Review of Shaken Faith Syndrome

Review of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt

By Michael R. Ash

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Michael R. Ash, a Mormon apologist who runs the website www.MormonFortress.com, has written a book he hopes will pacify those Latter-day Saints who are thinking about exiting the Mormon Church. He claims on the book’s back cover that “an increasing number of Latter-day Saints are encountering anti-Mormon material….Some arguments have caused a few members—even active members with strong testimonies—to lose their faith.” He concludes by saying, “This book is a must-read for any member or investigator struggling with challenging issues and doubt.”

While this article is not intended to be a complete review that engages every single point that Ash produces, I do want to take a look at a number of strategic points that he makes and show that, while many of the faithful may end up satisfied with his arguments, this will not cure the ailment he refers to as “Shaken Faith Syndrome” that troubles many thinking Latter-day Saints.

Hiding Information?

In the foreword (p. viii), Ash acknowledges the many differences between the historic Christian faith and Mormonism. He writes:

“Some evangelical anti-Mormons exclude Latter-day Saints from the family of ‘Christianity’ because of certain doctrines that are virtually unique to Mormonism. These include doctrinal beliefs such as deification (the belief that the righteous children of God can become like the Father), the pre-mortal existence, multiple degrees of glory, the morphic God (a God with a physical body), baptism for the dead, the role of works in salvation, and more. Each of these doctrines has been attacked by various critics and each attack has been answered by numerous LDS apologists.”

Wow! Two points can be made about this quote:

1.“Some…anti-Mormons.” If he wants to use the pejorative “anti-Mormon” to refer to someone who, it’s insinuated, hates Mormons, then I’m not sure “some” is the right word.  Any Evangelical Christian who understands the fundamental points in the Christian religion should have trouble with this religion. Of course, the term “anti-Mormon” is not a fair term, any more than if I used “anti-anti-Mormons” to refer to those opposed to the so-called “anti-Mormons.” A person can disagree with Mormonism yet not be hateful. (For more on this topic, see http://mrm.org/anti-mormon )

2.“…each attack has been answered by numerous LDS apologists.” The question isn’t, “Did the responder answer the question?” Rather, it’s “Did the responder answer the question…well?” Of course, there are Mormon apologists who have done their best to defend the LDS belief system against criticism. For the several hundred out there belonging to FAIR and a few other Mormon apologetic groups, I believe the vast majority of their “answers” have fallen short. Rebuttals have been provided, including by scholars. (For example, see The New Mormon Challenge.) Making it appear that “each” doctrine has been effectively answered is not the open-and-shut case that Ash would like the reader to assume.

Ash then correctly sets the table as far as truth is concerned when he writes, “Basically, all doctrinal disagreements hinge on the veracity of the truth of the Restored Gospel. If Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, then the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the temple ceremonies, and all the doctrines which Joseph was instrumental in restoring, are true. If Joseph Smith was not a prophet, then all LDS scriptures are merely works of fiction and all Joseph’s restorations are meaningless.” (p. viii) I agree wholeheartedly; hence, if Smith is a true prophet, then Mormonism (or one of the offshoots connected with Smith) could be true; if he’s a false prophet, then anything connected to Smith does not lead to God.

Ash says that “anti-Mormons” falsely accuse the Mormon Church of hiding pertinent information. He writes, “When potentially troubling information is presented in faith-promoting ways, the information—accompanied by the weight of a faithful context—often helps members understand difficult issues within a framework of their belief system. When hostile sources present the same information, they frequently claim or imply that the Church hides this information from members.” (p. 10)

While he claims that LDS Church leaders do not attempt to hide information from the public, he says that it is not the goal of church curriculum to cover every nuance of the church’s history. He writes, “Some ex-members complain that they never heard certain aspects of Church history from the Sunday School classes they attended. The purpose of Church curriculum, however, including Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society, is to support the mission of the Church: to bring people to Christ. Very little history is discussed in Church classes….In short, church is a place for worship, spiritual edification, and enlightenment, not for indepth historical discussion.” (p. 72)

Ash quotes LDS historian Richard L. Bushman who said: “I worry about the young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly Joseph and are shocked to discover his failings. The problem is that they may lose faith in the entire teaching system that brought them along. If their teachers covered up Joseph Smith’s flaws, what else are they hiding?” (p. ix) Ash admits in chapter 2: “Some of the most perplexing and dissonance-generating LDS dilemmas seem to come from discoveries in Church history. One informal poll of several ex-Mormons, for example, found that two thirds claimed to have left the Church over disturbing historical discoveries.” (p. 15) If the church is fully disclosing its history, then why are so many disturbed?

Where the origin of the “saintly Joseph” stories emanate? Could it be the correlated curriculum and conference messages spoken and written by the LDS Church leaders themselves? While Ash insinuates that, within the confines of LDS Church teaching, transparency is the rule rather than the exception, I hardly think so or Bushman wouldn’t have had to say what he did.  

