Letter to a Doubter

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I understand that some doubts have arisen in your mind. I don’t know for sure what they are, but I imagine I have heard them before. Probably I have entertained some of them in my own mind. And perhaps I still harbor some of them myself. I am not going to respond to them in the ways that you may have anticipated. Oh, I will say a few things about why many doubts felt by the previously faithful and faith-filled are ill-founded and misplaced: the result of poor teaching, naïve assumptions, cultural pressures, and outright false doctrines. But my main purpose in writing this letter is not to resolve the uncertainties and perplexities in your mind. I want, rather, to endow them with the dignity and seriousness they deserve. And even to celebrate them. That may sound perverse, but I hope to show you it is not.

So, first, a few words about doubts that are predicated on misbegotten premises. I will illustrate an example of this from the life of Mormonism’s greatest intellectual, and then address five other kinds in particular. The example comes from B. H. Roberts.

From his first experience debating a Campbellite minister on the Book of Mormon in 1881, Roberts was devoted to defending the Mormon scripture. While in England as a Church mission president in 1887 and 1888, he studied in the Picton [Page 132]Library, collecting notes on American archeology that could serve as external evidence in support of the Book of Mormon. The three volumes of the work that resulted, New Witnesses for God, appeared in 1895, 1909, and 1911. Then, on 22 August 1921, a young member wrote a letter to Church Apostle James E. Talmage that would shake up the world of Mormon apologetics, and dramatically refocus Roberts’s own intellectual engagement with Mormonism . The brief letter sounded routine enough. “Dear Dr. Talmage,” wrote W. E. Riter, one “Mr. Couch [a friend of Riter’s] of Washington, D.C., has been studying the Book of Mormon and submits the enclosed questions concerning his studies. Would you kindly answer them and send them to me.”1 Talmage forwarded the five questions to the Church’s Book of Mormon expert, B. H. Roberts, expecting a quick and routine reply. Four of the questions dealt with anachronisms that were fairly easily dismissed by anyone who understands a little about translation theory. But one had Roberts stumped. It was this question: “How [are we] to explain the immense diversity of Indian languages, if all are supposed to be relatively recent descendants of Lamanite origin?” To put the problem in simple terms, how, in the space of a mere thousand years or so, could the Hebrew of Lehi’s tribe have fragmented and morphed into every one of the hundreds of Indian languages of the Western Hemisphere, from Inuit to Iroquois to Shoshone to Patagonian? Languages just don’t mutate and multiply that quickly.

Several weeks after Talmage’s request, Roberts still had not responded. In late December, he wrote the President of the Church, explaining the delay and asking for more time: “While knowing that some parts of my [previous] treatment of Book of Mormon problems . . . had not been altogether as convincing as I would like to have seen them, I still believed that [Page 133]reasonable explanations could be made that would keep us in advantageous possession of the field. As I proceeded with my recent investigations, however, and more especially in the, to me, new field of language problems, I found the difficulties more serious than I had thought for; and the more I investigated the more difficult I found the formulation of an answer to Mr. Couch’s inquiries to be.”2

Roberts never found an answer to that question, and it troubled him the rest of his life. Some scholars think he lost his testimony of the truthfulness and antiquity of the Book of Mormon as a result of this and other doubts—though I don’t see that in the record. But here is the lesson we should learn from this story. Roberts’s whole dilemma was born of a faulty assumption he imbibed wholesale, never questioning, never critically analyzing it—that Lehi arrived on an empty continent, and that his descendants alone eventually overran the hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to the Straits of Magellan.

Nothing in the Book of Mormon suggests that Lehi’s colony expanded to fill the hemisphere. In fact, as John Sorenson has conclusively demonstrated, the entire history of the Book of Mormon takes place within an area of Nephite and Lamanite habitation some five hundred miles long and perhaps two hundred miles wide (or a little smaller than Idaho). And though, as late as 1981, the Book of Mormon introduction written by Bruce R. McConkie referred to Lamanites as “the principal ancestors of the American Indians,” absolutely nothing in that book of scripture gave warrant for such an extravagant claim. That is why, as of 2007, the Church changed the wording to “the Lamanites are among the ancestors” (emphasis added). No, the most likely scenario that unfolded in ancient America is that Lehi’s colony was one of dozens of migrations, by sea and by land bridge. His descendants occupied a small geographical area and intermingled [Page 134]and intermarried with other peoples and cultures. Roberts couldn’t figure out how Inuit and Patagonian languages derived from Hebrew because they didn’t. And there was absolutely no reason to try to make that square peg fit into that round hole. You see, even brilliant individuals and ordained Seventies can buy into careless assumptions that lead them astray. That Joseph Smith at some point entertained similar notions about Book of Mormon geography only makes it more imperative for members not to take every utterance of any leader as inspired doctrine. As Joseph himself complained, “he did not enjoy the right vouchsafed to every American citizen—that of free speech. He said that when he ventured to give his private opinion,” about various subjects, they ended up “being given out as the word of the Lord because they came from him.”3

So what are some of the assumptions we might be making that create intellectual tension and spiritual turmoil? I will mention five: the prophetic mantle, the nature of restoration, Mormon exclusivity, the efficacy of institutional religion, and the satisfactions of the gospel—including personal revelation. I can only say a few words about each but enough, I hope, to provoke you to consider if these—or kindred misplaced foundations—apply to you.

1. The Prophetic Mantle

Abraham deceived Abimelech about his relationship with Sarah. Isaac deceived Esau and stole both his birthright and his blessing (but maybe that’s okay because he is a patriarch and not a prophet, strictly speaking). Moses took glory unto himself at the waters of Meribah and lost his ticket to the promised land as a result. He was also guilty of manslaughter and covered up his crime. Jonah ignored the Lord’s call, then later [Page 135]whined and complained because God didn’t burn Nineveh to the ground as He had threatened. It doesn’t get a lot better in the New Testament. Paul rebuked Peter sharply for what he called cowardice and hypocrisy in his refusal to embrace the gentiles as equals. Then Paul got into a sharp argument with fellow apostle Barnabas, and they parted company. So where on earth do we get the notion that modern-day prophets are infallible specimens of virtue and perfection? Joseph said emphatically, “I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous.”4  To remove any possibility of doubts, he canonized those scriptures in which he is rebuked for his inconstancy and weakness. Most telling of all is section 124:1, in which this pervasive pattern is acknowledged and explained: “for unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth” (D&C 124:1; emphasis added). Air-brushing our prophets, past or present, is a wrenching of the scriptural record and a form of idolatry. God specifically said he called weak vessels so that we wouldn’t place our faith in their strength or power, but in God’s. Most crippling, however, are the false expectations this paradigm sets up: When Pres. Woodruff said the Lord would never suffer his servants to lead the people astray, we can only reasonably interpret that statement to mean that the prophets will not teach us any soul-destroying doctrine—not that they will never err. President Kimball himself condemned Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings as heresy; and as an apostle he referred as early as 1963 to the priesthood ban as a “possible error” for which he asked forgiveness.5 The mantle represents priesthood keys, not a level of holiness or infallibility. God would not have enjoined us to hear what prophets, seers, and revelators have to [Page 136]say “in all patience and faith” if their words were always sage and inspired (D&C 21:5).

2. The Nature of Restoration

Recently a Mormon scholar announced his departure from Mormonism and baptism into another faith tradition. “Mormons believe that the [Christian] church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant versions alike—completely died,” he said of his principal reason for leaving. Then he quoted another dissident as saying, “The idea that God was sort of snoozing until 1820 now seems to me absurd.” Well, guess what? That sounds absurd to Mormons as well. President of the Church John Taylor said, “There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world . . . There were men who could gaze upon the face of God, have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world. If those were dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness.”6  Joseph didn’t believe the Christian Church died either. He was very particular about his wording when he recast his first revelation about restoration to state specifically that God was bringing the Church back out of the wilderness, where it had been nurtured of the Lord during a period when priesthood ordinances were no longer performed to bind on earth and in heaven. Precious morsels of truth had lain scattered throughout time, place, religion, and culture, and Joseph saw his mission as that of bringing it all into one coherent whole, not reintroducing the gospel ex nihilo.
[Page 137]

3. Mormon Exclusivity

In a related way, some come to doubt Mormonism’s “monopoly on salvation,” as they call it. It grows increasingly difficult to imagine that a body of a few million, in a world of seven billion, can really be God’s only chosen people and the sole heirs of salvation. I think this represents the most tragically unfortunate misperception about Mormonism. The ironic truth is that the most generous, liberal, and universalist conception of salvation in all Christendom is Joseph Smith’s view. We would do well to note what the Lord said to Joseph in Doctrine and Covenants section 49, when he referred to “holy men” that Joseph knew nothing about and whom the Lord had reserved unto himself. Clearly, Mormons don’t have a monopoly on righteousness, truth, or God’s approbation. Here and hereafter, a multitude of non-Mormons will participate in the Church of the Firstborn.

As a mighty God, our Heavenly Father has the capacity to save us all. As a fond father, He has the desire to do so. That is why, as Joseph taught, “God hath made a provision that every spirit can be ferreted out in that world” that has not deliberately and definitively chosen to resist a grace that is stronger than the cords of death.7 The idea is certainly a generous one, and it seems suited to the weeping God of Enoch, the God who has set His heart upon us. If some inconceivable few will persist in rejecting the course of eternal progress, they are “the only ones” (D&C 76:37, 38) who will be damned, taught Joseph Smith. “All the rest” (D&C 76:39) of us will be rescued from the hell of our private torments and subsequent alienation from God.
[Page 138]

4. Inefficacy of Institutional Religion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote perhaps his greatest sermon on the fallacy of cheap grace. I think the plague of our day is the fallacy of cheap spirituality. I find among the college freshmen I teach a near-universal disdain for “organized religion” and at the same time an energetic affirmation of personal spirituality.

The new sensibility began innocently enough with the lyrical expression of William Blake, who suggested that God might be better found in the solitary contemplation of nature than in the crowded pews of churches. He urged readers “to see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour”8 It took a Marxist critic, Terry Eagleton, to point out that the Gospel of Matthew teaches us that “Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water. The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick. When you act in this way, you are sharing in the love which built the stars.”9 Holiness is found in how we treat others, not in how we contemplate the cosmos. As our experiences in marriages, families, and friendship teach us, it takes relationships to provide the friction that wears down our rough edges and sanctifies us. Then, and only then, those relationships become the environment in which those perfected virtues are best enjoyed. We need those virtues not just here, but eternally, because “the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy” (D&C 130:2).

In this light, the project of perfection, or purification and sanctification, is not a scheme for personal advancement, but a process of better filling—and rejoicing in—our role in what Paul called the body of Christ, and what others have referred to [Page 139]as the New Jerusalem, the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn, or, as in the prophecy of Enoch, Zion. There are no Zion individuals. There is only a Zion community.

5. Satisfactions of the Gospel/Personal Revelation

Brigham Young said, “To profess to be a Saint, and not enjoy the spirit of it, tries every fiber of the heart, and is one of the most painful experiences that man can suffer.”10 We expect the gospel to make us happy. We are taught that God answers prayers, that all blessings can be anticipated as a direct and predictable result of a corresponding commandment. I love that quote, because I think Young was being truly empathetic. He realized that then, as now, thousands of Saints were paying the high price of discipleship and asking, “Where is the joy?” And he knew the question was born in agony and bewilderment.

I have no glib solace to offer. I will not bore you or insult your spiritual maturity with injunctions to pray harder, to fast more, to read your scriptures. I know you have been traveling that route across a parched desert. But do let me repeat here three simple ideas: be patient, remember, and take solace in the fellowship of the desolate. In Lehi’s vision, he recorded, he “traveled for the space of many hours in darkness” (1 Nephi 8:8).

Patience does not mean to wait apathetically and dejectedly, but to anticipate actively on the basis of what we know; and what we know, we must remember. I believe remembering can be the highest form of devotion. To remember is to rescue the sacred from the vacuum of oblivion. To remember Christ’s sacrifice every Sunday at the sacrament table is to say no to the ravages of time, to refuse to allow his supernal sacrifice to be just another datum in the catalogue of what is past. To remember past blessings is to give continuing recognition of the gift and to reconfirm the relationship to the Giver as one [Page 140]that persists in the here and now. Few—very few—are entirely bereft of at least one solace-giving memory: a childhood prayer answered, a testimony borne long ago, a fleeting moment of perfect peace. And for those few who despairingly insist they have never heard so much as a whisper, then know this: We don’t need to look for a burning bush when all we need is to be still and remember that we have known the goodness of love, the rightness of virtue, the nobility of kindness and faithfulness. And as we remember, we can ask if we perceive in such beauties merely the random effects of Darwinian products, or the handwriting of God on our hearts.

At the same time, remembering rather than experiencing moves us toward greater independence and insulates us from the vicissitudes of the moment. Brigham said God’s intention was to make us as independent in our sphere as he is in his.11 That is why the heavens close from time to time, to give us room for self-direction. That is why the Saints rejoiced in a Pentecostal day in Kirtland’s temple but were met with silence in Nauvoo—silence, and their memories of Kirtland. One can see the Lord gently tutoring us to replace immediacy with memory when he says to Oliver, “If you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:22–23). Citing C. S. Lewis, Rachael Givens writes, “God allows spiritual peaks to subside into (often extensive) troughs in order [to have] ‘servants who can finally become Sons,’ ‘stand[ing] up on [their] own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish . . . growing into the sort of creature He wants [them] to be.’ ”12

[Page 141]Finally, find solace in what I have called the fellowship of the desolate—with Mother Teresa, who said, “I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. . . . Heaven from every side is closed.”13

Or with the magnificent Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who poured out his soul in this achingly beautiful lament:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.14

Or with my favorite poet, George Herbert, who expressed frustration with his own ministry, barren as it felt of joyful fruit, and described his—almost—defection from life lived in silent patience:

I struck the board, and cried, No more.
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
[Page 142]What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
All wasted?

Away; take heed:
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s-head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his [own] need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child:
And I replied, My Lord.15

Finally, listen to Fyodor Dostoevsky who, like Herbert, found only the slim anchor of one memory ensconced in an overwhelming silence to hold onto—but hold on he did:

I will tell you that I am a child of this century, a child of disbelief and doubt. I am that today and will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now, which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet, God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm; at those instants I love and feel loved by others, and it is at those instances [Page 143]that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred for me. This Credo is very simple, here it is: to believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly and more powerful than Christ.16

Conclusion

Maybe none of these issues apply to you. Maybe you have a whole different set of doubts. Or maybe none of my words are persuasive in allaying those doubts. In that case, I turn to my last but most important point. Be grateful for your doubts.

William Wordsworth was. Mormons know the early stanzas from his “Intimations” ode, the “trailing clouds of glory” lines. But more magnificent, in my opinion, are the later stanzas, where he tells us what he is most grateful for, where he finds the source of his joy. After struggling with the indelible sadness of adulthood, trying in vain to recapture the innocence and joy of childhood delight and spontaneity, he realizes it is the tension, the irresolution, the ambiguity and perplexity of his predicament that is the spur to his growth. That is why, as he tells us, in the final analysis he appreciates the very things that plague the questing mind. He is grateful not for the blithe certainties and freedom of a past childhood. He is thankful not for what we would expect him to appreciate:

Not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest—
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast: —
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise;
[Page 144]But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised.…
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day.17

You see, it was in the midst of his perplexity, of his obstinate questions, uncertainties, misgivings, and shadowy recollections that almost but don’t quite pierce the veil, that he found the prompt, the agitation, the catalyst that spurred him from complacency to insight, from generic pleasures to revelatory illumination, from being a thing acted upon to being an actor in the quest for his spiritual identity.

I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe. I hope you can find your way to feel the same. The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate and laden with more personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction [Page 145]or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.

The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions which can allow us to reveal fully who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts. Like the poet’s image of a church bell that reveals its latent music only when struck, or a dragonfly that flames forth its beauty only in flight, so does the content of a human heart lie buried until action calls it forth. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is and knowing that a thing is not.

This is the realm where faith operates; and when faith is a freely chosen gesture, it expresses something essential about the self.

