Criticism of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Criticism of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been the subject of criticism since it was founded by American religious leader Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830. Historically, no issue brought greater criticism on the church than that of its practice of plural marriage, which it officially abandoned in 1890. Since then, criticisms have focused on claims of historical revisionism, homophobia, racism,[1] sexist policies, and inadequate financial disclosure.



Many people have been critical of the LDS church and Mormonism. Notable early critics of Mormonism included Abner Cole, Eber D. Howe, and Thomas C. Sharp. Notable 20th-century critics of the LDS Church include Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Richard Abanes, Richard and Joan Ostling, and Fawn M. Brodie. In recent years, the Internet has provided a new forum for critics,[2] and the church's 2008 support of California's Proposition 8 sparked heated debate and protesting by gay-rights organizations.[3][4] Affirmation is a group of former members of the LDS church which criticize the church's policies on homosexuality. Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry is a Christian organization which has criticized the church's theology. The Institute for Religious Research is an organization which has criticized the church, in particular the Book of Abraham. Numerous other organizations maintain web sites that criticize the church.

Notable apologists include Hugh Nibley, B. H. Roberts, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), and the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR).

Criticisms of doctrinal changes

Priesthood policy

The Tanners claim that the church's 1978 policy allowing all worthy male members, which included blacks, to hold the priesthood was not divinely inspired as the church claimed, but simply a matter of convenience.[5] Richard and Joan Ostling point out that this reversal of policy occurred as the LDS church began to expand outside the United States into countries such as Brazil that have large, ethnically mixed populations and as the church prepared to open a new temple in São Paulo, Brazil.[6]

Polygamy discontinued in 1890

The Tanners argue that the church's 1890 reversal of its policy on polygamy was done for political, not divine, reasons, citing the fact that it happened in the midst of a lengthy battle with the federal government over property seizures and statehood.[7] The Ostlings further point to the fact that soon after the church received the revelation that polygamy was prohibited, Utah again applied for statehood, and this time the federal government did not object to starting the statehood process. Six years later, the process completed and Utah became a state in 1896.[8] The Ostlings also point out that soon after the church suspended the practice of polygamy, the federal government reduced its legal efforts to seize church property.[8]

Mormons Ron Wood and Linda Thatcher do not dispute that the change was a direct result of federal intervention and respond that the church was left with no choice. The 1887 Edmunds–Tucker Act was crippling the church and "something dramatic had to be done to reverse [the] trend."[9] After the church appealed its case to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost, church president Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto. Woodruff noted in his journal that he was "acting for the temporal salvation of the Church".[10]

God was once a man

Critics such as Richard Abanes and the Institute for Religious Research criticize the church for changing the principle asserting that God was once a man, citing changes to the LDS publication Gospel Principles between the 1978[11] and 1997[12] editions, where "We can become Gods like our Heavenly Father" was changed to "We can become like our Heavenly Father" and "[O]ur Heavenly Father became a God" was changed to "[O]ur Heavenly Father became God".[13][14]

Criticisms of past teachings

Polygamy used to justify immoral behavior

Sarah Pratt, first wife of Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt, in an outspoken critique of Mormon polygamy said that

[polygamy] completely demoralizes good men and makes bad men correspondingly worse. As for the women—well, God help them! First wives it renders desperate, or else heart-broken, mean-spirited creatures.[15]

Pratt ended her marriage to husband Orson Pratt in 1868 because his "obsession with marrying younger women" (at age 57, Orson Pratt married a sixteen year old girl, his tenth wife, younger than his daughter Celestia[16]). Sarah Pratt lashed out at Orson in an 1877 interview,

Here was my husband, gray headed, taking to his bed young girls in mockery of marriage. Of course there could be no joy for him in such an intercourse except for the indulgence of his fanaticism and of something else, perhaps, which I hesitate to mention.[17]

