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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : My “Inoculation” » My “Inoculation”

My “Inoculation”

Tom - August 17, 2007

The pros and cons of inoculation, the idea that the Church should proactively teach controversial aspects of its history as a prophylactic measure against people feeling betrayed and losing their faith when they encounter these things in non-Church settings, is a frequent topic of discussion around the LDS blogs and has come up again recently (see DMI here and Kevin Barney at BCC starting in comment 103 here). All this talk has me reflecting on my own experience in the Church and wondering what made me “immune” when I encountered historical issues that often cause trouble for people.

I grew up in Utah and my only education in Church history came from the Church itself by way of sunday school, seminary, and required BYU religion classes. I never sought out extra-curricular sources of history. My dad had shelves full of old Mormon-themed books, but as far as I know, no scholarly treatments of Mormon history. It never really occured to me to look deeper into history. It just wasn’t something that interested me much.

Starting in my teenage years, though, I have always been aware that there were people who thought the Book of Mormon was made up and that Joseph Smith was a charlatan and that these people felt like they had the facts on their side. I think I primarily became aware of this from two sources: 1) in seminary or church when the occasional apologetic argument was put forth, the attacks that precipitated the apologetics were referred to; 2) I always had a job and I often worked with people who were hostile to the Church (the Wasatch front has a high concentration of hostiles), who would occasionally bring up some of the tried and true attacks. So I never was under any illusions that Church history was entirely happy and uncontroversial.

I think by that time I had absorbed a couple of crucial ideas that kept me from being too troubled by faith-challenging information: The first is that people often have unacknowledged, subconscious ulterior motives for believing what they believe, especially when it comes to religious questions. I knew this to be true of both anti- and pro-Mormon folks. So I took everything everyone said with a grain of salt. I don’t think that skeptical attitude was something I was taught—I know I didn’t get it from my parents—but I think that attitude kept me somewhat anchored where I was: in the middle. By the way, I’m not saying that having a skeptical, distrusting attitude is necessarily a virtue, just that it kept me from being too influenced by people hostile to the Church.

The second idea I had absorbed was that if there was any such thing as spiritual truth, it could only be learned by spiritual means. Praying to learn truth is something that is taught constantly in the Church. I wasn’t sure that there was any such thing as spiritual truth or that prayer could really lead one to truth, but I was open to the idea. In my mind, the question of the validity of the Church was not something that could be settled definitively by weighing arguments of critics against those of apologists; it had to come from God (if there was a God).

When the time came to decide if I would go on a mission I finally was motivated to try the study and prayer thing for myself. I read the Book of Mormon for the first time in earnest with this question in my mind: “Is this the work of God or did Joseph Smith make it up?” As I read I felt again and again a witness from the Holy Ghost that it was of God. I learned how to pray and I felt that God was there and I felt His love. I gained a witness of the love of God and the validity of the Church that motivated me to serve a mission.

Though my trust in that witness is not always perfect, its power is what has anchored me over the past several years as I have learned more faith-challenging aspects of the Church. Plus, as I always have, I still take everything everyone says with a grain of salt and I still believe that there are questions that cannot be definitively settled through argumentation and examination of hard evidence. From hanging around the internet I think I have at least cursory knowledge of everything that seems to cause a lot of problems for people and some of that has probably influenced the way I regard the Church and its leaders, but it hasn’t caused a crisis and my faith has remained intact. I haven’t felt betrayed or deceived. I still trust the current leadership of the Church and I still find the Gospel as taught by the Church to be indescribably beautiful and true.

I can see upsides and downsides to a Church history inoculation regimen as proposed by Kevin Barney. I don’t know if the potential benefits would outweigh the risks. And I don’t think the Church has a moral obligation to proactively teach every aspect of its history.

I see one of my main responsibilities as a parent to help my children develop faith. I want them to have faith because my faith has been good for me and I believe the Church will bless theirs and their families’ lives. As most of us who have been on missions or taught our own children know, helping others develop faith is not a straightforward task. And I don’t think that there is a one and only best method for doing so. As I think about teaching my own children, right now I doubt that I will proactively teach them everything there is to know right upfront, but I also doubt that I will lead them to believe that there are no controversial aspects of Church history. I feel like the most important thing I can do to help them develop faith is to teach them how to pray and discern spiritual truth and share with them what I believe to be true and why.


