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?
“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 wish more people would talk about this part. Are church leaders experts on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender issues? If they are not, why do they speak on the subject? Are church leaders experts on foreign affairs? Are church leaders experts on (pick your topic)? Or conversely, why do church leaders ignore the experts in the field when it doesn’t match up with their preconceived notions regarding that field? To me, this quote from E. Ballard just sounds like convenient BS meant to CYA and not have to answer tough questions about church history. Is he really implying church leaders are not experts on church history? Shouldn’t that be at least one of the topics church leaders SHOULD be experts on?
« Do you think his response might have been different in a scripted venue? »
How is pre-selecting questions,having weeks to write responses as alluded to in the Oaks/Ballard promotional announcement of this event, and coming with a black notebook of compiled quotes to talk about a question that was never specifically asked at the event considered an « unscripted venue »?
Jan, reading from a script/teleprompter is different than talking from notes. They knew general categories of the thousands of questions, but they didn’t know exactly how the hosts would ask the questions or in what order. Sometimes they would answer from off the top of their head, while other times you’d see them suddenly open their folders and madly flip through documents. On the pornography question, for example, Ballard opted to read straight from his BYU devotional talk. So Ballard was prepared enough to have read the First Vision Gospel Topics essay and have that available, but he wasn’t working off a script on that response. (It was closer to how the Swedish Rescue fireside did Q&A, as opposed to the 100% scripted Boise Rescue type of Q&A.)
Great work, Mary Ann. I, too, feel like the Salt Lake Tribune article missed the mark. It felt like playing to the home crowd rather than being written in a way as to further the conversation toward real solutions.
Dan, you ask some great questions and make some great points. Thank you.
Mary Ann, you and I have vastly different definitions of ¨unscripted¨. To me, unscripted means there is no script. A person asks a genuine question and is given a genuine, spontaneous answer. When questions are carefully selected, talking points are prepared and when Elder Ballard prepares notes for a ¨mini-lecture¨ to a question that was not brought up at the meeting, this is contrived at best but not unscripted. The only difference I see between you teleprompter example and what happened at the Q and A is that the talking points were memorized.
Great post, Mary Ann, as always, and I’m kind of in the same boat as Jan when it comes to the “unscripted” part of things. But here are my thoughts:
The McKnight/Dodge editorial is unfortunately a mixture of both good questions/points and an almost juvenile smugness , which makes it hard to take the serious parts of it seriously. I agree with the calling out of our leaders and with what I, too, consider to be the gaslighting that the church practices, but I also think that seeing everything through the lens of cynicism leads to just as myopic a worldview as does seeing everything through the lens of blind/naive faith.
What I find fascinating about Elder Ballard’s remarks, though, are two main points:
When he claims that the church has never hidden anything, that’s clearly a specious claim, though I don’t doubt the sincere intent of the 12 to try to do the best they can with what they’ve got. However, I think he’s missing or misreading part of the picture when it comes to trust. The lack of trust, at least on my part, comes less from denying certain historical truths, and more from practices that do harm to members and non-members, practices such as polygamy (still “practiced” theoretically in the temple when it comes to sealings of multiple women to one man, e.g.), the November 5 policy, women continually being treated as second-class citizens despite all of the “different/separate but equal” rhetoric borrowed from segregationists, among other places, racist doctrines of the past (“that could have been doctrine, but could have been merely policy, but we’re not quite sure about how it all started”), lack of transparency about finances, etc. I could go on, but the point is, my mistrust comes from decisions that cause demonstrable harm to people rather than historical issues. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, so maybe having our leaders address these issues in a truly unscripted format would be helpful to those of us who still have may questions about them.
The second is his admission about how little the brethren know when it comes to actual theology, archaeology, biblical exegesis, etc. And that opens a huge door that I’m not sure he intended to open, but the implication of his words about the limits of general authorities to me means that we should seek other sources for knowledge. Now, we’ve always been told that in some way or another, I suppose, but such a bald admission by a church leader might lead to lots of folks looking at lots of different sources and coming to different conclusions than the church leaders themselves might want. I wonder if this was his intent, but I certainly think it will be one result. It will be interesting to see how this particular line of thinking problematizes current Mormon rhetoric about seeking for truth. So as much as I agree with you, Mary Ann, that he probably meant “faithful” scholars rather than secular or skeptical scholars, this nonetheless, IMHO, opens a can of worms that he might not have wanted to open.
