Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: membership stats

D&C Lesson 11 (Missionary Work)

“The Field Is White Already to Harvest”

Reading assignment

Doctrine and Covenants 4; 1112; 14–18; 31; 33; 75;
Our Heritage, page 11.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.


This lesson is about being a missionary. On an LDS mission, you’re taught that the work is hastening in the run-up to the last days, and people are somehow being “prepared” to accept the gospel.

D&C 4:4 For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul;

Which is the biggest crock of bull ever. Nobody out there cares about the church until it annoys them, and the conversion rate is tailing off.

And once more: here’s that pie chart of how the Lord’s missionary effort is going.

This is not a new idea for anyone in Outer Blogness, but missions aren’t for converting non-members into members. It’s to convert the missionary themself.

How do I know? No, it’s not because of the worsening convert baptism numbers. It’s because of the essays.

Yes, those essays — the ones that try to put a positive spin on difficult issues in the church’s history. Members get directed to them when the church’s dodgy relationship to truth or basic decency become apparent.

I’ve talked to many missionaries over the time that the essays have come out, and no missionary I’ve ever spoken to is aware of them.

Isn’t that a bit of a giveaway? They’re not given any notice about them. Then they run into me, and are ill-prepared to answer questions. If a mission were about convincing people of the church, the essays are something they should have at least heard of. Really, they should know them inside and out, if the church is really using them as a well-equipped, well-trained missionary force. But they’re not, because convert baptisms are not the point of a mission. The church can replenish itself well-enough from children of record. Here the stats have hardly changed.

Again, the purpose of a mission is to convert the missionary. The missionary is placed in a situation where they have to tell people the church is true, and face potential opposition from others. Under that kind of pressure, it would be impossible not to start coming up with rationales for why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Remember, the church get people to lie to themselves, saying that they know the church is true. Then, once you’ve said it, you’re more likely to believe it.

From Boyd Packer:

A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!

“It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’

“Oh, if could teach you one principle:

A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it! Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that ‘leap of faith,’ as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. ‘The spirit of man,’ is as the scripture says, indeed ‘is the candle of the Lord.’ (Prov. 20:27)”

Dallin Oaks:

Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.

Brigham Young:

At your meetings you should begin at the top of the roll and call upon as many members as there is time for to bear their testimonies and at the next meeting begin where you left off and call upon others, so that all shall take part and get into the practice of standing up and saying something. Many may think they haven’t any testimony to bear, but get them to stand up and they will find the Lord will give them utterance to many truths they had not thought of before. More people have obtained a testimony while standing up trying to bear it than down on their knees praying for it.

More about gaining a testimony through lying.

That’s right — lie to yourself and say that you know it’s true when you don’t. Do you believe it now? You said you believed it, after all.

The LDS Church is built on a foundation of lies, and the most insidious of these is the lie you tell yourself.

It’s all psychology. This ties into something called cognitive dissonance. When there’s a split between what we believe and what we’re doing, it makes us uncomfortable, and we try to reduce the dissonance. That might mean that we change what we do, but if we’re stuck doing something — did I mention that the mission office took our passports off of us, first thing? — then we might try to change our belief, especially when we’re in a group of other people who also say they believe the same thing. This combination of conformity and commitment has a powerful effect on people’s minds, and can form the basis of an ideology for the rest of that missionary’s life.

For more on cognitive dissonance, check out this famous study by the legendary Leon Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith.

At the beginning of the Festinger and Carlsmith experiment, student volunteers were asked to perform a simple and boring task. Before the subjects left the experiment, the experimenter commented that his research assistant would be unavailable to help out the following day. Would the subject be willing to do a small favor for the experimenter? The favor was to take the place of the research assistant, who was supposed to prepare subjects for the experiment by giving them a positive attitude toward it. “Would you please tell the next subject in line that the experiment was fun and enjoyable?” Subjects who agreed to do this were paid either $1 or $20.

