Putting Together an Awful Story

[Cross posted from the FairMormon Blog.]
An anonymous author* writing at the MorningStar Post blog "had an awful time putting [a] story together" on "the number of Latter Day Saints [sic] that are actually considered active," and that Mormons are, per the title of the post, allegedly "leaving their religion in record numbers around the world." (Link) What is the cause of this dire situation for the Church, and why was it so awful for the author to write on it? According to the article, which quotes an unnamed "high-ranking leader in Salt Lake City," it is because "of unprecedented scrutiny of our doctrines and beliefs and stemming from the white washing of our own history, and the rise of social media sites where members and potential converts can learn of our hidden problems."
This claim has been made before on many websites critical of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is a common trope for critics to say that the Church is nearing extinction because of the supposedly damning real history of Mormonism it has been hiding from its unsuspecting members. Instead of revisiting these claims in general, I want to focus specifically on the content of the blog post published by the MorningStar Post. To put it bluntly, and very charitably, the article is highly problematic. The author's use of anonymous sources is extremely questionable, and both factual errors and blatant plagiarism also plague the article. In short, the article makes totally dubious and unsubstantiated claims about both LDS Church hierarchy and Mormon history.


Plagiarized Sources
Before anything else, I feel it is important to point out the rather brazen plagiarism in the article. Consider, for example, this from article.
For those members who discover unflattering information about the church’s history from online sources, the whole picture changes in an instant. For some church leaders that want to save what’s left of a crumbling organization and prevent even more mass exodus, the idea of being honest has been posed to the church hierarchy. “Give the membership the whole story from the very beginning,” says LDS Church scholar, Richard Bushman, author of the acclaimed biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. “If the disruptive facts are worked into the history here as they grow up, they won’t be turned upside down when they come across something negative.” Another Mormon scholar adds, “If you tell a 12-year-old that Joseph Smith used a magical peep stone in a hat to translate The Book of Mormon, he’ll think that’s cool or interesting, but when Latter-Day Saints find out on the internet at age 50, they’ll ask, why didn’t the church tell me?”
As it turns out, these lines are actually cribbed from an article published in the Salt Lake Tribune on February 3, 2012:
For those who discover unwelcome information about the church's history online, Bushman said, "the whole picture changes in a flash — like those optical illusions that show a beautiful woman and a hag." The best way to prevent this from happening, Bushman said, is to give Mormons "the whole story from the beginning. If the disruptive facts are worked into the history Latter-day Saints learn as they grow up, they won't be turned upside down when they come across something negative." Indeed, said Givens, "if you tell a 12-year- old child that Joseph Smith used a 'peep stone' in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon, he'll think that's cool or interesting." (Link)
You'll notice that the plagiarized excerpt from the Salt Lake Tribune has been manipulated just enough to try and pass it off as original reporting. The article from the Tribune is itself a legitimate and reputable source, and it would normally be totally appropriate to quote and cite the original story in its context. However, what the author has done here is not only plagiarize the Tribune article, but also repackage it in a biased manner. Thus "unwelcome information" becomes "unflattering information," and the section that would normally illustrate the two sides to the issue is replaced with the entirely made up notion that the church is “crumbling.” The nonsensical claim of a "mass exodus" is also thrown in for good measure. In short, the author keeps what elements of the real news story are useful, and then creates a fictional context for the comments of these LDS scholars–––a fictional context that distorts meaning.
But that's not all. Consider the following quotation from Elder Steven E. Snow, as given in the MorningStar Post article.
According to official church historian, Elder Steven E. Snow, the changes the church is making are to try to reverse the growing defection members are experiencing when they find out about the disturbing details of church history that they never knew about. “They, the essays, are not designed to restore people’s faith as much as they are designed to lessen future disaffection. Members who come across damning information for the first time and turn to LDS.org to see what the church says on the matter–the goal is to give them a faithful response while still acknowledging the complexity of the issue.[sic]
This is lifted directly from the anti-Mormon website MormonThink's discussion of the new Gospel Topics essays.
The essays and changes the Church is making are to try and reverse the growing defection members are having when they find out about the disturbing details of Church history that they never knew about. Elder Snow has reportedly stated as such:
This much is clear: They [the essays] are not designed to restore people's faith as much as they are designed to lessen future disaffections; Members who come across damning information for the first time and turn to LDS.org to see what the Church says on the matter. The goal is to give them a faithful response while still acknowledging the complexity of the issue."
The plagiarism here is easy to detect when the blog post takes the editorial comment provided by MormonThink and embeds it in the text as a part of the original quote. The explanatory note given by MormonThink is passed off as words from the mouth of Elder Snow.
