Transparency in the modern LDS Church
In Elder Ballard’s 2017 YSA Face to Face he stated:
We’re as transparent as we know how to be in telling the truth.
and that they as Church leaders had
never tried to hide anything from anybody
In a 2018 Face to Face with Elder Cook, Dr. Kate Holbrook added:
The Church did not hide information from me, but the historical information was not emphasized to me
However, the historical record supports several examples of when the Church or its representatives appear to have failed to inform members or investigators of things they perhaps should have, misrepresented the data, or influenced others to be less transparent with its history or administration.
Examples of transparency failures
The following examples demonstrate or indicate some level of transparency failure:
1922 Failure to publicize issues with Book of Mormon historicity.
Significant issues with Book of Mormon historicity were made known to all of the LDS leadership in 1922.1 B.H. Roberts cataloged and explored these issues in a series of long essays. Arguably, LDS leadership could have published or made these studies more widely available.
~1930s–1963 Knowledge of the 1832 First Vision account suppressed
The 1832 First Vision account appears to have been suppressed between 11 and ~30 years.
1966 The Tanners first to publish copies of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers
According to the Tanners, Church Historians were aware of the documents since 1908 but denied their existence until 1935 when James R. Clark and Sidney B. Sperry were informed they were in the vault. Even then, according to the Tanners, Clark and Sperry were not permitted to inform the public until some time after. The Tanners “obtained an unauthorized copy of a microfilm strip” and published the documents in 1966. In a 1971 BYU Studies article, Nibley criticized the Tanners publication in part because they were incomplete—his publication included 10 additional (?) pages. All documents relating to the creation of the Book of Abraham would be released in full in 2018 as part of the Joseph Smith Papers.
~1970-1993 Arrington describes efforts to prevent ‘real’ history from being published
In journals and diary entries, Leonard Arrington—first professional historian appointed as Church Historian—documented suppressive attitudes and actions:
- records “dissappear[ing] from scrutiny”
- “we are not required to tell the whole truth”
- “[LDS leadership] will not stand for our ‘real’ history”
- “want prophets without warts”
- “do not want the church to promulgate historical truth”
~1973 Publication of Lester Bush’s research on the Priesthood Ban discouraged
Lester Bush has described the attitude of LDS leadership related to his research and publication of Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine:
- “the Church didn’t want every ‘Tom, Dick, or Harry’ looking through its records” [or even those with temple recommends]
- The vast collection of Manuscript History was off limits to Bush
- “My notes apparently were not evaluated for substantive questions, but rather from the perspective of what material had gotten out, and how.”
- “[The material showing Joseph F. Smith reversing his opinion on the ordination of Elijah Abel] could undermine faith in his role as a prophet, so was inappropriate.”
- “if Dialogue prints Bush’s article the brethren will think that Dialogue is hostile”
- [after using the Bennion papers] “the Library was contacted in behalf of the First Presidency stating that we should not have copies of the councils’ minutes and requested [that the library] send them up [i.e., not make them publicly available]”
- “Mark E. Petersen … had spoken ‘very harshly’ about me over my publications… and instructed Marriott [Bush’s stake President] to call me in and take some appropriate action”
1978 LeGrand Richards denied the existence of the seerstone
Elder Richards denies the existence of the seerstone in an interview.
1981 Bruce R. McConkie misleads about teaching of the Adam God theory
Elder McConkie appears to have misled on the teaching of the Adam God theory. Also, consider Boyd Kirkland’s allegations in that same link demonstrating general suppression by LDS leadership of the idea that Adam-God was taught by Brigham Young.
1984 Speaking bans to limit the influence of “Mormon Enigma”
Believing scholars Valeen Tippetts Avery and Linda King Newell published Mormon Enigma in 1984. It won several Mormon history awards (including a BYU sponsored award). Inquiries about Church sanction of the book prompted LDS leadership to ban Avery and Newell from speaking about Church history generally in LDS meetings. When they finally were able to meet with the Apostles responsible for the ban, Newell noted their motivation. As conveyed in this Dialogue article:
[Dallin] Oaks explained the decision to order the ban included the fact that “your book represents a non-traditional view of Joseph Smith” and thus may damage the faith of church members who read it. Linda explained that the letters and calls she had received from readers described a positive reaction. Oaks acknowledged that possibility yet maintained that he believed “the weight of the evidence was on the other side.” Jack [Linda’s husband] countered that the issue was whether or not the book was an honest and true portrayal of the facts, readers reactions being incidental. When Linda asked whether the two apostles had read the book, [Neil] Maxwell did not answer and Oaks admitted he had only read portions of it, citing time constraints as the reason. He acknowledged that in what he had read, Linda and Avery had used restraint when discussing aspects of Joseph Smith’s life and his relationship with Emma. Apparently, however, it was not enough. After more discussion, Oaks emphasized that, despite his academic background and reputation as a scholar and intellectual, his duty as an apostle meant he had an obligation to “protect what is most unique about the LDS church” and stressed that “if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors.”
