Book Report: The Apostasy of a High Priest—The Sociology of an American Cult by Park B. Romney

I’m running out of Mormon-themed books to borrow from the Kindle library, so I ended up with a rather LDS-negative one for May (if you hadn’t guessed from the word “cult” showing up in the title). This book is geared toward members and investigators of the LDS Church, challenging them to think critically about Mormon doctrine—especially in regard to what the Church teaches about how to determine the truth in spiritual matters.

Mormons are taught from a very early age, if they are raised in the church, to recognize heartwarming feelings to be manifestations of the Holy Ghost, confirming to them the truthfulness of the church. Consequently, feelings of comfort, security, consolation, compassion, and many other such comfort moments often give rise to a belief in Mormons that they have, yet again, experienced a witness of the Holy Ghost as to the truthfulness of the church in general, or the truthfulness of the specific teaching, or principle, that is being presented when the feelings arise, or a specific answer to a prayer that precipitated the feelings. It’s all about that warm feeling in the heart.

Devout Mormons seek to feel truth. This is how there talked to recognize truth. It is not about objective evaluation. It is about “spiritual manifestations” of heartwarming feelings.

 

Back when I used to be visited by missionaries, I always felt uncomfortable by their insistence that I should be able to know if the Book of Mormon is true simply by praying about it with a sincere wish that it be true. If I did that, I would have warm feelings about the Book of Mormon, and those warm feelings would be a message from the Holy Ghost that it is true.

I had recently come out of an emotionally abusive relationship and knew from experience that wishing things to be true does not, in fact, make them true—but it can deceive one into believing that they are true, and this self-deception can lead to a temporary state of calm and positive feeling. At some point, the actual truth rises to the surface, and the careful edifice of “truth” that one has built falls apart, leaving chaos in its wake.

I told the missionaries that the approach they recommended might work for some people, but I felt it would be best to actually read the Book of Mormon and the other LDS scriptures before weighing their truth claims. They insisted there were better ways of knowing, but humored me by giving me a Triple Combination.

In his book, Romney (a former member of two LDS bishoprics and a distant relation of Mitt Romney, as I suspect much of Utah is) focuses on the harm that this way of discerning truth can do to a person’s spiritual life. His arguments are well-made, if sometimes a bit hard to follow because of his lack of concrete examples. Also, he doesn’t talk much about the dangers that this epistemology can pose in other parts of one’s life; if you want to learn about that, you’ll have to read Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer or listen to the Dream Mine episode of Mormon Expression with a critical ear.

As Romney points out, it’s an epistemology that has strong support in the Book of Mormon, particularly in the teachings of the prophet Alma and in Moroni’s directions about how to pray about the truth of the Book of Mormon:

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten myunderstanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.

Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.

And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

Alma 32:27-34

Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

Moroni 10:3-5

Romney quips about the effectiveness of such prayers: “I must admit that I felt a profound sense of heartwarming gratification what I read [the Book of Mormon] as a young man. I was convinced that I had received a manifestation of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, just like Moroni predicted. Of course, I had been reading the Book of Mormon for weeks on end, and was praying fervently for just such a manifestation, as required by the Mormon epistemological formula, so my spiritual manifestation was relatively assured.”

While translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith received a similar revelation about how to pray:

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

Doctrine and Covenants 9:8

Of course, this epistemology is by no means unique to Mormonism. I remember going to an evangelical church service with a worship band that was (surprise!) actually good. The pastors insisted that my enjoyment of the music was the Holy Ghost telling me that their particular brand of Christianity was true—and that I should denounce lesbianism, shun food co-ops, and give their church 10 percent of my income for the rest of my life.

But Romney’s experience is in Mormonism, so that’s what he talks about: “It is my own personal experience, in the church, that the degree to which this method is employed, instead of thoughtful consideration of available factual data which is sometimes viewed dismissively in the alternative, is unnerving.”

Perhaps the most damning (to non-believers) thing about Mormon testimonies is that we’re all supposed to know how to have them. The Book of Abraham and other church writings explain that, before we were born, we lived with our Heavenly Father and brother Jesus, and we had free access to the Holy Spirit. During this premortal life, we “acquired a sensitivity for truth or ‘light,’ while in the presence of God, that would be carried into this next life with us, resulting in the ability to feel a certain confirmation of truth, at the spiritual … level,” Romney writes in the fourth chapter of the book, which explains the LDS Plan of Salvation (also known as the “Plan of Happiness.”)

Basically, this means that everyone is capable of recognizing and responding to the Holy Ghost. Those that don’t—or who argue that a “burning in the bosom” can come from sources other than the Holy Ghost—are lying. Deep down, they know the truth of the LDS Chruch. It’s their own sin that gets in the way of believing.

(Which reminds me, interestingly, of Catholic natural law, which teaches that all humans—not just Catholics—are bound by Catholic ‘laws’ such as the prohibitions on birth control and same-sex romance because nature itself tells us that these things are wrong, even in the absence of religious teachings.)

TL;DR: Even though this book’s subtitle is “The Sociology of an American Cult,” where it’s most interesting is when it examines Mormon epistemology.

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