When it comes to stories that promote faith or provoke eye rolls, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a veritable gold mine.
The problem for many of the faith’s nearly 17 million members is divining between the two — which stories in the mother lode are genuine gems and which are fool’s gold.
It isn’t always easy. Many tales members share are taller than the truth. Conversely, others sound sketchy but turn out to be gospel — or at least some approximation of fact.
Take Elvis, for example.
Did a Book of Mormon donated to the church in 1989, which contained handwritten comments and was signed EA Presley, really once belong to the singing star? And did the King of Rock really bear testimony about the King of Kings to a Latter-day Saint seminary class?
Which of the two is fact? Or are both bunk?
If you guessed the seminary story, give yourself a gold star. Elvis really did preach to Latter-day Saint students, according to author and Salt Lake Community College adjunct journalism professor Paul Skousen.
Karate expert Ed Parker, one of Elvis’ bodyguards and his longtime friend, once introduced the King to his daughters Beth and Darlene at their early morning seminary class in Pasadena, Calif. Elvis was then invited to speak to the entire class, Skousen says Parker told him during an interview.
Elvis said, “‘I love Jesus, and I worship and follow his teachings. And for you to do this at such a young age is so important. I’m grateful you’re doing that, and I encourage you to keep doing that,’” says Skousen, who recounts the story in his book “The Skousen Book of Mormon World Records and Other Amazing Firsts, Facts and Feats.”
Rumors the King might return, Skousen adds, resulted in near-perfect seminary attendance for months thereafter.
Can’t help falling in love with that Elvis story
As for the Elvis Book of Mormon story, that’s a nugget that didn’t pan out.
Keith Erekson, director of historical research and outreach for the church, recalls being invited by a TV news outlet to talk about a Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, and a second volume containing the church’s Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price that reportedly once belonged to Elvis.
Of particular interest were a signature and handwritten notations in the books. Before talking to the media, Erekson went to work to authenticate whether the faith’s foundational book really did belong to Elvis.
Right away, Erekson noticed several red flags. The book was, according to the alleged context of the handwritten notes, given to Elvis during the last two weeks of his life when he was planning a major tour, hosting his daughter Lisa Marie and reeling from an unflattering exposé a couple of his bodyguards had written about him.
“How would he have had time to read and mark nearly 1,000 pages of scripture during those 14 days before his passing?” Erekson recalls asking himself. “It just didn’t add up.”
Another problem Erekson identified was with the book’s provenance. Three explanations were given: Elvis’ father, Vernon, found the Book of Mormon after his son died and wanted to destroy it but the book was rescued. Vernon wanted to give it to the Osmond family. Or the book was given to an auction house, which decided not to sell it.
Finally, five independent handwriting experts did an analysis. Their verdict — according to a subhead in Erekson’s 2021 book, “Real vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-day Myths” — “It ain’t nothing but a forgery.” Not everyone was happy about the news. In explaining their reaction, Erekson paraphrases a line from Elvis: “A lot of people were all shook up.”
Brigham Young and those temple elevators
Mormon folklore provided plenty more fodder for Erekson’s book, which aims to help members know how to separate fact from fable. A prominent example, the author explains, was the yarn about mysterious shafts that Brigham Young purportedly wanted incorporated into the interior design of the iconic Salt Lake Temple. Later, after the temple was completed and dedicated, the elevator was invented and the shafts were seen as evidence of “divinely guided anticipation of future technology.”
While the tale may offer some a spiritual lift, it falls flat in the truth cellar.
“It is entirely false,” Erekson says. “Elevators were invented long before [construction] of the Salt Lake Temple was even begun. When it was completed, it had three functioning elevators, electricity and was built to the highest fireproof standards. It was a modern building. We even see elevators in the blueprints for the building.”
Erekson believes the tale gets told and retold for two reasons: Tellers want to make a point about prophetic leadership, and they mistakenly assume people in old black-and-white photos lived in a world without technology.
Alas, debunking tall tales in the church can be a tall order. There are so many of them. The mission field is an especially target-rich environment for latter-day myths because, as the late Brigham Young University humanities professor William Wilson once told The Salt Lake Tribune, missionaries “are probably the greatest storytellers of all.”