And last thing, just a question for anyone who might have had the patience to read this far: What if building up the church, the very first duty he listed, conflicts with telling the truth? What if it conflicts with cleaving to the doctrines of Christ? I’m just sort of wondering if anyone sees those things as being at least potentially in conflict.
Daniel, “why do church leaders ignore the experts in the field when it doesn’t match up with their preconceived notions regarding that field?” According to the classic 14 fundamentals, prophets are qualified to speak on *any* topic, no secular expertise required. This is partly why Ballard’s statement was unusual. As to whether church leaders should know church history, that’s kind of the point. In my head, it makes sense to expect church leaders to know about (or know how to find out) church history issues given that they are official church representatives. Funny thing is, in the Face to Face, Ballard contends that as apostles they *do* know about church history. They just aren’t experts.
Jan, yes, I guess we’re working with different definitions. I will agree it was not spontaneous. But I don’t agree that going off notes/talking points in a live broadcast is equivalent to reading a prepared speech off a teleprompter, especially when we’re dealing with octogenarians.
Great article Mary Ann! And I love all the comments so far. On the whole I agree with the OP: Ballard should have given a better response but the trib editorial was over the top. That said a few cents of my own:
1- I think Ballard speaking about the integrity of the church had more to do with cynical (and sometimes I would dare say conspiratorial) internet claims were the Q15 become the Illuminati, SPECTRE, and the Gadianton robbers all rolled up into one. It must be very frustrating to read and see those allegations. Unfortunately in not being careful he made things worse. That said, this is not gaslighting. When discussing controversial topics people will have differences of opinion. The fact is the history of the church and teaching church history is a complicated one. Though certainly on the whole I wish the church had embraced certain methodologies earlier, how to teach church history has always been complicated. That said, Ballard needs to be careful and precise, though- as I say routinely in these comments- I think we all over estimate how precise and accurate we would be on the hot seat.
2- in spite of a poor answer Ballard has been on a roll lately. He gave that fantastic CES speech. Between this and the BYU devotional he has given two talks where he has tackled tough issues head on. Even if he has handled them imperfectly I admire that he tries and the general tone he tries with- though again his tone and answers need refinement. He also cited Jane Manning James in a conference talk. In short (warning, I’m about to commit internet blasphemy) Elder.Ballard has probably done more for progressive/big tent Mormonism in the last year than Uchtdorf has without all the praise Uchtdorf gets.
Apologies if there are even more spelling and grammatical errors than normal. Wrote on my phone.
Elder Ballard – “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.”
Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet
I was raised in the Benson era, so it seems disingenuous for Elder Ballard to now claim that prophets aren’t to be considered experts in church topics. I am no fan of the Fourteen Fundamentals talk. But when the constant drumbeat is ‘follow the prophet, follow the prophet’ and then one of the prophets says the members expect too much of them, it’s hard not to feel some frustration.
Also, if referring to a fourteen year old girl as being ‘several months before her 15th birthday’ is as candid and transparent as leaders can be about history then it’s no wonder they’ve lost credibility. If the church has never hidden anything about its history, then why the need for the First Presidency vault and restricting access to documents? Why the need for Elder Ballard to point out that our youth have been ‘sheltered’? From his talk The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century – “It was only a generation ago that our young people’s access to information about our history, doctrine, and practices was basically limited to materials printed by the Church. Few students came in contact with alternative interpretations. Mostly, our young people lived a sheltered life. Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view. ”
Not just that students didn’t have opportunities to explore ‘alternative interpretations’, we were specifically warned against seeking them out. And now we’re asked to continue to trust them…
Brother Sky, when Jana Reiss reported the trust gap finding, it was phrased as “I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth about controversial issues.” So Ballard’s comments are applicable to that point. But I agree that causing harm is a big factor in loss of trust, and plays a major part in disaffection.
As far as looking to other sources of information, I think he could see the can of worms he was opening, which is why he specified biblical studies and church history. An apologist can work with that and still justify leaders speaking out on “moral” hot-button issues today. Ultimately, I think leaders view knowing anything about church history as peripheral to a person’s testimony. No historical fact should have the power to budge a spiritual witness, according to a lot of their arguments. Therefore, it should be theoretically safe to send people off to historians, while still arguing that modern science/culture should take a backseat to what God has deemed “moral.”
