Tobacco, Milk, Fact-checking & Testimony

Posted by on April 1, 2013 in Belief, history | 21 comments

When I was very new in my career, I wrote a pamphlet.  If I were to rewrite this particular pamphlet today, I would delete a quote I took from a reputable source that stated, “You would have to gain 100 pounds to equal the health risks of smoking.”

I had the best of intentions when I included that quote.  Smoking is extremely damaging to the human body and I sincerely believe people should not smoke.  Some people are afraid to quit smoking because they might gain weight.  The “fact” I included in the pamphlet could encourage them to make the right decision.

However, as I gained more experience in my profession, I learned to dig a little deeper before I accepted facts, even if they came from a reputable source.  cigarettes 1003662_39361000I later did an extensive search for the original methods used to calculate the “100 pounds” number.  The quote had become quite popular and I found it in dozens of anti-smoking materials.  I determined that it originally came from a well-respected health organization.  However, the organization had offered no explanation for their math.  It appeared that they had made that “fact” up.

Today, obesity is emerging as arguably the greatest public health problem facing affluent countries of the world.  Although that quote promotes smoking cessation,  it also has the unfortunate side effect of minimizing the dangerous effects of obesity.  Even well-intentioned untruths are dangerous.

I am not the only person who makes such mistakes. For example, there is a story frequently relayed by General Authorities about how early Mormon apostle Thomas B. Marsh left the Church because of a silly argument about milk.  You can find versions of the story in talks by Thomas S. Monson, David A. Bednar, and Gordon B. Hinckley.

I believe that the General Authorities who have told this story have had the best of intentions. They want to prevent people from becoming easily offended; they want to encourage people to stay in the Church. The factual error is an understandable mistake. They are quoting reputable sources, such as previous conference talks by other General Authorities and Church Educational System texts.

However, some extra digging reveals that the original source of the milk story was a person who was not a witness to the incident and who related the story 25 years after the incident allegedly occurred.(Reference 1, 2)  In that light, the story sounds more like gossip or hearsay than history.  If the milk argument incident happened at all, it was most likely not the milk argument that led Marsh to leave the Mormon Church but more serious issues surrounding the violence of certain early Mormons.  At least, that is what Marsh himself said, and he seems a better source for information about his own intentions than an unrelated person who gossiped about him decades later.

Like the smoking cessation fact, this untrue story carries some dangerous side effects.  The story vilifies deceased people who were not guilty of the pettiness attributed to them.  It does the same for modern Mormons who choose to leave the Church, since the story implies that people leave the Church due to silly offenses instead of legitimate concerns. This attitude can prevent the Church from addressing legitimate concerns that are causing people to leave.

For these important reasons, I would encourage our church leaders to improve their fact-checking.  But even if they don’t, there is one side effect of such factual errors that we Mormons can avoid.  Some of us base our testimonies on the idea that everything a prophet says from the pulpit is true.  If you believe that prophets and apostles channel God directly and never speak with their own, human, fallible tongues, discovering a factual error in a talk by a prophet or apostle can shatter your testimony.  It doesn’t have to.

I have accepted that, like me, a prophet can make a mistake once in awhile.  I can believe in his prophetic calling while maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism about some of the things he says.  My skepticism does not damage my faith; it preserves it from inevitable disappointment.

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21 Comments

  1. This is an important point, April. I always thought the milk and cheese story a bit weird, if only because it seemed to me that the failings of Marsh’s wife were the foundation– making her into a restoration-era Eve (for those who presume Eve was led astray), especially since nothing is mentioned of her after the while incident.

    It seems to me that a lot of church materials are focused on an idealised, folkloric history to prove a miraculous point, whereas in reality, commonplace practices and habits make for many tiny miracles, so many that we cannot see them. We seek for the grand miraculous overflow of good or evil that came of a small thing, because that is what we are taught.

    The truth is so much better, if only because it is realistically attainable.

    Thank you for setting this story straight.

    • I hadn’t thought of the parallels to the temptress Eve interpretations, but you may have a point. This story may have been particularly powerful at the time it was originally told because it describes the danger of a man siding with a woman instead of the male priesthood hierarchy.

  2. All 3 apostles you referenced had verifiable sources. You just happened to pick some that are online that support the opinion you personally hold (after some extra digging). Not once did you provide conclusive evidence that the event didn’t happen, only that it sounds like gossip to you.

    Also, the apostles explain that Marsh didn’t just have an argument about cream and leave the church. President Monson describes how the situation escalated. Let it be known that Marsh apologized, repented and sought acceptance from the church years later because of his behavior.

    I agree that the truth is so much better.

    • Jace, Hinckley offered no reference for his account of the Marsh story, and both Monson and Bednar used the same source: George A Smith, who, as I mentioned in the post, was not a direct witness to any of the alleged events and who told the tale decades later. Yes, they have a source, but it isn’t a very good one. Just because you can quote someone else saying something does not make it true. I would prefer to see contemporary evidence of the incident, such as journal entries or meeting minutes or letters or statements from actual witnesses, before vilifying the parties allegedly involved. Also, while it is true that Marsh apologized for leaving the church, (see http://jod.mrm.org/5/206) he made no mention of any milk strippings incident. You can believe it happened if you want to, but I don’t know of any evidence that it did outside of George A. Smith’s allegations. If you happen to know of some more reliable evidence that the incident occurred, by all means, please share.

