BYU’s statement completely sidestepped around the reality that caffeine consumption within the church has been a contentious issue. By not acknowledging the longtime controversy over whether caffeine is against the Word of Wisdom, BYU implied the decision to sell caffeinated soda was as unremarkable as the decision to add a Taco Bell on campus.
That’s not reality. Caffeinated drinks at BYU marks a striking change. To pretend it isn’t — well, that’s gaslighting.
What is gaslighting?
The word comes from the 1938 play Gas Light about a man who attempts to hide his criminal activities by manipulating his wife into believing she is going insane. When his actions cause the gas lights of their apartment to dim, he insists nothing changed and tells her she must be imagining things.
Today, psychologists use the term gaslighting to refer to behavior that undermines another person’s perception of reality. A gaslighter uses tactics like denial, misdirection, deception, contradiction, and blame to confuse their victim and maintain control in the relationship. Regardless of whether the gaslighting is intentional or unintentional, victims begin to doubt what they are seeing, remembering, or feeling. Consequently, they no longer know who to trust or what is real. Victims of repeated gaslighting often feel like they are going crazy.
We laughed off the bureaucratic gaslighting that recently came from BYU. After all, whether students could buy caffeine on campus isn’t really that important. We were completely caught off guard, however, when we recognized the LDS church was gaslighting its members through a series of Gospel Topic Essays.
When we read the essays, we felt as if we had been transported into the dystopian society described in George Orwell’s 1984, a place where history was literally rewritten to match new state-approved facts. The LDS Church, which for decades has presented a neatly packaged Our Heritage version of its history, has published a drastically different version without a unified explanation to its people as a whole.
LDS Church Historian and Recorder Elder Steven E. Snow called the way the essays were released a “soft launch,” meaning this messier history was placed on lds.org where internet search engines would find them, but a casual browser of the church website would not. This strategy was intended to expose church members gradually to this new information and also be available for seminary teachers to inoculate their students.
Though these essays started being released in 2013, there has never been direct links to them from the lds.org homepage. The essays were included in the 2017 adult Sunday School curriculum as optional supplements, but many teachers stuck with the traditional unmodified Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual. Most active Latter-day Saints we’ve spoken with know little about the controversial content of these essays.
You can find this content if you google search for Gospel Topic Essays, a title which implies they are about routine subjects like prayer and faith. But the content covered here is anything but routine!
The essays present information never before seen in official church curriculum and facts only previously available in the anti-Mormon literature we were warned not to read. For many active Latter-day Saints, these essays present an alternate version of reality.
If you feel this way, we want you to know you are not going crazy and you are not alone! Let’s compare content from four of these essays with traditional LDS curriculum.
Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham
The Book of Abraham is introduced as “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” The current curriculum teaches that “Joseph Smith studied the letters and grammar of the Egyptian language, and then, with the help of the Holy Ghost, he translated the writings on the papyrus rolls.”
In this context, the word translation unambiguously means reading Egyptian and writing the same thing in English. However, this essay makes it clear that LDS and non-LDS scholars agree: the “characters on the fragments [of papyri] do not match [Joseph’s] translation.”
In fact, the papyrus fragments have nothing whatsoever to do with Abraham, but are “parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies.” In other words, Joseph wasn’t actually translating.
The church has long taught that the Book of Abraham is the product of Joseph’s translation of ancient Egyptian papyri. The new narrative concedes that the Book of Abraham is not the product of Joseph’s translation of Egyptian characters. Even more confusing is the implication that this doesn’t matter, that we should believe in the Book of Abraham as if it were literally translated.
The church has changed its narrative about the origin of canonized scripture without official announcement to its members, without admitting error, and without correcting its curriculum.
If you are confused why such monumental information is being buried among optional Sunday School material as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary, you are feeling the impact of gaslighting. We want you to know you are not going crazy.
Book of Mormon Translation
Where did the book of Mormon come from? Here’s the story we were told: “[gold] plates were delivered to Joseph Smith, who translated them by the gift and power of God.” Throughout church curriculum — in music, art, videos, and magazines — we saw Joseph sitting at a table, studying the gold plates by candlelight, reading the translation to a scribe.
However, the historical evidence presented in this essay effectively erases fundamental elements from this long-held narrative. According to the essay, Joseph did not need to look at the plates in order to translate, nor did he need the tool that had been “kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages.”
Instead, Joseph put his face in a hat and read words as they appeared on a brown seer stone — a stone he found while digging a well and which he had previously used for divining the locations of buried treasure and guardian spirits.
In the narrative you had consistently been taught, gold plates and the Urim and Thummim were essential to Joseph’s ability to bring forth the Book of Mormon. In the new narrative, Joseph not only doesn’t need to look at the plates, he can disregard the sacred tools the Lord gave him and turn an ordinary object into a “translation” tool. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the sacred is swapped with the commonplace.
Behind the scenes, the old translation story is being replaced with the new. If you are looking for images online and you realize the image of Joseph translating with the plates beside him has disappeared, we want you to know, you are not going crazy. History is being re-written without being corrected. Without a doubt, this is gaslighting.