Such a great post!
My reaction to Ballard’s quote is interesting. By being willing to admit his own limitations I find myself more willing to listen to him. But that feeling doesn’t extend to the brethern overall. Rather it’s the opposite, I feel more included to move Ballard into my Uchtdorf column of leaders who are more trustworthy (possibly Holland as well) and ditch the rest of them. That Oaks sitting next to Ballard didn’t say the same thing, makes Oaks less trustworthy. (I’ll have to go listen to the entire broadcast to see if I still feel that way).
I’m also still not convinced that they truly understand how and why this lack of trust in leadership happens. My parents, very educated world-conscious people, don’t get it (they are in their 70s). My parents see the Millenials and iGen (not sure if that is officially the title of the current under 18, but I haven’t heard anything better) through the lends of their experiences in the 1950-60-70-80s. I imagine that the brethern are the same. In framing the current generation within their own experiences, they miss the heart of the problems. And we can’t just pretend that the effects of aging of the brain do not factor in as well. I’d really like to see the younger members of the Q12 making statements like Ballards.
I also wonder at the unexpected outcomes of Ballard’s statement. Clearly the brethern are not psychologists or doctors, so can we now turn to those people for a correct understanding of the LBGTQ experience and set church policies so that the reflect expert understanding? (I’m guessing not, but it’s an interesting question.)
Jason B, I agree that Ballard has been at the forefront of fighting for members to have church history questions taken seriously by friends, parents, and church leaders. It’s not just in that CES broadcast, but also in multiple regional broadcasts and the special October 2015 Area Weekend fireside mentioned in the enemies list powerpoint presentation. As far as the other tough topics he addressed at the BYU devotional and the Face to Face, I agree that they were dealt with in a way most progressive members would find pleasantly surprising. I mean, even an exmormon Reddit post highlighted multiple positive aspects from the Face to Face: https://www.reddit.com/r/exmormon/comments/7emaah/the_overlooked_positive_side_of_the_ballard_and/
I’m not gonna touch whether Ballard or Uchtdorf are doing more for big tent Mormonism right now. Those are fighting words in the bloggernacle. 🙂
Regarding trusting Church leaders, I think the old adage about writing applies: Show, don’t tell. If they want to be trusted, they need to *show* themselves to be trustworthy, not just say “trust us.”
I compliment Mary Ann for this post. In the early 1970’s as a student at BYU I spent the majority of my time studying church history and doctrine even though I was a business major. I made friends with Hyrum Andrus and a few other religion teachers. I also participated in what was then called the “Underground Xerox”. This is how we referred to a small group of individuals who shared church history and doctrine documents that came into our possession. I gathered thousands of pages in this effort.
I was amazed at what I learned. For example, in that era I didn’t know that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy or that Brigham Young taught the Adam-God doctrine. As these types of things rolled out before my eyes I began to realize there was a lot about Mormonism that was available if you searched it out, but was never discussed at church. In essence, there were two churches, the one we attended on Sunday and the one that existed in the library’s Special Collections on the 4th floor.
After spending years going through the Journal of Discourses, Wilford Woodruff’s 7,000-page journal, and thousands of pages of various papers, I remember sitting back in my chair one day and realizing that the day would come when what I was learning would become a sore trial to church members. One of the documents I came across related to a prophecy that was given by Heber C Kimball.
“This Church has before it many close places, through which it will have to pass before the work of God is crowned with victory. To meet the difficulties that are coming [see they are to come, they are not behind you, but they are coming] it will be necessary for you to have a knowledge of the truth of this work for yourselves; the difficulties will be of such a character that the man or woman who does not possess this personal knowledge or witness will fall. If you have not got the testimony, live right, and call upon the Lord and cease not until you obtain it. If you do not you will not stand. ”
The impression that came to me that day is now a reality because of the internet. Today, we are in the early stages of a trial of faith that is bringing great difficulty and sorrow to many church members. Particularly for those who have been able to obtain a knowledge of the truth of this work for themselves. I am one of those who has obtained a sure knowledge of the truth of this work. I know that Joseph Smith was God’s prophet and that those who have followed are the real thing.
