“Inoculation” is the word that people use to refer to the church’s efforts (implicit or explicit) to expose the young members of the church to controversial issues early on so that, in future years, if they are to encounter these issues from critical sources the “shock” factor is dramatically reduced.
We are currently in a period of redefinition of our church history and many changes. Richard Bushman articulated it thus:
“We are in a period of transition with regard to our history. The narrative is in the process of reconstruction. Right now that means there is the standard, comforting story, and then a series of controversies. Teachers are wondering how many of the surprises can be brought up in Sunday School without disrupting the spiritual purposes of the class. In time I think this problem will go away. All the controversial questions will be absorbed into the standard narrative and we won’t have a sense of two tracks. We will explain that Joseph Smith looked in a hat to translate just as now we say he looked in a stone box to find the gold plates. There are already lots of surprising things in the standard narrative. We will simply flesh that out. We must, however, not relent in getting all this material included. We want the story we tell each other to be based on the best possible historical evidence. Any shrinking from that mandate will only lead to more problems down the road. I think the Church is trying to create that kind of comprehensive, accurate narrative. In a few years there won’t be any more surprises.”
A personal anecdote about my own inoculation — first vision
I want to share a brief anecdote about my spiritual journey and the effectiveness of inoculation.
I used to be a huge fan of the Truman G Madsen lectures of Joseph Smith. I have listened to the recordings of this series at least eight times in my life — including several times on my mission. Truth be told — I loved it. It resonated with me and I loved the depth and spirituality of the lecture series. Lots of it was sufficiently mystical 🙂
Within the lecture (you can find exact text here) Madsen mentions that:
“In 1969 BYU Studies published a collection of the four known written accounts of the First Vision. One was first recorded in 1832; another in 1835, after a visit Joseph had with a Jewish visitor named Matthias; there is the 1838 statement, which has been published to the world in the Pearl of Great Price; and finally, the well-known Wentworth letter written in 1842 to the Chicago Democrat, in which the Prophet briefly recapitulated his first vision. What was intended by the BYU Studies publication was not only to give, as was done, the actual holographs-the handwritten accounts from his different scribes-as he dictated them, but also to provide articles on the context by some of the best LDS scholars.”
— so I was aware from my mission age that there were indeed four known written accounts of the first vision. When I started reading the CES letter (the de-facto major “anti-Mormon literature” tract of today) I encountered the following complaint:
“There are at least 4 different First Vision accounts by Joseph Smith…”
And then it goes on to critique certain elements of them.
Because I had heard that there were four visions before, I was completely unaffected by this entire section of the CES letter. My take on it was, something to the effect of:
“Well I already knew there were four visions as it they were published in a BYU study and Madsen spoke of them etc.”
And so — I was inoculated against this issue. I already knew about the various versions and had therefore surrendered any critical thought of them.
(In case anyone is interested, I won’t go into it in detail here, critics point out things like the fact that it’s unlikely that the first members of the church even know about the first vision, and that the various accounts appear to contradict each other. Apologists point out that the content of the first vision accounts are not necessarily contradictory and could be used together to create a “master version” of what Joseph saw in the first vision. (In other words, any contradiction is waved away with “it could be this AND that” — congruous with the narrative of the Pearl of Great Price where it says “and many other things did he say unto me” Madsen discusses this briefly in the lecture so I was inoculated with apologetic material already :)) )
It worked for me. I think that if I had encountered all critical material with prior inoculation, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me nearly as much.
We were already inoculated a lot
Returning to the Bushman quote, he said:
“There are already lots of surprising things in the standard narrative.”
I had never thought of that before. But now that I think about it I can see that. From a standard “neutral” perceptive, there are certainly some surprising things in the standard church narrative which were never really issues for any of us growing up in the church, including me.
For example, a boy finding gold plates and translating a record (whether through the Urim and Thummim or peep stone — “it is the same” 🙂 ) is largely incredible to the outside world. However, we accept it as fact. The fascinating thing about inoculation is it’s about change, not necessarily the nature of the information itself.
