The LDS Church is known for its emphasis on history and record keeping. Since its early days, official leaders and common members of the church recorded countless journals, essays, and first hand accounts of the context surrounding the critical beginnings of the now multi-million member worldwide religion. In its 180+ year existence there have been multiple undertakings of writing a comprehensive church history. However, until this year, the most recent official church history publication was in 1930 by BH Roberts. The new official church history was introduced as Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days.
I was excited to read this new book as it was advertised as a “new narrative history” and a volume that provides “an honest look”1 at church history. Side note, framing this book this way begs the question, was the previous narrative dishonest? Why do we need a new narrative? Nevertheless, as I read it I came to appreciate the description of the book as “not a novel, but reads like one.” It was simple, and straightforward. It was refreshing and engaging. However, as I read my spidey sense was tingling. Why is a “standard of truth” history book reading like a novel? The language is so simple, is this meant for seminary pupils or for seasoned members of the church?
I feel as though I am within reason to look upon this volume critically as the church has proven to be an unabashed champion of obfuscation. That being said, my first criticism surmised that the writing style was somewhat dumbed down, as if to make it easy to read for someone with a sixth grade reading level. The term dumbed down actually has quite the fascinating history. The term originated in 1933, as movie-business slang used by screenplay writers, meaning: “[to] revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence.” It is further defined as “the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content and usually involves the diminishment of critical thought, by undermining intellectual standards within language and learning; thus trivializing meaningful information, culture, and academic standards.”2 Is it possible the church knowingly, or even purposefully, crafted this new standard of “truth” with the goal of diminishing critical thought and undermining intellectual standards? Writing it as a novel instead of a history book most certainly contributes to diminishing critical thought for the average reader.
While reading chapter 2 titled “Hear Him” I found a few lines that furrowed my brow. The first one, in reference to the differences in the various First Vision accounts was, “In the years that followed, he (Joseph Smith) recounted the vision more publicly, drawing on scribes who could help him better express what defied all description.” This is putting the blame for any differences on the scribes. These differences are quite significant, and are not only left unaddressed, but are priming the pump to cast blame on the scribes for any conflict in the story. The story continues its brushing off of any perceived issues with the varying differences in the First Vision accounts by saying Joseph “wrote less about his own search for forgiveness and more about the Savior’s universal message of truth and the need for a restoration of the gospel.” This again is using sleight of hand to say, “there may have been differences in the various accounts, like an emphasis on forgiveness, but the main message was that Joseph saw Jesus and God and they wanted him to restore the gospel.” In the average reader’s mind this closes the door to any material issues that could cause one to question truth claims. Another negative byproduct of this type of rhetoric is the average reader now believes they know one of the main issues of why people leave and can now discredit or even laugh at apostates for leaving over something so clearly trivial.
One really interesting point made by the writers of the website LDSDiscussions was that Saints attempts to paint a picture that Joseph told people about his vision early on and that even a pastor told him his story was “of the devil” early on which contributes to the persecution narrative. However, we do not have record of Joseph telling anyone about this vision until about a decade after it occurred. In fact there is no record of the first vision in most the early church’s and contemporary publications like:
- Any local newspaper
- John Whitmer’s church history
- Evening and Morning Star
- LDS Messenger and Advocate
- Mormonism Unveiled (first critical book on Mormonism)
- Book of Commandments
- Alexander Campbell (leader of the Campbelites where Sidney Rigdon came from; critical of Joseph Smith)
- Sidney Rigdon (one of the most important early church leaders)
- 1839 History of the Church
Also, the early leaders referred to Joseph’s vision in journals and in public as an angelic visitation and not one that included the creator of the universe and his son Jesus Christ as two separate beings. These individuals included:
- Oliver Cowdery
- Martin Harris
- Orson Hyde
- Orson Pratt
- Parley Pratt
- William Smith
- George A Smith
- Heber Kimball
- Lucy Mack Smith
- Brigham Young
- Wilford Woodruff
How did these founding members of the church not know about this critical foundational piece of the church? Curiously enough, as LDSDiscussions points out, “Lucy Mack Smith was cited ten times in chapter one. She’s not cited a single time in chapter two, because she was never aware of the First Vision in her lifetime, or at least never thought it was important enough to mention in a large volume of history.”3
On a positive note, it is clear that the church is being more transparent in its narrative. But they are clearly stopping short of any of the real issues. In this way they are engaging in doublespeak. Doublespeak is defined as “deliberately euphemistic, ambiguous, or obscure language.” The church is twisting words and phrases to make you think you are getting the unambiguous source material, but they are being deliberately ambiguous. This narrative seems to make no attempt at being objective, it is biased. Impressively the “note on sources” section in the book states, “all sources of historical knowledge contain gaps, ambiguities, and biases.”4 With that in mind, we must conclude there are both the biases of the authors from the sources used, compounded with the bias of a church (with its various committees and apostles and approval processes) that attempt to tell a faith promoting story while at the same time claiming that they are being “as transparent as they know how.”5 This is what we like to call mental gymnastics.
This brings me to the point in my investigation when I felt like there was a connection between the product of Saints and George Orwell’s description of Newspeak in his book 1984. Newspeak is the official language of Oceania, the totalitarian state in the book. It was created to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, the political system of the state. It is a controlled language, restricting grammar and vocabulary, in order to reduce ambiguity. It is meant to limit free thought, personal identity, self-expression, free will. Those thoughts were criminalized by the Party, or Big Brother, as thoughtcrime. Newspeak was created not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.6
The purpose of newspeak was…to provide a medium of expression for the world view and the mental habits of the proper devotees. The leaders of the Mormon church have made it clear that they want members to read this book. They are signaling that reading it will “help readers safely through the gap between naive faith and informed mature faith.”7 Those members that want to have a more mature faith will follow the pattern set forth by the leaders of the church, just like Newspeak set forth the linguistic guidelines for both the commoner and the inner circle of The Party.
The citizen of Oceania, Orwell tells us, must have “an outlook similar to that of the ancient Hebrew who knew, without knowing much else, that all nations other than his own worshipped ‘false gods’. He did not need to know the names of other gods that other people worshipped. The less he knew the better for his orthodoxy. He knew Jehovah and the commandments of Jehovah. He knew therefore that all gods with other names or other attributes were false gods. In a very similar way he knew what constituted right conduct. And in an exceedingly vague manner he knew constituted departure from orthodoxy. Anything outside this narrow world view was considered thoughtcrime.8
Further explanation of newspeak comes from the fictional character Syme. Syme is excitedly working on the preeminent edition of the newspeak dictionary (the 11th edition). He explains that with the new editions of Newspeak, “the whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”9
Much of what was described as Newspeak fits the narrative of the LDS church. Especially the narrative of the book Saints. There are inoculations made against pondering on your doubts or thinking about alternative worldviews views as valid. This mode of thinking would be considered thoughtcrime to The Party. Furthermore, the book Saints took over 6 years to complete because of the long approval process. Did it take this long because they were meticulous with their transparency or did it take this long because they were running it through Mormon Newspeak? Could this book be characterized as “limiting free thought”, being “exceedingly vague”, and/or providing a “medium of expression for the world view and the mental habits of the proper devotees”? It most definitely can, and from what I have gathered so far it most definitely is. But are the leaders of the church conscious that they’re promoting a narrative in-line with the 1984 concept “orthodoxy is unconsciousness”? Applying newspeak (knowingly or unknowingly) in this manner “keep[s] [members] in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads.”10
In 1990 the New York City teacher of the year award went to John Taylor Gatto. In his acceptance speech he explains that “while he was hired to teach English and literature, he came to believe he was employed as part of a social engineering project. The “seven lessons” at the foundation of schooling were never explicitly stated, Gatto writes, but included teaching students that their self-worth depended on outside evaluation; that they were constantly ranked and supervised; and that they had no opportunities for privacy or solitude.” Gatto speculated:
Was it possible, I had been hired, not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy, on the face of it, but slowly, I began to realize that the bells and confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think, and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.11
Is the advent of the book Saints enlarging the power of the members of the church or is it diminishing it? Like Gatto says, it “seems crazy, on the face of it,” but what I am coming to realize is that the Mormon church is aligning itself with the social engineering of The Party in the book 1984 and less with empowering the the rights of the individual by laying bare the facts and allowing members to think critically for themselves. They say things like, “this is The Standard of Truth”. They say this book is “about imperfect people in the past who became better with the help of the Lord.”7 This is doublespeak.
