Keith Erekson: Investigating Latter-Day Saint Rumors and Assumptions
We’ve all heard them. There are pre-general conference predictions, rumors about certain celebrities investigating the Church, and sensationalized stories from Church history. How can you discern what is real and what’s rumor? On this week’s episode, Keith Erekson, director of the Church History Library, teaches how historians approach corroboration and how you can do the same in your own life.
If anything, history teaches us to be humble.
Keith's new book:
Real vs. Rumor
Did Joseph Smith really say that? Does the Church have that artifact? How accurate was that story told in Sunday School? Should I trust the information on this website? Can I draw closer to God by learning about history?
Real vs. Rumor explores Church history myths, rumors, and false quotes to demonstrate how to think effectively about the information that swirls around us in our day. Each chapter brims with illuminating examples from scripture, history, and popular culture. By thoughtfully combining study and faith, you will be strengthened as you deepen your discipleship, avoid deception, understand tough topics, and see the hand of God in history and in your own life.
All In episode with Jenny Reeder: Jennifer Reeder: Emma Smith–Giving All That is Required
All In episode with Richard Turley: Richard Turley: The Cautionary Tales of Church History and the Role Models Worth Emulating
Bill Marriott's story of the boat accident: "3 Times Following the Spirit Saved Bill Marriott's Life"
2:15- Why This Matters
3:30- History Is Not What You Think
5:51- Myth Vs. Rumor
9:20- “I Heard”
22:16- Either Or
26:04- Sensationalized Over Time
32:33- What’s the Harm?
44:52- Social Responsibility
50:36- What Does It Mean To Be All In the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones 0:00
Before we get into this week's episode, I want to start by saying thank you, to all of those who have left reviews over the last week. From Wednesday to Saturday alone, you left over 70 new reviews and I read every single one. You are amazing. I especially love the review from Cynthia Asher who wrote, "I'm Jewish but love listening to this podcast. I find it uplifting, inspiring and real." To Cynthia and to all of you, thank you so much for spending your time with us.
For months, I have been a little bit concerned about an article going in LDS Living magazine, not because it's not accurate, but because it is. You know the quote from Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley that says she wants to drive up to the pearly gates in a station wagon with a smudge of peanut butter on her shirt? Well, I hate to tell you this, but there's no proof that Sister Hinckley ever said those words.
In fact, a variation of the quote can actually be traced back to someone else. You can read the whole story now in the May-June issue of LDS Living magazine, or on LDSliving.com later this month, but that is just one example of Latter-day Saint folklore, or myth. In his new book, Keith Erekson seeks to help Latter-day Saints approach stories or information–past or present–the way that Church historians do, in order to make sure the information is correct, before we pass it on to others.
Keith A. Erekson is an author, teacher and public historian who serves as the director of the Church history library. He also serves on the editorial board of the Church Historian's Press.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones and I'm so excited to have Keith Erekson on the line with me today, Keith, welcome.
Keith Erekson 2:01
Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Morgan Jones 2:03
Well, I am so excited. I spent a good chunk of yesterday reading in your new book, Real Vs. Rumor, and I'm excited to talk about the things that you share. I think–it seems to me, like there is a kind of purpose driven mission behind this book, and so I want to get your thoughts on why you felt like this book was so important to write and why you're passionate about this topic.
Keith Erekson 2:35
Well, you, you caught me, Morgan. At my heart–I'm a teacher. And I have enjoyed throughout my career many opportunities to teach. And for the past seven years, I've worked as the director of the Church history library, and in that context, there have been lots of questions that people have asked about history and Church history, and at the heart of many of them, I identified that, you know, knowing how to think about history would be helpful. And so this book is my attempt to kind of share the secrets of historical thinking. How do historians think about things? Because I think it will really help people who have all kinds of questions.
Morgan Jones 3:23
Yeah, absolutely. Well, kind of as like a jumping off point, there's a line in the book where you say, "History is not what you think it means." And I wondered if you could share what you mean by that, and why that's something that is important to know.
Keith Erekson 3:41
Yes, I think this is a really important starting point. Most people encounter history in their school classrooms. And in that setting, it's presented as if everything is known. It's all in the textbook, the textbook is the official voice, the official answer. It's filled with dates and facts, and you memorize that, and you spit it back on the test and you prove that you know history.