Perhaps one popular historical example that many members are not familiar with is how Joseph Smith married more than thirty women. Ash writes on page 73: “It is certainly possible that some Latter-day Saints are unaware that Joseph was engaged in plural marriage. And it’s true that this topic is not frequently discussed in Church publications or Sunday classes because it does not generally relate to modern directives or gospel principles. But is it fair to say that Joseph’s involvement with plural marriage is covered up or hidden by the Church?” 

Despite the fact that he writes, “LDS scholars have openly discussed these topics for decades and any student seriously interested in LDS history had access to material that engaged these issues” (p. 75), I suggest that the average Mormon does not have a clue about many specifics when it comes to the history of Mormon polygamy. For example, I will never forget several years ago when a group of Christians did something that ended up shocking many visitors to the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah. More than two dozen Christian women dressed up in pioneer garb, each wearing a sign explaining which of Joseph Smith’s wives she was representing. On the back of each sign was a short bio of that particular woman, her circumstances, the date she married Smith, and other pertinent information. I stood nearby and watched as a number of the LDS faithful came up to the ladies and argued, practically insisting, that what was being portrayed was not true because they believed Emma was Joseph’s only wife. 

It was clear that many of them did not know how ten of these “wives” were married to other men, which would not be polygamy but polyandry. Others were clueless that Smith married ten teens, including girls as young as fourteen.  It was an eye-opening experience for these observers. I wonder, when is the last time the church allowed for Smith’s polygamy—unknown, apparently, by some in the church—to be taught in Relief Society or the priesthood meetings? Perhaps if Bushman’s warning is to be taken seriously, the LDS Church needs to become more active in sharing the whole truth about Mormonism’s history and teaching. We would be glad to assist in any way since we believe getting this information into the hands of honest LDS people ends up causing objective minds to rethink their membership in this church.

Mormon History: A Big Source of Doubt for Thinking Mormons

In the July 15, 2010 edition of the Mormon Times, popular LDS author Orson Scott Card reflects on how his church’s checkered history used to cause him consternation. Married to the oldest daughter of church historian James Allen, Card and his father-in-law took a trip one day to the Church Historical Department to research a play that Card was penning on Joseph Smith’s incarceration at the Liberty Jail. What he found was less than faith-promoting; in fact, he discovered that the Mormons occupying Missouri were not as innocent in their dealings with the “Gentiles” as he had apparently once thought. 

“It was a time of turmoil, with some of the most prominent church leaders turning against the Prophet and getting excommunicated in the process,” Card said. “Some of them signed affidavits that appeared to justify criminal charges against Joseph Smith.”

He also learned about the Danites, a group of Mormons who physically retaliated against their enemies. This bothered the Mormon author, who grew up learning “Saint Speak” stories reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 where indoctrination, not the truth, seems to be the chief goal. These revisionist stories of historical events typically portray the Mormons as persecuted victims, oftentimes by only telling part of the story or by creating legendary details. According to Card, however, his father-in-law offered sage advice to help him deal with any doubts.

“I don't remember now whether he actually said it, or whether I extrapolated it from his testimony and his calmness about the conflicting information from the Missouri era, but this is the principle I came away with: ‘Whatever happened or didn't happen, Joseph Smith was the Prophet of God, and the gospel is true.’ Without realizing it, I had been letting my testimony slip into a dangerous condition of contingency. That is, I had been letting the accusations of traitors and anti-Mormons raise doubts in my own heart about whether the actions of church leaders had always been wise or good — and then I had been letting those doubts reach into the deeper place where my faith in the gospel resided.”

Did you hear Card’s rationale? Regardless of the facts of history, he learned that disregarding them was the best solution. The most important thing he could do as a Latter-day Saint was accept Smith as a prophet and, ultimately, the Mormon gospel as true. This fideistic mindset declares that faith trumps rational thought whenever the apparent facts differ with a person’s beliefs.

Card later wrote this: “Just because I was now finding out details about church history that had not been taught to me in Sunday School or in some of the official histories did not mean that the things I had been taught were not true. In short, why should I let my own previous ignorance make me doubt things about the gospel that I had ample reason to be certain of? I learned to approach church history, right up to the present, with this attitude: This happened … and the church is true.” (emphasis his)

Granted, people are certainly going to fail, and I for one would never claim that Mormonism ought to be judged mainly by the bad behavior of certain 19th century people calling themselves Latter-day Saints. But what Card fails to realize is that the Mormon faith is unconditionally based on its historical events.

Suppose history does show that Joseph Smith did have a vivid imagination. Let’s say he really was a teller of tall tales and, based on archaeology (i.e., Why the lack of the evidence in the ground to support the Book of Mormon story?) and science (i.e., Why does the DNA evidence contradict the idea that Native Americans were Lamanites?), the Book of Mormon is empirically shown to be a story Smith conjured up.

And what if he merely pretended to have had “revelations” from God, Jesus, and an angel in order to lend support to his own theological and personal tastes? (For one, consider the doctrine of polygamy and how Smith personally benefitted from it, at least from his viewpoint.)  Then, very clearly, history does matter. Allowing our presuppositions to get in the way of the discovery of truth has a high price tag.

