Problematic Pedagogy

Modern writers, readers, and movie viewers know that flawless (human) characters are boring, not inspiring. So why do we portray our church leaders this way?

Like Gordon, I have had my stint at seminary teaching. 4 years for me. Yes, it was grueling. So much preparation, such early hours, so little positive feedback. But what took most energy was finding a way to hold on to my own firmly held convictions about pedagogy despite CES counsel to the contrary.

Already this raises a question: Who am I to hold my “own” convictions when “those whom the Lord has chosen” say otherwise? Isn’t it expected that I would abdicate my judgment whenever there’s a conflict?

Take the example of hero worship. One of the reasons the biography of Spencer W. Kimball was such a success was because of its portrayal of a gracious, humble and human prophet of the Lord. It was the first biography to have been written while that prophet was still alive and had some say in the book’s content (his son and grandson wrote it.) One of the most memorable bits in that book to me was when he came home from a long day and snapped at his daughter who was playing with his hat. Hardly the sin of the century. But here was someone who, like I, got irritable on occasion, was NOT perfect, had the odd foible. How much more approachable he seemed! How much more inspiring to me to see that even a person with imperfections like me could be an instrument in God’s work. This was a message of faith, forgiveness and empathy. This told me there was hope for me yet!

On the other hand, here is a passage from a talk entitled, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect” by Elder Boyd K. Packer from 1981 which we seminary teachers were given to study:

That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weakness and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith – particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith – places himself in great spiritual jeopardy. He is serving the wrong master, and unless he repents, he will not be among the faithful in the eternities.

Maybe I’m safe under this definition because I don’t “delight” in pointing out weaknesses. Or do I? Isn’t that example of President Kimball barking at his daughter a delight to me? Well, only in that it leads me to faith, not detracts from or destroys my faith. I do not support destroying faith, but I do believe that acknowledging flaws is valuable to the growth of healthy faith. I also believe that constant white-washing is theologically damning. Am I in trouble here?

Elder Packer used as support a quote from a book called Where is Wisdom by President Stephen L. Richards (published in 1955):

If a man of history has secured over the years a high place in the esteem of his countrymen…and has become imbedded in their affections, it has seemingly become a pleasing pastime for researchers and scholars to delve into the mast of such a man, discover…some of his weaknesses, and then [expose] alleged factual findings, all of which tends to rob the historic character of the idealist esteem and veneration in which he may have been held through the years…If [someone] has made a great contribution…and his deeds have been used over the generations to foster high ideals of character and service, what good is to be accomplished by digging out of the past and exploiting weaknesses…?

So what do we make of scrubbed clean leaders and history? What do we do when our approach (won by prayer, effort, confirmation and common sense) is fundamentally different from instruction we’ve been given by leaders we are taught to respect? Building faith is the goal for both approaches. Destroying faith is the complete opposite for both. But the styles are incompatible. What is to be done?

52 comments for “Problematic Pedagogy

  1. Adam Greenwood
    February 26, 2004 at 12:50 pm

    I think there are two keys to this sort of thing:

    First, what’s the story in which the frailty is presented? Is the story one of grace and redemption, a reminder of the need for Christ, and so forth? Or is it just reveling in weakness and in destroying models of virtue?

    Second, in what proportion are frailties and virtues presented? Remember that we are given models not just to be interesting, but to emulate. Virtue becomes interesting when it is emulated, because then we can identify with it. Lived virtue serves as a rebuke to our own weaknesses and dilatoriness. If the frailties are overemphasized, we don’t get enough of that rebuke.

  2. February 26, 2004 at 1:01 pm


    I think we (especially those who blog about Mormonism) have come to terms with this issue. Elder Packer’s quote I think is akin to the brethren saying “go to the temple once a week”, when really, if we even go once a month, they’d be happy. I guess I don’t read THAT much into it.

    I think you’re fine, Linda, with your own way of “delighting in pointing out weaknesses”.

  3. Nate Oman
    February 26, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    Why is there a general caveat from all of these discussions under which no one thinks that it destroys faith to tell J. Golden Kimball stories?

  4. Ben
    February 26, 2004 at 1:11 pm

    I frequently have the same troubles in preparing for my Institute class. I’ll have to add more comments later, but focusing too much on doctrine and glossing over difficult issues can really result in problems down the road, because in doing so we reinstill or reinforce a polarized fundamentalist unrealistic worldview of what a prophet is, what “scripture” is…

  5. Kaimi
    February 26, 2004 at 1:23 pm


    I believe that many of those comments came from Elder Packer’s ongoing, several-years-long critique of certain LDS historians (mainly Micheal Quinn, as I recall) whom he felt were doing research that tarnished the image of early church leaders.

    I’ve always been a little unsure of the merits of that approach. A faith built on whitewashed images of leaders seems unusually susceptible to factually correct information about their flaws.

