So, why doesn’t the Mormon Church come clean on ….

by: Stephen Marsh

November 25, 2011

Every-so-often I hear a call for the Church to “come clean” on a point.

Usually that means that the writer wants the Church to agree with them on something, and reject the other approaches.

E.g., come clean on Joseph Smith and Marriage:

Or on the Book of Mormon and Geography:

  • Can’t you just admit that the Malay Hypothesis is correct?
  • Can’t you just admit that the Great Lakes Hypothesis is correct?
  • Can’t you just admit that a South American Setting Hypothesis is correct?
  • Can’t you just admit it is non-historical, like the Book of Jonah?
  • Can’t you just admit that the Central America Setting Hypothesis is correct?
  • Can’t you just admit that the Florida Setting Hypothesis is correct?
  • Can’t you just admit that ….

The problem, when you get down to it, is that in any small group, it is easy to find a group of like minded people who are more than willing to agree that (a) the Church is wrong in the way it portrays part of its past and (b) that there is a higher and better truth that should just be admitted.  The rub comes in deciding which “truth” should be admitted.

Why is that?  First, the universe of “facts” that were contemporaneously recorded by permanent media is rather small.  Everyone is familiar with stories people wrote in their journals (years after the fact) about experiences that they had that were not consistent with the time line (e.g. Elder A was still on his way to Nauvoo when incident B occurred, which he writes as having seen).  Today you are probably familiar with the study that determined why so many people remember drinking Coke in bottles at homecoming.

To quote:

Remembering is an unstable and profoundly unreliable process–it’s easy come, easy go as we learn how true memories can be obliterated,  and false ones added.

Second, there is a universe of advocates for various perspectives and positions.  Most of what people recorded, preserved and cherished in their records are things that fit their narratives.  Often the story is reworked time and time again as the less plausible portions of it are discarded and the narrative adjusted for the audience.  I see that all the time at work (I’m a litigator) as the other side in a case adjusts its approach and narrative, and as witnesses go from extremely detailed to “I don’t know” when the details turn out not to be physically possible.

Third, often the universe is much smaller than you would expect, the sample size and contents far different.  Take Albert Walles, the prison guard. You may not know that one of his biggest complaints against the LDS Church prior to the story I’ve linked to was that they would not allow him to participate in scouting or the young men’s program.

He is currently in Ecuador with an evangelical church opening up a ministry aimed at young men — exactly the sort of thing you might think, from other reports, he would have been welcomed back to the LDS Church to do.  The larger any group gets, the more likely you are to have outliers.

Fourth, often the world is also more complex.  Every time you say “just do this” (e.g. “just respect the clergy penitent privilege”) you have a situation where the contrary imperative seems more compelling (e.g. “just report all accusations, whether or not you think they are true”), or where there are consequences that you would not expect (“well, if your clergy do not assert the privilege, then they aren’t clergy and you don’t count as a church”).  There are often more complicated implications to things than we expect.

Fifth, “coming clean” often sends a message.  How much of a discussion, how many weeks, for example, would you like dedicated to discussing Brigham Young and polygamy at Church?  Every person who has a position about things left out about Brigham Young in the “Teachings” book based on his sermons should consider just what is the message you want to send and, in a complex life, just how many nuances you want to capture (and which ones).

Do you want the Church to come clean on Brigham Young and pork?  He felt every family should be raising a pig off their table scraps, but had periods of time he would not eat donuts fried in pig fat or eat pork.  He could not make up his mind about pigs.  He was behind the mass re-baptisms and re-commitment to the gospel that was a part of the movement, but it also included a strong message on the need to take regular baths (something they had gotten out of the habit of crossing the plains).  He preached a number of sermons on the equality of women and how they were just as fit as men to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, legislators and shop keepers (he did, however, feel men were more fit for digging ditches and hard physical labor relying on upper body strength).

I could probably go on another fifty sentences of very short excerpts of nuances involving Brigham Young.  Each could probably be covered in a couple of weeks.  Just two or three years of Sunday lessons on miscellaneous nuance.  Even BYU fans would probably find that too much.

So, yes the Church thinks it is focused on the essential truth of its mission, its history and its narrative.  Which leaves the other questions behind.  Though yes, it also is making progress in addressing a more complex and nuanced world as scholars would rather than as a narrative of faith.  For an excellent example of what the Church is really doing, read

But that is why, and how, and … well you know the drill.

What do you think the Church should come clean on (and, by implication, which narratives do you feel it should be rejecting that others are insisting on)?

50 Responses to So, why doesn’t the Mormon Church come clean on ….

  1. NewlyHousewife on November 25, 2011 at 5:31 PM

    The church should just go ahead and drop the BSA turning its focus solely on Duty to God.

    Or does that not count as coming clean?

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  2. abc on November 25, 2011 at 6:11 PM

    good article, and i get your point. and it would be valid, if the church was ambiguous about history, but its not. Even though the history is often hard to pin down ( i believe the saying is like nailing jello to the wall ) the church points to its history in absolute terms. Gordon Hinckley even went as far as to leave only two options, its the biggest fraud, or the best thing ever.

    i think it comes down to credibility. does the church make transparency and truth their #1 priority? I dont feel they do. I think that lack of financial transparency, the mark hoffman issues, the portrayal of the BOM translation technique, etc. show a lack of credibility. but each person will have to make their own determination.

