Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Ask a Mormon . . . But Which Mormon?

This is my good side.

Last night at dinner, a visiting 7-year old was trying to explain to me that duck-billed platypuses (platypi?) are actually mammals, even though they lay eggs.

“But doesn’t the fact that they lay eggs automatically disqualify them from being mammals?” I asked skeptically.

She was exasperated in the way that only an especially precocious schoolage child can be. “That’s why they’re special,” she answered in her best “Duh” voice. “They lay eggs and they feed their young.”


I looked it up today and yes, sure enough, that platypus is a real category-bender. Learning about it kinda made my head explode, but in a good way. It also got me thinking about some other taxonomy questions that have been bothering me all week — in particular, questions of Mormon classification, and how uncomfortable many people are with Latter-day Saints who claim to be both/and rather than either/or.

Later this week I’ll be heading out to the Sunstone Symposium, where I’ll speak about my fall book Flunking Sainthood and the Twible project in different sessions. For those of you who don’t know, Sunstone-goers represent the liberal or alternative voice within Mormonism. In the 1980s and early 90s the symposium and the magazine also had a reputation for being angry or having an axe to grind against the LDS Church, although that hard edge has somewhat diminished. The symposium is a place of free inquiry based upon Anselm’s motto of faith seeking understanding.


I’ll also hit a couple of sessions at FAIR-LDS, a Mormon apologetics group that is committed to helping Latter-day Saints better understand their own religion and be able to “faithfully deal with the criticisms leveled against the Church and gospel.” Like any apologetics organization worth its salt, its basic mission is to intelligently defend the religion against outside attack. FAIR takes it for granted that Mormonism is true, and seeks primarily to find better ways of persuading the world of that.

When I can, I read the writings of both groups, and have found many of their speakers to be persuasive. These people have helped me better understand my own religion.  However, both groups fall into a bit of a taxonomy problem; both can be narrow in their own ways. Some people at Sunstone become bitter when they think the Church is doing damage in the world, whether to homosexuals or women or their own family. Some people at FAIR are so narrowly focused on saving Mormonism from persecution that they rarely or never stop to consider that the detractors could have a valid point, and the Church might just be dead wrong about something.


What both groups share is a strange, and largely false, belief in the utter uniqueness of Mormonism. Some Sunstoners imagine that the LDS Church stands alone in having deep institutional flaws, while some FAIR folks imagine that the LDS Church stands alone in possessing Truth with a capital T.

I only know of a few other duck-billed platypi who, like me, choose to swim in both communities. But both communities are helpful and needed, even though neither is perfect.

What I’m saying is that the big tent that is the LDS faith needs every possible kind of Mormon.

Later this week, I’ll be attempting to answer ten questions about Mormonism that evangelicals have raised on Rachel Held Evans’s blog. The “Ask a Mormon” opportunity includes some excellent questions about LDS religion and history as well as my own faith journey. (I’ll post a few of them below, if readers have helpful insights. I can definitely use some help.) I’m acutely conscious that having a single person to represent a 14-million member religion gives rise to potential pitfalls.


On the other hand, all any of us can ever do is tell our own story. Mine is that I am a duck-billed platypus, hopefully without the deadly venom.


A Few “Ask a Mormon” Blog Questions

3.    From Teri: What’s the deal with the planets? Does God really live on a planet? Do faithful Mormon men really get their own planets? Does that mean they become gods? I’ve been hearing little bits and pieces of this since I was in high school (in a place with a large Mormon population) and it’s always been so confusing

5.    From Laura: From the outside perspective, it seems the Mormon church holds very firm stances on certain issues and then will suddenly reverse course, especially in the cases of polygamy and institutionalized racism. This makes it appear to outsiders as if God is changing His mind. How is this explained from within the Mormon church?


6.    From April: I am curious about the very secretive things that happen in the Mormon temple. I have a friend who attends a Christian reformed university with me and we always discuss how similar he feels Mormonism is to mainstream Christianity, but then I get confused when he says there are things that he’s not allowed to discuss. If, (and please forgive me if I am wrong), Mormons believe that we are all members of the body of believers then why would there be secrets that you couldn’t share with other, non-Mormon, Christians?
7.    From Laura: I’ve heard many times that women are granted access to peaceful eternity only through the permission of their husbands, particularly that when you are sealed the husband is given your secret eternal name needed for you to enter eternity with him. Is this true? What about single women?

