Time for Mormons to Come to Terms with Church History

Within the last day, the Washington Post, Reuters, and religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune have all addressed the growing incidence of disaffiliation among LDS Church members for whom the digital age has brought new access to conflicting perspectives on Mormon history and doctrine—scrutiny that is certain to intensify if Romney gets the GOP nomination.

It’s not uncommon for LDS people to grow up in contexts where most information about Mormonism comes from official LDS Church sources and reflects the perspectives of LDS Church leaders. Alternative perspectives have been stigmatized and dissenters and a few scholars have been excommunicated, especially in the 1990s.

But the internet has profoundly impacted the Church’s ability to manage messaging and information and breached the boundaries of the still socially insular community.

Studies show that rates of disaffiliation have risen significantly among Mormons in the first decade of the twenty-first century. According to a survey of more than 3,000 disaffiliated Mormons conducted by the Open Stories Foundation, thorny historical issues top the list of reasons why Mormons leave. These issues include the disputed origins of The Pearl of Great Price, a book of Mormon scripture, the historic practice of polygamy by Joseph Smith and other early Mormon leaders, and the Church’s 130-year ban on full participation by people of African descent.

Controversial issues like these are not addressed in official church materials, and in many congregations, Sunday meetings reflect a highly orthodox, literal approach to Church doctrine and scripture. Even mentions of Smith’s polygamy have been scrubbed from Church lesson manuals, returning only in a newly released book on Mormon women’s history.

The culture of shame and silence that surrounds these subjects within Mormon culture means that many Mormons learn about them for the first time from strangers on the internet, in venues ranging from anti-Mormon websites to scholarship by respected Mormon historians. Even I have received email from parents who relate that their kids have stopped identifying as Mormon after encountering information about Joseph Smith’s polygamy for the first time on the internet. For many, the sense of betrayal by a trusted institution that appears to be withholding information about its history is more damaging than the information itself.

Compounding the shame and sense of betrayal some Mormons feel when they first discover controversial information about the tradition’s past is negative reaction from family, friends, and faith community. As Carrie Sheffield expressed in her Washington Post opinion piece, Mormons who question Mormon doctrine or scripture can experience harsh rejection and blame from families and faith leaders.

This dynamic may intensify this campaign season, as every day brings breathlessly sensational accounts of the most controversial aspects of the Mormon tradition, often presented by people with only a marginal or passing knowledge of the faith. Mormon scholars and writers could talk around the clock from now until November and still we could not keep up with the amount of media attention—some of it accurate, some of it distorting, some of it openly antagonistic—Mormonism now receives.

Many have yearned to engage candidly and forthrightly with all of its aspects and dimensions. That time is now. The scrutiny brought on by this election season demands an open approach to Mormon history and controversy and it can’t arrive a moment too soon.