SALT LAKE CITY — A story of spiritual rescue that gained broad attention after it was shared with Mormon mission presidents last month is inaccurate and the LDS leader who presented it withdrew it on Monday.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shared the story of a missionary rescue during the Mission Presidents Seminar on June 27 at the Missionary Training Center in Provo.
The church-owned Church News published the story, which spread through social media and other links and has now been read and retold thousands of times. Elder Holland withdrew it Monday and said in a statement that he had learned from the family that the story contained inaccuracies.
People who had heard the story from the family members had told it to church leaders. The story was that a man who had been estranged from his Idaho family for 20 years was found by a brother he didn't know he had while the brother was serving a mission in California. The story of rescue was complete when the estranged brother returned to both his family and the church.
Elder Holland issued the following statement Monday:
"A few weeks ago when speaking to new mission presidents at the Missionary Training Center, I shared a story about two brothers, just as I heard it from individuals who knew the family and had heard it recounted by a family member. Within a few days, my office was contacted by the family, who expressed concern that some elements of that account were not accurate due to embellishing by a family member.
“There are inspiring and important missionary lessons in this story. The older brother did indeed leave his home and his family and for many years pursued the lifestyle I described in my talk. During these years his parents lovingly tried to maintain contact, prayed faithfully for him and even sent local leaders to seek after him. However, at the time his younger brother was called to serve as a missionary, the older brother had already returned to Idaho. With the help of missionaries there, he started the difficult and courageous process of changing his life. In time, he would return to full activity and be sealed in the temple, and he would also have a son who would serve a mission.
“As a courtesy to me the family contacted my office, wanting me to be aware of the inaccurate parts of the story and offering their help in avoiding any perpetuation of those elements in the account I heard. I am deeply touched by their humility and courage in doing so, and as an equal courtesy to them, I am withdrawing the story completely and request that it not be shared further."
An ethicist and a historian said using stories is important but can be fraught with potential issues.
"One of the reasons you fact-check stories, even from people you love or trust or admire, is that there are a lot of ways to get things wrong," said Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute.
It is important to differentiate between someone who knowingly embellished a story and someone who retold a story the way it was received, said Keith Erekson, who left his job as a history professor and special assistant to the president of the University of Texas at El Paso to become director of the LDS Church History Library three years ago.
In Elder Holland's case, he retold the story as it was given, he said.
McBride said Elder Holland had an obligation to set the record straight. If he had not done so, she said, it would have had the potential to harm his relationship with his audience. On the other hand, stepping forward with a correction can improve that relationship.
"For the most part, it actually deepens trust," McBride said, "and it creates a level of transparency and humility."
McBride said media organizations build trust when they issue corrections. She said the Church News had an obligation to do so, but did not blame it for not verifying the story.
"I don't know that they have, because they are not a watchdog organization, any independent responsibility to fact check any of the church leaders, but I think that if they repeat something that's wrong, they certainly have an obligation to let their audience know how they did that, why they did that and what the accurate information is," McBride said.
The Church News took the story down on Monday. Anyone who follows a link to the story previously disseminated on social media will find it replaced by a short explanation and Elder Holland's statement.
Stories have been embellished since people began telling them, Erekson said. Some LDS Church members have embellished stories of faith since the church's beginning. For example, some early Mormons exaggerated their personal connections to Joseph Smith.
"Typically, any story is incomplete, and different tellings of the story become contradictory," he said. "The past is gone. We have just pieces of it in the form of stories. Whenever we encounter a piece of the past, we always have to ask, what is this piece? Who did it come from? How do I make sense of it today?"
"This particular experience has a twist that makes it even more difficult," Erekson said. "One of the most common recommendations is to go to the source of the stories, not just accept hearsay or second-party retellings. This time, there is a twist that a participant in the story was involved in the embellishing or changing the story. That frankly makes it more difficult."
The church has plenty of authentic missionary stories. In fact, the Church History Library collects and records them, Erekson said.
"Maybe this is an opportunity to invite people to tell their stories so we have more of them on the record."
Note: The Church News is published by Deseret News Publishing Company.