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In this new era of doubt, will a stronger Mormon faith emerge?

First Published      Last Updated Mar 21 2017 09:14 pm

Precarious balance » Buffeted from the outside by secular and cultural pressures, from the inside by historical discrepancies and the perceived infallibility of their leaders, Mormons find themselves questioning — some even leaving — the faith.

Mormonism has had its doubters and dropouts since its founding nearly two centuries ago, but today's crisis of faith among Information Age believers somehow seems new.

Modern. Multifaceted. Unexpected. Unusually troubling. Vast.

It is affecting Latter-day Saints of all types, young and old, lifers and converts, women and men, scholars, students and scientists, stay-at-home parents and careerists. Their numbers appear staggering as many wrestle with questions of prophetic fallibility, historic revisionism, polygamy, the origins of the faith's signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, past racism and violence, women's roles in a male-led hierarchy and where gays fit in the culture and the creed.

Believing intellectuals — including historians Richard and Claudia Bushman and literary experts Terryl and Fiona Givens — have defended Mormonism in correspondence, published pieces and intimate "fireside" conversations. The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University has issued several volumes, exploring the theological strengths of the American-born religion.

The 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints produced 11 essays, outlining more forthright and nuanced views of Mormon history and doctrine, while the LDS History Museum redid its main exhibit, including context and controversies in its description of the faith's founding events. In recent years, even its typically cautious official publishing arm has produced high-profile books addressed to questioning Mormons.

In late December, Deseret Book came out with another work along this line: "Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt," by Patrick Q. Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.

Have all these LDS efforts slowed or halted the faith-crisis trajectory, which has catapulted many out of the fold? Or is the exodus just gaining momentum? And, in the long run, will the church emerge weaker or stronger?

Awakening • Collin McDonald attended LDS Church services Jan. 31 for the last time.

McDonald's questioning began in 2012, while preparing to teach his Mormon Sunday school class about church founder Joseph Smith's experience with the divine.

Known as the "First Vision," the canonical account describes Smith's encounter with two heavenly beings, God the Father and Jesus Christ, during which the 14-year-old Smith was told not to join any church and that he would be the instrument through which the uncorrupted gospel would be returned to the Earth.

That version, published decades later, doesn't match the details Smith had offered on earlier occasions, including one in which he said he saw only "the Lord." The discrepancies are described and explained in the faith's own essay on the topic. The various accounts are merged in the revamped history museum.

McDonald, a lifelong Mormon in South Jordan, had only ever heard the official one.

Thus began his quest to grasp the facts — and not just faith-promoting interpretations — about Mormon history. McDonald thought he could cope with the issues of the past. He then ran into a distressing development in the present: LDS leaders announced a policy in November labeling same-sex Mormon couples apostates and denying their children baptism until they turn 18.

Since then, McDonald, whose sister is gay, has felt "tortured and suffocated," he says. "I have now chosen to step away."

McDonald was among the more than 1,700 Mormons and former believers who responded to The Salt Lake Tribune's outreach to those grappling with a faith crisis. They hailed from across the nation and other countries. Nearly a third have left the LDS Church, many citing a blend of triggers from historical anomalies to contemporary concerns. Even more no longer are practicing Mormons. Dozens cited Jeremy Runnells' 2013 "Letter to a CES [Church Educational System] Director," which outlined numerous questions about Mormonism's past and present. Runnells says he has been told by his local lay leaders in American Fork that he may face a church disciplinary council next month.

For McDonald, his parting with the faith may not be final.

"I don't feel like I'm divorced from the church or if this is just a separation," he says. "I don't know if taking my name off the [church's membership] rolls is going to be in the cards for me. If a pattern of retrenchment continues on social issues, that will make it more difficult."

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