Weighing Mormonism: Thoughts for Mormon Doubters (and Readers of the New York Times)

The New York Times and Shaken Faith in Sweden

The arguments that weigh against Mormonism and the LDS story of a divine Restoration came to the front page of the New York Times recently in an article about Mormon doubters, including a former Area Authority from Sweden, Hans Mattson, who found negative information on the Web which undermined his faith. While I’m surprised that this would be a front page story for the Times now that the election is over, I personally find it interesting and important for Mormons to understand. The story is “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt” by Laurie Goodstein, July 20, 2013.

According to Goodstein, Brother Mattson didn’t get the help or answers he felt he needed when he raised some concerns that other Swedish people had, so he began his own online investigation and soon had his faith undermined. I would say that he experienced the phenomenon that Michael Ash calls “shaken faith syndrome” in his excellent book of that name. The Times describes the troubling results of his search:

But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.

This paragraph was especially painful for me to read. How can this happen? I suspect that the reporter is missing something here, and perhaps it was details of polygamy that shook Brother Mattson more than merely discovering that there was polygamy. After all, on my mission in Switzerland and Germany, not all that remote from Sweden, polygamy seemed like the first question that came up with many educated investigators, so how could our own members in the north not know of it? Yet it is said that there are members in various parts of the Church who don’t yet realize this.

I do recognize that the Church is not keen on that aspect of history and does not do much to bring it up these days since, frankly, I think we are all glad it’s over. But our link to polygamy in the past is hardly invisible. In fact, it’s in the LDS scriptures, where Official Declaration-1 from the First Presidency in 1890 declares that polygamy is over. This is placed right after Section 138 in the printing of the Doctrine and Covenants. There is also Section 132 which introduced plural marriage, and while that practice has been ended, I think it’s hard to avoid some discussion of it during years of Church membership.

Some discussion, for example, occurs on the Mormon Newsroom site of the Church which has a page on polygamy, explaining that it was introduced in 1831. It is mentioned in the popular Church booklet, Our Heritage (PDF file) as well as the Doctrine and Covenants Sunday School manual (PDF) in treating Section 132. President Hinckley fielded some questions about polygamy in his famous Sept. 1998 interview on Larry King Live, and he again mentioned polygamy in his well-known October 1998 General Conference address, “What Are People Asking About Us?” He reminds us that the Church has stopped practicing polygamy for over a century, with more detail in the Larry King interview. Of course, King’s questions were polite and not nearly as troubling as they could have been, but they served to remind anyone listening that the Church was tied with polygamy in the past.

I recognize, of course, that if one’s understanding of Church history comes from basic LDS video clips of the Restoration, it would be too easy to think that Joseph was just another ordinary monogamist. Ditto for Brigham Young. But I somehow thought that the first thing Europeans learned about Utah and Mormons was that Brigham Young had numerous wives and that Mormons practiced (and allegedly still practice) polygamy. That’s why I think Brother Mattson’s issues were certainly deeper. Polygamy was a complex, sometimes messy matter in my opinion, and I’m so glad it’s over.

Polygamy is certainly a sensitive subject that we have perhaps been too shy to address with our own members. Without some basic “inoculation” and frank discussion, as in Michael Ash’s Shaken Faith Syndrome, we may have left too many prone to a shaken faith when their mistaken vision of Joseph as a monogamist is toppled with a long queue of wives, including some controversial marriages that require some careful consideration to sort through the messy and troubling issues. Resources for dealing with some of the most troubling and puzzling aspects of polygamy include Greg Smith’s 2009 article, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)” and other information at FAIRLDS, including the FAIRMormon Wiki on polygamy and their material on the issue of polyandry. Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling also confronts many of the troubling issues of polygamy and other non-ideal aspects of Church history and reminds us that a scholar can dig into the controversies and maintain a vibrant faith.

Some Thoughts for Those Struggling with Doubt

Regardless of how Hans Mattson and other Saints may have been blindsided by some of the controversies of our past, including polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, or by challenges to our scriptures, such as attacks on the Book of Abraham, there are some things I’d like to say to them and to any of you struggling with related doubts.

