Time for another installment in this occasional series. As reported in the Deseret News, Elder Christofferson delivered a presentation to new mission presidents at the Provo MTC in June. He first discussed the use of the Book of Mormon as a proselyting tool: "[H]ow will your missionaries get people to read the Book of Mormon, and also to pray with real intent about its truthfulness?" Then he recounted a personal conversation he had with a returned missionary who had completed his mission and served well, but had some concerns.
As the story summarized Elder Christofferson's description, the young man "was bright, confident and well-spoken, and who had served as an assistant to his mission president. He was troubled, having learned for the first time that there are several accounts of the First Vision that are not identical. He felt this information had been hidden from him." Here is how the story summarized Elder Christofferson's response to the young man: "Elder Christofferson told him that, far from being hidden, there had been more than one article in Church magazines discussing the accounts. The apostle also told the young man that with a testimony of the Book of Mormon, he need not be unsettled or feel his faith had been shaken."
The article then presents the following commentary as a direct quotation from Elder Christofferson:
I was shocked to hear him say that he didn’t know that the Book of Mormon was true. How is it possible that a faithful, successful missionary could not have received that witness? ... Presidents, Sisters, please don’t let this happen with any of your missionaries. Be sure that each one does what is necessary so that he or she does not leave the mission without a sure conviction of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and all that implies.
I will offer a few observations before I ask you, dear reader, to offer your own suggestions, perhaps even a draft paragraph, on how you would respond to the doubting elder's concerns.
- I'm a little surprised Elder Christofferson did not reference the Gospel Topics essay titled "First Vision Accounts," either in his response to the doubting elder or in counsel given to the new mission presidents.
- I'm a little troubled that Elder Christofferson did not emphasize the accomplishment of the doubting elder in completing his mission and serving well rather than giving him a hard time for not having internalized the Sunday School answers about the First Vision.
- His closing counsel to the new mission presidents was to make sure no missionary completes their mission "without a sure conviction of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and all that implies." But operationally, the effect will be to make sure that no missionary is allowed to verbalize any concerns about the Book of Mormon, the First Vision, or any other issue. It seems like he ought to be teaching these new mission presidents how to respond in a positive and supportive way to such concerns, not deflect or minimize them. A Book of Mormon re-education program (Elder Christofferson's response) doesn't really address the doubting elder's legitimate concerns.
So how would you respond to the doubting elder? Keep in mind that thousands of Latter-day Saints have such concerns, and increasingly they are bringing those concerns to friends, family, local leaders, or even senior leaders like Elder Christofferson. So this isn't just one young man's concern. It is an issue for many troubled Latter-day Saints, and what sort of response is appropriate or helpful is a question for the rest of us. It's not just the doubting elder's problem, it's our problem too.
Here's my own one-paragraph suggested response. I welcome your own suggestions in the comments.
Elder, congratulations on serving a fine mission. To have served well and completed your missionary service even while developing doubts or questions along with your growing faith is even more commendable. For your particular concerns about the four First Vision accounts that Joseph Smith prepared during his lifetime, I suggest you read the essay at LDS.org titled "First Vision Accounts." That essay provides links to each of those accounts and discusses the similarities and differences between them. Whatever was done in the past, clearly the Church is now making these documents available to the membership. Make sure you purchase and read the new four-volume history of the Church being published starting next year as well. Elder Uchtdorf has counseled members of the Church to doubt their doubts before they doubt their faith. I would add that you should inform your doubts and also inform your faith. That means reading informative books and articles by good LDS scholars, which you are allowed to do now that you are off your mission. We are directed to "seek learning, even by study and by faith." As you do so, I am confident you will find answers to your questions. Feel free to come back and visit me and let me know how your faithful study is going.
Originally published with comments at Times and Seasons.