The year was 1837; just a few years ago the Mormon Saints in Kirtland Ohio had experienced what many had likened to the day of Pentecost (Grant 1844). Many saw angels; others spoke in tongues (Smith 1978, 2: 378-436), and even felt inclined to say, “That day strikingly demonstrated that [Joseph Smith] was, indeed, a prophet of God raised up for the deliverance of Israel. (Grant 1844, 8,9)”
Yet somehow, just a few years later those same saints, who had seen angels, were calling Joseph Smith a fallen prophet (Smith 1978, 2:529). No exact account of how many left the church is available, however estimates put it at about 13% of the church membership, including a third of the general authorities and all of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon (Backman 1989). Hundreds, particularly leaders, left the fledgling church they had been so supportive of just years before.
Never in the history of the church has there been such an exodus of members, until now. On January 31 2012 Reuters reported on a discussion about the statistics of the church led by Marlin Jensen the LDS church historian. According to the article a woman asked Jensen if the Church leadership was aware that people are “leaving in droves” from the church. To which Jensen replied, “We are aware and I'm speaking of the 15 men that are above me in the hierarchy of the church.” He also said, “Not since a famous troublespot in Mormon history, the 1837 failure of a church bank in Kirtland, Ohio, have so many left the church.” This exodus has been highlighted by events such as the mass resignation which took place in Salt Lake City in June of 2012. Further evidence of the exodus is in the explosion of sites for former members such as exmormon.org and postmormon.org.
Why the exodus? In many ways the reasons are similar to those of the Kirtland saints in 1937-38. Doubts about the legitimacy of Joseph Smith’s prophethood, secular and monetary pressures and lives not in accordance with church standards have likely all contributed now as then. Young members and some not so young have found out more of the truth behind the history of the church and felt deceived by the stories told them their whole lives. Joseph Smith’s wives, changes in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, details about the manuscript of the Book of Abraham, and more. Quickly they begin to doubt the faith they have grown up with, loved, lived in, and in many cases preached. “Everything’s out there for them to consume if they want to Google it.” Marlin Jensen stated, “My own daughter has come to me and said, 'Dad, why didn't you ever tell me that Joseph Smith was a polygamist?’”
Members and on-members alike have dug into church statistics and found some disturbing trends. Showing that not only is the church no longer the fastest growing religion, but in many ways is struggling to maintain its current membership, with fewer births per person, fewer baptisms per missionary, and more people leaving per congregation*.
And so where do we go from here? What is in the future? Perhaps looking back to the time of 1837 would be helpful. The apostasy of Kirtland was followed by one of the greatest explosions in doctrine and liberalization since the founding. The endowment, plural marriage, and the work for the dead all began to unfold in their fullness.
What do I expect from the church in the 21st century? One of the greatest expansions of doctrinal understanding in the history of the church, and nothing less. A talk given on a Sunday night to the youth is a clue. It was not coincidental that it was to the youth, as the future leaders of a less-dogmatic, more-open, and more-liberal church.
The talk entitled What Is Truth? is destined to become a classic. President Uchtdorf addressed the reasons many are leaving the church, pointing to the same ones I and others have seen, just giving different explanations behind them. Though he does rest some of the blame on “the advisory” for “[spreading] seeds of doubt” he also recognizes much of it is because of our own culture and deliberate attempts to not fully seek for truth and the whole truth.
A common accusation against the church is that members claim belief as knowledge. This has caused outsiders to criticize and some insiders to become outsiders. Uchtdorf acknowledged the error of this way of thinking. “We too often confuse belief with truth,” he said, “thinking that because something makes sense or is convenient, it must be true. Conversely, we sometimes don’t believe truth or reject it – because it would require us to change or admit that we were wrong. Often, truth is rejected because it doesn’t appear to be consistent with previous experiences.”
He continued “when the opinions or ‘truths’ of the others contradict our own, instead of considering the possibility that there could be information that might be helpful and augment or complement what we know, we often jump to conclusions or make assumptions that other person is misinformed, mentally challenged, or even intentionally trying to deceive.” This is counsel needed for Latter-day Saints.
Another common accusation against the church is that its members often accept what their leaders say on blind faith without ever questioning. This is, unfortunately, something characteristic of too many Latter-day Saints. President Uchtdorf acknowledges this and condemns it. “Latter-day Saints are not asked to blindly accept everything they hear. We are encouraged to think and discover truth for ourselves. We are expected to ponder, to search, to evaluate, and thereby to come to a personal knowledge of the truth.”
He used some classic quotes from early church leaders to support his argument about the importance of truth in Mormonism. Quoting Brigham Young, “I am … afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security. … Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates.” Most non-members would not believe that this quote comes from a Mormon prophet, many inside the church might ask “Is it really not part of our religion to blindly follow our leaders?”
Pres. Uchtdorf also used one of my favorite quotes from Joseph Smith “Mormonism is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or… being … prohibited by creeds superstitious notions of men.”
The idea that Mormons embrace truth from Hinduism, Buddhism, and even humanism seems so hipster, so liberal, so modern, so contrary to what people think about dogmatic Mormonism. Yet there it is as “The first and fundamental principal of our holy religion.”
Youth hearing this, will not readily forsake it. They will be leaders who seek truth in all its forms. What will we see in the 21st century church? Well I am no prophet, but I believe we will begin to get a glimpse of what Joseph Smith meant when he said, “truth without limitation.”
We will see liberalization in homosexual policy (as already being seen), on understanding and working with other faiths, on women in the priesthood, on our own history. Will women get the priesthood? I doubt it (but who knows!), however will women be able to give blessings again as they did during earlier times in the church, perhaps. Will we see a re-introduction of polygamy? I extremely doubt it. However I do expect a much more openness about the history of church involvement in the practice. Church history in general will become increasingly open (as we are starting to see in many ways) as will be necessary with an increasingly open world. This increased openness was seen when Gordon B. Hinckley recommended reading of Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman and will continue and accelerate. Will some future prophet suggest we read D. Michael Quinn’s Mormon Hierarchy? Maybe not. But the openness that allowed the creation of many of D. Michael Quinn’s books will be restored and even expanded.
Perhaps we will finally get a few new additions to the Doctrine and Covenants, embracing those words of Joseph Smith that God “will yet reveal many great and important truths.”
I believe we are about to embark on an era of truth seeking akin to Joseph Smith’s original search for truth and perhaps even greater, where we will no longer rely on “the statements of Elders as much as we will the searching of our own heart and conscience.” There will be more questioning, more understanding, and more knowledge coming forth. To put it in a slightly more controversial terms, I believe the future will hold a lot more Holland and Uchtdorf.
The new generation will live the words of President Uchtdorf, “[by accepting] the responsibility to seek after truth with an open mind and a humble heart, you will become tolerant of others, more open to listen, more prepared to understand, more inclined to build up instead of tearing down, and more willing to go were the Lord wants you to go.” And that can only be a good thing for a church that is far too often too eager to ignore, too quick to judge, and too confident to question.
If you are one of those considering leaving, I would ask you to reconsider, as you may be missing a most interesting ride.
Backman, Milton V. Jr. "A Warning from Kirtland." Ensign, April 1989.
Grant, Jedediah M. Collection of Facts, Relative to the Course Taken by Elder Signey Rigdon in the States of Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Philidelphia: Bicking & Guilbert, 1844.8,9
Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2d. ed. rev., 7 vols. . Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co. , 1978.
Coltrin, Zebedee. Minutes of High Priest Meeting, Spanish Fork, Utah, February 5, 1870
*Church statistics are an interesting topic. This analysis by Joanna Brooks is far from sufficient. Others who actually know something about statics have done better analyses, however a more complete study would be extremely interesting and I believe beneficial for the church. I am guessing the church actually has most of these numbers, they just don’t release them to the general public.