Since leaving the Mormon church I have been asked, “what would change your mind?” In this post, I will attempt to outline the terms that would need to be met in order for me to reconsider myself a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When contemplating this exercise I think it is important to differentiate the temporal along with the spiritual, as these are both unique and deeply intertwined in Mormon theology. What I mean by this is, how do we interpret our own spiritual experiences and those of others and how do we evaluate the validity of truth claims? I will largely draw on the Gospel Topic essays found here in an effort to stay close to the Church’s own teachings and focus on the temporal.
In regard to the spiritual I can say that I have had uniquely profound experiences that I would call spiritual. Many of the responses that I get in defense of the church from believing members is, “well, I have had a witness that the church is true. I am happy when I follow it. You can’t deny that I have had these feelings, these feelings and experiences prove to me it’s true.” All I can say is, yes, I believe you. I also have had those feelings. The central issue I have with spiritual confirmatory witnesses is the epistemology or the model in which they are couched. For a deeper dive into epistemology, or the way that we know things, see my blog post here that I dedicated to this very subject. In short, you will find all people from all walks of life in vastly different religions and spiritual journeys that come to the SAME conclusions, using the SAME methods, about their religion. How can this method be reliable? If we can’t rely on this method we have to rely on the foundation of the organization to propel us to belief or faith. When uncovering the historical record of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints I found very troubling issues that led me to lose faith in the church. The following are the big issues that the church would need to change in order for me to practice again.
The church would have to denounce polygamy as not doctrinal and not of God
In doing so they will have to admit that Joseph was objectively wrong in revealing it and subsequently practicing it. Just writing this very first one has my mind cringing at the ramifications this announcement would reach. The credibility of Joseph, and subsequent prophets, the celestial law of polygamy that is taught as an anchor to the plan of salvation, etc. The entire panorama of polygamy drips with anguish, despair, deceit, and blatant misogyny. The open line from paragraph two in the church essay on polygamy is telling. “Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes in instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage” There is no good answer, other than “we do not understand.”1 All we can go off of is how Joseph introduced it and practiced it.
Joseph began his wade into polygamy before priesthood authority was said to have been restored with his maid/adopted daughter, Fanny Alger. Fanny was likely 16 at the time. Oliver Cowdery referred to this relationship as “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair…”2 LDS historian, Richard Bushman, states: “There is evidence that Joseph was a polygamist by 1835.”3 Plural marriages are rooted in the notion of “sealing” for both time and eternity. The “sealing” power was not restored until April 3, 1836 when Elijah appeared to Joseph in the Kirtland Temple. If he didn’t have the sealing power, what was he doing with Fanny? This is commonly known as adultery. Even if you think he was a prophet, you cannot give him a pass on this one. Oliver Cowdery was likely excommunicated because he would not recant his testimony that Joseph had an affair with Fanny.
Joseph operated this way during his entire adult life. He married sets of sisters, mother daughter pairs, many girls in the teens. He married Helen Mar Kimball when she was 14, or as the church essay puts it, “several months before her 15th birthday.”1 He married the wives of already married couples (polyandry), some after Joseph had sent the husband away on a mission. Often he would propose and give the girl 24 hours to decide under promise of salvation for her and her family. He would sometimes tell these girls that an angel with a flaming sword would smite him if they did not marry him.
The way in which he practiced polygamy was appalling to say the least. He didn’t follow the D&C 132 outline on how to practice polygamy, which includes asking the first wife for consent, and only being married to virgins which are “given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth.”4 Throughout his life, and up to his death, Joseph repeatedly publicly denied he was doing it, and even had “we believe that one man should have one wife” canonized in the 1835 edition of D&C.5 Also, if sealing is such an important principle, why did Joseph never seal himself to his parents or children during his lifetime? If sealing is such an important principle, why was Emma sealed to Joseph after so many others, likely his 23 wife sealed to him?
