Some Things That Are True Are Not Very Useful

Broadcasting Weakness of Leaders



Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a talk to Church Educational System Instructors and faculty at a CES Symposium on August 22, 1981 entitled The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect.

Elder Packer said the following:

There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks made a similar comment in the context of Church history at a CES Symposium on August 16, 1985:

The fact that something is true is not always a justification for communicating it.
Jim Bennett, in his reply to the CES Letter, gave the best response to the above quote. "That is quite good advice. Telling a child that they are physically repugnant, for instance, is not a good idea, even if it is true."
Joseph using a rock in a hat instead of the gold plates to translate the Book of Mormon is not a useful truth? (addressed in the Book of Mormon Translation section) The fact that there are multiple conflicting first vision accounts is not a useful truth? (addressed in the First Vision section) The fact that Joseph Smith was involved in polyandry while hiding it from Emma, when D&C 132:61 condemns it as “adultery,” is not a useful truth? (addressed in the Polygamy section)

Elder Packer continues:

That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith – particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith – places himself in great spiritual jeopardy.

If facts and truths can destroy faith...what does it say about faith? If prophets of the Church conducted themselves in such a way that it can destroy faith, what does this say about the prophets?

What’s interesting about Elder Packer’s above quote is that he’s focusing on history from the point of view that a historian is only interested in the “weaknesses and frailties of present and past leaders.” (Packer isn't criticizing all historians in this quote - only the historian who "delights" in pointing out weaknesses and frailties. Similar to this letter.) Historians are also interested in things like how the Book of Mormon got translated or how many accounts Joseph gave about the foundational first vision or whether the Book of Abraham even matches the papyri and facsimiles. (Agreed. Historians can provide a lot of wonderful insights. The church employs a lot of historians) 

Besides, it matters in the religious context what past and present leaders “weaknesses and frailties” are. If Joseph’s public position was that adultery and polygamy are morally wrong and condemned by God, what does it say about him and his character that he did exactly that in the dark while lying to Emma and everyone else about it? How is this not a useful truth? (This is ironically untruthful. Joseph wasn't an adulterer. Joseph shared polygamy and implemented privately with many men and women during his lifetime. Polygamy wasn't shared with the broader public until 1852 in Utah.)

A relevant hypothetical example to further illustrate this point: The prophet or one of the apostles gets caught with child pornography on his hard drive. (an extremely unlikely hypothetical)  This matters, especially in light of his current position, status, and teachings on morality. Just because a leader wears a religious hat does not follow that they’re exempt from history and accountability from others. (Most would agree with these last two sentences)

Further, testimonies are acquired in part by the recitation of a historical narrative. Missionaries recite the narrative about Joseph Smith searching and praying for answers, about acquiring the gold plates and translating the Book of Mormon, about the Priesthood being restored along with other foundational narratives.

Why should investigators and members not learn the correct (Missionaries are sharing the correct version. It's not a complete history though.) and candid version of that historical narrative, for better or for worse? Are members and investigators not entitled to a truthful accounting of the real origins of Mormonism? (The church has been working very hard to do this with Saints, Gospel Topics Essays, Church History videos, and The Joseph Smith Papers project)

The question should not be whether it’s faith promoting or not to share ugly but truthful facts. The question should be: Is it the honest thing to do? (This is a strawman argument based upon the Packer & Oaks quotes above.  As described above, the church is working at sharing it's history while not overly "delighting" in weaknesses.)

CES Letter, Page 120 & 121

Historical truths are not created equal. Just because something happened doesn’t mean that it needs to be broadcast to the world. This applies to Church members and leaders who make mistakes (as we all do).

The Latter-day Saints, including their presiding authorities, are not perfect.  Multiple leaders have acknowledged that Church members are "liable to err" on occasion.[1]  For example, Joseph Smith proclaimed: "Altho' I do wrong, I do not the wrongs that I am charg'd with doing—the wrong that I do is thro' the frailty of human nature like other men. No man lives without fault.”[2]  Just weeks before his martyrdom, the Prophet exclaimed:  “I never told you I was perfect.”[3]  Similar declarations can be found in the statements from virtually all Church leaders.

The Lord will not overlook leaders’ imperfections.  “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven… For I am no respecter of persons…” (D&C 1:31-32, 35). 

Leaders and members must account for their actions.  However, individuals who are directly affected or even victimized by a leader’s misdeeds must forgive them, just as they must forgive everyone. Joseph Smith’s revelation states: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10).  Holding a grudge or withdrawing due to perceived abuses is not acceptable to the Lord.

Latter-day Saint and those men and women who preside, the general counsel is to "not speak evil of the Lord's anointed."[4]  Importantly, this directive contains no footnote authorizing a person to speak evil under special circumstances, that is, if certain criteria are met, such as if it is true.  There is no bracketed insertion saying: "Go ahead and speak evil if it factual and accurate."  The caution is to not speak evil of the Lord's anointed, period. 

First Presidency Counselor, George Q. Cannon explained: "There is one thing that the Lord has warned us about from the beginning, and that is, not to speak evil of the Lord's anointed. He has told us that any member of the Church who indulged in this is liable to lose the Spirit of God and go into darkness. The Prophet Joseph said time and again that it was one of the first and strongest symptoms of apostasy."[5] 

Joseph Smith taught:  “I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn other, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives.”[6]  Throughout the Prophet’s teachings, the need for the Holy Spirit to guide and direct is consistently emphasized (e.g., D&C 42:14).

[1] See Brigham Young JD 4:290, 10:212;; Heber C. Kimball, JD 9:78-79; Joseph F. Smith JD 11:306-07; Lorenzo Snow JD 20:189-90.

[2] Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 130.

[3] May 12, 1844 discourse in Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 369.  I am indebted to Don Bradley for this insight.

[4] Charles W. Penrose, Conference Report, April 1904, p.71; see also Acts 23:5; Brigham Young 16:188-89; Heber C. Kimball, JD 4:46, 12:188-89; John Taylor JD 9:14; JD 9:142-43; George Albert Smith JD 17:163-64; George Q. Cannon, Collected Discourses 5:222.

[5] Stuy, CD 5:222

[6] Joseph Fielding Smith, comp. and ed. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976 printing, 156.