Modern revelation, speaking of spiritual gifts, notes that while to some it is given to know the core truth of Christ and His mission, to others is given the means to persevere in the absence of certainty. The New Testament makes the point that those mortals who operate in the grey area between conviction and incredulity are in a position to choose most meaningfully, and with most meaningful consequences.

Peter’s tentative steps across the water capture the rhythm familiar to most seekers. He walks in faith, he stumbles, he sinks, but he is embraced by the Christ before the waves swallow him. Many of us will live out our lives in doubt, like the unnamed father in the Gospel of Mark. Coming to Jesus, distraught over [Page 146]the pain of his afflicted son, he said simply, “I believe, help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Though he walked through mists of doubt, caught between belief and unbelief, he made a choice, and the consequence was the healing of his child.

“The highest of all is not to understand the highest but to act upon it,” wrote Kierkegaard.18 Miracles do not depend on flawless faith. They come to those who question as well as to those who know. There is profit to be found, and advantage to be gained, even—perhaps especially—in the absence of certainty.

From a fireside presentation to the Single Adult Stake, Palo Alto, CA, October 14, 2012. Revised October 22, 2012/November 14, 2012.


  1. W. E. Riter to James E. Talmage, 22 August 1921, in B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1992), 35. 

  2. B. H. Roberts to Heber J. Grant et al., 29 December 1921, in Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 46.  

  3. Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, They Knew the Prophet: Personal Accounts from over 100 People Who Knew Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974), 140. 

  4. Manuscript History of the Church D-1, pp. 1555–57.  

  5. Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball,  (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 448–49. 

  6. John Taylor, in Brigham Young et al., Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., reported by G. D. Watt et al. (Liverpool: F. D. and S. W. Richards, et al., 1851–86; repr., Salt Lake City: n.p., 1974), 16:197–98. 

  7. Joseph Smith, Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin, 1991), 360. 

  8. William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, at http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/blake/to_see_world.html

  9. Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 95. 

  10. Journal of Discourses, 12:168. 

  11. See Journal of Discourses, 3:252, 13:33. 

  12. See C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1941; reprint, New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 39–40, as cited in Rachael Givens, “Mormonism and the Dark Night of the Soul,” at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople/2012/09/mormonisms-dark-night-of-the-soul/

  13. Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light (New York: Random House Digital, 2009), 202. 

  14. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Selected Poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, ed. Bob Blaisdell  (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2011), 59–60. 

  15. George Herbert, The Temple, 2nd ed. (1633; repr., London: Pickering, 1838), 159, at http://books.google.com/books?id=vv-PaLfn8wIC. Spelling has been modernized. 

  16. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 160.  

  17. William Wordsworth, Poems of Wordsworth, ed. Matthew Arnold (London: MacMillan, 1882), 205–6. Emphasis added. 

  18. Søren Kierkegaard, The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from His Journals, ed. Alexander Dru (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), 213. 

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About Terryl L. Givens

Terryl Givens did graduate work at Cornell University in Intellectual History and at UNC Chapel Hill where he received his PhD in Comparative Literature. He holds the James A. Bostwick chair of English, and is Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, where he teaches courses in 19th century studies and the Bible’s influence on Western literature. Author of several books, his writing has been praised by the New York Times as “provocative reading,” and includes, most recently, When Souls had Wings, a history of the idea of premortal life in Western thought, and a biography (with Matthew Grow) of Parley Pratt. The God Who Weeps (with Fiona Givens) was released in October. He is currently at work on a two-volume history of Mormon thought for Oxford University Press.

59 thoughts on “Letter to a Doubter

  1. #1: Bad assumptions plague everyone who uses them.

    #2: John Taylor rather interestingly did not produce evidence to support his claim.

    #3: Q: Will everybody be damned, but Mormons? A: Yes, and a great portion of them, unless they repent, and work righteousness. – Joseph Smith

    #4: Zion is the pure in heart (D&C 97:21), which a community possesses if, and only if, each individual in the community possesses it.

    #5: Brigham very pointedly stated elsewhere that such keenly felt trials come from trying to hold on to the spirit of the world and the Spirit of God at the same time, whereas those who reject the spirit of the world have no trials. The cure to lack of spiritual knowledge, and the lack of the Spirit of God, is, and ever shall be, repentance and mighty prayer unto faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Conclusion: “The Lord has created all men, and the Lord has redeemed all men, and, in the end, all men (barring perhaps an infinitesimal few who inexplicably resist what is a nigh unto irresistible grace) shall have eternal life.”

    I think I’ve heard things like that somewhere.

    • “…whereas those who reject the spirit of the world have no trials.”

      Do you honestly believe this? Are you saying that Neal A. Maxwell got cancer because he just didn’t have enough faith?

      Also, I like how you call out John Taylor for not supporting his opinion, and then provide an unsubstantiated quote allegedly from Joseph Smith that doesn’t even really support your thesis, which isn’t terribly clear anyway. This was a well-written essay. If you disagree with it, it deserves better than a couple of glib one-liners.

  2. I was moved to tears by the insights and expressed. We truly become what we LOVE. May we embrace and be responsive to the Spirit.

    “What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions which can allow us to reveal fully who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is and knowing that a thing is not. This is the realm where faith operates; and when faith is a freely chosen gesture, it expresses something essential about the self.”

  3. I too have a lot of sympathy for those who struggle with doubts about the Church. I have had good friends go through that experience. I’m happy to say that most of them have emerged from the trial; many times doubts are just for a season.

    I disagree with this statement, or at least how it comes across to me:

    “…John Sorenson has conclusively demonstrated, the entire history of the Book of Mormon takes place within an area of Nephite and Lamanite habitation some five hundred miles long and perhaps two hundred miles wide (or a little smaller than Idaho).”

    This gives the impression that the Church now has an official Book of Mormon geography. This statement is made stronger by listing the change that the church made to the wording of the introduction to the Book of Mormon, as if that means that Church leaders have officially embraced Sorenson’s limited geography, or have officially started to suppres the idea of an expanded geography.

    I wish to note that it is not contradictory to have an expanded view of Book of Mormon geography, in which the Nephites at one time really did migrate as far north as New York, and still have other ancient migrants come to America besides the Nephites and Lamanites. Therefore there is not necessarily a direct conflict between the multiple languages of North America and an expanded geographical view of the Book of Mormon. You can have both.

    I have also read official statements from Church leaders that there is no officially endorsed Book of Mormon geography. So I would appreciate a clarification on the intent of the phrase “has conclusively demonstrated”. If the Church’s position has changed on this issue, please post a link to source, otherwise I don’t like the idea that there’s one geography that we all should embrace.

    I also disagree with Br. Givens, in that I think reasonable people *can* find in the Book of Mormon text evidence for an expanded geography, in which for most of the the timeline the principle characters were the main inhabitants of the areas they knew about, and that they eventually spread far beyond the limited area proposed by Br. Sorenson. But since this issue is of only minor importance, I don’t think that my salvation, nor the salvation of Br. Sorenson nor of Br. Givens is in danger if we disagree in a friendly manner. :) It’s not important to me that others should believe as I do about Book of Mormon geography, but it is important to me that people should know that they are still free to speculate, theorize, and dream about the subject, and that there is still no authoritative position yet, and that each of us stands on equal grounds when it comes to speculation.

    • I see nothing in “conclusively demonstrated” that gives the impression of official Church sanction. All those words imply is that the person using them (Terryl Givens in this case) finds a certain argument to be convincing. Others, of course, might disagree. I for one do not. While much of Sorenson’s thesis might be debatable, the one point on which there has never really been a serious challenge mounted is that the scope of geography covered by Book of Mormon events is limited. However limited is debatable, and where those events took place is debatable, but there is little question on that point.

      In fact, even those I have seen who still try to argue for a more hemispheric view of Book of Mormon geography, tend to argue for a sort of “limited-hemispheric” geography, though that might seem to be a counter-intuitive phrase at first glance. What I mean is, the degree to which actions spanned across the hemisphere tends to be limited. Most will admit that the centers of Nephite and Lamanite action (at least, the actions reported in the text) must have been in fairly close to each other,the wars and battles fought across limited territory, etc. But, they suggest, the Northern migrations (along with other migrations) mentioned in Alma 63 and Helaman 3 want beyond those main sphere’s and Lehi’s descendants thus spread across the continent (a point of view that I would fully agree with, actually – the LGT is about the EVENTS followed in the text, not the confines of all of Lehi’s descendants or the wondering of off-shooting groups). Some will even argue that while the center of events was in a limited territory in South or Meso- America, the final battles nonetheless happened in New York. Andrew H. Hedges is among those who hold to such a view. I don’t find it likely, but that does not stop anyone else from believing it if they so choose.