8.    One reader noted that the reported history of the Book of Mormon has been seriously called into question by archeology. Is it respected in your faith to interpret that content symbolically, or is everyone supposed to literally believe it?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I don’t mind people asking me or any other Mormon questions about what we believe, as long as they really want to know what I think, and are not just looking for an opportunity to triumphally tell me or bystanders “See, what a dummie you are.” When I was in law school in Salt Lake in the late 1970s, serving as a guide at Temple Square was a calling that local people got (instead of full time missionaries), and I once led a tour through the North Visitors Center of a bunch of Baptists and their pastor, who couldn’t stop laughing about how we were all going to hell, even in front of the depiction of Christ’s crucifixion.

    I used to have a subscription to Sunstone magazine, and had a paper that was presented to a Sunstone symposium in Los Angeles. I also enjoy attending the FAIR symposia. I would like to speak up on behalf of the FAIR presenters and note that a lot of Mormon warts are dealt with openly and honestly, including the history of black Mormons and Mormons’ tendency to think our experiences with the Holy Ghost and inspiration are utterly exclusive (by Roger Keller, a former Protestant minister and BYU professor). And I think a simple crosscheck of speakers at the FAIR meetings and various Sunstone symposia over the years would find a large overlap.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ben

    “seeks primarily to find better ways of persuading the world of that.”

    Actually, most people involved with FAIR would consider struggling Mormons to be the target audience, not non-LDS.

    “some FAIR folks imagine that the LDS Church stands alone in possessing Truth with a capital T.”

    From being on their internal email list for eight years or so, this strikes me as more of a common-but-false-conception. There well may be apologists who think of the Church as an all-knowing monopoly of Goodness and Truth, but they don’t last long at FAIR. (Drop me a note if you want to hear more about that.)

    Not going to make it to Sunstone this year, or FAIR either.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sharman

    My husband and I are catching both conferences this weekend, too. We wish they weren’t held at the same time for us platypi.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    On question 8:

    The assertion that archeology conflicts with the Book of Mormon narrative misconstrues the facts, and is based on the wrong question. If the question is “Does archeology prove the Book of Mormon to be true?” the answer is “No.” Neither does archeology prove the Bible to be true. While we do know the names of many of the locations named in the Bible, archeology has no ability to confirm or deny the identity of most of the people named, including Moses, Abraham, and Jesus. Nor can it confirm or disprove the occurrence of the miracles described, from the parting of the Red Sea and the River Jordan to Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, or his resurrection from the dead. Believing in those events is a matter of faith. Just because a particular archeologist is unwilling to believe in miracles does not mean he can prove they never happened.
    Careful examination of the Book of Mormon narrative and its description of geographic facts indicates the events took place in an area about 200 miles in diameter, about the same size area as covered by the Old Testament and the Gospels. The events are compatible with the archeological remains found in Mesoamerica, which cover the same time period, 600 BC to 400 AD. So archeology does not rule out the veracity of the Book of Mormon narrative.
    Anyone who is interested in the correlation of the Book of Mormon with modern scholarship should be interested to know that the first portion of the Book of Mormon describes a journey from Jerusalem and across the Arabian Peninsula, and the course of the journey and specific characteristics described in the Book of Mormon do match up with modern knowledge of that region. Some of the facts which correlate were unknown Joseph Smith’s day, and some were not discovered until less than 20 years ago.
    For Mormons, the reality of the Book of Mormon is tied to the fact that the record was given to Joseph smith in 1827 by the last author and editor of the book, a man named Moroni who returned to earth as a resurrected person. Three men signed an affidavit that, together with Smith, they saw Moroni and the original record. This appears in the front of every copy of the Book of Mormon. Moroni himself challenged his readers to ask God, with faith in Christ, whether the book is true. Many of the tens of thousands of people who join the LDS Church each year affirm that they received a positive answer to this question.
    If you are a Mormon who has not received that answer, you will NOT be confronted over it and told you must either receive that confirmation or leave the LDS Church. The Church is willing to wait while you make up your own mind.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    On Question 7:

    According to the vision received jointly by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in 1832, recorded at Doctrine & Covenants Section 76, even people who do NOT join the LDS Church, but try to live righteously, will be resurrected into a kingdom of glory, a heaven where there is no pain or suffering or violence, and they will have access to Jesus Christ. Marriage is not a prerequisite to “peaceful eternity” in this “Terrestrial Kingdom”. Marriage is also NOT a prerequisite to resurrection in the “Celestial Kingdom”, where faithful Latter-day Saints will live for eternity in the presence of God the Father. Marriage is only required for entry to the highest degree within the Celestial Kingdom. Furthermore, the husband CANNOT qualify to be there WITHOUT his wife.

