Philip Barlow is editor of the book “A Thoughtful Faith,” which was pivotal in my faith transition as a BYU student and beyond.  He currently sits in the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture, at Utah State University. He earned a B. A. from Weber State College and an M.T.S. and Ph.D. (1988, with an emphasis on Religion and American Culture and on the History of Christianity) from Harvard University. He spent two years as a Mellon Fellow at the University of Rochester after which he became professor of Theological Studies at Hanover College in Indiana. In addition to articles, essays, and reviews, Dr. Barlow has published Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991) and several other books.  He is past president of the Mormon History Association.

Check out Phil’s brilliant “Why I Stay” Sunstone presentation here.  Also, this podcast is co-produced by the good folks at A Thoughtful Faith Podcast.


  1. Jonathon Sawyer August 2, 2012 at 9:16 pm - Reply

    As a teenager, I recall speaking with my Bishop about my educational and vocational plans. I mentioned to him my interest in theology, and though he was a very kind man, was informed in a somewhat dismissive way that I would have to become a Baptist Pastor to pursue that interest. At the time, I recall his response being very disappointing to me. As it turns out, I ended up leaving the church and have had a fairly diverse spiritual journey. My question for Dr. Barlow would be the following: “In general, what is the view of the current LDS leadership toward the study of theology? Does Dr. Barlow foresee a time when Church leadership will embrace any theological ecumenism? How might a shift toward more theological study among Church authorities affect positive change at a local level?”

  2. GiveCreditWhereDue August 2, 2012 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    I have three young boys who want to serve missions eventually and I am gratefull. Though I think I will need to coach them a little on what their thrust should be before they go. It may be a little different than I taught which was, ‘This is the one true church, and there is no other way.’

    Given that goodness can be found outside of the LDS church and many good folk from other religions will probably ultimately make it home, where should lie the thrust of the church’s missionary efforts? What should we teach that you cannot get anywhere else? To borrow a business maxim, what is our unique selling point? Some say the Koran is inpired and I am flexible enough to allow for that. Is it perhaps that this is the most effective way to reach God? Is there uniqueness in learning ‘the true order of prayer’ for example? I wonder.

  3. Jan Taylor Riley August 2, 2012 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    Our unique selling point? Revelation. Prophets and apostles. Restored priesthood power and priesthood keys. Baptism by immersion. The gift of the Holy Ghost following baptism, which makes all the difference in our daily lives. God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. We are His actual offspring. We lived with them before we came here. We are beloved children of God, not his creations. Everyone is saved, but there are three heavens. Good works impact the kind of rewards we receive AFTER salvation. Families can be sealed together in a sealing ordinance. Temple work and worship has been restored to the earth. We can enter into a covenant relationship with God, just like the ancients, which gives us greater power to discern between truth and error. The restored gospel of Jesus Christ requires sacrifice which sanctifies and changes us. Just to name a few.

    • James Didericksen August 13, 2012 at 6:48 pm - Reply

      Jan, there are several problems with your approach. Many religions claim revelation from their leadership. Although not many claim to be Prophets in the true sense of the meaning, nor do we. President Monson does not claim to speak face to face with God. He may claim inspiration, but I have not heard any President of the Church claim direct revelation since Brigham Young. The word “Apostle” did not exist at the time of Christ. Baptism at the time of John the Baptist did not have the same meaning as we claim. In fact, it was a female symbolic act “born of water”. You mention “God the Father”, and “His Son”, but have you ever known a father without a mother. So, where do you acknowledge a Divine Feminine or Goddess. Is she a member of the Godhead as she is in the Egyptian religions. Joseph Smith never identified the gender of the 3rd member of the Godhead, calling the Holy Ghost “A Personage of Spirit”. Joseph Smith also said the Egyptian Godhead was the closest to the truth among all other religions due to the teachings of Abraham. You claim we are beloved children of God…where’s the other half, why not acknowledge Her? There is absolutely no historical fact or evidence that the type of Temple work the LDS practice was ever practiced anciently. The Egyptians claimed God the Father, Osiris came from the Sun, Isis, the Female Goddess with wings, symbolized by the Moon and their Son, Horus was Symbolized by the Stars…sound like the 3 degrees you speak of? Egyptian Godhead was a family, modern LDS teachings claim Heaven is governed by three males…which do you think makes more sense? So, I think our unique selling point isn’t that which you offer.

