Where’s the right place?

Responding to John H’s polygamy post, Davis Bell states that

“Too many of us encounter these issues [like polygamy] from enemies of the Church, and are completely taken off guard by them [which I’ve called the antimormon sucker-punch, since it’s usually delivered with a twist designed to bring people out of the church.] I think it would be in the best interest of the Church to discuss them in a safe, open, and fair way.”

I could not agree with this more, though it leaves me with a conundrum. Where is the right place for the institutional church to do this, and who would be doing it?


I think most of us would agree that Sacrament meeting is not the appropriate venue for the details of Mountain meadows or the intricacies of the Book of Abraham arguments. Likewise, if the purpose of Sunday school, priesthood, and relief society is to engender Christlike gospel living, they also may not be appropriate forums.

What about Seminary and Institute? In teaching my (volunteer) Institute classes, I have often touched on difficult issues in a way to let people know they exist, but I haven’t dedicated, say, 30 minutes to Book of Mormon flora and fauna or the role of Masonry in the restoration. I believe that introducing members to these things in a controlled environment has the effect of “preparing their minds to be faithful” (Alma 48:7). I view it as my duty as a teacher of the gospel to do so.

Perhaps I take a dim view, but most of the kids when I went to early morning seminary in MN were barely beginning to be intellectually aware of the scriptures and general conference. Generally speaking, they’re not prepared to receive or discuss such things. Or am I being too paternal and protective?

Should there be a new class? A new lesson manual? Greatly expanded institute manuals? Or should the Church publish “The official LDS guide to polygamy! Everything you never wanted to know and wish now you didn’t!”? While it has taken this tack in a way with Richard Turley’s book on Mark Hoffman, and the forthcoming book on Mountain Meadows, the Church has been content to preach the gospel and let interested members handle the difficult issues. I know, for example, that SLC has a general feeling of appreciation for FAIR in that they try to provide answers and contexts for these things.

Published books don’t reach members world-wide the way lesson manuals do, and I’m not sure official books would remedy anything, if they could even be written.


All of the settings above (save the last one) share one requirement- a competent and knowledgeable teacher who neither takes pleasure in “shocking” members nor spouts traditional but false or flimsy defenses. I suspect that many teachers aware of these things do try to integrate some of these difficult issues into their teaching. I do, and I know others do as well. However, for something to happen institutionally, each ward or CES unit (depending on who’s doing the teaching) would need someone knowledgeable. How would that be determined? Would the church “correlate” a “controversial teachings” manual? Call a “ward apologist”? It would be worse than nothing at all to call someone with less than a mature testimony and knowledge both broad and deep.

In short, I don’t see an institutional solution to this problem (if it is such). For my part, I’ll keep doing what I have been doing.

50 thoughts on “Where’s the right place?

  1. Ben, agreed. The only appropriate places to discuss these issues are blogs/books and other kinds of media and in personal conversations with people who are interested in the topic.

  2. Ben and I posted at the exact same time, on pretty much the same issue, although he gets right to the heart of the matter, while I dance around for several pages; here are the nut paragraphs:

    I believe the Church itself is presented with the same dilemma. Many members, including me, have wished the Church would be more open about the more challenging aspects of its history and doctrine. Presenting a sanitized, correlated version makes it look like we have something to hide; it also provides many members with a false sense of security that will inevitably be demolished upon their first encounter with the truth. This isn’t to say that one can’t recover from such an encounter; many do. But many don’t.

    At the same time, I’m not sure how the Church could or should go about this. Its job is to promote faith and build testimony; I’m not sure that teaching members about its warts to prepare them for facing critics is the best way to accomplish that. Why scare off those who are new to the Gospel? Many rightly point out that correlation has to take into account the varied backgrounds of the members of a global church: the David O. McKay manual has to work for the man with the 3rd-grade education as well as the woman with a PhD in History.

    I never really resolved this dilemma as a missionary, and I’m not sure how the Church can resolve it either. Any thoughts or ideas?

  3. As I think more, the downside to the current state of things is that members may assume that the Church has actively mislead them by NOT teaching about these things, which is not the case. It has to do with expectations.

