“I charged the Saints not to follow the example of the adversary in accusing the brethren, and said, “If you do not accuse each other, God will not accuse you. If you have no accuser you will enter heaven, and if you will follow the revelations and instructions which God gives you through me, I will take you into heaven as my back load. If you will not accuse me, I will not accuse you. If you will throw a cloak of charity over my sins, I will over yours—for charity covereth a multitude of sins.”
When Leonard Arrington was asked to serve as the Church Historian back in the 70s, he began a paradigm shift within Church history. Previously and to some extent still, history had been viewed as a tool to strengthen faith. If history didn’t do this, then “It may be true, but it isn’t always useful” as Boyd K. Packer summed it up. Leonard changed that, opening up the Church archives to scholars and dedicating Church resources to writing history that for the first time could meet scholarly standards. This did unfortunately create several clashes with general authorities, who wanted to review and edit any books that came out of the church history department. Eventually, the church history department was broken up and moved down to BYU, because the goal of scholarly fidelity could better be served in an academic setting.
Even with Leonard’s efforts, many of our members young and old don’t know their Church history. The history they do know comes from seminary lessons meant to inspire and Sunday School lessons with a specific gospel lesson in mind. When they stumble upon something that doesn’t fit their frame of reference, they usually take one of two paths: they either can ignore the new piece of information completely, or they reject their the entire narrative of their faith.
But there is a third alternative: we can adjust our faith and our world view to make room for the new information. It hurts sometimes, but it is how we develop lasting faith.
This seems to be a peculiar weakness among Mormons. Early Saints wrote “Praise to the Man” after Joseph Smith died, elevating him to godlike heights. Today, members stand whenever the prophet walks in the room. We love our church leaders. And that’s a good thing! But we can’t let our faith stand or fall with the good standing of a church leader.
President Uchtdorf recently told a story that illustrates the effect such adulation has on our general authorities:
“When I was called as a General Authority, I was blessed to be tutored by man of the senior Brethren in the Church. One day I had the opportunity to drive President James E Faust to a stake conference. During the hours we spent in the car, President Faust took the time to teach me some important principles about my assignment. He explained also how gracious the members of the Church are, especially to General Authorities. He said, “They will treat you very kindly. They will say nice things about you.” He laughed a little and then said, “Dieter, be thankful for this. But don’t you ever inhale it.”
Joseph Smith elaborated on how the expectations of Church members made him feel like he couldn’t speak as a man anymore. Terryl Givens recounts in Wrestling with the Angel:
“A popular joke has more than a hint of truth to it that Catholics espouse papal infallibility, but no Catholic believes in it. Joseph Smith espoused prophetic fallibility, but not Mormon believes in it. Smith lamented before he was even dead, with his features marbleized and his flaws airbrushed by his followers, the cumbersome myth of his infallibility and ready access to unfiltered truth. To one of his friends, he complained that “he did not enjoy the right vouchsafed to every American citizen– that of free speech.” Smith added that “when he ventured to give his private opinion on any subject of importance, his words were often garbled and their meaning twisted, and then given out as the word of the Lord because they came from him.”
In our attempts to root out history that could cause doubt, we get a view of our prophets and apostles that isn’t true. In theory we believe in prophets and apostles who are fallible, but in practice, we ignore any of their fallible aspects. This creates impossibly high expectations for our leaders and for ourselves as well.
To use a statistics term, Mormons suffer from a bad case of selection bias. To quote Wikipedia, selection bias is “the bias introduced by the selection of individuals, groups or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed.” In the same way that we filter out negative aspects of our own lives on Facebook, we filter out less-than-perfect moments in Church history. In reality, revelation and human frailty are not mutually exclusive, so in order to have an accurate map, we need to make room for both.
Joseph Smith knew that accepting the weaknesses of our leaders would be a trial of our faith. We know from revelation that God calls the weak things of the world to break down the mighty and strong ones. But in practice, when we witness the weakness and the fallibilities of our leaders, will our faith endure?
Edward Rushton, a new convert from England in the early days of the Church, recounted this story:
Father was very anxious to find the members of his family already established there, and hurried towards the town in search of them. He had gone only a short distance when he met a man riding a beautiful black horse. The man accosted him, saying, “Hey, Bub, is that a company of Mormons just landed?”
In much surprise, Father answered, “Yes sir.”
“Are you a Mormon?” the stranger continued.
“Yes sir,” Father again answered.
“What do you know about old Joe Smith?” the stranger asked.
“I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God,” said Father.
“I suppose you are looking for an old man with a long, gray beard. What would you think if I told you that I was Joseph Smith?” the man continued.
“If you are Joseph Smith,” said Father,” I know you are a prophet of God.”
In a gentle voice, the man explained, “I am Joseph Smith. I came to meet those people, dressed as I am in rough clothes and speaking in this manner, to see if their faith is strong enough to stand the things they must meet. If not, they should turn back now.”
Elder Ballard recently gave ES teachers this charge: ““We give medical inoculations to our precious missionaries before sending them into the mission field so they will be protected against diseases that can harm or even kill them,” he said. “In a similar fashion, please, before you send them into the world, inoculate your students by providing faithful, thoughtful, and accurate interpretation of gospel doctrine, the scriptures, our history, and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood.” In this information age, it is more important than ever that we help Church members develop a faith that can endure.