  6. February 26, 2004 at 1:43 pm

    It’s kind of funny that Elder Packer makes such a big deal about this. If I were a cynical, anti-LDS observer, I would think that he or other leaders had something to hide. Of course, I (not overly-cynical most days and not anti-LDS) am sure that most of our leaders don’t have any blemishes that are of serious consideration. That’s why it is, as Linda observes, so refreshing to hear stories about personal foibles. It doesn’t destroy our faith in leaders or in the Church to realize their humanness; it gives us greater hope that we can be saved by the grace of Christ. Not only is a leader with some weaknesses more interesting, but he or she is also more inspiring (to me at least).

  7. Scott
    February 26, 2004 at 1:55 pm


    The Packer quotation you cite implicitly *acknowledges* leaders’ weakness and frailties. And I’m unaware of any Church leader claiming to be devoid of weakness or frailty. So it’s not a question of whether they *are* imperfect. (They are.) It’s a question of whether we, as individuals, should take it upon ourselves to publicize their shortcomings. There are, I think, very good reasons not to.

    The primary reason, I think, is that it violates the spirit of the Gospel to focus on the motes of others, when we have our own beams to contend with. Joseph Smith–chief among our imperfect leaders–often emphasized that concept. We should judge as we wish to be judged. What is the driving emotion in seeking out and publicizing the faults of others? I don’t see how it can be love.

    Another reason to avoid that behavior involves the (probably uncharitable) underlying motivations. They may be anger, resentment, pride (e.g., about how we’re much more sophisticated than the herd), avarice, a setting of oneself up as a higher authority, or dragging down the authority of leaders. In some instances, the critic’s words or actions may erode the faith of others. But, in all cases, such sentiments are corrosive of the critic’s own soul. It’s just not a good way to live, whether you’re finding fault in dead prophets, your next door neighbor, or your spouse. Being *aware* of their faults is one thing. But seeking them out and shouting them from the rooftops is quite another.

    As to your initial comment about modern people finding flawless figures “boring,” I would respond as follows:

    (1) Modern people are *often* inspired by heroic portrayals of flawless (or near flawless) characters. As a prime example, many moderns are inspired by the story of Jesus, whether in print or (as we’re seeing this week) in film. And, more broadly, look at the blockbuster films over the past decade. How many of them feature deeply flawed protagonists. Few. I think it’s more accurate to say that many modern *academics* favor portrayals of flawed, conflicted, tortured individuals. Art-house theaters are overflowing with such fare. But most moderns go to mega-plexes rather than art-house theaters.

    (2) On the flip side of that coin, flawed characters are not inherently interesting or dramatic. I have flaws. Would a movie about my life appeal to moderns more than a hagiographic film of Sir Thomas More or Jesus? I doubt it. (If you’re interested, though, I’d be happy to sell you the rights for a reasonable sum.) Everywhere we look, we see flawed characters–dishonest co-workers, slacker kids, testy spouses, etc. When we read a book or watch a movie, are *those* the kinds of people we want to see? From what I’ve seen, moderns prefer stories involving *extraordinary* characters–whether extraordinary in their perfection, prowess, circumstances, whatever. Sometimes flaws are a part of the picture. But often they’re not.

    So, I guess I’m questioning your basic premise about what is likely to interest people. Since there are plenty of tangible measures for that (e.g., box office receipts, best-seller lists, Nielsen’s ratings, etc.), it’s not a totally abstract, unempirical disagreement.

    ACCentuating the positive,


  8. Julie in Austin
    February 26, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    One of the things that my ward is probably sick of hearing about when I do Teacher Improvment is what I call The Grieving Widow Test. This is how it works: in every class, there is a literal or figurative grieving widow, someone who is currently going through the trial of their lives and is in desperate need of spiritual nourishment. I am sure that every member has at some point been a grieving widow. Every teacher in the Church has the obligation to be sure that her lesson feeds a person who is in the trial of their life. It mught be fun for me to spend all of GD going through the arguments for the early vs. late dating of the Gospel of Mark, but I can’t imagine the grieving widow being sustained by that discussion. Same for debating whether Jonah was historical, whether Joseph or Brigham commited this or that sin or said something foolish or untrue.

    But, your SWK definitely passes the grieving widow test in my book. I can imagine the grieving widow thinking, “Wow, if a prophet can snap at his kids, I guess I am not a lowly worm for doing the same. I guess God could still love and trust me and bless me. I guess I can do better with God’s help.”

    Historical blemishes that can be used to promote faith belong in your lessons. Historical blemishes that don’t belong to the historians.

  9. greenfrog
    February 26, 2004 at 2:19 pm

    What’s the story?

    Is it one in which there is a real potential for the exercise of moral agency that creates uncertainty about the outcome or is it one in which the outcome is predetermined and the only question is when will the reader get there?

    What’s the story?

    Is it one in which a sepulchre has been painted white, and we should change our views in order to understand more correctly that what looked good was, in fact, not? That can be disturbing indeed. Or is it one in which we know the only answer we’ll accept, so we don’t want to explore the possibility of the answer being different than our predictions?

    What’s the story?

    Are we as a society better off knowing that Thomas Jefferson did, indeed, father some of Sally Hemmings’ children? I think so. And I’ll bet Ms. Hemmings’ descendants do, too.

