The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is changing. Once a marginal, persecuted sect isolated in the frontier regions of Utah in the 19th century, the movement popularly known as “Mormonism” has entered the American mainstream. Out with the “old”, in with the “new”.
Years ago, the stereotypical Mormon was a clean cut, college-aged student wearing a white buttoned-down shirt and a name tag, riding down your street on a bicycle. Now he is a professional business executive, a famous entertainer, or even a presidential candidate. In the “old” Mormonism, a Mormon was someone who wore weird underwear and perhaps thought that he might become a god of his own planet someday. Now in the “new” Mormonism, he is happily married and upholds traditional and wholesome American family values and loves his country. Sure, Mormons still have the bicycles and the underwear, but now they are those good-looking neighbors next door who always seem so nice and friendly and hug their kids…. Yeah, come to think of it… in my experience, every single Mormon gal I have ever met has been really cute.
But the Latter Day Saints (LDS) are changing in other ways, too. True, new membership rates indicate over 14 million LDS members worldwide and that number is steadily rising. However, the rates for active membership are actually in decline. LDS General Authority Marlin Jensen has stated that “attrition has accelerated in the last five or ten years.” Some research shows that even since the early 1990s, for every new Mormon convert there is at least one Mormon who leaves the church or simply becomes inactive. The LDS movement is hemmorraging, and hemmorraging fast. Out with the “old”, and in with the “new”. What explains these changes? How can evangelical Christians respond to the changes within Mormonism when doing apologetics?
Most traditional evangelical apologetics typically focus on the doctrinal controversies between the Mormon church and historic evangelical faith. John Paine has a very concise and helpful Veracity blog entry that summarizes the doctrinal differences. In this post, I want to expand and examine in greater detail some of the challenges in doing apologetics with Mormons.
A History of Evangelical Apologetics and the LDS: Are They a “Cult”?
There is some important history behind a doctrine-oriented approach to apologetics. Before Mormonism became more mainstream, most evangelical believers looked to Walter Martin for help. Walter Martin was a Baptist scholar/evangelist in the mid-20th century who founded the modern countercult ministry movement. Martin established the Christian Research Institute in 1960 that sought to identify the teachings of various religious movements and compare them with biblical Christianity. Martin published The Kingdom of the Cults, which has served for years as a standard reference work for comparing the doctrinal issues among various religious movements with the teachings of the Bible. If you ever wondered why an evangelical Christian uses the word “cult” to refer to Mormonism, you would have to look at Dr. Martin’s work from where the term was originally applied and disseminated to a wide audience.
Along with Dr. Martin, Ed Decker is a former Mormon who also became a counterculture apologist. In 1982, Decker published and distributed a controversial book and film, The God Makers. The film includes a seven-minute cartoon that claims to summarize the most bizarre elements of Mormon doctrine. The cartoon is a bit cheesie looking now, but it has had a major impact in promoting the idea of Mormonism as a “cult.”
Unfortunately, use of the term “cult” when applied to Mormonism has become problematic in the thirty years since Decker’s film was made. The etymology of the English term “cult” is that it was derived from the French word for “worship” in the early 17th century. The Latin root also gives us the basis for modern concepts like “culture” or “cultivation.” By the mid 20th century, the term “cult” was developed by sociologists to describe a religious group that has particular worship practices or beliefs that are differentiated from societal norms.
However, in contemporary usage, this neutral sociological meaning of “cult” has given way to a particularly pejorative connotation. For many, the term “cult” conjures up images of the 1970’s Jim Jones tragedy, “brain washing” people into leaving their families, and “drinking the cool aid”. This is in striking contrast with the very positive 21st century image of LDS people honoring many of the same pro-family values that conservative evangelical believers hold dear. A recent television ad campaign by the LDS church underlines this positive image. The ad shows a person unloading groceries with her family in the kitchen, playing with her kids, joking with her spouse, and everyone looks happy. At the end of the ad, that person might say, “My name is Sarah, and I’m a Mormon”.