The Tanners argue that early church leaders established the practice of polygamy in order to justify behavior that would otherwise be regarded as immoral.[18] The Ostlings criticize Joseph Smith for marrying at least 32 women during his lifetime, including several under the age of 16, a fact acknowledged by Mormon historian Todd Compton.[19][20] Compton also acknowledges that Smith entered into polyandrous marriages (that is, he married women who were already married to other men)[20] and that he warned some potential spouses of eternal damnation if they did not consent to be his wife,[21] and furthermore that, in at least two cases, he married orphan girls that had come to live at his home.[22]

However, Bushman notes that evidence of sexual relations in Smith's plural marriages is sparse or unreliable,[23] and Compton argues that some were likely dynastic in nature.[24]

Polygamy after 1890

Richard Abanes, Richard and Joan Ostling, and D. Michael Quinn note that after the 1890 Manifesto, church leaders authorized over 200 polygamous marriages and lied about the continuing practice.[25][26][27]

Joseph F. Smith acknowledged reports that church leaders didn't fully adhere to the 1890 prohibition. After the Second Manifesto in 1904, anyone entering into a new plural marriage was excommunicated.[28]

Adam and God are the same

The Ostlings criticize Brigham Young's teachings that God and Adam are the same being.[29][30] One apostle, Franklin D. Richards, also accepted the doctrine as taught by Young, stating in a Conference held in June 1854 that "the Prophet and Apostle Brigham has declared it, and that it is the word of the Lord" (emphasis in original).[31] However, at the time of its first introduction, several leaders disagreed with the doctrine, including Apostle Orson Pratt, who expressed that disagreement publicly.[32] The church never formally adopted the doctrine, and has since officially repudiated it.[33][34]

Blood atonement

Brigham Young introduced the doctrine known as "blood atonement", regarding unpardonable sin, or sin for which Jesus Christ's atonement does not apply.[35][36] He taught that a person could only atone for such sins by giving up his or her life.[37] Various church leaders since Young have taught likewise. Bruce R. McConkie stated that "this doctrine can only operate in a day when there is no separation of church and state and when the power to take life is vested in the ruling theocracy as was the case in the day of Moses."[38]

Criticism of temple ceremonies

Critics find fault with the church's temple policies and ceremonies, which include an endowment ceremony, weddings, and proxy baptism for the dead.

Temple admission restricted

Richard and Joan Ostling, and Hugh F. Pyle claim that the LDS's policy on temple admission is unreasonable, noting that even relatives cannot attend a temple marriage unless they are members of the church in good standing.[39][40] The Ostlings, the Institute for Religious Research and Jerald and Sandra Tanner claim that the admission rules are unreasonable because admission to the temple requires that a church member must first declare that they pay their full tithe before they can enter a temple.[41][42][43] The Mormonism Research Ministry calls this "coerced tithing" because church members that do not pay the full tithe cannot enter the temple, and thus cannot receive the ordinances required to receive the highest order of exaltation in the next life.[44][45]

Baptism for the dead

The church teaches that a living person, acting as proxy, can be baptized by immersion on behalf of a deceased person, citing 1 Corinthians 15:29;[46] Malachi 4:5–6; John 5:25; and 1 Peter 4:6 for doctrinal support.[47] These baptisms for the dead are performed in temples. Critics challenge this doctrine and the manner in which the church puts it into practice.[who?]

Doctrinal criticism

Floyd C. McElveen and the Institute for Religious Research claim that verses to support Baptism for the Dead are not justified by contextual exegesis of the Bible.[48][49] In 2008 The Vatican issued a statement calling the practice "erroneous" and directing its dioceses to keep parish records from Mormons performing genealogical research.[50]

Baptism of Holocaust victims

Holocaust survivors and other Jewish groups criticized the LDS church in 1995, after discovering that the church had baptized more than 300,000 Jewish holocaust victims.[51][52] After that criticism, church leaders put a policy in place to stop the practice, with an exception for baptisms specifically requested or approved by victims' relatives.[53] Jewish organizations again criticized the church in 2002, 2004, and 2008[54] claiming that the church failed to honor the 1995 agreement.[55] The LDS Church claims it has put institutional safeguards in place to avoid the submission of the names of Holocaust victims not related to Mormon members, but that the sheer number of names submitted makes policing the database of names impractical.[56]

Endowment ceremony allegedly copied

Jerald and Sandra Tanner allege that Joseph Smith copied parts of the Mormon temple endowment ceremony from Masonic rituals (such as secret handshakes, clothing, and passwords), and that this undermines the church's claim that the rituals were divinely inspired.[57] The Tanners also point to the fact that Joseph Smith was himself a Freemason[58] prior to introducing the endowment rituals into Mormonism.