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  3. el oso on November 25, 2011 at 6:14 PM

    How about they describe in more detail some of the recent revelations or other innovations? For example, Pres. Hinckley gave a short but clear explanation of the inspiration process about designing and constructing smaller temples. How about the correlation changes in teachings and curriculum?

    Another big deal would be to open the accounting books, even if it was 10-20 years after the fact.

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  4. abc on November 25, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    another question would be, imagine a hypothetical scenario where LDS leaders discover embarassing fact ____ x?

    do they attempt to cover it up, or do they tell everyone the truth?

    whatever you think happens in this case, will probably tell how you feel on this issue

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  5. Tachyon Feathertail on November 25, 2011 at 6:48 PM

    The complaints you describe are not equally valid, and lumping them all together serves no purpose except to confuse the issue.

    The question many are asking isn’t “How many weeks should they spend teaching about polygamy,” it’s “Why was I never taught [X thing about the church or its leaders]?” Ignoring the real struggles that these people have, and dismissing their anguished realizations as being equal with people’s pet theories about Book of Mormon geography, is cruel and obscene.

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  6. Ray on November 25, 2011 at 8:05 PM

    Those are excellent points and questions, Stephen – #5’s claims of you being cruel and obscene notwithstanding. Honestly, I don’t have time right now to comment like I’d like to do, but I will think about it and try to get back sometime in the next couple of days.

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  7. Stephen Marsh on November 25, 2011 at 9:16 PM

    “cruel and obscene” — however, a number of the “why wasn’t I ever taught” about “[x]” consists of examples where x is not necessarily true.

    abc — what if an account or a narrative is encountered or if there is an actual fact? There are many, many conflicting narratives, those are far different from established facts.

    NewlyHousewife — that is a different sort of topic. But the BSA question is a good one, even if it is off-topic.

    Maybe el oso would have been happier if I had used the Kirkland Anti-Banking Society story instead? The common narrative was that the bank failed because of mismanagement by Joseph Smith.

    However, through some high quality forensic accounting it is fairly solid that the contrary narrative, that the bank failed because of embezzlement by individuals involved in land speculation (which Joseph Smith preached against numerous times and at length), is correct.

    So, there were a number of claims that the church should just “come clean” and admit Joseph was wrong there, rather than he had been wronged. Fine concept, except it turns out he was wronged, not in the wrong.

    So, why weren’t you taught that Joseph Smith mismanaged and ran a bank into the ground? Because that isn’t true, someone had to embezzle about a hundred thousand dollars in order for that to happen.

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  8. Paul 2 on November 25, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    I guess that people who use the phrase “coming clean” do so because their version of X differs greatly from the Sunday School version. From my point of view, a good question would be “If I were to try to synthesize all known information in a reasonable way, would my understanding differ significantly or totally from the things I learned in seminary, Institute, and the standard curriculum?”. If your answer is NO, then you are a “CES” Mormon. If your answer is “differ significantly” you would be an “apologist” Mormon. If your answer is “totally” you would be a NOM or post-/ex- Mormon. This grouping is of course too rigid, but conveys different points of view. Each group would say it evaluates evidence in a reasonable way. How to select what evidence is admissible in the court of one’s mind is probably the key factor.

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  9. Paul 2 on November 25, 2011 at 10:41 PM

    I am going to get slaughtered for calling the “differ significantly” group the apologists. I guess I did so with the Book of Abraham in mind. The average CES-educated Mormon would think there is a strong correlation between the papyri that have been discovered and the BofA. An apologist would very often say otherwise. Brant Gardner’s version of the translation of the BoM is very different from the Sunday school version.

    It will be interesting to see what the long term influence of the current church-led scholarly projects like JS papers, will be on the Sunday School version. Carefully done history does bring a certain amount of knowledge not just a point of view. An example would be Lester Bush’s article on the priesthood ban, which President Kimball studied carefully.

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  10. Mike S on November 25, 2011 at 10:46 PM

    In my opinion, the number one reason why the Church will never formally address these things is summed up in the Primary song: “Follow The Prophet”.

    The implicit and explicit message in the Church today is strict obedience to the hierarchy. We are told to follow the counsel of our bishops, who follow the counsel of the stake presidents, and so on up the chain through the prophet. We are told that we can have God confirm for us the truth of what our leaders told us and so aren’t to follow “blindly”. But, in practice, if we truly DO question our leaders, people consider us at least a little “apostate”. Therefore, we are generally to assume that everything told us by someone “above” us is truly God’s will, as if God Himself had spoken it.

    And this relates to the topic at hand. We haven’t really had any actual canonized new revelation for essentially a century. Instead, we have talks given by General Authorities. Granted, these are inspired men who are truly trying their best, but at the end of the day, they are men, just like the rest of us. They continue to have their same passions, opinions, feelings, thoughts, etc. And sometimes those are wrong.