      • I do believe it happened. I would prefer to see that contemporary evidence too but you have hand-picked your own sources. If you happen to know of some more reliable evidence that the incident didn’t occur then, by all means, share. That was my point.

        You can choose to see the story as a slander and vilification of Marsh or as an example of how people do actually leave the church over minor offenses. Clearly Marsh felt what he did was wrong even if you don’t believe the story.

      • Ah Jace, you know as well as I do that it would be impossible to prove that an argument between deceased people didn’t occur a hundred plus years ago. You can prove something did occur, with the help of contemporary evidence (of which there is none) but you can’t prove something never happened. That is probably why the burden of proof rests with the accuser in most modern court systems.

  3. Thanks, April. You make a logical argument that Marsh’s own detailed account of his estrangement from the church obviously carries more weight than a simple anecdote related by a distant non-witness. And though church speakers are today often more careful of their stories, this one has definitely been told recently without any qualifiers.
    Your observations about the effects of not-quite-true anecdotes are worth serious reflection.

  4. Jace –

    What are the verifiable sources?

    The “milk strippings” story wasn’t told until the Utah period by George A. Smith, about 20 years after. He used it to ridicule Thomas Marsh and explain his disaffection.

    In contrast, Thomas Marsh left a contemporaneous record of why he left, namely he couldn’t support Mormon violence in Missouri, namely the Mormon violence in Daviess County against non-Mormon settlers. Of note, Orson Hyde had the same reaction.

    When Marsh returned later (during the Brigham Young era), he never provided support for the “milk strippings” story as the reason for his original departure.

    Repeating this story is really a slander on Thomas Marsh’s good name.

    • The sources are appropriately found in the speeches given by these men. Those addresses can be found in the links April provided if you choose to read them. Where did you get your information about George A. Smith using this event to ridicule Marsh? Do you think the “milk strippings” event didn’t happen and was fabricated?

      I understand April’s point, but I would like to see more support than some handpicked websites and your personal opinion- with no support whatsoever.

      • Jace –

        Here is the exact quotes from George A. Smith (Not President George Albert Smith):

        “Finally it leaked out that Mrs. Marsh had saved strippings, and it became a matter to be settled by the Teachers. They began to examine the matter, and it was proved that Mrs. Marsh had saved the strippings, and consequently had wronged Mrs. Harris out of that amount.

        “An appeal was taken from the Teacher to the Bishop, and a regular Church trial was had. President Marsh did not consider that the Bishop had done him and his lady justice, for they decided that the strippings were wrongfully saved, and that the woman had violated her covenant.

        “Marsh immediately took an appeal to the High Council, who investigated the question with much patience, and I assure you they were a grave body. Marsh being extremely anxious to maintain the character of his wife, as he was the President of the Twelve Apostles, and a great man in Israel, made a desperate defence, but the High Council finally confirmed the Bishop’s decision.

        “Marsh, not being satisfied, took an appeal to the First Presidency of the Church, and Joseph and his Counsellors had to sit upon the case, and they approved the decision of the High Council.

        “This little affair, you will observe, kicked up a considerable breeze, and Thomas B. Marsh then declared that he would sustain the character of his wife, even if he had to go to hell for it.

        “The then President of the Twelve Apostles, the man who should have been the first to do justice and cause reparation to be made for wrong, committed by any member of his family, took that position, and what next? He went before a magistrate and swore that the “Mormons” were hostile towards the State of Missouri.

        “That affidavit brought from the government of Missouri an exterminating order, which drove some 15,000 Saints from their homes and habitations, and some thousands perished through suffering the exposure consequent on this state of affairs.”

        Essentially, Elder Smith was trying to claim that Thomas Marsh — over a pint of cream — lead to the extermination order.

        Of note, there is little evidence ANY of this happened. No notes of the various alleged proceedings even though good records were kept of the various bodies.

  5. Great article April. The affects of Folk-doctrine are damaging. These stories, which tend to distill truths into nursery-rhyme simplicity, too often provide end-of-discussion trump cards to those who seek to shut down questioning. I wonder how many enriching gospel conversations were truncated by such tales?

    On a more ridiculous note, I was recently scolded by a senior Sister missionary: “God has told us not to ask about Heavenly Mother because people will use her name to cuss.”

    sigh…those willing to stay in the LDS church with the hopes of improving it are in for a long crusade.

  6. Terrific post, April. I love this: “My skepticism does not damage my faith; it preserves it from inevitable disappointment.” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich makes a similar point in her essay “Lusterware” in All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir. (That essay should be required reading for all Mormons.)

    • Agreed. For me, personally, infallibility claims are incredibly damaging. Of course it’s harder to examine all angles, but for me, that is the only foundation upon which the gospel makes sense.

  7. I appreciated the simple explanation posted above by Steve refuting the blot on Thomas Marsh’s legacy. I remember this being discussed in a sunday school class by an unusually competent teacher, but I couldn’t remember all the particulars. How nice that a clearer picture of this snippet of history is widespread enough that it will pop up in a blog comment when needed.

    Also, a link to (or perhaps a whole blog post about) the LT Ulrich essay would be worthwhile.

    • We’re hoping to have the complete All God’s Creatures soon on our sister website, http://www.exponentii.org. :)

  8. These Mormon folk tales are the first thing that made me start to question the validity of this church. As more and more half truths and untruths in stories come to light, I am more discouraged. It throws me into this vicious cycle of “why do I stay” and “maybe I should bite the bullet and leave” and “maybe together we can make it better”. The truth to me is that being a member of the church can be truly uplifting and a great moral compass in life. However, it is also full of things that I feel I have to constantly monitor in my children’s gospel education. I want them to learn humility, charity, love and kindness, and keep a strong moral compass in relating to others, all of which are taught in our church. However, I struggle to keep folklore, that is taught as doctrine, out of their Sunday education. It feels like a constant battle. Throw in the gender inequality that is rampant, and oftentimes, I just want to give up.

    I know that I can teach them all these good things. However, it is a big help to have them associate with others who have similar values and morals. It is a great social community. But I feel like I am always trying to clear up misconceptions, untruths, exaggerations, and opinions taught as doctrine. I feel like that happens more and more, and it is starting to bring me down.

    I want to be that strong woman that effects change where change is needed. But I also often feel like I just want to run away and leave the fight to others. It all comes down to my own choice, I guess. I applaud all of you for your diligence in exposing what is truth and what is folklore, and having the courage to fight for equality. You all keep me going :)

    • Gr8scot, I didn’t mean to discourage you! I really do think the repetition of this story is an honest mistake. As I described in the post, I have made similar mistakes myself. I respect your decision to do whatever is best for your family, but personally, I hope you don’t leave. We need people like you. I applaud you back.

    • Mormon myths are an interesting thing. Mormon myths. Like what if someone said that the first vision was a mormon myth? Would you believe it? Do our testimonies depend on whether or not Thomas Marsh left the church because of a pint of cream? More likely he left the church because of what was already stated in the Doctrine and Covenants and in his own words. He left because of jealousy and anger and pride. Perhaps he was angry and jealous that the Prophet did not take his wife’s side when present with the milk and cream situation. Perhaps that anger along with the problem of certain over zealous and soon to be excommunicated members who were causing problems was the real reason he apostatized. Regardless, do you pray? I mean – do you pray? Why did you have a testimony in the first place? No one and I mean no one should place their testimony in the lap of Thomas B. Marsh or whether or not General Authorities use this story to teach a point. May I also remind you that George Albert Smith was a Prophet of God. Now, they aren’t infallible as human beings, nevertheless, if George Albert Smith was a Prophet and he continued to hold this story to be true, then George Albert Smith was a liar and then a liar was the Prophet. I prefer to believe that is not a true statement. I suggest that you go and ask the Lord if George Albert Smith was a liar. And then, decide if the church is true or not.

  9. April, I appreciate your careful research here. There’s a story a little like this in my family, which is that Mary Fielding Smith (“Widow Smith”) wanted to pay her tithing and the tithing clerk told her not to, but she replied she would (an oft-told story in sacrament meeting talks on tithing). The clerk was a great (however many greats) grandfather of mine. But it turns out he was related to her by adoption and knew her well, so there’s a little more to the story than what generally gets told. Not a big deal, but it’s another example of how stories are told to fit the purpose of the storyteller. People do this all. the. time.

  10. I would like to remind everyone here that if you go to lds.org you and look under church history you will find the story of Thomas Marsh and it might interest you to know that they mention the increasing tensions and actions of certain “mormons” as being the cause of his apostasy but also mention that because of the milk and cream issue he was already struggling with his testimony. The point being, that we was warned in a revelation for the Lord about problems in his life and in his home. He was angry at the Prophet who took Sister Harris’ side instead of his wife’s. And Marsh himself spoke that he was jealous of the prophet and that anger and jealousy and pride led to his apostasy. If you look at the milk and cream story, I am sure you can see that he was most assuredly speaking to that when mentioning his pride and anger. It would be better to worry about our own testimonies when we spend time talking about how fallible our leadership is. Every Latter-day Saint understands that we are all just men and women trying to do our best. BUT when the Prophet speaks as the Prophet, his words are true. I think we have here some people or even just one person who might just follow dear old Brother Marsh down that slow and ugly road to apostasy because of pride. “For when they are learned, they think they are wise.” Do you have a testimony or not? I think it’s time to check that out.

    • Michelle, we don’t question people’s testimonies here. We don’t find finger-pointing to be productive or uplifting.

      Personally, I believe it’s very important for each of us to have a testimony of the truth, but also to be able to distinguish truth from error. Certainly, many of the things that have happened and continue to happen in the Church are incorrect–we are all human after all, even the prophet and the apostles (and you’ll find that they repeat this over and over!).

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