Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

Adventures In Apostasy

Posted by Shawn L on January 13, 2008

My “Bosom brother” Andrew has posted an interesting piece at Mormon Matters about the “10 Things Every Mormon Needs to Know” (check it out here).  I wholeheartedly agree with all of his points.  In thinking about them, however, I humbly submit that we should add one more to the list:  #11 — Full-time missionaries, although called as official representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, oftentimes have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. 

A quick disclaimer:  I love missionaries and have the utmost respect for the sacrifices they make to teach the Gospel.  I, myself, was a missionary many moons ago and I am absolutely sure I taught some pretty outrageous whoppers.  So while I can’t help but be a bit snarky in relating my experiences, I don’t mean to poke fun or belittle the Elders at issue.  In fact, as you’ll see near the end, I raise these examples to ask a couple of serious questions.  

 I served for many years as an Assistant Ward Mission Leader.  For a whole host of reasons, it was, without a doubt, one of the most frustrating callings I have ever held.  My duties includes weekly splits with the missionaries.  I tagged along for teaching appointments of all stripes:  new contacts, media referrals, inactive members, and the most stalwart ward members.  The one constant in these situations was the possibility that, at any moment, one of the missionaries would teach something that I knew to be 100% untrue.   Let me give you just three of my favorite examples of false doctrine taught by missionaries in my presence (Lord knows what they taught behind my back!): 

(1)  I attended, and often taught, the Gospel Essentials class, where new members and (hopefully) investigators were taught basic principles at a very “all milk, no meat” level.  During a lesson about the Word of Wisdom (not taught by me), one of the Elders explained why we Mormons abstain from coffee.  Apparently, coffee contains some of the same ingredients as SHOE POLISH!  WOULD YOU WANT TO DRINK SHOE POLISH?!  Half the room nodded in agreement, and the rest of us rolled our eyes in succession.  (Note:  in the Elder’s defense, there is a kernel of truth in this statement.  Both coffee and shoe polish contain tannic acid (tannin).  However, so do blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, and pomegranates, among others.  In his further defense, he ain’t the only one who believes this hooey.)

(2)  This is a two-fer.  I accompanied the missionaries to a teaching appointment with two earnest young men (early 20’s) who were trying to get themselves reactivated.  The lesson was on the Apostasy.  Elder #1 began by teaching about the importance of the Priesthood, and about the necessity of our hierarchical structure. He then said that the 12 Apostles are “special witness of Christ” which means, literally, that they have each one to a man seen and spoken with Christ face-to-face in the Salt Lake Temple.  His companion took over a few minutes later, explaining that the organization in “the modern Church” is exactly the same in every respect as that in “the early Church.”   Apparently, although they used different titles, there were ancient analogues to our present-day Stake Presidents, Bishops, and all the way down the line.  (I have to admit, I bet Paul would have made one heck of a Nursery leader). 

(3) I saved the best (read: worst) for last — you won’t believe this one, but it is 100% true.  When I was a poor law student, my brother-in-law was on a mission, so we did our part by feeding the local elders on a monthly basis (how did we afford that?).  Over the course of the two-year period, we came across the whole spectrum of missionaries:  the good, the bad and the ugly.  One particular Elder stuck out.  He was a stereotypical whitebread Utah boy (not that there’s anything wrong with that), who was in the final month of his mission when he came to our small branch, i.e., he thought he had it all figured out, Gospel-wise.  For the life of me, I can’t remember how we got on this subject, but one night at dinner, he gave me his theory for reasoning behind the pre-1978 Priesthood ban.  In a nutshell, the Priesthood was, and still is, meant for the White man only. However, in the mid-70’s, God basically ran out of good White folks upon whom he could bestow the Priesthood.  So, left with not other choice, He deigned to extend the Priesthood (despite that nasty curse business) to Blacks out of sheer necessity. 

I chuckle a bit now looking back at those experiences, but at the time, they were awkward and even embarrassing moments.  Generally, I chalk them all up to inexperience and the innocent overzealouness of young men trying their best to look like they had all the answers.  But then and now, I ponder (i) what responsibility, if any, did I have to correct these teachings, and (ii) how should I have done so?  Of course, I did nothing at the time, except to tell my wife about it later that night with a grin (then use it as fodder for this blog post).   What should I have done, and what should I do in the future, if anything? One approach would be to take immediate action by not letting the moment pass before steadying the ark (i.e., “reproving betimes with sharpness“).  In doing so, however, my actions could undermine the authority of the missionaries, and cause doubt or confusion in the minds of the investigator/new member.  But if I let it go without a word, I undoubtedly exacerbate the problem through my tacit approval. 

