Hans Mattsson, Mormonism, and Me

For a copy of my book, Black Mormon, click here.

So the weekend has been abuzz with the story of Hans Mattsson, an Area Authority Seventy who began to research Mormonism’s historical claims on the Internet and found his faith shattered.  The article was most widely sought-after article yesterday.  

Whatever one thinks of Hans Mattsson personally, it’s a story that resonates with a lot of people.  They’re raised thinking that Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, Brigham Young, polygamy all worked in a certain way.  Then you’re checking out the latest ridiculous YouTube video one day and you–who knows how?–stumble across a site that promises you the truth about the Book of Mormon, the reality of polygamy, and objective inquiry into Mormonism’s truth claims.

I’ve been there myself.  In 1993, this was me, 2 a.m., regular basis: stock-footage-young-man-in-front-of-computer-screen-dark-night-roomNope, this isn’t an “I’m a porn-addict” post.  This is a “I was a Mormon history addict.”  Perhaps I should see someone about it.

I respect and sympathize with Every Single Person who has gone through what Elder Mattsson has gone through. It breaks my heart.  I wish he would have been informed sooner, better, more thoroughly.  It breaks my heart to see people get blindsided.  It’s happened to more friend than one.  Some do a little hand-waving, hoping the whole thing

will magically disappear (typically accompanied by the spell, “The Church is perfect; the people aren’t”–a mantra that has always struck me as a not-so-ambitious way of ignoring the issue). Some, like Elder Mattsson, had their world shattered.   I wish he would have reached out to someone in a position to know (and as bright as they are, General Authorities are not always those people).  From his own account, people did reach out to him, but they were profoundly ill-equipped to answer his questions–leaving him feeling only more frustrated.  Taking him at his word, it was a tragic story.

But even more, it was a preventable story.

I respect the lived experience of others–the trauma of feeling lied to by an institution, the trauma of realizing that you’ve believed in a mythology, the anguish of recognizing that the same people who helped you through thick and thin have also uttered rank falsehood, even if unintentionally.

I must also respect my own experience.  Perhaps I’m a freak, but I knew Mormon history mattered at a time when my community really didn’t care.  My neighborhood was not the place for history buffs, unless you wore a beard, owned buckskins, could carve bears from oakwood or were so old that people figured that you couldn’t help but talk about the good/bad ole’ days.  The right to talk history was something you had to earn the right to do.  Our ward had the endearing old doctor who liked to spout off in class: “Did you know that Jesse Gause…”  Young men were supposed to shoot things, catch fish, blow things up, and if they must read, read adventure novels.

So perhaps it was because I was a curious kid.  Maybe I found out that bears didn’t really sing and dance and was ticked.  Could be that it was because I was an asthmatic with a particularly (and possibly over)protective mother and had too much spare time on my hands.  Or maybe I just needed a life.

But I’ve been blessed to have some level of familiarity with the issues Brother Mattsson raised for almost twenty years. Have I been troubled? Absolutely. Was I right to be? Yes.  Some things still do bother me. I don’t like reading about Brigham Young issuing a blanket order to kill uncooperative mountain men during the Utah War.  I don’t enjoy hearing that Joseph Smith hid plural marriages from Emma, that he would perform pro forma excommunications for the sake of good PR (with the promise, of course, to reinstate them the next day–which he did). I don’t love Joseph’s or Brigham’s violent streaks, as compassionate I know both of them were capable of being.  Saying “prophets are human” is a highly unsatisfactory answer, and it always will be.  For me, it always registered as “I really have no desire whatsoever to deal with the implications of this particular point, and why, petulant child, are you bothering me with it?”  It’s a very good way to get your presumably honest inquirer to look elsewhere.  And chances are, that elsewhere won’t be saying the things you want your friend to hear.

So yes, I’ve grown up with an oversized awareness of these issues.  But it was a fight I generally faced alone, even if my parents were tolerant of my weird interest.   I eventually found friends who would (and could) talk to me seriously about the issues without awkward glances, avoidance, or dismissal.   ????????

