Protection against disbelief

At the April 2013 Midwest Pilgrims Retreat, Linda King Newell gave a presentation on her experiences co-authoring Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.  (Sadly, I wasn’t there, but a friend summarized it for me.)  When I read that book 10+ years ago it was eye-opening.  I knew polygamy existed, but didn’t know of the extent of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, or the heartbreaking circumstances around them.

Around the time of Linda’s presentation I happened to see the film “Emma Smith: My Story.”  While not produced by the Church, this film uses the same cast and crew as Church-produced films about Joseph Smith, and even a few cuts from a Church-produced film.  And I saw it on a Church-run TV station in Utah.  It covers Emma’s life from her marriage to her death, but (not surprisingly) ignores that polygamy was part of it.  I know it’s drama, not history, but at some point leaving out such a huge part of someone’s biography becomes untruthful.  And needless to say, Gospel Doctrine manuals on the Doctrine & Covenants don’t get into Joseph Smith’s polygamous life.  You could argue those manuals are about teaching doctrine not history, but I think being really selective about which parts of history are included in those manuals (because they do have some history in them) can start to smell fishy when only the flattering stories are told.

But then, as Jana Reiss wrote in a recent blog post about Emma, toward the end of Emma’s life she pretended polygamy never existed, too.

All this has me thinking about the right approach to teaching Church history.  One of the commenters on Jana’s post wrote, “I think I have some indebtedness to my slightly unorthodox seminary teacher who believed (as I do) that presenting the truth – even when somewhat unpleasant – is a greater protection against disbelief than a more palatable falsehood which, when discovered later in life can cause serious dissonance and perhaps apostasy.”

That’s what I think, too.  Did I get that “protection against disbelief” as a young person in the Church?  Sort of, but it could have been a lot better.  Did you?


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15 Responses

  1. Jenn says:

    I was not “inoculated” and after a stint on seminary council and 4 years at a church school, was completely and utterly unprepared for what answers FAIR and wikipedia had to my questions. You can tell, since when I did encounter the parts of church history that are inconsistent with the correlated story, it shook my testimony enough for me to leave activity in the church.

  2. Annie B. says:

    Good post. Something I’ve asked myself is if I had been presented with a more truthful account of the more painful parts of church history, would that have helped shore me up against disbelief any better? I’m still not sure of the answer. As a kid, I went ahead and decided that the LDS church and the BoM were true, even though I hadn’t received the confirmation promised by the Book of Mormon. I had good feelings about it when certain principles were taught, and even though I had those same good feelings reading The Hobbit, and Little Women, I figured that was good enough. After learning the more painful, truthful versions of church history, my decision to believe changed to not wanting to believe that God had really sanctioned those things, because my heart and my conscience told me they were wrong. I’m at a point where I’m open to the LDS church being true, but right now, everything considered it doesn’t look good. I’m starting to feel that with my obedience as a kid, being totally willing to believe and decide it’s truthfulness, despite not having any real confirmation, even up to early adulthood, and then when I delved further into the temple ordinances and history in hopes of increasing my knowledge and testimony only to find disappointment and pain…I’m starting to think that’s my sign.

    One thing my dad said to me was interesting. When I was telling him the things that made me lack faith Joseph Smith as a true prophet he said, that if I read all the stuff out there about Jesus Christ I’d lack faith in him too. My only response was that I’m not afraid of the truth, whatever it is. That’s in stark contrast to when I first heard a story about Emma’s heartbreak at finding that Joseph had taken yet another wife behind her back, this time one of her dear friends, and I almost didn’t want to look it up because as I pieced together snippets of things I’d heard about Emma and Joseph as a kid that didn’t quite make sense I realized that the story I’d heard was probably true.

    So right now, as a parent, my goal isn’t necessarily to shore my children up against disbelief of the LDS church, but to teach them not to be afraid of the truth, whatever that may be.

  3. Em says:

    I knew polygamy existed and actually I guess on some level I knew Joseph Smith practiced it because I remember overhearing a conversation between my mom and her best friend in which the latter said she thought J. S. was just horny. I remember being deeply shocked at the implication, having never been exposed to anything but the usual stories. Still I don’t think I ever really engaged or thought about it, because it wasn’t until after my mission that I had actual facts about polygamy, especially the Nauvoo years. Like many others, I read Mormon Enigma. Serving a mission made me realize I was woefully ill informed about church history and I came home thirsting for more information. My mom had a copy of Mormon Enigma, as well as several scholarly books about polygamy just sitting on the shelf, I had never read them.

    It did not rock my testimony to the core, but I did feel a deep unsettled feeling. I was fortunate in that my Institute teacher was not a CES employee and so did not make any effort to toe that line. I asked him about reconciling the two Joseph Smiths I saw and he was very understanding and supportive and encouraged me.

    As a YW teacher I do not go out of my way to go into these things, but I drop lines here or there. When talking about JS a few weeks ago one girl mentioned that he practiced polygamy and I acknowledged that this was true, though not a basis for my testimony of him. I want the girls to know that I am informed and am willing to answer questions, but I don’t see it as particularly edifying as a topic for a lesson particularly since I don’t teach church history or Doctrine and covenants classes.

  4. Naismith says:

    The Emma Smith film is available via Netflix streaming….

  5. Emily U says:

    Thanks for sharing your stories Jenn and Annie B. I agree that if we are honest we can’t be afraid of truth. What bothers me as much as the insufficient disclosure by the institutional church is the tendency of some members (& people I love) to explain things away or ignore them. Everything from “Oh, things were different back then, polygamy was more, um… normal!” To saying the witnesses to bad things from history probably made stuff up. That kind of approach leads a person to think that the only way to stay faithful is to put on blinders. I need people who will struggle with me, not tell me there’s nothing to struggle with. I also think in order to meaningfully believe, you have to have visited or sometimes visit a place of unbelief. The alternative has to be real, or belief is just tautologous.

    Em – I don’t know what I would do if I taught youth. I think your approach is good – blowing them away with all the bad stuff just doesn’t seem right, any more than pretending it doesn’t exist.

  6. Penny says:

    The adults recently met for the third hour in my ward to discuss the immanent threats facing our youth. This discussion was deemed so important that I was graciously excused from primary to attend. The YW’s president focused part of her message on the dangers of confusing our children and youth and in turn, weakening their testimonies. The YW’s pres specifically focused on not teaching or sharing opinions outside the scriptures and designated manuals. The example she gave went something like this, “So what if you support gay marriage. How will that undermine your child’s testimony of the Family Proc if they knew this is how you truly felt?” I find this attitude extremely frustrating when applied to our very complex and (purposefully) ignored history. By ignoring these issues (polygamy, race, gender, sexuality etc), yes we are saving our kids a lot of confusion now, but we are also kicking the can down the road. One day these kids are going to go on a mission or read on some blog (like those crazy women over at the Exponent) and be exposed to ideas that radically challenge what they were taught at Church. I think this will create an even greater crisis of faith.

  7. What bothers me are those that use the lack of information and direction to decide that they can currently practice polygamy. (Lack of direction aside from the threat of excommunication). People take what little they can find in “approved” materials, mix in a liberal dose of selected Prophet quotes, and steep it in either just being horny or wanting to be what they are convinced is more “Celestial”, and decide to have (or are coerced into) a polygynous marriage. In the current Church, this is certainly a recipe for disaster.

    Polygamous marriage (of both stripes) can work, but it’s extremely rare and takes a lot of work by all parties involved. It is certainly not a measure of righteousness, growth, or anything else aside from the ability of three (or more) people to be in this kind of relationship with those specific people.

    We need to make use of every bit of information we have (including the stuff we’ve not yet released to public), and own this. This should include all of the shifts in perception and policy, all the instances where it worked, where it failed miserably, where it was approved, pushed, and done without approval.

    We need to make this history more than “horny old men” and “absolute divine approval”.

    • Emily U says:

      Frank, I’m trying to understand your comment. My post was about historical polygamy, but are you saying you know people who currently practice it, and claim to be Mormons? I don’t have any first (or second, or third) hand knowledge of people doing this.

      I also honestly don’t know what you’re alluding to when you say stuff not yet released to the public.

      • A couple of years ago, I’d come across a podcast (Mormon Matters? Can’t seem to find it now) that was a two part story of a woman telling her experience with her faithful LDS husband convincing her that polygamy was the true order of marriage. It was a heartbreaking story, and I wish I could still find it. I don’t personally know any LDS polygamists (that I know of), though I do know a few general Christian ones.

        You’d mentioned how the current treatment of the history in the manuals tends to skip completely any treatment of ploygamy, and how that effects perceptions of the Church when more detail is learned. I was trying to point out that the omission doesn’t just drive people away from the Church, but also drives some to their own rationalization of their own desires for polygamy, despite the Church policy.

      • Emily U says:

        Wow, that’s a truly sad story. I’d love to see the Church clarify what’s up with polygamy in the afterlife, not only to take away ammunition for the sick husband in this story and the (hopefully very few) others like him, but also to take away the lingering fear some women and men have that it will be required/present for eternity. Unfortunately I think that’s a long way off, since I’ve heard at least one living aspostle say his second wife is “also my wife for eternity.” Ugh.

      • Ziff says:

        Frank, is this Daughters of Mormonism podcast the one you’re thinking of? I agree with you that it would be better if the Church were to clarify that polygamy is not okay now, but it appears they won’t, because they don’t want to bring up polygamy.

        Also, nice post, Emily U. I think you’re spot on. Weird stuff in Church history is a lot easier to deal with if it’s presented up front, in a church context, than if it’s hidden and uncovered by accident later. And we’re fooling ourselves if we think it won’t be uncovered.

      • Thanks, Ziff, I think that’s it. Heartbreaking story. An example of a woman trying to stick with her marriage when her husband is doing everything wrong and rationalizing it with historical polygamy. Church aside, what was done by the man involved was definetly not how you build a polygamous family and from the story, the speaker is the only one who really tried at it, even though it was impossibly hard for her. The others involved just wanted to use it for a cover.

        Thanks again for finding it. I only delve into podcasts occasionally, and google wasn’t being helpful finding it.

  8. Suzette Smith says:

    Well said.

    I really do feel that we MUST start introducing truth earlier in church education. We don’t have to slam difficult things down on young minds, but I do think we need to start integrating difficult truths early. It’s a serious SHOCK to the Mormon system when we learn about these things as adults …. as we surely will.


  9. Melody says:

    I think truth has many layers. Yes, we should find the truth and teach it appropriately, but once we begin our quest for truth, we have to be prepared for whatever we might find.

    For example:

    I’ve never believed polygamy was inspired. I’ve doubted Joseph Smith actully practiced it. If this gentleman has done his research, which it appears he has, well, the implications are profound.

  10. April says:

    I have been frequently taught sordid polygamy stories in church/seminary/institute settings. I don’t think it has inoculated me. Instead, it mostly frustrates me. When someone brings it up, I think, “Can’t we please cover some basic virtues instead? Charity? Integrity? Humility?”

    Perhaps the way this information is framed is part of the problem. The information always seems to be presented alongside prophetic infallibility statements, male-centric perspectives, and challenges to build a testimony of this stuff, like, “Shame on Emma Smith for not reacting well when her husband Joseph Smith started sleeping with all of her best friends. She should have sustained the prophet.” Or “If polygamy bothers you, you better pray for forgiveness and develop your testimony because if you want to get to the Celestial Kingdom you will probably have to share your husband with other women.”

    So, until we are willing to change the narrative about polygamy, and entertain discussing it as a cautionary tale rather than an eternal truth, I would rather leave it out of my church meetings.

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