Nothing to fear from the truth
When I got home from my mission back in 1973, I discovered that my family had become close with the family of James B. Allen, who was then serving as Assistant Church Historian. (I would bring the families even closer -- in 1977 I married his oldest daughter.)
During the winter of 1974, with my future wife off on a BYU semester abroad in Paris, I occupied my time by working on writing a play about Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail. Sections 121 and 122 of the Doctrine & Covenants had become very important to me on my mission, and I wanted to know the whole story behind them.
So my future father-in-law took me up to the Church Historical Department and helped me find a lot of excellent information -- including photocopies of letters written in the Prophet's own hand to his wife.
I also read books and monographs that Prof. Allen steered me to, detailing key events during the Saints' time in Missouri. That was when I found out for the first time that the Saints, including many of their leaders, had not been exactly wise in their dealings with each other and with their non-Mormon neighbors.
No actions of the Saints justified the way they were treated by their enemies, but some of their words and actions, magnified and spread as rumors, made many of the non-Mormon settlers feel justified in fearing the Saints and wanting to drive them out.
It was a time of turmoil, with some of the most prominent Church leaders turning against the Prophet and getting excommunicated in the process. Some of them signed affidavits that appeared to justify criminal charges against Joseph Smith.
These things certainly explained what the Lord was talking about when he said, "If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations ...," and comforted the Prophet with the words, "Thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors" (D&C 122:6,3).
I found out for the first time about the "Danite band," a group of Mormons who, outraged by the offenses against the Saints, undertook to defend the Saints by force of arms -- including "retaliations" against non-Mormons who may or may not have had anything to do with persecutions of the Church.
With all the lies and accusations being hurled during that time, I found it very difficult to know just how much, if anything, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, and other Mormon leaders knew about the Danites.
I took these problems to Prof. Allen. Instead of telling me what was false and what was factual -- which, under the circumstances, was almost impossible to ascertain -- he instead taught me a principle much deeper and truer, which I could apply to all of LDS history.
I don't remember now whether he actually said it, or whether I extrapolated it from his testimony and his calmness about the conflicting information from the Missouri era, but this is the principle I came away with:
Whatever happened or didn't happen, Joseph Smith was the Prophet of God, and the gospel is true.
Without realizing it, I had been letting my testimony slip into a dangerous condition of contingency. That is, I had been letting the accusations of traitors and anti-Mormons raise doubts in my own heart about whether the actions of Church leaders had always been wise or good -- and then I had been letting those doubts reach into the deeper place where my faith in the gospel resided.
So, with Prof. Allen's example before me, I leaned back and took a deep breath and thought about things.
From years of study before and during my mission, as well as personal experiences, I knew that God lived and this Church was the chief organ of his work in the world.
Just because I was now finding out details about Church history that had not been taught to me in Sunday school or in some of the official histories did not mean that the things I had been taught were not true.
In short, why should I let my own previous ignorance make me doubt things about the gospel that I had ample reason to be certain of?
I learned to approach Church history, right up to the present, with this attitude: This happened ... and the Church is true.
Mistakes, misjudgments, speculations about doctrine, and some indefensible actions were done by members of the Church. But the imperfections of those called to the service of the Lord never imply that God's hand is not in the Church.
Instead, they affirm the true principle that the Lord does not turn his followers into sock puppets or ventriloquists' dummies. People are always free to make their choices -- even bad ones -- and to hold on to their misunderstandings.
Knowing ourselves, how can we be surprised to discover that Saints were also imperfect in the past?
Shortly after my research on Liberty Jail, I began to write the scripts for the Living Scriptures series of dramatized LDS Church history audiotapes. With the knowledge and support of all the leaders of the project, I set out to bring up all the little-known events in Church history that anti-Mormons love to use to "disillusion" Church members.
I used the principle that these things happened and the Church is true. As a result, anyone who grew up listening to those tapes can hear the "shocking revelations" of anti-Mormons with complete equanimity. "Yes, I knew about that," these Saints can answer, "but here's why it has nothing to do with whether the Church is true."
This was all brought to mind by a recently published novel about the Martin and Willie handcart companies, In the Company of Angels, written by my friend David Farland.
Farland's research was impeccable. He read all the pertinent documents and eyewitness accounts, and then wrote a fictional account that never contradicts the known facts in any way. Furthermore, as a Latter-day Saint he never contradicted his own testimony, and he did his best to be faithful and fair to historical figures that he had come to love.
Unfortunately, Farland's excellent research brought him face to face with the fact that my own great-great grandfather, Apostle Franklin D. Richards, behaved rather badly.
So badly, in fact, that Pres. Brigham Young himself accused Richards of being proud and not listening to the Spirit, while publicly saying that Levi Savage had been in the right to warn the Martin and Willie companies not to cross the plains so late in the season.
We descendants of Franklin D. Richards, who ended his life as President of the Quorum of the Twelve, are rightfully proud of his life's work. But there is no denying that on this occasion he behaved unwisely and, in the view of most of the witnesses, proudly, making false promises and coercive statements that clearly did not turn out to have come from the Lord.
However loyal Richards's descendants might wish to be, we cannot fault Farland for depicting him in his novel exactly the way his own contemporaries saw him!
I'm sad to say that there is a nasty and false whispering campaign going on right now against Farland's novel, claiming it is somehow evil or offensive or even anti-Mormon for him to be truthful about what the Saints at the time said happened!
It's as if showing any Saint having ordinary human weaknesses somehow violates a secret agreement that we will never admit that any of us were ever wrong.
But if you read the book for yourself, you will find it filled with love, faith, and truth.
I live in a Church that is and always has been made up of fallible human beings, most of whom do their best, most of the time, to serve God and their fellow men according to the teachings of Christ. Yet mistakes -- sometimes terrible ones -- have been made, and to try to conceal them, or punish someone for speaking of them openly, would make us deceivers, and we know that deception does not serve the Lord.
We can only love and honor our pioneer forebears by trying to know them as they were, and never by depicting them as plastic dashboard saints who could do no wrong. How can false images provide us with examples we can follow?
We, and all the Saints before us, have been imperfect ... and the Church is true.
Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card
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