  1. The second idea I had absorbed was that if there was any such thing as spiritual truth, it could only be learned by spiritual means. Praying to learn truth is something that is taught constantly in the Church.

    I think this epistimology is really the heart of LDS teachings. EVERYTHING that the church teaches comes after this. Anything that might come in the future can be absorbed or rejected based on this theory of how we know things.

    I’m curious about what you mean by “spiritual truth”. How is the existence or non-existence of the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations a “spiritual truth”? Isn’t that a historical question?

    I’m personally under the deep conviction that ALL truths are spiritual truths, so however one goes about learning truth in any form is a spiritual exercise.

    Comment by Tim — August 17, 2007 @ 9:53 am

  2. Comment #1 wasn’t me.

    But while I’m here…

    I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I have learned a TON of things about Chruch History, policies, quotes, etc. since discovering the Bloggernacle over two years ago. At first, these revelations and realizations bothered me. But one thing that has always stuck with me, and I think it’s what interests John Dehlin a great deal, are those that know all of these things, have investigated all of these things, and yet they still believe.

    Now, there are certain experiences in my life that I have had that I cannot deny when it comes to the veracity of the Gospel. So for that split second when any doubt enters my mind, I am quickly (and thankfully) taken back to these experiences.

    Comment by Tim J — August 17, 2007 @ 10:20 am

  3. My tongue-in-cheek post last month belongs in this discussion I guess.

    The point I had intended to make was that I believe it’s near impossible to have correlated lessons about things like Polygamy, OD-2, and MMM. And while Kevin Barney and Julie Smith have proven it can be done, I am less than convinced that those lessons could be given in all wards by all GD instructors just as effectively.

    I think a forum like Saturday Night Adult Stake Conference might be an appropriate forum.

    I will also say, chalking-up the priesthood ban to the racism of our early leaders is understandably hard for members to believe. If that is the conclusion we reach, I don’t think it would work too well.

    Comment by Tim J — August 17, 2007 @ 10:26 am

  4. How is the existence or non-existence of the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations a “spiritual truth”? Isn’t that a historical question?

    Yes, but that’s a different question from whether the Book of Mormon is the word of God. At least I think so at this point. I know that’s a contentious issue, so I think I’ll avoid that conversation here.

    Comment by Tom — August 17, 2007 @ 11:40 am

  5. What irks me the most about the new popular trend of unmasking the secrets of Mormon History is…well…the need. I don’t get it. Knowing all the quiet bed secrets of Joseph Smith’s life doesn’t change the fact that he was a Prophet and Seer. MMM happened; but were any of us there to witness exactly what caused it, or can imagine living in a high stress situation of surviving day to day? Black Members and the Priesthood is a hard one to swallow –but why does it bother a bunch of white people in the USA and not the thousands of recent black converts in Africa?

    Every Religious history is peppered with a questionable past. Why did the God command so many cities and civilizations to be killed, whether by hand or nature? Why was there polygamy in OT times as well as Church History? Heck, what about the Catholic’s past? Their recent problems? Claiming that our Church History is so scandulous is arrogant. And inaccurate.

    ~sigh~ I guess I’m just tired of the incessant need to dwell on the negative. So thank you, Tom, for your post. I think if we focus on our Spiritual experiences and answered prayers we will all be much better off. (Not to mention how ticked off Satan will be when we ignore his crap…)

    Comment by Cheryl — August 17, 2007 @ 11:50 am

  6. “but why does it bother a bunch of white people in the USA and not the thousands of recent black converts in Africa?”

    Nor in America itself. It’s easy for many of us to sit here and say it must be hard for a Black convert when they find out about the Priesthood ban. But I haven’t seen one example in the Bloggernacle outside of Darron Smith and Darius Gray of such a thing.

    I just baptized a young Black man into our ward. He found out about the ban after his baptism, and it was no big deal to him.

    Comment by Tim J — August 17, 2007 @ 11:59 am

  7. I should say, there are more than likely several examples of people who have found out about the Priesthood Ban after baptism and were not fine with it, but we don’t here from them in the Bloggernacle. We just assume it’s true.

    Comment by Tim J — August 17, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  8. Cheryl,
    Mountain Meadows is one of those things that I can’t ever imagine an instance when I would find it necessary to teach it to my children. It has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with being a member of the Church.

