One of the essential lessons of the Book of Mormon is found in the 200 year pride cycle: Christ appeared to the Nephites on the American continent and, in the span of 200 years, they moved from being righteous to prosperous to proud and on to final destruction. The motif is repeated throughout the Book of Mormon. Believers often note that, at times, humility and repentance follow the season of pride and lead the people back to righteous living. Then the cycle repeats again. Admittedly, the pride cycle repeats in the Book of Mormon with relative frequency, but the 200 year pride cycle which began with Christ’s visitation and ended with the Nephite destruction dominates the book. Those of us who believe the Book of Mormon is scripture that is meant for our time see this as a warning to guard against pride.
We often think of the prophetic warning in political or governmental terms, as a warning that governments will fail once pride sets in, either with the politicians, their constituents, or both. We use the pride cycle lesson as a way to encourage civic involvement, a vote-or-be-damned sort of mentality. The pride cycle certainly seems to apply in a political context, but scripture, as we all know, tends to have multiple layers and multiple applications. Because the pride cycle speaks of the faithful ceasing to follow God and falling away because of pride, I suspect one of those many layers must apply specifically to the organized Kingdom of God here on earth, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Cycle of Pride: Interestingly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asserts that Christ made an appearance to Joseph Smith in 1820, kicking off an era of renewed excitement for gospel living. That’s one hundred ninety-four years ago. The Church was officially organized in 1830, or one hundred eighty-four years ago. Depending on which figure you decide to use in your math, we are presently either six or sixteen years away from that two hundred year mark. Add in that we are, indeed, experiencing a falling away of many of our members, particularly the young, and it seems incumbent upon us to consider whether pride in the church body could be an impetus.
Relax. This isn’t where I bombard church leaders or individual members with a self-righteous lecture about hypocrisy. This isn’t where I start complaining that the church and its members are too wealthy and are focusing on the wrong things. Of course we all need to be mindful of the pride we invest in our riches. That’s a given.
Too often, though, we only see our wealth in terms of material goods. As Latter-day Saints we have a wealth of knowledge. We understand the plan of salvation, the need for priesthood authority, the nature of God, the value of specific ordinances, and, of course and foremost, the divinity of our Lord and Savior and the blessings (including of salvation) that attend his followers. And we are proud of that.
Whoa. Wait. We are proud?
Personally, I’ve come to exchange the term “well-pleased” for the word “proud” when I express my feelings about my membership in the restored church. After all, as a friend once pointed out, when Heavenly Father introduces His son, He says He is “well-pleased,” not “proud,” of him. The exchange of terms made me feel better about my pride in being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But as I see our young people leaving, just as the pride cycle predicts, I pause. There must be pride at the root. We like to think that those who leave do so because of their pride. I’m not so sure. Maybe. Partly. But what if that’s not it? Or not entirely it? What if the wider body, as a cultural entity, has a part in the pride that precedes their fall? Or our fall? (Because, after all, isn’t their fall also, ultimately, our own?) I have to ask myself what prideful things has the church as a body of human beings done over the span of the last two centuries that might become a catalyst for such large numbers of people to leave.
A Prideful Narrative: My mind reverts to one thing: the Mormon historical narrative. I think it has been a prideful narrative that we—all of us, leaders and members—have crafted and perpetrated, one that is riddled with half-truths and half-falsehoods (largely through omission). If you add half-truth and half-falsehood together, is it any wonder its sum becomes zero faith?
We have reason to shout the restoration of the gospel from the housetops. We have reason to testify of the Book of Mormon as a second witness to Christ and a companion to the Bible. We have reason to attempt to change the hearts and minds of the whole world. These are not prideful things, but things we do out of love. Not panic. Not fear. Love. And we do them with the understanding that God is merciful to both the messenger and those who will—and will not—hear. A way for salvation will be offered to all of God’s children even if the fog of mortal experience clouds the sanctity of our message: Eternity will demystify all. What we seek is to build the Kingdom of God on earth and help others live with the blessings that follow faith and obedience. We do not preach to condemn, nor to exalt ourselves.
Yet, in the process of preaching to outsiders (as well as insiders—to our children!), we have, over the decades and across nearly two centuries, been so determined to represent God well that we seem to have forgotten that He has the power to forgive us our collective and historical flaws. We have hidden who we are from the world, what our complete history is, in a misguided effort to protect that of which we testify.
And now, nearly 200 years after Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appeared to a farm boy in a grove of trees, we have been blessed with a prosperity of knowledge that, only a handful of decades ago, would’ve seemed God-like. Push a button, click a mouse, touch a screen and there it is — our history, warts and all. Those to whom we, as a collective body and culture, have told a prideful half-truth are leaving us, broken and disappointed, feeling deceived and confused. Pride can manifest for things other than worldly riches. It can infest the best of intentions. Pride often fills the space weak faith leaves open, and I have to wonder if our lack of faith–our lack of faith–that God will testify of truth in spite of the failings and weaknesses of our forebears welcomed pride into our historical narrative.
