“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.