As I was struggling with what to do with the NDE experiences, I realized that I would probably never come to a resolution on the reality of NDE’s. The scholars themselves still hotly debated the issue and volumes have been written on the subject. I realized that ultimately a choice would have to be made or live forever in indecision. Whatever choice I made would require a certain amount of faith. I decided that rather than trying to rationally resolve my quandary over NDE’s I decided to let my testimony guide me.
However, at that point, I had an unresolved question that I had placed on a mental shelf that I was now motivated to take up. Stuart’s death was still haunting me about how wrong I could be and how alone Stuart was suffering without a friend. I vowed to try to avoid having friends suffering in silence again. My own experience with the death of my daughter and the questions it raised for me, stoked the fire of desire for truth. Roughly around this same time individuals in three different families approached me with a problem regarding the translation of the Book of Abraham that I had placed on my mental shelf to terrible consequences.
FAMILY 1: During the first time I served in the Bishopric (about 10 years ago) and not long before the death of my daughter, a part member family invited me to their home. The husband was not a member of the church, but his wife was. They had all kinds of questions for me that directly challenged the truthfulness of the Church. We had a great talk. One of the issues they raised took me by surprise. They mentioned to me that the church had in its possession the papyrus that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham. They also told me that the translation of the papyrus did not come close to what Joseph provided as a translation and that the papyrus themselves were dated to hundreds of years AFTER Abraham is believed to have lived. I was honest with them and told them that I had never heard that the papyrus existed or that the translation did not exist. I had no idea. Frankly, at the time, I did not believe that what they told me was true. I told them I would look it up and get back to them.
I never did look it up. Not long afterwards my daughter passed away and the issue was forgotten in my mind as I dealt with the pain of her loss. Later, I was researching the NDE’s as part of my own search for comfort, I learned that this family submitted a written request to have the wife's name removed from the records of the church. In their letter to the Bishop explaining their reasons, they mentioned that there were serious questions that I as a church leader was not able to answer for them. I was crushed to learn that my failure to come up with some type of an answer played a part, however small, in their departure.
FAMILY 2: It was not long after I learned of this, that my sister-in-law approached me with a question. It was the very same question regarding the Book of Abraham. Her husband was an extremely intelligent and successful attorney. He graduated near the top of his Law school class at Harvard, studied in
England, and landed a job at one of the more prestigious corporate law firms in . He was a member of BYU’s only National Championship football team. He was also a strong member of the church, having served a Spanish-speaking mission and served in a wide variety of callings including as a member of a Bishopric. However, he was leaving the church. He no longer believed it to be true. One of the issues he mentioned to his wife was about the Book of Abraham. She asked me about it. I had to tell her that I simply did not know. But I never looked it up. I never researched it. I left it simply as I don’t know and let the problem remain up on my mental shelf of unresolved questions. Los Angeles
Well, their problems with regards to the Church among other personal issues eventually led to their divorce. It was one of the ugliest divorces that one can imagine. I had not answered the question regarding the Book of Abraham for her. All she got was an “I don’t know” from me. Other church related questions and doubts followed for her with no answers. The ugliness surrounding her divorce took a serious toll on her. Her growing doubts in the church took their toll on her. She ultimately became terribly depressed and committed suicide. The shock was devastating for my wife as she loss her sister.
FAMILY 3: About the same time as the above two families, a friend of mine who has been a devout lifelong member of the church confided in me. He had doubts about the church. He was filled with questions and concerns, but did not know where to turn. He tried talking to his wife about them, but his wife told him that if he left the Church she would take the kids and divorce him. She told him that he was being influenced by Satan and she did not want that influence in the lives of her children. His Bishop told him to ignore the questions, and chastised him for lack of faith and for not concentrating on the basics. His Bishop told him to read the Book of Mormon. His questions were sincere and difficult, but he found no one willing to listen.
