In 19th century England, hounds were often used for hunting foxes and other game for food or sport, a tradition that survives in some parts of that country even today.1 According to legend, sometimes as the hounds went off in search of animals scent, saboteurs would take smoked fish (usually herring turned reddish in color because of the smoking process) and drag it along the hunting route but away from the game. Perhaps they were other hunters wanting the trophy for themselves, or maybe just mischief makers–––the story doesn’t specify. Whatever the motivation, their ploy would cause the dogs to abandon the trail and follow this new and alluring scent. Unfortunately, this would sabotage the hunt, and the dogs would be left empty handed, so to speak, because they had lost sight (or smell) of the true prize.2 Although the origins of this story are dubious, the phrase “red herring” has stuck to refer to using false or misleading information to redirect attention away from the real issue.
In our parable we are the hounds and anti-Mormon critics are the saboteurs who use (figurative) strong-scented fish to lead us away from our real treasure: the core doctrines and ordinances of the Gospel. There are many examples of this, and they are too numerous to mention here, but always the goal is the same: distract from the critical issues (is the Book of Mormon true? is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints God’s Church on the earth? is Joseph Smith a Prophet?) by getting us to focus all of our time and energy on infinitely less important ones (Joseph Smith’s character flaws, translation “issues” with the Gold Plates or the Book of Abraham, polygamy, etc.). We start to ignore what really matters–––the things actually important to our salvation–––to focus on these other issues, and in the process allow our testimonies to wither and die. Unfortunately, it can be easy to take the bait and fall down this false trail. I would like to offer up a few suggestions that might be helpful as we find ourselves dealing with this problem.
First, a common red herring that gets thrown around is that if we don’t have the answers to every question an anti-Mormon critic brings up, then the Church obviously isn’t true. This is just ridiculous. The Church has never claimed to have the answers to everything. In fact, it is commonly taught that we don’t have all of the answers and probably won’t in this life. Scientists don’t have all of the answers about science, yet you never hear anti-science critics decrying all their findings as false. Doctors don’t have all the answers about medicine, but you don’t hear critics portraying every medical professional as a fraud. You get the idea. Not knowing everything is part of the Plan of Salvation. If we did know everything then we would have no need for faith, and faith is a crucial part of our mortal experience. Without it we cannot be exalted.
That being said, there are good answers to almost all of the questions posed by critics, and even more answers will come with additional research. A good example would be the supposed anachronisms found in the Book of Mormon. The more we have learned about ancient America, the more they have disappeared.3 We would do well to follow the counsel of Sister Camilla Kimball, wife of President Spencer W. Kimball: “I have always had an inquiring mind. I am not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I could not answer. I had a shelf of things I did not understand, but as I have grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I have been able to understand them better.”4 Just because we don’t have the answer to a question right now doesn’t mean we won’t later, and as such is no reason to leave the straight and narrow sniffing after smoked fish.
Second, we need to be careful to not sacrifice our study of the things that really matter as we search for answers to less important issues. Just as our bodies require constant physical nourishment to survive and thrive, our testimonies need the constant spiritual nourishment that the scriptures and words of the living prophets provide. It can be easy to get so wrapped up in an issue that we obsessively read every article and blog post on the subject–––taking up hours of our time and neglecting the scripture study we so desperately need. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we shouldn’t find answers to issues that trouble us. But I am saying that we should not sacrifice the “best” for the “good.” I think that scholarly research about the Church is critical, and I spend a good amount of my time studying it, but when all is said and done, it will be the study of spiritual things that draws us closer to Christ and ultimately saves us. It is not something we should abandon, especially when there is an issue we are struggling with. The more we let the Spirit into our lives, the easier it will be for Him to teach us the truth.
Third, when we are seeking answers to questions that may bother us, we owe it to ourselves and to our Heavenly Father to use sources that will build up instead of attempt to tear down our testimonies. This is critical. How information is presented, whether it is true or not, can have a significant impact on how it is received and interpreted. A good example of this is found in a recent FairMormon podcast by Ned Scarisbrick. Even something critical to life itself (like water) can be given such a negative spin as to make is seem reprehensible. The same is true about things of the Spirit. As Elder Stanfill of the Seventy eloquently explained during this most recent General Conference:
When we consider thoughtfully, why would we listen to the faceless, cynical voices of those in the great and spacious buildings of our time …These ever-present naysayers prefer to tear down rather than elevate and to ridicule rather than uplift. Their mocking words can burrow into our lives, often through split-second bursts of electronic distortions carefully and deliberately composed to destroy our faith. Is it wise to place our eternal well-being in the hands of strangers? Is it wise to claim enlightenment from those who have no light to give or who may have private agendas hidden from us? These anonymous individuals, if presented to us honestly, would never be given a moment of our time, but because they exploit social media, hidden from scrutiny, they receive undeserved credibility.5
Let us be careful not to give these critics power over us that they don’t deserve and instead seek answers from good, qualified, uplifting sources of which there are plenty.