    Since actual entry to the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom only happens after resurrection, the time period between death and the resurrection presents opportunities for righteous but unmarried people to find and be married to a righteous spouse. Since it won’t matter when they each lived on earth, there are going to be a lot of potential candidates for eternal companionship.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    On Question 3:

    The New Testament contains a number of statements by Peter, Paul and John which affirm that the ultimate reward of the righteous follower of Christ is to be a “joint heir” with the Son of God for eternity. This concept, that the fulness of salvation consists of becoming like Christ, is called the doctrine of “theosis” in the Eastern Orthodox churches, which have preserved it from the earliest days of Christianity, even though it is a doctrine that has fallen into disuse in the Catholic Church and its daughter Protestant churches. A number of early Church Fathers spoke of this doctrine. For example, Ireneaeus, the bishop of Lyon (in modern France) taught that “God became man (in Christ) so that man can become God.” C.S. Lewis wrote that the saved Christian will be such a shining being in the eternities that, if we saw him now, we would be tempted to worship him.

    The Latter-day Saints also believe that there is no beginning or end to the creative and saving works of God, our Eternal Father, and that there are numberless worlds inhabited by people like us, in various stages of creation and transition to perfection as worlds fit to be the dwelling place of God.

    With their understanding of this infinite universe of ongoing creation and salvation, Mormons simply take these promises of theosis more literally than even the Eastern Orthodox. The LDS believe that, through the perfecting grace of the atoning sacrifice by Jesus Christ, men and women can, in the course of the eternities, become like God, the Father of our spirits, and acquire the opportunity to take on the role of creators in God’s ongoing work of salvation for all of God’s children on every world in the universe.

    Mormons do believe that God the Father has a physical body. They point to the fact that Jesus Christ was resurrected with a physical body and ascended in that body into heaven to be with the Father. Since Christ is fully God, with his body, there is no reason that the Father cannot have a similar eternal physical body, and still, like the Son, have all the powers and attributes of God.

    N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham in the UK, wrote in his book Surprised by Hope that the Bible clearly says that the destiny of the earth where we live is to be transformed into a holy place where God can dwell. So God will “live on a planet”–this one, just as God the Son lived on the earth during his mortal life. In the Mormon view, God will also be able to dwell on innumerable other worlds that he has created and whose inhabitants he has saved.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    On Question 5:

    Basically, Laura has identified the two instances in which this kind of sudden shift in LDS Church teaching has occurred. Each one had different circumstances.

    The Book of Mormon states that “plural marriage” or “polygamy”, as was practiced by Abraham and Jacob, is only a legitimate practice when God directs righteous men to engage in it. Clearly, the Bible describes Adam as having only one wife, Eve, so there is nothing mandatory about polygamy. Additionally, even when polygamy was a practice among Mormons in the 19th Century, there were many men who only had one wife, such as Reed Smoot, who was elected a member of the US senate from the new state of Utah. In the words of another senator, he was “a polygamist who doesn’t polyg”. In other words, entering polygamous marriages is inherently taught to be a practice that can start and then stop at God’s direction. It was started by Joseph Smith in the 1830s, but stopped by Wilford Woodruff on the same basis of inspiration from God.

    The origins of the practice of not ordaining men of African descent to the priesthood in the LDS Church are not clear. It is known that some black men like Elijah Abel were in fact ordained to the priesthood by Joseph Smith. The practice of not doing new ordinations became established without a recorded event explaining the event. It did not stop new blacks from joining the LDS Church during the following 150 years, though it did present an obstacle to their participation in temple ordinances, though it did not prevent their being baptized and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.
    Indeed, the policy was an anomaly because, during the same period, the Church actively sought to bring into the Church people from Polynesia, Asia, and Latin America, many of whom had skin color darker than that of many American blacks. By 1978, there were a million of Mormons who lived in Latin America, Polynesia, the Philippines, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, and who had no obstacle to ordination in the widely shared lay priesthood of the LDS Church. Many Mormons were distressed by the restriction that applied only to one minority ethnicity, but they prayed that the Lord would direct a change, since it is God’s priesthood, not man’s.

