Guest post: the Givens attack the First Vision

This is a guest post by Michael Davidson, who is a not-quite-so-young man living in Highland, Utah with his wife and kids.

At the tender age of 14, Joseph Smith went into a grove of trees near his home in New York in order to seek knowledge from the Lord. In the vision that followed, Joseph was told by the Lord not to join any churches then extant, for “they were all wrong” and that “all their creeds were an abomination in His sight” and that the preachers of these religions and creeds were “all corrupt.” It was in this First Vision that the Lord introduced Joseph, along with the rest of us, to the need for a restoration of the Gospel. The Lord makes clear that a simple reformation of existing christianity would be insufficient, driving the point home with strong language as was and is His prerogative.

In a recently published excerpt from “The Crucible of Doubt,” Terryl and Fiona Givens note that this account causes “many readers” to “feel the sting of a wide-net rebuke” in this narrative. And yet the Givens don’t seem to believe that such a rebuke was warranted. They introduce the First Vision narrative with a disclaimer that “[t]he language of Mormon culture … is fraught with contradictions” and that the “wisest and best men and women can say uninspired, ridiculous, and even reprehensible things.”

The Givens then observe that the First Vision narrative is “harsh to modern ears,” but seeks to excuse “Smith’s language” by saying it “fits right into his cultural milieu.” Further driving home their point, the Givens later bemoan the “colorful language of condemnation” in the canonized First Vision account because of its supposed “tragic influence on Mormon thinking,” including the “notion that Mormonism has a monopoly on the truth, that other churches and traditions have nothing of value to contribute, and that the centuries between the death of the apostles and the events of 1820 were utterly blighted and devoid of truth.”

Even further, the Givens argue that at least some “Mormons claim a monopoly on salvation” as well. But to them, “it grows increasingly difficult to imagine that a body of a few million, in a world of seven billion, can really be God’s only chosen people and heirs of salvation.”

It is with these two “myths” in mind, myths of Mormon monopolies on truth and salvation, that the Givens began their attack on the canonized First Vision narrative. They fault this narrative, which they claim sets the stage for the flourishing of these myths.

What purpose is being served by this attack by the Givens?

While the Givens make a show of targeting various strawman claims, their arguments hit deeper and run deeper. They suggest that “some members may indeed harbor [certain] unfortunate ideas” articulated by various apostates that they quote as saying that “Mormons believe that the church-Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant visions alike – completely died” and that some Mormons believe that “God was sort of snoozing until 1820.” In the first case, I don’t know that any Mormons believe that God was snoozing for any period of time. If anything, that strikes me as a very protestant idea. The occurrence of the First Vision and the publication of the Book of Mormon blew the doors off of this idea of a closed canon and a God that was finished with His work which prevailed in the christian world at the time of the restoration. While there was a loss of priesthood authority and a corruption of many of the basic doctrines, there aren’t any members of the Church that I am aware of that claim that all light was lost and that God was completely uninvolved.

No one can read and believe the Book of Mormon without finding that God was indeed involved pre-1820. He motivated Columbus to sail the ocean blue, and guided many of the early European settlers to come to America, though these two things are deemed impolitic by some modern voices. Likewise, we have heard from numerous apostles over the history of the Church that many of the reformers were likewise inspired to rebel against the dominant catholic church of their time. In reality, the myth of God sitting on His hands on the sidelines that is supposedly held by certain unnamed and unquoted Mormons is silly. No one believes it.

With respect to the second myth derided by the Givens, it is well known and generally accepted among the membership of the Church that only a very small number will inherit outer darkness, while all others will inherit a kingdom of glory. I was taught this in primary. And anyone who has read the 76th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants and understood even a part of it will know that this is the case. This is among the most basic teachings of the Church.

In fact, these two “myths” simply aren’t taught or accepted in the run of the mill wards and stakes of this Church, or in the Church generally. The one place you actually find these myths with any regularity is in the writings of angry apostates and other enemies of the Church. The Givens indirectly acknowledge this by failing to find a single faithful LDS source to back their assertions. Instead, they turn to anti-Mormon publications exclusively to find support for the existence of these myths.

Like most myths, however, these two are based in the twisting of certain actual beliefs. However, these actual beliefs don’t make good headlines, and so we get the Givens fighting against the exaggerations of the apostates. What is believed, and what is central to the LDS narrative, is that there was a general apostasy which included a loss of the fullness of the Gospel and a loss of priesthood authority. With this loss of priesthood authority, there was no one upon the earth who could officiate in the ordinances of the gospel, which open the gate to forgiveness of sins and the cleansing effects of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

The Givens seem to concede this point, but do so in a contradictory manner. While acknowledging the role of Joseph Smith in the restoration of the priesthood, they make a case for why it was not necessary in the first place, referencing D&C 49:8. In discussing this, the Givens claim that the Lord told Joseph “that most of the world was under sin, ‘except those which I have reserved unto myself, holy men that ye know not of.’” But this is not what D&C 49:8 actually says: “Wherefore, I will that all men shall repent, for all are under sin, except those which I have reserved unto myself, holy men that ye know not of.” Do you see the difference? The Lord doesn’t say that “most of the world was under sin,” but that ALL men are under sin, with the exception of some “holy men that ye know not of.”

The Givens suggest that these “holy men” who are “reserved” by the Lord and who are not under the obligation of repentance, are actually disciples of Christ who are living lives outside of the Church and the ordinances of the restored gospel. The Givens go on to suggest that these “holy men” were remnants of a Church that didn’t fall into general apostasy, and survived to Joseph’s time, when “[t]eachings that had been preserved by the few would be made available to all.” The Givens acknowledge that “priesthood authority and ordinances had been lost” but “truth had not departed from the earth entirely.”

Of course the Givens don’t actually identify who these “holy men” are or were. They don’t identify a time when such holy men would have come to Joseph or one of his successors in order to be baptized by one having authority, such as when Christ sought out John the Baptist or the Wise Men travelled great distances, probably over the course of years, and sought out the Christ child. If these holy men were mortals, they had need of baptism and would have moved heaven and earth to seek it out.

(Of course, a much more plausible explanation of who these “holy men” are can be found in the many instances of translation of individuals and groups. Such groups and individuals are taken into a state where they are no longer subject to the buffetings of Satan; but they are not quite resurrected either. The inhabitants of the City of Enoch, John the Revelator, the Three Nephites and several Old Testament and Book of Mormon prophets come to mind.)

The simple fact is that these holy men would not and could not be the remnant or branch of the Church of Christ as they are described in Section 49. It would not be possible for men to be existing in their mortal and probationary state absent priesthood authority, and likewise absent the ordinances of the gospel, and yet without any need to repent. It is contrary to the very basics of the gospel. Even Christ had to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness, so how could these “holy men” without priesthood have even done this? It is absurd and there are better explanations for this verse. The only One to lead a sinless life, a life for which no repentance was necessary, was the Christ. Repentance is required of everyone else, for everyone else sins. There are no exceptions to this. And yet, the Givens argue that there were some vestiges of the primitive Church on the earth in 1831, unknown to Joseph and consisting of at least some mortals who needed not repentance and who had no sin.

The Givens cite D&C 10:53-55 as evidence that the Lord’s “church” had not left the earth at all, claiming that God “declared that He acknowledged many people as already belonging to His church in 1829, even before the restored gospel took its present form under Joseph Smith’s direction.” Again, the Givens misread the referenced scripture, which does not say that there are people at present belonging to the Lord’s Church, but merely observes that “whosoever belongeth to my church need not fear.” This is likewise absurd. The scripture merely states the maxim that those who are members of the Lord’s Church need not fear, and promises that the Church would be established (at a then future date), but it does not say that it existed anywhere else. Likewise, it is a given that individuals are admitted into the Church by baptism under proper authority. As discussed above, that simply wasn’t present or available anywhere else.

Changing gears to the supposed “myth” about salvation, the Givens present lengthy quotes from various presidents of the Church that simply support what is widely taught and believed in the Church generally. This should not be a surprise to anyone that the membership accepts what the Prophets teach, though the Givens seem to find this novel enough to require reiteration for some reason.

