Little Black/White Lie

Humans use story to understand and make meaning of their existence. Sometimes life happens in a way that shakes your foundational paradigms and they crumble, as mine did. As a Mormon child, the theoretical framework by which I understood my world was very black/white. I came by this honestly, as weekly indoctrination had taught this both implicitly and explicitly.

This talk by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland demonstrates the worldview I am talking about: 

“Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is or this Church and its founder are false, fraudulent, a deception from the first instance onward. Either Joseph Smith was the prophet he said he was, who, after seeing the Father and the Son, later beheld the angel Moroni, repeatedly heard counsel from his lips, eventually receiving at his hands a set of ancient gold plates which he then translated according to the gift and power of God—or else he did not. And if he did not . . . he is not entitled to retain even the reputation of New England folk hero or well-meaning young man or writer of remarkable fiction. No, and he is not entitled to be considered a great teacher or a quintessential American prophet or the creator of great wisdom literature. If he lied about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, he is certainly none of those. I am suggesting that we make exactly that same kind of do-or-die, bold assertion about the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. We have to. Reason and rightness require it. Accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and the book as the miraculously revealed and revered word of the Lord it is or else consign both man and book to Hades for the devastating deception of it all, but let’s not have any bizarre middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take—morally, literarily, historically, or theologically.” (June 1996 Ensign)

This worldview which I internalized is a setup for faith crisis and collapse of epic proportions. Why? It basically says that if any aspect of church history doesn’t turn out to be just as we were taught it was then we should abandon the whole religion altogether.

Do you think I’m being extreme? I wish I were! President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “Each of us has to face the matter — either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.” (May 2003 Ensign) And guess what? Church history is absolutely not the rosy whitewashed picture we were all taught. In the internet age we are learning there are a lot of questionable aspects of Joseph Smith’s story. For example, he was indeed a treasure-digger who sought buried Indian gold with a seer stone in a hat (which he then later used to translate the Book of Mormon). There are 9 differing versions of the first vision story, and they do not give a cohesive narrative ‒ his reason for inquiry was different, those who answered him were different, and what they said to him was different. The Book of Mormon seems to be a product of Joseph Smith’s time period with 0 archaeological evidence of its historicity. Joseph Smith had himself married plurally to 35 women (give or take), several of whom were teens, and several who were already married to other men (Gospel Topics Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo); and caused a deep rift in his marriage with Emma Hale. There so many dark and troubling aspects of church history ‒ massacres at Mountain Meadows and Circleville, the teaching of blood atonement and Adam-God doctrine, the Book of Abraham, and the acceptance of the Salamander letter. If we insist on the entire narrative being true, or none of it, people are left with nowhere to turn if small pieces crumble. The black/white, good/bad, true/false narrative is a setup for failure. The worldview they were taught tells them, “If every piece isn’t true, then none of it is.”

Please, dear Brethren, do not set us up with an all or nothing paradigm any more. You are driving people away. You have taught them that if there are any problems in church history that the entire thing has no value whatsoever. If there is anything I know now, it is that this is a false dichotomy. When you set us up that there are only choices A and B, one of which is all good and the other all bad then no amount of inoculation can really help. But people can be innovative and creative when they feel freedom to choose, inventing options C-Z.

Life is complex, morality complicated. Black and white thinking makes us lazy agents, remaining children morally by ceding all important moral decisions and thinking to some vague hierarchical power structure. When we give our agency away, we lose touch with our moral authority and become more judgemental of ourselves and others as we try to reinforce the rules rather than deal with the complex nuances of all the shades of color in our world. I support people in clinging to the good in our tradition, and in letting the bad go. The middle road in Mormonism is not easy and Elder Holland was mistaken in saying this was an unacceptable position. If that is the only position that works for you, it is okay. There are more colors than black and white in this faith journey, if you are not colorblind feel free to embrace them and find your way with God. “May we ever choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” – Thomas S. Monson (Apr 2016 Ensign)


Chiaroscuro is a play of light and shadow. Finding noisy messy lovely life in all the shades between.

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7 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    I couldn’t like this post more! Thank you to spelling out why this kind of logic is dangerous and simply unhelpful. I would add that the same is true in relationships: if we don’t learn to hold the good and bad, the positive and negative, of each other together, we risk viewing ourselves or others as all good or all bad, and that just isn’t realistic and can destroy people’s send of self and connections with those they love.

  2. Wendy says:

    **sense of self

  3. Glenn Thigpen says:

    You have shifted the goalposts from what Elder Holland and President Hinckley said, or maybe misinterpreted them. There are some things that are black and white. It doesn’t matter how many different versions of the first vision there are. We only have one official version. In it Joseph tells his story, officially. There have been questions raised about the accuracy of his memory and maybe he inserted some things later and deleted other things, but then again, there is the other possibility that his official version is the inspired version. So, it is a black and white matter. Did he see God and Jesus Christ in his vision? How do you find out since no mortal but Joseph Smith was there?

