I have been listening again to John Dehlin’s interviews with Richard Bushman on my iPod on the days that I travel to the office. Thanks again John, for bringing the archives back. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: those podcasts are now an invaluable part of history. I’ve enjoyed each one and have listened to some of them multiple times, including the Bushman interviews.
I have also been re-reading Rough Stone Rolling, especially the early chapters dealing with the First Vision, the visit of the angel Moroni and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. I have thought deeply about this fascinating part of our early LDS history but John’s probing questions to Richard Bushman have got me thinking again about several of these rather complex issues.
The difficult questions of history
If you’re a student of our history then you know what the questions are and have most likely formulated your own answers long ago. I know I have. Through my blogging activities of the past couple of years I have been able to present my own answers to many of those more difficult questions. I have also been called on to defend my answers by those who don’t agree with them.
Here are just a few of those issues I have blogged about: multiple versions of the First Vision, God is an exalted man, God has a body of flesh and bone, the seer stone in the hat, objections to the Book of Abraham, the burning of the bosom, Joseph Smith was a Mason, plural wives of Joseph Smith, the new Mormon history, the only true and living church and Mountain Meadows.
Not taught in the classroom
As I’ve written in several of my blog posts of the past, I feel very blessed and grateful that I had an advantage that many who have studied our history did not have. I was exposed to almost all of the troublesome issues early in life and had come to understand even in High School that what is taught in the LDS classroom does not always tell the whole story of what really happened.
From the time I was fifteen I realized that there are some issues that are not taught in depth in our Sunday Schools, Seminaries and Institutes and certainly are not brought up from the pulpit. This was not a problem for me. I learned about the rest of the story by reading books that my mother provided for us in the family library. Although a convert, mother loved our unique LDS history.
Information from other sources
I hope John doesn’t mind, but I think his story is illustrative of what has happened to many of our young people in the church who have discovered at a later point in their lives things they didn’t know about our history. After the shock wore off, a feeling of betrayal replaced it. As John said, this feeling came because they loved and trusted the church too much, not too little.
In John’s case, he discovered many of these troublesome issues when he was called on to teach seminary. He studied the material in great depth in order to be prepared as he taught. He also supplemented his study of the official CES material with what he discovered on the Internet. And there is the big difference between my experience with this difficult material and John’s.
Learning Mormon history
You can learn more about the issues that trouble some of our members and investigators through a simple Google search than I could through many years of reading selected books provided by my mother. However, what you usually find on the Internet is someone’s interpretation of what they read and very little original research. That can taint the way you learn Mormon history
From mother’s library, I read books like No Man Knows my History by Fawn Brodie, Family Kingdom and the Kingdom or Nothing by Samuel Taylor, Great Basin Kingdom by Leonard Arrington and Joseph Smith, the First Mormon by Donna Hill. We also had the History of the Church and the Journal of Discourses in our home library in which I looked things up.
Learn details of history in personal study
My point is that I had the luxury of slowly reading one of these historical books, discussing what I had learned with my mother and then pondering why I had not learned these kind of details in my seminary classes. I came to the conclusion that there just wasn’t enough time to bring up in that 50 minute early morning Seminary class some of the more interesting stuff that I had read.
Having taught Seminary later in life, I have been impressed with the clear direction from CES that we are not to teach some of the more complex and difficult parts of our history. I think I can understand why and in fact, agree with this direction to teach our history in a manner that is both uplifting and faith-promoting. But leaving major parts of it out can cause problems for some.
It is human nature to discuss
One of the methods of those who are opposed to the work of the LDS Church is to present us with shocking statements about our faith, our beliefs or our history and then to accuse us of not wanting to accept the truth. It doesn’t matter how we respond – shock, indignation, dismay, anger, or even kindness, their desire is not to help us understand the truth but to destroy our faith.
That’s the problem with researching the church on the Internet. It’s common to want to discuss our new discoveries with others. That’s how we solidify our understanding – by sharing things with others and evaluating their response. Our young people turn to online discussion groups or forums because many of the older members of the church have never learned about these things.
True believing Mormons who know
Unfortunately, it is rare to find someone online who knows our history well and has no problem with the more difficult parts of that history. In fact, it is rare to find someone in your own circle of contacts who really knows our history. We are a church of lay leadership. There is simply no requirement that you know the history, only that you believe, are worthy and want to help others.
That’s why John’s interview with Dr. Bushman is so helpful to those who are struggling with understanding and accepting all the warts and imperfections of our history. Rough Stone Rolling is a great resource that tells our story without trying to whitewash it or cover anything up. Dr. Bushman is careful to provide the complete story with contemporary sources from that time.
A safe place to discuss our history
I don’t know if John has found the answer to what I feel was his best question. He asked, “Where can we go to find a safe forum in which to discuss our history?” In my experience, Sunstone is not the place. I think they tried forums but they didn’t take off. And the Mormon History Association has wonderful conferences and publications, but no online forums.
There are a plethora of online forums to which we can turn to discuss the church. I have listed them in a previous essay. You just have to choose what level of moderation you are going to accept. Some strive to keep the disaffected Mormons out, but what if you are simply going through a temporary crisis of faith? Who can you trust to guide you through your explorations?
Summary and conclusion
The Internet has done amazing things for the church. It has helped us share the message of the restoration in a way that allows us to reach millions, even billions with the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. It allows us to present our faith, our doctrine and our history in a manner that is faith-promoting and uplifting. That has been my objective in the essays I write.
John prepared and shared a wonderful presentation on how to stay in the church in spite of the loss of faith. I highly recommend it to all, no matter what your current level of belief. An updated version is available at the staylds forums, which I missed when I compiled my list of LDS-related forums. Thanks to John Dehlin for his work in helping those with a crisis of faith.