They quote Brigham Young as stating that all of Christendom and all of the pagans will receive a heaven that outstrips their imaginations. This is borne out in D&C 76:89, which states that the glory of the telestial “surpasses all understanding.” Brigham Young wasn’t saying that everyone will be saved in the celestial kingdom, just that those who receive the very least reward will get something far beyond imagining. Quotes from Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow are likewise brought to bear, but each merely affirm that at some point “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess,” to which we may add that nearly every soul shall inherit a kingdom of glory, but there is nothing there to suggest that all or most will inherit any particular kingdom.

I did find it amusing that they managed to include a quote by Lorenzo Snow that was contradicted and superseded by D&C 138. Pres. Snow, nearing his death, spoke about the Savior himself preaching to those in spirit prison, but D&C 138:20-21 states that Christ did not go unto the wicked or “among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh.” These did not hear His voice or see His face. It is hard to imagine that such careful scholars as the Givens would have been ignorant of this, and not addressed a clear scriptural reference directly opposing their thesis. (More on this below.)

In all of this, the Givens claim that “as a mighty God, our Heavenly Father has the capacity to save us all. As a fond father, He has the desire to do so.” They quote with approbation Pres. Eyring when he likewise said, “[t]here is not one of us that He has not desired to save, and that He has not devised means to save.” Left out of this is the truth that all have agency, and not all outcomes will be identical. There will be the prodigal that does not return. There will be the one who lets the beggar put forth his petition in vain. There will be the one who crosses over to the other side to avoid him that fell among thieves. This is a cause to mourn, and while the Lord has a plan for all who will repent, we know that there are some that simply will not do so before the time of testing is done.

However, the Givens suggest that salvation will come to all in equal measure, sooner or later. They proclaim that “temple covenants may be made and kept here or hereafter, and the ordinances of salvation performed in person or vicariously.” And while this is true to a point, not all will exercise their agency in this way and to suggest otherwise leads to a myth that is gaining traction in some quarters of the Church that is significantly more dangerous than those which the Givens deride. While a myth of Mormons having a monopoly on truth and salvation may rub some of the Givens academic friends the wrong way, it would be highly motivating to those who believe it to preach repentance, and to share the gospel with as many as they can.

Whereas, a myth that all will, sooner or later, be saved in the celestial kingdom, no matter what, encourages sloth. It encourages laziness in the would be penitent and a laissez faire attitude among those that should be bearing testimony now. For “there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us” and we certainly see this in some corners of the Church today, while others add “nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.”

God tells Nephi that these are “false and vain and foolish doctrines.”

Alma, on two different occasions, begs the people not to “procrastinate the day of your repentance” until the end or until it is too late. Later, Samuel the Lamanite indicates that at least some of the Nephites had “procrastinated the day of [their] salvation until it is everlastingly too late.” Their “destruction [was] made sure.”

To be clear, while our Heavenly Father, who would welcome all of His children back who will, He knew from the outset that not all would gain exaltation, and so did we. Why else did Lucifer rebel? Because he knew that not all would return to our Father’s presence under the plan that had been proposed. This rebellion resulted in the loss of a third part of His children before any of us made it to this mortal life. It is not a lack of faith in God that forces the realization of this reality, it is a knowledge that some simply won’t repent for whatever reason.

No doubt the Givens would see me as one who “want[s] to see the burning of the tares.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no victory in any person not walking the covenant path and repenting of their sins, but we know that not all will and we shouldn’t placate ourselves by wrongly believing that everybody will be eventually exalted.


71 thoughts on “Guest post: the Givens attack the First Vision

  1. Oh! I so agree with this post. Every time I read something written by the Givens it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Sometimes I wonder if they are wolves in sheep disguise. My personal opinion.

  2. I was for a while pursuing an intellectual study of the church, reading voraciously from the Bloggernacle, Bushman, Givens, It was the most spiritually unsatisfying journey I have ever taken. When I returned to a prayerful study of the scriptures and words of living Apostles and Prophets, the feeling it produced was 180. Light, pure and discernable, had returned.

  3. Thank you Michael for this commentary. I have been squirmy as the Givens’ post has gone viral in my social media feeds, but had not had the time or the words to articulate quite how I felt. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

  4. Anon @ 9:23 I’m so glad you’ve had a good experience studying the scriptures. I find more and more I’m uninterested in Mormon Intellectuals and their thoughts on most everything, but I never get tired of the scriptures.

  5. Agreed, I think the intellectual language of the day comes from the postmodernist dictionary. Maybe they are speaking that language because that is the language of their readers but it definitely doesn’t proclaim the good news of the gospel and the restoration taking place.

  6. So, I’ve never posted here before, but I really enjoyed reading this.

    I grew up in Richmond and Terryl Givens was my bishop when I was a teenager. I spent a lot of time in his home and with his kids, and it was really nice to get to know their family not only through church but as normal people. I read a comment above about wondering if they are wolves in sheep’s clothing–I don’t think that’s the case, just from personal experience with their family. They are really wonderful, kind people. I know things and people change, but that’s my experience with them anyway.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading some of his books and the last few books written by him and his wife. I think there are a lot of insightful ideas that I have gained from reading them, but there are also points where I disagree and think their reading of the scriptures is too generous or too narrow.

    Anyway, the short of it is that from reading their last few books, I’ve come away with an appreciation and renewed understanding of the Savior’s mercy. I don’t know the specifics (such as all eventually receiving celestial glory or not), but I always enjoy the discussions around this stuff.

    Thanks for the great write-up.

  7. Eric,

    I appreciate your comment. I don’t know the Givens, and tried hard to just react and respond to what I was reading. I hope that is clear.

  8. Mike,

    Oh, absolutely. As an adult now, many years later, I’ve gained an appreciation for reading stuff from people I know and being OK with disagreeing. The Givens are no exception. It’s just funny to have this personal relationship with them (I literally remember Terryl Givens wrestling with his kids in the living room and Fiona proclaiming her love for Black Sabbath) while reading their very academic books and not always being on the same page.

    Anyway, great post–really enjoyed it.

  9. Well, I think there is a lot to be said for reading any person’s writing in context. Knowing that the portion shared was taken from a book specifically written to those already struggling with their testimony causes me to read it very differently than what you have.

  10. Kevin L,

    I’m not entirely sure that this added context improves the situation. If the intended audience is those already struggling with their testimony, wouldn’t further undermining the First Vision narrative be analogous to throwing a rock to a drowning person rather than a flotation device? Wouldn’t such a thing further undermine a testimony rather than help to build it up.

    Of course, the idea may be to show solidarity to those who don’t believe the First Vision narrative in the first place. This wouldn’t reflect well either. I honestly don’t know what motivated what I read, just what the words actually say, but I don’t think it makes it better to say that this was intended for people struggling with their testimony.

  11. I think the context of the op is of a faithful member who questions little to nothing regarding the gospel. Oh that every member was as strong in his/her testimony.
    But they aren’t

    And the more I read, the more nuanced I find some claims of the Church. Why? Because the key things, like priesthood and keys, have changed drastically since the First Vision.

    Even the First Vision is not as cut and dried as we would like, there being several versions that differ.

    But that doesn’t make these things wrong. It just means that restoration and history are both very messy. For most LDS, they are happy to focus on their spiritual conversion, and aren’t aware or interested in these issues. And that is fine.

    But there are many in doubt, who seek answers. As Elder Ballard said not long ago to CES, we can no longer just pat people on the head and tell them not to worry about it.

    Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling is not an inspiring story on Joseph Smith. It is history. If you want a feel good inspiring fable, read the history by his mother, which is awesome, but is very selective in the history used.

    So it is with the Givens. Their desire is to preserve and restore the testimonies of those in doubt. Lucy Mack Smith won’t do that. They need brutal truth to bring them back. They want unfiltered logic and facts. We have to reach them from their place of doubt, not pretend they don’t have real struggles. And when you look deeply at the details of apostasy, salvation, priesthood, and the First Vision(s), the door is open for sincere doubt.

