Who Are The New Anti-Mormons

GC protest
Protester at General Conference

Since the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and even before, there have been those opposed to the Church. More aptly named “Critics of the Church” or “Enemies of the Church,” they have traditionally been known inside the Church as “Anti-Mormons.” Which, of course is short-hand for “Against Mormons.” And, as you might imagine, those who would be classified in that category, usually strongly object to the use of the term. But, nevertheless, the term prevails to this day.

Over the years, the folks who might be called Anti-Mormons have changed. Even though, for the most part, there has always been a religious overtone to those objecting to various things in and about the Church and its teachings, it has not always been about that. And in my observation, it might be even different today.

In many ways, the Internet has thoroughly changed the dissemination of information both for and against the Church. What used to be primarily through books, newspapers, pamphlets and word of mouth, is now instantaneously available in the privacy of one’s own home via an electronic device. One only needs to do a search on the word “Mormon” and droves of links are available both for and against the Church. Information, both historical and current, can be accessed and one is left on their own to interpret and evaluate it as they wish.

A Short History

The history of anti-Mormon activity hearkens back to the very origins of the Church itself. As many Church members know, Joseph Smith was ridiculed from the very moment he revealed his vision to others. In Joseph Smith – History from the Pearl of Great Price, we read,

“Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.

I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.” (Joseph Smith—History 1:21-22)

That was only the beginning.

In New York, anti-Mormon behavior dealt mainly whether or not Smith actually had the gold plates, if Smith really had his visions, Smith’s treasure-digging episodes, and accusations of occult practices and the Book of Mormon as extra-biblical literature on equal footing with the Bible.

In Ohio, anti-Mormons focused on the ill-fated banking efforts of the Kirtland Safety Society and other failed economic experiments including the United Order.

In Missouri, once the chosen gathering place of the Latter Day Saints, Mormons tended to vote as a bloc, wielding “considerable political and economic influence,” often unseating local political leadership and earning long-lasting enmity in the sometimes hard-drinking, hard-living frontier communities. These differences culminated in hostilities and the eventual issuing of an executive order (since called the Extermination Order) by Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs declaring “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State.” Three days later, a renegade militia unit attacked a Mormon settlement at Haun’s Mill, resulting in the death of 18 Mormons and no militiamen. The Extermination Order was not formally rescinded until 1976.

In Nauvoo, Illinois, persecutions were often based on the tendency of Mormons to “dominate community, economic, and political life wherever they resided.” The city of Nauvoo had become the largest in Illinois, the city council was predominantly Mormon, and the Nauvoo Legion (the Mormon militia) had grown to a quarter of the size of the U.S. Army. Other issues of contention included polygamy, freedom of speech, anti-slavery views during Smith’s presidential campaign, and the deification of man. After the destruction of the press of the Nauvoo Expositor and institution of martial law, Joseph Smith, Jr. was arrested on charges of treason against the state of Illinois and incarcerated in Carthage Jail where he was killed by a mob on June 27, 1844. The persecution in Illinois became so severe that most of the residents of Nauvoo fled across the Mississippi River in February 1846.

In 1847 Mormons established a community hundreds of miles away in the Salt Lake Valley in Utah. Beginning in 1849, every federally appointed official left Utah under duress. In 1857 President Buchanan concluded that the Mormons in the territory were rebelling against the United States. In response, President Buchanan sent one-third of the USA’s standing army to Utah in 1857 in what is known as the Utah War. However, the main objection to the Mormons in Utah was driven by the faith’s open practice of polygamy. The United States government eventually outlawed the practice and Mormons abandoned it. But yet the persecution as a result of it continues to this day. (Wikipedia)

The term “anti-Mormon” first appears in the historical record in 1833 by the Louisville (Kentucky) Daily Herald in an article, “The Mormons and the Anti-Mormons” (the article was also the first known to label believers in the Book of Mormon as “Mormons”). In 1841, it was revealed that an Anti-Mormon Almanac would be published. On August 16 of that year, the Latter Day Saint “Times and Seasons” reported the Mormons’ confidence that although the Anti-Mormon Almanac was designed by “Satan and his emissaries” to flood the world with “lies and evil reports”, still “we are assured that in the providence of God they will ultimately tend to the glory of God—the spread of truth and the good of the church”.

