It seems Elder M. Russell Ballard paid attention to Jana Reiss’ finding of a “trust gap” as a major reason why millennials leave the church. “Just trust us,” he pleaded at a recent YSA Face to Face event. “We’re as transparent as we know how to be in telling the truth.” But Elder Ballard’s claim in that worldwide broadcast that church leaders “never tried to hide anything from anybody” is problematic, to say the least. MormonLeaks founders Ryan McKnight and Ethan Dodge took advantage of Ballard’s statements in a Salt Lake Tribune editorial, issuing an inflammatory challenge to church leadership to stop gaslighting members. The discourse surrounding controversial church history issues is changing, and it may not be for the better.
BYU Devotional – “Questions and Answers”
Things were a little off even before the Face to Face broadcast. At a November 14th BYU devotional, Elder Ballard addressed questions solicited beforehand from local students. He candidly spoke to many concerns common among members, including LGBT issues and how to interact with friends and family members who leave the church. But Elder Ballard did not address any particular church history issue, instead explaining those topics often require more expertise than church leaders should be expected to provide.
[4:02] As we begin to consider some of your questions, it’s important to remember I am a general authority, but that doesn’t make me an authority in general. My calling and life’s experiences allow me to respond to certain types of questions. There are other types of questions that require an expert in the specific subject matter. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to such questions. I seek others including those with degrees and expertise in such fields.
I worry sometimes that members expect too much from Church leaders and teachers, expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities. The Lord called the apostles and prophets to invite others to come unto Christ, not to obtain advanced degrees in ancient history, biblical studies, and other fields that may be useful in answering all the questions we may have about scriptures, history, and about the Church. Our primary duty is to build up the church, teach the doctrine of Christ, and help those in need of our help.
Fortunately, the Lord provided this counsel for those asking questions: “Seek ye diligently[,]… teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118) If you have a question that requires an expert please take the time to find a thoughtful qualified expert to help you. There are many on this campus and elsewhere who have the degrees and expertise to respond and give some insight to most of these types of questions.
On the surface, this advice from Elder Ballard to go to experts is consistent with previous instruction. What’s different is he doesn’t encourage young adults to go to spiritual leaders first. It felt somewhat dismissive, that someone faltering due to a church history concern doesn’t qualify as “those in need of our help.” Compare with how he instructed CES instructors last year.
When something has the potential to threaten our spiritual life, our most precious family relationships, and our membership in the kingdom, we should find thoughtful and faithful Church leaders to help us. And, if necessary, we should ask those with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help.
I’m not sure how far to take Ballard’s statements in the devotional, but it seems to me he is expecting LDS scholars/apologists to shoulder some responsibility of pastoral care. Members going to those scholars aren’t just there for academic expertise, to hear historical facts. That “expert” is being asked to share a way to believe in spite of those facts, to provide, as one scholar put it, “intellectual and devotional frameworks in which others can reconcile faith and knowledge.” Degrees and diplomas do not provide adequate training for “the difficult task faithful LDS scholars face when they are helping individuals build or regain faith in Christ.”
When I talked with others about this shift in using scholars rather than church leaders, many brushed it off as inconsequential. It’s no different than a bishop recommending a couple see a marriage counselor, they said, or someone battling mental illness to be referred to a therapist. Church history issues are not the bishop’s problem.
YSA Face to Face
Then there was the November 19th YSA Face to Face event with Elder Oaks and Elder Ballard. Like other Face to Face broadcasts, the apostles answered questions submitted before and during the event via social media. They covered a wide variety of important, often difficult, issues candidly and thoughtfully. In this almost two-hour broadcast, the controversial few minutes that blew up Reddit referred to difficulties with church history. The question was framed in this way:
[44:26/-55:51] Elder Oaks and Elder Ballard, we have a lot of questions in the YSA about their friends dealing with doubts. A question from Utah asks, “What advice/guidance would you give for answering tough questions about church history when we are asked about them by someone who is struggling with their faith?”
Elder Oaks responded first, emphasizing the difference between questions and doubts. Doubts imply distrust, he explained, which is bad. There is a “presumption of rejection.” Questions are good and should be encouraged. Elder Ballard didn’t bother with semantics.
