Saturday, May 26, 2012

It Doesn’t All Come Down to Joseph Smit

In conversations with people about my concerns with the LDS church, they often say “Well, it all comes down to whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or not. If you believe he was a prophet then your concerns don’t matter.” That mentality is supported by this quote forGordon Hinckley “That is the way I feel about it. Our whole strength rests on the validity of [the First Vision.] It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.” I’m not really sure what this argument is supposed to prove; I guess the idea is that either I believe in Joseph Smith and should therefore should just let my issues go or I don’t believe in Joseph Smith and am therefore an apostate and not worth listening to.
The problem is, that argument doesn’t hold up. Belief in the church does not come down to whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or not because the church he started is incredibly different from the church that exists today. If we were still the church of Joseph Smith, we’d be polygamists, with very different temple experiences, living the law of consecration, speaking in tongues and seeing visions. Women would be giving blessings, running their own organization with their own money and decision-making power and lesson manuals. Members of the first presidency and quorum of the twelve would disagree, and do it in public. Doctrine and manuals would not be correlated, conference talks would not be edited to put them in line with orthodoxy. These are just the things I cam come up with off the top of my head. The church has been through major changes since the days of Joseph Smith. So to my mind it is entirely possible to believe that Joseph Smith was inspired without believing in the modern church. That isn’t to say I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, but as far as the truth of the modern church goes, it’s almost irrelevant whether he was or not.
So why did Gordon Hinckley made a statement like this? Why do members tell me the same thing? If Mormons aren’t actually living the church Joseph Smith started, why is he the one people always come back to? Part of me wonders if it’s because it’s an easy blanket statement to make. It’s easy to say, “Well, if you believe this part, then you should just sweep all your worries under the rug because one part being true makes it all true.” The First Vision is an awesome story; it teaches that anyone can have remarkable experiences, that God answers prayers, that anyone can do important things and matter to God. That’s a lot easier to accept then things like polygamy or sexism and racism in the church. The hope appears to be that if someone believes enough in one part, they will believe in the whole.
But this, in my experience, has a tendency to backfire. It has for me anyway. There are parts of the church that I still believe, that feel right to me at this point in my life. There are parts that feel wrong to me; I mean inherently wrong in my soul, and have always felt that way. If that were okay; if I could say “I believe in x but not y” and have the be accepted, then I could stay. And the truth is, everyone doesthat. No one does everything, no one believes everything. How many Mormons say the keep the Word of Wisdom and eat meat every day? How many don’t pay fast offerings? How many have a problem with polygamy? How many believe in evolution? You get my point. But publically it’s called being a cafeteria Mormon, and you catch flack if you express doubt or ask questions publically. So, even though every Mormon does it, there is no space for vocalizing it in Mormonism. So people leave because they don’t believe it all, and have been told it’s all or none. So if they don’t believe it all, they feel there is no place for them. Many go from believing in Mormonism to believing in nothing connected to religion. The all or nothing model sticks, and it makes people leave the church. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to the church, since they care so much about numbers and maintaining activity, to move away from the all or nothing mentality?


  1. Freedom to question and entertain doubts is essential for an individual's personal belief structure to be truly authentic and relevant - or at least that has been true of my faith journey thus far. Wishing you the very best.

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  4. DefyGravity, I think you bring up some important points. The "all or nothing" attitude you described definitely causes dilemmas for people confronted with some of the more thorny issues of our church's past (as well as some more recent ones). I think it would be more beneficial to have a more nuanced approach so that when we are faced with difficult things we can still value the good in the church as well as the good in our life From the church, without feeling a knee jerk reaction to reject everything because some of the discourse we have heard (i.e., precisely the "it is all true or none of it is true").

    To offer a slightly different perspective on President Hinckley's (and other's) argument, I have generally heard it go something like, "If Joseph Smith is a true prophet then the Book of Mormon is true..." and go from there. I don't think very many of the people who say it are consciously thinking about what the church is like now verses what the church was like then, so while the changes you pointed out are true, I don't think those things would affect the conversants. They could simply appeal to Mormonism's belief in continuing revelation.

    So looking at the, "If Joseph Smith is true then the Book of Mormon is true," I'm not really sure where that is meant to get us, except for the principles taught in the book itself, as well as the general feeling that God is involved in the lives of His children, and the potential more specific feeling that God is involved in this Church, which I think can be true and still have puzzling/problematic aspects of it.

  5. I swear there is a logical fallacy that describes exactly what you're talking about. Like: John is a man. John is a jerkface. Therefore, all men are jerkfaces. I'll have too look it up.

    Great points, as always!