Instead of minimizing history, perhaps Latter-day Saints ought to pay more attention to it. Maybe the LDS Church should be more willing to expose its blemishes so that its membership doesn’t become surprised once the makeup melts away. If Smith were a true prophet and did restore the gospel, then there is something to Mormonism. If Brigham Young and succeeding prophets have accurately portrayed God’s mind, then the LDS Church is true regardless of these flaws. But sweeping facts under the carpet—whether they are historical or perhaps theological—is a very dangerous precedent.

We agree that polygamy has occasionally been referenced in LDS publications and curriculum. However, the idea that Smith was married to women who were married to men or to girls who were as young as fourteen can be found nowhere in the LDS magazine Ensign. (If so, then perhaps Ash could let us know the sources.) This is the type of hidden information that drives the faithful to the conclusion that their church lied to them by not divulging the whole truth.

Lying for the Lord

Official Declaration—1, which was signed by Mormon President Wilford Woodruff in September 1890, is found at the end of the LDS scripture Doctrine and Covenants. The “Manifesto,” as it is known, denied that polygamy was still taking place within the LDS Church. The Manifesto, in part, says: 

“We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice, and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have during that period been solemnized in our Temples or in any other place in the Territory. … Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.”

It continued with this lie: “There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified, which can be reasonably construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy; and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey any such teaching, he has been promptly reproved. And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” 

The next month, Lorenzo Snow—the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who later became the Mormon prophet—moved to accept Woodruff’s “declaration concerning plural marriage as authoritative and binding.” The last line in the declaration declares, “The vote to sustain the foregoing motion was unanimous.”

As it has been clearly shown in such books as Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard Van Wagoner (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1989) and In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997), polygamy continued within the LDS Church until 1904 when the Reed Smoot hearings took place in Washington, DC. This fact is acknowledged by Ash on page 218 when he writes, “Church leaders recognized what they needed to do to appease the government—even if that meant being duplicitous; publicly rescinding polygamy while privately continuing the practice.” (sic) 

However, Ash classifies the lies told by the LDS leadership as mere “civil disobedience,” which actually sounds pretty heroic.  Incredibly, he writes on pages 218-219: 

“From the inception of the practice of polygamy the Latter-day Saints were engaged in civil disobedience. While the decision to defy anti-polygamy laws was a painful one…(they) decided to follow their consciences, ready to accept the penalties if convicted. Their highest moral obligation was to follow God’s commandments.”

On page 219, Ash asks the questions, “What if you lived in World War II Europe and were harboring fugitive Jews? What if you were asked if you had any Jews in your home? Would it be wrong to lie to save their lives?”  

Ash answers his own questions: “In this scenario, the morally higher ground would be to lie to save a life, especially if this choice was confirmed by personal revelation. Likewise, in some pre-Utah, and post-Manifesto situations, some Saints felt it necessary to lie, in fact, to save their spiritual lives and to protect their fellow members from physical attacks.”

He added, “The Saints took the same approach to civil disobedience as advocated by Gandhi—a position of non-violence. With the first Manifesto some Saints chose the lesser of two evils—they would deceive the government by abandoning the public practice of polygamy rather than surrender their religious practice completely. They were backed in a corner and this was the only way they felt they could live the commandments and keep the Church alive.” (p. 219)

Further justifying the lies, Ash writes this nonsense: “The Saints found themselves in a war in which they were the underdogs. They did not feel that they were being fairly represented in the governmental system—heavily influenced by religious enemies—and therefore they didn’t feel obligated to jeopardize their existence by dealing forthrightly with their persecutors.” (p. 22)

I am glad Ash has included this section in a book that he hopes doubting Mormons will read. If I were a Latter-day Saint who was questioning his faith, this would put me over the top. Some questions I have in response to this unbelievable defense of telling lies to bring about “the greater good”: 

1. Is Ash serious when he compares saving Jews from concentration camps to Mormons who willingly participated in polygamy? 

a. What is the worst thing that would have happened to Mormons who willingly participated in polygamy? Been put in jail by the U.S. government? Can this really be classified as having their “spiritual lives” put into jeopardy? After all, Peter, Paul, and the other apostles often went to jail for standing up for their beliefs. Can possibly losing one’s life be compared in any way to merely being put into prison?

b. What evidence does he have that the Saints would have undergone “physical attacks”? 

c. Could Jews have backed away from their circumstance by merely abstaining from being Jewish? Could Mormons have backed away from their circumstance by merely abstaining from the practice of polygamy?

2. The LDS leadership gave their word in 1890 that they were telling the truth, promising that this practice would no longer be continued. If Ash can justify the lies that continued for an extended period of 14 years, how do we know that today’s Mormon leadership isn’t lying about other issues based on the principle of “the lesser of two evils”?  

3. If polygamy was God’s command meant to be obeyed beyond 1890, then why didn’t the leadership stand up for what was right rather than give in to the demands of men? And why did they capitulate in 1904?

a. If polygamy is still meant for today but it was banned because the government was unfairly pressing its will on the LDS Church, then how do we know plural marriage shouldn’t be practiced today? Even if they had to practice polygamy underground, doesn’t this seem justified if it is still meant for today? 

b. Where in the Bible does it teach that “political expediency” is more important than doing the right thing?

c. Why do so many Mormons seem to despise the Fundamentalist Mormons who still practice polygamy?