But there's an even bigger problem with this quote. Besides the fact that it's been plagiarized, Elder Snow never made it. The quote plagiarized from MormonThink appears to originally come from the New Order Mormon online forum from 2013. The comment comes from a poster with the handle "epiginosko":
This much is clear: they are not designed to restore people's faith as much as they are designed to lessen future disaffections; members who come across damning information for the first time and turn to LDS.org to see what the church says on the matter. The goal is to give them a faithful response while still aknowledging [sic] the complexity of the issue.
This quote has a history, and it can be traced, to some extent, from one source to another. Each step in the transmission attempts to give it more weight or authority, until it ends up in the MorningStar Post as a quote by Elder Snow himself. In fact, however, we can trace the source to discover that Elder Snow never said it, but rather was reported by an anonymous poster on an Internet message board to have allegedly said it.
Not only that, but it appears also that as the author was looking for juicy statements to use from Church leaders, he encountered an equally inaccurate quote attributed to Elder Marlin K. Jensen. The author claims that Elder Jensen "publicly acknowledged that the membership of the church was leaving 'in droves' and that the pace of defections was increasing in startling numbers." Actually, Elder Jensen never said that Church members were leaving "in droves." That specific phrasing came from a member of the audience during the question and answer part of a devotional given by Elder Jensen in November 2011. The audience member wanted to know if "the Church [was] aware of that problem," meaning the problem of disaffected members who are supposedly leaving the Church "in droves." While Elder Jensen did acknowledge that "since Kirtland [the Church] never had a period of—I’ll call it apostasy—like we’re having right now, largely over these issues," he went on to later clarify, "To say we are experiencing some Titanic-like wave of apostasy is inaccurate.” (Link)
With the above in mind, remember the author's opening statement: “I’ll admit right off the bat–I had an awful time putting this story together.” This is exactly what the author has done, though presumably he did not intend to do it with such terrible sloppiness. The author accumulates material and then “puts it together." He has an image in his mind that he wants to portray, and then he goes out and finds the puzzle pieces that he needs (along with some crayon work) to create his masterpiece.
Anonymous Sources
When it comes to providing sources, the author uses no less than five anonymous sources in the article. In fact, there are only three named sources in the article–––Elder Jensen, discussed above, Elder Snow (who isn’t a source at all), and Richard Bushman, whose name is lifted with the surrounding text from the Salt Lake Tribune article. These five anonymous sources include: 1) "one high-ranking leader in Salt Lake City," 2) "well placed inside church sources," including a "church leader," 3) a "former LDS historian that resigned his membership after a 25 year career with the Church," 4) "another Mormon scholar," that turns out to be a plagiarized statement from Terryl Givens, and finally, 5) "one life-long member."
The claims made by these anonymous sources are remarkable. The "former LDS historian," for example, alleges, "The LDS Church spends millions of dollars in covering up its history from the general membership of the church, and especially from potential converts." More shockingly, the "well placed inside church sources" claim that "there is even a possible defection in the 2nd highest governing body known as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles" over these issues.
With such extravagant claims being made, we might reasonably ask who, exactly, these quoted sources are. After all, these claims are very serious, and if true are severely damning to the credibility of the Church. So why doesn't the author of the article vouchsafe who these sources are? (Perhaps it is hard for the author to properly cite them while trying to maintain his own anonymity.) The author claims that these sources would only supply their statements on the condition of anonymity. But this only raises further problems for the credibility of the article. How do we know if we can trust these sources, or if they're at all credible, or if they even exist, for that matter, and haven't been fabricated, if we can't do a background check of some kind? For that matter, we can’t even check on the author of the blog, much less these sources. How then can we in any way verify these claims?
If you're going to make really serious claims, like the claim that an LDS Apostle is contemplating leaving the Church, then you need really credible sources to back up the claim. But we get no such thing with these anonymous sources. We have to take the anonymous author at his own word that he is not only not fabricating sources, but that these sources are credible and in a position to truthfully and factually report the details of these issues. We're thus left totally in the dark as to the reliability of the author's claims, which amount to little more than anonymous gossip and hearsay.
Given that the author of this article is not only guilty of plagiarism but also of using bogus sources, I am extremely skeptical–––totally incredulous, actually–––of claims of a massive cover-up and the possible defection of an Apostle. At least one of these anonymous sources is being cited accurately (Givens). But we only know this because we can find the citation documented elsewhere in reputable sources. The author, however, shows no attempt to check other alleged quotes (and gets them wrong in the process). Perhaps the other claims stem from truly anonymous sources taken from the Internet and reworked or reused with no reliability at all. Do we think with all of the plagiarism above that the author has actually now taken the time to find people to interview? Basically, due to his plagiarism and botched attempt to quote Elder Jensen, the author inspires next to no confidence or trust in his ability to accurately cite any other purported sources.
