Mormonism and the Question of Truth
by Latayne C. Scott
The Mormon concept of, and approach to, the subject of truth is radically different
from that of the Bible in at least nine ways. A Mormon sees truth as (1) constantly
changing, (2) as going, in culture and practice, far beyond written doctrine, (3) as
determined by subjective feelings, and (4) as often divorced from its history. (5)
The Mormon approach to truth is compromised by a heritage of deception as
practiced by leaders from founder Joseph Smith to today's Elder Paul Dunn. In
addition, (6) truth to a Mormon is "layered" in the way that it is presented to
prospective converts. And (7) the Church itself routinely edits both its own history
and doctrine to make it seem consistent and palatable. In practice, therefore, (8)
truth often yields to what the Church views as expedient. In the final analysis, (9)
the Mormon concept of truth depends upon the character of its god, who as
defined by LDS doctrine is constantly changing and himself ultimately human in
The most basic Mormon statement of faith, known as "bearing your testimony," is
taught to young children to repeat from their first chance to speak in a "fast and
testimony meeting" until their dying day. It consists of a very simple yet
psychologically potent affirmation: "I know the Church is true."
I believe from my own past experience as a Latter-day Saint that for most
Mormons this statement encompasses two elements. First, to be a member of the
only "true" church implies that all other churches are "false." Second, I believed (as
wholeheartedly faithful Mormons do) that this emotional confirmation of the
Church's truthfulness was supported by continuing revelation.
Now, after eighteen years' distance from the Mormon Church -- years in which I
have matured as a Christian -- I see that the biblical concept of truth is
diametrically opposed to the Mormon one. This is borne out in nine major areas
which involve not only the Mormon Church's view of history and veracity, but its
world view and theology as a whole.
TRUTH AS CONSTANTLY CHANGING
As a faithful Mormon I was confident that, because of continuing revelation from
God to the prophet of the church, whatever my leaders told me took into account
new developments in human history. I reasoned, for example, that since the birth
control pill hadn't been invented until the twentieth century, it was useless to look
for clues about its rightness or wrongness in a flawed, 2,000-year-old book (the
Bible) when I had a direct line to God through His prophet on such issues. I was
proud that Mormon doctrine is flexible, believing that although it can conform to
contemporary situations, all new revelation dovetails with previous doctrines
Of course, even the most unbiased and cursory study of Mormonism reveals that
the church's doctrine has undergone major changes in the past 160 years (with
polygamy being the most obvious example). The official explanation of doctrines
which conflict with prior teachings is that the church's "prophet, seer and revelator"
-- its president -- is authorized as the only one who "writes something or speaks
something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church
works" (i.e., its scriptures).
Mormons have told me that such changes are really no different from those Jesus
made when He came to earth and dramatically altered the way we are to worship.
Indeed, Hebrews 7:12 emphasizes that a change in covenant necessitates a
change in law. But the cataclysmic, one-time change in law that Jesus -- Himself
the "fulfillment of the law" (Matt. 5:17) -- instituted can hardly be equated with the
way that Mormon doctrine, as formulated by its various prophets, has waffled on
major issues throughout its history. (Bible students will note that one's perception
of truth is often progressive. In 1 Corinthians 3:2 Paul scolded his readers for
letting their worldliness keep them on a diet of doctrinal milk when they should
have matured in their understanding. However, there is a vast difference between
one's own changing perception of truth and the Mormon belief that doctrinal truth
itself is subject to ongoing revision.)
TRUTH AS WRITTEN ON THE MORMON HEART
As any sociologist can attest, the practices and beliefs of a people are determined
by their world view. This refers to the way they process information about the
world and life based on their preconceptions and past experiences. These
preconceptions and experiences often influence attitudes and behavior more than
any formulated doctrine. This is especially true in Mormonism, which as a
subculture (and not merely a religion) structures a world view that is often beyond
an outsider's understanding.
