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Some Mormons search Web, find doubt

by LAURIE GOODSTEIN New York Times News Service on July 21, 2013 2:30 AM

In the small but cohesive Mormon community where he grew up, Hans Mattsson was a solid believer and a pillar of the church. He followed his father and grandfather into church leadership and finally became an “area authority” overseeing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe.

When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda.”

He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mattsson began his own investigation.

But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist, and that the Book of Mormon and other canonical scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mattsson said he felt the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.

Around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith, according to interviews with dozens of Mormons and those who study the church.

“I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,” Mattsson, now an emeritus area authority, said in an interview.

Mattsson’s decision to go public with his disaffection is a sign that the church faces serious challenges not just from outside but also from skeptics inside.

“Consider a Catholic cardinal suddenly going to the media and saying about his own church, ‘I don’t buy a lot of this stuff.’ That’s the level we’re talking about here,” said Greg Prince, a Mormon historian who has held local leadership positions in the church and shares Matts-son’s doubts.

Every faith has its skeptics and detractors, but the Mormon Church’s history creates special challenges. The church was born in America only 183 years ago, and its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, and his disciples left behind reams of papers that still exist, documenting their work, exposing their warts and sometimes contradicting one another.

Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman, said that “every church faces this challenge” adding, “The answer is not to try to silence critics, but to provide as much information and as much support as possible to those who may be affected.”

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