Doubt Your Doubts, Brother
A clean-shaven young man, no older than eighteen, gets up from the pew where he’s been sitting between his parents and younger siblings. He makes his way to the aisle that divides the chapel’s pews in half. He walks reverently, his arms folded, and carefully walks up the few steps to the dais where the bishop, the bishop’s assistants, the chorister, and a few other clergymen sit facing the rest of the congregants.
The bishop gives his nod of approval to the young man, who walks up the podium. Everyone in the pews below looks up at him with warm smiles. “Brothers and Sisters, it’s nice to be here this Sunday. I’m thankful for the opportunity to speak. I’m thankful for my many blessings, I love my family and I love the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to bear my testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel. I know that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, I know that God has a plan for us all.”
The young man’s parents are
still seated in the pew below, surrounded by hundreds of other faithful saints.They’re proud of their son. He continues, “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet, I know that when he was only fourteen-years-old
he was visited by the angel Moroni. I know that he translated the ancient golden plates into the Book of Mormon. I know that he was unjustly murdered by an angry mob that was determined to stop the work of God. I know that the Book of Mormon is true. I know that it is the word of God, and that if you read it for yourself, you too, will gain a testimony of its truthfulness. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
He walks back down from the dais, past many pews with many other churchgoers, and sits back down with his family. During the next hour, a handful of other individuals will walk up to the podium, nudged by the Holy Spirit, to speak sincerely and unscripted about the joy and comfort that their religion brings them. And nearly everyone will bookend their homily with a declaration of the objective truth of the Joseph Smith narrative.
For nearly two centuries, the Mormon Church (officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) has maintained a tight grip on the legacy of its prophet and founder. Who wasJoseph Smith? Fifty years ago, the average non-Mormon American would probably have responded, “I don’t know,” or “That Mormon prophet, right? The man who had all those wives?” Churchgoing Mormons, fifty years ago or in 2009, would likely respond, “The prophet, seer, and revelator. God’s chosen prophet, the man who restored the gospel in all its glory.” But 2019 looks very different than 2009. In the past decade, so much has changed in America, culturally and technologically, that a growing number of Mormons are having to confront difficult facts about the prophet they once saw as virtually infallible.
Mormons are often seen as—and describe themselves as—a peculiar people. Yes, observant Mormons wear special undergarments imbued with religious meaning. Yes, Mormons abstain from alcohol, tea, and coffee. Yes, Mormons baptize each other on behalf of those who have already died. But to scrutinize Mormons’ doctrinal or cultural peculiarities would be unimportant; many faith systems across the globe require the faithful to adhere to eccentric rules and live strict lifestyles. Mormons have been wearing their beliefs on their sleeves and earnestly proclaiming their convictions since the mid-1800s. But it’s their shared convictions about Joseph Smith that are most fascinating— especially in the Information Age.
For years, the Mormon Church has helped its adherents fortify their belief in, and admiration for, the Joseph Smith narrative. Mormons didn’t just believe. Mormons knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God the Father visited Joseph Smith and his son Jesus Christ after he prayed earnestly to know the truth of the divine. Mormons knew that he used ancient stones to translate ancient gold plates into what is now the Book of Mormon. They knew he was a loyal husband to his wife Emma. They were moved by the story of his martyrdom, how he went like a lamb to the slaughter.
But Joseph Smith’s legacy is much more complicated today than it was just a decade ago. It’s been wrested from the Mormon Church’s PR department, and it’s been laid bare with all of its imperfections and curiosities on the Internet. Ten years ago, a doubting Mormon would consult his bishop for guidance: “Bishop, I’ve heard claims that Joseph Smith used a hat and a peep stone to translate the Book of Mormon. This concerns me. Is this true?” Today, any curious Mormon can use an iPhone to find answers to nearly any question about every aspect of Joseph Smith’s life, works, and arrest record.
Yes—his arrest record. And that’s not all. In 2019, not only are the names of Joseph Smith’s numerous wives available online, but their ages, too. Joseph Smith’s connections with freemasonry, his treasure-hunting misdeeds, his plagiarism of both the Bible and other contemporary works of religious fiction, his secret marriages with nearly forty women without his wife Emma’s consent, his penchant for young girls, and his failed prophecies, are carved in digital stone in 2019. Today, the doubting Mormon who’s been troubled lately by claims about Joseph Smith’s polygamous misadventures has realized that his well-meaning bishop likely isn’t even aware of such claims. The various Wikipedia articles with legitimate, verifiable, and impartial citations apparently have the answers that the bishops do not. And the effects of the Internet, of the widespread accessibility of information, are shaking the cultural and doctrinal foundations of the Mormon Church.
A decade ago, there simply wasn’t any serious momentum against the Mormon Church. Most criticism and concern came from the Evangelical Christian community, having little impact on TBM’s (True Believing Mormons). But today, there is serious momentum, coming not from the outside, but rather within. On the Internet, ex-Mormons are mobilizing via discussion boards, Reddit, and YouTube comment sections. They’re putting pressure on Church HQ to address long-standing issues. Although ex- Mormons aren’t unified in their goals, their collective banging- on-the doors-and-windows has brought about serious change.
Within the last decade, in an effort to stem the tide of growing dissatisfaction, the Mormon Church has essentially kick- started its own reformation. Mormons unhappy with the temple ceremony? It’s been altered. An increasing amount of young missionaries suffocated by strict lifestyle rules? They’ve been relaxed. Many concerned over child welfare and privacy? New policies have been put in place to protect children.
Mormon membership numbers aren’t what they were in the past. Despite their massive voluntary missionary program, constantly hunting new recruits in often-impoverished communities in Latin America, the Mormon Church simply isn’t seeing the kinds of conversion rates it did only a generation ago. Disaffection is growing at such a rate that, during the few last semi-annual worldwide gatherings (which are televised for Mormon communities across the globe), the messages of the sermons have been conspicuously and uncharacteristically direct: “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith,” and, “Stay in the boat.”
Perhaps most unprecedented of all (and what many ex- Mormons consider to be a last-ditch effort on the part of the Church) is the series of ‘Gospel Topics Essays’ that the official Mormon website has quietly published. These essays attempt to address a handful of difficult subjects relating to Joseph Smith and other historical issues. The pieces aren’t featured on the main page of the church’s website—in fact, they’re not easy to locate. It’s almost as if they’ve been purposely buried under countless other faith-promoting pages. If faithful-but-doubtful Mormons look to the church’s official website for honest answers to difficult questions, it’s unlikely they’ll find what they’re looking for.
The essays are damning. Each one, at the very least, lends weight to—if not outright affirms—the criticisms and accusations that have been hurled against Joseph Smith since he was alive.
What form will the Mormon Church take ten years from now? It’s hard to say, but unless the Internet vanishes overnight, it’s likely that the Mormon retention rates will continue to diminish, conversion rates will continue to decline, and HQ will continue to keep those who remain, faithful.
When the internet rears its head and pushes inconvenient or faith-shattering information directly into the laps of Mormons who are unwilling, and too terrified, to critically examine their prophet’s biography, they can always find comfort in the words of Elder Neil L. Andersen, a prominent member of the Mormon Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who in 2015 urged faithful Mormons to, “give Brother Joseph a break!”