Recent Mormon Essays

A reporter asked me to share with him my initial reactions to the church’s recent history essays (e.g., First Vision Accounts, Race and the Priesthood, Plural Marriage and Families in Utah, Book of Mormon Translation, Book of Mormon and DNA Studies)….and here’s what I wrote:

  • A positive step forward, even if forced: I think that the essays are definitely a positive step forward in terms of candor/openness/honesty for the church.  Of course I cannot help but wish that the church would have taken these steps a few decades ago (instead of punishing the scholars who first brought these issues to light), but courtesy requires an acknowledgment of this positive step forward — even if the church’s hand was ultimately forced by the Internet (which I believe it most certainly was).
  • Addressing the charge of hiding/fraud: Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of these essays (from the church’s perspective) is that people will no longer be able to claim (quite as easily, at least) that the church is avoiding or hiding its more difficult historical/doctrinal issues.  Again, from the church’s perspective, I believe that this is the most valuable part of the initiative.
  • Diminishing the role of classic LDS apologetics: On a personal note, I am grateful that the church is stepping up to provide its own attempts at answers, instead of relying on LDS apologists to offer up speculative, rather unconvincing explanations for the problematic issues.  Our findings from the Why Mormons Question study were pretty clear (at least to me): LDS apologetics have traditionally been a vary large part of the problem, not the solution (at least for many of our respondents).
  • Still too hidden: My impression is that most active church members do not know about these essays, and that many will possibly never stumble upon them.  To date, these essays still seem very much buried, and I imagine that this is somewhat intentional.  My guess is that the church wants to be able to (a) deny the accusation of hiding/deception, (b) help those who are in urgent need, (c) while still avoiding the exposure of the general membership to the difficult issues (which I believe would spread the “infection”…to borrow on the inoculation metaphor).
  • Still must penetrate curriculum, Sundays, General Conference, and leadership training: I hear rumors that this content is starting to be incorporated into official church curriculum.  Until this happens, and until these issues are discussed openly in General Conference, at church on Sundays, and in seminary/institute…it will likely be missed by the vast majority of members.  Church leaders (e.g., bishoprics, stake presidents, relief society presidencies, quorum presidencies) also desperately need to be trained on these issues (in my view).  Otherwise struggling members will continue to not get the empathy/support they need….and instead will continue to be judged/ostracized.  (see here for a very poignant example of why leadership training is sorely needed)
  • High-end apologetics: As far as the content goes, these essays definitely have the feel to me of high-end apologetics — similar to the works of Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, etc.  Where they fall short of Bushman/Givens is that (to me) they often seem to fall short of telling the “full story”….and they sometimes tend to downplay or dismiss the legitimate concerns that many have.
  • Sometimes lacking citations: There are times when I wish the church would have cited the actual historians/scholars/authors more.  That just feel respectful/classy/cool to me.  The Book of Mormon DNA essay seems to do better at this than the “First Vision” or the “Blacks/Priesthood” essays, for example.
  • Definitely lacking apologies: It would have been amazing to see some actual apologies within these essays — such as with the prior teachings that blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence (which as actually declared as doctrine by the First Presidency).  In the view of many, the church will lack credibility until it follows the steps of repentance that it asks of the general membership: 1) confess the sin, 2) forsake the sin, 3) ask for forgiveness, and 4) make restitution.
  • An example of egregious omissions: The recent DNA/Book of Mormon essay was particularly egregious in this regard to me.  After punishing/marginalizing scientists and dismissing/denouncing evolution for decades (via Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith), the church decides to rely on evolution to defend itself against Book of Mormon DNA problems.  This reminded me of Mitt Romney claiming to have the most conservative record of all the candidates in the Republican primaries, in spite of his prior support of gay marriage and abortion rights as a governor in Massachusetts.  Complete honesty would have acknowledged the church’s history re: evolution for what it was, accompanied by an apology (or at least some acknowledgment).  Instead the Book of Mormon/DNA essay acted like none of that history ever happened.  Nevermind the fact that evolution undermines the historical foundation of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon (e.g., no death before the fall, 7,000 year old earth, global flood — see D&C 77, 2 Nephi 2:22).
  • Joseph Smith’s polygamy: The “Plural Marriage and Families in Utah” essay was ok, but the real test is going to be how they deal with Joseph Smith’s polygamy and polyandry.  Many are very, very eager to see that essay.
  • Authors?  It would be sweet if the essays were actually signed by the first presidency and/or quorum of the 12, though I can guess why they don’t sign them.  I am guessing that they don’t want to paint themselves into any more corners.  Having revision dates, and keeping track of version changes would be nice as well.
  • Future Impact?  Regarding impact — I am not sure that the essays will likely make much of a positive difference in terms of helping people stay in the church (vs. disaffecting).  In my experience, for every one person that is helped by LDS apologetics, another two to three are either exposed to issues they would have otherwise never encountered (causing them to leave the church), or are wholly dissatisfied with the apologetic answers (also causing them to ultimately leave the church).  Overall, I do believe that an objective review of LDS history/evidence ultimately leads much more often to disbelief than to belief (in spite of what Elder Marlin Jensen used to say about studying history “too little”).  This has been my experience after speaking with literally thousands of people over the past 25 years, anyway….though I admit that more research needs to be conducted in this regard.
  • Overall I definitely applaud the efforts as a first (baby) step….but I also feel like the church has a long, long way to go to “come clean.”  Still….I’m grateful for the steps.

John Dehlin


The four treatises on polygamy reflect a new resolve by a church long accused of secrecy to respond with openness to the kind of thorny historical and theological issues that are causing some to become disillusioned or even to abandon the faith.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is formally known, has quietly posted 12 essays on its website over the last year on contentious topics such as the ban on blacks in the priesthood, which was lifted in 1978, and accounts of how Smith translated the Book of Mormon, the church’s sacred scripture.

Elder Steven E. Snow, the church historian and a member of its senior leadership, said in an interview, “There is so much out there on the Internet that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.

“We need to be truthful, and we need to understand our history,” Elder Snow said. “I believe our history is full of stories of faith and devotion and sacrifice, but these people weren’t perfect.”

The essay on “plural marriage” in the early days of the Mormon movement in Ohio and Illinois says polygamy was commanded by God, revealed to Smith and accepted by him and his followers only very reluctantly. Abraham and other Old Testament patriarchs had multiple wives, and Smith preached that his church was the “restoration” of the early, true Christian church.

Most of Smith’s wives were between the ages of 20 and 40, the essay says, but he married Helen Mar Kimball, a daughter of two close friends, “several months before her 15th birthday.” A footnote says that according to “careful estimates,” Smith had 30 to 40 wives.

The biggest bombshell for some in the essays is that Smith married women who were already married, some to men who were Smith’s friends and followers.

The essays held nothing back, said Richard L. Bushman, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and author of the book “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.”

Dr. Bushman said of church leaders: “Somewhere along the line they decided they were just going to tell the whole story, not to be defensive, not to try to hide anything. And there’s no single fact that’s more unsettling than Joseph Smith’s marriage to other men’s wives.

“It’s a recognition of maturity,” said Dr. Bushman, who is a Mormon. “There are lots of church leaders who say: ‘We can take anything, just let us know how it really happened. We’re a church that is secure.’ ”

The younger generation of Mormons will benefit from this step, said Samantha Shelley, co-founder of the website in Provo, Utah.

She said she knew of Smith’s polygamous past, but “it’s so easy for people these days to stumble upon something on the Internet, and it rocks their world and they don’t know where to turn.”

In 1890, under pressure by the American government, the church issued a manifesto formally ending polygamy. The church’s essay on this phase admits that some members and even leaders did not abandon the practice for years.

But the church did renounce polygamy, and Mormons who refused to do the same eventually broke away and formed splinter churches, some that still exist. Warren Jeffs, the leader of one such group, was convicted in Texas in 2011 of child sexual assault.

There remains one way in which polygamy is still a part of Mormon belief: The church teaches that a man who was “sealed” in marriage to his wife in a temple ritual, then loses his wife to death or divorce, can be sealed to a second wife and would be married to both wives in the afterlife. However, women who have been divorced or widowed cannot be sealed to more than one man.

Kristine Haglund, the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, said that while she found the church’s new transparency “really hopeful,” she and other women she had talked with were disturbed that the essays do not address the painful teaching about polygamy in eternity.

“These are real issues for Mormon women,” Ms. Haglund said. “And because the church has never said definitively that polygamy won’t be practiced in heaven, even very devout and quite conservative women are really troubled by it.”

The church historian, Elder Snow, said that the process of writing the essays began in May 2012. Each one was drafted by a scholar, often outside the church history department, then edited by church historians and leaders, and vetted by the church’s top authorities. They may issue one more essay, on women and the priesthood, an issue that has grown increasingly controversial as some Mormon women have mobilized to challenge the male-only priesthood.

The church has not publicly announced the posting of the essays, and many Mormons said in interviews that they were not even aware of them. They are not visible on the church’s home page; finding them requires a search or a link. Elder Snow said he anticipated that the contents would eventually be “woven into future curriculum” for adults and youths.

The church recently released an informational video about the distinctive Mormon underwear called “temple garments” — and it received far more attention among Mormons and in the news media than the essays on polygamy.

Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of constitutional law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, and a non-Mormon who has studied the Mormon Church, said it had dealt with transparency about its past before this, addressing Mormon leaders’ complicity in an attack on a wagon train crossing southern Utah in 1857, known as the Mountain Meadows massacre. But she said this recent emphasis on transparency by the church was both unprecedented and smart.

“What you want to do is get out ahead of the problem, and not have someone say, ‘Look at this damaging thing I found that you were trying to keep secret,’ ” she said.

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