Apologetics in Seminary

[This post was written by Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, my wife.]

Up till now my online blogging comments have all been through my husband John; however, he asked me to write about an experience I had in teaching seminary this week. As a background, I grew up in a family in which Mormon apologetics was constantly being discussed. In a town said to have the most PhDs per capita, my father was the one in the ward and stake that the missionaries would bring their difficult investigators to.

As an adult I have had some ongoing interest in the subject both in personal research and discussions with non-members. I have often wondered why the answers to common anti-Mormon attacks were not more publicly discussed at church and why missionaries in the MTC were given no training in responding to these attacks. (Frequently missionaries in my Munich Germany mission would give wrong answers to these questions, providing the person with an answer based on false information or false doctrine.)

This week, though, perhaps I have found the answer to these wonderings. I teach a group of 9 students early morning seminary. We covered D&C 45 this week which has the following quotation from HC 1:158-163 in the section heading: “At this age of the Church many false reports and foolish stories were published and circulated, to prevent people from investigating the work or embracing the faith.” As I prepared my lesson plan for the week, I receive the prompting a couple of times that I should spend some time dealing with current false reports and foolish stories so that my students would be better prepared to respond to them with correct information. So I reviewed the information available at www.fairlds.org and FARMS.byu.edu. I chose a few of the FAQs listed to share with the students, with the plan that we would discuss in greater depth the ones of interest to them.

Well, as it turned out, judging from their completely sleepy and uninterested response, this was about the most boring lesson of the whole year to them. They were not interested in any of the topics at all (except one student who was mildly interested in the question of racism in the Church/blacks and the priesthood). So after going on for maybe 15 minutes and having more and more students falling asleep, I had to move on to the material in Section 45 and cut the apologetics lesson off with a recommendation to them to write down the two web-sites of interest in their scripture journals for future reference. I think maybe one student of the nine wrote it down. The rest of the nine students were not even interested enough to write down two web addresses. Normally these students never go to sleep and participate fairly well. It was a real contrast to a standard lesson.

Take home message? Perhaps more members of the Church are not educated in apologetics because it just does not interest them or seem to have any relevance in their lives. (Or maybe Stake Standards Night ran too long the night before!) It is hard for a person to believe that other people simply do not share his/her narrowly focused interests.

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

17 thoughts on “Apologetics in Seminary

  1. My kids and grand kids are being brought up in a ward and stake where we have seen some significant apostacies. Both my kids and some of my grand kids had dear, real dear friends in the groups that left the church. They cried, they hurt they asked questions.

    It is the opinion of almost all my kids that we prepare our kids for the battle. You cannot protect from the misinformation on the net. It is readily accessible to them and it is just a matter of time before they encounter some of this material.

    We go by the first strike rule. He who strikes first has the upper hand (actually, I don’t know what the rule is. I just believe that the guy who gets in the first shot is in a better position)

    At this point in time the kids love the gospel. They love their parents and look on them more as friends than parents. What the parents say is the gospel and since family life is so rich and nuturing they easily accept the explainations.
    Opposition is part of the gospel plan. We ought to use it for our benefit. Dennis

  2. I think this is right. I simply don’t think the historical or theological questions are that relevant to many people. They are interested in entertaining history or things useful to them in their lives. That changes when they are having doubts or, for whatever reason, become interested in theological issues. While I’m a big proponent of the inoculation theory of preventing anti-Mormonism this lack of interest is a huge issue in making it work.

  3. I sincerely hope these kids will never encounter reasons to get interested in apologetics. It is the Spirit that converts, after all. If they can maintain the Spirit, hopefully apologetics will not be necessary. But my experience shows me eventually they get issues that challenge their testimony. Knowing where to find answers to the questions that are brought up is important, and the works that FAIR and FARMS do is urgently needed.

  4. Thanks for the insights, they show again that Apologetics has simply no use in many instances within the church as a whole. What is even more interesting is that the majority of adult members of the church that I have met have even less potential interest in apologetics than even the youth could be persuaded to have, probably because as we grow older our view is usually narrowed by the hardness of our hearts and our lack of desire to actually learn anything more than we already know, including myself.

    Always better to stick with the basics, it seems to have a lot more interest to people!!

