Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Trials of Faith in the Face of History
 


Trials of Faith in the Face of History

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 28, 2013

“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.

-oOo-

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).



20 Comments »

  1. “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.”

    Comment by Rachelle — February 28, 2013 @ 8:15 am

  2. Oops, I didn’t mean to hit ‘send’ yet.
    I think that quote is at the bottom of much of the angst I have heard of and seen. For the first time in my middle-aged life I am teaching Church History in Primary. And while it is simplified, it also lends it self to discussion and the children are not at all surprised to learn about the hat, or that pictures provided are somewhat like the book-jackets of their favorite books, not always accurate according to the story. I point them out and we go on. A Stake primary leader has sat in for Ward Conference and not complained when I used something from the Revelations in Context or Maxwell Institute to flesh out the lesson, giving the occurrence time and place, instead of just the ‘point’ of the lesson. It can be done. But even if it isn’t, it is still often just a challenge of previous assumptions.

    Comment by Rachelle — February 28, 2013 @ 8:21 am

  3. 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.

    I’ve seen this happen, unfortunately, and coming from a computer background, I have called it the “binary syndrome.” In that view, something is either right or it is wrong, true or false, and there is no room for subtlety or complexity. A close friend in my ward and his wife struck hard against Rough Stone Rolling and couldn’t get past the image of Joseph Smith as someone who on occasion had weaknesses, and whose understanding of the gospel evolved over time. They have completely dropped out of the church, taking their children with them.

    For my own part, I have been able to deal with the realities of church history. If anything, understanding that Joseph F. Smith had a terrible temper in his younger days, or that George Albert Smith dealt with anxiety and depression that incapacitated him for about two years, and similar stories of church leaders overcoming weaknesses and problems have only served to give me more faith that I can overcome my weaknesses. I find hope in those struggles.

    Comment by kevinf — February 28, 2013 @ 10:08 am

  4. Ardis, well said. Thanks for this.

    One of the things I say to my ever-questioning teenager is that he should be sure that thing that he doesn’t like about the church today (because it changes from day to day) is actually part of the church and its teachings.

    My own experience mirrors yours: a testimony is complex and (dare I say it?) evolving over time. For me, remembering those hard-won lessons has been crucial to learning new hard-won lessons.

    Comment by Paul — February 28, 2013 @ 11:03 am

  5. Ardis, thanks very much for your thoughts. Keepapitchinin is one of my favorite places to go. I always learn something new, something “meaty.” I appreciate your (Ardis’s) interests, thoughts, and interpretations. Ardis and all you participants help me to better understand our shared history–our big, complex, convoluted, unwieldy, yet always exciting, exhilarating history. Words don’t adequately express and convey my very deep appreciation.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — February 28, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  6. Thanks for this Ardis, and well said.The depth of this post and the goodness of your heart shine through.

    Comment by Blake — February 28, 2013 @ 11:43 am

  7. Thank you for this post. I struggle with others’ assumptions of binary, like kevinf stated. All true or all false. It’s difficult to reconcile with black and white members and even President Hinckley stating

    “Each of us has to face the matter-either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.”

    Such statements make me want to leave because there are issues I disagree with (not so much history as current practices). But this is the faith of my family, and there is a lot of good. So I stay, not truly sure if I am welcome as a cafeteria Mormon.

    Comment by HokieKate — February 28, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  8. I hope you know that you are truly welcome at Keepa, HokieKate, and in the Church … although I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear you say you had been treated otherwise by individuals. I hope that isn’t common.

    At the risk of sounding preachy, I’d say you have a good opportunity (and may already have done this) to work out what you know (agree with) and what you disagree with, and then figure out why you disagree. Some things may be culture and practice, not doctrine, and some may be points you don’t yet know enough about in some way. I know that sounds pompous at best and potentially something much worse. I’m sorry I can’t find a better way to express it — I mean only to say that sometimes the discord may be the fault of the church that, no matter how divine its origins, is not yet perfect, and sometimes the discord may lie on our side.

    In any case, you’re more than welcome here, and I hope that once in a while there may be a post or discussion that makes it easier for you to stay.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 28, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

  9. I don’t think “middle ground” means the same as “I’m on the road but not at the end yet”. Binary is “Right now I don’t have a knowledge or testimony of everything, so I’ll throw it all away.” Middle ground means the truth doesn’t really matter, I’ll go with what I want to do right now, but I’m not going to take a stand.

    I can make a decision to find and stand for truth. That gets me away from middle ground. After that comes my journey of finding truth and putting together the pieces of my testimony.

