A Conversation with Brother Bishop

January 29, 2014

After I made my post about Joseph Smith attempting to translate English into Hebrew, a curious thing happened: a commenter took issue with my conclusions and then proceeded to veer into irrelevant topics such as Hugh Nibley’s attempt to muddy the Book of Abraham waters by attacking transliterations and, of course, our commenter’s priesthood office. (For the record, I was ordained a high priest in the LDS church 16 years ago.)

In case anyone missed the point, I’ll summarize my earlier post.

1. Before Joseph Smith had any instruction in Hebrew, when he translated, the words he claimed were Hebrew were not Hebrew at all.
2. After Joseph Smith had some instruction in Hebrew, when he translated, the words he claimed were Hebrew turned out to be Hebrew after all.
3. Without knowledge or instruction in Egyptian, when Joseph translated, the words he claimed were Egyptian resembled his first attempt at Hebrew and were not Egyptian.

I think we can make some pretty solid conclusions from this, but obviously others may disagree. Either way, it seems to me that, were I trying to defend Joseph Smith, I could think of a few responses:

1. The first attempt was a secular attempt and does not reflect on his abilities as a translator when inspired of God.
2. The words Joseph claimed were Hebrew really are Hebrew but have either not been revealed yet or have been lost over the centuries.

There are obvious problems with both, but since I have a commenter who has come up with a criticism of my post, I shall respond.

Robin Bishop (I’m going by the comment label) wrote:

Joseph Smith did not have English to Hebrew online translators. So, it is a simple procedure to test the voracity  of the Prophet Joseph. In your post, you have the translation into Hebrew of Joseph’s attempt at “Brethren I bid you adieu”. It apparently produced something nonsensical. Right, I get that.

Not only nonsensical, but non-Hebrew. That’s important.

Using the online translator of your choice, do it for yourself and see what you get. (I’m surprised you didn’t try it for yourself prior to posting. )

For all those who don’t want to take the time to uncover the truth for yourselves, this is what I got.

“Brethren I bid you adieu” delivers אחיהם שיהיה לך in Hebrew. Translating the Hebrew “אחיהם שיהיה לך “ back to English delivers the nonsensical “Their brothers that will be you”.

I got “Brothers I offer you hello.”

This leaves me to wonder what was really contained in the original Hebrew letters of the New Testament. You might want to take a look at the Joseph Smith translation.

Either way, the problem here isn’t that we get a nonsense translation (this is common with online translators, not so much with prophets). There is a fatal flaw in your reasoning:

The Hebrew words the online translator came up with (אחים שאני מציע אותך שלום) are actually Hebrew. “i f s E Zamtri” is not Hebrew. When the translator translated the Hebrew into English, the words it produced were actually English. Nonsensical or not, the Hebrew words Joseph Smith produced are not Hebrew.

Ed Ashment knew this problem before writing his nonsense.

It’s not nonsense to say that the words Joseph Smith wrote are not Hebrew. I’m not sure why you think it was “nonsense” for Ed Ashment to write that simple fact.

Speaking to the translation from English to Hebrew, translate the word “HAVE” into Hebrew….just that simple word. Tell me what you get.

I still get Hebrew words. Joseph Smith did not. Yet just a few months later, he produced correct Hebrew words. What had changed in the interval?


The Great Escape

January 24, 2014

It’s the birthday of a good friend today, and in his honor, I thought I’d share his Mormon “exit” story, which is just a great story, Mormon or otherwise. Happy birthday, Joe! Rereading this story, I’m grateful that he’s received the help he needed and is doing well.

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In October 2000 I started university. I was 16 at the time and the youngest student there. My chosen field of study was Social Science, I intended to specialise in political science, and in the end Economics became my major and politics my minor. Before university, I had never really encountered anything that made me seriously question the faith of my upbringing. I knew about a lot of crazy doctrines, but I just accepted them. What other choice did I have? I was the Bishop’s son, the one who was never in trouble, who never misbehaved in classes, and the one with the longest patriarchal blessing. I was destined to serve an honourable mission and become a leader amongst the saints.

One of my first classes was entitled “The Sociology of Sexuality.” The lecturer was a woman who openly discussed her masturbatory habits as an object lesson, and the tutor was the first openly gay man I’d ever met. I did not enjoy the class. It created too many problems: first, given my age my own sexuality was not entirely decided upon, and second, we studied the Kinsey studies in depth and I had a hard time believing that sexual practices outside of the Salt Lake City prescribed norm could be sinful. I simply put these things on the shelf, along with many, many other things I learned during my studies.

Three years passed, and it came time to go on a mission. I wasn’t forced or pressured into going. It just seemed like the next stage. I was conditioned into thinking that a mission was the thing to do. I duly sent off the paperwork to church headquarters and got sent to Germany–ironic, as German was the only subject I ever failed at school.

I was sent to the MTC in Provo in order to learn the language before being sent to Frankfurt. I hated the MTC. It was horrible. The food made me ill, and the culture and regime were oppressive, humourless, and grey. My early mission days were fine. I had good companions whom I liked. My first area was friendly, and the mission regime was laid back. We were expected to do a job, but there were, unlike most missions, no pharisaical rules to keep.

After some time I was moved from my first area to Bonn. Bonn is a beautiful town, and I enjoyed the younger university town atmosphere; however, after only a few weeks, I was emergency transferred out and to the mission office in Frankfurt. Bonn was important to my exit, as it was where I first noticed historical whitewashing. One day an elder in my district handed me a copy of the ‘King Follet Discourse’ that had been sent to him by his grandfather. In that discourse there is a paragraph about child gods. I thought it would be a great idea for language study to compare the German and English versions of the speech. However, when I got the German version in the Joseph Fielding Smith book, ‘Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,’ I immediately noticed a curious omission: where the child gods paragraph should have been there was simply an asterix. The note at the bottom of the page said that this had been removed because it was a transcription error.

For two years, there had been a couple in the mission office who dealt with the mission finances, and they were due to go home. The church had sent another older couple, but the man told the MP that if he were made do the finance job, he’d have a heart attack. On the phone the MP told me that since I had a degree in Economics and had worked in banks for years, I was the best match for the job. I had only been in Germany four months, but I did not mind.

Life in the office was good. I liked the other elders, and the MP and I developed a good relationship. He liked to talk politics with me because he knew I’d disagree with him. Missions are all about ass-kissing. I was never into that, so I’d disagree, and he actually appreciated that he could have an intelligent conversation with me. Running the mission finances was a big job. We had a budget of more than €1.5m, every penny of which needed to be accounted for. During this time, I became known as mission cook. I hate bad cooking and can cook well, so I used the office to practice my hobby. I cooked for between 6 and 8 missionaries every day. This will become more amazing later in the story.

I was quite able to do all the tasks required of me. It was weird, though; my mission, which was supposed to be a great spiritual experience, had become something like a 9-5 job, only with longer hours. Spirituality was really not a high priority. Sometimes the car elder and his companion got out and did missionary work. I always had too much work to do. I was enjoying it all until, after a while, I stopped being able to sleep.

