Weak Arguments #11: “I will never, ever use official Mormon Church sources…”

Posted: February 8, 2015 in Fred Anson, Mormon Culture, Mormon Studies, Official Mormon Doctrine, Weak Arguments

Curriculum-2012-collage-580

Collage of official Mormon Church 2012 Sunday Curriculum

An ongoing series of articles on some common and recurring weak arguments that Christians make against Mormonism.

by Fred W. Anson
The Argument:
“I will never, ever use official Mormon Church sources like church manuals, LdS Scripture, or the official church website. It’s all just spin doctored, faith promoting propaganda!”

Why It’s Weak:
One of the hardest things for many Christians in Mormon Studies seems to be the ability to view things from the Latter-day Saint point of view. However, for your arguments to be truly effective you have to be willing to leave your side of the divide and stand next to the guy who disagrees with you so you can see things through his eyes.

For example, while Christianity is a religion drenched in and driven by an adherence to orthodoxy defined by 2,000-years of systematic theology, Mormonism – a young religion by comparison – is a “cafeteria religion.” By this I mean that the LdS Church gives it’s members a smorgasbord of doctrine and theology to choose from and then doesn’t seem to get too upset when they take what they want and leave the rest. One reason for this is that in Mormonism orthopraxy carries more weigh than orthodoxy. As one Mormon Studies scholar observed:

Mormonism lacks a solid, systematic theology by which a serious scholar could pinpoint beliefs. Those of you who have been in many debates with Mormons no doubt have run into this frustration. How many times has a Mormon claimed something you thought to be a central piece of Mormon theology to not be ‘official doctrine’? It’s happened to me often, even when I pull that doctrine in question right out of officially published manuals used to teach Sunday school. Ultimately this confusion stems from the fact that the LDS leadership is uneducated in religion or philosophy, generally, and therefore avoids clarifying rather important doctrines, leaving individual Mormons interested in the topic to their own devices.[1]

Due to this phenomenon, what Mormons believe in practice may or may not be aligned with they’re supposed to believe according to the LdS Church. This can be frustrating and baffling for someone coming from the historical Christian perspective. Talk to ten Mormons and you may find ten different belief systems. Very often in dialog with a particular Mormon you might even find that belief system shifting based on the ebb and flow of the arguments and evidence that’s being presented. Never-the-less as the same Mormon Studies scholar notes:

A young Mormon woman bearing her testimony

A young Mormon woman bearing her testimony

Here’s the problem though, Mormonism is very interested in orthodoxy, at least as much as orthopraxy. Go to any fast and testimony meeting and one thing you’ll hear from almost all participants who speak is something akin to “I know this church is true, I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, I know that Jesus is the Christ,” and so on. “I know” is rather strong phrasing of a statement of Mormon orthodoxy. Or, how about meet with some Mormon missionaries and allow them to run through the standard missionary discussions. One of the first things they will do is teach you how to ‘recognize the witness of the Spirit’ which consists of associating good feelings with statements that they argue are true. From the very beginning the potential convert is encouraged to form an orthodoxy grounded in an epistemology consisting of the formula “good feelings about things which authorities claim to be true= witness of the Spirit of the truthfulness of the said claims”. In order to be baptized, you have to agree to a set of belief claims, not just promises to obey the Word of Wisdom, the law of chastity and the law of tithing. Likewise, to go through the temple the Mormon must affirm core doctrines which in practice constitute a sort of Mormon creed. I argue the only reason this isn’t systematized, is as I said before, due to the Mormon aversion to theological learning, but that doesn’t mean that Mormonism isn’t a religion obsessed with orthodoxy. It surely is. It’s just a sloppy theology, which does have the affect of allowing the few to take their belief system in unique directions but remain Mormons in good standing.[2]

So the question is, “How does one cut through the non-systematized theology of the typical Mormon so meaningful discussion can ensue?” And the answer, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi is, “Use the manuals Christian, use the manuals.”

