The Gospel Topics Essays: The Dynamite Approach

By Eric Johnson

Summary

Written by LDS scholars, the “Gospel Topics Essays” are available on the official lds.org website. These articles cover a variety of topics and attempt to confront the checkered history of Mormonism while smoothing out the rough edges. However, instead of placating many questioning Mormons, these writings tend to chafe the souls of the faithful who read them. Introducing these essays to a questioning Mormon could be the final straw and cause a person to lose faith in Joseph Smith and Mormonism while providing an opportunity for the Christian to share the Gospel.

Introduction

In November 2010, an emergency “fireside” (LDS church meeting) was held in Stockholm, Sweden to deal with several disgruntled Mormons who wanted answers to controversial historical issues related to Mormonism. Presiding for the church were church historian Marlin Jensen and assistant historian Richard Turley. About 25 church members attended, including the local bishops and stake presidents.[1] The meeting was secretly audio taped and released on the Internet a few years later.

At the main meeting, which was later nicknamed “the Swedish Rescue,” the church historians said that they were working on responding to some of these problematic issues. Sure enough, beginning in 2013 and going through 2015, the LDS Church published a series of articles written by unnamed LDS scholars. Why did the church come out with these essays at this time in history? For one, convert baptism rates have declined greatly in recent years while a number of members continue to file out the back door. Meanwhile, with so much information readily available on the Internet, the church can no longer hide its history. When asked if the church knew that members were “leaving in droves,” Jensen explained at a Q&A session at Utah State University on January 18, 2012,

We are aware. And I’m speaking of the fifteen men that are above me in the hierarchy of the church. They really do know and they really care. My own daughter has come to me and said, “Dad, why didn’t you ever tell me that Joseph Smith was a polygamist?” Everything’s out there for them to consume if they want to Google it.[2]

The introduction to the Gospel Topics Essays says,

Recognizing that today so much information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be obtained from questionable and often inaccurate sources, officials of the Church began in 2013 to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics. The purpose of these essays, which have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org, where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties.[3]

Can these essays be used in evangelism to a Mormon?

The answer is “yes” for several reasons:

  • The essays are “official” since they have been published on the website operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • The essays bring up issues that are not normally brought up in typical communication with church members.
  • The essays make admissions that contradict the presuppositions many Mormons have, which can be quite discomforting for them.
  • The essays call into question the validity of LDS prophets’ doctrinal pronouncements while demonstrating contradictions between men who claim to be speaking for God.

Former LDS bishop Ganesh Cherian explains the problem for the Mormon who is not in touch with his or her history:

As we discussed these issues in class, some High Priests were visibly mortified, others bewildered, and a few exhilarated. . . I feel aggrieved that in attempting to sustain and perpetuate stories of faith, the church has accredited doctrines to God that are simply fictions. . .  As we file out of class, a fellow high councilor remarks, “Isn’t it interesting that today’s challenge to our faith is coming directly from the church?”[4]

I would not recommend this approach with what is called on-the-street “stranger evangelism.” Instead, the tactic makes more sense when dialoguing with a Mormon whom the Christian knows well. The conversation can begin with this question:

Question: “Have you ever read the Gospel Topics Essays that are posted on lds.org?”

If your LDS friend hasn’t heard about them, don’t be surprised. After all, this resource has not been discussed at General Conference and apparently is not the center of attention in Sunday services or other church meetings.[5] Explain that these essays were written between 2013 and 2015 and are published on the official lds.org website, as described above. Using this tactic will require the Christian to become familiar with one (or more) of the essays. To encourage your friend to read the essay, you may need to send a link to the lds.org website or any particular essay could just be printed out.

I have found that asking lots of questions can be very helpful in making this approach most successful. With that, I have chosen three essays to discuss here that can be easily accessed and understood, along with questions that can be asked (listed in boldface italics).

Race and the Priesthood

Before 1978, those with black skin were denied the two Mormon priesthoods. A man who does not have the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods is not allowed to get married in the temple and thus qualify for the celestial kingdom. A woman cannot go to the celestial kingdom without marrying a priesthood-holding man. Laying the blame for this doctrine at the feet of second president Brigham Young, the essay states at the end of the introduction:

There is no reliable evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. . . . In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.

