Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN — Published: July 20, 2013
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A Mormon Doubts: Hans Mattsson was once a high-ranking leader for the Mormon church in Europe. He joins others who are experiencing a crisis of faith and finding few answers from their church.
In the small but cohesive Mormon community where he grew up, Hans Mattsson was a solid believer and a pillar of the church. He followed his father and grandfather into church leadership and finally became an “area authority” overseeing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe.
When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” the whisperings of Lucifer. He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mr. Mattsson began his own investigation.
But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.
Around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith, according to interviews with dozens of Mormons and those who study the church.
“I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,” said Mr. Mattsson, now an emeritus area authority. “Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance.”
Mr. Mattsson’s decision to go public with his disaffection, in a church whose top leaders commonly deliberate in private, is a sign that the church faces serious challenges not just from outside but also from skeptics inside.
Greg Prince, a Mormon historian and businessman in Washington who has held local leadership positions in the church, shares Mr. Mattsson’s doubts. “Consider a Catholic cardinal suddenly going to the media and saying about his own church, ‘I don’t buy a lot of this stuff,’ ” Mr. Prince said. “That’s the level we’re talking about here.”
He said of Mr. Mattsson, “He is, as far as I know, the highest-ranking church official who has gone public with deep concerns, who has had a faith crisis and come forward to say he’s going to talk about it because maybe that will help us all to resolve it.”
Every faith has its skeptics and detractors, but the Mormon Church’s history creates special challenges. The church was born in America only 183 years ago, and its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, and his disciples left behind reams of papers that still exist, documenting their work, exposing their warts and sometimes contradicting one another.
“The Roman Catholic Church has had 2,000 years to work through the hiccups in its history,” said Terryl L. Givens, a professor of English, literature and religion at the University of Richmond and a Mormon believer. “Mormonism is still an adolescent religion.”
Mr. Givens and his wife, Fiona, recently presented what they called “Crucible of Doubt” sessions for questioning Mormons in England, Scotland and Ireland. Hundreds attended each event.
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