“If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation.  If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.”

Like most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when I first read this statement by J. Reuben Clark Jr., a prominent Utah attorney, Apostle, and former Counselor in the First Presidency for which the law school at Brigham Young University is named, I assumed that he, and many others like him, had put both the history and doctrine of the church to the intellectual and factual test, and found all to be right beyond exception.

Upon further examination however, it turns out that this was only President Cark’s assumptive starting point, and as his own investigation progressed, he came to fear his doubts, and ended up shielding the church from further scrutiny as he began to suspect, then ultimately accept, that the church’s ‘truth’ would be harmed by unfiltered investigation.

Stay with me.  Here is the rest of the story:

By 1917, Clark was asking himself questions that he could not answer. In a personal memo, he began: “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation.” In his confidence, he added, “If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” From these premises, he noted the observation that scientists and lawyers (like himself) were not blind believers, that they must refuse to be deceived by others or by their own wishful thinking. He stated, “a lawyer must get at facts, he must consider motives – he must tear off the mask and lay bare the countenance, however hideous. The frightful skeleton of truth must always be exposed. The lawyer must make every conclusion pass the fiery ordeal of pitiless reason. If their conclusions cannot stand this test, they are false.”

During the same year, the increasingly introspective lawyer questioned himself further, “Are we not only entitled, but expected to think for ourselves? Otherwise where does our free agency come in?” His answer was a resounding, “If we are to blindly follow someone else then we are not free agents.” Perhaps he had never before questioned the assumptions behind the simple faith of his youth, but at midlife, J. Reuben Clark proclaimed that “There must be no forbidden questions in Mormonism.”

The direction to which his religious inquiry led him was indicated in his musings about the essentials of Mormonism, and the revelations of Joseph Smith. For one example, as he examined revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants concerning the structure of church government, Reuben wondered to what extent Joseph’s reading or experience, “his own consciousness,” had contributed to what he wrote. In his mid-forties, Clark regarded these as legitimate inquiries but soon realized that each question led to another, each of which was further removed from rational verification. Ruben ultimately determined, “I must either quit rationalizing, or I must follow the line of my own thinking which would lead me I know not where.”

Clark soon recognized where an uncompromising commitment to rational theology would lead him and he shrank from the abyss, “I came to appreciate that I could not rationalize a religion for myself, and that to attempt to do so would destroy my faith in God.” All the confidence of J. Reuben Clark’s commitment to rational inquiry in religious matters evaporated.

As he cast about for some way of explaining his position to others, he discovered an anecdote from Abraham Lincoln, who justified reading the Bible despite his reputed agnosticism with the comment, “I have learned to read the Bible. I believe all I can and take the rest on faith.” Clark later commended that anecdote to a general conference of the church, and in a complete reversal from his original premise, concluded that no religious faith could withstand uncompromising intellectual inquiry, and that in contrast, the refusal to rationalize one’s religious beliefs was the highest manifestation of faith. (The foregoing quotes from Clark’s personal journals along with parts of the above dialogue were posted previously on Reddit by zando95.)

For J. Ruben Clark, it was a merciful capitulation that quieted his dissonance. As a prominent Latter-day Saint leader, his conflict of interest was settled in the church’s favor, his only credible option, but each of us must ask ourselves: “If what we believe can be harmed by investigation, is it the truth?” “Are we really to ‘Prove all things’ as we’ve been counseled?” “Where does intellect end and faith begin, and visa-versa?” “Does the church need to be an ‘all or nothing proposition’, or can we accept some things and disagree with others?” “What does the Lord expect in the use of our agency?” “Is blind, unquestioning faith really the highest manifestation of faith?” The list of questions is far from exhaustive to an open-minded seeker of truth.

In my recent church assignment at Utah State University, I often counseled students who were similarly conflicted. Referring to the humanness of those called to lead the church, and the natural propensity for error to find its way into things man-managed, I’d share with them this insightful story.

Near the end of her life, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune travelled to Nauvoo to interview Emma Smith, the wife of the Mormon Prophet. He asked if she believed her first husband, Joseph Smith, Jr. was a Prophet of God. She replied that she believed Joseph was everything he claimed to be. When asked how she could say this as opposed to polygamy as she was, she responded that those who could only view Joseph as a Prophet became disillusioned with his actions and left the church, but those who learned to view Joseph as a man, struggling to fulfill a Prophetic calling could make allowances for his behavior and remained active.

How I wish we would share Emma’s wise council from the pulpit. Our leaders are men first, and Prophets and Apostles second. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf remarked in a recent general conference address, “To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”

I would tell my students that although we appreciate all our leaders do for us, and sustain them in their assignments, all members must learn to parse the human from the divine, and cling to truth only, rejecting both dogma and human opinion and error.

Consider this statement from Obert C. Tanner, a well-known Utah businessman and former church leader.

“Young people sometimes doubt the truth of the gospel or some part of it, and feeling the desire to be sincere, cease to be active in the Church. But must one believe all or nothing? Must one cut off Church participation because there is some doctrine doubted or disbelieved? One is not a hypocrite if he has honest questions and is active in the Church at the same time. Above all, keep the virtues of integrity, sincerity, and genuineness. Nothing else can be right in a man’s life if he is not sincere.”

In the end, J. Ruben Clark was not at liberty to continue his investigation. He realized it brought him into conflict with the church he was covenanted to support and defend.

What is the answer? The truth will eventually reveal itself as it always does. This is the conclusion B.H. Roberts (a well-known contemporary of Clark, Apostle, and long-time church historian) came to as he encountered many of the same issues. It is trusting in the Lord and His timing, and adjusting our expectations of our leaders and their mortal fallibility.

One thing is certain to me, as more evidence and knowledge are revealed about our collective past, present, and future, questions will be answered and we’ll be left with a theology and historicity much closer to the complete truth. Whether the result works or not for each of us is a personal decision, just as it was for J. Ruben Clark, for in the final analysis, belief is a choice.


Marc K. Ensign


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