1) Yes, it’s spin doctored, faith promoting propaganda…
I will affirm, validate, and agree with at least a portion the second part of this weak argument: LdS Church manuals and the church website are indeed spin doctored propaganda. Some examples: 

  • The “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young” manual (circa 1997) only mentions his first two monogamous legal wives (he remarried after being widowed), never mentions his illegal plural wives (fifty-three that we know of), and never uses the word “polygamy”, “plural wives”, or any derivation thereof anywhere therein. Further, the biggest scandal of his presidency, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is never mentioned despite it’s profound historical and social significance.[3]
  • In a similar manner the “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith” manual (circa 2011) limits the subject of plural marriage in the introductory notes to the teacher. Throughout the rest of the manual only his marriage to Emma Hale Smith is mentioned and polygamy is conveniently (and as explained in the introduction, deliberately) avoided. Consider for example, this: Although their marriage would be tested by the deaths of children, financial difficulties, and Joseph’s frequent absences from home in fulfillment of his duties, Joseph and Emma always loved one another deeply.”[4] The biggest test of their marriage was, no doubt, Joseph Smith’s polygamy yet it isn’t mentioned at all.[5]
  • The front cover of the “Church History In The Fullness of Times” manual

    Finally, the manual, “Church History in the Fulness of Times” (circa 2014) is a cornucopia of skewed, white washed, historical revisionism. For example, the section entitled, “Missouri Persecutions and Expulsion”[6] goes into great detail about the atrocities and horrors inflicted on Mormons by their Missouri neighbors but fails to mentions the atrocities and horrors inflicted on the Missourians by Mormons during the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri.[7] And the section on the the Kirtland Safety Society[8] absolves Joseph Smith of all culpability concluding with this “masterpiece” of spin doctored white washing:

Joseph Smith’s losses from the failure of the company were greater than anyone else’s. While seeking to achieve success with the bank and, at the same time, to purchase land in Kirtland and goods for his store, he accumulated debts amounting to approximately one hundred thousand dollars. Although he had assets in land and goods that were of greater value in some respects than his debts, he was unable to immediately transform these assets into a form that could be used to pay his creditors. The Prophet endured seventeen lawsuits during 1837 in Geauga County for debts involving claims of more than thirty thousand dollars. Unfortunately, few people correctly understood the causes of their economic difficulties. Many Saints spoke against the Prophet and accused him of being responsible for all of their problems.[9]

To compare and contrast, consider this account from the neutral source, Wikipedia:

Regardless of the reasons for the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company’s (KSSABC) failure, much of the blame was laid upon Smith. Half of The Quorum of Twelve Apostles accused Smith of improprieties in the banking scandal, and LDS Apostle Heber C. Kimball later said that the bank’s failure was so shattering that afterwards “there were not twenty persons on earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.” Woodruff records that Smith had an alleged revelation on the topic, but declined to share it, saying only that “if we would give heed to the commandments the Lord had given this morning all would be well.” Then Woodruff expresses his own hopes that the KSSABC will “become the greatest of all institutions on EARTH.”

A Two Dollar Bill from Joseph Smith's Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Bank

A Two Dollar Bill from the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Bank
(click to zoom)

On January 12, 1838, faced with a warrant for his arrest on a charge of illegal banking, Smith fled with Rigdon to Clay County, Missouri just ahead of an armed group out to capture and hold Smith for trial. Smith and Rigdon were both acquainted with not only conflict and violent mobbing they experienced together in Pennsylvania and New York, but with fleeing from the law. According to Smith, they left “to escape mob violence, which was about to burst upon us under the color of legal process to cover the hellish designs of our enemies.” Brigham Young left Kirtland for Missouri weeks earlier on December 22 to avoid the dissidents who were angry with Young and threatened him because of his persistent public defense of Smith’s innocence. Most of those who remained committed to the church moved to join the main body of the LDS in Missouri.[10]

