While many Mormons look forward to General Conference for the messages from church leaders, MormonLeaks is creating a new tradition of increased leaks around the semi-annual meeting that even former members can get excited about. MormonLeaks founder Ryan McKnight recently promised leaks every day until General Conference, and Tuesday was the first drop.
Today’s release included four PowerPoint presentations, and the sheer number of charts and figures would make any statistician’s mouth water. The first related to reception of early Gospel Topics essays among members in the United States, the subject of this post. The other three PowerPoint docs related to other various studies. One was a 2013 study revealing ward council characteristics in five different areas of the world (the label deceptively says it’s related to the missionary age change, but it’s not). Another was a 2013 study of mid-single Mormons and weighing experiences and outcomes in conventional wards versus single units. The last was a 2004 study of middle-aged Mormon men comparing their BYU or other college experiences with later career, family, and religiosity outcomes.
I’ve previously written about events leading up to the Gospel Topics essays, but I’ll try to summarize. The institutional church has been challenged by increasing access to difficult church history topics via the internet. In the early 2000s, the church history department began to take baby steps towards increased transparency, reversing a decades-old trend, but the church continued to rely on outside organizations like FARMS and FairMormon to directly address the concerns of members rather than create any official apologetic responses. In 2010, many members in Sweden were troubled by historical topics, and a visit by two church historians did little to ease their minds. In March 2012, apologetic resources from various sources were gathered and sent to church leaders there, the “Swedish Rescue,” in order to stem rising disaffection. Here in the states, the Bottgate episode of February 2012 also made clear the need for official apologetic responses not just for members, but also to accurately present current positions of church leaders on potentially embarrassing topics for outside media. At some point, the church commissioned scholars to begin working on a series of essays on common troublesome historical and doctrinal topics. Rumors of the existence of these essays began swirling in early 2013. The first two essays were released on November 20th of that year.
According to the PowerPoint presentation MormonLeaks released, a study was conducted in April 2014 to gauge how bishops and other members were responding to the essays. At that point, seven essays had been released:
- “Are Mormons Christian?” (November 20, 2013)
- “First Vision Accounts” (November 20, 2013)
- “Race and the Priesthood” (December 6, 2013)
- “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah” (December 16, 2013)
- “Book of Mormon Translation” (December 30, 2013)
- “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” (January 31, 2014)
- “Becoming Like God” (February 24, 2014)
Local news media covered the release of many of these essays (see here and here, for example). The church announced the expansion of the Gospel Topics section of their website on the same day the first two essays were released, though they only mentioned “Are Mormons Christian?” in the announcement. “First Vision Accounts” got left out. I can’t find a church announcement for any other essays until November 2014 after the media uproar on the October release of the Nauvoo and post-Manifesto polygamy essays. So, basically, those people who knew about the essays in April 2014 weren’t hearing about them from the church.
The survey was given to bishops and other active adult members of the church in the United States. It is unclear how many members were surveyed. Bishops were better read on the essays, with 65% having viewed at least one (5% had read all seven). Among active adult members, only 37% had viewed at least one (2% viewed all seven).
The presentation pointed out that men were slightly more likely to have read the essays than women (41% of men read at least one article, while only 37% of women did the same). It’s unclear whether they included bishops in that calculation of males. It’d be skewed given how many would’ve felt a greater obligation to look at the essays.
Unsurprisingly, higher educated people were more likely to have viewed the essays. Of those with doctoral degrees, 63% had read at least one essay. Those with vocational training or some college were at the low end with 36%, which I still find impressive. (Those with a high school diploma were slightly higher at 38%.) There were no statistically significant differences based on age or region of the United States.
Like I said, there are many charts and percentages on the PowerPoint, so take a look for yourself if interested. Here are some other tidbits the presenters felt were important:
- The most viewed essays among both bishops and adult members were “Are Mormons Christians?” and “Race and the Priesthood.” (Aside: On the original Church News article advertising the updated Gospel Topics section, the “Are Mormons Christians” essay was directly linked. That might account for the popularity in spite of the fact only a quarter of those who saw the essay bothered to read it all. Again, the other essay released at the same time, “First Vision Accounts,” was not mentioned.)
- Personal study or curiosity was the top motive for bishops or members to seek out the essays. Bishops were slightly more likely to have read the essays in order to help others. The essays were rarely used to prepare lessons.
- Many people might be surprised to find out that most respondents found the material in the essays clear (90-97% for bishops, 78-96% for members) and helpful (89-98% for bishops, 74-93% for members). Satisfaction for the various essays was a bit lower (77-92% for bishops, 57-88% for members). The least satisfying essay for both groups was “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” followed by “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah” and “Race and the Priesthood.” A decent chunk of respondents also felt those three essays were the most incomplete. (It should be noted that two other plural marriage essays were later released, providing more information on early and post-Manifesto polygamy.)
The PowerPoint document was created in September 2014. By that point, two other Gospel Topics essays had been released: “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints” (May 13, 2014) and “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” (July 8, 2014). Neither created much fanfare beyond single articles in local news media.
Interestingly, on September 9th, the same month the leaked PowerPoint was created, a memorandum was sent by the Priesthood Department to mission presidents, stake presidents, and bishops worldwide calling attention to the Gospel Topics section of the church’s website. While the essays were not cited specifically, the department explained the purpose of the Gospel Topics section (and, by extension, the essays):
When church members have questions regarding [LDS] history and doctrine, possibly arising when detractors spread misinformation and doubt, you may want to direct their attention to these resources.
Bishops were encouraged to recommend the Gospel Topics section for personal study, but only if the need arose.
What’s Happened Since Then?
A lot. The essays have since been incorporated into both seminary and institute curriculum. All CES instructors have now been instructed to “know the content of these essays like you know the back of your hand.” Seminary students are learning in their Doctrinal Mastery program to use resources like the Gospel Topics essays to provide answers for themselves and those around them. Even the 2017 Gospel Doctrine curriculum encourages teachers to point class members towards the essays.
This leaked PowerPoint is a snapshot of the church’s inoculation strategy in embryo. There was clearly concern on the part of church leaders in providing members with these resources (Would the essays help? Would they be satisfactory?), in spite of countless man-hours put in by both scholars and church leaders to get that information public.
What are your thoughts on this leak?
 Shannon Flynn wrote a guest post last April reporting on an address by Elder Marlin K. Jensen where he talked about the creation of the essays in a bit more detail. Rick B has also written about his interviews with Paul Reeve, Brian Hales, and Ugo Peregro, where they discuss their involvement in the writing of the essays.