My sleep patterns went to hell. It was really bad. I was getting only a few hours of sleep a night. I could not function properly during the day. About this time moves happened, and all the office elders changed, except me. One of the new elders was a self-absorbed, ignorant arsehole who thought he received personal revelation about everything. The personality clash between us was a catalyst for major mood swings. One minute I was happy and the next furiously angry. I slipped into a general depression and was referred to the newly assigned area psychiatrist.

The church psychiatrist in Frankfurt dealt with missionaries all over Europe, usually by phone. His office was in the area office, a 10-minute drive away. On my first consultation, he diagnosed me, based on previous experiences and family history, as having Cyclothymia, although this quickly changed to BiPolar Mood Disorder, Type 1 (BP1). Around the same time it was suggested that the office elders make a better attempt at the more ‘spiritual’ side of missionary life.

For most, this meant going out to appointments at night, but more importantly for me, more personal study. I had always felt that church history was a little disjointed and slightly incoherent. I considered this to be a failing of my own knowledge. I started to study church history, including the Journal of Discourses. All the usual suspects were new to me: blood atonement and Adam-God, etc. At this same time, the church psychiatrist decided that some cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) would be useful, especially until the medication kicked in. I had been prescribed Zoloft, which, although it slightly lifted my by-this-time extremely dark mood, also increase the severity of my manic upswings.

When manic, I studied with great speed and intensity, I was devouring the Journal of Discourses. In my CBT sessions I discussed many things relating to the church. For years, I had disagreed with all the political statements the church issued. Having studied world welfare systems, I knew that the church welfare system and the principles upon which it are founded were based on a model of right-wing conservatism for which I had no support. Politics became the first point over which my doctor and I bonded. He was a lifelong Democrat from a line of Democratic politicians in Idaho. He started to relate his feelings as I did mine. During one session I said that, as a result of existing beliefs and the new information I had discovered, I no longer believed the church was true. His response was, “Neither do I.”

He went on to explain that he had known the church was in no way divine from his mission days, too, and that for years he had said very little and never interacted with his wards. As a psychiatrist and a liberal, he had always felt uneasy and unwelcome. Sunstone magazine would call him and his wife, ‘borderlanders.’ From this point on, I have believed that Mormonism is nothing but a facade for most people. Their final straw was the excommunication of the “September Six.”

Although I was in a bad way, I was very grateful to have a friend in whom I could confide. He and his wife were in my ward, and I began spending more and more time with them. We are still in contact and very much friends. Soon after this, things took a turn for the worse. L. Tom Perry announced a mission tour to start his stint as area president. His letter to the MP stated that he wished to examine mission finance records and to ensure that everything was in order. I had managed to make some major innovations to our systems, but having been in a deep depression, I had fallen well behind in everything other than paying bills. I had spent many a day sleeping under my desk, unable to move.

To get ready for L. Tom, I worked 18 hour days trying to get months of transactions to balance, trying to file receipts and the thousands of bits of paper that were strewn around the office. I worked myself into the ground to get things into some semblance of order. The sisters from the neighbouring area even came round to polish and hoover the place for me. This frenetic pace lasted several weeks, my condition continued to deteriorate, and by this time I was suicidal. I was now on the highest possible dose of Zoloft and on mood stabilisers. I felt like shit. There was huge hype about the apostle coming to visit. At his talk in the Frankfurt stake centre, I sat next to the doctor and his wife.

Perry spoke about time management. Where was the spirituality in that? I leaned over and told the doctor that this sounded exactly like a corporate training session I had been to two years earlier with the bank I worked for. Perry even talked about productivity rates. The whole thing was a load of shit, and I said so to the doctor. He and his wife agreed. L. Tom then proceeded to meet with the MP and his staff in the office. His questions were incoherent.

He continually asked questions about mission finances, but they made no sense whatsoever. He was unaware of mission accounting software or any procedures and continually asked about punch cards. I’m sure they were obsolete by the late 50’s. There was no inspection of financial records, no detailed questions that made any sense. I was pissed off. I had worked myself into the ground whilst suicidally ill for this man, and it appeared that he was too senile to have any concept of what was going on. I met L. Tom Perry several times, and I am convinced that he has early to middle-stage dementia, which goes unreported to the general membership.

Throughout my illness, I have to say that everyone was quite understanding. Whenever the APs got haughty about me sleeping during the day or refusing to go to events, the MP always straightened them out for me. However, one day whilst paying invoices, I came across the invoice from the pharmacy. All the medication for missionaries in Europe came from this one little chemist’s shop next to Frankfurt’s West Centrum, and I got a copy of the invoice with the items for my mission highlighted. I suddenly realised that I was on more medication than any other missionary in Europe. Added to this, I knew that I was to be moved in six weeks to become a zone leader after ten months in the mission office. Talk about an inspired calling!

I went to see the doctor, and in my session I told him I’d had enough and that if he did not send me home after training my replacement over the next six weeks I was leaving. Evidently he did not take my threat seriously, something he has since apologised for. His reports to the MP had been increasingly vague, and we had become such good friends that I think it would have been too difficult for him to send me home. His wife was a huge critic of the church. She was forever biting her tongue, and one day, shortly before my departure, she gave me a copy of ‘No Man Knows My History.’

It was moves night. I was moving anyway, and so my packing was in no way suspicious. I was up later than anyone else, not surprising given the length of time I had lived in Frankfurt. Over the previous couple of weeks, I had used the office Internet, my credit cards, and some investments that I sold to buy an aeroplane ticket to my never-Mormon grandmother’s home in America. I even bought a car on E-bay. The deception involved was huge. I had experienced missionary disappearances before. I knew that the APs were sent to Frankfurt airport and the ZLs in Düsseldorf to the airport there. I therefore bought a ticket for a night train to Zürich.

At 1 am I got up very quietly, dressed in full missionary attire. I lifted my suitcase rather than use the wheels and placed it in the stairwell. I then sat down at the table and wrote a letter to the Oberbürgermeisterin of Frankfurt to register my departure from the country. I left the letter and closed the door behind me, my heart racing. I crept down the marble stairs and out the front door to the street. I then drove the mission car to the office, directly next to a major train station. I locked the car and placed the keys in the office letterbox. I then boarded the train. I was sitting in Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, crying over the decision I had taken–a decision I felt I had to take. I could not have been a ZL or enthuse my zone when I myself had no testimony.

I boarded the night train to Zürich. I had a compartment to myself. I watched through the darkness as I left Frankfurt and travelled south. I went through the most southerly town in our mission with elders in it. I imagined them sleeping peacefully in their beds as I struggled with my own feelings, moods, and the horrific side effects from the medication I was on. As I sat alone in the compartment, I slipped off my name tag and breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

That morning I reached Zürich Flughafen. I checked in for the flight. The man addressed me in German the whole time until he saw my passport. He apologised and said he had thought I was German. For a fleeting moment I wondered if this was a sign. I dismissed it and boarded the flight to Newark. I was in a terrible state, so I was surprised I was allowed to fly, but as I am told constantly, I cover up very well. The stress and my situation combined, and I collapsed in Minneapolis Airport but was allowed to fly. Whilst flying across the Atlantic I used the airphone and called the doctor. He was crying, not for any gospel or related reason but because I was alive and safe and that he cared. I explained where I was and where I was going and why. He realised that I had been cornered without much choice.

When I landed, I phoned my parents–my head spinning–and told them where I was. I regret that my mission ended the way it did. I am glad that I learned about the fraudulent nature of the church. I just wish it could have been better timed, not on a mission and not during a nervous breakdown. I spent eight months in America before I came home to Scotland, eight months before I felt well enough to return home, but not to the church.


Hebrew Lessons from Joseph Smith

January 20, 2014

Most people at all familiar with Mormon history know that Joseph Smith, a young farm boy, claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon into English from the original “reformed Egyptian” written on gold plates. The book tells the story of ancient Hebrews who crossed the ocean around 600 BC and settled the American content.

Outside members of the LDS (Mormon) church, few people know that Joseph Smith also claimed to have translated real Egyptian, not the just the reformed kind. Specifically, in July 1835, Joseph Smith bought two Egyptian mummies and some papyrus scrolls accompanying them for $2,400 (some $53,000 in 2012 dollars). From the scrolls, he produced “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into [his] hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” The English translation was apparently begun in or after July 1835, though the timeline is in dispute. After making a few revisions in March 1842, Smith published the Book of Abraham serially in the church’s Times and Seasons newspaper in 1842.

It’s important to remember that, for most of the world in 1835, Egyptian was a “dead” language in that no one spoke it, and no one knew how to read or write the different forms of written Egyptian. The discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 began the process of understanding ancient Egyptian language. This stone provided Greek text along with its equivalent in Egyptian hieroglyphics and demotic text, and phonetic characters that spelled foreign and Egyptian words. Scholars–specifically Jean-Francois Champollion–took some 23 years to transliterate the Egyptian and become confident in their ability to decipher ancient Egyptian. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, Champollion’s achievements had been reported in the press in North America, but the specifics were unknown in frontier Ohio, being limited to a few scholarly works published in Europe–and most of those were in French. As a non-Mormon press noted in 1844, there was “no Champollion, or Denon among the Mormons of Nauvoo” to validate Joseph Smith’s translation.

I’ve discussed the content and themes of the Book of Abraham elsewhere, but here I want to look at the two types of transliterations of Egyptian words that Joseph provides in the Book of Abraham:

1. “Egyptian” words, such as “Oliblish” and “Enish-go-on-dosh.”
2. Hebrew words, such as “Shaumahyeem” and “Kokaubeam.”

The former, of course, are not actually Egyptian words but appear to have been invented by Joseph Smith. The latter are best understood when you know that during the translation of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith began studying Hebrew, first with a few books, and then with a teacher, Joshua Seixas. It’s not surprising that the transliterations above and others come from the first few chapters of the Bible and follow Seixas’ transliterations exactly (see Louis Zucker’s essay on Joseph Smith’s use of Hebrew for more information).

The difference, then is obvious: where Joseph Smith had some familiarity with the language (Hebrew), the words are more or less correct; where he didn’t know the language, the words are, well, nonsensical. Of course, some Mormon apologists respond that we don’t necessarily know what the real Egyptian words were and what they meant. For example, Kerry Muhlestein has argued that the validity of Joseph Smith’s translation and transliteration of Egyptian depends on whose translation skills you believe: Joseph’s, or Egyptologists’. Not surprisingly, most scholars side with the Egyptologists.

But what if we had an example of a known language that Joseph Smith didn’t know but that he attempted to translate? Suppose, for example, that Joseph Smith had told us that “sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble” is French for “I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed.” Imagine, further, that Joseph Smith then translated the English into another language he also didn’t know, so using our example, he might tell us that the Spanish translation of the above reads, “Wingardium Leviosa.”

Amazingly, that’s essentially what Joseph Smith did. In December 1835, just when he was beginning to read about Hebrew, but before Joshua Seixas arrived, Joseph attempted a “translation” of the Reformed Egyptian characters from the gold plates first into English and then into Hebrew (the text is clearly from Jacob’s allegory of the olive tree). See Ed Ashment’s essay for more information. Here are some of the results, with Ed Ashment’s modern transliteration of the Hebrew following in brackets:

English: For it grieveth me that I should lose this tree & the fruit thereof
Hebrew: ofin Zimim ezmon E, Zu onis i f s veris etzer ensvonis vineris
[Modern transliteration: ki car li ki yo'bad li ha'ec hazzeh upiryo]

English: Brethren I bid you adieu
Hebrew: i f s E Zamtri
[Modern transliteration: 'aHay 'omar lakem shalom]

Needless to say, the “Hebrew” appearing here exists only in the mind of Joseph Smith. As Ashment notes, “Fresh out of Palestine, the Hebrew known to Jacob should have been biblical Hebrew. But as Figure 1 illustrates, it bears no resemblance to Hebrew at all.”

I’m surprised this episode doesn’t generate much interest among critics of the LDS church. I understand why apologists wouldn’t want to touch it, but it’s pretty clear confirmation that Joseph Smith had no ability as a translator but rather had a pretty vivid imagination.


On Pine Needles and Mormon Apologetics

December 20, 2013

A few days ago my daughter bought some fir branches to use as Christmas decorations (she put them on the banisters and made a wreath for the front door), and I noticed that there were quite a few needles from the branches in the trunk (boot) of the car. While I was vacuuming the needles out yesterday, I had an epiphany of sorts.

Engaging in Book of Mormon apologetics is like attempting to prove that the trunk of my car isn’t actually a trunk but is really a pine forest. I imagine the argument would go something like this:

We would expect to find fallen pine needles on the ground of a pine forest, and–lo and behold!–we do find numerous examples in the so-called “trunk.” True, there’s carpet underneath the needles, not earth, but you can’t just dismiss the existence of the needles. (And how many times has the earth beneath a forest been referred to as being like a “carpet”? Coincidence? I think not.) And besides, if you analyzed what you vacuum up from the trunk, you would most definitely find traces of dirt and other debris in the carpet, mixed in with the needles; and that would be a real bullseye.

We would also expect to find stones, tree trunks, and other large objects in our hypothetical pine forest. Indeed, we do find large, hard objects surrounding our patch of forest. Specifically we find hard, dark-colored surfaces surrounding the needles; some claim these are simply the interior walls of the trunk, but then how do they explain the presence of the needles? Perhaps we’re being too literal in our language. It’s quite possible that the word we use, “trunk,” is actually referring metaphorically to a literal tree trunk. Again, this is another “hit” that critics can’t dismiss lightly.

Beneath the carpet we find a large disc-shaped object, which is rather stone-like in its appearance. It clearly has been in this position for a very long time, as evidenced by the indentation in the forest floor beneath the stone. (Similar discs have been found in other locations, some bearing the clear identifier, “Firestone,” which again is too close to the expected to be mere coincidence.) Alternatively, this could be the semi-buried remains of an ancient tree stump. DNA testing may yet confirm its relationship to the deposits of needles.

