The LDS church is in a difficult spot. Many LDS leaders have presented the Book of Mormon and the church as an “all or nothing” proposition. (See my “All or Nothing” quotes to see what I mean.) As long as members are convinced the Book of Mormon and the church are True with a capital T, they will tend to be all-in, calling-fulfilling, tithe-paying, temple-attending members. Children of those members will go on missions and try to bring in more converts who will hopefully also be all-in as well. When this happens, the church grows, more temples can be built, more people will go on missions, etc.
Unfortunately for the church, people can figure out in a hurry via the internet about a number of things that cast serious doubt on the truth claims of the church: the non-historicity of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon, the unsettling way polygamy was lived by Joseph Smith, the contradictions of the various versions of the first vision, the racism of the pre-1978 prophets, etc. As many members are not aware of the full extent of these issues, they are shocked when they learn the full truth and they feel as if they’ve been lied to. When the LDS church published the pictures of the seer stone Joseph Smith used to “translate” the Book of Mormon, some members were understandably surprised. Their whole lives they had been shown pictures of Joseph Smith laboriously studying the plates while translating, and then they find out the plates weren’t even needed. As they start to search online, they may quickly discover many other issues and decide to leave the church. All because so many leaders have always said it’s either all true or all false, and then people discover it’s not literally true.
So like I said, the church is in a difficult spot. What are their options?
Double down on the Book of Mormon being literally true, and the LDS church being the One True Church, by continuing with the correlated (and some would say whitewashed) story of the church
Pro: They can continue to demand 10% of members’ income and all the other things they require of their members. I see this as holding their members’ eternal salvation hostage, in that members have to do everything asked of them or else they won’t be in the Celestial Kingdom with their families. But if it’s all true, the church can ask whatever they want, because it’s God asking for it, not the church.
Con: Members and prospective members are a quick internet search away from finding out the Book of Abraham and Book of Mormon are not literally true, which means the church isn’t the one true church either. By virtue of the all or nothing proposition, many of those people might not engage with the church. The internet may very well keep the church from ever growing like it used to.
Leave room for those who believe the Book of Mormon is not historically true, and that the LDS church is not the One True Church
Pro: It would be OK for members to believe the LDS church has truth, but isn’t the One True Church. People will no longer be shocked by what they discover about the LDS church, because the church won’t claim to be the only true church. (OK, they’ll still be shocked. If you haven’t been shocked yet, start listening to the Year of Polygamy podcasts. For bonus shocking, be sure to listen to Violent 1850’s Utah and the Utah War.) At the very least, the church might stop hemorrhaging members who decide the truth claims don’t add up. Those people might decide there is enough good in the LDS church to stay, even though it’s not literally the one way to God.
Con: If the Book of Mormon might be considered to not be historically true, and if it’s OK to believe the LDS church is not the one true church, what will happen to the missionary program? Why would members still be willing to pay 10% of their income, and do everything they’re asked to do, if the church isn’t the one true church? Why do we need expensive temples if the ordinances there are not literally needed to save our living and our dead? Can enough people be convinced to stay if the truth claims are no longer strictly preached?
Right now, it appears to be the church is choosing #1. Part of that strategy seems to be “inoculation” against some of the damaging aspects of church history. The idea is if people hear about some of these things from an early age, the impact of “anti-Mormon” internet information will be greatly reduced. For example, the church has started to include some information from the polygamy essays into the seminary curriculum. Maybe they can convince most of the youth that marrying 30-40 wives, including a 14-year-old girl and other men’s wives, isn’t that big of a deal. But they can only go so far. Will they teach the youth how Joseph Smith hid the truth from his wife, the church, and the world and continually lied about it? I doubt it.
Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) decided years ago to quit claiming to be the One True Church. They agreed there was no one true church, but that people could find truth in many places. If they focus on the Bible and Jesus, but without the truth claims, are they just another Christian church? I believe they have more to offer than that, so to me the answer is “no.” The LDS church has a LOT to offer besides being the One True Church: great people who are committed to serving (even though it’s mostly focused on the members of the church, or gaining new members), a knack for organizing and mobilizing when help is needed, a lot of additional scripture (although not literally true, but what scripture is?) that can uplift and inspire, and much more.
I really hope the church someday moves towards #2. Currently I could never say in a Sunday School setting that I don’t believe the Book of Mormon to be historical, but that I can still find stories and doctrine in it that resonate with me. I could never say I don’t believe there is such a thing as a prophet as described by the LDS church, but that prophets might teach some truth clouded in their own experiences and biases. I could never say I see Joseph Smith not as the greatest man next only to Jesus, but instead as a religious genius who was seriously flawed and made some real doozy mistakes, including doctrinal mistakes. But until they move towards #2, people like me might not stick around to wait to see if the church changes. I have friends who believe like I do, and some of them are determined to try to help the church move towards #2 from the inside. Will they succeed? I don’t know. I hope they do. Otherwise, I believe the internet really will weaken the church to the point where its best days will be in its rearview mirror.