The Truth About Mormon Myths
Kate Ensign-Lewis - May 17, 2011
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*The following is an excerpt of "The Truth About Mormon Myths." To read the full article, see the LDS Living magazine May/June 2011 issue.
I can remember when I heard my very first Mormon myth. I was 8 years old, and one of my older sisters came to me and said, “Guess what? Steve Martin is a Mormon!”
She had heard from our cousins in Las Vegas about how he had gone on David Letterman, and when asked about Mormonism, replied, “That’s a very private part of my life right now.” It seemed legit enough to me. I started telling everyone in my small sphere— which was basically my friends and my Valiant class—that the star of Father of the Bride was LDS.
I don’t remember when I started to doubt the story, but years later I learned that the myth had started when a Mormon Tabernacle Choir member’s son had written home saying he had baptized Steve Martin. Only after this excited choir member had told his friends did he realize he had misunderstood—it wasn’t that Steve Martin. By then the story had spread like feathers in the wind.
“Storytelling is universal to the human species—there’s no tribe, no country anywhere that doesn’t do it,” says Eric Eliason, professor of folklore at Brigham Young University. But, he adds, “I can’t help but wonder if there’s something fundamentally oral and face-to-face about the Mormon experience.”
We Mormons go from home to home, teaching the message of our Church. We believe deeply in the importance of teaching and bearing testimony to one another. And all this is founded upon stories that affirm our faith—many of which combine the divine with everyday experience.
“We have, starting with the First Vision, a heritage of supernatural stories—stories that go beyond the everyday,” says Mike Hunter, Mormon Studies librarian at BYU and author of the book Mormon Myth-allaneous. “In sacrament meeting and in our Sunday School lessons, we like to share stories that show God has a hand in what’s going on in our lives. So we don’t find these stories necessarily incredible or unbelievable, simply because every day of our lives we have stories of people who feel they have had divine intervention in their lives. We’re going to listen to it and maybe take it seriously.”
Mormon Folklore—True or False?
Folklorists look for the principle in a story—what it says about the culture at large and how that culture uses stories to deal with life. “Mormon folklore consists of a vibrant body of oral narratives which reflect the dominant values and attitudes . . . of Church members,” says Bert Wilson, one of the foremost Mormon folklorists. “So it’s not enough just to find out if something is true or not.”
In fact, many stories aren’t so easily classified as “true” or “false.” And there’s always a debate in engaging in an exercise of “debunking” folklore: if these stories uplift and teach people, is it constructive or even fair to prove them true or false? “Sometimes it really does matter [to know if a story is true],” says Eliason, “but sometimes it doesn’t. If you become too cynical, you maybe will hear a story about the Three Nephites that’s absolutely true and is going to change your life, and you don’t believe it.” “The harm is if you’re leaning on these stories for your faith. Then, when the story suddenly crumbles, you fall with it,” adds Hunter.
In the end, all stories of folklore have value of their own, true or not. But we still think it’s of use to educate you. Stories can still uplift and teach if they’re known to be false, and any potential danger in believing their truth can be avoided. So, the following is a quick exploration of some of our culture’s favorite stories, the “kernels of truth” and principles behind them, and, where possible, the evidence to support or disprove them. Now, for a foray through the funhouse of Mormon myths.
Church Leader Sits Next to Mick Jagger
Have you heard the one about the Church leader who met Mick Jagger on a plane and proceeded to have a lengthy conversation about morality and the Church? In this story, Mick Jagger says he once took the missionary discussions, indicates that his music is “calculated to drive kids to sex,” and loudly calls the leader a liar for preaching about the truthfulness of the gospel. The leader then chastises Mick for his own lies, bears testimony of the gospel, and calls him to repentance.
It’s all true. As related in an address given by Elder Gene R. Cook to Rick’s College in 1988 (starting at a time stamp of 23:51 on the audio of the talk, to be exact), the story illustrates both a recognition of the Church by the famous and the unwavering conviction of Church leaders to the truth, even in the most uncomfortable of situations.
Youth Were Generals in the War of Heaven
A favorite quote of those speaking to youth, attributed to President Boyd K. Packer or one of the other Brethren, goes something like this: “You were generals in the War in Heaven, and one day when you are in the spirit world, you will be enthralled by those you are associated with. . . . Someone will turn to you and ask you which of the prophets’ time did you live in? And when you say ‘Gordon B. Hinkley,’ a hush will fall over every hall and corridor in Heaven, and all in attendance will bow at your presence.”
In regards to this statement, President Packer has said, “I did not make that statement. I do not believe that statement. The statement, on occasion, has been attributed to others of the First Presidency and the Twelve. None of the Brethren made that statement.”
Myths of the Ancient World
Bigfoot is Cain
There may be more to fear from Bigfoot than the fact that he’s big and hairy: some say that the legendary North American woodland ape is Cain.