Keep in mind that $20 was a lot of money in the 1950s, equivalent to over $100 now. So one group was being paid a lot of money to lie to the next subject about the boring experiment. The other group was being paid much less. Subjects in both groups typically agreed to tell the next subject that the experiment was interesting.

Festinger and Carlsmith were curious about whether the subjects would change their own attitudes, making them more like the attitudes they were expressing (as a lie) to the next subject. The results were surprising. People who were paid $20 to lie showed less change in their own attitudes. When the experimenters asked them later for the truth, the highly paid subjects said the experiment was actually boring. On the other hand, people who were paid only $1 were more likely to say, when asked later, that the experiment was “not bad” or that it was “interesting.”

How do we explain this? Festinger observed that the subjects were put in a psychologically uncomfortable position. They had not enjoyed the experiment, but now they were asked to lie and say they had enjoyed it. How could they explain their own behavior to themselves? Subjects who received $20 had no problem explaining their behavior to themselves. They were paid a lot of money to lie, and that explained why they lied. So they did not have to change their true attitudes.

However, the subjects who received $1 did not really have a good reason to lie. To reduce the feeling of discomfort they might have felt about lying, they had to persuade themselves they actually enjoyed the experiment. Their attitudes changed to fit their behavior, reducing the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance.

As Festinger put it in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957):

The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. (p.3)

And if you’d like to see more about conformity and social pressure, check out this video of the Asch Conformity Experiment.

People call the LDS Church a cult. I don’t, because I don’t think that term is well-defined. But I will say this: Mormon missions are as culty as anything I’ve ever heard of. You’re taken away from your family and social group, your name is changed, other people control who you’re with, what you wear (right down to your underwear), what you do, and what information you have access to. That’s a cult by any definition.

Ask: Read this account of Steve Hassan’s BITE model of cults. How many of these criteria are matched by LDS missions?


Requirements for being a missionary

To be a missionary, you have to have a knowledge of the gospel

D&C 11:21 Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men.

but do not read anti-Mormon materials, including the church’s own essays. Keep it simple!

You also have to be humble and full of love,

D&C 12:8 And no one can assist in this work except he shall be humble and full of love, having faith, hope, and charity, being temperate in all things, whatsoever shall be entrusted to his care.

which you’ll need a lot of when you’re telling people that their way of life is wrong, and they’ll need to join yours.

Along those lines, don’t mention Section 33:

D&C 33:3 For behold, the field is white already to harvest; and it is the eleventh hour, and the last time that I shall call laborers into my vineyard.
4 And my vineyard has become corrupted every whit; and there is none which doeth good save it be a few; and they err in many instances because of priestcrafts, all having corrupt minds.

Feel the lerrrrrrve.

Which no man knoweth

Someting amazing happens in this reading. Joseph Smith, channeling the ghost of Jesus Christ, tells John Whitmer something that he couldn’t possibly have known.

D&C 15:1 Hearken, my servant John, and listen to the words of Jesus Christ, your Lord and your Redeemer.
2 For behold, I speak unto you with sharpness and with power, for mine arm is over all the earth.
3 And I will tell you that which no man knoweth save me and thee alone
4 For many times you have desired of me to know that which would be of the most worth unto you.
5 Behold, blessed are you for this thing, and for speaking my words which I have given you according to my commandments.
6 And now, behold, I say unto you, that the thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the kingdom of my Father. Amen.

WOW! That is some next-level psychic phenomena going on there, I can tell you.

Then in the next section, he does it again for Peter Whitmer, Jr.

What does he say this time? Same fucking thing.

D&C 16:1 Hearken, my servant Peter, and listen to the words of Jesus Christ, your Lord and your Redeemer.
2 For behold, I speak unto you with sharpness and with power, for mine arm is over all the earth.
3 And I will tell you that which no man knoweth save me and thee alone
4 For many times you have desired of me to know that which would be of the most worth unto you.
5 Behold, blessed are you for this thing, and for speaking my words which I have given you according to my commandments.
6 And now, behold, I say unto you, that the thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the kingdom of my Father. Amen.

