Truth Hurts

January 18, 2016

I was going to write about the appalling remarks by Wendy Watson Nelson, wife of the last post’s subject, Russell Nelson, but really, what can you way about someone who thinks it’s a good thing for gay church members to become desperate enough to pray for God to change their sexual orientation? There’s so much wrong with that, I don’t know where to start. Suffice it to say that it’s been unnerving and a little depressing to see the LDS church take so many steps backwards in the last few months. For an excellent discussion of where things stand (at least for me), see Greg Prince’s blog: The Exclusion Policy and Biology vs. Behavior.

I once knew a woman who would say the nastiest, most personally demeaning things to other people, and when the target of her attacks took offense, she would shrug and say, “I’m sorry the truth offends you. I’m not being mean. I’m just telling it like it is.” Invariably, these personal attacks were part of an effort to play people off each other. In her mind, those who really cared about her and respected her would accept “the truth,” and she could in some weird, twisted way feel she had helped them and bonded with them. The reality was that she caused a lot of hurt and pain, and most of her family and neighbors resented her deeply. A few particularly insecure family members took every criticism to heart and tried in vain to gain her approval. Of course, she never gave it, and the cycle of hurt continued until she died. Come to think of it, I don’t think it ended with her death; family members are still hurting from her nastiness over the years.

Some religious groups follow this same pattern. I knew a man who had been a Jehovah’s Witness, and he told me that, when they went door to door proselytizing, they would sometimes try to get people angry with them, as they felt they would be blessed for being hated and persecuted, as the scriptures say. It seems to be part of the motivation of the Westborough Baptist Church’s “God hates fags” program. Often used as a justification for intentional division is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.

This theme is expanded in the Book of Mormon in 1 Nephi 16:

And it came to pass that I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified, and testified that they should be lifted up at the last day; wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for itcutteth them to the very center.

As I said, the problem is when the division is intentional and unnecessary, and it usually happens because someone is trying to assert dominance and exclude those who won’t accept their dominance. When called on it, people always say they’re just telling the truth, and it’s not their problem if you find truth offensive.

It’s this weird “I’m only saying this for your own good” attitude that explains, at least for me, the church’s retrograde statements and policy changes in the last few months. Like the woman I knew, there’s an unsubtle message behind the “truth-speaking” going on: you are with us, or you are against us, and you must choose which side you’re on.

I’m sure a lot of people will take issue with what I just said, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to me at this point. Witness where the church has gone in the last few months:

Almost exactly one year ago, the LDS church was using the relationship between Tom Christofferson (Apostle Todd Christofferson’s gay brother) and his LDS ward as an example of how gays and the LDS church could find harmony. According to KUTV, Elder Christofferson noted that his brother had “returned to the faith” and he and his partner were “active participants in their neighborhood ward.” In November, we learned that the church now considers Tom Christofferson and his partner to be “apostates,” which would preclude them from any kind of participation in the ward beyond attendance. This month, Apostle Russell Nelson doubled-down by affirming that the policy excluding gays and their children from church blessings was given by revelation from God.

In 2012, the official church web site, mormonsandgays.org, acknowledged that same-sex attraction is not something that people can change but that it was something to be “borne” or “endured” in the hope that it might change in the next life:

We believe that with an eternal perspective, a person’s attraction to the same sex can be addressed and borne as a mortal test. It should not be viewed as a permanent condition. An eternal perspective beyond the immediacy of this life’s challenges offers hope. Though some people, including those resisting same-sex attraction, may not have the opportunity to marry a person of the opposite sex in this life, a just God will provide them with ample opportunity to do so in the next. We can all live life in the full context of who we are, which is much broader than sexual attraction.