4. If a Mormon receives personal revelation that it’s OK to lie in order to follow his/her conscience, it seems that this could conveniently cover any number of situations. Are these lies therefore approved by God? 

5. Does Ash condone the lies told by Warren Jeffs and other leaders belonging to the largest polygamous church? If not, why not, since they too could say they chose the “lesser of two evils” and decided to deceive the government rather than surrender their religious practice?

Telling the truth just seems to be the right thing to do, with the exception of the Corrie Ten Booms of the world who are illegally harboring Jewish refugees in her basement and she told the Nazi soldiers that she didn't know where these people were. Even fifteenth President Gordon B. Hinckley stated, "In matters of honesty, there are no shortcuts; no little white lies, or big black lies, only the simple, honest truth spoken in total condor" (Church News, "13th Article, simple yet powerful, 9/22/2007, p. 3).

Practicing polygamy after the Manifesto but publically saying that the practice was no longer valid in order to obtain statehood status is not civil disobedience but a complete fabrication. Shouldn’t we expect more from men who supposedly have restored Christ’s true church to the earth? 

Can we always trust the messengers?

The theme of Ash’s book is found on pages 14-15 when he said we should not assume “that all prophets of all ages understood all gospel doctrines, principles, and practices in the same way…We may, for example, [mistakenly] believe that a prophet is always spiritual, knowledgeable, kind, and disciplined; he could never err on religious matters nor hold false beliefs.” (pp. 14-15)

Are you seeing where he’s going? If not, let’s provide some more quotes to expose the motif characterized throughout the entire book: 

Page 16: “We need to be aware that sometimes we are too quick to uncritically accept the things we hear or read—even from sources such as Church leaders or in Church magazines. It’s not that their words aren’t usually true, but we should use our brains as well as our spirits when we study the gospel.”

Page 20: “Unfortunately some members, ex-members, and critics misunderstand the nature of prophets and prophecy and infer—from statements such as ‘not leading the Church astray’—that prophets are infallible…the official position of Mormonism is that of a fallible prophet, yet few lay Mormons seem to believe it.”

Page 21: “Prophets, however, are not born as prophets and they are not raised in social and cultural vacuums. When they are called as prophets they don’t suddenly become divine—they are still men.”

Page 22: “Just because a prophet has the keys to the priesthood and the authority to receive revelation from God for the direction of the Church, doesn’t mean that every word spoken by a prophet is infallible, inspired, or factually accurate.”

Page 103: “Sometimes, we Latter-day Saints have difficulty recognizing that prophets can make mistakes, have made mistakes, will continue to make mistakes, and are not omnipotent on all issues—even on all gospel issues. Sometimes we confuse tradition or popular beliefs for doctrine. Just because everyone accepted an unexamined belief for decades or centuries, doesn’t make such a belief official doctrine.”

Yet these quotes don’t coincide with the teachings of the LDS leaders themselves. They consistently reaffirm that following their words is the most logical thing to do. Consider this quote from former President John Taylor, who seemed to be writing to someone like Ash:

“Some of our folks now-a-days feel and say sometimes, they have a portion of the Priesthood, and they think they are almighty personages; they think they know better than anybody else, better than the Bishop, better that the Twelve, better than the Presidency of the Church: they are puffed up and filled with their vain imaginations. Say they, let me have my way; and then, I want you to give me your honor to help me to carry it out. Or, in other words, I want to fight against the work of God and against the Priesthood of God, and I want you to give me power and influence to accomplish it.” They do not tell you that in so in any words; but those are the facts” (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 22:299).

In current times, church leaders make it very clear who's in charge and who speaks authoritatively for the church. In the LDS Church manual True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference (2004), it refers to the president of the church on pages 129 and 130: "We sustain the President of the Church as our prophet, seer, and revelator--the only person on the earth who receives revelation ot guide the entire Church.... Your greatest safety lies in strictly following the word of the Lord through His prophets, particularly the current President of the Church. The Lord warns that those who ignore the words of the living prophets will fall (see D&C 1:14-16). He promises great blessings to those who follow the President of the Church."

While he was serving as a church apostle, Ezra Taft Benson—who later became the church’s thirteenth president—gave a discourse in 1980 called “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet.” The thirty-year-old talk was dusted off and then quoted from twice during the October 2010 180th semiannual General Conference. Since there were only five million members in 1980 compared to fourteen million today, this very well could have been the first time that the majority of Latter-day Saints had ever heard about Benson’s speech.

The first speech that utilized Benson’s talk was titled “Obedience to the Prophets,” delivered by Seventy Claudio R. M. Costa, a convert to Mormonism. A similar speech was given later in the conference by Seventy Kevin R. Duncan titled “Our Very Survival.” Before covering the fourteen points, Duncan told the conference crowd, “In the session this morning, Elder Claudio Costa of the Presidency of the Seventy so eloquently instructed us on these 14 fundamentals. Because they are of such great importance to our very salvation, I will repeat them again.” Very clearly these principles are said to be related to a Latter-day Saint’s “salvation.”

