Letter to family on why a person would leave Mormonism
The following was written by a university professor.
Letter to In-Laws
28 April 1998
It was nice having you here a few weeks ago. The weather has been warming up finally. We’re glad you could come and that you got back to Salt Lake safely.
Since the subject finally came up while you were here I wanted to explain the background behind my change of religious and philosophical views. It’s not an easy subject to discuss and writing about it seems easier. I’m sorry for the disappointment this must be to you. I wouldn’t have expected this to happen. I wasn’t anxious for you to find out because of the stigma this sort of thing represents in Mormon culture but I’m not one for making any great efforts to fake something either.
I want you to know that what caused this change is not just a few minor discrepancies, intellectual curiosities, or mysteries. I never was interested in that sort of thing. And it’s not just anti-Mormon propaganda. What I stumbled across four years ago are major problems, easily verifiable and documented, that forced me to rethink the whole thing and as a result it made more sense for me to conclude that Joseph Smith somehow fooled himself into thinking he was what he claimed (or that he had at least one personality that went that way). I suppose it’s possible he was just a very skillful liar devoid of conscience but I also find that hard to believe. He was possibly a complex psychotic individual, perhaps manic-depressive or some other clinical mental illness. But because the LDS church makes such a strong connection between literal belief in Joseph Smith’s stories and a person’s basic integrity (worthiness, virtue, diligence, discipline, etc.), and because I know that my loss of belief in him had nothing to do with these qualities but just purely new knowledge about things that happened during his life, I feel compelled at least to share a little bit of the information that’s available but suppressed by church authorities and therefore generally unknown among church members.
I’m not trying to get any one to change their minds necessarily. I actually don’t think it’s possible for one person to change another’s mind against their will, especially in such matters of belief. One must be curious on their own and have a minimum of “risk” factors for that to happen (by risk factors I mean financial or emotional dependence on the church, things like church employment, a visible leadership position with its positive reinforcement of self-worth, or a network of relationships, family and friends, that would be jeopardized by a change of beliefs). But I think it’s important for those who know me to also know that this change of views for me is based on what I think is really substantial evidence.
As you know now I discovered 4 years ago that Joseph Smith’s story and reputation are quite vulnerable. Although his experiences and influence over people are still very unusual, I think natural explanations work much better than supernatural ones. I also think it’s important that those who have been taught to believe his story (at least the latest, official, version of it) are aware of the facts that have developed, which discredit his reliability.
For the record let me say that I was quite active in the church and a committed believer when I stumbled across this information. My temple recommend was current. I was paying tithing. I was serving actively in a church calling. I wasn’t (and am still not) having any extramarital affairs or anything close; although as you know our marriage is suffering terribly now.
Having been on the believing side of this issue most of my life I know how hard it is to comprehend that Joseph Smith may not be what we were all taught from our childhood to believe he was. It was an incredible idea to me at first too. But I’ve also learned that if I don’t get and consider seriously all the facts possible on an issue, and open my mind to a wide array of possibilities, the likelihood of my drawing wrong conclusions is amplified.
Charles Larson’s book (enclosed) on the Joseph Smith papyri is one that I think every Mormon should read and understand. It shows, using the church’s own records (History of the Church) how Joseph represented himself as one able to translate ancient Egyptian writings (at a time when no one else could, or so he thought–the Rosetta stone was actually being deciphered in Europe). From that process he produced something he represented to be scripture, namely a record written by the hand of Abraham. In fact, the papyri, re-discovered in 1966 in New York, turned out to be ordinary Egyptian funeral documents having nothing to do with Abraham, the type of which many have been found and deciphered now. The so-called Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar Joseph developed in connection with this activity (which the church seems now not too anxious to publicize) is pure nonsense (please see p. 91). The most important parts of Larson’s book are pp. 40-110. Unfortunately Larson also includes material which refers to bible-based truth and even has a chapter at the end trying to convince the reader to investigate other Christian religions (which doesn’t help much, in my opinion; he should have just stuck with reporting the facts but my guess is he probably had to add the last chapter to get the book published by the Institute for Religious Research). So the book, like any, is a little flawed, but as far as I can tell, from my own study and the reviews of respected Egyptologists, he basically has his facts right about the papyri and how the story developed. I think he might be wrong on a few minor conjectures but these are minor points that don’t matter much. The main evidence, particularly how the Egyptian characters from the papyri were written right on Joseph’s “translation” manuscripts, that Joseph’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar showed how he expanded a single character into a long sentence or sentences based on arbitrary nonsensical rules, and that where there were missing characters at damaged locations in the papyri he just made up imaginary characters and then proceeded to “translate” them–all that evidence stands. And as far as I can see the church scholars haven’t refuted this evidence or offered a reasonable alternative explanation. Their approach now seems to be to ignore it and hope it will go away.