There are also traces of sawdust indicating that tree branches had recently been cut in the vicinity, which of course would be impossible in a desert or ocean. Human logging activity would not make sense unless the area had at some point been densely forested with trees suitable for lumber. Similarly, the presence of a small amount of tree sap makes sense only in the context of a pine forest.

We also find clear written evidence of the forest: a cryptic plaque reading “Accord,” which is in all likelihood a reference to “a cord,” which is a measurement of cut wood. Again, the context places it where it should be: a forest where there has been recent cutting.

There are other promising leads, such as a tubular object, which is described in some literature as a “fuel filler.” Clearly, then, this indicates the use of harvested timber as a source of fuel. We have yet to decipher a metallic plate bearing what appear to be carefully arranged numbers and letters, with the inscription “VIRGINIA” appearing along the top; this may refer to the newness of the timber industry, or as some have surmised, it may well be part of a cipher key used to encrypt the language of the forest-dwellers. Further research is warranted.

Critics tell us we just need to look up and see if we’re actually standing in a pine forest or in the trunk of a late-model Honda, but we prefer to focus on solid evidence rather than appealing to unverifiable illusions and celestial fantasy.

ETA: Since publication, another apologist has added this important perspective:

“People who think it’s just a trunk are barking up the wrong tree. They are gullible saps. They can leaf the church but not leaf it alone. Someone needs to talk to your branch president about disciplinary action. You are clearly pining to sin. You can’t see the forest for the trunks. You are evergreen with envy at my effortless spirituality. You can’t believe, but if you’d read what I have, you wood.

“My world is a beautiful lush green forest. Yours is a dirty trunk. Which is better?” [Thanks to "Some Schmo."]


Whom he listeth to obey: spiritual confirmation and authority

December 4, 2013

A friend sent me a link to a fascinating (and depressing) exchange of letters in 1947 between Lowry Nelson (an LDS student doing research in Cuba) and the president of the Southern States LDS mission, and then later the First Presidency of the LDS church (at that time George Albert Smith; J. Reuben Clark, Jr,; and David O. McKay). In the exchange, Nelson states that he was, until that time, unaware of any “irrevocable church doctrine” regarding the denial of the priesthood to those of sub-Saharan African descent. The First Presidency firmly disabuses him of this notion, explaining that the restriction of priesthood blessings is a direct result of choices made in the premortal life. Further, they suggest specifically that the restriction came from the position of the spirits during the War in Heaven, during which one-third of the hosts of heaven followed Lucifer in rebelling against God; thus, they subtly support the common teaching that black Africans had been “fence sitters” in the War in Heaven, not actively fighting for God but passively watching the battle unfold.

What struck me most about the letters, however, is the First Presidency’s clear belief that Nelson had gone off the rails somehow:

Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now.

What Nelson had done was to show, correctly, that notions of race common in the United States were quite foreign to people in places such as Cuba, where interracial marriage was definitely not “repugnant” to “normal-minded people.” This was apparently alarming enough for them to enjoin him to let go of the philosophies of men and embrace truth:

We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.

As nauseating as that exchange is, it prompted me to think about LDS church members’ responsibility to sustain or follow their leaders. In this case, the leadership was quite simply wrong. Even the church now rejects what in 1947 was “doctrine,” meaning ironically that it supports Nelson, not the earlier prophets. The church’s current position is that no one knows why the restriction was implemented. In 2012, a BYU professor was roundly criticized for outlining the reasons for the restriction given by earlier church leaders, prompting an official response from the LDS church, which stated in part:

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

I’m glad the church has rejected its racist past, but I do have a hard time with dismissing what prophets and apostles taught as revealed doctrine as mere speculation and opinion.

Since I read the letters, I’ve been thinking about this exchange as it illustrates perfectly what I see as a fundamental tension in Mormonism between following your own conscience and convictions, and obeying and sustaining church leaders.

All my life I have been taught that I have the right–maybe even the responsibility–to pray about counsel and instruction I receive from the leaders of the church. Such counsel is binding when the spirit confirms that it is true. A logical conclusion would be that, in the absence of such confirmation, the counsel would not be binding.

But I realize that, despite this teaching, in practice we are expected to obey by default. The underlying assumption seems to be that whatever we are instructed from our leaders will be confirmed by the spirit, so by default we are to obey automatically. Presumably we would go to the Lord for spiritual confirmation only when we had a personal disagreement with priesthood counsel.

I’m not talking about the discredited notion that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” but rather more subtle (and not so subtle) injunctions to obey without question. President Packer, for example, has taught that we must all face the same way, following our leaders; Elder Bednar has said that we must have “the courage to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times”; and Elder Robert Oaks has taught, “For us, to ‘believe all things’ means to believe the doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as well as the words of the Latter-day prophets. It means to successfully erase our doubts and reservations.”

So, in my view, the default position is that the prophet and the leaders are always right, but even if we do feel the need to get spiritual confirmation, it’s not exactly a fool-proof process. First of all, the leaders giving the counsel or teaching believe they are in line with the spirit. In the First Presidency’s 1949 statements about the “Negro,” they clearly stated that they were proclaiming doctrine that had been revealed to prophets and written in scripture. Similarly, Brigham Young stated that it was “revealed” doctrine that Adam is God. Nowadays both of these ideas have been discredited, with the LDS church now saying no one knows the reason for the priesthood restrictions, and Bruce R. McConkie famously saying that anyone who “believes the Adam-God theory does not deserve to be saved.” Do my spiritual confirmations or lack thereof trump those of my priesthood leaders? What if I don’t get a spiritual confirmation and others do? Who is right?

On one Mormon-themed message board, I tried to have a conversation about this fundamental tension between doing what you believe to be right and following your leaders, but it didn’t get very far. As far as I could tell, the consensus was that, if you have a moral or spiritual objection to priesthood counsel, you must already be out of tune with the spirit. That’s not a satisfactory answer, as it suggests that leaders are either always right or that we’ll be blessed for doing the wrong thing for the sake of obedience.

I’m not even sure I have a point here, but these thoughts have been going through my mind today.


Now You See Adam, Now You Don’t

November 19, 2013

A friend sent me a link to the transcription of a revelation Joseph Smith is said to have received 21 January 1836. In this vision he was shown the glory of the celestial kingdom, which he had learned some four years earlier was the highest level of heaven (see Doctrine and Covenants 76:50-70). He also tells us that he saw some of the residents of this kingdom:

The heavens were opened  upon us and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether  in the body or out I cannot tell,— I saw  the transcendant beauty of the gate that  enters, through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling  flames of fire, also the blasing throne of  God, whereon was seated the Father and  the Son,— I saw the beautiful streets of  that kingdom, which had the appearance  of being paved with gold— I saw father  Adam, and Abraham and Michael and my father and mother, my brother Alvin [Smith]  that has long since slept, and marvled  how it was that he had obtained this  an inheritance <in> this <that> kingdom, seeing that  he had departed this life, before the  Lord <had> set his hand to gather Israel <the  second time> and had not been baptized for the  remission of sins— [p. 136]

Careful readers will note something curious about this revelation: Adam and Michael are described as separate people whom Joseph Smith saw in the vision. Current church doctrine makes this an impossibility, as Michael is simply “the name by which Adam was known in the premortal life (Guide to the Scriptures, “Michael“). Indeed, in other revelations, Joseph Smith tells us that Michael is Adam (D&C 27:11D&C 107:53–57; D&C 128:21), so perhaps he was confused in this instance.