The anti-Mormon newspaper certainly was not the first of its kind; Mormonism had been criticized strongly by dozens of publications since its inception, most notably by Eber D. Howe’s 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed. The Latter Day Saints initially labeled such publications “anti-Christian”, but the publication of the Almanac and the subsequent formation of an “Anti-Mormon Party” in Illinois heralded a shift in terminology. “Anti-Mormon” became, on the lips of the church’s critics, a proud and politically charged self-designation. . (Wikipedia)

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An early Utah Anti-Mormon Book

In addition to Howe, some of the leading Anti-Mormons of that era were;

  • TBH Stenhouse “ Tell it All: the Tyranny of Mormonism”
  • John H. Beadle “Polygamy or The Mysteries and Crimes and of Mormonism”
  • Ann Eliza Young: “Wife No. 19” (an ex-wife of Brigham Young)

The Great Evangelical Attacks of the 20th Century

As was previously mentioned, throughout the 1800’s, the bulk of Anti-Mormon activity centered on regional, political, and economic issues rather than specific doctrinal issues. Even though the teachings of the LDS Church by the mid- 1850s had most certainly diverged from prevailing mainstream Christian thought. There were the on-going objections to the Book of Mormon standing alongside the Bible, the concept of a Living Prophet, continuous revelation and an open canon, and the practice of polygamy, doctrinal conflict amid renewed Anti-Mormon activity really blossomed beginning in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980’s.

A new crop of critics emerged with a similar, yet expanded set of complaints. And they used the available forms of communication to more effectively preach their message.

The deans of the modern Anti-Mormon activity were Jerald and Sandra Tanner, who founded the Modern Microfilm Company in Salt Lake City in 1964 to “”document problems with the claims of Mormonism and to compare LDS doctrines with Christianity.” In 1983 they turned their company into a non-profit organization and renamed it the Utah Lighthouse Ministry. (www.utlm.org).

Both Jerald and Sandra were members of the LDS Church with deep pioneer roots who converted to evangelical Protestantism. Ironically, many of the things they published were of deep interest to LDS people and were previously unpublished through normal sources. However, their critical interpretation of the documents, their argumentative tone and their publishing of copyrighted materials set them up as Anti-Mormons in the strictest sense, and paved the way for the others who followed.

The follow-ons to the Tanners took even a harsher tone against the Church Ed Decker (Founder of Saints Alive in Jesus), Richard Baer and Dave Hunt produced the most well-known piece of Anti-Mormon work, The God Makers and God Makers II, a book and then two movies. The film, which was launched in 1982 was a haunting tale with ominous music, interviews, a cartoon depiction of the Plan of Salvation and even an interview with a Mission President. It presented itself as a documentary. The film was shown in churches all across Americas as the authors toured around warning Christians of the threat posed by the growing LDS Church. The God Makers II was a poor cousin to the first movie made up of outtakes from the original and focusing primarily on the Temple Ceremonies.

I had the opportunity to see the film at a very large church in San Jose, which was highlighted by a lecture by Ed Decker. I also saw it again in a smaller Church, this time with Dick Baer as the presenter. In both cases, they answered questions from the congregation and of course, passed the donation plates for the support of “their work.”

One of the main selling points of these anti-Mormon critics was their “Mormon cred” – credibility. In other words, the Tanners, Decker and Baer had all been members so they had the inside scoop, the secrets, and the dirty details. However, none of them ever held any substantive leadership position to my knowledge (Update: I’m told Ed Decker served in a Bishopric in Washington.). In fact, one of the most interesting points about the Anti-Mormon industry was the propensity to quote each other as their sources of information. Hugh Nibley pointed this out in his book, “Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass – The Art of Telling Tales About Joseph Smith and Brigham Young,” In a chapter entitled “How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book (A Handbook for Beginners).

The most prolific Anti-Mormon of that period had to be Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute. Martin was the author of the landmark, “Kingdom of the Cults,” which profiled the various religions and denominations he classified as cults. The LDS Church was, of course, one of them. He also had a radio show known as the “Bible Answer Man” and had debated numerous Mormon apologists such as Van Hale. He died in 1989.