Many are asking, if church leaders are the real thing then why have they led the church into this era of historical disasters? It can be clearly seen that they have made error after error over the years. Where were the prophetic prompting in years past that should have inspired church leaders to avoid the disasters we’re experiencing today.
The answer for me comes in two ways, one, having a sure witness obtained by wrestling with the Lord in prayer, two, from prayerfully reading the Book of Mormon. Heavenly Father’s provided the Book of Mormon to help believers navigate the perplexities of mortality. Are there “historical disasters” in the Nephite church that can help church members in our day better understand what we’re facing today?
I think there is, one example is found in Mosiah, chapters 23 and 24. It details the history of Alma and church members in his day. As you read the following outline, imagine how you would feel if you followed the prophet, and the result was that you and your family were put into hard bondage by your enemies. No doubt, you would wonder whether Alma was a prophet as you were forced into slave labor.
As you may recall, Alma (the older) was warned of the Lord that king Noah would come upon them, so Alma and his church members fled into the wilderness on an eight-day journey, being strengthen by the Lord so that Noah could not overtake them.
They settled in a pleasant and beautiful land of pure water. Alma was their high priest, founder of their church. Alma appointed just men to nourish them with things pertaining to righteousness. They did labor exceedingly and prospered. They called the city Helam.
The story in the Book of Mosiah is interrupted when Mormon intervenes with an editorial comment explaining what the Lord is about to do with the first Nephite church:
21 Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.
22 Nevertheless—whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day. Yea, and thus it was with this people.
23 For behold, I will show unto you that they were brought into bondage, and none could deliver them but the Lord their God, yea, even the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob.
24 And it came to pass that he did deliver them, and he did show forth his mighty power unto them, and great were their rejoicings. (Mosiah 23:21 – 24)
As students of the Book of Mormon know, Alma and his people suffered greatly, but remained faithful and as a result were delivered from bondage by the hand of the Lord.
Is the Lord chastening today’s church, trying our patience and faith through the challenges being presented by church history and doctrine?
I think so, and the solution for our day is the same as it was in Alma’s day—we need to rely on the Lord—trust the brethren and hush our fears. Alma’s people cried mightily to God, we can do the same.
Note: this may be one of my last comment at W&T. Angela doesn’t like the way I comment and I’ve agreed to stop commenting if she decides to ask me to stop. I’m awaiting her decision.
I should add, I have a great deal of respect for Angela and MH. They are the shakers and movers at W&T and I will abide by their decision.
I am not a very good commenter or else Angela wouldn’t be upset with comments. Apparently my comments don’t come across a I intend to write them.
I found this interesting.
It also gave Kevin Hinckley a mild form of satisfaction as he has been trying to get people to pay attention to his first vision articles and writing for about twenty years and no one cared to listen to him. https://kevinhinckley.com/uploads/Combined_First_Vision.doc is a link to his material.
Thirty years ago, the biggest discussion between apologists (like the ones who founded FAIR and those at FARMS) about the various iterations was over a reading that put one of them a year off — and the rebuttal was just to provide copies of the actual text (a “screen shot” as it were) that showed that it required a willful misreading of the text to reach that conclusion.
No one found the significance that so many now claim to have found.
And poor Kevin has been ignored for over twenty years. I guess he still is.
I think there is a real problem that some things fade because no one considers them important and no one pays attention when they are brought up. So they fade. Are they hidden or just ignored as irrelevant?
On the other hand, we have better sources now. We have a better history that has Joseph Smith starting with the traditional method, losing the 116 pages and having that taken away, and then when his ability to translate was restored, going forward with a seer stone. I’ve read discussions on the point where those who wrote did not have the entire history and reached contrary conclusions. But they were not hiding things, they actively believed differently.
All in all a nicely done essay.
Brother Sky, you bring up some great points and your final questions are thought-provoking.
I think there are definitely times when the Church can conflict with the teachings of Jesus and, whether he meant to or not, Ballard did us a favor by admitting the emperor is, indeed, naked.
From Leonard Arrington in 1972
“Elder Hunter said that he felt that the Church was mature enough that our history should be honest.
He did not believe in suppressing information, nor hiding documents, nor concealing or withholding minutes for possible scrutiny.
