Introducing the Church

June 17, 2004 | 32 comments
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I am currently in Giessen, Germany, teaching a class on venture capital to a small number of German law students. Earlier today, I met with the Dean of the law school and the professor here who supervises the exchange program between our schools. They were fascinated by the fact that I speak German, albeit within a very limited range of topics. This ability, such as it is, is a byproduct of my mission in Austria. When I mentioned this fact to my hosts, one of them replied, “I know virtually nothing about Mormons.” What an invitation! I obliged by providing a brief history of the founding of the Church, from First Vision through the pioneer exodus.

After the meeting, I thought to provide my hosts with some reading material about the Church. My reflex in such circumstances is to send a Book of Mormon, and over the years, I have distributed a fair number via this sort of contact. But I do not know of any circumstance in which the recipient has actually read the Book of Mormon that I provided. So I am beginning to wonder whether a different strategy is in order. Any suggestions?

P.S. There is no need to ensure that the materials be available in German, as the professor speaks excellent English.

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32 Responses to Introducing the Church

  1. Kingsley on June 17, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    I recently made a gift of Bro. Givens’s book, By the Hand of Mormon, to an intellectual non-LDS friend wanting to improve his knowledge of the Church, & he found it perfect, providing a basic historical outline plus in-depth & interesting (key ingredient!) analysis of the “keystone” of the faith.

  2. Kevin Barney on June 17, 2004 at 6:33 pm

    I would highly recommend Rex Lee’s _What Mormons Believe_ (or something like that).

    My former mentor and partner (without a doubt one of the finest attorneys in Chicago), who is now no longer practicing law but is an investment banker with PaineWebber, used to be bond counsel for Intermountain Healthcare, which as you can imagine has many LDS in its employ. One of the finance people there gave my friend this book, and he really enjoyed it. (He felt something of a connection to Rex, since he was on the Northwestern U. Law Review at the same time Rex was at the U of Chicago Law Review.) It is thin and non-intimidating, and it is a book a curious recipient will actually read.

    (I think you are right that we are often spitting into the wind giving away copies of the BoM and hoping people will actually read it.)

  3. Pat Eyler on June 17, 2004 at 8:04 pm

    I think that _Principles and Practices of the Restored Gospel_ (by Victor Ludlow) is a pretty book for the non-member wanting a good overview of the chruch, although it is long and (perhaps) intimidating to some.

    -pate

  4. Julie in Austin on June 17, 2004 at 9:57 pm

    I have mixed feelings about all of this. I can sympathize with the idea that the average non-member isn’t going to wade through all 531 pages of the BoM, and even if they did, they still wouldn’t have a clue about their original questions about temples and why every Mormon they ever met has 50 lb bags of wheat under their bed.

    At the same time, the promises related to the role of the BoM in missionary work are pretty profound, and, if I were in the situation, I would be hesitant to offer a non-member something else.

    Although i should reveal my bias here: I’m a convert who was given no literature but the Book of Mormon, and I actually read it all.

  5. Dan Burk on June 17, 2004 at 10:52 pm

    I recognize Gordon’s problem, although I also have a fair degree of sympathy for Julie’s position. It depends a bit on what you are trying to accomplish — if it’s public relations, then something short and informative is more likely to be read, and to win the Church a little understanding in the world. If it’s to be a conversion, then the BoM is the right tool.

    Since I don’t always know whether the result is to be public relations or conversion, I have tended to split the difference and give a BoM with a couple of informative pamphlets. I suspect the BoM seldom gets read, but it’s there if it’s needed.

  6. ronin on June 17, 2004 at 11:03 pm

    Like Julie, I am a convert, first met the Missionaries when I was a sophomore in college. Now, having grown up in India, with a very basic understanding of US society and Christianity to begin with, I had a hard time getting through, and understanding the message t he BOM was trying to impart, even though I was fluent in English. But, then someone gave me a copy of Bro Rex Lee’s book, and that helped me get an overview of what our Church stood for, and how the BOM is the bedrock of our Church. I think, like Dan says, we ought to make available to interested investigators a copy of the BOM, as well as any additional pamphlets and books should they need additional materials

  7. Michelle on June 17, 2004 at 11:12 pm

    I wonder if I could use this thread to ask a somewhat related question of my own. I was browsing through the religion section (i.e. the 200′s) of my local public library yesterday, and checked out some good books on Confucius and on the history of Christianity. When I glanced at the section devoted to Mormonism, I found books geared towards helping Christians ask appropriate questions of their Mormon friends to help them see that they have been deceived, as well as 4 copies of Krakauer’s new book. There were a couple of non-anti-Mormon books, but they were so random (e.g. Mothers of the Prophets), that they didn’t seem likely to help a curious library patron develop a good sense of what mainstream Mormons believe. I thought about suggesting to the librarian that she order some other books to help balance the collection. Anyone here willing to help me out with some titles? The suggestions above seem pretty good, especially the Rex Lee book (I’ve never read it, but the description sounded like the type of book I have in mind). I remember my college World Religions professor talking about the importance of understanding a religion “from within”, but my local library doesn’t seem to be very helpful for understanding the LDS faith from within our framework. Thank you for your help!

  8. Kristen on June 17, 2004 at 11:26 pm

    I really like Coke Newell’s _Latter Days: A Guided Tour Through Six Billion Years of Mormonism_. Even if they don’t want to read the entire history, the Preface is great and there’s an appendix titled “Important Doctrines and Policies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. It’s basically an alphabetical listing of whatever non-members might ask about, with a brief (1-3 paragraphs) explanation/clarification.

  9. Dan Richards on June 17, 2004 at 11:33 pm

    You might hesitate to give this friend a video, but the best missionary film, bar none, is “How Rare a Possession.” It is an exceptional intro to the Book of Mormon, and tends to pique people’s interest in the book. After all, watching Parley P. Pratt devour the book in about 24 hours makes a person wonder what exactly is in there. And the true story of Vincenzo DiFrancesca is particularly appealing to Europeans, I think. I showed the film frequently on my mission (in Germany, no less) and found people much more willing to give the daunting Book of Mormon a shot afterwards.

  10. ronin on June 18, 2004 at 12:20 am

    Dan – would you happen to have a copy of “How Rare a Possession” that I might be able to borrow?
    (BTW – Bro Richards is my Home teacher)

  11. Ivan Wolfe on June 18, 2004 at 12:49 am

    hey – I know! Do what several members in my mission did and give him “Embraced by the Light!”

    That happened more times on my mission than I care to recall.

  12. Dan Burk on June 18, 2004 at 1:04 am

    Michelle — You’ve identified a fairly serious problem that the Church unsuccessfully tried to address about six years ago. Ward and stake public affairs specialists were sent packages of Church materials to place in local libraries so that there would be some materials reflecting our viewpoint. My wife was in public affairs at the time. As I recall, the package included The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, one of Pres. Hinkley’s books (I think it was Stand a Little Taller), a copy of Truth Restored, Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, a Book of Mormon, a couple of Tabernacle Choir CDs, an Infobases LDS Collectors Library CD-ROM, and a few other items. The Church even provided OCLC and cataloging data for all the items, on disc for easy catalog upload.

    Many libraries wouldn’t accept the package — librarians are extremely wary of even the hint of being used to further anyone’s particular agenda. Those that did “accept” the materials frequently put all or most of them out on the Friends of the Library Sale table, rather than in the permanent collection — resulting in many, many affordable sets of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism appearing in used book stores and on Bookfinder.com (which is how I got mine; also how I picked up my hardback copy of Bushman for cheap).

    Anyway, if you have a good rapport with your local library, you might think about some of those items.

  13. Ben Huff on June 18, 2004 at 3:08 am

    Douglas Davies’ An Introduction to Mormonism, and Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon, mentioned above, are both by very reputable publishers (Oxford and Cambridge, respectively), so I would think a library would feel pretty safe ordering them. I bet it would help, too, that you’re actually a local patron, Michelle, and can have a conversation with them. I haven’t read Davies’ book yet but have heard good things from people I trust (and when I heard him speak, I was very impressed).

    Givens’ book, besides the great historical and sociological stuff, draws out some really nice points of the Book of Mormon content itself in two of the later chapters, real spiritual stuff. I think it would be a great choice to send someone curious. It’s very readable, but it’s also fresh scholarship, fit for fine minds.

    Julie, how did you run across the Book of Mormon? What led you to read it? I’d love to know how that actually worked.

    I personally am shy about giving someone a Book of Mormon unless I feel I’m in a position to be in touch and answer questions about it, etc. I think it would be hard to just plow through it, without either having been primed by something more digestible, or having someone to talk you through it a bit, so I feel like if I’m going to suggest they read it I need to also be able to offer a little help. But I would think if you, say, put in a note with a couple of reading tips, you’d at least have good odds he would read some of it.

  14. Gordon Smith on June 18, 2004 at 7:06 am

    Julie, I have the same mixed feelings about this. Like you, I am a convert, and my first exposure to Church reading was the Book of Mormon. Of course, I was taking the class at BYU, so it’s a bit different that reading it in my living room in Wisconsin or Germany. Dan makes a useful distinction here: if you are going for coversion, nothing beats the Book of Mormon, but if you are going for public relations, something else might be better. I like the idea of Rex Lee’s book, though I have only scanned that. I suspect that Givens’ and Davies’ book might be more than this person would want.

    I really enjoy “How Rare a Possession,” and that sounds like a very effective approach to getting someone to read the Book of Mormon. Thanks for sharing that, Dan. And Ivan, I assume you are not kidding, though I wish you were. I remember the “Embraced by the Light” phenomenon that swept through our ward. I read it for the same reason I read Harry Potter, to see what everyone was talking about. Harry Potter was more entertaining, and for the most part, people don’t use it as the basis of Gospel Doctrine lessons.

    On the library problem. Dan, that was really interesting. I had never heard that story. My first reaction to Michelle’s query was, “Why doesn’t the Church just donate materials to public libraries?” Based on books I have seen at my local library, it is not at all clear that they are screening to avoid promoting personal agendas. Maybe they are just screening to avoid agendas they don’t particularly like. Anyway, interesting stuff.

    Finally, I notice that no one has mentioned “Marvelous Work and a Wonder” by LeGrand Richards. I am not surprised because it would not appeal to the T&S crowd, but I note it because it was a pretty standard “supplement” to the Book of Mormon when I first encountered the church. I had the impression that Rex Lee’s book was designed to be the next generation of that book, but I am not sure about that.

  15. Dan Burk on June 18, 2004 at 9:17 am

    Oh, I don’t blame the librarians one bit. I worked with ALA and ARL quite a bit in the late ’90s to beat back the Communications Decency Act and some other more local intrusions on their collections process, and got a pretty good idea of what they go through. You can imagine what it must be like: first the Mormons come through and say, “Here is some free material for your collection, because you don’t have anything balanced about our faith.” Then the Scientologists come through and say the same thing. Then the Moonies. Then the NRA. Then the tobacco industry. Then the Flat Earth Society. I won’t even get into all the demands that they must remove this or that horrible book (Joy of Sex, Harry Potter, Huckleberry Finn, No Man Knows My History) from the collection. You get the idea.

    Regarding LeGrand Richards — I read A Marvelous Work and A Wonder when I was 12, and I think it is just about exactly perfect for that age. I don’t think that’s the situation you have.

  16. Fred Astaire on June 18, 2004 at 10:52 am

    One basic problem is that nearly all materials on the church will only further solidify Mormonism’s (not unjustified) reputation in Germany (indeed, throughout Europe) as being profoundly and irredeemably American both as a church and as a religion. Indeed, the stagnation of the church in western Europe over the past several generations can be attributed to the fact that the church has found no way (and has made little effort) to become indigenized or naturalized in any meaningful way.

    You might pass along Albert Mössmer, “Die Mormonen: Die Heiligen der Letzten Tage” (Walter-Verlag, 1995; ISBN 3530579513) and, especially if these are law students, Christian Gellinek, Christus in Amerika? Mormonentum als christliche Religion (Agenda Verlag, 1999, ISBN 389688056X).

  17. Michelle on June 18, 2004 at 11:20 am

    Thank you so much for all of your helpful comments. I hope I can find an effective way to approach the librarians about this topic. I’ve jotted down all the great suggestions you’ve mentioned (well, except for Embraced by the Light. :) I noticed they already have a copy of that, but thankfully not in the Mormon section – it was in with more New Agey stuff.) I worry that I’ll get defensive and therefore obnoxious; hopefully, I can be calm, pleasant, friendly and persuasive.

  18. Kingsley on June 18, 2004 at 12:34 pm

    You know, I have actually had some success with Nibley’s The World and the Prophets as an introduction to the idea of a restored Church, an only true & living Church, etc. The book is very, very readable, & not too polemical, & it really is a kind of low-key but intellectually impressive introduction to our idea of Apostasy, Prophets, Scripture, etc. etc. etc.

  19. Kingsley on June 18, 2004 at 12:47 pm

    A few others that’ve worked for me: Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses, Arrington & Bitton’s The Mormon Experience, How Wide the Divide by Stephen Robinson & Craig Blomberg, & Joseph Smith: An American Prophet by John Henry Evans.

  20. Kevin Barney on June 18, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    My local library (in Schaumburg, IL) actually has a pretty decent section on Mormonism; about two shelves worth, with some fairly sophisticated stuff.

