Within the last few days, historians of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have released images of an egg-sized stone that resembles a large pecan.
The stone is purportedly the seer stone that LDS Founder and Prophet Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon, the primary sacred text of the Mormon faith.
The release of these images and other documents are part of an effort by the church to render its history more transparent in an age when transparency has become the basis on which the fortunes of institutions in 21st century rise and fall.
Within the last few years, I’ve developed a keen fascination for this phenomenon. The LDS, of course, is not the only institution dealing with this new reality. The transparency that has grown out of the digital communications revolution is exposing many facets of life that were once considered off limits, if not sacrosanct. But among all the major religions of the world, Mormonism appears to be especially vulnerable to this phenomenon, largely because so many accounts exposing both the good and bad facets of the life of Joseph Smith have survived.
Digital transparency seems to be creating a genuine crisis of faith within Mormonism, though for decades, the church has been beset with challenges from members who have emerged deeply troubled after researching the early origins of their faith.
What’s playing out within Mormonism within the last few decades closely parallels what has occurred in other comparatively closed religious cultures within American society. Members of these faith traditions become more affluent and send more of their young people go off to pursue higher education, acquiring the critical investigative skills shared by all college-educated Americans.
Inevitably, a few of these young people become religious scholars, often using the critical investigative tools they have acquired through their graduate and post-graduate education to ask probing questions about their own faith traditions.
Indeed, the first major crisis within Mormonism was sparked by historian Fawn McKay Brodie, a so-called Mormon princess and the niece of an LDS apostle David O. McKay, who later became the ninth president of the church.
Brodie was a child prodigy who graduated from Utah State University at 19 and then received a scholarship to study history at the University of Chicago. She eventually used her training to write the first scholarly biography of Founder/Prophet Joseph Smith: “No Man Knows My History.”
It was not a very flattering account. Indeed, Brodie’s portrayal of Smith sparked a crisis in the Church that has not abated within the last 60 years.
Other Mormon scholars have also subjected church teachings and documents to the same rigorous standards of scholarship and have turned up similar disturbing findings. Among them is Grant H. Palmer, who holds an M.A. in history from Brigham Young University and spent a 34-year career in the LDS Church Educational System.
Like Brodie, Grant perceived inconsistencies in Mormon doctrines that prompted him to delve deeply in the Church’s early origins. He eventually shared his findings in “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins,” published in 2002. The book raises a number of questions about Smith’s original intentions, including how he constructed the Book of Mormon using accounts from the King James Version, the evangelical revival unfolding within his native region, Smith family experiences, and the anti-Masonic movement.
Discoveries, once confined to trained historians, many of whom had strong incentives to share them only with other trained specialists, are slowly being disseminated by digital media to inquiring laypersons.
Indeed, a few years ago, the highest ranking LDS official in Sweden, Hans Mattson, related the spiritual crisis he suffered after many of his members confronted him with their own concerns about the origins of the faith.
After undertaking his own investigation and uncovering discrepancies, Mattson felt as if his spiritual foundation was crumbling under his feet.
As the New York Times reported, the LDS is confronted with growing numbers of followers around the world who experience serious crises of faith after conducting their own Internet investigations.
This rising tide of doubt has prompted the church to articulate a new response. The Times reports that the church already has released seven volumes of papers concerning the life of Smith, asserting that transparency, candor and historical accuracy are the only effective and honorable ways to deal with these challenges.