The new Mormon history – Grant Palmer

I just spent a very enjoyable afternoon listening to the podcasts of John Dehlin from a couple of years ago when he interviewed Grant Palmer, the author of An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins and The Incomparable Jesus. For those who don’t know, John Dehlin was the Executive Director of Sunstone Magazine.

His brother is Joel Dehlin, the CIO of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. John spent several years interviewing Mormon scholars and publishing their interviews on the now defunct Mormon Stories. I think we are all very much indebted to John for the monumental work he completed over the years.

Grant Palmer spent 34 years as an employee of the Church Educational System, or CES, before resigning shortly before the publication of his controversial book. Grant was a True Believing Mormon until the time of the Mark Hoffman forgeries and murders in 1985. With an MA in History, Grant began an intensive study of early Mormon History for his PhD program.

Studying Mormon history

Now here’s where the story gets interesting. We are always encouraged by the Brethren to study the gospel. For various reasons, most members of the Church do not. Most are just too busy living their lives. Those who do have a serious study program eventually encounter what is now being called the new Mormon history. Don’t get confused. It really is the same history.

The problem is that it is new to those who are discovering it for the first time. As I have written previously, I am constantly amazed by the number of people who write how shocked they were when they discover some items in Mormon history that they did not know before. This is happening to new members and long time members of the church like Grant Palmer.

As Grant studied Mormon History he discovered what he called, the rest of the story. Even though he had been teaching orthodox church history all his life, he simply had not been exposed to some of the things that are not taught in the seminary and institute program. It’s not that they are hidden. It’s just that they are not talked about openly in the church, even today.

A faithful history

What is the difference between a faithful history and a faith-promoting history? There shouldn’t be any difference. A faithful history should report the events as they transpired, warts and all. This approach is respectful of the intelligence of the student of history, trusting them to be able to come to their own conclusions. A faith-promoting history may leave a few things out.

I think the church is getting better about acknowledging some aspects of our history that have previously been a bit obscure. I will always maintain that there has been no cover-up, but I know that the church has been very careful to ensure that what is presented by the missionaries and in our classrooms is faith-promoting. This may mean leaving some stuff untaught.

The problem of course is when the investigator, new member or even the missionary is handed a copy of Grant Palmer’s book or when they do their due diligence in researching the church on the Internet. The odds of finding faithful interpretations of history online are getting slimmer every day. That’s one reason why I have changed my blog to focus on these controversial issues.

Why this is difficult for some

Everyone who studies Mormon history has to come to some sort of conclusion how they are going to deal with this issue of discovering previously unknown and surprising things. I will always be eternally grateful for a mother who exposed me to these things at an early age. I read extensively from her library which included Fawn Brodie‘s No Man Knows my History.

When I first started reading blog entries and forum posts about peep stones and Joseph’s multiple wives I would scratch my head and wonder why it was such a big deal. Doesn’t everybody already know this stuff? Apparently not. When non-orthodox ideas about the origin of the Book or Mormon are discussed, it sometimes amuses me how worked up people can get.

I try to be understanding, really I do. I try to put myself in the place of the new investigator or new member who is reading this stuff for the first time. Sure, some of it seems really far-fetched and other parts are easy to misunderstand, especially where we don’t have the full story. I have come to the conclusion that some history students are missing something very important.

The missing ingredient

I’ve thought long and hard about why this stuff doesn’t bother me. What do I have that others don’t that allows me to deal with this stuff without it affecting my testimony or my faith? I don’t think I’m any different from any other life-long member of the Church. I don’t have any special claim to protection from the very convincing arguments of the intellectuals and scholars.

And why doesn’t this stuff bother the majority of the members of the church? Ignorance? I suppose that may be part of it. But when they are exposed to it, nothing detrimental happens. My wife is a perfect example. Just when I think I have found something in our history that nobody could interpret as being faith-promoting, she listens and quietly responds, “so what?”