    Did he obtain some plates that had the appearance of gold? There are multiple witnesses that saw those plates so we are not required to take a leap of faith on this one. One may speculate that they were all deceived, without any evidence, but none of those witnesses ever recanted. Was the Book of Mormon translated by the gift and power of God? This is a black and white question, so where does one go to find the answer? Not church history. The fact that Joseph Smith engaged in treasure seeking and used a seer stone in the effort is really irrelevant to whether the Book of Mormon was translated by the power of God. Joseph never claimed that gift for treasure seeking. As for archeological evidence for the Book of Mormon your statement about zero evidence is incorrect. Evidence (not proof, just evidence) for the Old World part of the Book of Mormon. Also, there is circumstantial evidence (but no Book of Mormon names) that has been adduced for a mesoAmerican setting for the Book of Mormon, just no proof.

    Nothing about Church History has anything to do with whether Joseph Smith was a prophet called of God and was the prophet that ushered in this Last Dispensation of the Fullness of Times and the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But you cannot find that answer in church history, archeology, tea leaves, your fellow man, or from within yourself. It has to come from God via the Holy Ghost. That is the way it always has been and always will be.


    • Chiaroscuro says:

      Thank you for your interest. Some of those things do matter to some people. Like me. You’re right that there are a lot of things we don’t know. The problem I was trying to point to was that some people who are struggling and questioning things feel like they are told “If you don’t believe x,y, and z. What are you still doing in the church? Go find another one!” This may be implicit or explicit. I think its sad that people are put in that situation. If the Holy Ghost fails to deliver for some people and they are still clinging and hoping, why drive them away?

  4. I agree. Well-meaning members of our faith often tell others that they have to develop a testimony of everything that has ever happened within our church’s history, polygamy, the racial temple/priesthood ban, not to mention current policies, and this all-or-nothing approach is not faith-inducing. It leads many to choose nothing, while they could have continued on as faithful members without pressure to accept every last thing.

  5. M says:

    “Nothing about Church History has anything to do with whether Joseph Smith was a prophet called of God and was the prophet that ushered in this Last Dispensation of the Fullness of Times and the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    I understand the point you are making here, Glenn. But when you grew up in a time (myself in the 90s) when Joseph Smith was only spoken of in positive ways at church, when the history of the church was painted with a rosy brush and anything to the contrary considered “anti-Mormon,” you can’t be surprised when folks have a bit of a faith crisis when they find out unsavory things about our past. I remember asking a Catholic friend how she could still belong to her church, what with all the bad stuff her church did in the past? I was a hypocrite and didn’t even know it.

    Can Joseph Smith have been an inspired prophet of God who brought about the Restoration, all while entering polygamous relationships without his wife Emma’s consent? It sure takes a lot of faith to believe that, doesn’t it? Some would argue a richer faith than a faith built solely on the pretty stuff.

    We are denying people the opportunity to develop a testimony knowing all of the facts. Testimony of the basics (JS translated the BOM, etc.) is vital, of course. But what about the testimony of God using very flawed people to bring about the Restoration? Or the testimony of the members affected (see Priesthood Ban) who carried on despite wrongdoing on the part of our leaders, and are perhaps the most faithful among us all?

    Which goes back to the OP. If we teach a perfect history and only focus on those basics, you’re setting people up for a rude awakening when they find out the bad stuff. And sure, they cling onto their testimony of the basics. But they do so now realizing they belong to a Church that didn’t provide them the full picture and makes them wonder why. For many it feels paternalistic. It’s like Adam & Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but God saying “yeah, but only let them learn stuff they need to know to keep the faith.” Nope, goes against agency. Black/white teaching does harm.

  6. Rabon says:

    This plea & its context are compelling, raw, and so comforting to read as an on & off investigator.

    “Life is complex, morality complicated. Black and white thinking makes us lazy agents, remaining children morally by ceding all important moral decisions and thinking to some vague hierarchical power structure.”

    ^ This point in particular reminded me that our purpose here does involve dilemmas, struggles, gray areas, and opposition, and that it’s not supposed to be black & white. It involves and rightly necessitates those gray areas, for our active journey through tough decisions/ideas leads to development, to testimony, to fulfilling our purpose on earth. To eradicate that gray area from our interactions with doctrine & church history is to deny one an opportunity to grow and learn. These are just some of my early thoughts about a very poignant line of yours.

    Very interesting piece!

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