Both men quoted all fourteen of the principles.Since these general authorities are teaching that these points are fully applicable in the 21st century, let’s mention a few of them:

“First: The prophet is the only man who speaks for the Lord in everything.” 

“Second: The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works.”

“Third: The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.” 

“Fourth: The prophet will never lead the Church astray.” 

“Fifth: The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.” 

“Sixth: The prophet does not have to say ‘Thus saith the Lord’ to give us scripture.” 

For the sake of space, let’s skip to the last few: 

“Eleventh: The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich.” 

“Twelfth: The prophet will not necessarily be popular with the world or the worldly.” 

“Fourteenth: [Follow] . . . the living prophet and the First Presidency . . . and be blessed; reject them and suffer.” 

Lest anyone doubt who’s in charge of calling the shots within the Mormon Church, these messages were meant as cautionary addresses. This is why they had Benson’s old sermon discussed not once, but twice, at the same general conference.  In the following months in the official church magazine called the Ensign, there were several specific references to following the leaders of the church as speaking authoritatively in all manners.

For instance:

* In the Jan. 2011 issue on page 15 under the title "What we believe," it says that the "members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accept the following as scripture," listing the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Under the fifth point were these words: "God continues to reveal truths to living prophets through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. These truths are considered scripture (see D&C 68:4). They come to us primarily through general conferences...." 

* In the same issue, on page 74, referring to new church handbooks for stake presidents and bishops and ways to administer the church: "'There is safety in the handbooks,' President Monson said, warning against aberrations that can creep into Church programs when leaders aren't familiar with Church policies and procedures. 'They will be a blessing to you and to those you serve as you read them, understand them, and follow them."

* In the March 2011 issue on page 8 (under "What we Believe"): "When a prophet speaks for god, it is as if God is speaking (see D&C 1:38). Prophets are on the earth today just as they were anciently. Revelation for the whole Church comes through the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas S. Monson. He is a prophet of God. When members of the Church speak of "the prophet," they are referring to the President of the Church. However, there are other prophets on the earth today. President Monson's two counselors, President Henry B. Eyering and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, are also prophets. Twelve other men--the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles--are also called as prophets." 

There is an old adage that says, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” In Mormonism, it’s “he who plays the role of a general authority makes the rules.” While there are certain BYU professors, LDS scholars, and other laypeople, including Michael R. Ash, who may think their brand of Mormonism is the real deal, the church’s leaders disagree. For them to say that they could make mistakes and that, somehow, the Mormon apologists know better (wink wink), there is absolutely no support they (including Ash) can point to in support of their far-out theory.

Consider how Costa dutifully ended his sermon at the October 2010 general conference: “We are privileged to have the words of our living prophets, seers, and revelators during this wonderful general conference. They will speak the will of the Lord for us, His people. They will transmit the word of God and His counsel to us. Pay attention and follow their instruction and suggestions, and I testify to you that your life will be completely blessed. Jesus is the Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. Thomas S. Monson is the living prophet of God, and the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are prophets, seers, and revelators. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

We can go back to Benson's original speech to hear more about what he had to say: "The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time. Sometimes thre are those who feel their earthly knowledge on a certain subject is superior to the heavenly knowledge which God gives to His prophet on the same subject. They feel the prophet must have the same earthly credentials or training whihc they have had before they will accept anything the prophet has to say that might contradict their earthly schooling. How much earthly schooling did Joseph Smith have? Yet he gave revelations on all kinds of subjects. We haven't yet had a prophet who earned a doctorate in any subject, but as someone said, 'A prophet may not have his Ph.D. but he certainly has his LDS.' We encourage earthly knowledge in many areas, but remember, if there is ever a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you stand with the prophet, and you will be blessed and time will vindicate you." (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 137)

Truly Ash’s slippery-slope line of reasoning is without support. When he says that “we are too quick to uncritically accept the things we hear or read—even from sources such as Church leaders or in Church magazines,” it must be shown how the Latter-day Saint audience is supposed to refrain from doing this. For instance, suppose Thomas Monson gave a speech in General Conference that included teaching easily identifiable in official curriculum produced by the church. Let’s use the teaching that humans should not engage in homosexual activity. Yet what if I pray about this revelation and determine that the prophet was wrong after all? After all, Monson is not a scientist, so how does he know that people cannot be born this way? He’s not a sociologist, so how can he know what it’s like to live in a “homophobic” population while suppressing natural urges? He’s not a doctor, so what if he doesn’t understand the medical issues associated with homosexuality? 

What will Ash say to such a rationale? As he points out on page 19 in reference to the idea that prophets will not lead members astray: “So in principle, the prophet will not lead us away (or ‘astray’) from those six gospel principles that allow us to create our own relationships with the divine. [The six that he cites from the Book of Mormon are belief in Christ, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Spirit, enduring to the end, and being found guiltless at the final judgment.] Does this mean that they can not make mistakes about the specifics of doctrinal issues or historical events? Certainly not.” 

