Thursday, October 12, 2017

Some Thoughts on How to Discuss Questions About Mormon History and Theology and Resources for Aiding That Discussion

As some may have noticed, I've been studying a lot about LDS history and theology lately.  I've had the chance to have a lot of great conversations about this with people and have had several people ask how to go about finding good books to read on the topic.  I've also had a few people, not understanding where I'm coming from, who are worried that I'm lost in dark paths because I've been researching these things.  Which was sad and confusing since I primarily rely on LDS sources for all my information. So, I thought it would be a good time to write a post about some good (church approved) resources for finding out about church history.  Hopefully it can help others who are interested in the topic find what they're looking for and it can assure others that I'm not dipping my toes in a fiery lake of doubt and misery.

First things first, I have a testimony of Jesus Christ.  I have a testimony that we have loving Heavenly Parents who love us and want us to return to them. I have a testimony that by having charity (which is loving Christ by loving others the way he would) we can do extraordinary things. While there are many beautiful and amazing teaching provided by the LDS church, I fear that sometimes those basic tenets of Christ's Atonement, Charity, Hope, and Faith get overshadowed by the controversial topics of our history.  Many of my friends outside of the church know little of what our actual gospel message is and more about church history, controversial topics like polygamy, and comments made by church leaders regarding minority groups. Because these are the things people are going to ask us about I think it's important for us to study them out so that we can have answers.  Having been on the side of questioner and answer-er I thought I'd share some thoughts I had on how we can be more loving and welcoming to those who think differently than we do. I don't think it's enough to just tell people to ignore all the hard stuff and just focus on the good.  Sometimes it's by addressing the "hard" questions that we are prepared to receive the good.  I think that's true for people in and outside of the church

I know that not everyone feels like they need or want to know about early church history, or the origins of priesthood, or women and divinity and that's fine.  Our faith is individual and we come at it from many ways.  Many people learn about church history during their youth and get refresher courses every four years at church and that is enough to build their faith.  Which is great and honestly, I think that is a spiritual gift. I also know that there are a lot of people, like me, who approach things in a more questioning format and want to learn more. For a long time, I considered my questioning nature to be an indication that I didn't have enough faith but I now know that God gave me my questions to lead me toward answers and that he loves me even if I take a little longer than most to understand church doctrines (and maybe even if I have a few on my shelf that I'm still not quite ready to deal with yet.) President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said "Some might feel embarrassed or unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel, but they needn't feel that way. Asking questions isn't a sign of weakness; it's a precursor of growth."

Sometimes in an effort to be faith promoting I think we as a church membership focus on only the good that happened and start to think of the pioneers of our faith as beyond human.  We've all probably heard people say things like "the pioneers never complained" or they "never doubted".  While that black and white way of thinking can be motivating for some it can also be demotivating for many others who think they will never stack up.  As I've learned about the good and the bad and read journals where pioneers doubt one day and bear testimony the next I'm more able to see that these were real people living real lives! The point of the gospel is not that you have to be perfect in order to participate. The point is that through Christ we can all be made perfect. When we realize that the pioneers were ordinary people doing extraordinary things it becomes much more relevant and motivating than hero-worship.  As I learn more about the mistakes that were made and how they were overcome I learn that God uses imperfect people to run his church. And if they, imperfect as they were, could be of use, then maybe there is hope for me as well. As I've jumped into family history more I've been very impressed that it's time for me to really study out church history and doctrines as well and face some of the troubling things head on. I've found that in addition to stretching and strengthening me personally, it has increased my love for those who have gone before me.

I've been excited to share what I'm learning with others who have questions or who struggle with the history. I know that when I've had doubts or worries, having other to talk to has been crucial in my church activity. We know from the scriptures that we should seek things out in faith but also through gaining knowledge and discussing that knowledge with others. Doctrine and Covenants 88:118 says "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith”. I'm so appreciative of those who have already travailed this path and the insights they can give me and the encouragement to keep studying and moving forward.

I'm also excited that my kids will have the opportunity to be taught these things in their youth instead of finding out at BYU (like I did) or even later in life that seminary and Sunday school didn't quite show the complete picture.  Some might think that church history detracts from learning about the basic tenets and doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  However, the truth remains that learning about our church history and previous revelations can help us understand the doctrines we are presented with today.  Some want to leave the past in the past but the fact is that temple practices, priesthood ordination practices, attitudes toward women, our view of the afterlife etc. are heavily impacted by the practices of our ancestors in the early church and turning our head away from these facts can only cause heartache down the road. When we don't understand the real history and doctrines of the church we start to fill in the gaps with our own ideas and that is when we get lost in church culture and vain traditions.

When the church announced the gospel topics essays Elder J. Devn Cornish (of the Seventy and also the executive director of the Church History Department at the time) said: “Gone are the days when the history of the Church is just interesting. Gone are the days when it is only important. In our day, the history of the Church is urgent...Our history can either be used as a weapon against the faith of our members or as a bulwark to build and protect their faith". I hope that by helping my kids know about this history early on it will lessen their chance of having it used as a weapon against them later.

So even if your testimony is rock solid about church history, I encourage you to learn more so that you can be of help to those around you who do have questions (including our children). And also, certainly, because over the next several years this history is going to be incorporated more and more into the curriculum for youth and adults and it's always better to learn it on your own time table than to be blindsided by it in the middle of gospel doctrine class.

While it is a great blessing to have family, friends and associates to discuss things with and while I've been blessed with many who have happily pointed me to good sources, studied things out with me, discussed troublesome topics (sometimes multiple times), and genuinely loved me even when I was at my most "faith crisis" moments, I want to caution others to choose wisely who you choose to open up to about your questions. Sometimes, unfortunately, our questions can be met by others with anger or even condemnation.  Some might feel betrayed that we aren't as "steadfast" as they thought we were, some people regard even the act of having questions as sinful, some don't understand why we don't just rely on faith only, some are immature or unsure in their own testimonies or understanding of church history or doctrines, and others hear our questions only in terms of how it will affect them (what does this mean for our friendship? What will others think of me if I associate with this person who is questioning?", etc.).

As a listener, it's important to listen carefully to what is being said so that we don't misjudge or jump to incorrect conclusions. In the LDS gospel topics essay about answering gospel questions it says that we should 1) Show Compassion for the person asking questions 2) Listen Carefully and 3) Fortify Faith.  Don't assume that because someone is questioning that they are doing it justify or cover up their sins, or that they are trying to lead a rebellion away from the church. Sure, those things could happen, but just because someone is asking questions doesn't mean that they are doing those things. Also, as the person asking the questions we need to make sure we can remain calm, not be too aggressive and that we bring them up when we have time to explain where our thoughts are coming from.

Sometimes the context for your questions can help others better know what they can do to help. So before I give my list of resources I used to help with my questions, I'd like to give some context for my questions. For me, things came to a head after the birth of my fifth child.  I began to wonder what it means to be a woman, what was God's plan for me as such, and how the gospel could help me navigate the many changes and trials that occur in the life of women. I decided to really find out what Heavenly Father thought of me as a daughter through prayer and meditation.  After praying about it for several weeks I decided to also dedicate my scripture study time to see how other women had navigated the many changes and demands that are required of women on their mortal journey. As I studied, I became increasingly frustrated that there really aren't many depictions of women outside of who they married or who they begat.  I went to the temple and although I feel uplifted there I also felt frustrated that I still wasn't seeing my Heavenly Mother's hand in this or understanding Eve's entire story. I won't go into my specific concerns or questions about that here but click over to my book review of Women in Eternity, Women of Zion if you'd like to know more about them.

From there I decided to start seeking out books about women in the scriptures and particularly women in the early LDS church.  However, as I began to dive in to their stories, I realized that while I did have some things in common with them, our lives really looked so different!  Many of these women practiced polygamy, actively talked about Heavenly Mother, gave each other healing blessings for the first 80+ years of the church, and received and spake revelations for one another through the gift of tongues.  Having studied many of these things before (I always took more than a full load of classes at BYU so that I could take extra religion classes each semester) I didn't think I would be that shocked by what I found. It also became apparent that as the Sunday curriculum has shied away at times from addressing polygamy (even changing some of the quotes in the Brigham Young manual from "wives" to "wife") that some of these women's lives have been unintentionally overlooked for many years.  While I understand that changing quotes to sound more monogamous helps us to better relate to the lessons on marriage, it sometimes also accidentally distances us from these amazing women.

So, with all that in mind let me get into where we can turn to learn more about church history, women of the church, and more! The Church History department has collaborated with so many different researchers to make sure that we can now have access to records, journals, pictures and stories that most church members have never had access to before (either because they were part of private collections, authenticity or context were still under debate, or because previous generations have worried that some of the "harder" parts of church history were not faith promoting). The cool thing about a lot of the historical papers and books that are being put out today is that they are written for people in and outside of the faith and give a more accurate and complete version of our history.  While much of this information has been available for awhile- timeline corrections, what was said, who said it, and so many things that previously were glossed over, are now being presented to the membership in detail and in easier to find places.

