This Mormon Life-Act 1: The True Church and the Lies of Omission

I remember, long before I was even a Deacon in the LDS church, that one night my father sat us down for family home evening and had us watch Episode 12 of the seventh season of South Park, the infamous episode All About the Mormons.  It was an odd thing for our father to have us do as a Mormon family, given that a chorus of “dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb” is sung after everything Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, says in the episode, but there it was.  It was here that I was first introduced to the idea, the fact (do I believe in facts?), that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by sticking his head in a hat and receiving the words from glowing seer stones.

This stood as odd and funny looking compared to the more stately representation where Smith sits, reading the Reformed Egyptian off of golden plates, painstakingly translating much the same way grad students are meant to prove proficiency in German.

joseph-smith-translating-gold-plates_1510665_inl

I came across this fact again in the PBS documentary The Mormons, part of their American Experience series.  Here, the story of the peer stones was delivered by a historian working for a church.  It was proved to me without caveat finally when I read LDS historian Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. 

 

The first two programs I mentioned were not largely seen by members of the church, however Rough Stone Rolling circulated largely around the more bookish of the Latter-Day Saints.  So the Mormon intellegencia was probably no more than mildly interested when on Tuesday 8/4/15, when the Church (by which I mean the formal leaders headquartered in Salt Lake City) released pictures of Joseph Smith’s seer stones and an accompanying article. The common crowd, however, has a bit more to process.

seer stone

This week on This Mormon Life, thoughts on Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones.  Act one, The One True Church and its Lies of Omission. 

The Mormon Church loses members faster than it likes to admit.  So many, that the last time I took a trip to Utah I managed to only hang out with Jews and ex-Mormons.

But why such hemorrhaging of members?  Well one common reason is that Mormon history is messy.  Of course it is, it’s full of people, and as has been demonstrated often on my blog, I do not have a high opinion of people.  So Mormon history is a history of polygamy, political intrigue, outlandish claims about Native Americans, inconsistencies about visions, and a massacre.

The problem is, the church presents Mormon history as being squeaky clean in all of its Sunday school manuals and high school seminary curriculum.  No one bothers to mention that time Joseph Smith ran for president, or when his bank totally failed. They gloss over the fact that he entered into Polygamist unions with dozens of women, many already married, and many very young.  They don’t mention that before he gave the church their secret temple rites, he was initiated into free masonry’s secret rites. They don’t talk about the varied version of the Joseph Smith’s “first vision.”  They refer to his death as a “martyrdom” like he was a “lamb to the slaughter,” failing to mention that he was armed.  And, of course, they don’t mention that Joseph Smith was a treasure hunter who often used seer stones to find Indian gold, and then used those same seer stones to translate his gold bible.  Instead, they give a hagiography of an even headed, always wise, nearly perfect, ever humble prophet whose favorite game was the stick pull.  The stick pull is like a fifth Mormon sacrament.[1] [2]

Stick pull

So when you’re a Mormon, especially an older Mormon, and you encounter Mormon history in a less-than-Sunday-School context there’s a jarring disconnect. And in the age where the internet, and South Park, and South Park on the internet exists, this information is readily available.

emma smith

However, I’d dare say the facts themselves are often less damning than the feeling there’s a conspiracy.  Suddenly the church, the only true church, is caught in a lie of omission. There’s a dissonance.  In the jilted believer’s head, a church that is believed to be led by the LORD himself shouldn’t have an unsavory history in the first place, but it certainly shouldn’t be covering it up.  Lying is bad.  If you’re gonna translate the cornerstone of your religion by sticking your head in a hat, at least have the courage to tell people, and to continue to tell people for the next few hundred years.

In response, the church has been slowly addressing its messy history through official channels.  For example, It is slowly publishing all of Joseph Smith’s papers online.  This releases members from relying on only his canonized writings and church videos to understand the man, as well as anti-Mormon polemics.  They are now much closer to encountering Joseph Smith on his own terms.

Recently, the church has also began releasing something of a cross between press releases and sermons on other sticky moments in church history including polygamy and the barring of Black men from belonging to the church’s priesthood.  The article on the seer stone is the most recent of this trend.

In the same way the parent’s power through giving their children “the talk,” even though it’s hella uncomfortable for all parties involved, the church’s logic here is sound: “better members of the church learn it form us than from someone else.”  It’s an intelligent move. Otherwise they might think that the Book of Mormon could attract sharks if they swim while they’re on their mission.

Tomorrow on This Mormon Life: A closer look at the roll of history and myth in the LDS church, with Judaism as Counter point.  Snappy title to follow.

salt-lake-mormon-temple71

[1] The stick pull is an old-timey game where in which two people hold on to a wooden stick parallel between them, feet together and then pull until one person is made to lose his seat.  What did you think I was talking about?

[2] My own list of Mormon sacraments: Baptism, communion (which, confusingly, they call “the sacrament”), the temple endowment (of power), marriage.  Anyone care to expand on this list?

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One thought on “This Mormon Life-Act 1: The True Church and the Lies of Omission

  1. Addenda.

    1.) The fifth “sacrament”, at least for a man, is receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood. I have a feeling this could play into tomorrow’s article, though.

    2.) “However, I’d dare say the facts themselves are often less damning than the feeling there’s a conspiracy.” I remember feeling this way the first time I read anti-Mormon pamphlets about Kolob, but of course those pamphlets were exclusively using the “it’s an actual planet” interpretation without mentioning the “it’s a metaphor for Christ” interpretation that makes more sense (for me, at least). One-sided info is my least favorite info. Also, the “home planet of the thirteen colonies of man” interpretation is probably more fun, if less accurate.

    3.) When these press releases release supposedly new details about things considered shady in the Mormon Church’s past, I’m torn between saying that I already knew (which sounds smug) and feeling like Salt Lake needs to make a greater effort to make things accessible. Granted, I learned about the bank incident and Joseph Smith’s presidential run while reading Institute manuals and old Ensign articles on my mission, so all that spare time to devote exclusively to Church materials without worrying about an income admittedly gave me a leg-up. That, plus internet access and native fluency in English, which not all members have.

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