But in real life, it's just so different. It's almost totally opposite. Because there's more than one voice. There's more than one experience. There are many records and accounts and journals and diaries and letters. And in fact, we don't know everything about the past. The past is gone, there's so many pieces of information, and details are missing, and so we're always working to put the pieces together. And so a lot of times the disconnect people feel on a specific question is really a bigger disconnect that they just thought their whole lives, "Oh, hindsight is 2020. We know everything about history," when in fact, no, there are so many things that we don't know and if anything, history teaches us to be humble and acknowledge that we don't know stuff and that's okay.
Morgan Jones 4:54
That's so interesting. I just finished–I was obviously studying Jenny Reeder's new book, First, and she talks about how Emma Smith didn't really keep a journal, and so, so much of what we know about her is from other people. And I think about that, and I'm like, do I want–I think it's a good case for keeping a journal, because do we want other people to tell our story, or would we rather tell it ourselves?
Keith Erekson 5:22
Yes, that's a great example. Emma is a very public person, a very well-known person. And yet, almost everything we know about her comes through others. Through their letters, their journals, their records. We have some letters from Emma, we have, you know, notes from speeches she gave, but mostly, we have to understand Emma through other people, because that's all that survived.
Morgan Jones 5:49
It's amazing. So, Keith, in this book, what you do–and I think it's important for people to kind of understand the structure of the book–so you go through, and you are giving people, kind of, laying the ground for how to look at both history and things happening today, things that we hear today, and how to tell whether it is legit, real versus rumor. And, and then throughout the book, you give examples of things that I actually think–I wonder, did you have any kind of hesitation about including some of these things? Because I think some of them may actually rock the boat a little bit.
Keith Erekson 6:33
You know, I didn't have hesitation of, in the sense of should I include them or not? If anything, there were more things that I wish I could have included and had space because there are so many things that float around us and people assume they're accurate, and they're not.
Morgan Jones 6:50
Absolutely. So you just mentioned that these things–they happen even today. And I love that you use the mission call, you talk about the whole wait until General Conference, and you will get your assignment for your mission call example, and the reason that I love this, my dad will probably hate that I'm saying this publicly. But he sent like a text to our family and was like, "This missionary in our stake got this letter." And I said to him, "Have you seen it?" And he said, "Yes." And then later, he comes back and says, "I actually–I just saw a text, he sent a picture." And so my dad had not seen the letter in person. Anyway, long story short is, it wasn't legit. And I think that there are so many times where this kind of thing happens. So can you give just as a starting place, some examples of rumors or myths, either in our day or in Church history?
Keith Erekson 7:59
Well, that's a, that's a great question. And I should say in the book, I don't want to criticize anyone who's ever forwarded something and then felt bad later. Maybe reading the book will grant amnesty to anyone who worried about something in the past. But, but you're right, these things pop up all the time. And it seems among Latter-day Saints that the weeks preceding General Conference are a fertile time for these kinds of stories, often with a punch line that something will be announced at General Conference that does such and such. So different versions of mission calls, whether it's to a specific place, or a type of call, or a change in the length of service, those regularly turn up. I think, in some ways, the growth of temples has prompted people to anticipate or speculate where one might be, where one might be announced, I mean, it goes on and on, right? So.
Morgan Jones 8:57
Yeah, absolutely. So in the book, Keith, you kind of walk us through different things that lead to some of these myths or rumors. And I thought it would be good to kind of touch on these things as we go through and just have you give like a little bit of a taste of kind of what the book includes. So the first thing is, you talk about, "I heard something." So talk to me about how, kind of perpetuating rumors that we've simply heard, can be dangerous, or can lead to some false perceptions within our Church culture.
Keith Erekson 9:39
Yeah, so the first part of the book identifies these myths that are really kind of shortcuts in our thinking. And it also then provides an antidote. So this, this one, this problem–"I heard," is, is the idea of just passing along information that you don't know if it's true or not, but it sounds good, and the clickbait headline caught your attention or it was emotional.
The antidote for this, of course, is evidence. You know, show me the evidence, what evidence–you talked earlier about your father's story where you can drill down and look and see, is there an actual official communication with that information? Or is it just in a nice video on YouTube with music, and that pulls at your heartstrings. So, yeah, that's, that's a big one, just hearing things, passing them along without stopping to ask for the evidence.
Morgan Jones 10:36
So when you talk about evidence in the book, you talk about how not all evidence is created equally. Can you talk a little bit about what that means? And what constitutes good evidence?
