The gospel of Jesus Christ is a rich, complex, and beautiful thing. It can’t be fully absorbed in one sitting, or one decade, or one lifetime. The gospel is information-rich.
A recent New York Times article talks about Mormons who are led to question their faith by information about the church that they find, e.g., on the internet. The article seems to suggest that the gospel cannot survive in an information-rich environment. Mormons believe, however, that “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:6), and “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6). Information, learning, understanding, therefore are central to what Mormonism is about. The information age should be not only welcome, but ultimately a real strength to the church and the progress of the gospel. I’m convinced it is, though we haven’t grown into it yet.
The NYT article, of course, can easily be read to suggest the opposite. Here is a simple narrative one might derive from it: The LDS church has embarrassing things in its history that it can’t give a good explanation of, which undermine its moral authority, and so in order to preserve its credibility and the faith of members, it has to suppress information about these things. In the internet age, of course, suppressing information doesn’t work any more, so . . . you can draw your own conclusions. There are probably a few people at the NYT who are hoping you will draw the conclusion, “Therefore, fortunately, Mormonism will conveniently disappear amid the superior information of the internet age. Phew! That Romney guy was really scary . . .”
There is a common caricature of faith that sees it as something that can only survive amid grave ignorance. According to Mormon revelation, however, this is a false idea of faith. At the same time, though, faith is a response to limited information, since human understanding is always very incomplete (especially when we’re talking about God), even in the age of the internet. Coping intelligently and wisely with the limitations of our information and understanding as we learn and grow, trusting others who know more when we should, is perhaps the central work of faith. Conversely, helping those with limited information and understanding expand their understanding and their horizon in a constructive and realistic manner, is perhaps the central task of a teacher or spiritual leader.
How, then, should we understand the fact that quite a few highly involved and committed Mormons go for years without hearing about things like the polygamy of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, or Joseph’s use of a seer stone to translate instead of the Urim and Thummim, or what have you? And the fact that official church Sunday School manuals, magazines and the like in recent years, by not talking about them, seem designed to perpetuate this situation? Isn’t the failure to inform members about these things itself an inconvenient and dubious part of our (current) history? Looking to the future, how can we incorporate these puzzling features of our history into a more robust conversation and culture within the church?
These are serious and juicy questions. Here is my interpretation, in broad strokes, as someone who has lived through some very significant changes in the church over the past few decades, and seen the church operating in a wide variety of environments, both across the U.S. and across the world, who has been both a student and a teacher inside and outside of the church. In brief, I suggest we are seeing the unavoidable growing pains that result from a largely necessary and sensible set of developments over time in the way the church presents its message, to be understood within the larger narrative of the growth of this still-young church.
There was a very nuanced, complicated, organic, colorful version of Mormonism that flourished in the Mountain West for generations, roughly from the time of Brigham Young to that of Spencer W. Kimball. Under President Young, the vast majority of converts to the church moved to Utah and became part of Zion, a nation in the wilderness. Mormons were a people first, and a church second.
Up through the time of President Kimball, the great bulk of Latter-day Saints lived in the “Mormon Corridor” of Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and parts of neighboring states in a band roughly from Calgary to the Mormon colonies in northern Mexico. In the Mormon Corridor, many people had been in the church for generations, many with ancestors who had crossed the plains with ox-carts and hand-carts to gather to Zion. At family reunions people knew who was descended from which of the wives of their polygamous ancestors. The history of the church was all around them, at work, school, or play, and a rich and detailed knowledge of it was rooted in the local culture and folklore.
In a pioneer community bound together by economic necessity as well as personal and often kinship loyalty, early church leaders could afford to dispute theology publicly. Heroic faith combined with a robust awareness of the riskiness of faith and the humanity of church leaders. Characters like J. Golden Kimball for whom making light of themselves and other church leaders was an integral part of his leadership style are iconic of this culture, in which the church as a whole was more like a family, where trust and love in a more personal vein compensated for a softer conception of authority and a closer view of one another’s imperfections.