First, know that you are not alone in your concerns. There are challenges to our faith and misconceptions that many of us had for years that need correction, and sometimes this updating can be painful. Some simple assumptions that seemed OK in the past are not accurate and not even doctrinal, such as the common old assumption that the Book of Mormon describes all the ancient origins of all Native Americans, or the idea that the limitation on the priesthood for many (but not all) blacks must have been a doctrinal matter based on some official revelation (there is no evidence of such a revelation being given).

Second, know that there are some helpful answers and new perspectives that can strengthen your faith as your grapple with these challenges. Resources such as FAIRLatterdaySaints.org, the Maxwell Institute, the Interpreter, and BlackLDS.org can supplement the vast resources at LDS.org and help clarify some of the issues. None of that is going to make the controversy of polygamy disappear, but you can see that many faithful LDS people have dealt with these issues in various ways and found their faith still intact. I take on some of the controversies also in my LDSFAQ area.

Third, in weighing Mormonism, don’t just add the controversies of history to the balance. There growing evidences for the Book of Mormon need to be considered. The big picture of the broad answers that the revelations of the Restoration provide need to be considered, including their marvelous fit into the ancient world, even down to details such as modern discoveries on ancient covenant patterns which we find beautifully present in the Book of Mormon and the restored LDS Temple. I discuss my journey in some of these areas on my LDSFAQ pages such as my pages on the Book of Abraham, my pages on Book of Mormon Evidences, and on my Mormanity blog.

There is room for doubt and a need for all of us to grapple with doubt. But know that there is still plenty of room for faith and plenty of room for rejoicing in the majesty of the Restored Gospel, including some remarkable evidences for the Restoration that the Lord has allowed to come our way. There is much to weigh and many perhaps overlooked or not yet noticed treasures that can swing the balance to the side of strengthened, not shattered faith.

To Hans and all others in the process of weighing Mormonism, I would encourage you to step back and see the bigger picture and then fairly consider the many positives at the same time as we update our perspectives on the trouble spots. While what really happened in history is rarely clear and easily misjudged, we can more easily judge what happens in our lives as we live the Gospel and experiment with the Word. There is a power, joy, and indeed, even intellectual fulfillment that comes with steady service and study, even after facing some of the disappointments that come when some unfounded assumptions we long held require correction.

Finally, for those who have friends or loves ones experiencing shaken faith, be patient and loving, even if (or perhaps especially if) they leave the Church. While the issues they are facing may not trouble you, perhaps because you haven’t faced them or perhaps because you have already moved past them or perhaps because your have a firm testimony based on other factors, do not discount the severity of the challenge your friends or family may be facing.

Do not assume that the real issue is some hidden moral sin or being offended by some trivial “spilt milk” issue. That is often not a fair comparison to the real issues and real pain that doubters who want to be believers can face. Love them, help them find useful resources if they wish, do not just brush off their concerns (at least put them in contact with some of the LDS folks who might have answers or at least thoughtful perspectives to share), and maintain your friendship even if they leave the Church. Friendships and family relationships are precious and we should try to not let religion get in the way when religious differences arise. Our faith should strengthen our ability to be good friends and family members, even when others don’t share our views. Yes, I know that’s easy to say but often hard to do, especially when a doubter feels a need to spread the doubts and fight against the Church. But let’s do the best we can to follow Christ in these challenges and be who we are supposed to be.

We do not need to be the judge, just the friends and perhaps helpers (when help is wanted) of those who doubt. But may those doubters find their faith again and come home. There are many good reasons to come home again, and many treasures to weigh on the side of faith.

Update, July 27, 2013: The concerns of the Swedish Saints turn out to be deeper and more serious than the New York Times article indicated, and the frustrations raised are more well founded, in my opinion, though consideration of the pro-LDS resources cited above help to address many of the specific concerns. In the end, faith and tempered expectations are required.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

90 thoughts on “Weighing Mormonism: Thoughts for Mormon Doubters (and Readers of the New York Times)

  1. I doubt that Bro. Mattson was unaware of the church's practice of polygamy. Having been a missionary in Scandinavia, that simply isn't possible. However, he could easily be troubled by some of the more controversial aspects of the practice, including brethren taking wives that were married to someone else, the marriage of young teen girls, high divorce rates, misogyny, and other evidences of very imperfect people trying to live what they saw as a perfect principle.

    Regardless, the challenges to faith are very real, especially to those experiencing them. Your counsel to love them (even if they leave the church) and point them to useful resources is good.

    Some have asked why the LDS Church keeps people on its rolls that no longer self-identify as Mormon unless they specifically ask to have their names removed. Why do we keep trying to reach out to these "lost sheep?" I am reminded of Isaiah 49:15-16 where the Lord promises not to forget the lost, reminding that he has engraved them on the palms of his hands.

  2. Not a very fair recording of the issues Mr. Mattsson's group presented. And you completely missed how poor the quality of the answers that came from 2 of the church's top ranking historians were.

    Fortunately a transcript of the meeting is available here http://www.roadkilldelight.com/NOM/SFMJRT.pdf so that you can get a more accurate picture of the situation yourself, Jeff.

  3. Anonymous,

    That transcript was a very interesting read. I thought they did a very good job at addressing the questions as best they could. I could tell that some of the people asking the questions had a sincere desire to know the truth. I hope they find it.

    I could also tell that a few of the people asking questions had unrealistic expectations about Joseph Smith, prophets in general, and the church in general. I suspect that for those people no answer will ever be sufficient. In the questions regarding how the translation process was depicted in church art, it seemed like the person asking the questions was wondering why the church leaders weren't employed full time correcting every possible misconception, inaccurate depiction, or incorrect painting ever used in a church meeting. There is no physical way for them to do that. We should have a little charity and understanding because we are all in this together. If I had been there I may have asked the rather impertinent question, "Well why haven't you fixed all the church art? If you haven't fixed all the church art yet how can you expect the prophet to fix it all?" If that is all the prophet did then no actual church work would ever get done.

    Also on the question regarding translation. It seemed like one of the people asking a question about it was offended, or put off by the fact, that Joseph Smith didn't use the word "translation" in the same way that the person asking the question would have used it. In other words, he took issue with the fact that Joseph Smith didn't use the word translation in the commonly accepted academic sense. This has created some misconceptions (see the discussion regarding church art), but that does not make Joseph Smith, or any other church leader guilty of deception, as the person asking the question accused them of being deceptive. They were not trying to be deceptive. They didn't have any control over the fact that 100 years after Joseph Smith died people would misunderstand how the translation process happened since he used the word "translate" instead of saying, "God gave me the text in English through revelation while I was looking at a stone in a hat." Try saying that 100 times fast and you will quickly understand why he said that he just translated it. Functionally it was equivalent to translation, so it was a translation.

    So just remember, don't have unrealistic expectations, before you judge someone for doing something, or not doing something, ask yourself, "Would I do any better in that situation?" and remember, God said that He accepted Joseph Smith's sacrifice (see D&C 132:50), not that Joseph Smith did every single action in his entire life in such a way that 150 years later in a different cultural and social time no one would be able to find any of his recorded words or actions to be less than perfect.

  4. I appreciate Jeff's approach to the challenge the church is facing. Bro. Mattson is a high ranking church member by calling. I hope he can find his testimony broadened and deepen by turning to the Lord for answers. This is really the only way to deal with the problem. If Bro. Mattson doesn't have the wherewithal to obtain help from the Lord then that is the bigger problem.

    There are times when we have to have the Lord's help, nothing else will do. Those who are on the verge of losing their faith (for whatever reason) should do all in their power to call on the Lord in mighty prayer and fasting.

    A crisis of faith is where many people find real faith. I've been around a long time and have had many occasions where I've had to turn to the Lord in mighty prayer and fasting. It not a theory for me, I've been there and done it and can testify of the reality of God's tender mercies based on my own experience.

  5. I consider myself well-enough-versed in the more controversial history and practice of Mormonism, and my husband and I share these facts and our faith in Mormonism with our children. In other words, we are actively inoculating our children as we teach them our LDS beliefs.

    For me, it comes down to this: either Mormonism is correct, or all of Judaism, Christianity (including Mormonism), and Islam are incorrect. I say this because of the Old Testament. Compared to Lot and Abraham, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were boring!!!

