Happy Monday, readers—and a quick programming note. This Thursday, February 28, please join me at the Porch in Provo, Utah, for a fantastic night of storytelling on the theme “Good Girls Don’t. . . “ Two shows, both benefitting the Feminist Mormon Housewives Tracy McKay Scholarship for Single Mothers. It would be fantastic to see you there.
Now, to this week’s query:
I’m 27 and have been LDS all my life. I recently decided to educate myself on issues swept under the rug by the Church and I guess you could say I’m going through a faith transition. I’m currently in the process of learning about and reconciling our troubled history, but I still believe the gospel at its core is true. I teach Sunday School to a group of 14 and 15 year olds. They’re great kids with strong testimonies, but they regularly come to class regaling stories from the past week of what “crazy lies” their classmates confronted them with. Often these aren’t lies at all; they’re some of those troubling stories from early church history, or past doctrines. My students’ peers are researching the Church online, finding the most bizarre (but historically accurate) parts of our past and culture, and then reporting their findings. What can I say to my students when they bring them up in class? I personally think that these things should be discussed, but at what age? How much information should I give? So far all I’ve said is something about the gift of continuing revelation, and that no matter what wacky thing they’re approached with, if it hasn’t been taught recently, we don’t believe it.
I’m dreading the day one of my students asks, “Is it true that Joseph Smith married a girl my age?” No one ever told me the truth about these things, but then again I never asked because I had no idea. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to say too much, either.
Lots of readers are nodding their heads right now—for this is the story of the moment in Mormonism: we are, one highly esteemed and lately emeritized General Authority said not so long ago, in the greatest period of membership attrition due to loss of belief since the Church’s tumultuous “Kirtland” era in the late 1830s.
The problem, folks say, is exactly as you put it: the sanitized version of Mormon history taught in our post-correlation curriculum does not address controversial episodes from Mormonism’s very human past—including polygamy, conflicting accounts of origins of Mormon books of scripture, sources of temple practices, and doctrinal changes. When young people, or middle-aged people, or older people are confronted with plain data that controverts what they’ve learned in Sunday School, the effects for some can be profoundly discouraging or destabilizing. I’ve often heard the word “betrayal” used to describe the feeling.
Word has it that serious efforts have been underway within the institutional LDS Church to develop resources to better prepare and educate LDS people about controversial aspects of Mormon history. We see a big step towards that in the Church’s release of the complete Joseph Smith papers http://josephsmithpapers.org/ How many members will dig deep enough to discover that, yes, Joseph Smith did marry at least 33 women, including fourteen year-old Helen Mar Kimball? How many will hear the family business from the family before they hear it from strangers on the street, or even worse, from internet-savvy, Book of Mormon musical-listening peers in the high school lunch line? Good clear curriculum on polygamy and other thorny issues can’t arrive soon enough.
But until it arrives?
A whole movement of bloggers and podcasters has grown up to fill the gaps. Seriously heavy lifting has been taking place for years now at Mormon Stories and similar Mormon podcasts. The Mormon Stories folks even developed a survey (non-scientific, but still statistically significant) to assess the impact of historical issues on membership attrition. Find the data at whymormonsquestion.org.
I’ve written here at Ask Mormon Girl about how I personally process complex issues in Church history, but teaching is a more complicated question. For until the Church provides better guidance what’s a humble Sunday School teacher of fourteen year-olds supposed to do? Take the shock and awe approach? Haul out the contemporary translations of the Book of Abraham and serve them up to the kids with some delicious rice krispy treats? Or, rather, nod and smile and quietly worry that leaving such matters unaddressed is dishonest and potentially damaging?
Surely there must be a middle path, and I’m hoping the readers of this blog will chime in and help us move towards a collective articulation of that path. Here’s my best shot: the responsibility to teach young people the foundations and history of their religion is important—sacred, really. It entails serious trust with your ward and its families. It sounds like you take that trust seriously. I do too. I don’t think a fourteen year-old Sunday School class is the place to be introducing the grocery list of the thorny issues in place of the regular curriculum. But I do think young people need to know that history and doctrine are complicated and should be treated with care and thoughtfulness. Seeing models of care and thoughtfulness helps. I think it’s possible to introduce the humanity and complexity of Church history—including doctrinal change and the human limits of earlier church leaders—by dealing directly with issues like the Church’s history on race. Clear, solidly historical and non-sensationalized information on the history of Black priesthood ordination, its interruption, the growth of racist folk doctrine, and the revision of the policy on Black ordination in 1978 is a pretty good introductory course in Mormon complication. From the general principle, bright minds will be able to infer some applications to other problems in Mormon history. Let them lead the conversation.
Model an open and non-sensational approach to the tough stuff. And if you manage to weather your own faith transition, when more hard questions come knocking, maybe you’ll be the one they stop in the church hallway for a sidebar.
That’s my best operating theory. Readers, what’s yours?
Send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.