~1985 Attempted suppression of publication of Roberts’s Studies of the Book of Mormon
When B. H. Roberts’s descendants tried to get his Book of Mormon scholarship published decades after his death, it is alleged by one of the contributors to the volume, Sterling McMurrin, that the Church tried to suppress its publication (see footnote #11).
1993 Lavina Fielding Anderson is excommunicated for documenting LDS intellectual suppression
Lavina Fielding Anderson published a document outlining ecclesiastical abuse of intellectuals in the Church. She was excommunicated (as part of the September 6, intellectuals and feminists who were all excommunicated at about the same time). She actively attended Church in the intervening decades and in 2019 her local and regional leaders recommended her for rebaptism to the First Presidency. The First Presidency denied the appeal for re-baptism without comment.
2000 The Church sues the Tanners for posting portions of the handbook online
Claiming fair use, Jerald and Sandra Tanner posted material from a 1998 (or perhaps 1989) handbook. They explained their motivation:
Unlike other churches, the Mormon Church does not make their operating manual readily available to people,” she said. “We provided the quotes from the Church Handbook due to the many inquiries we have received from people seeking information on how to terminate their LDS Church membership. People need to be informed that they do not have to be excommunicated, that they can write a letter to their bishop and resign.
The lawsuit was settled out of court only after the Tanners agreed to remove the sections from their site.
2001, 2003 Church manuals leave out difficult polygamy details
The D&C and Church History manuals include very limited coverage of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. For instance, there is no mention of Fanny Alger and no mention that many of those Joseph had sealed to him were already married to other men.
2008 Church compels handbook removal from Wikimedia site
The Church claims copyright infringement to coerce Wikimedia to remove a 1999 Handbook of Instructions.
2011 Gospel Topics Essays originally planned for internal use
Matt Harris and Newell Bringhurst, in the introduction to their book The LDS Gospel Topics Series: A Scholarly Engagement, describe a 2011 meeting between Travis Stratford, Hans Mattsson, Greg Prince and Marlin Jensen, where Jensen:
acknowledged that an “internal team” at LDS headquarters was already working on “position papers” to address concerns raised in the survey [Dehlin and Stratford’s initial survey]. But he opined that the team did not have the “political capital” to get the papers published. To this end, he invited Stratford to Salt Lake City to present his work to other church authorities hoping that senior leaders would see the urgent need to release the “position papers” when they were completed.
Stratford’s Faith Crisis Report and presentation was described as playing a “significant role” in getting the Gospel Topics Essays released publicly:
Several general authorities communicated to Stratford that his work had pushed the “position papers” forward.
An LDS general authority (whom we have chosen not to identify by name) also conveyed to Matthew Harris that Stratford played a significant role in getting the “Gospel Topics Essays” released.
Reluctance on the part of LDS authorities to release the essays publicly is discussed in recent Harris and Bringhurst’s Gospel Tangents interviews (part 1 and part 2).
2012 Lorenzo Snow manual ellipsis on tithing
The ellipsis used in the Lorenzo Snow manual (published at the end of 2012 and used during the 2013 Sunday School year) altered at least some of the meaning of Snow’s statement on tithing.
2012 Denial of access to Joseph Fielding Smith’s diaries
When Stan Larson asked for access to Joseph Fielding Smith’s diaries to better understand the context and motivation for handling and suppression of the 1832 First Vision account, he was denied access.
2012 Wickman portrays prop 8 efforts in California as primarily a grassroots effort
In an interview conducted by Church media in 2012, Elder Lance Wickman stated:
contrary to what some may think it was the members not the church, yes the First Presidency of the church sent a letter that was read in sacrament meeting urging members to get involved, and thats all that was needed and they were galvanized by it.
However, a powerpoint presentation leaked to Mormonleaks called Proposition 8 Grassroots Program included detailed heirarchical organization charts and strategies suggesting the movement was directed and organized in top-down fashion.
2012 Purdy evades question on SCMC
When John Sweeney asked a direct question about the existence of the Strengthening Church Members Committee, Michael Purdy appeared to be initially evasive.