While the church seems to want to blame Brigham Young–someone who is no longer here to defend himself!–for the origination of the banning of blacks to the Mormon priesthoods, tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “This doctrine did not originate with President Brigham Young but was taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith.”[6] It appears the church is trying to protect the image of Smith by placing the blame on Young.

From the time of Young all the way until the 1970s, many LDS leaders spoke authoritatively in support of banning blacks from holding the Mormon priesthood. For example, Apostle George F. Richards told a general conference audience in 1939,

The negro is an unfortunate man. He has been given a black skin. But that is as nothing compared with that greater handicap that he is not permitted to receive the Priesthood and the ordinances of the temple, necessary to prepare men and women to enter into and enjoy a fulness of glory in the celestial kingdom. . . I cannot conceive our Father consigning his children to a condition such as that of the negro race, if they had been valiant in the spirit world in that war in heaven.[7]

Questions: Was Richards not advancing a “true” theory in a general conference pulpit? If this authorized leader was not giving “official doctrine,” what else was he (and other LDS leaders) not telling the truth about?[8]

On August 17, 1949, a statement from the First Presidency—signed by George Albert Smith, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay, the highest leaders of the church at that time—stated,

The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord. . . The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the church is kept in mind, namely the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining factor. . . .”

Questions: Should a statement like this from the First Presidency not be considered “official doctrine of the church”? If not, then should the Mormon accept any other statement given by this or even the current First Presidency?

The essay later reports:

Church leaders pondered promises made by prophets such as Brigham Young that black members would one day receive priesthood and temple blessings.

This contradicts Brigham Young’s 1859 statement given at a general conference:

That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. Until the last ones of the residue of Adam’s children are brought up to that favourable position, the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the Priesthood.[9]

Question: Since “all the other descendants of Adam” had not received the “promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood” in 1978 when the ban on blacks holding the priesthood was enacted, why did the church say something that was not true?

Becoming Like God

According to the essay,

Latter-day Saint beliefs would have sounded more familiar to the earliest generations of Christians than they do to many modern Christians. Many church fathers (influential theologians and teachers in early Christianity) spoke approvingly of the idea that humans can become divine.

Question: Which early “church fathers” said that men may become gods as Mormonism teaches?[10]

Often, LDS apologists point to Eastern Orthodox leaders who speak about “theosis,” or man’s glorification in relationship to communion with God.  However, this concept is much different from the Mormon idea that men may become Gods. As Eastern Orthodox leader Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware states,

. . . the Mormon view is altogether different from what Lewis and the Orthodox Church believe. . . “Deification,” on the Orthodox understanding, is to be interpreted in terms of the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies. Human beings share by God’s mercy in His energies but not in His essence, either in the present age or in the age to come. That is to say, in theosis the saints participate in the grace, power, and glory of God, but they never become God by essence.

The LDS essay goes on to say,

Latter-day Saints’ doctrine of exaltation is often similarly reduced in media to a cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets. . . while few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities.

Henry B. Eyring, a member of the First Presidency, quotes Apostle Richard G. Scott in contradiction of this statement:

Our conviction is that God, our Heavenly Father, wants us to live the life that He does. We learn both the spiritual things and the secular things so that we may one day create worlds and people and govern them (see The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 386).[11]

Question: Why does the church essay make it appear that having one’s own planet(s) is not possible in the next life? [12]

Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo

Although Mormons for many years believed that Joseph Smith was monogamous, this was far from the truth, which is admitted in the second paragraph:

After receiving a revelation commanding him to practice plural marriage, Joseph Smith married multiple wives and introduced the practice to close associates. This principle was among the most challenging aspects of the Restoration—for Joseph personally and for other Church members.

Under the section “The Beginnings of Plural Marriage in the Church,” the essay says,

The revelation on plural marriage was not written down until 1843, but its early verses suggest that part of it emerged from Joseph Smith’s study of the Old Testament in 1831. People who knew Joseph well later stated he received the revelation about that time. The revelation, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 132, states that Joseph prayed to know why God justified Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon in having many wives. The Lord responded that He had commanded them to enter into the practice.

