Why Mormon Art Sometimes Misrepresents Mormon History

Assistant BYU professor, author, and artist Anthony Sweat created the “feature image” for a new book (From Darkness Unto Light, by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat) that depicts the translation of the Book of Mormon. His painting includes the historically accurate image of Joseph Smith preparing to gaze into a hat, where his seer stone is (presumably) housed.

In an appendix to the book, Dr. Sweat discusses the tension between art and history. The article is essentially an apologetic for the Mormon Church’s oft-criticized tradition of depicting Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon in a historically inaccurate way.

092-092-joseph-smith-translating-book-of-mormon-fullDr. Sweat affirms, “none of the currently used Church images of the translation of the Book of Mormon are consistent with the historical record” (234). Over a 43-year span of representations of the Book of Mormon translation published in the Church’s Ensign magazine, Dr. Sweat found that 17 different images had been used 55 times, all of them being “inconsistent with aspects of documented Church history of the translation process of the Book of Mormon” (234). He rhetorically asks,

“Why don’t the renderings of the translation reflect the seer-stone(s)- in-a-hat process if that is how it happened based upon multiple historical sources? I cannot answer that question, as only those who have commissioned, created, and published the past artistic images can give an informed response. The language of art is a factor, however.” (236)

According to Dr. Sweat,

“The language of history is facts and sources (and the interpretive merits of those facts and sources), and the language of art comprises symbolic representations in line, value, color, texture, form, space, shape, and so forth (and the interpretive merits of those symbols). The tension lies in that historians, scholars, and teachers often want paintings that are historically accurate because images often shape our perceptions of history as much as, or perhaps more than, many of the scholarly works about history. …However, artists often have little to no intent of communicating historical factuality when they produce a work. Artists want to communicate an idea…” (230-231. Ellipses mine.)

Dr. Sweat uses Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, as an example of an inaccurate historical artistic rendering. He notes that the boat, the weather, the flag, and General Washington’s pose are all (probably) wrong, yet the artist has used his painting to communicate an important idea to viewers. So, too, have Mormon artists used their historically inaccurate renderings of the Book of Mormon translation process to communicate the ideas they wanted to communicate. Dr. Sweat quotes Mormon artist J. Kirk Richards talking about his own painting of Joseph Smith’s First Vision:

“I’ve had people talk about what the ‘correct’ clothing is [of the First Vision] and so on and so forth. In reality, I don’t care. I want it to feel what we feel when we think about the First Vision. And a lot of times historical details detract from getting that feeling across. So, very low on my list of considerations is historical detail. Sorry, historians. Don’t hate me. …I’m usually trying to present the principle of a spiritual truth rather than a historical truth.” (233. Ellipsis in original.)

Speaking of the Book of Mormon translation process, Mr. Richards said,

“It would be hard for me to paint a painting with Joseph with his head in a hat. We would have no sense of the vision of what is happening inside.” (237)

Joseph Smith Translating the Golden Plates. Images of the Restoration.

Joseph Smith Translating the Golden Plates
Images of the Restoration

As Dr. Sweat said, “it doesn’t translate well in the language of art.” Yet he managed to pull it off in his feature image, By the Gift and Power of God. He painted in an effort to communicate “inspiration…prayer, pondering, focus, reverence, and revelation” (240) while still reflecting “historical reality.” Even so, when people unfamiliar with Mormon history saw Dr. Sweat’s initial sketches, they asked if Joseph Smith was ill “because he looks like he’s vomiting into the hat” (237). Therefore,

“For past artists (or Ensign art directors) who may have known about the historical documents of the translation, it may simply be that choosing to depict Joseph with his finger in open plates with a pensive look was more visually appealing and communicative than the historical reality of what the translation may have looked like. It is easy for critics to assume a coordinate cover-up or historical rewrite when looking at the images, but the unjuicy reality may have more to do with a preference for speaking artistic language that is ‘truer’ in its communication, even if the depicted events contain historical error.” (237)

The specific critics Dr. Sweat references above are Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, who suggested,

“What could be the reason for leaving these items out of a publicity painting except to distance the translation from the ocultic [sic] practices that really characterized the Book of Mormon translation!” (243, fn 20)

Dr. Sweat suggests the reason is the wish of the artists (or editors, etc.) to convey certain feelings and ideas that cannot be conveyed via a historically accurate illustration. A picture of Joseph Smith with his face in a hat will not communicate the ideas of revelation, inspiration, prayer, pondering – that is, the claim that Joseph Smith was receiving a revelatory gift from God. Joseph with his face buried in his hat actually communicates illness at best, perhaps occult activity at worst; neither a picture faithful Mormons want portrayed.

All his talk about the language of art notwithstanding, Dr. Sweat essentially affirms the McKeever and Johnson suggestion: the Mormon Church has portrayed the Book of Mormon translation process absent of the historical elements of hat and seer stone in order to control the impression made on viewers. The Church wants to communicate Joseph Smith as a godly man receiving revelation from God – leaving people feeling as though he were a true prophet — rather than the historically accurate picture of Joseph Smith engaged in the occult practice commonly called “scrying.”

In other words, knowing that, as Dr. Sweat says, “images often shape our perceptions of history as much as, or perhaps more than, many of the scholarly works about history,” the Mormon Church purposefully achieves a sort of “historical rewrite” of the Book of Mormon translation process by continually representing the historical event using a non-historical image that communicates a different idea – the idea that the Church wants people to embrace. The historically accurate details “detract” from the feeling generated by the Church’s faith-promoting narrative, so it changes the presentation of the details.

In his thoughtful apologetic essay, Dr. Sweat has but confirmed what the critics have been saying all along.

Posted in Book of Mormon, Early Mormonism, Joseph Smith, LDS Church, Mormon History, Mormon Scripture | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Celebrate Freedom

ThrowbackThurs

It’s Throwback Thursday!

