Sometimes the process of coming to believe is talked about as though it were simply a logical argument involving deductions from one initial conclusion, typically relating to the restoration. If I believe the Book of Mormon is truly the word of God then I must also believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, and similar conclusions must also be drawn about other elements of church doctrine. I’ve heard similar things regarding beliefs about the Savior – He can’t just have been a really good moral teacher so you must believe that either He was a crazy person spouting crazy ideas about being the son of God, or that He really IS the son of God, that He is our Savior, that He performed miracles, etc.
I’m not denying the logic of those chains of thought but, at least for me, a belief in the Book of Mormon didn’t come as one of the first tenets of my testimony, nor did that belief, when I did come to it, somehow automatically set off a chain of belief in the rest of church doctrine. And certainly, for me, holding the belief that Christ was not a crazy person did not lead to my testimony of the Atonement.
The other day a friend asked me why missionaries don’t talk about Joseph Smith all that much when they talk about why they’re choosing to serve and what message they want to share. Her thought, based on her previous experience with the church, was that Joseph Smith is key, due to something like the logical testimony chain described above. Belief in the church (any and all of it) starts and ends with a belief in Joseph Smith and his role as a prophet, a restorer of truth, and maybe even a near-perfect man. Probably for her, and for many people, it’s hard to get past some of the less positive aspects of the Joseph Smith story, and church history in general. Without the story of the founder being everything one might hope, how can anything that has followed since be believed?
There are most certainly negative and disappointing stories to be found about early church leaders, and even more current leaders or other elements of the church. I’ve not spent any time researching any of the baggage that is to be found and even my familiarity with some of the more commonly discussed incidents is very limited. My friend referenced a quote along the lines of, ‘Faith is easiest in the dark,’ her take on it being primarily that faith is much easier when you can’t really see, and my guess is she thinks that I’m just not seeing a lot of things that might dampen my faith.
But I’m not sure what the goal of that pursuit might be. For me it doesn’t feel like it would be about the pursuit of truth, not because I think all the anti-church literature is full of made-up stories and lies, but because I already believe that these things exist. I know there are facts and stories out there that would be faith-shaking (though not necessarily faith-eliminating). LIke most people I struggle with many, many things I am already aware of that I don’t understand, and I’ll continue to struggle to try to figure these things out. But I’m fairly certain I won’t understand everything about which I wonder or have doubts. Life has and will provide me with lots of those so when it comes to the things I’ll spend my time seeking, I’d rather look for things that will be faith-promoting and uplifting.
And thankfully there are things about which I don’t have doubts. I believe my testimony is founded upon the only sure foundation. I explained to my friend that I didn’t think Joseph Smith was the lead message for most missionaries because he isn’t the core of the gospel, and he certainly isn’t the core of my beliefs.
I like the way Paul said it when he wrote to the Corinthians, having heard that they were focusing their faith on him or on other teachers and messengers:
I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet and an instrument in God’s hands in restoring truth that had been lost and spreading that truth across the earth, but my testimony did not start and does not end with him. My testimony of the gospel did not follow logically from the Joseph Smith story – rather it has come line upon line, in a somewhat unpredictable order, based on my own experience with the principles of the gospel as I’ve come unto Christ. He is the foundation of my beliefs. The change and hope I’ve found, really all the things worth having, are of Him and through Him.