One thing which had often surprised me is when people would express that learning of Joseph Smith's multiple wives caused them to doubt the Church.
I couldn't, until very recently, understand why this would be an issue. Didn't we all know all along the Lds Church practiced polygamy and it was initiated by Joseph Smith?
Not until recently did I realize that no, most people believe it began with Brigham Young.
Learning this confused me, because I had known Joseph Smith was a polygamist as long as I could remember. Since it wasn't until I was 18 or 19 that I became aware of any of the uncomfortable historical issues, I assumed it was something I had been taught in Church and so everyone else would have been also.
I know my mother wasn't aware of Joseph Smith's wives until I mentioned it to her, so it was unlikely I would have learned it from home.
Then I remembered a book I had read when I was about 13 or 14. It was a work of historical fiction whose lead character was one of Joseph Smith's wives. From this historically accurate book I not only learned of his initiating polygamy and taking numerous wives but I even learned of Joseph's having married a 14 year old girl. Because I learned of this early in my life, it became part of my fundamental understanding of the Church.
One issue that seems to come up often in regards to the weird issues Lds history is how should the institution deal with this? Should it be more open so people don't feel betrayed when they learn a different history than what was taught in Church, or should it maintain it's secretive approach in concern that if these issues were more widely known it would cause an even greater loss of members. From this perspective the Church leaders are seen as being in a bind. If they want to maintain their organization, they have little choice but to sweep certain elements under the rug.
Aside from the issue that deliberately withholding relevant information is dishonest and a religious organization which expects honesty out of it's members should be held to those same high standards, my personal experience shows me that openness would be also be practical to the Church.
Since I knew from early on Joseph was a polygamist, it was never caused me any concern. It was never something I had to reconcile or work through as many people do. Only after leaving the Church do I look back on it and see how unusual it is. But that applies to almost all of Mormon teachings.
In many ways, people seem less disturbed by actually learning weird historical facts as they are by their feelings that the Church had deceived them. Their sense of hurt and betrayal is what affects them most.
However, why should I care if the Church is more open about its history? I don't believe in the Church, why should I care whether or not they retain members?
I guess I just remember how painful it was for me to learn of these things and how my friends and family looked down upon me for learning and discussing facts that while accurate, were not in harmony with the Church's official position. I also sometimes felt as I were doing something wrong, simply by learning particular facts. I know many other people have had similar experiences. Many people are even punished by the Church for disclosing this information. So, while it may not really care about the Church's ability to maintain it's members, I do care about it fostering a more healthy environment for it's members. And if doing so wouldn't compromise their retention efforts, then it is a win win situation.
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