    And so I ask myself: not only whether Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were prophets, but also what do the actions of JS, BY, Abraham, Lot, etc., tell me about God? Not only how to explain the Danites, but the Flood's destruction of the world and the death of the Egyptians' first-born? Not only questions about 1800's LDS polygamy, but also about Hagar and Leah?

    And in the face of these questions, I believe in God, the God of the Old Testament, New Testament, Pearl of Great Price, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants. I believe He is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly loving.

    As we wrestle with this dissonance, our faith matures. It's okay for Brother Mattson to doubt, question, struggle, and agonize – sometimes, this is the only way to come to know God.


  6. Thanks for pointing me to the transcript of the meeting. It does sound like the issues were much deeper and more complex than the Times story indicated.

    Unfortunately, I was sometimes disappointed with the responses to the questions. I guess the limited time for the meeting was part of the problem, along with the difficulty of being prepared to handle questions all over the ballpark on the fly. Wish they had brought along Daniel Peterson, Greg Smith, Brian Hales, and a few others who could get into the details and clarify things a little better. I certainly hope that people with those kind of detailed questions will explore the detailed responses that are available.

  7. Love that you say "Step Back" and not step away. There are a lot of things that I don't quite get yet, but for every "credible" evidence against the faith, I find something credible to support it. So I come back to my faith to decide which of these evidences I put my trust in

  8. Bro. Lindsay, I wish that you were one of the general authorities and were given the power to say what you have said in your blog in a fireside meeting like the Swedish Rescue. Why, I keep asking myself, aren't the general authorities humble enough to act, learn, and feel like you can? It would be so helpful to the Lord's work if they were more humble and asked for the help of good men like you and Bro. Ash. Instead, we keep getting the same kind of avoidance answers on so many controversial issues. I was so surprised at Elder Holland's first deceitful response to the BBC journalist interview about the temple oaths. He lied, and then back pedalled. Why can't our general authorities admit mistakes?

  9. Great post, Jeff. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I really believe this is one of the most poignant challenges we face as LDS.

    One quick thought related to Quantumleap42 point that there's "no physical way" for Church leaders to change the erroneous artwork to more accurately represent the historical record. I don't believe this is true.

    I work with a Fortune 500 company, which is in many ways, highly structured similar to our LDS organizational structure. I know that if the CEO picked up the phone and demanded that a mission-critical change be made as soon as humanly possible, there would be delegated teams of people at all levels of the organization working days, nights, and weekends to make that happen.

    I believe Faith Crisis is the defining " mission critical" challenge of our time. If the direction from the top mandated an immediate fix to the misleading artwork and incomplete historical references, it would get done within a timeline period. It would not be the prophet and apostles doing this work—it would be the curriculum department, the Church museum department, the visitor center department, the distribution center department, etc.

    It appears this mandate for change has not been given from the top leadership. I assume this is because the Brethren do not wish to damage the faith of the majority of members who are still unaware of these historical anomalies.

  10. How am I supposed to believe in a God that loves his daughters as much as his sons when learning of the deception and manipulation that Emma had to deal with? Why would God command Joseph to do things that would break her heart? Why was he entitled to her fidelity when she wasn't entitled to his? So expanding Joseph's kingdom trumped any anguish suffered by Emma? I just can't get my head around it. It really hurts to hear people dismiss this part of the story and say "but look at all the other great things he did." It's like those people who think Bill Clinton was a great president, even after what he put his wife and daughter through. To me, if you break your spouse's heart, nothing else you do really matters much.

  11. In my humble (meaning: lowly and submissive to God) opinion, Anonymous is raising very important questions. The key to finding true answers is the seeker's intent. If the seeker is asking questions to find a reason to leave the church or to disbelieve in God, then the questioning will not lead to peace or truth.

    But if the seeker assumes certain spiritual truths (e.g., God exists; He is good; He gave us the freedom to choose our actions, thoughts, and feelings; He will reveal truth to us; etc.), then the questioning will bring us closer to Him.

    For example: "why did God require marital fidelity/monogamy of Emma, but not of Joseph?" If we ask this question to prove that Joseph Smith could not possibly be a prophet – therefore disproving the Book of Mormon, temple, and LDS Church – then we will languish in the "mist of darkness," having let go of the "rod of iron."

