On Nov. 19, the Mormon Church conducted a “Face to Face” event with a group of single adults that was broadcast worldwide. Dallin Oaks and Russell Ballard, members of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, headlined the event and solicited questions for them to answer. When asked what advice the two men had for members of the church with friends who are “struggling with their faith” due to doubt and questions of church history, Mr. Ballard claimed the church has never hid “anything from anybody”.
He candidly said,
Some are saying that the church has been hiding the fact that there’s more than one version of the first vision, which is just not true. The facts are we don’t study, we don’t go back and search what has been said on the subject. For example Dr. James B. Allen of the BYU in 1970, he produced an article for the church magazines explaining all about the different versions of the first vision. ... It’s this idea that the church is hiding something, which we would have to say as two Apostles who have covered the world and know the history of the church and know the integrity of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve from the beginning of time, there has been no attempt on the part in anyway, that the church leaders trying to hide anything from anybody [sic].
Mr. Ballard went on to say,
...just trust us wherever you are in the world and you share this message with anyone else that raises the question about the church not being transparent. We’re as transparent as we know how to be in telling the truth.
This quote shows the narcissistic gaslighting tactics routinely employed by the leaders of the Mormon church. After citing their credentials, asserting their dominance, and shaming the audience for questioning, a bold claim that rejects the skeptical mindset is made. The audience is subsequently directed to simply “trust” those in authority. Such rhetoric is invalidating, discourages exploration and free thought, completely lacks even a shred of empathy, and is thus abusive to active, struggling, and former Mormons alike.
Setting aside the reference to an obscure and hard to find 1970 article in an attempt to claim the church never hid the existence of multiple First Vision accounts, this is a textbook example of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Apparently, in the minds of God’s hand-picked elite, fleeting references to issues that would cause an otherwise believing Mormon to put their eternal salvation in peril, constitutes being open and honest about church history.
Let us stipulate, for the sake of this discussion, that each and every issue in church history that has led a person to abandon their faith in Mormonism has been, at some point, written about in a church publication. Despite this, most ex-Mormons found themselves denying the truthfulness of these issues until they inevitably read it in an obscure publication which they considered to be “approved material”.
The fact that the research department at the Church Office Building can feed Russell Ballard with a 50-year-old reference does not negate the fact that the Mormon Church has manipulated the facts surrounding its own history since its inception.
Even former member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and current executive director of the Church History Department, Steven Snow, knows this. In a 2013 interview, published in Religious Educator, an official LDS publication, Snow said the following,
My view is that being open about our history solves a whole lot more problems than it creates. We might not have all the answers, but if we are open (and we now have pretty remarkable transparency), then I think in the long run that will serve us well. I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation — with the access to information on the Internet, we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.
When a missionary is teaching an investigator and they recite the prescribed verbiage verbatim, there is no hint at all that they are only referring to one of the versions of the First Vision. As the investigator progresses to baptism and begins their journey through Mormonism, decade after decade, no lesson is given to inform them that there were multiple versions. When the convert then learns of other accounts on the internet, it is hardly fair to reference heretofore unsearchable article from 1970 they’ve never seen and claim they were never lied to.
When a member is taught from childhood that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from plates behind a curtain, the sense of betrayal should not be surprising upon discovering the “true” source of the book is a faintly glowing rock. It is manipulative to suggest that the member should have studied church history more thoroughly when the leadership incessantly obfuscates the source materials. That’s not how honesty and transparency work in the real world.
This conundrum, created by this culture of mendacity, has plagued the Mormon church for nearly 170 years. How do they move forward? Many will argue that it is unrealistic to expect missionaries to air all the dirty laundry to investigator or for the men who speak for Jesus to address these issues in General Conference every six months. Perhaps that is true. The ditch has been dug so deep there is no way to simply jump out of it. But the church can climb its way out.
It starts with admitting mistakes were made. Not Steven Snow admitting it. Dallin Oaks needs to admit it. Russell Ballard needs to admit it. Every single man who wants the world to believe that they speak for God needs to look their followers in the eye and say that mistakes were made. This removes the ability for members of the Church to dismiss the issue and claim that those that doubt have no valid reason to do so.
The next step would be to scrub every single manual. There are manuals right now on lds.org that contain half-truths and, in some cases, outright lies. In some cases it would be necessary to explicitly refute what was previously taught so that the class can be instructed that they should not believe that to be true anymore. This will catalyze future instructional accuracy.
The third step would be to create a web page that summarizes all of the major issues that the church feels it should correct the record on. The recent Gospel Topic Essays can be used as a base, but there needs to be a more simplified format that the information is presented in. A matrix that shows what was taught and what is actually correct. Each item can have a footnote to one of the essays or some other appropriate resource.
The final step is to change the rhetoric. Stop telling people that those that question church history just didn’t pay attention enough to the 1970 article by James Allen. That is insulting to everyone’s intelligence. Recognize and validate the fact that there are real concerns over how church history has been presented over the years. Accept the fact that a certain number of people are going to leave the church over it and that they are not bad people for it.
The culture of mendacity and gaslighting needs to die a quick death. It is our plea to those that are in power to take a step back and engage in some self-reflection. Ask yourselves if you could do a better job with the messaging and then take the steps necessary to accept responsibility and correct the issues. To the average Mormon who may read this, it is our plea to you to take a step back from all of this and ask yourself, have I ever been misled through a church source? If so, it does not mean you must abandon the faith. But demand accountability from your leaders and stop demonizing those that have chosen to move on because of the deceptions.
Ryan McKnight and Ethan Dodge are co-founders of the Truth and Transparency Foundation which operates MormonLeaks.io and FaithLeaks.org.