For example, while there is very little written doctrine about the function of the
special undergarments to be worn at all times by Mormons who have received
their temple "endowments," there is a rich heritage of folklore describing how these
sacred garments have saved soldiers from bullets, fire victims from burns, and
others from death. Virtually all Mormon children learn such stories and grow up
with them as a part of their world view.
In Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Mormon historian D. Michael
Quinn notes that "the magic world view and practice of magic rarely substitute for
religion, but do manifest a personal, rather than institutional, religious focus.
Although one may label magic and religion in various ways, it is more difficult to
differentiate between external manifestations of the two."
For this reason, the Christian trying to communicate biblical truth to a Latter-day
Saint must never forget that the Mormon's substructure of faith often extends far
beneath the level of formal, written doctrine. When I began to write The Mormon
Mirage (Zondervan, 1979), which tells of how and why I left the Mormon Church
after ten happy years, I was especially grateful that I had extensive written notes
of meetings I'd attended as well as the journal I'd kept. These still illustrate to me
that there is often a considerable difference between the way a system of thought
is taught and the way in which it is believed and practiced.
TRUTH AS DETERMINED BY SUBJECTIVE TESTIMONY
If one asks any Latter-day Saint for the primary proof that the Book of Mormon is
true, he or she will assuredly point to the promise it gives in Moroni 10:4--5: "And
when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the
Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask
with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth
of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost." A physical sensation called a
"burning in the bosom" is the spiritual confirmation from the Holy Ghost often said
to accompany the conviction that a given thing is "true."
Not only written scripture is subject to such subjective confirmation. J. Reuben
Clark, Jr., who was a counselor in the church's First Presidency to three of its
prophets, once advised members that "we can tell when the [General Authorities]
are 'moved upon by the Holy Ghost,' only when we, ourselves, are 'moved on by
the Holy Ghost.' In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us
to determine when they so speak."
Mormon truth, then, is in one sense the domain of the heart and its perceptions.
This is in distinct contrast to biblical teachings (which nowhere invite the reader to
subjectively "test" them) and in direct opposition to the Bible's repeated warnings
that the heart is deceitful and unreliable (e.g., Jer. 17:9; Prov. 19:21).
The introduction of new doctrine is a touchy subject for Mormons, showing that
there are limits to this subjective approach. As noted earlier, only the church's
president can "go beyond" previous doctrine in giving the church new revelation.
Mormon doctrine also states that one can only receive revelation -- personal
communication from God -- for oneself and for those of inferior rank in the
church. For a woman (or a man low in the priesthood echelons), recourse to
"revelation" to determine truth is severely limited -- and, consequently, so are
viable criticism and reform. This is quite unlike the biblical profile of prophets like
Jeremiah who were called by God to challenge and rebuke their priesthood leaders.
TRUTH AS DIVORCED FROM HISTORY
When I was a Mormon I knew that the original printing of the Book of Mormon had
some errors in it, but that Joseph Smith had nonetheless declared it "the most
correct of any book on earth." I later learned that there were over four
thousand "errors." Most were errors in grammar and punctuation, but some that
were later "corrected" represented significant doctrinal changes. This process
has continued for over 150 years, and includes the 1981 change of the Book of
Mormon prophecy that "Lamanites" (Indians) who become Mormons would
become "white and delightsome" (which now reads "pure and delightsome").
The Mormon Church has been peerlessly cavalier in changing not only its own
scriptures, but even its history, as Mormon scholars themselves repeatedly and
publicly lament. Historical events such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre;
doctrinally inspired practices such as "blood atonement" (the taking of life as an
atonement for a person's sins), administered by the church's "Avenging Angels,"
the Danites; and teachings like Brigham Young's repeated identification of Adam
as God the Father between 1852 and 1877 are conspicuously absent from
many Mormon historical and doctrinal books.