The following blog article originally posted at Mormon Coffee on July 4, 2008.

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On this Fourth of July holiday when we celebrate our hard-won American freedom, let Christians also celebrate our freedom in Christ. Having been given the gift of reconciliation to God and new life in Christ by grace through faith in the One who is able to save, we are no longer slaves to sin. We are no longer enslaved by the impossible task of working to convince our Holy God that we are worthy — based on our obedience — to dwell eternally in His presence. Let us celebrate the immeasurable riches of His grace and His inexpressible gift. Let us live with hearts and minds transformed, in profound gratitude toward the incomparable Gift-giver.

The “A-to-Z” of the Christian Life

“The gospel shows us that our spiritual problem lies not only in failing to obey God, but also in relying on our obedience to make us fully acceptable to God, ourselves and others.

Every kind of character flaw comes from this natural impulse to be our own savior through our performance and achievement. On the one hand, proud and disdainful personalities come from basing your identity on your performance and thinking you are succeeding. But on the other hand, discouraged and self-loathing personalities also come from basing your identity on your performance and thinking you are failing.

Belief in the gospel is not just the way to enter the kingdom of God; it is the way to address every obstacle and grow in every aspect. The gospel is not just the “ABCs” but the “A-to-Z” of the Christian life.

The gospel is the way that anything is renewed and transformed by Christ — whether a heart, a relationship, a church, or a community. All our problems come from a lack of orientation to the gospel. Put positively, the gospel transforms our hearts, our thinking and our approach to absolutely everything.” (Timothy Keller, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: Living in Line with the Truth of the Gospel, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2003, 2)

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For further reading: Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 3:21-26; Titus 3:1-8

Posted in Christianity | 5 Comments

Brigham Young’s Test of a Prophet

Brigham Young taught,

Brigham and Joseph“[The wicked] found fault with Joseph Smith, and at length killed him, as they have a great many others of the Latter-day Saints. What for? Because of his wickedness? No. But the cry was, ‘Away with him, we cannot do with this man nor with his people.’ Did they hate him for his evil works? No. If he had been a liar, a swearer, a gambler, or in any way an evil doer, and of the world, it would have loved its own, and they would have embraced him, and nourished and kept him. If he had been a false prophet they never would have lifted a hand against him, because he could have spread still more delusion through the world around him.” (Journal of Discourse 4:78, November 9, 1856)

But Joseph Smith was much more complicated than the “good man,…as good a man as ever lived,” that Brigham Young described a little earlier in his sermon.

Most active Mormons believe that Joseph Smith was an exemplary man. Brigham Young expressed it this way:

“Well now, examine the character of the Savior, and examine the characters of those who have written the Old and New Testaments; and then compare them with the character of Joseph Smith, the founder of this work — the man whom God called and to whom he gave the keys of Priesthood, and through whom he has established his Church and kingdom for the last time, and you will find that his character stands as fair as any man’s mentioned in the Bible. We can find no person who presents a better character to the world when the facts are known than Joseph Smith, jun., the prophet, and his brother, Hyrum Smith, who was murdered with him.” (Journal of Discourses 14:203, August 31, 1871)

Joseph Smith himself believed he had much to boast of:

“I combat the errors of the ages; I meet the violence of mobs; I cope with illegal proceedings from executive authority; I cut the Gordian knot of powers; and I solve mathematical problems of Universities: WITH TRUTH, diamond truth, and God is my ‘right hand man.’” (Times and Seasons 4:375)

Nevertheless, many people have a different opinion of Joseph Smith. Based on historical research, historian and former Mormon D. Michael Quinn noted,

“Few Mormons today can grasp the polarizing charisma of their founding prophet. Some may feel uncomfortable when confronted with the full scope of Joseph Smith’s activities as youthful mystic, treasure-seeker, visionary, a loving husband who deceived his wife regarding about forty of his polygamous marriages, a man for whom friendship and loyalty meant everything but who provoked disaffection by ‘testing’ the loyalty of his devoted associates, an anti-Mason who became a Master Mason, church president who physically assaulted both Mormons and non-Mormons for insulting him, a devoted father who loved to care for his own children and those of others, temperance leader and social drinker, Bible revisionist and esoteric philosopher, city planner, pacifist and commander-in-chief, student of Hebrew and Egyptology, bank president, jail escapee, healer, land speculator, mayor, judge and fugitive from justice, guarantor of religious freedom but limiter of freedom of speech and press, preacher and street-wrestler, polygamist and advocate of women’s rights, husband of other men’s wives, a declared bankrupt who was the trustee-in-trust of church finances, political horse-trader, U.S. presidential candidate, abolitionist, theocratic king, inciter to riot, and unwilling martyr.” (The Mormon Hierarchy – Origins of Power, 261- 262)

Joseph Smith was a complicated man with a complicated history.

Brigham Young said Joseph was not hated for any “evil works”; he was not killed for any “wickedness.” Yet he did marry other men’s wives. He did physically assault his detractors. He did deny his critics their First Amendment rights. He did have himself crowned a theocratic king. And he did not always practice what he preached. Throughout history many men – and women — have been killed for far less.

Joseph Smith’s murder proves nothing either way regarding his claim of being a prophet of God. To determine the truth of that assertion we must apply God’s biblical tests of a prophet. In so doing, Joseph Smith’s genuine character is brought to light and his false claim of being a mouthpiece for God is exposed.

Posted in Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, Mormon Leaders | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Beloved rescue story is a myth. Say it ain’t so.

ThrowbackThursDuring this time of year, many Mormon youth have the opportunity to spend 4 days pulling handcarts through rugged terrain. This “pioneer trek” is a type of reenactment of the early Mormon pioneer treks across the American plains to Utah Territory. Each Mormon teen carries the name of a real-life Mormon pioneer as the kids experience some of what their ancestors endured a hundred and sixty years ago. It seems fitting, then, for this Throwback Thursday, to repost the following blog article that originally appeared on Mormon Coffee on June 21, 2010.

