The New York Times devoted valuable A1 real estate Sunday to a phenomenon that’s no doubt been occupying an enormous amount of time and energy among the leaders of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City: web-driven apostasy. As religion reporter Laurie Goodstein writes, “Around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith.”
The article is light on hard data, but the anecdotal evidence — including an interview with a former church authority in Europe whose faith was severely shaken after he began reading up on his faith’s history — is persuasive, and matches countless stories I’ve heard from fellow Mormons over the years. As widespread internet access has limited the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ ability to smooth over its history and early teachings, Sunday school stories are increasingly colliding with the more complicated reality — leaving many faithful Mormons deeply disoriented and even angry.
This is, essentially, a 21st-century version of a story that’s repeated itself across world religions for hundreds of years, ever since Bibles were unchained from pulpits and distributed to the masses. The most successful sects have survived by responding with increased transparency and making room for doubt among their followers — a lesson the relatively young Mormon church has been applying with increased intensity over the past 20 years or so.
Just last year, Reuters reported that a high-ranking Mormon church leader named Elder Marlin Jensen acknowledged to a roomful of faculty and students at Utah State University that the official church manuals used to teach doctrine and history are “severely outdated,” and said the church is working to become more forthright about its past since “everything’s out there for [people] to consume if they want to Google it.”
But even as the church has made strides in addressing the issue — publishing hundreds of pages of Joseph Smith’s writings, for example — the most difficult aspects of LDS history have yet to be woven into the mainstream narratives the church teaches. It might seem counterintuitive for a church to examine its own warts during worship services, but if the goal is to protect believers from faith-shattering surprises down the line, the best approach is to make sure they aren’t surprises.
My own experience might be instructive. I have distinct memories of logging on to my AOL account as a curious 13-year-old Mormon and perusing the scores of websites designed — in varying degrees of good faith and accuracy — to poke holes in official LDS history and teachings. To a kid who had only recently begun to take a real interest in the church his parents drove him to each Sunday, the stuff I read was confusing, frustrating, and, more than anything, incredibly compelling. I devoured historical accounts of Joseph Smith’s many wives, news stories about scientific challenges to the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and any number of testimonials that depicted church leaders behaving in a less-than-Godly manner. I don’t remember exactly what my parents said when I confronted them with my new discoveries, but I know they didn’t order me to turn off the computer and reject the information as “the whisperings of Lucifer” (to borrow Goodstein’s colorful descriptor).
The result: Rather than shattering my religious belief system, these problematic episodes and challenging ideas were simply folded into it. And if the beliefs I emerged with are slightly less orthodox than those of other Mormons, it hasn’t stopped me from going to church on Sundays and partaking actively and joyously of the Mormon experience.
For some Latter-day Saints, of course, the substance of the church’s uglier historical teachings and practices will be impossible to live with. But as the Times points out, the most disturbing aspect of these discoveries is often the sense of betrayal they carry with them — the feeling that their parents, the missionaries, the Sunday school teachers, and the church were lying to them.
“I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,” said Hans Mattsson, the Mormon church official now struggling with his faith. “Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance.”
If Mattson had learned about Joseph Smith’s wives during Sunday school instead of sitting alone at his computer, he might have been spared such a devastating experience.
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