He excluded from this, however, people who were setting out diligently to discredit the Church. The only name he mentioned under that heading was Gerald [Jerald] and Sandra Tanner. 24
He thought the best way to answer anti-Mormonism is to print the truth. He thought we should publish the documents of our history. He did not see any reason to conceal the minutes of the Council of 50.25 “Why not disclose them?” he asked. “They are a part of our history, why should we withhold things that are a part of our history?”
He thought it in our best interest to encourage scholars—to help and cooperate with them in doing honest research. 26”
Another quote from Price’s book on Arrington—this one not in Arrington’s own words:
“Leonard’s criticism consistently expressed such optimism, driven by his total conviction that telling the truth about Mormonism’s history would ultimately help the church. To Richard Bushman, writing five years before his appointment, he described how his own research efforts in the Church Archives had met his expectation that most of what he found would “serve to support or bolster the Church’s position.
To put it another way, the Church has a lot of ammunition on its side that it has never made generally available.”
Leonard saw no reason why it should not provide access. “This old bugaboo about the Church having secrets to hide . . . is largely a matter of certain secrets of certain family members—that so and so was divorced, or at one stage excommunicated, or had trouble with such and such wife, and so on. The skeletons are not church skeletons but family skeletons.””
Final quote for now:
“restrictions damaged the church’s image. Thomas Monson “expressed his delight that after many years we were finally going to get down to the task of writing our history.” 42”
Stephen, those are great quotes. I just interviewed Greg Prince, and he says that Howard W. Hunter is an unsung hero in helping the church become more transparent with history. I have the Arrington biography, but haven’t read it yet.
I want to defend McKnight’s and Dodge’s need to vent, though not their words.
The single most frustrating thing about being related to Mormons who believe what they hear at church isn’t being unable to agree on beliefs. The most frustrating thing is being unable to agree on a set of common facts and simple, reasonable, first-order conclusions drawn from those facts. It’s the number one thing that makes understanding each other so difficult, in both directions.
I’m aware that inference is fraught with bias, so that two people can disagree on conclusions given the same evidence. I’m also aware that what constitutes a “fact” is often disputable. But I don’t think those are the main problems here, for two reasons. First, the number of points of disagreement is ridiculous high. Second, I tend to disagree much, much less with LDS historians.
When I read what Elder Ballard had said, I forgot the good parts and basically saw red. “We haven’t hidden things” is a simple conclusion that’s terrifically and obviously false given the basic facts. I could feel the family relationships deteriorating as I imagined understanding breaking down yet again, as a result of yet one more falsehood fervently believed by the people in my life who trust LDS church without question.
One step forward, 0.95 steps back. It’s maddening.
Great article, Mary Ann. Paradigm shifts are hard and we, as a church, are still trying to have it both ways. We want credit for acknowledging that tough issues exist, but don’t want to get into the tough questions or their theological implications and so we still spin things to avoid getting into these issues. I think the incident with E. Ballard is this playing out. We have come a long ways with the brethren acknowledging that the brethren are not perfect. But, there is a reluctance to admit mistakes and there is still the tendency to defend the institution at all costs. Unfortunately the go-to is usually blaming the members. This causes the brethren to continue to lose the trust they are desperately trying to hold onto. I do not believe this is Machiavellian, I think they have the best of intentions. If people keep the old paradigm we have more committed members living all the Church standards and committed to their callings. People who view the institution and leaders as imperfect may pick and choose which rules to follow and be less committed. Our leaders are still trying to figure out how to keep people committed while slowly allowing the paradigm to shift.
I’m not sure our educated youth get as far as asking questions and researching answers. They just realise there is an alternative narrative and are horrified that their parents and others are maintaining truth claims that are not indisputable. That’s the point at which we lose their confidence.
A lot of this comes down to how we interpret the word ‘truth’. For our kids that needs to be verifiable with good research in the real world. What we are asking them to do is believe adults without any proof. I’d be concerned about that in any other context.
I think it’s problematic to speak in terms of truth claims. We need to speak about what we believe, and invite them to explore that, based perhaps on their community and family experience. Anything else and we’re riding for a fall. We’re just not playing this game right, and it may be a long game.
Rick—thanks for the positive comments. I was surprised to get down votes for the quotes, though I understand that some people just don’t like the idea he was trying to be open in the 1970s.