2) …but it’s official spin doctored, faith promoting propaganda.
But despite any deficiencies, the fact remains that these official church resources define what the Mormon should believe. They are as close to systematized theology as one is going to get in Mormonism. For example, the next time a Mormon tells you that the Lorenzo Snow couplet (“As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”) no longer has any meaningful or relevant place in Mormon doctrine or theology, you can say: “Then why does page 83 of the official LdS Church manual, ‘Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow’ contain the couplet and go on to say this: ‘Because we have divinity within us, we can become like our Father in Heaven’? Why don’t you believe what your church says you should believe?”[11]

Or the next time a Latter-day Saint tells you that in Mormonism salvation is by grace alone you can say, “Then why in the official Church Education System ‘Book of Mormon Student Study Guide’ on page 53 does it say: ‘We are saved by the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We must, however, come unto Christ on His terms in order to obtain all the blessings that He freely offers us. We come unto Christ by doing “all we can do” to remember Him, keep our covenants with Him, and obey His commandments.’[12]

Further, my Mormon friend, LdS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks said this in the May 1998, Ensign magazine on page 55:

‘And what is ‘all we can do’? It surely includes repentance (see Alma 24:11) and baptism, keeping the commandments, and enduring to the end. Moroni pleaded, ‘Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ’ (Moroni. 10:32).’[13]

jellytoawall

While defining Mormon doctrine may be like nailing Jello to a wall…

How is it ‘grace alone’ if covenant keeping, self denial, and obedience to commandments are requirements or prerequisites? And, by the way, why is it that you don’t believe what your church says you should believe?”

See how this works? While defining Mormon doctrine may be like nailing Jello to a wall at least official LdS Church sources provide a mold that the Jello is supposed to stay in. And if determining what individual Mormons may believe may be like herding cats but at least working with official LdS Church sources give you a net and cat carrier to work with.

3) Stay on safe ground
A common problem that everyone in Mormon Studies struggles with is the issue of exactly what official Mormon Doctrine is. As Mormon Researcher Aaron Shafovaloff notes:

Christians who attempt to engage in meaningful dialog with their Mormon friends are often frustrated by the way teachings and beliefs can be obfuscated and downplayed. When a question is posed by a Christian they are many times told that a particular teaching “is not official.” Behind this are the assumptions that Mormonism is immune to any fatal criticism if it involves anything outside the scope of officiality, and that evangelical engagement should be limited to that which is binding upon Mormon members.

One problem with this is that the Mormon Church has no binding and official position on what constitutes a binding and official position. Mormon leaders and thinkers have proposed a variety of approaches to defining what constitutes official doctrine, not one being settled upon. (bolding added)[14]

This led Mormon Critic, Keith Walker of Evidence Ministries, to make this poignant but humorous statement about the absurdity of the conundrum and how Mormons abuse it:

So while it appears that Mormonism from the First President to the Ward Janitor both is blessed and cursed with the need for a plausible deniability escape hatch, it seems incredulous to argue that current, correlated, officially vetted and published church materials don’t establish a standard of belief that good Mormons are beholden to. As Mormon Apostle Carlos Asay explained in General Conference:

“Church publications (the Ensign, the New Era, the Friend, and the International Magazines) are referred to as the voices of the Church and the official line of communication from the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve to the members of the Church. Each month a First Presidency message appears in the Ensign. Home teachers are expected to discuss this article with all assigned families. Quite obviously, the curriculum would become stagnant and lose its relevance if we failed to hear the voices of living prophets. One of the most significant of all Church publications is the conference edition of the Ensign magazine. This important issue carries the current written messages of the Brethren conveying the mind and will of the Lord.”[15]

And the importance of staying faithful to church manuals and not deviating from them is emphasized again, again, and again on the official church website. For example, consider this excerpt of a General Conference address from Mormon Apostle M. Russell Ballard

Teachers would be well advised to study carefully the scriptures and their manuals before reaching out for supplemental materials. Far too many teachers seem to stray from the approved curriculum materials without fully reviewing them. If teachers feel a need to use some good supplemental resources beyond the scriptures and manuals in presenting a lesson, they should first consider the use of the Church magazines.