    I think the priesthood ban will always be with us, though, because the 1978 revelation is the most recent addition to the canon. We can’t understand that without understanding the events that led to it.

    Comment by Tom — August 17, 2007 @ 12:44 pm

  9. Tom,

    The problem is that the Church refuses to engage in any discussion of the ban in any teaching materials. In fact, the Sunday School manuals on OD 1 & 2 say to avoid discussion of the issues surrounding those bits of scripture and instead focus on the principle of continuing revelation. There is a lot of information out that on the priesthood ban that would help members deal with this part of Church history (and undead folklore) and a large percentage of members would welcome it if presented. Instead we act like there is more to hide than there is and those that go seeking information that SS refuses to give them have a good chance of obtaining it from someone with a real bias.

    Comment by a random John — August 17, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

  10. I grew up in Salt Lake County in the 1970’s. I was inoculated in part in Utah History classes, which included MMM, taught at Mount Jordon Jr. High by a couple of anti’s. I knew that the teachers had a bias, but the facts were essentially true. I also knew about polygamy because of family history. The whole Blacks and the Priesthood debate was something I was familiar with. I thought it was nonsense then; and my opinions on that issue have not changed in the last twenty five years or so. None of the controversies affected my testimony because the adults were so up front about it all.

    I know quite a few African American members of the church and the Blacks and the Priesthood thing does affect them. Either it festers with them and they leave the church or they are forced by their family or community to have to explain it over and over again. I really wish the Church would own that one.

    My oldest son is serving a mission. Recently he met an atheist Jew who wanted to bash him on all of the above plus DNA and the Laminate/Amerindian issues. He wrote us that the guy appeared to want to shake his testimony by telling him of these “truths”. My son told him that this was “old hat stuff” because his parents had taught him all about these controversies and more. He quoted him some scriptures and bore his testimony. I doubt that it affected the Jewish fellow, but at least the exchange did not affect my child.

    I think that just like sex education controversies in the church are best taught in the home. I am not going to leave these important issues to be taught to my children by someone else.

    Comment by JA Benson — August 17, 2007 @ 5:32 pm

  11. Tom,

    I swear I could have written most of this post myself. I’ve had mostly the same experience and feel much the same way.

    My favorite way to look at it is through the puzzle simile. When you try to put a jigsaw puxxle together where do you start? With the corners, then the edges, then work towards the middle (generally speaking). If you find a piece halfway through you don’t know where to put, do you throw it out and the whole puzzle with it? No, you set it aside believing it will fit in later when you get a better understanding of the big picture.

    If you gain a strong testimony of the gospel through its foundation (Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, faith, repentence, etc) and cling to the knowledge that it is from God, you can have faith that everything else will (eventually) make sense. But like you said, that knowledge must come through a supernatural experience. It must come through revelation.

    Comment by Bret — August 17, 2007 @ 5:33 pm

  12. I think that just like sex education controversies in the church are best taught in the home. I am not going to leave these important issues to be taught to my children by someone else.

    Cheryl, I generally agree that this is the best solution. However, we are rapidly approaching a point (if we are not already there) in the Church where most members will not have been taught the gospel by their parents, but will have been converted as adults. That changes the prescription some, I would think. (Just as the fact that many children have parents who can’t/won’t teach them about sex changes my opinion about sex ed. in school)

    Comment by Kristine — August 17, 2007 @ 6:28 pm

  13. I apologize Kristine for not making my self clear. I totally agree with you.

    As a parent I’d rather teach my kids these truths. I think that the Church should also somehow teach about these subjects. It is our stuff and we have to own it. Converts should get controversial information from the Church rather than anti’s. How to go about it, is tricky. I like that they have had a few articles in the Ensign and Church News of late. This is a good start.

    Comment by JA Benson — August 17, 2007 @ 6:46 pm

  14. I agree completely (for once!).

    Comment by Kristine — August 17, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

  15. I see this as a roots and branches thing (I wrote about my thoughts on that here), sort of similar to the puzzle analogy. If the roots are in place, the branches don’t matter so much. I didn’t really come in contact with “controversial” topics until a few years ago when a friend of mine was starting to lose her testimony. I have found that holding to the roots of my testimony has helped me even when people confront me with “difficult questions.” I don’t feel the need to understand everything, nor to have all information. So in that sense, I guess I agree with Cheryl. I don’t fully get the need. I think too much focus on the branches by the Church could be a distraction from the root mission of the Church. There’s a tough balance there — respond to concerns and questions in the public sphere without distracting from what is critical to the Church’s mission.

