This past summer I was in Nauvoo, Illinois to distribute Christian information and answer questions about my faith and how it differs from Mormonism. This I did each evening for a week, standing adjacent to the outdoor Nauvoo Pageant grounds as pageant-goers arrived to enjoy the night’s performance. The majority of people who attended the pageant were Mormons, or investigators flanked by Mormon missionaries.
As I offered my information to pageant-goers (along with a friendly “hello”), they would reach for the paper, and I would tell them that it was from the Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center. At this, many would pull back their hands, eyes wide, as if they had almost touched a hot stove. With eyes darting about, they would turn a shoulder toward me and hurry away.
Some folks at first didn’t register the fact that the paper was not Church-produced. When they saw the identifying Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center information on the paper and realized what they had in their hands, they would immediately, and with a posture of great alarm, look about for a trashcan to throw it away.
Certainly not everyone reacted this way. Some seemed genuinely pleased to receive the information, and a few folded and tucked the paper away so their fellow Mormons would not know they had it. Others would just walk by without a glance in my direction.
I admit that I, too, sometimes ignore people on the street who are trying to get information into my hands. I might be annoyed. I might be disgusted. But I can’t think of a time when I’ve been afraid of the information someone has offered; and fear is a reaction that I saw from a lot of Mormons in Nauvoo. Not merely disinterest. Not simply irritation. Fear.
The fear might stem from a member’s commitment to be obedient to Church leaders who tell them to stay away from people and information that are critical of Mormonism, or perhaps it is born out of an apprehension of having their faith challenged. Either way, I find it somewhat paradoxical.
Mormonism is founded on severe criticism of the Christian faith. Joseph Smith’s First Vision story is one of condemnation of Christian “creeds,” “professors,” and “doctrine” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19). The Book of Mormon criticizes and ridicules traditional Christianity, saying those who believe that the Bible is sufficient are “fools” (2 Nephi 29:6). The Book of Mormon denounces non-Mormon churches as “the Church of the devil…which is the mother of abominations; and…the whore of all the earth” (1 Nephi 14:10). For decades the Church has sponsored the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah in which Christian doctrines on the nature of God and eternal punishment are scorned, and Christian pastors are mocked.
The interesting thing is that the Mormon Church uses all of these things in its proselytizing efforts. It expects and encourages non-Mormons to read information critical of their own Christian faith, while yet encouraging Mormons to shun information that might be critical of Mormonism.
The Mormon Church tells its own members to “ignore…anti-Mormon literature” (Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, 233), describing it as “theological pornography that is damaging to the spirit” (Vaughn J. Featherstone, “The Last Drop in the Chalice,” a BYU devotional given 9/24/85). The Church implies that material should be discarded if its claims do not “build a person’s faith and strengthen commitment [to Mormonism]. If what a person is claiming weakens faith in Christ or resolve to follow the leaders of the Church…it is not of God” (Ryan Morgenegg, “Five Ways to Detect and Avoid Doctrinal Deception,” Church News (online), 9/17/2013).
The paradox is that the progress of Mormonism depends on non-Mormons being willing and unafraid to have their own faith challenged. If everyone were afraid to look at (or were discouraged from looking at) materials critical of their faith, no one would read the Book of Mormon or allow Mormon missionaries to present the story of the foundation of the Restoration — Joseph Smith’s First Vision. If everyone dismissed out of hand anything that did not strengthen their resolve to follow their current church leaders and their commitment to the faith they already had, no one would convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Why should non-Mormons be encouraged to accept material critical of their faith while Mormons themselves are told to shun it?
I can imagine Mormons saying, “This is different. We have the truth and therefore have no need of examining criticisms of our faith.” If this is truly what Mormons believe, why are they so unwilling to examine critical materials in order to “correct those who are in opposition,” as the Bible instructs (2 Timothy 2:25)? Why do they “answer” questions with nothing more than an assertion that the question is but a clever trap? If Mormons have the truth, why are they so reluctant to confront criticisms, even if they believe (as they’ve been told) that critical material “uses lies or half-truths; it distorts, sensationalizes, or misinterprets Church teachings and history” (“Questions and Answers,” New Era, 7/07)? If Mormons really have the truth, surely they have answers to every lie.
Mormons, if you believe you really have the truth, why are you so afraid? Come — let us reason together. Let’s examine the truth – wherever it is found.
“One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” -Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:499
“Our doctrine and practice is, and I have made it mine through life—to receive truth no matter where it comes from.” –Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, 11