Historian Keith Erekson’s latest book teaches Latter-day Saints how to separate fact from fiction when it comes to faith-promoting stories. For example, he give readers the tools needed to assess the accuracy of a purported photograph of Joseph Smith—or identify the myth about Brigham Young miraculously leaving space in the Salt Lake Temple for future elevators. In this interview, he explains some of the basics (and shares some fascinating stories).
Read Keith Erekson’s book about dispelling religious myths.
What is the backstory for Real vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-day Myths?
The long backstory is that before I came to Church employment I was a history professor who researched, published, consulted, and taught in the field of history teaching and learning. I spent many years thinking about what it means to think historically, whether in commemoration activities, public history, or school classrooms.
The shorter backstory is that after arriving in the Church History Library, I regularly encountered situations that would have been a lot easier if people had known how to think historically. So I hope the book can help.
What are some of the most common myths and rumors you encounter? Do you see any common themes in them?
I think the word “myth” can describe three things. First, there are errors of fact, that people often debunk in a “myth vs. fact” way. Then there are big sweeping stories–mythic, epic stories–that give meaning to life no matter how accurate the facts are. Finally, there are mental shortcuts and blindspots that shape the way we encounter the world.
The book uses examples of the first and second types in order to get at the third.
These “myths within us,” as I call them, are everywhere—we think we know everything, we don’t ask for evidence, we assume, we fail to see the interpretations made by others, we limit our options, and we get distracted by insignificant details.
Perhaps the most common and most problematic is a simplistic binary view of the world that sees everything as “either/or” options–good or evil, members or nonmembers, Democrats or Republicans, Black citizens or White police, faith or doubt (see Chapter 5).
Why are church history rumors so appealing?
The “myths within us” succeed because they are shortcuts that substitute for thinking. They are tidy, they feel good, they are like comfort food for our brains. By default, our brains prefer not to think. Brains develop habits and patterns that they follow on autopilot.
Athletes try to harness this by developing “muscle memory” through practiced repetition. We can cultivate intelligent thinking in the same way so each chapter introduces “Thinking Habits” that serve as antidotes to the myths and rumors around us.
What are the dangers of sharing church history stories before you know if they’re true?
I’ll start by saying that I don’t think inaccurate stories can be truly “faith-promoting.” But it depends on what you assume “faith” to be. If faith is just some gooey abstract thing, then, sure you might try to promote it with silly stories or tear-jerker films.
But if faith is an action, if it involves mental exertion, if it is (as President Hinckley described it) like a muscle, then it is promoted by work, resistance, and training. In cognitive terms, it is promoted by conscientiously developing effective thinking habits.
What should we do before repeating a faith-promoting church history story to others?
In Chapter 11, I introduce a thinking habit for tracing stories to sources.
- First, identify specific details in the story. Specific details are most helpful for narrowing your search.
- Second, follow those details to specific sources. Third, evaluate the accuracy and authenticity of the sources.
- Finally, determine the reliability of the story. The criteria of accuracy, authenticity, and reliability are developed respectively in Chapters 9, 10, and 11.
Do you need to be a historian to fact check rumors? How can we know what sources to trust?
No. In fact, the same Internet which helps spread errors so quickly is also an extremely powerful resource for verifying information. Throughout the book, I present several “Best Resources” sections that identify websites that are useful for tracing and evaluating information. In addition to accuracy, authenticity, and reliability, I also encourage fairness (chapter 12) and comprehensiveness (chapter 13) as helpful criteria for knowing which sources to trust.
Instead of asserting that everyone should become a historian, I encourage people to watch for sniff tests, or clues that something just isn’t right. You need not become an expert on every subject to recognize when good thinking is not being used.
What did Richard Bushman say about Joseph Smith’s Wikipedia page—and how does it relate to our efforts to track down the truth about any subject?
Richard Bushman made a really insightful observation. He noted that the Wikipedia article does contain accurate facts that can be traced to nineteenth-century documents.
Several content studies of the online encyclopedia bear this out as its accuracy approaches that of Encyclopedia Britannica. However, he also notes that the entry on Joseph Smith also “lacks scope.”
It just picks its way along from one little fact to another little fact. . . . It . . . isn’t inaccurate, but it sort of lacks depth. It ends up being shallow.Richard Bushman
This is an important insight because so often fact-checking exercises focus very narrowly on the specific facts.
But as I develop early in the book, “facts don’t speak for themselves” (Chapter 4). They are always incomplete and therefore must be interpreted. And it’s this shallow interpretation that makes true facts ring hollow or be twisted out of context.
How can expecting perfection from Church leaders make us susceptible to false rumors?
In the first place the idea that a Church leader should be or even could be perfect is inaccurate. There is no scripture, no teaching anywhere, that proclaims that Church leaders are perfect. And those who have carried the burden of the role have always been the first to declare their weaknesses.
Most Latter-day Saints will happily state that Jesus lived the only perfect life, and yet, at some deeper level, we have elevated Wilford Woodruff ’s observation that the Lord will not permit a prophet to lead the people astray (see Official Declaration 1) into a hidden belief that prophets cannot make mistakes.
If we would read the scriptures, we’ll find scriptural stories about prophets who denied knowing Jesus or betrayed Him, resisted the Lord’s calls, disagreed publicly with each other, failed and brought suffering on their followers, fell into follies and errors (repeatedly), and were chastised or punished by God.
This assumption of prophetic perfection makes us susceptible to errors in two ways.
On one hand, it opens us to accepting exaggerations of perfection, for example, that Brigham Young miraculously left space in the Salt Lake Temple for elevators to be added later (see Chapter 3 for more info, including that elevators were invented 100 years before the temple).
On the other hand, this assumption also sets people up for a hard fall whenever they eventually learn that Joseph Smith and every other prophet made a mistake.
Mark Hofman has been back in the news with the release of Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons. Is it possible for prophets to be deceived?
Of course it is. There is no teaching in any scripture that grants prophets immunity from deception. When the 116 manuscript pages were stolen, the Lord told Joseph point-blank: “You cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous” (D&C 10:37).
Not “you’ll learn later” or “keep trying.” Just a simple “cannot.”
And so there were other times later in his life when Joseph trusted people who later betrayed him. The scriptures contain similar stories. Isaac’s son Jacob came disguised as his brother Esau to receive the birthright blessing, and Jacob later interpreted animal blood on his son Joseph’s coat as evidence of his son’s death (see Gen. 27:6–10; 37:31–34).
Tell us about the girls camp quote taken out of content.
This is a great example of how young people can lead the way in thinking clearly. Leaders of a stake young women’s camp took a scripture passage (2 Ne. 24:14) out of context, twisting the words of Satan into a chipper slogan to “Aim High.”
Young women at the camp chose to read the entire chapter and realized that the slogan—which had been plastered all over t-shirts, water bottles, banners, and study journals—reflected Satan’s inner aspirations.
They took the finding to their leaders who sheepishly admitted that they too had figured it out, but only after they had paid for all the swag. The leaders asked the girls not to tell anyone else.
The preferred response would have been to change the slogan during the planning process as soon as someone figured it out, accepting the previous purchases as sunk costs.
Based on your familiarity with historical sources, how might Joseph Smith respond to faith-promoting rumors if he were living today?
I cannot presume to speak for him, but I will note that his history begins with the observation that there were “many reports” that had “been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons” such that he felt “induced to write this history, to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts” (JS-H 1:1). Later, in the body of that history, we find the observation that “rumor with [its] thousand tongues [is] all the time employed in circulating falsehoods” (JS-H 1:61).
So I do feel confident in saying that Joseph was thoroughly invested in combating rumors and false reports. Doing so clears the way for the truth.
One part of Alma 32 that often goes under-noticed is that while the “experiment” is, on one level, a “test” of the seed, it is also a test of the soil—our hearts and minds. The experiment only works “if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord” (Alma 32:28). We can be led to disbelieve or to resist the Spirit of the Lord because of rumors, myths, big lies, errors, falsehoods, legends, family lore, false quotes, misleading misinformation, and deliberately distorted disinformation.
The quest for faith necessarily involves rooting out myths and rumors so that we can see things as they really are, as they really were, and as they really will be.
Subscribe to From the Desk’s free email list.