      • Emily September 14, 2012 at 11:20 am - Reply

        I am really interested in the points you raised above, specifically about the divine feminine. Could you please post reading material suggestions for me to learn more about this concept? Thank you so much.

  4. Michael Tweedy August 3, 2012 at 9:08 am - Reply

    The LDS church, through its missionary program, has long hoped to convert strong, nuclear families–a so-called “normal” family of intelligent and engaging mother, father, and kids–to Mormonism. When the missionaries encounter, say, a church-going family that attends a Presbyterian church complete with enriching and rewarding music program, a pastor with a professional credential in pastoral studies and an advanced degree in counseling, a separate youth pastor and strong, exciting program to build the youth, an enthusiastic and profoundly Christian message, weekly involvement in the community food bank and homeless shelter, what should be the missionaries’ conversion message or selling point to draw the family away from their particular church and interest them in the LDS church where the same programs are largely unavailable?

    • Chicago OG August 31, 2012 at 8:28 am - Reply

      I made this same point to my wife the other day after we finished serving at a community food pantry (boy scouts). My point was…if we truly want to make an impact in the community the “church” needs to be in the community. Instead of “Mc Temples” how about franchising deseret industries and pop up community food banks beyond the western corridor. If the church wants good “PR”…stop being so insular and get into the community. We live far from Utah and the mentality is much different in our locale. People will generally gravitate toward good causes. Isn’t that a missionary message?

      • JT September 11, 2012 at 7:45 pm - Reply

        Or fifty thousand 19 to 21 year olds in 3rd world countries wearing T-shirts and jeans digging wells, building homes, teaching children, assisting health care workers … Can you imagine that?

  5. Matthew73 August 3, 2012 at 10:34 am - Reply


    Thanks for your pioneering work. I know Mormon Stories has taken a toll on you in many ways, but I think you’ve performed an incredibly valuable service for thousands of listeners. Thanks also for interviewing Dr. Barlow. “A Thoughtful Faith” remains, more than 25 years after I bought it, probably the single most influential volume of LDS essays I have come across. I still find it surprisingly relevant and am very grateful for it.

    In terms of questions for Dr. Barlow here are a few I would be very interested in:

    1) In the most tactful and respectful way possible, I would appreciate it if you could ask Dr. Barlow whether he believes that an angel gave Joseph a collection of tangible metallic plates (i.e., plates that you or I could have seen and touched if we were there) that contained a historical record of an actual civilization. Does he find a question like this relevant to his faith at all, or would he agree with Leonard Arrington that the real issue is whether the stories contained in the Book of Mormon contain moral truth, as opposed to historical truth. To be clear on my perspective, I’m pretty tolerant of a wide variety of viewpoints here, but I would be very interested to know how someone like Dr. Barlow would work through this question.

    2) Does he agree with Teryl Givens that moral agency is just as applicable to matters of faith as it is to physical acts (in other words, we must be free to choose to believe or not, and in order to be free to make that choice, there must be compelling reasons both to accept and to deny the existence of God, compelling reasons to accept and to reject Joseph as a prophet, compelling reasons to accept and to reject the BOM as a historical record, etc). If he agrees with this framework, would he be willing to share with us some of the arguments that he finds compelling, both for and against any of the foregoing, or for and against other matters of faith that are significant to him?

    3) If he were, hypothetically, in a position to influence the institutional church, what kinds of changes would he like to see?

    4) From his perspective, (i) what are the greatest benefits of membership in the LDS church, and (ii) what are the most significant theological contributions made by the LDS church? And, I suppose, what are the most significant costs of membership in the church, and are those costs necessary?

    5) If he had a young adult son or daughter (either pre- or post- mission) who was working through whether to remain LDS or not, what advice would he give?

    6) If he had not been raised in an LDS culture, does he think he would have joined the church, and if so, what would have attracted him to it?

    7) My impression is that from the time of publication of the BOM through at least 1990, and probably after, virtually every LDS general authority who spoke on the matter supported or promoted a trans-continental view of the Book of Mormon (“principal ancestors of the American Indians,” etc.). I am not aware of anyone (or at least anyone who is credible) who tries to defend a trans-continental perspective today. How does he work through the issues raised by the fact that so many leaders who the institution requires be supported as “prophets, seers, and revelators” promoted a view that is no longer accepted?

