Mormons opening up in an Internet world

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 31 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Marlin K. Jensen, church historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (left), presents a copy of the Joseph Smith Papers to Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a press conference introducing the latest volume to be published in the Joseph Smith Papers Project September 22, 2009 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News archives

Daniel Peterson remembers when he was blindsided. It was in the early 1980s and Peterson was in his late 20s. He was surprised at what a critic of the LDS Church had written. "It knocked me for a loop for a few days," he said. The critic claimed Oliver Cowdery, an early Mormon leader and witness of the Book of Mormon, recanted his testimony.

Peterson, a member of the LDS Church and currently a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, remembers his reaction to the claim was a bit irrational — he said he felt like he was the first person to have ever encountered the claim, and that he was on his own. "There was nobody around me in California who could answer that question," he said. "My bishop didn't know anything about it. Who could I have gone to?"

After a few days, he remembered a book Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Peterson looked in it and learned the statement by Cowdery was actually a late forgery — one that even most critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now reject.

For Peterson, it wasn't a big crisis. He had seen many claims before and had a scholarly process for trying to find answers that he found acceptable. But in an Internet world — where obscure and inaccurate critiques of a religion can go viral — nothing is sacred. And some Mormons are being blindsided by information about the church.

Richard L. Bushman has seen a spread of problems. He wrote in 2005 "Rough Stone Rolling," what many call the definitive biography of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith Jr. "I first became aware of the problems shortly after 'Rough Stone Rolling' came out," he said. "I thought I was getting these emails asking for help because they figured I'd be a suitable person to answer questions they had."

Then Bushman heard that many other scholars were also being beset with queries from members of the LDS Church who had encountered something on the Internet that had shaken their faith. He began to hear the same thing from ordinary Mormons who had friends or family who were having problems. He also heard from people at BYU how it was a problem there as well. People were encountering things about church history and losing their faith — not just in Mormonism, but in God.

"I've been aware that the LDS Church has been concerned about this for quite a while," he said. "And the church historian has been saying for quite a while that we just need to get this information out."

Reuters recently wrote about a question and answer session at Utah State University with LDS Church historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen. Jensen acknowledged some people are surprised and troubled by what they read, but said the church is trying to help Mormons understand more about their history.

Jensen, who is turning 70, is a member of the church's Quorums of the Seventy, and will be given emeritus status in October. The new church historian will be Elder Steven E. Snow also of the Seventy.

Jensen said he didn't like to think there were any problems with church history, per se. But he said the church was working on improving church curriculum for youth.

He told Reuters there have been more attrition over the last five or ten years — but that this seems to be a general trend in society as it becomes more secular. "I think we are at a time of challenge," he told Reuters, "but it isn't apocalyptic."

Data gathered by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows it isn't just Mormon youth who are becoming more secular: "Fully one-in-four adults under age 30 (25 percent) are unaffiliated, describing their religion as 'atheist,' 'agnostic' or 'nothing in particular.'"

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