Mormon Apocalypse Not

So the editor of a virulent anti-Mormon website, which I will not link to or reference here, has filed a legal complaint in England against Thomas S. Monson under the British fraud statute passed in 2006. According to the suit, Monson has deliberately perpetuated seven separate lies for the intent of bilking two British citizens out of ten percent of their income via tithing payments to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The plaintiff insists that this stunt will result in a “Mormon apocalypse” that will cause the entire church to implode from within, leaving nothing but theological rubble in its wake.

Yowsa.

The supposedly fraudulent premises that President Monson used to get his hands on tithing receipts are as follows:

    1. The Book of Abraham is a literal translation of Egyptian papyri by Joseph Smith.
    2. The Book of Mormon was translated from ancient gold plates by Joseph Smith, is the most correct book on earth and is an ancient historical record.
    3. Native Americans are descended from an Israelite family which left Jerusalem in 600 B.C.
    4. Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed as martyrs in 1844 because they would not deny their testimony of the Book of Mormon.
    5. The Illinois newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor had to be destroyed because it printed lies about Joseph Smith.
    6. There was no death on this planet prior to 6,000 years ago.
    7. All humans alive today are descended from just two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago.

The plaintiff seems to be chomping at the bit to get each of these statements to be considered by a court of law, which would presumably find them demonstrably false. The problem is that each has its problems, and many aren’t accurate representations of what Thomas Monson and the church over which he presides teaches.

Contention #1 is the “smoking gun” for anti-Mormons, because fragments of the papyri Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham turned up in the 1960s, and they consist of excerpts from the Book of Breathings, and ancient Egyptian funerary scroll. The problem is that they represent a tiny fraction of the documents in Joseph’s possession, and they aren’t part of the so-called “long scroll” that contempory witnesses pegged as the source for the Book of Abraham. The Church does not teach that these scraps are the source of the Book of Abraham, which means the contention stems from a false premise.

Contention #2 requires the plaintiff to prove a negative, which is all but impossible. In Joseph Smith’s favor, there were 11 witnesses who saw the physical plates, and there is much internal and external evidence that suggests that The Book of Mormon is indeed a historical document, evidence that critics either dismiss or ignore. As for the book being the most “correct” on earth, critics often seize on grammatical errors therein to prove this a false statement, when, in fact, the case for the book’s “correctness” rests on the idea that, in Joseph Smith’s words, a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” At issue is the definition of “correctness,” and legalistic word parsing ignores the context and the clear intention of the statement.

Contention #3 again attempts to prove a negative based on faulty assumptions about DNA studies that have failed to produce evidence of Semitic genetic markers in Native American populations. Such studies are severely limited in what they can definitively conclude, and they do not constitute proof that Lehi didn’t exist. And if Lehi did exist and has any living descendants, modern genetic science suggests that all Native American could therefore claim him as a common ancestor.

Contention #4 again takes a legalistic approach to the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Those who murdered them in cold blood did so for a host of reasons, but surely their hatred for the men was fueled by their stubborn insistence that they were engaged in the work of the Lord, and the Book of Mormon was at the center of their ministry. Had Joseph and Hyrum abandoned the Book of Mormon prior to their incarceration, it is unlikely they would have lost their lives at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob. Believers who therefore chose to characterize them as martyrs are well within their rights to do so.  In any case, the definition of martyrdom is entirely subjective.

Contention #5 is utterly bizarre. Prominent, faithful Mormon historians, notably Truman Madsen and Richard Bushman, have characterized Joseph’s destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor as a very bad thing.  Ben B. Banks, an emeritus General Authority and my former mission president, gave a 2006 devotional at BYU Idaho in which he stated that “both friends and enemies of the Prophet now agree that the act, legal or not, was unwise and inflammatory and was the major immediate factor that culminated in the Prophet’s death.” If a high-ranking church leader can criticize this event with impunity,  surely it’s ludicrous to suppose that support for the Expositor’s destruction is a key tenet of Latter-Day Saint teaching.

Contention #6 is not Church doctrine. To quote Brigham Young: “whether [God] made [the Earth] in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject.”  Yes, there have been church leaders, notably Joseph Fielding Smith, who have believed this, but there have been many  others, notably David O. McKay, who have not. The Church does not teach this as doctrine and does not require members to believe it.

Contention #7 is an indictment of the vast majority of Judeo/Christian thinking for thousands of years. Good luck with that.
That, of course, illustrates the central problem with this suit.  You want a court to affirm that the Adam and Eve story isn’t scientifically verifiable? Then how about Christ’s resurrection? Mohammad’s ascension? Moses parting the Red Sea? Every fundamental doctrine of every major world religion would therefore be a basis for fraud based on lack of empirical evidence.

All of that, of course, is tangential to this lawsuit’s real problem, which was summarized by a friend of mine who posted a link to this complain of Facebook.