During the Nauvoo years Joseph had set up at least two secret societies with their own death penalties. These were the Council of 50, and those that were taught the endowment ceremony. The secrecy of the practice along with the public denials are not in line with honest behavior. Emma did not know about many of these marriages until after the fact. It wasn’t common knowledge among members until Brigham Young revealed it in Utah in 1852. Joseph’s desire to keep this secret ultimately contributed to his death when he order the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, which attempted to expose his private behavior in June 1844.
The church would have to deny the Book of Mormon was historical but instead accept it as a work of inspirational fiction
In the church essay Book of Mormon and DNA studies it states, “Although the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is more spiritual than historical, some people wonder…”6 This is enough to implant the idea that we really do not need to investigate claims of proof that the Book of Mormon is historical. This redirects the message from, “did this actually take place” to “the Book of Mormon’s main purpose isn’t historical and it really isn’t important, some people think so, but it really isn’t.” It is my opinion that if the Book of Mormon is not historical the church cannot be true. The essay continues, “the evidence assembled to date suggests that the majority of Native Americans carry largely Asian DNA.” The essay follows by describing various reasons why we may not find jewish ancestry in the DNA of Native Americans. In the end, you have to ask yourself, “does it matter if the Book of Mormon is literally a historical account of real people that really traveled from Jerusalem to the Americas?”
Another reason I do not believe the Book of Mormon to be historical are the anachronisms found therein. In the Book of Mormon there are horses, cattle, oxen, sheep, swine, goats, elephants, wheels, chariots, wheat, silk, steel, and iron. These did not exist in pre-Columbian America, during Book of Mormon timeline. Why are these things mentioned in the Book of Mormon as being a part of the Americas between 2200 BC – 421 AD?7 Also, there is no archaeological evidence that directly supports the Book of Mormon. How come we have endless evidences of multi-thousand year old swords, armor, and chariots from the old world, but there is none in the new? In Ether chapter 15, there is a story where 2 million men die with their “shields, and breastplates, and headplates…” where is evidence of that? Some say, “God wants us to use faith, stop looking for signs.” Believing that God would intentionally hide armor, horses, elephants, and chariots from archaeologists just so he could test our faith is the definition of willful ignorance.
Beside the problems with the historicity of the book itself, there are problems with the manner in which it was translated and the contemporary literature the may have influenced it. There are reasons to believe that Joseph had the story of the Book of Mormon in his head for many years before he started the “translation” process. There are contemporary books that are eerily similar to the Book of Mormon. First, the View of the Hebrews has a similar narrative and similar language. It was also published by the pastor of Oliver Cowdery’s congregation, Ethan Smith. B.H. Roberts, who was a general authority and the principal author of the History of the Church (published in 1930) investigated the connect of the Book of Mormon with the View of the Hebrews. This is what he concluded:
Did Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews furnish structural material for Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon? It has been pointed out in these pages that there are many things in the former book that might well have suggested many major things in the other. Not a few things merely, one or two, or a half dozen, but many; and it is this fact of many things of similarity and the cumulative force of them that makes them so serious a menace to Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon’s origin.”B.H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, p.240
Second, the book The Late War was written in the style of the King James Bible. This scriptural style “was calculated to elevate the moral themes, characters and events depicted in the narrative to inspire the readers to patriotism and piety” (8) The book contains stories, phrases, themes, and events that are used verbatim in the Book of Mormon, “all of this a mere decade before the publication of the Book of Mormon?”8 Former BYU Library Bibliographic Dept. Chairman and antique book specialist Rick Grunder states in his analysis of The Late War9:
“The presence of Hebraisms and other striking parallels in a popular children’s textbook (Late War), on the other hand – so close to Joseph Smith in his youth – must sober our perspective.”9
Suffice it to say that there is more here that I could dive deeper into, but most of it can be found in the CESLetter along with proper sourcing. The idea that Joseph could have written the Book of Mormon would have been complete and utter nonsense to the past believing me. I was raised to think that Joseph was an uneducated farm boy that could not produce the impossible Book of Mormon, let alone in such a short period of time. It would also completely undermine his moral integrity and his prophetic calling to its core. These are the thoughts that most troubled me during my faith transition. However painful it was, I decided to have an open mind and look at the evidence and the counter evidence and it absolutely did not line up with what I thought I knew about the origins of the Book of Mormon. Also, why were the golden plates necessary, with all the trouble all those so-called people went to to preserve it, if Joseph was just going to look into a hat with a peep stone in the bottom of it and dictate the entire thing?
