Question: Has The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deceived its members regarding controversial issues about its origins, history, and/or scripture?

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Question: Has The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deceived its members regarding controversial issues about its origins, history, and/or scripture?

Introduction to Criticism

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is routinely criticized for its treatment of controversial aspects of its history by critics. It is claimed that they deceive their members about these issues that are supposedly damning to the Church’s credibility.

Accompanying these charges are portrayals of the Church as a money-making scheme. Church leaders are seeking to increase tithing donations to defraud people of money and use it to buy up palatial homes and other goods.

This article will examine the assumptions that need to be made in order to believe that the Church has lied to its members about its history and the problems with those assumptions.

Assumptions Behind an Accusation of Deception

1. The information must be correct

There must be information that the Church doesn’t want it’s members to see and that information must be correct. This can be difficult since historians typically debate a lot of issues for many years before coming to a consensus on an issue.

2. The information must actually be damning.

The information that is correct must actually be damning either to the character of Joseph Smith, the authenticity of scripture, etc.

This can be a difficult assumption to establish for the simple fact that people can and do react differently to the same set of information depending on what assumptions they are willing to accept prior to or after confronting that information.

We can take anachronisms in the Book of Mormon for example. Some people might take the presence of anachronisms to be immediately damaging to the credibility of scripture. Others are perfectly fine with the presence of anachronisms since they can be resolved by considering the possibility of loan-shifts. Others might take an anachronism to mean that more information might come to light on it--especially when considering the paucity of archaeological data we have about the ancient world, preservation conditions for bone deposits, etc.

3. Church leaders must become aware of that information at some point

Leaders of the Church have to become aware of that information at some point. This can be difficult for the simple fact that Church leaders don’t have a lot of time frequently to become aware of something.

D. Michael Quinn observed that "Church leaders have as much experience with the church’s past history as anyone who graduated from seminary, so they are not trying to conceal any concerns or a great secret or mystery, because they are not aware of them. If they haven’t acquired a knowledge of church history before they become a General Authority, they don’t have time to acquire it.[1]

4. Church leaders must take proactive steps to suppress that information

Now Church leaders must take proactive steps to suppress that information. This can be difficult for the simple fact that certain forms of information can’t be easily suppressed.

We can take Book of Mormon anachronisms again as our example. All it takes for someone to find a potential anachronism is to read the Book of Mormon and compare its claims to the current archaeological science we find from scholars. That takes the Book of Mormon and access to the internet and/or other books to find.

In the case of historical documents it’s not that hard to suppress them actually. One need simply burn them secretly if they wished. But there have been exactly zero times when anyone has claimed with credibility that Church leaders have burned documents.

This assumption is further complicated by the fact that we have access to information about these issues today. The reader being on the FAIR website and seeing all the claims that critics have made about the Church is evidence that we have vital information on these topics from the Church.

This assumption is complicated even further by seeing how many times these issues have appeared in official Church publications, semi-official Church publications, and outside venues over the years. FAIR has collected a large bibliography for issues like plural marriage, the Book of Abraham, and the First Vision. FAIR has collected a smaller yet still revealing bibliography for most other issues of controversy.

5. Church leaders must take those proactive steps to suppress information with malicious intent

Church leaders must take those proactive steps to suppress information with malicious intent.

This assumption is complicated by the fact that the apostles and other General Authorities live lifestyles roughly commensurate with the vocations they held prior to their calls into Church hierarchy. Church funds always geared towards the benefit of the Church. Many critics will doubt this—citing things like some General Authorities living stipends and the construction of City Creek mall. Information about those topics from an accurate and faithful perspective can be found by following the hyperlinked text.

One place where people have believed that this happened is in the case of Joseph Fielding Smith. During his tenure as Church Historian, the 1832 account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision was removed from the original notebook it was recorded in. We aren’t exactly sure who removed the account from the notebook, but Joseph Fielding Smith is believed to have been a possible culprit. The account was kept in the Church Historian's Office safe so he at least had to have known that the account was there. Assuming that he was the one to remove the account, it is curious that President Smith decided to give the account to Paul Cheesman when doing his Master’s Thesis on the First Vision in the 1960s and not to people like Gerald and Sandra Tanner who petitioned for it (see the link above for more info). President Smith could have easily removed the account waiting for it to be placed in the right hands and not to merely suppress it. Again, he could have simply burned the document if he believed it was that damning; but he didn’t.

6. You must be a good reader.

People need to read to find out information. It’s a simple fact of life. It’s also a fact that, as a species, we are fairly bad at reading anything. We aren’t typically interested in something until we feel that we absolutely must be interested in that thing.

As Latter-day Saint apologist Michael Ash has observed:

It [has] been said that America is a nation of non-readers. We are, by and large, literate, but we are often [uninformed] and tend to spend less time reading than watching TV or surfing the Internet. A 2011 survey, for instance, found that the average U.S. adult spends about 7-12 times more time watching TV than reading books. Studies indicate that in the past two decades about 25% fewer American adults spent time reading books. According to another study,

  • One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 58% of the U.S. adult population never reads another book after high school.
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book.
  • 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year
  • 70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
  • 57% of new books are not read to completion.


When we do read, we often choose pop magazines or novels over nonfiction. Most Americans, for example, are severely uninformed in regards to significant historical issues, current events, or scientific facts. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, a full 83% of Americans could not name the then-current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquisy, and nearly a third of Americans were unable to name the then-current vice president Dick Cheney. According to Carl Sagan, 63% of Americans are unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first humans lived, and nearly half of American adults do not know that the Earth goes around the sun and that it takes a year to do so.

