Mormons not strangers to a crisis of faith

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Kanokphol Limpanasriphong Young has experienced doubt in the church. But he turns to scriptures and missionary work to find peace. (Maddi Driggs)
Kanokphol Limpanasriphong Young has experienced doubt in the church. He turns to scriptures and to missionary work to find peace. (Maddi Driggs)

Kanokphol Limpanasriphong Young, a BYU student from Thailand, was baptized a member of the LDS Church five years ago. After about a year he saw comments and literature about the church that caused him to question the faith he had come to love.

One night he came across a website that was attacking the Prophet Joseph Smith.

“I read it and out of curiosity I went to other sources,” Young said. “I felt terrible. I had feelings of doubt fill my head.” So he knelt down and prayed. “Immediately, I felt the Spirit and knew that although I didn’t know all the answers, I knew what I knew.”

Young is not alone in his experience. There is an abundance of anti-Mormon literature in circulation.

Mormons aren’t immune to hostile outside influences, even dissident thoughts from people they trust.

Religiosity in general is decreasing, especially among college-aged people. Recent studies from the Pew Research Center indicate that nearly one third of millennials now say they are unaffiliated with any faith, which is up 10 percent from 2007.

While LDS Church membership continues to grow by a few hundred thousand people each year, there is still a steady number of people who leave. One example is a 2015 mass resignation, when about 2,500 people lined the streets outside Salt Lake City’s Temple Square submitting papers to have their names removed from church records. Turning away from the faith can have an affect on the members who know them.

“To have so many people who you like and trust give up on Mormonism can shake your own belief,” LDS Church historian Richard Bushman said. “Moreover, these skeptics make arguments for which no easy answers are found. They make it seem like Mormonism is a house of cards with no real basis in truth.”

Bushman compares this loss of belief to the illusion where one perspective shows a beautiful woman but another perspective shows an ugly hag.

Bushman compared this optical illusion cartoon to some reasons people leave the LDS Church. (Optical Illusion Collection)

“Once people see the church as something different than they thought, the hag haunts them,” Bushman said. “They can never believe in the beautiful woman again. Subscription to Mormon beliefs seems no longer possible.”

Topics that could be used by detractors to tear down the faith used to thrive outside official church communication channels. Now gospel essays on LDS.org talk about polygamy, the origins of the Book of Abraham and other topics in church history. Bushman calls this “the reconstruction of the Mormon narrative” and said that to grasp it, some members just have to face the facts.

“But it startles church members,” Bushman said. “At many points the standard story is being revised, and for some this is hard to take. They feel that they were deceived before and are not sure they can deal with the new account.”

Discovering previously unfamiliar information about church history can can be faith-challenging; and learning to maintain faith is an inevitable trial for some.

“Don’t be intimidated by the certainty of the skeptics,” Bushman said. “Many of them claim there is a water-tight case against Joseph Smith. No rational person could possibly accept his extravagant assertions. These people are as adamant and dogmatic as any dogmatic Mormon.”

BYU church history professor Michael Goodman said there are three ways of finding knowledge. The first is through reason, which includes logic and historical context. The second is through utilitarianism, or which choice leads to the greater “good.” And third is through revelation, or knowledge beyond the mortal ability to receive here on Earth.

Each method for finding truth gives further capability to recognize truth. Gaining knowledge by using only one method is not wrong, but it does lend the seeker less of a foundation of truly knowing.

“It takes all three means of knowing truth,” Goodman said. “I believe that when all of the evidence is considered — not just the historical documentation — it becomes much less murky.”

The church professors said taking Goodman’s advice is key to learning to understand truth behind what the critics have to say. By using these three ways of discovering knowledge, members can discover where they stand.

“Here is where we need divine help,” Bushman said. “When it comes to deciding what is good and true, we do need inspiration.  We don’t want to get washed away by the prejudices of our times … If our hearts are pure, we are promised guidance.”

Like Bushman, Goodman said it is important to include God in the search for knowledge and truth.

“How grateful I am that we are not solely or even largely dependent on the historical record to know if Jesus was the Christ,” Goodman said. “Likewise, we are not solely or even largely dependent on the historical record to know if Joseph was his prophet and if this restored gospel and church are true.”

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