What I mean by that is, what bothered people about the peep stone announcement was NOT the peep stone itself, but the fact that they’d not been brought up believing in the peep stone. Folks generally had NO problem with the Urim and Thummim. The problem was change in the narrative, not the narrative itself being incredible.
People react to this change. It disturbed them. Here’s an example of a really funny reaction I saw circulating online (bless her):
Satan is hacking the LDS.org site and planting his anti-Mormon material in the essays section! Hehehe.
The Mormon narrative is already very incredible for the outside world, but we are OK with that — because we’ve been brought up to believe it since childhood. We’re used to it; or the more critical term “inoculated”.
What will the future of the church look like?
If Bushman is correct, the church will one day be like this:
“I think the Church is trying to create that kind of comprehensive, accurate narrative. In a few years there won’t be any more surprises.”
Already we are seeing this happening before our very eyes. The church has already created formal, apologetic essays for the following topics:
- Are Mormons Christian?
- Becoming Like God (We’re all aware that these first two are things that we’ve been inoculated against since childhood — but Christianity at large still doesn’t like them. I’ve never had an issue with these two)
- Book of Mormon and DNA Studies
- Book of Mormon Translation
- First Vision Accounts (hey hey!)
- Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women
- Mother in Heaven
- Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints (addressing things like the Mountain Meadows Massacre)
- Plural marriage essays:
- Race and the Priesthood
- Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham
I think this is only the beginning. I predict within the next 10-15 years we’ll begin to see the following happening:
- Some of the content of these essays will gradually work its way into the student manuals, (Sunday School, Priesthood / RS, Seminary, etc.) as Bushman predicts it will be done carefully to avoid disruption. Eventually knowledge of things like the mountain meadows massacre will be on par with knowledge of the translation of the Book of Mormon gold plates being found by Joseph. It will become normal for us.
- We will potentially see new essays coming out on some of the following topics:
- Old prophets teaching things as doctrine that are now considered not doctrinal:
- Adam-God doctrine
- Blood atonement doctrine (already mentioned in Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints)
- The Mark Hofmann forgeries (Salamander letter) and how the church was caught out.
- The Kinderhook plates
- Splinter groups such as the RLDS, FLDS, etc. Why they exist, what they preach, how we should treat them with kindness etc.
- The nature of spiritual experiences and other religion’s spiritual experiences, including how others receive the answer from God that their religion is the right one (this is the one I look forward to most, if this were to come out it would represent a huge step forward in the maturity of church doctrine)
- The financial operation of the church (this would be ground-breaking — it would represent an increase in maturity)
- We may catch up with science and actually admit things like evolution, the earth is older than 6000 years, Jonah was probably not swallowed by a real whale, etc. A lot of stuff will become figurative instead of literal — this is the ongoing trend that we can see already.
- We may actually face the real content of scriptures like D&C 132 and heaps of old testament examples.
- Old prophets teaching things as doctrine that are now considered not doctrinal:
Conclusion — and alternative long term possibilities
Mormonism is still a young church and has many teething issues. Something that works against us is the recency of our history — there are more reliable sources available than for many other more aged religions. The Catholics or Jews have had hundreds of years to figure this stuff out. For liberal Jews, you can be an atheist and still be a rabbi!(example and article). Apparently liberal Judaism is the largest Jewish group at present.
Who knows — maybe one day I will make it back to church and become an atheist bishop 🙂 The Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) has progressively become more secular and is getting much closer to that than the LDS church at present.
While studying our church’s history I’ve come to realise that the modern church is quite different from the church of the 1800’s. I predict the same thing will occur. The LDS church in 100 year’s time may be almost unrecognisable to those of the present church. If we could disavow the entire journal of discourses, I’m sure one day we could even disavow the need for theism in the church.
But I doubt that all of this will happen in my lifetime. It’s merely a prediction based on my interpretation of the evidence.