The problem is even more pronounced among [the United States’] teens. One third of U.S. teens, for instance, were unable to associate Hitler with Germany. Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCullough complains that many high school and college students are unaware that George Washington was commander of the Continental Army, or that the 13 original colonies were all on the East Coast.

One recent study showed that many Americans were significantly ignorant on what should be common matters of religious knowledge. Only 54% of respondents, for instance, knew that the Koran (Quran) is an Islamic holy book. Only 51% knew that Joseph Smith was a Mormon, and only 46% knew that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation. Although the vast majority of the people polled [were] Christian, only 37% said they read the scriptures at least once a week (not counting worship services), and only 45% knew that the Gospels [were] comprised of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Only 63% knew that Genesis was the first book in the Bible, and only 60% knew that Abraham was a figure in the Bible who was willing to sacrifice his son for God.

According to one author who wrote about the decline in American religious knowledge, 60% of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments and 50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married. Another study claims that one third of Americans polled believe that evangelist Billy Graham delivered the Sermon on the mount.[2]

It’s also true that we need to be reading the right publications to get the information we’re looking for. The Church, including its leaders and scholars, are going to want to place the information in settings that are designed for specific types of explorations in Church history and scripture.

Publications like BYU Studies, the Journal of Mormon History, Church magazines, Seminary manuals, Institute Manuals, Church newspapers, the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Interpreter, Element, and others will all have different topics that they are going to want to explore and different levels that they will address them at. They know that there are going to be different audiences that want different content. Even if you are reading the right literature and reading a lot there’s no guarantee that the issues will be addressed in the ways that you might prefer. This is because the publications might be written in a style, scope, or at particular reading level that simply doesn’t permit the issue being addressed in the preferred way.

Some may complain that they wanted the information to be presented in Sunday School classes. But as Michael Ash has observed:

The purpose of Church curriculum. . .including Sunday School, Priesthood [meetings], and Relief Society [meetings] is to support the mission of the Church: to bring people to Christ. Very little actual history is discussed in Church classes. Even every fourth year when the Doctrine and Covenants is taught (which includes some Church history) the primary goal of the class is to help members draw closer to God, seek the Spirit, and understand gospel principles. Thousands of virtually untrained volunteers, with varying degrees of gospel and historical knowledge, endeavor to bring the Spirit into the classroom so that class members can be spiritually edified. While some Gospel Doctrine teachers may be knowledgeable enough to share detailed historical information, the manuals generally give basic historical outlines that specifically relate to lessons focusing on one or more gospel principles and how to apply those [principles] in the lives of members. In short, Church is a place for worship, spiritual edification, and enlightenment, not for in-depth historical discussion."[3]

If you want to find information about a particular facet of criticism that the Church faces, then you need to be reading a lot, reading the right things, and to expect the issue to be addressed in a way unique to the style, scope, and audience of that publication.

7. You must remember what you read.

This assumption might seem a bit superfluous, but it may become more relevant with experience with those who struggle with this question. You have to remember what you read. Many people might actually be exposed to good information regarding a topic that addresses the concern but not remember the issue itself or the details surrounding the issue and responses to it that would inoculate them to that issue.

When they’re confronted with the issue again they may feel that the Church deceived them on this our that detail, when in reality they just have innocently forgotten much about the issue when they first confronted it.

Other Relevant Considerations

The reality is that there are very few new discoveries related to Church history

Many critics will present a faithful member with some fact of church history and would have them believe that this is a new discovery. The reality is that there are very few new discoveries related to Church history. In fact, most, if not all of these documents have been well known to church historians for many years. Occasionally, a new document will be discovered which sheds additional light on some aspect of Church history. One such example is the discovery of documents that clarify that the Church was actually organized in Fayette rather than Manchester, as some have claimed. Situations such as this are rare, however. When the critic presents a "new" historical fact, you can rest assured that this very same "fact" has been discussed by LDS scholars for many years. There is truly little new information for the critics to draw from.

The critic presents these historical facts in order to shake the member's testimony, hopefully to the point of leaving the church. They attempt to present contradictions, such as "Joseph Smith drank wine at Carthage Jail, and therefore violated the Word of Wisdom." They attempt to catch Church leaders in deceit or portray them as hypocrites. Yet, there are many LDS experts on Church history that remain fully aware, faithful, actively attending church members. There are no facts that unarguably disprove the authenticity of the church. As always it comes down to faith and a personal witness between an individual and the Lord.

Conclusion

It’s more than likely that the Church has not been absolutely perfect in the dissemination of its history. But to say that it hasn’t done a good job or that it has consistently, deliberately, and/or maliciously hidden unsavory parts about its history and/or scripture is simply too farfetched to take seriously. There are simply too many confounding variables and complicating data points to make this claim.

Critics will want to be aware of these assumptions if they want to establish their criticism more fully in the future and defenders will want to be aware of these to know how to approach response to critics.

Defenders should keep in mind, as Dallin H. Oaks has observed about this criticism, that "we will never satisfy every complaint along [this] line and probably shouldn’t."[4]


Notes

  1. D. Michael Quinn at Utah Valley State College, 3 February 2005; reported in “Historian delivers talk at UVSC,” Caleb Warnock Daily Herald, 4 February 2005, D1. As cited in Gregory L. Smith, "Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication," FAIR Papers, 2005, https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/smith-Polygamy_Prophets_and_Prevarication.pdf.
  2. Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome, 2nd ed. (Redding, CA: FairMormon Press, 2014), 15– 16.
  3. Ibid., 13–14.
  4. Dallin Oaks, "Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from PBS Documentary," Newsroom (20 July 2007) off-site