  12. My impression from this excerpt from the book is that the Givens seem to be writing to people outside the Church rather than in the Church. This may or not have been their intention, but they seem to be trying to explain the “all their creeds were an abomination” comment in a way that will make people outside the Church more comfortable. I think all of us have been there when trying to explain the Church to non-members. Just to give one example, I have people ask me all the time, literally at least once a month, “why can Mormons drink Coke but not coffee — and by the way, one or two glasses of wine is good for you.” I am sure that my answers are not very orthodox when explaining my position on the WoW to people outside the Church. So, I can see where the Givens are coming from.

    But the problem is that their comments on the First Vision, when read by faithful members of the Church, appear very strange to us. It is easy to see why orthodox members would take exception to some of the wording. I would love to see a further explanation if the Givens would be willing to send it to us at M*.

  13. At no point in this excerpt or anywhere in the “Crucible of Doubt” book (which I heartily recommend to Mormons and non-Mormons alike) do the Givenses “attack” the First Vision. They believe in it; they believe Joseph Smith’s account of it, and they provide no cause to doubt its veracity and make no attempt to undermine its authority. Instead, they take issue with those who misinterpret the First Vision as evidence that Mormons have a monopoly on truth, as do you, which suggests you ought to give their words a more generous reading.

    The quotes your provide as examples of “attacks” are woefully out of context. You imply, for instance, that when they say “Mormon culture … is fraught with contradictions” that this is somehow a reference to the First Vision being contradiction-fraught. It is not. One can believe, as the Givenses clearly do, that there are contradictions in Mormon culture and that the First Vision was a real thing that actually happened.

    Having announced by intellectual fiat that the Givenses have attacked the First Vision when they manifestly have not, you then proceed to take issue with a number of issues that have, at best, only tangential reference to your stated premise. Inconsistencies between what Lorenzo Snow believed and D&C 138 are certainly worthy of discussion, but they have nothing to do with the veracity of the First Vision. That goes for most of your article, which dismisses the Givenses as borderline apostates based on a demonstrably false assumption that they reject the First Vision when they don’t.

    tl/dr: If you want to disagree with Givenses and rip them apart, have at it. Just don’t make stuff up to do it.

  14. Thanks, Jim. I agree that the post is terrible. I know the son of the Givens. He’s a very faithful member, as are his parents. This is but a hit piece, built upon a lack of the OP’s understanding of actual doctrine, Mormon culture and history, and the struggles many doubting members are going through.

  15. Jim Bennett,

    I stand by my reading of this excerpt. Do the Givens believe that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and told him that all of the then existing churches were false and that “all their creeds were an abomination in His sight?” It doesn’t appear to be the case, or else why do they blame this “harsh” language on Joseph’s “cultural milieu?” Why introduce the discussion of the First Vision by noting that “even the wisest and best men and women can say uninspired, ridiculous, and even reprehensible things.” Despite your assertion to the contrary, I’m not just making stuff up here.

    I would welcome a clarification on this from the Givens, but it’s pretty clear to me what their words say in this instance.

    Thanks for your comment.

  16. Gerald,

    As I noted elsewhere, I don’t know the Givens. I can only respond to the words they put out. It isn’t a “hit piece,” it is an honest reaction to the excerpt published at LDS Living in which I give my reasons for my reaction. I will happily entertain substantive objections, should you care to give any of them voice.

  17. As Gerald said, this post is terrible. No two people have done more to shore up the faith of members of the Church in response to the CES letter and other challenges, than have Terryl and Fiona Givens. I read the Crucible of Doubt at a time when I was making a difficult transition to more mature thinking on scripture and Church History, and the book was a critical reminder to me of some very important principles that I had been neglecting in my thinking. I count myself among thousands who have benefited enormously from their work.
    Mike, this is absolutely a hit piece that reads like an angry partisan screed. You misread their argument, misrepresented their position, and slandered two wonderfully faithful members of the Church in the process.

  18. For what it’s worth, the first paragraph of the excerpt is truncated. It is missing the following sentences found in the book:

    “Generosity, historical context, and the filter of canonization all allow us to see the religious past more charitably as well as more accurately. Sometimes this principle is one that members need to apply to our own faith tradition. One example concerns the intemperate language often employed—especially in the early Latter-day Saint Church—to characterize other faith groups.”

    Also missing between the third and fourth paragraphs is (in part) their explanation that:

    “The creedal formulation most attacked by early Mormon writers, and defended by their antagonists, had nothing to do with the Athanasian or Nicene controversies. It was the Protestant wording of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles (1563), largely incorporated into the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), that Mormons criticized consistently. “There is but one only living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions [incorporeus, impartibilis, impassibilis],” held the document that was the theological basis for subsequent formulations of Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists. In fact, “the reigning theology of the country,” noted a visiting German scholar in 1844, “is the theology of the Westminster Confession.”

    The creedal “abomination” alluded to in Smith’s First Vision was the clear suggestion of those creeds that God was an impersonal being, without a form, inaccessible and incomprehensible, unmoved by human suffering.”

  19. Wise and good people in church leadership do sometimes say things that we later consider “reprehensible.”

    A curse of black skin, blacks were on the fence in the preexistence, evolution as a heresy, catholic church as the great whore, etc.

    While Brigham Young didn’t order the MMM, the best LDS scholars agree that his hate rhetoric created an environment where the massacre could happen. Reprehensible? Yes.

    All of these and more have been taught by GAs along the way.
    That doesn’t negate their prophetic calling, keys or authority. They are humans called of God, but are still humans.

  20. I am bothered by some of the attacks I see on the Givenses’ writings. As nearly as I can tell, Terryl and Fiona Givens are sincere in their efforts to regain those who are struggling with their faith or have left the church. Can there be differences in opinion as to how this can best be accomplished? Of course.

    The truth is, there are plenty of people in and out of the church who are struggling, and many of those struggles are the result of misconceptions or mistaken assumptions. The Crucible of Doubt book is an attempt to address a number of these challenges.

    Most significantly in terms of the book’s tone, the Givenses attempt to speak in a way that doesn’t understate or downplay the struggles some people have. Taking an empathetic approach makes sense because it is likely the only way a disaffected member will listen and potentially be persuaded. I think this approach is the key cause for the offense taken by some to their book. Those who have not personally struggled with these issues may find it jarring to read them stated in a sympathetic manner.

    I personally gained a great deal from reading A Crucible of Doubt, at a time of a great test of my faith. I don’t believe the book necessarily contains answers for everyone. But I hope that all of us will continue to reach out to those who question in a spirit of love and empathy.

    By the way, in such a short book there is little space to quote General Authorities who have made broad statements that have led to the type of misunderstandings the Givenses are seeking to debunk. But here is just one example:

    Chapter 40: The Long Night of Apostasy,” Jesus the Christ (2006), 745–757

    “For over seventeen hundred years on the eastern hemisphere, and for more than fourteen centuries on the western, there appears to have been silence between the heavens and the earth. Of direct revelation from God to man during this long interval, we have no authentic record.

    “Throughout the period of apostasy the windows of heaven had been shut toward the world, so as to preclude all direct revelation from God, and particularly any personal ministration or theophany of the Christ.”

  21. I haven’t read the book and I don’t know the authors, so I can’t say that they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. But I do agree with a couple of comments that the writings of Mormon intellectuals are very unpalatable to me, and wholly devoid of any confirming witness from the Holy Ghost, in contrast to the writings of the scriptures and official addresses of the Brethren. Different strokes for different folks. I understand Elder Oaks’s caution about listening to alternative voices.

  22. Jared*,

    Thank you for providing additional context. It doesn’t really change my analysis of the Givens arguments, though. In the first added portion, the Givens note that the early Latter-day Saints employed “intemperate language” in their description of other religions, and in the following paragraph launch into something that they describe as intemperate language in the 1838 First Vision account. This is the heart of my critique: it appears to me that they are saying that Joseph put words into the Lord’s mouth, that he didn’t accurately describe what the Lord told him. It is one thing speculate on the reason for the priesthood ban or something else. It is quite another to assert that Joseph lied about the words he was told by the Lord. To put it plainly, this is in essence what I read the Givens saying. I would like to be proven wrong.

    The second addition likewise doesn’t change my thinking. If the Lord told Joseph that all of the existing churches were wrong, and all of their creeds were abominations, it doesn’t matter to me that early LDS writers focused on some specific creeds for particular scrutiny. I would be curious about how the Givens justify the conclusion that “The creedal “abomination” alluded to in Smith’s First Vision was the clear suggestion of those creeds that God was an impersonal being, without a form, inaccessible and incomprehensible, unmoved by human suffering.” It seems to me yet further attempt to minimize what was actually said by the Lord in an attempt to make it more palatable to modern, mature(?), ears.

  23. Ram,

    Apples and oranges. Like I said above, it is one thing to find fault with speculations about such things, and something entirely different to lie about what the Lord said in the First Vision.

  24. Mike, you could not be more wrong. At no point do the Givenses “lie about what the Lord said in the First Vision.” That’s slanderous nonsense directed at fine people who have devoted their lives to the Restored Gospel.

    Earlier, you asked “Do the Givens believe that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and told him that all of the then existing churches were false and that ‘all their creeds were an abomination in His sight?'”

    I do not know the Givenses personally, but since they are clearly faithful, active Latter-day Saints, I think it very, very likely that the answer is yes. Certainly they say nothing in this excerpt to suggest otherwise.

    Unsatisfied, you say that “It doesn’t appear to be the case, or else why do they blame this “harsh” language on Joseph’s ‘cultural milieu?'”

    Except they don’t. They say that the language, while perhaps “[h]arsh to modern ears,” is consistent with the religious rhetoric of the day – i.e. it “fits right into his cultural milieu.” This is consistent with D&C 1:24, which tells us that God communicates with his servants “in their weakness, after the manner of their language.” They’re actually pointing that something that sounds harsh to 21st Century
    was an entirely appropriate way for God to speak to Joseph Smith in 1820.

    To say that this is somehow a “lie about what the Lord said in the First Vision” is demonstrably false. Do they suggest that the Lord didn’t say this, or that he said something else? No. Do they say the First Vision didn’t happen or was an invention of Joseph Smith? No. You are the one spreading incorrect facts here, not the Givenses.

    You also asked “Why introduce the discussion of the First Vision by noting that ‘even the wisest and best men and women can say uninspired, ridiculous, and even reprehensible things[?]'”

    To point out that the language the Lord used was consistent with the rhetorical environment in which Joseph lived, and to diffuse the temptation to apply a presentist reading to a historical text. The Givenses quotes the New Testament to show that Jesus himself used harsh rhetoric when it was appropriate to do so. By your logic, you would say they were somehow lying about Jesus by citing his words in the same context.

    It’s also a comparison that demonstrates that the words the Lord used in the First Vision weren’t nearly as harsh as some of the “uninspired, ridiculous, and even reprehensible things” others were saying at the time.

    You have missed the entire point of this article, and you have said false things about good people in the process.

  25. Edit: “They’re actually pointing that something that sounds harsh in the 21st Century was an entirely appropriate way for God to speak to Joseph Smith in 1820.”

  26. I should have been more clear in my comment directed at Ram. I didn’t say that the Givens lied about what the Lord said in the First Vision. Rather, it is my understanding of the Givens piece that Joseph wasn’t exactly accurate in the way in which he described what the Lord said. They appear to call into question condemnation of the religious creeds of the time (a point that is strengthened by the added material mentioned by Jared* above).

    The questions, though, are simple: (1) Did the Lord condemn all then existing Churches? (2) did the Lord condemn all of their creeds as abominations? and (3) if he didn’t, was Joseph then lying in 1838 when he asserted that they did? I’m not interested in stylistic issues; did the Lord say it or not? It comes down to whether or not Joseph was accurate in his description, or less than accurate.
    The Givens argue in this piece that the churches of the time weren’t all bad, and that maybe some of the creeds were abominations, but suggest that a blanket condemnation was inappropriate. Since they can’t say “God was wrong” it is up to cultural issues or colorful language, but this requires one to accept not only that Joseph was human and flawed, but that he lied about what the Lord said to him in the First Vision. We are not talking about Fanny Alger or the Kirtland Safety Society big, this would be big, and strikes at the foundation of the Church.

  27. Ji,
    A good history book will not give you a spiritual witness of anything. It is an intellectual discussion of events. A historian deasls with history – things in hat can be verified by evidence. There is evidence Jesus was a historical person. There is no historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles, including the resurrection. There are spiritual witnesses for these things.
    Most LDS intellectuals are doing that kind of work, and there is value in it. There is also value in spiritual books. But they normally do not combine into one, because they offer different evidence for their audiences.
    Crucible was written for those with historical doubts. Having them read a spiritual tract will not help them at this point in their faith crisis. I know doubting people who have been strengthened by the Givens and other intellectuals. There is an important place in faith for such intellectuals. BTW, if you like Mormon Interpreter, Book of Mormon Central, FairMormon, etc, then you are dealing with intellectuals. I’m glad to know those intellectuals.

  28. Mike,
    There are several versions of the First Vision. We use the 1838 version. There are earlier versions. They are different. Which version is most accurate, and why? Why did Joseph give different versions?
    This is a crisis issue for many people. The Givens are meeting the problem head on, a difficult task for anyone. I challenge you to write a response to a doubting person on the questions on the First Vision. Pretend. I’m that person. How will you convince me to stay and believe?

  29. Rameumpton,

    Your comments seem a bit of a thread-jack, but if you insist, I would suggest a doubter start by reading the following: (Backman wrote a whole book on this).

    I know it is a bit of reading, but this reading is important to know exactly what you are doubting and why. For me and for most Latter-day Saints, this was never a crisis or a difficult problem, and I am not sure why it should be a crisis or a difficult problem for any faithful Latter-day Saint.

    Consider that there are four canonical gospels (and a good many non-canonical ones, e.g. the Gospel of Thomas, and hypothetical sources of the gospels, e.g. Q and the Hebrew Gospel). Three (the synoptics) are similar, and John is strikingly different, but even the synoptics differ in what they contain and what they leave out and in important details. The current scholarly consensus is that Mark is the oldest of the canonical gospels, but that last chapter of Mark has known multiple versions. Which gospel is most accurate, and why?

    Now I challenge you to write a response to a doubting person on the questions about the gospels. Pretend I’m that person. How will you convince me to stay and believe?

    As for the topic in the original post, I would have to read carefully a full account of what the Givens wrote before passing any judgement, i.e. get and read their whole book. My initial inclination is to be positive and charitable towards their writing, because their writings that I have read in full are both very good and faith promoting. Intellectual (or historical) vs spiritual is a false dichotomy. See D&C 29:34.

  30. Spot on analysis of the dangerous conjectures about Joseph Smith and the First Vision posited by the Givens in “The Crucible of Doubt”. I appreciate the time Michael Davidson took to review the book.

  31. Goodness, I spend the day in meetings and connecting with business associates, and I miss M*’s brawl of the year!

    I really liked the analysis of the First Vision accounts contained in the volume Laura Harris Hales put together, A Reason for Faith. That piece explained why we tell different stories over time.

    There is a tendency in some circles to apply the old concept of biblical inerrancy to every word that ushers forth from the mouth of a modern LDS leader.

    Joseph spoke about his boyhood experience using different terms at different times, reflecting his perception of different audiences and his own emerging confidence about what he had seen.

    I myself have exhibited this behavior. Around the time of my son’s death I had certain experiences. At first I did not feel comfortable telling people of certain aspects of my experiences (the dream I had before his heart defect was diagnosed, a dream of a future I had not yet experience with no son and two daughters who were developmentally identical, my experience when giving him a blessing which allowed me to say thing that turned out to be true but not things I wished to say that could not be true of the lived future, my experience of looking at a pastel of him my mother had drawn and perceiving a light shining on his face at the moment of his death miles away, a death of which I had not yet been apprised, my mother’s privilege of seeing the mature spirits of my departed son and his deceased cousin, her other departed grandchild).

    One could look at my writings circa 1994/5 and proclaim that these later elements that I am now willing to talk about are new-spun fabrications. They would be wrong, but they could say such things.

    Similarly, people can conjecture that Joseph made elements of some accounts of his vision, since not all his accounts of his vision are identical or even consistent. However there is another explanation (which is in that very nice A Reason for Faith essay).

    I suspect the Givenses intend to explain to an audience they care about how Joseph Smith and other leaders are less weird that that audience may be thinking Joseph et al. to be.

    On the other hand, people like Michael Davidson are clearly not the Givenses’ intended audience. And the problem with any written message is that it can be misunderstood by someone and then promulgated triumphally to create damage where no damage was originally intended by the authors.

    You have to understand those who struggle and those attempting to work with them in light of what they perceive.Most of us are largely unaware of the concerted campaign Jerald and Sandra Tanner (long-time ex-Mormons) have waged since the 1960s. Most other “attacks” are minor variations on what the Tanners have championed. In reaction to the Tanners, there has been a tendency for Church leadership and membership to close ranks with the “sanitized for Primary” story of our past lest any discussion be perceived as weakness.

    Various modern people have wandered into this fraught battleground unaware of the reasons for the behaviors on each side. And thus, unaware of the battle being waged, they misinterpret the intent of the salvos on either hand.

    I agree with those who know the Givenses that their salvos are likely in defense of God and the restoration. But in the fog of holy war, there can easily be instances of friendly fire.

  32. Meg, that is a great response, and your experiences definitely reflect mine.
    I am currently working on a paper that responds to critical arguments towards scripture, and by the time I am finished, I will have spent almost a year thinking through critical arguments, weighing their language, and evaluating my own reactions and responses: am I representing the critical arguments fairly? Am I fair in my assessments? Are my responses well-reasoned and charitable? Am I raising the level of discourse where possible? Eventually I’m going to submit the paper for review, which is an important step because I hope a reviewer will provide an extra set of eyes in answering all of those questions.

    Elder Robert Wood spoke in conference some years back and presented what I consider the standard for discussing Gospel topics (and anything else, for that matter):

    “I recall that as a graduate student I wrote a critique of an important political philosopher. It was clear that I disagreed with him. My professor told me that my paper was good, but not good enough. Before you launch into your criticism, she said, you must first present the strongest case for the position you are opposing, one that the philosopher himself could accept. I redid the paper. I still had important differences with the philosopher, but I understood him better, and I saw the strengths and virtues, as well as limitations, of his belief. I learned a lesson that I’ve applied across the spectrum of my life.

    General Andrew Jackson, as he walked along the line at the Battle of New Orleans, said to his men, “Gentlemen, elevate your guns a little lower!” I think many of us need to elevate our “guns” a little lower. On the other hand, we need to raise the level of private and public discourse. We should avoid caricaturing the positions of others, constructing “straw men,” if you will, and casting unwarranted aspersions on their motivations and character. We need, as the Lord counseled, to uphold honest, wise, and good men and women wherever they are found and to recognize that there are “among all sects, parties, and denominations” those who are “kept from the truth [of the gospel] because they know not where to find it.” Would we hide that light because we have entered into the culture of slander, of stereotyping, of giving and seeking offense?”

  33. Thanks, Meg.

    Leo, I don’t have a faith crisis. I have worked over the years with many LDS groups, including FairMormon and the More Good Foundation. I probably have insights that many here do not have. I’ve worked with many people who deal with faith crises, helping some and seeing some fall away.

    As Meg and I noted, this book is for a specific audience. LDS Living liked it enough to give an excerpt. This op takes it out of context, and without any charity or reading the entire book, or discussing concerns first with the Givens, does a hatchet job.

  34. I was reading and appreciating Terryl Givens (Vipers on the Hearth) before 99% of his current audience knew he existed. But lately, I’ve found the Givens’ work annoying. They cherry-pick the data to arrive at their desired conclusions.

  35. There are a few things the Givenses have said in other contexts that seem to run uncomfortably close to a universalist, exaltation-for-everyone-eventually paradigm; and it would be interesting to see them flesh that perspective out a bit to see whether that’s really what they believe or whether I’m just being hyper-sensitive. But as it pertains to this particular work, I agree with others who note that the Givenses audience is non-Mormons and self-described intellectual Mormons who, in many ways, speak a very different language than what we tend to use in our orthodox LDS discourse. The Givenses are trying to write in that language, and I think we can afford to be a open to the possibility that maybe a few nuances are getting lost as we, orthodox Mormons, try to “re-translate” the Givenses back into Mormonese.

    For example, Michael Davidson, one thing I think maybe you miss is that while the Givenses do openly place the “abomination” language of the First Vision into its cultural milieu; they also seem careful to point out that that “culture” was a response to statements of Jesus Christ Himself as recorded in the New Testament. My read is that the Givenses aren’t denying that Jesus actually said what He said during the First Vision; they’re simply trying to soften His words for a modern audience and bridge the gap between past and present. (I’ll leave for another discussion, whether it is necessary or appropriate to “soften” the words of Jesus Christ Himself.)

    In a larger sense, I think the Givenses (and Steve, above) aren’t too far off the mark when they suggest that there is sort of a broad (though by no means universal) perception within Mormonism that human spirituality and divine inspiration were completely gone from the earth from the Great Apostasy to the Restoration; and that non-Mormons to this day still live in a sort of spiritual black hole. Sure, we’ll give some grudging and obligatory nods to the leading luminaries of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation; but a lot of us sort of do so with the presumption that those individuals were serving primarily as cogs in God’s master plan to lay the groundwork for the restoration, rather than viewing them as individuals pursuing spiritual paths that were both individually meaningful and, to some degree, divinely acknowledged. There are some reasonably authoritative LDS authors (James E. Talmage and Bruce R. McConkie readily come to mind) who, in their quest to remind us what a terrible thing the Great Apostasy was, dwell at length about the qualitative decay of the available truths and inspiration available during that period.

    Elder Talmage’s and Elder McConkie’s perspectives are important in reiterating that yes, there was a tragic loss of generally-available-truth and a deterioration in the spiritual light available and an absolute annihilation of priesthood authority that all resulted from the Great Apostasy. But I think the point the Givenses are trying to make is that we misapply Talmage and McConkie (and the Lord’s own statements during the First Vision) if we fall into the trap of using them to completely pooh-pooh the spirituality of medieval seekers like Julian of Norwich, or to dismiss the sincerity and spiritual journeys of modern seekers of truth who have not yet embraced Mormonism.

  36. I applaud those who have defended Terryl and Fiona Givens. This post is well off the mark, as others have rightly pointed out.

    I am not here to argue, but I am here to add my voice of support for Brother and Sister Givens. Their words and writings helped steady me when I experienced my own crisis of faith. I could add more, but what the others have written is sufficient for me.

  37. “Before you launch into your criticism, she said, you must first present the strongest case for the position you are opposing, one that the philosopher himself could accept.”

    Actually, this is almost exactly my beef with the Givenses. They don’t present the strongest case for the positions they are opposing.

  38. “As Gerald said, this post is terrible.”

    “Elevate your guns a little lower” for me but not for thee?

  39. Having read the book, the most charitable description I can give it is ‘the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.’ How intentional that mingling is could be debated, but the whole work seems to promote pseudo-univeralist ideas and contain subtle undermining of foundational claims of Christ’s gospel.

    I say this because my mother read the book in preparation for a fireside the Givenses were going to give in our Ward. She felt put off by it, and asked me to read it so she could have a second viewpoint to help her figure out why the book made her feel that way. The end result was chapter by chapter notes of several issues we had with the book and the way it presented itself.

    If my mother still has those notes I could give you several examples of what I am speaking of, but I don’t know if she kept them and I’d rather not slog through the Givens’ overly verbose writing style again for the sake of a blog comments section discussion. I’m just putting my own experience with the work in question out here.

