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Mormons Start Questioning Their History, Stumble Upon Racism

In The New York Times on Sunday, Laurie Goodstein has a piece on several Mormons who have started questioning their faith. One of the problems, at least from the perspective of the Church, is the internet:

When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as "anti-Mormon propaganda," the whisperings of Lucifer. He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, [Hans] Mattsson began his own investigation.

But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.

Goodstein's story is interesting because it manages to evoke plenty of sympathy for Mattsson—"I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet. Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance"--while simultaneously raising the question of what took him so long to do some simple research. "I was just in a bubble, and we felt so happy," is pretty much his explanation.

The article also mentions the crucial challenges facing Mormon believers:

Every faith has its skeptics and detractors, but the Mormon Church’s history creates special challenges. The church was born in America only 183 years ago, and its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, and his disciples left behind reams of papers that still exist, documenting their work, exposing their warts and sometimes contradicting one another.

"The Roman Catholic Church has had 2,000 years to work through the hiccups in its history," said Terryl L. Givens, a professor of English, literature and religion at the University of Richmond and a Mormon believer. "Mormonism is still an adolescent religion."

What's useful about the piece is the issue it inadvertently raises when noting the particular questions Mattson and others found themselves asking. Goodstein provides a list:

1. Why does the church always portray Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates, when witnesses described him looking down into a hat at a “peep stone,” a rock that he believed helped him find buried treasure?

2. Why were black men excluded from the priesthood from the mid-1800s until 1978?

3. Why did Smith claim that the Book of Abraham, a core scripture, was a translation of ancient writings from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, when Egyptologists now identify the papyrus that Smith used in the translation as a common funerary scroll that has nothing to do with Abraham?

4. Is it true that Smith took dozens of wives, some as young as 14 and some already wed to other Mormon leaders, to the great pain of his first wife, Emma?

Pop quiz: which of these doesn't quite fit with the other three? Hint: it isn't #4, which Mattsson deems "shocking." It's #2. You'll notice that the other three questions are about the truth of the Mormon story. Question 2 is about disgusting bigotry that lasted until the late 1970s! Mattsson doesn't ask any more about question 2, content as he is to concern himself with whether he was given a false version of various narratives. "I don’t want to hurt the church," he eventually says. "I just want the truth." One might cynically observe that even though the Mormon story has been called into question, larger concerns about the truth of the religion don't seem to bother Mattsson.

Still, by exhibiting some doubt about narratives, Mormons may be more likely to allow themselves to ask broader questions. Small heresies can lead to larger ones, as someone once said. Generally, I would guess, it works the other way around: people don't like the Catholic Church's position on, say, abortion, so they begin questioning their role in the Church, and eventually call into question the history they have been told. This story is interesting because it shows that confusion over a faith's narrative can elicit questions about the faith's role in the world. 

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.