It’s a good thing that this revelation was not canonized until 1976, when the Correlation committee could revise it to be doctrinally correct, as follows:

 1 The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell.

2 I saw the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire;

3 Also the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.

4 I saw the beautiful streets of that kingdom, which had the appearance of being paved with gold.

5 I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept;

6 And marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.


Interesting Diary Entry

November 13, 2013

I stumbled across this bit from Alexander Neibaur’s diary:

http://www.neibaur.org/journals/alex.html

May 24, 1844 Called at Brother J. S. [Joseph Smith's]. Met Mr. Bonnie. Brother Joseph [Smith] told us the first call he had a revival meeting. His mother, brother and sisters got religion. He wanted to get religion too; he wanted to feel and shout like the rest but could feel nothing. [He] opened his Bible of the first passage that struck him was [James 1:5.], “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not.” [He] went into the woods to pray, kneels himself down, his tongue was closed, cleaving to his roof, could utter not a word, but felt easier after awhile. [He] saw a fire toward heaven, came near and nearer. [He] saw a personage in the fire, light complexion, blue eyes, a piece of white cloth drawn over his shoulders, his right arm bare. After a while another person came to the side of the first. Mr. [Joseph] Smith then asked, “Must I join the Methodist Church?” “No, they are not my people. [They] have gone astray; there is none that doeth good, not one, but this is my Beloved Son, harken ye him.” The fire drew nigher, rested upon the tree, enveloped him. Comforted, I endeavored to arise but felt uncommon feeble. [I] got into the house and told the Methodist priest [who] said this was not an age for God to reveal himself in vision. Revelation has ceased with the New Testament.

[p.15]Told about Wm. [William] Law—wished to be married to his wife for eternity. Mr. [Joseph] Smith would inquire of the Lord, answered no because Law was a adulterous person. Mrs. Law wanted to know why she could not be married to Mr. Law. Mr. [Joseph Smith] S. said [he] would not wound her feelings by telling her. Some days after, Mr. [Joseph] Smith going toward his office. Mrs. Law stood in the door, beckoned to him the once did not know whether she beckoned to him, went across to inquire. Yes, please to walk in, no one but herself in the house, she drawing her arms around him, if you won’t seal me to my husband seal myself unto you, he said, stand away and pushing her gently aside giving her a denial and going out. When Mr. [William] Law came home he inquired who had been in his absence, she said no one but Br. Joseph, he then demanded what had passed. Mrs. L. [Law] then told Joseph wanted her to married to him—

Some interesting things (at least to me):

  1. He reports “feel[ing] nothing” when attending a revival, which apparently spurred his interest in finding the truth for himself.
  2. The details about the First Vision are fascinating: the two personages appear one at a time (he describes briefly what one is wearing and the eye color), and the pillar of fire continues drawing near until it envelops him, at which point he is comforted. He identifies the preacher with whom he shared the vision as Methodist.
  3. The section on the Laws is fascinating. According to Joseph, William Law is an adulterer, and Jane Law is the person who wants to marry Joseph, but he rejects her. The implication appears to be that William Law apostatized and became an enemy to the church because he was jealous that his wife wanted Joseph Smith. Of course, this is not how the Laws and others reported the interaction between Joseph Smith and Jane Law.

More Context for the Book of Mormon

October 23, 2013

Lately, the Mormon-related backstreets of the Internet are abuzz with discussion about a study by Chris and Duane Johnson that notes remarkable similarities between the Book of Mormon and a book by Gilbert Hunt, published in 1816, entitled The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain. Hunt’s book is an account of the War of 1812 written with a conscious effort to mimic the style of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV). I’m really not surprised that elsewhere several people have summarily dismissed Hunt’s book as having anything to do with the Book of Mormon, and the glee in some camps is to be expected. But even if it’s not the “smoking gun,” it is important in helping us understand the environment that produced the Book of Mormon.

Last night I was perusing some apologetic materials dealing with such obvious “bullseyes” as “bs” for “Abish,” which we are told is a nickname. It occurred to me that, from some apologists’ perspective, the book emerged in a vacuum, completely untouched by the wider culture around it, other than being translated into English and using KJV style and quotes. Therefore, the “Hebraisms” come from the book’s antiquity, not from any contemporary cultural influence. The underlying theme is that Joseph Smith was not knowledgeable or smart enough to have come up with these bullseyes on his own.

On the other side, many critics have argued that the Book of Mormon sprang from a contemporary source, from which Joseph Smith borrowed liberally, if not directly copied. The sources for the Book of Mormon, we are to understand, are the King James Version of the Bible (KJV), specifically the 1769 version the Smiths owned, and mound-builder-based romances such as View of the Hebrews and the Spaulding manuscript, which share obvious themes with the Book of Mormon. Again, such theories seem to assume that Joseph Smith couldn’t have come up with the Book of Mormon on his own. Count me as one who finds it pretty obvious that the Book of Mormon emerges out of contemporary mound-builder mythology, whether or not Joseph Smith created it himself or not. That said, I remain skeptical of theories arguing for a specific source.

In short, the two sides are looking at different areas of evidence exclusively: either the book is an ancient production more or less untainted by 19th-century culture, or it’s a 19th-century production influenced by a contemporary English-language Bible. The different “parallels” are impressive to those who are looking for them; the other team’s bullseyes are not.

Hunt’s book to me is important because it gives me a much better context for the production of the Book of Mormon. It was widely used by schoolteachers in the 1820s and, according to the preface, was intended to be used that way. It’s reasonable to believe that Oliver Cowdery, a traveling schoolteacher, would have been familiar with the book, and it’s possible that Joseph Smith may have encountered the book as a student.

Reading the book, I was struck by how much it resembles the Book of Mormon, almost as if Mormon himself had decided to abridge a history of the War of 1812. The same phrases, some in the Bible and some not, keep appearing over and over. Chris and Duane Johnson are working on a word study cataloguing the use of similar phrases in 5,000 books available in Joseph Smith’s day, and their preliminary data appears to confirm what a reader like me notices immediately: it’s the same style used in the same way.

The Hunt book is important because it shows us what a contemporary book using KJV style would look like. It’s not just that the book uses KJV style, as many other books have done so, but that the style is used for a particular purpose, as stated in the preface:

The author having adopted for the model of his style the phraseology of the best books, remarkable for its simplicity and strength, the young pupil will acquire, with the knowledge of reading, a love for the manner in which the great truths of Divine Revelation are conveyed to his understanding, and this will be an inducement to him to study the Holy Scriptures.