    Are we as a society better off knowing that Robert McNamara both believed and knew that the Vietnam War was destined to fail at the time that he participated in orchestrating additional war efforts? I think so.

    Are we as a society better off knowing that Joseph Smith engaged in astrology? That he married a significant number of women? I think so.

    Are we as a society better off knowing that plural marriages continued to occur post-Manifesto among leaders of the Church? I think so.

    Should such tales be told to do evil? Surely not. Can they be told without doing evil? Surely so.

    One of the hardest experiences of my life as a member of the LDS Church occurred when I was a missionary. I had just finished reading the History of the Church. Then I picked up a shorter volume on Church history prepared by one of the Church leaders. As I read it, I realized that it was more than a little slanted in order to make the Church look good.

    In comparison to the History of the Church, it was simply false. Its attributions of motive, cause and effect were at such variance with the more contemporaneous account that I concluded that I was being lied to. Discovering intentional deception by those in whom one has vested a great deal of faith, loyalty, and confidence can be very troubling.

    I’m sure that we could have lengthy discussions about whether and to what extent history can approximate truth. I’m perfectly willing to agree that different perspectives can yield radically different perceptions of the same facts. But when a set of facts presents only the good, I (now) sniff around for a rat.

    I suppose, in the end, what I care about most on this topic is how false the conclusions are that we draw from false depictions of events and from false depictions of persons. If I believe, incorrectly, the completeness and accuracy of a story of a Church leader that omits all mistakes, errors and sins, and depicts only the kindness, perception, and righteousness, I may draw false conclusions about the nature of kindness, perception and righteousness. I may draw false conclusions about the nature of leadership (I may not believe that “…it is the nature and disposition of almost all men…”).

    More importantly, when a story is only told when it can be tied up with a bow to point ineluctably to a single (presumably faith promoting) conclusion, I’m being denied the material upon which I can exercise agency. I know that in my life, spiritual communications and spiritual learnings are seldom perfectly unambiguous. I’d prefer to see how a conclusion is reached, rather than just hearing the conclusion.

    Now, as an advocate, that can be dangerous. When a jury is allowed to hear the facts and reach its own conclusion, it might reach the wrong one. But I thought we fought a war for the right to do exactly that.

  10. greenfrog
    February 26, 2004 at 2:23 pm

    One other question, prompted by Brayden’s note: Should we be invested in perceiving our leaders (whether religious or otherwise) to be righteous?

    Should we question that every person, including those occupying offices we hold in highest esteem, has sinned against God and sinned against sisters and brothers? Should we doubt that such person have ever done “anything serious,” but only attribute to them mild, inoffensive sins, as if there were such things?

    I suppose I’m wondering whether we should allow God to call any person to any calling, or whether we should presume to know God well enough to preclude such an event from ever occurring.

  11. Taylor
    February 26, 2004 at 2:38 pm

    Julie, I like your Grieving Widow Test, but I think that it has the tendency to exclude entirely other interesting questions (like early vs. late dating of Mark). I don’t think that anyone should spend all of their time on this, but I don’t really think anyone does. Couldn’t these questions be discussed AND still have a spiritual message? Maybe I am misunderstanding your rule, but it seems that there are a lot more than grieving widows in the room who have different needs. Why require that all content of the lessons be directed ONLY at the Grieving widow, and not recognize the other needs in the lesson too?

  12. Adam Greenwood
    February 26, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    Greenfrog (if that’s really your name :))

    You ignore that God our model himself keeps enormous quantities of information back from us. He keeps things from us because we aren’t ready for it. Your model of truth and choice emerging in an atmosphere of open information and untrammeled debate presumes a rational, autonomous human nature that just doesn’t exist. We have to be led and led and led. The young are often too weak to bear blunt criticisms and the trialed, and those less sophisticated then us, and us too. We all need more affirmation of faith than we do questions, or we’re a more angelic crowd than I take us for.

  13. February 26, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    Perhaps the desire to “scrub clean” history is a response to the desire of others to magnify every flaw and site them as a reason the church is false. Not saying it’s right, just saying maybe that’s why people do it. Same thing with our country’s “founding fathers”. People worry that by illuminating their faults, it negates the good things they did.

    More than once I’ve been sent a letter by a well meaning family member with anti literature that says something along the lines of “Joseph Smith says X, Y, and Z.” or “Brigham Young said the moon’s made of cheese” or some variation thereof. I’ve also read enough of these things online when I went through a period of questioning my decision to join the church. What is interesting is the Old Testament is filled with prophets and leaders who made serious errors in judgment yet these antis conveniently forget that. They don’t hold their our faith to the same standard. Their arguments can be used against them.

    So to summarize, I know only one person walked this planet who was perfect. I recognize the mistakes that good men make and don’t believe that makes them bad. Just as I don’t believe the few good things Bill Clinton did negate all the bad things he did. ;)

  14. nathaniel
    February 26, 2004 at 3:44 pm


    You seem to be under the impression that knowing facts leads us closer to knowing the truth. I think this is one of the most common misconceptions about truth, and I think it is a very dangerous one because without analysis it seems correct.