Keith Erekson 10:49
Yes, you know, there is–evidence is really important. And in the discipline of history, the practice of history, we don't have a formal, kind of, code of evidence, like they have in law what is admissible in a courtroom or not. We also don't have a lot of kind of theoretical or hierarchies of evidence. We don't have a big body of clinical practice, like they do in the medical profession. So historical evidence has more what I call, some rules of thumb. But all of them have important exceptions or qualifications.
And so one rule of thumb is that we prefer information that is closer to the person about whom, who is the subject. So we were talking earlier about Emma Smith. We would prefer information from Emma–she's as close as possible to her inner thoughts. And then as we get farther and farther away, we have to become increasingly careful about well, okay, that wasn't Emma, but was it a person who was there in the meeting and heard her speak? And can, can we–is it the official note taker for the meeting who was tasked? Or was it just somebody who, you know, a month later was writing a letter and said, "Oh, I think I remember Emma said something like this." So, so the rule of thumb is that we prefer it close. But in practice, and Emma is a great case, if we don't have that, then we do look for other things.
Second rule of thumb is that we prefer it closer in time to the event. So this is something that could come from someone's journal, or a letter that they wrote near the time something happened, compared to a memory that gets called forth later, 20 years later, 30 years later. But the qualification on this is, for many kinds of experiences, later, memories are more significant. And I'm thinking of cases like personal trauma, reasons why people will not talk about something in the short term, but in the long term, when conditions change, when they feel more safe, they may share things which are accurate and are more accurate than the earlier silence. And so, so it's always kind of a dialogue with the evidence. How close is it to the person? How close in time? What are the factors around it? And you almost have to make a case for your evidence, "Here's why this evidence is good for this situation."
Morgan Jones 13:34
Right. That makes a lot of sense. So the next thing that I want to talk a little bit about is, the next chapter, you talk about, "I assumed." And you draw this important connection between assuming and arrogance. And you quote, Steven Harper, who said, "Assuming is intellectually and spiritually lazy. It is arrogant, it is easy." Can you talk to me a little bit about the connection between those two things? Why is assuming in your mind associated with arrogance?
Keith Erekson 14:10
So at one level, an assumption is a version of the, "I heard" error. We don't look for evidence when we assume things, but it goes further, like you mentioned, in that, in addition to not looking for actual evidence, what we do and we assume is we take the things that are already in our brain and, and we project them on to whatever else we're thinking about–that's the laziness part that Steve is talking about. "I don't have to research or think or even wonder, because whatever is in my head is already right."
And so that becomes the extra danger. So we start to assume things like, “People in the past were just like me.” “People in my ward think the same thing as me.” “Everybody sees this issue the way that I see it,” then, suddenly, we become surprised and shocked when we go out in public and somebody has a different view about politics or somebody belongs to a different political party. How could that be? Those reactions are the signs that assumptions are guiding the way that we're, that we're encountering the world, rather than a thoughtful engagement. And you're right, it points to our own arrogance. So an antidote here is to, to check your assumptions. To ask what you're assuming about the world. Also to develop a sense of empathy that looks beyond your own feelings and your thoughts to what other people are thinking and feeling and how they are connecting with the world that we share.
Morgan Jones 15:58
That is so good. And I love–kind of connected to that–in the book, you talk about this need for humility. And you give this example that I love so I'm just going to read it really quickly. You say, "When we find ourselves making an unwarranted assumption, we need the humility to change. I'm inspired by the example of Joseph Fielding Smith in 1958. He wrote, 'It is doubtful that man will ever be permitted to make any instrument or ship to travel through space and visit the moon or any distant planet.' 11 years later, the Apollo 11 mission succeeded, and the following year Elder Smith became President of the Church. He was asked at a press conference about his previous statement, and he replied humbly, ‘Well, I was wrong. Wasn't I?' Admitting the errors in our own thinking is sometimes the most difficult part of understanding history." And I love that example, because I think, especially within our religion, where we believe in prophets, seers, and revelators, sometimes we think that those people have to get it all right, all the time, even in talking about the future. And that's so unfair. And so I wondered if you have any, any additional thoughts on that?
Keith Erekson 17:18
You're right, it is unfair, and it's also ultimately unhelpful. And prophets are a category in which Latter-day Saints have so many assumptions that are just wrong, and there's no scriptural support for them, there's no historical support for them. But yet, they are things that we think about. And in fact, there were so many of these examples that they pushed out of this chapter into one of the appendices of the book, which just goes line by line through a whole host of assumptions about prophets.
