Keith Erekson is an award-winning author, teacher, and public historian who has published on topics including politics, hoaxes, Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, and Church history. He grew up in Baltimore, served a mission in Brazil, and earned advanced degrees in history and business. He works for the Church History Department in efforts to encourage outreach and historical engagement.
No single generation holds a unique claim on wrestling with questions about the Church’s history and place in contemporary society. A crisis occurs when the tools at hand are insufficient for the task before us. Every aspiring disciple of Jesus Christ must make peace with questions about the past and about our present faith.
My heart goes out to all who struggle with doubts, questions, concerns, and feelings. These struggles invariably involve emotional, intellectual, and spiritual trauma. If only one person were struggling, it would be a great tragedy, but in our day, many suffer in this way. The growing volume—in both size and decibels—rightly prompts the caring concern of friends and loved ones. I have not been called to define Church doctrine and practices, nor have I been trained professionally to address issues of archeology, evolutionary science, or human sexuality. As a historian, my goal here is more modest. I don’t aspire to blaze a pathway of faith through a forest of doubts, but I do hope to apply the skills developed throughout my recent book to clear out the brambles of history that may be a source of entanglement and stumbling.
When Friends Struggle, Love and Listen
The most important things you can do for your friend is to love and listen. You love your friend, you have spent time together, you have shared your deeper thoughts and feelings. You also love Jesus Christ, seek to imitate His loving service, and plead for the divine gift of charity. You mourn because your friend struggles; your mourning is not about the eventual outcome but about the pain in the pathway.
Listening with love involves difficult emotional and mental work, but it is a skill that you can develop with practice. We must listen eagerly, be present in the moment when they need to be heard, avoid snap judgments, and allow space.
I don’t know which issues trouble your friend. You’ll need to find that out by listening. Maybe the question touches near the heart of the Church’s message, such as the accounts of the First Vision or the translation of scripture or the role of prophets (who are human). Maybe it stems from something weird or uncertain, such as the strangeness of polygamy, the horrific violence of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Black priesthood and temple ban, or the near silence about Mother in Heaven. Maybe there is a familial pain point, through an ancestor who either participated in something unsavory or was excluded from something desirable. There may be deeply personal experiences with a domineering male who makes a Heavenly Father seem distant, with sexual abuse that colors perceptions of polygamy, or with witnessing friends be excluded or insulted for being gay or of a certain race. Perhaps there is concern that past practices will be reinstituted again. Maybe it’s a little of all of these and then some. Listen sincerely, lovingly, repeatedly, and well.
You may need to listen deeply, beyond the words your friend expresses. For example, learning that your friend has concerns about plural marriage is usually only part of the process. Sometimes, people have historical questions about plural marriage, such as whether Joseph Smith participated, how many wives or children he had, when the practice began, or when it ended. Underneath such factual questions might be deeper doctrinal questions, such as if prophets can lead the Church astray or why Joseph did not tell Emma about all his marriages. Frequently, the implications are more personal—will the practice be reinstated, will I have to practice plural marriage in the next life, or why do women need their sealings canceled to remarry but men do not? You will need to respond one way to factual questions that trouble the mind about the past, and you will need to respond differently to personal concerns that trouble the heart in the present.
I hope you can help your friend approach the issues in a way that will be the most helpful. Many approaches have been proposed for addressing personal questions and concerns. Each of the approaches has helped someone, but all of them may not help your friend. Indeed, some of the approaches might even harm your friend, and some of the current pain may stem from previous misguided efforts to help. As you listen to your friend, seek to help identify approaches that will nourish.
You may need to be willing to love and listen for decades, granting space and courtesy for your friend to find God. Brigham Young encountered the Book of Mormon in 1830—when the Church had less than a year of history to consider—and he spent two years deciding to join. It is common to hope that our friends and loved ones will not leave the Church, but I also hope they don’t just remain outwardly connected to the Church while inwardly struggling alone. However long the road, I hope that your friend’s faith will be nourished through your love and listening, your empathy and support.
Most of all, I hope that your friend will grow closer to Jesus Christ by seeking answers. The Savior has invited each of us to cast our own, individual burdens upon Him, for which He promises rest to our souls. He may cry with us, as He did with Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus. He may wipe away our tears, as promised in the book of Revelation. He may also remind us that He suffered with us and for us, as He taught Joseph Smith while in Liberty Jail. Help your friend take personal concerns to the Lord. He is the best source of hope, comfort, solace, and strength.
Rewrite the Script
In recent years, individual stories about a personal faith crisis have begun to follow a collective pattern. The story goes something like this: a person participates in Church or seminary or missionary service; the person discovers previously unknown information on the internet or elsewhere that causes confusion; increased reading and searching, coupled with a growing sense of concern, moves to more general questioning about the Church; finally, feelings of guilt or anger force a decision to stay or leave. This pattern has been acknowledged in general conference, blogs and magazine articles, and books.
