In the popular musical The Book of Mormon a character named Elder Price, a stereotyped version of a Mormon missionary, attempts to convert a Ugandan warlord to Mormonism. Faced with a seemingly impossible task, Elder Price reassures himself in the song “I Believe” by confidently sharing what in Mormon parlance would be called a testimony: a declaration of belief in the central tenets of Mormonism.
But as the song progresses, Elder Price’s testimony becomes increasingly outlandish. It starts out simple enough, with Elder Price singing innocuously, “I believe that the Lord God created the universe / I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sins.” But things quickly turn bizarre with affirmations such as:
- “And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!”
- “I believe that God has a plan for all of us / I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet / And I believe that the current President of the Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God!”
- “And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!”
- “I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob! / I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well / And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.”
Punctuated throughout the song is Elder Price’s refrain that as a Mormon he “just believes” these things to be true, no matter how absurd they may sound. “I am a Mormon! / And a Mormon just believes!” Elder Price repeats. “I am a Mormon! / And, dang it, a Mormon just believes!” Elder Price even invites his listeners to join him in faith, insisting, “You can be a Mormon! / A Mormon who just believes!” The song itself concludes with the lyrics, “If you believe, the Lord will reveal it / And you’ll know it’s all true – you’ll just feel it / You’ll be a Mormon! / And, by gosh, a Mormon just believes!”
The tune is undeniably catchy and the child-like sincerity of Elder Price may be heartwarming, but if ever there was a backhanded compliment being paid to someone, it’s the thinly veiled, breathtakingly condescending backhanded compliment being paid by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the musical, to believing Latter-day Saints in this song. The message of “I Believe” cannot be easily misunderstood: Mormons are nice, lovable, gullible, naive buffoons who–God bless their incorrigible hearts–cling to hilariously preposterous beliefs for which they can provide no sort of rational justification, and so they “just believe” their farcical religion as a sort of coping mechanism to deal with harsh challenges in life (all the while blissfully unaware that non-Mormons are laughing themselves to stitches over how ludicrous Mormonism is). “But hey,” the musical essentially says, “these affable idiots are still alright, since they are so sincere and unspoiled by this cynical, grown-up, adult world.”
As entertaining as this modern religious minstrel show might be, it fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents Latter-day Saint history and theology. The simple fact is that while there are undoubtedly Mormons who “just believe” their religion on the basis of nothing more than personal faith (as can be said for many members of other religious traditions), Latter-day Saints have been giving rational defences for their beliefs since the formal founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. No doubt anticipating the skeptical reception the Book of Mormon would receive, Joseph Smith included with the 1830 publication of the first edition of the book the sworn testimonies of eleven men affirming the reality of the golden plates and the angel who delivered them. The testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses have accompanied each subsequent publication of the Book of Mormon to this very day.1
One of these witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, would go on to be a key intellectual defender of the LDS Church in its formative years, publicly responding to criticisms and skepticism of the new movement and its signature book of scripture on numerous occasions.2 Additional early converts to Mormonism, including Sidney Rigdon, Parley P. and Orson Pratt, John Taylor, and Orson Spencer, likewise offered sometimes robust arguments for their belief in Joseph Smith’s prophethood. Joseph Smith himself was eager to provide rational justification for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. For instance, in 1842 he celebrated the remarkable discoveries of John Lloyd Stephens and commended the latter’s book Incidents of Travel in Central America as providing evidence for the Book of Mormon.3 These early defenders would be followed a generation later by Mormon thinkers such as B. H. Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, James E. Talmage, and Orson F. Whitney.4
Modern Mormonism has likewise seen its share of intellectuals (with advance degrees from secular institutions) such as Hugh Nibley, Truman G. and Ann N. Madsen, David L. Paulsen, Daniel C. Peterson, John W. Welch, John L. Sorenson, John Gee, Richard and Claudia Bushman, Terryl and Fiona Givens, Richard Lloyd Anderson, Ugo Perego, Steven C. Harper, and many others, offer sophisticated arguments for the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s scriptural productions, the profundity and philosophical soundness of his theology and metaphysics, the believability of his history, and the reliability of his character.5
Besides Mormon academic institutions such as Brigham Young University’s Religious Studies Center and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies), private foundations such as the Interpreter Foundation, Book of Mormon Central, and FairMormon currently promote apologetic, theological, philosophical, historical, and devotional explorations of Mormonism that seek to bolster faith in the credibility of Mormon scripture and metaphysics. Additionally, institutions such as the Mormon History Association and the LDS Church’s own Church History Department seek to clarify and illuminate Mormon history utilizing cutting-edge scholarship and technology.