Teachers can stay on safe ground when they use the standard works, the approved manuals, and the writings of the General Authorities.[16]

… as well as this Church Educational System video to seminary teachers: The Importance of the Seminary and Institute Curriculum.

So, to paraphrase Elder Ballard, Mormon Critics can stay on safe ground when they use the standard works, the approved manuals, and the writings of the General Authorities.

Summary and Conclusion
My observation in dialoging with Mormons over a number of years is that when they’re confronted with hard or uncomfortable evidence they start looking for an escape hatch to wiggle out of. Using official LdS Church resources won’t eliminate this but it reduces their options. Further, there’s great power in asking Mormons why they don’t believe what they’re supposed to. After all, if it’s in their standard works and approved manuals, they’re supposed to believe it are they not? I mean aren’t you, dear Christian, supposed to believe what’s in your church’s scripture and church approved manuals? And if the answer is, “No!” then I would ask you the same question that I would ask a Latter-day Saint: “Then why are you in a church whose beliefs you don’t share?”

Finally, I would ask to consider this: If you scroll through this article, including the footnotes, you may notice something – the majority of my sources and arguments in this article were derived from what? Answer: Official LdS Church materials. And I would suggest that if you found them persuasive, even though you’re not beholden to them, how much more so will your Mormon friend, who is?

Use the manuals Christian, use the manuals!

NOTES
[1] Nebula0, “Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy”, About Mormonism website

[2] Ibid, Nebula0

[3] LdS Church, “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young”, LdS Church website

[4] LdS Church, “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith” (Kindle Locations 480-482). Kindle Edition. The statement about why polygamy was deliberately avoided in this manual can be found at Kindle Location 204 in the Kindle Edition where it says:

“This book deals with teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that have application to our day. For example, this book does not discuss such topics as the Prophet’s teachings regarding the law of consecration as applied to stewardship of property. The Lord withdrew this law from the Church because the Saints were not prepared to live it (see D& C 119, section heading). This book also does not discuss plural marriage. The doctrines and principles relating to plural marriage were revealed to Joseph Smith as early as 1831. The Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime. Over the next several decades, under the direction of the Church Presidents who succeeded Joseph Smith, a significant number of Church members entered into plural marriages. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which discontinued plural marriage in the Church (see Official Declaration 1 ). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices plural marriage.” (bolding added for emphasis)

The above statement can also be found on the LdS Church website by clicking on this link.

[5] There’s ample evidence of the conflict and turmoil that polygamy created in Joseph and Emma Smith’s marriage but probably none more dramatic than this famous incident:

“A door opposite opened and dainty, little, dark-haired Eliza R. Snow (she was “heavy with child”) came out . . . Joseph then walked on to the stairway, where he tenderly kissed Eliza, and then came on down stairs toward Brother Rich. Just as he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and both Joseph and Brother Rich turned quickly to see Eliza come tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy; she stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. Joseph quickly picked up the little lady, and with her in his arms, he turned and looked up at Emma, who then burst into tears and ran to her room. Joseph carried the hurt and bruised Eliza up the stairs and to her room. ‘Her hip was injured and that is why she always afterward favored that leg,’ said Charles C. Rich. ‘She lost the unborn babe.’”
(Maureen U. Beecher, Linda K. Newell, and Valeen T. Avery, “Emma, Eliza, and the Stairs: An Investigation”, BYU Studies 22 (Winter 1982), pp.86-94)

[6] LdS Church, “Church History in the Fulness of Times” (Kindle Location 6012). Kindle Edition. You can also click on this link to see the referenced content on the LdS Church website.

