New Mormon mission
Now, prompted by the rise of social media, the availability of LDS documents, groundbreaking scholarship, widespread Internet sharing of little-known aspects of the faith's past and a disturbing exodus of the formerly faithful, Mormonism is in the midst of a landmark effort to integrate new details about its founding — without losing the power of a simple narrative.
Can it add layers of what some see as controversial information without scaring away new converts or longtime members whose devotion is built on the account as they've known it all their lives?
Many historians insist such a shift is not only possible but also essential.
"People may be comforted in the short run by platitudes, but I don't think that leads to growth or to effective action," says Harvard historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. "The answer isn't to replace simplistic stories with footnoted essays. It is to tell better, more complete, stories, stories that are true, that touch issues people really care about."
Others worry that something might be lost in the recalibrating.
"No religion I know of would want to turn its founding stories into history, at least as history is understood today in a scientific sense," says Kathleen Flake, who heads up Mormon studies at the University of Virginia. "Faith is not about fact; nor about fiction, for that matter. It's certainly not a question of sophistication, at all, but of religious sense."
Can 21st-century followers continue to grasp the magical and miraculous in a rational era? Can the church appeal to intellectuals while retaining members more at home with the supernatural?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes it can — and is taking steps to do so. Ever so gingerly.