Endowment ceremony changed

The Tanners criticize the church's revision of the temple endowment ceremony over the years, claiming revisions were made to obscure provocative practices of the early church.[59][60]

The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research acknowledges changes to the endowment ceremony and points out that (according to Joseph Fielding Smith) Joseph Smith told Brigham Young the ceremony was "not arranged perfectly", and challenged him to organize and systemize it, which Young continued to do throughout his presidency.[61]


Financial secrecy

The church has often been secretive about its finances, especially in the United States. The church has not disclosed its assets in the U.S. since 1959.[62] This has drawn criticism from the Ostlings and the Tanners, who consider its financial practices to be overly secretive.[63][64][65]

The church does disclose financials in the United Kingdom, where it is required to by law.[66] In addition, the church employs an independent audit department that provides its certification at each annual general conference that church contributions are collected and spent in accordance with church policy.[67] Moreover, the church engages a public accounting firm (currently Deloitte & Touche in the United States; PricewaterhouseCoopers in the United Kingdom) to perform annual audits of its not-for-profit,[68] for-profit,[69] and educational[70][71] entities.

It should be noted that lay leaders at the local level are not paid.

Emphasis on money

The Tanners and the Ostlings accuse the church of being overly greedy and materialistic, citing the large amount of wealth accumulated by the church, and citing the strong emphasis on tithing,[72] and suggest that the church is more like a business than a spiritual endeavor.[65][73]

Access to historical documents

The Tanners claim that throughout the 20th century the church denied scholars access to many key church documents, and in 1979 claimed that to date it had refused to publish Joseph Smith's diary.[74] Apologists point out that The Joseph Smith Papers project will provide access to Smith's journals.[75]

Criticism of response to internal dissent

The Ostlings claim that the LDS church retaliates against members that publish information that undermines church policies,[76] citing excommunications of scientist Simon Southerton[77] and biographer Fawn M. Brodie.[78] They further claim that the church suppresses intellectual freedom, citing the 1993 excommunication of "The September Six", including gay LDS historian D. Michael Quinn, and author Lavina Fielding Anderson.[76] The Ostlings write that Anderson was the first to reveal the LDS church keeps files on LDS scholars, documenting questionable activities, and the Ostlings claim that "No other sizable religion in America monitors its followers in this way".[76]

The American Association of University Professors, since 1998, has put LDS-owned Brigham Young University on its list of universities that do not allow tenured professors sufficient freedom in teaching and research.[79]

Richard Abanes lists the following as church members excommunicated or censured for views unnaccepable to the church hierarchy:[80]

  • Journalist Deborah Laake, for her book Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman's Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond
  • BYU English teacher Cecilia Konchar-Farr, for her views on abortion laws
  • Writer Janice Merrill Allred
  • English Professor Gail Houston
  • Anthropologist David Knowlton

Church monitors members' critical publications

Richard Abanes and the Ostlings criticize the LDS church for maintaining a group called the Strengthening Church Members Committee, led by two church apostles.[80] According to the Ostlings, the purpose of this committee is to collect and file "letters to the editor, other writings, quotes in the media, and public activities" of church members that may be publishing views contrary to those of the church leadership.[81]

Alleged distortion of its own history

An analysis of B. H. Roberts' work History of the Church when compared to the original manuscripts from which it is drawn, "more than 62,000 words" can be identified that were either added or deleted,.[82] Based on this analysis, Jerald and Sandra Tanner contend that the church distorts its history in order to portray itself in a more favorable light.[59] Specifically they allege that there was a systematic removal of events that portray Joseph Smith in a negative light.[83]