Since homosexuality is not something that is specifically mentioned in the “six gospel principles,” the idea I might have about homosexuality could be right, at least for me, based on my personal experience and testimony. Who is Ash to say I’m wrong? After all, he writes that “there is more to being a member of Christ’s church than just marching in step. Our goal should be to receive our own revelations and to become united with Christ.” 

The argument Ash and other Mormons may reply with is, “Thinking minds can show homosexuality is wrong.” How? After all, while the prophet might have a personal opinion against it, isn’t he’s just a man who is limited in his assessment? Since he’s not an expert in so many areas related to homosexuality, perhaps we’ll reflect on this issue like Mormons today look back on the Black doctrine that denied people of color priesthood blessings until 1978. Many leaders, including Apostles Bruce McConkie and Ezra Taft Benson, were very clear in their earlier teaching that they believed Blacks really were inferior and shouldn’t receive the priesthood. Later, they recanted. Perhaps the same thing will happen some day with the ban against homosexuality.

Now, mind you, I’m not really advocating homosexuality to be a moral practice. My main point is merely to show how shaky a foundation Ash’s position really is. If truth really is based on a sliding scale that concludes with my testimony, then who can ever determine that my view is wrong? While those like Ash may claim that I am abusing this convenient system, I am merely pointing out its horrendous flaw to show how truth cannot be based upon personal revelation from any particular individual. 

I also noticed that Ash had to include this statement on his acknowledgement page: “While many of the views expressed in this book are shared by others, and some of these views have been articulated by authors more eloquent than myself (sic), I nevertheless claim singular responsibility for the thoughts, ideas, and interpretations as they are presented in this book. I do not speak for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other organization, and I take sole credit for any and all mistakes.”

Thomas S. Monson and other LDS prophets who have written books as prophets do not have any such statement listed at the beginning of their books. If someone is making errors, is the Mormon to assume it’s the prophet’s error? Or the apologist’s? And would Thomas S. Monson agree with Ash’s views? One day, I plan to take his book to church headquarters and see what the church correlation department has to say about Ash’s theory. It should prove to be interesting.

The Book of Mormon geography

Ash uses the controversy over Book of Mormon geography as an example of how the Mormon cannot always trust his or her leaders and the correlated curriculum. He writes on page 31, “It’s likely that Joseph Smith, most of his contemporaries, and probably most modern-day prophets assumed and even embraced this hemispheric view.” He later states:

“Through the years, however, there were a few Latter-day Saints (both lay members and leaders) who questioned a hemispheric geography. Book of Mormon travel distances suggest a limited geography, and several scholarly studies propose a Mesoamerican location for Book of Mormon events. Today, most LDS scholars and an increasing number of members and leaders believe that Book of Mormon events transpired in MesoAmerica…Prophets like other mortals, accept traditions that may be in error simply because they’ve never thought about challenging such traditions.” (pp. 32-33)

He later adds on page 54: “The critics go to great lengths in their attempt to show that the prophets and most members traditionally interpreted the Book of Mormon as a record of the native inhabitants of all the Americas…tradition is not a substitute for revelation; speculation, even by prophets, does not constitute official doctrine.” 

While Mormons like to pride themselves on the idea that they agree on the major issues and are not as divided as the many Protestant churches in existence, it’s interesting how Mormons still disagree on what seems to be a fundamental issue. For instance, popular political television commentator Glenn Beck—a staunch Mormon—dedicated several one-hour FOXNEWS programs in the fall of 2010 to show how the North American continent is where the Book of Mormon events took place. His view on the location of the Book of Mormon lands is applauded by many faithful Latter-day Saints, even some who consider themselves LDS apologists. Others, including Ash, understand the weak points associated with the North American theory; yet Ash isn’t fair when he makes it appear that some apologists are smarter than the leaders and others holding to the traditional theory.  

Ash does acknowledge that there are many disagreements within the church, but he claims that this is OK since these teachings are not “doctrines.” He writes on pages 33 and 34: “I believe that very few LDS teachings qualify as true doctrines. Among true doctrines are: There is a living God; God is our Father and is interested in our happiness; Jesus is the Son of God and He atoned for our sins, and was resurrected so that we might live once again; Joseph Smith was a prophet of God; Gordon B. Hinckley is currently the prophet of God; the scriptures are the words of God; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the authority to administer ordinances that potentially bind or unite us with God. While there are other true doctrines, many of the things we believe are actually traditions, policies, practices, and wise counsel. Non-doctrinal beliefs may be useful and true, but they are not official doctrine unless the First Presidency officially expresses them as such.”

I wonder, does classifying something as a “doctrine” depend upon the person who is doing the classifying? Thus, the “tradition” that the Book of Mormon story took place in Central America or the “practice” that Blacks were denied the priesthood is just a matter of perspective. Are we supposed to let the leaders off the hook for being wrong on these and any number of other issues? When Ash says that something is “not official doctrine unless the First Presidency officially expresses them as such,” an open door invitation is initiated. After all, the leaders generally have not “officially” expressed most Mormon teachings in a doctrinal sense. It all comes down to a person’s individual perspective and revelation. 

