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Why Mormons Should Embrace the Questing Spirit

Truth does not always immediately lead to joy. Often, it makes us miserable first.

Jon Ogden
Jon Ogden
Aug 24, 2018 · 12 min read
Photo: Nathan McBride/Unsplash

“I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit; who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress.”

— Hugh B. Brown, Mormon Apostle

One summer night, during my time as a Mormon missionary, my companion and I walked by an open apartment window where we overheard a group of male college students were making fun of — you guessed it — Mormons. We stopped and listened for a while, and then, like any good missionaries, we knocked on the door.

The students were wide-eyed and speechless when they answered. They invited us in, trying to stifle laughs, and said that they had recently watched an episode of South Park that was all about Mormons. They asked us how much of the episode was true — specifically, they were wondering whether Joseph Smith really looked into a hat to translate the Book of Mormon.

This was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing. I told them that it wasn’t true, and that you couldn’t believe everything you saw on a cartoon like South Park. Instead, I explained, Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from a set of gold plates under the direction of God.

The students listened politely and denied our request to engage in further discussions. We left feeling good, thinking that we had helped set the record straight in some small way.

It turns out, however, that we had not set the record straight at all; we had simply repeated what we were taught in Sunday School. I later learned from official Church sources that, in fact, Joseph Smith did use a hat to translate the Book of Mormon. It is pretty embarrassing to realize that I had first learned this fact of Mormonism from a bunch of college students who had watched a cartoon on Comedy Central.

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

— Jamie Buckingham, Christian pastor famous for criticizing TV evangelists

Experiences like this one set me on a path of asking questions about the Mormon Church. Though asking my questions was deeply uncomfortable at the time, I believe the journey to them has improved my life. As Dieter F. Uchtdorf says, “I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a precursor to growth.”

I have learned that talking openly about difficult truths is the only way to bridge differences between those who believe wholeheartedly and those who doubt, who can’t just agree to unite around flawed narratives and sweep our discomfort aside. No matter how strong our personal convictions may be, the fact is that we simply cannot change history to match an opinion poll. We cannot say, “Let’s just agree that Joseph Smith didn’t look into a hat to translate the Book of Mormon,” when that belief is part of Mormon history. Instead, we must be willing to accept these historical events and beliefs as they are, especially when official LDS sources acknowledge their truthfulness. Healthy spiritual progress and healthy relationships aren’t afraid of the truth, but don’t shy away from asking questions either.

“The honest investigator must be prepared to follow wherever the search of truth may lead.”

— Hugh B. Brown, Mormon Apostle

To illustrate why some people struggle to embrace the questing spirit, I have included three stories below, all based on real interactions I have had with Mormons struggling with their beliefs. None of the stories make generalizing statements about whether the Church is true or false, nor do they indicate that anyone should stop belonging to the Church. In reality, there are many people who happily remain Mormon even though they have wrestled with the issues mentioned below. Put simply, these three stories illustrate why we should feel empathy for people on all sides of the discussion.

1. Maren and Ryan

Maren and Ryan are a married couple with two young girls. While Maren has been raised with the belief that men and women are equally valuable to God, she sometimes struggles to believe this about herself. She and Ryan try to live their lives in harmony with the teachings of Mormonism.

One day Maren is on LDS.org when she discovers that Joseph Smith had around 34 wives — some already married, some very young. She decides to look up a list of all of Smith’s wives, and learns that Smith married Helen Kimball when he was 37 and she was 14. Maren also finds that the prophets following Smith married teenage girls as well. For instance, she sees that Lorenzo Snow married a 15-year-old girl when he was 57, and had five children with her, the last of which was born when he was 82 years old.

These verses make her feel awful inside. She wonders how a God who loves her could talk about women being “given unto” men.

Something about this doesn’t feel right to Maren, and it makes her so depressed that she cannot allow herself to read further. She continues to go to church, say her prayers, and read her scriptures, hoping that her confusion and depression will just go away.

One night Maren reads some verses in Doctrine and Covenants 132 that say:

if [a man] have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him… But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him…

These verses make her feel awful inside. She wonders how a God who loves her could talk about women being “given unto” men. To Maren, that’s how someone might talk about a cow, as property. Now, Maren doesn’t know what to believe. She questions how she can reconcile her love of Mormonism with her disgust for polygamy.

When she brings up what she has found on the Church’s own websites and scripture to her husband, Ryan, he advises her not to bother looking at it. He tells her that she should stick with reading about the gospel, recognizing that God sometimes requires us to accept hard things as a test of our faith, and remembering that it will all make sense in the afterlife. He asks her not to bring it up again.

Later, as Ryan reflects on his conversation with his wife, he ponders over two conflicting feelings: the darkness he felt while talking to Maren about polygamy, and the beautiful feeling he had while praying on his mission to know if the Book of Mormon were true. He tells himself that while he doesn’t understand the reasons for polygamy, he should trust the feeling of peace from his mission as proof that this is God’s work. He resolves that he will tell his wife he loves her more often.

Maren, for her part, wonders what she will teach her daughters.

2. David and Brother Williams

David, a Brigham Young University student, gets an assignment in his religion class from his professor, Brother Williams, to write a paper about the Book of Mormon.

To start his research, David visits the BYU library and comes across Studies of the Book of Mormon, a book by LDS Apostle B. H. Roberts. In the book, Roberts presents various explanations about how the Book of Mormon came to be. One section addresses Joseph Smith’s imaginative capacities. Here Roberts claims that “there can be no question” that Joseph Smith was “possessed of a sufficiently vivid and creative imagination as to produce such a work as the Book of Mormon.”

David reads the range of evidence Roberts uses to support his claim. This evidence includes the testimony of Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy, who said that, starting at the age of 18, Joseph told stories about the ancient Americans “with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.” Roberts asserts that because Joseph Smith started telling these stories many years before he received the gold plates, “these evening recitals could come from no other source than the vivid, constructive imagination of Joseph Smith.” Roberts adds that this was “a remarkable power which attended [Smith] through all his life.” He then writes that the power “was as strong and varied as Shakespeare’s and no more to be accounted for than the English Bard’s.”

These words from B. H. Roberts disorient David completely. David had never before considered it possible that Joseph Smith could have created the Book of Mormon from his own imagination, and yet, here was an LDS Apostle claiming as much.

He reads theories about how Smith reapplied ideas and phrases from books such as the Bible, View of the Hebrews, The First Book of Napoleon, and The Late War.

Compelled by his curiosity, David does a Google search for “Did Joseph Smith write the Book of Mormon?” He reads theories about how Smith reapplied ideas and phrases from books such as the Bible, View of the Hebrews, The First Book of Napoleon, and The Late War. He reads about anachronisms, DNA analysis, and changes that have been made to the text, and immediately feels overwhelmed by the information in front of him. David hopes the most troubling claims about Smith’s inventions aren’t true, and brings up his claims with Brother Williams the next day.

Brother Williams tells David that he can find some answers on FairMormon.org, but that ultimately it is most important to listen to the whisperings of the Spirit and not to lose sight of the blessings that the Church brings to people’s lives. David thinks about pressing Brother Williams further, but worries that his questions may affect his grade. He thanks Brother Williams for his time and goes home.

After class, Brother Williams sits in his office, feeling anxious about the questions David raised. He thinks of his sister who left the Church over questions similar to David’s, and how sad she seems to him now. Her husband divorced her when she told him she no longer believed, and she hasn’t been nearly as close to her own parents and siblings ever since. Brother Williams knows he doesn’t have all the answers, but also knows that the Church has brought endless blessings into his life. He prays to feel the love of God and a reassurance that he is doing what is right.

Back in his apartment, David spends the night researching more of his questions online. Some of the explanations on Mormon websites make sense to him, but all confirm his feeling that the truth is far more complex than he was previously led to believe.

3. Janice and Becky

Janice, a Relief Society president with a gay teenaged son named Josh, has struggled to know how to handle the Church’s policies on homosexuality. The more she studies about the topic and the more she discusses Josh’s sexuality with him, the more convinced she becomes that homosexuality is tied to biology and, in the case of her son especially, has little to do with sin and rebellion. Janice also feels uneasy about the idea that Josh will either have to end up in an unfulfilling heterosexual relationship or leave the Church to find someone to love.

Janice is stunned when she first learns of the Church’s policy that children of homosexuals can’t be baptized. It is one thing for the Church not to allow gay marriage, and another to exclude children from baptism entirely. To Janice, children are innocent, and none of the official explanations about why they should be excluded from baptism make sense to her — the policy just isn’t consistent with her understanding of love or compassion.