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One feature of the 2008 book Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy by David Roberts is the debunking of popular myths connected to the “handcart experiment.” There are many, and they are continually believed and repeated within Mormon circles. Some of these stories are held very dear and beloved by Latter-day Saints everywhere.

One such myth is this one, published in the Improvement Era in 1914:

After [the company] had given up in despair, after all hopes had vanished, after every apparent avenue of escape seemed closed, three eighteen-year-old boys belonging to the relief party came to the rescue, and to the astonishment of all who saw, carried nearly every member of the illfated handcart company across the snowbound stream. The strain was so terrible, and the exposure so great, that in later years all the boys died from the effect of it. When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and later declared publicly, “that act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant [the captains son] and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end.” (quoted in Roberts, 242. Brackets his.)

Roberts goes on to explain that in 2006 LDS historian Chad M. Orton published a paper in BYU Studies that provided these truths: none of the named men were eighteen-year-old boys; other men also helped the weakened pioneers cross the river; many of the pioneers crossed on their own power, without help from rescuers; and perhaps most importantly, none of the three named men died from the effects of the 1856 river-fording.

HandcartI don’t mean to minimize the heroism of the Saints that went to the rescue of the stranded handcart pioneers, for they were indeed heroes. Nor do I intend to focus here directly on the fact that this story is a faith-promoting myth. I’ll tell you what I find especially interesting about this.

During his research for the book, David Roberts, the author of Devil’s Gate, visited many LDS visitors centers along the Mormon/Oregon Trail. He listened politely without comment as Elders and Sisters (as docents) related what they believed to be true stories, but which Mr. Roberts knew to be myths. During one of Mr. Roberts’ trips to the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center at Martin’s Cove, he was welcomed into a small group of LDS adults from West Valley, Utah who were on the trail as a sort of pilgrimage. They traversed the trail together as the Mormons told stories of their ancestors (and others) who had crossed the plains in the 1850s. Mr. Roberts writes,

…one of the West Valley women repeated the story about the three eighteen-year-olds carrying the Saints across the Sweetwater. I could not bite my tongue. “You know, that’s a myth,” I blurted out. “Chad Orton has written a paper that completely debunks the story. It didn’t happen.”

This was not welcome news to the West Valley ward. An awkward silence ensued, as I began to feel like a drunken guest at a party who has just committed some unforgivable faux pas.

“How do we know what’s really the truth? asked Trish Ward, in conciliatory tones. I started to utter some piety of my own about relying on authentic primary sources, but instead, a young woman who had previously spoken not a word mused out loud, “Maybe we could pray.” (280)

Presumably, Chad Orton, who is an archivist with the Family and Church History Division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reached his conclusion regarding the Sweetwater rescue story after researching primary sources — accounts from people who were there, contemporary newspaper reports, birth and death data, etc. (You can download a pdf version of Mr. Orton’s paper here.) Yet when the Mormons in Mr. Roberts’ narrative were made aware of the discrepancy between the legend and the facts, they believed the proper response was to pray to know if the legend was true.

At the October 2009 General Conference of the LDS Church, Mormon Apostle Richard G. Scott said,

“I witness that as you gain experience and success in being guided by the Spirit, your confidence in the impressions you feel can become more certain than your dependence on what you see or hear.” (“To Acquire Spiritual Guidance,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2009, page 6)

The context of Mr. Scott’s teaching was in regards to receiving divine guidance for decision making; but do Latter-day Saints also apply this principle to things that can be known objectively? It would be impossible, wouldn’t it, for actual God-revealed knowledge to be contrary to known facts?

The Mormons in the Devil’s Gate story fiercely wanted the familiar myth of the Sweetwater rescue to be true. They were more comfortable relying on their “impressions” than on an examination of verifiable records. Do you think their prayers yielded a confirmation that the story was false? Mr. Roberts doesn’t say.

What happens when we want something to be true more than we want to know the truth?

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Comments within the parameters of 1 Peter 3:15 are invited.

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Posted in Early Mormonism, Mormon History, Truth, Honesty, Prayer, and Inquiry | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

Free Utah Concerts This Week By Adam’s Road

  • Monday, June 22nd, 2015
    Transitions Class Testimony and Music – 6:30 PM
    12448 S Iron Sight Way
    Herriman, UT 84096
  • Tuesday, June 23rd
    2015 Price Chapel Testimony and Music – 6:30 P.M.
    611 W Price River Dr Price, UT (435) 637-5244
  • Wednesday, June 24th
    The Mission Church
    Testimony and Music – 7:30 PM
    10778 S. Redwood Road
    South Jordan, UT 84020
  • Thursday, June 25th, 2015
    Cache Valley Bible Fellowship Testimony and Music – 7:00 PM
    1488 North 200 West Logan, UT 84341 (435) 752-9443
    Friday, June 26th, 2015 Transitions Conference @ Southeast Christian Church Testimony and Music – 7:00 PM 1881 East Vine St Salt Lake City, UT
  • Saturday, June 27
    Transitions Conference@ Southeast Christian Church Testimony and Music – 9 am
    Michael and Lynn Speaking
    1881 East Vine St Salt Lake City, UT
  • Saturday, June 27th
    Midvalley Bible Church Testimony and Music – 7:00 PM
    13991 South 2700 West Riverton, Utah 84065 (801) 302-3100
  • Sunday, June 28th
    Salt Lake Christian Center Testimony and Music – 10:30 AM
    4300 South 700 East Salt Lake City, UT 84107 (801) 268-2178
  • Sunday, June 28th
    CenterPoint Church Testimony and Music – 6:30 PM 1460
    West Business Park Drive Orem, UT 84097 (801) 225-3038
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Joseph Smith “carried off my daughter”

SLCTempleOver the years, much has been written about the heartbreak caused by Mormon weddings. The oft-cited cause of this heartbreak is the sacred, exclusive LDS temple wedding that necessarily excludes “unworthy” friends and family from attending. According to Mormonism, marriages must be performed and sealed in a Mormon temple by the proper priesthood authority so that the families subsequently formed will be together for eternity. Only “worthy” Mormons who hold current temple recommends may enter Mormon temples; therefore, non-Mormons, Mormon children, and “unworthy” Mormons (e.g., those who do not pay a full tithe to the Church) cannot attend the temple weddings of their loved-ones. This policy breaks a lot of hearts.