    If the Church officially and formally addresses areas where they were flat out wrong, including areas where things were emphatically and vigorously taught as eternal truths (ie. evils of monogomy, pre-mortal nature of blacks, etc), it puts a crack in the “Follow the Prophet, he knows the way” mentality. It makes you wonder which of the things taught today are bits of good advice, which are truly “revelation” from God, and which are opinions of men.

    And that doesn’t sit well with the strict hierarchical level of obedience expected in the Church today.

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  11. Ray on November 25, 2011 at 10:53 PM

    Something that most people forget to consider is how very little time church offers to “study” a vast amount of information. We have over 2,000 pages in our canonized scriptures and nearly 200 years of modern history. We have an astounding array of printed material from that modern history, with much of it ebbing and flowing and morphing over time. We have voluminous amounts of statements from each and every Church President – and exponentially more from the modern apostles and prophets alone. Those statements include all kinds of speculation and personal opinion, much of it presented in an authoritative voice while not agreeing with other apostles and prophets in many cases.

    If someone wants everything that might be problematic in some way to be taught in any detail, that’s fine – in theory. However, when we step back and look at reality:

    Most converts to the Church don’t attend Seminary or Institute, so the only “formal instruction” they receive is on Sunday – for significantly less than 50 hours of Sunday School instruction per year. Even Seminary provides less than 150 hours, even for someone who attends every day possible. What many people who complain the most want simply is impossible to accomplish in that amount of time. (Seriously, I’ve been a school teacher, and I had a hard time getting through a cursory, sketchy, distorted history text book covering 100 years of US history to any acceptable degree in FAR more time than that.)

    So, to answer the title question of the post, I would say nothing more than:

    “because it can’t, in any way that makes real sense and will be acceptable to its critics.”

    Can we do better? Absolutely. Are we doing better? Absolutely, as witnessed by the Joseph Smith Papers project. Are there things we’ve done badly in the past – and still do badly? Absolutely. Is it the bogeyman many people make it out to be?

    All I can say is that much of what I read that claims such and such is “secret” or “covered up” is stuff I was taught in Seminary growing up – and I lived in the heart of Mormondom during that time. I have taught Seminary three times in my life, and, for example, the manual states explicitly and unequivocally that polygamy was started by Joseph Smith. (I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people complain that the Church doesn’t teach that officially. That charge is flat-out false.)

    Yes, there are things that have been white-washed, but much of that is due simply to having to pick and choose what to include in a manual (a faith-promoting textbook, if you will) and what to ignore – out of a simple need to condense into a manageable curriculum that which can’t be condensed adequately. I get the frustration, but there just isn’t any way for the Church to do what some want done without totally diverting itself from its core mission – which, frankly, is not something I want to see happen.

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  12. Ray on November 25, 2011 at 10:58 PM

    and what Mike just said.

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  13. abc on November 26, 2011 at 12:12 AM

    ok lets be straight up. the temple ceremony is largely related to masonry. will anyone learn this if they go to sunday school/ byu / MTC / etc? no. you wont find it anywhere.

    to me that looks like hiding facts. smart people may see it differently . to each their own.

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  14. Mike S on November 26, 2011 at 1:14 AM


    Everything is derivative.

    Early Christianity was a reaction to and incorporated aspects of Judaism. Lutheranism was a reaction to the Catholic church. Buddhism was a reaction to and incorporated aspects of Hinduism. Etc.

    It makes sense that Joseph Smith reacted to and incorporated things in his world as a part of Mormonism. And we have continued to do the same.

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  15. larryco_ on November 26, 2011 at 1:25 AM

    “Coming clean” reminds me of the LDS series of books written in the past decade called “Setting the Record Straight On… (numerous ‘controversial’ topics)”, which I personally believe set the record straight on none of the topics written about.

    But we’re missing the big point here, if the Church were to “come clean” on every controversial topic, it would take all the fun out of being an “intellectual”. Gone would be the smug joy one gets as they quietly sit through Sunday School and listen to members blather on about topics which they truly have no intellectual grasp.

    I mean, someone had to possess the secret knowledge that is too farreaching for the normal person to deal with. And that is our job. It is a sacred trust! Haven’t any of you read Dan Brown?

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  16. abc on November 26, 2011 at 6:16 AM

    14 – you’re ignoring my point. the question is – when would you ever learn that information through traditional lds sources? you wouldn’t, and that to me is not “coming clean”

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  17. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 26, 2011 at 6:22 AM

    I will have a longer response when I have a real keyboard but I very much appreciate the comments.

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  18. Stephen Marsh on November 26, 2011 at 8:45 AM

    Paul2 — that is an interesting analysis.

    larryco_ — ;)

    abc — but, as Ray points out, many things that people accuse the Church of not “coming clean” on are things that you will get if you just attend seminary. I will have to do a post on Egyptian and Chinese endowment ceremonies.

    Ray — amen. Whoever marked you as “dislike” is a curmudgeon at best.

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  19. el oso on November 26, 2011 at 8:57 AM

    I was not really thinking about the Kirtland speculations in my response. The long-ago controversies have enough discussion outside of the manuals that reasonable conclusions can be made, even if all the facts are not in the SS manual (how could they all be there?).