    BTW, I taught the same set of EMS lessons last week and found the exact same thing that when I dealt too deeply with any specific topic, espcially on Wednesday and Thursday, the youth seemed to fall ‘deeply’ into sleep!

  5. Speaking of anti-Mormonism:
    It pops up in the oddest of places. A recently published book on Battlestar Galactica called “So Say We All” (and “edited” by Richard Hatch) has an anti-Mormon essay in it. Well, the essay isn’t really anti-Mormon in the strict sense, but the author tries to makes some hay with the Mormon parallels, but his only sources for Mormon doctrine and history are anti-Mormon material.

    I wonder what an LDS seminary student who might pick up that book would do when he finds out that the Mormons worship multiple gods (the author claims the colonials in the new series are more Mormon than the ones in the old series, since the old BSG colonials were monotheistic and the newer ones are polytheistic – and we’re not talking just three seperate members of the Godhead here – this is full blown polytheism) and that Joseph Smith deserved to be killed because he was asking for it? (not to mention that we stole the temple rituals from the Masons).

    They will probably laugh, since the essay tries hard to be fair (my summary makes it seem harsher than it really is), and the descriptions seem ludicrous to anyone who actually knows about Mormonism. The author seems to have never actually met any Mormons, getting all his info from anti-Mormon works. However, what do they do when their friends come across this stuff? How do they expect to be able to give a fair answer?

    My parents also discussed apologetics all the time. My dad had us read pretty much every apologetic work Nibley ever wrote, plus they have a hugh library of apologetic works from various small Mormon publishers (Like “A Challange to the Critics” and “The Gainsayers” and “The Truth about the Godmakers”). But I did find on my mission most of my companions had never heard of this stuff and had no serious answers to give when it came up (other than blatantly false things like “Jesus drank Grape Juice, not wine.”)


  6. Thanks for sharing your experience, Elizabeth. Having just done a stint of teaching the HS age SS class, I can relate. In my case, it wasn’t an issue of apologetics so much as the kids having zero interest in the OT, which was supposed to be the course of study. I really struggled trying to reach those kids, and I think I was making progress (before our ward was recently dissolved and the pieces added to other wards in our stake). But it was very disheartening each week preparing what I thought was a killer lesson, only to see the apathy, disinterest and boredom in their eyes.

  7. Personal opinion: Before introducing apologetics into a church lesson, we should assess our intellectual honesty in doing so. Are we in a position to judge the quality of the evidence and/or arguments? Is there a general consensus among the experts on the subject, and, if so, does it run counter to our apologetic? If we can’t answer these questions, then it seems that, at the very least, we should preface our point with a caveat like “I’ve read this, but I don’t know if it’s true.”

    I think we can all agree that not all apologists are equally reliable, and some are downright hacks. FARMS recognizes this, and sometimes gives negative reviews to apologetic works. Nibley’s work has received more than its share of criticism, even from fellow BYU professors. If we teach something that we read in FARMS or FAIR just because it’s faith promoting, we may be guilty of disseminating misinformation or bad arguments.

  8. Perhaps they were just following the counsel in D&C 19:31:

    And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.

    Or of Micah:

    He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

    Or of Nephi:

    And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.

    The problem arises when we, not knowing the meaning of all things, begin to give explanations.

  9. While that’s true “visitor” I think that one can, especially if one has access to blogs, find out what is good or bad reasonably quick. Yes there are some bad stuff out there. And some arguments that once were good now are dated and weak. Such is the nature of inquiry.

    But I do agree that if you are going to present apologetics it behooves one to be careful.

  10. Clark, I guess my problem is that I see so many apologetics that fall into the once-seemed-good-but-now-are-dated-and-weak category, that I can’t teach any apologetic with a clear conscience. If I were to take an academic approach in teaching a church class, honesty would compel me to confess my view that scholarship simply isn’t on our side. So instead I stick with the faith-based, pragmatic approach.

  11. I’d strongly disagree, but I’ll not belabor the point. I think a lot of apologetics are quite good. Say the Nahom’s trail stuff.

  12. An interesting question that remains unadressed is this quote from the post. “I receive the prompting a couple of times that I should spend some time dealing with….” Elizabeth felt prompted to treat this material in some way and yet it didn’t go over so well. I wonder what the lesson is for us there?

