Why Priesthood At All?

The following document was published in a Church periodical known as The Improvement Era in a question and answer section prepared under the direction of the Council of the Twelve. It is significant for grappling with the question of spiritual gifts and their relationship to the priesthood as a whole.

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Quorum of the Twelve in 1931. Image courtesy LDS.org.

[Question:] Can any one, without the Priesthood, pray and have his prayers answered? Or receive the Holy Ghost, with its gifts and manifestations?

[Response:] The answer is Yes. Men, women and children who do not hold the Priesthood have had their prayers answered millions of times in the history of Christianity the world over and in the history of this dispensation. Men, women and children also receive the Holy Ghost after baptism through the laying on of hands.

May one have revelations and visions of heavenly beings, without the Priesthood?

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery did so. In May, 1829, John the Baptist appeared to them, and that was before either of them had been ordained. It was John, in fact, who conferred the Priesthood upon them. This function of having visions, of course, was exceptional in their case.

If, then, one may pray, may have his prayers answered, may have the Holy Ghost bestowed upon him, and may exercise many of its gifts, without holding any Priesthood, what is the place of Priesthood on the earth?

Chiefly Priesthood functions in connection with organization. That is, the greatest need of Priesthood is where there is a service to be performed to others besides ourselves.

Whenever you do anything for, or in behalf of, someone else, you must have the right to do so. If you are to sell property belonging to another, you must have his permission. If you wish to admit an alien to citizenship in our government, you cannot act without having been commissioned to do so by the proper authority.

Now, a religious organization, or the Church, is in the last analysis a matter of service. You baptize someone, or you confirm him, or you administer to him in case of sickness, or you give him the Sacrament or the Priesthood, or you preach the Gospel to him–what is this but performing a service?

Now, when it comes to earthly power to perform a definite service, we call it the power of attorney in the case of acting legally for someone else, or the court and the judge where it is a question of acting for the government.

But in the Church of Christ this authority to act for others is known as Priesthood.

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Statement of the First Presidency Regarding God’s Love for All Mankind

The following document was released by the First Presidency under Spencer W. Kimball in 1978 and represents the essence of the Church’s view of its relationship to other religions and faiths.

Kimball presidency

First Presidency: N. Eldon Tanner, Spencer W. Kimball, Marion G. Romney

Based upon ancient and modern revelation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gladly teaches and declares the Christian doctrine that all men and women are brothers and sisters, not only by blood relationship from common mortal progenitors, but also as literal spirit children of an Eternal Father.

The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.

The Hebrew prophets prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, who should provide salvation for all mankind who believe in the gospel.

Consistent with these truths, we believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation, either in this life or in the life to come.

We also declare that the gospel of Jesus Christ, restored to His Church in our day, provides the only way to a mortal life of happiness and a fullness of joy forever. For those who have not received this gospel, the opportunity will come to them in the life hereafter if not in this life.

Our message therefore is one of special love and concern for the eternal welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race, or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters because we are sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father.

Spencer W. Kimball

N. Eldon Tanner

Marion G. Romney

February 15, 1978

First Presidency Treatise: “Mormon” View of Evolution

This document was released by the First Presidency during President Heber J. Grant’s tenure. It is essentially an updated version of the more famous essay “The Origin of Man.” Ultimately, Heber J. Grant came to declare that the following was the Church’s stance on Evolution:

Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church….

Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: ‘Adam is the primal parent of our race.’[1]

Grant Presidency

First Presidency (from left): Anthony W. Ivins, Heber J. Grant, Charles W. Nibley

Without further ado, here is the treatise itself:

“God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

In these plain and pointed words the inspired author of the book of Genesis made known to the world the truth concerning the origin of the human family. Moses, the prophet-historian, who was “learned” we are told, “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” when making this important announcement, was not voicing a mere opinion. He was speaking as the mouthpiece of God, and his solemn declaration was for all time and for all people. No subsequent revelator of the truth has contradicted the great leader and law-giver of Israel. All who have since spoken by divine authority upon this theme have confirmed his simple and sublime proclamation. Nor could it be otherwise. Truth has but one source, and all revelations from heaven are harmonious one with the other.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is “the express image” of his Father’s person (Hebrews 1:3). He walked the earth as a human being, as a perfect man, and said, in answer to a question put to him: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). This alone ought to solve the problem to the satisfaction of every thoughtful, reverent mind. It was in this form that the Father and the Son, as two distinct personages, appeared to Joseph Smith, when, as a boy of fourteen years, he received his first vision.