  4. So Moses Maimonides used to say that no one should study philosophy until they were 30, but after that he was all for it.

    I wonder if the church could do something similar. They could explicitly have a class that was reserved for temple-going Saints (a sort of a school of the prophets sort of thing) or saints of a certain age. Participation wouldn’t have to be mandatory, nor would it even have to be during church hours. But that way (1) people would have some awareness that there were sticky issues out there and (2) that there were answers to them and (3) there would be someone, the teacher of the class, that the bishop could refer people too when they had these sorts of problems.

  5. Seems like if the issues are taught only to those in the ‘school of the prophets’ crowd, you’re only teaching to those 1)less likely to be ignorant of the issues, and 2) less likely to be swayed out of the church upon learning about them. Isn’t the post more concerned with the weak? If so, is there any acceptable way to initiate the weak? I don’t think that further bolstering the strong is really doing much good.

  6. I prefer official Church publications on these matters; of course, that’s never going to happen. Still, how awesome would it be to have a Church historian explain polygamy, and then the Prophet or an Apostle interpret what happened as best they can?

    I agree with Ryan’s assesment of Adam’s idea.

    To me, the issue is this: back in the day, the idea of vaccinations was must cruder, but basically the same — inject some of the virus into one’s body with the idea that the body would developm immunity to it. Every once in a while, someone would day from a vaccination. The vast majority, however, were sick for a bit and then developed immunity; when the virus cam again, they were impervious. I think teaching some of the challenging parts of history and doctrine is very similar. It would kill the testimonies of a few people; they would leave and never come back. It would also cause others to fall “sick.” However, I think they would eventually get over it and develop immunity to further, and more virulent, attacks.

  7. Having raised these same questions on a few blogs recently without coming to a good conclusion, I have to say that the “Ward Apologist” idea is a good one. Of course not all wards have someone that is qualified. Maybe it should be a stake calling…

    I think that many people assume that the bishop or stake president, as eclesiastical leaders, should have these answers, but that isn’t always the case.

    I do think that institutes should teach courses in an open way that deals with many of the issues that come up. If a larger percentage of members had infomation of these topics it might change what is acceptable to discuss in Sunday meetings. In fact, even knowing that these things were discussable on an official level by itself would make a lot of people feel better without even knowing the details of the discussion.

  8. One of the reasons I really like the idea of an official Church outlet or publication addressing these issues is that it reassures members that the leaders of the Church are aware of these issues. I’m not sure why that knowledge is so comforting, but it is. The men and women who lead the Church aren’t stupid, and I think it can be assumed they’re aware of these issues. Still, I think it’d be nice to have some institutional verification of that.

  9. he missionaries taught one of my wife’s workmate’s, an intelligent Asian women with general belief in God but nothing specific. She wasn’t interested in further discussion with the missionaries but wanted to know more. I referred her to lds.org and others, as well as the evangelical “Institute for Religious Research.”
    “Aren’t they against your church?”
    “Yes, but they’ll give you a second opinion, and at least they don’t deliberately lie and misconstrue our doctrines beyond viewing it through their own worldview, which I doubt you share.”

    Did she look up it or any of the other sites? I doubt it. But, she was impressed at least, that my beliefs continue not because I live in a vaccuum but because I actually believe them and can give arguments for my belief.

    ~ Ben Spackman | 03/29/05 13:16 Edit

  10. me, the approach is telling people what WE BELIEVE and not what WE DO NOT BELIEVE. Yes, there are many so called ‘sensitive issues’ i.e., plural marriage, ban of the priesthood to people of African ascent (pre 1978), Mountain Meadows Massacre, etc. We need to openly discuss them. But I would not delve in them. Yes they occurred, but they are also in the past. Should we analyse all religions in like wise manner, we could have a long discussion that would keep us from focusing on the core believes. If someone asks me: “What about …?” I try to give a straight answer, no going round the bends. I state why do I believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the chuch that conforms to the teachings, organisation and with the authority to perform the ordinances of salvation. I try to give as much information as I can, stating when is my personal opinion and when it is from official church doctrine (Another BIG POST). But I think that we need to concentrate our efforts in spreading what we believe and not how other view the Church. President Hinckley has addressed the question “What are people saying about us?” in two separate occassions The gist of it is that the Church is open for investigation, but it will not squander resources for those that are only looking for ‘the sour in the milk’. If we unite and tell the world WHAT IS MORMONISM not in a missionary effort but in building bridges, a lot of misunderstanding would be erradicated and real discussion could begin.