What Carol and I have, and what most members of the church have that protects us from the doubts that can be caused by exposure to the non-Orthodox new Mormon history is revelation. Our testimonies are not based on an intellectual understanding of things and they never were. There are things that our heart just knows even if they do not make sense to our minds.

Summary and conclusion

Now, I’m not saying that those who doubt their testimonies when they learn about these things haven’t experienced personal revelation. Wait, I guess I am. Am I saying that Grant Palmer has not experienced personal revelation about the way the church is presenting our history? I can’t speak for Grant. I enjoyed listening to his story first-hand. He sounds like a very nice person.

But I can say that I have specifically prayed about this issue and have received a comforting witness to my soul that the way the Brethren are handling our history is fine with me. I do not claim to know the mind or will of the Lord about how things may change in the future in this area. I trust the Brethren. I sustain them and believe they are doing the will of the Lord.

I have concluded that this is just one of those tests through which some people have to pass. The revelation of which I speak is not about the history. It is about trusting the Lord. It is about knowing that the prophet and apostles really do act on behalf of the Lord in directing the church. My testimony is not based on intellect alone. It may not be logical to some but it is real to me.

14 thoughts on “The new Mormon history – Grant Palmer”

  1. Count me under the legions of people that was absolutely shocked, stunned, completely baffled at not only that these events happened, but I felt betrayed, lied to and it feels like the church is dishonest with its members.I think that the church is doing a disservice to its members by not making church history more available. I understand that perhaps Sunday school might not be the appropriate time to study such topics, but I think that History of the Church volumes and Journals of discourses should be more readily available for people.The biggest damage that the church can do in my view is try to keep hiding these facts, as the age of the internet will bring these things into light regardless what they try to do.The church no longer has a monopoly on the control of information and there is nothing they can do about it, so they should provide more resources through the church.

  2. Hi Zelph,Thanks for visiting my blog again and reading this post. I’d like to comment on your statement that the church is hiding the history. I just don’t see it and haven’t seen it in the past. Can you provide examples? How is the church still hiding the controversial issues?My mother owned an LDS Bookstore. We had the Journal of Discourses and the seven volume History of the Church as well as B.H. Robert’s History of the Church in our home. I grew up reading these things way back in the 70’s. Haven’t they always been available for purchase?At what point in your church life did you first start learning about the Book of Abraham papyri and the use of peep stones for example? I distinctly remember learning about them in High School seminary. Maybe it’s different in California or maybe I just had some really liberal teachers.

  3. Tim,Thanks!I agree with you. There are so many historical volumes on the LDS published each year that I cannot keep up on the reading. The Mormon History Association (a professional academic organization) is extremely active. Where is the evidence of suppression?History reveals human nature, and human nature is flawed. Where is the news in that? Not all human events can be uplifting. Any observant individual knows such things.Consequently, history can supplement one’s testimony, but it cannot be the source of it.I agree that Church members need to know their history better, but they also need to know their scriptures better. First things first. The mission of the Church is the gospel, and history is just an auxiliary. I LOVE history… but I love the gospel more.

