Elder Dallin H. Oaks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints' Quorum of the Twelve Friday instructed members to be skeptical
when reading media stories about church history.Elder Oaks, who spoke at the Amasa Mason Lyman exposition in Salt Lake City's Grant Stake Center, referenced a talk he gave Aug. 16, 1985, at the Doctrine and Covenants Symposium at Brigham Young University. "When I spoke then (in 1985), I could only issue cautions," Elder Oaks said. "Now — with the knowledge of what actually happened — we can measure those cautions against what has now become notorious history."When he spoke to religion leaders in 1985, Elder Oaks said he was speaking in "an atmosphere of unusual excitement about church history." For several years, documents from early Mormon history had been appearing frequently, mostly "associated with an eccentric young documents specialist named Mark Hofmann."Hofmann produced a Charles Anthon manuscript in 1980 and brought forth what was represented as an original document containing the blessing church prophet Joseph Smith gave to his son designating him to succession in the role of the church's prophet. Most intriguing of Hofmann's "discoveries," Elder Oaks said in 1985, was the disclosure of a letter Martin Harris wrote describing Joseph Smith and reporting Smith's experience in obtaining the gold plates. One of the 1830 descriptions was called the "Salamander Letter." The church acquired the letter and disclosed its contents in April 1985. "The media and professional historians were having a field day speculating about the significance of its contents. As I recall, many stories in the media proclaimed that the salamander letter seriously undermined the official history and spiritual claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Elder Oaks said in 1985.Just 60 days after Elder Oaks' 1985 talk, an investigation concluded Hofmann was a "world-class deceiver as well as a murderer, and that all of these documents and many others were forgeries," Elder Oaks said.Elder Oaks said in his 1985 talk that histories and biographies are being published at an unprecedented rate, and previously unknown documents bearing names of early church leaders are emerging. The news media, he said, has fun with all those. "Controversy makes good copy, especially when it concerns a church with some doctrines that diverge sharply from those of mainstream Christianity."In the 1985 talk, Elder Oaks provided readers some general principles to apply when reading media stories about developments in church history:1. Scientific uncertainties. "Most of the news media go to their readers or viewers on a daily or hourly basis, often under great pressure to scoop their competition. As a result, they frequently cannot obtain irrefutable scientific verification of the facts they will report." Limitations of time and space mean the media cannot explain its scientific foundations in sufficient detail for its reader to understand its implications, Elder Oaks said.2. Lack of context. News stories' formats are such that they "invariably report (historical facts) out of context."An individual historical fact has meaning only in relation to other events. Outside that context, a single fact is almost certain to convey an erroneous impression."The news media tend to compete in terms of immediacy rather than accuracy, he said in 1985."As a result, when the media report historical facts, they may provide information, but they rarely provide illumination."3. Bias. Readers need to be sensitive to the bias — which may be religious or irreligious, believing, skeptical or hostile — of the writer or publisher, Elder Oaks said. An author's bias may be evident in the way he or she portrays sacred experiences and his or her decisions on what news stories to publish and what to omit. Bias may also be present in the fact that the news media have "ignored all of the positive evidence and then expended so many lines of negative disclosures." 4. Balance. Balance is telling both sides, Elder Oaks said. "When supposedly objective news media or periodicals run a feature or an article on the church or its doctrines, it ought to be balanced." Readers should beware of writings that imply balance but do not deliver it, he said. 5. Truths and half-truths. "A lie is most effective when it can travel incognito in good company, or when it can be so intermarried with the truth that we cannot determine its lineage." True facts can even be used unrighteously, when they are severed from their context, where they can convey an erroneous impression.Also, some things that are true are not edifying or appropriate to communicate, Elder Oaks said. Members should rely on the Holy Ghost, which if used, will not allow them to be mislead by lies and half-truths. 6. Evaluation. This has two dimensions: intellectual and spiritual. "In terms of the intellectual, readers and viewers clearly need to be more sophisticated in evaluating what is communicated to them," Elder Oaks said. In spiritual terms, Saints can rely on the promise given in Moroni 10:5, that "by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." This promise, Elder Oaks said, "assures spiritually sensitive readers a power of discernment that will help them evaluate the meaning of what they learn."Elder Oaks' 1985 talk also contained the caution that "criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward church authorities, general or local.""Evil speaking of the Lords anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true."Elder Oaks concluded his remarks by stating that church members have been given the "precious gift" of the Holy Ghost, whose mission is to "testify of the Father and the Son and to lead us into truth.I pray that these teachings from the scriptures and from other church leaders will be helpful to all who seek to read, to understand, and to explain the various accounts of the past that we call church history."The program also featured music from the Exposition Choir, directed by Patti O'Brien King, great-great granddaughter of Amasa Lyman. The choir sang "Oh, What Songs of the Heart" by Mack Wilberg and Barlow Bradford, and "To Those Who Came Before Me," by Sally DeFord.