Though there’s no way to prove or disprove this particular tale, knowing the source of the legend can shed some light on why this conclusion has been made. Abraham Smoot recorded the following after early Church Apostle David W. Patten described an encounter he had with Cain in 1835:
As I was riding along the road on my mule I suddenly noticed a very strange person walking beside me. . . . His head was about even with my shoulders as I sat in my saddle. He wore no clothing, but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark. I asked him where he dwelt and he replied that he had no home, that he was a wanderer in the earth and traveled to and fro. He said he was a very miserable creature, . . . and his mission was to destroy the souls of men.
This entry was included in Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness, which was originally published in 1969. In 1980, sightings of the legendary Bigfoot were reported in South Weber, Utah. Members made connection with these sightings to Patten’s story of Cain, effectively beginning the tale. Reeve believes Mormons use this story to connect an unexplainable event with proof that the Saints are doing a good job. “When Satan sends Cain against Mormons, . . . they think, ‘we must be on the right path, or Satan wouldn’t bother sending in his most evil hordes against us.’”
The Three Nephites
Who among us hasn’t enjoyed hearing a story about mysterious men blessing the life of another person? A group of friends, out in the middle of nowhere, finds one of their group in serious medical trouble. Two men walk up and offer a blessing, then disappear. A lone traveler approaches a group and asks for food; after giving the food, he imparts wisdom, blesses the group, and disappears. Brigham Young reportedly enjoyed telling his family about an experience he had while serving in Liverpool; he interviewed one of the Nephites—an old man with a long, gray beard, who spoke encouragement to him. The stories of the Nephites tell about help and support in times of personal need.
Obviously the exploits of the Three Nephites have become the stuff of legend. In fact, Bert Wilson says he has over 1,500 stories about these ancient disciples—many of which are simply older stories updated to modern needs. For instance, a wagon breaks down on the way to general conference, and a mysterious man steps into fix the axle; nowadays, it’s a car. “It’s the same story, but it’s adapted to different times,” Wilson says. “As long as people have problems that they need help solving, you’re likely going to have Nephite stories.”
The White Horse Prophecy
“The constitution will hang by a thread.” We’ve all heard this phrase, which is contained in the White Horse prophecy—a prophecy attributed to Joseph Smith about how the people of the Rocky Mountains (or, the Church members) will save the Constitution, among other things.
The problem? This prophecy was written over 50 years after the Prophet’s death. Scholars have identified the “prophecy” as having been a pieced-together embellishment on statements the Prophet Joseph made on several different occasions, as written by a man named Edwin Rushton. It has been officially refuted by the Church on several occasions.
One of the first (and most impressive) examples of this was with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith Jr.’s general conference talk in October 1918:
In my travels in the stakes of Zion, my attention has been called, on a number of occasions, to a purported revelation . . . supposed to have been received by President Smith . . . in regard to events of great importance dealing with the nations of the earth and the Latter-day Saints. Many things in that purported vision, or revelation, are absurd. . . . When a revelation comes for the guidance of this people, you may be sure that it will not be presented in some mysterious manner contrary to the order of the Church. It will go forth in such form that the people will understand that it comes from those who are in authority.
President Joseph F. Smith, who spoke after his son at that conference, re-emphasized his son’s remarks by calling the content of the prophecy “trash.” He said, “It is simply false. That is all there is to it.” The Church, in 2010, once again re-emphasized this position with two separate official statements. To be fair, several reliable sources (including Brigham Young) did report hearing the Prophet say something about the Constitution hanging by a thread. “It’s unfortunate that that piece has to be always connected with the White Horse Prophecy—as if that’s where that comes from,” says Mike Hunter. “But actually, it doesn’t come from that; the White Horse Prophecy took that, and a lot of other things, and blended them together.”
Say What Is Truth
So there you have it. A wealth of popular stories with evidence to support or refute them. But, after learning some stories are not true, is there still something stories of folklore might teach us?
“They’re all true, of course, depending on how you look at them,” says Wilson. “They do things for the group. It all depends on who tells them and for what reason.”
“I haven’t found anywhere where Jesus Himself makes clear whether the parables are true,” says Eliason. “I think we assume that they are stories—that there wasn’t necessarily an actual Samaritan.
But He doesn’t say, which I think might be telling us something— that that’s not what’s important about them, whether or not they actually happened. I think when we hear Mormon folklore, we should ask, ‘Is the important thing about this story whether or not it was historically accurate, or is the important thing about it what it tells us about ourselves, our culture, and our values?’”
So even if those stories about mysterious appearances from the Three Nephites or famous statements didn’t actually happen, they can still reveal a deeper principle. And they’re certainly still fun to hear.
© LDS Living 2011.
Tags: LDS Culture