[7] Consider, for example, this incident:

“The [non-Mormon] Gentiles, who numbered but 36 men, were completely routed and driven from the field in a few minutes. They fought bravely and effectively, but could not withstand the sudden and impetuous attack which was made upon them, and Capt. Bogart led them off in the direction of Elkhorn, but finally fell back to the southern part of the county. The Mormons did not pursue, owing chiefly to the fall of their leader, whose death had a demoralizing effect upon them, chiefly because they had deemed him invincible, as he had repeatedly declared that he could not be killed.

In this engagement the Mormons lost Capt. Patton and two men named Patrick O’Banion and Gideon Carter killed, and James Holbrook and another man wounded. In the dark the latter fought by mistake, and cut up one another with their corn knives, or ” swords,” as they called them, very severely. Capt. Bogart’s Gentiles lost Moses Rowland killed and Thos. H. Loyd, Edwin Odell, James Lockard, Martin Dunnaway, Samuel Tarwater, and Wyatt Craven wounded.

Two Mormons attacked Tarwater with corn knives and nearly cut him to pieces. He received a terrible gash in the skull, through which his brain was plainly visible, one terrible blow across the face severed the jaw bone and destroyed all the upper teeth, and there was an ugly gash made in his neck. He kept his bed six months and his wounds considerably affected his speech and his memory, Mr. Tarwater is yet alive, and resides near Orrick, Ray county. Since 1840 he has drawn a pension from the State of Missouri of $100 per year, for the wounds and disability he received in the Crooked river fight. Wyatt Craven lives near Crab Orchard, Ray county. He was taken prisoner early in the fight, and the Mormons started with him to Far West, but after traveling some distance they released him and told him to go home. He started off and was walking away pretty briskly, when Parley P. Pratt, a very prominent and noted Mormon and one of the ” Twelve Apostles,” laid his gun against a tree, took deliberate aim, fired and shot him down. Then, believing he was dead, the Mormons went off and left him.”
(Ora Merle Hawk Pease, “History of Caldwell and Livingston Counties, Missouri”, pp.130-131)

And as Mormon researcher Bill McKeever notes regarding the Mormon white washing of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri:

“When speaking of Mormon persecution, the tragedy at Haun’s Mill is rarely overlooked. The film spoke of a Mormon who was “hacked to death by a corn-cutter.” The brevity of this episode in the film fails to mention that the atrocities at Haun’s Mill stemmed in part from an incident a week earlier at what has come to be called “the Battle of Crooked River.” Former Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn explained on page 100 of his book, A Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power:

“A generally unacknowledged dimension of both the extermination order and the Haun’s Mill massacre, however, is that they resulted from Mormon actions in the Battle of Crooked River. Knowingly or not, Mormons had attacked state troops, and this had a cascade effect… upon receiving news of the injuries and death of state troops at Crooked River, Governor Boggs immediately drafted his extermination order on 27 October 1838 because the Mormons ‘have made war upon the people of this state.’ Worse, the killing of one Missourian and mutilation of another while he was defenseless at Crooked River led to the mad-dog revenge by Missourians in the slaughter at Haun’s Mill” (Origins of Power, p.100)

The mutilated Missourian was Samuel Tarwater who was left for dead by the fleeing state militia. Quinn noted how enraged Mormons mutilated the unconscious Tarwater “with their swords, striking him lengthwise in the mouth, cutting off his under teeth, and breaking his lower jaw; cutting off his cheeks…and leaving him [for] dead” (p.99). Tarwater survived to press charges.”
(“Part One of ‘The Mormons’ on PBS” reviewed by Bill McKeever. Mormonism Research Ministry website)

[8] Op cit, “Church History in the Fulness of Times” (Kindle Location 5402). You can also click on this link to see the referenced content on the LdS Church website.

[9] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 5436-5443). You can also click on this link to see the referenced content on the LdS Church website.

