A few recent comments over at BCC have elaborated on a theme that one hears from time to time on the internet: “I didn’t get the whole scoop on LDS history while I was in Primary.” For example, commenter Bookwormmama writes:
As a 29 year old member of the church I will concur that the black and white mentality is what we learn from church itself. We are taught from infancy in a black and white religion . . . Maybe some of you here have been able to do that. Maybe you have been able to figure out a way to make sense of Joseph Smithâ€™s many versions of the First Vision and his many wives that were also married to other men! Maybe you were able to make sense of Brigham Young and his blasphemous and racist teachings . . . I am still trying to figure it out in my black and white world view, a view that I learned at my church, where I was taught to â€œChoose the Rightâ€ and that I learned from an early age to bear my testimony and say â€œI KNOW that Joseph Smith is a true prophetâ€ long before I even understood what that meant. Those who claim that the people who have left the church do so because they have had some morality problem donâ€™t know very many people that have left the church. I was taught from childhood that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the truth of the gospel rests on that one fact.
Later commenter Brian writes along the same lines:
If you accept what your teachers tell you as true growing up, you often tend to get black and white. . . . If I hadnâ€™t googled â€œkids repeat testimonies saying I know â€ (one of my personal pet peeves- being taught to say and believe things because of societal pressure) I would not have known about JSâ€™s polygamy (and all the other stuff). Because I embraced the churchâ€™s teachings so completely, I was all the more disillusioned when I found out they were not as solid as they were presented. I am sorting through information now, and one of the things that makes me not want to stay in is that when I sat in primary with my kids, and when I was teaching the young men (up to a couple of weeks ago), I saw black and white.
It’s a common theme — I’ve probably seen statements along these lines in dozens of blog posts or comments over the years. And I can relate to the discussion, since I come from a similar factual background. I also learned about Joseph Smith as a child. I learned about Golden Plates and translation and Urim and Thummin. I did not learn about seerstones, polyandry, Zelph, Kinderhook, or the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society.
Does this mean that I was duped? Is this a reason to be angry at the church? Should I be mad-as-hell-and-not-gonna-take-it-anymore, because I did not learn everything I needed to know while I was in kindergarten?
Consider a few other things that I learned about various topics, at home or at school, during the same time frame of Primary age:
I learned about U.S. history: Columbus came to America, Patriots threw tea into Boston Harbor, and the Wright Brothers flew.
I did not learn about the Tuskogee syphilis experiment; or about smallpox blankets given to Native Americans; or about aggressive Manifest Destiny expansionism; or about forced sterilization of mental patients.
I learned about politics. I learned that the Russians were bad, because they didn’t want to let anybody be free. America was better, because America was a free country, and we got to elect our leaders. In Russia, you couldn’t do that.
I did not learn about the various criticisms of U.S. capitalism; about robber barons; about human rights abuses in U.S. client states; about Salvador Allende; about the elitism of early U.S. democratic republicanism.
I learned that Mondale was bad, because he wanted to turn the country over to the Russians, and Reagan was good, because he was going to kick some Russian butt.
I did not learn about the various critiques of the Reagan-era Republican party.
I learned about other churches. Catholics baptized babies; Jews didn’t eat ham; Jehovah’s Witnesses liked to argue with Mormons.
I did not learn about Maimonides, or Aquinas, or the Inquisition, or the history of Calvinism and Puritanism in America.
Why did I have all of these terrible, egregious gaps in my education?
Because I was a flippin’ nine-year-old, that’s why!
Just given casual observation, I think my own experience isn’t too far from the norm. I listen to my own Primary-age children or neighbor kids discussing politics or history or theology, and it’s deja vu. The broader concepts come through okay — “slavery was bad,” for instance. But why did people have slave laws? “Well, some white people in the South were bad people and wanted to own other people and they didn’t like black people, and so they wanted the government to allow slavery.” Nuanced, it’s not.
And that’s okay.
There will be a time to learn about the Compromise of 1820 and the Rum Triangle and the (heavy!) Northern involvement in slave-related commerce and the harshness of the transatlantic passage and slave revolts and so on. Right now, “slavery was bad” is good enough. Nine-year-olds just don’t do nuance very well.
Which is why, “I did not learn about polyandry in Primary,” is not a valid complaint. Yes, Mormon nine-year olds pick up a pretty unnuanced version of Mormon history — just like nine-year olds everywhere get an unnuanced version of the world.
On the flip side, I think it’s quite valid to argue that older church members ought to have a broader and more well-rounded grounding in church history, particularly once they’re _not_ in Primary any more.
(For instance, it seems reasonable to complain about the fact that Mormon teenagers don’t get a nuanced background in history, I think — much more so than to complain about Primary kids’ failure to learn nuance.
But I don’t know if I’m being realistic in these expectations, either. Ignorance among teens still looks a lot like a microcosm of society at large, doesn’t it? It’s not like teens anywhere really bother to get much in the way of nuanced history. Remember the big news story last month, when a survey showed that teens asked to name the most famous Americans tended to name Oprah Winfrey as one of the top names? It’s not just the Mormons — apparently teens most everywhere are historically clueless.
Yeah, our teens are probably underinformed about church history. But could we realistically expect that to change, even if we wanted it?
That leaves college, I guess, to effectively learn nuance. And hey, that’s when it actually does seem to happen for a lot of people. It did for me, at least.
And then a few surprised college kids ask, “hey, why didn’t anybody tell me about this when I was in Primary?”)