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Defending the Faith: Anti-Mormon mockery can actually lead to teaching moments

Published: Thursday, Jan. 20 2011 4:00 a.m. MST

Two plays about Mormonism are scheduled to premiere shortly in the northeastern United States.

According to advance publicity, one of them "chronicles the days leading up to Christmas, 1825, when Joseph Smith Jr. and his father, on the run from the law as confidence men and scammers, return in disgrace to the family farm in upstate New York to save their house from being repossessed. In the process of escaping the clutches of both their creditors and the investors they'd recently fleeced, they lay the foundations of Mormonism." It purports to be "based on historical accounts of Mormonism's early years."

The other play, a musical, will likely be somewhat less reverent.

It's easy to be upset at such things. But indignation is the wrong response and, anyhow, entirely useless. We should see these and similar public attacks — homes in one southwestern American town where a temple is under construction have just been systematically blanketed with anti-Mormon propaganda — as rich teaching opportunities. Mormons are pretty rare in the Northeast; these plays are fabulous (and free) local publicity.

In the mid-1850s, a young German schoolteacher read a new book about an industrious and even heroic people with absurdly stupid beliefs. Unable, however, to believe that such good fruits could come from so bad a tree, he determined to investigate the Mormons for himself. In October 1855, Dr. Karl G. Maeser was baptized in the Elbe River, near Dresden. He later became a pivotal early leader of the church's educational system in Utah and, effectively, the founder of Brigham Young University.

Many years ago, I paid a visit to Temple Square. Entering by the south gate, I had to pass through a cordon of extremely unpleasant placard-wielding protesters. Once inside, I asked an elderly missionary what impact such demonstrations had on visitors. "Oh," he said, "I don't like to have them there, but, truthfully, our visitors tend to be much more receptive when the protesters are outside. Normally, people on our tours are a bit on their guard. But these protests are so offensive to them that they're on our side. The difference is very noticeable."

Some people will always react like that. Unfair attacks and mockery will not close their minds but, rather, pique their curiosity. Much like Maeser, they will doubt that the good fruits they see in the lives of their Latter-day Saint neighbors, friends and colleagues proceed merely from lies and absurdities.

Thus, we need to be ready to answer their questions and dispel their misconceptions. Indeed, because most potential converts have no Mormon friends or neighbors, we need to work actively to provide accurate information about the church and its teachings on the Internet and in every other public way that we can.

And we should not wait for a formal call or for the institutional church to do this on our behalf. Every member truly should be a missionary.

"For behold," said the Lord in 1831, "it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves" (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-28).

Scriptural prophecies seem to indicate that, while the restored gospel will spread throughout the earth, church members will always be a minority. (See, for example, 1 Nephi 14:12; Matthew 24:37-41; Luke 17:31-36.) Which is to say that the majority of humankind will continue to be either ignorant of or indifferent toward its claims or, as depicted in Lehi's vision (1 Nephi 8:26-28; 11:35-36), will sneer at them and find them (and us) ridiculous. We should not be dismayed when we encounter such reactions. They were predicted many centuries ago.

I believe, though, that it's far preferable for the church to be attacked than to be ignored, to be considered weird than to be of no interest at all.

So long as the claims of the gospel are being discussed, even negatively, there are openings for teaching. When people are apathetic, there are no openings at all.

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