    When the announcement was made that President Spencer W. Kimball and the other Apostles had received revelation allowing the sharing of the priesthood with all men, regardless of ancestry, there were already many thousands of ordained Mormons of all other races and ethnicities. The announcement was greeted with great joy by Mormons around the world, and they responded by serving as missionaries in black Africa and in nations like Haiti and Brazil with a significant African heritage. They felt reassured that, despite a century and a half of deprivation, God had given direction for this change. Today there are over a quarter million Mormons in black countries in Africa, and more in other nations like the US.

    In the basic narrative of the LDS Church, Mormons believe that God allowed the earth to continue for nearly two thousand years without living prophets on the earth, but then relieved that deprivation of priesthood authority by sending Peter, James and John to ordain Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to the same apostolic priesthood those three men had held in mortality. Mormons understand that the priesthood is subject to the direction of God, and is withheld and given at God’s discretion. The full restoration of priesthood to men on earth was not complete until the 1978 revelation, but it was a continuation of a restoration of what was lost for over a millennium.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    On Question 6:

    Literally speaking, there are people who were practicing Mormons but have rejected further involvement in the LDS Church who have published their recollections of the ordinances in the LDS temples, subject to the imperfections of their memories and their desire to portray the Mormons in a false light. So those ordinances are not literally “secret”.

    However, they ARE “sacred” to believing Latter-day Saints. That is why the Mormons are enjoined not to discuss those ordinances with particularity outside the temples, lest they become less sacred by too common open discussion. The Latter-day Saints also seek to keep these sacred ordinances out of the public eye, where critics could ridicule them, and provoke Mormons to anger over that ridicule.

    Much about the nature and scope of the ordinances is in published official LDS sources, along with photos that depict the rooms where various ordinances take place. In the Salt Lake City Temple, each stage of the Endowment ordinance takes place in a room that depicts the sacred history that is referred to their. There is a Creation Room, where the creation of the earth is dramatized. There is a Garden of Eden room, where the events described in Genesis concerning the Fall of Adam and Eve are presented. There is a World room, where the experiences of Adam, Eve and their human descendants in the present world of suffering and effort are presented in an exemplary way. The Terrestrial room represents the millennial world which will be created when Christ returns to the earth. Finally, the Celestial Room represents the home of God, the goal of righteous Latter-day Saints.

    Other rooms are set aside for the sealing of husbands and wives and their living children to be united as families for eternity. All of these are places where the Latter-day Saints are encouraged to contemplate reverently God’s loving plan of salvation for all mankind, and their own dedication to receiving the blessings that God has waiting for us. Inviting strangers in who are not participating in these sacred processes would be a distraction from the experience, which is intended to be memorable and sustain the members through their daily lives outside the temples.

    There is a sacred confidentiality and privacy which married couples share. To breach that confidentiality by discussing it too openly with other persons will harm the mutual trust that is so necessary to sustaining that marriage. The covenants that Mormons make in the temples are of a similar nature, sacred promises between them and God, and to discuss them with people who have not participated in those covenants, and make them subject to ridicule or criticism or misunderstanding is itself harmful to the relationship that is being created between the individual and God.

    In the modern world of Twitter and Facebook and “Reality TV” many people seem to think that “nothing is sacred”, nothing is private or confidential, nothing is more important than satisfying their personal curiosity. The Mormons disagree. The confidentiality they practice is not intended to harm others, but to protect a sacred space in their lives. They hope that others can stand back and allow them that privacy.

