This post is inspired by an article that I read today in the Deseret News about churches losing members, specifically the LDS church of which I am a faithful member. It hit close to home for me, and I wondered if someone out there might benefit from my own story.
Way back on New Year's Eve in 1999, I was surfing the Internet to find some information for my calling as Elder's Quorum Secretary. In the middle of my search, I found an article that brought to light some teachings by Brigham Young that future Church leaders rejected. The site claimed that prophets would never teach anything that was false and that this history had been suppressed because of its fatal nature to the LDS faith. To my 18-year-old mind, the arguments were persuasive.
Needless to say, it was a moment that I desperately wanted to forget. I ran upstairs into my bedroom and cried and cried. Like the filth of pornography, it stained my mind and wouldn't let me at peace. Was all the happiness and joy and certainty that I had felt over the years founded on falsehood? Was God even there at all? I had just entered a crisis of faith.
Ironically, I was just about to turn in my mission papers that Sunday. Out of sheer force of will, I kept my commitment to do so. In the same stroke, I scheduled an appointment with my Stake President to talk to him about. Certainly, I wasn't going to spend two years of my life telling people something I felt was false.
In the meantime, it seemed that everywhere I turned was another challenge to my faith. Where was I to go but online, and it seemed that all that was there was people telling me that I was wrong. It was literally terrifying. I was ready to decline my mission call.
Though I don't remember the exact day, it was a Sunday evening when I met with him at 9 o'clock. I told him about my dilemma, about the church history I'd read about and what it had done to my outlook. He was so understanding. He asked me what conclusions I had drawn. He asked me other questions and he gave some answers of his own as well. He never once made me feel guilty or that I wasn't exhibiting enough faith. We talked and talked for two-and-a-half hours. I am amazed to this day to think of what a busy man he was and how much time we was willing to invest at what must have been the end of a very, very long day for him.
I didn't walk out healed, but at least he'd stopped the bleeding.
(There are some cynics out there who will choose to believe that the SP's motivations were driven out of a desire to not lose a missionary who would go out and convert more souls. Frankly, I was going to a mission where each missionary averaged 0.4 baptisms a year. My Stake President did it out of love, thank you very much.)
At the same time, I was taking an Institute class from Craig Frogley. From him, as part of his class curriculum, I learned about the four different accounts of Joseph Smith's first vision, the Council of Fifty, the Kirtland Safety Society, and many other things that polemics will use to try and shock a faithful Latter-Day Saint into doubt. It was fascinating to discover the Church's many dimensions, and it was comforting to hear Brother Frogley's candidness. While it took me years to realize what he was really doing, at that time it was just helpful to hear a Latter-Day Saint who, when faced with some of the not-so-romantic parts of Mormon history, still kept his faith.
The happy ending is that over time my wounds healed. I learned and accepted the fact that our prophets are fallible and that the LDS Church makes no requirement in its doctrine for us to believe that a prophet is infallible. I learned a lot about Church history, too, and I came to not fear it but instead embrace it as part of my heritage. Knowing the history helped me in the future to put back into perspective what online bullies might try to distort.
More importantly, though, I learned three things:
1. Treat those with concerns or doubts with love. The first thing the Stake President showed to me was love and understanding. One of the funny things about the LDS culture is the reticence that people feel at bringing an honest question or concern to another faithful member of the Church. I think that there are basically three reasons: a. They don't think there is actually an answer or they fear discovering that there isn't an answer, b. They worry about how they will be perceived if they express "doubt", or c. They think that they are the only one who has ever had this concern and don't want to add doubt or burdens to someone else. At least the second one can be fixed with love and understanding. We don't need to feel threatened when someone expresses doubt.
2. Study church history. After that first shock article that I read, I became paranoid and didn't want to study anything about the Church online for fear that I might stumble upon something else that might reopen a still-fragile wound. For me, Brother Frogley provided a safer environment where I could learn the history, warts and all, without fear of someone telling me that such-and-such meant that all my faith was all for not.
Since that Institute class so long ago, I've studied my church's history on my own with an understanding that such knowledge enriches my testimony and arms me with the capacity to help others. There are dozens of faithful Latter-Day Saints and non-vitriolic Mormon historians to pick from. I feel personally indebted to Richard Bushman, Dan Peterson, Terryl Givens, Jan Shipps, John Tvednes, Hugh Nibley, Stephen Ricks, C.S. Lewis, and Timothy Keller for their contributions online and in print. (Okay, the last two aren't Mormon historians, but they were invaluable in my own search for ground during those times it felt ripped out from under me). I am excited to read Stephen Webb, Tom Mould, and Samuel Brown as soon as I find the time.
3. Teach what you know. Finally (and this one took the longest), I realized that I wasn't the only one in the world that wondered how to reconcile Adam and Eve with evolution or why some parts of the facsimile translations are incorrect or etc., etc. Over the years, I've discovered sites like fairlds.org, bycommonconsent.com, mormonscholarstestify.org, and mormonvoices.org (not to mention mormon.org itself) that were all a big help in finding my own voice and encouraging me to find faithful settings where I could perhaps be of help to someone else. More and more, I seek opportunities to teach the gospel and create a faithful atmosphere of questions and (sometimes) answers.
"Now, may I ask that you join the conversation by participating on the Internet to share the gospel and to explain in simple and clear terms the message of the Restoration. Most of you already know that if you have access to the Internet you can start a blog in minutes and begin sharing what you know to be true. You can download videos from Church and other appropriate sites, including newsroom.lds.org, and send them to your friends. You can write to media sites on the Internet that report on the Church and voice your views as to the accuracy of the reports. This, of course, requires that you understand the basic principles of the gospel. It is essential that you are able to offer a clear and correct witness of gospel truths. It is also important that you and the people to whom you testify understand that you do not speak for the Church as a whole. You speak as one member—but you testify of the truths you have come to know."
The article I read today reminds me that more people are having the same struggle I did years ago than ever before. This statement from an apostle combined with the incredible amount of focus given by the media right now to Latter-Day Saints makes it the perfect time to find our voices. There are a lot of people who are being blindsided by misinformation and vitriol right now, and they need our help.
May we find the courage to speak up and heal the broken hearted.