I apologize (pun intended) in advance for the rambling nature of this post. I have a lot of thoughts in my mind about the topic, and it’s hard to bring them all together in a way is meaningful and flowing. Of course, I welcome (and love!) your comments and perspectives. So, please post your comments to this post.
Defining “Mormon Apologetics”
This blog deals somewhat with Mormon apologetics (if you’re not sure what Mormon apologetics refers to, read this first and then this). Apologetics refers to not apologizing, but defending a position (taken from the Greek word apologia which means “defense”). A person who is involved in apologetics is an apologist.
I’m an apologist. I’m not a professional. I don’t guess there really are any professional Mormon apologists, although there are some who are quite expert at it such as Daniel C. Peterson.
There are some great apologetic resources available online for those who are struggling with their faith in the face of criticism. The most visible and helpful organization is called FairMormon which was established in 1997. Years ago as a teenager I turned to FairMormon to help me strengthen my faith and overcome doubts. Today I volunteer as one of the apologists who responds to inquiries submitted to “Ask the Apologist” by people who have questions about criticisms of the Church. There is also an amazing wiki run by FairMormon volunteers that has tons of information on nearly any and every topic related to Church history, doctrine, and criticisms leveled against the Church. I’ve contributed a tiny bit to the wiki effort including doing most of the translation of the wiki into a Spanish version (it’s a slow work in progress).
I’m not a very expert apologist, but I do defend my faith with reason and argument (not in the sense of “fight” but in the sense of rational persuasion). I believe in apologetics. I know there are many people who feel like trying to defend the Church against criticism or to “contend” over the meaning of scripture and so forth is pointless. Worse, some even suggest that it is “of the devil” since Jesus said that “contention is of the devil!” I think that’s a misunderstanding of Jesus’ meaning and of apologetics. After all, Jude urged the ancient Saints to “contend for the faith” (verse 3). So, in this post, I wish to be an apologist Mormon apologetics.
So what do we hope to do by engaging in apologetics? What is the goal of an apologist? Commenting on the apologetic work of C. S. Lewis, Austin Farrer said:
Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows that ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish (Austin Farrer, “Grete Clerk,” in Light on C. S. Lewis, comp. Jocelyn Gibb (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1965), 26.).
I believe this is true. Our hope as apologists is not to convince someone that the Church is true or that Joseph Smith was a prophet, but rather to create an environment in which faith can flourish or in which the seed of faith can be planted. Ultimately, apologetics is not about proving that our position is right (or even worse, that someone else is wrong!). It is about sustaining and defending the kingdom of God in a meaningful and articulate way. In other words, apologetics is necessary to 1) maintain faith in the face of criticism and doubt and 2) create an environment where faith can take hold.
Creating an Environment Where Faith can Take Hold
First, let’s talk about a common scenario where apologetics are necessary to create an environment where faith can take hold. You are talking to your very sincere and devout Christian friend about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the restoration of the gospel. She seems receptive to what you are saying and interested. So, you offer her a copy of the Book of Mormon and invite her to read it and pray about it.
Then the crap hits the fan.
She responds by saying that although she appreciates your offer, there can be no more scripture other than the Bible. She has no need to read it to know if it is true since her pastor explained that Revelation 22:18 was written with the Mormons in mind. She also adds that she was taught that the warning in Galatians 1:8 was about the angel Moroni who would bring “another” gospel. This is especially obvious since the Book of Mormon is subtitled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”
Sound familiar? Have you ever had this discussion or one like it? Can you expect her to gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon if she can’t believe in the first place that God could even possibly give us more scripture? Are you likely to convince her to read the Book of Mormon by just sharing your testimony that it is true?
If you decide to engage her doubt, or explain why her pastor’s anti-Mormon remarks are misguided, you have engaged in apologetics. If you can convince her that she has been misled on these points, you might then be able to convince her to read the Book of Mormon. Having resolved your friend’s doubt, the seed of faith is given place in her heart and it begins to grow into a testimony of the Book of Mormon as she reads and ponders its message. “Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.” So, you see, everyone who has done any missionary work has probably engaged in apologetics.
Maintaining Faith in the Face of Criticism and Doubt
The other use for apologetics is to help maintain faith in the face of doubt and criticism. Another scenario: a young man sits down to speak with his Bishop about some concerns he has about church history. He recently found out from his non-Mormon friend that Joseph Smith was a polygamist and that he apparently had married some women without Emma’s knowledge or consent. He is really shaken by this.
What does the Bishop do? What should the Bishop do? Sometimes in situations like this the response is entirely inadequate (e.g., “Don’t worry about it, just read your scriptures and pray;” or “Really? I didn’t know that;” or “That’s not true!;” or “That was just to take care of the poor old widows”).
What happens to the young man who receives little by the way of specific answers or perhaps even incorrect information from his well-meaning Bishop? Sometimes he is overcome by his doubts until he slips away into inactivity, temptation, or even out-right rebellion and apostasy. After all, “what no one shows that ability to defend is quickly abandoned.” Much of this can probably be avoided through apologetics. As stated by Neal A. Maxwell:
Let us be articulate, for while our defense of the kingdom may not stir all hearers, the absence of thoughtful response may cause fledglings among the faithful to falter. What we assert may not be accepted, but unasserted convictions soon become deserted convictions. (The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, p. 343)
Others Affected by Apologetics
It is important to realize that often there are “innocent by-standers” to all of these conversations. It isn’t usually just a discussion between you and your Bishop or you and your friend. Often there is a wife, a parent, another friend, looking on and listening (or on the Internet/Facebook/Twitter the whole world!). What about them? They are making judgments about our beliefs based on what you say.
