What the LDS Church Really Says about Reading Anti-Mormon Literature

flier-clipart-ar130411564061063Those members less inclined to know the history of the LDS Church, especially the more complicated parts, express concerns that they were told to keep away from reading non-faithful material. They claim to have been taught to always turn to Church sanctioned material only and avoid non or anti-Mormon literature. No doubt there has been warnings of the harmful effects of the less than official sources, but an outright ban is a misreading of many lessons taught. The message isn’t always clear because opinions on just how to approach anti-Mormonism is mixed. There is no one single set of standards how to engage or respond. What is consistent over the years is the warning and how to be careful.

Learning is an essential part of growing in the Kingdom of God. The subject matter that we should focus on is very wide. We read in Doctrine and Covenants 88: 77-80 how open:

77 And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.

78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;

79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—

80 That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.

Taken in its literal reading, there is nothing to be avoided in pursuit of truth. Of course, that doesn’t mean everything we learn about is true. Discernment is part of gaining the wisdom necessary for spiritual and intellectual growth. It is the line between reading and analyzing that the LDS Church wants the members to recognize.

When I first paid attention to my own faith, the questions were almost overwhelming. My heart had already decided that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and the LDS Church the authorized organization for the Kingdom of God. My teenage intellectual side was not so willing to leave it alone just because the Spirit spoke peace to my soul. I wanted to understand. Knowing my father was a history teacher, he would be the primary person I would go to when I had questions to find answers. For a short time he put up with my pestering and helped.

One day he must have been too busy or felt tired of my constant questions. He looked at me and then pointed his fingers at a bookshelf. I come from a reading family. My house growing up was filled with books and even now my home contains a few full bookshelves. His message was clear; go do your own research. Most of our books were faithful, but I did run into an anti-Mormon pamphlet tucked away that troubled me. However, it was not what it taught that bothered me, but that I had read the material quoted and found it out of context and a false interpretation. From then on I knew there would always be more than one side of the story and therefore should not fear discussion of them all.

Sadly, too many don’t go beyond church material because of a false idea nothing else is acceptable. When they do decide to read other literature it is a surprise to them, often spiritually damaging because of a self imposed ban. It becomes more complicated because they haven’t learned to check the sources or counter responses. All of this built on a misunderstanding through mistaken interpretations of what the Church teaches about learning outside official publications.

What the LDS Church, through official publications, has taught is fairly consistent through the years. Lets compare a New Era Magazine question from May 1973 to a more recent July 2007 question and answer section. Both of them ask what to do when confronted by anti-Mormon literature. I will admit that a majority of responses by members who responded gave the advice to avoid it altogether. However, not all of them were so quick to dismiss. Probably the best one from a member came in the 1973 answer, as Toni explained he asked his mother if he should read some anti-Mormon literature. She told him, “my testimony and understanding of the gospel, although good, were not strong enough or great enough not to be shaken by that sort of literature. She told me that when I gained a greater knowledge and understanding of the gospel, I could read it and see the flaws in it . . . ” Much later he did read it, and said of the advice from his mother, “When discussing this with my mother recently, she made this statement: ‘We never need to be afraid to read anything, but we need to be better prepared to read some things.’ Sometimes it’s astonishing what good counsel parents can give us.” The point is that among all the statements not to even consider reading the material, there was printed one that allowed for it to be read in time.

Members who responded in the July 2007 Q&A were not as willing to express the possibility of reading the anti-literature. That didn’t stop the editorial comment from expressing some confidence it could be done with some bullet points of advice. After saying to tell the friend you aren’t interested, if its decided to read it, “Never take anti-Mormon literature at face value,” and “Honest inquiry is good, but everything needs a proper perspective and context.” This is continued later on:

We’re not against honest inquiry in the Church. We welcome it. The Apostle Paul said, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may” (History of the Church, 5:499). As we search for truth in Church teachings and history, we should remember that it is faith in Christ that helps us to “lay hold upon every good thing” (see Moroni 7:15–25). And we should keep everything in its proper perspective and context.

Going back to the May 1973 Question and Answers, another New Era issue had perhaps one of the few negative feedback letters printed by the magazine. Elder Ken Black serving in Bolivia wrote:

I was rather upset at the published responses in the “If This Happened Tomorrow—What Would You Do?” department of the May New Era. I doubt that those published were a true cross section of the responses you received. Why was nothing printed expressing the positive side of reading anti-Mormon literature? I have read such literature, some even before I had a testimony, and without fail my testimony (or belief) was strengthened. I gained better insight into the gospel, and I was convinced more than ever that no other Church could possibly be true or be led by prophecy. Besides, if a person really has a testimony, is that testimony not stronger than intellectual arguments, apparent doctrinal contradiction and error, or even heavenly visitations?

Most likely it was a good cross section of member opinions, but they were not completely correct. More surprisingly is that this letter was printed at all in an official LDS Church magazine. That should be an indication that “don’t read anti-Mormon or non-official literature” is not an official position that is held. There is some irony in all this for those who are open to recognize such things.

Speaking of getting to the real official position on reading and discussing difficult Mormon history and doctrine, the Ensign posted in January 1995 a good response in yet another Question and Answer section. What Gilbert W. Scharffs wrote would make what could be said here redundant. Some quotes are best representative:

Today, as in President Young’s day, General Authorities usually do not comment on negative information about the Church. Their responsibility is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their primary work is to “bear testimony of the restoration of the gospel and that Jesus is the Christ” (Church News, 18 Dec. 1983, p. 2). They know, as the Lord revealed to Isaiah, that “no weapon formed against thee shall prosper” (Isa. 54:17).

However, when the occasion requires a response, Church leaders do answer specific critics and criticisms in order to set the record straight. Latter-day Saint doctrines and practices are not on trial. Gospel principles are God-given eternal truths that bless faithful members and the world at large.

After quoting President Benson and Elder Carlos E. Asay’s warning to not purchase anti-Mormon literature, Scharffs writes:

Such advice must not be interpreted to mean that the Church is against honest scholarship or has anything to fear or hide. Nor does the Church ban literature, but Latter-day Saints should be wise in choosing what to read.

This cautionary counsel should not be misconstrued to justify laziness on our part in seeking answers, or giving glib, superficial replies when someone sincerely wants to know the truth after being exposed to anti-LDS material. Church critics and enemies should not be permitted to make what Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve has sometimes called “uncontested slam dunks.”

The Church encourages gospel scholarship and the search for truth. “Fundamental to our theology is belief in individual freedom of inquiry, thought, and expression. Constructive discussion is a privilege of every Latter-day Saint,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley of the First Presidency (Ensign, Sept. 1985, p. 6).

In a New Era article from April 1986 titled “H.O.G.M.E.T.”, Brad Wilcox explains how to deal with anti-Mormonism. Each of the letters stand for a question while reading the material. They are a check for hearsay, out of context, generalizations, mudslinging, exaggeration, and truth. He laments upon hearing a student come with concern about books she was reading, “How many reading assignments had I given in the last month which had gone unfulfilled by my whole class? I had to turn cartwheels to even get these kids to skim the scriptures, and here this girl was reading entire books of her friend’s anti-Mormon publications.” Many times its easier to accept the criticisms instead of doing the real work of deeper research, and that seems to be where many stumble the most. The easy and popular answers are more acceptable than nuanced and careful pondering and study. They are always learning and seldom reading the Scriptures, living the Commandments, and praying. The real warning about anti-Mormon literature that the LDS Church teaches is that members are minimally preparing themselves spiritually for discernment.

The final thoughts come from the June 2013 Ensign with an article by Elder Steven E. Snow, who wrote about the intersection of Church history and testimony (emphasis added):

Certainly, the world has changed in the last generation or two. The Internet has put all kinds of information at our fingertips—good, bad, truthful, untruthful—including information on Church history. You can read a great deal about our history, but it’s important to read about it and understand it in context. The difficulty with some information online is that it’s out of context and you don’t really see the whole picture.

Information that tries to embarrass the Church is generally very subjective and unfair. We should seek sources that more objectively describe our beliefs and our history. Some websites are very mean-spirited and can be sensational in how they present the information. Look for sources by recognized and respected historians, whether they’re members of the Church or not.

Still convinced that the LDS Church teaches no outside the official sources should be read about history and doctrine? No problem. There is a publication called BYU Studies that has a lot of great information to read and consider. It comes from Brigham Young University, the official church school. Despite some controversy, there is also Neal A. Maxwell Institute that comes from the same place. It even has the name of an Apostle attached. Sorry for the snarky ending, but too many who complain that serious issues are ignored pretend these never existed.

13 thoughts on “What the LDS Church Really Says about Reading Anti-Mormon Literature

  1. I teach SS to the 14-15 year olds. We started last week and today finished reading Moses 1, asking questions verse by verse to see what it teaches us about what kind of a being is our Father in Heaven, and upon knowing that, what kind of beings are we. One part we lingered on dealt with the calling of Moses as a Prophet. Part of my handout I cut and pasted below:

    25 “And calling upon the name of God, he beheld his glory again, for it was upon him; and he heard a voice, saying: Blessed art thou, Moses, for I, the Almighty, have chosen thee, and thou shalt be made stronger than many waters; for they shall obey thy command as if thou wert God.”