All of this internal wrestling leads Janice to consider that the Church may have been misguided on this particular topic. At the very least, she hopes that the Church might change its position in some way. To find hope, she does more of her own research into the history of Mormonism, and finds that the Church at one time discouraged marriage between blacks and whites, which it no longer does.

Janice finds that other topics on which the Church has changed its position include birth control, the theory of evolution, black people having the priesthood, and sex education in public schools.

She finds that Brigham Young once said, “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”

While this quote lowers Janice’s estimation of Brigham Young, it gives her hope that the Church will change regarding homosexuality as it has on race. Janice finds that other topics on which the Church has changed its position include birth control, the theory of evolution, black people having the priesthood, and sex education in public schools.

One night Janice explains to her family that she believes it is possible that the Church is wrong for banning the children of homosexuals from baptism. As soon as she says this, her oldest daughter, Becky, who is married and has one child, becomes upset and says that her own mother should know better than to question the Brethren.

At this, Josh stands up and quietly leaves the table, leaving the rest of the family to acknowledge a tension they have not had to grapple with before. Becky tells her family that she loves them and believes that blessings come from following the prophets and that the prophets won’t lead her astray. Still wrestling with her feelings, Janice says she does not know what to believe and walks upstairs to comfort Josh.

“For in much wisdom is much grief: And he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

— Ecclesiastes

The stories above have all ended in sorrow, and the reality is that scenes and stories like these take place in homes, churches, and classrooms every day. They are scenes of heartbreak, familial tension, and spiritual loneliness. The truth is that we are the ones who determine what happens after each such scene. These are the realities of living as part of the contemporary Mormon community, and we have the power to choose where the stories go and how they really end. In dealing with such situations, we come across a few possible outcomes.

1. We can ignore anything that makes us uncomfortable

This option is unsustainable in the internet age, where evidence about Mormon history is easier than ever to find. The ease of access is not going away, and those who ignore history will discover that not all their family members and friends will get in line — especially since, again, many uncomfortable facts are now easily accessible on websites such as LDS.org.

In other words, the choice to ignore anything that brings discomfort will certainly end in sorrow as we ignore the legitimate concerns of the people we love.

2. We can look at the evidence and feel smug about what we’ve found

Some of us have felt judgmental and mean-spirited toward those who don’t know certain facts about Mormon history — facts we ourselves may have only recently discovered.

But feeling smug and withdrawing into our knowledge only widens the divide between friends and family. In a world with endless knowledge, there is simply no room to feel smug about anything. There is only room to feel humility about all the things we have yet to learn, especially about each other.

3. We can look at the evidence and commit to a balanced pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness

Henry Eyring, the famous Mormon chemist, once told his son, Henry B. Eyring, that “in this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.” I’d like to take Henry Eyring at his word and truly not feel obligated to believe anything that doesn’t seem to be true. I also don’t have to go to endless lengths to rationalize a truth claim, especially if I wouldn’t rationalize a similar truth claim from another religion. I can just accept that the particular truth claim isn’t valid for me.

Richard Bushman, a Mormon patriarch and historian, stated the situation bluntly when he said, “I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true. It can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information, or it will be on very shaky grounds. That’s what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change.”

It is important to note that Bushman isn’t saying that all faith-affirming narratives are false — he does still believe in the divine origin of Mormonism and that Joseph Smith was inspired. However, he is saying that the Church has to adjust its narrative in light of historical facts. Realistically, that may be hard for many people.

Truth does not always immediately lead to joy. Often it makes us miserable first. We realize that there are no perfect answers, and we have to learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty and doubt.

When we couple the pursuit of truth with the appropriate measure of beauty and goodness, we find that the truth is far more bearable. With time, we will find that our joy has deepened as a result of our knowledge. We’ve passed through sorrow to joy, and we realize we would never trade truth for ignorance.

My hope for the people in the stories I’ve mentioned above is that they may unite around the three basic principles of truth, beauty, and goodness. My hope is that they be forgiving and compassionate as they learn and readjust together. If people on all sides can acknowledge the truth, and do so with love and kindness, our stories will end with more happiness. The truth will set us free.

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