Such alterations and omissions accompany the astounding doctrinal changes of
Mormonism. A member of Joseph Smith's 1831 flock, Book of Mormon in hand,
would be aghast at a church which teaches that God has a physical body and once
lived on another earth; that man can himself progress to godhood; or that temple
worship, eternal marriage, and genealogical research are essential for "exaltation"
or eternal life. All of these are, of course, basic twentieth-century Mormon doctrine,
but they appear in neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon.
TRUTH AS BETRAYED BY HISTORY
Many Mormons were shocked and ashamed when it came to light in 1991 that one
of the church's most sought-after inspirational speakers, Elder Paul H. Dunn of the
First Quorum of the Seventy, had blatantly lied for years about having played
baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals and being the only uninjured survivor of his
thousand-man combat group in World War II. Dunn's best-selling books and tapes
have inspired generations with their dramatic, eyewitness stories of professional
athletics, miraculous rescues, and divine protection.
The trouble is, not one of his best-known stories is completely true; they are --
according to Dunn's own admission -- fabrications and combinations of events that
he felt were necessary to "illustrate points that would create interest."
Unfortunately, this tendency to exaggerate and fabricate -- and, in some cases, to
lie outright -- is one that Dunn inherited, at least in spirit, from his predecessors in
the church's leadership.
Joseph Smith concealed his youthful occultic pursuits as a peepstone-gazer and
treasure-digger. After introducing the doctrine of polygamy, he practiced it
while denying that he was doing so. Later, when polygamy was renounced,
Mormon prophets such as Joseph F. Smith continued to practice it in secret and to
solemnize plural marriages. Even today, faithful Mormons in Utah and other
places turn a blind eye to the activities of friends and neighbors who illegally
Sometimes such disregard for truth is displayed in deliberate cover-up tactics, as
when high church leaders "stonewalled" the investigation of the connection of the
Mark Hofmann forged-documents scam (a scam for which prominent church
leaders had fallen) to the nationally publicized bombings in Salt Lake City in October
Years ago I would have said that such deceptive practices were an aberration for
both the church and its adherents. However, I have found too much evidence to
the contrary. As a further example, Robert Lindsey, the respected investigative
reporter who covered the Hofmann case in his best-selling book A Gathering of
Saints (Simon and Schuster, 1988), characterized spying in the Mormon Church
as "commonplace." I have corresponded with at least one individual, Steven L.
Mayfield (a.k.a. Stan Fields), who wrote me claiming that he had left the church
and needed my emotional support. Later I learned from Jerald and Sandra Tanner's
book Unmasking a Mormon Spy (Modern Microfilm, 1980) that this man was in
the employ of a church official and infiltrated ex-Mormon groups to dig up
information to impugn the character of ex-Mormons.
TRUTH AS A LAYERED REALITY
Truth, as presented to a prospective convert to Mormonism, is layered much like
plywood: the outer surface is attractive, but, like the inner layers, is incapable of
sustaining much weight until bonded with the others. Missionaries are trained to
present carefully structured "lessons" that are designed to force conclusions based
on incorrect premises. For instance, an "investigator," or prospective member, will
conclude that there was a need for the true church to be divinely restored if he or
she first accepts the faulty premise that it was utterly lost from the earth in the
second century A.D. The investigator is carefully guided down a specific doctrinal
path and urged to commit to a baptismal date, while missionaries postpone
answering questions about "hot" issues like polygamy. Other basic Mormon tenets
are skimmed over -- issues like the Heavenly Father's prior existence as a mortal
man -- while the Book of Mormon, priesthood authority, and the church's
ecclesiastical structure are stressed. The most overtly unbiblical issues are not
covered until much later, after the convert is less inclined to dispute them.
What an enormous contrast with the Christian life, which has no hidden doctrines
or ceremonies and where access to the "mysteries" is determined only by one's
personal relationship with the Mystery-Giver and His Word.
THE CHURCH AS THE GUARDIAN OF THE TRUTH
In Mormonism, as in other pseudo-Christian cults, the organization's leadership
sets itself up as a shield to protect its members from factual information it regards
as potentially harmful. Thus, instead of defending its members from outside attack,
it must concentrate its efforts on guarding them from their own past; not only
defining truth, but regulating how and when it will be disseminated.
