Mormons navigate faith and doubt in the digital age

Published: Friday, July 26 2013 8:50 a.m. MDT

“People have always found something to object to,” said Bushman, who has served as bishop, stake president and stake patriarch in the church. “Throughout our history, defections have occurred among high church leaders and ordinary members. The difference lies in the issues that disturb them now. Since the rise of the Internet, more people have come across unsettling historical facts. Earlier it might have been plural marriage or blacks and the priesthood. There has always been something.”

Ash expressed sympathy and concern for those who struggle with faith and doubt.

“The pain that comes when one feels they have been betrayed or lied to … can be agonizing,” he said. But, he added, it is especially sad because most of the issues with which people struggle "have all been addressed by able scholars for many years.”

Ash's claim that LDS Church leaders are "aware of this problem and are endeavoring to illuminate such issues before they become stumbling blocks" is illustrated by the LDS Church’s ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project; the book, "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," written by LDS Church historians Richard E. Turley, Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard; and the recent update of LDS scripture references and study aids.

Givens referred to a need for openness in an emailed response to questions from the Deseret News.

“Most of the impetus for disaffection does not come from new information per se,” he wrote. “It comes from feelings of betrayal when church curricular materials are found to have presented an incomplete account of the Mormon past.”

Ash said he understands that the church’s curriculum “is set up to draw us closer to Christ” and not to “dwell on the historical details,” but he also understands how some members can be drawn into doubt.

“Someone is working on a lesson or a talk for church, and in his or her research they stumble on some information that upsets them,” he said. “They look into it more and find a whole bunch of anti-Mormon stuff, and suddenly finding the real answers doesn’t matter anymore. Their feelings are hurt. They feel their church has lied to them. They begin doubting everything.”

Givens suggested that “members also could do more to avail themselves of reliable resources that are readily available, such as the Joseph Smith Papers, and histories and biographies by respected academic presses.”

“Sunday School class was never designed to provide a full account of church history, in this or any other denomination of which I am aware,” Givens continued. “Mormon culture also compounds problems by constructing dangerous expectations of prophetic infallibility. Faith must ultimately be about the content of divine revelation, not the means or human instruments by which it is revealed.”

Bushman agrees that providing church members with the best and most recent historical research is one way disaffection can be curtailed.

“It is true that more information has been the cause of the current controversies, but more information is also the answer,” Bushman said. “We need to know everything we can about disturbing events and then to put them in a broader perspective. Usually people can see that there is more than one way of understanding what occurred.”

Bushman, author of the acclaimed biography of Joseph Smith, “Rough Stone Rolling,” thinks that is especially true in talking about the LDS Church’s founding prophet.

“I think we should tell the whole story about Joseph Smith,” he said. “We don’t want people stumbling on to facts on the Internet that shock them. Their testimonies will never be secure if they have to be shielded from aspects of Joseph’s life.

“Whether or not Joseph Smith was seriously flawed is a matter of personal judgment,” Bushman continued. “He certainly insisted that he was subject to human error, and we should not hold him to a higher standard than he held himself. That is just asking for trouble.”

Faith that absorbs doubt

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