A story from my mission in Argentina to illustrate this point: I once got caught up in a somewhat heated exchange with an anti-Mormon in the middle of the down town plaza. The main question at had was the veracity of the Book of Mormon. As this debate went on, people gathered around to listen. There were probably 20-30 people standing in a circle around us listening in. As I needed my hands to flip through the scriptures, I placed my missionary copy of the Book of Mormon on the ground (blue cover type meant for giving away). Needless to say, by the end of the conversation he resorted to making anti-American statements since he ran out of defensible things to say against the Book of Mormon. I had him thoroughly backed into a corner and he was very mad (I was calm and in control, however). Once he stormed off, I bent over to pick up my missionary copy of the Book of Mormon to discover that someone had already taken it. I would like to think that whoever took it did it not for its monetary value (which is practically nothing), but because they had gained an understanding of its potential true value and wanted to read it.
Apologetics, even the “rough and tumble” variety, can have a positive impact indirectly.
There are clear scriptural precedents and mandates for practicing apologetics. First, we are expected to worship God with all our hearts, mights, minds, and strength. Yes, God does expect us to think and use our intellect even at Church, even during Sunday School and Elders Quorum! But, I digress… The point is that we should not be afraid about engaging our minds, or the minds of others, in pursuit of gospel topics. It’s ok (even good!) to challenge our assumptions, ask difficult questions, and explore the deep things of God. It is, in my view, a form of worship and discipleship.
A very influential early convert to the Church by the name of Ezra Booth apostatized in 1831. He immediately went out and started publishing newspaper articles against the church. He was the first highly visible ex/anti-Mormon. He was causing considerable problems for the church’s missionary efforts in the area.
At this time, Joseph Smith was fully engaged in the very important task of translating the Bible by inspiration with Sidney Rigdon as his scribe. They inquired of the Lord as to what to do about the Ezra Booth situation. The response they received is recorded as Doctrine and Covenants 71.
Behold, thus saith the Lord unto you my servants Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon, that the time has verily come that it is necessary and expedient in me that you should open your mouths…
The command was to temporarily set aside the translation of the Bible and to open their mouths and preach the gospel. How were they to preach?
Wherefore, confound your enemies; call upon them to meet you both in public and in private; and inasmuch as ye are faithful their shame shall be made manifest. Wherefore, let them bring forth their strong reasons against the Lord. Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you–there is no weapon that is formed against you shall prosper.
The Lord expected them to address the critics head on–face to face–in public and in private. He didn’t say “get them to shut their mouths” but “let them bring forth their strong reasons.” In other words, “bring it on!” He didn’t say “ignore them.” While there may be times to “ignore” our critics, there often are times when we need to “open our mouths” and “confound [our] enemies.”
Perhaps the most famous scripture about apologetics is from the New Testament:
“Be ready always to give an answer [Greek: apologia, a defense) to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear [Greek: reverence].” (1 Peter 3:15)
In other words, we need not always be ready to just share our testimony, but to give a defense to those who want a “reason” for our belief.
Example from Church History
I am currently reading “Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism” by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow. I highly recommend it. In fact, it was something I read in this book last night that sparked my idea for this post. All the information below can be found on pp. 185-191.
The first (quite successful) LDS mission to England came to a close in April 1838 with the departure of Elders Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde with around 2,000 members baptized. The leadership of the mission was transferred to Joseph Fielding.
There was rampant anti-Mormonism during this period. In 1837 Orson Hyde published the first missionary broadside in England in part to combat some of the anti-Mormon claims. However, Joseph Fielding had a different approach. After Elders Kimball and Hyde left, he wrote that “It appears they [the anti-Mormons] want to provoke us to controversy, but we have washed our feet against them all so they may talk and write until they are tired, or till the Lord puts a stop to them.” In other words, he decided it was not worth the energy or effort to respond to the anti-Mormons.
During the time that Joseph Fielding presided and took this approach, there was no real growth of the church in England. It was stagnant.
In early 1840, the second mission in England got underway. Elder Parley P. Pratt, upon arriving, immediately started printing rebuttals of the anti-Mormon publications. He responded to their criticisms with somewhat biting sarcasm and even threw in some of his own criticisms toward them. He went so far as to call the Methodist beliefs of one anti-Mormon “a bundle of nonsense, contradiction and absurdity.” Elder Woodruff recorded that they had distributed around 50,000 such tracts that year alone.
That year, about 5,000 individuals were baptized whereas the previous two years with a “hands-off” approach to criticisms from anti-Mormons resulted in basically no real growth for the Church.
There probably are many reasons there was so much growth after the apostles arrived in England in 1840. However, I don’t think we can discount the effect of the articulate apologetics of Elder Pratt and others during that time.
Likewise, today, I don’t think we can or should discredit the need for strong, vibrant apologetics for defending the Church. I think there can even be danger in building “goodwill” with people of other faiths if we do it at the expense of not declaring our beliefs with firmness and articulate conviction. Perhaps we could learn from the experience of the early apostles in England?
EDIT: I found this fabulous video this morning that I think is relevant to the topic at hand. Notice that this is an official spokesman for the church who commends FAIR (though he gets the URL wrong. It is http://www.fairlds.org).
Click here to see it: Michael Otterson, Managing Director of the Public Affairs Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints