There is a disease far too prevalent in the world that I’d like to call morbus spiritus. In English this means disease of the spirit. While we all have this disease to one extent or another I will focus on one symptom. This particular symptom is called antipathy. Antipathy is a set of negative emotions towards someone or something. Where apathy is not caring about something antipathy is fighting against something.
One of the insidious forms of antipathy is well-known to many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are people who spend all of their time and efforts fighting the LDS Church; within the Church we commonly refer to such attacks as anti-Mormon. I’m not claiming that members of the LDS Church are unique in antipathy directed towards them – there is much discord and hatred in this world, some of it much more violent and deleterious than that directed at Mormons. However, I’d like to focus on the vitriol directed at LDS Church members and our beliefs.
There are numerous sources of anti-Mormon materials. There are churches who devote much of their efforts to “setting people right” about Mormons and Mormonism. I served my mission in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A., which is a hotbed of people who have unkind feelings towards the LDS Church and its members. I had conversations with people who tried to convince me – genuinely – of the errors of my ways; none of them were ever really interested in what I had to say. Some listened politely but they were not listening with an honest heart. Before I continue I want to point out that there are many people outside and inside the LDS Church who have honest questions about doctrines or history or other issues; I’m not writing about these people; I’m writing about people who are full of animosity and antipathy towards the Church. Many of these people were church members at one point, they left the Church but cannot leave it alone. Some of those full of antipathy have never been LDS Church members.
This hatred towards those professing God’s Restored Gospel started as soon as Joseph Smith started telling about his vision of seeing Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. What surprised the 14 year old Joseph was that people did not just not believe him, some (usually led by ministers) people started verbally attacking (and soon, physically) him as soon as he related his experience. This wasn’t apathy or just disbelief, this was unbridled antipathy. In his own words, Joseph’s experience is as follows:
“Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.
I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.
It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself.” (JS-H 1:21-23).
Joseph Smith wasn’t someone living in a self-built prison of victimization, he was actively persecuted from that time forward until his assassination at the hands of an angry mob 24 years later.
From Joseph Smith’s day to ours, nearly every anti-Mormon attack, given some time and a few iterations, boils down to an argumentum ad hominem (i.e., an argument against a person’s beliefs or statements based on a personal characteristic or belief or action of that individual). This is (usually) a fallacy of logic, which is a problem when a person is trying to make a case against someone else’s argument (I use the term argument in the formal logic sense, not in the “emotional and heated disagreement that people sometimes have” sense) because it is also basing one’s position on attacking the person and not the position.
Now how about an example. First a general example: “I cannot accept anything Frank says about politics because his feet are smelly!” That’s an extreme example but it gets my point across. Now with a real example. One common argument I’ve heard about the Book of Mormon is the following: “The Book of Mormon isn’t true because Joseph Smith was a gold digger” (implying that Joseph Smith was a treasure hunter who stated he found a set of gold plates from which he stated he translated the Book of Mormon). There are many more salacious attacks on Joseph Smith that I read or hear on occasion but they are not fit to include here.
I am not stating that all negative questions and concerns about the church stem from some conscious or subconscious antipathy towards Joseph Smith but almost all anti-Mormon materials essentially boil down to impugning Joseph Smith’s character, at least in the attacks to which I’ve been exposed. This is because the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to His living prophets is Truth; it is sound and without contradiction. This does not mean that our understanding is perfect, nor have we been revealed everything yet (not even remotely) but the gospel is true. Any supposed imperfections are caused by our lack of understanding. I am also not implying that Joseph Smith was perfect, he would be the first to recognize his faults, but none of the anti-Mormon attacks on his character are warranted. I know some disagree with that statement but it’s easy to defame the character of people who are dead.
People can have honest disagreements. Those of us who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can have enriching discussions with all people, should they and we do so with an attitude of honesty and respect. We in the LDS Church do not have a monopoly on truth or inspiration. We do not have a monopoly on goodness or virtue. What we do have is membership in Christ’s church, which is a blessing and a responsibility. We are responsible to never be arrogant or exclusive. We have a responsibility to share what we have with others. Membership in Christ’s true church is never an excuse to look down on others, it is a calling to raise others up. We must never let the symptoms of antipathy dwell within us. We can never find happiness in tearing down others. Antipathy is part of a disease that will spread and consume us with its cancerous cells.
Can I answer every question that anti-Mormons have? No, and I don’t want to. I will answer honest questions people have – there are always answers to those questions – but responding to anti-Mormons is a fruitless task for me. There are some within the LDS Church who do and do so very well (check out LDS FAIR Apologetics) but in general there are too many things that we do not know to spend much time bickering over things that we really do not know. I’m not an ostrich sticking my head in the sand in the face of such attacks, I simply choose to fight other battles.
One last note, any questions of Joseph Smith’s character should be cleared up as the Joseph Smith Papers volumes continue to be published. There are few comparable projects focused on any single individual of a similar magnitude (although within the past 100 years or so our archival of records has improved dramatically; however, documents are not always made public in an easily accessible manner). It is especially rare to have access to that wealth of primary sources for any major religious leader (or political or military, for that matter).