A few months ago, I brought a PDF file of the 1837-1838 Church newspaper The Elder’s Journal to a local print shop in order to have a hardcopy made and bound for my ease of reading – and to put on my bookshelf.
When I picked up the final product, the employee asked me, very tentatively, if I was a Mormon. I answered , ‘Yep. Sure am.’ This was followed by a sigh of relief from the employee, who then said, “Good. I saw what you were printing, and figured you were probably an Anti-Mormon … or maybe a member.”
Yes, the employee was a Church member. Now keep in mind that the response, including the assumption that there was a good chance I was an anti-Mormon was because I printed a copy of an old yet official Church Newspaper that was edited by Joseph Smith himself.
I have noticed among many of the general membership of the Church that there is a massive distrust and level of discomfort associated with early Church history, and especially early Church historical documents. To some, if you were to mention something about Church History that differs from current Correlated Teaching and Practice, it will result in an askew glance, and perhaps concern that you are On The Road To Apostasy for even looking into “that stuff”.
To a degree, it’s understandable. Most primary early church historical documents and such related elements are not used and referenced in Modern Official Church settings, but they are often utilized by antagonistic sources, generally to point out some ‘shocking’ speculation or assertion of an early Church leader, or to ‘expose’ some practice or belief that has changed over time.
This tactic is based on a paradigm of prophetic and scriptural inerrancy that is inherent as a necessary part of many antagonists’ understanding of what constitutes True Religion.
The problem comes when Mormons accept this paradigm as applying to our Church and our Doctrine, when it doesn’t. I find this to be far more prevalent than it should be. I believe this is dangerous.
I’m a convert to the Church – I was baptized my final year of college in 2004, almost exactly 7 years ago – , and I’ve been studying the History of the Church in one degree or another since before there was even a possibility in my mind that any of this stuff had any sort of divine validity.
And yes. I will quickly acknowledge that if one’s faith is centered on the principle that all truly inspired and Approved By God Scriptures and Prophets must be rigidly perfect, 100% free from incorrect speculation and general human error, then any sort of truly academic research into Biblical Texts, let alone Restoration Church History, will either lead to pious denial, or a crumbling of that faith.
But that would only be because, if I may be so bold to say it, that this particular example of ‘faith’ would not have been centered and built on a solid foundation.
There have been some – even prominent Church Leaders – whom I have seen forwarding the idea that delving into an academic study of the history of the Church can be damaging to one’s faith.
It is my experience that this can only be true if one’s faith is centered on misunderstanding, auxiliary matters of interpretation, and generally not on what truly matters as the foundation of our Religion.
As you can tell based on the material I write about here, I love academically studying scriptural history, ancient and modern. While such a study has resulted in some pretty substantial paradigm shifts in my understanding of some doctrinal and historical matters, it has only served to increase my faith in and reinforce my commitment to those core things that do matter.
My faith is centered in:
- The existence of a personal God, who acts in the capacity of my loving Eternal Father.
- The reality of the love of Jesus Christ, my eternal Savior and Exemplar.
- The knowledge that Joseph Smith was a simple man who powerfully served in the capacity of a true prophet, or messenger, of the will of God.
- The experience of knowing that the Book of Mormon and other writings accepted as scripture by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expresses and teaches inspired and true principles, and, when applied, powerfully assists individuals in obtaining peace through coming to intimately know Jesus Christ.
My faith is not centered on and does not include:
- A belief that a complete, total and consistent knowledge of the full character and nature of God needs to have been accurately understood and expressed by all authentic prophets and scriptures, ancient, modern, and present.
- A belief that there are no errors or contradictions in the canonized scriptural record, that all prophets and scriptural books agree in all doctrinal matters, or that all that is presented within scriptural books always represent literal historical fact
- A belief that a true prophet and/or Church cannot make substantial interpretational errors and still powerfully and effectively serve in accordance with their inspired Apostolic charge.
Anything that helps me understand more accurately how God interacts with Man, and how we interact with Him strengthens my faith. I do not want to – and in fact have found I cannot – center my faith on culture, speculation, wishful thinking, or allow myself to sit in a mindset where I need to willingly ignore facts to make my world continue to turn.
It is my experience that active and living faith requires changes in how you view the world, and how you view others. This is good.
For me, an academic study of scriptural history – combined of necessity with practical devotional application of what I have learned from it – has increased my compassion, humbles me on a continual basis, and has expanded my view of what is possible for us to practically accomplish in our own lives.
If I ever come to a point where I feel there is nothing more I could learn, it would be at that point, I think, where my faith would indeed be lying dormant, and be in the process of withering up to die. True faith adds understanding to and gives greater meaning to truths – it does not require ignoring truth, or downplaying it.