Grace and Apostasy

As a historian, I am grateful for anti-Mormon exposés. Admittedly, the genre poses obvious problems. Those who leave (and especially those who are expelled from) a religious organization often have an obvious axe to grind. At the same time, they have been inside the organization and know things about which outsiders are not privy. And while it’s easy to dismiss exposés as biased, all sources have their own points of view, some more obvious or distorting than others. Historians face the task of separating the chaff from the wheat, to the best of their ability.

In terms of early Mormon history, exposés penned by Increase and Maria Van Deusen, Catherine Lewis, T.B.H. and Fanny Stenhouse,  and those produced by John C. Bennett (a favorite bogeyman of many Latter-day Saint historians), John D. Lee, and Ann Eliza Young provide some insights difficult to glean from other sources. The Van Deusens and Catherine Lewis provide valuable detail about the Nauvoo Temple. While I don’t think Bennett is reliable on the early Nauvoo endowment, some of the material he collected about Mormon polygamy was correct. T.B.H. Stenhouse is a valuable source for some of Utah’s early political history. One must read all of these sources in context with discernment. As Stenhouse said of Bennett’s The History of the Saints (1842): “There is no doubt, much truth in Bennett’s book . . . but no statement that he makes can be received with confidence.” One must also say that as a genre, the exposé is a great deal of fun, especially if one has no personal investment in the organization. They are usually filled with sensationalistic detail and resemble the captivity narratives that both scared and thrilled nineteenth-century readers.

Unveiling GraceI have not digested very many contemporary memoirs of former Latter-day Saints, but I recently read Lynn Wilder’s Unveiling Grace. For the most part, it’s not written in the sensationalistic style of exposés. It’s first and foremost a spiritual journey, which leads Wilder into and eventually out of Mormonism. In a nutshell, her family eventually rejects what she terms the works-based theology and culture of Mormonism in exchange for grace-filled evangelical Christianity. “I found the real Jesus,” she writes, the “biblical Jesus.” “It’s all about Jesus,” she writes of her family’s new faith.

Unveiling Grace is an engaging and often respectful account of both her family’s attraction to and eventual disengagement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Wilders joined the church in Indiana. After she and her husband were baptized, her new extended family (her ward brothers and sisters) made the Wilders entirely welcome, helped them through personal tragedies, and provided space in which they encountered God’s grace.

A major theme in Unveiling Grace is that the church worked Lynn Wilder and her husband into the ground. They each received callings (particular offices or responsibilities), and they felt they could not turn them down. The callings were instructions from their ecclesiastical superiors, and they had covenanted to obey those leaders. Moreover, what they did on earth contributed to the extent of their celestial glory. Do as much as possible and then some!

What pushed the Wilders from ecclesiastical stress to outright disaffection were two related factors. One of their sons, in an attempt to convert evangelical Christians in Florida, concluded that Mormonism conflicted with the New Testament. For example, the letter to the church in Ephesus instructs that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Wilder contrasts such verses with the Book of Mormon’s clarification (in 2 Nephi 25:23) that “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Latter-day Saints believe that their completion of ordinances (including baptism, the endowment, and sealing in marriage) and the upholding of those sacred covenants are necessary for their celestial glory. Perhaps Jesus’s atonement freed human beings from death, but mere belief or faith will not grant one a residence in one of the finer mansions in heaven.

Second, some church leaders and members treated family members struggling with doubts about the church — and in one case, with violations of the church’s moral standards — harshly. The Wilders ached for tenderness and love. Instead, they encountered judgment and gossip, not from everyone, but from too many of their “brothers and sisters.”

As a full examination of the above issues is not possible in a blog post, here are a few quick thoughts:

There is obviously a large amount of theological space between evangelical Protestantism and the LDS Church. “How Wide the Divide?” asks one co-authored book by a Mormon and an evangelical. Their conclusion was that the divide is not as wide as most Latter-day Saints and most evangelicals believe. Although there are genuine and important theological disagreements, there is a great deal on which Mormons and other Christians agree. Wilder alleges that the “Mormon Church is not in the body of Christ, because Mormonism teaches doctrine that is contrary to what Jesus himself taught.” That judgment often goes both ways. Latter-day Saint Apostle Dallin Oaks spoke of Mormons as “a fervent and fast-growing group of believers who persistently disdain the comfortable fraternity of ecumenical Christianity.” The Latter-day Saint belief that Protestant and Catholic Christians are in apostasy is significant. Without apostasy there would have been no need for the restoration under the leadership of Joseph Smith. Between charges of apostasy and heresy, there has been plenty of invective on both sides of the evangelical and Mormon divide. Putting aside questions of ecclesiastical division for a moment, I strongly encourage evangelicals and Latter-day Saints to see each other as fellow members of the Body of Christ.

I found much of Wilder’s book a respectful analysis of a church and a people she had left behind. However, especially because she discusses a desire to reach Latter-day Saints with the message of God’s grace, it seems rather ungracious of her to suggest that the LDS Church is “a synagogue of Satan.” The later chapters in the book are simply not as engaging because Wilder’s own personal spiritual journey makes for far more compelling reading than her theological critiques of Mormonism. At the same time, I know that from the 1840s onward, Mormon leaders have often hurled insults at those who have left the faith. See, for instance, statements about Martha Brotherton, who rejected a proposal of plural marriage from Brigham Young in 1842. The Wilders encountered some of this pain, so if they return a bit in kind one can hardly blame them. But things are changing. Last year, Dieter Uchtdorf maintained that in “this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.” Some evangelical Protestants join the LDS Church. Some Latter-day Saints embrace the evangelical Jesus. When this happens, converts often experience alienation, if not rejection, from relatives and friends. That sort of judgment is foreign to the love of Christ.

Jesus, grace and Mormonism? Latter-day Saint leaders and scholars have placed a greater stress on grace in recent decades, in tandem with the pronounced christocentric emphasis within contemporary Mormonism. Of course, there are real disagreements here. Many Latter-day Saints believe that evangelicals preach a grace too cheap and easy. “That was the born-again way,” writes Joanna Brooks in The Book of Mormon Girl, “just confess the name of Jesus, say Jesus-I-take-you-into-my-heart and poof!” [For a sense of how evangelicals used to treat Mormons (and how some still do), read Brooks’s memoir]. Mormons have a distinctive understanding of salvation (and exaltation), but Latter-day Saints teach and experience grace. See the church’s 2014 Christmas advertisement. Many critics of Mormonism describe the church’s devotion to Jesus as a veneer or deception. I agree with Catholic scholar Stephen Webb’s assessment that “Mormonism is obsessed with Christ, and everything that it teaches is meant to awaken, encourage, and expand faith in him.” Mormon devotion to Jesus Christ is genuine, not a subterfuge. Though it’s not as applicable to evangelicals such as Wilder as it is to mainline Protestants, Webb makes the point that Latter-day Saints take many essential doctrines (such as the divinity and literal resurrection of Jesus Christ) more seriously than many churches.

Finally, Wilder reminds me why I have enjoyed reading nineteenth-century exposés. They make for good reading, for starters. And for scholars (and for ecclesiastical leaders), it’s important to understand both what attracts individuals to a church and what repels them.

"Who says we are a secular nation? You and atheists? Where did you get that? ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
"Personal attack. Once you run out of reason fuel and facts, you engage in personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
">>>"Read your responses to my comment and see whom is truly the one making 'personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Stephen Buck

    To John Turner,

    I consider your article as somewhat passive aggressive.
    You name what many professional historians consider prejudiced sources (T.B.H.,
    Ann Eliza Young, etc) and declare them to have some truth. One might say the
    same about your article here. You imply while some things are incorrect others
    are factual. Please tell what accurate insights do they provide and are they
    damaging to the LDS Church or not. You may consider the supposed exposes as
    great fun but I dare say if someone was accusing you or your beliefs with
    downright lies you would not consider them as amusing.