    Comment by Carol — February 28, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

  10. And I think a lot of sincere truth seekers look like doubters and wobblers to some others. If I want to look strong, I might sit here showing everyone my 100% testimony. But I think I’m really stronger if I’m learning and testing and sifting.

    Comment by Carol — February 28, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

  11. I’m about halfway through David Hackett Fischer’s enjoyable Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.

    Besides the fact that I might not ever be able to write anything again, sure that I’ll be committing at least a dozen of his fallacies in a single blog post, it does give a good insight into the problems of writing history, and religious history in particular.

    A super-glossy version of the Church might be plagued by something like the aesthetic fallacy, as facts, particularly beautiful facts, are built into a beautiful story.

    A didactic history might fall prey to the pragmatic fallacy, useful facts selected “in the service of a social cause,” and for good measure add in the moralistic fallacy, in which the historian chooses “edifying facts.”

    Then, when people are thoroughly — and sometimes exclusively — used to these types of history, some real dissonance can occur if they are suddenly exposed to other sources, which tend to employ other kinds of logical fallacies.

    There was, of course, the recent Salt Lake Tribune article about the origin of Utah’s Dixie that relied on the fallacy of the lonely fact, claiming that a very small sample of something could be extrapolated to an entire population.

    Then there are histories (or so-called histories) relying heavily on the furtive fallacy: “the erroneous idea that facts of special significance are dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious.” (Fischer really is very good.)

    And then there’s the prodigious fallacy, which “mistakes sensation for significance.”

    Throw in a good dose of the antinomian fallacy (facts which count best, should really count least) and of course presentism, one of the most common fallacies which results in an awful lot of handwringing on certain blogs, and how is a person ever going to come to terms with any religious history?

    I have to run, but I would suggest a couple of ways to get through historical difficulties: (1) a sense of humor; (2) some common sense; and (3) the realization that people are not perfect and they are not infallible.

    Comment by Amy T — February 28, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  12. Even President Hinckley’s quotation taken by itself is probably more stark than it needs to be, especially within the context of the OP. At the end of the day, either the restoration happened or didn’t, therefore what he says is correct: it’s true or it’s a fraud. But (with a risk of paraphrasing an unpopular part of US history) it depends what “it” is.

    As I reflect on my own still-growing-after-nearly-five-decades testimony, I realize that it came in bits and pieces. I was able to accept the First Vision long before I could accept “Joseph as a prophet,” and believing the teachings of the Book of Mormon did not automatically for me mean everything else was true.

    There are still plenty of teachings over the pulpit that cause me to pause and think. I don’t doubt what I’ve learned, but I reserve judgement on some teachings absent further data. I also freely acknowledge that I will surely be wrong about some things along the way.

    Comment by Paul — February 28, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

  13. Thanks, Ardis, and thank you for all your work here. Because of what I have read on this blog, I am much more a fan of church history and I have a much easier time trying to be gentle in my judgments of prior generations. Plus I’m a sucker for old pictures and RS fiction.

    Comment by HokieKate — February 28, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

  14. Oh, and I adore tidbits like the inspiration for this post that show that “modern” issues aren’t as modern as we think.

    Comment by HokieKate — February 28, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

  15. I should also indicate, that like Paul, my testimony has come in stages and and has evolved over time. My testimony of the Book of Mormon preceded my testimony of Joseph Smith by a decade or so, and there are still things unanswered out there for me. But at its core is a sure knowledge of being on the right path. Definitely not at the end, and not without some trepidation for what lies ahead.

    As I have often said to others, the straight and narrow path is indeed straight and narrow, but also incredibly steep, strewn with fallen trees and boulders, and lined with many well lit easily navigated offramps. Our history is often part of those obstacles in the path, but so far, I keep chugging up hill, trying to pull my family and friends along with me.

    Comment by kevinf — February 28, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

  16. Wonderful, Ardis. You have a real gift for lucid analysis and clear exposition. It would be wonderful if we could some how distill your essence, bottle it, and sell it at Deseret Book.

    Comment by lindberg — February 28, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

  17. Oh, you’d have to clear those Augean stables first. Good luck with that.

    Where’s Hercules when you need him?

    Comment by Mark B. — February 28, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

  18. You have the most erudite way of saying what you think of DB, Mark!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 28, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

  19. Amen! You know, occasionally I don’t say “amen” at church at the end of certain talks, “testimonies,” or prayers. But if I heard this talk at church, I would say, “AMEN!”

    Comment by Grant — February 28, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

  20. Wow – this is a post to be shared and shared and shared . . . Thank you for this.

    Comment by David Y. — March 1, 2013 @ 1:43 am

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