Progress through Humility: I’m happy to see the official church acknowledging that the way Church history has been taught is lacking. For instance, I’m pleased to see official statements about the varying accounts of the First Vision, about the practice of polygamy in the early church, and about race and the priesthood appear on the lds.org. They are a beginning.
But we have miles to go. Particularly in the essay on polygamy, which I do think is a historical thorn for many. This essay centers on the fact that Joseph Smith was polygamous. I’m confused over the prevalent allegation that many young Mormons don’t realize this. I’ve never seen that fact hidden, but, of course, the emphasis on Emma as Joseph’s wife, to the exclusion of any mention of other women, could leave a person prone to the misconception. However, I don’t really believe that young Mormons are leaving because they discover Joseph Smith was polygamous. They seem to understand that the early church in Utah was polygamous and have accepted that, so I don’t know why polygamy in the Nauvoo era would, in itself, trouble them. What bothers them, it seems to me, would be that certain details of that earliest polygamous life are exempted from our historical narrative. In fact, the most troubling things remain exempt from the “Plural Marriage and the Early Church,” to which I linked above.
I fall back on my own personal study of LDS history. There were two very specific things about Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy that unsettled me, and it’s probably a safe bet that these things bother others who encounter them for the first time as well. Namely, 1) Joseph Smith did not tell Emma before he married other women. She found out in a hard and humiliating way, and this seems cruel and unethical of Joseph and beneath a man who is called of God. 2) Joseph Smith married married women.
There we have them. Two of our ugliest warts. I learned them. I remembered my testimony. I moved on in faith. With a little bur under my saddle, true. But I moved on. I haven’t dismissed or ignored these issues, but over time, I’ve come to understand a lot of things about life that I didn’t understand as fully when I was younger.
First, Joseph Smith was a dude. And I do think he blew it. And that doesn’t make the Book of Mormon untrue. Nor does it make the First Vision a lie. What it makes is evidence that God will mercifully use flawed human beings to carry on His work. I don’t understand—and the best, most careful historian doesn’t understand—the intricacies of what went on between Joseph and Emma. Nor do we really understand what went on between God and Joseph. What we need to understand is how God deals with us, the individual we are. What it means is that I, in spite of the many times I’ve screwed up, can still serve God. I don’t excuse or condone how Joseph handled polygamy with Emma. I leave it to him, to them, to work out, and I practice letting God be the judge.
As for the second issue, it occurred to me one day, many years after learning that Joseph Smith took married women as plural wives, that there might well have been a parallel in his mind between baptism without priesthood authority and marriage without priesthood authority. Those who were baptized by ministers who did not have the proper authority needed baptism by one with authority. Baptisms performed without that authority were considered impotent. Would it be such a stretch to imagine Joseph Smith and his contemporaries viewed marriages performed without priesthood authority to be mute in the same way baptism without priesthood authority is mute? If so, in their eyes, those married women would well have been considered eligible for an eternal marriage with a man other than the one to whom they initially married.
Okay. Yeah. Its weird. But its a context that seems to work.
All of this is troubling to our modern sensibilities. But hiding it in order to preserve the image that we, as a historical body, are better than we really are is prideful. And may well be the kind of pride predicted in the Book of Mormon. Nearly two hundred years after the restoration of the gospel, we are, in fact, seeing a level of apostasy occurring that has not occurred before. We have a choice. We bring back our humility by standing stark naked in front of the world, or we perish because we refuse to acknowledge that we aren’t as wonderful as we say. We are reaping what we have sown, and, as I see it, we are being compelled to be humble by the miraculous gift of the Internet, which in this case, may well be acting as the hand of God.
So we must embrace that humility and begin teaching our children from the cradle up that we are flawed historically, that prophets are the fallible men chosen by God upon whom we lean to gain the insights God would have us gain. We teach them that we needn’t be perfect in our service to God or man in order to be loved, valued, and chosen. We teach forgiveness of our own foibles, mistakes, and sins by forgiving the men and women who struggled to understand and live up to difficult Godly expectations.
Some will say I’m an apologist, that I’m simply trying to justify the things I believe in order to keep believing. Some assert that those of us who will hang on to our faith in spite of evidence of imperfection in our history are afraid to let go of it. But we can make those same accusations in reverse. Maybe those who let go are afraid to stay. Or maybe they are doing exactly what they need to do in order to give distance enough for them to calm their troubled spirit. I can’t say and I can’t judge.
But I can observe. What I observe is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the 200 year pride cycle. I see that a prideful Mormon history has been perpetrated. I see humility being forced upon us as access to knowledge grows even easier. I see a falling away of some of the most wonderful spirits to have ever been born on this earth. I sense a need for repentance and humility. And I’m all in for that.
“Behold my son, in whom I am well-pleased.” 3 Ne. 11:7