    But if we ask this question, sincerely wanting to know how this set of circumstances could possibly further God's work and His glory, then we will find eternal truths opened to us.

    I look forward to Anonymous' path, exploring God's work with the aim of understanding and furthering His work There is nothing to fear in learning about God's ways. He is all-loving, -powerful, and -knowing, and all things work together for the good to those who love Him.

  12. When I read the NYT article i was wondering what the fuss was about, because all the subjects metnioned in that article are old news, and had been asked and answered long ago, with plenty of web sources.

  13. As I understand it, when the questions began to bubble up in large number and Mattsson himself was unable to satisfy those in his area he contacted Elder Perry of the Twelve. When the assistance he was given from afar didn't help what I've heard called "The Swedish Rescue" was launched in SLC. That's when Jensen and Turley were dispatched to Sweden to meet directly with the troubled.

    It's inconceivable to me that when they were sent on this very serious mission they had less than adequate resources of information, talent, time or intent. Consequently, to say, as a number have, that the answers were the best that could be provided under limitations is unconvincing. Jensen & Turley are the official church's top 2 historians.

    Jensen's and Turley's stature tells us the situation was grave. So does the fact that, it seems, the attendees were contacted after the meeting and asked if they would remain in the church, resign or, at least some said, face excommunication. In those circumstances, answers that were less than verifiable and conclusive leave a great deal of room for doubt still.

  14. I appreciate the original post as well as the commenders' words. However I am very concerns with the comments that seem to be putting down those who are being confronted with truths they didn't previously know, "How could they not know? I knew." "That is old news." Etc. In reality, most LDS learn about the church through our weekly meetings, through correlated manuals and through very watered down articles in the Ensign, The Era and the Friend.

    In February, two historians with the JSP project came to our Davis County, Utah ward (certainly not Sweden) and gave a fireside on some of the more interesting things they have found. One of the historian/editors told us that there is no evidence that the golden plates were translated using any other method than the peep stones, When he taught that to his BYU class last semester, he received a VERY angry telephone call from one of the general authorities. The general authority, calling from SLC, told him to stop teaching lies and falsehoods to his granddaughter who was in that class, This historian was then faced with the awkward job of telling the GA the truth.

    Also, he mentioned to us that he has two seminary teachers in his ward along the wasatch front. Seminary teachers, one would think, should know a lot about the church. It wasn't until the historian recently told them, that either of these two knew that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy,

    Yes, we all know–as does everyone else in the world–that BY practiced polygamy. But mot Mormons truly do not know anything about Joseph Smith's polygamy. This is NOT helped by our GD lessons which never mention it OR movies like Legacy which portray Joseph and Emma as a blissfully happy, monogamous couple.

    Stop asking how these people can't be as smart as you and start to realize that we are all to blame for this problem.

  15. I was preparing for a lesson (primary age 4) and saw that the lesson said only that Joseph Smith used the urim and thummin to translate the plates. From the Joseph Smith Papers project, we can learn that he only used the peep stone, I recently contacted the church and suggested they alter this lesson to include more factual information and referenced the Joseph Smith Papers project. (Hmm, why do we wonder why people don't know the truth about the church and its history when we are actually teaching mis truths?) Anyway, I received a reply yesterday. The person who replied asked me what the Joseph Smith Papers project is.

  16. How many BIC today genuinely have no idea of the blood oaths that were removed in the 90s. And how many more have no idea about the oath of vengeance that was removed in the 1930s?

    One day someone will stumble across this information and have a similar crisis and someone will say "that's old news that everyone already knows."

  17. Just as a point of clarification, the term peep stone seems to refer to a stone that does not have divine sanction whereas seer stone is a stone that does have divine sanction. So, referring to Joseph's initial revelatory ability as using a peep stone lessens the credibility rather than calling it a seer stone.


  18. I still have trouble conceiving how a Latter-day Saint can avoid knowing that Joseph practiced polygamy when HE received the revelation and taught it to Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, the histories I learned in Institute circa 1970 discussed the "Abrahamic test" of Heber and his wife Vilate over Joseph asking Heber to let him marry Vilate but which didn't go through, the history of the problem it caused for Emma, and the fact that Eliza R. Snow, probably one of the most famous women in the Church, was married to Joseph and then to Brigham.

