Online scholarship by amateur historians is shaking the Mormon Church. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are starting to look to the web for answers to some of their most pressing questions, and the answers aren’t always encouraging them to stay true to their Mormon backgrounds.
The Mormon Church’s relative youth presents a unique set of challenges. With a little less than a century and a half separating present-day scholars and the religion’s founders, the church’s history can be laid unusually bare. A wealth of documents and witness accounts expose the warts of the church’s founders and history. Key figures like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are exposed as flawed individuals despite their inspirational qualities. Events like The Mountain Meadow Massacre show failings of church leadership and seem to question the sincerity of early adherents to an ostensibly peaceful religion.
When a Mormon scholar recently started discussing Joseph Smith’s polygamist practice, he was somewhat surprised by how many Mormons denied, or were unaware of, the church’s founder’s sexual exploits. Historians are fairly certain that Smith took on many wives, among whom the youngest were only around age 14. Perhaps more perplexing, he entered into relationships with the wives of other Mormon leaders. These relationships seemed to have the consent of all involved parties, including the original husbands, but do not fall within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint’s current teachings on appropriate sexual conduct.
Interestingly, it appears that defections from the faith over increased information are heavily concentrated among the church’s leadership. According to the New York Times, more than half of men and nearly half of the women members who left the church last year had held a church leadership position at some point in the past. These members report inadequate support from the church in confronting their concerns and cite this lack of information as a key factor in their decisions to leave. One defector, who had long served as the head of the church in Europe, described an odd visit from a church elder who claimed to have a document that proved the church’s naysayers wrong. He then refused to produce the aforementioned document and admonished concerned parishioners to have more faith.
While the Mormon Church is struggling to address some of the concerns raised online, it is clear that they are trying to adapt. The church is attempting to be more transparent and provide members with more information. One example of this increased transparency comes in the form of a section on the official church website explaining the details of various challenging aspects of the church’s history. A page on The Mountain Meadow Massacre not only lays considerable blame for the atrocity on Mormon leaders, but specifically refutes unfair charges leveled against Indian tribes which, while complicit, did not mastermind the slaughter. This page provides objective historical information while apologizing for Mormon involvement.
While information on the internet may be giving rise to doubt in some Mormons, it is clear that the church remains committed to growth, and is putting a new emphasis on transparency.