      The point being, however, is that nothing Terryl Givens said implies an official Church position. It does tell us, though, that Brother Givens finds a certain position quite convincing. And I see no reason why he should not be granted the right to so express himself.

      You, of course, are quite right that there is no official position from the Church, and thus you and I, and Brother Givens are quite free to disagree with each other and express whatever views we would like on the matter.

  4. It is puzzling that both B.H. Roberts and Terryl L. Givens accept as fact that “Languages don’t mutate and multiply that quickly,” when the Book of Mormon itself gives an example of how two Hebrew speaking groups could not communicate with each other after only about 400 years in isolation. The Mulekites, because they had no written records, had lost their language in a relatively short period of time. Few North American native tribes had a written language and so it is not surprising that their languages changed radically over a thousand years.

    Givens statement that “Nothing in the Book of Mormon suggests that Lehi’s colony expanded to fill the hemisphere,” ignores many passages which require a vast territory. Space here does not permit listing them, however there are five items of documentary evidence that it was Moroni, prior to the translation of the gold plates, who told Joseph Smith that the hill in Palmyra was anciently called Cumorah.

    1. Oliver Cowdery, Second Elder of the Church and Co-President with Joseph Smith, stated the following in 1831:

    “This Book, which contained these things, was hid in the earth by Moroni, in a hill CALLED BY HIM CUMORAH, which hill is now in the state of New York, near the village of Palmyra, in Ontario County.” (Autobiography of P.P. Pratt p 56-61, as taken from his journals, emphasis added)

    2. Following Joseph’s meeting with Moroni at Cumorah, one year before Joseph received the plates, Joseph told his parents that he had “taken the severest chastisement that I have ever had in my life.” Joseph said:

    “It was the angel of the Lord. AS I PASSED BY THE HILL OF CUMORAH, WHERE THE PLATES ARE, the angel met me and said that I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; and the time had come for the record to be brought forth…” (History of Joseph Smith by his Mother Lucy Mack Smith: The Unabridged Original Version, Compiled by R. Vernon Ingleton, Stratford Books, 2005, p. 159; emphasis added)

    3. David Whitmer confirmed this in an interview in his later years when he stated:

    “[Joseph Smith] told me…he had a vision, an angel appearing to him three times in one night and telling him that there was a record of an ancient people deposited in a hill near his fathers house CALLED BY THE ANCIENTS ‘CUMORAH,’ situated in the township of Manchester, Ontario county N.Y…” (Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration,” p. 233; emphasis added)

    4. Additionally, we read in Doctrine and Covenants:

    “Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfillment of the prophets — THE BOOK TO BE REVEALED”

    Again, it is apparent that Moroni called the hill in Palmyra “Cumorah” before the book was translated.

    5. Finally, supporting this is a quote from a sacred hymn, selected by Emma Smith and published in 1835. Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet, produced this under instructions and directions from the Lord. “And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church.” (D&C 25:1)

    “An angel came down from the mansions of glory,
    And told that a record was hid in Cumorah,
    Containing the fulness of Jesus’s gospel;”
    (Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1835, Hymn 16, page 22,

    This alone precludes the confining of the saga of the Book of Mormon to Mesoamerica. There are many other flaws in John L. Sorenson’s reasoning, not the least of which is the unwarranted assumption that the city of Lehi-Nephi, in the days of King Mosiah 1st, was the same as the original city of Nephi. Within ten or fifteen years after the founding of the city of Nephi the Lamanites discovered them and the wars between them began (2 Nephi 5:34). Two hundred years after Lehi left Jerusalem, Jarom records that the wars had continued and that the Nephites and the Lamanites were scattered upon much of the face of the land (Jarom 1:5-9). By 280 BC the more wicked part of the Nephites had been destroyed (Omni 1:5). The record does not indicate where the Nephite survivors were living by that time. The pattern throughout the Book of Mormon is that the Nephites were constantly fleeing and being driven northward by the Lamanites. By the time of King Mosiah 1st they may have been hundreds or even a thousand miles or more north of their original city of Nephi. This changes the possibilities as to where many subsequent events may have occurred. John L. Sorenson’s conclusions are far from “conclusive.”

    • I am fascinated that this letter to a doubter would be become the focus of a discussion of Book of Mormon geology. There is nothing inappropriate in discussing Book of Mormon geography, but this seems a strange location for the discussion. For those who might want to continue this thread, might we move it to another post? There is an older blog on issues with a Mesoamerican location (admittedly, not this issue). It really seems that we should focus on the more important aspects of Dr. Givens essay.

      • I think it appropriate to question Bro. Givens’ reliance upon Dr. Sorenson’s work as a means to finally put to rest the doubts others have about the scope of the Lehite colony. And, thus, appropriate to point that out here.

        I, for one, don’t even think the jury has been impaneled to determine whether Dr. Sorenson’s book has successfully contracted the scope of the colony to Mesoamerica. And, thus, what Bro. Givens says on the subject to the grant an unwarranted imprimatur to speculation.

        • When a doubter is struggling with scope of Book of Mormon geography, I see nothing inappropriate about pointing them to cogent theories about its limited nature, and even expressing your opinion that their arguments are quite conclusive.

          With that in mind, I also have no problem with pointing out informed ways of understanding the Book of Mormon in a hemiscpheric way for those who are struggling with accepting the LGT in light of previous leaders statements, or wanting a connection the NY Cumorah, or whatever. I wouldn’t even have a problem with people expressing their view that such theories are convincing and conclusive.

          I disagree with them, and in a discussion of Book of Mormon geography I might challenge their arguments, but at the end of the day I would be perfectly okay with them holding those views, and using those views help those who struggle and need that perspective.

        • I don’t think that Brother Givens was necessarily endorsing Brother Sorenson’s placing of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica. Rather, he was endorsing Brother Sorenson’s demonstration that the Book of Mormon story occurred within a rather limited geographical area. That’s a separate matter, and, as a matter of fact, it does seem that he’s established it pretty much beyond reasonably dispute. Moreover, even the “Heartland” people seem to agree on it; as I understand them, they typically place the Book of Mormon within a limited geographical space, too — they just do it further north.

          • Daniel, I must disagree with your statement that John L. Sorenson has established the Book of Mormon events to be within a limited geographical area. In addition to ignoring many statements and events in the text that require an expansive geography, Sorenson’s limited geography theory is based on two erroneous assumptions. First, that the city of Lehi-Nephi in the days of King Mosiah 1st was the same as the original City of Nephi; and second, that Alma’s party fleeing for their lives from the armies of King Noah and the Lamanites for a total of 20 days, only covered eleven miles per day, which would put Zarahemla only about 200 miles from the City of Lehi-Nephi.

            City of Lehi-Nephi:
            The city of Lehi-Nephi may have been more than a thousand miles north of the original city of Nephi. Within ten or fifteen years after the founding of the city of Nephi the Lamanites discovered them and the wars between them began (2 Nephi 5:34). Two hundred years after Lehi left Jerusalem, Jarom records that the wars had continued and that the Nephites and the Lamanites were scattered upon much of the face of the land (Jarom 1:5-9). By 280 BC the more wicked part of the Nephites had been destroyed (Omni 1:5). The record does not indicate where the Nephite survivors were living by that time, but it is highly unlikely that the Lamanites would not have driven them far from their original city of Nephi. The pattern throughout the Book of Mormon is that the Nephites were constantly fleeing and being driven northward by the Lamanites. By the time of King Mosiah 1st they may have been hundreds or even a thousand miles or more north of the original city of Nephi. If the original city of Nephi was in Guatemala, the city of Lehi-Nephi could have been on the Rio Grande.