“So this is what Thomas S. Monson will have to answer to in London,” my friend wrote. “Knowing deceit. ”

In other words, it’s not enough to prove that the Book of Mormon is hooey and that there was no Adam and Eve, despite both of those being unprovable negatives. No, to win this case, this guy has to prove that Thomas S. Monson knows that the Book of Mormon is hooey, and yet he lies about it in order to “to make a gain for himself,” to quote from the complaint. He also, apparently, has to prove that the reason he champions the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor is because he’s trying to bilk people out of their tithing dollars.

I asked my friend to explain this to me. When, for instance, does the deception begin? High-ranking church leaders start as low-ranking church leaders who genuinely believe this stuff. At what point do they abandon their integrity to actively perpetuate a lie? Do they discover the church is a fraud when they’re called as bishops? Stake presidents? Area authorities? Or do you have to become an apostle in order to get in on the secret – that this is all a scheme to line the pockets of the guys at the top?

Sure the integrity these men have at the lower levels doesn’t just vanish as they age. If they were, indeed, called upon to deliberetaly perpetuate a hoax,  their consciences would eat them alive. And yet, none of them waver in their commitment to the lie. And they seem serene and content rather than fraught with guilt. And Thomas Monson is the serenist and contentist of the whole bunch.

If this is the best the anti-Mormons have in the way of sparking a Mormon apocalypse, then they must be pretty depressed. This case is going nowhere, and everyone knows it. What mystifies me is the fact that so many who hate the church are willing to believe the worst of those who continue to support it.

Sustaining the Fallible

My briefly resurgent acting career led to many backstage discussions on a variety of topics, but religion usually came to the forefront. On one occasion, I was asked how I could support a church where the policy is that “when the prophet has spoken, the thinking has been done.”

I responded by saying that wasn’t the policy, and that I didn’t believe that.

“No, no, I’ve heard that over and over again through the years,” my debating partner said. “If that’s not the policy now, then they’ve changed it – which means it wasn’t inspired in the first place.”

So I took to Google, and I found the source for the quote in question. It comes from a 1945 church magazine, wherein the uncredited author states the following in a Ward Teaching message:

When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.

Yikes.

What to make of this? For if this is true, then our leaders who get to think for us must be infallible.  But infallibility is at odds with the central doctrine of agency, which ensures that even the prophet has the freedom to make mistakes. To presume, then, that everything our leaders say flows directly from the mind of the Almighty is to suggest that at some point, either agency is extracted from the souls of the church hierarchy, or they achieve perfection in mortality.

Since neither of those is a workable possibility, that statement must be wrong.

Lest you think me faithless in coming to that conclusion, I share the concurring opinion of President George Albert Smith, who was the president of the church at the time this statement appeared in a church publication. In a letter written to a Unitarian minister criticizing the idea of mindless Mormons, President Smith had this to say:

The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.

I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church… [which] gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.”

I shared that with my debating partner, who scoffed at the idea. “Do you get to pick and choose, then? Who gets to decide what’s true and what isn’t?”

 We do.

Not only do we get to decide, we have the responsibility to decide. And God will hold us, not our leaders, accountable for the choices we make.

My debating partner saw this as a cop out. I see it, however, as the central principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let’s cite a practical example. Our leaders have taught us that it is essential that we keep the Sabbath day holy. It’s one of the Ten Commandments; Christ Himself reiterated its importance during His mortal ministry, and modern revelation commands us to do it, too. So how do we go about it?

Well, back in the time of Moses, most of the thinking on the subject was done for you. Specific rules were prescribed that outlined exactly what you could and couldn’t do.  By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the rules had been codified to the point of absurdity – you can take X number of steps on the Sabbath, for instance, and only eat eggs laid on the Sabbath by a “laying hen.” Jesus rejected all that – he “fulfilled” the law, meaning that the principle of the law was still in effect, but you were responsible for how you obeyed it. You keep the Sabbath Day holy, and you justify to God why your choices make that happen.

No leader stands between you and Christ. You, personally, are accountable for every choice you make.

Of course, that’s not just true of you and me. That’s true of Thomas S. Monson, too – and every other prophet who has ever lived. If it were not so, then agency would have no meaning, and the purpose of this life would be thwarted.

I thought about that as I read this essay by a guy named Ganesh Cherian at Patheos.com, a guy who probably ought to know better. He’s a former bishop and a current high counsellor who read the LDS Church’s brilliant new essays on difficult subjects and is now experiencing a crisis of faith because, whether he realizes it or not, he believes both the Church and its leaders are supposed to be infallible.

Consider Cherian’s reaction to the essay about the Book of Mormon translation process, which discusses the various accounts of the translation which suggest that Joseph used a seerstone in addition to the Urim and Thummim. “How was I to know that a stone he found in a well was instrumental in this process of translation?” he laments. “Every picture, or  video I have ever seen has him sitting at a table with the gold plates before him pouring over these ‘curious characters’ by the light of a candle!”

