others’ weaknesses and sins, and most importantly a stronger testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I recentered the foundation of my faith on the Gospel, not the church or any human who has come before, but the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. We may have had prophets that were deceived or even made mistakes in the implementation of God’s will (Joseph’s polygamy or Brigham’s racist priesthood ban) and not even that can stop the work from progressing. God can overcome the greatest human frailties and weaknesses and bring about His will, despite our broken feeble attempts. If there is anything the Old Testament teaches us, truly it is that God uses imperfect, broken, fallible men to lead his people.
Learning, understanding, and embracing the hard truths of our history does not invalidate the fact that God uses men as instruments in His hands to bring about his will. Men. They were and are imperfect men, doing their best and sometimes making a hot mess of it. I finally understood what it meant to be led by fallible men. Maybe if we are required to forgive all men, I could forgive my past leaders whatever wrongs they committed. Could I also forgive church historians through the ages who hid or decided to teach only a faith building narrative form of our history? Yes, I could forgive those fallible leaders as well. Can I continue to sustain, support, love, pray for the success of, and forgive my leaders of today? Yes.
Do I believe that Joseph had a vision? Even though now I know that Joseph recorded several different accounts of the first vision – and the original saints would not have even recognized the one we consider official today? Yes, I believe Joseph had a vision. Do I believe that every word and act and deed he did was from God? Of course not, he would have been translated if that were so.
I thought back to ten years ago when I lived in the Nauvoo temple district, over several years I spent days and days walking where Joseph and Emma and Brigham walked.
I now unequivocally believe it’s vital for us to know our history, and not just the things that make it easy for us to believe, but things that challenge us as well. Do I now look back on my trip to Nauvoo differently? Yes. I walked where Joseph walked and I saw the statues and I stood at the window where he fell to his death – and now I know that a great part of his martyrdom was due to his polygamy and his ordering the Nauvoo Expositor to be destroyed because it published truths about his secret polygamy.
I know Joseph wasn’t perfect. But looking back on Nauvoo – there is a cost to only accepting the easy, heroic story. To understand the facts of polygamy (that many girls and women only entered into polygamy under promises of glorious exaltation for them and their families or under threat of Joseph’s life; that women who rejected offers of Joseph’s polygamy were gossiped about and called liars and adulterers) and then to see my fellow saints reject these facts brings me great sorrow. To reject they are worth knowing is to say to those women, “Your stories, your lives, your voices do not matter.”
To ignore the unpretty parts of our story we must silence and ignore the lives and voices of countless women, women whose backs have been broken against our easy stories. You must choose your comfort and ease of belief over the buried voices of the past. You choose the rose-colored glasses given to you in primary school over a mature kaleidoscope of faith. No one is asking you to lessen your faith, but they may be hoping for you to deepen it.
My testimony is built upon the foundation of knowing God lives and loves me, that He sent His Son to die for me, and that through the atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved. I believe God used men to restore His church on the earth again. I believe that I can love, honor, sustain, and forgive our leaders past and present for their ever imperfect offerings of their best before God (just as I hope my imperfect offerings will be accepted before the Lord). I have decided to personally refrain from singing the hymn “Praise to the Man” at church from here on out, because there is only one man I will ever sing praises to from now on, and that is my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.