Navigating Doubts in the LDS Church (January 16, 2019)

This past Sunday (January 13), Dale and Ruth Renlund gave a youth devotional from Hawaii about navigating doubts. The church sent an email announcing the event with the following text:

"Navigating Doubts and Faith with Elder and Sister Renlund

Join Elder Dale G. Renlund and Sister Ruth Renlund as they speak to young adults worldwide about how to confidently navigate doubts and feed faith.

Consider inviting someone to join you, especially those friends or family who may be struggling."

That last sentence really got me interested because the implication is that they would be discussing some topics that many members struggle with regarding both church history and doctrine and give some real answers about them. We've obviously covered those on this site in more detail, but many members in the faith crisis study cite issues like the Book of Abraham, First Vision, polygamy, DNA evidence that Native Americans aren't Lamanites, ban on blacks, treatment of the LGBT community, and Book of Mormon translation as problems that cause disbelief in the church's truth claims.

My thought was that if they were asking the youth to bring those who were struggling with, they would be more open and engaging towards them and what they are going through. Having talked with some members who are struggling in the last few months, and speaking for myself as well, it would be refreshing for the church to acknowledge these problems instead of blaming those with doubts and questions.

But this youth devotional once again followed a pattern that the church has moved heavily towards since the internet made information so readily available: Shaming those with doubts, demonizing those who have found out about troubling church topics, and using fear to keep members from looking beyond faith promoting, correlated sources.

The talk begins with the oft used 'stay in the boat' parable. In this particular version, the Renlunds take turns speaking about a boy who is capsized with a life preserver just hoping to be rescued. Once he is rescued in the boat, he is given water and crackers to give him some strength, but once he starts feeling better he immediately looks for problems. "As you begin to revive and start feeling better, you begin to pay attention to some things you never noticed before. The water from the canteen is a bit stale and not what you would've preferred like Evian or Perrier. The crackers tasted good but what you really wanted was some delicatessen meat followed by a chocolate croissant."

Immediately the church is pointing the finger at the person with doubts, telling them that it's their fault for expecting the church's truth claims to hold up, and the idea that people with doubt are only looking for the finest water and food is really abrasive this early in the talk. The parable, as explained by the Renlunds, is that the church saved us, but we are just constantly looking for problems. Speaking as someone who converted after the missionary discussions, I can state with absolute confidence that what the missionaries taught me about the foundation of the church are not supported by the facts, including from church historical documents and teachings.

Ruth Renlund continued by saying that the boat is the church, and asking "do dents and peeling paint on the church change its ability to provide the authorized saving and exalting ordinances to help us become like our heavenly father?"

Again, this is shifting all of the blame on the person who has concerns about information they have come across. Another way to look at this question would be to say:

We could go on here, but you get the point. Calling these issues mere "dents" or "peeling paint" is absurd. The entire foundation of the church is built on this history and doctrine, and if it is not true, the church itself is not true. This 'parable' from the Renlunds would be as if I said the foundation of my house crumbling was a mere cosmetic issue that people are unnecessarily worried about.

It is also amazing how the church uses images/animation in this talk that looks designed for primary aged kids. Just look at how the rescued kid looks when he apparently is upset the water that just saved him wasn't "Evian or Perrier."

The talk continues by telling the youth that this kid demands to be let off the boat, and the sad man in the boat lets him back into the water. As the finish this parable, they make sure to mention that "slipping back into the water instead of staying in the boat is risky."

This is followed by a quote from Russell Nelson from April 2018: "You don't have to wonder about what is true. You do not have to wonder about whom you can safely trust. Through personal revelation you can receive your own witness that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, that Joseph Smith is a prophet, and that this is the Lord's church. Regardless what others may say and do, no one can take away a witness born into your heart and mind about what is true."

This quote springboards a pretty steady assault on those with doubts, and a dire warning to those who dare look at the church's problems beyond the correlated materials the church will provide such as the gospel topics essays or the new Saints book.

As the Renlunds discuss what faith is, they make the following statements:

  • "Faith is the assurance of the existence of things we haven't seen in the flesh."

  • "Faith is kindled by hearing the gospel taught by authorized teachers sent by God."

  • "Faith comes by righteousness. Faith does not come from demanding signs of God, but by obeying and following his commandments."

  • "When you start with the question 'could these things not be true,' it leads to a beginning of faith that if nurtured grows. Could these things not be true is a question that presumes that it's true.For instance if I say 'Aren't we going to drive from Honolulu to the North Shore,' it presumes we are going to drive... if we instead start with the question "couldn't these things not be false," it leads to doubt and doubt never leads to faith."

One thing that I've noticed during my discoveries about church history and doctrines is that apologists will often say that with we can't possibly know all of the answers, and that is where faith comes in. The problem, in my opinion, is that faith is about believing what 'haven't seen in the flesh,' but it is not believing in spite of what can be seen in the flesh.

Going back to some issues that were mentioned above, we now have so much historical documentation to know how some of the problematic areas of the church happened. For example, how can we have faith that the Lamanites were true descendants of the Native Americans when DNA studies are conclusive that the Native Americans came from Asia? And more to the point, how could God give revelations to Joseph Smith to preach to the Lamanites (thought to be Indians), when we find out 180 years that it is simply not true?

You could use the same example with the Book of Abraham, which has seen apologists leave the church even in recent times because the more you study it, the more the apologetic responses fall apart.

This is setting up the Renlunds to really twist the knife into doubters, to make sure that those watching this youth devotional will avoid them at all costs. As a father in a family that includes believing members, this terrifies me because not only will my wife be receiving these messages, but my young child will as well. That is the reason that I find discussing these issues to be so important - because I refuse to be vilified by a church that continues to teach history and doctrines that they know are not true. More on that later.

Anyway, this brings us to the story of Steven, as the Renlunds use him to try and scare those watching the devotional to never question the problems of the church. Steven was a member of the church who served a mission and was married in the temple, but was bothered by historical issues. First he had problems with the multiple First Vision accounts, and Dale Renlund put him in touch with someone who had researched the issue. When he saw Steven he asked about his concerns and Steven replied with "Well, I feel OK about that because my questions have been answered. That no longer bothers me. But now I'm really concerned about the polygamy that was practiced in Nauvoo and after the Manifesto."

This leads Dale Renlund to send Steven to another researcher and "reliable primary sources," which is church code for correlated materials that are faith promoting. Again, he talks to Steven later, and Steven tells him "Well that doesn't bother me anymore . I understand what happened and my concerns have been resolved. But now I am concerned that the priesthood was held from those with African descent."

From here, Ruth Renlund puts the blame squarely on Steven: "Sadly, Steven had chosen to be a perpetual doubter. For him, doubting pleased him more than knowing and he was digging up in doubt what he had planted in faith. As time went on as one concern was resolved another one was found. No matter how much anyone tried to respond and answer these questions he found another topic on which he was anxious. He focused on the dents in the boat instead of on the capability of the boat to lead him to the blessings of the atonement of Jesus Christ. What Steve was doing was a form of church history whack-a-mole. You know the children's game where a mole pops up from a board and as soon as you hit it another one pops up in its place. (Pause for laughter)"

I added 'pause for laughter' on purpose, as they clearly do pause and wait in the video. And on a side note, I love that they included a picture of the mole holding up a sign with a guy surrounded by two women. The church usually goes to great lengths to avoid imagery of polygamy because of how troubling it is, but it's interesting that it was included here.

To be clear, I have no idea if this story about Steven happened, but I can guarantee you that if it is true, Steven would tell a much different version of the story.

The reason there is "church history whack-a-mole" is because once you see one problematic area of church history, it leads you to another. I have referred to this before as being like the ending of The Sixth Sense - once you see it, everything makes sense. Once you realize the Book of Abraham source material completely contradicts what Joseph Smith said it was, the anachronisms in the Book of Mormon make sense. Once you realize that Joseph Smith changed revelations as his theology changed, the problems with the priesthood restoration, First Vision, and polygamy make sense.

So in that sense the Renlunds are actually correct - the discovery of one church problem will almost always lead to another. That leaves the church fighting to keep members from digging beneath the correlated materials, and it's also why their approach is not helping those who do look deeper stay in the church because while the church is retrenched in their truth claims, the evidence of the historical problems speaks for themselves once you get past the apologetics.

Last, the whack-a-mole game is played with a hammer that knocks the moles back down. In this analogy, the hammer would be answers the solve each one of these issues. If the church really had answers to all of these problems, the game would be easy for the church to win. Yet in this case they are asking members not to engage in this kind of discovery, because they know that they don't have a hammer to knock the moles away with.

In this case, however, they are clearly blaming Steven for being troubled by the information he was encountering. Victim blaming might be great to try and scare younger members from being like Steven, but it really does nothing to address the legitimate problems that so many members have left the church over, and it is completely ineffective to bring those back who have understood that the problems are real and backed up by the evidence. It is why I really do not understand why the email announcement asked members to invite those who are struggling, because I just don't think this approach is helpful or appropriate with those who have already encountered damaging information about the church.

Now that Steven has been blamed for having these doubts, the Renlunds shift their focus to attacking sources that are not church approved: "While further intellectual information may temporarily resolve an intellectual concern, further information is not the complete solution because as Paul wrote to the Corinthians "that the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him. Neither can he know them as they are spiritually discerned. Faith in Jesus Christ and the spirit are also needed."

Again, I would agree that "intellectual information" is not the complete solution when we don't have much information to work from. But in many of the problems we discuss on this website, we are working from multiple historical records, inputs from scholars, and conclusive testing when it comes to DNA, the Kinderhook Plates, and even now with more studies showing that being gay is not a choice as the church has taught over the years.

They then refer to the Lectures on Faith, stating: "Where doubt and uncertainty are, faith is not nor can it be. For doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time. Persons whose minds are under doubts and fears cannot have unshaken confidence. And where unshaken confidence is not, their faith is weak. And where faith is weak, persons will not be able to contend against all the opposition, tribulations, and afflictions which they will have to encounter to be heirs of God... and the adversary will have power over them and destroy them. This is what happened to Steven: He let doubt and uncertainly occupy his mind. As time went on he didn't have the strength to confront the challenges one faces as a member of the church... he grew weary in his mind and his faith disappeared."

This is so harmful to blame victims for having legitimate questions. I get that doubt is scary for members, and I get why it's scary for the church to see so many members having doubt with the information to readily accessible online now. But at the end of the day, having doubt should lead to a stronger testimony if the church is true.

If I told someone that in my past I was a high school all-star in basketball and they doubted my claims, I would tell them to look at the records and see for themselves. Once they look, they will either have stronger faith in my claims or they'll know I was not telling the truth.

Doubt is not a bad thing. In fact, doubt should be one of the most faith promoting transitions for the church if it is true. What better way to strengthen testimonies than to tell members to research the Book of Abraham and talk to Egyptian scholars, because they will confirm that Joseph Smith actually got it right before people even knew how to translate Egyptian!

But as we all know, that's not what happened. We know that the Book of Mormon contains anachronisms that further demonstrate that it is a 19th century work as conceded even by LDS historian Richard Bushman, that DNA completely contradicts the purpose of the Book of Mormon, or that the church is constantly behind society in equality with blacks, women, and now the LGBT community.

We're getting a bit long here in this post, but I wanted to highlight these comments from the Renlunds where they attack sources that are not correlated church materials:

They paraphrase John Widtsoe: "Doubt unless changed into inquiry from a reliable, trustworthy source has no value or worth. A stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the appropriate effort to pay the price of divine discovery inevitably reaches unbelief and darkness. His doubts grow like poison our mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers. At last, blind like the mole in his burrow he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, indolence for labor and becomes a lazy scholar. Doubt is not wrong unless it becomes an end in and of itself. That doubts which feeds and grows upon itself and breeds more doubt is evil. Elder Whitsoe's words are still true: Stagnant doubt does not lead to knowing the reality of the savior Jesus Christ and His atonement. It doesn't lead to knowing we have a kind loving Heavenly Father that instituted the great plan of salvation... we can come to know the truthfulness of this latter day work, but it requires we choose faith, not doubt and that we go to reliable, trustworthy sources for our answers."

 

Just look at the phrasing here and you'll understand why we constantly remark about how the church uses fear to keep members from going beyond correlated materials to learn about its history. It is harmful to tell the youth that if they look at sources the church deems unreliable that their doubts are evil, or that the scholars in these fields are lazy. I don't know what more to say here other than to say that the constant vilification of scholars that do not believe church claims is dishonest, unhealthy, and harmful. And I take it personally that the church would consider someone like me "lazy" when I have spent a lot of time researching these issues not just from a critical point of view, but by reading apologetic responses and listening to talks from leaders. There's nothing lazy about this, and it's insulting that the church resorts to this tactic to poison the well for members who are looking to learn more.

Can we also try to define what a reliable, trustworthy source even is? Remember that Brigham Young taught that Adam was God, which is now disavowed by the church. Brigham Young also taught that the penalty for interracial relations should be death on the spot. Church leaders have taught that masturbation leads to homosexuality, which is clearly nonsense for so many reasons. Missionaries taught me that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with golden plates and the Urim and Thummim, which we now is not accurate as he used a seer stone in a hat.

Would it be a reliable source to look at church teachings where they claimed that Joseph Smith wasn't a treasure digger, or that the Kinderhook Plates were real up until science proved they were a hoax? What about referencing the talks when Gordon B. Hinckley rebuffed Russell Nelson's calls to stop using the term Mormon? We are now told it is inspiration/revelation from God, but clearly Nelson has been pushing for that since the 1990s while the prophets in the meantime completely dismissed his claims.

Perhaps a reliable and trustworthy source would be when Joseph Smith told members he could not see but one wife as he was married to over 30 women, or the church continuing to lie about the transfiguration of Brigham Young that history clearly shows did not happen? How about when Joseph F Smith claimed the seer stone was a hoax, or when prophet Harold B. Lee stated that handicapped people were "unfaithful or not valiant" in the pre-existence?

Again it might feel like piling on here, but we have so many examples of past prophets making statements that are disavowed today. The church doesn't teach that they used to take blood oaths in the temple, curse the leaders of the United States in the temple, and banned black members for 130 years under the doctrine (their word, not mine) that they were cursed by God.

I just wish the church would define what a reliable, trustworthy source is to be transparent about what they are trying to accomplish here. Personally I believe that is a code-word for correlated materials, which means the teachings that have been disavowed are no longer reliable and why the church has lessened the reliance manuals and focused more on General Conference talks of current leaders to avoid all of the contradictions that have arisen over the decades.

But the best lines of the entire talk come here, as Dale and Ruth trade barbs mocking those who have uncovered troubling information about the church and have shared with others so that they could find the truth: "So, would you seek financial advice from someone who is broke and in debt? Would you ask for medical advice from a charlatan snake-oil salesman? Who would you take some advice from on how to perform your forehand in tennis? A weekend hack of Roger Federer? So why would you entrust your eternal welfare to those who are spiritually bankrupt because they have ripped up in doubt what they once planted in faith."

Just look at the words here and realize that they are accusing those who doubts of being just like these people. But to be fair the Renlunds are actually correct about this, so let me add to this for them:

  • Would you seek advice on who the Native Americans were from Joseph Smith, who claimed they were Israel, or from every geneticist who can conclusively say they came from Asia?

  • Who would you ask for medical advice from? Joseph Smith, who instituted the Word of Wisdom which banned hot soups but didn't tell members to boil their water, or doctors and scientists that have found many health benefits of coffee and hot teas?

  • Would you take advice on Egyptian translations from a man the church proclaims as a prophet who got the Book of Abraham completely wrong, or Egyptian scholars who are in agreement with what the source material papyrus actually says?

Again, we could go on all day, but the point the Renlunds brings up here is actually pretty good. We should trust the experts, especially when the consensus continually proves church claims to be inaccurate. And if the church is continually proven wrong on who the Lamanites were, what the Book of Abraham source material says, anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, how the Book of Mormon was translated, etc... what does Occam's Razor tell us? That doesn't even get into the historical issues with polygamy and polyandry, the priesthood restoration, the ban on blacks, Joseph Smith's plagiarism in the JST of the Bible, the Kinderhook Plates, or the First Vision accounts.

I know this is getting to be quite a long blog post, but there is just so much information here to discuss. Just a few more quotes from the Renlunds and we are done:

  • "The blogosphere can not replace scripture study, and reading the words of living apostles and prophets. Foster your faith by going to trustworthy sources to find answers to your questions."

  • So it's simple: If a choice leads you to do good and believe in Christ, it's from God. If the choice entices you to do evil and deny Christ, it's of the devil. As you get on the covenant path, you can know that those things that distract you from that path, that persuade you not to believe in Christ as wrong. Those things that persuade you to believe in God, to love Him and keep His commandments are from God. You will miss spiritually important events if you choose persistent doubt fueled by answers from faithless and unfaithful sources."

On that second quote, I want to note that the LDS church continually takes this all or nothing approach. The problems with Mormonism do not mean that you can't believe in God after you leave, yet they need members to believe that if you lose faith in the Mormon church that you will lose everything. And to be fair, there are members that leave find themselves agnostic or even atheist, but it is not fair to say that doubts about Mormon truth claims are equal to doubts about God overall. There are many members who leave the church and still believe in God and the Bible, but have come to know that the Book of Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith because history points to that conclusion.

I want to finish this post by citing one of the final comments from Dale Renlund bearing his testimony: "As part of my assignment as an advisor to the church history department, I've read all the volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers. I've also read the first volume and the first portion of the second volume of the new narrative history of the church entitled Saints. Reading everything Joseph Smith ever wrote or was reported to have said has simply strengthened my testimony of his role as a prophet chosen of God to restore His work on earth. Joseph Smith was always true to his testimony. He was consistent. He always behaved as one who had actually seen our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, Moroni, John the Baptist, Peter, James and John, Moses, Elias and Elijah. He acted as one who had possessed the golden plates and translated those ancient texts by the gift and power of God. He acted as one who had received revelation from Jesus Christ himself. He acted as one who received priesthood authority and keys of the holy apostleship."

I know that bearing a testimony is how all talks typically end, but in the context of this talk I really want to make a few final points. First, we have detailed chapter by chapter the new Saints book, highlighting the areas where the church is avoiding topics, being deceptive about troubling areas, or just rewriting history. If you haven't checked that out please do - we are only two chapters from being finished.

Second, Renlund here is saying 'I've read literally everything and it makes me believe it more, so now you don't have to," but I encourage everyone to read through our essays and to understand that the Joseph Smith Papers actually uncover a lot of troubling information. Just last November, I would point out that a former LDS apologist Brian Hauglid (who is cited EIGHT times in the Book of Abraham LDS essay) recently disavowed his previous apologetics on the Book of Abraham as he worked on the JSP as noted below. That is no small thing, and further illustrates our point that many apologists and believers actually leave as they uncover more information.

The last note about Renlund's testimony that I want to mention is about the people Joseph claimed to see. We detail in the changes to revelation how Joseph Smith changed the priesthood revelation to add in John the Baptist years later, which is a massive problem for the credibility of the story of the priesthood restoration.

Even more important is to note that Elias and Elijah are the same person, but because Joseph Smith did not know that he had them both in the same vision. Elijah is the Hebrew translation (in Old Testament) and Elias is the Greek translation (in New Testament). This is the same problem Joseph ran into with Deutero-Isaiah, because he had no idea that there were multiple Isaiah writers, so he included it in the Book of Mormon assuming it was written before Lehi left with the plates.

Which brings me to my final point: Doubt is good. If Renlund had doubts about Joseph Smith seeing all of these people, he would find out through research that Elias and Elijah are the same person, that Joseph Smith added in John the Baptist to the revelation years later, and that he changed the First Vision accounts to have both Jesus and God appear separately as Joseph's theology changed from a trinitarian view to multiple godheads.

I hope that those of you who made it to the end here realize that having doubts is not a bad thing, and that if the church is true then taking the deep dive through history will only further strengthen your testimony. If the church is not true, then your doubts were warranted and you are better off knowing the truth as difficult as it might feel at first.

 

And I really hope that the church will learn what a harmful approach it is to vilify those who have uncovered these problems, and that blaming the doubter is a very damaging way to try and promote faith in the church. The only true way to promote faith and to erase doubt is to encourage all member to research the claims of the church from both church and non-church sources, which is an approach that would also reassure members that the leaders of the church are truly confident in the truth claims today just as members were in Joseph's time. Because the information is out there, and if they won't be more open about it, members are going to keep finding it on their own. And as damaging as the information itself is, the feelings of betrayal for not being told them honestly as just as much if not more damaging.

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