Response to The LDS Gospel Topics Essays: A Scholarly Engagement

I started reading this book, a collection of essays, edited by Matthew L Harris and Newell G Bringhurst. In it, various author, each a scholar focused on Mormon history and/or religious thought, analyze and respond to the Gospel Topics Essays that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter referred to as “the church”) published about 10 years ago. As a faithful member of the church, I had a lot of feelings about this book. The essays ranged from inane to intriguing.

While I am lacking in credentials (I am neither a historian nor a theologian), I am not lacking in opinions. Since our church runs on lay people doing their best, I feel like my opinions as a long-time orthodox lay person mean something, so here they are.

The introduction gives a bit of history of the coming forth of the Gospel Topics essays. This particular account frames the essays as being released by the church in response to the growing number of people that, equipped with the internet, were starting to find troubling things in church history. The Gospel Topics Essays were, according to this introduction, released begrudgingly, in an effort to address these concerns and prevent a mass exodus from the church. I guess the idea is that, previously, the church leaders were able to have complete control over the narrative, but they reluctantly had to concede that, in the digital age, that was a luxury they could no longer enjoy.

Which leads me to the question: Is the church really hiding uncomfortable truths about its history?

Where I am coming from

I have some problems, not with how the church allegedly covers up its own history. My problem is that I don’t understand what people think the church is hiding.

I suppose there could be things that the church is hiding so well, that I haven’t heard about them yet, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what people are talking about. I usually hear the complaint in the context of polygamy, or the seer stone, or the Book of Abraham, or just as a vague “Oh yeah they are covering up a lot of stuff,” and in those regards I don’t really connect with the feeling that the church is trying to cover up its shady past.

My impression, as someone that grew up in the church, was that the church acknowledged most, if not all, of these things before. Granted it’s not like they were teaching about polygamy in the missionary lessons, but I grew up knowing most of this stuff somehow. If people feel like they weren’t in the know about something, then I would pass it off as being obscured by an open secret or assumed knowledge not from a nefarious history rewrite1. Nowadays, however, the church does seem to be a bit more open about controversial topics, it’s still not in the missionary lessons mind you, but there seems to be an increasing amount of resources available on the subjects2.

Is that an acknowledgement of past deception and history hiding? I wouldn’t say so.

It seems to me that the church was simply focusing on teaching the Gospel, as they should. It seems reasonable3 that given the age of the internet and the lies that Satan puts into the hearts of men4, that the church felt it wise to adopt an additional strategy for helping people build their faith and thus produced a resource where people can go to get plausible explanations that corroborate the traditional teachings.5

It’s easy for you, you might think, to say all that, after all, you were born and raised in the church, your four great grandfather was with Joseph Smith in Carthage when he died. Your ancestors were among the pioneers that settled Utah. Polygamy is part of your family history. You don’t need to have the missionary lessons to cover everything because everything is all around you all the time. How can you possibly understand what it feels like when a person first learns about this stuff?

You’d be right, I don’t understand, and hopefully as part of this, I will understand better, but I also hope that you understand, that as a long-time orthodox member, I grew up knowing most of this stuff. Some of it was uncomfortable to learn, especially as I grew older and understood more of the nuances and implications, so I understand why people have a hard time grappling with some of these topics, I had had my own faith crises where I had to decide if I felt like I believed in the church. I get that. But I feel baffled that people think this stuff was being kept secret.

Let’s get back to the book, The LDS Gospel Topics Series. The book has thirteen essays, each one address one of the Gospel Topics Essays. Looking through the Gospel Topics Essays I am realizing that I have not read most of them. My basic approach then is going to be as follows:

1) Establish my preexisting knowledge on the subject. Explore what I know about it, how I learned about those things, what my reactions were to learning about them, and how secretive the church was about it.

2) Read the Gospel Topics Essay. Respond to it generally. Talk about what, if anything, I learned while reading it.

3) Read the corresponding essay in The LDS Gospel Topics Essays. Respond to it. Determine if I felt like it was a fair response. Address things that I thought were interesting. Address things that I think are ridiculous6.

Along the way I hope to answer the following questions:

  • Is the church hiding things?
    • Is my experience and perspective as a long-time member enough evidence to decide that outcome one way or another?
  • What are the things that bother people so much? Why are these things so troubling?
  • What are the things that they feel like the church wasn’t and still isn’t being forthcoming about?
  • What were the things that I learned that made me start my faith crisis, and what did I learn that got me out of it?
    • What role does skepticism and science play in this pursuit? What role does faith play? How can they work together? Can they work together?
  • As a long-time orthodox member of the church what are my opinions on the Gospel Topics Essays?
    • Is the church being progressive enough in their response? Or maybe too progressive? Or just right?
    • How much room for interpretation is there?
      • Which things are gospel truth and which things are still up for debate?
  • As a long-time orthodox member of the church what are my opinions on the essays in The LDS Gospel Topics Series: A Scholarly Engagement

Notes:

  1. The most generous concession I can give is that, maybe the church was hesitant to acknowledge some things, but I don’t think they ever denied them. I grew up knowing most of them so I feel really uncomfortable with the idea that someone could believe that the church is hiding it all.
  2. For example, the Gospel Topics Essays or the Let’s Talk About series. I’m guessing they will never be in Preach My Gospel, but I don’t feel like it makes sense to include them there anyways.
  3. If you accept the premise that church is true and the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are inspired, or at the very least accept that they are well intentioned earnest believers
  4. I’m not saying that all things that all critics of the church say about the church are lies, but I’m also not saying that they are all true either. My first testimony shaker came from a friend that told me a medley of things about the Book of Abraham, some of which were true, most of which were oversimplified, and many of which were downright incorrect)
  5. The phrase “plausible explanations that corroborate the traditional teachings” is a quote from By Means of the Urim and Thummim by James W. Lucas and Jonathan Neville that has really resonated with me and I hope that is what I am providing here. I’m not trying to submit a definitive answer or an apologetic response. I just want to demonstrate that there is at least one plausible story that allows for most/all of the critical things to be true while allowing for the church to also be true.
  6. As a point of clarification, at the time of publishing this introduction to my response I have already read a couple of the essays and written rough drafts of my responses, but I have not finished reading the book. My pattern for approaching this review developed over the first couple of essays, so those first responses won’t follow the prescribed pattern exactly.

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