The Story John Told You

Jacob Z. Hess

This is the third of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger” (see earlier essays on attachment injury and the pain of separation from the Saints).

When a dear friend stepped away from the Church a few years back, she cited what she called “historicity” concerns laid bare after listening to a podcast called Mormon Stories hosted by John Dehlin.

I was surprised (and not surprised) that she had taken John’s insights as uniquely trustworthy and objective, including in his challenge to core teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the beginning, many found John’s casual, ball-cap-wearing style disarming – with large numbers over the years placing confidence in him as a reliable guide in more carefully investigating some of the central claims of their faith.

One interview at a time, John’s podcast gained popularity for parsing through little-discussed historical moments with keen interest, like a brave archeologist sifting through the fragments of the past in search of the full truth.  That ongoing examination was positioned as a free-thinking, but fair-minded inquiry – independent of any other agenda but knowing the facts.[1] 

As a result, people came to relate to the podcast as a way to really scrutinize the evidence – beyond the positive prejudice that infected those of us not-so-affectionately called “True Believing Mormons.”   

Putting it on the shelf. With each passing interview John conducted, the worrisome evidence piled up. Taking up a metaphor once used by Camilla Kimball in the context of preserving faith,[2] John and his followers would subsequently, dutifully try to put certain historical wonderings “on the shelf.” But after so many explorations over time, and so many concerns arising, many ultimately described a substantial internal shift taking place:   

  1. At some point, the evidence of concern became so compelling that the shelf would “break” under the sheer empirical weight.
  2. In that moment,they would often simultaneously conclude it must all be false, and Church leaders must have been lying to them.   

That dual motif, so often recounted on the Mormon Stories podcast, is the central part of what I’m calling John’s Story – the narrative he’s personally shared with the world over the last decade.[3]

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Today I met a new brother, recently moved into our congregation. [Actually, I met several new brothers (and sisters), recently moved into our congregation.] As we often have since January, we used the hour after the end of formal meetings to chat with one another.

This brother, who suffered near-fatal injuries in Afghanistan, spoke of the miracles that had occurred in his life. He shared of a day after his injury when he was broken, in pain, angry at everyone and everything. In his pain and anger, he had quarreled with a fellow patient, a quarrel that led to murderous blows. He had wholly given up on himself and anything he had learned since his baptism as a child convert about religion and forbearance and forgiveness. The rest of that day was expected to go on without love or concern, just pain and anguish.

As visiting hours began, this brother headed to the back of the facility. As he passed through a doorway, the fellow he’d quarreled with was coming the other way.

“Where’re you going?!” he demanded.

“Some Elders from my Church are here. My Bishop gave them permission so I can have the sacrament.”

All hostility faded away.

“Um… Could I join you?”

I’m sure words conveyed something about the brother’s baptism many years earlier, and his willingness to renew that covenant. So in less than eight hours he’d gone from actively trying to murder a fellow patient to humbly partaking of the sacrament side by side with that same patient.

A miracle.

My new friend shared that one of his favorite talks is Matthew Cowley’s 1953 talk on miracles, which this brother listens to regularly. I recommend the talk to you. As Elder Crowley relates, he was advised early in his ministry that he was always to speak as inspired by God.

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