As a very analytical minded person, my testimony of the Book of Mormon as historical was convincingly shattered when I saw this website. Without getting into the details here, suffice it say, that as machine learning and artificial intelligence get more sophisticated, there will come a day that we can put on probability on the veracity of the Book of Mormon and its origins. If we trust technology and the methodology of the model, and if machine learning gave us a probability of 98% that Joseph wrote (or with the help of others) the Book of Mormon, how would that affect your testimony?
The church would have to deny the Book of Abraham as a translated work and instead as inspirational fiction
I’ll make this my quickest as the church essay on this topic is damning enough. Joseph claimed to have translated the book of Abraham from scrolls found with a mummy that was purchased by the church. After this time the Rosetta stone was found and we could translate egyptian into latin and subsequently english. The scrolls, that were previously thought to be lost after the saints travelled to Salt Lake City, were recovered somewhat intact in a New York museum in 1967. As researchers investigated the papyrus it was concluded that “Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the [papyri] fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham.”10 The facsimiles are all wrong, the Egyptian alphabet that Joseph created was wrong. How are we to take this? How come I didn’t know about this earlier? The church is deceitful in saying, “The book of Abraham’s status as scripture ultimately relies on faith…”10 Everyone said it was a translation, that is how it was taught in church. Church apologists now try and reframe what the word translation actually means. Elder Holland says that the scrolls were a catalyst (like having the golden plates in the room may have been) and the book of Abraham was actually revealed to Joseph like the book of Moses.11 But this goes against everything everyone said at the time and all the way deep into the 20th century. Even the intro to the Book of Abraham states “The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” We now know these papyri were written hundreds of years after Abraham supposedly lived and were common funerary scrolls that were part of Egyptian burial practices. The only way you can call the book of Abraham scripture is if you renounce everything ever said about its origins, and say Joseph was wrong when he said those things, and that the book is actually direct revelation to Joseph contrary to everything know about its origins previously.
The church would have to concede that evolution is not “just a theory” and the story of Adam and Eve and the creation are mere metaphor
I don’t understand why the church does not have a position on evolution. Since the days of Darwin, church leaders have splashed themselves on the ever growing stone wall of evolutionary biology. As we gain more and more knowledge of the world around us, the church will have to either conceded more and more, as they always have, or they will be left behind in fundamentalist land (not unlike the time in history when Islam turned away from scientific inquiry after the 12 century citing “God wills every single atomic event and God’s will is not bound up with reason”).12 Currently, according to scripture, the earth is 6,000 years old and Adam and Eve were the first ever creatures to experience death on this planet. This stance could and should be treated the same way we think about people that think the earth is flat. Here are some quotes from church leaders on the subject. Bolding is done by me for emphasis.
George Q Cannon said:
to the Latter-day Saints who understand the principles of truth, it is the greatest absurdity and folly to state that man has been evolved from an inferior form of animal life, and has progressed step by step through the ages until he has reached his present stage of development. They do not need to spend any time to examine such a proposition for they know better.13
The theories of all the philosophers in the world, however cunningly framed or speciously argued, cannot shake the faith of a man or woman of God in this immutable truth (in reference to Gen 1:27)13
Boyd K Packer said:
In the countless billions of opportunities in the reproduction of living things, one kind does not beget another. If a species ever does cross, the offspring generally cannot reproduce. The pattern for all life is the pattern of the parentage.14
This is demonstrated in so many obvious ways, even an ordinary mind should understand it. Surely no one with reverence for God could believe that His children evolved from slime or from reptiles.14
There are too many interconnections uniting the physical and the spiritual in man to suppose that they came at random or by chance–not in a billion years or a billion times a billion years! It is against the law! What law? The law of common sense!
Now in conclusion: It is my conviction that to the degree the theory of evolution asserts that man is the product of an evolutionary process, the offspring of animals–it is false!
And, I am sorry to say, the so-called theistic evolution, the theory that God used an evolutionary process to prepare a physical body for the spirit of man, is equally false14
B.H. Roberts said:
But what about the evidence for prehistoric man, or pre-Adamic races? Scientists have hung the heaviest weights on the slenderest of threads; and I am inclined to the opinion that Adam was the progenitor of all the races of men whose remains have yet been found.15
Apostle Mark E Peterson said:
Man, then, was always man, because he was made that way in the preexistence. Cows were always cows and horses were always horses, because they were made that way in the preexistence, when first they were made as spirits before they were tabernacled in flesh
Are you ready to reject your inspired religion, your faith in God and Christ, to accept a questionable philosophy that may be thrust upon you by some unbelieving, even atheistic, professor of an unproved hypothesis?16
Apostle Bruce R McConkie said:
We ought to judge everything by gospel standards, not the reverse. Do not take a scientific principle, so-called, and try to make the gospel conform to it. Take the gospel for what it is, and, insofar as you can, make other things conform to it, and if they do not conform to it, forget them. Forget them; do not worry. They will vanish away eventually.17
He even had the hubris to say in reference to the sealed untranslated portion of the Book of Mormon:
As of now, the world is not ready to receive these truths [from the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon]. For one thing, these added doctrines will completely destroy the whole theory of organic evolution as it is now almost universally taught in the halls of academia.18
McConkie likened believing in organic evolution as “devilish”:
There are those who say that revealed religion and organic evolution can be harmonized. This is both false and devilish. Yes, all truth is in agreement and true religion and true science bear the same witness. But there is no way to harmonize the false religions of the dark ages with the truths of science as they have now been discovered, and there is no way to harmonize the revealed religion which has come to us, with the theoretical postulates of Darwinism and the diverse speculations descending therefrom.19
Evolution is real. It is not just a theory. In fact, a scientific theory has a different meaning than everyday use. In science, a theory is “not a guess, not a hunch. It’s a well-substantiated, well-supported, well-documented explanation for our observations.” In the hierarchy of science theories are higher than laws. Nothing is higher than a theory. “The theory of gravity isn’t just a guess. The theory of evolution by natural selection is our best explanation for the fact of evolution.”20
The church would have to dismantle its hierarchical spiritual authority, and end one on one worthiness interviews
The church, from its beginning, has relied on a hierarchical structure of spiritual authority. The prophet receives revelation for the entire church. The apostles stand next in line leading the affairs of the church and preach its gospel. At the local level there are Stake Presidents and Bishops. This structure creates order at many practical levels which is great in most cases from a business perspective. Where this hierarchy is poisonous is the idea that the accountant Jim down the street has special powers of discernment for me and my family. I do not discount the value of pastorship and having a spiritual leader to offer advice and consolation. What I completely abhor is the spiritual manipulation and trauma caused by thinking my neighbor Steve the mechanic is responsible to know my sexual life and the sexual life of countless young men and young women. In what moral universe does Steve need to know how often I masterbate and how my wife feels about it or the specific details of a sexual encounter between consenting teenagers? This is a symptom of the system, a system that is supposed to be set up by Jesus. Add on top the complete mental conflict resultant with the idea that church leaders are given the gift of discernment, and they know your sins. Steve does not know, but the system encourages him to know. This type of authority breeds endless wells of guilt and shame that can traumatize a person for life. Again, some people sometimes need a person to talk to about their spiritual welfare, I get that. But there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that these practices are not deeply harmful. Read more about an effort to stop this here.
