In 2013, the LDS Church sent Elder Marlin Jensen and Richard Turley to Sweden to answer tough questions about church history. This was a pivotal moment in addressing faith crisis, and led to the Church putting out the Gospel Topics essays to answer thorny questions of Church history. We’ll learn more about this with Dr. Newell Bringhurst and Dr. Matt Harris. I’m excited to have them back on the show. They’ve put together an anthology on essays critiquing the Gospel Topics essays. We’ll learn more about the key players behind the scenes.
Matt: The topic that I gave or presented on that day was how the Gospel Topics Essays came about. The earlier sessions that Newell and I had worked on dealt with our respective content themes, Newell with polygamy, and I did the race one. Well, in this instance, at the MHA, I looked at the introduction and I recognized that there were many Church employees in the room that day, including the Church Historian, Elder Snow, who had inside knowledge about all of this stuff. So, I remember prefacing my remarks to the Church History employees, and also Elder Snow. I said, “Look, if there’s anything that I say today, that is incorrect, or you would like me to flesh out more of a detail or some lead to pursue, please let me know, this is the chance. This is why we do these conferences. I am eager and energetic to solicit your help.”
So, anyway, I presented the material and the first person who came up to me afterwards was Elder Snow. He pulled me aside and he said, “There’s something,” he said, “Congrats this is a great, I really enjoyed the presentation, the panel today”, and so that was nice. And he said, “There’s something I want you to know. Have you ever heard of the name Travis Stratford?” I said, “No, I have not.” For your viewers or listeners today, Travis Stratford is the person who really deserves most of the credit, much of the credit for getting the Church to release Church History essays. The introduction talks about that at length, how he does that. He works with the brethren, the General Authorities. He does a number of things. I guess we can talk about that in a second. But nonetheless, it was Elder Snow, who planted that name in my mind.
Then I remember telling Newell later on, maybe that night at dinner, “We’ve got some work to do. We got to find this Stratford guy, who is he.” So I went on this sleuthing mission to figure out who this Travis Stratford guy was.
It is important to note that Travis served a mission and is acquainted with Hans Mattson, the general authority Seventy whose faith crisis led to the Swedish Rescue, where Church leaders went to Sweden to help with faith crises of members in Sweden. We also talk about several surveys put together by Travis, as well as John Dehlin, that helped motivate the brethren to put together the Gospel Topics Essays.
The LDS Church began publishing the LDS Gospel topics essays in 2013, but are they hidden or public? Many church members don’t know about them. Why is that? Dr. Matt Harris & Dr. Newell Bringhurst will tell us more about how church leaders talked about the essays behind the scenes.
Matt: Some of the brethren, like Newell pointed out, didn’t want to release them. Now, the question is, why didn’t they want to release them?
The great Mormon historian Richard Bushman said it best. He said, “Look. If you acknowledge things about the past in these essays that contradicts other things that the Church has said before about them, that may cause people to question their faith.” So, it became really an interesting commentary about people leaving the faith over transparency issues, but then creating some position papers that were transparent and causing additional damage. That was the predicament they were in. So, several people told Newell and I, off the record, and we’ll keep names anonymous, but several people told Newell and I off the record, that that was the predicament they were in. They didn’t want to release them. They didn’t want to talk about them. They didn’t want to broadcast them. Newell mentioned something about Apostle Ballard a minute ago. He is one of the first people or leaders that I know of who talked about “This is a problem. We’ve kept these quiet. We now need to talk about them.” He’s told Seminary and Institute teachers. He gave this fireside I think, to the CES and Seminary and youth of the Church, I think. As I recall, he said that “We need to know these essays like the backs of our hands. Gone are the days where we can just say, ‘don’t worry about it,’” or that silly little metaphor, just put your doubts on the bookshelf. Then the bookshelf starts to get heavier and heavier and heavier, and before you know it, it collapses. So it was a period of couple of three years where the Gospel Topics Essays were slowly starting to eke out after having been concealed for a long time.
There was a story that Peggy Fletcher Stack did in the Salt Lake Tribune, this is I think, December of 2015, maybe, where there was a teacher in Hawaii–I don’t know, I think, early 30s, maybe. This brother in Hawaii was teaching a youth Sunday School class, and the race issue came up and he came prepared. He brought the race and priesthood essay from the Church’s website. So, just to remind you, he’s in Sunday School class at Church on Sunday teaching the youth using a document from the Church’s website to teach the youth revolving around, relating to the race issue. The bishop released him for, quote, “teaching from unauthorized sources.” Peggy Fletcher Stack writes about this story. She says, “Memo to Mormons. These essays had been approved at the highest levels of the Church.” They were not signed. But the vetting process that these essays went through was extensive.
Do you think the Church should highlight the essays better? Were you aware of the role the Swedish Rescue played in bringing forth the Gospel Topics essays?
If you’re interested in Matt and Newell’s book, here is a link on Amazon: