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Mormonism and church integrity/"Lying for the Lord"
"Lying for the Lord"
Summary: Some have long accused Mormons of organizationally and systematically “lying for the Lord,” equating such with a policy of using any means necessary to achieve some “good” goal. This claim is false, and a biased reading of Church history. One must not use ethically questionable tactics because one believes the “end justifies the means.”
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Does the Church teach that it is okay to "Lie for the Lord"?
- Question: Are there circumstances in which lying is necessary in order to avoid a greater harm?
- Question: How do critics of Mormonism define "lying for the Lord"?
- Question: Did Gordon B. Hinckley cite false information regarding an 1820 Palmyra revival in a book called Truth Restored?
- Question: Does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints distort its membership numbers and rate of growth for public relations purposes?
Question: Does the Church teach that it is okay to "Lie for the Lord"?
Some insist that Church leaders believe that deceiving others in a "good cause" for the sake of the Church is not a sin, and may even be laudable. Critics of Mormonism have long charged the LDS with organizationally and systematically “lying for the Lord,” equating such with a policy of using any means necessary to achieve some “good” goal. This claim is false, and a biased reading of Church history. One must not use ethically questionable tactics because one believes the “end justifies the means.”
Honesty and integrity are foundational values to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, the success which critics have in troubling members of the Church with tales of deception or supposed "lying for the Lord" is, in a way, a backhanded compliment to the Church.
If the Church as an institution typically taught its members to have a casual disregard for the truth, the charge that some Church leader had deceived someone else would be no great shock. But, because the Church (contrary to the suggestions of some critics) really does teach its members to aspire to live with honesty and integrity, accusations of deception can be troubling, especially if the critics can selectively report such instances without providing the context or difficulties which might have underlain such decisions.
Question: Are there circumstances in which lying is necessary in order to avoid a greater harm?
Some have suggested that it is morally permissible to lie to promote a good cause. For example, some Mormons have taught or implied that lying is okay if you are lying for the Lord… As far as concerns our own church and culture, the most common allegations of lying for the Lord swirl around the initiation, practice, and discontinuance of polygamy. The whole experience with polygamy was a fertile field for deception. It is not difficult for historians to quote LDS leaders and members in statements justifying, denying, or deploring deception in furtherance of this religious practice.
There will be times when moral imperatives clash, and people who wish to make moral choices are faced with difficult decisions
Elder Oaks then reaches the key point: there will be times when moral imperatives clash. Sometimes, people who wish to make moral choices are faced with difficult choices. For example:
- if a rapist breaks into your house, and demands to know where your teenage daughter is hiding, are you morally obligated to tell him?
- if you are a French Christian hiding Jews from the Nazis in 1941, are you obliged to tell the SS about the whereabouts of the Jews if they ask? Is it wrong to lie to them?
- if the government seeks to destroy families formed under plural marriage, is breaking up those families appropriate? Should one abandon wives and children without support, or avoid telling the whole truth?
In all these examples—and there are many more like them—one cannot be both completely honest when confronted with a hostile questioner and meet other very real ethical demands. Doing both is simply not an option. Elder Oaks notes:
My heart breaks when I read of circumstances in which wives and children were presented with the terrible choice of lying about the whereabouts or existence of a husband or father on the one hand or telling the truth and seeing him go to jail on the other. These were not academic dilemmas. A father in jail took food off the table and fuel from the hearth. Those hard choices involved collisions between such fundamental emotions and needs as a commitment to the truth versus the need for loving companionship and relief from cold and hunger.
My heart also goes out to the Church leaders who were squeezed between their devotion to the truth and their devotion to their wives and children and to one another. To tell the truth could mean to betray a confidence or a cause or to send a brother to prison. There is no academic exercise in that choice!
The actions of wicked people may place the Saints in conditions in which they cannot fulfill all the ethical demands upon them
In such difficult circumstances, only revelation—to the Church collectively and to individuals—can hope to show us what God would have us do. Judging such cases is extremely difficult; it is also hypocritical for Church critics to point out such instances without providing the context which underlay their choices, and which made them so wrenching. As Elder Oaks continued:
I do not know what to think of all of this, except I am glad I was not faced with the pressures those good people faced. My heart goes out to them for their bravery and their sacrifices, of which I am a direct beneficiary. I will not judge them. That judgment belongs to the Lord, who knows all of the circumstances and the hearts of the actors, a level of comprehension and wisdom not approached by even the most knowledgeable historians.
Each case must be judged on its merits
Did some Church members or leaders make wrong choices in such difficult moral choices? Probably—they and we do not claim any inerrancy. In the main, however, it seems clear that Church members did not “lie” or “deceive” because it was convenient, or because it would advance “the cause.” They lied because moral duties conflicted, and they chose the option which did the least harm to their ethical sense. Happily, they had personal revelation to guide them. Concludes Elder Oaks:
I ask myself, “If some of these Mormon leaders or members lied, therefore, what?” I reject a “therefore” which asserts or implies that this example shows that lying is morally permissible or that lying is a tradition or even a tolerated condition in the Mormon community or among the leaders of our church. That is not so. (emphasis added)
Question: How do critics of Mormonism define "lying for the Lord"?
Critics of Mormonism often accuse the Church (or its leaders, its missionaries, or its members) about not telling "the truth" about that which Mormons "really believe"
Generally, however, the 'truth' which the critic wishes the Church would spread bears little or no resemblance to what the Church teaches, believes, or practices. Cries for "honesty" from the critics are often nothing more than a claim that the Church must adopt the critics' perspectives, interpretations, or preoccupations.
Critics of Mormonism may portray Church members as "lying" when the critics have, instead, misinterpreted or misrepresented what the member intended
A common example of this tactic is the claim that President Hinckley lied about LDS doctrine in an interview. As the wiki link demonstrates, this claim is false and represents a misunderstanding. This particular claim is particularly ridiculous, since it supposes that President Hinckley would believe that he could deceive a national newsmagazine, interviewing him on the record!
Members of the Church are also bound by requirements of confidentiality, which is portrayed as "lying" when they meet hostile attacks with silence
Members will not discuss certain matters which they have covenanted to keep sacred, and some experiences are not to be shared unless the Holy Spirit directs. Members may be portrayed as "lying" when they meet hostile attacks with silence, or when they attempt to protect things they consider sacred by deflecting the conversation to other topics.
Church leaders who provide spiritual guidance to others operate under confidentiality rules (sometimes called a clergy-penitent relationship) which they will not set aside even if the member being counseled chooses to speak. This provides an environment in which leaders may be falsely accused or characterized by a disenchanted member, yet the leader remains unable to defend themselves. Often, charges of "lying" are one-sided reports from the disaffected, with the other party unable to respond. We should use charity and caution in judging such cases.
Church members and leaders have similar confidentiality duties as non-member counterparts in various fields. Physicians and attorneys must keep professional confidences, military personnel must keep national security secrets from the enemy, businessmen must keep trade secrets private, etc. Meeting these ethical duties is not always easy, and could leave one vulnerable to charges that one is being 'dishonest' or 'hiding the truth.' Those who seek to find fault will likely succeed.
A FairMormon Analysis of MormonThink page "Lying for the Lord"
The critical website MormonThink.com has a laundry list of 152 cases in which they claim that "lying for the Lord" was practiced. We respond to some of the more interesting or well-known issues (follow the links below for the full response to each issue).
Jump to Subtopic:
- Response to claim: "The official version of the First Vision by Joseph Smith....evolved after years of creative editing"
- Response to claim: "Moroni is pictured floating above Joseph or next to his bed, alone in his bedroom"
- Response to claim: "The LDS Church permits members and others to believe that the History of the Church was written by Joseph Smith"
- Response to claim: "The famous Rocky Mountain Prophecy....was a later addition to the official church history and not predicted by Joseph Smith"
- Response to claim: "In the history as it was first published by Joseph Smith, we learn that the angel's name was Nephi"
- Response to claim: "Official Mormon histories have omitted references to Joseph Smith's drinking and use of tobacco"
- Response to claim: "Truthful Mormon history is considered anti-Mormon"
- Response to claim: Joseph "published another version with original revelations revised"
- Response to claim: "Mormons' official publications remove critical references to Joseph Smith's activities as a con man"
- Response to claim: "Some things that are true are not very useful"
- Response to claim: "Mormon histories are not forthcoming about the statements by the three and eight witnesses"
- Response to claim: "The eight witnesses did not all imagine seeing the plates or angel at the same time as the church leads people to believe"
- Response to claim: " Joseph Smith never had gold plates in view when "translating"
- Response to claim: "nor did he use an Old Testament instrument called the Urim and Thummim"
- Response to claim: "One of Joseph Smith's first experiments with adultery began with a teen-age girl named Fanny Ward Alger"
- Response to claim: "The LDS Church led by Joseph Smith, canonized monogamy as God's marriage arrangement"
- Response to claim: Joseph said that "spiritual wifery" was "absolutely false and the doctrine an evil and unlawful thing"
- Response to claim: "the first wife had to first give her consent in order for her husband to take another wife"
- Response to claim: "Joseph Smith secretly married 17 year old Sarah Ann Whitney...He wrote to her parents who approved of the marriage, 'The only thing to be careful of is to find out when Emma comes, then you cannot be safe'"
- Response to claim: Joseph "publicly denied that he practiced plural marriage"
- Response to claim: "Official Mormon histories deceive readers by failing to point out that Joseph exercised poor judgment"
- Response to claim: "The Manifesto of 1890 prohibiting polygamy, was in fact another attempt to dupe the U.S. government and to some extent, ordinary church members"
Question: Did Gordon B. Hinckley cite false information regarding an 1820 Palmyra revival in a book called Truth Restored?
It is claimed that there were no religious revivals in the Palmyra, New York area in 1820, and that Gordon B. Hinckley cited false information regarding an 1820 revival in a book called Truth Restored. The material found in Truth Restored was written in 1947 under the title What of the Mormons? It was written as an introduction to the Church for non-members when Gordon B. Hinckley was a 37-year-old employee of the Church.
Several chapters were later reprinted as Truth Restored. The relevant material reads as follows:
This condition among the people of the frontier areas of America became a matter of serious concern to religious leaders. A crusade was begun to "convert the unconverted." It was carried over a vast area from the New England states to Kentucky. In 1820 it reached western New York. The ministers of the various denominations united in their efforts, and many conversions were made among the scattered settlers. One week a Rochester paper noted: "More than two hundred souls have become hopeful subjects of divine grace in Palmyra, Macedon, Manchester, Lyons, and Ontario since the late revival commenced." The week following it was able to report "that in Palmyra and Macedon . . . more than four hundred souls have already confessed that the Lord is good."
The source for this claim is Preston Nibley, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1946), pp. 21-22. Nibley, in turn is quoting from Willard Bean, A. B. C. History of Palmyra and the Beginning of "Mormonism (1938). Bean writes:
In the year 1819 a sort of religious awakening... spread... After reaching New York it spread to the rural districts upstate, reaching Palmyra and vicinity in the Spring of 1820.... The revival started the latter part of April ... which gave the farmers a chance to attend the meetings... By the first of May, the revival was well under way with scores of people confessing religion... The revival had been even more successful than the ministers had anticipated. I quote from the Religious Advocate of Rochester: 'More than 200 souls have become hopeful subjects of divine grace in Palmyra, Macedon, Manchester, Lyons and Ontario since the late revival commenced. This is a powerful work. It is among young as well as old people.... A week later [also from the 'Religious Advocate' of Rochester]... 'It may be added that in Palmyra and Macedon, including Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, more than 400 have already confessed that the Lord is good. The work is still progressing. In neighboring towns, the number is great and still increasing. Glory be to God on high; and on earth peace and good will to all men.'"
This is almost certainly a miscitation
Yet, as the Reverend Wesley Walters pointed out in his article which attempted to dispute the existence of a revival, this is almost certainly a miscitation, since the quoted newspaper did not begin publication until 1825.
Thus, Gordon Hinckley (1947) quoted a line from Nibley (1946), who was quoting from Bean (1938) that was in error. It is important to remember, however, that then-Bro. Hinckley's book was not intended to be a scholarly treatise, but was an introduction to the basics of Church history. The material from 1947 was later reprinted as Truth Restored.
Despite the miscitation, there actually is, however, evidence of religious excitement in Palmyra in 1820
Despite the claims of Walters and other critics, modern research has demonstrated that there were religious meeting in the Palmyra area in 1820. The cited newspaper article did not apply to the 1820 events, but other reports are known today which would make the same point.
The evidence does not suggest that this was an attempt to deceive, but simply an error that was perpetuated between multiple authors.
Anti-Mormon authors should be well aware of this phenomenon—anti-Mormon arguments are constantly recycled and requoted by their successors, with little heed given to LDS responses or the primary sources. In this respect, the Church has done better than the critics—the current brief introduction to Church history, Our Heritage, quotes no newspapers about the 1820 revival.
Question: Does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints distort its membership numbers and rate of growth for public relations purposes?
The truth or falsity of the Church does not change, regardless of whether only one person believes its tenets, or whether everyone does
At its base, this complaint is a variant of the appeal to the majority, or argumentum ad populum. In this fallacy, a belief is assumed to be false because few people hold it, or true because many people hold it. Critics might attempt to question LDS membership figures because they fear (rightly or otherwise) that the Church or a member is using this fallacy to argue that because of its relatively high growth rate, the Church is true.
In either case, the truth or falsity of the Church does not change, regardless of whether only one person believes its tenets, or whether everyone does. Truth is not decided by vote or consensus.
It is claimed that the Church reports raw membership numbers (i.e., the number of members "on the books," without regard for whether such members are active, believing, etc.) This is done, it is charged, for public relations purposes: larger numbers and higher rates of growth are supposed to encourage the faithful.
The critics ignore that calculating membership in any organization or church can be fraught with inaccuracy. Individuals may be on the records of more than one denomination. It is difficult, if not impossible, to assess the actual level of belief which a member may have: someone who is outwardly "active" in the faith could harbor doubts, while someone who has not attended church for years might be a believer who does not attend for other reasons.
Critics ignore that claims about the Church's growth rate usually come from outside observers. The Church is not particularly concerned about making claims about its growth rate relative to other faiths:
According to the National Council of Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the second-fastest-growing church in the United States. However, despite its increasing numbers, the Church cautions against overemphasis on growth statistics. The Church makes no statistical comparisons with other churches and makes no claim to be the fastest-growing Christian denomination despite frequent news media comments to that effect. Such comparisons rarely take account of a multiplicity of complex factors, including activity rates and death rates, the methodology used in registering or counting members and what factors constitute membership. Growth rates also vary significantly across the world. Additionally, many other factors contribute to the strength of the Church, most especially the devotion and commitment of its members. 
- A thorough treatment of the historical, ethical, and moral issues surrounding "deception" by Church leaders in the practice of plural marriage is available: Gregory Smith, "Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." FairMormon link PDF link. The interested reader is encouraged to consult it for a much more in-depth discussion.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teachings About Lying,” BYU Fireside Address, 12 September 1993, typescript, no page numbers; also printed in Clark Memorandum [of the J. Reuben Clark School of Law, Brigham Young University] (Spring 1994). All references to Elder Oaks in this wiki article apply to this speech, unless otherwise indicated.
- Truth Restored (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979), 1–2.
- Rev. Wesley P. Walters, "New Light on Mormon Origins From the Palmyra Revival," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 no. 1 (Spring 1969), 67, 67 n. 48.
- Cited in Dale Broadhurst, "Uncle Dale's Readings in Early Mormon History: Misc. New York Newspapers," note 2. off-site
- Rev. Wesley P. Walters, "New Light on Mormon Origins From the Palmyra Revival," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 no. 1 (Spring 1969), 67, 67 n. 48.
- See Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1996), 1–4. LDS link
- "Growth of the Church," newsroom.lds.org (last accessed 7 December 2010).