And this is to say nothing about the scores of individual Mormon blogs, websites, podcasts, publishers, and YouTube channels which have variously sought to defend Mormonism from criticism, clarify Mormon beliefs, provide critical analysis of Mormon texts and history, or otherwise approach the Mormon belief system from some kind of a rational angle.
In short, Mormons have long been interested in providing intellectual or rational reasons for why they believe what they believe. The LDS Church itself has even invested much time and effort (and money) into apologetic and scholastic endeavours, such as the aforementioned Church History Department, the recent Gospel Topics essays, and the brand new series of books on Mormon history aimed at introducing a general audience to the findings uncovered and new paradigms provided by the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The reason for this is simple: Mormon scripture enjoins Church members to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Inasmuch as “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36), and “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection,” (D&C 130:18), Latter-day Saints are instructed to “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man” (D&C 93:53). Latter-day Saints are to “be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand.” In what specifically? “Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:78–79).
As a consequence of these revelatory declarations, Latter-day Saints take very seriously education for its own sake and also as a means by which to enhance their religious convictions.
Behind the Latter-day Saint approach to education is a distinctive understanding of learning and knowledge. Mormons distinctly emphasize that education is for the whole person; it involves and benefits both the mind and the spirit. Education is not exclusively intellectual; rather, Latter-day Saints seek learning “by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). In part, this means that Mormons recognize a kind of learning that incorporates both intellect and spiritual insight. They also acknowledge that these are not unrelated: spiritual understanding, for instance, is necessary to give rational inquiry its ultimate purpose. Moreover, Latter-day Saints affirm that faith and reason are not fundamentally hostile to each other. Thus the pursuit of truth is unbounded, although Latter-day Saints especially prize understanding that brings seekers nearer to God and helps fulfill life’s essential purposes.6
Granted, not all of Mormon apologetic materials and efforts are of equal value. One need only observe the reactionary anti-intellectualism ensconced in the so-called Mormon Heartlander movement to see that not all of the reasoning provided by Latter-day Saints for their beliefs is rationally commendable.7 But even if the arguments of its proponents are often dodgy, the very existence of the Heartlander movement demonstrates that plenty of Mormons don’t “just believe” but actively attempt to provide reasoning for their religious convictions.
While rational justifications for Mormonism may or may not be persuasive to non-Mormons (if they were persuasive to a given non-Mormon then presumably he or she would convert), they do exist. Caricaturing Latter-day Saints as little more than credulous dupes who “just believe” their laughably stupid religion may provide humorous entertainment for Gentile and disaffected Mormon audiences, but it is hardly fair, and much less accurate in representing actual Mormon theology and intellectual history. This may be one reason why the believing Mormon Richard Bushman, a respected American historian and Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University, opined that watching Elder Price sing in The Book of Mormon was comparable to “looking at [oneself] in a fun-house mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really [you].”8
- See Book of Mormon Central, “Why Were Three Key Witnesses Chosen to Testify of the Book of Mormon?”, “Who Are the ‘Few’ Who Were Permitted to See the Plates?”, “Are the Accounts of the Golden Plates Believable?”
- See John W. Welch, “Oliver Cowdery’s 1835 Response to Alexander Campbell’s 1831 ‘Delusions,’ in Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness, ed. John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2006), online here; John W. Welch, “Oliver Cowdery as Editor, Defender, and Justice of the Peace in Kirtland,” in Days Never to Be Forgotten: Oliver Cowdery, ed. Alexander L. Baugh (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 255–77, online here.
- See Matthew Roper, Paul J. Fields, and Atul Nepal, “Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 84–97, online here.
- For an overview of the history of Mormon intellectual efforts, see Terryl Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York, NY.: Oxford University Press, 2007), 65–100.
- See, for instance, Terryl Givens’ review of recent Mormon efforts to provide a rational basis for belief that “ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!” Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York, NY.: Oxford University Press, 2002), 117–154.
- “Mormons and Education: An Overview,” Mormon Newsroom, online here.
- See for instance the problems with Heartlander theories pointed out by Gregory L. Smith, “Often in Error, Seldom in Doubt: Rod Meldrum and Book of Mormon DNA,” FARMS Review 22/1 (2010): 17–161, online here; FairMormon, “Reviews of DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography,” online here.
- Hal Boyd, “LDS scholar Richard Lyman Bushman talks ‘Mormon’ musical,” Deseret News, August 28, 2011, online here