This style choice is endorsed by noted contemporary scholar Samuel Mitchill, also in the preface:

It seems to me one of the best attempts to imitate the biblical style; and if the perusal of it can induce young persons to relish and love the sacred books whose language you have imitated, it will be the strongest of all recommendations.

The book’s contents and themes are also instructive. Because his subject is a war, Hunt spends most of his time discussing military battles, but in a style that exalts its heroes not just as patriots but as righteous servants of God:

The men are comely and noble, and cowardice had forgot to light upon them: neither are they a superstitious people; they are peace-makers, they love the God of Israel, and worship him; and there are no idolaters amongst them.

In contrast, here’s a description of the British:

Science and learning blushed at the champions of England, who had been represented as the bulwark of religion; but who were, in reality, the supporters of idolatry; the staff of Juggernaut, the false god of India.

I don’t have time at the moment to give this a proper treatment, but, in my estimation, if you were to replace “people of Columbia” with “Nephites,” “British” with “Lamanites,” and otherwise change 1812-specific names and places to those found in the Book of Mormon, you might think you were reading the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon.

Does this prove anything? Obviously not, but what it does is make the Book of Mormon seem that much more likely as a 19th-century creation. Here’s how I see it:

What would a 19th-century book about war written in KJV style and theme look like? It would look a lot like Hunt’s book.

What would a 19th-century book about war, religion, and mound-builder mythology written In KJV style and theme look like? It would look a lot like the Book of Mormon.


When Bullseyes Aren’t

August 26, 2013

Last week, I ran across an intriguing statement from a 1994 Ensign article about the Book of Abraham:

A number of ancient texts support Joseph Smith’s account, depicted in facsimile 3 from the book of Abraham, that the patriarch taught astronomy in Egypt.

Intrigued, I consulted my oracles (Google), which led me to an article from the Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies at BYU (hereafter “MI”):

And I Saw the Stars — The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy

The authors–Daniel C. Peterson, John Gee, and William J. Hamblin–make the following statement in support of Abraham as ancient astronomer:

Abraham’s traditional reputation as an ancient astronomer has been previously analyzed.[Here they refer to Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley's Abraham in Egypt.] One of the most interesting texts in this regard is by Pseudo-Eupolemus, as quoted by Eusebius in the fourth century A.D., which states that “While living with the Egyptian priests in Heliopolis, Abraham taught them many things, including astronomy, and other related things. . . . Abraham, having been trained in the science of astronomy, first went to Phoenicia, to teach the Phoenicians astronomy, then went into Egypt.”

If accurate, this is remarkable evidence in favor of the Book of Abraham, as Joseph Smith could not possibly have had access to a fourth-century Roman historian citing an earlier Jewish historian. The implication is clear: this is a major “bullseye” for Joseph Smith, for how could he have guessed that Abraham had a reputation in the ancient world as a great astronomer? Surely, this ranks up there with the discover of NHM/Nihm in favor of the Book of Mormon.

I admit that I was duly impressed when I first read this assertion, so I looked up the primary source. One minor quibble is that Eusebius isn’t quoting pseudo-Eupolemus but Alexander Polyhistor, a Greek scholar from the first century BC. Alexander is summarizing pseudo-Eupolemus, not directing quoting him. Also, it appears that the authors are combining this summary with Alexander’s subsequent summary of Artabanus, a Persian historian from the fifth century BC. Either way, however, the passage does essentially say what the MI article says it does (single quotes denote a direct quote from Alexander Polyhistor):

CHAPTER XVII

AND with this agrees also Alexander Polyhistor, a man of great intellect and much learning, and very well known to those Greeks who have gathered the fruits of education in no perfunctory manner: for in his compilation, Concerning the Jews, he records the history of this man Abraham in the following manner word for word:

[ALEXANDER POLYHISTOR] 21 ‘Eupolemus in his book Concerning the Jews of Assyria says that the city Babylon was first founded by those who escaped from the Deluge; and that they were giants, and built the tower renowned in history.

‘But when this had been overthrown by the act of God, the giants were dispersed over the whole earth. And in the tenth generation, he says, in Camarina a city of Babylonia, which some call the city Uria (and which is by interpretation the city of the Chaldees), + in the thirteenth generation + Abraham was born, who surpassed all men in nobility and wisdom, who was also the inventor of astronomy and the Chaldaic art, and pleased God well by his zeal towards religion.

‘By reason of God’s commands this man came and dwelt in Phoenicia, and pleased their king by teaching the Phoenicians the changes of the sun and moon and all things of that kind. And afterwards the Armenians invaded the Phoenicians; and when they had been victorious, and had taken his nephew prisoner, Abraham came to the rescue with his servants, and prevailed over the captors, and made prisoners of the wives and children of the enemy.

‘And when there came to him ambassadors asking that he would ransom them for money, he did not choose to trample upon the unfortunate, but on receiving food for his young men restored the booty; he was also admitted as a guest into the temple of the city called Argarizin, which being interpreted is “Mount of the Most High,” and received gifts from Melchizedek, who was the king, and the priest of God.

‘But when there came a famine Abraham removed into Egypt with all his household, and dwelt there, and the king of Egypt took his wife in marriage, Abraham having said that she was his sister.

‘He also related fully that the king was unable to consort with her, and that it came to pass that his people and his household were perishing. And when he had called for the soothsayers, they said that the woman was not a widow; and thus the king of Egypt learned that she was Abraham’s wife, and gave her back to her husband.

‘And Abraham dwelt with the Egyptian priests in Heliopolis and taught them many things; and it was he who introduced astronomy and the other sciences to them, saying that the Babylonians and himself had found these things out, but tracing back the first discovery to Enoch, and saying that he, and not the Egyptians, had first invented astrology.

‘For the Babylonians say that the first man was Belus, who is Kronos; and that of him was born a son Belus, and Chanaan; and that this Chanaan begat the father of the Phoenicians, and that his son was Churn, who is called by the Greeks Asbolus, and is father of the Aethiopians, and a brother of Mestraim the father of the Egyptians. But the Greeks say that Atlas invented astrology, and that Atlas is the same as Enoch: and that Enoch had a son Methuselah, who learned all things through angels of God, and thus we gained our knowledge.’

CHAPTER XVIII

‘ARTABANUS in his Jewish History says that the Jews were called Ermiuth, which when interpreted after the Greek language means Judaeans, and that they were called Hebrews from Abraham. And he, they say, came with all his household into Egypt, to Pharethothes the king of the Egyptians, and taught him astrology; and after remaining there twenty years, removed back again into the regions of Syria: but that many of those who had come with him remained in Egypt because of the prosperity of the country.

‘In certain anonymous works, however, we found that Abraham traced Lack his origin to the giants, and that they dwelling in Babylonia were destroyed by the gods for their impiety; but that one of them, named Belus, escaped death and settled in Babylon, and lived in a tower which he had built, and which was called Belus from the Belus who built it: and that Abraham having been instructed in the science of astrology came first into Phoenicia, and taught astrology to the Phoenicians, and afterwards passed on into Egypt.’

