By now you’ve probably heard that Joseph Smith “married" a whole bunch of women who were already married to other men. And you’ve probably heard that Joseph Smith “translated” the Book of Mormon by putting a rock in a hat and looking at it for a long time. Maybe you’ve heard that Brigham Young tried to sell the Nauvoo Temple, or that he said that there were people living on the moon.
Maybe you’ve read Jeremy Runnells "Letter to a CES Director," and have been convinced by it.
My question for you is this: how much does this history matter?
How much does this history affect your life, right here, right now?
And how much does this history affect the way the current LDS Church is running?
The Church has changed so dramatically over the last 180 years. I bet if a Mormon from the 1830’s time-traveled to our day and went to Church, he would feel totally out of place.
Someone has pointed out that Jesus said, “By their fruits shall ye know them,” not by their roots. In other words, you can tell a true prophet from a false prophet by looking at what the prophet produces. It's less important to go digging into the prophet's past. It's more important to examine a prophet's prophecies and teachings, and see if following the prophet's teachings leads to a good and happy life. In my opinion, sustaining President Monson as a Prophet and following his teachings does lead to a good and happy life. Therefore, I think I can honestly say, "I believe President Monson is a true prophet." I just don't think he talks with Jesus Christ face to face or that he actually holds sealing keys and things like that.
I have polygamist ancestors. I now believe that polygamy is a deplorable institution and I’m happy that it was destroyed, thanks in large part to the actions of the U.S. government.
And the historical Joseph Smith doesn't matter that much. I contend that the myth of Joseph Smith has been, and still is, more important and influential than the historical Joseph Smith. He's more of a mythical creature now, or a religious archetype, than an actual person. He's a figment of our collective religious imagination. And the Joseph Smith of the popular LDS imagination was a really great guy! We should all be more like him.
I don't think it's harmful to believe in the myth of Joseph Smith. I actually think it's beneficial, and that's why I don't voluntarily share "anti-Mormon" information with my true-believing Mormon family and friends. I think most Mormons are better off believing in the Church and living the religion.
The same kind of thing has happened with Christopher Columbus. Columbus has been romanticized and glamorized, and he's come to represent discovery, American values, Christianity, adventure, bravery. I don't know exactly how or why the myth of Christopher Columbus has been popularized and perpetuated the way it has, but I don't think that spreading the myth is a bad thing. Unfortunately, the historical Columbus sounds like a pretty bad guy.
Even if historical evidence somehow came out that showed that Jesus Christ was a fraud, I would continue to follow Christ's teachings, until something better came along.
If you look way back in your family history, you’ll probably find some horrible people who did some horrible things. And there may be secrets that have been kept from you, secrets that you’ll never find out about. Maybe some celebrated great-grandfather had a bunch of illegitimate children from extra-marital affairs. Or maybe some grandmother spent some time in prison, or in a looney bin. Um... so what?
I just don’t think the history matters very much.