Curious statements indeed

As I mentioned in the introduction, I am not pretending my review to be an exhaustive rebuttal on this book—it would take an entirely different book to deal with every issue Ash raises. Thus, I decided it would be fun to pull out some quotes (especially from the second part of the book) and provide quick comments on these:

“We read how Paul, for instance, using common folk belief, sent special handkerchiefs to heal believers (Acts 19:12). Bible commentators acknowledge that Paul ‘used a technique of contemporary magic to teach in terms the common people could understand.’” (p. 27) The only source Ash lists is D. Michael Quinn, a former Mormon whose education is not in the Bible. I just finished looking at five of the biblical commentaries I possess that talk about this passage and don’t see one reference that supports Quinn’s assertion. In fact, I only see the opposite, as one commentator I read stated how this was “very different from the magical acts practiced at Ephesus.” 

“Some members and critics seem to believe that because the Book of Mormon was revealed directly from the plates to Joseph that it should be error-free.” (p. 41). Ya think? When Smith supposedly translated the plates “character by character,” as one of the witnesses put it, and with the inspiration of God, shouldn’t we expect exactness?

“Two reasonable questions for those suggesting that there is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon would be, ‘What should we expect to find?’ and ‘What archaeological evidence might be considered the minimal irrefutable proof needed to convince a non-believing world of the authenticity of the Nephite scripture?’” p. 58) (I’m raising my hand, really high!) OK, so how about anything…anything at all…that would help us see that the peoples being studied (such as the Aztecs and Mayans), that the places (regardless if it’s North or Central America), and the events described were actually historical. Of course, we can’t “prove” the Book of Mormon or the Bible based on archaeology alone, but at least in the case of the Bible, we can verify that certain people lived two thousand years ago based on artifacts and history; we can know the proximity of Nazareth, Cana, and the Sea of Galilee; and we can determine that certain biblical events such as the destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians and the construction the Herod’s Temple just before the time of Christ actually took place. However, we can look as much as we want at the alleged writings of these ancient Americans and see no resemblance to the events as described in the Book of Mormon. There is absolutely no archaeology or history that can support its details.

“There’s also a big difference between the general states of New World and Old World archaeology. Many more decades, resources, and experts have been devoted to ‘biblical archaeology’ than to Mesoamerican archaeology.” (p. 62) This is ignorant at best, an outright lie at worst. Biblical archaeology, in the traditional meaning of the phrase, did not begin in earnest until the 20th century. In fact, more than 90% of everything we know about the Holy Land comes from work done during the past century. Mesoamerican archaeology has been performed for many decades as well. Yet while there is plenty of evidence that at least the people, places, and traditions found in the Bible are accurate, there is nothing from American archaeology that could be provided as a good support for the Book of Mormon story.

“Despite the identification of some biblical sites, many important Bible locations have not been identified. The location of Mt. Sinai, for example, is unknown, and there are over twenty possible candidates. Some scholars reject the claim that the city of Jericho existed at the time of Joshua. The exact route taken by the Israelites on their Exodus is unknown, and some scholars dispute the biblical claim that there ever was an Israelite conquest of Canaan.” (p. 64) This is outright deception. Just because a site hasn’t been positively identified doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Over the past few centuries, some have doubted the existence of Hezekiah’s Tunnel (mentioned in 2 Kings) as well as the location of Ekron and the historicity of David and Pontius Pilate. Yet through discoveries, many of which are recent, all have been shown to be real places and people. Ash’s objection is similar to a lawyer saying this in a court of law: “Of course, the prosecution has produced the fingerprints and the footprints at the scene that can be traced to my client. Even his hair was found there. But since we don’t have the murder instrument or video documentation of the actual murder, we have to doubt if this really is the killer.” Such argumentation is illogical. For the many sites we have excavated and know for certain that they can be traced back to the Bible, we still have absolutely no empirical evidence that the Book of Mormon is a historical book.

“Critics claim that gold plates of that dimension would weigh about 200 pounds—too heavy for Joseph to carry while running from his enemies. Those who handled the Book of Mormon, however, claim that the plates only weighed around 50 to 60 pounds.” For a refutation of Ash’s calculation, see http://mrm.org/weight-of-plates

“Concepts such as deification of Gods, the pre-mortal existence, degrees of glory and other LDS teachings, for instance are implicitly present within the pages of the Nephite scriptures.” (p. 163) In other words, while these teachings cannot be found at all in the Book of Mormon, they certainly must be implicit since we presuppose that these are true teachings.  Yet how many times do Book of Mormon teachings contradict Mormonism’s doctrines? 