  4. Kevin Christensen

    When I read Palmer, and when I listened to the interviews with John Dehlin, I could not help but wonder why Palmer had not mentioned literally hundreds of important sources, books, and studies relevant to his claims. I notice that Jesus said, “Seek and ye shall find, ask and it shall be given, knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Nowhere does he say, “Blessed are they who shall sit like lumps, for they shall be spoonfed, and never ever suprised or disappointed by anyone or anything.”When I decided to seek more and better information about LDS scripture and history, I got the answers from church sources. For me the church is the assembly, the gathering the people. So Nibley, and Richard L. Anderson, and Dialogue, and FARMS, and Juanita Brooks, and Arrington, and BYU Studies and Sunstone, and Mormon Miscellaneous, are all the church just as much as CES material. Nothing that Palmer presented was new to me. I’d learned it all from LDS sources who did a far better job of contextualizing than he does. And a lot that he completely ignores is old for me because I have kept my eyes open. It seems to me that he is targeting naive readers, who will not question his claim to authority.What bothers me about Palmer is his claim to give us the real thing while neglecting so much. For example, when he claims that Joseph didn’t invent a claim about angelic priesthood restoration until he needed to bolster his authority in response to troubles in Kirtland in 1835, why does he forget to mention the first paragraph of Joseph’s 1832 history, a document that he refers to elsewhere? When he discusses King Benjamin’s discourse, how did a self-styled insider overlook the 600 page volume of studies that FARMS put out in 1998? Why not mention even Nibley’s 1957 chapter on “Old World Ritual in the New World?” When he discusses the first vision, how is it that he fails to mention the various studies dating back to 1970published in the Improvement Era, BYU Studies, Dialouge, the Ensign, Desret book, and elsewhere? Even I have published things he ought to have considered. When Dehlin asks him, if all that you say is true, “why bother to stay a member?” why is it that I’ve published better answers than Palmer offers. (See, for example, my Meridian essay on “A Model of Mormon Spiritual Experience.”) Palmer stays, he says, “To reform it” presumably in his own skeptical image.His The Imcomparable Jesus, I found had some charming stories, but I also found it rather pedestrian.

  5. Hi Tim. Perhaps it is because of over-protective parents growing up, perhaps it is because people in the church were a little more liberal in the 70’s. Whatever the case, this has been my experience.I was born in 1979, so I wasn’t aware of much until the late 80’s. My experience growing up was that we were only to read church approved materials from Deseret Bookstore regarding anything about the church. I have never heard anyone encourage me to read about church history, except what is in the pearl of great price and priesthood manuals. Needless to say, I lived a very sheltered life in the church. Right before my mission, I went to an institute class on the Pearl of Great Price. We dedicated about a month on the Book of Abraham specifically. I was fascinated by the story of Mr. Chandler and mummies and papyri manuscripts. I asked the teacher what happened to the papyri and she said that it was most likely destroyed in the Chicago fires. I remember thinking how awesome it would have been if we had the papyri documents to prove to the world that Joseph Smith could translate Egyptian hieroglyphics before anyone else in America. If we just had the original papyri documents, Joseph Smith would be vindicated and the world would have no excuse. I remember thinking that it must have been God’s will that the papyri documents were destroyed in the Chicago fires so that we can rely on faith and not just evidence. Of course like everyone, I had a few doubts here and there, but there was nothing to be too concerned about.Without giving an entire book on my life history, it is only recently as in the last 3-4 years that I first started learning about things such as lack of archaeological evidence, DNA and Native Americans, Peep Stones, etc. I had already known that Joseph Smith was a polygamist, but did not know the ugly ugly circumstances surrounding some of his wives like Fanny Alger for example. So what was devastating was the initial shock. I felt a little bit of solace in apologetic sites like and However, the explanations usually drew more questions than answers. I was unsure which way to go until finally what did it for me was reading about the Book of Breathings discovery in 1967. I decided to look into it further, and after extensive study, countless hours of research and looking at both the criticisms and the defense, I came to the conclusion that the evidence was pretty clear, enough to convict someone in a court of law for fraud. I also found that the defenses for the Book of Abraham were unconvincing and fell way short. Most of the explanations once again drew more questions, like re-defining the word “translation”. That makes you wonder how the Book of Mormon was “translated”. I am 100% convinced that the papyri discovered in 1967 is the same one that Joseph Smith used to translate into the Book of Abraham. There were other manuscripts that were in Joseph’s possession that have not been recovered, but because of facsimile 1, and because I believe that the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar was in fact a literal translation of the characters from the Book of Breathings text. I find all arguments to the contrary absurd, and in fact call into question any scripture if scribes are so unreliable, they were used for the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants as well. So that is where I am coming from. As I said, I don’t know if it is just because I have lived a sheltered life than the norm, or maybe you have lived a more liberal life than the norm, but this has been my personal experience.I was always told to stay away from anything “anti-Mormon” because it is like pornography for your soul and a wicked and evil abomination filled with terrible lies. So you can see my disappointment when in many cases, they had the historical facts on their side.

  6. Kevin, we all shape things to fit our view. We can read all the historical documents and draw our own conclusion based on all the evidence and will select the parts that fit this view the best. The church does it as well.You said “When I decided to seek more and better information about LDS scripture and history, I got the answers from church sources” You do see the problem with that statement, don’t you?When I decided to seek out information, I decided that the best way was to face the criticisms. Find out the absolute worst things people have against the church. Show me what you’ve got, because remember “truth can withstand any degree of scrutiny”.

  7. Kevin Christensen

    zelph said: [Kevin] said “When I decided to seek more and better information about LDS scripture and history, I got the answers from church sources” and then Zelph comments, “You do see the problem with that statement, don’t you?”Perhaps you are presuming that I have not faced the criticism, but have merely gone to church sources. If so, you are mistaken. Long ago, I read Brodie, the Tanners, the Godmakers, things like New Approaches, the Roberts Study, the Word of God, The New Mormon Challenge, etc. But I have found in considering such sources that consistently I learn far more about the arguments of the critics from the apologists than I learn of the strengths of apologetic arguments from the critics. When I say that I got answers from church sources, I specify that I consider “church” to be wider than corrolated institutional materials. For me “church” is the gathering of believers. Because I have been able find out anything I wanted from LDS sources once I decided to seek it, I have never felt shocked stunned, baffled or lied to by the church. I have run across members or sources that know or present less than others, but I don’t find that shocking or disturbing. There is room for all kinds of people in the gathering. The gospel net gathers all kinds. I’ve never thought that either office or the Deseret Book imprint bestowed ominiscience. And I can think of several issues relative to the papyrus and the Book of Abraham that I find important you have not mentioned here.On the other hand, Palmer’s book irritated me to no end because of the material I knew that he completely ignores. For me, his claim to be an honest insider is undermined by what I know from my perspective as another insider.On “shaping things to fit our view,” I’d recommend my long essay in RMMB 7:2, “Paradigms Crossed.” Thomas Kuhn observes that “anomaly emerges against a background of expectations.” One of the things I have done whenever I ran across something I did not expect is to ask myself, “What should I expect?” Very often, the problem is unrealistic expectations. For instance, a demand for perfection, by definition, makes imperfection decisive. Asking whether Joseph Smith’s inspiration is real is a very different thing than asking whether it is perfect. An entirely different approach is called for, and an entirely different set of information is invoked to resolve the question. I noticed long ago that the Tanner’s built their whole career on challenging the assumption that the LDS faith is exclusive, ideal, and perfect. Yet D&C 1 expressly rejects the claims of exclusive truth, ideal leadership, perfect doctrine or behavior. So, from my perspective, they wasted their lives.Kevin ChristensenPittsburgh, PA

  8. Kevin, I agree it was presumptuous of me to assume that you had never looked at the criticisms, but that is what it sounded like to me. So if that is the case, then my apologies and I respect your view.It is my view that if someone looks at both sides and looks at all the historical facts and decides that the LDS church is for them, that is fine. I just think that it is unfair and a bit condescending to base one’s religious belief on one side with only being presented with maybe 20% of the story and have it be presented in a way that makes you believe it was 100% of the story. As I have said, I can’t claim that there is a church-wide cover-up because I don’t have any information or data. However, I can make an observation from my experience as an active member growing up. It could have been over-protective parents, or maybe my parents were and still are naive to many of these things, but this is has been my experience of the church as presented to me.I would like to think that the church is a little more transparent, however I just don’t see it. I don’t feel like I can approach church leadership with deep doctrinal questions.

