The Protestant historian Martin Marty, commenting on Mormonism, once related an anecdote about a famous 18th-century French aristocrat. Informed that the martyr St. Denis, the first Christian bishop of Paris, had carried his head in his hand for a hundred miles after his execution, she replied that, “In such a promenade, it is the first step that is difficult.” She meant, of course, that it isn’t the claim that St. Denis walked so far that poses a difficulty. The exact distance is unimportant. The fundamental question is whether, after his beheading, he walked at all. If that essential point is granted, the rest is mere detail.
I occasionally receive letters or e-mails seeking help because the writer, or someone the writer loves, is struggling with his or her faith.
Testimonies are fragile and need constant nourishment. They can be lost for many reasons — including simple failure to nurture them. Great suffering or loss can damage faith, or can make faith all the more precious. At those times, a devoted, supportive and comforting community can be of enormous help.
Sin and a desire for self-justification, or a desire to minimize the distance between ideals and reality, often play a major role. So, too, can surprisingly petty offenses. Moreover, our moods change. I always struggle with my own testimony when the clock radio sounds for a very early meeting on Sunday. I’ve known people who’ve left because they didn’t enjoy our music and some who became alienated owing to the church’s stance on a social or political issue.
The best therapy in such cases is repentance and/or immersion in the scriptures, prayer, service and worship.
But there are also intellectual issues, matters of history and fact, that can weaken or destroy faith. Here, too, the Spirit is essential. However, troubled believers can’t always dispose of their doubts simply by redoubling their efforts or dismiss them for the sake of believing family and friends. They must be faced and, in some sense at least, dealt with.
Very useful materials for both feeding testimonies and answering questions are available through BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly FARMS) and the independent Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), including many things readily accessible on their websites.
Additionally, I’ve come to recommend a small basic bookshelf of items on the fundamental truth claims of the Restoration that, in my experience, have proved especially helpful for building or rebuilding faith. Specific secondary issues — e.g., the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the ordination of women, blacks and the priesthood, early plural marriage and Proposition 8 (potential grievances are infinite) — might still require special treatment, and there are often excellent resources on them. But, commonly, the “first step” of Mormonism is what’s really at stake. Did God call Joseph Smith? The rest is usually just details.
Here’s my basic list:
The claims of the Restoration rise or fall with the character and credibility of its founding prophet. Mark McConkie’s book, “Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith,” amply illustrates his goodness, honesty, faith and kindness.
But Joseph wasn’t the only person who testified to miraculous events at the origins of Mormonism. Richard Lloyd Anderson’s short but meticulously researched “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses” remains, in my opinion, one of the most faith-promoting pieces of scholarship ever written by a Latter-day Saint.
More recently, the essays gathered in John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris’ “Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness” reinforce the believability of the “Second Elder’s” accounts of angelic visitations and of priesthood authority restored.
The articles in Welch’s “Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844,” are very useful for the First Vision, the recovery of the Book of Mormon, Brigham Young’s succession to the presidency and similar foundational issues.
Finally, while Grant Hardy’s recent “Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide” is a more difficult read, those who follow its argument will appreciate the Book of Mormon’s nuanced complexity more than ever before — a complexity that, in my judgment, far exceeds Joseph Smith’s natural capacity.
These books won’t answer every possible objection. But, by attending to that crucial first step, they’ll make the subsequent steps much easier.
Daniel C. Peterson is a native of southern California and received a bachelor’s degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. He earned a Ph.D in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo. He is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and is the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics. Peterson is also director of outreach for BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He spent eight years on the LDS Church’s Gospel Doctrine writing committee and is the founder and manager of MormonScholarsTestify.org.