Two paragraphs later, it adds,

When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.

How many wives did Joseph Smith take? According to footnote 24 in the essay, “careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40.”[13]

The essay makes it appear that Joseph Smith would have died if he had not obeyed the command to take additional wives. If that is the case, ask the Mormon,

Question: Do you believe an angel really commanded Smith to take additional wives or Smith would have been killed? Did God ever require anyone in the Bible to take additional wives or they would be harmed?[14]

While “polygamy” is discussed in this essay, there is no mention of “polyandry,” which is a woman marrying multiple husbands. In fact, out of Smith’s “30-40” wives, it appears that about eleven, or a third of his wives, were already married to living husbands.[15]

Question: Where in LDS scripture is polyandry allowed?

The impression given is that many of the “marriages” were for eternity only, not for “time” (this life). Yet scholars have said that most of the marriages involved sexual relations. For example, Mormon scholar Todd Compton writes,

…though it is possible that Joseph had some marriages in which there were no sexual relations, there is no explicit or convincing evidence for this (except, perhaps, in the case of the older wives, judging from later Mormon polygamy). And in a significant number of marriages, there is evidence for sexual relations.[16]

George D. Smith adds, “There is no reason to doubt that Smith’s marriages involved sexual relations in most instances. . .”[17]

Concerning Helen Mar Kimball, a 14-year-old who married Smith in hopes of linking the Smith and Kimball families, the essay states, “Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being “for eternity alone,” suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relations.” Did this relationship “not involve sexual relations”? While Helen didn’t think sex would be involved, Smith had other ideas, according to Compton.

. . . it appears that Helen, when she married Smith, understood that the marriage would be “for eternity alone,” and that it would leave her free to marry someone else for time. But apparently this was not the case, as is shown by a number of factors. First, there is no evidence elsewhere that Smith ever married for eternity only, not including “time.” . . . Second, Helen’s later history shows that Joseph was protective of her, as he had been with another young wife, Flora Woodworth, and tried to shield her from the attention of young men. This would not be consistent with a marriage for eternity only. . . . Helen had married Smith when she was very young, that she was told that the salvation of her whole family depended on the marriage, and that she initially had a different perception of the meaning of the marriage than the reality turned out to be, which her writings support.[18]

Here are some legitimate questions to ask the Mormon:

  • With this as a background, are you comfortable that sex with other women (outside his first wife Emma) certainly played a motivating factor for Joseph Smith’s several dozen marriages?
  • Does it bother you that about a third of Smith’s marriages were with women who were already married to living husbands?
  • Does it bother you that about a third of Smith’s marriages were with teenaged girls as young as 14?[19]

Perhaps no other essay has caused more consternation than this one has. Indeed, Smith is not the epitome of purity (i.e., faithful to his one wife Emma) that many Mormons presuppose.

Conclusion

By doing a little research, the Christian has access to what I call the “dynamite approach.” Caution must be taken because these essays have the potential to destroy a person’s faith in Mormonism. Thus, the Christian needs to be aware and make sure the devastated Mormon doesn’t head straight into atheism after seeing this damning material. However, if handled correctly with the right person, these essays could very well be the tipping point. Give it a shot and see how it works with your willing LDS friends and family members.

 

Eric Johnson (Sandy, Utah) ministers full time with Mormonism Research Ministry (www.mrm.org). He has coauthored Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2012) and Mormonism 101 (Baker, 2015) with Bill McKeever. He has also penned Mormonism 101 for Teens (MRM, 2016). Eric received his MDiv from Bethel Seminary San Diego in 1991 and spent nearly two decades in secondary and college education.

 

Addendum

The following are those essays, in alphabetical order, with links to the church website as well as responses to the essays from Mormonism Research Ministry and Institute for Religious Research. Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast links are also included:

Are Mormons Christian? (originally posted 11/20/2013)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired in May 2014:

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8   Part 9


Becoming Like God (originally posted 2/24/2014)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired in March 2016:

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3  Part 4  Part 5   Part 6   Part 7  Part 8   Part 9  Part 10


Book of Mormon Translation (originally posted 12/30/2013)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired October 5-14, 2015:

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6  Part 7  Part 8


Book of Mormon and DNA Studies (originally posted 1/31/2014)

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired February 11-14, 2014:

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4

There is also an article and video available.