    Consider, however, the sheer volume of facts that can be known about a historical figure. The theoretical facts, not the ones that we already “know”. How many evil acts do you think a person engaged in? How many good acts? How many facts would you have to know about the act to be able to positively evaluate even one of them? There are probably, just to throw a number out, thousands of each throughout the course of a life time and each involves a number of factors that, when combined, make this a daunting taks indeed. What this means is that there is ample room to have only correct facts and still draw incorrect conclusions (eg if the ratio of positive to negative facts is not in proportion to the overall ratio). I’m drastically oversimplifying things, of course, but I think the principle (which I call “water from a firehose at a teacup”) holds. We just need to be humble enough to realize that our capacity for storing and evaluating information (especially within the temporal constraints of one life time) are infintesmal in comparison with the abundance of available data. And the available data is only a drop in the bucket of total data (if such a thing exists). Even in very mundane examples we are all wrong in our judgements of every day people and situations countless times throughout our lives. And yet most people never seem to learn enough caution to interact with their neighbors rationally, let alone presume to pass judgement on historical figures.

    So when you listed a bunch of “are we better of knowing…” and answered yes to them, I have to say that that is folly and madness. That question itself is nonsensical, because facts are important to us as humans primarily based on their impact on our lives. Based on what you said, it would be a “good” thing (perhaps not the best thing) to introduce a brand-new investigator to Joseph Smith by stating “he married 37 women”. No preliminaries on polygamy, revelation, or anything that would bring understanding to the statement just the statement: “he was married to 37 women”. You think that this would be a “good” thing? Sure, you can say “but it is the truth!”. A lot of “truths” do not take us in the direction of greater light and understanding. This isn’t a fault of logic, truth, facts or the nature of the universe, it is a fault of us as humans.

    The second major fault that I think you might be party to (I’m not sure) is that assuming someone who disagrees with the basic premise “more facts are better” must for some odd reason agree with the premise “less facts are better” or, similarly “censorship is good”. I think it is an important step to come to terms with the faults of those we admire, but ONLY at the right time, in the right context, and for the right reasons. I think it is perfectly feasable that for some (if not most) faults of our church leaders that time will not be in this life time. And I think it is ludicrous to think that we need to know *all* the faults of our leaders (past or present).

    I think that is what Boyd K. Packer was getting at. Historians who dig for negative results may indeed be backed up by “facts” when they publish their results. In a very strict sense what they say is “true”. But I for one vehemently oppose such behavior. I think it is dishonest to dig up “dirt” on people (like Thomas Jefferson) in order to create an overall picture that is not true to the man.

    The only complicated quesion is “where do you draw the line?” I don’t know that answer. I happen to think CES is far, far too white-washed for my taste. I’ll be honest, I am still struggling with bitterness for the absolutely pathetic nature of the CES-mentality and Church beauracracy. But, as a very wise friend in the translation department of a country I served my mission put it: “It takes a very strong testimony to serve in the temporal affairs side of the Lord’s Church”. And as my lasting (though fading) bitterness from interactions with Church leaders and beauracrats during my mission shows me, I am not the master of my own reaction to the experiences I go through. And I refuse to put someone else in the painful positions I have been in out of the arrogant assumption that I am some kind of dispenser of “truth” when I happen to be privy to facts that the general public is not.

    I for one do NOT need to know any more dirt on the Church or the brethren. (I happen to think most “Ensign-stories” are equally unhelpful, but that is another issue). Perhaps at a later stage in my life I will be ready to understand more of it and it will be important for me to know more of it, but I have no interest in seeking it out now, and I refute anyone who tells me that that means I am afraid of the truth. I don’t need to seek out “facts” that will damage my testimony in order to somehow make it stronger. Those experiences come all on their own when I’m doing my best already. Trust me.

    Last essential point: The real truth is that I know that I’m simply not ready for all of the facts right now. If Brigham Young could be in this position, then I think it no mean state to admit that I am there as well.


  15. Nate Oman
    February 26, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    “I think it is dishonest to dig up “dirt” on people (like Thomas Jefferson) in order to create an overall picture that is not true to the man.”

    But this assumes that you already know what IS true to the man. Wouldn’t this require that you know both with is good and bad about the person?

    Nate “Thomas-Jefferson-Cannot-Be-Smeared-Often-Enough” Oman

  16. Chris R
    February 26, 2004 at 4:33 pm


    You write “I think it is dishonest to dig up “dirt” on people (like Thomas Jefferson) in order to create an overall picture that is not true to the man.”

    Sure there are some historians, political ideologues, and anti-LDS people who dig for dirt about particular people. You are correct in avering that this type of research only detracts from scholarly debate.

    However, we must not be tempted to assign impure motives to every such scholar. History, like politics and religion is rarely cut and dry. Jefferson was a complicated figure – and his public writings were different than his private life and private coorespondence. This private Jefferson is important to understanding his public stances.

    This same logic applies to understanding the directive of our prophets. While we recognize that revelation is given when we are prepared for it, understanding a person’s private attitudes help us, or at least help me, understand why certain revelations are given at certain points in our history.