He became extremely depressed. He told me that his life was a solitary hell. He was not only losing his faith in Mormonism, but in Christianity and God himself. He had experienced the death of several close family members at this time that wracked his soul with pain. He had several other serious issues in his life, but his Faith had always been paramount, so losing his faith at this time was devastating for him. He contemplated suicide, but thoughts of his children stopped him. He reached out to me begging for help. Among his many problems and questions related to the Church? The translation of the Book of Abraham that did not match.
That was it. For me, what happened with those families were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Stuart’s death, my own daughter’s death, what happened in the lives of these three families, motivated me to take the question of the Book of Abraham off the shelf and confront it once and for all.
I felt confident that I would find an answer. I have always been able to find answers to my religious questions and had faith in a God that answers prayers. I went straight to the manuals put out by the church. However, as I looked for material related to the translation of the Book of Abraham I had a hard time finding anything in the church’s published works related to the problems raised by these friends. I was becoming convinced that what they had learned came from an anti-Mormon source for I found nothing in the Church’s works.
There was no mention that the translation did not match in any of the Gospel Doctrine manuals or almost any of the other Church manuals that I could get my hands on. We are simply not taught that the papyrus are in existence nor that the papyrus does not date to the time of Abraham, nor that the translation of the papyrus or the facsimiles do not match or are even close to what Joseph translated. But then my search finally bore fruit.
I did find that in the January Improvement Era of 1968 (http://pool.fairmormon.org/images/4/47/IE_Jan1968_article.pdf) eleven fragments of the papyrus used to translate the Book of Abraham were announced as having been found and were now in possession of the Church. 1968! The Church did have them in their possession. For decades! I finally also found two paragraphs touching this topic in the Pearl of Great Price Student Manual which I believe is used for Institute. So if you never went to Institute, you would never hear of it.
That manual mentioned in response to the fact that the papyrus do not date to the time of Abraham that “Joseph never claimed that the writings were written by Abraham himself.” But it never mentions that the papyrus has been translated by Egyptologists and that the translation does not match even closely what Joseph has in the Book of Abraham. As far as I could tell, the translation problem just did not exist anywhere in Church publications.
Instead, the Institute manual on the Pearl of Great Price went on to say that the “…greatest evidence of the truthfulness of the Book of Abraham is not found in an analysis of the physical evidence nor historical background, but in prayerful consideration of its content and power.”
I finally did come across the following article in the July 1988 Ensign “Why doesn’t the translation of the Egyptian papyri found in 1967 match the text of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price.” (http://www.lds.org/ensign/1988/07/i-have-a-question/i-have-a-question?lang=eng&query=book+abraham+have+question+translation)
To me, this article I found was the biggest validation of the concerns of my friends. The entire time, I simply did not believe that the translation did not match. I didn't believe that the papyrus even existed. I thought they had been destroyed in a fire as I had been taught. I felt that their source HAD to be some anti-Mormon person with an axe to grind seeking to discredit the church. But they were right. Here, in the Ensign, an official publication of the Church, was a BYU scholar admitting that the translation of the papyrus that Joseph used to translate the Book of Abraham did not match our text of the Book of Abraham. I was the one who was wrong..again.
I was stunned that it took until my late 30s to be the first time I had heard of this issue even though the papyrus were discovered back in the late 1960s. Most of my time had been spent either deeply involved in my callings, or reading the Book of Mormon over and over again. So, I never came across it. This issue was never raised or discussed in any Gospel Doctrine or Priesthood lesson, nor indeed can you find it in any of those manuals. I found a couple of brief paragraphs to which I alluded earlier in an Institute manual. That was it.
There were all sorts of other questions and issues raised in the answer provided in the July 1988 Ensign article by Michael D. Rhodes (researcher in ancient scriptures, BYU). This was all a new world for me. I wanted to delve into it and learn more, but simply could find very little in official Church publications readily available to me.
So I turned to the internet. It wasn’t long before I found myself coming across story after story of those who had left the church. Stories filled with pain and anguish. The questions regarding the translation of the Book of Abraham were mentioned by many of them.
