This post is sparked by a current discussion at By Common Consent about why or whether young people drop away from the church. Although that post provoked this one, and I take my title from one of the comments there, please understand that this is not an attack on, nor even a direct response to, any particular individual; I simply take those words as a launching point for my own thoughts because they state so succinctly an outlook I have read many times in the Bloggernacle.
I have a fairly decent familiarity with Church history. I don’t have an academic degree supporting my familiarity, and I don’t have access to every historical record, and I haven’t yet read every last document or study to which I do have access. But I have a solid awareness of Church history nonetheless. I think I could successfully defend my claim to having at least as great a knowledge, and to have thought as long and as deeply about as many aspects of that history, as anyone who claims to have left the Church because of having learned something about our history.
Yet I remain firmly within the Church, in sincere faith as well as in name.
But I need to back up about 30 years …
I’ve mentioned before that my mission was a disaster. That wasn’t because I wasn’t a good missionary, or because I didn’t work hard, or because I didn’t follow the rules. I was, and I did, and I did. My mission was a disaster because my second mission president was a disaster, a man who should never have been a mission president, or at least should never have had sister missionaries placed within his stewardship. This was a man whose very first words to me were “I don’t like you,” and whose every word and action after that was dedicated to proving that he meant what he said. If there was a way he could abuse me, he found a way to do it, in words, in deeds, emotionally, spiritually, physically, verbally. There was even a definite sexual aspect to some of his abuse, although I do not mean to suggest that he ever touched me in that way; he did not. But that’s about all he didn’t do.
There. I’ve said it, publicly and for the world to read, for the first time. The man was a monster.
I didn’t know how to handle it, or who to turn to for help. I couldn’t convey to my parents how bad it was, although I’ll never know how they could miss it in what I did tell them. I listen to a cassette tape I sent home; part was recorded while waiting for an interview and part immediately following, and I hear in my recorded voice today how frightened and depressed and lonely I was then, how much I didn’t understand what was happening to me or what I could do to cope. I hear the voice of that idealistic young woman who only wanted to serve God and humanity, and I don’t know today whether to burst out in tears all these long years later, or to fly out of here with my fists flying and my nails scratching and my knees headed straight to that man’s groin in defense of the terrified young woman I was then.
I didn’t know why God would call a man like that to be my mission president.
Maybe there was no God.
Maybe the Church was a fraud, or worse.
Maybe Mormonism was a cult. Maybe I had been brainwashed. Maybe I had been sent out there to recruit new dupes to serve the unknown purposes of the men who ran it all.
I genuinely considered those questions as I struggled to understand. How else could I explain why a man like that held the position of mission president, ruling and ruining the lives of people like me?
But I couldn’t believe any of the alternatives I was weighing. I knew there was a God; among other experiences, I had actually heard the voice of the Savior in an event I have seldom shared with anyone and won’t relate here – but I understood what Joseph Smith meant when he said “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it.” There was a God.
I had a similarly strong conviction that the gospel was true, that the Church was of God, that it was led by a prophet, that I had not been fooled in joining the Church, or staying with it, or wanting to serve as a missionary. The message I was bearing to people in my mission field was the message of God and an invitation to join a Church that was inspired and led by God, and only through that Church could any of us have access to the ordinances of salvation performed with the authority of God. I knew it, I knew it, I had as good reason for my knowledge as of anything else I could name. I may not always have lived up to the best of what I knew, but I did know the best.
But how could I reconcile that with my reality? How could that God have called that man as my mission president? That was the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, and I could not reconcile it.
I couldn’t reconcile it as a missionary. I came home after 18 months and remained for a long time as shell-shocked as I sounded in the recording I had sent home as a mid-mission letter.
It took several years post-mission before I could finally reconcile it. I gradually came to understand that while men could be and should be and more often than not are called of God, men do not always live up to their callings. One man’s failure to live up to his calling does not invalidate the call, nor the God or the Church leader that extended the call. Such a man will have to answer some day for his failings, just as I will have to answer for mine; in the meantime, I don’t have to worry about it anymore. It seems so obvious now that it’s hard for me to understand why it took me so long to reach that understanding. But it did, and I do understand.
I would rather not have gone through that experience to gain that understanding. If I could rewind my life, I would not go on a mission. Not then, anyway.
But the experience does have at least one lasting consequence.
Nothing I have ever learned about Church history causes me the least amount of stress, insofar as my testimony of the gospel and my support of the Church is concerned (I do grieve, sometimes, for individuals whose lives were not what they could have been).
The Mountain Meadows Massacre? Terrible. Horrific. I can weep for the lives that were lost, the lives that were ruined, the families who suffered because of their guilty loved ones, the lives that have been embittered up to the present day by the legacy of that awful event, and the way that history can be used as a weapon against the Church. But does it change the fact that there is a God, or that this is his Church? No; it was men who failed to live up to the light they had been given, not a failure of the light.
Racism, or any other -ism, by so many members of the Church that the -ism could fairly be considered institutionalized? As ugly as sin, as cold as hell, as wrong, as terrible, as blighting to lives as anyone can express. But does that change the fact that there is a God, or that this is his Church? No; these are men and women who did not or do not live up to the calling of saints.
And so it goes with everything dark in the Church’s past (and truth be told, there genuinely are few such episodes; too many people have too limited or distorted a grasp of history and see evil where there is none).
Again, I claim as broad and deep a knowledge of Church history as anyone who has ever left the Church believing that this or that issue proves that God is not behind this work. I get impatient too often with people who make those statements. I need to be more tolerant and understanding; that’s one of my many failings.
They haven’t learned the way I did, as thoroughly and as permanently as I did: A man – any man – may fail to live up to his high and holy callings. That failure reflects only on the man, however, not on the God or the Church who extended the calling. Nothing in history can affect a faith that is grounded in the gospel itself instead of in man, no matter who teaches it or where or how you learn about it.