I was in graduate school studying American religious history when I got a call one evening from a young returned missionary in my ward. Jay (not his real name) was one of the brightest and best of the Ivy League students in our congregation. After some initial pleasantries, he got down to the reason he had called. He had a history question.
"Is it really true that Joseph Smith got married to women who were already married to other men?" Jay asked me. He seemed simultaneously desperate to know the answer to this question and embarrassed to be asking it. He knew about polygamy, but he had never heard about polyandry in the early days of Mormonism in Nauvoo, and he was horrified to learn of its existence.* How, he wondered, could Joseph Smith have married women and even possibly had children by them when they were already married to other men?
I swallowed. "Yes, that happened," I began. I explained to Jay some of the history -- that polyandry was rare but definitely practiced for a brief period by Smith and a few other LDS leaders, sometimes at the wives' own request. We discussed the complicated nature of polygamy in the nineteenth-century church and the complex person of Joseph Smith. We talked for a while, I remember. It was a helpful conversation for me as well as for him.
In following up with Jay a couple of weeks later, I learned that he had also decided to speak to a member of the stake presidency about this issue, to see if there might be some official Church teaching on the subject. There wasn't, but apparently they had a terrific conversation. Jay laid out several concerns and questions, and he and this church leader worked together to discuss them.
I don't know that they came to any brilliant answers, but Jay was satisfied that his questions had been important to the church leader, and that his worthiness was never in question just for voicing his doubts. Far from it, in fact. The stake presidency member made the comment that he wished his adult daughter would find a wonderful, thoughtful young man like the one sitting across from him.
As an update, Jay is now that church leader's son-in-law. And he is still very active in the church -- a mature and contributing Mormon on an adventurous journey of faith. But I think things could have gone very differently. I see that time of questioning as a watershed in Jay’s life. How the church responded to that questioning made an enormous difference in the trajectory of his faith, life, and family.
I think about this quite a bit when I receive emails and notes from Mormons, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, who are struggling with doubts about belief or history. I think they reach out to me because they know I am a person of faith who is not going to be threatened by their doubts. I feel saddened by the stories they often tell me about experiences that are very unlike Jay’s -- church leaders who shut down their questions, or who take away their callings or temple recommends just for asking those questions, or who don't allow doubting fathers to baptize their children. Just today on Facebook I learned that a Mormon man and his wife were turned away from the temple because their stake president, unbeknownst to them, had canceled their recommends. Such behavior is driven by fear.
We could do this so much better. The past few days I’ve been reading Boyd Petersen's new collection of autobiographical essays, Dead Wood and Rushing Water. One of my favorite pieces in that collection is about how Mormonism deals, often badly, with doubt. Mormons, Peterson writes, have been taught that doubt is an enemy to be avoided rather than a journey to be embraced.
What might we change in the culture of Mormonism if we want to encourage bright young people to remain active members of the Church? First, we would decriminalize doubt. As one student put it, “I would let people know that it is okay to question your faith, because that is the only way to really strengthen it.” That seems like such a simple idea, but it is really quite insightful. Doubt is not a moral weakness; it does not inexorably lead to agnosticism or atheism. It does not inevitably destroy faith. Rather it is a real, possible, and likely stage of faith development.
Petersen points to James Fowler, who indicates in The Stages of Faith that seasons of doubt are not optional if we want to progress in faith; they are catalysts to growth and new understanding.
But let’s say for the sake of argument that Fowler is wrong, and some of our more anxiety-ridden general authorities are correct that doubt only leads to people leaving the Church. If leaving is people’s most honest response to doubt then I say it is the Church’s fault and not the defectors’ own. Let me say that again. It is the Church’s fault, because of the zero-sum game it has too often made of religious truth. We set up a house of cards in which we tell our young people that either ALL of it is true or NONE of it is true, and then we are astonished when they depart because they have found an ounce of adulteration in the total purity they have been indoctrinated to expect.
To avoid this result we hide historical and theological realities, a strategy which backfires more often than not. As Petersen says,
Second, we should not be afraid of the truth. Often we Mormons seem scared that if the truth somehow got out there—the truth about our history, our evolving theology, our fallible leaders—people would leave the Church in droves. But what tends to happen is just the opposite. We hide the truth, and then, when they discover it on their own, people feel like they have been lied to, betrayed.
Mormons need to begin addressing controversial issues in a supportive environment, at church, rather than leaving members to learn unflattering truths entirely on their own. Such was the case with Hans Mattson, the European “area authority” (Mormon lingo for a regional church leader) whose high-profile defection earlier this summer made international news. His very public leave-taking has shined a spotlight on the inadequate ways the Church has often handled doubters; when Mattson took Swedish members’ questions up the chain of command to his own ecclesiastical superiors, he was told to stifle such issues and not share them with other church members, even his own immediate family.
I think the institutional church has begun to take small steps toward improving how it addresses people's legitimate and necessary doubts. Rather than shooting the messenger, as has been common in the past, or blaming the doubter, some people in leadership are taking a hard look at things that we should be doing better:
- The Church has made efforts to make its history more transparent to members, opening its archives more than ever before. Just this week, it was announced that the Joseph Smith Papers series – a monumental effort to present facsimiles and transcriptions of everything Joseph Smith wrote or dictated – will include a volume of the controversial Council of Fifty minutes from 1844. Whether church members will actually read these volumes is anyone’s guess, but making the documents available not only in print but also online to the general public is a wonderful step forward.
- Local bishops have been holding firesides about doubt; the New York Times reports that authors Terryl and Fiona Givens are doing such events in Europe and the US. I would like to see more of these, the kind of unscripted “put your question in a hat” evening that other religions do so much better than Mormons do. Authentic, extemporaneous, and grassroots.
- This year’s FAIR conference, which I was sorry to miss, featured a presentation on the book Shaken Faith Syndrome (great title) and a panel on the loss and rekindling of faith. FAIR’s stock in trade is apologetics, an approach that will not appeal to everyone, but it’s an acknowledgement of the depth of the problem.
- Last year’s book Daughters in My Kingdom -- which, some blog readers will recall, I did not embrace wholeheartedly – at least openly acknowledged the reality of polygamy in Mormon history. It’s a small step, but it’s a step.
These are just a few ways that Mormons are opening up about doubt. I hope there will be many more, especially in small, grassroots conversations like Jay’s. Doubt is nothing to fear. It is the beginning of wisdom.
* I should clarify: apparently what I am referring to here as polyandry is technically considered “extra-pair matings or couplings.” For a biologist’s take on Mormon polyandry, see this entertaining post at By Common Consent.