I was very surprised by what I read. These stories were written by many who were strong members of the church. They had served missions, were married in the
Finding these issues raised my concern for the youth. I had served as a Young Men’s President, a member of the Bishopric, and was serving as Stake Young Men’s President when I read these stories for the first time. My lifetime in the church up to that point had been devoted to serving them in one capacity or another. I have been concerned about the testimonies of our youth for years. I could easily see how the testimonies of many of our youth could be affected by some of the issues raised. They could be found with a simple click of the mouse. This was underscored for me when in my wife’s seminary class, one of our youth raised one of those issues I was reading about for the first time in the stories of those who left. My wife had not heard of the problem and did not know the answer. I had only read about it for the first time in the stories I was reading. I wondered how many other youth and how many other adults had these kinds of questions with no one to turn to for answers.
On the internet these difficult issues are very easy to find. When searching for just about anything on Mormonism those issues are just a click away. As missionaries preach the gospel, prospective converts turn to the internet to learn more and find these questions that many of our young missionaries cannot answer. Yet, while finding the challenging questions facing our religion was easy on the internet, finding answers was much more difficult. FAIR was about the only place where you could find a direct response to many of the questions. The Church had very little in direct response to those questions. In many instances the answers by FAIR were very detailed and scholarly, not readily accessible. It was even more difficult to find basic answers to these questions in the Ensign or any of the other official publications of the Church (such as Sunday School Manuals), or even in any of the books published by the general authorities of the church.
For the person struggling with their testimony that was aware of all of these issues I was finding, I knew that the amount of information to assimilate could be daunting. Arguments on each side are fervent, just as the arguments surrounding NDE’s were for me. Ultimately in the face of all the debate, a choice would have to be made. That choice though informed by reason would have to be made on faith since no definitive answer to some of the questions seemed easily accessible.
I knew that many of our youth were struggling to obtain a testimony. I wanted to be better prepared to help the youth obtain and maintain strong testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. If any of my youth had questions, I wanted to be prepared to offer them something that would buoy their faith. I wanted to make sure that there was another voice dealing with the tough questions. I wanted to do my best to do my part to be prepared for those who had questions.
I wondered how many adults were struggling with hard questions related to the Church. In just a very short span, three families close to me were all greatly impacted by them. I wanted no more Stuart’s in my life. I wanted something more substantive to offer than “I don’t know.” Especially since I had not put forth ANY effort into knowing in the first place. I would never find an answer if I never searched, pondered and prayed about it. We pray about our lost keys, this seemed eminently more important than that.
Nothing can replace knowledge gained by receiving a divine witness of the truthfulness of the restored gospel in these latter days. But the path to receiving that knowledge for some is sometimes difficult. There is a large void of answers to difficult questions. As youth and adult members come across these questions and seek answers to the ones that trouble them, they are often told to put these questions on the shelf or to not question. For some that shelf eventually gets so full and so cluttered that they feel that they must deal with it. Others are told just to ignore those questions and rely on their testimonies born of the spirit. But for others, the questions can be so troubling, they find themselves unable to ignore them. When some of them turn to other members and Church leaders for help in answer those questions, they are sometimes told that their testimonies are weak, or that they are questioning as a result of sin and unworthiness in their life further alienating an already struggling member. It is not long before they no longer feel comfortable in fellowship with the saints and in the absence of a loving countering voice ultimately end up leaving the church. Many of them feel judged, shunned, and have lost friends and families over it
So I decided to look more closely at these stories to understand why these people left the church. To see if there were any common themes among their stories. I found it hard to believe that a question related to translation of the Book of Abraham could lead to the loss of faith. There had to be more to it than that.
I wanted no more Stuart’s in my life, no more Families 1, 2 and 3. I wanted to do whatever I could do as a Latter Day Saint to buoy up the faith of those within my reach and stewardship who were struggling. I did not want anyone to suffer in silence anymore. So my study of the stories of those 158 devout members who left the church began. NEXT POST: Details on what I learned about the 158.
~ Bruce Fey
~ Bruce Fey