2012 Holland misleads about temple oaths
Elder Holland appears to have attempted to mislead John Sweeney when Sweeney was asking about Romney and the temple oaths he would have sworn. Jonathon Streeter has analyzed this in depth. [warning: discussion of the temple and oaths]
2013 Gospel topics essays given a “soft rollout”
In an undated recording, Elder Steven Snow describes how the gospel topics essays were released:
I think it’d be helpful to know how we chose to roll those out. It was a soft roll out. There wasn’t an announcement saying “You can go to this website to learn everything weird about the Mormon church you ever wanted to learn”. But yet we had a lot of people struggling with some of these issues. We were losing young people particularly. And we felt we owed a safe place for people to go to get these answered. So they were deliberately kind of placed in an existing database, so they wouldn’t …. You know, 90% of the church probably couldn’t care less, they don’t worry about such things. But we do have some folks who are on-line and we felt like they needed a safe place to go to get answers if they had questions. So I don’t think you are gonna see a well publicised campaign to tell you to go to these sites.
He also discussed their approach in a 2019 Gospel Tangents podcast.2
2013 Steven Snow admits the past tendency to prevent access to information
Steven Snow recently stated:
I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation—with the access to information on the Internet, we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.
2018 Anderson states “we are not a wealthy people”
Elder Anderson may have misled Zimbabwe’s prime minister regarding the wealth of the Church.
2018 obfuscation of living allowances
An analysis of the transparency of the Church regarding living allowances suggests some lack of transparency. For example, the Church newsroom appears to have obfuscated living allowances in this section.
2013–2020 misleading footnotes in Gospel Topics essays and Come Follow Me Manual
The Gospel Topics essays sometimes use footnotes in a manner that poorly reflects (or maybe even reverses) the meaning of the original source material. The most egregious of these is footnote #9 in the race and the priesthood essay. Consider other examples discussed here.
1830–2020 seer stone usage misrepresentations
Almost since the beginning of the Church, the Book of Mormon translation process, especially with regards to use of the seer stone, seems like it could have been presented with greater transparency or accuracy. Consider candidates in this presentation by japanesepiano,3 many of which occurred relatively recently.
2020 The size of Ensign Peak investment accounts is obscured from membership
Based on Roger Clarke’s interview with the Wall Street Journal (as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune), the size of Ensign Peaks investments were obscured from members (emphasis added):
Clarke and former Ensign employees said the firm created a system of more than a dozen shell companies to make its stock investments harder to track. That strategy, Clarke said, was designed to prevent members from parroting what Ensign was doing and to, as the paper stated, “protect them from mismanaging their own funds with insufficient information.”
Justification for keeping the size of the reserves secret were conveyed by Clarke:
“So they [LDS leadership?] never wanted to be in a position where people felt like, you know, they shouldn’t make a contribution”
present First Presidency vault registers are not public
As discussed by J. Stapley (see his footnote#1):
The materials archived by the First Presidency are outside of the purview of the LDS Church History Library and its registers are not public.
The FP vault has held items such as the 1832 First Vision account and William Clayton’s diaries, a person with book-keeping experience and Joseph Smith’s recorder and scribe for most of the Nauvoo period. LDS Scholars are sometimes granted access to material in the FP vault, and from publication citations a list of some items in the vault can be assembled.4
present Online text differs from audio without annotation
churchofjesuschrist.org alters or removes the text of a number of General Conference talks without any annotation. For instance, Ronald Poelman’s original 1984 General Conference talk was re-recorded and replaced by a significantly altered talk without annotation (see side-by-side comparison here).
present Papers of leaders donated decades ago, under stipulation that they be open, are still closed
According to LDS historian Matt Harris, as he conveyed in an interview with John Dehlin (transcript), the Spencer W. Kimball papers and Henry W. Moyle’s papers were donated by children to Church archives with stipulations that they be open (in some cases at some agreed upon point in time). For instance, Harris stated that Moyle’s papers were donated under stipulation that they be open for access by 1984. Kimball’s journals were finally released in 2023, but the Henry Moyle papers are still not available today.
It seems evident from the above examples that the institution and leadership have failed—and continue to fail—in at least some ways to make relevant data accessible to others.
It is widely acknowledged that the Church is more transparent now than before. Recent historical efforts such as the Joseph Smith Papers, the publication of George Q. Cannon’s journal, and the announcement that the Church will publish the William Clayton diaries are examples of this recent trend in openness to critical records.
On the other hand, we cannot acknowledge recent improvements in transparency without acknowledging past failures. Faithful Latter-day Saint historians like Leonard Arrington and Lester Bush clearly documented a general attitude of data suppression among top LDS leadership in decades past. And, in emphasizing recent efforts at openness, Steven Snow acknowledged: “in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information.” And, as some of the examples above suggest, some of what has become transparent over the last century and even recently seems to have been catalyzed in some part as a response to outside efforts or forces rather than from internal motivation to be transparent (e.g., LDS approved releases and discussion of the 1832 First Vision and Kirtland Egyptian Papers were preceded by outsider efforts to make the material available).
