Fact-Checking Mormon History: Did the Church Lie about its Past?

Lying for the Lord

Critics of the Mormon church often charge that the Church encourages “lying for the Lord.” Apologists respond that “[leaving non-faith-promoting details] out of the narrative was done out of a misunderstanding of which facts were relevant” or “I don’t think the motive was based in intentional deception.”

What’s going on?

Mormon Enigma: A Case Study

In 1984, faithful Mormons Valeen Tippetts Avery and Linda King Newell published Mormon Enigma, a biography of Emma Hale, the first wife of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith. While mainstream reviews complained that “only here and there do the writers timidly and indirectly hint that some truth may exist other than official truth,” Avery and Newell do touch on Joseph‘s glass-looking and treasure-seeking, as well as his later banking scandal and polygamy (most of which he hid from Emma as well as from the Church at large).

Mormon Enigma quickly won the Mormon History Association Best Book award, the Evans Biography Award, and the John Whitmer Historical Association Best Book award. This drew the attention of the modern Church hierarchy, which instructed local leaders not to allow Avery or Newell to speak in Church meetings.

When Newell was able to meet with Apostles Dallin H. Oaks and Neal A. Maxwell to discuss this ban, Oaks told her,

My duty as a member of the Council of the Twelve is to protect what is most unique about the LDS church, namely the authority of priesthood, testimony regarding the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Savior. Everything may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts. Thus, if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors.

A Pattern of Concealment

Joseph Smith set an institutional precedent that the ends justify the means when he declared, in the face of rumors that he was practicing polygamy, “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.” At the time, he had taken at least twenty-five wives.

The Church would continue to practice polygamy while officially denying it for eight more years until 1852, when it publicly acknowledged the practice and began to explain why polygamy was not just divinely sanctioned but better than monogamy. This openness lasted about forty years, until the Church publicly announced it was ending polygamy in the 1890 Manifesto. After the Manifesto, the Church continued to practice polygamy in secret again for another fourteen years while denying it to the public and the United States Senate.

This proclivity to hide or deny unflattering facts was demonstrated outside polygamy as well. In 1920, Joseph Fielding Smith, future Church president and grand-nephew of the founding Joseph, became Church historian. Reading through Joseph’s “Letterbook 1” journal, he found an 1832 account of the First Vision that did not match the official one from 1838. Joseph Fielding (or possibly fellow historians Earl E. Olson or A. William Lund) tore this account out of the journal and hid them away for thirty years. (See Stan Larson, Another Look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision.)

Writing in the first issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in 1966, Dr. Leonard Arrington wrote,

It is unfortunate for the cause of Mormon history that the Church Historian’s Library, which is in the possession of virtually all of the
diaries of leading Mormons, has not seen fit to publish these diaries
or to permit qualified historians to use them without restriction.

When Arrington was appointed Church Historian in 1972, he had a chance to change this policy and make amends for some of the repeated obfuscations. Unfortunately, his efforts earned him the rebuke of Apostle Boyd K. Packer, who famously taught in remarks aimed at Arrington and other historians like D. Michael Quinn,

There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church
history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or
faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.

Arrington’s “golden age” of Mormon history lasted less than ten years. The Church hierarchy balked at publishing the forthright sixteen volume history Arrington organized with a number of contributing scholars that would have been his magnum opus, and “valuable journals and letters of such nineteenth-century Mormons as William C. Clayton, John Taylor, George Q. Cannon, and Francis M. Lyman, selectively available in the 1970s, disappeared from [public access].”

The Church continued intensive efforts to discourage investigation of its history into the nineties, with official talks warning members against alternate voices of authority, primarily the “so-called scholars and intellectuals.” This reached a peak with the famous excommunication of the September Six in 1993 as well as the excommunications of noted scholars David Wright and Brent Metcalfe soon after. These acts successfully subdued scholarly discussion in the Church for a generation.

Verdict

For the first hundred and fifty years of its existence, the Church embraced a consequentialist philosophy that it could protect its members and the public from the truth for their own good. With some exceptions, this has taken the form of omission and suppression of unpleasant history rather than outright falsehoods.

Fortunately, the Church today is beginning to embrace its full history. This has resulted in the admirably thorough Joseph Smith Papers Project and unprecedentedly honest looks at selected topics for a general audience (although some exceptions to this openness still exist). As laudable as this new approach is, it is worth remembering that this has not always been the case, and members should not be blamed for only recently learning there is more to the stories we’ve been told.

Further Reading

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