When I was a missionary, the church’s official Missionary Guide instructed missionaries to avoid providing direct answers or solutions to investigators’ questions or concerns. Instead, we were advised to help them find ways to resolve their own doubts. For example, if an investigator were given troubling information about the Book of Mormon by a friend or family member, missionaries were encouraged to suggest that the investigator simply read the book and pray about it to find an answer for herself. Early in my mission, I tried to apply this technique when an investigator raised a question of fact about the church based on anti-Mormon information (I don’t recall the exact question). I asked the investigator a question that the Missionary Guide described as “highly effective”: “What do you think you could do to find out, for yourself, the answer to that question?”
I heard essentially this same story from enough other missionaries in my mission to realize that there, at least, missionaries quickly ended up in the business of trying to answer investigators’ questions about Mormon history and theology–and sometimes even about pre-Colombian archaeology. Anti-Mormons of various kinds (most effective in my mission were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose publications sometimes included Spanish translations of the more, ahem, interesting statements in the Journal of Discourses) made sure that questioning investigators were able to find the right questions. Why does the language of the Book of Mormon seem so similar to the English translation of the Bible that was most popular when Joseph Smith was alive? What is the Mormon doctrine of God and Christ? Was Adam God? Do Mormons believe that polygamy is necessary to get into heaven? Did early church leaders teach that it was God’s plan to kill apostates?
The problem is that, for the most part, missionaries don’t have the information necessary to really answer these questions. For example, I certainly didn’t. Within my mission, I was definitely toward the higher end of the distribution in terms of religious education. I’d had several BYU religion classes, I’d read all of the scriptures a few times over, and I’d even read most of the Institute manuals. But none of that education remotely prepared me to give intelligent answers to the kinds of questions in the previous paragraph. Instead, I fell back on rhetorical tricks or even outright denials.
Why were the Book of Mormon and the King James Version of the Bible quite similar in language? Because God was the inspiration behind both the Book of Mormon and the Bible. Of course, that answer isn’t really acceptable. The question is really about fine-grained interrelationships of language and themes between the Book of Mormon in English and a specific English translation of an ancient Hebrew and Greek document. God wasn’t the author of the KJV, nor was He a member of the translation committee. This response was merely a rhetorical dodge to what was in fact a legitimate question. It was designed, in the end, to impress more than to inform. Nonetheless, I used this rhetorical strategy–and so did many others in my mission–because it was the best response available to me.
My response on Adam-God questions (which came up seven or eight times) was even worse. I simply denied that Brigham Young had ever taught such a thing. I had never seen the relevant quotes in anything other than anti-Mormon publications, and so I simply didn’t think they were real. I had heard people claim in passing that Adam-God statements were merely transcription errors in the note-taking for Brigham Young’s sermons, and that seemed reasonable enough to me. So, when the issue came up, I flatly stated that we didn’t believe any such thing, and that nobody in the church had ever taught such a thing. Once again, this response–which many other missionaries have also used–was the only one I had available to me.
Are these kinds of logically and historically unsatisfactory but sometimes rhetorically effective responses an example of our missionaries practicing sophistry? The Oxford English Dictionary defines sophistry as, “Specious but fallacious reasoning; employment of arguments which are intentionally deceptive.” I believe that most missionaries aren’t intentionally deceptive when they offer factually questionable responses to investigators’ questions. Rather, they’re doing the best they can with very limited knowledge. I know that I never intentionally misdirected the investigators I taught; rather, I offered the most helpful responses I had. The problem was simply that I didn’t have actual knowledge, but I was put in a situation where requests for knowledge are inevitable.
I wonder if it might be fair to say that, while individual responses to such questions by particular missionaries are not instances of sophistry, the system which puts missionaries in the line of rhetorical fire without providing them with the information necessary to craft meaningful answers to legitimate questions about the church is a form of collective sophistry?