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Michael R. Ash
Thursday, October 17 2013

Betrayal and Our Relationship with Church History

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(This is the second half of an article based on a 2013 FairMormon Conference presentation)    

In any relationship, one of the things that seems to cause the most pain and anger is the feeling of betrayal. This same problem can surface in our relationship with the Church. For example, if a member finds information that conflicts with his or her assumptions about Church history, they may feel that the Church has lied. The pain and anger of feeling betrayed may take the leading role in the desire to leave the faith while the original troubling issue or issues may become secondary. A testimony lost at this stage can be hard to restore. What might have been sufficient answers earlier become insufficient once resentment—as a result of presumably being deceived—replaces faith. At this point logic and rationale take a back seat to emotion and answers to the original challenging issues are often met by a litany of other issues.

When potentially troubling information is presented in faith-promoting ways, the information—accompanied by the weight of a faithful context—often helps members understand difficult issues within a framework of their beliefs. When hostile sources present the same information, they frequently claim or imply that the Church hides this information from members. The critics supposedly are merely exposing a “cover-up.” This may add weight to the contra-LDS source and give the impression that they (the critics) are really the objective truth-seekers who are merely uncovering the facts. It’s often not the information that makes people leave, but the perception that the information was “hidden.” The feelings of deception and betrayal ultimately drive many people out more frequently than the discovery itself.

Is there any truth to the charge that the Church has withheld challenging details of the past? The answer is both yes and no.

Information can be withheld intentionally or unintentionally. First we will discuss the intentional reasons. In the context of early creations of LDS history, we find a tradition among most nineteenth-century biographies (the primary form of historical creations) that emphasized the positive aspects of heroic figures in the hopes of inspiring readers while often exaggerating or even fabricating anecdotes—such as George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree. Frequently, in cases of early American biographies involving religious or philosophical movements, the movement took center stage and the “history” was a tool for evangelizing the movement. Any information that might harm the movement was withheld from the biography/history.

Early Mormon historians, like many historians of their era, were not trained in history but were instead influenced by the English Puritans whose histories were written as faithful explanations of their events. These Puritans (as well as early LDS historians) believed that, like the Hebrews before them, they were God’s chosen people whose coming to America was part of God’s unfolding plan. “Their history and biography,” note three prominent historians, “told the saga of God’s dealings as seen in their personal lives. In short, Puritan biography and autobiography were simultaneously scripture as well as history.” “Accuracy and realism were …largely things of the future.”[i]

Apostle George Q. Cannon, whose faith-promoting stories were intended for the youth of the Church, wrote some of the more popular historical accounts of early Mormonism. Such works, like many other non-LDS works of the nineteenth century, were defensive in tone, biased, one-dimensional, and devoted to evangelizing a particular perspective. Today such writings are often referred to as hagiographies. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that the modern biography—critical, multi-dimensional, and objective (at least in principle)—“began to take its present form.”[ii] The early faith-promoting histories, however, became the source of historical knowledge for many Church members, launched similar popular works for decades to come, and influenced the versions of history that were taught in Church and official Church publications. While it can be said that early LDS histories intentionally withheld challenging and non-flattering information, in the context of the times this was not unique to Mormonism and is to be expected.

As for the unintentional censoring of information, we turn to the Church curriculum. Some ex-members complain that they never heard certain aspects of Church history from the Sunday School classes they attended. The purpose of Church curriculum, however, including Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society, is to support the mission of the Church: to bring people to Christ. Very little actual history is discussed in Church classes. Even every fourth year when the Doctrine and Covenants is taught (which includes some Church history) the primary goal of the class is to help members draw closer to God, seek the Spirit, and understand gospel principles.

As an international Church, the correlation of materials and teachings is aimed at harmonizing lessons and instruction, and in accommodating the tender new member with basic Gospel principals—those teachings which affect our relationships with God and our fellow brothers and sisters.

Thousands of virtually untrained volunteers, with varying degrees of gospel and historical knowledge and education (or lack thereof) endeavor to bring the Spirit into the classroom so that class members can be spiritually edified. While some Gospel Doctrine teachers may be knowledgeable enough to share detailed historical information, the manuals generally give basic historical outlines that specifically relate to lessons focusing on one or more gospel principles and how to apply those principals in the lives of members. In short, Church is a place for worship, spiritual edification, and enlightenment, not for in-depth historical discussion.

Despite the primary foci of Church curriculum and official Church publications, the vast majority of challenging issues have seen brief discussions or notes in a variety of LDS-targeted publications, conferences, and programs.