    Why did Moses become a Prophet? Is it because he was the most sanctimonious of his neighborhood? Is it because he was the “best person” (as we think of it) on the earth at the time?
    (Moses had even killed a man back in Egypt and now he had been shepherding sheep in the middle of the desert for 40 years. Many of his faults will become manifest later on.)
    Why, then, did Moses become a Prophet? Only, only, only, only…one and just one single answer:
    Because “I, the Almighty, have chosen thee.”
    It doesn’t matter what the fallibilities, weaknesses, and faults of any Prophet or Apostle have been. God chooses them, not us. Three of the greatest Prophets have even had speech impediments! Moses and Enoch were both “slow of speech.” Joseph Smith spoke with a slight lisp or whistle (after he lost part of a tooth from the mob being tarred and feathered one night in Kirtland). Joseph and other early church leaders were referred to as “weak & simple.” (D&C 1).
    How many people who have ever been born upon planet earth have never had to struggle to live God’s commandments?
    0 (Zero)
    How many people who have ever been born upon planet earth have never failed repeatedly in their struggle to live God’s commandments?
    1 (One)

    (The loss of graphics from the cut and paste takes out some of the impact.) I think the best single effort that can be made to keep us on the right path and at the same time to be forgiving of others as people (including Apostles and Prophets) and to be gentle with institutions is a careful, daily, constant, repetitive, and close reading of the scriptures: ALL of THEM!

  2. I must admit I haven’t read Fawn Brodie’s book yet. If I limit myself to a mere handful of expletives per unit time, I suppose it will take me a long time to get through her psychobiography of Joseph Smith.

    The people who advise others to completely avoid non-Mormon literature are frequently those who don’t know how to deal with such material themselves. They are like one man I knew, who for a period of time was unable to read the Tribune, which reading had previously formed all his opinions. After finishing the Deseret News one day, he put the paper down and said, “I don’t know what to believe…”

    Critical thinking is a skill, a skill too many are incapable of performing. Such people can be right, much as a broken analog clock can be right two times a day. But I do adore it when people demonstrate that they are capable of critical thought and honest scholarly dialogue.

  3. “I must admit I haven’t read Fawn Brodie’s book yet. If I limit myself to a mere handful of expletives per unit time, I suppose it will take me a long time to get through her psychobiography of Joseph Smith.”

    I would suggest reading it like a novel that used source material to develop the plot. Makes it much more tolerable, if not equally problematic. The great thing is that, other than a few obscure newspapers and letters, she uses material that pro-Mormons quote and interpret. For the most part not that hard to follow where she misreads and picks and chooses for her own purposes. Like almost all biographies on Joseph Smith she would have a slim book without the Doctrine and Covenants, History of Joseph Smith volumes, and Journal of Discourses that comprise most of information. That some still take her seriously is a black mark on scholarship.

  4. When I joined the Church at 16 and soon discovered Hugh Nibley, I had some warn me about studying His stuff!

    As it is, we need to inoculate our kids against wrong teachings, both in and out of the Church. I had a friend, whose son went to MIT for one year, and then planned on going on a mission. Sadly, his family taught him that the earth is only 6000 years old, and when a professor at MIT showed him how that was wrong, he suddenly had a faith crisis, and has been inactive for the last 20 years. Sad, because the Church does not require a young earth.

    We need to teach our members what the real and true doctrines are, and that they are just a handful. We have lots of teachings, but they are not necessarily core doctrines that are unchangeable, or even true. I believe most are, but many are speculative, at best. Today in high priest group, the teacher tried saying that two plans were presented for us to vote on. Yikes!!! There was only ONE plan presented, and the only question was “Whom shall I send?” and whether we would sustain Jesus as the Chosen One? (Abr 3)

    If we inoculate ourselves, which includes learning critical thinking, we can better discern truth from error. It does not matter if our prophets make mistakes, as we still know they are called of God. Faith is then based upon true concepts and core doctrines, and so the other stuff cannot shake us away from our faith.

    Good post, jettboy.

  5. I knew a man, at the time a member of the stake presidency, who was introduced to the Church by anti-Mormon material. He wondered why the various authors were so angry and investigated further until he gained a testimony and contacted the missionaries. On the other hand, for those who are vulnerable for various reasons, such things can be truly toxic. I consider it wise to inoculate young people by letting them know what is being said and pointing out the errors. Scott Gordon did a good job of explaining apologetics in the Fair newsletter this month. To some extent we must all practice apologetics, being able and willing to make a scholarly defense of our religion. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it can’t be disdained by apostates.