But the ultimate harm is if you assume that God works with prophets in some inaccurate way, then whenever you encounter the actual way that God works with prophets and it's not what you assumed, that becomes a disconnect, or a crisis even. And the reaction so often, the reflex is to blame others. "Well, someone hid that from me, no one told that to me." "How could I have taught that on my mission?" "How could I have thought that my seminary teacher was saying that?" The harder response is humility, that acknowledges that we don't know everything, and that God does, and that we can change how we think.
Morgan Jones 18:45
For sure. I am going to put you on the spot. I wonder if you could share a couple of those examples of assumptions as it relates to prophets that you mentioned.
Keith Erekson 18:57
Sure. You know, there are so many things. One of them is that every statement a prophet makes is worthy of quoting as prophetic or the doctrine of the Church. You mentioned one, people assume that prophets know everything about the future, just because God reveals some things about the future. No prophet has ever claimed to know every single thing about the future. Yet you hear comments like, "Oh, the prophet must have known," but he might not have known something.
Another assumption is that for prophets, revelation is always clear. For us normal people, it's hard. We have to figure it out, but prophets always get clear messages. If you read the scriptures, the prophets are, they tell the opposite story. They're learning, they're struggling, they're wrestling, they ask, they get a little. Nephi gets an instruction, "Go back and get the plates." He doesn't get any more information about how to do that. It's trial and error for him to figure out how to do the thing that the Lord has asked him to do.
Another common assumption–we can go on and on, right?–Is that prophets somehow speak in riddles. That there are secret messages hiding in their messages. And, and you know, whoever it is on Facebook or the blog will say, "I've got this secret decoder to this riddle that no one else has understood." So, prophets don't make mistakes, prophets never get tricked, all of these are assumptions that just make it hard for us to really see the hand of God working in the world.
Morgan Jones 20:31
I think we just recently, you know, I think a lot of people–and we had Richard Turley on this podcast, and I think a lot of people watched the "Murder Among the Mormons" documentary, and I think, for a lot of people that story, it's like, "Well, how could they not have known?" And I think a lot of those assumptions fall into that camp.
Keith Erekson 20:56
And the, I think one way to respond is to say, "Well, turn to the scriptures. Are there any examples of prophets being tricked?" Why, yes, there are. They regularly get deceived about their own children, the death of their children, you know, so, no, we don't have any scriptures that say, prophets never ever get tricked. In fact, Joseph Smith is told, "You cannot tell the wicked from the righteous," just straight up, so. He has lots of instances in life that that prove to be bad acquaintances, bad relationships to take into his confidence, but he did.
Morgan Jones 21:36
Well, I think–and I think that's really interesting too, when when Jenny Reeder was on the podcast, she talked about how Emma was a little bit less trusting of people. And that, that Joseph Smith had this kind of, you know, he immediately trusted people and wanted to bring them into his inner circle, whereas Emma was like a little bit more cautious. And I think that's another important thing is to recognize that people's nature plays into the way that they respond in different situations.
Keith Erekson 22:08
Yeah, if only Joseph had listened to Emma, on many of those relationships, there would have been a different story.
Morgan Jones 22:16
Fascinating. So Keith, the next chapter, you talk about letting the facts speak for themselves. And I wondered if you could give listeners an idea of, of what you mean by that.
Keith Erekson 22:28
Yeah, the myth here is that somehow there are facts that just exist pure and simple in the universe, and that just isn't so. And especially in history, facts are pieces of information, they come from places, and the very act of bringing them together constitutes interpretation. And so everything is interpreted. And so the antidote into assuming that, that I can find a pure fact somewhere–fact isn't like a rock that I can just find on the ground and say, here, here it is. The antidote is to always be aware of where that information came from. Who brought it together? Why? What was their purpose in doing so? What's their objective in sharing that? The facts never speak for themselves. It's the storytellers who assemble those facts, and present them, that do the speaking. And so we should watch for them.
Morgan Jones 23:26
Makes a lot of sense. And then, and then related to that. You talk about how there are two sides to every story. And I think that's what makes it so facts can get a little bit more . . . they can, they can delve into the gray area a little bit more, because you have Sally, who experiences something with Tim, and they both have a different perception of the experience. But I think that because you have two people experiencing the same thing through a different lens, you do get two different sides of the story. And why do you think it's important for us to realize that, and also how do we approach that in discerning what really happened?
Keith Erekson 24:10
So the hidden myth that's buried deep in the way we think about things is a binary. And so much of the world gets framed to us and this is larger than the Church and larger than Church history. But politics, political decisions, get presented to us as an either-or. This party and its victory, that party and everything's going to hell. Journalists do it this way. Cable news shows will bring guests on and present both sides of the story. So, so much around us is framing things in these either-or binaries, and the antidote is to recognize those binaries, and call them out and acknowledge that there are other options.