    My accounting desire would be a recent opening of the books. It does not have to be last year, but it would be nice to see something. I gave the example of the small temples, how much did it really cost and did the church have that money to spend? I assume that it did.

    In general I agree with Ray, there is so much to cover and the SS and seminary curriculum do a reasonable job. I would love to see some additions, but the manuals are OK. What I would like to hear is about more recent innovations. Will there be a biography of more recent church presidents as good at pulling back the curtain on certain issues like the Prince bio of Pres. McKay? I suspect not. What will be missed from the SWK & ETB presidencies if President Monson or Packer or other senior leaders do not say what they know? Maybe GBH left an extensive history that is being prepared, I certainly hope so.

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  20. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 26, 2011 at 11:33 AM

    Good points.

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  21. Jenkins on November 26, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    “What do you think the Church should come clean on (and, by implication, which narratives do you feel it should be rejecting that others are insisting on)?”

    I don’t see it as a question of the church coming clean as much as a question of the church allowing different opinions to be taught. The church doesn’t need to make a hard and fast statement about most of these issues. Teach the principles and allow the people to govern themselves.

    Why can’t I have a good Sunday School lesson on how Joseph Smith fought polygamy? Or a lesson on the Malay Peninsula? Why not set up a discussion board that members of the Sunday School can opine on during the week and then have a lesson bringing in what members discussed? Why not open up the books to teach from them? I don’t expect Sunday School to get me to the Celestial Kingdom. I just want to learn something and have engaging discussion that forces me to think about what I do believe.

    So to me the church really doesn’t need to ‘come clean’ on anything it just needs to step back and allow members to discuss the gospel. The gospel is much bigger than what is contained in the correlated lesson manuals. So my beef is with correlation.

    Also, echoing Mike S (10), let’s get some actual revelation from God. I would be much more excited about conference if I felt the prophet, seer and revelator did some prophesying, seeing and revelating. A story about losing a dollar bill in the wash doesn’t really do it for me. I have my own story, and it is much more inspiring than that.

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  22. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 26, 2011 at 1:27 PM

    Jenkind, sort of an anti-correlation movement. ? That would be an interesting shift. Sort of “what does it mean to you … ?”

    That could even be used for a series of posts.

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  23. Tachyon Feathertail on November 26, 2011 at 3:28 PM

    I think Mike @10 hit the nail on the head with “Follow the Prophet.” The point of that teaching is to short-circuit people’s ability to “mourn with those that mourn.”

    If the only reason to not follow the prophet is because you were prideful and led astray, there’s no reason to ask yourself how you’d feel if you discovered that Joseph Smith married other men’s wives, or read some of the correspondence between them. You can’t imagine how it feels, because you won’t. You just thank God that you’re better than those sinners are, because it didn’t shake your faith like it does theirs.

    Then you mock their crisis of faith publicly, by playing postmodernist and acting like there’s no absolute truth anymore.

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  24. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 26, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    Tachyon … ouch, I would prefer no mocking. I realize from your blog that you are post religious, but I still believe in absolute truths and facts. I just reject the right of others to define them for me, much like many reject the right of others to define their sexuality.

    No one should be mocked for a crisis of faith and I am in accord with Brigham Young that blindly following others, even prophets, will lead a people to hell.

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  25. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 26, 2011 at 5:22 PM
  26. Jeff Spector on November 26, 2011 at 6:45 PM

    The question is: “Could the Church ever come clean enough? What time period would folks like to return to? Each had its own set of issues.

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  27. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 26, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    Jeff, that is an excellent insight.

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  28. Tachyon Feathertail on November 26, 2011 at 7:47 PM

    @26 Jeff: I think the people who want it to “come clean” want progress, not regression to a past age.

    @24 Ethesis: I am not post-religious, and I do believe in “absolute truths and facts.”

    I believe it is absolutely true that comparing the distress someone feels upon finding out that LDS church leaders were racist, to geography theories that you know are speculation at best and bullcrap at worst, is mocking them.

    I feel that you are intentionally confusing the issue, and blaming others for your lack of empathy for them.

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  29. Jeff Spector on November 26, 2011 at 7:59 PM


    Here is what I’ve heard about that:

    1. “We dislike correlation.” So that would mean we have to go back to before 1960’s

    2. “We dislike the Priesthood ban” So that would mean a return to Joseph Smith’s time before BY instituted the ban.

    3. “We dislike the Sunday School Lessons”- So that would mean a return to the time when they were written every year preferable by Lyon and Bennion, so that would mean the 1950s.

    4. “We dislike that the Church practiced Polygamy” So that would mean a return to pre-1838.

    Of course all those eras carry their own baggage.