[10] Wikipedia, “Kirtland Safety Society”, “Response in the LDS community”; Also see “Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company” on the MormonThink.com website for a good collection of citations from non-neutral sources. There’s just no denying that the example citation from the church manual is spin doctored, white washed, revisionism. Joseph Smith, along with his First Counselor Sidney Rigdon, legitimately bore a heavy fiduciary burden for the failure of the bank.

[11] LdS Church, “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow”, “Chapter 5: The Grand Destiny of the Faithful” p.83, LdS Church website

[12] LdS Church, “Book of Mormon Student Study Guide”, “2 Nephi 25: ‘Believe in Christ'”, p.53, LdS Church website

[13] Dallin H. Oaks, “Have You Been Saved?” Ensign, May 1998, p. 55, LdS Church website

[14] Aaron Shafovaloff, “Mormonism, Officiality, and Plausible Deniability”, Mormon Research Ministry website

[15] Carlos Asay, “‘For the Perfecting of the Saints’: A Look at Church Curriculum”, Ensign, Jan. 1986, p.17, LdS Church website

[16] M. Russell Ballard, “Teaching—No Greater Call”, April 1983 LDS General Conference, LdS Church website

RECOMMENDED READING
Mormon Doctrine: What’s Official, And What Isn’t?, by Donald L. Ashton. Mr. Ashton is a member of StayLDS.com which is a, “We don’t believe anymore but still stay LDS,” New Order Mormon style group. I would have loved to cite several times from this fascinating article but the author has tightened up the use rights to the point of making that impractical. Apparently he doesn’t want it to get into the hands of all those nasty Mormon critics out there – and for good reason, there’s a lot to work with here if you’re a critic!

In the end this article expends a lot of time and effort to essentially say, “There is no official Mormon doctrine. The truth is what you make it.” (These are my words not the author’s) In other words, it advocates a form of relativist post modernism. Never-the-less, it still contains some good lists of official LdS Church sources and quotes from Mormon leaders on the subject of what constitutes official Mormon doctrine and what doesn’t. If nothing else, this article defines the problem well even if it’s solution is “squishy” and, at least to this author’s way of thinking, unsatisfying.

“What is Official Doctrine?”, by Stephen E. Robinson and Joseph Fielding Smith. BYU Professor (cum Mormon Apologist) Stephen Robinson’s glowing treatise in support of the kind of circular logic and appeal to authority fallacies that were noted in the main article above. If nothing else this article is worth reading to see the lengths that Mormons will go to protect their “Not official!” escape hatch.

My favorite line is this wonder of circular logic: “the only valid judgments of whether or not LDS doctrine is Christian must be based on the official doctrines of the Church, interpreted as the Latter-day Saints interpret them.” In other words, outside objective evidence is irrelevant to Mormonism’s closed system – a phenomenon I wrote about in my article, “The Problem of the Mormon Tank (Revisited)”. Robinson also tacks on an excerpt from Joseph Fielding Smith’s, “Answers to Gospel Questions”, that proves that Mormon Prophets can be just as irrational, circular, and fallacious as BYU Professors.

“Approaching Mormon Doctrine”, LDS Newsroom. An official LdS Church source that explicitly states that feelings alone aren’t a sufficient means of discerning truth. I use this one a lot with Mormons who insist that the “witness of the Spirit” alone is sufficient for discerning truth and that objective evidence is irrelevant:

“Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine. Moreover, the Church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together.” (bolding added for emphasis)

“Should one limit consideration of ‘Mormonism’ to what minimalists deem ‘official’ and ‘binding’?”, by Aaron Shafovaloff. This article offers some thoughts on why Mormon “not official” objections shouldn’t be allowed to stop or limit discussion.

“Mormon Belief: The Doctrine of the LDS Church”, by Robert Bowman Jr. Provides a short, succinct of core Latter-day Saint beliefs with citations from official LdS Church sources.

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