Under President Kimball, however, international missionary efforts were expanded dramatically. Simultaneously, since World War II an ever-larger stream of Western Mormons have spread out, relocating to other parts of the U.S. and the world. In this era it has become more difficult to sustain the intimate Western Zion model of the church and its culture. An ever-larger portion of the church membership had joined as adults, with little prior knowledge of it. The expanding array of languages spoken by Mormons strained efforts even to translate the Book of Mormon for all of them, let alone the expansive body of literature, culture, and personal history enjoyed by those in the Mormon Corridor. Whole congregations were run by recent converts and the children of converts, none of whom had ever lived in a majority-Mormon environment, or even a majority-Christian environment. They had to create functioning congregations and lives of discipleship on the basis of a handful of publications and the guidance of 19-year-old missionaries from across the ocean (and lots of prayer). Even in the U.S., many whose families had been in the church for generations were growing up in environments where they only encountered the church at church or at home, and rarely saw their cousins from that third wife or what have you.
In other words, huge portions of the church membership were living in an information-poor environment during the twentieth-century diaspora, and continue to do so today. This was a huge shift and required some real adjustments. There were major changes to the meeting schedule, to church finances, to the missionary program, and to the design of temples, just for example, extending up through the time of President Hinckley, to respond to geographical and cultural dispersion.
The Correlation Program was an enterprise in creating a streamlined presentation of the Mormon message that would be viable in this information-poor environment—a version that did not presuppose the depth and tightness of community, the organic awareness of a complex history, the cultural loyalty, and the fellowship of many seasoned, mature members and multi-generation LDS families that made Western Mormonism work. Correlation was designed to make an information-lean approach to Mormonism viable. This required emphasizing core principles and minimizing complexity, leaving obsolete practices like polygamy and historical peculiarities like Joseph’s seer stone to be addressed by historians, not Sunday School manuals.
Correlated Mormonism still works for many Mormons, and has to continue to work for them, as most Mormons continue to operate outside of the Zion environment. The Western Zion culture still shapes Corridor Mormons to a significant degree, though it is being diluted even in the heart of Mormon country as non-Mormons move in, institutions become increasingly secular, and national media and culture become increasingly influential.
Correlated Mormonism can be problematic when confronted with the information deluge of the internet, where most of the information is either non-committal or hostile to the church, and much of it is mistaken or skewed. Mormonism is hardly the only human enterprise that is being shaken up by the information revolution. The New York Times itself is keenly aware that all manner of institutions have to re-tool to function in the new environment, especially those for whom information is central to their mission.
So, how should the church respond? I think Elder Ballard’s talk of a few years ago is right on target. He encouraged Mormons to take individual initiative and participate in the internet ecosystem. When people search for information online, they should find faithful interpretations and meditations as well as those that are critical or hostile. The solution to bad or incomplete information, in the long run, is more information, especially good information.
I would add, though: we need more sources of information besides individual members who set out on the information ocean in their personal boats. We need information organizations, foundations, publications, and the like. Early Western Mormonism was not just information-rich; it was cooperation-rich. There were a whole host of auxiliary institutions that mixed spiritual and temporal and community purposes (ZCMI, road shows, etc.), but which were closely tied to the church. Many of these institutions were either spun off or discontinued during the twentieth century, to comport with the changing role of the church in the diaspora, and as Western Mormonism adapted to national Americanism.
On a global scale, the church as an institution can’t maintain such a flotilla of official auxiliaries. The physical and cultural and linguistic distances and so on are too great. Rather, we need more unofficial auxiliaries. In addition to church sources like the Ensign or BYU, we need independent institutions like Southern Virginia University, like FARMS or Interpreter, like the bloggernacle, like Halestorm Entertainment, like the Mormon Scholars Foundation. Okay, we need more and better ones like these!
Perhaps more importantly, though, we also need to cultivate in localities across the globe the strengths that made Western Mormonism work—the communities, the cultural dimensions, and the spiritually seasoned members and member families that make the church less of an institution and more of a people. Correlation was a necessary step as part of the process of expansion, but it is not a long-term model in itself for the church. In the long run, the gospel is inherently information-rich, and church programs and church culture must reflect this.
We all begin from information poverty in the form of spiritual ignorance, but faith is not just about making do with ignorance, or with a streamlined version of the truth that is adapted to our information limits. Rather, faith is about intelligently and wisely expanding our knowledge and understanding, and building this understanding into the way we live our lives, both at a personal level and at the level of communities and societies. The gospel is a recipe for Zion, which is not just an institution, a place, or a state of mind, but a people united by the knowledge of Christ.