So perhaps history (esp. Mormon history) isn’t your thing.  Hey, I’m glad you can help me with fixing my car.  But if a friend comes to you with serious, probing questions, I promise you that the best way you can help them is by doing the following:
1) Listen to them.
2) Allow for the possibility that their concerns might have some grounding in reality.  They might be wrong, but that’s ok.               3) Don’t assume that they just want to sleep around or just want to get smashed.  It might be true, but it probably isn’t. If by chance either of those things are happening, it only tells you that their spiritual crisis actually runs deeper than anything history could ever present to them.   You might be tempted to focus on the “real issues.”  Don’t.  If you do, you’ll only be communicating one message to them: “You don’t care enough about me to listen to my superficial issues.  Why would I want to discuss the issues that I myself haven’t even come to grips with?”  An open dialogue about whatever’s on their mind–history included–is the best way for you to develop trust.

There’s more to this thing than just a hobby.  There’s a lot at stake.  You know it.  I know it.  And more importantly, your friend knows it.   Do them a favor sometime.  Take them to the nearest hokey restaurant (I recommend Red Robin; please don’t do Applebee’s.  That insults everybody.  Waffle House works, but only because it owns the bad gourmet).   Sit down.  And say: “So tell me what you think about this polygamy stuff. I’m listening.”


16 comments on “Hans Mattsson, Mormonism, and Me

  1. TJ says:

    Will you point me to a good primer on some of these aspects of the church’s history that are troubling many of our members? I’d rather hear the news from one of the faithless, rather than some “vessel of wrath” hell-bent on tearing down the church and the faith of its members. I’ve never even seen your site before today but found a link on Facebook, and the idea of hunting through all this content you’ve published seems a bit overwhelming.

    • Hi TJ:

      It really depends on what you want to know. But most people are interested in Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. To study them, I would recommend looking at Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. The former is a faithful Mormon. The latter is a fair-minded non-Mormon.

      • TJ says:

        I just realized that there aren’t as many posts here as I originally thought. Is there supposed to be a gap from July ’12 to Jun ’13?

      • Zachary Lytle says:

        Agree! Excellent sources. You will be troubled but it is worth it.

  2. Sarah Bakker says:

    TJ, I suggest watching John Dehlin’s youtube presentation called “Why Mormons Question”. It’s long, but totally worth it.

  3. Grasshopper says:

    I always recommend people go to the Fair Mormon website and listen to the Fair Blog podcasts. Great stuff in there. I have not encountered an issue that had no answer. That is not to say all the answers are there, but there are many many answers. And yes, Bushman’s book is incredible.

  4. Amanda says:

    I have greatly enjoyed reading through your blog! So what are your answers to the question that plagues Mattson? How did you find peace without entering into the “Prophets are people, too” mindset. Is it just a matter of understanding a person’s background and historical setting to add context?

  5. Amanda says:

    In addition, are there any steps you feel the church can take to avoid this sort of thing from continuing to happen?

  6. Erin says:

    Wise words Russ. I enjoyed reading this a lot.

  7. Zachary Lytle says:

    I haven’t yet read the story that prompted you to write this – but I almost don’t need to (though I will) having seen so many fellow Mormons (especially mission companions) blindsided (you chose the right word there) by info. which, because it may not have been deemed directly necessary for salvation, was never addressed. Then, when they become troubled and would sincerely like it sincerely addressed a (usually) well-meaning friend or bishop will give them the knowing look (as if to say, “Ye simple souls who stray”) and try to help them past their concerns using some variation on the old, stick to the basics, stop focusing on side-issues, etc. Don’t misunderstand – That CAN be good advice, at certain times and up to a point – or it can be good to be reminded that, in spite of the fact you are troubled by a discovery in church history, you should balance that out against what you DO know and feel before acting rashly.
    I think a lot of people do live their entire lives, happily, without a lot of curiosity about this stuff. I think, though, that a lot of members do find these troubling pieces of history and either don’t feel much need to look further into it – and I guess that’s fine with me if that’s fine for them. But some find them and are terrified about the ramifications of questions, which could lead to doubt, which could lead to an unthinkable consequences for them – upheaval in their family and community – even professional relationships, and so instead of addressing this stuff head-on, they run away to a safe place. I have to admit I’m not fine with that, because I believe the questions raised by their discoveries will continue to bubble up in them and create doubt as they continue to serve in the church and so I think it’s not a good idea for any of us who are troubled by a discovery to try and dismiss it.
    I believe I’ve read, and/or heard it all. It started for me, when at the age of about 9, blacks were given the priesthood. Before that happened, I had no idea black men could NOT hold the priesthood. I was a very strange kid and had discovered Ghandi and Martin Luther King and had studied up (as much as a nine year old can) on civil rights. It may be because I moved from the southeastern United States to New England when I was 8 and that made me more likely to notice anything written about these issues b/c I saw the day and night view on race between north and south change in my life with one 10 hour move north. Anyway, I was horrified and, b/c I was small, was dismissed any time I asked about the revelation and how I was to understand this bit of terrible knowledge I had acquired. But it got me questioning, doubting and reading. I had a testimony of Christ and I am certain my understanding of Christ, his mission, etc. is correct (not complete – just correct) because of its having been revealed in its fulness and correctness through joseph Smith. While this made it impossible for me to dismiss the religion based simply on those troubling questions, it created an incredible problem for me. I was not determined to stay a Mormon – Certainly not if I felt it was wrong, but I didn’t feel I was spiritually ignorant enough (which would have been bliss) to simply dismiss it. I did lack a lot of knowledge though
    One thing I think that helped me a lot (besides seeking out unedited texts, etc.) was the fact I was not raised in a Mormon culture. In order to be a Mormon I already had to swim hard against the tide. I could not just float along in a culture where it was actually more convenient to be LDS than to differ. I felt forced to face up to these questions and doubts and try to use my intelligence, reason – AND personal revelation to understand the religion (also to learn about and try to understand other faiths – without fear of becoming an “apostate” – which I was told by some people would surely happen if I attended gatherings, etc. of other faiths)
    So, being one of only a small handful of Mormons in my school, sometimes feeling like an outcast as a result, sometimes being directly discriminated against as a result, I had no cultural incentive to stay LDS – quite the opposite. Knowing that made it seem vital that I find the answers – not just to the questions which lead to a “testimony”, but to every important question that arose as I learned – no matter how troubling. Did I get all my concerns resolved? What do you think? Of course not. However, I was able to get the answers and understanding I needed if I were to remain LDS. I am nearly certain that, had I lived in an all-LDS culture and been gently pushed along until I served a mission (because that’s what one did at 19) and not had to face this stuff before adulthood I would have felt the world I’d lived in shatter. I feel very blessed that I was bale to deal with it a little at a time. I was able to work through troubling issues as I gained more “gospel knowledge”. When I got to college, I needed a year – and then a year off, to really know if going on my mission was what I should do. So I was (shudder) a little over 20 when I started my mission. I was barraged there as well, with tons more questions and concerns, but I was ready to take them on if I felt they merited the time and effort.
    Now, I have some ideas about the issue of blacks and the priesthood. Actually reading (un-filtered, un-edited) texts from prophets and church leaders helped me see some possibly valid reasons for it – but mostly to feel it was a tragic mistake – not a doctrine (though The Pearl of Great Price is troubling there, but…personal revelation) and that its institution came about due to fear of persecution, plain old prejudice, misinterpretation of scripture and the failure on the part of many prophets to ASK God about it. Is it wrong for me to say that prophets failed to do the right thing? That the question didn’t seem important enough to them and we were stuck with a wrong doctrine as a result? How could it be wrong? Joseph Smith clearly taught, and it has been repeatedly taught, that if we don’t ask the right questions, with the right intent, we don’t get the answer. This happened to joseph and is recorded in the D & C.
    OK, blacks and the priesthood was far from my only concern, but let me just tell you (then I’ll shut up) why I think it was so important that I tackle this issue head-on and not be afraid of the answers: The last 8 months of my mission were spent, almost exclusively teaching West Africans. Do you think I might have had to deal with the subject? Do you think I could just tell hundreds of black men – men who, in many cases were some of the finest people I’ve ever met, to just not worry about it and to focus solely on whether the Book of Mormon were true or not? The question came up. Big time. It was terrible to have to address it and discuss it with these fine men but I am so grateful to have gotten a tiny bit of understanding about it before I was placed in the position of having to explain (I will not say, “justify”) it.
    We need to encourage our children to be – I think, skeptical. Not to take our word for it. Lean on me…? A little, and for a little while if they really want and need to – but just telling them to lean on me when they are troubled rather than lean on me AND seek the unvarnished truth and see if it can be reconciled to belief in the gospel has to be the better answer. I encourage mine to understand the gospel b/c I believe in it, but I would never want them to feel they had to ignore, or come up with a quick and easy justification for every doubt and question they will encounter. I also think they should be encouraged to get a full understanding of the history – warts and all – To face it down and see what they come up with. I don’t see another approach that is fair to them if I truly understand them as sons of God and free agents. I can’t encourage them to remain ignorant because to do otherwise might sow doubt and might lead them out of the church. If they stay, I want it to be based on as complete an understanding possible. Was this guy hurt worse by having his concerns brushed off than he would have been had these issues been made available for him to study from day one? He’s gone now, so how could encouraging him to seek out the whole truth from the start have resulted in anything worse (from the point of view of a faithful LDS?).