So one of them is that it's not just two. There may be three or four or five perspectives on that issue. Another one is that maybe both. They may be excessively drawing extremes. But, but both parts have validity. Maybe there's a midpoint. A few years ago, then Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave us some really helpful language to think about things as good, better and best. Those categories, shift away from the either-or and help us look for criteria, and then we have to start using our discernment and our judgment. We have to assemble evidence and say, "This is better than that, because–" it doesn't become just as simple either-or "My team is right, therefore I'm right." And so the very framing of there being two sides is the problem that we really need to get rid of in our speech and in our culture.
Morgan Jones 26:01
Yeah. You give some really, really great examples of, of these situations. And so I want to talk about a few of those, and I want to start with a quote that you have in the book that I loved. And I might pause as we go through this because I want some clarification for my own personal, just, assumptions in the stories that I've heard, but you write, "Many stories also contain exaggerations or distortions that get added later. Snowbanks deepen, pathways run uphill, even both ways, fish grow longer, the ordinary gets romanticized over time, the glass and pottery shards used in the plaster of the Kirtland temple, transform into pieces of the women's fanciest China." Okay, this is a story that I've always heard, apparently not true.
Keith Erekson 26:56
Well, it's an exaggerated story. So the truth is, they put glass in the plaster, which did give the Kirtland temple a kind of shimmer, a kind of sheen. The exaggeration is that that it was people's fanciest, most prized heirlooms that they sacrificed for the temple. The reality is, this was a hardscrabble life on a frontier. And so they just hunted for glass wherever they could find it. So it wasn't this, this tremendous family personal sacrifice, it was just, "Hey, let's go look for building materials and let's find them wherever we can find them."
Morgan Jones 27:40
So interesting. Okay, I'm going to continue with your quote, says, "Artist Del Parson's interactions with the employees in the Church curriculum department who commissioned his painting, 'The Lord Jesus Christ,' turn into meetings with General Authorities who gave Parson specific instructions about Christ's physical features until Parson–in quotes–'Got it right.' Exaggeration is one reason why people can feel angered by such stories because there are errors in them" end quote. So my question for you, Keith, is what are some examples of stories like this, that can anger, or even hurt people when the rumor is perpetuated? And I'd love to hear more about the Del Parson thing because I have heard that when I was little–I remember hearing that story. I don't know that it's one that I necessarily took to the bank, but I'd love to hear more about how that story got exaggerated over time.
Keith Erekson 28:37
Yeah, exaggeration works in two ways. One is that there are facts or details in the story that get amplified. The other, is that there are facts or details in the story that get dropped out. So the Del Parson story is an example of amplifying facts. The facts, the accurate part of the story is Del Parson is a painter, he was commissioned to do a painting, it was to be used in Church curriculum materials, and so he interacted with the Church employees who are responsible for those materials.
That gets amplified by saying that, you know, that the artist doesn't report to an employee, the artist is reporting to a General Authority. And then some of those assumptions we had earlier about prophets creep back in. So this person must have seen Jesus and therefore counseling Del Parson what to do, made it exactly what Jesus looked like, because the General Authority saw Jesus yesterday. That's the way that exaggeration works by amplifying.
An example of reducing information to exaggerate might be the story of the gulls and the crickets, and–because there were many threats to the Latter-day saints in their early settlement in the Utah territory. And that particular year, there were late frosts, and so there was an early warm spring, they had planted things in April, but then by the last week of May, the first week of June, it was freezing every night. And so that was a threat to their crops. There was also a drought, there was less water, they hadn't developed the irrigation system, it's a, it's a desert.
And so on top of the drought, and the, and the freezing, then the, they’re katydids, they show up. They're later renamed "Mormon cricket," but the bugs show up, and it's the first time the Saints are in the valley, so they don't know this is a seasonal pattern. So it appears to them out of the blue. But in the–so that's kind of the big picture of what's going on. In journals of the time, there are people who mention the bugs, but they're even more worried about the frost, they're worried about the water, they're worried about what those things mean for long term survival.
Another part of the story is the seagulls come through. That's also part of a seasonal migratory pattern, and the seagulls leave before the bugs do. So one of the ways we've simplified the story is that the seagulls show up, they eat all the bugs, and the problem is over. The seagulls come through, they do their thing, and then they migrate onward. And there are still crickets. And the crickets continue throughout the summer. But we exaggerate that story by sifting out all of those details. And so you just imagine a farmer, crickets show up, they pray, the seagull rescues them, the whole thing gets reduced, in a kind of exaggeration that omits so many details.
But I get it, right? If you're a sculptor, it's easy to make a statue of a bird. It's hard to make a statue of frost and drought. And so a lot of times, it's through the telling of stories and those talents could be in art, in sculpture, in stories, but the telling in that process, details get dropped, and we end up with exaggerations.
Morgan Jones 32:21
Yeah. Well and you do, you do a great job telling–outlining that entire story in the book. So if people are interested in more information there, that's all in the book. But I want to talk a little bit about why these stories can be harmful, and–because I think you know, you could look at this and just be like, "Oh, yeah, it's fun, like debunking these rumors, or things that we've always heard," but I do think that when the stories have played into people's faith, then hearing that they're not true, can be detrimental. And not that we shouldn't say that they're not true, we should. But I think that it's–that's why it's so important not to continue just telling these stories, if we don't know that they're true. And I think that's why your book is so important. And so I wondered your thoughts about, you know, why these things can be harmful? Yeah, we'll start there.
Keith Erekson 33:26
Well, you're right. Stories, information, these become part of our culture, they become part of our socialization process. We raise people up and teach them to do good by telling stories. They become part of our identities, as a people, as a community. They become, they become shorthand for how we talk to each other, how we interact with each other. So yes, when you find an error, a flaw, an exaggeration, a distortion, and it's there embedded in your upbringing, in your education and your socialization, it's embedded in testimonies that you've heard born at a Church meeting, then one reaction is–and I think this is, it gets back to that either-or myth that we were talking about earlier–one reaction is to throw everything out and say, "Well, if there were exaggerations in that story, then maybe my whole testimony is wrong."
I think that is not the effective way to respond. And, and so we need to look beyond the either-or, and can we acknowledge that I could be inspired by something that's inaccurate? Sometimes that happens. Something inaccurate can inspire you. Does it change the inspiration? No. Does it change the fact that you worked hard and made a difference? No, it doesn't change that. And so I think that part of undoing the harm is, is letting it go. Letting it pass and say, "Okay, someone told an inaccurate story. When it's my turn, I'll tell it accurately." And then I could continue to raise my children, build on my community, teach others in Church, but I'll do it in an accurate way.
Morgan Jones 35:23
That was so well said. There are a couple–there was an example in the book that I'll be honest, Keith, kind of rocked the boat a little bit for me–not my testimony, but just I was surprised, which it was the Salt Lake temple elevator shafts story. I had no idea that that wasn't true.
Keith Erekson 35:43
Yeah, well, that's a good one. And it–the reason that story works, and I'm talking about this kind of, as if a story was trying to succeed and be inaccurate, like, that's its goal. But the reason that story works is because we in the 21st century assume that people in the 19th century had no technology. So we assume, oh, they built a temple, they must not have had any technology. Then when we hear the story kind of filling in this gap that they added, they needed to add elevators later, and when they did so there was space that was just there waiting for it to happen, it seems to fit together and it makes our minds happy, because all of the things fit together.
The root of that is that our assumption about the 19th century is wrong. The technology for the elevator had been invented more than 100 years before, by the 1890s. Salt Lake City already has electricity in places, the building is built with fire standards, certainly not current construction standards, but you know, this isn't an adobe hut or anything, they are building this because by the late 19th century, there are skyscrapers, there are large buildings there, there's a need to move people up and down floors. Chicago had been rebuilt 20 years earlier in the 1870s after a fire with its skyscrapers and elevators. And so that's the, that's the disconnect, and the assumption that lets that story succeed among us.
Morgan Jones 37:24
That's so, so fascinating to me. Keith, I wanted to ask you, I've recently had a conversation with a couple of my friends, and we were talking about this story that I think is frequently shared, and I started trying to do kind of some of the things that you talk about in the book, to try to figure out if there's any basis for this story, if it's ever been shared, you know, by a legitimate source, and I was unable to find anything. And I'm wondering if you know of any kind of basis for this. It's the story where people talk about somebody getting in a car accident and wearing their garments, and because they were wearing their temple garment, they were unharmed, in just the parts–where the parts of their body where they were wearing their garments. Do you know of any basis for that story?
Keith Erekson 38:26
You know, I don't. And let me explain a couple of the qualifications about that. The stories that I use in the book are stories that I could find some factual or historical or evidence-based way to analyze them. There are many, many stories that don't work that way and within professional distinctions, typically things that don't have any real evidentiary base are described as folklore, and things that do get categorized as history.