    We must also recognize, I believe that we are all not on the same level of belief and faith. What I need for my spiritual nurishment is different than anyone else’s needs. I believe that the publications and pronouncements of the church speak directly to the spiritual needs of the baseline member. For some members, even Ensign stories may be to hard, and for some members, including myself, I want to aim for a deeper understanding.

  17. nathaniel
    February 26, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    “However, we must not be tempted to assign impure motives to every such scholar”

    Your point is well-taken. It was not my intention to argue that everyone who “digs up dirt” is operating from negative motivations. I think that the “deeper understanding” tactic is too frequently used to cover those who are, however. Hence my longer arguments about facts and truth. That’s the stuff that I’m really interested in. Questions of specific instances of dirt-digging are not interesting to me because they, like all other cases, must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and I am trying to say something about pursuit of knowledge in general.

    Do you think I got anywhere?


  18. February 26, 2004 at 4:56 pm


    I think your frustration with the CES mindset is shared by many. The CES is to LDS leadership as the Ringwraiths are to Sauron, although the comparison is probably unfair to the Ringwraiths who, after all, did appear to have some scope for independent thought and action.

    I’m mystified by Nathaniel’s comment reproving Greenfrog for thinking that knowing more facts leads us closer to knowing the truth. That seems like a fairly unremarkable proposition. Granted, telling only half the facts makes a better case for a particular set of ideas an interested party might want to hold out as “the truth.” The best antidote for that kind of selection bias is to push for full historical disclosure (i.e., more facts, especially the ones omitted from prior accounts). In contrast, those pushing for a selective presentation of facts are generally arguing for a weak agenda, one that does not stand up to full disclosure.

  19. February 26, 2004 at 5:00 pm

    I guess I’m not surprised that Elder Packer was the one to make this comment. Wasn’t he in the CES before becoming a general authority? He must have had the CES code drilled into him early on in his career.

  20. Taylor
    February 26, 2004 at 5:06 pm

    “The CES is to LDS leadership as the Ringwraiths are to Sauron, although the comparison is probably unfair to the Ringwraiths who, after all, did appear to have some scope for independent thought and action.”

    This is the funniest thing I have ever read on T&S!! :)

  21. Ben
    February 26, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    The problem with “full historical disclosure” is that it’s impossible, for several reasons. Mainly, volume. You could spend years researching one individual. Reductionism is necessary in order to actually convey information. This is something you learn in a basic historical methods class.

    The question is in what the historian chooses to present and ignore. That, of course, is determined by what the particular historian thinks is important, which is why one frequently finds articles about an individual and one particular detail. The problem is that in omitting (or including) particular details, one can skew the story any way you like. It seems that many feel lied to or deceived when reading “official” history (like Aaron and, moreso, most of the Exmormon list).

    It is not the Church’s responsibility to spoonfeed its members messy historical tidbits that have little to do with the saving points of the gospel. Having said that, I think the CES has swung wildly in the other direction, to where its TOO watered down. (I think the ringwraiths thing is hilarious:) But I also think its changing slowly. There are good stories from all over. It’ll just take a while to work through.

    I think this puts a heavier burden on teachers, because they actually have to know something instead of just reciting the party line, and bearing testimony. (Ok, harsh caricature there.) Ideally, they’d know LOTS, teach lots, and bear their testimony:) I’ve taken Alma 48:7 as my personal motto for teaching Instite- I am “preparing their minds to be faithful” to the Church and the Gospel.

  22. February 26, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    My comments, of course, were generic, not personal. There are plenty of bright and talented CES people, it’s just that CES is a carefully regulated organization. No doubt these pedagogical issues occur to many CES instructors, but their concerns are likely discussed internally rather than in public. In fact, based on anecdotal reports I have heard recently, I would caution anyone with CES employment ties against participating in such a conversation on T&S or on any other open public forum.

  23. Nate Oman
    February 26, 2004 at 5:53 pm

    Dave: What sort of reports?

  24. February 26, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    Anecdotal reports of adverse employment actions. I was simply offering a word of caution.

  25. Nate Oman
    February 26, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    for what?

  26. nathaniel
    February 26, 2004 at 6:45 pm


    “I’m mystified by Nathaniel’s comment reproving Greenfrog for thinking that knowing more facts leads us closer to knowing the truth.”

    That’s why I wrote the post, Dave, it’s not a very commonly expressed view. I mean this in a sincere way and not in a mean way, but did you read what I wrote after that? I tend to be verbose, so I’m not sure if you got bored and moved on. I don’t know how to respond to what you wrote other than to mostly just point back to my post. If you’re mystified, read the post. If you’re still mystified, let me know why and I will try to clarify.

    To try and really summarize, however, I’m mostly reproving Greenfrog, or anyone, for thinking that more facts lead us to knowledge PERIOD. That’s not the whole story, and taken as the whole story can get people into a world of trouble. Facts are a necessary, but not sufficient condition for increasing knowledge. Furthermore, facts *can* be detrimental to knowledge. Ex. Someone gives you all the “bad” facts about Joseph Smith. All facts. From this you get the impression that he was a greedy, lying philanderer. I repeat, this impression is based solely on actual facts. Have you gotten nearer the truth from facts? No. In a way it’s as simple as that.