Just over a week ago, the church published on the LDS.org web site a talk that suggested that, if gay members would only get “desperate” enough, they could through prayer have their sexual orientation changed:

Gratefully, the Savior has paid the price for every gift of the Spirit we will ever need to help us. It’s up to us to prayerfully discover which gifts we need. We may need the gift of self-discipline or of cheerfulness. Perhaps we need the gift of patience, or the gift to be healed, or the gift to forgive. Perhaps we need the gift to have our sexual feelings be in harmony with eternal laws. Perhaps we realize that we cannot live one more minute without the gift of unshakable faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. When we’re desperate for any gift of the Spirit, that is when we will finally pray with all the energy of heart for that gift. And the great news is that each spiritual gift we receive takes us one more step forward into our true selves. …

I pray that this year you will have some moments of anguishing desperation that will propel you further along the path to becoming the man or woman you were born to be. Your true self is spectacular! Never settle for less.

The problem, of course, is that desperation only drives change where change is possible. Say I decided that I am not the man I was born to be because the physical condition I was born with makes it difficult for me to swallow some kinds of food without extreme care. I’ve had many medical procedures to make it easier for me to swallow, but my doctors tell me I’ve progressed as far as I’m going to go. I suppose I could become desperate to change this aspect of my body, enough so that I would pray that God would “heal” me and make me the person I was born to be. After all, I shouldn’t settle for less.

What would be the end result? All the prayer in the world isn’t going to change the fact that I have a narrow part of my esophagus ringed with scar tissue. If I followed Sister Nelson’s counsel, in the near-certain absence of change, my desperation would turn to despair. At some point I would be forced to accept that I can’t change that aspect of my body, or I would give in to despair, which derives from the Latin de esperare–literally “without hope.” Given my history with depression, I have a pretty good idea where things would end.

If the church itself acknowledges that sexual orientation–whatever its roots–isn’t something you can will or pray away, what is the point of Sister Nelson’s wholly inappropriate remarks? Does she–a trained and licensed therapist–really believe gay Mormons can and should follow her counsel to change their “sexual feelings”? I doubt it very much.

What this is about is drawing clear lines between the church and “the world.” If we take her at her word, the problem is not only behavior, but also desire, because, she wants us to believe, both can be changed. Obviously, someone who doesn’t change his or her sexual orientation through prayer and the gifts of the Spirit isn’t desperate enough. And those members who give into despair (and let’s not kid ourselves, there will be more than one) clearly didn’t channel their desperation into righteous avenues. It’s not her fault if lives are destroyed; she’s only telling it like it is.

In the end, however, I don’t believe any of this was meant for the benefit of gay or lesbian members or nonmembers. It was directed at straight members as another distinction that makes for a peculiar people. “You are not like them,” the members need to be told, “and you must not tolerate people like that in the ranks of our people.”

Like the woman I knew, the point is to divide, to pit friends and family against each other, forcing them to put the church first. It’s a destructive and wholly unrighteous game, but that is what is happening.

 

 

Advertisements

Stupid or Inspired?

November 13, 2015

Much has been written about the LDS church’s new policy that denies church ordinances and membership to the children of gay parents. I couldn’t think of much to say other than to express my total disagreement with the policy, so that’s what I did earlier this week.

An LDS friend and I were discussing the policy, and he said there were only two possible explanations for it: either church leaders were “stupid,” or they were “inspired” (his words). I told him I thought there were any number of possibilities, and he naturally asked for some examples. I had planned to write a thoughtful post about other possibilities, but then the church issued a “clarification” that preempted my response.

To recap, the church policy was as follows:

Children of a Parent Living in a Same-Gender Relationship:

A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing.

A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may be baptized and confirmed, ordained, or recommended for missionary service only as follows:

A mission president or a stake president may request approval from the Office of the First Presidency to baptize and confirm, ordain, or recommend missionary service for a child of a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship when he is satisfied by personal interviews that both of the following requirements are met:

  1. The child accepts and is committed to live the teachings and doctrine of the Church, and specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.
  2. The child is of legal age and does not live with a parent who has lived or currently lives in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage.

This is worded such that:

  1. No child living with a same-gender couple will receive a name and a blessing in the church.
  2. No child living with a parent who “has lived or currently lives in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage” can be baptized, receive the priesthood, or serve a mission until they have turned 18, don’t live with that parent, and disavow the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.