[46:38/-53:39] Some are saying that the Church has been hiding the fact that there’s more than one version of the First Vision, which is just not true. The facts are, we don’t study. We don’t go back and search what has been said on the subject. For example, Dr. James B. Allen of BYU, in 1970 he produced an article for the church magazines explaining all about the different versions of the First Vision…
But it’s this idea that the Church is hiding something, which we would have to say–as two apostles that have covered the world and know the history of the Church and know the integrity of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve from the beginning of time–there has been no attempt on the part, in any way, of the Church leaders trying to hide anything from anybody. Now we’ve had the Joseph Smith Papers. We didn’t have those where they are in our hands now. And so we’re learning more about the Prophet Joseph…
So, just trust us wherever you are in the world. And you share this message with anyone else who raises the question about the Church not being transparent. We’re as transparent as we know how to be in telling the truth. We have to do that. That’s the Lord’s way.
After Ballard’s thoughts, Oaks shared a family experience illustrating the concept that a strong testimony is sufficient to weather unanswered questions.
Oaks’ statements were pretty typical. Ballard’s were not, and they are significant.
First, Ballard set up and then dismissed the multiple First Vision Accounts issue easily using an argument from the related Gospel Topics essay: “these documents have been discussed repeatedly in Church magazines, in works printed by Church-owned and Church-affiliated presses, and by Latter-day Saint scholars in other venues.1” He even used an example from the very first footnote, Allen’s 1970 Improvement Era article. Unfortunately, it was a bad choice. That article isn’t available on lds.org (church magazine info there only goes back to 1971), which undermined Ballard’s contention that information wasn’t hidden. The vultures wouldn’t have circled as quickly if he’d talked about the other citation in that footnote, a 1996 Ensign article about the multiple First Vision accounts easily accessible on the church’s website.
Second, Ballard’s point that members don’t often study enough is 100% valid (and funny, given the unsourced quote attributed to President Hinckley about people studying themselves out of the church). Many adult converts take opportunities to study the church’s history in-depth prior to getting baptized, and some get irritated when other members claim church history facts were hidden. However, it is not difficult to see why many members lapsed into complacency. In 1989, Elder Oaks said in general conference,
[W]e have procedures to ensure approved content for materials published in the name of the Church or used for instruction in its classes. These procedures can be somewhat slow and cumbersome, but they have an important benefit. They provide a spiritual quality control that allows members to rely on the truth of what is said. Members who listen to the voice of the Church need not be on guard against being misled.
Let’s look at a real world example: the 2007 Teachings of the President’s of the Church Joseph Smith manual sitting on my bookshelf. In this 586-page book, there are only two places where plural marriage is discussed. One is a paragraph in the introduction (page xii) that explains the topic of plural marriage is not applicable to our day, so it doesn’t fit the purpose of the book. In that paragraph, we learn Joseph taught plural marriage, plural marriages were performed during his lifetime, and in 1890 the practice was discontinued. And then there was a sentence in Joseph’s life overview on page 22 that says he taught the doctrine of plural marriage. BUT at least someone reading the introduction (I know it’s a long shot) would understand they’d need to look elsewhere for more information. It’s different for the seer stone. There is no seer stone in this book. Several places (pages 60, 116 and 440-441) explicitly state Joseph used the Urim and Thummim (found with the plates) to translate the Book of Mormon. In this case, there is no indication to a member of the church that they would need to research a seer stone in a hat, even though leaders can point to several church magazine articles (like this one in 1993) that discuss the seer stone. I think, in many cases, members assumed they could trust the church’s curriculum to give them an accurate picture of church history. As Elder Marlin K. Jensen, a former Church Historian, told Terryl Givens last week,
I think we chose to emphasize the strengths — what we felt were the more relevant parts — of our history and our doctrine, to the neglect of some things that have come home to bite us a little bit because it appears now to some that they were covered over and that there was some deliberate attempt made to portray the Church’s history as different than it was.
Which leads us to the third point. Elder Ballard suggested that church leaders “from the beginning of time” had too much integrity to ever “hide anything from anybody.” Unfortunately, an obvious counter-example is polygamy. Elder Oaks said in a 1993 fireside, “The whole experience with polygamy was a fertile field for deception. It is not difficult for historians to quote LDS leaders and members in statements justifying, denying, or deploring deception in furtherance of this religious practice” (p. 16). There’s a reason the distasteful phrase “lying for the Lord” gained traction.
The problem for members has traditionally been how church leaders still have moral high ground in spite of not always being the most forthright about details, even after polygamy. Some could cite Elder Boyd K. Packer’s concern about “seedling” testimonies getting crushed because they weren’t “mature enough for ‘advanced history.'” Or they could go back to Elder Oaks’ 1993 fireside where he explained that while we have a duty to tell the truth and nothing but the truth (he’s not a fan of “lying for the Lord”), it may not always be morally responsible to tell the whole truth. “It requires a sophisticated analysis of the circumstances and a finely tuned conscience to distinguish between the situation where you are obliged by duty to speak and the situation where you are obliged by duty, commandment, or covenant to remain silent” (p. 19).