It reminds me of the time me and a couple of friends went to a naturopath, and he considered my symptoms and gave me the Zinc Drink.

“The Zinc Drink?” I asked.

“The Zinc Drink,” he said. “Many people are deficient in zinc.”

Afterwards, I asked my friends what he recommended for them. Guess what it was. Sure enough: Zanc Drank.

Fucking psychics.

Church of the Devil

I was never sure what the Church of the Devil was. An angel told Nephi:

1 Nephi 14:10 And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.

That’s a pretty expansive categorisation, but okay Nephi! Only two churches. But now we see this:

D&C 18:20 Contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil.

which makes it seem like there’s at least three: the Lord’s church, the church of the devil, and then some other churches that you’re not supposed to contend with. So what were they?

It would have saved me a lot of time if someone had just pulled me aside and said, “Look, this is all made up, and this term is not well-defined. They just use whatever term to mean anything they want, whenever it suits them. Don’t expect any consistency here.”

I wish someone had told me this! So now I’m telling you.

NT Lesson 22 (More parables)

“Inherit the Kingdom Prepared for You”

Matthew 25

LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to develop their gifts of critical thinking, and avoid prejudice.


The reading this time is from Matthew, and Matthew alone. Usually there are some repeats in the other gospels, but not this time; Matthew’s the only one who records these things. Given Matthew’s propensity to make stuff up, this probably means that it’s a collection of stories that were around at the time, and not anything that Jesus might have said.

This lesson is brought to you by the number 10, because we’re treating these parables in this lesson:

  • Parable of the ten virgins
  • Parable of the ten talents
  • Parable of the sheep and the goats (possibly ten of each)

Main ideas for this lesson

Parable of the ten virgins

This one doesn’t make a lot of sense at first.

Matthew 25:1 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
25:2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
25:3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
25:4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

So what’s this story about? A bunch of slippery virgins? Are they all for the groom?

Not exactly. When you were part of the wedding party, you waited with a torch. If you didn’t have a torch, you might have been a wedding crasher. And those torches needed to be topped up with oil, or else they’d go out.

By the way, if you’re teaching this class in an actual Gospel Doctrine class, you’re meant to bring a container of oil, and when someone gives a suggestion, you’re supposed to add a droplet of oil to the container.

If you are using the jar and the oil or colored water (see the attention activity), explain that the jar represents the lamps in the parable. Put a drop of oil or water into the jar each time a class member suggests what we can do to prepare.

This is meant to teach class members that everything they do contributes only an insignificant amount to the oil level.

Alternatively, you can squirt class members with oil, and tell them it will heal them of their infirmities.

Matthew 25:5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.
25:6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.
25:7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.
25:8 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.
25:9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

I suppose sharing was out of the question.

Matthew 25:10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
25:11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
25:12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
25:13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

While I was on my mission, I had an investigator ask, “Does everyone who gets baptised stay active?” I told him, no, some don’t.

“Well, what percentage stays active?” he asked.

At the time, it seemed to me to run about half and half, so that’s what I said. And for justification, I made a rather deft (I thought at the time) link to the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Five out of the ten were ready, five weren’t; there you go, fifty percent. Isn’t it great how you can find a scriptural justification for a figure you just pulled out of your ass?

What I didn’t know was that the facts were much worse: As mentioned in an earlier lesson, only about a third of Latter-day Saints are active, according to the church’s information expert.

What if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were a congregation of just 100 people? This is what Blaine Maxfield, chief information officer of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and managing director of the church’s IT department, invited attendees of the LDSTech Conference to imagine Thursday morning at the University of Utah.

Other notable statistics included:

  • 35 are adult males
  • 42 are adult females
  • 13 are in Primary
  • 10 are youths
  • 36 attend sacrament meeting on a weekly basis
  • five can’t read or write

Wait, what?