    ~ Alex Guerrero | 03/29/05 13:47 Edit

  11. The Bells are missing the point. The LEAST IMPORTANT effect of the ‘Saturday School of the Prophets’ would be the actual discussion on Saturday between the teacher and the class. The real importance would be that it would make just baptized members and adolescents aware that (1) there is more to Mormonism than they know, (2)that it’s not hidden, (3) that there are answers out there, even if they’re judged ‘not ready’ for them yet, and (4) identifying someone to talk to (the teacher, who I would see functioning much as a ward apologist) if they have questions that can’t wait until later.

  12. Someone famous once said that there are some things in Mormon history that are true but that are not very “useful”. With the advent of the internet, I think it has become more and more difficult for Church leaders to keep a lid on information that falls into the “true” but “not useful” category.

    But what is strange is the continued discomfort among the Church members to talk about these issues, especially polygamy. Could this be because that the rank and file members believe that polygamy was not an inspired doctrine, but they don’t want to publicly disagree with Church doctrine?

    Maybe the Church is becoming out of touch with what its members truly believe. Unless the church can offer a believable explanation of difficult concepts such as polygamy, I think people are just going to assume the worst and think the church is hiding the truth (unuseful as it may be).

  13. I don’t think there is a satisfactory answer. I agree that at least an acknowledgement of the issues by church leaders would probably calm some nerves. On the other hand we don’t want official answers that turn out to be false–then we’ve only added to the the problem.

    Perhaps the current practice is the best balance: the Church emphasizes current doctrine and practice. Others investigate issues of history, science, etc and come up with the best answers possible. Church members can then choose the answer that makes the most sense to them–especially on issues where the clear-cut truth is not known.

  14. Green Machine,

    Don’t you think it will seem somewhat “hidden” to new members and adolescents if their is a class that they can’t attend? Otherwise I think you’re onto something.

    Heavy D

  15. I read a talk by Elder Marlin Jensen of the Seventy gave at BYU-ID in which he refers to the ongoing DNA/Book of Mormon imbroglio. He didn’t delve into the issue at all; he simply mentioned it in passing. I found that immensely calming. I assume that the Bretheren are aware of these issues, but for whatever reasson — probably irrational — it was reassuring to have that assumption proven true. They know what’s going on; they’re aware of what people are saying and struggling with.

  16. “They know what’s going on; they’re aware of what people are saying and struggling with.”

    But isn’t this even worse than if they didn’t know what people were struggling with in the first place? If the Church leaders know that the members are struggling with an important issue, why they are refusing to provide guidance on it? They didn’t have any trouble speaking up against the Heavenly Mother idea a few years ago.

  17. (Was originally a response to Davis’ post here)

    Wait a minute Davis, I thought you got canned from the health club because you wouldn’t stop making your trumpet sound?

    I think everyone on the mission encountered that Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet. “The Restoration of All Things?” (sinister music, dun, dun, dun.) I remember one of my companions was pretty freaked out by it. I just thought it was all lies.
    I think we’ve had this inoculation conversation before and I don’t remember if I told the story about the girl who we ended up baptizing even after her cousin gave her that pamphlet. Did I mention that I was the one wanted it so I asked her to get it from her cousin? She read it, gave it to me and ended getting baptized the next week.

    So to comment on the actual topic of the discussion, there are a million things that none of us know about the Church, and not only about the Church, but the Gospel itself. I don’t think that the Lord views conversion the same way we do. From the Lord’s perspective I think we would all fall into the category of unfounded faith due to lack of knowledge. To feel a person’s conversion is unjustified due to lack of knowledge is judgmental, and way messed up (Davis you sinner!) πŸ™‚

  18. BKP: Maybe the Church is becoming out of touch with what its members truly believe.

    Are you serious? Shouldn’t it be the reverse? Since when do the beliefs of the membership define those of the institutional church?

