Truth and the Utility Thereof

Elder Boyd K. Packer (b. 1924).

Elder Boyd K. Packer gave an address (“The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect”) at a CES symposium in 1981 where he said, “Some things that are true are not very useful.” This soundbite has been gleefully reproduced by anti-Mormons as evidence that Elder Packer was promoting dishonesty and lying. When his remarks are taken in context, however, it’s clear what Elder Packer was getting at. “Teaching some things that are true, prematurely or at the wrong time, can invite sorrow and heartbreak instead of the joy intended to accompany learning.” To illustrate, Elder Packer gave the example of chemistry.

No responsible chemist would advise, and no reputable school would permit, a beginning student to register for advanced chemistry without a knowledge of the fundamental principles of chemistry. The advanced course would be a destructive mistake, even for a very brilliant beginning student. Even that brilliant student would need some knowledge of the elements, of atoms and molecules, of electrons, of valence, of compounds and properties. To let a student proceed without the knowledge of fundamentals would surely destroy his interest in, and his future with, the field of chemistry 

I doubt many teachers or professors would object to this reasoning. If you overload the student with too much advanced knowledge of a subject before building a solid foundation or imparting the prerequisite knowledge needed to grapple with ambiguity and nuance, things probably won’t go well for the student’s education.

Relating this principle to how to teach in the Church, Elder Packer continued:

What is true with these two subjects is, if anything, doubly true in the field of religion. The scriptures teach emphatically that we must give milk before meat. The Lord made it very clear that some things are to be taught selectively, and some things are to be given only to those who are worthy. It matters very much not only what we are told but when we are told it. Be careful that you build faith rather than destroy it. 

Given the context, I don’t think Elder Packer’s initial soundbite above is at all that damning. It actually makes perfect sense. There’s a time and a place for everything, and one must be cautious how one discusses sensitive, nuanced, or complex issues, including historical issues. On the flip side, one must also be careful in determining when it is appropriate to discuss positive, uplifting, or beautiful truths and experiences.

Imagine my delight when I discovered what Immanuel Kant had to say about this. Kant, one of the foremost thinkers in Western philosophy, had revolutionary ideas about the nature of truth, being, ethics, and reason. Here’s what he had to say about teaching truth to those unprepared to fully grasp it.

So wie ein weiser Lehrer vieles Schönes, was er weiß, verbirgt, sich deßen entäußeret, wenn er weiß, daß der Zuhörer ihre Gemüther also beschaffen sind, daß sie an die Speculationen gewöhnt, und dadurch vom practischen abgewendet werden möchten, und eben also muß man wiederum in gewißen Fällen oft vom practischen abstrahieren bei einer, oder der anderen Sachen. Viele Sachen können wahr, und doch dem Menschen schädlich sein. Nicht alle Weisheit ist nützlich. (Blomberg Logik, § 31, p. 59)

Just as a wise teacher conceals much that he knows that is beautiful, disclosing it when he knows that the minds of his listeners are so constituted that they want to become accustomed to speculations and to be turned away from the practical[;] and just so too, in certain cases, must one often abstract from the practical in one thing or another. Many things can be true and yet harmful to man. Not all truth is useful. (Lectures on Logic, trans. J. Michael Young [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992], 43.

If I didn’t know any better, I could swear that Elder Packer was quoting Kant. Although the two were approaching this principle somewhat differently, both of these teachers basically understood the fact that truth, in order to be understood and appreciated in all of its complexity and nuance, must not always be assumed to be immediately useful or expedient to impart to others.

How might this apply to Mormon history? Elder Packer gave the example of “a historian [who] gave a lecture to an audience of college students on one of the past Presidents of the Church. It seemed to be his purpose to show that that President was a man subject to the foibles of men. He introduced many so-called facts that put that President in a very unfavorable light, particularly when they were taken out of the context of the historical period in which he lived.” Elder Packer was not pleased with this, and reasoned, “Someone who was not theretofore acquainted with this historical figure (particularly someone not mature) must have come away very negatively affected. Those who were unsteady in their convictions surely must have had their faith weakened or destroyed.”

Said another way, to paraphrase Joseph Smith, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all critics of the Church, as soon as they get a little historical knowledge, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise poor historiography.” Case in point: Joseph Smith’s marriages to young women like Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Maria Winchester. It has become a standard trope among websites or individuals critical of the Church to proclaim, “Joseph Smith was married to 14 year old girls!” with the obligatory accompanying charges at the Prophet of pedophilia and sexual deviousness.

Now, while it’s true to say “Joseph Smith was married to 14 year old girls,” it’s also not very useful. Why? Because it neglects to inform the listener of the reality of 19th century American marriage culture, to say nothing of the lack of historical evidence for sexuality in Joseph’s marriage to 14 year old Helen and 14–15 year old Nancy (see here).[1] The charge of “Joseph Smith was married to 14 year old girls,” while strictly true as it so stands, is thus not only problematic in its presentism, but also in its incompleteness. In this way it is a “truth” that is not very useful.

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that one should intentionally lie to or deceive others. Nor am I saying that the Church should just ignore or sweep aside troubling aspects of its history. What I am saying is that, for example, trying to cram the details of a topic as complex as Joseph Smith’s polygamy into a 45 minute Sunday School class filled with people with varying degrees of interest or expertise in Mormon history wouldn’t be nearly as useful as taking plenty of time to carefully explain it one bit at a time, building on the engaged listener’s knowledge and gradually increasing openness to new information and ways of critically engaging a subject as ambiguous and intricate as this. Related to this point, the anti-Mormon “shotgun” approach to sensitive issues in Mormon history is also a decidedly un-useful way of trying to impart historical knowledge, and it would be best to eschew it.

Granted, I think the Church could do a lot more to better teach our history, including controversial and sensitive aspects of our history. I think the Church has come a long way, but improvements could still be made. Happily, I see very positive changes in this regard in places such as the Church’s new curriculum and Gospel Topics. Hopefully this is evidence of the Church taking steps to provide a more useful account of Mormon history.


[1]: Craig L. Foster, “Doing Violence to Journalistic Integrity,” FARMS Review 16/1 (2004): 169–173, online here; Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, “The Age Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context,” in The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2010), 152–183; Todd M. Compton, “Early Marriage in the New England and Northeastern States, and in Mormon Polygamy: What Was the Norm?” in Persistence of Polygamy, 184–232; Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology, 3 volumes (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 2:286–300.