I’ve quoted the entire passage, lest anyone think I’m playing fast and loose with the source material. I note that both pseudo-Eupolemus and Artabanus have Abraham using his knowledge of astronomy to invent astrology, which is, of course, soothsaying through gazing at the stars. So, although this passage doesn’t completely square with the Book of Abraham’s account of Abraham’s astronomy, it is a very close match. As I said, I was quite impressed, at first, as this passage seemed to indicate that Joseph Smith not only got something right in the text of the Book of Abraham but provided esoteric insights unknown in the nineteenth century. To borrow from Dr. Peterson, the implication is clear: “How could Joseph know all of this?”

But then I noticed the passage in Eusebius immediately preceding his quote from Alexander. Again, single quotes mark Eusebius’s direct quotations from earlier sources:

CHAPTER XVI

AGAIN, as Moses has set forth at large the history of Abraham the forefather of the Hebrews, Josephus says that the foreign historians also bear witness to him, writing as follows:

[JOSEPHUS] 19 ‘Berossus mentions our father Abraham, not by name, but in these terms: “In the tenth generation after the flood there was among the Chaldeans a righteous and great man, experienced also in heavenly things.”

‘But Hecataeus has done something more than mentioning him; for he left behind him a book which he had composed concerning him.

‘And Nicolaus Damascenus, in the fourth book of his Histories, speaks thus:20 “Abraham was king of Damascus, having come as a stranger with an army from the land which lies beyond Babylon, called Chaldaea. But after no long time he removed from this country also, and migrated with his own people into what was then called Canaan, but now Judaea, and so did afterwards the multitude of his descendants, concerning whom I shall relate in another discourse what is recorded in history. Even now the name of Abraham is glorified in the district of Damascus, and a village is pointed out which is called from him the Habitation of Abraham.”

‘When in later times a famine had fallen upon the land of Canaan, Abraham having been informed that the Egyptians were in prosperity was eager to cross over to them, both to partake of their abundance, and to be a hearer of their priests, to learn what they said about the gods; intending either to follow them, if they were found superior, or to bring them over to the better belief, if his own opinions were preferable.’

Then next he adds:

‘And he associated with the most learned of the Egyptians, and the result was that his virtue and his consequent reputation became more illustrious from this cause.

‘For whereas the Egyptians delight in different customs, and disparage one another’s usages, and are for this reason ill-disposed towards each other, he by conferring with them severally, and discussing the arguments which they used in defence of their own practices, proved them to be empty and devoid of all truth.

‘Being therefore admired by them in their conferences as a very wise man, and strong not only in intelligence but also in persuasive speech on whatever subjects he undertook to teach, he freely imparts to them the science of arithmetic, and also communicates to them the facts of astronomy. For before Abraham’s arrival the Egyptians were ignorant of these subjects; for they passed from the Chaldees into Egypt, and thence came also to the Greeks.’

So writes Josephus.

If I didn’t know any better, I would think that this passage from Josephus is further confirmation of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. But it isn’t.

The difference between Eusebius and Josephus is simple: Josephus was widely read in Joseph Smith’s day, and Eusebius was unknown to all but a few Latin scholars. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews had first been translated into English in 1544, and in 1732 William Whiston’s retranslation became immensely popular in the English-speaking world. Many families had Josephus alongside their Bible as standard religious reading. Indeed, the Palmyra, New York, public library had a copy of Antiquities available before 1820, and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (1823) and Josiah Priest’s The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed (1825) quoted from the book. Early Mormon publications quoted Josephus often in support of Mormon beliefs. For example, in Benjamin Winchester’s 1843 tract, History of the Priesthood, we read:

The apostle holds out the idea, that this priesthood is a kingly one, which appears to be correct, from the fact, that it emanated from God, and He is a King of kings, and Lord of lords; and it is also the authority of his kingdom, and by it, as I have before mentioned, Melchisedec reigned as a king over the inhabitants of the city of Salem. This idea is corroborated by Josephus, who says: “Now the king of Salem met him [Abraham] at a certain place called the Kings’ dale, where Melchisedec king of the city of Salem received him.

Given the availability and knowledge of Josephus’ writings in Joseph Smith’s day, it’s wholly unremarkable that his ideas would have been reflected in a contemporary Book of Abraham. In fact, some have argued that Josephus was a source for many ideas and passages of Mormon scripture (see, for example, Joseph Smith and Josephus). I’m not arguing for plagiarism, but it is clear that this “bullseye” is not impressive in the least.

In the 1994 Ensign article and in a 2012 Deseret News article, “Defending the Faith: How could Joseph know all of this?” Daniel Peterson mentions Josephus as supporting the view of Abraham as astronomer, but the MI article does not mention Josephus at all. The authors tell us that the pseudo-Eupolemus passage is one of the most interesting in support of Joseph Smith, but it’s really  not any more illuminating than the Josephus passage. It’s only interesting in the sense of the rhetorical question, “How could Joseph know all of this?”

The answer, alas, is pretty simple: he was familiar with Josephus, as many other people in his day were.

Often I’ve heard that people who discover the problems with Mormon truth claims are “lazy and intransigent” people who can’t be bothered to put any effort into their study of the gospel. But this Eusebius “bullseye” seems to depend largely on the assumption that readers will accept the evidence at face value without engaging the source material. It almost worked on me.


Expert Ex-Mormon

August 21, 2013

Yes, I am an expert in how to leave the church and do it the wrong way. A little background:

I have always been a history and knowledge junkie, and when I worked at the Church Office Building in the early 90s, I would go down to the historical library on my lunch hour and read whatever looked interesting. Around 1995, when I was no longer working for the church, I got invited to participate in an online listserv group, alt.religion.mormon. I moved on to other places, such as the ironically named FAIR board, where I was a defender of the church but tried to be fair and honest and kind with people who disagreed.

In 2005, I took an 8-month break from all Mormon online participation, and during that break, I realized that I’d known for quite some time that the church wasn’t true, but I just hadn’t let myself admit it. Literally, everything fell apart during a phone conversation with a friend who was distraught about Joseph Smith and polyandry.

When I got home, my wife could tell something was wrong, so I blurted out that I didn’t believe in the church anymore. For 2 years I tried to get her to listen to what I knew. I sent her articles, quoted books, asked questions about her beliefs, and generally challenged her as much as I could. Needless to say, we fought for 2 years. My sister, to whom I’ve always been close, began having long conversations with my wife about how to “fix” me. Our marriage nearly broke up, and I sank into a deep depression. In 2007 I attempted suicide and ended up spending 3 days as an unwilling guest of a psych ward in Houston.

That was a turning point for me. I realized that I’d been pushing my wife to hear things she didn’t want to hear, and she had been pushing back just as hard to get me to step back in line. We both changed because of my suicide attempt. We learned that it was OK to disagree, that it was OK for her not to want to know what I knew, and it was OK for me not to bow to her religious wishes.

So, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Why do Mormons take it so personally when you state the facts about their religion?

