My Initial Reactions to the Church’s History Essays

John Dehlin Blog, Church History, Mormon Stories

A reporter asked me to share with him my initial reactions to the church’s recent history essays (e.g., First Vision Accounts, Race and the Priesthood, Plural Marriage and Families in Utah, Book of Mormon TranslationBook of Mormon and DNA Studies)….and here’s what I wrote:

  • A positive step forward, even if forced: I think that the essays are definitely a positive step forward in terms of candor/openness/honesty for the church.  Of course I cannot help but wish that the church would have taken these steps a few decades ago (instead of punishing the scholars who first brought these issues to light), but courtesy requires an acknowledgment of this positive step forward — even if the church’s hand was ultimately forced by the Internet (which I believe it most certainly was).
  • Addressing the charge of hiding/fraud: Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of these essays (from the church’s perspective) is that people will no longer be able to claim (quite as easily, at least) that the church is avoiding or hiding its more difficult historical/doctrinal issues.  Again, from the church’s perspective, I believe that this is the most valuable part of the initiative.
  • Diminishing the role of classic LDS apologetics: On a personal note, I am grateful that the church is stepping up to provide its own attempts at answers, instead of relying on LDS apologists to offer up speculative, rather unconvincing explanations for the problematic issues.  Our findings from the Why Mormons Question study were pretty clear (at least to me): LDS apologetics have traditionally been a vary large part of the problem, not the solution (at least for many of our respondents).
  • Still too hidden: My impression is that most active church members do not know about these essays, and that many will possibly never stumble upon them.  To date, these essays still seem very much buried, and I imagine that this is somewhat intentional.  My guess is that the church wants to be able to (a) deny the accusation of hiding/deception, (b) help those who are in urgent need, (c) while still avoiding the exposure of the general membership to the difficult issues (which I believe would spread the “infection”…to borrow on the inoculation metaphor).
  • Still must penetrate curriculum, Sundays, General Conference, and leadership training: I hear rumors that this content is starting to be incorporated into official church curriculum.  Until this happens, and until these issues are discussed openly in General Conference, at church on Sundays, and in seminary/institute…it will likely be missed by the vast majority of members.  Church leaders (e.g., bishoprics, stake presidents, relief society presidencies, quorum presidencies) also desperately need to be trained on these issues (in my view).  Otherwise struggling members will continue to not get the empathy/support they need….and instead will continue to be judged/ostracized.  (see here for a very poignant example of why leadership training is sorely needed)
  • High-end apologetics: As far as the content goes, these essays definitely have the feel to me of high-end apologetics — similar to the works of Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, etc.  Where they fall short of Bushman/Givens is that (to me) they often seem to fall short of telling the “full story”….and they sometimes tend to downplay or dismiss the legitimate concerns that many have.
  • Sometimes lacking citations: There are times when I wish the church would have cited the actual historians/scholars/authors more.  That just feel respectful/classy/cool to me.  The Book of Mormon DNA essay seems to do better at this than the “First Vision” or the “Blacks/Priesthood” essays, for example.
  • Definitely lacking apologies: It would have been amazing to see some actual apologies within these essays — such as with the prior teachings that blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence (which as actually declared as doctrine by the First Presidency).  In the view of many, the church will lack credibility until it follows the steps of repentance that it asks of the general membership: 1) confess the sin, 2) forsake the sin, 3) ask for forgiveness, and 4) make restitution.
  • An example of egregious omissions: The recent DNA/Book of Mormon essay was particularly egregious in this regard to me.  After punishing/marginalizing scientists and dismissing/denouncing evolution for decades (via Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith), the church decides to rely on evolution to defend itself against Book of Mormon DNA problems.  This reminded me of Mitt Romney claiming to have the most conservative record of all the candidates in the Republican primaries, in spite of his prior support of gay marriage and abortion rights as a governor in Massachusetts.  Complete honesty would have acknowledged the church’s history re: evolution for what it was, accompanied by an apology (or at least some acknowledgment).  Instead the Book of Mormon/DNA essay acted like none of that history ever happened.  Nevermind the fact that evolution undermines the historical foundation of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon (e.g., no death before the fall, 7,000 year old earth, global flood — see D&C 77, 2 Nephi 2:22).
  • Joseph Smith’s polygamy: The “Plural Marriage and Families in Utah” essay was ok, but the real test is going to be how they deal with Joseph Smith’s polygamy and polyandry.  Many are very, very eager to see that essay.
  • Authors?  It would be sweet if the essays were actually signed by the first presidency and/or quorum of the 12, though I can guess why they don’t sign them.  I am guessing that they don’t want to paint themselves into any more corners.  Having revision dates, and keeping track of version changes would be nice as well.
  • Future Impact?  Regarding impact — I am not sure that the essays will likely make much of a positive difference in terms of helping people stay in the church (vs. disaffecting).  In my experience, for every one person that is helped by LDS apologetics, another two to three are either exposed to issues they would have otherwise never encountered (causing them to leave the church), or are wholly dissatisfied with the apologetic answers (also causing them to ultimately leave the church).  Overall, I do believe that an objective review of LDS history/evidence ultimately leads much more often to disbelief than to belief (in spite of what Elder Marlin Jensen used to say about studying history “too little”).  This has been my experience after speaking with literally thousands of people over the past 25 years, anyway….though I admit that more research needs to be conducted in this regard.
  • Overall I definitely applaud the efforts as a first (baby) step….but I also feel like the church has a long, long way to go to “come clean.”  Still….I’m grateful for the steps.

John Dehlin