D. Michael Quinn responded to these charges by pointing out that methods by B. H. Roberts used in creating History of the Church—while flawed by today's standards—were not uncommon practices in the nineteenth century, even by reputable historians.[84]

Jerald and Sandra Tanner cite the selective use of Brigham Young's statements, presented in a manner to give the illusion that he was in favor of blacks joining the priesthood.[85] The Tanners also claim that the church attempted to discredit evidence that Joseph Smith was arrested, tried, and found guilty by a justice of the peace in Bainbridge, New York, in 1826.[86] They highlight changes such as the title page of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon that described Joseph Smith as "Author and Proprietor" of the book, which was revised in subsequent editions to be "Translator",[87] and the description of Oliver Cowdery's skill at using the divining rod found in the 1829 edition of the Book of Commandments, which does not appear in the corresponding section of the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.[88]

FARMS responds to the "author and proprietor" charge by arguing this title conformed to the governing copyright laws in 1830.[89]

The Ostlings consider other omissions to be distortion, noting that the widely distributed church manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young omits any mention of Young's polygamy, and that the book's chronological summary of Young's life includes the date of his first marriage, the date of the first wife's death, and the date of the second legal marriage, but omits mention of Young's dozens of other marriages.[90]

In 1842, Willard Richards compiled a number of records in order to produce a history of the church. Among the records examined were the various accounts related to Zelph. In the process of combining the accounts, Richards crossed out Woodruff's references to "hill Cumorah," and Heber C. Kimball's reference to the "last" great struggle with the Lamanites"[91]

LDS historian D. Michael Quinn accuses LDS leaders of urging historians to hide "controversies and difficulties of the Mormon past".[92] Mormon scholar Allen Robers says LDS leaders "attempt to control depictions of the Mormon past".[93] Non-LDS professor John Hallwas of Western Illinois University says of LDS historians: "[they] do not mention Mormon intimidation, deception, repression, theft, and violence, or any other matters that might call into question the sacred nature of the Mormon experience."[94]

Columbia University professor Richard Bushman, a member of The Joseph Smith Papers advisory board, responds to critics that those on the project "work on the assumption that the closer you get to Joseph Smith in the sources, the stronger he will appear, rather than the reverse, as is so often assumed by critics."[95]

In 1969, the Western History Association published Jewish historian Moses Rischin's observation of a new trend among Mormons historians to report objectively.[96] Quinn cites this as the origin of the term "New Mormon history", while citing previous efforts towards objectivity such as Juanita Brooks’ 1950 publication of "The Mountain Meadows Massacre" by Stanford University Press.[97]

FARMS scholarship questioned

Critics claim the LDS church is academically dishonest, because it supports biased research conducted by the church-owned Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). FARMS is a research institute within church-owned Brigham Young University that publishes Mormon scholarship. Critic Matthew Paulsen faults FARMS for limiting peer review to members of the LDS church. He claims that FARMS's primary goal is to defend the LDS faith rather than to promote truthful scholarship.[98] Molecular biologist Simon Southerton, a former LDS bishop and author of Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church said, "I was amazed at the lengths that FARMS went to in order to prop up faith in the Book of Mormon. I felt that the only way I could be satisfied with FARMS explanations was to stop thinking.... The explanations of the FARMS researchers stretched the bounds of credibility to breaking point on almost every critical issue".[99]

FARMS supports and sponsors what it considers to be 'faithful scholarship', which includes academic study and research in support of Christianity and Mormonism, and in particular, where possible, the official position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[100]

Critic and ex-Mormon Steve Benson (grandson of Ezra Taft Benson) quoted church apostle Neal A. Maxwell as telling him that "one of the purposes of F.A.R.M.S. was to prevent the General Authorities from being outflanked by the Church's critics."[101]

Views on sexuality

Deborah Laake and Colleen McDannell claim that the church takes a repressive stance towards sexuality and that this may be psychologically unhealthy.[102][103]