As a young Latter-day Saint I was continually admonished not to read anything
critical of the Mormon Church, and I obeyed without question. Recently Apostle
Boyd K. Packer offered a definition of "faithful history" as "history that bolsters
belief and avoids awkward or embarrassing detail." Thus, in the Mormon mind,
to read anything unsupportive of Mormonism, far from reflecting openmindedness,
is actually an act of faithlessness.
And how does the church deal with people or facts that include "awkward or
embarrassing detail"? Consider the case of BYU teacher Lynn Packer. Packer
publicly revealed the glaring discrepancies in Elder Dunn's stories. He found, for
instance, that Dunn's legendary tale of how his closest wartime buddy, Harold
Lester Brown, died in his arms in Okinawa couldn't be true because Brown is very
much alive in Odessa, Missouri. When these and many other lies and
embellishments came to light, the church gave Dunn "emeritus" status due to
"factors of age and health." But "shortly afterwards...[Dunn] was traveling and
speaking, and...took young men around the nation on a baseball tour." His
books and tapes are still carried by the church-owned Deseret Book chain.
Packer, on the other hand, was sternly warned not to publish his findings about
Dunn's stories; when he did, he was terminated from his BYU teaching position "in
part because [he] was violating church and university policies that prohibit public
criticism of church leaders, even if the criticism is true."
TRUTH AS WHAT IS PRACTICAL
The Mormon concept of truth often has little to do with what is historically
verifiable, nor with how a concept fits with prior Mormon "revelation." In many
cases, it is more closely identified with expediency: If it works, it's right.
LDS history is rife with examples. The "eternal doctrine" of plural marriage was
rescinded as an earthly practice (Mormons believe it will be enjoyed in the next
life) by means of a revelation known as the Manifesto, given by Mormon president
Wilford Woodruff. This "revelation" came to Woodruff after the Supreme Court's
landmark 1879 decision Reynolds v. the United States upheld the prohibition of
polygamy in the Utah territory. Woodruff realized that Utah would never achieve
statehood unless plural marriages were dropped.
In June of 1978 the church's leadership found itself in similar circumstances as it
faced two difficult situations. First, missionary efforts in places like Brazil had
reaped large numbers of converts, most of whom had at least some African
ancestry (disqualifying them for the priesthood, thereby making it difficult to
cultivate indigenous Mormon leadership). LDS leaders also perceived threats in both
the outcome of a recent court case on racial discrimination and in the possibility of
an IRS review of the church's tax-exempt status. So, in a tersely-worded
statement (a far cry from earlier revelations, which began with "Thus saith the
Lord") the church announced that blacks were suddenly eligible for the priesthood it
had denied them for almost 150 years.
The Mormon Church is most anxious to present itself to the Christian world as
"one of us." Its slick magazine advertisements, its polished Home Front television
spots stressing moral values, and its desire to air television programs on Christian
stations all reflect a concerted effort to be accepted. "We believe just like you do,"
I've heard many a Mormon say; "We're Christians, too."
Quite a different picture, though, is presented in Are Mormons Christians?
(Bookcraft, 1991), a recent book by BYU professor Stephen E. Robinson. Not only
does he call Mormonism the only "true Christianity," he also identifies all other
groups bearing Christ's name as practitioners of the bastardized offspring of Greek
philosophy and a supposed "original Christian" (i.e., Mormon) doctrine. However
offensive a Christian may find this idea, at least Robinson is telling the truth -- the
real truth -- about where honest Mormons place their religion in relation to
TRUTH AS A REFLECTION OF THE MORMON GOD
The ultimate key to understanding how Mormons view and treat truth is not found
only in looking at the way they deal with history, or doctrinal issues, or even
integrity in stating facts. We make a crucial mistake when we look at any cultic
group and try to ascertain its motives by examining only its teachings or earthly
leaders. People make mistakes, tell lies, and go to great lengths to uphold and
protect individuals and ideals they believe in.