First Vision Accounts (originally posted 11/20/2013)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired June 2-13, 2014:

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Part 6  Part 7  Part 8  Part 9  Part 10


Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women (originally posted 10/23/2015)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired February 27-March 3, 2017

Part 1  Part 2 Part 3  Part 4  Part 5


The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage (originally posted 12/23/2013)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired Sept 26-Oct 7, 2016:

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4  Part 5  Part 6   Part 7   Part 8   Part 9   Part 10


Mother in Heaven (originally posted 10/23/2015)

MRM’ s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired November 16-18, 2015:

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3


Peace and Violence among 19th Century Latter-day Saints (originally posted 5/13/2014)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.


Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah (originally posted 12/16/2013)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired January 2014:

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4


Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo  (originally posted 10/22/2014)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.

Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired November 10-23, 2014:

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4 Part 5  Part 6  Part 7  Part 8  Part 9  Part 10  Part 11  Part 12


Race and the Priesthood (originally posted 12/6/2013)

Viewpoint on Mormonism’s podcast response that originally aired January 2014:

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5 

An excellent article that discusses the essay, point by point, can be found on IRR’s website here. Also, click the following for related articles:

Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham (originally posted 5/13/2014)

MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point.

Viewpoint on Mormonism’s podcast response that originally aired December 2014:

Part 1  Part 2    Part 3   Part 4    Part 5


NOTES

[1] More on this issue can be seen in Utah Lighthouse Ministry’s Salt Lake City Messenger, “Apostasy in Sweden! Their 15 Unanswered Questions,” October 2013, Issue 121. http://www.utlm.org/newsletters/pdfnewsletters/121saltlakecitymessenger.pdf Also go to http://www.mrm.org/fiery-fireside for an analysis of what took place in Sweden, including fascinating dialogue, and links to a 27-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series that aired in the fall of 2013.

[2] “Mormonism Besieged by the Modern Age,” www.uk.reuters.com, January 30, 2012

[3] https://www.lds.org/topics/essays?lang=eng

[4] Ganesh Cherian, “A Former Bishop’s Doctrinal Dilemmas,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kiwimormon/2014/02/a-former-bishops-doctrinal-dilemmas/

[5] To find the essays on lds.org, type in “Gospel Topics Essays” in the search engine, then click the third link titled “Gospel Topics Essays.” The links to eleven essays are found at the bottom of the page. However, two of the original essays—both dealing with polygamy—are not linked on this page, which I last checked on May 7, 2018. This means a person would have to know the names of these essays and put those into the search engine to find them, which is an almost-impossible task. In the addendum located at the end of this article, direct links to the lds.org articles are provided.

[6] The Way to Perfection, 110.

[7] Conference Reports, April 1939, 58-59.

[8] For a list of other quotes on blacks and the priesthood, check out dozens of quotes from other leaders at:  http://www.mrm.org/quotes-on-blacks-priesthood

[9] Journal of Discourses 7:291

[10] For more information on this topic, see Bill McKeever’s article “As God is Man May Be?” www.mrm.org/lorenzo-snow-couplet

[11] “Education for Real Life” (CES fireside for young adults, May 6, 2001), pp. 2-3, 5. For more, visit http://www.mrm.org/spirit-children-and-planets

[12] Most Mormons with whom I have spoken clearly believe Eyring’s take rather than the essay’s.

[13] This number varies. For instance, Todd Compton uses the number 33 in his book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1997) while George D. Smith uses 37 in his book Nauvoo Polygamy (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2001).

[14] Smith told prospective wives that, if they didn’t marry him, the angel could do him harm.

[15] In Sacred Loneliness, p. 15.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, p. 227.

[18] Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 500-501.

[19] Smith first met many of his wives when they were pre-teens, including Louisa Beaman (12), Mary Elizabeth Rollins (12), Sarah Ann Whitney (5), Emily Partridge (7), Eliza Partridge (10), Sarah Lawrence (11), Helen Mar Kimball (8), and Nancy Winchester (6) (Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, p. 36).