On June 5, 2014, I downloaded the Kindle version of Alex Beam’s American Crucifixion and reviewed Chapter 5, “Polygamy and Its Discontents.” I immediately identified numerous weaknesses of the chapter including the predominant use of secondary sources, the quoting of problematic evidences apparently without checking their reliability, the ignoring of historical data that contradicts his position, the promoting of narrow and often extreme interpretations of available documents, and the prevalence of going beyond the evidence in constructing conclusions.
That day I also learned that on June 9, John Dehlin was going to interview Beam for MormonStories before a live audience of over 40 at a private home located on the north bench in Salt Lake City, and I was invited. My wife and I made the requisite financial contribution to MormonStories because I have found that John has provided some insightful and balanced podcasts in the past (including four interviews with me in 2013).1 I was hopeful that this podcast would follow the same pattern.
We arrived and were intrigued as we spoke to other attendees. However, with one or two exceptions, I could detect no other “believers” in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the audience. Admittedly, we did not speak to everyone, but we talked with probably over half, and it seemed most had previously been active members but now did not consider themselves to be. That was something I had not anticipated.
I recall a conversation with a young couple. When the woman learned I was a believer in Joseph Smith, she immediately rattled off her list of questions: “What about polyandry? What about the Kinderhook plates? What about the Book of Abraham?” In response, I explained to them why those should not be bothersome. However, as I did so, it became obvious to me that this couple knew very little about the actual historical documents associated with the topics and had failed to investigate the fallacies in the antagonistic arguments. It appeared to me they had simply accepted those arguments and had left the Church. It was also my impression from our brief conversation that they were uninterested in learning new things about those topics if they reflected positively on Joseph Smith or the Church.
After taking a seat, my wife and I spoke with a young man finishing up his degree at BYU. During the conversation, he expressed his disbelief in the Church, but acknowledged he couldn’t publicly reveal his feelings because he would be asked to leave BYU and would not be allowed to graduate at the end of the summer term. This fall he and his wife will move out of state where his wife will attend graduate school. At that time, they intend to remove their names from the records of the Church and stop pretending to believe. Interestingly, though he no longer believes in the tenets of the religion, both he and his wife continue to attend church and hold callings. He shared a story of his wife’s assignment to teach a Relief Society lesson covering a talk that contained doctrine with which she clearly did not agree and how she was able to spin the topic so as to not offend the audience and simultaneously not support the doctrine put forth by the member of the Quorum of the Twelve who had given the talk.
Soon the podcast began. John Dehlin, in his usual friendly and non-confrontational manner, introduced Alex Beam to us and those who would eventually hear the podcast. As the interview progressed, they eventually hit upon the topic of polygamy. Alex’s answers did not surprise me since I had read his chapter on the topic and I knew of his biases and apparent beliefs. However, I was surprised and saddened by John Dehlin’s questions. They reflected a confident view that Joseph Smith was to some degree, a womanizer, hypocrite, and fraud. I don’t think any listener could have concluded otherwise because of the specific words and descriptions of Joseph’s alleged behavior that Dehlin employed in the questions he posed.
Since I took no notes, I will provide only one example, but when the podcast is posted, John Dehlin’s comments will be available. I remember that John invited Alex Beam to speak about Joseph Smith “going after young girls.” I wondered, “What are they talking about?” It is true that Joseph was sealed to two 14 year olds. One (Nancy Maria Winchester) we know nothing about, so to discuss her situation in any way, positive or negative, requires speculation. The second woman, Helen Mar Kimball, was offered to Joseph as a plural wife by her father Heber C. Kimball. There is no evidence the Prophet initiated the process. Importantly, there is strong evidence the sealing was never consummated and no supportive evidence that it was. Joseph was also sealed to a 16 year old and two 17 year olds, but marriages to women of those ages were not uncommon during that time period. Thus I was disappointed at what I perceived to be a conversation discussing historical fiction that was portrayed as documented history in a way that depicted Joseph Smith as a libertine—a man essentially devoid of moral constrains.
John Dehlin asked many other leading questions of Beam, and it seemed he often used loaded language with a tone that negated any notion that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. When I learned two days later that Dehlin’s membership was in jeopardy due to “apostasy,” I was saddened but not surprised.
In a case like this, church leaders may be obligated to act against John Dehlin’s membership, so his audiences will understand his inherent biases. Alma explained: “And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed” (Alma 5:60). Of course Dehlin is not a “wolf,” but the effect of his messages upon many Church members has been decidedly damaging to their faith and testimony.
Recent posts of John’s Facebook page indicate that he hopes to retain his membership in the Church. But he has also been quoted as saying, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Of course we don’t shoot messengers, but on the evening of June 9, 2014, Dehlin’s message was full of falsehoods that portrayed Joseph Smith unfairly and negatively.2 However, if he chooses to demonstrate some faith and to work to correct the injury he has done in the future, it would be joyful.3
Though the Internet can be used as a powerful tool for the dissemination of information, it can spread misinformation just as readily. For anyone to put their faith in the hands of John Dehlin (or me) or any other person’s opinions would be foolish. There is a need for solid prayerful research of reputable sources when dealing with deeper issues and meaty teachings. Joseph Smith warned: “Behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world. And also Satan hath sought to deceive you, that he might overthrow you” (D&C 50:2-3). That these false spirits are exploiting the power of the Internet is undeniable.
- John Dehlin, 402: Brian Hales Pt. 1—A Refutation of Grant Palmer’s Treatment of Allegations Against Joseph Smith (podcast), interview of Brian Hales, February 21, 2013, accessed June 14, 2014, http://mormonstories.org/?s=hales; John Dehlin, 403: Brian Hales Pt. 2—12 Myths Regarding Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (podcast), interview of Brian Hales, February 21, 2013, accessed June 14, 2014, http://mormonstories.org/?s=hales; John Dehlin, 404: Brian Hales Pt. 3—The Naturalistic vs. Faithful View of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (podcast), interview of Brian Hales, February 21, 2013, accessed June 14, 2014, http://mormonstories.org/?s=hales; and John Dehlin, 405: Brian Hales Pt. 4—Reconciling Belief with Polygamy (podcast), interview of Brian Hales, February 21, 2013, accessed June 14, 2014, http://mormonstories.org/?s=hales. (back)
- This can be shown by comparing his statements to available historical documentation. (back)
- It is not too late: “Inasmuch as they do repent and receive the fulness of my gospel, and become sanctified, I will stay mine hand in judgment” (D&C 39:18). This seems to be an invitation from the Savior to each of us including John Dehlin. (back)