Now, that's an oversimplification and there's lots of crossover. But many times the avenue of study in folklore studies is to study the tellings of the story and how they're told and retold and how they multiply over time, how they vary over time. In the study of history, we are looking for sources and in particular, we're looking for something we call corroboration. So it's okay if one person says something, can we corroborate that? Can we find other examples? So, so I do know of examples of individual people reporting something like that.
I think the most famous, the most prominent was Bill Marriott was interviewed on TV and told a story, not about a car accident but about a boat accident, with the same kind of a fire and not being harmed. So, as a historian, my approach would be, you know, can we corroborate that? Can we verify that there was a boat, that it caught on fire? Were there other people there? It's, it's nice when a person tells a story, but what else can we do? Most of the time, these stories, though, aren't attached to a name. It's, "Well, I heard this story," or, or, you know, 'When I, when I went to the temple, my father told me this, so now I'm telling you," that's the way we most often perpetuate these stories.
And I think in that sense, they become harmful, because it's an attempt–at the level of kind of raising people and socializing them, I see what the goal is. The goal is to teach that something is sacred, and that something is, is helpful and protective. And to offer a kind of witness. The harm is that it's kind of a squishy, weak witness. And there would be much better ways to teach that something is sacred, and can be of protection, and to offer a witness. There are better ways to do that than by telling a third hand story that you think you heard once that was interesting.
Morgan Jones 41:20
Right. Well, I think you put that so well. And I think, you know, in this conversation that I had with, with a couple of friends, we were talking about how it's, it's tricky space to get in when these stories start being told widely. Because I think like you said, the intent is to build faith. The intent is to inspire and here's this really kind of, really exciting story, and, but I felt like the danger of it is, there are a lot of people that wear their garments and get in accidents and are harmed.
Keith Erekson 41:59
Morgan Jones 41:59
And so I think sometimes in our efforts to make what we have feel really special and absolutely it is special and sacred and beautiful, we have to recognize that by perpetuating stories that may or may not be true, we could be doing more harm than good, if that makes any sense at all.
Keith Erekson 42:24
It does. And I see in there that either-or framing hidden underneath. Either you're wearing your garments, and you're protected, or you're not and you're harmed. Then an example of someone who's wearing their garments and dies in missionary service, it breaks the either-or, so the problem isn't . . . the problem ultimately is why are we framing it as either-or? Why are we oversimplifying things, and why are we using oversimplified stories to teach things that are really much more important than that kind of framing?
Maybe I can put one other point on this, the way to think about it. We often describe these kind of stories in a shorthand way as "faith promoting stories." And you'll, and you'll hear that, "faith promoting rumor" or "faith promoting story." But hidden under there is an assumption about what faith is. Frequently, the kinds of stories assume that faith is a passive thing, that it works best if you cry or feel emotional or feel scared. But another way to think about faith, one that President Hinckley used, was to think about faith as a muscle that you develop. So if I, if I assume that faith is just a kind of feeling that needs to be fed, then I'll feed it Twinkies. But if I assume that faith is a muscle, then I'm going to work it. Then I'm going to exercise it. Then I'm going to think. A faith promoting story won't be something that I don't have to think about. A faith promoting story will be something I have to wrestle with and ponder and pray about. But it's, it's how we assume faith to be and operate that guides how or even without us thinking about it, it influences how we assume we will strengthen people's faith.
Morgan Jones 44:26
I think that is spot on. And I think you know, we gravitate, I think, the natural man maybe, and maybe it's like the easiness of the way we gravitate toward a sensationalized story, when in reality, it's like a quiet prayer said at home alone that can build our faith more than anything else. I think you explain that so well. I want to talk before we wrap up–in the book you say this, "We are responsible to learn all that we can, quote responsibly, help others who struggle, and understand God's dealings." I wondered for you, Keith, why you believe that this is important in our efforts to become better disciples of Jesus Christ?