“In addition to basic gospel principles, the Book of Mormon (as compared to the Bible) also gives us unique teachings on such things as the sacramental prayers (Moroni, chapter 4 and 5), and the fact that Satan—an angel fallen from heaven—is miserable and ‘he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27). Thanks to the Book of Mormon, we know that the fall of Adam and Eve was a positive and necessary step in man’s progression (2 Nephi 2:19-25); that the early Christian church in Jerusalem fell into apostasy (1 Nephi 3:1-6); that some of the ‘plain’ and ‘precious’ teachings of the gospel were taken from the Bible (1 Nephi 13:24-29); that Christ’s atonement reaches those who died ignorant of the gospel (Mosiah 3:11); that all mankind will be resurrected, regardless of religious belief (2 Nephi 9:22; Mormon 9:13); and that Christ’s suffering was so great that He literally bled from His pores in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mosiah 3:7). These are just a sampling of the many unique or more clearly taught doctrines found in the Book of Mormon.” (P. 167). Honestly, just because the Book of Mormon teaches these things doesn’t make these things true. The question is this: Is the Book of Mormon true? If the Book of Mormon is a fictional book, then quoting from it has no authority. 

 “NHM, however, was the name of an actual seventh-sixth century B.C. location that precisely fits the Lehite narrative of their South Arabian journey—including the note that they turned eastward at Nahom (1 Nephi 17:1) just as we find on the primary Arabian trails around NHM.” (p. 174) This piece of archaeology, which is not even found in the New World, is the only “evidence” that is offered. It is truly a stab in the dark. (For example, see http://mrm.org/nhm)

Referring to the Journal of Discourses: “While the Journals appear to be fairly accurate, there are, at times, inaccuracies—which is only to be expected considering that they were recorded in days preceding the invention of audio recorders. Brigham Young, for instance, complained that some of his sermons had been published without an appropriate review and that some of the sermons had been incorrectly reported.” (pp. 203-4) However, the only reference Ash provides had nothing to do with such a claim. For a refutation of his assertion, see http://mrm.org/journal-of-discourses 

“It is logical and reasonable to surmise that the reason we don’t have a translation of the Kinderhook Plates is because no translation ever took place. If it had, the pranksters would have crowed about duping the prophet immediately and not waited to discuss their scheme years or decades later.” For a refutation, see http://mrm.org/kinderhook-plates

Referring to such decorations on the temples as sunstones, the All-Seeing-Eye, angels, and clasped-hands that Joseph Smith got from Masonry, Ash writes, “These symbols and others suggest that Joseph used symbolism to graphically portray gospel principles.” (p. 231) If LDS temples were meant to have been restored from biblical times, why wouldn’t they have utilized the symbolism from biblical times? Is the symbolism from the Bible not applicable for today? Otherwise, we might want to consider finding new symbols to replace lambs, crosses, and armor. Why not replace these with dogs, compasses, and sweatpants? In addition, Masonry utilizes a number of secret rites as well as religious language, these are not biblical truths. Using symbols from a culture that is connected with occultism is not a practice to be taken lightly; while Ash minimizes the meanings of symbols, including inverted five-point stars, it is significant that the symbol of the cross—the most sacred symbol in the writings of the Bible and the historical Christian church—is completely ignored and even derogatorily talked about by LDS leadership.  (See http://mrm.org/no-crosses )

Conclusion

Ash does the best he can to minimize the many problems of a religion that is not even two centuries old. He writes in the conclusion to the second part of the book: “Overcoming intellectual doubt necessitates an alteration in our perceptions of scripture, prophets, and historical context. This may be challenging. Some members have difficulty relinquishing their unrealistic expectations or non-doctrinal ideals, such as infallible prophets who should know all answers to gospel questions, or error-free scriptures that teach the truth on all things, both religious and secular. In my experience, these are they who struggle the most, and are at the greatest risk of losing their testimonies.” (p. 253)

In other words, despite what the Church has taught for close to two centuries, a person cannot apparently trust the men who make up the hierarchy of this church, whom the followers regularly lift their hands to sustain in their leadership. When these men make mistakes, the best way to determine truth is to rely on one’s own personal revelation. Forget about the fact that the Mormon Church has been built upon the credibility of these leaders. The very foundational stone that Mormonism is built upon is that the LDS Church “restored” the Christian church of biblical times. If they can’t be trusted, generally, then how do we not know we’re being led astray?

It all boils down to this mere point: Pray about the Book of Mormon, get a good feeling it is true, and you will “know” via personal testimony that it is correct. When a thinking yet doubting Mormon understands that there are holes in this religion that cannot be explained away, they are left with personal revelation. That’s just not good enough. If these LDS leaders known as General Authorities cannot be trusted to speak authoritatively on issues most important to humanity (i.e. where we came from, who we are now, and what we can become), then in whom can we trust? 

Ash’s book might appease the faithful who are easily satisfied with just any answer that reassures them of their presuppositions. But for those doubting Mormons who really are trying to think, I almost hope they pick up this book and read it closely. I only hope that they don’t do what so many ex-Mormons have done and retreat to atheism. There is a God and there is the possibility of having a relationship with Him, even if it cannot be found in Mormonism. If handled correctly, Shaken Faith Syndrome could be the best thing to ever happen in any Mormon’s life.