    About the Wilder’s experience in the Church of Jesus Christ of
    Latter Day Saints; People do receive calling to various responsibilities but
    they can turn them down if they wish, many do. These callings may be to serve
    as a Sunday school Teacher, work within the Boy Scout program, etc. Some may
    consider them burdensome others consider them as an act of service to others. One
    can not accept callings and considered welcome, if the Wilder say otherwise I
    would term them as disingenuous former members. Strange how the Wilders did not
    have a willingness to serve and blamed their discomfort on their leaders. Can
    you imagine telling Paul or Peter it is too much of a burden to serve others?

    It is too bad their son did not
    understand basic Mormon doctrine. We do believe that our works do not save us.
    We fully understand that in Christ’s atonement is salvation found but that does
    not allow us to discount The Savior’s counsel to love and serve others. Christ
    is our sovereign and if he teaches that we must be born of the water and Spirit
    we cannot disregard his commandment to do so. It is a very Christian belief to
    make covenants with our Father in Heaven to serve him and be obedient to him. It
    sound as though the Wilders committed an act worthy of excommunication and
    wished they had would find in the Church forgiveness without repentance. Had
    they wished to face their sin and repent they would have been welcomed to full
    fellowship in the Church. They would not have faced shunning of any type and
    only certain members of the Church would have known of their transgression.
    Again I cannot believe they did not understand this. The love they needed would
    have been there for them. They have misled you if they say otherwise.

    Have Mormon’s been guilty of insulting others? Yes. Have
    Protestants been guilty of driving LDS from five different states, raping
    Mormon women, destroying hundreds of homes and farms. Have Protestants been
    guilty of denouncing Mormonism in the new and televisions. Yes. Do they spread
    lies of all sorts against Mormons? Yes.

    I believe and this is only my opinion, Protestants and for
    that matter Catholics make it all too easy to be a Christian. Confess and then
    sit back and do nothing particular to advance Christ’s kingdom here on earth.
    This does not make them bad persons in any degree but you will excuse LDS who
    believe being engaged in a good cause does not make them bad persons either.

  • John Turner

    Fair questions. It would take a very long amount of space to distinguish between the factual and the fanciful in all of the exposes I mentioned. So, to be brief, I find John D. Lee’s account of his early years in the church more credible than his account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (which his lawyer probably more actively edited after his death). I find T.B.H. Stenhouse’s account of Utah politics in the early 1860s reasonably credible. For instance, see his account of Utah governor John Dawson credible because Brigham Young’s journal makes it clear that Stenhouse was present and privy to Young’s inner circle. First-hand witnesses are nearly always more valuable than third-hand rumor, as one gets in much of Ann Eliza Young’s memoir.

    I may have been a bit passive aggressive (or just uncertain), but I was attempting to take the same cautious approach to a contemporary expose as I took to 19th-century sources.

    I entirely agree that Protestants in particular make things too easy! In fact, we once received no response when we asked a former congregation (after being members for a year or so) if there was any sort of service we could do! The Latter-day Saint approach of extending ways of serving to nearly everyone has much to commend it. I did not mean to suggest otherwise. And personal experience always varies. The Wilders felt over-burdened between work, children, and church callings.

  • Lillith70

    Lee told his son David the story in the day before his execution spectacle which shows America of that period. I think in the book about descendant Ettie Lee.

  • Hello_World

    “It sound as though the Wilders committed an act worthy of excommunication and wished they had would find in the Church forgiveness without repentance. Had they wished to face their sin and repent they would have been welcomed to full fellowship in the Church”

    You really don’t know what you’re talking about here. Many wish they could find forgiveness without undue penance. Scorn is not a Christian attribute and neither is shun. But without a knowledge of the offense I can guarantee you, you have no idea if they would ever be welcomed to full fellowship.

  • Lillith70

    Pride is the universal sin and gets us all. I quote that and just recently found it attributed to President Benson.

  • Lillith70

    Grace was always assumed in the church which was nearing 1 miraculous million members in my early childhood-just wasn’t called that but but his sacrifice or gift or atonement.

    Works would include ordinances and the principles of faith, repentence and charity.

    But the time for us to be apart and the time to be together are as God wished in His plan–is he God or what.

    We do not bandy around the name Jesus or Jehovah as much as say Christ or the Messiah or Savior because to Mormon ears, using the name Jesus constantly and too familiarly may be taking his name in vain. and the giving aall honor to the father is just as the Savior did ask in the bible.

    And works? Be-to be is action verb? Be ye even as I am and then be even as the Father. Be one with us but i have read that we can be perfect only as perfected in Christ..

    Love me? Feed my sheep/ etc. The difference mostly semantic as the articles say? some evangelicals have said their world are to honor the Savior. IDK. Am asking as well as telling.

  • stefanstackhouse

    What I would really like to see someone do is to compare and contrast Mormonism and Islam in their relationship to orthodox Christianity. There are some interesting parallels. Both consider orthodox Christianity to be apostate/corrupted. Both look to a later revelation handed down directly from God intact to a later “prophet” as being more pure and authoritative than the Christian scriptures. Both have very much of a works-based concept of salvation. Both have been comfortable with polygamy. And on it goes. Mormonism and Islam are very different, of course. Yet, in quite a few ways they are really not so very different.

  • SoundOn

    Like you said, there are many differences, but I can see that strict obedience to specific commandments, polygamy, and following prophets are shared in common with Islam and Christianity. Early Christians like Martin Luther also believed that Christianity was corrupted just as it had been prophesied that it would be in the bible. Jesus Christ and other prophets also brought forth new scripture and Islamic and biblical prophets like Abraham were polygamists. Yes, these are interesting parallels, but how do these things differ from Mormonism?

  • Lillith70

    The cross was not the symbol of the apostolic church–that was Constantine. the early church had a fish or a lamb i read somewhere. Now I like the study of the origins of the religions in order to trace not just the places of my ancestors but there basic beliefs.

    The Roman Jews may have been put out with the Christian Jews and their eating and drinking with gentiles but also they were accused by Jews of being polytheists–hence the triune God of the Nicean Council?

  • Stephen Buck

    To stefanstackhouse

    You may recall it was the Protestants that first
    considered the Catholic Church a corruption and began a new movement. You may also recall that Christians wrote a
    new book called the New Testament and claimed it directly from God. The persons
    who wrote it were called prophets and apostles.
    You may also recall Old Testament prophets practiced polygamy. Your parallels are silly.

  • Stephen Buck

    To Hello World
    Or course
    many wish they could be forgiven without repentance, thought that myself on
    more than one occasion. Scorn is indeed not a Christian value nor is shunning.
    And I never suggest it was. What’s you point?? You are write I have no idea if
    they would have been received back into full fellow ship but I do know it is
    the policy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that persons
    disfellowshipped are to be given special attention, met with regularly and assigned
    other men/women to make them fell welcome back into the Church.Or course
    many wish they could be forgiven without repentance, thought that myself on
    more than one occasion. Scorn is indeed not a Christian value nor is shunning.
    And I never suggest it was. What’s you point?? You are write I have no idea if
    they would have been received back into full fellow ship but I do know it is
    the policy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that persons
    disfellowshipped are to be given special attention, met with regularly and assigned
    other men/women to make them fell welcome back into the Church.

  • Stephen Buck

    To John Turner,
    About John Dee Lee – he gave many conflicting accounts of the massacre. Which account do you have? I believe it would be wrong to take his explanation as a complete rendering of what happened. They have been many and to date the considered best is “Massacre at Mountain Meadow” by a team of historians – Ronald Walker, Richard Turley and one more a can’t recall. A summary of it may be found on line.

