There has been some recent discussion of faith-promoting stories and other Mormon folklore, including its complex relationship to factual history, the difficulty of finding an original source, and the tension that skepticism can incite. My question is: if you can prove that a faith-promoting story is false, should you tell anyone? Is there any need for a Mormon Mythbusters? This is not a hypothetical question.
It started with an e-mail from my mother about an inspiring story someone had sent out on her Relief Society mailing list. It wasn’t just a “once upon a time there were two missionaries” kind of story, but rather one that makes verifiable–or in this case, falsifiable–historical claims. There’s a reasonably good chance you’ve heard it before or read it somewhere. My mother asked me if I thought the story was true. I wasn’t sure, but I asked a friend who was in a better position to know. He checked with a couple of Mormon folklorists, who didn’t have anything useful to say, so he inquired with a few more people who would presumably have known the answer. Initial responses weakened the story’s credibility. Inspired by my friend’s example, I started investigating the same topic. And so a research project was born.
It has proceeded in fits and starts, but now, with the help of this friend, I have amassed enough solid evidence, based on serious bibliographical and archival research and inquiries with reliable witnesses, to drive a stake through the heart of the legend. There is a kernel of truth to it that is no more and no less remarkable than a true conversion and a firm testimony, but the details that make the story memorable and worthy of repetition are almost entirely false.
So now what? Should I try to have the results published? Who publishes notes debunking Mormon legends? Most of the venues that come to mind are not places I would want to publish something like this. Or should I just stick it on a web page and let Google do the rest?
Maybe I shouldn’t publish it at all. I’ve satisfied my curiosity and answered the question my mother asked. Now, as my mother reminds me, there might be someone whose faith or feelings could get hurt by the truth. Is it better for me as a member of the church to deflate the story, before an axe-grinding anti- group points out that its claims are unsupportable? I’m skeptical on that point. I could claim that I was merely serving the cause of Truth, but let’s face it: the chance to prove that I’m right and someone else is wrong, for all the world to see, exerts a strong attraction. I also can’t pretend that the stakes are all that high: nothing FARMS has ever published will get called into question, no general authority will suddenly get emeritus status if I publish. At the worst, some institute teacher will end up looking foolish.
As with other posts like this, I’m not going to identify the specific legend in question or describe my evidence in more detail. Speculation is not welcome and is subject to deletion. A very few readers I’ve talked or written to will know more. Please, keep that knowledge to yourself. (There is one person for whom I will make an exception. This person has never, to my knowledge, posted here, but may well be lurking, and has a personal stake in the matter. That person is aware of my research, disagrees with my conclusions, and didn’t respond to my last e-mail over a year ago. If that person decides that this is the place, I’ll respect that wish and lay all my cards on the table.)
Should I publish? If so, where? Or should I just keep quiet?