The Tanners were significant LDS Church critics for generations. Each had doubted the Church as a teenager. In 1958, when Jerald was 19, he was began to hold religious meetings in SLC. By this time, Jerald had aligned with Pauline Hancock’s group, headquartered in Missouri. Hancock believed in the Book of Mormon but renounced nearly all other beliefs which distinguish Mormonism from fundamentalist Protestantism.
Sandra McGee met Jerald at such a meeting in Salt Lake City in 1959. They married two months after this initial meeting. Four months after their marriage, Sandra converted to evangelical Protestantism. Both resigned their membership one year after they married in 1959. Sandra was 18 when she was married and 19 when she left the Church. Jerald was 21 when they married and 22 when they left the LDS faith.
From Lawrence Foster’s article in the 1984 Dialogue journal:
Another important transition in the Tanners’ career came in 1964 when Jerald quit his machinist job to devote his full time to their anti-Mormon publishing. That work has always been conducted on a shoestring and threatened with closing, due to Jerald’s ill health and the recurrent shortages of funds.
Originally, they were known as the Modern Microfilm Company. In 1983 they incorporated into the non-profit, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Inc. Their organization has disseminated LDS-critical material since the early 1960s. Their goal is to lead Mormons to the true Jesus. That was the trendiest option to Mormonism at that time: call Mormons to return to the biblical Jesus.
Non-Mormon writer, Lawrence Foster, writes about the reason for the Tanner’s continued hostility:
“Why was the Tanners’ disillusionment with Mormonism so deep and their hostility toward it so sustained? A key factor was Jerald Tanner’s reaction to his initial naive and unrealistic understanding of Mormonism. As a youth, he appears to have believed that Joseph Smith was perfect and that the Latter-day Saint Church had all the answers and could do no wrong.”
When his research increasingly showed him that Joseph Smith had flaws, that the eternally true (and some assert, changeless) Church had in fact changed, and that Mormon leaders had sometimes made mistakes, even very serious ones, he was furious.
He felt that he had been cheated — sold a bill of goods — that the Church had willfully lied to him about matters of the highest importance. Not only did the emperor have no clothes, but the Mormon Church had sold them to him!
The anger, even fury, that emerges from much of the Tanners’ writing, with its frequent obtrusive underlining, LARGE CAPITALS, and LARGE CAPITALS WITH UNDERLINING, along with sharp attacks on the personal motives of Joseph Smith and other Church leaders, seems to be crying out for the Mormon Church either to prove that it is perfect or else cease making its exclusivistic truth claims.”
These quotes are from a non-Mormon commenting on the Tanners in their heyday, in 1984. So, two teenagers have unrealistic expectations and make a career out of them. Bad scholarship.
More from Foster on possible motive. Foster is an interesting scholar, taking on Mormon critics when most non-Mormons don’t bother to investigate.
“As described in the Faulring interviews with Sandra Tanner, Jerald’s family life seems to have been filled with stress. Both he and his family appear to have been isolated from many positive aspects of Mormon culture.
His father developed a drinking problem, Jerald himself, during his teenage years, began to drink so heavily that for a time he feared that he might become an alcoholic.
Some of Jerald’s Mormon friends also were outsiders who drank and did not conform to the ideal pattern which the Church has sought to develop. Quite possibly Jerald’s failure to find satisfying social contacts in the Mormon Church contributed to the deep bitterness which he eventually developed toward it.
In comparison, Sandra Tanner, whose social experiences with Mormonism while growing up were positive, expresses a more balanced understanding of the personal appeal of Mormon culture, even when she criticizes specific Mormon truth claims.”
Why Jerald is more hostile to social aspects of Mormonism makes more sense now, doesn’t it?
“They were a united team with a common mission for decades:
Neither individual alone could have been as effective; together they have compensated for each other’s weaknesses and have developed a remarkably strong partnership.
Jerald, an intense and almost painfully shy man, is primarily responsible for the research and writing. His own drive, more than any other factor, sustains their operation. Whether Sandra would even have become an active anti-Mormon had she been by herself is open to question.
On the other hand, Jerald would hardly have been effective by himself either. Sandra, a warmer and more outgoing personality, takes major responsibility for dealing with the public. Whereas Jerald is often socially inept and strident in his writing, Sandra conveys real warmth and caring that only close associates have the opportunity of experiencing with Jerald.”
How they view the Church and its history:
“…the Tanners are critical of what they term the Mormon “suppression” of documents and evidence for a very different reason: they believe that the full record of Mormonism, if it could be made available, would utterly refute the Church’s truth claims and lead to the destruction of the faith.
At every point, the Tanners see fraud, conspiracy, and cover-ups. They always assume the worst possible motives in assessing the actions of Mormon leaders, even when those leaders faced extremely complex problems with no simple solutions.”
Foster contrasts the Tanners with the approach taken by historians:
In general, the primary goal of the historians has been to understand and appreciate the remarkably complex and multi-faceted movement that constitutes Mormonism.
Toward that end, Mormon historians, like historians in all fields, seek to sift through all pertinent evidence in order to reconstruct the fullest possible picture of the past and its significance for the present.
Both positive and negative factors are candidly considered in trying to come to a realistic understanding of Mormon development.
By contrast, the Tanners sound like high-school debaters. Every bit of evidence, even if it could be most plausibly presented in a positive way, is represented as yet another nail in the coffin being prepared for the Mormon Church.
There is no spectrum of colors, only blacks and whites, good guys and villains in the Tanners’ published writings.
Even when the Tanners backhandedly praise objective Mormon historical scholarship, they do so primarily as a means of twisting that scholarship for use as yet another debater’s ploy to attack the
remaining — and in their eyes insurmountable — Mormon deficiencies.