We’re not supposed to know this, of course. The information was quickly redacted in the Deseret News article, but saved on the Net.

Isn’t this a bit of a giveaway that even members don’t really find meetings worthwhile? Members frequently talk about all the good things the church does for them, but it doesn’t look like it here. If the church really improved people’s lives, you wouldn’t be able to keep people out! Instead, you have to patiently coax them into baptism, and then you have to run around after them to keep them active. If the church were true or practical or useful, it would be more obviously so.

Of course, just like in the parable, the virgins get the blame; they don’t make it because they’re not prepared. But in real life, people don’t keep going to church because it’s a rather tedious and unpleasant waste of time where you’re made to feel bad about yourself. And you’re supporting a hate group that works tirelessly to deny rights to people. Plus the fact that it isn’t actually… you know… true. There are some very good reasons to stop participating in the LDS Church, and they have nothing to do with oil.

Parable of the talents

So, just a bit of context. Jesus is expanding on his earlier parable, where he explains that he gives to give more to people who have done well for themselves — and by the way, if someone doesn’t want him to be king, then he’s going to kill them.

Luke 19:26 For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him.
19:27 But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

Jesus hasn’t changed. He’s still the maniac he was in the Old Testament.

Matthew 25:14 For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.
25:15 And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.
25:16 Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.
25:17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.
25:18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.
25:19 After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.
25:20 And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.
25:21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
25:22 He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.
25:23 His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

Capitalism FTW!

Side note: One of my Russian professors at BYU was making a defence of socialism in class — hypothetical, mind you! — and told us that none of the parables of Jesus ever advanced capitalism. I responded with the Parable of the Ten Talents. He reflected, and retracted the claim. Fun at BYU.

Matthew 25:24 Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:
25:25 And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.
Maybe he was afraid of getting killed, because he’d heard about the previous version of this parable. Just saying.
25:26 His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:
25:27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.
25:28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.
25:29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
25:30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The LDS manual has a teaching idea.

Give each class member a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. Ask them to write down one or two of their talents or gifts along with at least one specific thing they will do in the next few weeks to use them in the service of others.

Ask: What will God do to you if you do not increase your talents?
Answer: Cast you into outer darkness, apparently.

Maybe it’s worth asking, though. What talents do you have? Which ones kept you in the church for so long, and which ones got you out? For me, my patience, tolerance for ambiguity, and my sense of social cohesion kept me in for far longer than they should have.

It’s fairly common for ex-Mormons to beat themselves up a bit, post-deconversion. How could I have been fooled for so long? How did I not see the con? Why did I stay in for so long? But we all had our reasons, and in some cases, these reasons were brought on by the good things about us. We should value them. They made us what we are today, even if they once had less-than-salubrious effects. And we should also value the things that got us out, including critical thinking, skepticism, willingness to laugh at those who take themselves too seriously, and regard for our own way of thinking over what others will think. (We might have learned some of these things in church, too.)

Parable of the sheep and the goats

I admit that goats are weird and creepy.

But are they so terrible that Jesus had to make a parable with them as a villain?

Matthew 25:31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
25:32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
25:33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Wow. What happens to the goats?

Matthew 25:41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

This is just another reference Jesus made to sending people into everlasting fire.

Let’s just take a moment and reflect on a group of people who have been the targets of prejudice in times past. While things have improved for them, they are still sometimes misunderstood even today. I’m talking about… the left-handed.

The Bible pretty consistently favours right-handers over left.

Ecclesastes 10:2 (King James Version)
A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left.

When does the Bible talk about how great someone’s left hand is? Never. Left-handers were considered “sinister” — the word sinister even means ‘left-handed’. Just one more form of prejudice that the Bible writers found acceptable.

Ye have done it unto me

Okay, now for a change of pace. You know that I spend a lot of effort bashing away at the Standard Works. I do this because, frankly, they’re terrible and they teach bad things. They don’t deserve their reputation for teaching kindness and decency.