Have you had this experience (or am I just a magnet for false doctrine)?  What was said and what did you do?  When (and not “if”) this situation arises again, I think what I will do is take a moment after the lesson/discussion has ended to talk openly with the missionary.  In what I hope will be a loving spirit, I will talk through the issue with him/her.  That sounds nice, but I have absolutely no idea whether it will work, or how my advice would be received. Or maybe I’ll just raise my right arm to the square, rebuke the poor soul, then walk out of the room.   Simple and to the point.


12 Responses to “Adventures In Apostasy”

  1. Andrew said

    When my high school girlfriend and mother were taking the discussions, her mother asked the missionaries: “What happens to families that aren’t sealed together in the temples during this life or the next?” The missionary quickly answered that family members in this life who were not sealed together would be unable to recognize each other. It didn’t ring true to me then, but he was a missionary, and I was just a dumb high school student, so what did I know?

    Since then, I’ve had those moments during splits with the missionaries. I know exactly what you mean about not wanting to jump in and correct the Elder because it can undermine the investigator’s faith, and make the Elder lose a little self-confidence (maybe not an entirely bad thing).

    I think if it happens to me again, I’ll do what I did when a “greenie” missionary spent the whole discussion telling his goofy jokes and doing his Gollum impersonation ad nauseam. I took him out to Golden Spoon afterwards, and told him as diplomatically as possible that he had an extremely well developed sense of humor, but that unfortunately, most of the world was light years behind him and was probably incapable of understanding or appreciating many of his jokes. I then told him honestly how moving it was at the end of the discussion when he got serious and shared his testimony, which really was a shockingly moving moment for me. He confided in me that his dad had always told him not to joke around so much, and that his dad pleaded with him before leaving on his mission not to be such a joker. He thanked me for the feedback and I felt as we left that it had gone well. He felt boosted by my praise about his powerful testimony, and resolved to cut down on the unsolicited Gollum impersonations.

    So maybe the “Golden Spoon” approach of trying to coach the Elder after the discussion is a good approach. Then again, come to think of it, that investigator never did have us back again . . .

  2. Shawn L said

    The false doctrines I heard from missionary companions back in the day is another can of worms altogether. I served in Guatemala, where every local Saint is sure that his/her town is the site of [fill in your favorite Book of Mormon site]. Feeding on this, American elders loved to (mis)use Mayan culture to make their point about the Book of Mormon. I had a companion who would try to find paralells between the BoM and the Popol Vuh, an ancient book of myth. Of course, he knew abolsutely nothing about the PV other than what he had heard 3d-hand from prior American companions. It led to some real trouble. After one such discussion, the investigator asked whether we also believed that God first created man of mud, just like in the Popol Vuh. My companion was flummoxed (amazingly, we baptized her a few months later anyway).

    The “Golden Spoon” approach sounds reasonable, but I really want to rebuke someone. Sounds like a lot of fun to me.

  3. Full-time missionaries, although called as official representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, oftentimes have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.


  4. Ray said

    I am of the “correct it then and there if it’s truly damaging false doctrine” philosophy – but the “Golden Spoon” approach otherwise. When I was the Ward Mission Leader, I devoted at least 15 minutes each correlation meeting to going over the discussions and teaching the missionaries what they did NOT say.

  5. Ray said

    i.e., what the discussions did NOT teach. Sorry, if that was a bit confusing.

  6. Marjorie Conder said

    Several years ago while feeding the missionaries, one of them said that if people were not ready to be baptized after three lessons, they were not the “elect.” I replied that with that criteria, Brigham Young (among others) was not among the elect. And they said, “that’s right he wasn’t”

  7. Sarah said

    I don’t know about the other ones, but if there’d been an investigator present for scenario #3 I’d ask for proof in the scriptures or (since I know there isn’t any) from any General Authority serving on or since September 1978. And the phone number of the mission president (even if I already had it.)