But there is another heartbreak associated with Mormon weddings that receives far less attention. This is the heartbreak of Christian parents watching a beloved son or daughter abandon the Christian faith of their upbringing to convert to the Mormon faith of a future spouse. I’ve talked with many Christian parents who face this heartbreak with grief filled tears – and eventually, ultimately, with grace born by the hope of Christ’s mercy.

As parents, we never know who our children will choose to marry. We often pray for our future sons- and daughters-in-law, even while our children are yet small. We know that a good marriage will bring blessings and happiness. And we know that a difficult marriage will bring heartache and trials. We long for our children to marry well.

JosephAndEmmaImagine, then, the heartbreak of Isaac and Elizabeth Hale when they learned that Joseph Smith the “money digger,” after twice being refused their daughter Emma’s hand in marriage, had “carried [her] off” to a different state to marry her against her parents’ wishes.**

Joseph and Emma eloped in January of 1827. Almost seven years later, Emma’s father, Isaac, was still upset over it; he presented his reasons in an affidavit that was printed in the Susquehanna Register on May 1, 1834. What follows is Isaac Hale’s statement, minimally edited for easier reading.

I first became acquainted with Joseph Smith, Jr. in November, 1825. He was at that time in the employ of a set of men who were called “money diggers;” and his occupation was that of seeing, or pretending to see by means of a stone placed in his hat, and his hat closed over his face. In this way he pretended to discover minerals and hidden treasure. His appearance at this time, was that of a careless young man not very well educated, and very saucy and insolent to his father.

Smith, and his father, with several other ‘money diggers’ boarded at my house while they were employed in digging for a mine that they supposed had been opened and worked by the Spaniards, many years since. Young Smith gave the ‘money diggers’ great encouragement, at first, but when they had arrived in digging, to near the place where he had stated an immense treasure would be found — he said the enchantment was so powerful that he could not see. They then became discouraged, and soon after dispersed. This took place about the 17th of November, 1825; and one of the company gave me his note for $12.68 for his board, which is still unpaid.

After these occurrences, young Smith made several visits at my house, and at length asked my consent to his marrying my daughter Emma. This I refused, and gave him my reasons for so doing; some of which were, that he was a stranger, and followed a business that I could not approve; he then left the place. Not long after this, he returned, and while I was absent from home, carried off my daughter, into the state of New York, where they were married without my approbation or consent.

After they had arrived at Palmyra [Manchester] N.Y., Emma wrote to me inquiring whether she could have her property, consisting of clothing, furniture, cows, &c. I replied that her property was safe, and at her disposal. In short time they returned, bringing with them a Peter Ingersoll, and subsequently came to the conclusion that they would move out, and resided upon a place near my residence.

© 1999 Institute for Religious Research

© 1999 Institute for Religious Research

Smith stated to me, that he had given up what he called “glass-looking,” and that he expected to work hard for a living, and was willing to do so. He also made arrangements with my son Alva Hale, to go to Palmyra, and move his (Smith’s) furniture &c. to this place. He then returned to Palmyra, and soon after, Alva, agreeable to the arrangement, went up and returned with Smith and his family.Soon after this, I was informed they had brought a wonderful book of Plates down with them. I was shown a box in which it is said they were contained, which had, to all appearances, been used as a glass box of the common sized window-glass. I was allowed to feel the weight of the box, and they gave me to understand, that the book of plates was then in the box — into which, however, I was not allowed to look.

I inquired of Joseph Smith Jr., who was to be the first who would be allowed to see the Book of Plates? He said it was a young child. After this, I became dissatisfied, and informed him that if there was any thing in my house of that description, which I could not be allowed to see, he must take it away; if he did not, I was determined to see it. After that, the Plates were said to be hid in the woods.

About this time, Martin Harris made his appearance upon the stage; and Smith began to interpret the characters or hieroglyphics which he said were engraven upon the plates, while Harris wrote down the interpretation. It was said, that Harris wrote down one hundred and sixteen pages, and lost them.

Soon after this happened, Martin Harris informed me that he must have a greater witness, and said that he had talked with Joseph about it –Joseph informed him that he could not, or durst not show him the plates, but that he (Joseph) would go into the woods where the Book of Plates was, and that after he came back, Harris should follow his track in the snow, and find the Book, and examine it for himself. Harris informed me afterwards, that he followed Smith’s directions, and could not find the Plates, and was still dissatisfied.

The next day after this happened, I went to the house where Joseph Smith Jr., lived, and where he and Harris were engaged in their translation of the Book. Each of them had a written piece of paper which they were comparing, and some of the words were “my servant seeketh a greater witness, but no greater witness can be given him.” There was also something said about “three that were to see the thing” –meaning I supposed, the Book of Plates, and that “if the three did not go exactly according to orders, the thing would be taken from them.” I enquired whose words they were, and was informed by Joseph or Emma, (I rather think it was the former) that they were the words of Jesus Christ. I told them then, that I considered the whole of it a delusion, and advised them to abandon it. The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time in the woods!

After this, Martin Harris went away, and Oliver Cowdery came and wrote for Smith, while he interpreted as above described. This is the same Oliver Cowdery, whose name may be found in the Book of Mormon. Cowdery continued a scribe for Smith until the Book of Mormon was completed as I supposed, and understood.