  9. Hi Zelph,I appreciate you sharing your background in the church. It helps me understand where you are coming from a little bit better. I can relate to what you are saying about not being exposed to much of this stuff growing up – from the official channels. By that I think you will agree that your priest’s quorum adviser or your Elders quorum president is not going to suggest that you read the Tanners or Fawn Brodie or Grant Palmer or D. Michael Quinn.However, I have never heard the brethren say that we should not seek to deepen our understanding of the gospel and the history of the church. In fact, my experience has been the exact opposite. They are constantly encouraging us to study but it seems to fall on deaf ears of about 90% of the church. There are just some things that you can only find out on your own.I think that those who discourage honest and sincere investigation do so out of fear. They have made the valid point that our time in this life is so short that why waste it in pursuing the opposite point of view. I guess I am a bit of a contrarian in that regard. I have always felt that reading the other side has improved my position, if I do it with a humble heart. Sure there is danger, but I read in your comments that you are an intelligent individual, capable of making your own decisions.I sense that you have fairly settled the question of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Breathings in your own mind so I won’t go there. I too have read much in this area and have decided otherwise. I wrote about that in my post on Objections to the Book of Abraham. It is a subject that is hotly debated.Anyway, I just wanted to point out that your experience in not being exposed to the opposite points of view in your formative years was probably not healthy. As I have pointed out in several posts here, I had a mother who encouraged me to read what others have written in dissent. She then helped me draw my own conclusions. She was not afraid of what others had written.So thanks for visiting my blog and sharing your comments. I have enjoyed visiting your blog and wish you well on your journey. Your honesty and candor is refreshing. I have written elsewhere that I have sen no evidence of a cover up. I just feel the brethren were trying to fulfill the mandate of the church to make it as appealing as possible. If that means that you don’t share everything right up front, then I guess I can accept that. The leaders of the church are not perfect but they did what they thought was best. The Internet has sure changed everything, hasn’t it? Cheers!

  10. Thanks for the kind words.One small point — I resigned from Sunstone in December 2007.

  11. Hi John,Thanks for visiting my blog. At the risk of breaking a cardinal rule in blogging (tough, it’s my blog), I changed the wording in the original post to past tense. The correction is greatly appreciated.

  12. Dear Zelph,My heart goes out to you. I know if I lost my own faith (I am an evangelical, not LDS) it would be extremely traumatic for me. I thank you for your honesty.I do not think it is just your experience. Mormonism, so far as I have seen, is notorious for a misleading vaneer. For example, there is a professer at BYU, I forget his name, who tells his class, when asked questions about exaltation, to respond with answers about the restoration. The video clip is on you tube. I believe the clip is call “BYU Prof tells students to lie” if you’d like to look it up. This is a diversionary trick which would normally be used so that you can avoid answering an inconvenient question while making the questioner THINK that their question has been answered. In other words, it IS a cover-up of the truth.What I am trying to say is that your experience is not unique.Furthermore, an honest examination of all relevant data CANNOT end in a person, in good conscience, remaining a Mormon. You have taken the bold step in following the evidence where it leads. It hurt a great deal, I presume, but you did it and you are to be commended for this.For example, it is pretty clear that the Book of Abraham, as a translation, is a fraud. And the apologetic counter-response (see the relevant articles at the fair site) are, quite frankly, laughable. How Tim could learn about these problems in high school, and not loose his faith is beyond the powers of my comprehension. I say this with all due respect to my friend Tim.The point I am trying to make now is that there is extremely good evidence to reject Mormonism. You saw that evidence and you accepted it. I also think that there is just as good evidence for the truth of Evangelical Christianity. I am not sure where you stand now, with respect to religion, and can appreciate that it may be hard to embrace one faith after your personal experiences with another. Perhaps now is not the time to bring this up. But if you’d like to hear what I have to say about these matters, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached through my own blogspot blog. ” evangelicalapologist” is at the beginning of the address. I’ll leave it at that until I hear from you (if you do contact through my blog).But I had some questions I would like to ask you. Thank you in advance for your answers.First, all Mormons, it is claimed, have a personal testimony. Before you ‘apostatised’ you presumably had one as well. In my own conversations with Mormons, that tends to be the main evidence they give for their faith. No matter what objective evidence I present to them against Mormonism, they can always retreat to that testimony. Religious truth is spiritual, they may say, and it must be spiritually discerned so you cannot approach it scientifically. When you started examining your faith, eventually leading to your deconversion, why didn’t you remain a Mormon and just ground your faith on your personal testimony?A related question, a burning in the bossom is supposed to prove Mormonism true. You presumably had the burning in the bossom, yet you now hold Mormonism as false. So the burning in the bossom is apparently not infallible proof of Mormonism’s truth claims. My question, then, is how do you now understand the personal testimony you once had? What was the burning in the bossom?Next, what got you to question your faith in the first place? You say you lived quite a sheltered life, so why did you start bucking the status quo and examine the issues for yourself?My final question, what was it like emotionally, psychologically, and socially to leave the faith? Did you go through formal disfellowshipping by way of trial, for example. I am genuinely interested in hearing more about your personal experiences. However, if this last question is too personal, please neglect to answer it.Thank you for your time, dear Zelph.