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  30. Cowboy on November 26, 2011 at 8:43 PM

    It’s hard to say that the Church hasn’t “come clean”, instead it’s a matter of dialogue. Look, as has been said, one of our proud points to the value equation of Mormonism is modern Prophets and revelators. Yet, these days revelation seems to have no upflow of communication. For years now the general leadership has been advised to redirect all communications from the broad membership, about these “come clean” issues, to the local leadership. I would argue that this strategy at least appears like a pretense of empowerment that is largely designed to 1) make the threat of accountability for asking “controversial” questions more palpable 2) To protect Prophets, Seers, and revelator’s from exposing the limitations of their “divine” perspectives.
    Several years ago for example, members could submit doctrinal questions directly to President Joseph F. Smith, who would unabashedly respond directly and very publicly in the Improvement Era magazine. Incidentally Bruce R. McConkie compiled many of these reponses into the five volume set titled, Answers to Gospel Questions.

    For those familiar the problems with this kind of dialogue and uncensored conversation with a prophet led to some question about what a Prophet really knows. At the time Joseph F. Smith took some positions on things like evolution, and the literalness of biblical history, that are hardly tenable these days, and quite debatable in his day. Now we have a timeless record of his words, and time is on the truth’s side for many issues.

    By directing members to their local leaders the have dismantled the channels for “come clean” dialogue. In the best of circumstances my Bishop couldn’t answer most questions authoritatively anyway. For example, what is the role of the Urimm and Thummim today? He doesn’t know, and has nothing beyond the Doctrine and Covenants to speculate from. So how could the Church come clean under these circumstances?

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  31. hawkgrrrl on November 27, 2011 at 5:19 AM

    I agree with “I don’t see it as a question of the church coming clean as much as a question of the church allowing different opinions to be taught.” I would so much rather have open dialogue than definitive answers. Definitive answers on many of these issues are simply not possible, but unfortunately most members (and perhaps all CES instructors) don’t study this kind of stuff enough to have a valid opinion on it or anything to contribute to a discussion. They just swallow whatever white-washed version is served up.

    I do think the other way the church needs to “come clean” is to quit avoiding / hiding topics that are troublesome. Books like Rough Stone Rolling help, but too many members are daunted by actually reading a book that is thick or they just aren’t interested in this stuff.

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  32. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 27, 2011 at 7:40 AM

    Cowboy, I had a copy of — Answers to Gospel Questions — which struck me as surprising in some areas (for example, it stated that it was only cultural that men took the lead in courting).

    Jeff, again, nicely said.

    Tachyon, when you stated you were non-Christian I made a mistake in concluding that since you had gone from Christian to non-Christian, you had gone to post-religious. My apologies.

    But you’ve made a number of “you downplay by implication” point “x” and when I address point “x” (to show that it fits within what I’m discussing) you move on to another point “x” with rather harsh language.

    As to “lds leaders were racist” — I’m assuming you really meant to say “some lds leaders were racist” though Joseph Smith did catch a good deal of flack for his sermon on how a Black slave ditch digger and a Philadelphia doctor in his coach are different only because of chance and training and not because of race.

    He was accused of racism by some, and many, at one point, who had embraced one branch of racism were very upset to find out about that sermon, that he had approved the “Invitation to all Free Men of Color” that was issued to those wishing to come to Nauvoo and other similar approaches.

    Or you may be referring to the contrary position eventually adopted by Brigham Young and others. Wherein they were no more racist than others of their time. And in which there were contrary voices.

    Julie Smith has written a great deal on that.

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  33. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 27, 2011 at 7:44 AM

    Hawk “daunted by actually reading a book that is thick or they just aren’t interested in this stuff” — which brings us back to the issue Ray raised. There is only so much time in Church.

    Though I think that people would be impressed by how much might be possible. The approach of the lesson manuals has fluctuated between rather deep and rather shallow. It would be nice to see a switch in the cycle back to deep again.

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  34. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 27, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    Though is worth a look, close to the sort of thing we would want for a guest post here.

    In addition to the comparison, I like the idea of someone who has abandoned Shinto but who currently reveres Inari. My friend Greg, who was president of the American Shamanist Society would probably very much approve.

    Though he misses the point in confession. A good reading of would help most people gain a better perspective though.

    Maybe we can get some guest posts from Annegb on the LDS Church and 12-Step programs.

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  35. Paul on November 27, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    #9 Paul2: “The average CES-educated Mormon would think there is a strong correlation between the papyri that have been discovered and the BofA.” They would? Most people with a web browser know the extant papyri do not contain the Book of Abraham. Therefore, either the extant papyri are not the ones Joseph used (Nibley’s view in his introduction to the translation of said papyri) or Joseph had a more liberal interpretation of the word translate.

    In any case, when I taught an institute class on the Pearl of Great Price, we certainly did not teach that the extant papyri were strongly correlated to the Book of Abraham.

    #11 Ray: Best comment. Thanks for that.

    #31 HG: I don’t understand your sadness that more people don’t read. Isn’t it possible that some people just don’t worry about these things in the same way? Perhaps they have enough spiritual experiences in their scripture reading and in the temple and in church that they don’t feel a need to sort out the complexities of history in the same way? Is that not a valid position for them to have?

    Stephen, great post and great discussion.

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  36. hawkgrrrl on November 27, 2011 at 3:46 PM

    Paul – As a person with a degree in English, I think it’s only natural that I’m sad when people don’t read more. But I can agree with you to a point. However, if people think they understand people who have their doubts based on history and vainly imagine they know their religion while not having taken time to read a single uncorrelated book, then that is truly sad and overconfident.

