Two weeks ago, an article was published in The New York Times, “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives,” in response to several anonymous essays, Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, and Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah, recently published on Mormon.org. While monitoring social media in various Mormon and ex-Mormon forums, I’ve observed a range of reactions varying from surprise, to confusion, to anger, to indifference.
I don’t think there’s anything new about this; the practice of polygamy has been a doctrine of Mormonism since at least 1843, and Joseph Smith Jr.’s own multiple marriages were well-documented and always have been available in LDS-church archives for anyone willing to look. The revelation here is not that some new information has surfaced. The true revelation has been on the part of the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that their paradigm of telling their version of history and allowing the more difficult aspects of their doctrine and history to remain buried is not working anymore. The advent of the internet and the fluidity it affords information is forcing the Mormon church to gradually become more transparent on these issues. Too many unwitting church members are browsing online and stumbling upon information that was missing in their Sunday school classes and ward/stake/branch meetings. Additionally, the nefarious anonymity of the internet allows people to dig as deep as they want into these topics without anyone around knowing about it.
Many members have been frustrated and angry with church officials for mishandling these difficulties over the years, or not handling them at all. In one sense, we really can’t blame the Mormon church and other Mormon denominations for not really dealing with these issues over the years, because they are simply indefensible. Polygamy is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and the reality of many of the doctrinal and historical problems with Mormonism has led to crises of faith for many members.
It’s been scientifically verified through textual criticism that the Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith published as part of the Pearl of Great Price just five years after the Book of Mormon and which also claims to have been of ancient origin, is actually a fraudulent document. It’s of course also been recorded in various 19th-century historical sources that Joseph Smith married 30 to 40 wives, some of whom were already married.
To be frank, I’m not really concerned with Joseph Smith Jr. and his sordid exploits. I haven’t paid much attention to most of this history since I, myself, had to come to terms with the facts about what I was raised with. What concerns me are the particular truth claims of the LDS Scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, and their import to the gospel of Jesus Christ as ratified in the Holy Bible. What interests me is that when Mormons enter this aforementioned crisis of faith, that they come out the other side with a faith that is in the right place — specifically, in a person. None of the historical issues that currently have many Mormons in consternation obviously help the credibility of Joseph Smith’s status as a “prophet and seer of God,” and make it more spurious — but they also are not a good enough reason to reject it as a fraud. They are decoys away from the real issue with the Mormon faith, which is its teachings about salvation.
I was not raised in the mainline Mormon church, but in one of the smaller splinter sects of Mormonism with a somewhat different system of doctrine. When I abandoned the Book of Mormon as a historical document and as the Word of God, it wasn’t just because we lack the “golden plates” upon which it supposedly was written. It wasn’t because history records that Joseph Smith produced the text not by reading the plates, but by looking through a “seer stone” in his hat. It wasn’t because of the nine conflicting accounts of his First Vision experience. It wasn’t because he later married a 14-year-old girl or any of the other similar reasons.
I was convicted of the truth of the Bible and became a Christian. It became clear to me that I was saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, evidenced by works (Ephesians 2:8-10). I knew that the gospel is truly “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
As a consequence, I eventually saw the Book of Mormon for what it is: a work of fictional history that hosted and embedded a very carefully disguised but lethal distortion of the biblical gospel. My departure was about these words in black and white versus those words in black and white, irreconcilable, that both claim to be inspired by God the Holy Spirit. It’s impossible in this space to detail these categories, but a thorough treatment may be found at my comparative doctrinal study upon exiting the religion: The Book of Mormon: Redefining Biblical Salvation, An Apologetic for the Holy Bible.
Though I was raised with belief in the so-called Restoration and the Book of Mormon, and it was an important part of my life, I thankfully was not personally and spiritually devastated at the realization that it is false. I was overwhelmed with joy at God having delivered me from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son — not merely a kingdom of false religion, but of my own sin and self-induced misery — being given redemption and the forgiveness of sins. God opened my eyes to the truth of the gospel, and thus he enabled me to recognize a false gospel. I walked away from it. It was glorious. I remember falling to my knees, knowing I had to repent and ask God to forgive me for believing and even teaching the lie of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. The Lord forgave me and I have never looked back.
The process of integrating to orthodox Christianity was not without struggle. Thankfully, I had already found a good Christian church and had been building new community. I knew I had to delve deep into the Scriptures in order to correct a lot of bad theology touching essential Christian truth, which to the praise of God’s name, came relatively quickly. I also had to work through some indignation at having been deceived (either deliberately or inadvertently) by the organization for my first 25 years. Any anxiety I felt in the aftermath was not for myself, but for many family members and friends whom I love, still caught in the matrix. It was and still is hard to watch frustrated and confused people make the choice to languish in a false belief system and ignore Christians like me, who understand where they are and persist in offering something better: the way to find eternal peace with God. It’s also hard to watch Mormons in online forums vent their grievances about every conceivable social and policy issue in the LDS church, except for the root issue of its fundamental works-based-salvation teachings that are an affront to the Christian gospel of grace.
It serves no purpose for my former-Mormon friends and me to continue to reach out and witness to people in Mormon churches, if they then accept the deception and leave, become disaffected with all religion and choose never to go to any church again or even become more callous toward God than we are in our fallen nature. I am thankful that when my time came, the rug was not ripped from under my feet and that I fell forever. I don’t want that for anyone else, especially the people I’ve known and cared about most of my life. I want people to become saved, evaluate what they believe, find a good Christian church, glorify God and enjoy him forever. John Calvin articulated it well: (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 6) “Error never can be eradicated from the heart of man until the true knowledge of God has been implanted in it.”
How is the eradication of error to be accomplished? Not by focusing on the error, but by magnifying the truth. The popularity of false prophets is nothing new, so combating them is an old struggle for God’s true prophets. For example, when God’s oracle to Israel, Jeremiah, was vexed by the influence of false teachers, the LORD’s instruction to the prophet was to focus on proclaiming truth. (Jeremiah 23:23, 28-29) “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? … Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the LORD. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”
Likewise, Christians are to elevate the truth and allow the false to diminish as a result.
Joseph Smith’s polygamy is not a good enough reason to leave Mormonism. The proven pseudepigraphy of the Book of Abraham and its implications for Smith’s credibility in his testimony of the Book of Mormon, is not a good enough reason to leave Mormonism. Not even the irrefutable evidence of Smith’s involvement in occult practices is a good enough reason to leave Mormonism. These are earnest considerations, but the only reason to abandon the false christ of Mormonism or any other cult system is to gain a person: Jesus Christ. Sometimes the cost of gaining him is little and sometimes the cost is high, but it never comes close to the price he paid for his people. He is the only way, the truth and the life.