“THE REVOLT OF YOUNG MORMONISM.” The above is the title of an article written by Prof. Edgar James Banks, and published in the Literary Digest of July 10, 1915. Prof. Banks tries to show in this article that there is a mighty revolt in the ‘Mormon’ Church by its young members, because of a curtailment of “freedom of thought”; that because anti-Mormon writers have tried to disprove the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, as translated by Joseph Smith, it is taken for granted in Prof. Banks’ article that young ‘Mormons’ believe such flimsy efforts of avowed enemies, and in consequence are losing faith in the authenticity of the truth of the Book of Mormon as translated by Joseph Smith.
That paragraph stands at the head of an article in the 24 August 1915 issue of Liahona, the Elders’ Journal, which then goes on to deny (in somewhat self-congratulatory terms) that “Young Mormonism” is losing its faith. Two things strike me about the article: With almost no editing, it could have been published this year rather than a century ago; and it would be no more effective today than it was a century ago to dismiss the concerns of “Young Mormonism” with a wave of the hand and a glib, vaguely scornful assurance that all is well, everywhere and among everyone.
I don’t think that what Keepa (meaning the whole community of me, guest posters, commenters, and silent readers) does is proselyting or apologetics, although the blog as been accused of both. I don’t have a particular interest or gift to persuade readers to accept something new, nor to explain difficulties in church history or culture. If Keepa has any effect on belief (beyond the fun of sharing and examining our Mormon past), I suspect that effect lies in assuring readers that you aren’t alone in your belief, that others share your faith, and that people who have looked at all the historical challenges to that faith, at least as deeply as the critics have, remain comfortable and secure in that faith.
A reader asked this: “I’m teaching Neil L. Andersen’s ‘Trial of Your Faith’ tomorrow. I’m struggling a bit over how to teach the portion about people who want to discredit the church and spread lies through the internet. Certainly, there are lies about church history, but I’m more concerned about the trials of our faith that are based on discovering true, but upsetting things, in church history. How would you approach this in a faithful way?” I gave her my ideas on the fly; now I’d like to flesh them out a little:
First, I recognize that “faith” or “testimony” is not a single, all-or-nothing proposition. Testimony is made up of faith and belief in a myriad of principles: That God exists, that Jesus is his divine son, that we are children of God in some literal way, that there is a plan for our lives, that we lived before we came here and will continue to live after mortality ends, that God speaks to prophets, that Joseph Smith was one of those prophets, that Joseph Smith translated an ancient record we know as the Book of Mormon, that there is a state or goal we call “salvation,” that certain ordinances are necessary steps toward that state, that ordinances must be performed by authority to be valid, that such authority rests in the priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and on and on. When you say, or hear someone say, “I know that the Church is true,” the word “Church” is shorthand for belief in a multifaceted collection of things.
Even the general components of a testimony can be further subdivided. If I say “I know the Book of Mormon is true,” I’m referring to a whole bundle of ideas: That the Book of Mormon is an ancient record, that it was found and translated as Joseph Smith described, that it teaches principles that bring me, the reader, closer to God, that it bears valid testimony of the atonement of Jesus Christ, and on and on.
Next, my (your, anyone’s) testimony is made up of things you have actively tested or have struggled with or have come to believe in a very active way, and it includes general belief in other principles that you almost take for granted because they are taught in a religious setting, but in which your faith is more passive. In my case, I have an active, tested faith in the reality of God, the mission of Joseph Smith, and the continuance of life after death. On the other hand, my faith in the Word of Wisdom, in the blessings promised to tithepayers, and in the ability to be healed from bodily sickness through priesthood administration are secondary, more passive. I practice them, I believe they are true because they are part of the whole “package” of the gospel, but I haven’t struggled with them and can’t bear as firm a testimony to them as to other principles. They may be central to someone else’s testimony, but are peripheral to mine.