    Then came the fireside. A significant portion of the audience were people who apparently follow them around from presentation to presentation, as they weren’t part of our ward and nobody in our ward knew who they were. When the time came for questions and answers the man they brought with them to direct the Q&A section favored those people, and they asked questions that seemed to be deliberately inflammatory. The Givenses answered these questions with pseudo-universalist answers, to which the people none of us knew applauded.

    The end result was a mess. Several sisters of the relief society came and talked to my mom about the book and the fireside because we have a reputation of being knowledgeable and holding strong testimonies. Fortunately the notes my mother and I had compiled helped other members of the ward put what was bothering them about the book and fireside into words.

    Unfortunately the Givens’ presentation caused the series of firesides the Bishopric had planned to be canceled. You see the Bishopric had lined up several different firesides over the next several months with the intention of helping people find answers to questions they may have. This was part of the Bishopric’s response to the rather abrupt and public apostasy of the Young Women’s President. One week she had seemed like a very stalwart and well liked member of the ward; the next she and her family were not coming to church, she was sending e-mails to members of the ward linking to anti-mormon lectures and asking to have her name removed from church records. (A few months later her husband and kids started coming back to church, as she had at that point left the family for a guy she had met at the gym).

    Anyways her rather dramatic departure prompted the Bishopric to line up a series of firesides to help members who might have been shaken by those events or the anti-mormon literature she hand sent several members of the ward. The Givens book and fireside were the first, and instead of strengthening the faith of the members it simply cause the Relief Society to question the Bishopric’s response.

    So while the Givens might be sincere in what they try to do it was defiantly the wrong thing for our ward. The fireside experience also means that I would not be surprised if they aren’t sincere and are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    I would say more but I have things I need to do today, and I’ve already spent too much time hashing this out. So I’ll stop my rambling and wish you all a pleasant week.

  40. Sift Green,

    A friend suggested that I read your comment and that it would perhaps make my day. Given the barrage of negativity (most of which can be summed up as “the Givens are nice and you are mean”), it is refreshing to see that some don’t disagree. But, I would rather that there was no cause to find fault with the writings of those ostensibly on the same team.

    Meg and JimD,

    You both suggest that I misunderstand what the Givens are saying due to the fact that I am not part of their target audience, and that I need to look at what they are saying from the point of view of those the piece is aimed at. On the one hand, I think that this is reasonable, and perhaps the Givens would have said something very different if they were addressing a faithful LDS audience. But on the other, at what point are we being dishonest if we are saying one thing to one audience and something different to another?

    I likewise don’t view this as a translation issue. Most of my life has been spent outside the mormon bubble, and I am pretty conversant there. To paraphrase a sometimes overused maxim, I find that the devil is often in the nuance. This seems to be a problem in the intellectual space, as there is a pressure to find a new way to frame an idea, a new way to answer a question. I can appreciate the desire to think in a novel way about one thing or another, but one can only take that so far without crossing into strange paths.

  41. Sift Green,

    I have been reading the Givens’ material for several years now, and part of me dreads each time I start one of their books or watch one of their presentations. That sense of dread comes from knowing that they are in the business of testing and challenging assumptions. The Crucible of Doubt is a great example of that. Most people who come through a faith crisis and emerge stronger do so by undergoing painful updates to their assumptions- assumptions about the nature of scripture, revelation, history, and other things that inform our faith. Meg’s comment addressed the nature of reality vs. memory, and that is a huge set of assumptions that affects how we view Church history and our own experiences.
    Again- updating our assumptions is really painful. Some people respond to that pain by scrapping their faith entirely, but the Givenses and any other commentators worth their salt will model the process of confronting that pain and turning it into growth.
    FYI, I have seen people lash out in angry rejection of the Church’s Gospel Topics Essays, the Mormons and Gays website, the Church’s stand on immigration, changes that the Church has made to the scriptures, the teaching of evolution in Church schools, and on and on. The fact that something makes us uncomfortable doesn’t have any bearing on its truth or its value.
    I’m sorry your ward’s experience with the Givenses didn’t go well, but as I and other commenters can attest, they have done an amazing amount of good for a lot of people.

  42. Mike,

    I don’t think you’re mean- you’re probably a fine person with very good intentions. I just think your post could have been better done with a different rhetorical strategy, something other than an angry reaction essay that assumes the worst about some wonderful people.

  43. Dan and others, I have heard several reports from friends that I trust about going to a Givens presentation and being confronted with dozens of people who are not local who are there in a role similar to groupies. (This phenomenon is described in the above comment from Sift Green). According to the reports I have heard, these people appear not to be active members of the Church but mostly people intent on moving the conversation back to questioning the Church’s truth claims. The universal response I have seen from people who told me about this is that the outsiders were mostly anti-Mormon or questioning Mormon and cheered the Givens for being one of them. My question is: are these reports exaggerated? Does this happen in all of the Givens’ presentations? Has anybody else experienced this, or is it an accident that I have heard about 3-4 presentations where this has happened?

    (To be clear, I am not blaming the Givens for the behavior of people going to their firesides. My question is: what is the truth of this supposed phenomenon?).

  44. I don’t know the Given’s personally, but I have now read most of their books, plus several that Terryl Givens wrote prior, such as “By the Hand of Mormon,” a great overview of our signature scripture. It would have been easier to respond to Mike Davidson’s analysis of “The Crucible of Doubt” had he used less inflammatory language, such as calling them apostates, and accusing them of trying to undermine the First Vision.

    The Givens’ books written together were directed to the general Deseret Book customer base, faithful members who normally would not want to read a book from Signature Books, Oxford University Press, or Kofford Books. But they were also written to broaden the understanding of the background and history of our theology and doctrine for those looking for a more contextual view. Where they have stepped into speculative waters, such as the Universalist elements that Mike seemed so upset about, they have clearly stated that while some of our latter day prophets have taught similarly, others have also disagreed.

    Different people learn in different ways; not all of us conduct our scripture study in the same manner. I applaud the Givens for what they are trying to accomplish, but I also recognize that not all will respond the same way. I have had the misfortune to know members of the church and my family that have reacted badly to some of the new openness and transparency of our history. Yet I have read and seen the same things, and it has not affected me or my testimony. We don’t all react the same way to the same things, and we don’t all learn or progress at the same rate.

    Your mileage may vary, but I have found the Given’s work to be very helpful to me.

  45. Geoff B.,

    I’m involved in the Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies at UVA and I have a strong interest in scripture scholarship, and those interests have led to my being present with the Givenses at numerous events over the past few years. I’ve never seen what you described, but that doesn’t mean it does not happen, especially in settings like the Intermountain West where the larger concentrations of Church members means that there are also larger numbers of extreme personalities within driving distance of events.
    Most criticisms of Terryl and Fiona that I see are from the Church’s vocal detractors, who often claim that the Givenses are too apologetic.

    Atheists to the left of me, fundamentalists to the right…

  46. It makes me sad every time I see Church members attack other Church members over doctrinal disagreements or differences of interpretation. Instead of engaging with particular claims charitably, with an eye toward greater understanding, the discussion is frequently elevated to existential levels with implicit judgments being leveled about those who are being criticized.

    As others have already pointed out, this post misrepresents several aspects of the Givens’s perspective. There’s a feeling here of “digging a pit” for one’s neighbor. I’m gladdened to see others come to the defense of the Givens’s here.

    Incidentally, I recently attended a fireside given by the Givens’s in Portland, Oregon. Nothing like what Geoff B. described above occurred at that event. It was a very positive experience.

    I don’t agree with everything the Givens’s write, but I know Terryl and Fiona personally and the fact that I don’t always agree with them has made our acquaintance even more interesting and fruitful.

    Let’s do better than this.

  47. BHodges and others, I have seen an unfortunate number of comments so far that can be summarized as “the Givens are good people — stop criticizing them.” Based on what I can see, I think most people would agree they are good people. That is not really the issue. The OP makes some specific claims about the excerpt from their book. I would really encourage critical commenters to concentrate on rebutting those claims.

    As for the tone of the OP, I would agree with commenters that some of it was pretty harsh, and it has been edited already to delete some of the harshest passages.

    So, can we get back to rebutting the specific claims made in the OP (or supporting those claims?).


