Why Does Mormon History Matter?

By Sharon Lindbloom
2 December 2016

Though the LDS Church claims disillusioned members are not “leaving [the Church] in droves,” talks and articles about stemming the exiting tide continue to appear in the news. This week, Mormon-themed Meridian Magazine published “8 Things That Can Pull You Away From the Church” by Gary and Joy Lundberg. In this article, the Lundbergs explain,

“All around us we hear of friends and loved ones who are falling away from the Church. It breaks our hearts because we know of the incredible blessings they will be missing. We love them. With all our hearts we want them to enjoy all the blessings of the gospel and be with us throughout all eternity.

“We may ask, how does it happen? Some who once were faithful are now doubting and leaving the Church. It rarely suddenly happens; it’s usually a gradual process. It’s a process we all must guard against. Here are 8 things that ever so carefully pull people away.”

to-do-listThe Lundbergs’ list reflects the typical old-school ideas on why people leave Mormonism: these people aren’t doing enough to maintain their faith. They leave the Church because: “They stop reading the Book of Mormon… They forget their covenants… They listen to those who have left the Church… They cease praying to stay strong and faithful… They stop going to Church… They don’t listen to General Conference… They listen to the philosophies of men above the teachings of the prophets… They fail to acknowledge the Lord’s blessings.” The list does not leave room for anyone who comes into contact with disparate facts that raise doubts or questions about the LDS Church. In fact, the Lundbergs seem to suggest that if one has doubts, it’s because that person has failed to fully live his faith with real intent.

It is no small thing, yet unfortunately all too easy, to drift away from spiritual moorings. And surely this happens in all religions, Mormonism included. But, as noted in the results of a 2012 survey of disbelieving Mormons/former Mormons, a high percentage of those who lost their faith “were active and highly involved with the Church before losing belief.” As one commenter on the “8 Things” article wrote,

“the kinds of reasons the Lundbergs list here have little, if any, to do with people leaving. The Lundbergs may have observed these behaviors in those who leave, but these kinds of behavior, from what I have observed, typically *follow after* a person’s faith crisis and do not necessarily *precede* it (although it may vary some in each person’s case).” (wv549, November 28, 2016)

In fact, the Understanding Mormon Disbelief survey revealed that 70% of respondents listed historical issues as a major factor leading to their loss of faith. A reader of the Lundbergs’ article expressed concern and confusion about her friends who left Mormonism over the Church’s history:

“I have several friends who have left the church because of ‘things in the history’ that they didn’t know before. I, too have read the [LDS] gospel [topic] essays. Yes, there are items in there I hadn’t heard. Also items I hadn’t considered before. I hope you can answer the question none of my friends have been able to…. how does learning a new historical fact change the doctrine? How does it make the BOM untrue? How are you able to throw out all of the good, and all of the truth, because something ugly/hard/uncomfortable (whatever word you want to use) came to light? This is what I don’t understand, and I’m hoping that maybe you can enlighten me how something newly uncovered in the history can change every single good thing. Thanks!!” (Debbie, November 28, 2016)

I’d like to address Debbie’s question. A past president of the LDS Church said,

“I am grateful for my membership in the Church, and my testimony of its divinity hinges upon the simple story of the lad under the trees kneeling and receiving heavenly visitors–not one God, but two separate individual personages, the Father and the Son, revealing again to the earth the personages of the Godhead. My faith and testimony hinges upon this simple story, for if it is not true, Mormonism fails. If it is true–and I bear witness that it is– it’s one of the greatest single events in all history” (Howard W. Hunter, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter, 2015, 96-97).

first_vision_1838President Hunter’s testimony – the testimony of a Mormon prophet – hinged on historical fact. If the specific historical facts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision didn’t actually happen – and happen in the detailed way that the official version tells the story – President Hunter said “Mormonism fails.” Therefore, when a Mormon learns the uncomfortable truth that there are many versions of Joseph Smith’s First Vision story, and that the Father and the Son aren’t even in some of them, this is a big deal. This uncomfortable historical fact changes the Church’s doctrine in several ways. Christian authors Eric Johnson and Bill McKeever note,

“This [official version of the First] vision is significant to a Mormon for a number of reasons. First, it has been used to support the notion that God the Father and Jesus Christ, as two separate and distinct personages, are also two distinct and separate gods. And two, it gives the Mormon justification to believe Christianity had fallen into a complete apostasy and needed to be restored to earth.”

A fundamental belief of Mormonism — its doctrine on the very nature of God and Christ – has its roots in the official version of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. If the story is not true history, this important LDS doctrine has lost its foundation. Likewise, the historical truth of the alleged complete apostasy of Christianity is of great importance to Mormonism. An LDS Apostle once explained,

“The restored Church affirms that a general apostasy developed during and after the apostolic period, and that the primitive Church lost its power, authority, and graces as a divine institution, and degenerated into an earthly organization only. The significance and importance of the great apostasy, as a condition precedent to the re-establishment of the Church in modern times, is obvious. If the alleged apostasy of the primitive Church was not a reality, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the divine institution its name proclaims.” (James E. Talmage, The Great Apostasy, iii)

Historical evidence speaks against the LDS doctrine of the complete apostasy of the Christian church. The historical facts confirm that the apostasy as taught by LDS leaders never happened; this uncomfortable truth undermines the whole reason for the Restoration and the LDS Church’s existence, and demonstrates it “is not the divine institution its name proclaims.”

Marlin K. Jensen, then an LDS Seventy serving as the official Church Historian and Recorder, once instructed his Mormon audience,

“It is important that we become familiar with our Church’s history, especially with its founding stories. These stories—Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, angelic visitations by John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Elijah, Elias, and others—contain the foundational truths upon which the Restoration is based.” (“Stand in the Sacred Grove,” Ensign, December 2014)

These things are all understood within Mormonism to be historical events. The Church teaches that they really happened; and because they really happened, the LDS Church is true. But every one of these founding stories have historical problems – problems of fact, not of faith. According to LDS leaders themselves, if the history isn’t true, the Church isn’t true.

“If Joseph Smith did not have that interview with God and Jesus Christ the whole Mormon fabric is a failure and a fraud. It is not worth anything on earth.” (LDS President Heber J. Grant, Conference Reports, April 1940, 128)

“Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud… upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this church.” (LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Marvelous Foundation of our Faith,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2002, 80. Ellipsis mine.)

President Hinckley elsewhere explained,

“I would like to say that this cause is either true or false. Either this is the kingdom of God, or it is a sham and a delusion. Either Joseph talked with the Father and the Son, or he did not. If he did not, we are engaged in blasphemy.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Reports, October 1961, 116)

Debbie asked, “enlighten me how something newly uncovered in the history can change every single good thing.” Remember the words of LDS prophets. Historical facts that controvert the teachings of Mormonism prove that the Church is “a failure and a fraud,” “a sham and a delusion…blasphemy”; a church wherein, spiritually speaking, there is no “good thing.” As President Grant said, such a church “is not worth anything on earth.”

An official newspaper published by the LDS Church said this:

“In the Latter-day Saint faith, doctrine and history are so intertwined as to be inseparable; one sustains and gives meaning to the other.” (R. Scott Lloyd, “‘Good as old’: Conservators’ gentle handiwork preserves Church history in documentary artifacts,” Church News, July 5, 2008, 9)

I have used the LDS assertions of the First Vision and the Great Apostasy as examples of how this inseparable intertwining of history and doctrine works in Mormonism, but there are many other examples that could be discussed. My goal here is to help Mormons understand why their friends leave the Church over “things in the history.”

It takes a strong person to face hard truths like these and choose the path that releases them from being “engaged in blasphemy,” comfortable though that may be. My hope is that these once-believing Mormons who have shown that they care about truth, will not discard faith altogether. I hope they will fully investigate Christianity and, upon finding it trustworthy, will turn to the One Who Himself is the truth (John 14:6).