  27. Ben
    February 26, 2004 at 6:49 pm

    Here’s (a badly chosen?) example. Take a read over at the Exmormon list sometime, and you’ll see people who are smugly convinced that they know the true history and facts about the LDS church because they’ve read more than the average member. It’s true, many of them have. Yet, (and here is where it’s debatable because personal testimony isn’t quantifiable) they don’t have the truth. Learning more facts about the Church has not led them to it.

  28. Grasshopper
    February 26, 2004 at 7:04 pm

    It may be important to take into account, when judging any particular account, the greater context in which this account is presented. A historical work that “digs up dirt” on Thomas Jefferson, taken by itself, may be judged as skewed and unfair. However, the effect it may have in the overall context of studies of Thomas Jefferson may be a balancing effect.

    Nathaniel, I don’t think it follows from a set of assertions that we are better off knowing a particular set of facts, that the assertion is being made that simply knowing more facts *necessarily* makes us better off.

  29. greenfrog
    February 26, 2004 at 7:13 pm

    “You ignore that God our model himself keeps enormous quantities of information back from us. He keeps things from us because we aren’t ready for it.”

    I think that this is an interesting belief in a religious context that teaches that eternal life depends upon knowing God and Christ.

    Who keeps what from whom?

  30. lyle
    February 26, 2004 at 7:18 pm


    I think you need to start a thread re: your largely rationale, yet incoherent ;), dislike of TJ.

    someone else said (greenfrog?): I had just finished reading the History of the Church. Then I picked up a shorter volume on Church history

    Lyle: perhaps this is because a shorter volume perforce can’t explain everything as well as a larger volume? i.e. maybe i just say that the “51%” variable was responsible for act X, instead of listing the other 3 variables that made up the 49% of the cause, etc.

    more and more or less and less? which is it?

  31. nathaniel
    February 26, 2004 at 7:24 pm


    Ahh… young grasshopper… when you are ready to point out the mistake in my post you will be ready to leave the monastery. :-)

    I couldn’t resist.

    No really, I think you raise a good point. Perhaps I was a little too hasty to trot out my “water from a firehose” theory and read something into Greenfrog’s statement that wasn’t really there.

    I guess I just took his assertions about “we as a society” to mean that he was asserting that facts were better independent of which facts they were or who learned them or when. This was perhaps a little unfair. I would want to have revised his statements to read “am I better off” rather than “are we better off” because I think that it is presuming too much to say that society at large needs to know about Joseph Smith’s plural wives (especially with the implication that they should know *right now*). I don’t think that even all Mormons need to know right now about Josephy Smith’s plural wives. I know it was very hard on my sister when she found out about polygamy, as other things have been for me. I feel that these are trials that we must all face to some extent, but that it is wrong to suppose that we should all face as many of them as possible, or that there is a set quantity of facts that “society” needs to know.

    So you’re right, I read too much into his post but I still find more in it than I can really agree with.

    Thanks for keeping me honest.


  32. Julie in Austin
    February 26, 2004 at 7:35 pm

    Taylor wrote:

    “Julie, I like your Grieving Widow Test, but I think that it has the tendency to exclude entirely other interesting questions (like early vs. late dating of Mark). I don’t think that anyone should spend all of their time on this, but I don’t really think anyone does. Couldn’t these questions be discussed AND still have a spiritual message? Maybe I am misunderstanding your rule, but it seems that there are a lot more than grieving widows in the room who have different needs. Why require that all content of the lessons be directed ONLY at the Grieving widow, and not recognize the other needs in the lesson too?”

    I would consider people struggling with the ‘Isiah problem’ or ‘women and the priesthood’ or any other such issue as grieving widows as well. So I guess my definition is fairly broad. However, while I might toss off a few lines about these things, I think a teacher in a Church class has an obligation to deliver a message that is, overall, uplifting of and not destructive to faith. That said, I think historical warts *can* help a teacher meet that goal, and that was my only point.

  33. Julie in Austin
    February 26, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    One more thought: I want to offer up _Women of the Covenant_ (a quasi-official history of the RS) as a successful example of faithful but non-white-washed history. The question is: how do we replicate it?

  34. greenfrog
    February 26, 2004 at 8:34 pm


    I wasn’t trying to hide the ball, though I may have done so inadvertently. The shorter volume I read was Essentials of Church History by Joseph Fielding Smith. And it was certainly shorter than the History of the Church.

    But it also seemed intentionally deceptive.

    That was troubling to me, given the position of the author at the time the book was written.

    More generally, I accept that a person could be troubled by learning of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. But I’m not sure that concealment is the appropriate response in such a situation. Perhaps the answer is different for different personalities, but when I learn that those whom I know and have trusted have concealed information from me, I learn not to trust them quite so much. And, through the alogical but somewhat natural application of an ad hominem, I tend to discount everything else they told me, too.