Administrative transparency has followed a similar trend to historical transparency. Strides in administrative transparency have been made: for instance, the Church recently announced that the next Church handbook will be available to all in its entirety. But how vigorous should be the applause when just a short time ago the Church was suing and enforcing copyright claims in order to prevent access to its handbooks? And, current Church procedures still lack transparency in many regards. For instance, financial information (total wealth, how money is used, whether donations are used in the manner marked), attendance and activity information, and information/reasoning about how decisions are made are typically not made clear to members or the public.5
And, obvious failures in historical transparency remain in at least several areas: First Presidency vault registers are still not public, talks that have been altered still lack annotation on churchofjesuschrist.org, leaders’ papers donated decades ago under stipulation that they be public are still not accessible, and historians are still routinely denied access to documents that are 70–90 years old.
In the face of the evidence on historical and institutional transparency, it is difficult to understand how Elder Ballard would make such a statement that leaders had “never tried to hide anything from anybody.” And the claim that “[t]he Church did not hide information from me, but the historical information was not emphasized to me” seems to fall flat. One could argue that leaders were magnanimously motivated (see next section), but the cumulative effect of their actions—whatever their motivation—has been to hinder historical and institutional transparency in some significant part for many decades. And, arguments about past motivation seem moot given the historical information known to still be inaccessible today.
Motivation and consequences
Should we label these instances “hiding”? Hiding tends to imply a particular dishonest motivation. Perhaps LDS leadership genuinely view their actions as honest or honorable in most or all cases? A number of neutral or positive motivations could be conjectured. Failures in transparency may be attributable to:6
- An honest mistake
- Benign ignorance
- Some level of willful ignorance, but motivated by a focus on what are perceived as more important duties
- A desire to best represent the Church and its interests as a representative
- A desire to take necessary steps to protect the innocent or those immature in the faith
- A desire to defend the faith from those who would undermine it
- A desire to follow the various scriptural admonitions to be cautious in sharing sacred material
- A desire to wait until such time as a source can be properly understood and disseminated
A few accounts in the timeline above capture the motivation of leadership, and several of the possible motivations enumerated were represented. For instance, historian Linda Newell noted that Elder Oaks “admitted he had only read portions of [Mormon Enigma], citing time constraints as the reason” and that “despite his … reputation as a scholar and intellectual, his duty as an apostle meant he had an obligation to ‘protect what is most unique about the LDS church’ and [limit detrimental influence on] the reputation of Joseph Smith.” Further, when leaders argued against sharing damaging information, it was coupled with an insistence on a kind of truthfulness: “We are required to tell the truth but we are not required to tell the whole truth.”
And, in general, leaders who seem to have been least transparent also seemed to view the institution and its truth-claims as under threat from forces set on undermining and perhaps destroying them.7
Generosity towards the motivation of LDS leadership may be balanced with an appreciation of the potential harms of limiting transparency. Individuals cannot act with a full measure of agency unless the facts of a given matter are accessible to them. When leaders or institutions are transparent with the relevant data that allows others to fully exercise their agency. Conversely, failures to make relevant information accessible, even if motivations were noble, tend to hinder individuals’ self-determination8 and make it more difficult to choose the best model among competing models.9 Finally, when devoted members discover (sometimes through alternate channels) information that seems to have been withheld, they often feel a sense of betrayal.10
Responsibility and moving forward
What responsibility does an organization have for making accessible or publicizing accurate—but potentially damaging or uncomfortable—information to its members? It seems fair to point out that the Church holds its members to exacting standards of honesty and transparency. For instance, the Ensign in 1994 taught:
We can also be guilty of bearing false witness and lying if we say nothing, particularly if we allow another to reach a wrong conclusion while we hold back information that would have led to a more accurate perception. In this case it is as though an actual lie were uttered… Lying and misrepresentation in all of their forms are wrong, no matter how they may be rationalized, and those who silently let these evils pass unchallenged are also doing wrong
Other remaining questions include:
- Should institutions apologize for times they were not fully transparent? Should the Church?
- If these are the instances we are aware of today, how many instances have still not been brought to light? If needed, can the Church “fully repent” (or make amends) as an institution without a full accounting?
- Can we say that the Church is fully transparent today? How would we know if that were the case?
- Are the cultural forces that hindered transparency in the past still active in the Church today?