Similar to the concept of doublespeak is doublethink. Doublethink is the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts. Doublethink is related to, but differs from, hypocrisy and neutrality. Also related is cognitive dissonance, in which contradictory beliefs cause conflict in one’s mind. Doublethink is notable due to a lack of cognitive dissonance—thus the person is completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.12 I write about my strong cognitive dissonance in my first blog post as I describe my impending faith crises. The doublethink that literally broke my worldview was that biological evolution was real AND that we all came from Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, which is in Missouri.
Orwell continues to describe doublethink as:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.
Orwell explains that the Party could not protect its near-absolute power without degrading its people with constant propaganda. Yet knowledge of this brutal deception, even within the Inner Party itself, could lead to the implosion of the State. This touches on my concern I have of the purely vile possibility that some of the inner members of the church today, and especially those from the very beginning, understand they are participating in a “brutal deception” but cannot bare to voice otherwise as it could “lead to the implosion of the [church].”
While I’m on it, let me introduce a couple more words from 1984 that I found meaningfully similar to Mormon teaching. Duckspeak. Duckspeak is a Newspeak term that means “to quack like a duck” (literal meaning) or “to speak without thinking”. Duckspeak can be good or “ungood” (bad) depending on who is speaking, and whether what they are saying aligns with Big Brother’s ideals. To speak rubbish and lies may be “ungood”, but to do so for the benefit of The Party may be good. Orwell explains in the appendix: “Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.”13
I hear duckspeak in prayers, especially from the most “righteous” of members. I see it in the Instagram posts directly following general conference. I used to hear it in my head when I was feeling down, “have you been reading your scriptures? Have you been praying enough? I know the church is true with every fiber of my being.” These thoughts do not “[involve] the higher brain centres at all.” Duckspeak is the language of the leaders of the church. As an example here is the First Presidency message in the beginning of Saints:
We testify that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that His gospel is the standard of truth today. The Lord called Joseph Smith to be His prophet, seer, and revelator in the latter days, and He continues to call living prophets and apostles to guide His Church.
Ownlife refers to the tendency to enjoy being solitary or individualistic, which is considered subversive. Winston Smith (the main character in the book 1984) comments that even to go for a walk by oneself can be regarded as suspicious.14 I see this in the Mormon church as the pressure return missionaries have to get married quickly, because “it is not good for man to be alone”. This teaching is further emphasized for widows and widowers as their is pressure and precedent by church leaders to find another partner. Why would the church discourage members from having ownlife? It is because they do not look people being individuals, thinking for themselves. They want members to assimilate and be part of the group; they want followers. They do not like people having their own thoughts and becoming solitary. It’s bad for business.
Okay, now back to the new history book Saints. Saints does indeed concede that there are credible concerns with the lack of transparency found in the past narrative of church history. What was formerly known as anti-mormon or deceptions of Satan, are now canonized as official church history in this new edition. However, as was discussed, the church did not go far enough to properly address the main issues. As I ponder the consequences of releasing and promoting this “honest” history I cannot help but think of the book 1984. Orwell explained that newspeak is the method for controlling thought through language; doublethink is the method of directly controlling thought. Like the Party in 1984, the LDS church uses newspeak to control the narrative of its history, and it deploys doublethink to control the thoughts of members from reaching outside the sphere of Mormonism. This adverse attitude to critical thought acts like a hermetical seal. I go back and forth on deciding if the Mormon church is really as bad as The Party in 1984. Am I over-reacting, am I playing on the fringes of satire? However much I want to give the church the benefit of the doubt I have to admit the Mormon church does model its narrative eerily close to the Party doctrines. I’ll end by pointing out the similarities of both doctrines by using the main slogans from the Party or Big Brother and how Mormonism is similarly aligned.
War is Peace – Peace comes from The Party; we are always at war with the enemy
- Mormons are a persecuted people
- Mormons are the chosen generation
- The great and abominable church prophesied in the Book of Mormon is expressed by “any philosophy or organization that opposes belief in God. And the “captivity” into which this “church” seeks to bring the saints will not be so much physical confinement as the captivity of false ideas.”15
- We have the only true and living church on the face of the planet
- Be ever vigilant because Satan is always trying to tempt you
- If you fail to live up to the covenants you make in the temple and at baptism you will be within Satan’s power
Ignorance is Strength – Ignorance of the masses provides strength for the Party and keeps people optimistic, happy, and satisfied
- When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsels of God (2 Nephi 9:28)
- Cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of the flesh (2 Nephi 4:34)
- Some things that are true are not edifying or appropriate to communicate. – Dallin H Oaks16
- There is a certain arrogance in thinking that any of us may be more spiritually intelligent, more learned, or more righteous than the Councils called to preside over us. – James E Faust17
- Some things that are true are not very useful… In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. – Boyd K Packer18
Freedom is Slavery – Those who become independent of society’s control is bound to be unsuccessful. Subjugate yourself to the Party and Big Brother and you’ll find freedom
- Obedience is the first law of heaven, the cornerstone upon which all righteousness and progression rest. – Bruce R McConkie19
- Obedience leads to true freedom. The more we obey revealed truth, the more we become liberated. – James E Faust20
- “Because of the gospel and temple sealings, I know I will be reunited with him if I do my best to abide by Heavenly Father’s law, where real freedom exists.” This is told by a member who lost her husband prematurely.21
- Church News releases Saints – https://www.lds.org/church/news/newly-released-saints-volume-1-provides-honest-look-at-early-church-history?lang=eng
- Dumbing Down – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumbing_down
- LDSDiscussions – https://www.ldsdiscussions.com/saints
- Note on sources – https://www.lds.org/languages/eng/content/history/saints-v1/sources-intro
- Doublespeak – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublespeak
- Wikipedia Newspeak – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newspeak
- Why you should read the new history book Saints – https://www.lds.org/church/news/6-reasons-why-you-should-read-the-new-church-history-book-saints?lang=eng
- George Orwell Explains How Newspeak Works – http://www.openculture.com/2017/01/george-orwell-explains-how-newspeak-works.html
- Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. Secker and Warburg.
- Alma 30:23 – https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/alma/30.23
- Blumenfeld, Samuel L. (May 1993). “The Blumenfeld Education Letter – May 1993:Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling By John Taylor Gatto”. The Odysseus Group. John Taylor Gatto. Archived from the original on 11 July 2009. Retrieved 23 February 2009.
- Doublethink – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublethink
- Duckspeak – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newspeak#Duckspeak
- Ownlife – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newspeak#ownlife
- Stand as a Witness by Oaks – https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/03/stand-as-witnesses-of-god?lang=eng
- Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, “Reading Church History,” Ninth Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators’ Symposium, August 16, 1985, Brigham Young University
- Apostle James E. Faust, “Keeping Covenants and Honoring the Priesthood,” Sunstone, 16:6, no. 92, November 1993, p. 72
- Apostle Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” speech delivered at the 1981 Church Educational System Religious Educators’ Symposium
- Mormon Doctrine Bruce R McConkie pg 539
- Obedience the Path to Freedom – https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1999/04/obedience-the-path-to-freedom?lang=eng
- Member story on obedience – https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/08/we-found-true-freedom-in-obedience?lang=eng