RetX: “By being willing to admit his own limitations I find myself more willing to listen to him. But that feeling doesn’t extend to the brethern overall. Rather it’s the opposite, I feel more included to move Ballard into my Uchtdorf column of leaders who are more trustworthy (possibly Holland as well) and ditch the rest of them. That Oaks sitting next to Ballard didn’t say the same thing, makes Oaks less trustworthy.” +1 here. There is no “the church” or “church leadership,” there are individuals, and those individuals are each different with different types of testimonies, different approaches to people & the gospel, and different feelings about their own authority.
@handlewithcare, I think you make a critical point. I wish I could upvote it 1000x. Thank you.
Angela, you mention that there is “no church leadership”. While I agree with your sentiment, the leaders function similar to a Board of Directors. All are responsible for the decisions made by the body, so there seems, to me anyway, some sense of a cohesive leadership.
Once again, thoughtful post Mary Ann. I see both Elder Ballard’s comments and the McKnight OpEd to be a mix of some good and some bad.
I find myself once again agreeing with Brother Sky on his comments on Elder Ballard’s words. I do see that he is trying to shore up trust and it may work for some, but for many that are scratching their head it actually can greatly decrease their trust in the top church leaders when they have seen proof of cover ups.
My other point I was going to make is essentially what “Frustrated” mentioned. I would have loved to have seen Elder Ballard follow Elder Benson when he gave the “14 fundamentals” talk. The contrast couldn’t be clearer. Which (back to my first point) makes it hard for me to put much trust in what the Q15 say when they blatantly contradict each other.
Mary Ann, I do have an issue with your comment of, “Ultimately, I think leaders view knowing anything about church history as peripheral to a person’s testimony.” Then why do they rail so much against Googling things and in general (at least in the past) warned so much against seeking information elsewhere. Why did Elder Oaks all but tell people “you shouldn’t be reading Dialogue or Sunstone?” I guess this is once again the gist of my post on “Showing Some “Faith Backbone”” If they really feel as you describe, then reading “No man knows my history” wouldn’t shake people’s testimonies. I just don’t get it.
One things note mentioned is I think in times passed there was more worry from Q15 if studying things like the Journal of Discourses would make people move to be fundamentalists and branch into polygamy. Now that people are leaving because they felt things were hidden, they are trying to swing that pendulum back a bit and things like the JS papers are clearly steps forward. A bit of “pick your poison” for the top leaders to choose.
Happy Hubby, sorry, didn’t put much context with that. So you’re describing the older Packer/Oaks rhetoric which is still lingering in some areas, that historical facts are dangerous and should be controlled. The newer rhetoric is what Oaks said after Ballard was done – having a testimony that Joseph was a prophet trumps any historical fact or unanswered questions. Ballard often tells a story about one of his missionaries coming to him with questions. Ballard made the kid promise to start reading the Book of Mormon every day, and in return Ballard would find what answers he could to those questions. When the kid came back weeks later, he told Ballard the questions didn’t matter anymore, because he’d regained a testimony of the BofM. Ballard said that was awesome, but he needed to sit down and hear what Ballard had found out. In earlier versions, Ballard used this to stress the importance of giving equal time to the Lord, but he hasn’t done that as much in recent tellings. A lot of people now come away with a different interpretation – if you’re reading your scriptures every day, the historical stuff won’t bug you. So recently I’ve been seeing more circumstances of people responding to church history crises with admonitions to read scriptures, or go through the daily motions, with the implication that if you are in a good place spiritually, this stuff won’t matter. (It comes across as dismissive or victim-blaming, but I don’t think that’s the intent in every case.) Givens shared a variation of this in his interview with Jensen. He was talking with a Swedish guy who had a list of concerns about the church. Givens simply probed on the guy’s spiritual witness of the church, and then basically said if he had that, why did any of the other stuff matter. Jared’s comment here, and many he’s made in the past, is on the same track–if you just had a *real* testimony, none of the unpleasant stuff would shake you. For many bothered with the issues, it sounds tone-deaf and judgmental.
Mary Ann – I have heard the “if you had a REAL testimony you wouldn’t have fallen away.” I think there is some truth in this for some people. If you feel you have had a strong spiritual feelings it might override any logic put before you. I guess for me I was the one always wondering, “why don’t get answers to my prayers or feel the sprit?” and just taking solace in the “if you didn’t get an answer at one point, maybe you are the kind that gets a testimony a tiny bit at a time.” After a half century and living the commandments and still no spiritual confirmation, once I found out about the mess that Mormon history is and MUCH more important how I feel the leadership of the church, even today – this month – whitewash the history I mentally was gone.