Lastly, remember that the things that really matter, spiritual truths that can save and uplift us are only understood by spiritual means. It is not a sign of weakness or lack of intelligence to rely on God for this; it is a sign of faith. These truths can only be revealed by His Spirit, and when we have gained our testimony the other issues don’t seem to matter as much, for we know that we are on the right path and that all of our answers will come in time. It’s not so much that our questions disappear, but we gain a greater peace and understanding that overcomes our uncertainties. On the other hand, if we allow them to, red herrings can take us away from those central, core truths that bring to us light and life, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Consider the following quote from President Uchtdorf:
I wish I could help everyone to understand this one simple fact: we believe in God because of things we know with our heart and mind, not because of things we do not know. Our spiritual experiences are sometimes too sacred to explain in worldly terms, but that doesn’t mean they are not real. Heavenly Father has prepared for His children a spiritual feast, offering every kind of exquisite food imaginable—and yet, instead of enjoying these spiritual gifts, the cynics content themselves with observing from a distance, sipping from their cups of skepticism, doubt, and disrespect. Why would anyone walk through life satisfied with the light from the candle of their own understanding when, by reaching out to our Heavenly Father, they could experience the bright sun of spiritual knowledge that would expand their minds with wisdom and fill their souls with joy?… Skepticism is easy—anyone can do it. It is the faithful life that requires moral strength, dedication, and courage. Those who hold fast to faith are far more impressive than those who give in to doubt when mysterious questions or concerns arise.6
Let us be careful that in our search for truth that we do not fall into the trap of the cynics. Rather, let us see these red herrings for what they truly are–––stinky fish–––and follow instead the path that will lead us to eternal life.
- Foxhunting (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/sports/foxhunting
- Jack, Albert (2004). Red Herrings and White Elephants. The Origins of Phrases We Use Every Day [Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader] pp. 188-189. Retrieved from http://leafo.net/hosted/ase/WhatCD
- Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Basic Principles (n.d.). FairMormon Answers. Retrieved from http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Anachronisms/Basic_principles
- Caroline Eyring Miner and Edward L. Kimball, Camilla (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1980), pp. 126–27
- Stanfill, Vern P (2015) “Choose the Light.” Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/print/2015/10/choose-the-light?lang=eng
- Uchtdorf, Dieter (2015) “Be Not Afraid, Only Believe.” Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/10/be-not-afraid-only-believe?lang=eng
Dave K says
I never knew the history behind the term ‘red herring.’ I feel less dumb now. Thanks.
I agree that it is important to focus on the ‘core’ doctrines rather than tangents. And I appreciate that church leaders have made this an emphasis recently. But I still get push back in my local congregation if I discount some church teachings and lessons as not important to my salvation. For example, I’ve been labeled a ‘cafeteria mormon’ (or worse) when I say that I love the core truths in the BOM even though I reject its historical claims, or if I say that it doesn’t really matter whether gender roles are eternal because they didn’t seem to matter to Christ, or if I say that I believe Adam/Eve are allegorical rather than actual people, or if I say that I do not believe that polygamy or the priesthood bans (racial or gender-based) were instituted by Heavenly Father.
What would really be helpful would be a list of the ‘core doctrines’ that we should focus on. Where do I find such a list?
Dennis Williams says
As usual this is a very well studied and written article.
Duane Peterson says
What a terrific article. Very well written and easily understood and so true. Thank you!
Oliver Mullins says
I’m glad that I could help you out with a little history lesson 🙂 There are several versions of the origins of the phrase, but that is one of the popular ones (even though it may not be historically accurate). I don’t think there is a list of “core doctrines” out there, but to me they are the doctrines that are vital to our salvation and are preached again and again throughout General Conferences and in the Scriptures. Things like faith, repentance, baptism, enduring to the end, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, Priesthood authority, and the ordinances that pertain to salvation to name a few.
Mil C. says
I would refer you to the Articles of Faith, for starters.
Dwight Rogers says
One of the Core Doctrines of the Church which is declared by Joseph Smith and other witnesses as well as taught in our canonized scripture is that the Book of Mormon is a real history of real events and real people. The Book of Mormon portrays itself as real history. Is it telling the truth or is the Book of Mormon lying about that? And if it is not telling the truth then believing any of it is problematic.
Some people accept Jesus as a great teacher and even a legitimate prophet, but not the Messiah . Yet Jesus Himself declared that He is the Messiah. So was Jesus the lying teacher or the lying prophet? I don’t think there’s much room for an in-between position here. Either Jesus told the truth and He is the Messiah or he is a lying deceiver. The same is true of believing the Book of Mormon’s claims about itself. So, if one is picking and choosing then the term cafeteria Mormon is appropriate.