    We are constantly being told by advocates for unrestricted abortion and for unrestricted sexual behavior that society has no right to intrude on what adults do of their own free will, even if it is with other adults. Can’t that concept of privacy also be enough justification for people to preserve their religious practices from the public eye?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Terrie Lynn Bittner

    When people talk about how the church sometimes changes its practices, I note that they hold modern prophets to a different standard than they hold the Old Testament prophets–or even Jesus–to. Was it “convenient” that Jesus decided the Law of Moses no longer applied, or was it simply that the need for it was no longer there, because it was a preparatory law? Was it a sign of falsehood that Noah was told to build an ark and no other prophet was, or is it simply that the ark was a teaching for that time? If ancient prophets were allowed to “change” the rules to meet the needs of the time or that place in history, then we have to allow God to do the same in modern times. Truth never changes, but practices do.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Jana: I hope you don’t mind that I responded to your invitation. I am told by everyone (including the hosts of several sites in the Bloggernacle) that I tend to be verbose, but these are concepts that are not familiar to many non-Mormons, so using just a few words will not generally give them an accurate picture of what we are saying, especially when I am not able to find out how well they understand what I am saying and then provide additional clarification.

    Obviously I have no authority of my own to pronounce on Church doctrine. I have set forth my answers based on my own perceptions of the views of non-Mormons gleaned from reading First Things journal, Christianity Today, and various books such as those by N.T. Wright and C.S. Lewis.

    Best Wishes for your efforts at both events. I have a great deal of admiration for your ability to explain LDS beliefs in a way that is both accurate (as perceived by Mormons) and meaningful to people of other faith traditions, as demonstrated in the several of your books that I have read.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Nicole (Denmark)

    Possible answer for Q5:

    Mormons had been persecuted – ergo, many women with children were left without a husband. Polygamy was a way to secure that all women and children were taken care of.
    Also, just like the Bible dictates “Multiply and replenish the Earth”, the fastest way of making sure that a Church grows quickly is de facto Polygamy.

    Revelation through Woodruff. Our 12th Article of Faith dictates that “…we believe in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” and Polygamy was outlawed.

    Joseph Smith never was racist. He invited everyone to Church regardless of gender, race, skin color. But he was also executed. I do not have historical proof, but I assume, had the Church back then continued one defying generally accepted racism, it is very likely that our Church wouldn’t even exist today.
    When the Church decided to build a Temple in Brazil they faced a serious problem: it war not possible to distinguish between blacks and whites since they all were that mixed. So in turn, nobody would be able to attend the Temple at all.

    Around that time, Kimbell received a revelation to include the blacks.

    To conclude – God doesn’t change his mind, but the Church evolves with time and our Free Agency leads to circumstances that prevent the Church from taking big steps in the “right” direction quickly.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment telson

    As far as the Mormons, in other words representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are concerned, they can also be seen in Finland from time to time. They are usually young American men who are dressed neatly, behave well, and visit homes. Furthermore, when visiting, the most important subjects of conversation to them are normally the Book of Mormon and the life of prophet Joseph Smith. They usually bring these views forth as the first and most important when talking to people. These issues cannot be overlooked when discussing the issues that Mormons consider as the most important.
    But what should we think about the teachings of the Mormons and do they generally deviate from the common Christian doctrine? Are the teachings in line with the doctrine of the Bible in any way or are they completely different? We are going to make an effort to try to study and clarify the following issues below, for example. If you are a Mormon, it is worth your while to study these issues in detail.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    To telson: All of the questions raised by Mr. Ivanainen’s web page are addressed in great detail among the many essays you can find at There are a dozen books that discuss scholarly findings about the content of the Book of Mormon that can be read, for free, at, along with various scholarly publications and book reviews on all of the topics he asks about. Among these is an article by Professor Richard L. Anderson, summarizing the findings of the research he did in writing his book on the 11 Book of Mormon witnesses whose affidavits to having seen the golden plates appear in each issue of the Book of Mormon. Anderson’s exhaustive research found that all of those 11 men, to their dying day, affirmed over and over again the reality of what they personally saw, heard and handled, in some cases despite their later disaffection from Joseph Smith personally. One of them, Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s brother, voluntarily turned himself in to arrest by the State of Illinois, despite his expectation (which came true) that they would be murdered by those who hated their religious teachings. Hyrum took with him and read for comfort a copy of The Book of Mormon. If he thought it was a fraud, it would not have given him comfort to read it when he was under threat of death. Whatever you want to say about the Book of Mormon, you have to deal with the simple fact that the men who signed their names to those affidavits were literally willing to die rather than deny what they said.

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