If these topics have been mentioned, why are some members shocked when they first encounter them in LDS-critical publications? Americans, unfortunately, are by and large, literate but uniformed. We tend to spend less time reading than watching TV or surfing the Internet. Several studies show that fewer Americans read books, and many are severely uninformed in regards to significant historical issues, current events, or scientific facts. According to Carl Sagan, 63% of Americans are unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first humans lived, and nearly half of American adults do not know that the Earth goes around the sun and that it takes a year to do so.[iii]

According to one author who wrote about the decline in American religious knowledge, 60% of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments and 50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.[iv] Another study claims that one third of Americans polled believe that evangelist Billy Graham delivered the Sermon on the Mount.[v]

With such non-reader ignorance, is it really any wonder that a number of Mormons are unfamiliar with some of the more difficult issues that have been discussed in Church publications? To repeat a comment generally attributed to Mark Twain: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”[vi]

The charge that the Church has hidden the truth has not landed on deaf ears.


  1. So, why can't we search the history on LDS.org? I find it lacking many historical truths. Another concern is why has it changed so much and how do we discuss it now? I understand that even prophets are imperfect, but why not share the real part of them and explain the consequence for the action such as the translation priveleges taken away. I would like to see more about the process of translation and Emma's awareness of polygamy and the responses to questions asked. Even now with an open line to revelation, I feel we should be encouraged to question and not be quietly disfellowshipped or disregarded. There have been inconsistencies, but the people are human. The messages are only given as what we are ready for, but answers can and do come. I do believe that Joseph Smith restored the gospel, but I believe he, like many others had points that he was not so humble. That was partially reason for sections like D&C 121. He faltered and got back up again. We can all learn more and do better.
  2. If we spent more time studying the scriptures and serving our Savior, any seeming discrepancies in our church history would become quickly irrelevant. If we build our testimony on the rock of our Savior and HIS doctrine, we will not be shaken by such trivialities. One day ALL will be revealed and the facts will not alter the divine nature of Christ's church.
  3. Well said and done Brother Ash. Thank You, Bob Cowart
  4. Wow, great article. I love the Twain quotation. It applies in so many areas of life.
  5. Great article. I teach an "adult education class" (essentially Institute) for any interested adults in my area. I get to choose what to teach each year, and felt very strongly in the fall of 2010 that Church History should be our topic for the following two years. I read many books and hundreds of articles in BYU Studies, Journal of Mormon History, Utah Historical Quarterly, FAIR's wiki and many other sources to become familiar with the material I needed to be able to teach. I loved it, and although there were topics that were challenging, I realized that if I just kept asking questions and trying to understand the experiences of the people involved (in their own time, culture, worldview, etc--not my 21st century one!), that every topic I was worried about made sense and I could tell the stories without apology. The Church is true, but we humans have prejudices, blind spots and our own lenses through which we see the world--and make decisions. We need to forgive the limitations of our predecessors just as we hope that our children will forgive us. Thanks for this article--I know we will do better as time goes on. I actually much prefer "warts and all" history--I learn far more from it than the prettied up stories.
  6. Thank you for pointing out that we are, essentially, an illiterate society. We much rather prefer the easy, sensationalism of media that performs for us, instead of sitting down with a book, or researching an issue on our own. All this history is out there, readily accessible, but it requires effort.
  7. JA, you can find much church history on LDS.org. Just look under resources and click on Church History. The Scriptures in Context gives a lot of background on the D&C revelations. You can also access the Joseph Smith Papers there.
  8. Great article. The final point says it all: Isn't it marvelous what the Lord has done, and continues to do, through imperfect, selfish, doubting and often whining creatures? Let me add another quote from Neal A. Maxwell: "...rocks can reach prophets, for they are proximate. But few are seen hurling stones skyward; they may have a grievance with God, but they also have had some experience with gravity". I suggest anyone having a problem with discrepancies or omissions in Church History should do a little Family History research - see how accurate and straightforward some of those stories are!
  9. To me, the only thing of importance is how the Holy Ghost works with me, to jump over potential stumbling blocks. There is much in Church history that's inaccurate. It was, after all, written or recorded by fallible human beings. God is infallible. We are not. I'm reminded of an event some 50 years ago when an Apostle rudely pushed his way through a line of waiting souls at an event in the Tabernacle. He was fallible. I'm also aware that Ezra Taft Benson was arrogant and shockingly rude on occasion, when I translated for him in Germany. He was fallible. God is not. We should spend more time seeking information through the help of the Holy Ghost, than through fallible historians, within the church or outside of it.
  10. Why the assumption that those who got disaffected when they learned more troublesome affects of church history, must have learned by hostile websites. I never looked at a hostile or anti website in all my research onto chuch history. I only used reputable scholars and church publications (journal of discourses etc). It was the bad apologetics that I encountered that did the most damage to my testimony , not that I found out basic discrepancies after 8 years of seminary and institute .
  11. Recently I updated my resume. Everything listed, described or attributed was factual and correct. I chose not to include my failures, shortcomings and weaknesses. I don't feel an employer will feel betrayed if they hire me. I think they will find I am everything represented in my resume...but in the flesh they will notice some imperfections.
  12. Good article. I agree with teaching in depth history in Sunday classes. I find it often leads to discussions that at very least prevents the class members from feeling the spirit. No other non-Mormon church I have ever visited spent much if any time teaching history of the church in detail. Why is it expected/required of us? I've read enough history to know that no perfect person ever existed in this church. That fact is actually comforting to such an imperfect person as me.
  13. Thank you Brother Ash for a well balanced discussion of the issue. For me, the telling of our history with some admission of fallibility allows me to identify more with my heroes. Since this is the Gospel of moving fallen man toward the Celestial Kingdom, it gives me more hope that I too can go where my heroes have gone.
  14. Thank you Brother Ash for a well balanced discussion of the issue. For me, the telling of our history with some admission of fallibility allows me to identify more with my heroes. Since this is the Gospel of moving fallen man toward the Celestial Kingdom, it gives me more hope that I too can go where my heroes have gone.
  15. Great article. I found myself surprised by what I didn't know at one point and struggled to know why some historical facts were they way they were - and not discussed openly. It took me a couple of weeks to get through my struggle, but in the end I'm glad I went through it. I realized that, just as the author says, most things can be understood if taken in the context of the time and circumstances - which takes some time to do. Some things have to be taken on faith. I, however, want to give my own perspective on some of these things to my kids before someone else does so I have been discussing some of these situations with them.
  16. Ugh. Can we all agree that LDS Church history is a patchwork of deeds mostly good, some bad? What is the point of this tedious conversation that seems to span decades? What will it take for closure? Not one of us is asked to base our testimonies on Church history, so why the perpetual navel gazing?
  17. I look forward to our manuals being updated. Anyone know if this is happening soon? The D&C/Church History one has a lot of stories that scholars like BYU studies have since said 'that's not at all how it happened'. I think it hurts our credibility to leave those things in our manuals and classes, unchallenged. Perhaps it will be like Come, Follow Me- web-based and easily update-able by the church.
  18. We are a largely illiterate society, and we are not trained in critical thinking. Every historical source has some human bias. One of the amazing things about the Book of Mormon is the pathos depicted in the writings of Mormon and Moroni, yet the lack of "romantic" era trappings that an ordinary 19th century author would have wrapped them in. We need to practice looking at history without strong "presentist" leanings. Many LDS church members and teachers could discuss the gospel in much more detail, and frame it much more in the time period it comes from, but when you are spoonfeeding people, and I'm sad to say, that's what we're doing so much of the time, you don't give them steak--totally impractical. Actually, compared to the average Catholic or Protestant congregation, oiur members are much more knowledgeable about their beliefs and even the beliefs of others, but it is possible to pass through the teachings, without having the teachings pass through you. The information is out there, and, in more detail and power than ever before. A diamond, a ruby, and an emerald all have one thing in common. To the untrained eye they all just look like rocks.
  19. It says this is part two - I keep trying to fin part one.... My sister feels betrayed by our history... She is really hung up on the polygamy and why it was done. We claim marriage between a man and woman is so scared and beautiful but have multiple wives cheapens it.. The bible says no multiple wives as it does Jacob (which Jospeh translated) yet this was okay? She has gone to Stake presidents asking and trying to get answers to which no one can answer. Then we claim not to practice it any longer but a man and women can be sealed together in the temple for all time and eternity.. They get divorced and he remarries in the temple. He then will be sealed to both wives at the same time until the ex wife remarries herself to a new man in the temple then and only then will the two be separated from each other. I know her testimony is shake right now and everything we have read and tried to show her doesn't answer her questions. She has several friends her age with the same "history" questions and feelings of betrayal who are all leaving the church because of it... With so many people having the same thoughts and leaving the church, could not a conference talk be spoken about such issues and the why's? How do we help those that are struggling and feeling betrayed??? I would love to read part one of this article too!!!

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