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By Gary James Bergera
Mormon intellectualism is sometimes half-humorously dismissed as an oxymoron. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although the relationship can be rocky, Mormonism has always championed critical thinking. "We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts," a member of the LDS Church's First Presidency stated in 1969.
At the turn of the 20th century, university-trained LDS Church general authorities James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe and Joseph F. Merrill, among others, were held up as examples of the church's support of education. Starting in the 1920s, a growing number of young Mormons began pursuing graduate studies at prestigious universities outside Utah, occasionally with the church's blessing. Since the 1960s and 1970s, independent scholarly oriented organizations like the Mormon History Association and the Sunstone Foundation, as well as periodicals like Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Journal of Mormon History, Sunstone and Mormon Historical Studies, have showcased the contributions of the church's intellectuals.
The proliferation of Internet-based discussion boards, blogs and forums have introduced new generations of Mormons to the life of the mind. Sites such as bycommonconsent.com, juvenileinstructor.org, keepapitchinin.org, mormondiscussions.com, newordermormon.org, and timesandseasons.org, to name a few, feature some of the most provocative Mormon-related discussions taking place today. Add to this, the wave of books being released by some of the top academic publishers, including Harvard and Oxford university presses.
This summer, LDS-owned BYU hosted a six-week young Mormon Scholars Seminar. The dozen participants spanned the spectrum of belief. Exploring the "Cultural History of the Gold Plates" of the Book of Mormon, members on the last day presented the results of their research. By all reports, the event was a heady, memorable experience. Also at BYU, this September brings the re-emergence, after an absence of 14 years, of the independent student newspaper The Student Review (thestudentreview.org).
The LDS Church routinely participates in the public discussion of its doctrine. The church built a multi-million-dollar Church History Library, in part to facilitate the scholarly study of its history. The church's continuing support of the mammoth Joseph Smith Papers Project speaks to a new era of openness. The church no longer shies away from tackling head-on many potentially embarrassing episodes from its past, but instead increasingly advocates a "warts-and-all" approach. This development demonstrates confidence in the faith of church members rather than fear of the church's history.
Yet there remain some documents and topics that LDS officials decline to share with researchers or consider too confidential, private or sacred to study. These include the diaries of George Q. Cannon, William Clayton, Heber J. Grant, Harold B. Lee, Francis M. Lyman and Joseph Fielding Smith, among others; the records of the Council of Fifty (a quasi-political church organization) during the 1840s; the minutes of the church's governing quorums, auxiliaries and committees; financial information; and scholarly treatments of LDS temple worship as well as of instances of individual transgression and church discipline.
Fortunately, the trend is toward greater transparency, as experience has repeatedly shown that history cannot be constrained by attempts to "manage" the past. History demands unfettered access to the past and to the language that most clearly describes it. Tackling with less than full honesty the "darker" episodes of the past produces inaccurate, dishonest accounts of that past.
"We must be careful," University of Utah administrator-turned-LDS apostle Neal A. Maxwell advised, "not to canonize [our role] models as we have some pioneers and past [LDS] church leaders not to dry all the human sweat off them, not to put ceaseless smiles on their faces, when they really struggled and experienced agony."
Mormon intellectualism is no joke, but an invigorating enterprise that actively engages Mormonism's best minds.
Gary James Bergera is managing director of Salt Lake-based Smith-Pettit Foundation, not affiliated with the LDS Church.