Affirmation, a Gay & Lesbian organization, and Ed Decker, a critic of the LDS church, both claim that the repressive attitude of the church may - in extreme cases - lead to suicide, as in the case of 16-year old Kip Eliason, who committed suicide because of the stresses that resulted when his LDS bishop told him that masturbation was sinful.[104][105]

In January 1982 the church presidency issued a letter to local leaders saying "The First Presidency has interpreted oral sex as constituting an unnatural, impure, or unholy practice." The letter was not distributed to the general membership.[106] This letter also instructed local leaders not to inquire into the specifics of married members' sex lives. However, this portion of the letter was often ignored, and in response to letters of protest from members, another letter was issued to local leaders in October reiterating the prohibition on inquiring into specific sexual practices.[107]

Apologists note that other faiths have similar proscriptions, such as the Roman Catholic Church,[108][109][110] Eastern Orthodoxy,[111] Judaism,[112][113][114] and Islam.[115][116]

Views on homosexuality

Scott Thumma and contend that the LDS church is homophobic.[117][118] cites a faithful, celibate, gay Latter-day Saint who shortly before his suicide wrote: "Straight members have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up gay in this church. It is a life of constant torment, self-hatred and internalized homophobia."[119] Church leaders have agreed to meet with Affirmation to discuss these concerns.[120]

God Loveth His Children, a pamphlet produced by the LDS Church, acknowledges that many gays "have felt rejected because members of the Church did not always show love." It criticizes those members, and challenges gays to show love and kindness so the members can "change their attitudes and follow Christ more fully."[121]

Gay historian D. Michael Quinn has hypothesized that early church leaders had a more tolerant view of homosexuality, and that several early church leaders and prominent members, including Louie B. Felt, May Anderson, Evan Stephens, and Joseph Fielding Smith, may have either had homosexual tendencies or were involved in homosexual relationships.[122] George Mitton and Rhett S. James do not dispute that some early members may have had homosexual tendencies, but they call Quinn's claim of tolerance a distortion of church history and it has little support from other historians. They deny any acceptance from previous leaders of homosexual behavior, and state the current leadership of the church “is entirely consistent with the teachings of past leaders and with the scriptures.”[123]

In the early 1970s, Ford McBride did research in electro-shock therapy while a student at Brigham Young University on volunteer homosexual students to help cure them of ego-dystonic sexual orientation.[124][125] This was a standard type of aversion therapy used to treat homosexuality,[126] which was considered a mental illness at the time.[127] Brigham Young University is owned by the church, but conducts research independently of the church. Church critics Affirmation and The Salamander Society claim that the church was involved in these research initiatives.[124]

Gordon B. Hinckley encouraged church members to reach out to homosexuals with love and understanding.[128] This sparked criticism and protests from the Westboro Baptist Church at Hinckley's funeral.[129][130] has particularly criticized sexual repression of gays, both inside and outside of the church.

A letter dated June 20, 2008, sent to Mormon bishops and signed by the First Presidency, called on Mormons to donate "means and time" to a California ballot measure designed to defeat the state's May ruling allowing same-sex marriage. Richard and Joan Ostling point out that the LDS church actively campaigns against same-sex marriage statutes, including donating $500,000 in 1998 towards a campaign to defeat such a referendum in Alaska.[131] The church's support of California's Proposition 8 in 2008 sparked heated debate and protesting by gay-rights organizations.[3][4]