So now it’s not just infallible prophets Cherian expects – it’s infallible pictures and videos! Never mind that there is no information in that essay that hasn’t be readily available for over a century to anyone interested in looking for it, and that the stuff he finds so problematic has been mentioned in General Conference and discussed intently in a variety of forums. The fact that he passed along his own uninformed opinion is evidence that the church is engaged in disinformation. Apparently, Cherian’s error is the Church’s fault.

Or try this on for size:

“As recently as June I reasoned with a friend that polygamy was needed because there were so many more women than men at the time,” this guy writes, noting that it is “an argument that the polygamy essay seems now to repudiate.”

Well, yeah. It’s an argument that’s also repudiated by the 132nd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, which explains precisely why polygamy was practiced and has been in print for over 150 years. The article quotes John A. Widtsoe’s 1945 statement that debunks this Mormon folk legend, so it’s not as if the Church has suddenly shifted gears radically. Yet, once again, his lazy acceptance of a hoary folk story is somehow a sign of the Church’s mendacity. “I love my church and credit where I am in my life to years of church service,” he says, “but I cannot ignore the dishonesty.”

Dishonesty? Whose dishonesty? All the information that shocked him has been around forever. Every issue Cherian finds problematic stems from his own mistakes and misunderstandings. It is likely that Cherian will continue to compound his error, as his essay makes it clear that he expects infallibility from his leaders and his church. “I understand how essential it is to ‘sustain’ the Brethren,” he says,  “but these days I live with a caution that those ideals that I believe today could be dismissed by future First Presidencies.”

Well, of course they could be, but its unlikely they will. It’s doubtful that First Presidencies will dismiss genuine ideals – don’t expect the Law of Chastity to go away anytime soon. But will future First Presidencies gain greater insight and change church policies in the future? Of course! Isn’t that the reason we have a First Presidency? Living prophets guide the church through the times in which they live, and the church adapts accordingly. Line upon line, precept on precept. If Jesus went from “grace to grace,” as the Doctrine and Covenants said He did, we should certainly expect his church to do likewise.

Yet are these leaders going to make mistakes along the way? Of course they are. They don’t forfeit their agency when they accept high callings, nor should we expect them to. But so many do expect them to, and that’s the problem.

So many people who find themselves doubting and then abandoning the church feel they’ve stumbled on some great secret when the discover their leaders are fallible. This has always been the case. In the days of Joseph Smith, people left the church because the prophet misspelled their names in revelations. Joseph, and all of his successors, have repeatedly made it clear that they are imperfect human beings, but the expectations of others won’t allow them the right to fallibility that they claim for themselves.

Returning to my backstage banter with my debating partner, the question was then raised as to how I could sustain a leader if I know they make mistakes. Could I sustain them and follow them even if what I know what they’re asking me to do is wrong?

Well, yes and no. There’s wrong and there’s wrong.  I’ve never been asked by a church leader to violate the principles of the gospel. I have, however, been asked to do things with which I disagree.

For example.

I had one bishop who addressed our elder’s quorum with his concern that some of us were not adhering to what he called “the uniform of the priesthood.” He insisted that to wear anything other than a white shirt to church was an act of disrespect. (At the time, I had a black shirt that I thought looked really cool, and I had almost worn that they day he raised this issue.) He told us we all ought to wear white shirts to church from there on out.

The members of the quorum reacted in a number of different ways.

Some, who wore white shirts regularly and didn’t need to do anything to come into compliance with this requirement, took it in stride and paid little attention. Others, including the bishop’s counselor, took it as a point of pride to wear colored shirts from that point forward to demonstrate that the bishop had overstepped his bounds. (None of those who did this, incidentally, were disciplined in any way for ignoring the bishop’s counsel.)

Then there was me.

I thought, and still think, that this is a silly bit of nonsense. The Lord is not offended by colored textiles, and this struck me as a bit of cultural nonsense that the bishop had accepted as being more important than it really was. I disagreed with his counsel.

But from that point forward, I wore a white shirt to church.

Why? Because this bishop was a good man, and I sustained him. And he was a righteous man who loved and served the Lord, and he was in a position of leadership that deserved my respect. And if all I had to do to show my support of this man was don a white shirt, it was the least I could do.

We are not supposed to sustain church leaders in spite of their fallibility. We sustain them because of their fallibility. Because they’re imperfect, they need us to help them and bear them up, not criticize them for every misstep. Sustaining the fallible is the point of having a church in the first place. That’s the central purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Savior expects us to love others as he has loved us. He has loved us knowing perfectly just how imperfect we are. When we expect perfection from others, even those at the highest levels of the church, we are not being remotely Christlike.

There. Stallion has spoken, and the thinking has been done.

(That’s a joke.)