            Distance between Lehi-Nephi and Zarahemla:
            The only good measure of Nephite travel time in America is Alma’s party traveling 8 days plus 12 days between the city of Lehi-Nephi and Zarahemla. John L. Sorenson uses as a basis for estimating that distance 11 miles per day, the rate that a fat hog can walk to market through the mountains (An Ancient American Setting For the Book of Mormon, page 8). However, in both segments of their journey they were fleeing for their lives with the armies of their enemies in hot pursuit. “And the Lord did strengthen them, that the people of king Noah could not overtake them to destroy them.” (Mosiah 23:2) So, they were not moving at the pace of a fat hog on the way to market, but they were strengthened by God so they could move faster than a pursuing war party. Ancient war parties on a forced march would travel more than 40 miles a day. Joseph Smith, leading Zion’s Camp, made twenty-five to forty miles a day (Joseph Smith, HC 2:65, 68; Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, p. 287) Even if we cut Alma’s trek back to 30 miles a day, that is still 600 miles from the city of Lehi-Nephi to Zarahemla. If Lehi-Nephi was on the Rio Grande that would put Zarahemla on the lower Mississippi River. The tributaries of the Mississippi are navigable to within 100 miles of the hill Cumorah.

            There are many statements and situations in the text which indicate or require a large territory. Here are a few to consider:

            1.The Nephites had a heritage of long distance travel. In the first leg of their journey they traveled about 250 miles from Jerusalem to the River Laman. They retraced that distance four more times to obtain the Brass Plates and the family of Ishmael, for a total travel distance of 1250 miles . This was before they began their real journey. From the River Laman they traveled another fifteen hundred miles across the Arabian Peninsula, and then more than half way around the world on a sailing ship. They were still a ship building and a shipping people five hundred years later (Helaman 3:14). Surely in that time these seafaring people had explored much of their coastline. What were they doing and where were they going with all of those ships? It is not reasonable to assume that over a one thousand year period the Nephites remained in an area the size of the state of Tennessee.

            2. It took the Nephite Captain, Moroni, the most part of a year to move a portion of his army through friendly territory from Zarahemla to Bountiful (Alma 52:11, 14, 18). This makes no sense if the distance was only two or three hundred miles across Mesoamerica, or some narrow peninsula. An ancient army would march that in ten to fifteen days.

            3. Later, Helaman, an officer of Moroni’s army, wrote a lengthy epistle from the war theatre near the west sea to Captain Moroni near the east sea. Helaman’s epistle described the battle situation over a period of four years (Alma 56:1, 9). If the distance between them had only been two or three hundred miles runners could have kept them in regular communication. The fact that these military officers only communicated about the conduct of the war once in those four years is further evidence that there was a great distance between them.

            4. Helaman, son of Helaman, described how a great many people, about fifty years before the birth of Christ, migrated from Zarahemla to the land northward. He states that, “They did travel to an exceedingly great distance, insomuch that they came to large bodies of water and many rivers” (Helaman 3:3-4, emphasis added). To the Nephites, who had a recorded heritage of long-distance travel, an exceedingly great distance would surely be more than a few hundred miles.

            5. Mormon wrote that in AD 375, “from this time forth did the Nephites gain no power over the Lamanites, but began to be swept off by them even as dew before the sun” (Mormon 4:16-18). This final rout lasted ten years and culminated at Cumorah in AD 385 (Mormon 6:5). A military rout lasting ten years speaks of a vast territory.

            6. A similar situation occurred previously amongst the Jaredites. When the armies of Coriantumr and Shiz faced off at Ramah (Cumorah) for their final battle, they paused in their fighting to gather their survivors. It took them four years to gather their people for battle (Ether 15:14), indicating a very large territory from which they were gathered.

            7. The Nephites and the Jaredites coexisted on this continent for 400 years without contact. That would be highly improbable in an area the size of Mesoamerica.

            There is nothing in the text of the Book of Mormon that would preclude the Nephite saga covering the territory from Costa Rica to Cumorah.

          • So, when we learn in Helaman 3: 4,8 that the Nephites traveled “an exceedingly great distance” north of Zarahemla to populate the land northward, where the people “did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east,” I guess that means the exceedingly great distance wasn’t all that exceedingly great after all, and covering the whole face of the earth really meant the whole face of the small, limited geographical of scope of the Nephite world….. (?)

          • An exceeding great distance really depends upon what you know of the world and how you get there. For an ancient world where most people lived their entire lives within 30-50 miles from where they were born, an exceeding great distance is one that takes longer than one would consider to be a normal distance. For many in antiquity, a journey of a few hundred miles really was an exceeding great distance compared to what they normally traveled.

            Remember the rest of the verse also says that they went to a land where they built with cement and where there was a lot of water and very few trees. That leaves out pretty much the US east of the Mississippi and puts you far enough north in Canada to where there were no people during Book of Mormon times. If we could locate that location it would help define the exceeding great distance rather than imposing an assumption upon it.

          • Well, perhaps “exceedingly great distance” is only 50 to 100 miles, but the idea that people in pre-Columbian cultures stuck to a limited local geography is not convincing, nor supported by what we know from archeology and anthropology. For example, the Tainos (Arawak Native Americans in the Caribbean) had trade routes that extended from Florida to Mexico to Venezuela and throughout the Caribbean. All of South America is criss-crossed with trade routes hundreds of miles long. A map of North American trade routes reveals dozens of routes that are several hundred miles long from one trading hub to another (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/IPL_Current_News/message/35266). The Iroquois Nation had routes extending from Canada to the lower states along the eastern seaboard…. If we want to use archeological evidence, rather than assumption, as a starting point, then I would think “an exceeding great distance” for these cultures would have been several hundred miles distance, at a minimum.

          • Of course there are long range trading routes. Sometimes, though not always, they were traversed by a single trading group. Other times, it was through lines of exchange.

            The point is that using the term “exceeding great distance” as the only means of describing the nature of the geography doesn’t give us enough information. It has to be correlated with other textual information. As I suggested, one of the mmost important parts of that verse isn’t the distance, but what they found at the end of that distance. There is a much richer description of those geographical/cultural requirements than we get for the indefinite “exceedingly great distance.”

          • OK Brant, the main description of the land which was an “exceedingly great distance” was that there were “large bodies of water and many rivers” (Helaman 3:4). This is obviously the land that Mormon was talking about when he wrote, “And it came to pass that we did march forth to the land of Cumorah, and we did pitch our tents around about the hill Cumorah; and it was in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” (Mormon 6:4). Fortunately, Mormon’s son, Moroni, identified this location to Joseph Smith, prior to the translation of the gold plates, as being in the state of New York (see above April 6, 2013 at 10:16 pm ).

          • You forgot the part about buildings of cement and no trees. That doesn’t match the final battle place of Cumorah, and the lack of trees or cement as a building material certainly disqualifies the NY hill.

          • There were no trees at that time because the Jaredites before them had destroyed all the timber, not because trees would not grow there (Helaman 3:5-6). Also, from then on the Nephites were careful to cultivate and encourage the growth of trees, so that “in time they might have timber to build their houses” (verse 9). It would be folly to be looking for a land today which had no trees.

            As for not finding cement houses, even modern Portland Cement will not last over 100 to 200 years before it totally disintegrates into dust. In more northern climates where if freezes frequently water molecules expand in the pores of the cement constantly cracking it, which greatly reduces its life. As the old archaeological adage goes, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

            What evidence do you have that would trump Moroni telling Joseph Smith that the hill in Palmyra was called Cumorah?

          • Theodore:

            We are a long way from the theme of this thread. However, deforestation has happened to various locations in the past, but not without traces. Much of the region around Tikal, now a jungle, was deforested at one point. I am unaware of any such evidence for upstate New York anywhere. There weren’t enough people there in Book of Mormon times. Teotihuacan still has very high quality cement, so your assertion that it would disappear is contradicted by history.

            As for the naming of the NY hill as Cumorah, that is problematic because many of the sources we use to suggest that Cumorah was its “real” name were added to the historical record later.

            Reeve, Rex C., Jr., and Richard O. Cowan. “The Hill Called Cumorah.” In Regional Studies in LDS History: New York and Pennsylvania, edited by Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman Jr., and Susan Easton Black. Provo, Utah: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992,73–74.

            At what point in modern times this New York hill was first called Cumorah is difficult to determine. In his account in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith refers to the hill where the plates were buried, but never calls it by any name. In the Doctrine and Covenants the name “Cumorah” only appears one time, in an 1842 epistle written by Joseph Smith: “And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah!” (D&C 128:20). No other uses of “Cumorah” have been found in any other of Joseph Smith’s personal writings. When this name does appear it has been added by later editors or is being quoted from another individual.

          • Brant,

            I must say as one who was inactive for 15 years I appreciate the theme, the words and the main intent of Brother Givens’ letter. But it was Brother Givens who brought up the subject of Book of Mormon Geography in his letter, and I also have a friend who in his later life left the Church when he became convinced that the Book of Mormon was not true because there was no place that fit the geography described in it. So in my mind these subjects or threads are closely related.

            That some ancient people in Teotihuacan made a cement that lasted over time in their subtropical climate is not evidence that another ancient people father north did not make another cement that didn’t last in their climate of freezing and thawing. Absence of finding ancient cement in northern United States is not evidence that it was never there.

            Emma Smith’s hymn was published in 1835 and the other four items of documentary evidence all agree with it. It was written because of commanded by the Lord and as wife of the Prophet it had to have come from Joseph, and he had to have sanctioned it.

            “An angel came down from the mansions of glory,
            And told that a record was hid in Cumorah,
            Containing the fulness of Jesus’s gospel;”

            (Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1835, Hymn 16, page 22)
            You may view an original copy at: http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperDetails/collection-of-sacred-hymns-1835?dm=image-and-text&zm=zoom-inner&tm=expanded&p=24&s=Cumorah&sm=none )

            Cumorah in Palmyra is the only known location from the Book of Mormon. I agree that there is much Book of Mormon evidence in Mesoamerica. My research indicates that Lehi probably landed a bit south of there on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (Alma 22:28). Nephi wrote that when they landed they found all manner of ore, both of gold, and silver, and of copper (1 Nephi 18:23-25). US Geological Survey maps show that on the Pacific Coast from California to Panama there is only one spot where there are known deposits of gold, silver and copper, all within a radius of thirty miles of a coastal point (USGS Minerals Information). That point is the middle of the Pacific coastline of Costa Rica, where the fresh water of the Rio Grande Tárcoles River flows into the Gulf of Nicoya, near the present town of Tárcoles.

            The Mesoamerica theories and the Great Lakes or Heartland theories both have some valid claims and evidences to support them, but they both have some serious flaws. They are both right and they are both wrong. I believe that the truth lies in the connection between these theories. In my studies of matching the Book of Mormon text to the facts on the ground I have concluded that the Nephite Saga began in Costa Rica and moved over the centuries through Mesoamerica and into the southern portions of what is now the United States of America. They then migrated up the eastern seaboard, and up the Mississippi River, until they filled most of the area east of the Mississippi. I am convinced that the Nephite Saga happened from Costa Rica to Cumorah. In the 165 years following the Savior’s visit all of this land would have been filled with God’s people. That is just my humble opinion, but I have a high degree of confidence in it. ;-)

          • Brant, I am still concerned with your defense of “exceeding great distance.” You acknowledge that “Of course there are long range trading routes. Sometimes, though not always, they were traversed by a single trading group. Other times, it was through lines of exchange.” But it sounds like you are trying to make it sound like the people traversing these distances were only tiny trading groups.

            To expand and be clearer, hunting groups, war parties, entire local tribes (along with traders) among the Iroquois Nation — and Native American tribes interacting with them — are at times recorded as traveling distances no less than the State of Delaware to Canada. Trade was only one form of multiple forms of regular, on-going practices of ancient American movement and migration.

            Now, I appreciate your honorable intentions to defend the limited geographical model, but this theory — and it is only that, a theory — and the attempts to redefine the geographical boundaries of the Book of Mormon locations, does not match what we know about the actual mobility of Native American cultures.

            The theory, in my experience with prehistoric American cultures, is not adequate to explain the depictions in the Book of Mormon. Nor does this theory satisfactorily explain away the statements of early church leaders, including those of Joseph Smith, who at various times identified various North American tribes as being the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples.

            I just hope, one day, that someone can come up with a theory that can actually reconcile the text of the Book of Mormon with the statements of early church leaders (Joseph Smith among them), and the actual known practices of Native American cultures. But so far, we are not there yet.

          • The early Saints made a lot of statements about how the Book of Mormon might fit in with history and geography. They were very eclectic in their approaches, and never worried about whether there was any consistency in the models or in the times and cultures displayed. When they began to hear about Mesoamerica, cities there were enthusiastically promoted as evidence of the Book of Mormon. Regardless of geography, they were cities from the wrong time period. No one knew.

            What is the more important question is why we should reconcile ourselves to their statements based upon poorly understood histories and a pre-scientific archaeology. We might suppose that Joseph must have know the geography, but we impute that to him. There is no real evidence that he understood it well (and perhaps evidenced by his enthusiastic but uncritical acceptance of Mesoamerican cities as part of the Book of Mormon). Joseph might have seen a vision of the Nephite lands, but against what would he compare it to know the geography? If we see a picture without any indication of where it comes from, could we accurately place it in the world?

            Perhaps someone will reconcile geography with all of the statements of the early Saints. If they do, however, it will be unlikely to reconcile with actual geography or history. They simply didn’t have the resources that we do.

          • So, if we use this line of reasoning to explain away all the comments on the identity and geography of Book of Mormon people and events, I guess that means Zelph’s body in southern Illinois, located in what Smith said was “the plains of the Nephites,” and which one account of the discovery says Smith was “prophesying” when he revealed the history of the body, simply reveals nothing more than that Zelph had just been wandering an exceeding great great great great distance (2,500+ miles) from his home in Central America. But he wasn’t born there, nor did he live there (essentially Kenneth Godfrey’s claim: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=8&num=2&id=571).

            I suppose we could blame all these inconsistencies on Joseph and his friends. You may be right. But I’m still concerned. In Smith’s view, and the majority of church leaders for years to come, such inconsistencies did not exist. The inconsistencies have only cropped up as modern researchers have attempted to revise and redefine the Book of Mormon claims in light of new scientific, genetic and cultural discoveries.

            But this line of argumentation is sure convenient, isn’t it? Anytime Joseph was “right,” we chalk it up to his prophetic utterances; whenever he was “wrong,” we chalk it down to his well-intentioned, but inaccurate utterances as a mortal man. With that kind of reasoning, we can safely have answers to any contradictions in statements. Is it just me, or is it just too convenient?

            Stepping outside of the limited geography model, and looking at Book of Mormon scholarship in general, there seems to be an on-going trend that is concerning to me: researchers seem to have become more fixated on creating ‘plausible’ scenarios as ‘answers’ to troubling questions, moreso than finding ‘truths’ about troubling questions. The scholarship seems to simply be reactions and responses to new discoveries and/or criticisms, as researchers attempt (sometimes with the most amazing intellectual contortionism I’ve seen) to find ‘plausible’ answers that reconcile then-current beliefs about the historicity Book of Mormon and modern scientific discoveries.

            Perhaps others don’t feel the way I do, but it nevertheless concerns me. If I want to preserve a certain worldview, I can go to any length to create a narrative that will support that view. But if I do that, then the work I’m doing is the work of extending the range of possibilities beyond the range of reality, and then convincing myself it’s ok because it’s ‘plausible,’ (however ‘unlikely’ such answers may actually be).

            This isn’t aimed at you, Brant, but at the current state of Book of Mormon scholarship in general. Everyone seems to be racing from one popularized, most ‘plausible’ idea to the next most ‘plausible’ idea, without stopping to make a reality check. It’s not about truth, apparently, but about constructing the latest, greatest theory to reconcile away the problems of history and historical claims.

            But maybe I’m alone in this…. Best wishes to all…. let me know when the final answers to all these questions eventually arrive…

  5. Two thumbs up!

    It’s almost like a testimony meeting causes us to lose focus about our feelings in relation to the Gospel. I mean, testimony meeting are important, but the repetitive “I KNOW the church is true,” can sometimes ostracize those of us who still have testimonies (even strong ones) but struggle nonetheless. But alas! There ain’t a problem with struggling – or even admitting it out loud. And as I struggle, looking at the various options of how I deal with that consistently brings me back to the church. After all, I have yet to find the same level of intellectual/emotional/spiritual satisfaction in any other organization.

  6. Great essay. I believe there is an error, however. Under heading 1. The Prophetic Mantle, should not the second sentence state that Jacob deceived Esau and stole his birthright, etc.? (Or, perhaps more accurately, Jacob deceived Isaac and stole Esau’s birthright?)

  7. “That is why the heavens close from time to time, to give us room for self-direction. That is why the Saints rejoiced in a Pentecostal day in Kirtland’s temple but were met with silence in Nauvoo—silence, and their memories of Kirtland.”

    The implication I am extracting from that statement is very refreshing, coming from an LDS apologist.

    I guess If I were the author I might have used the term “self correction” instead of “self direction”.

    Self correction and repentance may have opened the heavens again, self direction, in my opinion, was the reason they closed.

    Anyway, I appreciate very much the honesty about a sensitive historical time and would love to know when the defining point was, after Nauvoo, that the heavens opened again.

    Watcher

  8. I received the following comments from an acquaintance, and pass them on here for readers’ consideration:

    In the article “Letter to a Doubter,” by Terryl L. Givens, on page 135 toward the bottom of the page, he states:

    “As an apostle he [Spencer W. Kimball] referred as early as 1963 to the priesthood ban as a ‘possible error’ for which he asked forgiveness.”

    Unfortunately, this conclusion has been drawn by others through a misreading of the statement by Elder Kimball. Elder Kimball’s quote in full reads as follows:

    “The things of God cannot be understood by the spirit of men. It is impossible to always measure and weigh all spiritual things by man’s yardstick or scales. Admittedly, our direct and positive information is limited. I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter. But for me, it is enough. The prophets for 133 years of the existence of the Church have maintained the position of the prophet of the Restoration that the Negro could not hold the priesthood nor have the temple ordinances which are preparatory for exaltation. I believe in the living prophets as much or almost more than the dead ones. They are here to clarify and reaffirm. I have served with and under three of them. The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation. If the time comes, that he will do, I am sure. These smart members who would force the issue, and there are many of them, cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority.” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball, p.448)

    If we notice the tone and focus of the statement, we see that the above conclusion could not be what Elder Kimball was saying. It is the “things of God” not men that often cannot be understood by the spirit of men. It is the Lord that he wished had given a “little more clarity in the matter,” not men or other prophets. It is the Lord who “could change HIS policy and release the ban.” What Elder Kimball is actually saying is that the “possible error” of the blacks which brought about the deprivation could be forgiven by the Lord and they one day be allowed to hold the priesthood. Just the opposite of the conclusion drawn by Brother Givens and others I have seen quote this passage. It seems clear that this is the intended meaning of the above statement and fits much better the tone of this statement and the feelings of the prophets when he made the statement.

    Some have also taken a supposed statement of David O. McKay out of context and imply that President McKay changed his and thus the Church’s view from seeing the blacks and the priesthood issue as a doctrine to merely a practice. The sole source for this statement is from a personal note by Sterling McMurrin. But, the interpretation is completely misleading. In total it reads:

    [McKay said; “There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this Church that Negroes are under a divine curse. . . We believe that we have scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the Negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice will someday be changed. And that is all there is to it.”

    The key in this statement is “that we have scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the Negro.” Thus, what he is saying is that it is not Mormon Doctrine, it is the Lord’s policy. He instituted it and he will be the one to change it in His own time. This is nothing new from Joseph’s day to that time. In 1947, many years before the reported conversation with McMurrin, President McKay wrote:

    “I know of no other basis for denying the priesthood to Negroes other than one verse in the book of Abraham; however, I believe, the real reason dates back to our preexistent life. . . . Sometimes in God’s eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the priesthood. In the meantime, those of that race who receive the testimony of the restored gospel may have their family ties protected and other blessings made secure, for in the justice and mercy of the Lord they will possess all the blessings to which they are entitled in the eternal plan of salvation and exaltation.” (Llewelyn R. McKay, Home Memories of President David O. McKay, p. 226, 231.)

    This statement is in perfect harmony with what McMurrin reported President McKay said to him. It was not a change or softening in his views, nor the Church’s views.

    • Official Statement from the Church, 2012.
      “The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone. The Book of Mormon states, ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God’ (2 Nephi 26:33). This is the Church’s official teaching.

      “People of all races have always been welcomed and baptized into the Church since its beginning. In fact, by the end of his life in 1844 Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opposed slavery. During this time some black males were ordained to the priesthood. At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended. Church leaders sought divine guidance regarding the issue and more than three decades ago extended the priesthood to all worthy male members. The Church immediately began ordaining members to priesthood offices wherever they attended throughout the world.

      “The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church. In 2006, then Church president Gordon B. Hinckley declared that ‘no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church. Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.’

      “Recently, the Church has also made the following statement on this subject:

      ‘The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.'”
      http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/race-church
      see also:
      http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article

  9. I’m a little troubled by one of the statements in Brother Peterson’s last posting. Elder Kimball asserts “I believe in the living prophets as much or almost more than the dead ones.” Isn’t the purpose of a living prophet something far deeper than simply “clarifying and reaffirming” the comments of his predecessors? The Church is a living organism, constantly adapting and developing. You can believe that, and still believe, sincerely and honestly and completely, that the Lord is at the helm. That’s why living prophets are far, far more important than dead ones: they are the mind, will, voice and spirit of the Lord, right now. It seems to me that Elder Kimball has it backwards, that dead prophets (even Joseph Smith) are important only inasmuch as their teachings clarify and reaffirm the teachings of the living prophet.

  10. Terry, thank you for posting this. I read it last night and found it helpful.

    This morning, I was pondering further on what you wrote and thought about Moroni 10 and the gifs of the spirit (I think you reference one or two in your talk). Moroni writes, “…all these gifts of which I have spoken, which are spiritual, never will be done away, even as long as the world shall stand, only according to the unbelief of the children of men.” (v. 19) Shouldn’t witnessing these gifts be part of our regular spiritual experience?

    On occasion, I hear of the gift of healing, or faith to be healed. The others, no so much.

    Maybe we’re not doing so well, as a Church, here in the USA (I’ve been to multiple congregations throughout the country so I feel safer generalizing that far). We’re warned this will happen (see 3 Nephi 16 and Mormon 8 for starters). I haven’t seen the gifts being exercised nor have I heard people testifying of them.

    What troubles me more though, is that I believe my experience with such manifestations of the spirit is (should be) independent of the Church. If they’re not happening, I have a problem. Sure, I can find comfort that my faith is more faithful (not sure on the right term here) because I choose to have faith, but maybe it’s not supposed to be that way.

    Sorry, not very elegantly stated.

  11. Of what benefit is historical niggling?
    Either you’ve taken Moroni up on his challenge or you haven’t. (Moroni 10)
    Mr. Givens provides one possible explanation for it, but there seems to be ample proof that for those who expose themselves to it, reason to doubt will always exist.
    Why not take Moroni one step further and live without doubt for a week or a month. Do/believe everything without questioning. Be content with the knowledge and teachings on LDS.org. See if you aren’t blessed with the fruits of your faith. Pray, fast, and read your scriptures! That shouldn’t be an insult your spiritual maturity. Try it without doubting.
    Many may dismiss these injunctions as unenlightened or simple/close minded. So was bathing in the River Jordan. Belief is easier than doubt. You decide to do it once and your done. And it’s tried and true…by people every bit as smart and world wise as you.

    • Belief is like exercise: if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

      For a great many of us, every bit of our edication, our professional training, our cultural conditioning leads us to question everyone and everything. We are a jaded, cynical people, which makes King Benjamin’s injunction to become “like children” perhaps the most difficult part of discipleship. Turning away from training and natural inclination requires a tremendous store of discipline, forebearance and humility. When we manage it, the insights the Spirit gives us are life-changing. It’s hard to get there, harder for some than for others.

      This isn’t historical niggling. It is an earnest attempt to follow the model presented to Joseph and Oliver, to seek and search and study, to work our way to the place where we, like John Taylor, have “counted the cost” and we willfully lay our doubt (and all our other weaknesses) on the altar.

      Patience, friend!

      • I misspoke when I said belief was easier. It’s just less work. Like an elevator is less work than the stairs, and planes are less work than cars. Of course, I realize that there are people whose training and natural inclination make those options hard to embrace, too. Ultimately, you have to let go of all the rationalizations, justifications, and in this case, historical niggling.