    I need to run but may come back with some additional thoughts. One other thought for now: it’s certainly not my place to offer suggestions on how you interview, but do you ever send your guests questions (or at least topics) in advance so that they have time to think about them before they respond in the interviews?

    • DeAnn August 4, 2012 at 10:50 am - Reply

      Thank you, Matthew73. Terrific questions.

    • Rude Dog September 9, 2012 at 11:58 pm - Reply

      Excellent questions although I would like to add to number 7 although I’m not able to be as polite.

      Most GA’s and apologists believe in a limited geography, including a Great Lakes, Baja Caifornia, and Meso-American interpretation. Most lay members believe what the church has taught for at least 160 years, including just one Cumorah. There is a gulf between these two views. Does this bother anybody else?

      I don’t believe in God. But if I did, He’d not only drink Dos XXs, He would agree with me that this schism of belief between leaders and followers would have the slightest hint of cult-ish underpinnings, and also be the total dichotomy of a thoughtful faith.

      My question would be, “if we are to abandon our faith’s natural truth claims because they are disproved through natural means and we adhere to the ‘spiritual’ themes only, why would we adhere to those spiritual themes inside our Mormon community when these themes can be attained elsewhere, including secular channels, and without the baggage?”

      • Mark November 16, 2012 at 10:52 pm - Reply

        I think one answer to the last question is that Mormon faith as a lived whole (meaning the spiritual principles plus the worship practices, plus the cultural heritage, plus the stories and myths passed along, plus the baggage, etc.) is greater than the sum of its parts. And so if we attempt to abandon natural truth claims and abandon baggage, but keep appealing spiritual themes, we can’t really expect for those themes to hold the same “vavoom” effect on us without the rest of the package. It would be like putting a really nice carburetor on my living room mantle. Nice to look at, but not the same as going zero to sixty in 4 seconds in a beat up old Camaro.

  6. Joseph McKnight August 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm - Reply

    Here’s one question currently on my mind. Has Dr. Barlow ever had any in-depth discussions with a General Authority about a troublesome historical issue, or if not, has Dr. Barlow ever wanted to have such a discussion and what topic might it be on if he were choosing?

  7. Larry Clark August 3, 2012 at 9:49 pm - Reply

    If not redundant to this thread, here’s a question for Dr. Barlow: Mitt Romney stated he is not a cafeteria Mormon. Mark Brown stated all Mormons are cafeteria Mormons. Do you consider yourself to be a cafeteria Mormon. If so, in what sense? Is not, why not?

  8. Tate_T August 5, 2012 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    You’ve probably heard one of the old mormon cliches ‘god is a god of order’. But only after ~1830; right? If you can’t trust that god had order during biblical writings and interpretations, and that he inspired several men for accuracy in the writings and interpretation of his word, then how can you trust him with the writings of one man, Joseph Smith?

  9. Ben H August 5, 2012 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    I would like to hear any comments Phil Barlow might have about his involvement with the the Academy for Temple Studies conference this October.

  10. John Dehlin August 8, 2012 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    Carole Thayne Warburton · Utah State University

    Ask him if he has ever had a major crisis of faith, if so what was the cause, and how did he work his way out of it. Ask him what he thinks the church should do about all the disaffected and struggling Mormons who mourn a loss of faith and…
    hope to find a place of peace. At one point does throwing the baby out with the bath water the right thing to do if a person can’t align what they consider bigotry by the church’s stance on LGBT with what they feel Jesus would do? Is it possible to ignore the inequities and enjoy the church for the good organization it is? And if so how to do it.

  11. John Dehlin August 8, 2012 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    My question to Phil would be this: I read your book Mormons and the Bible. The most recent Dialogue Journal had an article on Mormon’s use of the King James Version of the Bible and how that limits them in their understanding of certain passages which have been mistranslated. Do you, Phil, see a time when the Mormons will consider moving to a more accurate translation of the Bible or are they possibly so “married” to the “spiritual” language of the Bible that they cannot change?