On the other hand, I have to give credit where credit is due, and here’s one of the best scriptures in the lot.

Matthew 25:34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
25:35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
25:36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
25:37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
25:38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
25:39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
25:40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

A message missed by those who worship Republican Jesus.

Condescending Wonka

Lucy and Linus

 Stephen Colbert perhaps said it best.

It’s great that Jesus encouraged love and generosity. On the other hand, it seems hypocritical of Jesus to teach love and generosity, and then in the very next verse threaten people with eternal torture in fire. (I might say: If Jesus tortures even one of the least of my brethren in fire for eternity, he has done it unto me.) But then this inconsistency is to be expected in a completely made-up story cobbled together over hundreds of years. Thank goodness it’s all a myth.

Let’s finish with a closing hymn. See you next week.

OT Lesson 46 (Daniel 2)

“A Kingdom, Which Shall Never Be Destroyed”

Daniel 2

LDS manual: here


We’re finishing the book of Daniel today. Actually, no, we’re looking at one part of Daniel 2, the one that says, Gee, isn’t the church growing and isn’t that awesome?

There’s a whole other section that the official lesson manual isn’t going to touch. It’s Daniel’s vision of the end times. Other millennial religions love this part. Seventh-Day Adventists really go to town on it. Mormons, not so much.

The latter half of Daniel can be summed up like this:

  • Angels show Daniel cryptic symbolism about the end of the world
  • Daniel asks for an explanation
  • The angel gives him more cryptic gobbledegook
  • Daniel asks for an explanation again
  • The angel tells Daniel to piss off

12:6 And one said to the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?
12:7 And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half; and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished.
12:8 And I heard, but I understood not: then said I, O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things?
12:9 And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.

Daniel must have been easily impressed; I’m not. Why would a god speak in riddles like this, if his goal is to communicate his message to mankind? A god wouldn’t need to, but people who are just making stuff up would.

I used to take the end-of-the-world stuff very seriously, and wonder over what it meant. That was before I met people on my mission who took it even more seriously, and I thought they were crazy. Now, all I can think is: Isn’t it nice not to have to wonder about that silly nonsense any more? What a relief.

Main points from this lesson

How’s that stone going?

This lesson hinges on a reading of Daniel 2. King Nebuchadnezzar has had a dream. He can’t remember it, but he wants the court magicians to tell him the interpretation. They’re like, “Tell us the dream, and we’ll tell you the interpretation.” But the king’s like “Eh, if I tell you the dream, I know you’ll just make up some crap. You read my mind and tell me the dream.” He’s not so dumb.

Of course, they freak. “No one’s ever expected us to do anything like that before!” They backpedal faster than an embarrassed psychic.

Daniel, however, is able to tell the king about the dream. The king saw a big statue, representing major world kingdoms.

2:32 This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
2:33 His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.

There seems to be broad agreement about the kingdoms represented by the parts of the statue, except for the ten toes. People used to say it was the ten countries of the EU, but they stopped saying that when it got more than ten member nations. The lesson manual fudges it and says, “Eh. It’s Europe.”

What about before the EU? The Adventists thought it was earlier empires: the Ostrogoths, the Huns, and so forth. Check out this old chart, where it says “The Ten Kingdoms” at lower left. And look at all the Very Serious Calculations! You can tell this is the distillation of a thousand deranged notebooks.

What a farce. Interpreting prophecy is just the process of grabbing any explanation in your immediate vicinity.

Anyway, then a big stone rolls out of a mountain and knocks the image down.

2:34 Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.

So what’s the stone?

President Kimball taught: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored in 1830. . . . This is the kingdom, set up by the God of heaven, that would never be destroyed nor superseded, and the stone cut out of the mountain without hands that would become a great mountain and would fill the whole earth” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1976, 10; or Ensign, May 1976, 8–9).

