Some Mormons search the Web and discover doubt

Laurie Goodstein / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 22, 2013 at 05:00AM

In the small but cohesive Mormon community where he grew up, Hans Mattsson was a solid believer and a pillar of the church. He followed his father and grandfather into church leadership and finally became an “area authority” overseeing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe.

When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” the whisperings of Lucifer. He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mattsson began his own investigation.

But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist, and that the Book of Mormon and other canonical scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.

Around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith, according to interviews with dozens of Mormons and those who study the church.

“I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,” said Mattsson, now an emeritus area authority. “Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about, just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance.”

Mattsson’s decision to go public with his disaffection, in a church whose top leaders commonly deliberate in private, is a sign that the church faces serious challenges not just from outside but also from skeptics inside.

Greg Prince, a Mormon historian and businessman in Washington who has held local leadership positions in the church, shares Mattsson’s doubts. “Consider a Catholic cardinal suddenly going to the media and saying about his own church, ‘I don’t buy a lot of this stuff,’” Prince said. “That’s the level we’re talking about here.”

He said of Mattsson, “He is, as far as I know, the highest-ranking church official who has gone public with deep concerns, who has had a faith crisis and come forward to say he’s going to talk about it because maybe that will help us all to resolve it.”

Every faith has its skeptics and detractors, but the Mormon Church’s history creates special challenges. The church was born in America only 183 years ago, and its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, and his disciples left behind reams of papers that still exist, documenting their work, exposing their warts and sometimes contradicting one another.

“The Roman Catholic Church has had 2,000 years to work through the hiccups in its history,” said Terryl Givens, a professor of English, literature and religion at the University of Richmond, and a Mormon believer. “Mormonism is still an adolescent religion.”

Givens and his wife, Fiona, recently presented what they called “Crucible of Doubt” sessions for questioning Mormons in England, Scotland and Ireland. Hundreds attended each event.

“Sometimes they are just this side of leaving, and sometimes they are simply faithful members who are looking for clarity and understanding to add to their faith,” said Givens, who hosted a similar discussion in July in Provo, Utah, and has others planned in the United States. The church is not sponsoring the sessions, Givens said, but local bishops give their permission.

Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman, said that “every church faces this challenge” adding, “The answer is not to try to silence critics, but to provide as much information and as much support as possible to those who may be affected.” Hawkins also said the Mormon Church, which counts 14 million members worldwide, has consistently added about 1 million members every three years.

But Mattsson and others say the disillusionment is infecting the church’s best and brightest. A survey of more than 3,300 Mormon disbelievers, released last year, found that more than half of the men and 4 in 10 of the women had served in leadership positions in the church.

The first doubts filtered up to Mattsson from members who had turned to the Internet to research a Sunday school talk at their church. There are dozens of websites other than the Mormons’ own that present critical views of the faith. The questions were things like:

• Why does the church always portray Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates, when witnesses described him looking down into a hat at a “peep stone,” a rock that he believed helped him find buried treasure?

• Why were black men excluded from the priesthood from the mid-1800s until 1978?

• Why did Smith claim that the Book of Abraham, a core scripture, was a translation of ancient writings from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, when Egyptologists now identify the papyrus that Smith used in the translation as a common funerary scroll that has nothing to do with Abraham?

• Is it true that Smith took dozens of wives, some as young as 14 and some already wed to other Mormon leaders, to the great pain of his first wife, Emma?