People only have authority over you if you give it to them. The church’s lifeblood is that authority. They use it to control its people. Ironically, you have to submit to this authority because if the church is true this is the way Jesus wants it and who are you to question Jesus?
The church would have to denounce its teachings on homosexuality
I think the only question here is, are people born homosexual? If they are (which, I don’t know how you would think they are not), then the Mormon church’s stance is wrong, deeply immoral, and causes unnecessary suffering, to the point of suicide in many cases. The church has a history of saying, “people would not be gay if they grew up in a happy home” and giving priesthood blessings to pray the gay away, recommend gay people go on missions and marry a heterosexual partner in the hopes of “curing” homosexuality. BYU, under the direction of then-president Dallin Oaks, participated in electro-shock therapy to “cure” gay people. As a heterosexual male, what if my natural biological desire to be romantic with a woman was an abhorrent sin, a sin close to murder in sin hierarchy? How would that make me feel about my internal self, my innate nature? How would I cope with it? This needs to stop, and the church has blood on their hands. Likening same sex attraction to alcohol addiction or being too “judgemental” in a sort of “I have challenges to overcome too” sort of way is disingenuous and downright evil. It’s clear that the church’s stance on homosexuality is largely based on the cultural precepts of the 1950s, in which the general authorities grew up. If the church changes their stance on homosexuality, and likely they will if we look to lifting the ban on blacks and the priesthood as an example, is the church still true? Is this the way Jesus would have treated these people? Would God give the November 2015 policy?
I know I have set the bar for me returning extremely high. I didn’t get into many others that I would have liked to (i.e. use and abuse of the doctrine of tithing, the role of women, the endowment ceremony with its pre-1990 penalties, changing the doctrine of eternal progression, the first vision, among others). I think the reason the bar is so very high is because the way the Mormon church ties everything, all the doctrine, your belief system, your testimony, how you orient yourself in the world, on a couple of simple things. These are the Book of Mormon, the First Vision, and receiving a witness from the Holy Ghost. If those things are true, then EVERYTHING is true. If those things are not true, and I no longer believe they are, then EVERYTHING is put into question. I go off of Gordon B Hinckley’s quote. “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that [first] vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.”21 It’s very difficult to be a nuanced believer with my personality. The foundation of the church is either the way the current/past prophets and apostles say it is or it is completely false, in my opinion there is not a space for a middle ground. If the church was willing to create that middle ground, not even to the extreme as I have outlined, but in that direction, I would surely embrace it.
I wish to live in a world where we can have 21st century conversations about well-being, morality, altruism, helping our fellow humans enjoy more happiness and reduce suffering as much as possible. As long as our life orientation is attached to the religious ideas of revelation and to bronze age biblical conversations our society will suffer, our kids will suffer, we will suffer. Ideology is powerful. Take and maximize that which promotes well being and denounce and minimize that which promotes suffering. That’s my ideology.
- Gospel Topic Essay: Plural Marriage
- Rough Stone Rolling, p.323 40.
- D&C 132:61,63 https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132?lang=eng
- Joseph Smith Papers: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/doctrine-and-covenants-1835/259
- Book of Mormon and DNA Studies Essay
- Book of Mormon Archaeology
- Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham
- George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth 2:1
- Boyd K. Packer, General Conference Address, Ensign, Nov. 1984, 66-69
- B. H. Roberts in Keith H. Meservy, “Evolution & the Origin of Adam,” Church Educational System Religious Educators’ Symposium, BYU, 1979, 224-225.
- Mark E. Petersen, Speeches of the Year, BYU, Sept. 2, 1973, 246-251.
- Bruce R. McConkie, “Foolishness of Teaching,” BYU, (SLC: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981)]
- Bruce R. McConkie, “The Bible: A Sealed Book” (CES Symposium publication, c. 1981), 1, 2, 6. [Emphasis added.]
- Bruce R. McConkie. Seven Deadly Heresies BYU June 1, 1980