TRUTH OR TRIBALISM?
On this day, 19th July, in 1837, Heber Chase Kimball and six other Latter-day Saint elders disembarked at Liverpool, being the first Mormon missionaries to be sent anywhere outside of North America. When they reached Preston three days later, the town was in the midst of a General Election campaign following the recent accession of the 18 year old Queen Victoria, and they saw a political banner proclaiming ‘Truth Will Prevail’. They promptly adopted this motto, feeling it to be an excellent omen.
The message Kimball’s team sought to establish might not sound particularly familiar to a 21st Century Latter-day Saint. Preaching in Vauxhall chapel on 23rd July, he made no mention of Joseph Smith’s 1820 first vision, (for that version of the genesis of Mormonism had yet to be penned), but instead announced to an excited gathering that an angel had visited the lower regions and committed the everlasting gospel to man, because the second coming was imminent. Presumably that angel had descended from the vicinity of Kolob, a star which, (according to the recently translated Book of Abraham), was situated nearest to the throne of God, and was therefore greater in the divine hierarchy than Shinehah, our own sun.
Kimball’s worldview was really very different from our own, and not just in matters of astronomy. His view of the supernatural was altogether less nuanced. We no longer subscribe, as he and his contemporaries evidently did, to the magic divining rods or the healing power of handkerchiefs and walking sticks. We would probably now consider such beliefs pure occultism, bearing little or no relationship to the narratives we are accustomed to hearing in Sunday School. Yet eminent LDS historians such as Quinn and Bushman readily acknowledge that Joseph Smith’s own background was heavily influenced by occult practices. Their disclosures must cause a thinking person to begin to question what was really taking place in those early years of the LDS gospel in Britain and mainland Europe.
TENUOUS THREADS THROUGHOUT TIME
I, like many other Mormon converts of my generation, for many years related in my mind to these first missionaries as heroic members of my “tribe”. I lapped up each carefully sanitized anecdotal account of their progress throughout my country. I felt pride at what they had accomplished, and considered them fellow citizens of my late 20th century brand of latter-day sainthood. I revered, (and still do to some extent), all those who had trustingly carried the Mormon gospel since that day. Unquestioningly I accepted the inference that there was an unbroken thread of historical continuity and divine purpose attaching all these spiritual predecessors to me. In my mind, they and I were one in purpose, partakers in the same set of beliefs. I had received the baton passed down through a series of hallowed and blessed hands all the way from Kimball et al, and now it was my turn to run this great race of “Truth Will Prevail”. I felt a great deal, and yet understood very little. Indeed, in retrospect, I see that I felt and responded exactly as the editors of all the church magazines and lesson manuals obviously always intended me to feel and respond.
I accepted without question the imaginative narrative they had fashioned for my consumption. I was fully persuaded by it all, embraced it all, revelled in it all, and in return I was rewarded by feeling at one with the religious community in which I found myself. There came a point in the process at which I understood subliminally that I needed these Mormon claims to be true, because my core identity had blurred with the carefully prescribed and administered narrative. The story had become part of me, and it therefore had to be true; it was as important to me as having air in my lungs. I therefore accepted it all on faith, trusting the comfortable feelings which accompanied my surrender. I was young and had much else to accomplish, and so it was a relief to know that I could concentrate on other day to day concerns, and in terms of life’s big questions, place my trust fully in these unchallengeable channels of information.
Accordingly for over three decades I surrendered my will, and through choice suspended my critical thinking whenever difficult questions came up, sincerely believing that to deny the critic was to exercise faith, and that this resoluteness was pleasing to God. It did not occur to me in those times that denial and faith are actually polar opposites, and that the genuinely faithful response would have been to listen and analyse, and follow wherever the reality of truth led me.
With eyes three-quarters closed to objectivity, my temple-sealed wife and I did the same as all of our faithful LDS peers, and tried our imperfect best to plant these same tribal beliefs and feelings in the souls of each of our children. Each month we paid up what we could ill-afford and dedicated much of our precious time and whatever talents we had to the tribal cause. After all, our tribe was God’s tribe. We referred to it as “building the kingdom”.
And, let it be noted, had the kingdom been genuinely the blessing to mankind which we trusted it was, we would have had no regrets at this point in having done any of this.
The problem is though that this supposed historical legacy, this inferred continuity, this oneness with those founders of Mormonism, is really little more than a mirage. The narrative received through the magazines and manuals is contrived, directed, highly selective, and only vaguely reflective of past realities. More troubling is that the misrepresentation more often than not appears to be deliberate. In other words, there appear to have been cover-ups, and far too many of them. Why would this be? Could it be because from the very outset there have been embarrassing realities inside of Mormonism which have been clear indicators to those who hunger after truth, that authenticity is not in all probability to be found there?
Whatever the reason, the fact is that the label on the package does not properly describe what is inside it, and the honest seeker after truth will soon encounter uncomfortable realities which, once understood, should cause him or her to question deeply. Anomalies are not a new feature of LDS membership of course. For my generation there was an enormous leap of conscience required to accept that Black people had been less valiant in the premortal life. That was the teaching when I joined, not that I discovered it immediately, for it was carefully concealed from me until I was “committed”. Most 20th century members managed to deal with problematic areas of belief by assigning them to a metaphorical shelf or backburner, and then just got on with enjoying the friendships and responsibilities which membership in “the restored church” brought with it. However, since the late 1990s, the internet has made it possible within minutes to uncover challenging and disturbing information, which previously was inaccessible to the average busy member, and while it is true that the internet is as capable of conveying a lie just as easily as a reality, the sheer weight of worrying information which has now emerged points to a very clear pattern. The pattern is one of primary wrongdoing compounded by subsequent white-washings of the past. Gaping cracks in the historical foundations of Mormonism are nonchalantly dismissed as “little flecks of history”, even though it is apparent to anyone who takes time to consider the evidence, that they are something far more sinister.
SOME WORRYING EXAMPLES
For example, Joseph Smith, we now definitely know was convicted in 1826, for using occultist practices to con money out of gullible individuals, pretending that with his seer stone, (soon afterwards used to translate the Book of Mormon), he could find buried treasure. This is obviously no small deal, given that during this same period Joseph also claimed he was in regular dialogue with Moroni about obtaining the Book of Mormon gold plates. Few active members are aware of this concern, and if they are, will certainly not have learnt about it by reading the LDS lesson manual.
Then there was Joseph’s extra-marital liaison with Fanny Alger in the early 1830s, described by Oliver Cowdery at the time as “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair”. He, the prophet of God, was in the process of committing adultery with a young female servant of the household, when he was caught in the act by Oliver and Emma. It is irrefutable, but unlike King David’s episode with Bathsheba, it is not worthy of mention. Had Joseph’s been a once-only slip-up we might perhaps be able to dismiss it as regrettable, between him and the Lord, and really not our business to pry, but unfortunately it was not an isolated occurrence. The idealistic companionate marriage of Joseph and Emma which is taught in Relief Society classes throughout the world is a gross reworking of the historical evidence. The Alger affair was only part of an ugly pattern unfortunately. In what appears to have been a clear attempt to legitimise his sexual proclivities in the eyes of his peers, the prophet Joseph then embarked on a wild cycle of secret “marriages” to over 30 women, when he was already married to Emma. Furthermore, about a third of the women who entered “spiritual wifery” with Joseph, were already the wives of other men. A high proportion of them were teenagers, and two of them were only 14. When openly challenged over it, he then denied all of this publicly. In short the prophet Joseph lied to the church. And he did so in the name of God. Personally, I cannot see how this is not problematic to belief that Joseph was God’s prophet at that point, and I am far from alone in making this assessment. Would God really have established and then led his church through such a man?
Some have maintained that Joseph’s honesty and morality, were immaterial to his ability to function as God’s mouthpiece to mankind, even though this contradicts all else we have been taught concerning the need for worthiness in order to perform priesthood functions. Certainly, I myself recall once teaching the high priests in my ward, (at a time when I was beginning to discover the weakness of character of Joseph Smith), that it really did not matter what Joseph did, but only what God had done through him. I was referring of course to the revelations through the additional scripture Joseph had given to the world. However, I was unaware at that point of the deepest problems of all, which are only too evident in those scriptures.
The Book of Abraham is prima facie evidence that while Joseph was more than capable of persuading his unlearned contemporaries that he could translate ancient Egyptian, he utterly failed in his translation attempts. This is something which is now academically established beyond all reasonable doubt, and the top leaders of the church have known this shocking fact since around the late 1960s. For many questioning members the Book of Abraham is the ultimate deal-breaker in regard to the status of Joseph Smith. The facts are painfully clear, and they beg the question that if he understood virtually nothing about Ancient Egyptian, (the language of the Book of Abraham), then how much did he understand of Reformed Egyptian, which allegedly was the language in which the gold plates of the Book of Mormon were engraved?
The recent church sponsored essay, which is an attempt apparently to inoculate the membership against these deeply troubling issues, fails to deal with real, hard evidence. It is apologist candyfloss in my opinion, sweet to the taste for a moment, but lacking any real substance. I find it regrettable. It is nothing more than a diversion leading the questioner away from the real issues. But perhaps we should feel some sympathy for the person assigned the task of defending the completely indefensible, for history is likely to label him a fool, when maybe he is doing no more than wrestling with the vestiges of his own futile hopes. Many of us have also undergone that agonising process of course, but less publicly.
There is much, much more, which is deeply problematic, but these three examples well illustrate a familiar pattern. Misdemeanour has been followed by what appears to be institutional cover-up upon institutional cover-up. While we do not know with certainty who determines the policy, we cannot fail to notice what is before our eyes, and observe that this sort of thing has been happening from the start.
THE “FRAUD CASE”
When Tom Phillips brought his private prosecution earlier this year against President Thomas S. Monson, he did not do so out of spite towards the Mormon president, but because Thomas Monson presides over a complex corporation, or rather a family of companies, which together comprise what the membership fondly call “the church”. Ultimately the church president is the person solely legally responsible for the conduct of the corporation, although arguably all fifteen apostles might be considered co-liable, should a case of fraud be proven.
Tom Phillips, in my view, showed not only great courage but also enormous integrity in making an individual challenge at personal expense. As many will know, Tom is not an ordinary member in the sense that many of us who have felt prompted to speak up are. He was a Stake President, and at one time served alongside the Area Presidency. He also received the Second Anointing, and only then began to question some issues. He is not just a raucous voice in the crowd. He understands how things operate at higher levels of leadership in the church, and he is prepared to challenge what he judges is wrong. However, it really should not come down to individuals like Tom, or others either, to open themselves up to targeted criticism and threats and family difficulties when they see something badly amiss. If we love truth, then surely we all have a responsibility to speak up, and make our thoughts heard.
It appears from what I have been advised myself by my bishop, and from the current examples of John Dehlin and Kate Kelly, that the official stance is that it is all right to question privately, but not in any way which might lead others also to question. I can only treat such a view with disdain. It makes no sense at all to be teaching such things if leaders believe Mormonism to be the one true church. Truth can never be harmed by questioning. On the contrary, questioning is the process which leads to the discovery of truth. So often during my years of attending church have I sung the words of Eliza Snow, “Truth is reason, truth eternal”, that they have now become my own sentiments. Reason, through critical thinking, leads to truth. There can be no doubt about this. I love too the assurance of Jesus that the truth will make us free. If leaders believe those words, then why are they so afraid of establishing truth through open dialogue? Do they not wish the followers to be free?
What we need is more truth, not less of it, and more openness, with a significant reduction in siege mentality. We need all the facts to be available to everyone, and every book to be open. If the cupboard proves to be littered with skeletons, we should be looking to clear those skeletons out, so that the reality may be seen and understood. And when finally truth does prevail, each person will be at liberty to make their own choices in the light of true knowledge. Where opposing views exist about key issues, then the contending arguments should be made freely accessible, and there should be an open, reasoned discussion without fear of retribution for participating in it. Unless everything is done in the open, and all are permitted to speak their minds, there will always be something very suspect about a few individuals manipulating things so thoroughly in directing the spiritual and material lives of the many. Such a practice will always be potentially subject to the worst abuses, and, as we may readily see, Mormon history unfortunately, is strewn with such examples.
THE NEED FOR A “TITLE OF LIBERTY”
It is surely time for change. The attempted imposition of silence on questioning members is a form of spiritual and social bullying. I suggest therefore that a line in the sand must be drawn, right here and now. Not by one vulnerable individual in isolation, but by the many who care enough to be involved.
Yes, I know they will be tempted to call this proposal “apostasy”. It does not matter. They can call it whatever they wish. History will call it progress. It is always progress when people seek truth and are determined to obtain it. An apostate in my view is one who fights against liberty and against truth, not one who seeks to promote them. By my definition, it is not we who are the apostates.
They may call us dissenters if they wish. That, after all, is an honourable title, especially in Britain and in Europe where there is a long and valued history of dissent. Dissenters have always been at the heart of any movement which has moved society forwards, and that is all we wish to see happen.
They may call us other names too. They may label us anti-Mormon, but it would be more accurate to recognise that we are pro-truth. I am probably fairly typical of many currently struggling with disillusionment, in stating that when Mormonism sincerely aligns itself with truth, then I will be pro-Mormonism, but as long as it seeks to conceal it, I must oppose. It is really very simple. It is all just about transparency, and associated freedom of choice.
So, until the leaders withdraw the discipline meted out to individuals like Kate Kelly and withdraw the threat of it to others like John Dehlin, who dare to question, there ought to be a union or company of those who collectively question and challenge. It seems to me that that union or company should seek through all potential media outlets to publicise what is going on. It should also commence prosecutions of suspected illegal activities. It should also extend help and support to those who are feeling stunned or shunned, are undergoing a faith crisis, or are in transition, feeling depressed or even in some cases suicidal. It should also offer to work sensitively and confidentially with local leaders and young full-time missionaries who are experiencing deep confusion as they encounter a wave of these problems in their ministries.
This united push might well be called a Global Initiative For Truth, (G.I.F.T.), and indeed would be intended as a gift to all. The goal would be to allow the truth to be told without fear, enabling free choice, and supporting all resulting choices, including the possibility of staying with the faith.
It is clear that it is going to take an outside agency of some kind to accomplish these ends, and the best people to make this happen would undoubtedly be those who have already experienced the process at first hand. Would it not be an altogether good and healthy thing ultimately if this were to take place?
I believe firmly that truth must prevail because I am fairly sure that lies will eventually fail us. My full trust henceforth is going to be in truth not tribalism.
~ Chris Ralph
(From Chris Ralph’s personal blog)