    It is important to me to believe that God is able (and willing) to reveal truth through the Holy Ghost. When we conceal “embarrassing” facts, are we really trusting in God’s ability to communicate, or instead are we falling into a somewhat less divine “I-can-control-your-response-by-controlling-your-access-to-data” practice?

  35. Matt J
    February 26, 2004 at 8:55 pm

    Regarding those exmormons who learned too much and fell from the church, could part of the problem be that they first found out about negative aspects of church history from sources that were hostile to the church? Certainly we’re all responsible for our own actions, but teachers are told not to tell their students that Joseph Smith did X because it might make someone lose their testimony. Is the teacher also responsible if they don’t tell a student that Joseph Smith did X and then the student sees deceit when the fact is later learned?

    For instance, I know someone who recently found out about the history of the first vision accounts. He felt betrayed that he had never heard anything besides the JSH version in church (he’s 34 now) and I think it shook his belief in what really happened. It also made me reflect on a sunday school class I attended that used the whole class to talk about the different versions of the first vision (a la Bushman). I guess that the sunday school teacher departed from the manual a bit (and in an Orem ward!).

    I hold that sunday lessons are not always the best forum for talking about these details. Seminary and institute certainly do seem like an appropriate place though.

  36. nathaniel
    February 26, 2004 at 10:42 pm

    I definately think that more should be taught in seminary and institute, but I don’t know how simple that it is. The problem is that there always seems to be someone who is already struggling (often times for intellectually trivial reasons) and I imagine it would be hard as a seminary or institute teacher to try and bring some depth to discussions where the students really don’t have any (with a few exceptions) and some of them are struggling with what they do have.

    Perhaps I’m wrong in this, but I think that learning the “darker side” of Church history, for the most part, should be the job of the individual. When I hear of people who lived until they were in there 30’s or 40’s (which seems old to me) and didn’t know basic anti-Mormon factoids I just want to say “What on earth were you doing with your faith that whole time?” Maybe that’s biased considering I’m from out East in the Bible Belt and I’ve heard it all since I was a little kid, but it seems that people ought to take responsibility for their own gospel study and not expect a tailor-made package of gospel teachings out of a manual.

    I don’t think this absolves CES of their responsibility at all, but I do see that they have a tough task.


  37. Chris R
    February 27, 2004 at 12:33 am


    I agree with you that it should be the onus of the individual to learn the “darker side” or church history. The difficulty with that is that it can be uncomfortable going to ones bishop to find more information, and Internet searches often lead to sites with big grudges against the Church. I would think that all teachers should be able to lead such an individual to material that can answer their questions and strengthen their testimony.

  38. Julie in Austin
    February 27, 2004 at 1:40 am

    The problem with leaving it to the individual to find the dark side on their own is that s/he might react the way I did as a college student: “Oh my, I never heard about this in Sunday School. Do you think no one in the Church knows about X? Do you think they all know but don’t have any response to it so they ignore it?”

    The problem with discussing it in Church is (1) you are creating an artifical issue for people who never thought/cared about it and (2) you are taking time away from big picture, spiritually uplifting stuff and (3) there usually isn’t one correct response to any of these sticky situations.

    Here’s what I have occasionally done in Institute. “By the way, some of you may have heard about or will hear about something called the Isaiah problem. I want you to know that LDS scholars have good responses to this issue, that it isn’t really a problem for the Book of Mormon, and if you want to know more about it, talk to me after class.”

  39. Grasshopper
    February 27, 2004 at 3:43 am

    Speaking of the Isaiah problem, what are the best references for Mormon responses to this issue?

  40. Matt J
    February 27, 2004 at 4:07 am

    ‘When I hear of people who lived until they were in there 30’s or 40’s (which seems old to me) and didn’t know basic anti-Mormon factoids I just want to say “What on earth were you doing with your faith that whole time?”‘

    Going to church, reading the scriptures, listening to conference, reading the Ensign, taking seminary and institute classes, reading Deseret Book publications. Many members don’t even do that much with regularity. I agree that there are difficulties in teaching the ‘darker’ things more openly, but leaving it solely up to the individual removes spiritual guidance at the very moment when it may be needed most. I like Julie’s comment about the Isaiah problem as a decent compromise.

  41. nathaniel
    February 27, 2004 at 10:10 am


    I think Julie’s comments are great as a compromise as well, but notice that in Julie’s case *someone* (ie the seminary/institute teacher) has to take it upon him/herself to find this information out.


    It seems odd to me to expect one’s bishop to be able to answer intellectual questions about the Gospel. To be perfectly honest, however, I may just be comeing from an incredibly spoiled perspective. My father is Terryl Givens, author “The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths and the Constructin of Heresy” which is an academic book about anti-Mormonism in literature, and also of “By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion”, which also addresses a lot of anti-Mormon attacks on the Book of Mormon. So I was introduced to the debate at an early age and I’ve had kind of an at-home mentor my whole life. Between that and having plenty of people scoff at my religion in school or wherever I’ve had both the material to gain an intellectual understanding and the motivation to use that material.