The Father of Jesus Christ is our Father also. Jesus himself taught this truth, when he instructed his disciples how to pray: “Our Father which art in heaven,” etc. Jesus, however, is the first born among all the sons of God—the first begotten in the spirit, and the only begotten in the flesh. He is our elder brother, and we, like him, are in the image of God. All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally sons and daughters of Deity.

Adam, our great progenitor, “the first man,” was, like Christ, a pre-existent spirit, and, like Christ, he took upon him an appropriate body, the body of a man, and so became a “living soul.” The doctrine of pre-existence pours wonderful flood of light upon the otherwise mysterious problem of man’s origin. It shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief [p.1091] on divine revelation, ancient and modern, proclaims man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity. By his Almighty power God organized the earth, and all that it contains, from spirit and element, which exist co-eternally with himself.

Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and æons, of evolving into a God.

Heber J. Grant,

Anthony W. Ivins,

Charles W. Nibley,

First Presidency.

 

Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, Charles W. Nibley, “`Mormon’ View of Evolution,” Improvement Era, 28, no. 11 (September 1925): 1090-1091.

 

[1] First Presidency Minutes, Apr. 7, 1931

He That is Not Against Us is For Us—One Mormon’s Perspective on Interfaith Work

Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a child, and set him by him, and said unto them, Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.

And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us. (Luke 9:46-50.)

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Image from LDS.org

In a world fraught with polarization, violence, and distrust of that which is different from us, it is often tempting to focus on the Savior’s phrase “He that is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30), rather than the saying “he that is not against us is for us.” This is very apparent in the field of religion and religious differences, where people argue about which religion is the greatest in the eyes of Deity and often resort to force to make their point. As such, we live in a world where religion causes violence as much as it creates peace. In the United States alone, we’ve seen shootings that targeted Christians, like the one in Oregon last year reportedly did; shootings by a Christian targeting an abortion clinic in Colorado; radicalized Muslims engaging in violent attacks from time to time; and so forth. On the global scene, we see the ongoing conflicts and attacks caused by the ISIS in the Middle East and elsewhere, tensions in Northern Ireland that crystalize over Anglican-Catholic conflicts, and Christian-Muslim conflicts that have exploded into in civil wars in a few African countries.

Divides caused by religion carry over in smaller, less violent ways as well. I remember as a child that I lived near a Catholic school. Since we lived so close, my Mom would take my sister and me over to their playground to play. One day, however, another child who was there wouldn’t play with me. When I asked him why he would not, he simply told me that it was because I was a Mormon and his mom told him that I was going hell. That’s not to say that I was any better as a child—in the fourth grade, when a Hispanic boy told me that he was Catholic, I told him that his religion was “the great and abominable church,” referring to a private interpretation I had heard of a vision in the Book of Mormon. He got very defensive and upset, telling me that his church wasn’t “the great boom-boom church” I was saying it was. While not in any way as serious or devastating as the religious conflicts mentioned above, these events from my childhood were still not very pleasant and reflect some of the same mentality that, when taken to an extreme, results in more serious problems.

All this being said, is it possible to reach across divides and gain a better understanding of people who we don’t see eye to eye with on religious and philosophical ideas? Can we do that because of our religion rather than doing it in spite of religious convictions? I believe we can. In my own life, I’ve come a long way since the fourth grade. I’m currently going to college at Utah State University in Logan, Utah and I’m involved in the USU Interfaith Student Association; I ring in an interfaith handbell choir operated by the Presbyterian Church in downtown Logan; I have friends, relatives, and associates from a variety of religious backgrounds (Christians, Muslims, Jews, and agnostics mostly); while still remaining a devoted and active Mormon. Through many of these groups I’ve had some great opportunities to experience firsthand what happens when people reach across the divide to build understanding and friendship rather than division and distrust. For this reason, the words of one of my religious leaders—Dieter F. Uchtdorf—resonate deeply with me:

The effort to throw off traditions of distrust and pettiness and truly see one another with new eyes—to see each other not as aliens or adversaries but as fellow travelers, brothers and sisters, and children of God—is one of the most challenging while at the same time most rewarding and ennobling experiences of our human existence. . . .

This conviction and resolve to overcome our lower instincts and truly love all mankind regardless of race, religion, political ideology, and socioeconomic circumstances is one of the grand objectives of our human existence.

It is the essence of pure religion.

It may not be an easy thing to do.