  8. The only way I know what is true is by the Spirit. I would be lost if I tried to find it any other way.

    • Zachary Lytle says:

      I agree, but I just want to add that, If we have been confirmed, the spirit is available to help us understand anything worthy we might want to try and understand. Even those without the gift of the holy ghost… How did Jonas Salk get the knowledge and understanding to develop vaccination against polio if not from the Spirit of God? God is the greatest scientist of all and I am certain those who have sought out worthy knowledge and sought to serve their fellow men in so doing have been inspired in their solutions by the Holy Ghost.
      I think the same applies to those of us who feel a need to get to the bottom of the history of the church and to try and reconcile it with our faith and our previous experiences with The Spirit. How devastating if we were to discover this to be impossible. So, I agree with you, and I think that without the spirit to help us, making sense of the church’s history, etc. when we find ourselves “blindsided” by something troubling would be impossible.
      I know I shouldn’t assume too much about your comment since it was so brief, but I can’t tell you how many times I have been given something like it as the answer to troubling questions – and it has often been a short-hand for, “Rely on your testimony and don’t worry about your questions and doubts”. I agree with (so many) people who have told me that I needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but can leave a question un-answered – at least for a time, in order to continue to focus on what is more important. We can’t approach the gospel this way continuously though. We can’t put every concern on a back-burner – and maybe that is not what you meant to say and I apologize if I misconstrue your meaning by putting it this way – but I have been told this by at least one person every time I’ve had a concern and shared it with trusted friends and church leaders. In my opinion, If we keep putting those concerns on a back-burner instead of facing up to them, we will end up with a house-fire on our hands.
      Ultimately, I think your expression is right, but (again I may not be doing you justice here by my interpretation and I apologize if that is the case) incomplete. I’ve had to rely heavily on the spirit and whatever testimony I’ve had at a given time to get me through a new experience in the church, a doctrine, or step which was new to me, as well as difficult-to-grasp, or troubling historical questions, but, with trust in the holy Ghost, and personal revelation I don’t have to fear taking those troubles head-on. Ultimately, my testimony is strengthened and my mind eased when I haven’t run away from these things, but have had the faith to examine them as honestly and thoroughly as I can and see if I can still reconcile what I learn with what I already know and with my testimony (which has been tested in this) that the church is, in spite of… whatever, God’s chosen vehicle for redeeming his children in the last days.

  9. Last Salad Days says:

    Lets not minimize the personal integrity of Elder Mattsson. He tried to get answers. For a long time. You can find on line a complete transcript of Marlin Jensen’s visit to Elder Mattsson and the other General Authorities in Sweden in November of 2010. You might have a very hard time with reading it. It too has gone viral. What is very important to understand is not the information Hans Mattsson was troubled with but the response to his concerns on the part of the church leaders that he trusted to have answers for those issues. That is where there is a really huge house fire. This I believe is a problem (reaction to a questioning attitude) at all levels. People shun someone and fall on bellicose statements like “Oh he found some ANTI MORMON material” without examining for themselves whether the church has provided a decent -vs- a completely lame and unbelievable response to their issue.

  10. […] the NYT article has prompted The Mormon History Guy, Russell Stevenson, to post a couple articles in response.  Stevenson, a close friend of mine and a brilliant scholar, just published […]

  11. Amy says:

    An excellent response. It is both sympathetic to Hans Mattsson’s personal experience and instructive about why we should be better at seeking answers and developing a culture that allows for honest questions. Also, the advice to avoid Applebee’s is spot on.

  12. TJ says:

    Salad, will you give me a link to the transcript? I couldn’t find one that actually had the transcript (I didn’t look at anti websites though)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s