In short, taken at face value, the policy applies to the children of anyone who has ever lived in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage, regardless of their current situation. I know a man who, while he was a BYU student, met a guy at the MTC, where they both taught a foreign language. They lived together until they graduated essentially as a couple, being both roommates and lovers. A few years later, this man married a woman and has children. As the handbook is worded, his children would be affected by this policy in the same way as the children of a parent currently living in a same-gender relationship.

One need not be a prophet, seer, or revelator to predict the outrage among church members and non-members alike. My LDS friend said that church leaders must have anticipated the outcry because to suggest otherwise would mean they were (again in his words) “stupid.” He acknowledged that the policy made no sense to him and was troubling, but he suggested that sometimes the Lord inspires His servants to make decisions that don’t make sense to the rest of us, and if we are patient, we’ll see the wisdom in it.

I agreed with my friend that these church leaders would have thought long and hard about the change in policy, and I said they probably considered that the loss of a few members and some temporary bad PR was an acceptable cost of setting a definite boundary. I dismissed rumors that church leaders were caught off-guard by the reaction, especially among members of the church. It seemed likely that they expected “fringe” members to leave the church over this issue, but then such members are not their focus, anyway. Certainly, Elder Todd Christofferson’s  brief video interview gave no indication that the church would reconsider or reverse its decision; basically, he just tried to reassure members that this was done with good intentions and that they should follow the prophet. The policy, then, didn’t seem like a crazy one-off, but a carefully deliberated policy change run through all the normal channels of the church bureaucracy and ecclesiastical hierarchy.

In that spirit, I thought of all the possible reasons for the policy. The obvious one is, as another LDS friend put it, “boundary maintenance and prophylaxis” to prevent creeping acceptance of homosexuality among church members. In a more cynical moment, I thought perhaps this might be a manufactured crisis designed to further the “great sifting” some keep speaking of between the wheat and the tares. In the end, I didn’t think it was either stupid or inspired, but rather a needlessly cruel policy that, intentionally or not, divided families and hurt children.

But today the LDS church’s First Presidency issued a “clarification” of the policy. The important parts are as follows:

The provisions of Handbook 1, Section 16.13, that restrict priesthood ordinances for minors, apply only to those children whose primary residence is with a couple living in a same-gender marriage or similar relationship. As always, local leaders may request further guidance in particular instances when they have questions.

When a child living with such a same-gender couple has already been baptized and is actively participating in the Church, provisions of Section 16.13 do not require that his or her membership activities or priesthood privileges be curtailed or that further ordinances be withheld. Decisions about any future ordinances for such children should be made by local leaders with their prime consideration being the preparation and best interests of the child.

Whatever else I can say about this, it is not a clarification but a clear retreat from the earlier policy.

Again, the policy as originally published covered children of “a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship.” Now it’s applied only to those children whose “primary residence is with a couple living in a same-gender marriage or similar relationship.” (I’ve already heard from a couple of attorney friends that this wording may cause even more problems in custody arrangements, but I’ll let others discuss that.) The second paragraph allows for some baptized members to be “grandfathered” in as members fully eligible for church ordinances and participation. This is also a clear retreat from the policy as originally published.

Obviously, this policy affects fewer children, but it still restricts the membership and ordinances of children for something they haven’t done. Likewise, it does nothing to change the clear message that same-sex couples and their children are not welcome in the church.

Had the policy been written with these “clarifications” in the first place, there probably would have been some outrage, though probably less among church members (at least that’s my guess). But it took more than a week for these clarifications/changes, and in the first attempt to “clarify,” Elder Christofferson made no clarifications whatsoever. In the meantime, faithful members I know and love have been agonizing over their membership in a church that treats gays and lesbians this way. People I know who were on the margins of the church told me it was the last straw for them, and even some people who wanted to stay in the church left over this. The church has likewise endured a lot of bad press over the new policy.

Looking at the big picture, I realize I was wrong. If, as I believed, church leaders had carefully crafted this policy as they believed they had been inspired from God, there would be no retreat, no walking back in the face of public criticism. What this tells me is that they really hadn’t considered how this would be received and were probably quite shocked at the outcry.

In the short term, it was wise to dilute the harshest parts of the policy, but there is one effect that I think may be lasting: a number of people I know had never considered that church leaders could be wrong. They had absolute trust in the wisdom and basic goodness of their leaders, and they never had any reason for fundamental disagreement with them. Until now. A lot of members have realized that their leaders got this completely wrong, and not just in a “mistakes of men” sort of way, but in actively hurting families and children. Probably most members will accept the “clarifications” as given, but I wonder if the brethren have altered the foundational relationship of trust they had with many members. I suppose we’ll find out.

I’m sure many church apologists are now saying this was all just a tempest in a teapot, a misunderstanding. Me, I think I have the answer for my friend.

Stupid.


What Can I Say?

November 10, 2015

I’ve been mulling over my response to the LDS church’s new policy of denying ordinances and sacraments to children of gay parents, wondering what I could say that hasn’t been said already. Honestly, as shocked and disgusted as I am with the policy, I am more interested in the reactions of individual people I know to it. Most former Mormons and non-Mormons who have an opinion agree with me that this is a misguided and needlessly cruel policy that does nothing but further divide families. On the other hand, I have seen quite a number of Mormons simply accept the policy at face value, some even applauding it as drawing a line between the church and the evils of same-sex marriage. But what has gratified me the most has been the reaction of faithful LDS friends who love the church and believe with all their hearts yet cannot reconcile this terrible policy. To be sure, I don’t enjoy watching them struggle, but it does my heart good to know that I’m not alone in being deeply troubled by all of this.

So, what am I supposed to say? The only thing I can think of is this: When I am asked to choose between conscience and obedience, I choose conscience. When I am asked to choose between love and policy, I choose love.


An Apologist Reviews My Book

September 9, 2015

Over on a Mormon-themed message board, apologist Russell C. McGregor has posted a “review” of my book, Heaven Up Here. I’m not in the habit of responding to book reviews, but in this case, the review reveals much more about the reviewer than about my book:

I had the privilege of reading this book a number of years ago, in electronic format. I don’t know how closely the version I read matches the published version, but here are my impressions of it.

There is a tendency for people to praise books critical of the Church of Jesus Christ for their “honesty,” with the subtle insinuation that more positive views are somehow less honest. A number of people, not kindly disposed towards the Church, have offered that praise to this book. However, in this instance, I am inclined to agree. I think the book is indeed an honest one, if only for the reason that, to informed Latter-day Saints, it shows the author in a highly unflattering light; which is not usually a symptom of fabrication.

In the popular LDS phrase, a missionary is encouraged to “lose himself” (or herself) “in the work.” I have never seen a missionary reminiscence in which the work was more palpably lost in the missionary. So much of the book is dominated by expositions of the author’s internal state (often literally, as he treats us to medically detailed descriptions of his digestive woes) that it is easy to forget that any actual missionary work is even happening.

Heaven Up Here is, in large measure, a story of outraged privilege. We are never allowed to forget the author’s connection to the first generation of the Church, and the impression that he somehow deserves better treatment because of his ancestry is never far away. In the end, we are left with the clear sense that the Church cruelly abused this missionary by expecting his pampered American digestive system to cope, for eighteen whole months! with food of considerably better quality than what most of the people around him had to eat for their whole lives.

However, those people are rarely of very great importance. They are largely extras in a show that has been written, produced and directed by its star performer.

Perhaps the most disappointing episode recounted in the book was the case of the illiterate cook. The author and his companion had a lady who cooked meals for them. (Doesn’t everybody?) The quality of her cooking was not great, and the author subsequently found out why: she couldn’t read. Thus, she couldn’t follow a recipe, and simply guessed what ingredients to use, and what their quantities should be.