    I still find it somewhat sad that people think that you can just go to Church, let your eyes pass over the scriptures, stay out of trouble, and get saved. If you really believe this religion is true it should be critically important to you. Now I don’t think that everyone registers “critically important” on an intellectual scale (and that’s fine), but if you’re the kind of person that is going to care about intellectual arguments one way or the other, then it seems like you would want to proactively interact with them rather then avoid the issue (until you get hit with the facts later on).

    I guess that what it takes is more people like Julie who are willing to learn some of the answers (no one is going to have them all) and take an excellent opportunity to let students of the Gospel know that, should they be interested, she can help with some of the harder questions. I think that, given the imperfect world we live in, that’s got to be the best solution.


  42. Adam Greenwood
    February 27, 2004 at 10:44 am

    I love your suggestion. I never thought I’d see something practical on this board, but mirabile dictu!

  43. Julie in Austin
    February 27, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    Grasshopper: I’d start with either FAIR or FARMS.

    Nathaniel wrote: “I think Julie’s comments are great as a compromise as well, but notice that in Julie’s case *someone* (ie the seminary/institute teacher) has to take it upon him/herself to find this information out.”

    Well, I would let seminary teachers off the hook, as I get the impression that most of them are overwhelemed by the enormity of the job, not to mention fitting it into the rest of their lives. But is there any reason why Institute teachers can’t be expected to have a basic knowledge of these things, esp. the paid ones? I agree that bishops shouldn’t be expected to be briefed in apologetics, but if not CES, then who? Again, I worry about the danger that members will get the impression that *no one* in the Church has answers to these challenges. Ironic, given the recent acknowledgement by evangelicals (in print, nonetheless) of the advances in LDS apologetics (too lazy to find the link, but there was an interesting article about this).

  44. Greg Call
    February 27, 2004 at 6:02 pm

    I suspect Julie is referring to a paper from 5 or 6 years ago by evangelicals Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, entitled “Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?” FARMS is still grinning from this thing.

    Here’s a link:

  45. February 27, 2004 at 6:06 pm

    I hate coming in so late to some of these debates, but let me just ask a question and make a comment. Much of the discussion has centered on “facts” and “truth” but no one has mentioned about the potential difficulties in establishing facts. Greenfrog mentioned the “fact” that Jefferson fathered a child with Sally Hemmings. No such “fact” exists. In fact, the so called proof that he did has come under intense scrutiny and the media has been chastised for broadcasting an unstantiated “fact.” My point is that it is often difficult to determine what is and what is not historical fact. I don’t believe President Packer or Elder Richards were against portraying church leaders as human beings, but many historians seem bent on portraying historical figures, both in and out of the church, in a negative light. Certain things are portrayed as fact, when in all likelihood they are not. Why focus on such things? What good does it do, other than to tear down and call into question the good done by such individuals be they church leaders from history or our nation’s founding fathers or others. To me that was President Packer’s point. We don’t have time, we are not in the business of tearing down, but rather building testimonies and growing the kingdom of God.

  46. Greg Call
    February 27, 2004 at 6:16 pm

    Tell that to Nate, Brent. I am currently sobbing over my _Nader for President_ stickers and buttons because I just found out he doesn’t pay his staffers well.

  47. Nate Oman
    February 27, 2004 at 6:17 pm

    Brent: I like skepticism as much as the next guy (although I am inclined to believe the worst about Jefferson), but there are some “unsavory” aspects of church history that are too well established to be dismissed as speculations not worth spending your time on. For example, I don’t know of any responsible student or scholar of Mormon history who seriously disputes Joseph Smith’s polyandry, the Moutain Meadows massacre, post-Manifesto polygamy, or Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings, to name just a few. If folks are going to face these issues, I would much rather they did so in a forum that was friendly rather than gleefully hostile or iconoclastic. I don’t think that Gospel Doctrine class is a good forum for such things, but I don’t think that steadfastly averting our collective eyes serves us well in the end.

  48. February 27, 2004 at 6:24 pm

    Man, I go away for a few days and miss some excellent discussion and the effective use of the word “ninny.” I agree Nate, we have to deal with the facts as we have them, but as you point out, there is a proper context within which to discuss such things. Furthermore, although I do not dispute any of the facts you mention, I was just issuing a word of caution, sparked by the comment about Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, which, as I pointed out is far from a fact.

  49. greenfrog
    February 27, 2004 at 11:21 pm

    I stand corrected. A Jefferson. Which one is apparently unknown.

  50. greenfrog
    February 27, 2004 at 11:52 pm

    Thanks for the correction.

  51. annegb
    February 2, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    You know, I’ve heard a few general authorities speak in person and they have been without exception self deprecating, they laugh at their own frailties. The one I met was the same.


    Oh well, this is my 2 cents: context, yeah, if you think it’s entertaining annoying or funny, if you look at a frailty as part of the family of man, without the frailty taking away from the guy’s calling, that’s one thing. But if I say, “My bishop should be excommunicated because he’s sort of dorky, and always late, that’s another thing. I guess also motive is an issue here.

    Better late than never.

  52. Bryce I
    February 2, 2005 at 2:03 pm

    annegb, you rock

Comments are closed.