And this is the part where Mormons trot out the fantastic stats. Here’s the chart that Mormons are seeing in Sunday School this week:

That seems impressive. And the church loves to say that it’s the fastest-growing religion.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported an increase from 4,224,026 U.S. members in 2000 to 6,144,582 members in 2010, a 45.5 percent jump.
That is “far and away the largest gain reported by any [Christian] group,” the report noted, not just in percentage but also in actual numbers.

But don’t all religions say that?

So what’s the story here? Well, yes, the church is growing in absolute numerical terms. But there are a few things to remember.

• LDS Church population numbers, as stated, are underwhelming
Here’s a graphic that shows the percentage of Mormons v the rest of the world. Those two minuscule slivers up the top are Mormons, inactive and active ones respectively.

Not much of a stone. More like an intrusive formation. And that graph hasn’t really moved in the last 20 years.

• The church is only just keeping up
Church membership is growing, but so is the population as a whole, so the church is really just keeping pace with population.

• The church inflates its numbers
If someone simply stops going to church, it appears that they are counted as members until they’re 110 years old. Missing, presumed faithful.

• Not everyone who is counted is active.
A whoopsie moment happened this year when a church statistician let a cat out of the bag: Only 36% of members are in the pews on a given week.

“…36 attend sacrament meeting on a weekly basis”

The item was quickly redacted from the Deseret News article it appeared in, but it was saved by sharp-eyed Netizens and can be found in various locations.

Butts in seats isn’t the same as activity rates, but to the extent that they match up, thirty-six percent of 15 million equates to about 5.4 million active members worldwide.

Another way of looking at the activity issue is census records and polls. We can ask people what religion they identify as. For example, the church claims 2% of the US population, but according to a 2008 ARIS poll (PDF), only 1.4 percent of the US adult population will say they’re LDS, and that’s been holding steady for decades.

There’s an interesting angle to the ARIS numbers. Sometimes political pollsters will ask some pretty crazy questions, and we can use these to see what baseline crazy looks like.

Here are some results from Public Policy Polling. I’ve put some of these in descending order, so the beliefs get zanier the further down you go.

  • 51% of voters say a larger conspiracy was at work in the JFK assassination, just 25% say Oswald acted alone
  • 29% of voters believe aliens exist
  • 21% of voters say a UFO crashed in Roswell, NM in 1947 and the US government covered it up. More Romney voters (27%) than Obama voters (16%) believe in a UFO coverup
  • 20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism, 51% do not
  • 15% of voters think the medical industry and the pharmaceutical industry “invent” new diseases to make money
  • 14% of voters believe in Bigfoot
  • 13% of voters think Barack Obama is the anti-Christ, including 22% of Romney voters
  • 9% of voters think the government adds fluoride to our water supply for sinister reasons (not just dental health)
  • 7% of voters think the moon landing was faked
  • 5% believe exhaust seen in the sky behind airplanes is actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons
  • 4% of voters say they believe “lizard people” control our societies by gaining political power

You can watch the beliefs get nuttier and nuttier as you go down this list. Pretty soon, we get to moon hoaxers, chemtrail believers, and finally it’s the Reptilians at 4 percent. Four percent is sort of baseline cray; it’s really difficult to crack that barrier and find a question that fewer than four percent will agree to. That could be because four percent of people will drink paint if you tell them to, or perhaps four percent of people will say yes to any question — possibly because they’re really suggestible, or they really like messing with pollsters.

But I think it’s very telling that, despite all this, you can’t get four percent of the population to admit to being a Mormon. For that question, you get a paltry 1.4 percent; less than half of what you get for Reptilians. Some people will say they believe in the Lizard People, but being a Mormon? Whoa — that’s too crazy. Isn’t that something.

Convert baptisms slowing
There are more missionaries than ever before due to the lowering of the mission age, although this is ending as those missionaries are digested through the system. However, the church’s gains haven’t come through convert baptisms.

In the year and a half since the LDS Church lowered the minimum age for full-time missionary service, the Utah-based faith has seen its proselytizing force swell from 58,500 to more than 83,000. That’s a 42 percent leap.

The number of convert baptisms last year grew to 282,945, up from 272,330 in 2012. That’s an increase of — less than 4 percent.

Instead of converts, the church is getting its growth from the children of members. But even this is looking grim, as — like with all religions — youth are decidedly unenthusiastic about religon.

Steve Benson heard it from a friend that youth inactivity is up to 75%. (Don’t take this too seriously, even though I do take Benson seriously.)

She said that when she was a Young Women’s president, she attended a Salt Lake City-wide conference for area youth leaders. There they were shown pie charts displaying an alarming rate of youth inactivity throughout the LDS Church. She said that at the time, among the 850,000 Mormon youth in the United States, there was a whopping 75% inactivity rate, with inactivity defined as three months of non-attendance at sacrament meeting.


There’s your stone, rolling forth and filling the whole earth. Not very impressive. When you realise that everyone now has access to information about the church, and the church is approaching saturation — its growth peaking, baptismal rates falling — it’s looking even worse.

The Lord’s great latter-day work is a fizzle. A damp squib. The LDS Church is an insignificant sect that most people don’t care about.

Resignations up

Meanwhile, more and more of us are resigning. This Pew Forum poll from 2008 (PDF) shows that (as with many religions) more people are leaving the LDS Church than are joining it. There’s every indication that the exodus has only increased since then.

Here’s what someone asked Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy at an LDS meeting:

A questioner asked, “Has the church seen the effects of Google on membership? It seems like the people who I talk to about church history are people who find out and leave quickly. Is the church aware of that problem? What about the people who are already leaving in droves?”
Jensen’s response:
“The fifteen men really do know, and they really care. And they realize that maybe since Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now; largely over these issues.”

But how many are resigning? Since all we have is anecdote and hearsay, we shouldn’t take this too seriously, but Richard Packham knows someone who had the “inside scoop” on resignations. These numbers are old, but here they are.

1995:………. 35,420
1996:………. 50,177
1997:………. 55,200
1998:………. 78,750
1999:………. 81,200
2000:………. 87,500

If this trend kept going in logarithmic fashion until today (but surely hasn’t), we’d be seeing something like 120,000 people leaving a year.

It’s a good idea not to be too optimistic about resignation numbers. Obviously, the church is not going to report them. And it’s tempting for ex-Mormons to overestimate the extent of the attrition. There’s a psychological reason for this: When you leave the church, suddenly apostates seem like they’re everywhere. This could be because there really are more of us, or it could just be the availability heuristic: a thing seems more common if you can think of lots of examples of the thing, like people who have left. So a healthy sense of restraint is appropriate when approaching numbers like these.

Should you resign?

Many people I’ve talked to have no desire to write an exit letter and have their name formally removed from the records of the church. They see it as yet another hoop that the church is making them jump through, and they prefer to have nothing more to do with it. They want to leave the church on their own terms.

As for me, I decided to write my exit letter and formally resign. My reasoning: if you’re still on their records, they’re counting you, and they can use the number you represent as support for their actions, like fighting marriage equality or promoting superstition. My resignation meant I’d told them (in detail!) why I was out. They knew it. My status on the outside was the same as on the inside. For me, that meant consistency and integrity.

But there might be something eating into my small victory…

Do they still count you if you resign?

There is some debate on this, and I’ve never seen a conclusive answer. But David from Mormon Disclosures thinks they keep counting you.

Apparently, the LDS church does not appear to be subtracting resigned and excommunicated members. Also it would seem only the deaths of active members are reported to church headquarters and accounted, making its death loss much lower (3.6 in 1,000) than the actual death rate.
Thus, the additions made each year are overstated, and the subtractions are understated. This goes on year after year and the official number of members gets farther and farther from the truth.

Richard Packham has more numbers.

Official membership increased from 10,752,986 to 11,068,861 during 2000. This consists of 273,973 convert baptisms and 81,450 increase in children of record. The loss of 39,548 is due primarily to deaths, and various adjustments. The First Presidency is aware of the problem of the “name removed file” growing to hundreds of thousands of names, all still included in the 11 million. It appears that they are reluctant to change the policy, and therefore they still count those people as part of the total membership.

Others who have resigned report that church leaders somehow know about them on a ward and stake level, which would mean that some trace of their former membership is retained.

It’s hard to say what’s going on when the church is not forthcoming about its practices on stats. That’s been one of the most frustrating things about putting this lesson together — the lack of transparency means that everything is speculation. Other churches don’t operate this way. A friend of mine who was a Seventh-Day Adventist told me that they approached him and asked if he still wanted to be on the rolls. He said no, and was duly subtracted. They don’t seem too concerned about the numbers. Mormons do.

Even with all the above, I’m still an advocate for resignation. If nothing else, it’s a way to send a message to Church Headquarters, even if it goes unread and uncounted.

Additional lesson ideas

Prophecy after the fact

I only know one way to tell the future: look at the past, find patterns, and apply them to new data. If you’re using something silly, like revelation, you’ve got no better than random chance.

So how do prophets get it right sometimes? Simple — they watch what happens, and then write it down after the fact. 100% success rate!

This was a bit of a mind-blower for me as a true believing Mormon (TBM), but I got a hold of the Oxford Companion to the Bible (page 151), and found this discussion of “prophecy after the fact”.

TL;DR: The Book of Daniel predicts “the future” until a certain point, and then gets it wrong, probably because the writer was really writing about the past the whole time. Things later happened that the prophet would probably have wanted to include, but mysteriously he didn’t. Why not? Because it was in the future. He couldn’t have known; he wasn’t a prophet. No one is.

The book of Daniel is one of the few books of the Bible that can be dated with precision…. The lengthy apocalypse of Daniel 10-12 provides the best evidence for date and authorship. This great review of the political maelstrom of ancient Near Eastern politics swirling around the tiny Judean community accurately portrays history from the rise of the Persian empire down to a time somewhat after the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple and the erection there of the “abomination that makes desolate” (Dan. 11:31)…. The portrayal is expressed as prophecy about the future course of events, given by a seer in Babylonian captivity; however, the prevailing scholarly opinion is that this is mostly prophecy after the fact. Only from 11.39 onward does the historical survey cease accurately to reproduce the events known to have taken place in the latter years of the reign of Antiochus IV. The most obvious explanation for this shift is that the point of the writer’s own lifetime had been reached. Had the writer known, for example, about the success of the Jewish freedom fighters led by Judas Maccabeus in driving the garrison of the hated Antiochus from the temple precincts (an event that occurred on 25 Kislev, 164 BCE, according to 1 Macc. 4:34-31), the fact would surely have been mentioned. But evidently it had not yet happened!

Setting it to music

Here’s a bit I like because it’s connected to music.

10:18 Then there came again and touched me one like the appearance of a man, and he strengthened me,
10:19 And said, O man greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong.

Ralph Vaughan Williams used this bit of text from verse 19 in his Dona Nobis Pacem, first performed in the uncertainty of the inter-war years. The relevant part begins at 30:12.

I love the music on this. Daniel — or war-ravaged Europe, what have you — feels discouraged, and when the angel tells him “Be strong”, the music takes an inspiring change of key. But then it sinks back to the original key, almost as though Daniel, still despondent, is thinking “I can’t.” Then the music does the key change again: “Yea, be strong!” This is wonderful writing.

Surprisingly, the angel that spoke to Daniel had a moonlighting job as a video game minion.

10:20 Then said he, Knowest thou wherefore I come unto thee? and now will I return to fight with the prince of Persia: and when I am gone forth, lo, the prince of Grecia shall come.

Times are tough, even for angels. That does explain why minions are able to respawn round after round, though. Nice to have that mystery solved.