  13. Peripheral Visionary

    Tim,I realize I am late to this discussion, but thought I would comment anyway. :)I do not think that the Church hides its history; it has always been there for anyone to discover, as the “new historians” have found, and the vast majority of the records of the Church are open to examination. I do think there is some substance to the charge of “misleading”, but I would lay that at the feet of popular Mormon historians and artists, who have consistently peddled a “soft focus” view of Church leaders that is not fully representative. Richard L. Bushman has been a major departure from that tendency, to his credit (and it should be noted that Church members have embraced his very open and honest view of Church history.)But it does seem that the controversry regarding the rediscovery of history is a distinctly Mormon issue. Other religions have their dark pasts, but they do not seem to receive the same level of attention. I find it interesting that an incident such as the massacre of the Hivites by Simeon and Levi has received little attention from critics of Judeo-Christianity, when the Mountain Meadows Massacre has been the source of no end of complaints directed at the Church (and Brigham Young must surely have said to Cedar City, as Jacob to Simeon and Levi, that “Ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of the land”.) Why the disproportionate attention–and why do members of the Church find it to be so troubling? (I should note that I don’t know of anybody who has left Judaism or Christianity as a result of reading Genesis 34.)At its core, the problem may be that people simply cannot accept the possibility of God working through fallible, ordinary men. There is no tolerance for imperfection, mistake, or even misunderstanding. The result is “Dead Prophets Syndrome”, whereby the dead prophets–whose errors can conveniently be forgotten, whose lives can be mythologized, and who can be raised to near-deity status–are held to be closer to God than a living prophet. Along the same lines, any Church composed of, and led by, fallible mortals is declared to be false, as God would presumably never tolerate such imperfection.The scriptures, of course, declare otherwise–not that God does not tolerate imperfection, but that he will nevertheless work with fallible mortals “for [his] name’s sake.” The errors in the scriptures, the errors of God’s chosen leaders, the misunderstandings and misbehaviors of his followers are all testament, not to the falseness of the truth or to the non-existence of God, but to the weaknesses of the followers of the truth.Somebody recently made an astute comment that the Church was at an inherent disadvantage because its history was so recent that it was open to examination, as opposed to the origins of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, which have fallen into mythology. I do not see that as a disadvantage, only as a reminder of the weakness of man, even of those who put their faith in God and are called to do his work.

  14. “Furthermore, an honest examination of all relevant data CANNOT end in a person, in good conscience, remaining a Mormon.” Fwiw, such simplistic, condemnatory (“anyone who remains Mormon is inherently a liar”) statements bother me, no matter how sincere they are – especially since that exact same statement can be made about evangelism and Catholicism and any other -ism, if the standard is either strict logic or subjective in nature. Kettles and black pots and all that jazz.

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