        If the Book of Mormon is true, what difference does it make how many square miles the Nephites and Lamanites occupied? Or how many NatAm dialects there are? Or the precise location of the white Lamanite Zelph’s bones? Clearly, Joseph was for searching and studying, but even he was told to eschew the doctrinal confusion of the Apocrypha. And modern day prophets have repeatedly warned us against indulging in irrelevant hobbies, too.

        Little children are content with plain and precious truths.

        Peace out, friend.

        • Thank you for a kind and thoughtful response!

          Your point is well-taken.

          I grew up in upstate New York. In my religious education, I learned that the Waters of Mormon was the Niagara River, the narrow neck of land was southern Ontario, and Palmyra area farmers regularly uncovered broken swords and rusted shields. I grew up thinking repeated viewings of “The Hill Cumorah Pageant” constitued Serious Gospel Scholarship. My “testimony” was built on conjecture and faith promoting rumor.

          Actually reading the Book of Mormon, earnestly and prayerfully, which I didn’t do until I was weeks away from entering the MTC, was a profound spiritual experience, a turning point in my life.

          We need to help one another have those experiences.

          Geographical speculations are interesting, but they don’t bring people to Christ.

    • There are so many assumptions about doubters in your comment, and none of them match my real-life experience. Your opening question (“Either you’ve taken Moroni up on his challenge or you haven’t”) leads out a third very real option: I tried and didn’t get the same results you did. I didn’t even get silence, I got a different answer: “there is truth and good in Mormonism, but it is what you make of it, and there is other truth and good out there that may work better for you at this point in your life.”

      I DEEPLY appreciate that Brother Givens didn’t make the assumption that doubters simply haven’t prayed hard enough or read enough scriptures.
      I do believe that many take up Moroni’s promise and receive the witness they hope for. I also know many righteous, sincere individuals who have not gotten any witness despite “doing everything right”.
      I lived without doubt for 27 years. I believed with everything in me. I did everything right, followed all the steps. And I did receive many blessings from it, I won’t deny that. I still enjoy many of those blessings now that I’m outside of the church. Turns out being a good person yields good results- actions count much more than faith.

      But I simply can’t turn off the part of my God-given brain that seeks truth, that asks questions. I don’t have a choice about doubt. I can choose my ACTIONS, but I can’t choose which conclusions my brain comes to based on the evidence it is exposed to- and that includes spiritual evidence such as prompting from the Holy Ghost. I can’t help the fact that the cognitive dissonance makes attending church too negative for me- I can’t unknow the things I’ve learned that differ from the correlated lessons we get each week. And I don’t regret learning them, and don’t want to believe in a God that purposefully only tells one side of the story or punishes his children who value intellectual honesty. So if I feel God wants me to find a different path where I don’t have to either constantly quiet my brain or make it do mental gymnastics to make sense of the world around me, yet still be a good person with a good relationship with the Divine… then I will choose that option and be happy when it yields better results.

      I fully understand my experience is unique to me. I don’t expect anyone to have the same results. All I ask is people don’t assume if I had just been more like THEM, I would have the same results they do. Our experiences are too relative to ourselves to assume they should apply to everyone else.

      • Thank you, Jenn, for your perfectly adequate reply to Pete W’s well-intentioned but unsympathetic comment. Doubt does not come with an off switch. To believe is my choice, to doubt is my burden.

    • I agree that the continuing comments on geography are a bit overworked, particularly when the original article inspires conversation on so many other points. I do believe, however, that faith is not as simple as being content and “doing it once” and being “done.” Faith is more complex than that. It’s dynamic. It moves; it ebbs and it flows through the experiences of our lives, hence Brother Given’s admonition to remember and “persevere in the absence of certainty.” I’ve heard the analogy that when the sun is out, you bask in the sunshine. When the clouds appear, you go on the memory with anticipation. To continue with anticipation when the sky is dark and use spiritual memories to move forward will require a choice, a daily choice for some, where some days are easier than others. I think Givens’ point is that active anticipation helps questioning individuals to work through the rainy days and develop deeper faith over time. Questioning then becomes the catalyst for faith rather than the barrier.

  12. President Kimball did not condemn the teachings of Brigham Young as heresy. He denounced the ‘adam-god theory’, whatever that might be. If he was inferring that Pres Young was a false Prophet who not only taught false doctrine and worshipped a false god but also lied about the origin of the doctrine then we have a major problem on our hands. The doctrine taught by Brigham Young was also taught by Pres Heber C Kimball, Pres Wilford Woodruff, Pres George Q Cannon, Pres Lorenzo Snow, Elder Samual Richards, Elder Orson Hyde and Sister Eliza R Snow, to name but a few.

  13. As one who received an incredibly powerful witness as a very young man of the truth and power of the Book of Mormon, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith Jr. and the reality of a loving Heavenly Father and of his Christ, and yet still suffered from many periods of spiritual darkness, doubt and forgetfulness throughout his life, I very much appreciate and laud this beautiful expression of what faith is really all about. If you read this and came away with the sense that this exceptionally deep articulation of a soul who has found that the choice of faith is always more uplifting, beautiful and sweet to the inner heart/spirit than cynicism and infidelity is about Nephite geography, then I would invite you to read it again with a desire to feel the generous gift of self this author is giving. I don’t believe I have read more beautifully written language that expresses a life’s struggle to try to understand its meaning and to distill the essence of faith than these words, “The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true.” And then this priceless gift: “The call to faith . . . is the only summons, issued under the only conditions which can allow us to reveal fully who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts.” If this gift was not your take-away from this piece, I invite you to read it again.

  14. Pingback: Maxwell Institute Blog | Ask Terryl and Fiona Givens

  15. Pingback: Finding Faith in the Midst of Doubt | Interpreter

  16. Pingback: Love is Bound: Rosalynde Welch and Living with Ambiguity | John Adams Center

  17. This was very well written. I think it sums up the struggle of the faithful very well.

    When I think of Mother Theresa and all the people who have felt the loneliness and emptiness of blind faith, I think about how many years of my life I’ve spent feeling the same and I wonder if that kind of misery is required to be good to others.

    When I consider the idea that I should just keep on believing no matter what, and no matter how valid the doubts and criticism are, I hear every single religion in the world echoing the same message to their followers.

    This was written so well and I believe it was with only the best intentions, but it’s still difficult to accept that my own judgement and critical thinking aren’t as good as suffering through blind faith for the rest of my life on the basis that belief in what the church wants is always the better path. It feels less and less about my relationship with GOD and more and more about the PEOPLE who have a culture that values belief and submission. Suppressing your own ideas and red flags does not lead to happiness. Is it always best to tell people to doubt their doubts, that their valid concerns are misguided and “easily dismissed”, but trusting the message of the evolving LDS organization is majestic and beautiful and poetic? Faith can be beautiful and rewarding, but it can also be very damaging to mental and emotional health. I don’t know all the answers, but I know my children are not going to grow up with the idea that belief and submission are superior to critical thinking and being honest with yourself.

    I think the best argument made by Brother Givens for sticking with the church is the opportunities to serve and be shaped by working at relationships. I’d rather contribute to real people in real ways than continue pouring energy into finding ways to believe the stories and intentions of the dead prophets. I can’t believe that is God’s goal for humanity – that he values belief, dogma and ordinances anywhere near charity, community and happiness. I can support Zion, but it will always be hard to support unquestioned submission to organized religion, polyandry, Book of Mormon anachronisms, lying, male dominance, the translation of the Book of Abraham, doctrinal racism, the blood atonement and the origins of the temple ceremony. There are both good and bad responses to these issues, but will I somehow be a better father or member of my community if I memorize the apologetic theories or master the art of reverting to how I felt in seminary when I believed everything the teacher said and had no clue there was more to the story? Is it fair to expect the same level of trust from myself? I had some great experiences believing in Santa Claus as a child, but is it best to force that perspective for the rest of my life, regardless of everything I’ve learned?

    I really do appreciate this article, but when is enough SELF doubt enough?

  18. Givens’s whole dilemma is born of a faulty assumption he imbibed wholesale, never questioning, never critically analyzing it—that the Book of Mormon is an ancient work that was translated from golden plates by a young man in the nineteenth century.

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