The enclosed issue of Dialogue includes an interesting article on Joseph Smith’s secret wives by Todd Compton. I’m also including a review article of Compton’s recent book on that subject. This is another area that I think must be recognized. It has been established that Joseph had at least 30 secret wives, including many younger girls and married women, that he slept with them, and that he tried to keep it mostly secret, especially from Emma. Joseph’s letter to Newell Whitney and his wife speaks of bringing their daughter to him in secret (when he was in hiding from law enforcement agents) to make sure Emma wouldn’t know. It’s hard to imagine the context in which this happened but Compton does a pretty good job of setting the appropriate context, i.e., bringing out the religious view these people took toward what otherwise sounds bizzare and immoral on the surface. The connection of Joseph’s secret polygamy with the Book of Abraham is that, as I mentioned during our discussion and as Larson points out, it was in the Book of Abraham that Joseph modified the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah to make it so that it was the Lord who commanded Abraham to lie about his wife for a higher purpose (i.e., not Abraham’s idea). This in effect condoned the secrecy and actual lying Joseph had to do in connection with his secret wives, beginning as early as 1835 with Fanny Alger, the teenage girl living with the Smiths in Kirtland. Of course these facts don’t suit the church’s proselyting purposes but in fairness, people who are being asked to trust a self-proclaimed spokesperson for God deserve to know in some detail what kind of person he really was. Nobody that I know of at BYU or FARMS (Foundation for Ancient Research in Mormon Studies) is denying Joseph’s polygamy, including the Fanny Alger affair. Neither have they refuted Joseph’s later pattern (in Nauvoo) of sending men away on missions or other church assignments and then proposing “celestial marriage” to their wives or sisters. Maybe it started out innocently in Kirtland, when he and Emma were having trouble having their own children and he felt the need to take a Hagar, like Abraham, to produce offspring. But I have to conclude that this man also might have had a substantial libido that found both spiritual and physical fulfillment in his “Abrahamic right” to have many wives.
The Egyptian papyri and Joseph’s secret wives are two of the best documented facts about Joseph Smith’s life that need to be known. There are others such as the changes he made in the D&C revelations to cover-up inconsistencies in his stories and challenges brought against him by dissenters (Deseret Book used to sell the original Book of Commandments as included in Wilford Woods’s, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. II, but apparently won’t any more).
I wish matters such as these could be discussed openly in the LDS church without demonization of those who do. But the church apparently has lost on every point of the Egyptian papyri debate (and in the process shifted its position considerably as noted by Larson) and now with the publication of the rediscovered papyri the leaders see they have nothing to win and everything to lose so they will never do it. This of course is very disturbing for a church that talks so much about truth. Sadly I’ve concluded that the human, fallible leaders of the church are much like Joseph Smith or even the Catholic leaders in Galileo’s time in that they’ve convinced themselves they really are chosen servants to the point that if they sense something that might undermine people’s belief they won’t even consider the information seriously. Galileo concluded that those men who wouldn’t even accept the invitation to look through his telescope were more interested in their authority than in the truth. I think that’s perhaps overstating it a bit but basically true. The mindset of men who have become convinced they are God’s chosen servants is that they are doing a noble, righteous thing (even in being closed-minded) so they don’t really see it as choosing authority over truth. They start with the assumption that they’re right (have the truth) and see their unwillingness to explore controversial information itself as a virtue. My experience has taught me that that process is a recipe for disaster in terms of ever reaching the truth. Rather, open discussion and consideration of all the facts and evidence lead to discovery of truth. Or if the evidence is too sparse or conflicting to form a conclusion about the truth, at least this open, inclusive process leads to the most accurate assessment possible of the degree of confidence that should be placed in any given claim (i.e., the degree of confidence and conviction on a matter should be proportional to the convergence of evidence and degree of agreement among reasonably educated people about that evidence). Since there is no convergence of agreement worldwide about religion among educated, civilized people (in fact there’s actually a lot of fighting and intolerance over it), most religious views should be held with only weak conviction.
As I’ve studied, in light of this new information, Joseph Smith’s overall activities–his miraculous producing of a gold plate record translated supernaturally from “reformed” Egyptian, his story of translating Egyptian papyri (later shown to be false), his duplicity about secret wives–and as I’ve tried to consider the big picture, whether Joseph Smith is really a credible witness, I must say I don’t get the feeling of someone whose story I can trust. In fact, when I look for alternative, less miraculous explanations, the puzzle comes together better. I see a pious youth inclined toward magic, money-digging, and treasure-seeking (much more than manual labor and farming), a youth with a tremendous imagination; I see a youth fascinated with speculations about Indian origins and the idea that native American Indians were of the House of Israel; a youth who was familiar with books written in his day propounding the theory that Israelites had migrated to the New World and split into a light-skinned, God-fearing group and a dark-skinned, bloodthirsty group with the latter eventually destroying the former and remaining on to become the native American Indians (View of the Hebrews, 1825, Vermont); a youth convinced that, as Ethan Smith argued in View of the Hebrews, it was America’s duty, based on Isaiah prophecies, to restore the Indians to a knowledge of their Israelite ancestry and history and bring them the Christian gospel. I see in Joseph Smith a young man concerned about the splintering Christian churches around him (magnified by the associated divisions in his own family) and concerned about the effective attacks being written against the Bible and Christianity by men such as Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason (which Lucy Mack tells us Joseph’s grandfather threw at Joseph Sr. one day and demanded he read until he believed). I see in Joseph a believer in angelic visitations and in a lost, primitive Christian gospel. I see a youth who was taken with magic in his youth and probably came to believe he had special powers. Over his late teenage years the focus of his magic shifted from finding buried treasure to religion. In 1823 he told his family a story of being visited by an angel and of a buried golden record of the Indians (possibly a vivid dream he had; but of course his family believed dreams and visions were often the same thing). Similar stories had been circulating in the area about that time and were part of the popular folklore, scoffed at by some members of society but at least half-believed by many others. Joseph’s family was probably partly skeptical of his story initially but intrigued by his descriptions of “Nephite” ways of life, modes of transportation, etc. Some members of his family, however, were still active in other churches as late as 1827, evidence that Joseph probably hadn’t told them of an 1820 visionary instruction to join no churches, or they didn’t believe him if he did; and also that the first versions of the angel and Nephite record story maybe didn’t have the connotation of restoration of a true, primitive Christian church. The Nephite story took longer to develop than anticipated, hard times intervened (the hardest worker in the family, Alvin, was gone), the necessity to dig for treasure for Josiah Stowell came up, and after Stowell’s nephews became suspicious Joseph found himself on trial for being a glass-looker, charged with being an imposter and disorderly conduct. Josiah Stowell was convinced Joseph had special powers (no one likes to admit being duped). As he testified at Joseph’s 1826 trial, Stowell not only believed the younger Joseph could locate buried treasure under the ground by looking at his stone in his hat, he knew it! The successful recovery of the golden plates was delayed year by year, dragging into 4 years (later Joseph would write that he was instructed up front that delivery would be 4 years away; but the histories of his family and others show he actually expected to obtain “the record” earlier but that each time he tried, something went wrong). Eventually Joseph’s adapted story of Indian origins and prophecies of God’s kingdom coming forth for the last time in preparation for Jesus’s imminent return became a book, the Book of Mormon. A growing number of people were becoming convinced of the work. These people were caught up emotionally in the special roles they were to play in fulfilling biblical prophecy and establishing the kingdom (e.g., three witnesses, etc.) and began offering support, and building Joseph houses to live in while he was occupied with retranslating the bible. Still there was apparently little or no talk of an 1820 first vision, a visitation by God and Jesus (in fact 1820 seems to have come and gone without a significant religious revival in the Palmyra area, let alone any claim of a heavenly visitation by Joseph Smith). The famous 1820 1st vision story actually seems to have developed over time, changing with each writing and telling. It apparently started out (early 1830’s) as a variation of the angelic visitation story with a visit from a single being, now “the Lord” instead of an angel, which was consistent with Joseph’s somewhat ambivalent but mostly trinitarian view (3-in-1) at the time, and ended up (1838–official 1st vision story) as two distinct beings, consistent with his later theology. Joseph Smith’s history, studied carefully, is a pattern of changing stories, modified as time went by to drop portions that became inconsistent with new views or distasteful to people, such as the original (Book of Commandments) revelation which referred to Oliver Cowdery’s gift of using a divining rod which was later changed to drop the reference to a rod and called just the gift of Aaron (see D&C 8). (The original revelation reads: “Remember this is your gift. Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God; and therefore whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, that you shall know.” This revelation was given at a time when Joseph was trying to get Oliver to have the same validating experience he himself was having of producing translations of hidden, sacred records by mystical means. It’s taught in the church that this refers to Oliver translating the Book of Mormon; actually there’s no evidence that it was the Book of Mormon Joseph was trying to get Oliver to translate whereas there is evidence of other “records” they were working on such as the parchment of John, D&C 7, which they would see in visionary trance-like state, but not necessarily physically.)
I see in Joseph Smith a man who came to believe he spoke for God and could translate hidden records in lost languages. Possibly born of early failures at having children with Emma he came to feel that he was supposed to take multiple wives just like the prophets written about in the bible that he believed in.
If this information about Joseph Smith is disconcerting I’m sorry but I think it’s reasonably reliable. If enough church members knew about it, it could bring about a moderation in the degree of certitude about church claims. And I think such a moderation of conviction would be a good thing for families and for the world. Particularly as the year 2000 approaches and the world possibly becomes less stable, it would be a good thing to have more rational, thoughtful Mormons who entertain a measure of doubt about uncertain things, as Bertrand Russell has suggested, and fewer ultra-conservatives who seem to be energized by their uniqueness and separateness from “the world” and who are prone to do such socially irresponsible things as suggesting in patriarchal blessings to impressionable youth that there will be global war in a few years so they won’t be able to complete their missions! (a story I saw recently on the LDS internet with enough independent verification that I suspect it’s true).
As for the perpetuation of religious myths, I can only find one possible justification: the absence of any certain knowledge about the difficult questions of the human condition, life and death, suffering, etc. For myself, it seems not only possible to live a healthy, mostly happy life without embracing uncertain answers to these things, at this point I find it preferable. But I realize that everybody is not comfortable with that level of ambiguity, especially when death and suffering enter the picture. Some people will live better lives for believing certain things about life-after-death. But not everybody. I’m convinced there are many cultural Mormons (born and raised in the church) who are stifled by the system and would be happier without it if they didn’t have to feel the false guilt the church generates and teaches. Society clearly shows us that agnostics and atheists can be just as fine folks as believers. For those who prefer or feel the need for religious motivation the teaching of it should be done moderately, more the way mainstream religions do, without the level of certainty that orthodox, fundamentalist religions do. Certainty in religious conviction causes a lot of unnecessary unhappiness. I’m already disheartened by the prospect of not being able to attend our children’s wedding ceremonies, assuming they’re in the temple, as a result of what seems to me to be a sanctimonious (actually mean-spirited) church policy decision about the temple and its secret ceremonies (but that would get me off on a whole different subject).
I’m going to say in closing that I hope we can work this out. But it is not looking good. I am so sorry that such a situation can develop where the evidence of a religious leader’s instability can be so clear and compelling for one and yet a conviction of belief so strong for another that the disagreement leads to the kind of disharmony that will destroy a good marriage and breakup a good family. I feel like the only thing either of us could do now to save it is be untrue to the truth or at least untrue to the process we each believe leads to truth. My experience (over the last 10 years especially) has taught me that truth is gained by accumulation of all the evidence possible and open discussion and debate about all the evidence. Sometimes (not in religion but in other fields) evidence is so conclusive that virtually everybody agrees and then the matter is justifiably, universally acknowledged as “truth” (at least until it is modified by a deeper level of understanding). In science this level has been achieved on many things. Nobody argues any more whether Galileo or the church authorities were right about the heliocentric versus geocentric structure of the solar system, or about Newton’s laws of motion within their realm of applicability. My colleagues around the world agree on the laws of thermodynamics. In religion I don’t think this level of agreement has been achieved on anything. The church’s approach to truth is to embrace the scientific, evidentiary method as long as there is no conflict with church doctrine and teaching. But where there is conflict the church teaches that one should put more confidence in the emotional confirmational (“burning bosom”) method. I think I understand the propensity to go that way having been in that camp. I was inclined to do that when I didn’t know about overwhelming evidence that conflicted with my spiritual assumptions. But I have become more skeptical of the emotional method now that I see I might have been fooled by it. I have to think now that it is more likely that my emotions, influenced by church teaching, molding, and experience since childhood, were the source of the “spiritual witnesses” I’ve had in the past than that there is a logical, innocent, faith-confirming explanation of Joseph Smith’s aberrant behavior. But I will (I hope always) entertain any explanation of the evidence that now stands against Joseph Smith.