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  37. Paul on November 27, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    36 HG, I’m with you there. It’s one thing if Brother Doesn’t Read is happy in his standing in the gospel. It’s quite another if he judges someone else who reads. Personally, I haven’t seen so much of the second type, but based on the comments it would seem many have.

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  38. Glenn Thigpen on November 27, 2011 at 7:25 PM

    When someone has all of the facts of various parts of Church History at their disposal, he/she can “come clean” for all of us. People are convicted of crimes all too often because juries thought they had enough facts to render the correct interpretation of the evidence.
    The Priesthood ban, polygamy, etc. are examples of two polarizing items in church history on which people have varying opinions and think they have enough facts to judge the inner hearts and actions of men who lived long before their time. I don’t think that we have enough facts at our disposal to make such judgements.
    The purpose of the Sunday School is not to teach history, but is to teach doctrine. The correlation committee has a tremendous job to do in presenting material that will help the newer converts as well as keep the more informed ones from being bored to death.
    The Church is opening up the historical archives. This will be an ongoing process. But for some, it seems that it will never be enough.
    The really funny thing is that a person in the United States would have had to live a very isolated or oblivious existence no to have heard about the Priesthood ban or polygamy prior to ever joining the Church.
    My mother, a one man woman and a faithful LDS to her death knew of Joseph’s and Brigham’s polygamy. My mother even read me stories of some of Brigham’s wives.
    My current wife was taking the lessons when she was about fourteen, with her mother, when a friend told her, erroneously, that the LDS still practiced polygamy.
    I read about the Mountain Meadows Massacre when I was but a lad, in a magazine named “The Real West” which painted more than hinted that Brigham Young was the one that ordered the deed. I rejected that on faith and have read nothing since to change my belief on that point.
    The Church’s finances are open enough for me. An accounting firm checks the financials yearly. I go to meeting houses, temples, etc. and can see where a lot of the money is being spent. And I pay tithing voluntarily. No one makes me.
    No one makes me believe in the Restoration. It is that which I have a testimony of. Not Church history.


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  39. Jeff Spector on November 27, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    I often wonder if the people who get surprised by the details of Church History are equally surprised at the details of the history of the United States. And if so, do they feel the same negativity toward their country when they find out about:

    1. The treatment of Native Americans
    2. The treatment of various ethnic groups entering this country
    3. the Slavery issue
    4. The Spanish-American War
    5. The interment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.
    6. The role the US played in Panamanian Independence from Columbia and the resultant Panama Canal
    7. The Watergate Affair
    8. The Iraq war

    Just to name a few.

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  40. Cowboy on November 28, 2011 at 1:34 AM


    Doesn’t your argument really work both ways? I mean, if you can say that it is impossible to gain a satisfactory understanding of Joseph Smith/Brigham Youngs respective “hearts”, to warrant casting aspersions against their character relative to polygamy and the Priesthood ban, then how could you ever judge them enough to sustain them as Prophets? It would seem that your comment ought to justify rational doubt rather than support.


    I think many people do recognize the that American history is far from flawless. The difference is in the implication. Thomas Jefferson never proposed to be anything more than a moral/political philosopher, and for most Americans it is the principles of our patriotic heritage that matter, not necessarilly the authority of the framers.

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  41. hawkgrrrl on November 28, 2011 at 3:32 AM

    Cowboy, while most people recognize that NOW about US history, it wasn’t the case for those being educated 30 or 40 years ago (certainly not for those further back than that). Christopher Columbus was reverred as a God, an explorer on God’s own mission to discover the Americas (accidentally). It only really became popular to talk about him as a person who committed genocide on native peoples in the 1990s and later.

    Current generations are much more educated about the world being morally gray, perhaps because the world can afford to be gray. You can be black & white when your task is to send boys off to fight Hitler and oppose Japanese world domination. But when your task is more subtle, more subtlety is required.

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  42. Cowboy on November 28, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    “Current generations are much more educated about the world being morally gray, perhaps because the world can afford to be gray.”


    I agree with this statement, and even your preceding comments that our perception of our own cultural history has changed with time. However, I don’t think that the comparison with Church leaders is valid. The whole integrity of Mormonism rests in the integrity of its founding leaders through an unbroken chain of Priesthood continuity. This is not the case for people like Thomas Jefferson for example. Finding out that some of the framers were slave owners for example can be dismissed under the argument that they were just products of their time. This does not justify the slavery, but it does allow us to dissect their good contributions from their bad in a “let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater” kind of way.

    So, then why can’t we do the same for Church leaders? I think the answer is actually really simple. Nobody questions whether Thomas Jefferson really wrote the Declaration of Independence, or whether George Washington was really President. And even if it could somehow hypothetically be proved that they didn’t, it wouldn’t affect the overall fabric of our culture all that much. Joseph Smith however provides us with a litany of unsubstantiated claims and 175 years later a Church that obligates each of us very personally on account of those claims. In spite of their imperfections the founders contributed to a culture and heritage of freedom that we each benefit from. In return we have very little obligation placed upon us other than to live civilly and pay taxes through the nose. So, even if I were to take a strong stance against some of our American founders and their history, what should I do about it other than gripe? Should I defect to Cuba? On the other hand, Mormon leaders claimed to be inspired by God, and try/tried to hold society accountable for their claims, while doing some things that seem very ungodly. For good reason we doubt their unverifiable claims to authority on these grounds as justification for rejecting their alleged authority. This is particularly important for those of us raised in a culture that teaches unquestionable obedience to the authority of Mormon leaders, and has no comparison to the American founders.