  48. Hi Geoff. My comment actually can’t be summed up as “the Givens are good people — stop criticizing them.” My comment was more along the lines of “discussing ideas and doctrines and disagreeing about them can be an enlightening and useful exercise, but this post goes beyond that by making things more personal and by implying that the Givens’s are a danger to the church, and as such, this post is another example of needless ‘friendly fire.'”

    So yes, stop criticizing them. Feel free to analyze and challenge their ideas, though. Do it with charity and with the recognition that they share our faith. Not that they or you must repent or leave.

    It’s easy to detect contempt toward “academics” or “intellectuals” in this post, which makes things personal. It would be just as inappropriate, I believe, for a Church member to write a post attacking the “uneducated” or “yokels” or something like that. Rather than contempt, we can practice charity. If we don’t “speak the truth in love” then it isn’t the truth. True things become untrue when we speak them without the spirit of truth, as the Doctrine & Covenants suggests.

  49. One assumption running through the criticism of the Givens is that neither God nor his prophets ever engage in hyperbolic language. Thus, the ‘harsh’ language of the First Vision must be either absolutely true or a lie. With that in mind, it’s interesting to compare a couple of Joseph’s accounts. In the 1832 version, Joseph reports the Lord saying, ” the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good no not one…” Must we either believe that literally not a single person was doing good in 1820 (including Joseph, his family, and those who would become the first generation of Saints), or that the statement is a lie? By contrast, the 1842 “Wentworth letter” states, “They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.” That language is certainly more diplomatic.

    I think that a more charitable way to read the Givens is that they are essentially engaging in a reductio ad absurdum by pointing out that there is a mismatch between the language of some First Vision accounts and inclusive LDS doctrines concerning salvation and truth. Why is there a mismatch? Because of misunderstanding on both sides of the equation. On the one hand, the rhetoric of the First Vision wasn’t intended to be interpreted in such a maximalist way. Such rhetoric was the order of the day. Our culture is different from Joseph’s, so such language seems overly harsh (or hyperbolic) to us and lends itself to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. On the other hand, some people misunderstand our beliefs about salvation and truth. If you dial back the rhetoric of the First Vision to the level of the Wentworth Letter, and understand the inclusiveness of LDS doctrine relative to some of our religious peers, we don’t seem as provincial and narrow. That, I think, is the point they are trying to make.

  50. Mike, the issue isn’t that you’re “mean.” The issue is that you’re wrong.

    This is not a matter of opinion – you have made several factual errors and made assertions that are demonstrably incorrect, beginning with your headline that the Givenses have mounted an “attack on the First Vision” when they have not.

    Arguing over whether or not you’re a meanie is an ad hominem waste of time. I’m happy to assume the best about you personally, that you’re nice to children and puppies, and that you don’t can peaches on Sunday. None of that makes you any less wrong.

  51. In general, attacking the Givens is a bad idea.

    In general, not acknowledging the problem as seen by a significant amount of people or at least attempting to be understand does not bode well. Many people are willing to listen to the Givens because of this acknowledgement/understanding.

    Specific gripe, “This is among the most basic teachings of the Church.” This is in reference the the Plan of Salvation. While this is the current teaching, this has not always been the case. I have myself seen a slide away from the McConkie version of the plan of salvation. I remember reading the Preach my Gospel manual the first time and its emphasis Spirit Prison is not a specific place, but more of state of mind.
    For a more exhaustive list of the different strands of the Plan of Salvation taught over time,

  52. Jim Bennett, The Crucible of Doubt also gets things wrong, or at the very least presents information in a wrong way. In the chapter where it talks about how the scriptures aren’t inerrant they give two proverbs as an example: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him” and “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” The chapter presents these two proverbs as inherently contradictory and proof of scripture’s fallibility.

    However, the two proverbs are presented without chapter or verse citation. They are verses five and six of chapter twenty-six. In other words they are not only right next to each other, but the deliberate contrast makes them the same proverb.

    At the same time the majority of quotes they use from church leaders are normally cut into misinterpretable soundbites while quotes from nonmembers are given in full with context.

    It’s little misrepresentations like that which make me see the book’s central theme as promoting the ideas of personal revelation at the expense of the watchmen the Lord has set upon the tower and the rod of iron that marks the path. It doesn’t help that their presentation of personal revelation is something nebulous enough that one could misconstrue ones own thoughts as the more sure word of prophecy.

    In other words the book gives the impression that one should rely solely on personal revelation and ignore the other two great supports of faith (the authority of the prophets/scripture and church attendance {as the chapter about church can give the impression it is optional}).

    That, combined with their writing stile causing them to say very little with a lot of words, means I cannot recommend this book to anyone having a genuine crisis of faith.

  53. Sift, I’m not arguing for a doctrine of Givens infallibility. If you, Mike, or anyone else wants to have a discussion about where you disagree with either or both Givens, that’s fine by me. My problem is that this article is titled “the Givens attack on the First Vision” when there has not been a Givens attack on the First Vision. Everything else that follows proceeds from a false premise.

  54. Hi Mike,

    I agree with God that the creeds of the religions prior to the restoration were an abomination that would have us believe that God was willing to damn billions of individuals, individuals those creeds did not even consider to be children of God.

    That said, I don’t think God is reported to have said that those living in that time of doctrinal darkness are themselves abominable or irredeemable. Yet I do know that a wise and objective ethnographer picked up exactly the “all are damned but we Mormons who get baptized in life” mentality during her observation of a Mormon family at Church, an ethnographic observation she then shared at the keynote at MHA in 2016. I undoubtedly made a notable ass of myself when I tried to explain to this ethnographer that her subjects had completely misunderstood Mormon doctrine.

    I suspect that is why the Givenses snubbed me the only time I have interacted with them in person. Because I had just made an ass of myself in a large assembly of their peers by being somewhat combative with the non-Mormon keynote speaker (who was ill and doing her address from England).

    I haven’t had the pleasure of attending any of the Givenses speaking engagements as prior engagements or illness have always intervened. Whether I agree with a speaker or not, I always regard such interactions as a pleasure. It remains to be seen whether the speakers regard the post-speech interaction with me to be a pleasure.

  55. I wonder if the reason some of the more rigidly orthodox following this forum are bothered by Givens’ writings are that it makes them confront rational reasoning that appears to contradict some of their current beliefs about things–that maybe things aren’t as black and white as they thought they were. Uncertainty has not been part of their psyche and they may feel uncomfortable when reading Givens and feel it is the D&C 9 interpretation of a stupor of thought indicating a wrong notion or erroneous teachings, when it might rather be personal discomfort when long held notions now appear to be incorrect. Rather than face these head on until clarity is obtained they may retreat from their further consideration and even avoid the genre altogether.
    What the Givens are doing in my view, is to open up thinking–giving readers the license to think outside the small box of historical and ecclesiastical inerrancy and one-only interpretation. Of course, this line of thinking has its risks since one can go beyond the truth of legitimate nuance into cynical criticism, losing one’s faith in the restoration rather than growing it.
    A problem arises for those whose minds and hearts work in certain ways such that they value rational reasoning—not necessarily above spiritual or internal feelings, but reasoning is important to them—they can’t easily discount clear reason. So, when they are confronted with what appears to be quite reliable information that causes them angst and contradicts what they see elsewhere in their religious world, they need to make sense of it; they can’t ignore it. Either the new contrary information is not valid or the interpretation is wrong, or the previous information it contradicts is invalid or the interpretation of it is wrong. So, to keep from abandoning belief they look for ways to reconcile things. All options are on the table, including just have faith and wait or table it. What parts of the puzzle can adjust in order to maintain belief? If their confidence in the new information is high, they will likely look for ways to deal with the previous information. One way to loosen things up and allow the pieces to fit is to let go of historical and ecclesiastical inerrancy and one-only interpretation since in their minds now, that seems kind of silly anyway and it wasn’t really formally taught–it was just a pervasive cultural norm.
    What the Givens have done is offered new paradigms of thinking that resonate to many and allow them to make adjustments that are reasonable and allow belief and faith to continue. They are not asking anyone to believe a lie, or to discount any truth. They are just saying, “Are you certain of that paradigm? If not, then let’s evaluate how we may be able to formulate a more accurate paradigm and in so doing maintain belief and faith in the restoration truth claims without ignoring patent facts.”

