Daniel Peterson remembers when he was blindsided. It was in the early 1980s and Peterson was in his late 20s. He was surprised at what a critic of the LDS Church had written. "It knocked me for a loop for a few days," he said. The critic claimed Oliver Cowdery, an early Mormon leader and witness of the Book of Mormon, recanted his testimony.
Peterson, a member of the LDS Church and currently a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, remembers his reaction to the claim was a bit irrational — he said he felt like he was the first person to have ever encountered the claim, and that he was on his own. "There was nobody around me in California who could answer that question," he said. "My bishop didn't know anything about it. Who could I have gone to?"
After a few days, he remembered a book Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Peterson looked in it and learned the statement by Cowdery was actually a late forgery — one that even most critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now reject.
For Peterson, it wasn't a big crisis. He had seen many claims before and had a scholarly process for trying to find answers that he found acceptable. But in an Internet world — where obscure and inaccurate critiques of a religion can go viral — nothing is sacred. And some Mormons are being blindsided by information about the church.
Richard L. Bushman has seen a spread of problems. He wrote in 2005 "Rough Stone Rolling," what many call the definitive biography of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith Jr. "I first became aware of the problems shortly after 'Rough Stone Rolling' came out," he said. "I thought I was getting these emails asking for help because they figured I'd be a suitable person to answer questions they had."
Then Bushman heard that many other scholars were also being beset with queries from members of the LDS Church who had encountered something on the Internet that had shaken their faith. He began to hear the same thing from ordinary Mormons who had friends or family who were having problems. He also heard from people at BYU how it was a problem there as well. People were encountering things about church history and losing their faith — not just in Mormonism, but in God.
"I've been aware that the LDS Church has been concerned about this for quite a while," he said. "And the church historian has been saying for quite a while that we just need to get this information out."
Reuters recently wrote about a question and answer session at Utah State University with LDS Church historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen. Jensen acknowledged some people are surprised and troubled by what they read, but said the church is trying to help Mormons understand more about their history.
Jensen, who is turning 70, is a member of the church's Quorums of the Seventy, and will be given emeritus status in October. The new church historian will be Elder Steven E. Snow also of the Seventy.
Jensen said he didn't like to think there were any problems with church history, per se. But he said the church was working on improving church curriculum for youth.
He told Reuters there have been more attrition over the last five or ten years — but that this seems to be a general trend in society as it becomes more secular. "I think we are at a time of challenge," he told Reuters, "but it isn't apocalyptic."
Data gathered by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows it isn't just Mormon youth who are becoming more secular: "Fully one-in-four adults under age 30 (25 percent) are unaffiliated, describing their religion as 'atheist,' 'agnostic' or 'nothing in particular.'"
John Dehlin, who runs a podcast that interviews orthodox and somewhat unorthodox Mormons, is also the executive director of the Open Stories Foundation. The foundation conducted a survey that Dehlin said suggests disaffections have trended upward the last three to six years. He admitted there may be sampling issues with the survey. But, like Peterson and Bushman, Dehlin said the number of people contacting him about having doubts has "grown exponentially."
Peterson agrees with the LDS Church's attempts to make its history more accessible through efforts like the Joseph Smith Papers project. "Since I believe the claims of the church to be true," he said, "I think the best policy is to get the story out there."
Peterson said the problem is not so much that there are no answers to historical questions, but that people discover this or that historical fact they had never heard before. They then feel like the church had been hiding the fact and so lose a sense of trust.
Bushman said it is important that people in the church do not reject those who have questions. "That is the problem," Bushman said. "They think nobody in the church thinks about anything. They think they have all this knowledge and all these people around them are ignorant and don't know what they know. You have to tell them to keep studying, keep looking, go to the depths of the problem."
Peterson recommends people take a path similar to what he did back in the 1980s. "My rule is always calm down," he said. "And then wait. Look around. There may already be an answer out there. Just because you don't know about it instantly doesn't mean it's not there."