    I should think that at a minimum a case could be made to your local librarian acquisitions person for the following:

    BoM
    D&C
    PoGP
    Ency. of Mormonism
    Historical Atlas of Mormonism
    Bushman, JS and the Beginnings of Mormonism
    Givens, By the Hand of Mormon
    Lee, What Mormons Believe
    Arrington/Bitton, The Mormon Experience
    Allen/Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints
    Mormon Polygamy: A History

    Many local libraries already have some of the old classics, like Jesus the Christ, Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and Articles of Faith.

  21. Kevin Barney on June 18, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    Oh, and Shipps, Mormonism.

  22. Kingsley on June 18, 2004 at 12:58 pm

    & after your friends read the Book of Mormon, you can send Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series as a follow-up: if they’re interested about Nephites in ancient America, surely they’d be interested about Nephites in space!

  23. Julie in Austin on June 18, 2004 at 12:59 pm

    I am assuming a similar Church-donation-to-libraries happened in the 1920s. That’s why I have a one volume Discourses of Brigham Young, with ‘gift of the author’ (John Widtsoe) handwritten in it, with a plate from the Narragansett Library Association that I got for 1$. (But I bought it in the 90s, so at least they hung on to it for awhile!)

    As for my conversion: I was dating a member of the Church, we were both 16, and as I went off to a summer program in Ann Arbor, he gave me a BoM when I got on the plane. I had no intention of reading it, until I had a really, really bad time there, and then I read it and was converted, with no input from people (missionaries, etc.)

  24. Kingsley on June 18, 2004 at 1:19 pm

    Arthur Henry King was converted, essentially, by Joseph Smith–History in the PoPG. That really is a wonderful fragment, introducing the reader to the founding events of the Church & Joseph’s personality at the same time. It has passages of really beautiful prose & Joseph makes his case carefully & frankly. I can’t think of a better short document to introduce someone to the Church with.

  25. MDS on June 18, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    Another easy introductory read that is slightly more up to date than A Marvelous Work and a Wonder is Elder Ballard’s Our Search for Happiness. It is also available in German (or was during my mission).

  26. John David Payne on June 18, 2004 at 1:31 pm

    I have an unconventional suggestion. The novel _Lost Boys_ by Orson Scott Card (no relation to the Corey Feldman vampire movie) centers around a Mormon family, and really gives you a good feel for what ordinary life is like for contemporary Mormons. It’s also a pretty good mystery-suspense-horror story.

  27. Keith on June 18, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    You might consider Robert Millet’s _The Mormon Faith: A New Look at Christianity_. Bob writes clearly and is fairly ‘bi-lingual’ when it comes to speaking to those of other faiths.

  28. Julie in Austin on June 18, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    _The Lost Boys_ scared the daylights out of me.

  29. Kingsley on June 18, 2004 at 7:46 pm

    That sounds like the basic reaction of non-Mormons to “what ordinary life is like for contemporary Mormons.”

  30. Ben Huff on June 18, 2004 at 10:24 pm

    Wow, Julie, how many other ways are you a spiritual giant?

    That’s great. I’ll say, though, you did have a little more reason to take a crack at it than a lot of people would, since you were dating a Mormon — I’m not suggesting you read it because you wanted to convert, just that this guy at least mattered to you, so this book that mattered to him had a little bit of relevance through him.

    Did you read it from front to back, or skip around?
    Would you consider writing up your experience as a post of its own? I mean, what kept you reading? Did you get bogged down in 2 Nephi like most people? Did it seem really alien at first? When did you start thinking it might actually be true?

    I cannot imagine what it would be like to read the Book of Mormon as an outsider, with no prior familiarity or reason to believe it, but I’d like to know, since I’m supposed to be inviting people like that to read it! What am I really asking them to do?

  31. Julie in Austin on June 18, 2004 at 10:49 pm

    Gee, Ben, none that come to mind.

    I read in order, (except for starting with Alma 32 because he marked it).

    I’ll think about writing up a conversion story but, honestly, I think mine is so boring.

  32. Ben Huff on June 18, 2004 at 11:57 pm

    Julie, thanks for responding : )

    So, did you read Alma 32 before reading the rest, or after?

    Well, if your story is simple, that’s interesting to me! Mine is so complicated! And when I think about bringing up the Church with friends, it’s hard to imagine it going smoothly, so a boring story but one that ends in conversion is an interesting, inspiring, and encouraging one from my standpoint. Especially from someone thoughtful like you. Did you pray after reading Moroni 10? Why did you believe it?