Keith Erekson 45:18
Well, it's interesting. When Jesus talks to disciples, He demands things of them. He demands our mind, our heart, our might, our strength. And I think about some of, you know, my past experience with Elders Quorum, the Elders Quorum is really good at calling on my strength. I get called to help people move and to shovel their snow, and to rake their leaves. But what about the rest of the parts of discipleship? People will sit back and say, "Well, the Church never told me this." But Jesus isn't saying, "Sit back, relax, I'm going to tell you everything." He's demanding our mind, our might. He's demanding that, that we do the work to study and learn. Ultimately, it's our responsibility. And one of the most beautiful teachings, in many, are many beautiful teachings is that part of our salvation is our intelligence. What we learn, what we know, we, and that goes with us in the next life. And so it's our responsibility to not just click "Like" and say, "Oh, that was funny." But before we share something, to figure out, "Is this real?" "Is this really accurate?" "Is this a, is this a sound story that I should share?" Those are the things Jesus is expecting of us.
Morgan Jones 46:48
You just touched on something that I think is so important. So before we get to the last question, I want to get your thoughts on this. You said, "We don't just click 'like,'" and I think that this is something that in our society today, in our culture, we have social media, and it makes it even easier for these stories or Latter-day Saint folklore to spread like wildfire. So how do you think that social media has affected the spread of these things, and why does that make it even more important for us to be educated in our approach to history, and even myths and rumors today?
Keith Erekson 47:34
Well, I think social media certainly amplifies the way things can be spread. But I ultimately don't think it's the root cause. I think Latter-day Saints put inaccurate quotes on their refrigerator magnets long before Pinterest. And I think Latter-day Saints told inaccurate stories in their Sunday lessons long before you can put one of them out on your Facebook page. So I don't think social media is the cause, but I do think, as a kind of social system for communication, it is certainly designed to spread information, and it encourages people not to think about it. It's built–it's designed and optimized for likes, clicks, sharing, reposts. And it, and it's designed to send all of that at you in a quick rapid way as you're scrolling through everything that you see going on in the day. And so, so it just becomes an environment where we need to take extra care, knowing that the environment is built to encourage us to spread things faster, we need to just pause and take that second thought and be extra cautious in that environment.
The same way, as you know, you don't–when you're walking down the sidewalk, you don't always look for a car to hit you. But when you're about to cross the street, you look both ways because you know, my danger of being hit by a car increases here. I think that's happens in social media with our thinking. To just be more alert to the possibilities.
Morgan Jones 49:10
Absolutely. And I think that's, you know, with social media, it's not just a couple of hours at Church on Sunday. And so I think that is–you make a valid point that it's something that's just more present in our lives and a part of everybody's everyday routine. And so that makes us more–perhaps more susceptible when we're constantly immersed in it.
Keith, I so appreciate the thoughts that you've shared. And I think that this is something that you know, you mentioned a couple of answers ago, that sometimes people are like, you know, "Why didn't the Church tell me this?" or "Why haven't I heard this before?" "Why did I think that that story was true?" And there have been a couple of times on this podcast where we've talked about a tough topic, and we'll get some messages and people will say, "Why? Why have I never heard this?" And it always makes me a little bit sad, but at the same time, I feel grateful that we live in a day where we are part of a Church that is, is striving to be transparent, and striving to help people become more educated disciples of Jesus Christ. And I think that that is what your book is, is capable of helping people do, which I think is just awesome. And so I appreciate your work, and thank you for, for everything that you're doing. My last question for you is, what does it mean to you, to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Keith Erekson 50:44
Well, in prep, I knew you were gonna ask me this question. And so I took it to some of my most trusted advisors, and they're people with whom I talk about all of these kinds of learning and knowledge and information–my daughters. I asked them what they thought I should say, and you'll see the influence of High School Musical in their answer, because they immediately stand to sing, "We're all in this together." And so we kind of laughed about that. But as I stepped back from the conversation, I thought, you know, that really is something that is meaningful to me, and, and it comes out in this book, you know, I can write these things and help and offer information and guidance and ways to think. But the epilogue of the book is titled, "You take the next one," because tomorrow, there's going to be a new thing on YouTube that's not in the book. And the next day, there's going to be another rumor at Church. So we are all in this effort together to live the gospel, to teach the truth, to root out errors. And so I think, the community part of the gospel, ultimately, we make covenants together with spouses, covenants about our family, and being in it together is how we're going to make it in this world of misinformation and disinformation and error.
Morgan Jones 52:18
That's so great. I love that. I love that your daughter's helped you, and I love your answer. I think it's awesome. So, job well done to all of the Erekson's.
Keith Erekson 52:28
Thank you very much. It's been a great privilege to be with you.
Morgan Jones 52:32
We are so grateful to Keith Erekson for joining us on this week's episode. A huge thank you to Derek Campbell of Mix at Six studios for his help with this, and every, episode of this podcast and thank you so much for listening. We'll be with you again next week.