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  43. dpc on November 28, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    For those who wish the church to come clean, what is the proper forum? I have a heard a lot about what the church should come clean on, but not a lot on where that should occur. Should it be at general conference? Does the President of the Church get up and say, “We’re the only true church, but here are some differing viewpoints on why that probably isn’t true.”

    How long would it take to go through the various different viewpoints? Would this apply only to history or would theology be fair game? Does it only mean recent Mormon history or does it extend back to early Christian times. For example, shouldn’t all different theories on Paul as the author of Hebrews be given? That’s relevant to any interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews, isn’t it? Don’t we deserve the whole story, so we can decide for ourselves whether the epistle’s teaching on faith is inspired or not. I was never taught in Sunday School (or seminary or institute) that John the Apostle and John the Revelator might be two separate individuals. Was the church covering up history by failing to address that issue?

    A lot of this stuff is better suited to self-directed or small group studying. A lot of people don’t know the ‘true’ history (whatever that means) because they just aren’t interested in history. It doesn’t mean they are stupid or rubes or dupes; it does mean that their interests may lie elsewhere. Why do the history buffs get such special treatment?

    As I’ve said in other places, it isn’t about the church hiding its past. It’s just an easy way for an apostate to justify their former affiliation with Mormonism and their subsequent rejection of it. How can they be blameworthy if the evil Church hid all this information from them? It’s a lot easier than saying “I had a lot of psychological pain that my religious beliefs just didn’t assuage at the time.” I haven’t seen a single ex-mormon promise to come back if things changed. So why should we cater to those who have rejected us and withdrawn their fellowship from us?

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  44. Jeff Spector on November 28, 2011 at 1:40 PM


    “I think many people do recognize the that American history is far from flawless.”

    It might be true now, (emphasis: might) but when I was in school it was a whitewashed version of history. Little mention of how the Native Americans were treated, the Japanese interment, the Panama canal, etc. It took an eight grade US History teacher to open my eyes.

    I suspect if you ask some people these questions, they still could not answer.

    Whether the founders ascribed to a higher calling or not does not matter. The truth is the truth. And bad actions are bad actions.

    If you want the church to come clean, shouldn’t the US come clean as well? How about the rest of the world?

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  45. Cowboy on November 28, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    I think you’re missing the point Jeff – I agree with you, and yes I’m okay with the notion that we ought to be honest with ourselves regarding American history. Still, this isn’t an American history blog, it’s a Mormon issues blog, so griping about American history would be a little out of place here.

    And yes, whether the founders ascribe to higher calling does matter if it directs society into a disadvantaged lifestyle. I seem to recall a conversation recently where you and I hashed out the “easiness” of not believing in Mormonism. If we come clean about American history, what lifestyle changes might that afford or impose upon us?

    If Joseph Smith wasn’t a Prophet, then outside of religious historians, who cares about his contributions? Conversely, even if Jefferson (just as an example) wasn’t a “good guy” we can still benefit from his contributions because his arguments for good government and moral philosophy stand on their own independent of his authority. The Three degrees of glory as a concept are completely meaningless however if Joseph Smith wasn’t a Prophet.

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  46. Jeff Spector on November 28, 2011 at 4:48 PM


    “Still, this isn’t an American history blog, it’s a Mormon issues blog, so griping about American history would be a little out of place here.”

    We are making the point that organizations present a sanitized view of their history which is not secret but requires someone to be interested enough to learn more about.

    Plus, I don’t see the droves of people leaving the country because the US has done some very egregious acts in its history. And we certainly don’t see disaffected Church members hating on the US in the same way they hate on the church. And yet, the US acts were much worse by comparison….

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  47. Cowboy on November 28, 2011 at 5:05 PM


    We’re talking past each other. Let me try and phrase this another way. Your point that the US has some skeletons in its history closet, is correct only in a vacuum. When you compare how some disaffected Mormons respond to Mormon history, with how those people respond to the disturbing points in broader American history, you are mixing apples in oranges in a serious way.

    A person’s relationship to their citizenship in a country is completely different from their membership in a religion. I should think this is obvious. Therefore, the way they respond to information that hurts their perception of each respective organization/institution, will be completely different. Your expectations are flawed.

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  48. chad on December 2, 2011 at 5:23 PM

    “Coming clean” is a rather unfortunate phrase with which to start a conversation. This starts things off by framing things in terms of lying or not lying, hiding or not hiding, guilt versus innocence.

    If church authorities don’t provide fully satisfactory answers to legitimate questions why could that not be because they simply don’t have those answers themselves any more than anyone else might?

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  49. The Bulwark’s December Blog Review on December 5, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    […] Stephen Marsh offers a valuable critique of the oft-repeated notion that the church must “come clean” on one thing or another. As he […]

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  50. Joeski on December 11, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    The problem is trying to defend ANY organization. As a Christian, I am in no way responsible for protecting or defending the church I attend. If a brother or sister is caught in sin, whether a pastor, deacon or any other church member, it is my responsibility as a follower of Christ to restore them gently. This does not mean treat the issue as if it didn’t happen. As soon as you try to hide, cover up or make excuses to protect the “church”, you risk falling into temptation. Gal 6:1. I love my pastor and respect him greatly but he will never take the place of my rpersonal relationship with Jesus. People who allow others to make their spiritual decisions are bound to find out why the bible tells us not to put our trust in man. It’s hard enough to control the things in our own hearts and minds so why would you trust everything the “prophet” says??

    Psalm 118:8 ESV / It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.

    Micah 7:5 ESV / Put no trust in a neighbor; have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms;

    Jeremiah 17:5 ESV / Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord.

    Psalm 118:9 ESV / It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.

    Ephesians 2:8 ESV / For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

    Psalm 118:8-9 ESV /It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.

    Romans 13:8 ESV / Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

    Galatians 6:3 ESV / For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

    Galatians 5:17 ESV / For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

    Psalm 118:9-11 ESV / It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!

    Philippians 4:13 ESV / I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

    Romans 8:14 ESV / For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

    Isaiah 31:1 ESV /
    Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!

    John 15:4 ESV / Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

    Romans 7:21 ESV / So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.

    1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV /
    Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

    2 Timothy 3:13-17 ESV /
    While evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

    1 Corinthians 9:27 ESV / But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

    1 Corinthians 2:7-13 ESV / But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

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    Matthew 5:48 ESV / 10 helpful votes
    You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

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    Psalm 118:14 ESV / 10 helpful votes
    The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.

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    Psalm 118:9-13 ESV / 10 helpful votes
    It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! They surrounded me like bees; they went out like a fire among thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.

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    Acts 5:31 ESV / 9 helpful votes
    God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.

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    John 14:23 ESV / 9 helpful votes
    Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

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    Ecclesiastes 3:7 ESV / 9 helpful votes
    A time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

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    Psalm 60:11 ESV / 9 helpful votes
    Oh, grant us help against the foe, for vain is the salvation of man!

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    1 John 3:3 ESV / 8 helpful votes
    And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

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    James 3:2 ESV / 8 helpful votes
    For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

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    John 15:5 ESV / 8 helpful votes
    I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

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    Luke 21:34 ESV / 8 helpful votes
    “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.

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    Matthew 5:20 ESV / 8 helpful votes
    For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

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    Isaiah 25:9 ESV / 8 helpful votes
    It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

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    Song of Solomon 1:1-17 ESV / 8 helpful votes
    The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love you. Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you. I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.

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    Psalm 119:128 ESV / 8 helpful votes
    Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right; I hate every false way.

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    Hebrews 11:3 ESV / 7 helpful votes
    By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

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    1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV / 7 helpful votes
    For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality;

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    Colossians 3:23 ESV / 7 helpful votes
    Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,

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    Ephesians 5:25 ESV / 7 helpful votes
    Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

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    Ephesians 2:9 ESV / 7 helpful votes
    Not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

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    John 14:21 ESV / 7 helpful votes
    Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

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    1 Kings 1:1-53 ESV / 7 helpful votes
    Now King David was old and advanced in years. And although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. Therefore his servants said to him, “Let a young woman be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king and be in his service. Let her lie in your arms, that my lord the king may be warm.” So they sought for a beautiful young woman throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The young woman was very beautiful, and she was of service to the king and attended to him, but the king knew her not. Now Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king.” And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him.

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    2 Corinthians 5:15 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

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    Romans 8:29 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

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    John 18:22 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”

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    John 14:15 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

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    John 14:14 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

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    John 5:40 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    Yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

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    John 1:13 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

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    John 1:12 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,

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    Psalm 119:1-176 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways! You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!

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    Psalm 118:1-29 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Let the house of Aaron say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free.

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    Psalm 12:7 ESV / 6 helpful votes
    You, O Lord, will keep them; you will guard us from this generation forever.

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    2 Peter 3:15-16 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

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    2 Peter 3:9 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

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    2 Timothy 3:16 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

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    Philippians 3:14 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

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    Romans 7:22 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,

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    John 2:24-25 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

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    Mark 5:26 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    And who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.

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    Psalm 63:8 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

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    Psalm 12:6-7 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. You, O Lord, will keep them; you will guard us from this generation forever.

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    Deuteronomy 32:8 ESV / 5 helpful votes
    When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.

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    1 John 2:3 ESV / 4 helpful votes
    And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.

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    2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV / 4 helpful votes
    And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

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    1 Peter 2:21 ESV / 4 helpful votes
    For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

    1 Peter 1:15 ESV / But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct,

    Hebrews 12:10 ESV / For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

    Hebrews 12:1 ESV Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

    Galatians 2:20 ESV
    I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

    Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV
    Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

    Psalm 75:6-7 ESV
    For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up, but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.

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