When I started seminary at Provo High back in dinosaur days, my friends and I were shocked at the things Brother Righteous taught. Jesus the Creator? Where did he get that? We all knew it was Heavenly Father who created the earth. “Seminary just teaches us the opposite of everything we’ve ever learned in church,” one friend lamented. And maybe this little story illustrates the need for the Correlation Committee which I love to hate. Before gospel principles were reduced to a handful of key topics and lesson manuals simplified to prevent individual interpretation of Church doctrine, teaching of key principles varied widely within the church. And I understand the rationale. Not knowing basic Mormon theology is a stumbling block for the “Every member a missionary” program.
But another stumbling block exists for Mormons who engage with non-Mormons. Ignorance of aspects of Church history. As a teacher moving into Washington State, I took a required class in Western American history and disagreed with my instructor when he told the story of Joseph Smith looking at a peep stone in a hat to translate the Golden Plates. Years later, I learned that story is authentic. On her mission, our daughter Jaycee argued needlessly with investigators who told her that Joseph Smith was a Mason and incorporated Masonic symbols and ceremonies in the Nauvoo temple. Teaching members facts about Church istory that are readily obtainable to any researcher would prevent Mormons from looking uninformed, even brain-washed, to knowledgeable people outside the faith.
And it’s not like the Church hasn’t revised aspects of its history in the past. All the time I was growing up, Church lessons and speakers presented Emma Smith as an apostate, a woman who lacked the faith to remain in the Church after Joseph’s death. The revision of Church history in the ‘80s, possibly precipitated by the publication of Newell and Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, was a positive. Although the official revision falls short of presenting all of Emma’s problems with Joseph’s polygamy and Brigham Young’s authoritativeness, it allows members to honor this key woman in Church history who faithfully supported her husband throughout a difficult marriage.
Of course, some facets of Church History are tricky to portray without the risk of damaging faith. Are Mormons ready to read Heber Kimball and Jedediah Grant’s sermons advocating blood atonement? To learn that General Authorities were less than forthright in testifying of their involvement in the Salamander forgeries? Or to learn that many modern prophets have suffered mental decline for several years before their deaths? Still, varnished history, like varnished wood, weathers poorly. Bits flake off, exposing rough patches and giving a neglected, in-need-of-improvement appearance. I suspect the teaching of honest Church History would disarm critics and prevent members from feeling betrayed when they learn they haven’t been told the truth, or at least not the whole truth, in church.