Are the Gospel Topics Essays helping or hurting LDS membership?

When the Gospel Topics Essays were first posted on the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (lds.org), the intention of the leadership was to calm the concerns that many members had about their church’s more controversial history and doctrine. However, the essays have caused mixed reactions. Naturally, some members have welcomed these official church explanations, but many have found the explanations troubling. 

On February 12, 2014, Ganesh Cherian—who is currently serving as a stake high counselor in Wellington, New Zealand—wrote a very honest blog titled “A Former Bishop’s Doctrinal Dilemmas” that expresses his deep concern about the church’s attempt at honesty. We encourage you to read in its entirety: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kiwimormon/2014/02/a-former-bishops-doctrinal-dilemmas/

In his blog, Cherian–who was a bishop for five and a half years–referred to an October 2013 general conference talk given by Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the First Presidency. Cherian wrote:

President Uchtdoft gave an impassioned plea to those who have left the church, admitting mistakes in leadership, and promising a place for those who doubt. Since then it feels like the church has changed.  While Uchdorft’s talk seemed extraordinary at the time, in retrospect it  feels  like it was a preface for that change.  Change that is not without its challenges.

Cherian continued:

During this particular lesson one of my fellow high-priests informed us that two friends (a former Bishop, and a Stake President) in England had recently left the church over the ‘Race and the Priesthood’ essay.  As dutiful leaders they had instructed their congregations, referring to the ‘the seed of Cain’ explanation for withholding the priesthood from Black members of the church until 1978.  This recent ‘clarification’ had apparently undermined their understanding of both revelation and doctrine.  Though I haven’t left the church, this shift to more transparency is a challenge for me as well.  Not because I don’t welcome these revisions.  They seem very fair and thoroughly researched.  But like my fellow high priests, I too used these now discarded explanations and doctrines throughout my leadership to teach – and now I’m left to wonder.

He then referred to the four essays mentioned above (and listed with their links below), explaining:

Each is a challenge to the seemingly authoritative version of our history – and the intention is to release more revisions/explanations  by April 2014.   Drawing on historical evidence and scholarship these essays go further than any previous official publications issued by the church in contradicting those narratives that good members have long repeated as justifications for our more curious doctrines and practices.  And naturally, many are baffled.

Pointing out that during the second week of January 2014, Mormons all over the world studied chapter 1 of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith that discussed the “First Vision,” Cherian continued:

But after a careful reading of the new source material it would appear that the First Vision account as we have come to know it, was virtually unheard of for the first decade of the Church’s existence. What we now regard as pivotal to our claim to divine mandate was absent for the first members. Leaving many questions over what those founding Mormons actually believed about the nature of the Godhead, and what caused them to join the church?

The changing of history caused this former bishop to be “perplexed.” He writes,

I have repeated stories to my ward to justify particular church practices. I have given the hard line on church policies and doctrines and have held people accountable. As recently as June I reasoned with a friend that polygamy was needed because there were so many more women than men at the time, an argument that the polygamy essay seems now to repudiate.

Imagine the position this man and so many others in the Mormon Church are in. For years, he followed party lines and repeated the history as he was instructed. Now, because the church is trying to “come clean,” so to speak, by admitting historical problems of its past, there is a problem. Everything that the Mormons were taught before these essays were printed was apparently based on lies or half-truths. This was the crux of the complaint made in 2010 by a group of Swedish Saints. (For more information on that issue, see our article and links here.)

Let’s allow Cherian by providing the core section of his blog:

All of this has caused me to grapple with my own questions.  Is it possible that I have hurt people with doctrines and dogmas that in the light of these essays seem to sit on shaky ground? I understand how essential it is to ‘sustain’ the Brethren but these days I live with a caution that those ideals that I believe today could be dismissed by future First Presidencies. As a Bishop I once performed a wedding for a friend of a friend. The grooms [sic] ex-wife and her girlfriend were guests and as I was seated at their table during the reception we chatted. It became apparent that they had really enjoyed the way I had conducted the ceremony and they asked if I would be willing to be their forthcoming ‘Civil Union’ celebrant. I turned them down explaining that as an officer of the LDS church I wasn’t permitted. I tried to be as sensitive and compassionate as possible and one of the women seemed genuinely understanding of my position but her partner was visibly upset. At the time I felt reassured that I was ‘right,’ and that any distress I had caused them was totally justified. I even congratulated myself on some level that I was sharing the gospel with them. I look back at that experience with regret.  I now wish that I had just reached out and given them both a big hug.

I also question myself regarding how blameless I am in my representation of these doctrines as definitive? Was I complicit in telling stories I suspected were problematic?  Could I have made an effort to be more informed? Could I have asked more questions, been more thoughtful, mindful? How did I get to this place where I have cause to wonder about my own, and the church’s integrity?

Today I am reeling from the translation of the ‘Book of Mormon’ essay. Exactly how was I to know that Joseph Smith got the words to the Book of Mormon by burying his head in a hat.  How was I to know that a stone he found in a well was instrumental in this process of translation?  Every picture, or  video I have ever seen has him sitting at a table with the gold plates before him pouring over these ‘curious characters’ by the light of a candle!  Was I naive to have faith in this story? Was I wrong to retell this story as a teacher, as a missionary, or as a priesthood leader? What am I now to make of the ‘truth of the matter’ when it speaks neither to my heart nor my soul.  What am I to make of a story I find confounding and frankly bizarre?

Again, feel free to read the whole blog in detail, but before we close, we must consider his final words:

But as for me I am left to wonder where I go from here. I am torn. I love my church and credit where I am in my life to years of church service – but I cannot ignore the dishonesty. I feel aggrieved that in attempting to sustain and perpetuate stories of faith, the church has accredited doctrines to God that are simply fictions. Can such a chasm be bridged as President Uchtdorf suggests?

As we file out of class, a fellow high councillor remarks, ‘Isn’t it interesting that today’s challenge to our faith is coming directly from the church?’

Amazing words! Notice that last line again: “Today’s challenge to (the LDS) faith is coming directly from the church”! By attempting to correct the decades of fully documented teaching–shall we call it “indoctrination”–that begins in primary and goes all the way through general conference, the LDS Church is now causing more angst by trying to reconcile its history. As Cherian infers, how can a Latter-day Saint know that what is being taught today won’t be changed tomorrow? This is a bag of worms with a hole on the bottom.

While we’re happy that the leadership is at least attempting to deal with the historical mess, could meddling with past teachings cause an even greater migration from the Mormon Church?