In fact, not only is there no evidence to support the author's allegations, there's also plenty of evidence to contradict it. The claim of this anonymous "historian" of a massive conspiracy flies in the face of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which is being undertaken by the Church History Department and receives official sanction from the Church. As explained by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,
For some years now, the Church History Department has spearheaded a major undertaking to publish all the documents and other materials we can locate that were ever generated by or under the direction of the Prophet. It is known as the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It is anticipated that this project will produce about 24 printed volumes in six series such as Revelations and Translations, Journals, Histories, and so on. To date, seven volumes have been published with two more set to be released this fall. Also, the Internet and electronic publishing have made it possible to access additional early, and even original source material bearing on Joseph Smith’s life and times. (Link)
As Elder Christofferson wryly observes, the claim of a massive cover-up is "an interesting accusation for a Church that’s publishing 24 volumes of all it can find of Joseph Smith’s papers."
Factual Inaccuracies
The article also suffers from a number of factual inaccuracies about Mormon history. For example, the article makes the following claims about Joseph Smith's involvement with 19th century folk magic, including his use of a seer stone. "Smith and most of his family, who, it was well-known and well-documented in the day, was a student of witchcraft and delved into the black arts, used what is known as a peep stone. A magical object used by Satanist to discover buried treasure and to cast spells."
Not only that, it is also alleged that in "Smith's private writings discovered in the archives of the church, Smith admitted that his most prized earthly possession was an object called a Jupiter Talisman that he insisted on wearing around his neck at all times for protection from harm. According to satanic lore, the object was to protect the wearer, telling any approaching evil spirit that the possessor was 'a friend.' It’s well documented information such as this that’s causing the Mormon Church its problems."
This account of Joseph Smith's involvement in folk magic is highly garbled. First, unless the author has a specific and hitherto unknown document in mind that he can provide, there is absolutely no admission in any of "[Joseph's] private writings" that the Prophet's "most prized earthly possession was an object called a Jupiter Talisman." It's possible, though questionable, that Joseph owned such a talisman, but the late, second-hand account (not Joseph's "private writings") saying he did own it says nothing about the talisman being his "most prized earthly possession." (Link)
Second, the attempt to associate the form of folk magic practiced by Joseph Smith with Satanism is irresponsible and sensationalistic. (Link) A better explanation for the magical practices of the young Prophet comes from Kerry M. Muhlestein.
Joseph was part of a culture that fervently believed experiences with God could be a part of an individual’s life, and that seeking God’s help while searching for treasure was a viable part of Christianity. While this was a part of their religious heritage, it was also a folk-religion reaction against ongoing Protestant movements that largely denied personal interaction with God, especially in tangible forms. Joseph’s struggles to demonstrate that God continued to reveal himself in the lives of men began during this time period and lasted his entire life. Trafficking in the supernatural while searching for treasure was prevalent during his day and in his area, and the participants viewed their activities as a genuine expression of Christianity. Ministers were frequently involved, as were prayer circles and other Christian activities, including the use of divining rods in establishing churches. Those whose religious bent was to put God in a distant sphere castigated those who sought daily interaction with God through such practices, accusing them of employing magic. Many negative characterizations of Joseph Smith reflect and are colored by this cultural conflict. (Link)
Not only was Joseph's practice of folk magic emphatically not Satanic, it also wasn't uncommon in the Christian milieu of his day.
All of these blunders and problems combined leave me with a distinctly unfavorable opinion of this article by the MorningStar Post. In short, this piece is simply awful. As one who has written amateur journalism for a student newspaper at my university, I am struck by just how bad it truly is. It is little more than pulpy yellow journalism, and should be read with a healthy dose of skepticism.
I'd like to acknowledge the invaluable help of other FairMormon volunteers, particularly Benjamin McGuire, in composing this blog post. 
At the time of publishing this blog post, it was brought to my attention that the MorningStar Post website had been inexplicably deleted. Not wanting the author of this terrible article to get off that easily, I have provided a link to a webcache version of the site, courtesy of another FairMormon volunteer. (Link)
*For the sake of brevity, I have decided to use the masculine pronoun to refer to the author.

Comments

  1. It seems the whole blog was created last week for just that post, as all of its "articles" that preceded and followed it were directly and completely copied from actual news websites.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment