Many years ago, tracting during my first weeks as a missionary in German-speaking Switzerland, my companion and I were finally admitted into an apartment. The family who lived in it were eastern Europeans, and devoutly Catholic. In fact, it soon became apparent they were unusually devoted to the Virgin Mary; their living room was decorated with several statues and images of the mother of Jesus.
They weren't very receptive to our message, and so my companion (a relatively recent convert and — it must be said — a diligent and committed missionary who has since passed away) effectively launched into an attack on Mary.
Almost immediately, our indignant hosts ordered us to leave.
Mary didn't deserve attack. Of all the women who have ever lived or ever will live, Mary was divinely chosen to be the Savior's mother. "But," my companion replied, "they practically worship her."
I've thought of that experience many times since, and not merely as an illustration of J. Golden Kimball's famous quip that, if the church weren't true, the missionaries would have destroyed it long ago. (I made my own share of mistakes as a missionary.) On the whole, our young emissaries do an astonishing, even miraculous, job of preaching the gospel around the world. No, I think it illustrates a human tendency to "overcorrect."
This family certainly seemed to both of us excessively devoted to Mary; I recall, in fact, looking around the room and seeing no images of Jesus. But their excess in one direction surely didn't justify excess on our part in the other.
Yet, it seems to me, this is a recurrent temptation.
It's very easy for Latter-day Saints to overreact to mainstream Christian Trinitarianism, for instance. It's true that we reject the traditional "Nicene" doctrine of the Trinity, but we shouldn't forget that some of the clearest statements of the unity of the Godhead occur in the Book of Mormon.
Perhaps an even clearer example concerns grace and works. We're sometimes so offended by the insistence of certain Christians that good works play no role at all in salvation that we overreact. We go too far the other way, and thus we feed the misperception that Mormons believe we earn our entrance into heaven.
But surely no Latter-day Saint even reasonably familiar with the scriptures imagines the Savior and his atonement are dispensable, that we can somehow arrive at heaven's gate and demand entrance based on our personal worthiness. We all know that isn't true, and we shouldn't allow ourselves to overcorrect simply because others have gotten something wrong.
We need always to be careful to teach and preach our doctrine based upon what the scriptures actually say and what modern prophets and apostles actually teach. Sometimes, though, we create dubious, unscriptural ideas and then feel obliged to defend them.
A pair of relatively small examples should illustrate my point:
For many years, the chapter heading to Alma 11 (a modern note that isn't translated from the ancient Nephite record) announced that, in it, the "Nephite system of coinage" would be "set forth." This exposed us to attacks against the Book of Mormon that argued, quite correctly, that no evidence exists for Pre-Columbian coinage in the New World; minted coins were invented in the Old World, many decades after Lehi left. But no such evidence exists in the Book of Mormon, either: Alma 11 explains a system of standard weights of metal, but says nothing whatever about minted coins.
Thus, Latter-day Saints who attempted to defend Nephite "coins" had no need to do so. (And, now, the chapter heading, more faithful to the actual scriptural text, reads "The Nephite monetary system is set forth.")
Similarly, the Book of Mormon has sometimes been attacked because giant city walls like that shown in Arnold Friberg's familiar painting of archers shooting at Samuel the Lamanite haven't been found in ancient America.
But they also can't be found in the actual text of the Book of Mormon. The Nephite record describes much humbler defensive walls (e.g., at Alma 50:1-6) — and such structures have, in fact, been identified in the Pre-Columbian New World.
"Seek not to declare my word," the Lord counseled Hyrum Smith in Doctrine and Covenants 11:21, "but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed."
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholars Testify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com, and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.