The mantra of these Anti-Mormons was pretty much the same, centering on these major points:

  • Mormons are Not Christians – Because the teachings of the LDS Church were not in line with what they called “Historic Christian Traditions” regarding the Nature of God, role of Satan, Living Prophets, continuing revelation, open canon and extra-biblical texts, and the truth of the Bible as far as it is translated correctly, etc., we are deemed by them as not a Christian Church despite claims to the contrary. This mainly because, in their minds:
  • Mormons worship a different Jesus – Because of our doctrine on the Nature of God as separate beings, with bodies of flesh and bone, because we believe that Jesus visited the Americas and because of our eternal view, we must be worshiping a different Jesus than they do. I’ve never quite gotten this point.
  • Salvation by Works – Critics point to the many commandments and tasks that Mormons do in the course of their worship as evidence that Mormons believe they can “work” their way to the highest degrees of heaven. As opposed to the commonly held view by many other Christians of Salvation by Grace alone; That the shed blood of Jesus and confession of sins saves without regard to any acts, good or bad. This is usually coupled with a “once saved, always saved idea that one cannot lose their salvation having obtained it through confession and God’s grace. Latter-day Saints and many other Christians would disagree with this based on Bible teachings alone.

Here are some of the stated reasons why they engage in this work:

  1. I’m here to tell you the Truth
  2. The Church is deceiving you
  3. The leaders are not what they purport to be.
  4. The Book of Mormon is fake and written by Joseph Smith
  5. The church is a cult
  6. I can help you escape it
  7. Most of all, I love the Mormon people

Which brings me to:

The New Anti-Mormons

Many of those folks have slipped by the wayside in terms of their real influence in the Anti-Mormon community. Sure there are a few others like James White, Bill McKeaver and Sean McCready. But the latest group of potential Anti-Mormons are different. Not only do they have the benefit of the Internet as their communications vehicle, they also have the benefit of being current and former members of the Church.

Yes, it’s true. That scripture in the New Testament is coming to pass:

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15)

The new crop of Anti-Mormons speak to very different issues than the ones from the past. While many have doctrinal issues, most new critics focus on historical claims which they say the Church hid from them. That have problems with:

  • Blacks and the Priesthood issue
  • The role of women in the Church
  • The Patriarchal Order
  • The polygamy issue, particularly surrounding the practices of Joseph Smith
  • The historicity of the Book of Mormon
  • The historical treatment of Gays and Same Sex Marriage

And while many members have very legitimate questions and concerns about these issues and can take different positions from the Leaders of the Church on these issues and their resolution, these new Anti-Mormons take it a step further. They openly advocate against the Church because of these issues.

They say:

  • The Leaders were/are racists and the only reason the Blacks were allowed to receive the Priesthood was because of pressure applied to the Church by outsiders (like the Polygamy issue)
  • That the leaders are not inspired and too old to effectively understand and run the modern Church
  • That the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith or others and is not what it claims to be.
  • That the revelations surround the practice of polygamy are false and Joseph was wrong to begin the practice of polygamy and Brigham Young was even more wrong for continuing it.
  • That the Church and its General and Local leaders treat the women of the Church shabbily and will not give them the Priesthood or any autonomous responsibilities like in the old days.

To name a few.

Again, not to confuse those reading this. There is nothing wrong with the questions members might have about these issues and their legitimate concerns. We all have them. Church Leaders have publically stated that recently. The critics have acknowledged that it was said, but have also said that it’s not really true, adding fuel to the fire.

So who are these critics–The New Anti-Mormons. To begin with, there are several websites and chat sites for former members of the Church where they can converse about their grievances with the Church. The comments range from a single complaint to quite vile outbursts. Their stated mission is to inform those non-members and members with doubts about the “real” truth. Similar to the professional Anti-Mormons of the past.

There are also those with blogs and websites that disseminate information that can be construed as critical of the Church. The most prominent being Mormon Stories and its founder and proprietor, John Dehlin. Many here know John and are familiar with his situation and his websites. As you are aware, he was recently excommunicated from the Church for apostasy. And while many would disagree that he should have been excommunicated or was preaching openly against the Church, I found some of his recent rhetoric to be eerily similar to those of the Anti-Mormons:

This slide was taken from the 2014 Mormon Stories End of the Year Update. His stated beliefs echo many of the same things the traditional Anti-Mormons say.

John Dehlin's stated beliefs from Mormon Stories Website
John Dehlin’s stated beliefs from Mormon Stories Website

I know many will not agree with me here. And I will also state that I have derived much benefit and knowledge from many of the Mormon Stories podcasts. John is one of a few who have recently come out in open defiance of the Church. Some, who were members, suffered Church discipline as a result.

So I ask you is John and those like him, the New Anti-Mormons?