All the Apostles and prophets from Joseph Smith to the present day have taught the Book of Mormon is true. None of them taught that part of the Book of Mormon is true, or that it is a fictional book with true moral teachings. They have taught that it is an historical account of real people and real events. If that’s not true then all the prophets and apostles are misleading us.
Dwight Rogers says
Dallin H. Oaks:
“Some Latter-day Saint critics who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon seek to make their proposed approach persuasive to Latter-day Saints by praising or affirming the value of some of the content of the book. Those who take this approach assume the significant burden of explaining how they can praise the contents of a book they have dismissed as a fable. I have never been able to understand the similar approach in reference to the divinity of the Savior. As we know, some scholars and some ministers proclaim him to be a great teacher and then have to explain how the one who gave such sublime teachings could proclaim himself (falsely they say) to be the Son of God who would be resurrected from the dead.
“The new-style critics have the same problem with the Book of Mormon. For example, we might affirm the value of the teachings recorded in the name of a man named Moroni, but if these teachings have value, how do we explain these statements also attributed to this man? “And if there be faults [in this record] they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire” (Mormon 8:17). “And I exhort you to remember these things; for the time speedily cometh that ye shall know that I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust?” (Moroni 10:27). There is something strange about accepting the moral or religious content of a book while rejecting the truthfulness of its authors’ declarations, predictions, and statements. This approach not only rejects the concepts of faith and revelation that the Book of Mormon explains and advocates, but it is also not even good scholarship.”
[Dallin H. Oaks, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon.” This talk was given at the annual dinner of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies in Provo Utah and has been subsequently published in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2011, 237-48 and reprinted in the Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21/1 (2012): 66-72].
Dwight Rogers says
The Book of Mormon is looking very good indeed as a literal history of real people.
Many details mentioned in the Book of Mormon are turning out to be authentic pre-Columbian features such as horses, pigs, barley, cement, cattle, elephants, writing on metal plates, head plates and body armor and scimitars, silk. Other features of the Book of Mormon are also being confirmed such as Hebraisms, chiasmus, correct details of the incense trail including the correct location of Nahom and Bountiful, metalworking and steel swords, authentic names, various customs, methods of warfare, demographics and population studies, and more. These were not known in Joseph Smiths day. He could not have fabricated them and happen to just guess these many complicated details right. Yet the Book of Mormon gets these and other details correct. As time goes on more and more details once rejected as anachronistic by critics are supported by various fields of scholarship, history, and archaeology. And, as time goes on, more and more of the reasons to believe that the Book of Mormon is not real history fall by the wayside.
Dwight Rogers says
Did Christ say that gender roles are not important? I don’t see that anywhere in the New Testament or other scripture. It’s one thing to question or reject unofficial teachings published by members and even by the brethren in their private publications. But the Church has issued official statements on the matter.
“All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.
“In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshiped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize his or her divine destiny as an heir of eternal life.” ]
1. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Family: A Proclamation to the World (First read by Gordon B. Hinckley as part of his message at the General Relief Society Meeting held 23 September 1995, in Salt Lake City, Utah.)
Dwight Rogers says
The scriptures and the teachings of the Church have affirmed that Adam and Eve were our first mortal parents and discuss them as real people who actually existed. This teaching is found not only in our canonized scripture but also in the 1909 First Presidency statement published in the Improvement Era and is found in multiple priesthood manuals and other manuals of the Church. Not to accept this is cafeteria style rejection of the scriptures and teachings of the Church. This kind of cafeteria approach is a slippery slope which allows one to reject any teaching, policy, or practice of the Church that they don’t agree with and, if not checked, will probably eventually lead to the apostasy of that person who continues to engage therein. e
George Weight says
Some of the core doctrines have been repeated over and over:
(a) Constant and effectual daily prayer.
(b) Regular study of the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon (the Keystone of our Religion).
(c) Accepting the Holy Spirit as our guide.
(d) Living worthily of a temple recommend.
(e) Accepting and abiding by the Articles of Faith.
Others could be added to this list. Some have been considered in earlier comments.
The term “Cafeteria Mormon” is a pejorative. We could instead think of the scriptural term “weakest of all saints”, and give those who are struggling with principles of the gospel some time and encouragement to learn. As the article points out, many of them are struggling with “Red Herrings” or other logical fallacies.
We’ll not always be able to give those struggling with testimonies acceptable answers, either in church settings or private conversations, but we can seek out the spirit ourselves to guide us in our reactions. Some of those struggling will respond. Others may be offended. As in all things, we have to leave judgement and resolution in the hands of the Lord.
The Lord confirms the reality of the Book of Mormon and the reality of the people of the Book of Mormon several times in the Doctrine and Covenants, including; “Behold, this is the law I gave unto my servant Nephi, and thy fathers, Joseph, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, and all mine ancient prophets and apostles”. (D.C. 98:32). It’s hard for me to understand how some members accept the Book of Mormon, but on their own terms, including their belief that is a fable or Fictional book.