For example, Adam Clark, who served a mission in the Toronto area, shared the story about a missionary and his dog with The Tribune years ago.
“[He] supposedly ordained a dog an elder,” Clark says, “so he could have a jogging companion.”
Latter-day Saint missionaries are supposed to stay with their human companions at all times.
Devil stories are also legion among young proselytizers.
One oft-told classic is about the missionary who breaks a bone and is healed by the minister of another faith. The mission president later finds out, casts the “evil” spirit out of the elder and the bone rebreaks.
Another story, one of 5,000 Wilson amassed in his Mormon folklore collection, relates the tale of the Protestant minister who tells two missionaries that if they can drink a glass of poison and remain unharmed, he and his entire congregation will join the church. The two Latter-day Saint elders fire back: “Tell you what. You drink the poison, and we’ll raise you from the dead.”
As far-fetched as such stories seem, some seemingly outlandish yarns turn out to be true. For instance, as Skousen tells it in his book, a dinosaur really was named after a Latter-day Saint apostle. It’s the “Torvosaurus tanneri,” a 148-million-year-old critter dinosaur hunter Jim Jensen named in 1981 after N. Eldon Tanner, then an apostle and member of the church’s governing First Presidency.
Close encounters for the celebrity kind
Aviation has also given rise to Mormon stories.
One floated by Curt Bramble, a Utah legislator and Latter-day Saint, is about the time in 1989 he gave Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose a ride in his hot air balloon in Cottonwood Heights — and he has the pictures to prove it. He says the band’s lead guitarist Slash rode in a friend’s balloon.
Bramble recalls Rose being the mellowest person in the basket of his balloon but added the singer worried they might hurt children below during their descent in a neighborhood near Brighton High School.
“‘These kids,’” he says Rose asked, “‘what do you do when there’s a lot of traffic and they can get hurt?’ He was one of the easiest people to talk to that I’ve ever run into. … And he was very impressed with LDS culture and families.”
A more legendary and hotly debated story that members often air on social media is the time Gene R. Cook, now an emeritus general authority, ostensibly shared a 2½-hour flight with Mick Jagger in the 1980s and called the Rollings Stones frontman to repentance for playing the devil’s music.
There’s no doubt Cook says it happened. He has spoken about it on several occasions, including a sermon he delivered to then-Ricks College students in 1989. Among other things, Cook said Jagger told him that the Stones’ music was “calculated to drive the kids to sex” and added “it’s not my fault what they do. That’s up to them. I’m just making a lot of money.”
Cook’s defenders insist the encounter occurred. Others point to the multiple accounts of the story and say they smack of embellishment. They wonder aloud if the story is akin to the goosebump-giving exaggerations former general authority Paul H. Dunn delivered in his sermons. Dunn, who died in 1998, apologized for stretching the truth.
Elin Isakson, who wrote about the Cook-Jagger story for a folklore class at BYU years ago, remains skeptical about whether the encounter took place.
“But if it was Mick Jagger, I think he knew he was sitting next to a churchman and was just messing with him,” says Isakson, who now teaches English at Alpine Academy.
‘Show me the evidence’
For his part, Erekson isn’t familiar enough with the anecdote to weigh in but does say the fact that it stems from Cook’s firsthand account and that he talked about it on several occasions is a good start in determining its authenticity.
His advice upon hearing a story is to take the time to double-check it and look for corroborating evidence. Be especially wary, Erekson adds, of stories that end up with a punchline. In addition, acknowledge you are not an expert on everything and look for elements that don’t jibe.
“If there’s not any evidence, they are twisting the evidence or taking it out of context, or going to great lengths to not tell you what the evidence is,” he warns, “those are signs that let you know something doesn’t quite add up.”
Finally, Erekson recommends listeners develop some simple reflexes.
“One of them is to ask, ‘Show me the evidence? What is it? How does it work?’” Erekson says, adding the source of that information should be reputable, reliable or authentic.
Unfortunately, there are too many folk tales circulating to debunk or verify them all. That’s why Erekson says members’ focus with respect to folklore should be on the future.
“The most important story is the one we haven’t heard yet. It’s the one we meet tomorrow. We have to decide — based on what we know or principles of good evidence or information — am I going to retell this? Am I going to let this inspire me? Or am I going to [investigate] and track this down?”
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