Nevertheless, if you take the term “cult” out of the conversation, there are still important questions left unanswered: what about those doctrinal differences between Mormonism and other forms of Christianity? Are they significant and do they really matter? Debate about the substance and significance of Mormon doctrine continues. From a Mormon point of view, the factual accuracy of works like The God Makers has been hotly contested. Most defenders of Mormonism dismiss Ed Decker’s work and others in this category as extreme and sensational. They claim that Decker and others like him have misrepresented Mormon teaching and practices and are therefore “anti-Mormon”. On the other hand, so-called “anti-Mormon” critics argue that the LDS church is hiding the most perverted aspects of their faith from their own people.
In response to these challenges to understanding Mormonism, a number of recent attempts have been made to try to establish a more formal dialogue between evangelicals and the LDS. In 2004, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias and Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw became the first prominent evangelicals to preach at the Mormon Tabernacle since Dwight L. Moody reportedly did so in 1899. Both were criticized by some fellow evangelicals for doing this, but Mouw specifically responded to the criticism by saying that it is important to admit where there have been errors in understanding Mormons in the past by evangelicals, while still recognizing that substantial disagreements remain. Robert Millet, theology professor at Brigham Young University, goes on to argue that the gap between Mormon theology and evangelical theology is now not as great as previously imagined. John MacArthur, the popular Grace To You evangelical radio broadcaster, has responded to Millet by effectively saying, “Hey, not so fast”
Herein lies the fundamental problem with this doctrine-oriented approach to apologetics. The doctrinal distinctives of the LDS church remain a moving target. Many doctrines that once defined the LDS movement have been de-emphasized, or modified, or are simply no longer being taught. As Mormonism enters the cultural mainstream, the more bizarre or embarrassing doctrines simply fade in significance. The very attractive social aspect of the community and family values tends to overshadow theologically controversial ideas.
Surely, respectful and informed discussions about doctrinal differences still have their place. But is there a more fundamental concern that impacts the LDS community that the evangelical apologist should know about?
Yes, and that concern is history. Mormonism maybe “new” these days, but you can not separate it from the “old”.
The Haunted Past: Grant Palmer and Mormon History
The story of Grant Palmer, a fourth-generation Mormon, is particularly sobering on the one hand and tremendously liberating on the other. Palmer is a Brigham Young University graduate with advanced degrees in history who served as a teacher in the LDS Church Educational System for thirty-four years. He came from a prominent LDS family who were friends with the famous Mormon theologian Bruce R. McConkie and other leaders in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Council of the Seventy. In the 1960s, Palmer, a native of Utah, served as a two year missionary in Virginia. Palmer was a committed Mormon for many years until his academic interest in LDS history raised serious doubts as to the integrity of the central claims of Mormonism. Palmer argues that while there is an official story of Mormonism being propagated by the LDS leadership, it is an incomplete story. As Paul Harvey was once famously known for, and then there is “the rest of the story”.
Over the past fifty years or so historical research has demonstrated severe problems for the official LDS narrative. The central character in the Mormon experience is Joseph Smith, a rural upstate New Yorker who testified to having an encounter with the divine as a teenager in the 1820s. In Smith’s “First Vision”, Smith is charged to rediscover and translate a buried, ancient sacred text into English. Out of this unique event comes a series of divine revelations and other translations for about twenty years until Smith’s death in 1844. Every unique doctrinal claim in Mormonism stems back to Smith and the historical record of the LDS church.
Grant Palmer spent over twenty years trying to find some answers to some basic questions about Joseph Smith. Was Joseph Smith a true Prophet? Was he a Prophet who nevertheless made a few mistakes here and there? Or was he simply a fraud? What difference does this historical research make to the believing Mormon?
The “Martyrdom”(???) of Joseph Smith
One example of Palmer’s research should suffice, and it is frankly the most disturbing: the circumstances leading to the death of Joseph Smith. In the 1840s, the Latter Days Saints movement had grown quickly to several thousand. The bulk of the community was headquartered in Nauvoo, Illinois. At the time, Nauvoo was the second largest city in Illinois with over 10,000 people, just a little under the size of Chicago with 14,000. Most of the residents in Nauvoo were Mormon. The LDS community was prospering, but there was trouble brewing.
When I was a teenager, I joined my parents on a trip to the Midwest. We decided to visit the Mormon historical exhibit at Nauvoo. I’ll always remember this because I made the mistake of signing the guest register with my home address. For the next couple of years, we received several visits from Mormon missionaries. My embarrassed mother will never let me forget that I signed that register! But I will also remember the vivid account of Smith’s martyrdom from the talks that the docents gave at the Nauvoo museum. I was visually impressed by these massive paintings detailing the events of Smith’s final days.
According to the official story of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in 1844, Joseph was shot and killed after he and several close associates were attacked in a nearby Carthage, Illinois jail by a mob. Joseph Smith had been falsely charged with treason by the Illinois state government after Smith along with the Nauvoo, Illinois city council ordered the destruction of a printing press that had slandered the Prophet, among other things. The Nauvoo city leaders were fearful that further publication by the printing press would lead to mob action. Prior to the attack, Joseph quoted this statement that eventually became sacred Mormon scripture, reminiscent of Isaiah 53:7:
“I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning. I have a conscience void of offence towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me. ‘He was murdered in cold blood'” (Doctrine & Covenants 135:4).
However, Grant Palmer indicates that there is more to the story. What was printed by the Nauvoo printing press that caused so much trouble? The evidence from the first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor before its destruction is that the editors of the newspaper had been faithful Mormons but they had seen and experienced things that deeply troubled them. The primary editors were William and Jane Law, a prominent couple that had converted to Mormonism years before and had been close associates to Joseph Smith. William Law rose to hold a position in the First Presidency of the church under Smith’s leadership. William and Jane Law fully believed that the Book of Mormon and other Joseph Smith writings were sacred scripture. Nevertheless, they had come to believe that Joseph Smith had become a false prophet for several reasons.
First, Joseph Smith had ordered the assassination of his enemies. In one incident, Joseph Smith had prophesied the violent death of the former governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs. Several days later, one of Smith’s associates had disappeared to go off and “fulfill prophecy”. Shortly thereafter, Governor Boggs received several gunshot wounds that nearly killed him.
Second, Joseph Smith had declared himself to be King over the earth and “a god to this generation”. William Law was in the inner circle where Smith was describing his ideas. Smith was planning to set up a theocratic-political body within the United States with him as undisputed leader, with the intended longterm goal to establish rulership over the whole world.
Thirdly, Joseph Smith had propositioned Jane Law, William’s wife, to become Smith’s plural wife. This was not the first time something like this had happened. Multiple documentation sources indicate that Joseph Smith had taken at least thirty-three plural wives between 1841-1843. Several of these women, like Jane Law, were already married to other men. In some cases, Smith had sent some of his married male leaders off on missions trips and had persuaded the wives of these men to become his plural wives during their husbands’ absences. In other cases, Smith, who was in his late thirties, had pursued plural marriage with several teenage girls the age of 14.
Jane Law refused the Prophet’s advances. After this, William and Jane Law knew that something had to be done to expose the problems with the top Mormon leadership. So they and a few other like-minded friends bought a printing press to establish the Nauvoo Expositor.
After the destruction of the printing press and the mob killing of Smith, William and Jane Law believed that their lives were threatened. Having already been excommunicated by the church for apostasy, they fled Nauvoo leaving thousands of dollars of property behind them. William Law lived the rest of his life quietly as a doctor in Wisconsin. After that, William Law rarely talked about his Mormon past, only reporting the details of what happened in Nauvoo some fourty-three years later.
In drawing some conclusions to his research, Palmer asks if ordering an assassination attempt, potential treason against the United States government, and an insatiable appetite for sex with many women under his religious influence is appropriate activity for a Prophet of God?
In addition to the William and Jane Law story in relation to Smith’s death, Grant Palmer has researched other problematic issues relating to Joseph Smith’s claim to be a Prophet. He has investigated the multiple conflicting accounts of the First Vision, problems with the translation of the Book of Mormon, the translation issues with the Book of Abraham, and other controversies in the Prophet’s life. Yet what is most interesting about Palmer is that in doing this research he was not looking to try to tear down the Mormon faith. He really wanted to find good, reasonable explanations that deal with historical problems like these and still retain his faith in the LDS message. Tragically, after many years of struggle, Palmer finally concluded that he had no good answers for these type of questions and problems. Nevertheless, Palmer continued for years to find a way to stay within the LDS church. Palmer finally published his research in An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins in 2002. Subsequently, the Mormon church disfellowshipped Palmer for his views. Just a few years ago, Palmer was asked by the LDS church to recant every single chapter of his book. Instead of submitting to this request, Palmer submitted his resignation to the church which effectively makes him an apostate Mormon.
There is more to the Grant Palmer story, however. After his Insider’s View of Mormon Origins was published, Palmer wrote another book entitled The Incomparable Jesus. The basic thesis according to Palmer is that while he eventually lost faith in Joseph Smith, he never lost his faith in Jesus Christ. The legacy of Joseph Smith did not stand up to historical scrutiny but the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth stood up to Palmer’s historical research well intact. Palmer argues that what the LDS needs is less of Joseph Smith and more of Jesus Christ. Admittedly, some of Palmer’s theological ideas about Jesus have sounded a little shaky. But over the years, Palmer now states that he fully believes in the reality of having a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
The “New” Mormon Reaction to the LDS Past
Sadly, most people who are Mormons know nothing or very little about the historical issues raised by Palmer. When and if they do find out about these things, there are several responses. One response is simply to dismiss this type of research as being a tool of the Devil, orchestrated by Satanic influences. Some may try to go to great lengths to dismiss the evidence. Some may explain away the evidence and pursue a different line of reasoning. Some may even entrench themselves further into the Mormon experience, perhaps even leaving the LDS and joining one of the more radical, fundamentalist Mormon movements.
Others may simply admit that the legacy of Joseph Smith is deeply tarnished, but that the historical record has no real bearing on faith. Even if the historical record proves the Mormon claims to be false, it should nevertheless still be “true” because of all of the good things that Mormonism does and represents. As the Mormon kid Gary says to Stan on a episode of South Park: “Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it.”
Others may try to stay in the LDS church and seek to be agents of change. But will the LDS church accept such change? Grant Palmer finds this to be very difficult to ever happen.
Still others may take yet another path. They may leave the church, and sometimes God, altogether. Thankfully, some who do leave the Mormon church do find the True Gospel and end up in an evangelical church. But generally this only happens if there is a Christian walking beside them along the way, being with them through a difficult transition of their faith journey. Many Ex-Mormons never wish to join a spiritual community again.
Grant Palmer believes that the LDS will continue to lose members at an accelerated rate, unless there is a reform-minded leadership in the LDS hierarchy. The LDS church has tried to suppress the evidence for years, but now the cat is out of the bag. Palmer observes that most of the troublesome historical research was simply not accessible to the general public, or the typical Mormon, in past years. Now, most of the research is easily available on the Internet.
Lessons for Evangelical Christians in Reaching Out to Mormons
There are several lessons to be learned from the changes in Mormonism and the challenges of Grant Palmer’s story.
First, a basic principle in doing good apologetics is the absolute importance of making a genuine effort to properly understand what somewhat else believes. After all, how can we expect others to take our reasons for believing in Christ seriously if we do not make the best effort to understand the beliefs others have? Talk to real Mormons themselves instead of just relying on second-hand information. Otherwise, all we will get is misunderstanding, hard feelings, and closed doors to relationships. So if you make a friend with a Mormon, take the time to ask them what it is they really believe before you attempt to hit them with a copy of The Kingdom of the Cults.
The Apostle Paul urges his co-worker Timothy in his dealings with religious teachers to:
” ….charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (I Timothy 1:3-5)
We should not abandon our discussions about doctrinal differences with Mormons, but we do need to place these discussions within the context of caring relationships. A further step that evangelical Christians can do is to help walk with any disaffected or troubled Mormons, offering them friendship and the hope that the Jesus of the Bible has the integrity that the claims of Joseph Smith might not have.
Secondly, understanding what someone believes is not as important as understanding why they believe it. Take the time to ask your LDS friend why they believe what they believe. You may find out that doctrine matters very little to that person. Instead, your LDS friend could be simply drawn into Mormonism because they are getting their felt needs met for family connections, close-knit community, etc.
Not everyone understands the importance of historical truth to Christian faith. Grant Palmer argues that most believing Mormons today simply do not value Truth as the basis of faith. Instead, most Mormons view faith as nothing more than a Religious Feeling. In other words, if you have a strong feeling that God is real and you experience that as a Mormon, then that is all you need for faith. Questions about history as relevant to faith are simply secondary matters at best.
Traditional evangelical apologetics that only examine comparing church doctrines are meaningful only if your conversation partner values the importance of Truth. If Truth does not matter, sticking only to topics of doctrine will only be frustrating to you and to your discussion partner. You have to aim at a deeper and more fundamental level.
Consider what the Bible says. To argue that the historical reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is not really significant to faith is not an option for a Christian. The Apostle Paul makes the point quite clear in I Corinthians 15:17, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” If anyone thinks that a faith system is right simply because it should be right because of all of the wonderful things that the faith system does for people, it should be reminded that this is merely an attempt to make our own religion, a faith that comes from ourselves and not from God. If that is what we really think, the Apostle Paul basically argues “what is the point?” If there is no resurrection, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (I Corinthians 15:32). Christian faith is rooted in history. Take that historical truth away and faith is meaningless.
A real follower of Jesus Christ is first and foremost a lover of Truth.
Resources for Further Research:
Ravi Zacharias worked as general editor along with Walter Martin’s daughter, Jill Rische, to revise and update Dr. Martin’s classic The Kingdom of the Cults in 2003.
Grant Palmer’s research on the William and Jane Law episode in 1844 Nauvoo can be found at Mormon Think . MormonThink is run by a group of Mormons who have decided to openly question the claims of Mormonism from within the Mormon tradition itself.
One of better, more traditional resources for ministry to Mormonism from an evangelical/biblical perspective is the Utah Lighthouse Ministry. Jerald and Sandra Tanner grew up as Mormons, though they spent several years trying to find out which version of Mormonism is true. Most people are familiar with the largest group, the Salt Lake City-based Mormons, but there are dozens of other groups as well, ranging from Fundamentalist LDS that still practice polygamy to the offshoots from the Community of Christ that accept the Book of Mormon as scripture but reject other Mormon sacred texts as being authoritative. Eventually, the Tanners became followers of Jesus Christ alone and left the LDS altogether. The Tanners have been critical of some evangelical Christian leaders who have mischaracterized the Mormon faith. Jerald Tanner died in 2006 but his surviving wife still serves in the ministry.
Other evangelical ministry outreaches to Mormons that have a significant presence on the Internet included the Institute for Religious Research (Mormons in Transition) and the Mormonism Research Ministry.
The LDS church does not have an official apologetics ministry. However, scholarly historical research done by Mormons in the academic community support FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, loosely affiliated with Brigham Young University. At a more popular level, FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research is run by Mormon thinkers who develop reasoned responses to various criticisms of the Mormon church. The most well-known, reputable academic historian who supports a pro-LDS perspective is Harvard-educated Richard Bushman. In 2005, Bushman wrote a sympathetic biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling , that nevertheless takes modern historical research into account.
The definitive early critical biography of Joseph Smith is Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. However, if you want to read a shocking thriller, you should check out Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. Krakauer is famously known for his Into Thin Air, an account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. But in Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, he takes Brodie’s research and weaves it into the modern tale of Mormon fundamentalism with the likes of Warren Jeffs and the 1984 murders by the Lafferty brothers. Krakauer comes from a secular skeptic position with respect to faith, but he is an engaging writer and brings out the issues of Mormon history in an unashamedly critical and yet surprisingly sympathetic manner. Just be warned: Krakauer is absolutely terrifying. Once I first picked the book up, I simply could not lay it down until I finished it.
And finally, in 2007 PBS produced a four-hour documentary on the Mormons, available for watching online, including interviews with Grant Palmer and other scholars and Mormon church leaders.