This is Part 3 in my series on What I Believe and Why – History and Learning
I wasn’t sure how to best title this part of the series because it is really just a handful of topics that relate to how I see the scriptures, Joseph Smith, current criticisms commonly leveled at the church, and important topics about how we can better teach our children. These topics are very important to many people I know, and I hope they make a difference for someone out there.
Here we go…
“Mormons believe, revere and love the Holy Bible. We see it as a powerful, important, and sacred holy record which serves as the bedrock of all Christianity. The Bible is rich in history, doctrine, stories, sermons and testimonies, all of which witness that Jesus Christ is the Divine Son of our Heavenly Father. The Bible is the word of God and came from the writings of holy men of God as they were moved upon by the Holy Ghost (see 2 Peter 1:20-21).” – Mormon.org
What are the scriptures? They are inspired histories of people’s experiences with God. The history of Christianity, and therefore Mormonism, begins with the stories and writings of the Bible. For me, the scriptures are simple: They are the writings, stories, prophecies, and songs of different individual and communal experiences with God. I believe that God wants us to have these writings for our own faith, for our own growth, and for the benefit of future generations. What I don’t believe about scriptures is that that every word was placed perfectly by the hand of God. Some parts of the Holy Bible began as oral traditions. Later those stories were written down along with newer histories and stories. Many centuries later the thousands of writings available were reviewed, compiled, and edited for the benefit of those who believe in God or who want to find God.
I realize some may be uncomfortable with the idea that bias and errors can be made in the writing of scripture and yet they remain inspired by God. However, if solely judged based on perfection, we are being unfair to those who did so much to bring us the Holy Bible just because their experiences contradicted others experiences in different places of the Holy Bible. Inspired by God is not the same as perfect word for word.
Reading the inspired writings of the Holy Bible brings us closer to God because true learning comes through the study and understanding of life experiences. If a short to-do list was God’s desire for us then we would only need a few chapters of scripture. However, since life is complicated, and we are all different, I think the thousands of inspired stories and writings of the Holy Bible are fundamental in our faith in Jesus Christ.
One other important thing I believe that makes scripture different than other stories and books is that when we add the study of God’s inspired scriptures to our faithful prayers, and our meditations we will receive revelations from Him. He has ordained them for this purpose and there is power there that cannot be found in other sources.
Joseph Smith and Restorationism
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.” – James 1:5-6
I have two stories about Joseph Smith that explain why I believe he was an inspired prophet. I believe that he has restored many things that were lost over centuries, and that we have prophets now who help us as the world continues to change.
- When I was a missionary I wasn’t sure if he was a prophet. I thought he was and I believed in many of the doctrines he helped restore and that I had been taught, but I had never had a spiritual experience to prove to me that he was. One month into my mission I was teaching a man named Kory. During the lesson he asked me how I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet. I had been praying about this for the previous few weeks every night, and so I said a quick prayer to God and then began to tell him why I thought he was. As I spoke, the room filled with an overpowering feeling of light and intensity. He and I connected and were both filled with emotion. We both knew that God was speaking to us and that Joseph Smith was a prophet. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
- A few years after my mission I learned so many things about Joseph that I didn’t know before and really began contemplating him as a person. I was struggling to reconcile some things about Joseph Smith at the same time as I was living contrary to how I had been taught I should. I read “Rough Stone Rolling” written by Richard Bushman, a Columbia professor and member of the Church. This book offers an unvarnished history of the early church. Reading this book, I realized that Joseph was a flawed man who made mistakes – just like all of us. Despite that, I also gained confirmation that he was in fact inspired, did miraculous things and brought about miraculous things. It changed my heart because I realized that he was an applicable example for me. I wasn’t perfect, but God would still use me if I was willing. Now I love Joseph Smith, not because he was always correct, but because he wasn’t and God still used him to do amazing things.
I understand why people question things about Joseph Smith, but I think if you look at the lives of the early Christian apostles, and any other important figures, with the exception of Christ, you can find limitations, weaknesses, failings, and serious mistakes in each of them. In my opinion, God never intended to take perfect men to be His witnesses, but instead He meant to take ordinary people so we could all have confidence that God loved us and would communicate with us even though we too are limited, weak, biased, and often fail.
The Book of Mormon
“Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” – Moroni 10:3-5
There will always be critics of the Book of Mormon, just like there are scholarly critics of every other religious text. I have studied most of the critiques and studied apologetic analyses, and there are so many interesting things to learn there that can increase confidence in the miraculous nature of the Book of Mormon. However, there is something I have found through my experience: When I study the actual book, not study what other people say about it, including the church, but I really study what Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, and others are actually trying to say, it changes me. I find answers to my problems, I see other human beings differently, I love my family more, I want to be a better person and I actually do things to make me a better person. Most importantly though, I feel that God loves me and is talking to me.
Just like the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon is not perfect. Sometimes, because we believe the Book of Mormon to be “the most correct of any book,” we assume it to be flawless. While it is the subject of less editing and compiling through the centuries, even the writers and editors of the book have expressed their understanding of weaknesses contained in their writing (1 Nephi 19:6; 2 Nephi 33:11; 3 Nephi 5:18; Ether 12:23-25,40). Nephi, the first Book of Mormon author, said it best:
“Nevertheless, I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. And now, if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself.” – 1 Nephi 19:6
Many either look upon scripture as the word of God and say, “They must be perfect”, or recognizing the flaws in scripture, say, “This isn’t perfect so it must not be from God.” Both points of view are wrong in my opinion, I believe the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormon to be the writings of men with weakness, but still, inspired by God to help us in our lives. I think we spend too much time trying to confirm our biases with scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, or looking for this proof or this flaw, but we don’t spend enough time thinking about these amazing people’s experiences with God and how they can make us closer to God ourselves. I believe the Book of Mormon is from God because it brings me closer to God and I believe that is what the author’s intentions were in the first place.
“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God…” – 2 Nephi 25:23
I wish everyone would read it with the intent to get closer to God and pray for that as well, I believe they would be changed. I love this testimony of Clayton Christensen, (page 3) probably the most respected professor at Harvard, a member of the church and widely considered one of the greatest thinkers in the world.
Prophetic Infallibility and Continuing Revelation
“And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.” – Dieter Uchtdorf “Come Join with Us”
This is a topic that could be turned into a book, and has been by others, but what I believe is actually quite simple: Prophets can be inspired by God and make mistakes. This has been true of prophets throughout history as recorded in the scriptures. In my opinion, the problem isn’t the imperfect shepherds, but rather the lazy sheep. There is joke that Catholic doctrine holds that the Pope is infallible, but Catholics believe he isn’t, whereas Mormon doctrine holds that the prophet is not infallible, but we act as though he is.
We have always been taught to sustain the leaders of the church while seeking answers from God personally. Sustaining our leaders doesn’t mean we affirm their “perfection”. It means we try to help them do a difficult thing in leading the church. We help and serve, even if that means pointing out things that don’t make sense or with which we disagree, all in the spirit of helping and love for God and our fellow humans. Ultimately, for me, I have seen more things changed by me getting involved and serving and helping than by my complaining and fighting (and I’ve tried both). I realize it isn’t easy, but was it easy for the Children of Israel to wander 40 years in a barren wasteland because of the imperfections of their leaders? Their patience was worth the wait.
We believe in continuing revelation and that is something one must believe to rationally believe in a God who wants to help us. This means that wrongs can be righted, changes can and should be made, and things will always change to fit the needs of us: the humans who need the help.
Church Governance and Correlation
“I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions..” Joseph Smith
One of my favorite posts I have written is about this topic and I think it is more useful than anything else I could write about it here. However, the simple point is that Church Correlation and Church Governance will always be hard to apply to all circumstances. This is why we have freedom and personal relationships with God. The church, the manuals, the programs, the organizations, they are all guideposts and helps to us on our journey, just like scriptures, prayer, and the Holy Ghost. We should use them all because using them all will bring us closer to God.
Studying church publications and manuals doesn’t absolve us of the need to learn from the Holy Ghost and from our own study.
A reporter questioned President George Albert Smith about the following quote from a church magazine: “Any Latter-day Saint who denounces or opposes, whether actively or otherwise, any plan or doctrine advocated by the “prophets, seers, and revelators” of the Church is cultivating the spirit of apostasy…. Lucifer … wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to “do their own thinking… 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.” Improvement Era 1945
Response to this Quotation from President George Albert Smith: “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 is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.”