I obviously cannot comment on every individual experience, but a few things strike me about the pattern that has emerged in the telling. First, the fact that so many stories fit this pattern suggests that the story itself has become a cultural script—a way to give order to thoughts and feelings that are confusing and disorganized. Just like the American Dream script has given a shape to the unarticulated hopes of many, the faith-crisis script provides a framework that now shapes understanding. Perhaps unintentionally, the script bears some similarity to the parable of the sower’s description of the seed that fell among stony ground and “dureth for a while” until an unanticipated challenge arises (Matt. 13:21).
It is also disconcerting to me that the faith-crisis script rides on so many binaries—good questioning or bad doubting, discovered knowledge versus institutional secrecy, a choice between being true to oneself or to the Church, Church membership or former membership. This dichotomous script is so powerful that it frequently frames the approaches of well-meaning friends who try to help others “deal with doubt” or implore them to “doubt not.”
One way to rewrite the script is to replace “or” with “and”. Ours is not a question of faith or doubt, but faith and doubt. The scriptures contain stories of people feeling faith and doubt at the same time. My favorite involves a father who asks Jesus to heal his sick child. Jesus said He could, “if thou canst believe.” That father replied, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:23–24). Yes, a father seeking healing of his child told Jesus to His face that he believed in Him and he also didn’t believe. Did Jesus scold the man? Send him away? No, Jesus acknowledged both the father’s faith and doubt, and He healed the child, which I believe also helped the father’s unbelief.
If we can break free of simplistic binaries, we can rewrite the script by imagining other ways to think about, describe, and give meaning to our experiences seeking to know and trust God. For example, we might see our experience in the age-old context of trials of faith sustained by all who have tried to walk the path of discipleship. “By definition, trials will be trying,” noted Elder Neil L. Andersen.
As an alternative, we might see our experience in the context of ancient prophecies that describe our time as “perilous” and populated by “false prophets” who “shall deceive many” because they look and sound accurate—their “lips” draw near to God and their “form” resembles godliness (JS—Matt. 1:9; JS—H 1:19). Or perhaps we might look beyond the contents of specific concerns to the context of our quest to know God. Alma’s metaphor of planting a seed begins with only a “desire to believe” that both gets strengthened and goes “dormant” when the seed sprouts. Later, a different kind of faith is needed—a resilient, long-term faith nourishes the plant and anticipates a more distant future that comes only through our “diligence, and patience, and long-suffering” (Alma 32:27, 34, 43). Perhaps a sense of crisis comes from trying to reapply the short-term faith that succeeded in planting when now the long-term faith is needed to nourish discipleship.
Make Personal Peace with the Past
In the end, every person needs to find her or his own peace with God. I find it significant that the Holy Ghost can bring peace to our minds and hearts:
“the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philip. 4:7).
If your friend’s questions are about information or facts, then conversation and study can allow the Holy Ghost to bring assurance, peace of mind, comforting memories, or personal enlightenment. If your friend’s concerns involve emotions such as anger or denial, then empathy and prayer can help bring calm feelings so the person can feel the Holy Ghost’s peaceful consolation, hope, love, and joy. Ultimately, the peace we find from God becomes “strength, that [we] should suffer no manner of afflictions, save it were swallowed up in the joy of Christ” (Alma 31:38). All of our afflictions—emotional, intellectual, physical, psychological, social, and spiritual—can be swallowed up within our larger personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When we struggle, we lack peace, but He is “The Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).
The problems that people have with Church history may turn out to be more about history than about Church. If Church members have only ever encountered history in school settings marked by a single textbook, multiple-choice questions, and memorized answers, then they are going to be surprised to learn that history is incomplete, open to interpretation, and different than the present. If their first exposure to these concepts is overlaid with information about the sacred events from our history, then members will be tempted to suspect that the Church is on shaky ground, when in reality that’s just how history works. Thus, when questions and concerns are framed as Church issues—doubt, weak testimony, or unworthiness—they invariably lead to Church solutions—confession, prayer, or increased devotion (or withdrawal). But if questions and concerns can be framed as history issues—examination of sources, differences, and how history works—then we can address the concerns with solutions built on good thinking skills. The problem may not be so much about faith as it is about framing, not so much about testimony as it is about thinking.
Make Personal Peace
Your thinking skills ultimately form only part of your path of discipleship. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ involves study, prayer, and service. It involves our minds and our hearts, might, and lives. It develops through constancy, patience, and rejoicing. I wish you the very best as you love and listen, rewrite the script, and make personal peace with the past.
Excerpt from Real vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-day Myths (Amazon, 2021), pp. 208-216. Used by permission.