Mormonism was part of our identity, perhaps even the main part. The LDS church is designed to be the center of a member’s existence; without the church, there would be a huge, gaping hole (which we all experience when we leave). So, whether they realize it or not, most Mormons predictably react as though a criticism of the church is a personal attack on them. No, it’s not rational, and in a perfect world, you could get people to step back and separate the church from themselves. But in reality, they do not draw a distinct line between the self and Mormonism.

2. Why is relatively uncontroversial information so threatening to a lot of Mormons?

The church has done such a great job of packaging its history and doctrines that anything else, no matter how trivial it may seem, is jarring to believers. Take the “rock in the hat” episode. It’s well-established that Joseph Smith used a stone he found in a well to pretend to find buried treasure, long before the Book of Mormon project began. And there is plenty of eyewitness testimony that he used the same stone to “translate” the Book of Mormon. But it’s not part of the approved narrative, so people get horribly offended and assume you’re just telling lies.

3. Why do my family and friends treat me like I’m an enemy?

The church has long taught that people who leave are apostates, and such people are evil. They are the kind of people who killed Joseph Smith. They have evil in their hearts and are motivated by hatred of truth and goodness. Heck, they’ve even had priesthood and Relief Society lessons about us rotten apostates. So, when you challenge their beliefs with new information, they assume that you are attacking them personally, that you are making things up, and that you are doing so in a dishonest attempt to make the church look bad.

4. How do I get through to them?

Unfortunately, the answer generally is that you won’t and can’t. But being confrontational just plays into the church’s script: angry apostate can’t just leave it alone but must attack God’s true religion.

5. So, what should I do?

There’s no right answer, but I’ll tell you what works for me. If I am tempted to discuss my loss of belief with someone I care about, I ask myself two questions: 1) What do I hope to accomplish with this discussion? 2) What is the likely outcome of the discussion? If the answer to 1) is “I just want them to know the truth,” that’s not good enough. The second question comes into play: How likely is it that they are going to know and accept the truth because of your discussion? If it’s unlikely, why bother? In my view, it’s fine to share your feelings and knowledge with anyone you wish, but when it comes to loved ones, make sure you have a definite goal in mind and that your conversation is likely to achieve that goal.

6. How do I convince my family and friends that my unbelief is not a personal attack on them?

This one is simple. As I said in question 1 above, the church makes itself the center of your life, your relationships, your marriage. One day my wife said to me, “Our marriage has always been built on the church and the gospel, so now I wonder what’s left?” I realized that both of us needed to recognize what our marriage was without the church at the center. We discovered that our relationship was about love, commitment, friendship, intimacy, passion, and so on. None of that depended on the church. Once we started focusing on building those non-church aspects, we started to heal as a couple.

You are going to have friends and family who insist on making the church the center of your relationship. If that’s all there is to your relationship, you don’t have a relationship with such people, so there’s no big loss here.

Let them be the nasty ones; let them be the ones who value loyalty to the church over love and truth. Don’t let it be you.

7. Does this mean I have to just shut up and endure the crap from my Mormon friends and family?

No, not at all. But what it does mean is that we must choose our battles wisely. Have you ever known someone who can’t talk about anything other than a specific topic, usually their religion or politics? I had an Aunt Helen who was a Scientologist, and when she visited (thank God she lived in Ohio, and we were in California) all she could talk about was her stupid cult. Pretty much everyone ignored her and avoided contact with her. My father incessantly talks about Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, so I judiciously change the subject because I’ve learned that arguing back is pointless. He’s not changing his mind, and neither am I. I realize that I can’t be the ex-Mormon version of my nutcase aunt because it does no good and just makes people want to avoid me.

Of course, someone inevitably brings up the subject of why I left the church. Again, what I share depends on who I’m with, what I hope to accomplish, and what I expect the outcome to be. My wife doesn’t want to know anything, so if she asks a specific question, I answer succinctly and leave it at that. An old friend of mine was constantly harping on me about my apostasy, but he wouldn’t listen to anything I said but would just argue and call me to repentance. Eventually, I sent him a link to MormonThink.com and told him that I’d rather he educate himself on the issues before we got back into it. To my complete shock, reading that on his own without my interference led him to question everything he believed. If I had kept up the defensive arguments we’d been having, nothing would have changed for either of us.

8. My Mormon friends tell me I’m bitter for being angry. Is it wrong to feel so angry? How do I get past the anger and hurt?

I’ve been told by countless Mormons that it’s wrong to feel angry and hurt, that it just means I’m “bitter.” They say, “You can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone.” Screw that. Losing your belief is a loss, and that involves grief. Ex-Mormons go through all the stages of grief), and anger is one of those stages. It’s not healthy to suppress that anger. You’ll make yourself crazy. Get it out, but get it out where it won’t damage your important relationships. Message boards, such as the Recovery from Mormonism board, are great places for venting. One thing you’ll notice is that most people post for a few months until the anger passes, and then they move on. There’s no timetable, obviously, but the anger does subside. The time to talk to your family about your beliefs is not when you are angry and hurt.

So, what’s happened since 2007? Well, for one thing I’m not depressed anymore (a good therapist and medication did wonders). My wife and I don’t fight about religion anymore, and I find that I can appreciate the good she gets out of it without forgetting the bad. She understands that I’m sincere in my beliefs and not some evil apostate. My sister, who once thought I had lost my mind, respects my opinion about the church enough to ask me about things she feels she can’t ask other believers. My parents don’t agree with my reasons for leaving, but we have had good conversations about why I believe what I do.

Because I haven’t been in my family’s faces about my beliefs, my children have felt comfortable talking to me about their questions and doubts. Of my 6 kids, 3 were absolutely relieved to know that I don’t believe because they didn’t. One was married in the temple a year ago, though I would say she is very liberal in her understanding of church history and doctrine. The other two haven’t quite decided where they fit.

So, in short:

1. Find non-destructive ways to vent your emotions.
2. Recognize that what you see as truth will likely be seen as an attack by your Mormon friends and family.
3. Choose your battles wisely. Don’t be Aunt Helen.
4. Have a purpose for the information you share.
5. Focus on strengthening the non-church parts of your relationships. Don’t make the church the 800-lb. gorilla in the room.

One last thing:

I’ll bet you’re saying to yourself, “That’s not fair! Mormons get to treat me like crap, and I have to be all nice and forgiving.” No, it isn’t fair. Someone posted yesterday how sad it was that we are grateful for people being less nasty to us. If you need to be nasty to Mormons, join a message board and argue away with believers. But don’t return the nastiness from people who are important in your lives. I often have to remind myself that they are behaving that way because the church taught them to behave that way. That stuff has been pounded into their heads all their lives, and we can’t hold them entirely responsible. To steal a line from the church, “Hate the Mormonism, but love the Mormon.”

And by no means am I saying you shouldn’t stand up for yourself. When you are attacked and maligned, you have every right to defend yourself and your beliefs. But be smart about it.

I hope this helps. Like I said, I believe these things work because doing the opposite didn’t work for me and changing my approach has really helped. There are no guarantees, and there are no right answers. Do what you must do, but I hope what I have said helps in some small way.


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