Richard and Joan Ostling point to the church's practice, continued until 1978, of refusing the priesthood to blacks as evidence that past LDS church policies were racist in nature. Before the change in policy, most other adult males in the LDS Church were given the priesthood; Church policy precluded blacks from officiating in ordinances and from participating in LDS temple ceremonies.[132] Jerald and Sandra Tanner cite quotes from church leaders such as Brigham Young who said, "You must not think, from what I say, that I am opposed to slavery. No! The negro is damned, and is to serve his master till God chooses to remove the curse of Ham...".[133] The Tanners also illustrate church racism by quoting sections of the Book of Mormon which describe dark skin as a sign of a curse and a mark from God to distinguish a more righteous group of people from a less righteous group, and by citing passages describing white skin as "delightsome" while dark skin is portrayed as un-enticing (2 Nephi 30:6). However, these references in the Book of Mormon focused on those presumed to be the ancestors of Native Americans, not people of African descent. [134] Joseph F. Smith, president of the church, published his views that people with dark skin were less faithful in the pre-existence, and as such, did not warrant the blessings of the priesthood.[135][136] The Tanners also cite other church leaders, historical and modern who have spoken in favor of segregation and restrictions of the priesthood for men of African descent.[135][137]

Although the current LDS church policy now admits blacks to the priesthood, the church has not issued a written repudiation of racist doctrines,[138] although Bruce R. McConkie told members "Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said [about Blacks and the priesthood]... We spoke with a limited understanding."[139] Some black members have made formal requests to the church to issue a statement, while other black members have argued against that effort.[140] One critical black church member contends that the church "refuses to acknowledge and undo its racist past, and until it does that, members continue to suffer psychological damage from it" and that "the church has not done enough to rectify its racist past".[141] However, the large majority of black Mormons say they are willing to look beyond the racist teachings and cleave to the church.[142] Gordon B. Hinckley has sermonized against racism. He has taught that no one who utters denigrating remarks can consider himself a true disciple of Christ, and noted the irony of racial claims to the Melchizedek Priesthood.[143]

Richard Abanes contends that the church tries to hide past racial practices, citing the 1981 change in the Book of Mormon from saying the Lamanites would become "a white and a delightsome people" to "a pure and a delightsome people." (2 Nephi 30:6).[144] However, this change in wording was originally published in 1840 by Joseph Smith,[145] and was not reincorporated until 140 years later.[146]

Gregory Prince and Wm. Robert Wright state that these leaders were a product of their time and locale and that many leaders, including Joseph Smith, Jr., David O. McKay, and even initially Brigham Young, were not opposed to blacks receiving the priesthood.[147] They further state that the policy was a practice supported by scriptural arguments, not a doctrine,[148] and despite several church leaders throughout the 1950s and 1960s supporting its reversal, the policy was kept in place through 1978 because the Quorum of the Twelve felt a revelation was needed to change it.[149]

Gender bias and sexism

Richard and Joan Ostling argue that the LDS Church treats women as inferior to men.[150] The Cult Awareness and Information Centre also point to comments such as those made by LDS leader Bruce R. McConkie, who wrote in 1966 that a "woman's primary place is in the home, where she is to rear children and abide by the righteous counsel of her husband".[151] The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve espouse a complementarian view of gender roles.[152]

Claudia Lauper Bushman notes that, in the 70s and 80s, "just as American women pressed for greater influence", the LDS church actually decreased visibility and responsibilities of women in various areas including welfare, leadership, training, publishing, and policy setting. Despite this, Bushman asserts, "most LDS women tend to be good-natured and pragmatic: they work on the things that they can change and forget the rest." [153]

Jerald and Sandra Tanner point to comments by certain church leaders as evidence that women are subject to different rules regarding entry into heaven. They claim that 19th-century leader Erastus Snow preached: "No woman will get into the celestial kingdom, except her husband receives her, if she is worthy to have a husband; and if not, somebody will receive her as a servant".[154]

Those who adopt humanist or feminist perspectives may view certain LDS doctrines (including the spiritual status of blacks, polygamy, and the role of women in society) as racist or sexist.[155]

See also

Christus statue temple square salt lake city.jpg Latter-day Saints portal


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  91. ^ Godfrey 1994 "Zelph was a white Lamanite, a man of God who was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus who was known from the [hill Cumorah is crossed out in the manuscript] eastern Sea, to the Rocky Mountains. He was killed in battle, by the arrow found among his ribs, during a [last crossed out] great struggle with the Lamanites" [and Nephites crossed out]."
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