Joseph Smith Jr. resided near me for some time after this, and I had a good opportunity of becoming acquainted with him, and somewhat acquainted with his associates, and I conscientiously believe from the facts I have detailed, and from many other circumstances, which I do not deem it necessary to relate, that the whole “Book of Mormon” (so called) is a silly fabrication of falsehood and wickedness, got up for speculation, and with a design to dupe the credulous and unwary –and in order that its fabricators might live upon the spoils of those who swallowed the deception.  ISAAC HALE

Affirmed to and subscribed before me, March 20th, 1834.

CHARLES DIMON, Justice of the Peace.

 

** Is it true that Joseph and Emma eloped?

“Owing to my continuing to assert that I had seen a vision,” Joseph explained, “persecution still followed me, and my wife’s father’s family were very much opposed to our being married. I was, therefore, under the necessity of taking her elsewhere; so we went and were married at the house of Squire Tarbill, in South Bainbridge, Chenango county, New York. Immediately after my marriage, I left Mr. Stoal’s, and went to my father’s, and farmed with him that season” (Joseph Smith—History 1:58).

Posted in Early Mormonism, Joseph Smith, Mormon History | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

How the LDS Church Prepares Its Members for Atheism (Part 5)

[The following is the last of a five-part essay offered by Mormon Coffee guest contributor Joshua Valentine (aka spartacus).]

Many who consider the issue of Mormons becoming atheists wonder why they go from Mormonism straight to atheism instead of Christianity, which is assumed to be the next closest religion. At wheatandtares.com there is an article that claims that Mormonism is not reversible into Christianity [1]. Indeed, when considering all the issues here, it seems obvious that the two, despite their supposed relation, are completely at odds. To a significant degree The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints downplays sin, its seriousness, and its power over humans. The LDS Church does effectively help its members out of certain very visible sins and assists its members in avoiding them in the first place.  While the LDS Church officially recognizes small sins as undesirable and even something Christ died for, the consistent message received in talks, teachings, and perhaps more importantly Mormon culture, is that small, concealable sins are not important, certainly not in comparison to the big visible sins that are constantly emphasized — sexual impurity, adultery, consumption of harmful or illicit substances, theft, lying, and murder. Thus, when a member leaves the LDS Church, he or she may be convinced that they don’t have any real problem that requires real attention. If there is no problem, then no solution is sought. Christianity and all other religions are unneeded.

Talk_to_the_HandBut it goes further than just that. There is a common phenomenon in religious activity where some converts coming from one extreme tend to overcorrect to the other extreme: from licentiousness to strictness, or asceticism to hedonism, or from mysticism to rationalism, or religious knowledge to spiritual experience. This is not about the LDS self-serving belief that apostates will become alcoholics, adulterers, or otherwise destroyed and unhappy. Rather, since the LDS Church imposes such an intense and involved program of obedience and dependence on the church for its members to overcome sin and imperfection, ex-Mormons may overcorrect or overreact by outright refusing their need for anything from any religion.  This is not about simply rebelling against human institutions and authority or preserving one’s power of self-determination as discussed earlier. It is something more than just burnout.  When ex-members are approached by another religion, institution, or simply the Christian Gospel, they may not only reject it out of distrust, but also out of this overcorrection to not need any program, authority, or truth to give their assent to or conform their life to. In this way, ex-members have been trained by their church to not take their small sins too seriously and, in overreaction to its intensity, may have a subconscious motivation to continue believing that their sins are not important enough to need any help. So they already believe their little sins are ok, and now they deny a need for religious answers, which irrationally motivates them to continue to think their sins are just harmless mistakes. Again, if you are convinced you do not have a problem, then you do not seek a remedy. And if you do not want any more “help,” you may convince yourself you do not have any need for it.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches self-reliance, both in temporal and spiritual concerns. Members may not agree with that statement, but the LDS Church does teach a significant place for human effort in obtaining the approval and blessings of God in this life and in the next. Our actions and our strength have a necessary place in our worthiness for salvation and eternal blessings. This “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” cosmology was described by an online participant as “trusting in the arm of the flesh.”[2] The optimistic humanism of Mormonism, its insistence that humans can and must contribute to their worthiness of salvation and exaltation, can easily fit into the humanistic optimism of atheism that humans can and must solve their own problems and continue as a species and progress on this planet and in this universe.[3] Along the lines of trusting in the flesh, Latter-day Saints are taught to trust their leaders. When they leave, they have determined that their LDS leaders have betrayed them and are untrustworthy. This may lead the ex-Latter-day Saint to seek the objectivism of science in order to avoid being fooled or dependent on particular humans or institutions. Interestingly, however, if this confidence in humans, in the flesh of man, is not reevaluated, then it may lead them to put their trust in the men of science and the institutions of human reason. In any case, the LDS-taught optimism about mankind’s ability to progress by its own effort is offended by the Christian Gospel’s diametrically opposite assessment.

Lastly, as regards compatibility with Christianity, the LDS Church teaches consistently, and in many ways, that human happiness is the ultimate goal. It is the goal of the Mormon God. Heavenly Father’s own happiness is found in his children’s happiness. Happiness and good feelings are indicative of truth. Unhappiness or bad feelings indicate that something is wrong or false. Our happiness is generally the purpose of life — overcoming life’s challenges, learning, and progressing being sources of happiness now and in the future. In light of all of this, Christianity’s view of sin is impractical and even morbid; its gospel is still too “easy,” and its truths are disturbing and repugnant to the mind that has been cultivated by Mormonism.  Atheism, however, embraces the significance of personal happiness, the pragmatism of actions called “sin” by Christianity, and puts forth human progress and happiness as the only purpose worthy of our short lives. In these many ways, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taught its members how to flourish as atheists.