    It seems to me that total nonsense existing amongst the missionaries isn’t actually a bigger problem than that existing amongst ordinary members — it’s just that they’re younger, and they’ve been given a lot of responsibility, and they’re constantly put in positions where they can hand out said nonsense. I’m sure that if you made every other 19-year-old in the US a member of Congress and put everything they say live on C-SPAN, it’d seem like a cesspool of total ignorance.

    By comparison, the average member of the Church probably only speaks every five or six weeks in one of their classes, and usually in direct response to an easy “rote answer required” question. As a fellow member, you can’t really tell what kind of stuff is dancing around in their head. Anyway, I suspect that ordinary members do a great job of telling investigators (or other Church members) all kinds of things that are untrue. There is a reason, after all, that those of us who have callings as teachers are constantly reminded to teach from the scriptures and not the Gospel of Whatever I Happen To Think About Today.

  8. Stan said

    While I can’t disagree, I have hope it will change with the use of “Preach My Gospel”. We once had a wonderful sister baptized into our ward but she soon (because of acquaintances antagonistic to the church) started to drift away. As a “final attempt”, the missionaries called in an Assistant to the Mission President who proceeded to tell the sister that she was black because she was not valiant enough in the pre-mortal existence. We haven’t seen her since. I was High Priest Group Leader when I heard about it in PEC and muttered something about “false doctrine”, which caused some, including the missionaries, to give me a surprised glance. My experience has been that most missionaries will take gentle counsel if done in a non-public, scripture-based fashion.

  9. Mark D. said

    This is a case in point in favor of the Church establishing a formal definition of what may be regarded as the doctrine of the Church and what may not be, and admonishing teachers everywhere to only teach what is current doctrine, regardless of the merits or history of other propositions.

    The widespread idea that truth and doctrine are synonyms is a prescription for disasters like this. Doctrine is composed solely of those truths that the Church actually teaches. If missionaries knew and understood this, they would not teach other strange or unapproved precepts.

  10. Peter Brown said

    I was one of those missionaries that had done some homework before I left on my mission (At 16, I had read BH Roberts History of the Church, the Salamander Letter, Nibley, etc.) and had fairly Nieztche-istic understanding of the need to not fit every gospel truth into a hole that made sense. I focused instead, on creating spiritual feelings in investigators that would lead them towards baptism instead of trying to convince them through logic and reason. My companions would and it would make me groan inside.

    So when I go to Church and hear the Elders talk, I sense the naivete still. But I do sense something else I lost–a zeal for the gospel, and a powerful tesimony that comes with the mantle of being a missionary. It’s a profound lesson about how spiritual truths transcend intellectual understanding.

  11. Shawn L said

    Peter: That’s an excellent point. In all of the examples I cited, I really think the missionaries were acting in good faith. And I certainly remember being a 19-year old missionary and believing that, because I had memorized the discussions and was reading my scriptures daily, that I had a pretty good handle on all spiritual matters. Looking back, I was hopelessly naive. Nevertheless, I was as motivated about the Gospel then as I have ever been in my life. You’re right — that does have value.

    Stan: I’m also interested to see if “Preach My Gospel” will help stem this sort of behavior. The problem is, the new manual gives the missionaries much more control over the tone, substance and timing of the discussion. Generally speaking, that’s a good thing, except when that power is wielded by a missionary prone to false doctine. I would be interested anecdotal evidence of how this shift has changed, if at all, the substance of what our elders are teaching.

  12. joe said

    Who could blame that young woman for leaving? Once in an LDS church, the child of a complete stranger came up to me and said, “your one of them brown people”. I was quite shocked. I don’t know what this child was taught, but the child was about the blondest, fairest blue eyed child I have ever seen. Perhaps this was the first time he had a chance to see someone darker up close?

    Appealing to native americans via the BOM can be somewhat of a mixed bag. Some people would make that appeal to me, but I am pretty sure that my culture is not mentioned anywhere in the BOM. In addition my traditional cultural belief doesn’t bear much resemblence to anything LDS. There is no mention of an ‘ultimate creation story’ like that in genesis. Therefore there isn’t linear time. Additional cultural differences is that we never practiced agriculture, so there aren’t any references to bread, wine, milk, honey etc. in our stories. Non-lds christian missionaries had a difficult time translating “the lords prayer” and any reference to sheep or lamb. But we are a very spiritual people, although our traditional religion is not christian or mormon.

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