The gospel topics essays are a great place to start.  While they are still not perfect (and will continue to change as new research comes to light) they give a very good overview of some of the more sensitive topics in our history and doctrines.  They've been put together by the church history department and are supported by numerous books and resources that are provided by the top historians and researchers of LDS history.  They are also approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.  You can read more about the essay topics, their approval process and their uses by visiting the essay overview page.

Right now these essays include a range of topics such as are Mormon's Christian, Heavenly Mother, the Book of Mormon and DNA, Polygamy in Nauvoo, Polygamy in Utah, priesthood restrictions, Joseph Smith's teachings about women, becoming like God, and more.  You can access the complete list here: https://www.lds.org/topics.

Not only do these essays give a good overview they also provide an amazing list of references that can also guide your study.  When you click on a topic you will often see the first paragraph of text, related church resources and scriptures, and then other suggested topics.  Click on the show more link to be able to access the whole text of the essay but also to access the full list of resources used.  There are dozens of books listed on most essays.  I've really had to increase my book budget as of late :) For recommendations of books that I've personally read from these lists you can visit my book review page.

In addition to book references, there are also other websites, scriptures, BYU Studies article links, and more.

Below is a list of some of the online resources that are used in the essays and some sites that I have found helpful in choosing which books to read. A lot of these cross paths frequently or link to one another but I'm going to list them out separately.

https://www.churchhistorianspress.org -access to the full text of relief society minutes and other documents, also provides information about current books being published and news in the world of LDS church history.

http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/  -full text of revelations, meetings, journals, and more from the early church.

https://byustudies.byu.edu/ -I've found some awesome articles here about all kinds of topics.  Biblical evidences, Mother in Heaven, Book of Mormon historical context, Hebrew translation, etc. A really cool feature is under study resources- For each Sunday School lesson they have linked all their past articles that pertain to that particular topic.

The Neal A Maxwell Institute -for religious scholarship at BYU. (Particularly the Mormon Studies review which can be found under their publications tab.  I recently watched a really interesting podcast about the combining of FARMS into the Neal A. Maxwell Institute and the shift of scholarship being written for a wider audience.  The Mormon Studies Review, rather than publishing new material, is a review of new articles, journals and books being put on a variety of topics within Mormonism.  This one does cost $10 for a yearlong digital pass, but it's really cool!)

History.lds.org -From here you can access several of the other resources I've listed here.  It also has publications and another whole list of online resources that you can check out there.

Revelations in Context  -This is found on lds.org and you've probably seen links to it in your sunday school manuals for Doctrine and Covenants.  It's a great resource to get some understanding for what was happening during times of revelation.  It also tells us the story from other people's points of view that lived during that time. You'll also find links to other research sources such as the Joseph Smith Papers and church historians press listed above.

Women in the Scriptures Blog -While this blog isn't just about church history it is fascinating! She also has some really good book reviews and recommendations that have really helped me understand more about women in all of the scriptures, Eve's story, Emma Smith and more.

Amazon  and Goodreads book reviews- When deciding which books I want to read I often turn to the book reviews on Amazon or Goodreads to see what others have to say about it and how it helped them in their life.  I also research who the authors are and what other books they may have written. I usually look at what seems to be the overall tone of the reviews.  Is it people who are genuinely searching for answers to their questions or is it people who are looking for new ammunition to shoot back at the church. They can be so helpful in deciding if a book will be a good fit for you.

Well, I know this has been a long blog post but I hope it might be of some help to others.  For those who have questions I hope it lets you know that you're not alone, there are places you can go to find answers and that our Heavenly parents love you!

For those who don't have questions I hope that it might give you some good ideas of where you can turn to learn more, that you can have more empathy for those who do have questions and that maybe it will help you to feel less awkward in having conversations with your brothers and sisters who approach the gospel differently than you.

And for those who aren't LDS I hope that it can give you some resources to learn more about this religion or at the very least help you understand why my Goodreads list has been so boring sounding lately :)


My main hope always, whether you agree with my positions or not, is that my post can at least promote charity and understanding between all people inside and outside of the LDS church. So, please let me know if you have any questions I can help with or leave a comment with your favorite resources to use in your religious study! I love hearing from you all!

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