Because Mormonism claims to be a correction of Christianity, members are incessantly, and often only implicitly, taught to disbelieve Christianity.  It is one thing to be fooled into believing lies, but what if Christianity is actually true? It is quite another to realize that you were fooled to disbelieve the truth.  So there is yet another motivation to not fully reconsider what the LDS Church has taught. Particularly in regards to Christianity, there is strong motivation to not even entertain the idea that what the church convinced you was false and corrupt (and that you may even have mocked and scorned) might actually have been true all along. Thus, there is one less option besides atheism.  With their research Mormons may learn that the restoration was false, but do they reconsider the prerequisite belief of the Great Apostasy?  They may realize that the LDS Church’s claims of unity and consistency are false, but do they question the church’s logic that the existence of many Christian denominations means Christianity is false? They realize that the LDS Church is not the one true Christian church, but do they consider that there may not even be such a church in the traditional institutional sense?  Can they conceive that a religion or gospel may be true even if there is not “one true church” of it? Classic Ford Hood OrnamentThey realize that the LDS Church is not as ordered as it claims, but do they question whether God is really a God of order in the simplistic way they were taught?  Will they reconsider all the Mormon assertions against the reliability of the Bible?  Will they reconsider what their Ford dealer taught them about Chevrolet?

Even LDS apologetics betrays members and, upon leaving, they can discard all apologetics as game-playing, as obfuscation, and as seemingly able to make any falsehood appear to be true.  If they are not careful to understand the techniques of LDS apologists and how they differ from other apologists, then they may write off all apologetics as illegitimate. Members are already trained to use any appearance of evil or inaccuracy as an excuse to stop listening to critics. Although the ex-member had to overcome this conditioning long enough to exit the LDS Church, this developed skill may come back into play as a post-Mormon.  So when they hear certain arguments or even just phrases used by apologists of Christianity (which they recognize as having been used by LDS apologists), they may instinctively disregard that argument or point or the apologist altogether, despite the situation for Christianity being completely different than that of Mormonism.  Even if ex-members do try to understand Christianity for themselves, this conditioning may keep them from going into the depth, and possibly truth, of Christianity — just as it kept them from going too deep into and finding the truth about Mormonism for years.

Finally, people entered into the Mormon faith based on the assumptions that such good people would not lie and “must have the truth,” and that God would surely answer a sincere prayer about the Book of Mormon.  They became members believing that the God that exists answered them.  When they learn that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is false, they may still believe that if God existed then He would have answered their prayer revealing that the church was false.  Since they got an affirmation of its truth, it must have been from manipulation; and since God did not intervene, there must not be a God.  None of this may be consciously thought out in the ex-members’ minds.  But where did they get the idea that God would answer a prayer about the Book of Mormon?  Who or what so convinced them that God must answer sincere prayer?

There are so many things taught in the LDS Church — so much about the nature of the universe, and of the nature of God and man, about what faith is, what spiritual experience and personal revelation are, about what is credible and how we determine truth, and about our mistakes and wrong-doing — that lean toward naturalism, agnosticism, and atheism, so many prejudices instilled by the LDS Church that disallow unbiased consideration of other religions, that insofar as ex-members do not search out all of the lingering Mormonism in their beliefs, thinking, feelings and perspective, conscious and subconscious, they may find themselves just as manipulated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outside of it as they were in it.

Mormonism teaches that its members are “gods in embryo.”  At the very least, the doctrines, teachings, and culture originated and proliferated by Mormonism and the LDS Church give us many reasons to consider Latter-day Saints “atheists in embryo.”[4]

—–

[1] This article by S. Andrew was one of only a few places I could find expanded discussion of this Mormon atheism topic.  The discussion in the comments is also worth reading.

[2] by BigMikeSRT.

[3] There is a Mormon Expression podcast, toward the end of John Larsen’s time hosting it, in which John speaks of how ex-mormon atheists must move on boldly into the world. His guest makes the observation that John’s view seems to be a return to Mormonism in its optimism about mankind’s self-determination. I could not find it again, but it is worth the search and listening. It is admittedly moving, certainly connected to Mormonism’s optimism and faith in man (or “the flesh”), and explicitly shows Mormonism’s compatibility with atheism.

[4] I first read this apt turn of phrase from Aaron Shafovaloff.

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How the LDS Church Prepares Its Members for Atheism (Part 4)

[The following is the fourth of a five-part essay offered by Mormon Coffee guest contributor Joshua Valentine (aka spartacus).]

Members who learn the truth about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mormonism most often feel betrayed and duped by their church, friends, and family.  If they leave the church, they often go through a burn out period, not wanting to deal with religion at all.  They are understandably resistant to even considering any other religion any time soon for fear of being taken in again.  Many go through a period of anger.  The realization of being manipulated, being put through so much, and losing so much of their lives for a lie, is understandably infuriating.  The necessary and reasonable thing to do, when ready and rested, is to reevaluate one’s beliefs.  Often this includes a period of studying the LDS Church even more.  Whether before leaving or after, many Mormons feel embarrassed by all the things they did and believed, which they now see as so obviously untrue or even silly.  They understandably never want to be manipulated, or to allow their lives to be controlled by anyone else again.

stringsThis last, control, is a strong motivation toward atheism.  While in many ways the atheistic worldview can be bleak, in that there is no longer someone watching out for you, there is also a strong sense of self-determination, of your decisions being wholly your own, under your own control.  Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have relinquished leadership and control of so much of their lives for so long, and upon learning the truth, realized that so much of it was a waste and harmful, that any sense of letting go of their new found control, of submitting themselves to anything — an organization or even a belief — is simply unacceptable.  Ex-Mormon atheists speak of the difficulty of getting atheists to come together and embrace a long-term vision and goal (there is a Mormon Expression podcast, toward the end of his time hosting it, in which John Larsen mentions this issue).  While there may be something about an atheist worldview that inhibits this activity, the victim of Joseph Smith and the LDS Church has all the motivation to keep all control and not relinquish it to anyone or anything, a group, a movement, an ideal, or even the actual God.