- On Being a Mormon Historian (and Its Aftermath) (D. Michael Quinn)
- Fact-Checking Mormon History: Did the Church Lie about its Past and The Brethren Didn’t Know Enough to Teach Accurate History (Jonathan Ellis)
- The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology (Lavina Fielding Anderson)
- Gaddy vs. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (amended class action complaint)
The author received valuable feedback on a first draft of this document from the Mormon Historians facebook group, especially Anthony D. Miller, Jonathon Ellis, Ryan Larsen, Mary Ann Clements, Brian Hanson, Christian Anderson, James Davenport, Joe Geisner, and Robin Jensen. The author received valuable feedback on a second draft from the mormon subreddit, especially ammonthenephite, MR-Singer, and frogontrombone.
Shannon Montez’s masters thesis is cited to demonstrate that LDS leadership have known about potentially troubling issues with Book of Mormon historicity for a long time. Montez concludes that B.H. Roberts probably did not believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon towards the end of his life, but it is not clear if she grappled with the data suggesting that Roberts may indeed have believed in a historical Book of Mormon. It may be difficult to decide the state of Roberts’s belief at the end of his life, but at the very least, these issues seemed a challenge to him. ↩
Elder Snow responded to the question of whether they were hiding the Gospel Topics Essays:
Some of the examples seem better supported or more clear cut than others. In addition, it is not always clear if leaders were acting to deliberately deceive or whether they themselves were working from incomplete or mistaken models of the translation process. Regardless, it seems clear that the Church as a whole has struggled to be consistent and accurate in how it has dealt with the seer stone in at least a few instances among the candidates mentioned. ↩
In a facebook comment on April 6, 2021 in the Mormon Historians Facebook group, Christopher Blythe, a BYU scholar wrote: “My understanding is that there are no items related to Joseph Smith that have been kept back in the ‘First Presidency’s Vault.’ Of course, the Church History Department has a policy of keeping items that are private, confidential, or sacred unavailable to researchers. If you are interested in this conversation, we had Keith Erickson the head of the CHL write a forum essay in one of last year’s Journal of Mormon History’s explaining the concept. Its pretty fantastic.” [I have skimmed the table of contents for the journal for the years 2019, 2020, and 2021 and have not yet located the article mentioned, but will reference it when I find it.] ↩
An example of financial transparency in a religious organization is the financial disclosures of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. ↩
Each of these motivations is not necessarily fully distinct from the others, and a given incident may invoke multiple motivations. ↩
Leaders and institutions tend to sacrifice transparency in proportion to perceived existential threats. It is well established in the social science literature that perceived existential threats modulate hawkish or dovish stances (but sometimes in nuanced ways). It seems self-evident that hawkish stances tend to promote less information sharing (transparency) than dovish stances. For instance, in wartime generals do not broadcast their army’s weaknesses to the opposition but in peacetime an organization may be more inclined to be transparent about its weaknesses with the hope that others will use that information for everyone’s benefit and in the process improve rather than seek to destroy the institution.
The LDS Church also has some innate totalistic tendencies. For instance, totalistic groups tend to polarize individuals into in/out-groups (consider how those who leave are characterized), often perceive opposition as emanating from Satan, and have a strong sense of devotion to a sacred and all-imporant cause. All of these would seem to diminish an emphasis on transparency, especially if transparency would increase perception of potential weaknesses. ↩
Transparency allows individuals to make choices for their lives with all the relevant data in hand. For instance, in the late 1830s and 1840s thousands of recent LDS converts left their homes to immigrate to the U.S., but they did so under the assumption that the group was not practicing polygamy (based on copious denials of the practice). Arguably, many would not have made the journey had they known the early Saints were engaging in non-traditional marriage arrangements. ↩
So many choices in our lives hinge upon which model we subscribe to, and which model we subscribe to is directly influenced by the data we have at our disposal by which to evaluate the strength of competing models. For instance, the 1832 first vision account can be viewed as indicative of an evolving theology of God’s nature, and the case for an evolving theology is probably weaker without the account. ↩
Accounts of LDS faith crises were accumulated during a 2011 study and later follow-up. A significant number of these suggest a feeling of betrayal for how the Church handled transparency. For example:
(pg 84) It is painful enough to find out you have been lied to. But to discover that you have been used to propagate that lie unknowingly is the ultimate betrayal. And this, coming from a church who has the nerve to ask me if I am an honest in my dealings with my fellow men in order to enter into the temple.
(pg 90) My husband is a convert and feels lied to as well as we were never told the true history of the church.
(pg 144) Life is complex and people are not perfect, but I was devastated to learn of the breadth and magnitude of historical problems the church hides.