  19. Mormanity,
    Outstanding post! Brilliant. Education is the answer. There are many misconceptions Mormons have with other religions. I.E. Eternal marriage and families forever.

    Come home, the USA needs your money!

  20. If you google these questions, you're going to come up with all the standard LDS apologists, FARMS, FAIRLDS, Jeff Lindsay's LDSFAQ and Book of Mormon Evidences pages, etc.

    What more could Jensen and Turley say that isn't already among those resources? And how much can you really pack ( not much really) into a meeting of just a few hours, when it can take multi-hours of online reading just to go through the various evidences and reasoning concerning just one question?

    My observation is that church critics always seem to try to paint historical vignettes in the worst possible light, offering half-truths, twisting things, leaving out important information, and doing things like feigning shock over something that is not shocking at all, or is/was not shocking in context.

    Problems then occur when sincere truth-seekers then come across the twisted half-truths of the cynical critics and then stumble. Defenders then have to go over things with a fine tooth comb to point out all the devious things that the critics did to fool people.

    And here we are on a PRO-LDS blog, and anonymous critics throw out things without citations, references, and links, in an apparent effort to make believers and defenders go on some wild goose chase.

    I've seen this game played for 30 years, ever since someone sent me anti-Mormon literature as soon as I got baptized. And it's ALWAYS the same!

    Here's how it goes down: Either facts are misrepresented, or outright lies are told, or half-truths are presented, or relevant contextual information is withheld, or something which is true and good is falsely denounced by a critic to be something bad.

    Or the open ended snarky questions like "How do you explain such-and-such in the Book of Mormon? There's no evidence for it." When in fact, there doesn't HAVE to be physical archealogical evidence for everything in the Book of Mormon. In fact, there doesn't have to archealogical evidence for _anything_ in the Book of Mormon. And if there is archealogical evicence, much of it could be undersea from the upheavals that accompanied the crucifixion, or has deteriorated to dust in the 1600 to 2600 years since then, or is located in the 99.95% of the land area that has NOT been dug up and analyzed.

    I can't beieve how bent out of shape some people have gotten about a silly ARTIST'S RENDITION showing Joseph with his finger on the gold plates. Maybe that was the scene when he copied some characters for Marton Harris to take to professor Anton, and someone who is NOT the artist then decided to use that scene as representative of the translation process.

    It's merely an ARTIST'S RENDITION, representative of THAT person's idea.

    What about the artist or artists who painted pictures of St. Peter wearing glasses? Glasses hadn't been invented then. Does that mean St. Peter was a fraud? If the artist was Catholic, does that painting mean Catholicism is fraudulent.

  21. If the 2 top historians that the church could select from traveled thousands of miles to clear up serious questions that Perry was already acquainted with from his visit why is there still a problem that's resulted in a raft of defections? After all, the church has the totality of the historical record in its vaults and they have the guidance seers and revelators as well as the Holy Spirit who surely is concerned about an entire area being in turmoil.

    It isn't as though, having traveled from SLC to Northernmost Europe Jensen and Turley had a limited amount of time. There's no reason sessions couldn't have been held on several days giving each question the time it deserved. It isn't as if people who had been pleading for answers for years were going to lose interest. It isn't as if Mattsson hadn't given years of his life in service to see the church flourish and grow. It isn't as if the consequence of leaving these questions unresolved was minimal or acceptable.

    A matter of this import and influence required nothing less than genuine resolution and verifiable information that is consistent with the scientific and historical record as well as the full flowering of the spirit.

    A person can insist ad infinitum that the Swedish church should be satisfied and must be satisfied but it's clear from the number of resignations that occurred and from the Mattssons' obviously pained distance from the church and sense that Hans needed to be understood that there's little satisfaction to be found.

    Perhaps we'll hear from some attendees who did get the enlightenment they needed. So far, I haven't.

  22. @ Angie Crowther – I am Anonymous from 7:51 yesterday. Thank you for your kind response to my question. I tried to post this same question on the Deseret News board discussing this same topic, and was rejected for being "disruptive."