At the same time, I see many that say very forcefully that they were all in and REALLY believed.
Thank you for this article Mary Ann. I truly loved it. As far as I am concerned this is how the dialogue needs to be among people who don’t see eye to eye on everything. I love that you were not afraid to find common ground with us and I thought all of your criticism (even though I don’t agree) were valid and maybe even constructive in a few instances.
I get so frustrated with the continually shifting sands. The church deserves a prize for contradictions and lack of clarity.
A major point of the article now says to consult “experts in the field,” Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t faculty at BYU go about doing that and publishing their findings, only to be hunted down by Packer and disciplined?
Also, in the devotional, it says that “the church is being as open and transparent as it knows how to be.” Why then, does it continue to refuse to publish accounts, continually hiding behind the fact , “we meet all legal requirements.” An organisation that claims to be a church, and at that the one church sanctioned by God himself, should go beyond the minimum standards. The law in the US is particularly lax in such matters. From my experience in finance and as an auditor, a refusal to disclose invariably means” something to hide” or, at best, “we actually don”t want you to know.
And don’t even start me on the church’s stance on same sex parents…..
Ryan McKnight, I appreciate you weighing in on the discussion.
Jared, that is one of the best comments I have ever read on the 13+ years I’ve been participating in the bloggernacle. I agree with you 100%. More specifically, studying the Book of Mormon is key to getting through these tight spaces that church is presently passing through. Like most commenters on this blog, I read a lot of materials both sympathetic and unsympathetic for lack of a better description to the church and world view it presents. As I have consistently read the Book of Mormon on a near daily basis, I have been amazed at the tremendous clarity of not only thought, but also clarity of feeling that it conveys to me when I exercise faith in it and ponder what I read. It is truly our guidebook for these days we live in.
I don’t think Elder Ballard’s statements can support this much analysis, given the narrow forum and limited preparation. When we’re looking for a sea change in a devotional for young adults, we’re prone to lead ourselves on. Perhaps the thoughts he gave voice to are echoes of a larger, more profound conversation among the Brethren, but I’ll look for harder evidence of that from more of the brethren and in settings traditionally associated with the dissemination of doctrine (conference or proclamations).
Remember, while these hopeful(ish?) statements multiply, we still have Elder Anderson saying in conference *two years ago* that the proper response to historical trouble is to “give Brother Joseph a break!”
“the leaders function similar to a Board of Directors” I think a better way to say that is that they dysfunction similar to a Board of Directors (or any other oligarchy).
Read “Obedience to Prophets” from General Conference in 2010 and tell me the leaders haven’t set themselves up to be considered experts on literally anything they want to tell the membership. It’s incredibly disingenuous to intentionally convince members you are de facto experts because of your positions and then deny it when it’s a tough question.
The October 2015 Ensign Article “Joseph the Seer” was a turning point in my life. After reading that article, I no longer trust LDS authorities and now look at the church’s teachings with a much more skeptical (some would say negative) eye.
The article discusses the translation process of the Book of Mormon and does discuss the seer stone. I was floored. I had encountered the seer stone a decade earlier on the main street in Nauvoo. A shop front had all sorts of “crazy” anti-Mormon flyers taped to its windows. The one that stood out to me was a drawing of Joseph Smith with his head buried in a hat. “What a ridiculous lie,” I thought. The joke was on me, the above article hit me hard.
I was left with all kinds of questions, and then noticed none of the illustrations used to show the translation process portrayed Joseph’s head buried in a hat. They show the stone, yes, but not the method. Instead the illustrations used are the ones all Mormons would be familiar with, Joseph at a desk reading or translating the plates with help by candlelight. Why had the church never commissioned a painting with Joseph’s face in a hat to block out the light so he could see the words as the appeared on a rock? If this is what happened, why wasn’t it discussed or portrayed in lesson manuals, ever?
Ballard is simply incorrect in his statement that the church has never knowingly attempted to hide the truth. Mark Hofmann was successful in extorting the LDS Church with forgeries because of its deep-seated need to control the narrative and its willingness to suppress information. Hofmann created embarrassing documents and cashed in.
Ballard’s misrepresentation of reality only confirms my suspicions.