  6. In doing some research recently into the popularity of various texts, I found that Fawn Brodie’s book is still by far the most ordered on Amazon (when it comes to Mormon Polygamy). So I suppose I shall have to peruse the pages some day. I don’t figure there’s anything in her writings that hasn’t been more credibly addressed by Compton, Hales, and Bushman.

    It’s just that when I get upset, I start swearing (expletives like “bovine excrement!!!” or synonyms) and this distresses my family. Hence why I haven’t bothered perusing Ms. Brodie’s text prior to now.

    As it is, there was a fine fellow at the Untold Stories Symposium who is writing a book giving psycho-biographies of several Illinois utopians, including Joseph Smith. His assessment of Joseph is that he suffered from Narcissism. As my husband read through the reasons this fine fellow considers Joseph a narcissist, I took strong exception to many of his reasons, which were largely based on the embroidered “truth” Bennett told, reiterated and expanded by Brodie.

  7. “When I joined the Church at 16 and soon discovered Hugh Nibley, I had some warn me about studying His stuff!”

    Nibley is usually a wonderful read, but I’m not prepared to elevate him to divinity yet.


  8. Kent, Nibley’s stuff is interesting but also frequently dated. Also he has a tendency to go down tangents and not focus on things too well. Don’t get me wrong I really enjoy reading his stuff but newer stuff on the same topics is usually better to read.

    I also find some of his political stuff a bit much even if some of the points need made.

    Anyway I’d probably caution people about going out and buying Nibley too. Read some of the stuff from the Maxwell Institute but do so realizing scholarship has definitely improved since then.

    Pat, I’ve no idea if it is still true, but it used to be the case that Evangelicals doing anti-Mormon preaching in areas with enough members actually increased baptisms rather than decreasing it. They had their best luck in areas where most people had no contact with Mormons so they could freely demagogue them. However if people knew Mormons they’d think something was up. I imagine the anti-Mormon materials would then lead people to talk about the Church with their Mormon friends – a perfect missionary moment.

    Things may be different now that the anti-Mormon stuff tends to be done more impersonally through the internet.

  9. Ok: this seems to be my day for learning how to post comments.
    I made a reply to Meg’s “Dear John” letter and was so worried about backing out that posted it before proof reading.

    I was converted 40 years ago, the son of a protestant minister who graduated top of his class and could read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. While struggling to find a church I could attend, I felt inspired to ask an in-active friend I worked with to invite me to his (LDS) church. I immediately turned my head back. (I was on my knees) to where I felt the message was coming from and rebuffed “but you don’t want me to believe all those things about ten lost tribes is South America and having lots of wives”. To which came the instant reply “Just go and be as fair as you have been with other churches. “Take things one at a time and I will be by you side”

    This caused me to feel so “invincible” that once I began to feel convinced of the truth of the message, I told my parents “I have found a church that answers all my questions and so that I don’t make any mistakes, I invite you and all of your preacher friends to join me in this investigation.”

    At first there was lots more “heat than light” in our discussions, but later on, whenever my father asked me if I was wiling to go to hear someone who spoke against the Mormons, the immediate answer was always “yes”.

    On one occasion, just the two of us went alone together on a long drive to the Jim Mc Keiver place in the state of Oregon. (I recently saw a video he made about how Joseph Smith’s last words were part of a desperate Masonic plea for assistance rather than an act of commending his spirit to his Maker).

    The funny thing was, my father became more angry with Jim than he did with me and he spent considerable time reflecting on how calmly I had responded to what seemed to him to be unfair attacks on my sincere efforts to emulate reason which was fair and clear enough to satisfy my dear old dad.

    Another time he invited me to a church were an ex bishop was going to make a presentation. I said, “I’ll go but I am going to be making comments to everything he says”

    As the presentation got underway, I perceived that those close to us were upset that I was constantly disrupting, but presently they started to realise that I was clearly paying very close attention to all that was being said.

    About half way though the presentation I started to get the feeling that those around us were paying more attention to my comments than to the allegations being made by the speaker.

    They showed excerpts from “The God Makers” when the Ed Decker said that Mormons taught that Joseph Smith did more for the salvation than anyone who lived on the earth including Jesus Christ, I raised my voice just a bit to sat “that’s a lie” (Later I had a chance to follow a footnote in one of Ed Decker’s book which made reference to an private entry in Joseph’s journal where he reflects roughly, “No one before me was able to keep the church together… The apostles of Jesus couldn’t do it, Jesus couldn’t do it. No one has been able to do such a work as I.)

    At the end of the clip the speaker made an apology for the cache of weapons displayed when when the movie mentioned food storage.

    He sang a song, “It is finished” which kind of put my father in a reflective mood. The intent was to try to make it seem as though anyone who was in favour of the principle of ongoing revelation was doing so with the intent of prolonging the agony of Jesus on the cross.

    When the song was done I simply said “I guess he thinks that that is the last verse in the Bible” and my dear dad gave a nice little laugh.

    During the question an answer period, a girl related that she had a Mormon friend in seminary who share with her what is said in (John 21:25 …I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.)

    At first the ex bishop got the wrong verse, and after being corrected by many in the congregation, he was visibly shaken when he started reading the actual verse.

    He covered himself by glancingly appealing to Josh McDowell (author of “Many Infallible Proofs” which defends the Bible) who had spoken in that church the week before.

    The wonderful thing about the internet is that (if you haven’t grown weary of the length of this protracted comment by now) it gives us the chance to force detractors to be comprehensive.

    Well, it seems that the church is pretty well prepared to deal with the sticky issues from the Joseph Smith era. But what about the Kevin Kraut videos? I referred them to a friend at church, only to be informed by him the next week that they had been censured by Bruce R. McKonkie and Boyd K. Packer.

    I think it is important to realise that Jesus told his disciples “I have many things to tell you but you cannot bear them now” and that those who know the mysteries of the kingdom are under strict commandment only to impart according to what inspired to share. So with the 5 fold mission of the church being
    1. Missionary work by member.
    2. Retention of new converts
    3. Reactivation of old members
    4. Family history and temple work
    5. Teach the gospel
    … It would seem advantageous to be able to read the “stories” gathered in one particular place on the internet and determine how characteristic they are of the inactives we have been asked to leave the 99 to bring back to the fold. It should be no surprise to discover that it part of the nature of a lamb when either offended or neglected for a long period of time to want to “leave the fold”.

    In the post I made earlier today I took offence to the fact that John Dehlin had been told that he needed to dismantle his web “ministry” to the offended sheep. Well, that was a result of something I read which may have been biased in his favour. Closer investigation discloses that that probably had to do with doctrinal issues. The point I want to make is that if there was a ministry to protect victims of instances priestcraft where among those presenting themselves as a light, one hand washes the other in darkness – without either of them being cleansed from the sins of prejudice, favouritism and wilful, long term neglect (out of harmony with the welfare a zion where members are of “one heart, one mind, dwell in righteousness and have no poor among them)… If such a ministry could exist legitimately in the church then perhaps the the kind of priestcraft undertaken by men like John Dehlin might not be able to cause quite so much damage.

    Once Satan has hardened a man’s heart, softened his brain and then proceeded to fill it with garbage, it is not that hard a thing to tear his fallacies apart on the internet.

    By the way, I was reading some old books at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/37603
    (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/37629 has some new, free releases this year by B.H Roberts)
    I was reading
    He takes issue with a minister from the Episcopal church who stated that the Mormons didn’t take notice of all of the good works done by other churches. Elder Whitney takes issue with this citing the 13th article of faith.
    Well, over the years the Lord has never left my side as I have taken on just about any controversial issue raised by anti – Mormon writers.
    On the other hand. When I seek to resolve controversies brought about by the fact that many who appear to us to be selling Jesus for silver, actually manage to get volunteers to provide a more comprehensive ministry for their members then later day saints are able to provide out of sheer love for the Savior – when I try to rally support for the admonition Gordon B. Hinkley gave in his conference address “The dawning of a brighter day” where he said. “we can work with members of other faiths, admiring their virtues without compromising our beliefs.” I often find myself very much alone.

    Had John Dehlin been a man devoid of virtue, he would never have been able to make splash he did, and now that he has been classified as not of our faith. perhaps it is time to see how many of his virtues we can admire without compromising our beliefs which are so easy to defend in mass.
    Sorry to divert the topic like this, but I figure, if not today then when? I really just want to observe that 40 years ago the challenge for me was all about defending the cause of truth whereas now it seem far more important to defend the cause of the pure love of Christ and I would very much like to find a way to use the internet to unite ourselves in a common cause with people of other faiths to that end.
    I don’t mean to shame any of my dear LDS associates or friends with this but I think that the internet ought to be used to put us in touch with a bigger world and since I was raised in another faith by a devoted humanitarian I have felt compelled quit a bit today to share that perspective.

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