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New Mormon mission: How to teach members the messy part of LDS history, theology

First Published      Last Updated Jul 07 2015 07:05 pm

Essays explain the complexities of the faith, but will they help retain skeptics or chase away the converted?

Mormonism begins with a simple story of heavenly manifestations.

A 19th-century farm boy in upstate New York prays in a thicket of trees and sees God and Jesus. The boy next uses spiritual powers to unearth ancient writings, which he translates into English with the help of Old Testament aids. He founds a faith as a "restoration" of early Christianity, adds more scriptures to the biblical canon, introduces unique doctrines and creates a community of believers.

These tales of Joseph Smith's founding of the LDS Church have been repeated across the globe by generations of Latter-day Saints, as well as Mormon missionaries, eager to convert others to what they believe.

Trouble is, the real history is much more nuanced, complicated, even contradictory.

In one "First Vision" account, Smith said he saw one godly being, not two. He peered into a hat, which held "seer stones," to produce the sacred scripture. He secretly married dozens of women and lied to his first wife, Emma, about it.

Now, prompted by the rise of social media, the availability of LDS documents, groundbreaking scholarship, widespread Internet sharing of little-known aspects of the faith's past and a disturbing exodus of the formerly faithful, Mormonism is in the midst of a landmark effort to integrate new details about its founding — without losing the power of a simple narrative.

Can it add layers of what some see as controversial information without scaring away new converts or longtime members whose devotion is built on the account as they've known it all their lives?

Many historians insist such a shift is not only possible but also essential.

"People may be comforted in the short run by platitudes, but I don't think that leads to growth or to effective action," says Harvard historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. "The answer isn't to replace simplistic stories with footnoted essays. It is to tell better, more complete, stories, stories that are true, that touch issues people really care about."

Others worry that something might be lost in the recalibrating.

"No religion I know of would want to turn its founding stories into history, at least as history is understood today in a scientific sense," says Kathleen Flake, who heads up Mormon studies at the University of Virginia. "Faith is not about fact; nor about fiction, for that matter. It's certainly not a question of sophistication, at all, but of religious sense."

Can 21st-century followers continue to grasp the magical and miraculous in a rational era? Can the church appeal to intellectuals while retaining members more at home with the supernatural?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes it can — and is taking steps to do so. Ever so gingerly.

Tackling tough topics • In December 2013, the LDS Church posted on its website an essay titled "Race and the Priesthood."

The piece probed the prohibition on black men from being ordained to the denomination's all-male priesthood, how it developed, the folk teachings surrounding it and what it took — a divine decree — to eliminate the ban in 1978.

It began under Brigham Young, second LDS president, who was influenced by common racial beliefs of the time, the article says. The policy did not exist during the tenure of Smith, who opposed slavery and personally ordained several African-Americans.

In other words, the ban stemmed more from earthly racism than heavenly revelation — a major change from how most Mormons saw it.

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From Abraham to blacks to Brigham

They have tackled touchy topics:

Did Mormon leader Brigham Young order the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Do Latter-day Saints believe a man can become like God? How did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Abraham?

These are just some of the prickly questions confronted in a string of provocative essays released by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

To read summaries of past articles and view links to Salt Lake Tribune stories and the essays themselves, go to http://tinyurl.com/o6zqjpx.