    That said, I think the efforts the Church is making to respond to the increased press are worthwhile. I still don’t know that church meetings are the place to go into things like MMM, polygamy, the priesthood ban, etc., because I believe our manuals, etc. focus on the roots as they should. But the Church’s use of the internet has provided some ability to address some issues, and, as someone has mentioned, even church magazines have addressed things like MMM. Interviews with church leaders have also brought some of the issues out (I tell everyone I think the PBS interview with Elder Holland should be required reading — he answered questions I have had about the priesthood ban, including giving an answer I think we should all adopt “we don’t know why it happened” and he also suggests that past racist comments were incorrect).

    I also think the Newsroom is one of the best things the Church has as far as its public face is concerned.

    Comment by m&m — August 17, 2007 @ 10:26 pm

  16. My innoculation began before I was baptized at age 10. My family converted to the Church in a small Texas town in the mid-60′s and our concerned neighbors did “their best” to prevent us from making such a big mistake. I was a bystander to many discussions my Dad had with these concerned citizens.

    Anti-mormonism lacked refinement then and “troubling” aspects of church history were presented the same as attacks on church doctrine. The main thing I noticed was the twisting, distortions, and down-right lies the anti’s were using. And, it seemed very curious to me why they found that tactic necessary. So, I looked suspiciously at their presentations MMM, polygamy, etc. also.

    The general conclusion I reached was: “If Mormonism isn’t true, then neither is Christianity because it has similar or worse problems – historically and doctrinally.”

    So, rather than being an atheist, I’m here blogging at the ‘nacle. My 10-year-old testimony was that because of continuing revelation, there were more blessings in this church than in any other – something I have found to be unwaveringly true over the past 43 years.

    Comment by Mondo Cool — August 18, 2007 @ 6:49 am

  17. Tim J. said, “one thing that has always stuck with me… are those that know all of these things, have investigated all of these things, and yet they still believe.”

    I’ve heard it said that a lot of people didn’t care to read what Hugh Nibley wrote. They were just comforted and reaffirmed because he existed. Surely HE knows about that other stuff, and if it doesn’t bother him, it doesn’t bother me. It is inoculation by proxy. I believe that was a vital step in my own inoculation.

    Comment by Bradley Ross — August 18, 2007 @ 6:57 am

  18. Inoculation by proxy eh?

    Well Bradley, I had a similar experience when I discovered Times and Seasons. Just knowing that “smart Mormons” had met tough issues and come through with their testimonies intact was rather comforting to me.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 18, 2007 @ 10:03 am

  19. Seth-
    Mine is an opposite experience. To me, it should be the “smart Mormons” that are always questioning and doubting (2 Ne 9:28). Tough issues should constantly be their vice and of no surprise. At least no surprise to this “stupid Mormon.” ;)

    Comment by Cheryl — August 18, 2007 @ 10:26 am

  20. Tom (#8) said:
    “I think the priesthood ban will always be with us, though, because the 1978 revelation is the most recent addition to the canon. We can’t understand that without understanding the events that led to it.”

    Can anyone tell me where I can find this revelation? And I mean the text of the revelation, not the declaration that a revelation had been received.

    I was not inoculated, and have come down with a serious case of disbelief.

    Comment by Malkie — August 20, 2007 @ 5:04 am

  21. Malkie,

    I have never seen any text other than the declaration printed in the D&C. My take is the revelation was simply that “every worthy man in the church may receive the priesthood”, no additional revelatory text is necessary. Are you looking for something specific as part of this revelation?

    In response to Cheryl’s comment about “the need”. I see it as a personality trait. Some people need all the details, others don’t. There are all kinds of different people in the world, which I see as a tremendous opportunity and blessing. I personally don’t understand how people don’t need all the details, but that’s me. I can’t imagine simply leaning on a faithful scholar. I realize you have what you need, and I appreciate respectful members close to me that don’t judge my personal need to research every nook and cranny of history. Following the counsel to “study it out in your mind” this is how I operate, and yes, spiritual things are verified by spiritual witness. Key word for me is verified, not found. But that’s me.

    Comment by Eric — August 28, 2007 @ 9:18 pm

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