  12. Mike September 11, 2012 at 11:42 am - Reply

    A great interview! There were a lot of important things said here. I especially liked his comments about cafeteria mormonism when he was defending his more liberal interpretations of “the one true and living church” passage. In words much more elegant than my own, he pointed out that those with the simplistic die hard black and white faith, just might be as guilty if not more so, of picking and choosing what they take from the cafeteria of mormonism than are those who have a bit more of a nuanced outlook.

    John, thanks for taking this approach to this interview. I have enjoyed your other interviews as well, but this way of going about your questions, while still challenging to the guests, allows your guests to really let us in on their thinking process and the reasons they believe and think the way they do. Good stuff!

  13. JT September 11, 2012 at 5:25 pm - Reply

    I should listen to the Dr. Barlow’s interview again to make sure that I am not weighing too heavily one pillar of faith I understood him to acknowledge. This was the “good fruit” the Church produces in the form of the care and concern it inspires members to express for each other.

    I wish to briefly examine this pillar from an ethical perspective since faith produces choices, choices produce actions, and actions have consequences that affect lives. The ethical issue is simply that the Church’s care and concern is morally constricted given its vast resources.

    This thought came to mind as I watched the Republican National Convention when a former counselor of Bishop Romney and a former ward member testified to his deep commitment to the physical and emotional welfare of his congregation. That was all fine and good. But I couldn’t help thinking, “this is also par for the course.” In other words, Bishop Romney was under covenantal obligation to help these people. These anecdotes addressed small in-group concern. Perhaps this was moving to those who shared a bias for securing charity within a religious context – i.e. the Republican base. The irony of Mormon Christians leveraging Romney’s Christian good works for political advantage among other Christians was probably muffled by the same bias.

    Pleas excuse me for this I digression. The point is that these speeches made think about the wider ethic of the Church’s stewardship in a world over which it claims divine priesthood authority and prophetic dominion. It made me think of its 50,000 prostelyzing missionaries that cost its members at least $500 per month. This amounts to $300 million dollars a year. Then there are the temples and business ventures such as the Salt Lake City retail mall running into the billions. The welfare system is indeed a wonder – but it is mainly for internal use only.

    According to the website the LDS Church has given “over $1 billion dollars” for broader humanitarian relief over the last 25 years. This divides down to $40 million dollars a year, which further divides down to $8 per year per member, assuming 5 million active members. I do not understand why the Church advertises a number that is a simple calculation away from self-indictment.

    Is this manner of goodness really a load-bearing pillar of thoughtful faith?

  14. Chris September 12, 2012 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    I found the interview difficult to follow. Its apparent Dr Barlow has thought through his positions and faith very carefully but in response to what seemed like straight forward questions, the responses were carefully measured and very complex. Several times Dr Barlow talked about asking questions in the “right spirit” and referred to the opposite as “wise guy” questions. I was slightly troubled by this. Asking questions respectfully I understand but Im not sure if he meant some questions should not be asked or are off limits. Would like to have heard his answers/approach to the questions asked in the Survey done by Mormon Stories. This would have provided good insight to his approach to the specific faith tenants of the church.

  15. Paul September 12, 2012 at 7:37 pm - Reply

    I had a hard time listening to the two interviews. I am a struggling member trying to find a way and reason to stay in the church. I felt like Barlow was sincere, and meant well, but he just DANCED AROUND THE ISSUES, throwing in some big words along the way, but not giving me much of substance. Is he not speaking more directly and in plain terms for fear of discipline from church leadership?????

  16. Rude Dog September 13, 2012 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    Yes, so much said, little communicated. I keep coming back to why I am bothered, or find mildly irritating the Sunstone and other like minded enlightened believing organizations that seem to have different applications of faith and logic at differing times and on differing issues and in differing spheres. I mean, I appreciate the open mindedness that comes from examining the issues and the evidence when it comes to polyandry, evolution, and hebrew DNA, but all of a sudden when it comes to the equally non-verifiable and positively tough faith based presumptions of how did Dr. Barlow put it, the Divine’s dealings with humankind? Or something like it. To me it seems as big a presumption requiring as much faith to believe that a Divine, Intelligent Entity could and would communicate his will through the void to be interpreted by one of our imperfect 5 senses or spirit, do it in a seemingly abd unconvincing, inconsistent and capricious manner, appearing to favor races, cultures and peoples whilst neglecting and ignoring others. This seems as big a stretch as believing that Polyandry is Divinely sanctioned, the Book of Abraham was divinely summoned through the papyra regardless of what’s written upon it, and that Masonry was really the ancient Adamic ritual restored through Joseph. If you’re going to give the first cause your due faith, why not take it all the way? In my book there is no difference. It’s the classic straining at the gnat, (Joseph’s obvious personal and doctrinal flaws) and swallowing a camel (the ability to deal persoanlly with the Diviner of the Universe).