Church History and Religious History
“There are altogether too many people in the world who are willing to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit. Their faith never goes below the surface soil of authority. I plead with everyone I meet that they may drive their faith down through that soil and get hold of the solid truth, that they may be able to withstand the winds and storm of indecision and of doubt, of opposition and persecution. Then, and only then, will we be able to defend our religion successfully. When I speak of defending our religion, I do not mean such defense as an army makes on the battlefield but the defense of a clean and upright and virtuous life lived in harmony with an intelligent belief and understanding of the gospel. As Mormons, we should do with religion as we do with music, not defend it but simply render it. It needs no defense. The living of religion is, after all, the greatest sermon, and if all of us would live it, we would create a symphony which would be appreciated by all.” Hugh B. Brown (Quorum of Twelve Apostles)
Church History is a popular source of contention the past 10 years or so. There are some very vocal people out there expressing that they have left the church because they were lied to about the church’s history. While I believe the amount of people in this category is generally overemphasized online, I do believe there are some out there who have assumed the church’s history was one thing and realized later it was different, and it has caused some problems. I have a few thoughts on this before we go into the relevant topics:
- Whenever we read or learn about history we are usually guilty of Presentism. Meaning we apply the way we, and our peers, see the world to the people we read about in history. Some the things that were considered normal in the past are appalling and dumbfounding to us now, but if we can try to remove our current feelings it makes it easier to see clearly the people and events in history. Context is the key.
- Most of the same arguments used toward Mormon History have been used for hundreds of years toward Christian History. Historical arguments vary based on how “facts” are interpreted and are only a part of evaluating the value of religion.
- Most people are not interested or willing to really delve headlong into studying history. For this reason they will go to summaries, abridged history books, quips, and blog posts for their history. This means they are basically getting someone’s opinion of history without context.
- Apologetic Church or Bible History will always be necessarily faith promoting, critic’s history will always be necessarily critical of events and its participants. Many try to be as objective as possible, but with history the interpretation of the facts weighs as heavy as the facts themselves. This will always leave room for belief on either side of the analysis.
- All people have good and bad in them and if you want to find bad in someone’s history you will find it, but if you understand that you yourself have bad in your life and good in your life, you can learn from history whether there be good or bad in it.
We need to teach our children the history of the church and its leaders with all of the details. Our history, and the history of religion as a whole, has so many miraculous and great events and characters, hiding the gory details will only lead to distrust from your children when they learn those details on their own.
The Gospel Topics Essays
“And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith…” D&C 88:118
Everyone should know the Gospel Topics Essays exist. I also believe the book “A Reason for Faith” should be in every Mormon’s home. I have found answers in these essays, but more importantly it is essential that people realize that the Church is progressing in its efforts to not only document its history, but also to help us have access to it. The Joseph Smith Papers Project is unrivaled in the religious world in its openness to documents from the founding of Mormonism. There are few religions in the world that are that open with its historical documents. We need to know our history to answer questions to those seeking to find the Lord through the many amazing thing the Church has to offer. The Gospel Topic Essays are the minimum we should have read and understand.
“Young people sometimes doubt the truth of the gospel or some part of it, and feeling the worthy desire to be sincere, they cease to be active in the church. The answer to them is to be sincere always. One must never violate one’s integrity, whatever it may cost. But must one believe all or nothing? Must one cut off church participation — the great source of righteousness in one’s life and in the community, because there is some doctrine doubted or disbelieved? Rather, is it not wisdom to begin, not with doubts and faults, but with the simple truths and virtues one can believe, then move on from there to others? Surely no one would claim to know all the gospel. Great truths are always just around the corner for those who seek. Jesus told us to knock, seek and ask, not just once, but continuously. One step at a time applies to progress in the gospel as it does to education or any worthwhile achievement. One is not a hypocrite if he has honest questions and is active in the church at the same time.” – Hugh B. Brown (1950’s)
I wrote a blog post about this and I suggest reading it. It contains a glossary of topics, links to many different resources, and plenty of ideas on how parents can relate to their children and friends in the increasing place the internet has in our lives. It is crucial that parents recognize how much information is gathered through internet for their children and for their peers. If you do not understand it and know how to navigate and teach them how to navigate you will be ill prepared for the problems that will come.
Since this is the end of the series, I would like to say that it has been a very long, but otherwise, rewarding experience to write down my thoughts on all of these topics. I recognize that not everyone will agree with my points of view, but like I said in the beginning, I hope those that disagree can see value in what I believe, and I also hope those who didn’t think it was acceptable to believe what I do and be strong in the faith can feel empowered to not only keep the faith, but to increase faith by getting more involved in the Body of Christ. I love God, I love Christ, and I do love the Gospel. I love that God has given me a mind and the ability to learn for myself what is important. I believe that helping even one person is where true joy comes from and I hope this series accomplishes that.