All too often, the Tanners’ work thus simply provides a mirror image of the very Mormonism that it is attacking.
The Tanners faded from prominence with the arrival of Ed Decker (above). Ed published the over-the-top (but founded on Tanner scholarship) God Makers in 1982. Newer critics — John Dehlin and others, including Runnells — didn’t surface till the 2000s and recently.
Dehlin (below) and Runnells do what is trendy today: believe in secularism and no God. But they, too, rely on Tanners’ scholarship. Nobody else but the Tanners copied (without permission) from LDS archives and started a “ministry” for Mormons.
I wrote about the Tanners in an earlier post about Jeremy Runnells and the CES Letter. A couple quotes from a non-Mormon scholar on the Tanners’ “scholarship”:
Ex-Mormons almost always rely on Sandra Tanners for their material. Even Ed Decker used that argument — the Tanners are awesome scholars — in his God Makers’ series.
Problem with Decker’s claim: it’s simply not true. The Tanners fail when it comes to honest scholarship.
Gilbert Scharffs wrote this LDS Church-supporting book, “The Truth about the Godmakers” in 1986. I’ll quote from Scharffs’ book below.
By the way, reading this book (published in the 80s) today is almost as good as any of the current books defending the Church. That is how old nearly all the critics’ claims are!
In reply to the God Makers’ chapter, “The Mormon Dilemma”
Page 49, line 12
Decker’s claim: “Jerald and Sandra Tanner are former Mormons who have established an international reputation for their impeccably accurate and thorough research,” claim the authors.
Scharffs’ response: quotes Lawrence Foster, a professor of American history at Georgia Tech, a scholar who is non-Mormon and who has spent decades in intensive work on Mormonism.
Foster has even served as President of the 1,000-member Mormon History Association (although he is not a Mormon), and he has received an NEH Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship to Australia and New Zealand.
Foster has said of the Tanners:
Until they “are prepared to abide by accepted standards of scholarly behavior and common courtesy, they can expect little sympathy from serious historians,” and “the Tanners’ own work falls short of history.”
Foster also stated, “The Tanners have repeatedly assumed a holier-than-thou stance, refusing to be fair in applying the same debate standard of absolute rectitude which they demand of Mormonism to their own actions, writings, and beliefs.”
Foster gives the Tanners credit for publishing old LDS documents, “but criticizes them for using unauthorized materials which” have been acquired leaving “much to be desired, ethically speaking.”
The Tanners often publish “scholarly works of living individuals without their permission,” because “the end (destroying Mormonism) justifies the means.”
Foster continues, “The Tanners seem to be playing a skillful shell game in which the premises for judgment are conveniently shifted so that the conclusion is always the same — negative.”
Foster also quotes from another Tanner critic who said, Jerald and Sandra Tanner have read widely enough in the sources of LDS history to provide that [larger] perspective, but they do not.
Although the most conscientious and honest researcher can overlook pertinent sources of information, the repeated omissions of evidence by the Tanners suggest an intentional avoidance of sources that modify or refute their caustic interpretation of Mormon history (“Career Apostates,” Dialogue, Summer 1984, pp. 35-60).
This isn’t a Latter-day Saint condemning the Tanners. This guy Foster is a non-LDS scholar who made a career out of studying Mormonism. He’s fair. Not an ideologue.
Foster wrote the following article in Dialogue: Career Apostates: Reflections on the Works of Jerald and Sandra Tanner
As a non-Mormon scholar who has spent nearly a decade of intensive work in Mormon history without becoming either Mormon or anti-Mormon, I believe that I am in a particularly advantageous position to suggest some new perspectives on the Tanners and to present a balanced analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of their work.
Foster will be shunned by most colleagues if he grinds an axe. Good scholars aren’t dogmatic. Not against the Mormons. Not against any minority or other group. Anti-Mormons don’t always follow the same academic standards as those in the academy (American universities).
If you think you can trust the Tanners’ research methods you might be in for a disappointment. If you think you can trust what John Dehlin and current critics share — warmed-up Tanners’ research — with his listeners (he runs a podcast, unabashedly asking for donations) I wish you good luck.
You’d be better served listening to this fellow below, Lawrence Foster (link to bio above) who doesn’t believe in the First Vision, but is at least fair to our history.
Below are a few archived FARMS articles about the Tanners from decades ago. Bad scholarship is the hallmark.
FARMS wrote a response to one of the Tanners’ many books and another response to the Tanners’ criticisms of the LDS witnesses:
- A Look at Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s “Covering Up the Black Hole in the Book of Mormon”
- Matt Roper from FARMS responded to the Tanners’ criticism on the Book of Mormon witnesses: Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner
- Matt Roper responded to a very long list of Tanner criticisms: Review of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism Raised by Mormon Defenders.
Robert and Rosemary Brown wrote this book in 1986 about LDS critics: They Lie in Wait to Deceive.
Volumes 1 and 4 address the Tanners specifically.
Michael Quinn, a historian and former member of the LDS Church, takes issue with the Tanners’ work. Quinn, an ex-communicated former member, still points out bad scholarship when he sees it.
He noted that “although the most conscientious and honest researcher can overlook pertinent sources of information, the repeated omissions of evidence by the Tanners suggest an intentional avoidance of sources that modify or refute their caustic interpretation of Mormon history.”
To their credit, The Tanners have debunked what they characterize as misrepresentations of the LDS Church by Ed Decker, a Christian evangelist. They criticized his film The God Makers II, despite their involvement in his earlier film, The God Makers.
So, if you’re seeking information about the LDS Church you might want to find other sources than the Tanners.