    I may be off base with my observation but with all that I sat through listening to the interview, I still have no idea where or what Dr. Barlow believes, interprets, or promotes. I kept thinking about Micheal Shermers addendum to his book “Why people believe wierd things” or “Why smart people believe wierd things.” Smart people will believe these things because they can make and hold smart arguments that will still uphold things that may not be true. There are Phd’s still chasing Big Foot, and there are Phd’s that will be faithful members of our church. Dr. Barlow being in the High Counsel I would venture to guess is more faithful to the harder doctrines than perhaps he came across in the interview (to be honest I can’t garner any opinion since nothing was communicated) but again John, and I give this question to you and the annoying Dan Wortherspoon as well, if you’re going to give the faith to the existence of an Intelligent God entity, why not give it up to the “not any harder to dedicate faith to” troubling aspects of the church? I have tried to live in this seemingly mushy existence of belief and it seems as every bit un-integrous as believing that the Book of Mormon is a truly historical account. Not enamoured with this podcast.

    • Mark November 17, 2012 at 12:08 am - Reply

      I personally didn’t get the feeling that nothing was communicated. I saw Phil’s approach to the gospel as emphasizing balance and a middle way that is actually pretty easy to identify. For example, he talked about the tension between Doctrine and Covenants 3 (one true church) and the 13th article of faith (there are lovely truths everywhere). He also talked quite a bit about finding a balance between reason/empirical knowledge and intuitive/faith-based knowledge. The take home message, for me, is that the way forward is to keep these big seemingly dichotomous issues in balance. If this involves discomfort because we prefer to think in all-or-nothing terms, we’d better learn to adjust. I felt like his perspective has a zen-like respect for paradox within the gospel’s framework (he refers several times to his buddhist friends, maybe they have had some influence in that way?). I personally like this approach because I think it guides people away from the black and white thinking that leads people to unhappiness through desperate clinging to or fleeing from the rigid elements of the church. I guess my point is that these are actually clear positions about how to move forward, even if that way forward doesn’t involve black and white answers to the vexing questions that keep people stuck.

  17. Joseph McKnight September 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm - Reply

    Phil and John: Thank you both for your time in doing this interview. I enjoyed it and gained a lot of insight into how Phil has resolved some issues. On a side note, I noticed an article in the Salt Lake Tribune not too long ago about a fellow by the name of Don Bradley who you seem to both know at USU. Don might be a good person to interview, too. I’d be anxious to hear more of his story in how he came back and resolved some issues in his mind. Thank you both again. It took two of my lunch hours to get through the interview, but I certainly benefitted by it.

  18. Emily September 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this interview. Dr. Barlow’s views, while more enlightened and educated than my own, resonate so much with me and give me a hope that I can stay too.

  19. LatterDayDeist September 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    I really enjoyed listening to this podcast. Bro. Barlow seems like a truly good, Christlike man. I wish he was in my ward and in my high priest group. For me personally I cannot make the leap from an inspired organization that deserves my undying devotion and loyalty to one that just seems as man made as any other. God speed Bro. Barlow! I hope to hear from you again.

  20. Di September 21, 2012 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    Loved the one class I was able to take with Dr. Barlow at USU and loved the interview.

  21. Samuel Rogers October 4, 2012 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    I agree this was kind of hard to get through, but the last hour was very uplifting for me. Thank you, Dr. Barlow, for your comments. I have started to be more thoughtful about my faith, and this was very timely for me.

  22. Mark November 17, 2012 at 12:27 am - Reply

    I think that if a person is deeply devoted to looking at his or her own worldview from as many different angles as possible, and continues to make a practice of doing so, it gradually becomes clear how to simultaneously love, live, question, revere, and evolve that worldview. Dr. Barlow seems to have approached his faith that way, and seems to experience those fruits. He seems quite balanced to me.

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