  • Lillith70

    Leonard, Walker, Turley book to biased on the side of those whose ancestors stayed in Northern Utah. Juanita Brooks book is still most likely the best but a good site is the comprehensive Iron County Militia project. http://www.1857ironcountymilitia.com/.

    My family knew John D. Lee personally and found him to be 1. “the straightest shooin’ person’ ever known. Read John D. Lee at the site of the cruel and unusual punishment of taking him to the Mountain Meadows to execute him. On the other side of my family were his main rival, a man who came after the war hysteria caused by the USA launching an army against people driven from the states 10 years earlier–much as the native Americans were sent on their long walks in Jacksonian era of popular sovereignty. The man who carried his body to a cemetery was one that he didn’t want his daughter to marry–like Romeo and Juliette?

    Two things, the concept of the others which the USA still does to the Mormons–no hate crime protection like the other others–the minority races and religions that it is un-PC to persecute?.

    The second good or really great thing of the Walker, Turley book is the theory of anthrax as the cattle and spring poisoned which gave reason for the Indians of the Pahvant to follow the immigrants (how far I can’t say)

    Since the historians were church historians they are possibly prone to be PC aware of other groups, such as the now Southern Paiute oral history stating that they weren’t there in any great number–maybe 6.

    And yet Lee was there to handle the Indians which were used shamefully but they liked the experience so well they attacked the Duke train following the Fanchers and stole the horses and cattle which was the intent of the MMM raid. IMO. Isaac Haight cousin to my ancestress who taught at the Lee compound or very successful polygamous commune was burned out two or three times in Missouri.

    Carleton was looking for proof that it wasn’t just Indians in the massacre and people kept lips shut. Carleton would have wiped southern Utah clean as was the custom for the cavalry of that day and not just for the Indians. Carleton was called away by the army before he could find evidence and was sent to send the Navajos on their Long Walk to an unlivable place.

    So where is truth? lee’s lawyer was given his confessions and published them as he pleased. Contrast to lee’s own statement and you can guess at the truth. He was very angry with Brigham Young but wouldn’t give him up with a lie and thus save himself.

    Other organizations that show humanity and Chridtianity are the Mountain Meadow Association for reconciliation and a group of 1/3 of the Fancher’s who sent themselves on a mission to keep it all going. So frank Kirkham’s anti-Mormon advocacy site has my great great Grandpa’s picture on as a clubber of babies. Hid picture looks guilty as all get out but the full picture shows a wife and 10 kids or thereabout living in Apache country. He was 19 at the time and a messenger and the family story is that he watched from the hill. As you read other stories you find that only John d. lee and Coal Creek John (or Pete?) were not watching from the hill. And Stewart who was the one who really did all the clean up shootings.

    http://1857massacre.com/MMM/shooters.htm

    Read for you self if interested–read all and for tone as in those with eyes and ears of the discernment that the author of this article notes.

    Also note Stewart esp and MacFarlane–Scots Irish converts who killed young Aden and made the massacre necessary because of human nature of cowardice or survival–the nation’s furor if white’s discovered in the raid and an army at the door to annihilate the ” rebellious Mormons” who didn’t like the governors the nation kept sending. congress kept Utah a territory in order to deny them Popular Sovereignty because of polygamy and political power–neither party wanted the other to get Utah’s consolidated vote. Some leader had to order the LDS to volunteer to become Republicans in order to get a balance and approval for statehood.

    When Quantrill killed his 150 men and boys at Lawrence, KS, there wasn’t the documentation that would tell of the single deaths of each individual. Nor in the Missouri and Illinois drivings and burnings. Nor even a count in the drivings of the Missourians by the KS Jayhawkers when they laid waste to the western counties of Missouri where the Mormons had once settled and built cabins and farms.