    Could it be that she didn’t come up with an engaging way to prepare the material? Could it be that this wasn’t a real prompting but just her own idea? Could it be that God prompted he, knowing she would fail but knowing that there would be some valuable side effect? Could it be that the topic wasn’t a failure and that the kids will actually remember a kernel of what was taught and it will bless their lives?

    I don’t know the answer. Maybe Elizabeth has further insights for us.

  13. Re: #12–it could be that the one kid that wrote down the urls will actually visit them and internalize something that will serve her/him or someone s/he knows later on. Hard to say. But I’d like to believe that the promptings a teacher receives (or anyone receives, for that matter) have real-life implications.

  14. I see in my ChristianBook dot com catalog a 4 Volume series of apologetics for kids called The Case for Christ. It is aimed at Christian children who will confront people in the real world trying to shake their faith.

    I think lack of interest is probably not the basic reason why apologetics is not taught. I do not know for sure the reason. I notice in the Ensign for new members that in reference to questions of faith that would arise one is encouraged to nourish their testimony and there is no reference to seeking out FAIR or FARMS.

    I know in my former faith we were probably given some background on sore points in that religions history and reforms that were to over come it. My Senior year of religion, I was duly warned that there would be people out there trying to convert me and I was on guard. I wasn’t even looking to be converted and look what happened. 🙂

    I think a problem with exposure for some is as was discussed in relation to Political ads that a person is more likely to believe a negative statement againt the opponet than a positive statement about oneself. The Church has long held a position of not being put in the defensive. There may be rare incidence where statements are released. By and large, they do not give the statements the dignity of a response.

    As a missionary, I know of instances where missionaries called upon members who had resources to help with anti-questions. My Mission President said that there was more anti-information in our field than anywhere if my memory serves me well.

    I know there was an article at the Nauvoo Forum home page by someone who does commentaries(forget his name maybe Aaron Johnson). He basically said to avoid people who think they know more about your religion than you. A lot of members get into trouble when they are not well-grounded and they try to go toe to toe with anti’s. It can hurt their testimonies when originally they thought they could convert the other. I know there is a man at work who seemed very concerned about me when he learned I was LDS. He spoke of this person who he said LDS people dislike because he has all this information. This man will relate things here and there and give the wrong names for who Joseph Smith saw in a vision and when I correct him as to his error, it is like that does not matter. He would twist his view of the First Vision. At any rate, I make it a point not to discuss religion with him. He does not at this time have a heart open to conversion in my opinion. That could change and it would not be the first time.

    Also, a person can feel very dark when delving into anti-material. It can take away your peace. I recall an elder who was from Japan tells us what he told some of his investigators who had received anti-material. I asked them to recall the feelings of peace that they had felt when hearing the truths of the Gospel and to contrast that with the dark feelings when being exposed to anti-material. This Elder had such a strong testimony and his humble and sincere manner touched me. However, if I had not had firsthand experience in both feeling the Holy Spirit when hearing truths about Jesus Christ or about Joseph Smith being told not to join any Churches of the day as well as feeling dark feelings at times with exposure to anti-material, I would be going on his word alone.

    I am all for scholarship and intellectual persuits. And apologetics has its place. At this point, it does not seem to be the case where all members are in need of this information. Sometimes the Ensign or Church talks will in vague detail address issues. They also have published some information such as excerpts from “Are Mormons Christians” in the Ensign in years gone by that does go to the heart of some anti allegations.

    Well, let’s see if this prints as my computer is acting up.

  15. Interesting stuff. I have also received several yawns about mormon apologetics from members. Either you believe it or you don’t. Don’t bother me with this dribble. What about 1st peter 3:15? Be ready always to give a answer to EVERY man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with patience and kindness toward them and reverence for God.

    I was on a christian radio station for about 3 months doing mormon apologetics as a guest on a semi-anti mormon show. Got lot’s of ,”why are you doing this. Don’t hold the church up to ridicule.” I didn’t see it that way. In the book of Jude verse four says, “…that ye should earnestly contend for the faith. I really think it can be done without becoming contentious. It’s not about “us” verses “them”. It’s about true love for ALL our brothers and sisters.


  16. Barb, I don’t think the Church can itself point people to FAIR or FARMS without giving them a quasi-authoritative status they neither have nor want. That is FARMS and FAIR have a diversity of views and what they present is evolving theories. I wouldn’t want antis to treat them the way they (try) to treat GA statements.

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