One can easily see how disastrous such cooking efforts would be; but once Elder Williams found the cause of the problem, he had an opportunity to devise a solution that would not only provide him and his companion with nutritious, palatable meals, but also benefit the lady and her family. He and his companion could have devised a program of teaching her to cook from the cookbook she was trying to use (after all, non-literate people are often very adept at memorising information and procedures) and, extending from that, how to read. This would have been a win-win solution. Here was a chance for Elder Williams to make a difference to his cook and her family; a chance to do some meaningful service (and even personally benefit thereby!) A chance, in Tolkein’s words, to “show his quality.”

So what did he do?

He fired her, and engaged another cook instead.

Without a word of apology or regret, he looked after el numero uno. Nothing could be more important than this American princeling’s pampered tummy.

Just in case anyone is wondering, I’m not a fan.

Anyone who has read my book knows that this hardly reflects anything in the book. Suffice it to say that our first cook was not “fired” for being a poor illiterate who couldn’t make food palatable to our “pampered tummies.” We got another cook because the lady in question was charging us twice the going rate and providing poor-quality food that was making us quite ill (my companion and I both had amoebas and 4 types of intestinal worms, and I had lost 30 lbs., dropping to a weight of only 114 lbs.). Only after failing to help her improve did we find someone else in the branch to cook for us.

But I figured something out about the “review.” Every complaint Mr. McGregor has about the book, and every misreading, intentional or not, comes from the beginning of the book. In short, he didn’t read the whole book, and it’s obvious. That’s why he didn’t realize I served a two-year mission; I was called for eighteen months, but you’d have to read about a third of the way through the book to learn that I was given the opportunity to extend my mission to two years, and I did so (clearly, because I felt my privilege was so outraged that I needed six more months of it). That’s why he thinks I constantly remind readers that I am a descendant of Frederick G. Williams, even though I mentioned it only once, again at the beginning, and in connection with feeling like being the first in several generations of Williamses to serve a mission was a tribute to him. That’s why he talks about my digestive issues as if they are a constant presence through the mission, but they aren’t. Again, they were the most severe during the first few months of my mission, when I got really sick and lost 30 lbs (otherwise known as having an upset tummy unbecoming of a spoiled princeling).

The only conclusion I can reach is that he read about one-quarter to one-third of the book, just enough to find a story he could spin in a way to demonize a 19-year old who later grew into me. I don’t know if I should find this pathetic or hilarious. Eh, probably both.


How BYU Destroyed Ancient Book of Mormon Studies

September 8, 2015

As I noted in earlier posts, Dr. William Hamblin of my alma mater, Brigham Young University, engaged in a rather one-sided “debate” with Baylor professor Dr. Philip Jenkins over the legitimacy of “Ancient Book of Mormon Studies” as an academic discipline. For more than two months, Hamblin continued to flail about, unable to provide a single piece of solid New World evidence that the events depicted in the Book of Mormon ever took place. In the end, Dr. Jenkins graciously ended the discussion, having showed fairly definitively that Hamblin had nothing to offer but postmodernist musings about the nature of reality and history as a discipline.

Instead of acknowledging his utter failure, Hamblin has now posted a follow-up in which he identifies the real villain in delegitimizing the “fledgling discpline” of Ancient Book of Mormon Studies: LDS-owned Brigham Young University.

How BYU Destroyed Ancient Book of Mormon Studies

Hamblin identifies the following key ways in which the powers that be at BYU killed a promising new academic endeavor:

  1. College and Department Politics. Hamblin explains how he was praised and given merit pay raises and promotions when he published in non-LDS fields of study but was reprimanded and denied career progress when he focused on the Book of Mormon. He appears to be mystified that, even at BYU, Ancient Book of Mormon Studies (ABMS) is not considered a legitimate field of study, but he explains rather clearly the university’s thinking: “you must publish outside the ‘BYU Bubble’—that is, BYU or LDS sponsored publications,” if you want your work to be considered legitimate scholarship, and that means you can’t publish anything in Ancient Book of Mormon Studies. But there’s nothing puzzling about this at all: BYU wants to be taken seriously as an academic institution, but that won’t happen if its professors turn inward and spend their time on topics that no one else accepts as legitimate. Surely, Hamblin understands this. What he is describing is not politics but part of any university’s quest to excel and build a reputation, and professors who publish on Nephite horses and smelting ore to create obsidian-edged clubs do not contribute to a positive reputation.
  2. Religious Education. Here he complains that the one department with a legitimate interest in ABMS is not allowed to teach it. No, the Religious Education department teaches what Hamblin calls “the ‘Three Ds’—doctrine, devotion, and daily application” to the exclusion of “serious academic study of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text.” I wonder what school he’s been teaching at because it has always been this way at BYU. Religion classes at BYU are taught out of the LDS Institute manuals and have always been intended to be devotional in nature. Sure, a few professors have sneaked in their pet ABMS theories (such as the course I took from Paul Hoskisson many years ago), but Religion classes are part of your General Education classes, not a serious avenue of academic study (see #1 above).
  3. BYU Curriculum and the Book of Mormon. This is really just an extension of #2 in that he’s complaining that BYU offers only two classes in the Book of Mormon. Instead of an in-depth study of “Book of Mormon geography, history, archaeology, linguistics, literature, theology, culture, language (ancient Near East and Maya), textual criticism, religion, law, warfare, apocalyptic, reception history, the Bible in the Book of Mormon, etc.,” he laments, “This cannot be an oversight or random chance.  This is obviously a conscious policy that implements curriculum decision which minimizes the opportunities of students to study the Book of Mormon as a serious academic discipline at BYU.  Which, for all practical purposes, means students can’t do ancient Book of Mormon studies at all, anywhere.” Of course it’s no oversight but a rational and obvious decision to avoid putting time, money, and effort into something that would damage the university’s reputation.
  4. Graduate Studies and the Book of Mormon. Hamblin is unhappy that the “only way that young LDS scholars can study the Book of Mormon in graduate school is to study it as a nineteenth century text in a secular religious studies program, or US history program.” Again, the reason isn’t hard to divine: the Book of Mormon is best seen in its historical context, which is 19th-century frontier America, not ancient Mesoamerica (see #1 above).
  5. BYU and the Destruction of FARMS. I think this section gets to the heart of the matter. FARMS (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) was near and dear to the heart of Dr. Hamblin and his friends, notably Daniel C, Peterson. For years it operated independently of BYU, raising funds and publishing without oversight. But that changed in 1997, when it was brought in as an official part of the university, which renamed it The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies in 2006. At the time, its absorption into BYU was seen as giving it legitimacy and the stamp of approval of not only the university but of its sponsoring church, but Hamblin describes it as a “hostile takeover” and says the university has broken its promises made to FARMS. In 2012 MI director Gerald Bradford fired Daniel C. Peterson as editor of the FARMS Review of Books and announced that the institute would henceforth avoid apologetics and instead focus on Mormon Studies, a broader, non-devotional, non-apologetic approach to the Mormon religion. I need not get into the details other than to say that Hamblin and his colleagues have not been happy with this turn of events. Again, the reason for the university’s actions isn’t difficult to understand.

The reality is that Ancient Book of Mormon Studies never was a fledgling academic discipline. One need only look at the long list of FARMS publications over the years to see that the institute was never academic in nature. Serious academic work develops a hypothesis based on the evidence and then tests that hypothesis against further evidence. Apologetics comes to the question with the answer already provided, and then works backwards to fit the evidence to that answer. Hamblin can complain until he’s blue in the face, but the hard truth is that BYU understands the difference between scholarship and what FARMS was doing. Even if you ignore the controversies about personal attacks in FARMS publications, it was always going to be apologetic in nature, and BYU made a conscious decision not to do apologetics, whether Hamblin likes it or not.

Apologetics has its place, certainly. I am not saying that what FARMS and its supporters (now publishing the Mormon Interpreter) did is illegitimate or dishonest, but it is by nature partial and often polemical. Universities are supposed to be in the business of promoting knowledge wherever it comes from, and that’s not what apologetics does. As a BYU alumnus (2 BAs and an MA), I’m happy that BYU has walked away from the pursuit of Book of Mormon apologetics. It just seems very strange for apologists to complain that a university is refusing to engage in a pursuit it finds academically illegitimate.


New Web Site

August 11, 2015

I’ve just been made aware of a new web site, MormonSpectrum.org , which basically aggregates links to a lot of resources across the spectrum of LDS belief and lack thereof. I think it can be a valuable resource.

Enjoy.

ETA: Based on a cursory reading of the site’s content, I erroneously judged it to be skewed towards the ex-Mormon perspective. I was wrong, and I apologize for my premature judgment.


Why the Seer Stone Matters

August 7, 2015

Most of my readers will already have read that, earlier this week, the LDS church released photographs of one of Joseph Smith’s “seer stones.”

peep stone0

Here’s the church’s statement about the seer stone:

An accompanying article on the history of the Book of Mormon translation will appear in the October 2015 issue of the Church’s Ensign magazine, and is now available online. Both the introduction to the new volume and the magazine article discuss the instruments Joseph Smith used to translate, and both include never-before-seen photographs of a seer stone Joseph Smith likely used in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

The stone he used in the translation was often referred to as a chocolate-colored stone with an oval shape. The stone was passed from Joseph Smith to scribe Oliver Cowdery and then from Cowdery’s widow, Elizabeth Whitmer Cowdery, to Phineas Young. Young then passed it on to his brother, Brigham Young, the second president of the Church. After President Young died, one of his wives, Zina D. H. Young, donated it to the Church. In addition to this seer stone, historical records indicate that Joseph Smith owned other seer stones during his lifetime.

The Ensign article gives a lot more information about what a seer stone is and how it was used in Joseph Smith’s day, but in my view, it seems to avoid some of the trickier questions about the stone and its history.

So, what is the big deal with the seer stone? Richard Bushman writes that modern Mormons aren’t comfortable with the early church’s connection to folk religion:

Why then does the picture of a brown, striated stone trouble us? I think because it crosses a boundary we had held on to between religion and superstition. We have known about the gold plates and the angel and the Urim and Thummim long enough to assimilate them into respectable religion. Those are the ways of God. On the other side of the boundary are witchcraft and spells and tarot cards. Those are silly superstitions that the benighted believe in. We want none of that.

The seerstone, sitting there like it had just been dug up, drags across the line into the realm of the superstitious. Do we really want to be part of a religion that dredges up objects and symbols from folk magic? In doing so we join a battle that has waged for four centuries or more between magic and religion. In the seventeenth century lots of religious people believed in seerstones and various kinds of magical apparatus. They were instruments for reaching the divine. In the eighteenth century all such things were discredited by the Enlightenment, and Protestants (more than Catholics) sloughed them off. That process began at the top of society and only worked its way down gradually. In Joseph Smith’s time ordinary people were divided. Many of his neighbors believed in seerstones; others ridiculed them. He made them part of his religion.

There are echoes of this sentiment in the Ensign article, which notes correctly that Joseph Smith himself downplayed his use of seer stones as such activities became more disreputable with time:

For those without an understanding of how 19th-century people in Joseph’s region lived their religion, seer stones can be unfamiliar, and scholars have long debated this period of his life. Partly as a result of the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, a period that emphasized science and the observable world over spiritual matters, many in Joseph’s day came to feel that the use of physical objects such as stones or rods was superstitious or inappropriate for religious purposes.

In later years, as Joseph told his remarkable story, he emphasized his visions and other spiritual experiences.9Some of his former associates focused on his early use of seer stones in an effort to destroy his reputation in a world that increasingly rejected such practices. In their proselyting efforts, Joseph and other early members chose not to focus on the influence of folk culture, as many prospective converts were experiencing a transformation in how they understood religion in the Age of Reason. In what became canonized revelations, however, Joseph continued to teach that seer stones and other seeric devices, as well as the ability to work with them, were important and sacred gifts from God.

But both of these statements assume that using seer stones for hire was, at one time, an acceptable and honorable profession, so it’s just “presentism” that makes us modern folks recoil at the thought. In fact, scrying, or “juggling” as it was sometimes called, for money was potentially grounds for a criminal charge of being a “disorderly person,”  and it was an activity acceptable only to the credulous. A legal document from 1819 includes in its definition of a disorderly person “All Jugglers; All who pretend to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or like crafty science, or pretend to tell fortunes, or to discover where lost goods may be found.” This explains why, in 1826, Joseph Smith was tried on a charge of being a disorderly person and impostor. Leaving aside whether or not he was convicted (he seems to have been let off with a warning not to continue the practice), he is known to have hired out to Josiah Stowell and others to locate hidden treasures through the use of the seer stone.

The problem, then, is not only that modern Mormons do not believe one can find lost or hidden items using a seer stone, but they recognize, as did people in Joseph Smith’s day, that people who pretend to have that ability are being dishonest. At best, finding items this way is a sort of parlor trick, but at worst, it’s a conscious fraud. That Joseph Smith may or may not have made very much money in his endeavors is beside the point. That he used a seer stone at all in exchange for money is troubling to a lot of people. Thus, it’s not so much the connection to folk magic but the connection to possible fraud that is troubling to people, especially since most are hearing of this for the first time.

But I’m just showing my modern prejudice, some might say. Perhaps, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that Joseph really did have a gift for finding hidden treasures. Why downplay it if it was so honorable? Wouldn’t evidence of his success as a treasure hunter bolster his later claims as a prophet? Indeed, if he had such a gift, why wasn’t he successful with it? If anything, Joseph seems to have been a little embarrassed by his career using the seer stone. In his official history, he writes:

In the month of October, 1825, I hired with an old gentleman by the name of Josiah Stoal, who lived in Chenango county, State of New York. He had heard something of a silver mine having been opened by the Spaniards in Harmony, Susquehanna county, State of Pennsylvania; and had, previous to my hiring to him, been digging, in order, if possible, to discover the mine. After I went to live with him, he took me, with the rest of his hands, to dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month, without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.

There’s no mention of the scrying activities, and Joseph tells us he was just a hired hand doing manual labor for Stowell, leaving the impression that the “very prevalent story of [his] having been a money-digger” was merely a distortion of the truth.

Of course, now the church acknowledges that he was digging for money using the stone, and the church confirms that he used the same stone and method to translate the Book of Mormon. For as long as I can remember, the church has always taught that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God through the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were the interpreters deposited with the golden plates, not by looking at a stone that had been found in a well when Joseph was a teenager. An LDS friend reminded me that the story of the seer stone in the hat was mentioned in official LDS sources exactly twice in the last 40 years, the last time in 1993. So, it’s no wonder that this information might be a bit of a surprise to most members of the LDS church, and no one can blame some people for feeling that the church should have been more open with this information.

At this point, some people will say I’m accusing the LDS church of “covering up” its history, but I don’t think that’s what happened. As the Ensign article mentioned, seer stones fell into disrepute, even within Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and the stories were presented in a way that distanced the early church from these “folk magic” practices. In time, the standard narrative was accepted without question, such that many, if not most, church leaders probably had no idea the seer stone was involved or where it came from. And if they were unaware of these things, I don’t imagine that curriculum writers knew about them, either. So, the church published a sort of “sanitized” version of its history, perhaps without even knowing it.

But now we know the fuller history, and it is upsetting to a lot of people. I am dismayed–though not surprised–that many Mormons I know are blaming those who were blindsided by this revelation for being upset about it. The church, they say, has always been open about these issues, and people should take responsibility for learning about the history of their church instead of expecting the church to spoon-feed it to them. In short, too many people want to blame the unsuspecting members and absolve the church (and vice versa, for that matter). But such an approach helps no one.

What is called for is an open discussion of what we know, and then we can discuss the reasons people are upset or feel they have been misled. I don’t see why leaders and members can’t acknowledge that the church was a little squeamish about the history of the seer stones. Insisting that the church has always been perfectly transparent when we know otherwise just reinforces the feeling that many have that the church has broken its trust.