  19. While the idea of a “Ward Apologist” sounds intriguing, I tend to think it would end up closer to CES…and I think that we do not want that. I respect CES for all the good that they do, but objective discourse on difficult topics is not their hallmark.

  20. Garrett,

    The mouth trumpet hastened the firing, but it was ultimately inevitable.

    You are right that I shouldn’t judge the conversion of others. But as a missionary, one is the appointed custodian of the conversion’s of those whom he/she is teaching, and as such is charged with ensuring the person meets certain requirements. Granted. learning about the mummies from which the Book of Abraham was obtained is not one of them; still, I think it’s okay to worry whether you’re being fair and honest to the people you are bringing into the Church.

  21. Here is a related comment of mine on T&S. To make it short and sweet, there are facts out there that people I know would love to hear. Many of these could be appropriately shared in a number of church endorsed ways, but they are not. Hooray for fearless institute teachers! Hooray for the blogs and their predecessors!

  22. I don’t think the class has to be open to all in order not to be hidden. It’s probably enough for most people that the church is aware that there are issues out there and that there exists a forum for people who are interested in them. Just as you found it comforting when a leader mentioned DNA controversy.

  23. Thanks, a random John, but I would find it awkward when you started drinking. I know how all you mormons who disagree with me are . . .


  24. Speaking of my drinking problem, have I mentioned that the Dr Pepper (and other lesser fizzy beverages) in Canada has REAL SUGAR? I don’t have to order my Dr Pepper from Texas while I am here in order to get the real thing. I am pushing two cans a day now. Luckily I will be back in nearly Dr Pepper-free Boston soon as my stay here is ending. Remember people, Passover Coke arrives soon!

  25. “Are you serious? Shouldn’t it be the reverse? Since when do the beliefs of the membership define those of the institutional church?”

    Ryan –

    I’m not saying that the doctrine of the institutional church should be defined by the membership. That said, there are a few churches where the “institution” is generally out of touch with its “members”. Many of my Catholic friends use birth control, have extra-marital sex, and think that Terri Schiavo should be allowed to die. And these are my Catholic friends who go to church almost every Sunday. And in Italy, the seat of power for the Catholic church, birth rates have declined to some of the lowest in Europe.

    I think there may be a movement in the Mormon church akin to the secularization of the Catholic church. And I think, to some extent, the Mormon church as an institution has been influenced by the beliefs and the actual of the members. Take the change in policy on birth control and large families, for example. Now fathers and mothers are allowed to counsel with the Lord to limit their families, whereas before we were encouraged to multiply and replenish with abandon.

    There are other examples, but I think that holding back information from the members encourages a kind of separation of the institutional church from what the members actually believe.

  26. “I think there may be a movement in the Mormon church akin to the secularization of the Catholic church. And I think, to some extent, the Mormon church as an institution has been influenced by the beliefs and the actual of the members.”

    I am inclined to agree. God adjusts his word to the receptiveness and righteousness of the people, so we shouldn’t be surprised.

  27. I took an institute class 25 years ago and my instructor never shrank from the tough questions. Worked for me.

  28. With regards to #19, what the church was worried about in the early 90’s wasn’t just the idea of heavenly mother. (Which is rather openly taught about in church) Rather it was the undue focus on her by certain figures, with some advocating praying to her.

  29. Not to interject controversy or anything, but wouldn’t the debacle over Elder McConkie and “blacks and the priesthood” show official church apologetics to be a bad idea? Where we lack a definitive solution to a controversial problem, we tend to resolve it to the best of our ability (which, I believe, is what Elder McConkie was trying to do). Unfortunately, if someone as much in the know as an apostle likely is can be mistaken in their conclusions, wouldn’t it also be the case that we mere mortals would likely fall into the same traps.
    Also, apologetics are temporally bound. In other words, they revolve around the latest controversy. In other other words, Apologists often don’t consider the long-term repercussions of the solution they propose, just with how to solve this problem now (again I refer you to Elder McConkie). I don’t see the church getting involved in this sort of stopgap work on a regular basis.