As I read through the comments again, particularly Disappointed and Patricks’, I recalled a statement made about how we rely on words either written or spoken to communicate. However, it is easy to illustrate how ineffective words can be. For example, think of someone you know very well, someone you feel understands you because you have talked about many things over the years. You know them so well that you can finish her sentences, as she could yours.
Now, do you think you could describe your mother, who she never meant, using just words and expect her to find your mother in a capacity crowd at the Marriott Center based on your verbal description? Not going to happen (unless your mother has an unusual appearance). Do you think you could find your mother? Given enough time it would be easy.
I think Elder Ballard didn’t express himself very well about hiding truth from church members or he doesn’t understand things the way I do. I believe Elder Ballard and church leaders past and present have tired to do the right thing, including those who decided to obscure material in past years. That can be called paternalistic. Church leaders, with but a few exceptions, do not lie, cheap, and steal. We know that money, power, and womanizing is not their focus. They make mistakes, that is called fallibility. Their witnesses, testimonies, and teachings are from the heart. I think they deserve our understanding, love, respect, and trust. We just need to get over considering them perfect, infallible, and without error without going to the extreme of then seeing them as not worthwhile when it becomes apparent they’re fallible.
Jared, I agree to a certain extent. I don’t think the brethern are intentionally trying to hurt people. They aren’t womanizers, they aren’t getting rich off of the church, they are deeply dedicated and faithful to the church organization and the Lord. With that though, they will lie (from JS onward) when it suits them to protect the church and themselves. That has been clearly demonstrated (go see the latest podcast from RadioFreeMormon – his tone is rather negative, but his research is excellent). And lying is a pretty clear cut sin that leads to people not trusting you.
“We just need to get over considering them perfect, infallible” – I 100% agree with this. Since they control the narrative, they need to be the ones to change the narrative and start admitting when they are wrong and when they fail – and how that has always been true. Otherwise, the dynamic within the larger church will never change. I mean seriously, many of the woman in my RS still think Jesus is attending Q15 meetings and that when a prophet/apostle speaks that the literal words of Christ comes out of his mouth. You and I can’t change that. Only the brethren themselves can.
ReTx, “RadioFreeMormon – his tone is rather negative, but his research is excellent).” Yeah, that “rather negative” is an understatement. There are definitely points I disagree with in that podcast, but overall the point is valid there many examples where the church obscured facts.
Disappointed, coincidentally, the December 2017 Ensign has an article with two depictions of the translation process. Joseph’s head isn’t buried in the hat, but a hat is in each one and the plates are under a white cloth. The big step will be when the main lds.org media page gets more accurate depictions and they change the gospel art books/kits. Right now they still have him reading directly off the plates.
With regards to the seer stones and Ballard’s statements in the Face to Face, I think there have been a few times when the church manuals have been, shall we say, less than transparent. For example, the old Church History in the Fullness of Times Student Manual has a section specifically entitled “Process of Translation”. It begins with:
The rest of the section goes on to say how the book was translated by the gift and power of God, but doesn’t even mention the Urim and Thummim (much less the seer stones). Contrast this with one of the paragraphs from the Book of Mormon Translation essay:
The essay goes on to quote the accounts by Martin Harris and Emma Smith, which the authors of the Student Manual certainly knew about, because they refer to them as “sketchy” and “contradictory”. The remarkable detail of the Translation essay, and indeed, any description at all of the translation instruments is absent from the Student Manual. Unfortunately, I can understand how people have felt that things have been hidden from them, because they certainly were in this case.
The response that the historical information has “always been available” ignores the process the Church expects its members to follow in gaining a testimony. We begin in Primary, move into Aaronic Priesthood or Yong Women, and seminary, and then when a young person is 18 or 19, be ready to covenant with God that we are ready to give all with which we are blessed to the Church. At no point during that process are the historical issues or other Gospel Topics issues addressed or presented. Those who say they were well aware of these things prior to age 19, likely did not learn it in Sunday School, priesthood or seminary, unless their instructors went outside of Church policy and strayed from the manual. Even a college Institute class on D&C didn’t cover it. And to look elsewhere for information was not encouraged, but actually discouraged as dangerous. Being an adult, and living in the Information Age, was the only way I was able to learn. As a very active youth, this information was largely unavailable. The reference to one 1971 Ensign article to support this openness is absurd.