“Suppose your youth receive their impressions of church history from ‘pictures and stories’ and build their faith upon these alleged miracles [and] shall someday come face to face with the fact that their belief rests on falsehoods, what then will be the result? Will they not say that since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated… might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies?
“[Some say that] because one repudiates the false he stands in danger of weakening, perhaps losing the truth. I have no fear of such results. I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony.”
-BH Roberts

Defender of the Faith: The BH Roberts Story

As assistant church historian from 1902-1933,  BH Roberts was sometimes criticized for omitting or downplaying well-known miracles in church history.  While I applaud the current increased dedicated scholarship of the church, (as well as the decades of valiant historical effort of those like Leonard Arrington) as a group we seem to persistently similarly spread what Elder Holland has termed “theological twinkies.” These theological or spiritual twinkies, while immediately satisfying, are neither inherently nourishing nor foundationally supportive.  Ultimately, they will cause damage when relied on long term.  

Closer to my professional arena, I often come across earnest “medical” recommendations passed on by others.  I’m sure that these words of wisdom are intended to be helpful, and that the individual sharing the advice is nothing but earnest.  However, the damage is ultimately still the same, no matter the intentions of the source. Some of the recent advice I have seen include recommending ingesting colloidal silver to eliminate COVID-19, encouraging the use of a hair dryer to blow hot air up the nose to kill the virus in the nasal passages and sinuses, and stating that vitamin C will protect against the virus. 

Similarly in the church on a regular basis, I still hear stories passed along of certain miracles of the restoration – usually as a basis for some foundational point in a testimony.  I’ve heard recently individuals testifying of the transfiguration of Brigham Young into Joseph Smith on August 8, 1844, the miracle of the seagulls saving the Salt Lake Valley from hordes of ravaging insects, as well as many others.  

As with nearly everything, the reality is more complex than simple golden cake.  Regarding the Transfiguration, no contemporary accounts (journals, letters, etc. from that date or immediately afterwards) of any change exist.  Orson Hyde testified to seeing this miracle in 1869 (the earliest mention of a transfiguration), however, Orson Hyde was not at that meeting, not arriving in Nauvoo until nearly a week later on August 13th.  

Regarding the seagulls, minimal contemporary written accounts of an insect infestation or seagulls exist (The insects were termed “Mormon Crickets” – a type of katydid).  Some journals record no insects, while others did – but without the desperation and despair that come with the story today. Some journals noted rescuing seagulls, others noted none. Research has shown that seagulls eating such insects and regurgitating the non-digestible parts of the exoskeleton is a normal and regular occurrence. 

Even today, President Nelson’s April Ensign message has been proclaimed as a miraculous and prescient message for this month during this difficult time.  As Mary Ann impressively researched, the message was a collection of previous statements by President Nelson over decades of time.  

To echo BH Roberts, building faith in the passed-along narrative of these miracles can often lead to ultimate rejection of fundamental tenets of the Church and even the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Some of these stories can be investigated by just a few minutes of reading, and from sources such as BYU Studies. While I can appreciate the satisfying simplicity of a cupcake-like story as much as anyone, engaging with the complex reality is necessary for a true foundation.  Millennials and younger generations have a very high BS meter, and oversimplified narratives that gloss over small but important details certainly trips mine, both in secular and religious contexts.  

To be clear, I’m not saying that miracles do not happen. I believe that that they can.  I feel we are witnessing many miracles today – not the least of which include the health care, grocery, sanitation and other workers risking their own safety in order to care for and assist others.  I’ve always appreciated Mr. Rogers’ admonition to “Look for the helpers.” Helpers are truly examples of miracles today, and I encourage anyone able to become their own miracle to someone else and become a helper.  

  • What are ways that you recommend in becoming a possible miracle for someone else?  (small things are often miracles)
  • How do you feel is the best way to handle when someone gives testimony of these or similar stories, when they are oversimplified narratives, or even in the cases when the story is simply not true?
  • Is BH Roberts correct? Are you strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth?

  • Please note that while silver has some anti-infection properties when applied topically (outside the body), it has no scientific evidence for effectiveness when taken internally, and actually will cause a condition called argyria – turning the skin a purple-blue color.  I have seen this in person – the individuals look like a Smurf. 
  • With a hair dryer, you would severely irritate the mucosal lining of your nose before doing anything else. The virus also exists throughout your body, not just in sinuses and the nasal cavity.  
  • Vitamin C is supportive of immunity as part of a healthy diet, however, vitamin supplements have conflicting research support of effectiveness.  
  • To be clear, the messages from Pres. Nelson can be inherently helpful without any passed-along intimation that he specifically wrote this message just for this time. Similarly with historical miracles, a good kernel of truth can be negatively overshadowed by an oversimplified narrative.