  30. John C.,

    I don’t know that definitive answers have to be given. Provide the historical information, suggest some interpretations, make sure that everyone knows these are suggestions and they are free to think as they please. On the specific subjest of “blacks and the priesthood” you could provide the history of Elijah Abel, discuss how it was the Brigham Young decided to start the ban, and then make it clear that we don’t know the answer to “Why?” but throw out some ideas. My personal favorite answer in this situation is that BY was wrong. He got bad info and was himself a racist by our standards today. But I certainly don’t expect anyone else to agree with me and I think that there are plenty of satisfactory reasons out there.

    The point isn’t to give people the right answers. It is to give information and let them select answers that they are comfortable with.

  31. Some truths are more useful than others, but useless knowledge is the most valuable knowledge of all. Besides, the notion that we should avoid certain truths is plain rubbish. It’s bizarre that an apostle could say such a thing–it might make one justified in questioning how well acquainted he is with the scriptures of the restoration.

    Of course, not all truths are appropriate for all places. Though I’m not the most conventional Mormon in terms of my beliefs, I’ve never lost an opportunity to rail against the anti-correlation crowd. I don’t understand why we need or expect the church to resolve these issues for us. Indeed, it is a lazy and slothful servant that must be commanded in all things. And it’s up to us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We’re smart, believing Mormons, and we’re capable of carrying on discussions like this without being exclusionary or elitist or cynical (which are supposedly the bad things about intellectualism, right?). And what’s more, we’re already discussing these things right here, on BCC, on T&S (well, you guys are discussing these things or T&S), and elsewhere in the bloggernacle.

    As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to discussing controversial topics relating to Mormonism, this is the place–to borrow words from a very famous and controversial Mormon. (Unless Christian Cardell is right that this general conference takes a dim view of blogging.)

  32. random John,
    The thing is that I think that whatever answers are given will be taken as definitive. Certainly Elder McConkie stated in Mormon Doctrine that what was found therein was not actually Mormon Doctrine, but has that stopped people from taking it that way? I think ideas presented initially as possible solutions will then be uncritically accepted as the ultimate answer and, when those ideas eventually fall by the wayside, we are back in the same place.
    Now if you are saying that the Brethren should encourage people to use their own noggin to work this out, I agree (in fact, I think they do). However, anything specific from official church channels is an effective conversation stopper. It has its place, but I don’t believe that they should go to it all the time.

  33. John C.,

    I think that it is a pretty tough sell to name your book Mormon Doctrine and then say that it isn’t. In my recollection none of the enteries in the book says, “well, this could be because of any of several things.” If he thought he knew the answer he gave it as fact and if he didn’t he said that we didn’t know and didn’t speculate.

    Note that I said to provide alternatives in a class such as this. If multiple answers are always given as possibilities then it becomes harder for someone to accidentally take any one of them as the gospel truth. Have the teacher state explicitly during each class that they don’t know the one single answer. Again, as Adam pointed out above, the point isn’t so much the answers themselves as the fact that a place exists for things to be discussed openly. Members would know that other people wonder about some of these issues and still stay faithful.


    I have missed the Christian Cardell post fortelling the issues that will come up in conference. Could you provide a link?

  34. Clark –

    My point was that there was some confusion in the Church regarding the propriety of speculating about and praying to our Heavenly Mother that the Church leaders easily cleared up over the pulpit at General Conference. The answer was: don’t pray to Heavenly Mother.

    So, although polygamy is a thorny issue, the Church has taken upon itself to clarify certain views and practices for its members before (such as the Heavenly Mother issue). I think it would be helpful if the Church leaders would speak more openly and clearly about polygamy.

  35. Johns: I think the goal is not to provide answers, “here’s why polygamy started.” Most apologists I know are very tentative about offering definitive solutions to thorny historical problems, unless there actually is a clear one and the question is based on misunderstanding. (An example of this would be something like “Why does the bible say that we should contend for the faith (Jude 1:3) but the book of Mormon says contending is evil?”)

    Rather the purpose would be to provide a forum and contextual information. I think it’s important to say “I don’t know.” Kevin Barney(who does excellent apologetic work) will

    often respond by briefly outlining the various “schools of thought” on the issue (if there are indeed different viewpoints on it among church authorities), how they’ve develped historically, who holds to which viewpoint, and perhaps offer my own opinion. Most people seem to appreciate this rich background to whatever the issue may be, but it drives some folks absolutely nuts. After all, if we’re led by modern revelation, they seem to feel, there shouldn’t be any “schools of thought,” but rock-hard set-in-stone Doctrine with a capital D.

    BKP: I think the Church only speaks out publicly when doctrinal speculations begin crossing acceptable boundaries, such as publicly advocating praying to MIH or practicing polygamy. (I think this is what President Hinckely meant when he said “polygamy is not doctrinal” ie, we don’t practice it.)

    Some truths are more useful than others, but useless knowledge is the most valuable knowledge of all


  36. Davis Bell, what official church publications address these types of issues?

  37. Ben –

    I don’t remember making that comment about unuseful things being the most valuable, but a huge concern I have is: who decides which information is or is not valuable?

    I’d much rather trust my religion to the free marketplace of ideas, than allow certain people to rewrite history to make the religion more palatable (useful?).

  38. Okay, thanks for the clarification. I was afraid the early stages of dementia had finally started kicking in.

  39. a random John, I had a brief discussion with Christian about this on T&S a few months ago, before they banned me. If I remember correctly (and I’m sure that he’ll correct me if I’m mistaken) he felt it likely that GAs may take the same view of blogs that they have of symposia and study groups. I googled T&S to try to locate it, but to no avail. Perhaps he can be induced into making another prediction with general conference just days away.

  40. Ben Spackman, of all useless things, useless knowledge is the greatest. Bertrand Russell wrote an entire essay in praise of it, but I’m not sure that this is the “right place” to quote it.

    But I’m a great lover of useless things in general. When I went to BYU, I used to buy trophies at Deseret Industries (they sell the trophies for a reason, you know). The trophies were, of course, completely useless. Nevertheless, I placed them atop top the entertainment center in my apartment. By the time BYU saw fit to throw me out, there were dozens (at least 50) of them. On several occasions, I heard roommates or members of my ward whisper to someone, “that’s the guy with all the trophies from DI.” Even better, whenever my roommates would bring a chick over for the first time (before curfew, of course) I would hear basically the same conversation (the walls were paper thin):

    chick: who’s trophies are those?
    roommate: they belong to my roommate.
    chick: oh.
    roommate: yeah. he buys them at DI.
    chick: oh.

    Yes, man was made that he might have joy, and such is the great value of useless things.

  41. Arturo,
    From the preface of the 1st edition of Mormon Doctrine,

    For the work itself, I assume sole and full responsibility.

    I assume that this is Elder McConkie’s way of saying that although he believes this is Mormon Doctrine, he admits that this is also just his take on it. That said, earlier in the preference he says

    This work on Mormon Doctrine is designed to help persons seeking salvation to gain that knowledge of God and his laws without which they cannot hope for an inheritance in the celestial city.

    So he does seem pretty certain that he is right. Either way, whether or not he was this certain, there are plenty of people who will uncritically adopt everything he says because of the position he held in the church and the aura of authority that surrounds it. This is why official apologetics is dangerous.

    I agree that the best apologists are careful about their claims. But don’t you think that even elaborating a list like Kevin suggests would stifle speculation (admittedly, this might not be a bad thing, but what would I do all day?). If you establish the six official approaches to the problem of post-judgmental progression, for instance, how do you find out if all six are wrong or if one is right? The quick answer is prayer and revelation, but the possibility of misinterpreting revelation is pretty high. Wouldn’t it be better to just let everyone who is interested come to their own solutions (as, per Arturo’s comment, most of what we speculate about is fairly useless anyway)?

  42. I can’t think of any other place to post this, but Dominic Thomas, the president of the Bickertonites, died Saturday, March 19. Their official name is The Church of Jesus Christ, and they’re headquartered in Monongahela, PA. The accept the Book of Mormon but reject Joseph Smith’s later teachings. Incidentally, the Bicktertonites do not view their leader as a prophet the way we (or the CoC folks) do. Their web site is here.

  43. I was amazed that I had a better understanding of polygamy after only being a member of the Church for a few years in comparison to my companions who were raised in the Church. I do credit my knowledge to the Institute courses that I had taken.

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