The ex-member is motivated to stay away from religion for fatigue, for fear of being duped, and for fear of relinquishing control.  And these can lead to a life of practical, if not consciously chosen, atheism.  But, as we have seen, the very teachings of Mormonism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may set up its members to turn away from faith and even provide the content of an atheistic worldview.  If these teachings are not reevaluated, then the ex-member may embrace atheism not solely based on rational and accurate arguments and evidence, but also from false biases, skewed perceptions, and feelings trained into them by the LDS Church.  The man or woman who leaves must be resolute and steadfast in rooting out and reconsidering all that they have received from Mormonism; not just doctrines and history, but all of the assumptions and implications of the teachings that they were not even aware of, but that are still determining the way they think about and see the world.  Unfortunately, there are several possible motivations for not reevaluating everything learned from their church.

No one wants to believe that they believed something false.  No one wants to believe that they believed something obviously false.  No one wants to believe they dedicated their lives to something untrue, let alone a lie.  No one wants to admit that they have been fooled.  No one wants to believe they have perpetuated a lie or been involved in the manipulation and duping of others to believe the same lie.  This self-preservation is one reason why people of all groups hesitate, if not refuse, to really consider the possibility that their beliefs are false, and risk having to leave their church, discard their philosophy, or relinquish their life vision.  Many members of the LDS Church resist the arguments of critics and respond to the evidence against their church often so irrationally, not just because of the way their church has taught them to respond, but for fears like these.  But what about those who leave?

Just as members do not wish to consider that they are wrong and will deny the facts out of self-preservation, those who leave may continue to do the same.  When a member exits the church, they have a subconscious motivation not to discover all of the false beliefs they have embraced.  So, they continue to believe them.  They come to the conclusion that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not true, that its scriptures, prophets, and gods are not real.  But they may not want to know just how much they were duped into believing, just how much they took for granted, just how many false beliefs they have taught their children and friends.  Most do a lot of research about the church’s history and unique teachings, but they may not reconsider the less explicit teachings and their implications.  This includes what faith is, how it relates to reason, what spiritual experience really is, and when mystery and complexity are acceptable.

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How the LDS Church Prepares Its Members for Atheism (Part 3)

[The following is the third of a five-part essay offered by Mormon Coffee guest contributor Joshua Valentine (aka spartacus).]

The LDS Church’s super-exclusive claims do not directly lead to atheism, but they do disqualify other theistic options.  Christianity claims to be the truth to the exclusion of other candidates, like any other religious movement. Mormonism, however, is even more exclusive, claiming to be the only true version of Christianity.

first_vision_1838Mormonism teaches against any traditional form of Christianity with every unique teaching and claim it presents as superior to Christian teachings and claims. LDS authority, teachings, ordinances, organization, gospel, and Holy Spirit are, at best, supplemental to Christian ignorance or, worse, restoration of things lost in traditional Christianity. Or, worse still, the LDS Church is the only truth among corrupted Christianity. Christianity claims its teachings are true and other religions are false.  However, Mormonism does not just claim that it is true and Christianity is false, but that, as it is the restoration of Christianity, Christianity is not just false but corrupted.  LDS members have actually said that if the LDS Church is not true, then nothing else is. It is this mindset, cultivated by the LDS Church, that exemplifies the thesis that LDS teachings lead their members closer to atheism.

There are two subtle dynamics in Mormonism that are related to the undermining of other theist options. First, the LDS Church does not give any reasons to believe in God outside of Mormonism. There is some passing mention of nature showing that God exists, always in reference to the Bible’s verses saying so, but nothing else. This comes about from the fideistic dependence on the prayer experience and the LDS Church’s continual focus on itself being the one and only true church. Since the prayer experience is taught to be the only way to “know” anything about God, other reasons are not emphasized, if not ignored completely. The LDS Church also focuses so much on its own legitimacy as the only true church of God that little to nothing is taught about the legitimacy of God’s existence.  In practice, then, Mormons are effectively taught to only believe in God by their prayer experience and continuing experiences in the LDS Church such as “feeling the spirit” and claims of priesthood power manifested; things Mormons are taught to recognize as true spiritual experiences.

Second, the prayer experience epistemology of Mormonism, its fideist basis for belief, like all fideism, implicitly denies that there is any good enough reason to believe in God.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints incessantly teaches its members that the prayer experience is the only way to “know” and thus implicitly teaches that all other evidence or rational means of seeking Truth is insufficient.  By focusing on and relying fideistically on the prayer, the LDS Church makes its members into believers who are only a few spiritual impressions and a prayer from being agnostics.  Agnosticism is the position that the evidence and the rational arguments for and against the existence of God are inconclusive. Because the teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints insists that prayer is the only real way to determine anything about ultimate truth, it trains its members to view all physical evidence and rational argument to be insufficient and even suspect. The members of the LDS Church are taught and trained by their own church to be agnostic about God’s existence in respect to all evidence, except their prayer experience.  When the member realizes that the evidence against the authenticity of the LDS Church is insurmountable and that their prayer experience was mistaken, then they become certain about the falsehood of the church and, subconsciously, may remain biased against all other evidence and argument for God.

Some atheists quip that as Christians deny the existence of other gods, atheists go one step further, denying just one more god. Whatever the merits of this point, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes that one step even easier to take.  If all that exists is matter and laws, if God is a glorified human, if the glory of God is the eternal life and happiness of his eternal increase of posterity, if God evolved to godhood by being worthy and we can too, then the step from Mormon “theism” to atheism shrinks smaller and smaller.  If Ultimate Truth can only be known by receiving an answer to your sincere prayer, if feeling the Spirit is always a good feeling, if feeling the Spirit can be experienced while watching heart-warming church-produced videos and other movies, then the “step” is on a steeper and steeper slope. If there is no reason good enough to believe in God or Jesus, if prayer is the only way to know and it is beyond any “anti-Mormon” argument, then there’s no place to catch your balance, no possibility of another paradigm in which rational and evidential argument and more complex forms of faith can coincide as an alternative to the step down to atheism. The descent into atheism is almost inevitable.

