What past experiences led you to start Mormon Stories?

John Dehlin Blog, Q&A, Writings

Prior to my LDS mission, I considered myself to be an orthodox, literalistic, believing Mormon.  To give some sense, I was regional scripture chase champion as a Freshman in high school, seminary president as a senior, and to this day have never tried alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, etc.  Bruce R. McConkie was my favorite church leader as a youth and young adult, and I devoured the Doctrines of Salvation trilogy (by Joseph Fielding Smith) as a missionary.  In short, I considered myself to be a highly devoted “True Believing Mormon” up until my mission experience.

From 1988 to 1990 I served a mission for the LDS Church in Guatemala.  During this time, our mission (Guatemala City North) became the 2nd highest baptizing mission in the world, often baptizing over 700 people a month, with some companionships baptizing over 40 people in a single month.  Over time I learned that many of these missionaries were using what I considered to be highly unethical means to obtain baptisms, including baptizing drunkards, mentally delayed people, and seven year olds.  I also learned of some missionaries organizing large soccer games with impoverished youth, and then baptizing them as a means to “cool off” after the soccer games concluded (with no missionary discussions, church attendance, or parental permission involved).  When I discussed these tactics with my mission president (as a zone leader), I was scolded for insubordination to priesthood authority and ultimately sent home four months early under the guise of a medical release.  I did experience asthma on my mission, but I certainly did not want or need to return home early.

I completed my mission in Tempe, Arizona (I had been offered an honorable release after Guatemala, but declined it), wherein I served as a Zone Leader to the Spanish speaking.  During my time in Arizona I attempted to alert top church leadership as to the activities in Guatemala, but was ultimately informed by my outgoing mission president (Durrell Woolsey) that the church decided not to take any action, reportedly out of a desire to avoid embarrassment.  After returning home from my mission I engaged in a somewhat lengthy dialogue with Elder Dallin H. Oaks about my mission experiences in Guatemala, which you can read about here.

After my mission I started to experience some doubts about the church, encountering Sunstone and the “September 6” while at BYU.  I remained a believer, however, marrying in the temple, and remaining active in the church for most of the past 20 years.

In 2001 while working for Microsoft, I was asked to serve as an early morning seminary teacher for the Church.  During this time I began studying LDS church history in depth, with the intent of becoming a better teacher.  Through my studies I discovered several very troubling aspects of LDS church history that I did not recall learning during my years in the church, including the following:

  • I learned that Joseph Smith provided multiple and varying accounts of his first vision story, and that some of these accounts (e.g., his descriptions of the Godhead) seemed to evolve over time to correspond with his own changing beliefs.
  • Joseph Smith married over 30 women, some as young as 14 years old, many of whom were married to other men at the time he married them (i.e., polyandry).
  • Joseph Smith would frequently approach other men’s wives about being his own plural wives — often while the men were away (sometimes on missions).
  • Joseph Smith publicly lied about his practice of polygamy, and lied to his own wife (Emma) about the practice.
  • When a Nauvoo LDS First Presidency member and his wife (William and Jane Law) refused Joseph Smith’s attempt at making Jane Law a plural wife, Joseph slandered both Jane and William Law, including publicly calling Jane Law a “whore” (if I’m wrong about this, someone please correct me).  When the Laws (along with others) purchased a printing press in an attempt to hold Joseph Smith accountable for his polygamy (which he was denying publicly), Joseph (as Nauvoo Mayor) ordered the destruction of the printing press, which ultimately led to his assassination.
  • As a youth and young adult Joseph Smith engaged in folk magic and treasure digging, promoting himself as one who could help others find buried treasure by placing a magic stone in a hat.  I am unaware of Joseph ever finding any treasure, though it appears as though he was still able to convince many people that he had magical powers.
  • I was disturbed to learn that Joseph Smith used this same stone in the hat (from his folk magic days) to produce the Book of Mormon.  It is also well-documented that this “translation” process did not involve the golden plates (as we continue to be taught as Mormons) — which led me to question why the plates were needed at all?  This, of course, led me to question whether the Book of Mormon is a translation of an ancient record, as the church continues to teach.
  • The preponderance of archeological evidence appears to suggest that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century work of historical fiction, and not an ancient history of the Native Americans.  This includes the Book of Mormon’s mention of metals (e.g., steel), plants (e.g., wheat, barley), and animals (e.g., horses, cattle, sheep, pigs) that we now know did not exist in the Americas during the alleged time of the Book of Mormon (600 B.C. to 400 A.D.). In addition, DNA evidence currently demonstrates that Native Americans descended from Asia (via the Bering Strait), and not from the Middle East via large wooden ships (as both the Book of Mormon and LDS church leaders have claimed).
  • It was perplexing to me that, according to the Book of Mormon, Native Americans in the New World became Christians centuries before Christ was even born, while Jews in the Old World were left (by God?) to continue believing in traditional Judaism.
  • It made no sense to me that the LDS church claimed that the Book of Mormon was the most correct book on the face of the earth — given how many changes had been made to it (numbering in the thousands), and that the Book of Mormon failed to include any of the most distinctive LDS teachings (e.g., temple endowments, temple marriage, baptism for the dead, theosis, polygamy, three degrees of glory).
  • Joseph Smith clearly borrowed heavily from the Masonic ritual when creating the LDS temple endowment ceremony, considering the remarkable similarities between the two rituals and Joseph’s timely involvement in Masonry during the Nauvoo period.  In addition, many of these Masonic rituals (some very disturbing, such as oaths of vengeance and hand motions mimicking the slitting of one’s own throat, or the disemboweling one’s self) have been removed from the temple ceremony — prompting the question as to whether the LDS temple ceremony was inspired of God to begin with.
  • The Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith claimed to have literally translated from Egyptian papyrus that he purchased in the early 1830s, has been widely demonstrated by modern Egyptologists to be a common funerary text, and in no meaningful way matches what Joseph claimed to have translated.  It is also known that Joseph Smith failed to accurately identify forgeries that were intentionally prepared to test his translation abilities (see Kinderhook plates).
  • I learned that Joseph Smith ordained black men to the LDS priesthood while he was alive, and that it was actually Brigham Young who implemented his restriction of LDS priesthood from black men, and higher-level temple ordinances from all black members.  I also discovered that Brigham Young held and taught extreme racist views during his life, legalized slavery while in Utah, and that he also was guilty of covering up the slaughter of over 100 innocent men, women, and children (i.e., Mountain Meadows Massacre).
  • I began to feel deeply troubled by the racist narrative in the Book of Mormon, which to this day claims that God cursed the Native Americans with dark skin as a result of their wickedness.

For more information about these and other issues, see Letter to a CES Director and/orMormonThink.com.  Both of these sites rely overwhelmingly on LDS Church publications and/or firsthand sources.  For apologetic approaches to these topics, see FAIRMormon.org.

Finally, during our time in Washington, my wife’s favorite cousin came out to us as gay, and informed us that he contemplated suicide due to fear/shame/sadness relating to his sexuality.  This experience caused us to wonder if the LDS church has been wrong on LGBT issues just as it clearly had been wrong regarding polygamy and blacks/priesthood in the church.  All of these experiences caused me to experience a deep faith crisis which lasted several years….and to some extent lasts to this day.