Historical, orthodox Christianity has always focused on truth as absolute and
unchanging precisely because its God is absolute and unchanging. In the words of
Hebrews 13:8, "He is the same yesterday, today and forever."
Similarly, the key to Mormon truth is found in its ultimate truth-giver; its god.
Mormons believe that the being who made this earth was himself once a mortal
human. Their doctrine of eternal progression -- that their god is changing,
becoming more perfect each day -- necessarily implies that this being was less
perfect each day we look backward into his past.
Thus, if one accepts the untenable premise that such a being exists, then one must
also accept the logical implication that Mormon truth is also like its creator --
constantly changing and ultimately human in origin.
About the Author
Latayne C. Scott was a temple-recommend holder when she left the Mormon
Church after ten years of membership. She is the author of nine Christian books,
including The Mormon Mirage (Zondervan, 1979) and Why We Left Mormonism
1 President Harold B. Lee, "The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,"
address to Seminaries and Institutes of Religion faculty, Brigham Young University,
8 July 1954, 14; as quoted in Teachings of the Living Prophets (Provo: Brigham
Young University Press, n.d.), 148.
2 D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake
City: Signature Books, 1987), as quoted on the book's jacket. A more detailed
treatment of this idea appears on page x.
3 J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Church News, 31 July 1954, 9; as quoted in Teachings of
the Living Prophets, 149.
4 Teachings of the Living Prophets, xiii.
5 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 194.
6 See, e.g., Jerald and Sandra Tanner, 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon
(Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Company, 1965).
7 2 Nephi 30:6. In Major Problems of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Utah
Lighthouse Ministry, 1989), 49, Jerald and Sandra Tanner note that "the original
handwritten manuscript of the Book of Mormon, the first printing (1830 edition)
and the 1837 edition all agree that the wording should be 'white.' The change,
therefore, appears to be a deliberate attempt to change the original teaching of the
Book of Mormon."
8 Vern Anderson, "Mormon Publisher Willing to Shake the 'Sacred' Tree,"
Albuquerque Journal, 27 July 1991, E4.
9 Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saint's Book Depot, 1854-56), Vol.
4, 49--50, 53--54, 173, 219, 220, and elsewhere, records the teachings of
Brigham Young and other leaders that some sins are so grievous as to be beyond
the power of the atoning blood of Christ, and mid-nineteenth century diaries and
other writings by Mormons (e.g., John D. Lee's Mormonism Unveiled) tell of
groups of Mormon priesthood holders who designated themselves "Avenging
Angels" or "Danites" and went about shedding the blood of adulterers and
murderers so that these sinners could receive forgiveness.
10 See, e.g., David John Buerger, "The Adam-God Doctrine," in Dialogue: A
Journal of Mormon Thought 15:1 (Spring 1982), 14.
11 "LDS Speaker Admits Spicing Up Stories," Salt Lake Tribune, 16 February
12 See Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism, Magic and Masonry, 2d ed. (Salt
Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1988).
13 See Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City:
Signature Books, 1986).
14 As assessed by Robert Lindsey in A Gathering of Saints, 236, 238--39. This
was also the conclusion reached by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in
The Mormon Murders (New York: Onyx Books, 1989).
15 Anderson, E4.
16 Richard R. Robertson, "Mormon Leader Admits Exaggerating Stories," The
Arizona Republic, 16 February 1991, B10.
17 Elbert Eugene Peck, "Casting Out the Spell," Sunstone 83, 12.
18 Salt Lake Tribune.
Courtesy given to Faith & Reason Forum by the Christian Research Institute. Taken from the
Christian Research Journal, Summer 1992, page 24. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research
Journal is Elliot Miller. Copyright © 1994 by the Christian Research Institute. End of document,
CRJ0110A.TXT (original CRI file name), "Mormonism And The Question Of Truth" release A, June 30,
1994 R. Poll, CRI. A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation
of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.