Perhaps you believe that “God” means the Ultimate, the Source from which everything that exists came to be, and thus is the One that is independent of all and has always been.  If this is your perspective, then as soon as Mormons embrace the god of Mormonism, who is not ultimate but contingent, just another part of what exists, who is subject to the laws of the universe, and depends on other gods and humans for his existence, they no longer believe in a “God” already.  The Romans saw the first Christians as atheists just because they denied the Roman gods for their One Ultimate God.  Latter-day Saints may be seen as already being atheists by those with a different idea of what any “God” ought to be, versus the deified supermen of Mormonism.

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How the LDS Church Prepares Its Members for Atheism (Part 2)

[The following is the second of a five-part essay offered by Mormon Coffee guest contributor Joshua Valentine (aka spartacus).]

While it does not mirror the atheist worldview as the previous points, the LDS epistemology sets its members up to turn against faith and thus embrace atheistic rationalism.  While Mormonism is not strictly speaking a fideistic religion, it relies heavily upon some principles of fideism.  For members of the LDS Church, ultimate truth is not discovered, recognized, or even approached by study, evidence, logic, or history.  Moroni10PrayerThese are only an optional means ultimately to lead a person to pray about the Book of Mormon and the current LDS prophet to learn that the LDS Church is true.  Once this testimony is gained by prayer, it is regarded as transcendent or invulnerable to any and all evidence against the object of faith – the LDS Church and its gospel.  LDS religious epistemology is fideistic in that this prayer-testimony experience, like faith received in fideism, is independent of the world as it actually is.  Investigation into the facts is not required to learn Ultimate Truth; it is not encouraged and may even be discouraged.  Once the testimony is received it is independent of evidence and argument; all other concerns and issues are viewed as irrelevant.

It usually takes a lot of time, study, and heartache before all that is left between the member and the exit is that prayer experience.  Every ex-member, before they leave the LDS Church, has to reevaluate their testimony and its origin.  When the evidence makes it impossible for the member to have faith in that prayer experience, members come to realize that the LDS epistemology of prayer for ultimate truth is woefully insufficient.  Ex-members conclude that staking their whole life and the lives of their loved ones on blind faith in a prayer experience is unreliable, irresponsible, and dangerous.

By poor reasoning (e.g.- Wouldn’t God answer a sincere prayer?) the ex-member made the poor decision to join the religion.  By better reasoning, they leave it.  Unfortunately, faith and this prayer experience are so strongly tied together by LDS teaching that when the prayer-testimony experience is found wanting and dangerous, so too is faith in general.  The improved reasoning that led to leaving the church may only evaluate faith based on a limited form of it as propagated by the LDS Church.  When they realize the LDS Church is false, they blame their dependence on that experience which, by the teachings of their church, was precipitated by an initial faithful act and was the foundation of their continued faith.  Because the idea of faith taught by their church is so simplistic they don’t even realize that they were “duped” by a bad version of faith, but, instead, believe that faith itself betrayed them.  The undiscerning faith espoused by their church that led to accepting the prayer experience as truth, is found to be gullible, and, if not reevaluated, all faith is judged as gullible.  Shunning all faith, the ex-LDS member is left only with atheistic rationalism.

Mormonism also shuns all mystery.  If a religious truth is mysterious, it is because of the ignorance of man.  If it is confusing, it is because it is of Satan.  Mormonism assumes that truth is simple and understandable to the mind of man.  If it is not understandable to the human mind, it is not true.  LDS show these assumptions in the way they discuss topics that most people realize will be difficult to understand, like the nature of God.

When Mormons are presented with an issue in their doctrine by critics, no matter the issue and its improbability, Mormons are often quick to claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is more confusing.  Mormons also latch onto the word “incomprehensible” when it is used by Christians to describe God.  Christians are simply admitting that God’s nature transcends complete understanding by the human mind.  But Mormons argue that this is proof that the Christian teaching of God is false, as if all truth about God should be well within the human mind’s powers of comprehension. They believe that God as a glorified man is easier to understand than that God is three persons in one being.  They believe that Jesus is obviously a separate being from God from the fact that he prayed to the Father.  Any explanation that hints at complexity or mystery is immediately written off as false.

This shunning of transcendent mystery and insistence that the world make sense to the human mind is mirrored in atheistic scientism. If it is beyond reason or cannot be tested scientifically, then it cannot be known, or considered true or real.

While there is no reason to believe that all spiritual experiences of all Mormons are inauthentic or are insignificant, much of what is described as “feeling the Spirit” indicates a shallow experience of emotion mistaken as spiritual revelation. When church talks, church-produced videos, or even secular movies are described as experiences of “feeling the Spirit,” or criticized as “didn’t feel the Spirit,” it becomes difficult to see how these spiritual experiences differ from any other manufactured emotional event.  Many former members have come to the conclusion that these experiences were only that.

Much like the reevaluation of their acceptance of faith based on what was taught by the LDS Church, members who leave also reevaluate these experiences of “feeling the Spirit.” And as many throw out faith altogether, so too is all spiritual experience disregarded as only emotional experiences brought about by natural environmental stimulus, psychological states, and manipulation. Because the LDS Church and its culture teaches spiritual experience as being so mundane and so often related to performances that include dramatic techniques, they are easily dismissed and, as with faith, all spiritual experience is discarded because what they experienced as a member is determined to have been inauthentic.

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