First Vision Accounts
Church curriculum has consistently told the story of the First Vision recorded in 1838: 14-year-old Joseph Smith wanted to know which church to join and offered a prayer in a sacred grove. In response, both Heavenly Father and Jesus appeared, telling him that none of the churches were true. Why Joseph prayed and what happened after he prayed are presented as meaningful details of this story.
This essay ushers in a new reality, revealing there are multiple versions of the First Vision while claiming “the accounts tell a consistent story.” When we read the actual accounts, however, we realized there were significant differences between them.
In the earliest account, written by Joseph in 1832, the purpose of Joseph’s prayer was not “to know which of all the sects was right” but rather to seek personal forgiveness. In fact, Joseph reveals he had determined “by reading the scriptures” that none of the churches were true — before he prayed! The question of which church to join wasn’t even on his mind.
Furthermore, only one personage, the Lord, appears; Joseph does not describe seeing Heavenly Father’s body or hearing him speak.
Unless the purpose of Joseph’s prayer and who appeared after he prayed are no longer important details of the story, the 1832 and 1838 accounts are not consistent.
If you read the 1832 account and don’t even recognize it as the First Vision, we want you to know you are not going crazy. For the church to present these accounts as consistent when they differ in the very details the church has long taught matter the most is flagrant gaslighting.
Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo
Church curriculum has portrayed Joseph as having one wife: his beloved Emma.
However, in this essay, you read Joseph Smith had more than 30 wives. He also engaged in polyandry — the practice of marrying women who were already married to other men. This essay also concedes that some of Joseph’s marriages included sexual relations.
One of the footnotes of the essay led us to Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Here, we discovered additional details that have been omitted from the “Our Heritage” version of Church History. Here are just a few:
- Joseph’s first known relationship outside of his marriage with Emma was transacted with the 16-year-old housemaid, Fanny Alger, and took place before the Priesthood sealing keys were restored. Both Oliver Cowdery and Emma referred to the relationship as an affair.
- Joseph Smith generally hid his plural marriages from Emma. For a short time in 1843, Emma consented to let Joseph marry other women on the condition she could pick the women; when she chose the Partridge sisters (who already had been sealed to Joseph without Emma’s knowledge), Joseph arranged to be sealed again in front of Emma rather than tell her the truth.
- When Joseph requested 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball’s hand in marriage, he promised the marriage would “ensure [her] eternal salvation & exaltation and that of [her] father’s household & all of [her] kindred.” Joseph gave Helen 24 hours to decide if she would offer herself in exchange for her family’s salvation. Helen was the youngest but not the only teenage girl Joseph pressured to quickly answer his proposal.
- Based on the date that Joseph and Emma were sealed, Joseph had been sealed to over 20 other women before he was sealed to Emma.
In short, the Church curriculum has not only omitted Joseph’s polygamy and polyandry, but also the ways Joseph was both deceptive and coercive. Any other member of the church who behaved this way would be excommunicated. And rather than condemning Joseph’s methods, the church excuses them, suggesting that the Lord “did not give exact instructions” on how to practice polygamy.
If you haven’t heard of polyandry and you recognize there is no doctrinal foundation for it, we want you to know you are not going crazy. For the church to reveal Joseph’s behavior as if it’s in alignment with a man of “honesty and high moral character” is gaslighting.
Equally troubling, the church continues to imply that if you didn’t know this new narrative, it’s your own fault because “long-term and well-read members, historians, and Church leaders” have known about it for years. For an institution to blame members for not knowing the things that institution has deliberately omitted from its correlated materials is further gaslighting.
The examples above are only a small representation of the gaslighting felt by many members who read the essays as well as the footnotes and original documents referenced within.
Over and over again, it feels like the Church is saying: “Information we previously told you was anti-Mormon, we are now telling you is true. Even though you may have misled others because you trusted us, we take no responsibility.” If members are confused, the implication is that something is wrong with the members, not the information nor the way it was presented.
As members of the Church, we have been continuously taught to wholeheartedly trust the “servants of God” to never to lead [us] astray. However, leaders are not directly and explicitly teaching the members about the essays; each ward has been left to fend for itself.
Some members believe the whitewashed Our Heritage version of Church History, others believe the new Gospel Topic Essays version of Church History, and many members have no idea what to believe or who to trust anymore. This divides members and hurts relationships.
By failing to make an official announcement, current church leaders have placed an incredible burden on members of the church who know the new narrative. Without apology, the LDS Church has made its members responsible to reconcile conflicting historical narratives without giving them the authority to do so.
If you are a member of the church feeling this burden, we want you to know there is nothing wrong with you! The narrative the church is telling about its history has changed and this new messier version of history calls into question not only the essential truth claims of the church but whether the church is truthful.
Most concerning of all, though, is the church’s willingness to confuse and divide its own people rather than admit and repent of false teachings. This is gaslighting. If you feel this is unethical and unacceptable, we don’t blame you. You are not going crazy. And you are not alone.
Learn more about Religious Trauma Syndrome here.