  56. Mike Davidson, that fact that you have “not been persuaded” is irrelevant to the fact that you are factually in error. If I believe the sky is green, my refusal to acknowledge reality does not make it blue.

  57. Actually Jim, violet light waves is what is scattered across most of the sky, but our retina is biased to over emphasize blue because the red and green retinal cone cells are also stimulated by blue waves.

    So, by comparison, some people read an argument and their rational response is triggered by certain aspects of an argument while downplaying others.

    In general I agree that too many intellectual members are more willing to create space for doubts over space for McConkie. I see more novel uses of the intellect to disagree with traditional LDS perspectives. And that’s precisely because those types of commentators have found the traditional LDS perspective wanting.

    And finally, if the entire foundation for someone’s comment or writing is because they’ve interpreted my faith as wanting, shouldn’t I react negatively to that?

  58. If your cone cells are triggered more by the green light on the sky sure. Or if your perspective and viewing angle is one of an astronaut you’ve seen the green air surrounding the Earth.

    Some of you’ve, likewise, have been triggered by this post or have a perspective that plants you against traditional viewpoints.

    What triggers me is seeing more novel uses of the intellect to disagree with traditional LDS perspectives than supporting the traditional church.

    In many cases it’s nothing more than modern day Rigdonites persuading others within the church that their powers of observation and interpretations of evidence is what we should be following instead of the FP or Q12.

  59. RGB: What does “traditional LDS perspectives” mean? The BofM has strong counsel for and against traditions. We are counseled to accept truth and shed error. If that means some of our LDS traditions, under scrutiny, are found to be in error or inaccurate based on current prophetic statements or unequivocal rational reasoning or experience, then we should adjust or jettison them. One of those was being illuminated by the Givens, i.e., a 100% literal reading of some of the 1838 first vision narrative, since it is indefensible in light of both reason and later prophetic voices.

    The problem with some of the commenters on this post is they appear to think that anyone disagreeing with “their” interpretation of things means the person is not following the FP or Q12. That seems to be their fallback maybe because their reason and evidence is not well supported. They are most concerned with who may have said something and give little weight to the efficacy and implication of the statement itself. But, that’s beside the point on this issue because the FP or Q12 haven’t stated “all” (without an exception), the creeds and people are an abomination, but rather to the contrary, as has been quoted in previous comments.

  60. Late to the party but interesting to note that in the newly published church history, Saints, there is no talk of “abomination” or them all being “corrupt”:

    Joseph looked into the face of Jesus Christ. It was as bright and glorious as the Father’s.
    “Joseph,” the Savior said, “thy sins are forgiven.”
    His burden lifted, Joseph repeated his question: “What church shall I join?”
    “Join none of them,” the Savior told him. “They teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
    The Lord told Joseph that the world was steeped in sin. “None doeth good,” He explained. “They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments.” Sacred truths had been lost or corrupted, but He promised to reveal the fullness of His gospel to Joseph in the future.
    As the Savior spoke, Joseph saw hosts of angels, and the light around them blazed brighter than the noonday sun. “Behold, and lo, I come quickly,” the Lord said, “clothed in the glory of My Father.”

    Wonder why when we have a canonised version the church itself favours other accounts where the language is not as “strong” or “harsh”?

  61. Mormons believe in the Christianity of the New Testament era. Catholics and Protestants believe in Fourth Century Creedal Christianity. Here are the differences:

    1. Baptism by immersion by the father (who has the authority) of the family
    2. Lay clergy
    3. Baptism by proxy for deceased ancestors
    4. God and Jesus organized the world, rather than creatio ex nihilo.
    5. Belief in a tripartite anthropomorphic Godhead
    6. Belief in theosis or divinization (that faithful Christians can acquire god-like attributes). All the Christian fathers of the first two centuries believed in theosis, as well as 1., 2., 3., 4., 5.
    7. Belief in sacred esoteric ordinances which allow faithful Christians to ascend to the highest heaven. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, administered these ordinances until 350 AD.
    8. Belief in Eternal Marriage, as recorded in the Book of the Apostle Philip.
    Would it have been possible to modify Creedal Christianity to revert to the New Testament Christianity? I think not. The “abomination” appellation is justified.

  62. KarlS,
    The general authorities are not modern day Pharisees. They and we aren’t following the foolish tradditions of our fathers.

    And it came to pass that whosoever would not believe in the tradition of the Lamanites, but believed those records which were brought out of the land of Jerusalem, and also in the tradition of their fathers, which were correct, who believed in the commandments of God and kept them, were called the Nephites.

    You don’t have to support traditional LDS apostolic teaching. It’s perfectly reasonable and rational to adopt some of the progressive viewpoints.

    Dangerously generationally catastrophically wrong, but I can see why it’s so tempting to do so.

    My point isn’t that Givens are bad. I doubt that. I’ve bought their books like many. But I’m starting to get uncomfortable with all these counter culture attempts with the church.

    The problem isn’t that we’ve been being Mormon too hard — we’re not being Mormon enough.

  63. Rgb, You said, “You don’t have to support traditional LDS apostolic teaching. It’s perfectly reasonable and rational to adopt some of the progressive viewpoints.” For the particular issue at hand (implications of 1st vision wording on other churches) the “traditional” apostolic teaching (if that means in 20th century and before) and more so the interpretations and applications by rank and file members are not consistent with interpretation and emphasis of current apostolic teachings and the newly published history of the Church as mentioned by Benk above. So, it appears that you, not the Givens are incongruent with the current Church. I recognize that you can’t see that and that my post will only start another round of discussion by two people (you and me) who hopefully have each learned something from each other, but who each have probably exhausted their abilities to concede further. I appreciate your heartfelt concern to keep false doctrine from creeping in, but don’t agree with your position.

  64. By the way, my husband and I have been reading the Givenses’ recent book The Christ Who Heals, which so far is very pro-restoration in a way that aligns with my thoughts. I particularly like how in that book they explain why pre-restoration Christianity had become so catastrophically broken, even though the people were wonderful enough. When I’ve got the book in front of me, I’ll cite the particular passage that states in more elegant words the point I was making above about why it wasn’t inappropriate for the God of Joseph Smith’s First Vision to state the creeds were an abomination.

  65. to cross post a point here…

    Has it occurred to anyone here that in JSH 1:19, “for they were all wrong” that the “all” modifies “they” not “wrong”?

    Would it have been more clear if he had written “they all were wrong” ?

    Could this have been a grammar error on the part of Joseph or one of his scribes? Or was he in fact using correct Early Modern English, or proper English of his day, and we are parsing it according to more recent usage?

    “all their creeds” is clear. (The _creeds_ were an abomination. Did JS ever say people were? Not that I know of.)

    “those professors were all corrupt”, again, is ambiguous. “All ” could modify professors or corrupt.

    In formal speech “all” could apply to the subject/antecedent.

    My understanding is that “all wrong”, meaning 100% wrong, is a more modern construct.

    Can any linguists chime in?

  66. “Foi-me respondido que não me unisse a qualquer delas, pois estavam todas erradas; e o Personagem que se dirigia a mim disse que todos os seus credos eram uma abominação a sua vista; que aqueles religiosos eram todos corruptos; que “eles se aproximam de mim com os lábios, mas seu coração está longe de mim; ensinam como doutrina os mandamentos de homens, tendo aparência de religiosidade, mas negam o seu poder.”

    In portuguese, “they were all wrong” is translated as “pois estavam todas erradas”.

    ‘Todas’ is feminine, which refers to ‘seitas’ (a feminine word in portuguese for ‘sects’). Thus, in the portuguese translation, the sentence ‘they were all wrong’ does indeed refer to ‘sects’ (they) and not “erradas” (wrong).

    This is also corroborated by verse 18, which states “(pois até aquele momento jamais me ocorrera que todas estivessem erradas)”, where ‘todas’ refers once more to ‘seitas’.

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