But members could point to everything that’s happened in the last decade or so to prove how much better things are now (like how Ballard mentioned the Joseph Smith Papers). Elder Jensen remarked, “I think I was aware that we were in the midst of something very, very unusual; very transformative.” Later, “Once that all got started and trust was established and we began to see the fruits of a policy of openness and complete transparency, I think it just carried itself along on its own power — and it continues.”
Now that Elder Ballard said church leaders had too much integrity to ever hide stuff? Limber up, because it’s going to take even more mental gymnastics to figure out how to teach this history without impugning the character of the Brethren.
Salt Lake Tribune – “The gaslighting within Mormonism must stop”
Given the uproar, it was only a matter of time before someone called out Ballard publicly on his statements. Last Saturday, MormonLeaks founders Ryan McKnight and Ethan Dodge picked up the gauntlet and wrote an opinion piece for the Salt Lake Tribune condemning the “narcissistic gaslighting tactics routinely employed by the leaders of the Mormon church.” Gaslighting is a trendy term right now (ostensibly due to Donald Trump), meaning “psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.”
McKnight and Dodge helpfully provided an older quote from Elder Steven E. Snow, current Church Historian, pushing back on Ballard’s recent claims: “I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information.” What was not helpful (or realistic) was McKnight and Dodge implying conspiracy with Ballard’s use of the 1970 article. “The fact that the research department at the Church Office Building can feed Russell Ballard with a 50-year-old reference does not negate the fact that the Mormon Church has manipulated the facts surrounding its own history since its inception.” If anything, Ballard pulling out the 1970 citation points to the usefulness of the Gospel Topics essays (and footnotes) as resources for members and general authorities alike.
Then the MormonLeaks duo offered four recommendations for “God’s hand-picked elite” (one of many colorful descriptions of church leaders in the article) to redeem themselves.
- “Every single man who wants the world to believe that they speak for God needs to look their followers in the eye and say that mistakes were made.” (President Uchtdorf apparently isn’t good enough. They want everyone, including “No Apologies” Oaks, to step up as well.)
- “[S]crub every single manual. There are manuals right now on lds.org that contain half-truths and, in some cases, outright lies. In some cases it would be necessary to explicitly refute what was previously taught so that the class can be instructed that they should not believe that to be true anymore.” (I heartily support correcting curriculum, and there’s been encouraging progress on that front.)
- “[C]reate a web page that summarizes all of the major issues that the church feels it should correct the record on. The recent Gospel Topic Essays can be used as a base, but there needs to be a more simplified format that the information is presented in. A matrix that shows what was taught and what is actually correct.” (Maybe these guys can come up with a template? Because I’d love for the mountain of info at FairMormon to be compiled into a simple matrix. I hate navigating that site.)
- “[C]hange the rhetoric…. Recognize and validate the fact that there are real concerns over how church history has been presented over the years. Accept the fact that a certain number of people are going to leave the church over it and that they are not bad people for it.” (I’m good with this.)
Most of the suggestions by the MormonLeaks team have merit, but the way the article was written puts in question the intentions of the authors. Ryan McKnight has done several blogposts for the site Medium, some more sober and penitent, others oozing with sarcasm. This was closer to the latter than the former. This was venting (real frustration) and taking advantage of a recent gaffe to “stick it to the man.” Had he really been wanting the attention of orthodox members, it’s unlikely he would’ve gone to the Tribune. In his most recent Medium post, McKnight noted the Salt Lake Tribune is “affectionately known as Satan’s Printing Press and Korihor’s Soapbox by most internet tough guys and gals who could defend a sexual predator to the point of worshipping him as a prophet of god…”
Which is incredibly frustrating, because Elder Ballard’s statements deserved better. The editorial was a missed opportunity.
- What do you think of these recent developments? Do they signal any real shifts in the discussion over faith crises deriving from controversial aspects of church history? Why or why not?
- When members are encountering uncomfortable aspects of church history, should they expect help from church leaders? Or, as Elder Ballard suggested, is that an unfair burden for a lay ministry?
- What do you think of Elder Ballard’s statements from the Face to Face? Do you think his response might have been different in a scripted venue?
- What are your thoughts on the Tribune editorial by Ryan McKnight and Ethan Dodge?