Balancing Truth and Propriety

The Three Wise Monkeys, Tosho-gu Shrine, Nikko, Japan, photo by Michael Maggs

Oh say, what is truth? The hymn claims it is the fairest gem the world can produce, an eternal and priceless treasure, the greatest prize to which mortals or Gods can aspire.

And yet not all truths are deemed appropriate to share.

One sort of truth that is not shared are truths which would endanger those we wish to protect. For example, true details related to communications and transportation of a head of state are typically not shared, to protect the person of the head of state.

Another sort of truth that is not shared are truths that would harm the consumer of the truth. For example, John Taylor did not share the truth that the protein-rich mash which so many pioneers ate to survive the winter of 1847/8 was derived from mashed crickets.

A third sort of truth that is not shared is unseemly and unnecessary detail. For example, it wasn’t really necessary for the child-me to tell my mother’s visiting teachers that my sibling had pin worms, given that this was not a detail my mother had chosen to share.

We live in a world where the Church has often deemed it appropriate to omit mention of select facts in lessons and visual media. Beyond the Church itself, those catering to either believers and those catering to traditions significantly opposed to the “Utah” Church curate their content to suit what they feel is appropriate for their respective audiences.

Joseph’s name too often is “had for… evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it [is]… evil spoken of among all people” (JS—H 1:33). In our internet-informed world, that often challenges believers who treasure the beauty of the restoration yet harbor significant concerns regarding Joseph Smith, himself.

I assert these concerns arise, in part, because people are ignorant of key events during Joseph’s lifetime. Shorn of true details, they are unable to shield their hearts from the fiery darts of defamation that are hurled at the founding prophet of the gospel restoration and those who proclaim this restoration. Those who oppose the “Utah” Church similarly are able to protect their audiences from mitigating facts that would reasonably lead to a shared basis from which increased understanding could grow.

If I am right, the true details are terribly messy, involving an uncomfortable number of troublesome errors by those who subsequently repented. Though Adam, Alma, and Paul stand as examples of the repentant whose forsaken wrongs are known, children of the restoration are not used to seeing their forebears through anything other than rose-tinged glasses. Critics of Joseph Smith are not used to seeing restoration figures as anything other than fundamentally flawed.

Aside from M*, neither gatekeepers who cherish the restoration nor those who criticize the restoration have seen fit to allow my research to disrupt the way they choose to portray the world to their audiences. 1

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “now we see through a glassdarkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor 13:12) I look forward to that day of which Paul wrote, a day when we will know the truth in full, a truth that, though complex, is precious and eternal.

And in that future day, I pray that all will have had a chance to revive themselves with living water, with all the fiery darts removed and extinguished. In that future day I have faith that loving knowledge will be far more powerful than hateful ignorance.

For now, I will attempt to balance between truth and propriety as I attempt to provide life-saving water in a desert of painful thirst.


  1. As one might infer, today I heard from yet another organization that they have decided to avoid discussing my views.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

9 thoughts on “Balancing Truth and Propriety

  1. I’m puzzled. I didn’t think that the name of Joseph Smith was in the recently retired recommend questions and the lists that others have posted do not show his name. The former question about the restoration was “Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?” In the new questions, “gospel” has been expanded to “Gospel of Jesus Christ” and “in these the latter days” has been deleted.

    None of the other questions mentioned Joseph Smith.

  2. I guess I got bum dope from my informant. I repeatedly own the fact that I don’t have an eidetic memory.

    I still would have written this post, I just would have used another example, like the way artists targeting markets for Church members (e.g. Deseret Book) have to change their content to the limits of that channel. I don’t know if people realize how content they see has been extremely curated.

    For example, people now complain that they never saw imagery depicting the historical translation process. That was a case where the market was unreceptive and artists, knowing their market, were unwilling to create accurate depictions, even when they were aware of “truth.”

  3. Hi Mark B.,

    I’ve adjusted the post to reflect what you report (i.e., that Joseph Smith wasn’t mentioned by name in recent temple recommend questions in any event).

    There still remains the concern that gatekeepers curate content, often excluding facts from which common ground could be found.

    As a scientist, I have come across instances where data sets were manually “cleansed” of “artifacts”. While there are certainly instances where simplification can be highly useful. But there are times when elimination of inconvenient facts can cause significant harm.

    I am amused by the way my content is frequently rejected. And a conversation with Fiona and Terryl Givens this summer provided insight into the plight of authors who do get published by large organizations such as Deseret Book. Often authors and artists must curb their content to fit in ways that arguably affects the integrity of the resultant work.

    My mother is an artist, and she recently shared her dismay that Deseret Book rejected one artist’s depiction of Mary with Jesus as an infant. As I recall, the objection to the painting had to do with how Mary and Jesus were interacting, and the committee/staffer in charge decided that the painting was unsuitable because of how Jesus and Mary were looking at one another. My mother raged, but I pointed out that the artist in question went on to make the art available to an alternate channel, and my mother had related that this rejected painting has become the artist’s most successful and well-known piece, beloved by all who cherish tender interaction between a mother and her child (a much larger market than that to which Deseret Book caters). So in that case, getting rejected was a good thing, if it still rankles that the anticipated market rejected the work.

  4. The artist is Liz Lemon Swindle, and I think the original painting was either She Shall Bring Forth a Son or Mary’s Heart. I believe the objection was that the painting didn’t show the face of the infant Jesus.

    The painting that is featured at Deseret Book is Be It Unto Me.

  5. They ask about Joseph Smith in the baptism interview to 8-year-olds. At least that is what I remember people telling me to prepare my kids for.

  6. Meg, Joseph Smith is mentioned in the 2nd question of the baptismal interview, chapter 12, page 206, of the 2004 edition of Preach My Gospel. That is where you might have gotten it conflated.

    “2. Do you believe the Church and gospel of Jesus Christ have been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smithh? Do you believe that [current Church President] is a prophet of God? What does this mean to you?”

  7. Hi Bookslinger,

    That may be why my informant got it conflated. I just presumed my source was correct, because this source has a solid track record of being correct.

  8. But Meg, you just don’t understand how the truth is derived nowadays. What you are saying is not true, because it has not been accepted by any peer-reviewed publications. And, of course, there will be no peer-review publications because what you are saying is untrue. QED.

  9. LOL

    A challenge is that those most in need of certain truths are those swayed by popular ideas.

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