If testimony were a monolithic, all-or-nothing concept, something to be gained or lost in an instant, it probably couldn’t survive. It would be like a single-celled organism: something invades that cell, and the organism dies. Instead, a multifaceted testimony is like a higher order animal: It can take quite a bit of localized bruising, it may become ill, some part of it may even be severed, yet the animal survives.
When challenges come to faith, especially because of historical issues you’ve either just discovered or which have suddenly become urgent to you for whatever reason, it can help to realize that testimony is made up of many parts, some active and some passive, and that the entire thing need not die because of a localized wound.
Perhaps you are shocked to learn, for example, that for at least part of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith placed a rock he called a seerstone into a hat and buried his face in the hat to shut out ambient light while he concentrated on the stone, reading the words he said appeared there. Is the manner in which Joseph focused his thoughts and became susceptible to the Spirit of such vital importance that the strangeness of it destroys everything else you believe about Joseph and the Book of Mormon? Really? Why? Really, how can an awareness of the stone in the hat negate the testimony of the Spirit that you received while you were reading the book? Is the concern of Lehi for his sons – a concern that you may have recognized as absolutely authentic when you went through a period of special concern for your own sons – negated by the stone? How does an awareness of the stone affect the faith in the Atonement that you developed while reading the Book of Mormon during a dark period in your life?
If after serious thought you can sincerely say that the stone-in-the-hat does rock your faith in the Book of Mormon, then be candid enough with yourself to consider whether a testimony of the Book of Mormon is something you have merely assumed and taken for granted, or if it is one of those bedrock principles of your testimony that you have actively tested and developed. It isn’t fair to yourself to claim that your testimony has been shaken when you haven’t really, actively sought a testimony of that issue.
While you’re struggling with one issue, whatever that issue is, recognize that a challenge to one part of your testimony need not destroy all other parts. Review what you know, count the truths you can still believe, acknowledge that difficulty in one area probably should not affect faith in other areas, while you work on coming to terms with the difficulty.
And it can be work to come to terms with the difficulty. If you’ve just encountered something about the Mormon past that shakes your faith, acknowledge that you have just encountered it. You hardly know enough about it to pass final judgment. You aren’t the first one to encounter the event or issue. Other people are aware of it, and have studied it, and know far more about it than you have had time to learn. Many of those other people have retained their faith despite whatever it is that so shocks you. How? Ask them! But be wise about your choice of informant: If you ask a believer how he maintains his faith, you’ll get an answer that may lead toward restored faith. If you ask a non-believer, he likely isn’t equipped to resolve your concerns, but only to reinforce them.
Be fair, and reasonable, and don’t hold people of the past to higher standards than you hold yourself.
Be aware that the state of the historical record and its understanding may not be fully adequate – but the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The full answer to your question may have to be deferred until forgotten records come to light.
Dare to acknowledge that your previous understanding may have been faulty, based on assumptions or on the necessarily simplified history you learned as a child. Maybe the new thing you have learned doesn’t really challenge the orthodox story at all – maybe it challenges only your previous assumptions.
And while you can’t live forever on borrowed light, you can walk in borrowed light for a time. Know that you aren’t alone. Know that other people have faced these questions and come out the other end with their faith intact and genuine. If faith is important to you, lean on another’s faith while you rebuild your own.
I’ve never faced an issue with the history of the Church that has caused me serious difficulty – the challenges that have rocked my faith, sometimes very deeply, have been in areas other than history. But I’ve always gotten past those hard places, because nothing has been enough to overwhelm my bedrock conviction of certain aspects of the gospel, conviction that has come by direct experience and the undeniable witness of the Spirit. I do know that history poses challenges to the faith of others, though, and I don’t dismiss the reality of those challenges.
This kind of post often draws comments from strangers who, typically, type out a list of historical difficulties without commentary, seeming to assume that I’ve never heard of Mountain Meadows and that merely reciting the label will be enough to drive me screaming into the night. If you’re one of those strangers, know in advance that I am under no obligation to publicize your lists or air your grievances. Regular supporters of Keepa can say just about anything; including posting questions of doubt (or writing to me personally about them, at AEParshall [at] aol [dot] com).