Reckoning.com

11.16.14 10:45 AM ET

God vs. the Internet. And the Winner is…

Faith leaders are starting to air previously hard-to-find “truths” as religious seekers are researching central tenants of their faiths’ histories online.

Since the 1830s, Mormons have survived riots, the violent death of their founder, a long march from Illinois to Utah, and the hardships of settlement in the intermountain West. They’ve made it through schisms. They’ve weathered confrontations with the federal government. They’ve escaped the vicious clutches of Broadway producers.

But can the Mormon Church survive the Internet?

That was the key question this week, after a media firestorm erupted over an essay that the church had quietly posted on its website last month. In the essay, Latter-day Saint authorities acknowledge that Joseph Smith, the church’s founder and first prophet, married between 30 and 40 women. Some of those women already had husbands. One of Smith’s wives was just 14 years old at the time of their marriage.

To historians, that’s old news. But church authorities have traditionally been hesitant to discuss controversial parts of Mormon history. Many Mormons did not know the details of Smith’s polygamy.

“Five years ago, you would never have seen this essay even contemplated,” says Brian Hales, an amateur historian and devout Mormon. Hales is the author of a three-volume history of Smith’s polygamy, and he reviewed drafts of the church’s essay. But even he was surprised by the candidness of the final version. “It’s remarkably transparent,” he told The Daily Beast.

So what shifted?

“The Internet,” says Hales, “has changed everything.”

As Mormons venture online, they’re finding information about the church that contradicts the history they learned growing up. They’re reading about Smith’s polygamy, the church’s troubled racial history, and some especially fishy translations.

After years of rosy church histories, these revelations can be shattering for some believers. Last year, The New York Times ran a feature about Hans Mattsson, who went public with doubts that he developed as the leader of the Mormon Church in Europe. For Mattsson, the trouble started as church members came to him with questions about information they had found online.

In short, Mormon leaders are confronting a crisis of faith—and a crisis of authority. It’s not just the Latter-Day Saints. The 21st century offers plenty of new avenues for religious institutions to reach out to followers and potential converts. But it also sharpens the clash between two very ways of approaching history.

For decades, the church didn’t have much trouble upholding an image of Joseph Smith as an ideal, heroic figure. The LDS Church has a well-organized hierarchy, headed by 15 men who, according to the church’s website, “are also regarded as prophets, seers, and revelators.” Official teachings and histories were pretty much all that was available to most Mormons. In the 1940s, when historian Fawn Brodie wrote a book detailing Smith’s marriages, the church simply excommunicated her.

Today, though, professional and amateur historians can build counter-narratives that are hard to dismantle. G.P., a middle-aged father who spoke with The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, left the LDS Church a year ago after reading Rough Stone Rolling, a biography of Joseph Smith by a prominent Mormon scholar. G.P. was particularly disturbed by the book’s accounts of Smith’s marriages to women who already had husbands.  

Within LDS communities, “there’s just a culture that [Smith] is near-perfect,” said G.P., who held local leadership positions within the church. “I held him in extremely high regard. One of my favorite hymns was ‘Praise to the Man,’” a paean to Smith. Now, says G.P., “I’m disgusted by him.”

Mike Tweedy, a government employee in Georgia, resolved to leave Mormonism in 2007. Tweedy had gone online to research a small discrepancy in a pair of Mormon texts. After just an hour of searching, he discovered a set of issues and questions that jolted his faith. Tweedy was already questioning his relationship with the church, but the information he found online gave him the push he needed to leave. “It used to be that you could not research these things adequately,” Tweedy told me. “No longer can they control the information.”

Increasingly, official church historians share historical authority with people like Scott Carles, the managing editor of MormonThink, a website devoted to making information about Mormon history easy to find. Carles told me that MormonThink strives to be objective and impartial. They’re not trying to convert people, but they are trying to push the church to be more transparent. MormonThink’s visitors tend to be Mormons with doubts about the faith, looking for answers. The site gets two million visits per month.

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It would be tempting, at this point, to say that the Internet will corrode religious authority and usher in the Great Secular Age. Certainly, other communities—ultra-Orthodox Jews, for example—are fretting about members who go online, and then astray. And Mormons, who have official church historians and a highly centralized hierarchy, may be especially susceptible to media that gives a voice to alternative histories.

There’s no evidence, though, that the web will somehow kill off traditional religious authorities. The Latter-Day Saints, for example, may lose some members to the Internet’s unholier chat rooms. But they’ve also launched major social media campaigns to attract new followers and begun taking their missionary work online.

When asked whether the Web will empower or undermine traditional religious leaders, Heidi Campbell, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies religious movements online, said, “The answer is, basically, yes, it does both.” In one study, Campbell looked at some of the most popular Christian bloggers online. She found that, for the most part, they were mainstream leaders offline, too. There are plenty of scholars, she notes, who argue that the Internet “actually helps solidify the power and influence of traditional leaders.”

The Web doesn’t magically make us all more historically informed, either. Official Mormon histories about Joseph Smith may have been misleading. But so are plenty of histories that try to attack the prophet. The Internet doesn’t elevate historical conversations. It just makes it harder for one group to monopolize them.

And, of course, Mormons aren’t alone in having a flawed founder, nor in whitewashing his history. Just try to find a mention of Sally Hemings at the Jefferson Memorial. Movements of all kind create mythic histories, and institutions of all kinds do what they can to control these founding stories. 

What’s at risk here, really, isn’t faith. Nor is it traditional leadership. It’s the illusion that our founding myths and our factual histories are somehow one and the same. It’s still possible to understand Joseph Smith as a transcendent figure with a powerful spiritual message (his mythic history) who was also a flawed human individual with a fourteen year-old wife (factual history).

But it’s getting more difficult to pretend that the actual details of Joseph Smith’s life map perfectly onto that archetypal role. In much the same way, it’s getting more difficult for white Americans to forget that the glorified story of our founding fathers isn’t separable from the history of slavery.

The church apparently understands this dynamic, at least to a point. “They seem to have given up the illusion that they can control the conversation,” said Elizabeth Drescher, a scholar and writer on religion in the digital age. More than one person interviewed for this article described the essay about Smith’s polygamy as an “inoculation,” designed to prevent church members from being shocked by what they might learn outside the church walls.

The question, of course, is how far LDS authorities will go in this new commitment to transparency. Another recent LDS essay, about past mistreatment of black members, doesn’t contain any formal apology, nor does it acknowledge fresh incidents within the past few years. The essay on Smith’s polygamy takes great pains to emphasize that his marriage to 14 year-old Helen Mar Kimball, while “inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era;” that Kimball eventually “became an articulate defender of [Smith] and plural marriage;” and that they may not have had sex.  

While it’s essential to understand events in their historical and theological contexts, it’s also important to discuss the possibility of what we would call now statutory rape.

But, hey, the digital era is also the golden age of spin. And it’s always easier to gloss over history than to face it directly. But transparency presents opportunities. Over at Religion Dispatches, Joanna Brooks, a Mormon feminist, writes that Mormons now have a chance to acknowledge “the fallibility of religious leaders” while asking “if wrongness is human, sanctifiable, and perhaps even a source of holiness.”

Every generation gets a new shot at telling history. The Web can support press-release versions of the past. Or it can be a tool to share histories that in other generations would have been quashed, and to demand the kind of reckoning that Brooks imagines—one possible future for how we talk about the past.