But it is worth doing, and we can do it.[1]

Dieter F. Uchtdorf Throw of distrust is rewarding Interfaith

To answer the question, “Can we be inspired by our religion to reach across the religious divides?” I would like take a look into my own religion—Mormonism—to discuss how I am inspired by my religion to engage in interfaith work. As a framework to my remarks, I’d like to refer to a statement by Eboo Patel—an influential leader of the interfaith movement in the United States—about what is necessary for someone to successfully become an interfaith leader: “You need three basic things to be an interfaith leader . . . vision, knowledge base and skill set—all towards the end of creating spaces where people from different faith backgrounds come together to build understanding and to cooperate.”[2]

  1. Vision

In explaining his statement, Eboo Patel said that the vision is “the idea that people from different religions ought to come together to build cooperation. That’s not to be taken for granted. A lot of people who believe in the clash of civilizations believe that different religious identities are inherently opposed to each other. So the first thing you need to be an interfaith leader is a framework that understanding and cooperation is possible.”[3]

Over the years, LDS Church leaders have indicated that they have caught this vision and want members of the Church to carry it out. I’ll highlight a few examples below.

By the end of his life, the Prophet Joseph Smith (1805-1844) indicated that he wanted to engage in positive, interfaith-like ways with other Christian denominations. He taught that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism”[4]—a significant statement, given that he only used the term “fundamental principle of Mormonism” to describe two other things—a belief in Jesus the Christ’s resurrection, and the search for truth. He also made it clear that this friendship was meant to extend to people of many different faiths. For example, in July of 1843, he taught that:

The inquiry is frequently made of me, “Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?” In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views, but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism” is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.

We believe in the Great Elohim who sits enthroned in yonder heavens. So do the Presbyterians. If a skillful mechanic, in taking a welding heat, uses borax, alum, etc., and succeeds in welding together iron or steel more perfectly than any other mechanic, is he not deserving of praise? And if by the principles of truth I succeed in uniting men of all denominations in the bonds of love, shall I not have attained a good object?

If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way. Do you believe in Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation which he revealed? So do I. Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst.[5]

Joseph Smith Drink into one Love Interfaith

With the goal of “uniting men of all denominations in the bonds of love,” Joseph Smith was suggesting that Mormonism could not only participate, but also become leaders in interfaith work. His belief that “Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst” is a core idea behind such interfaith efforts, though it is extended beyond the circle of Christianity to all of the world’s religions in today’s global world.

We also see in the Prophet’s statement above an expanded view of the church or kingdom of God on earth that encourages greater cooperation between people of various faiths. He stated that “we could all drink into one principle of love.” The only place in our scriptures that uses the phrase “drink into one” is Paul’s discussion of the “body of Christ”:

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13.)

If Joseph Smith was intending to make a passing reference to Paul’s epistle, he may have been suggesting that Christian churches, uniting together in love, could be viewed collectively as the body of Christ—often understood to be the Church of Christ. This wasn’t a suggestion that all Christian churches should lose all denominational distinctions and blend into one institution—for example, the Prophet maintained that Mormonism had priesthood authority and truths that other Christian denominations did not have. Instead, it seems to be a suggestion that disciples of Christ inside or outside of any individual religion could be considered a part of Christ’s larger following or church.

More recent LDS Church leaders have continued to call upon Church members to practice respect and love with people from different faith traditions. The current president of the Church—Thomas S. Monson—said that “We have a responsibility . . . to work cooperatively with other churches and organizations. My objective there is . . . that we eliminate the weakness of one standing alone and substitute it or the strength of people working together.”[6]

Thomas S. Monson Interfaith

President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008)—one of the longest serving and most-beloved presidents of the Church in recent decades—declared in his inaugural address as president of the Church that:

I plead with our people everywhere to live with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith. There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. We must not be partisans of any doctrine of ethnic superiority. We live in a world of diversity. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree. We must be willing to defend the rights of others who may become the victims of bigotry.[7]

Gordon B. Hinckley Diversity Interfaith

Many other examples could be given, but these three church leaders give a good sample of what LDS Church members are taught about the vision of interfaith work.

2. Knowledge Base

Eboo Patel had the following to say about having a knowledge base:

The second thing you need is a knowledge base. You need to have an appreciative understanding of other traditions. You need to be able to identify shared values across traditions. How does Islam speak to mercy? How does Christianity speak to mercy? How do Jews speak to mercy? You can do the same with hospitality or service or compassion. These are what the Interfaith Youth Core calls shared values.

Part of a knowledge base, for a religious person at least, is what we call a theology of interfaith cooperation. You ought to be able to tell somebody in your own faith why you, as a Christian or as a Muslim or as a Jew, engage in interfaith cooperation.

You also need to know the history of interfaith cooperation. You hear people say all the time, “Well, Muslims and Jews are fighting now because they’ve always fought,” and that’s just false. But if you don’t know about the history of cooperation between Muslims and Jews, in Andalucía or the Ottoman Empire, then that lie of Muslims and Jews always fighting stands.[8]

LDS Church members have been encouraged to gain an appreciative knowledge of other religions from a very early time. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that if the “Presbyterians [have] any truth embrace that. [Same for the] Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world. [and you will] come out a pure Mormon.”[9] President Brigham Young likewise told a son who asked if it was okay to attend a Protestant Christian service while he was living in the eastern United States that, “With regard to your attending Protestant Episcopal service, I have no objection whatever. On the contrary, I would like to have you attend, and see what they can teach you about God and Godliness more than you have already been taught.”[10]

Brigham Young Attend Episcopal Interfaith Meme

We are also taught to respect the good found in other religions and their teachings. In 1978, the First Presidency—the highest quorum of Church leadership—issued a statement that affirmed that “the great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” They went on to say that, “Consistent with these truths, we believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation, either in this life or in the life to come.”[11] President Brigham Young likewise taught that:

So far as mortality is concerned, millions of the inhabitants of the earth live according to the best light they have—according to the best knowledge they possess. I have told you frequently that they will receive according to their works; and all, who live according to the best principles in their possession, or that they can understand, will receive peace, glory, comfort, joy and a crown that will be far beyond what they are anticipating. They will not be lost.[12]

Brigham Young All who follow their religions receive glory Interfaith

Inspired by these ideas, I have been making the effort to spend at least part of my devotional study time each day learning about other religions. I’ve been alternating reading books that talk about the other religion (basics of belief and practice, etc.) and books that people in that religion would study in their devotional studies (the Qur’an, the words of the current Dalai Lama, etc.). It has been a fascinating, enlightening, and enjoyable journey to learn what they believe, what is similar to my own beliefs, and what is different. I have gained greater respect for many of those religions, particularly ones that I knew little about beforehand, such as the Sikh religion and Buddhism. I have also gained a deeper appreciation of aspects of my own religion that are viewed from a different light or emphasized differently in these other religions.

In addition, my wife and I have decided to celebrate one holiday from a different religion each year, and to take time to learn about the religion that celebrates that holiday as we do so. This is not done for the sake of cultural appropriation, but for the sake of gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of different religions. In addition, as part of the discussion, we intend to bring up our own, Mormon theology of interfaith cooperation. It is our hope that as we have children and raise them with this tradition, they will gain a knowledge base that lends itself to an appreciative understanding of other traditions, a knowledge of shared values across traditions, an understanding of our own theology of interfaith cooperation, and that they will learn a bit of history that will help them to participate in interfaith cooperation in their own lives.

3. Skill Set

Eboo Patel went on to state that: “The third thing you need is a skill set. Are you able to tell your story of interfaith enrichment compellingly? Are you able to speak with people from different religions in a way that they can trust you? Are you able to organize activities that bring them together?” [13]

Admittedly, developing the skill set necessary to engage in interfaith cooperation has been, at times, a slow process for the LDS Church as a whole. Our commitment to missionary work has often take priority at the expense of meaningful interfaith outreach, and a siege mentality developed during the traumatic experiences that Mormons underwent in the United States during the mid-19th Century that still influences Mormon culture to this day. In addition, even when Church leadership has been working on interfaith outreach, the individual practicing Mormon may not catch on to the vision.

That being said, great stride have been and are being made by the LDS Church. The general authorities running the Church lead the way—President Henry B. Eyring, Elder L. Tom Perry, and Bishop Gérald Caussé attended an interfaith Vatican Summit on the family in November 2014; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has received the Torch of Liberty Award from the Anti-Defamation League for work in improving understanding between Christians and Jews; and Elder Quentin L. Cook has spoken occasionally of his friendship with prominent Jew by the name of Robert Abrams to cite a few examples. More recently, the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Salt Lake City, Utah. Elder L. Whitney Clayton participated in the opening ceremonies and later on, Temple Square hosted an interfaith musical performance that featured such diverse groups as Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, Quakers, Sikhs, and many other religious traditions. On a less official level, Mormons participated in the Parliament as local volunteers, and several workshops on Mormon topics were held over the course of the conference. I personally had the chance to attend the Parliament as a volunteer and while I was there, I was told by a Sikh girl from Southern California that she was very impressed with Mormons in her area because so many of them made the effort to be involved in interfaith activities.[14] Many other examples of Mormons being involved in interfaith activism might be given as well.

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Elder L. Whitney Clayton at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

There have also been efforts to tell a story of interfaith enrichment in compelling ways.  Many of the Church leaders—Jeffrey R. Holland,[15] Quentin L. Cook,[16] L. Tom Perry,[17] and Dieter F. Uchtdorf[18] being notable examples—have given address to Latter-day Saints and others that speak of their experiences in interfaith enrichment and encourage everyone else to have similar experiences. In addition, the Ensign—the official magazine of the Church for adult Mormons—has published articles from time to time that speak of interfaith enrichment and outline ways that Mormons can develop the skills that Eboo Patel listed as being necessary, most notably an article called “Becoming Better Saints through Interfaith Involvement” in December 2013.[19]

In my own life, I have not had a lot of experience in leading interfaith movements—I’ve mostly been a follower who tries to stay involved where I can. Still, I have taken the time to learn and practice skills in talking to people with different beliefs in ways that do not cause discomfort or to make them feel like I have alternative agendas from simply gaining understanding. I have found that most people are happy to talk about their own beliefs and to build bridges of friendship and understanding and that learning about other religions does not undermine my own beliefs as a Mormon. Developing that skill set further is something that will take time and effort on my part, as it does for anyone else.

 

Conclusion

My hope is that what I have written, simple though it might be, is an example of how one religion—Mormonism—has teachings and beliefs that lend themselves to interfaith cooperation. I know that my religion is not alone in having a theology of interfaith cooperation—my experiences have taken place with Christians of many denominations, as well as individuals from many other religions. It is very possible to reach across divides and gain a better understanding of people who we don’t see eye to eye with on religious and philosophical ideas because of our religion rather than in spite of religious convictions. It is also very necessary to do so if we are to have hope for a better future in a fractured world. As we do so, we can join with Jesus of Nazareth in saying: “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” (Luke 9:50.)

Joseph Smith_Father

[1] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Fellow Travelers, Brothers and Sisters, Children of God,” John A. Widtsoe Symposium, University of Southern California, 24 April 2015. https://www.lds.org/prophets-and-apostles/unto-all-the-world/fellow-travelers-brothers-and-sisters-children-of-god?lang=eng

[2] Eboo Patel, “Look to young people for leadership in interfaith cooperation,” Faith & Leadership 10/10/2011, https://www.faithandleadership.com/qa/eboo-patel-look-young-people-for-leadership-interfaith-cooperation. Accessed 4/1/2016.

[3] Patel, “Look to young people.”

[4] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[5] Joseph Smith Jr. and Joseph Fielding Smith (ed.), Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 313-314. Compare with sermon, 9 July 1843 in Ehat and Cook, Words, 229.

[6] Thomas, S. Monson, in “The Mormon Ethic of Civility,” Oct. 16, 2009, mormonnewsroom.org

[7] Gordon B. Hinckley, “This Work is the Work of the Master,” CR, April 1995.

[8] Patel, “Look to young people.”

[9] Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon, 9 July 1843, and Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon 23 July 1843, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, Kindle Locations 4599-4600 and 4718-4719.

[10] Brigham Young to Willard Young, 25 July 1871. Cited in Leonard J. Arrington, “Willard Young: The Prophet’s Son at West Point,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, V.4, No. 4 (Winter 1969), 42.

[11] Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, Marion G. Romney, Statement of the First Presidency Regarding God’s Love for All Mankind, February 15, 1978.

[12] Brigham Young, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 287.

[13] Patel, “Look to young people.”

[14] For more examples of Mormon interfaith involvement see the Mormon Newsroom article on Interfaith Relations found at http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/interfaith.

[15] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Standing Together in the Cause of Christ,” Ensign August 2012. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/08/standing-together-for-the-cause-of-christ?lang=eng

[16] Quentin L. Cook, “Partnering with our Friends from Other Faiths,” August 9, 2010. http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Partnering-with-Our-Friends-from-Other-Faiths

[17] L. Tom Perry, “Why Marriage and Family Matter—Everywhere in the World,” CR April 2015. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/04/why-marriage-and-family-matter-everywhere-in-the-world?lang=eng

[18] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Fellow Travelers, Brothers and Sisters, Children of God,” John A. Widtsoe Symposium, University of Southern California, 24 April 2015. https://www.lds.org/prophets-and-apostles/unto-all-the-world/fellow-travelers-brothers-and-sisters-children-of-god?lang=eng

[19] Betsy VanDenBerghe, “Becoming Better Saints through Interfaith Involvement,” Ensign December 2013. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/12/becoming-better-saints-through-interfaith-involvement?lang=eng

The Calling of an Apostle

On the 26 December 1973, President Harold B. Lee died. This was somewhat unexpected—he had come to the presidency of the Church at the relatively young age of 73 almost eighteen months earlier. It has been though that he would live and lead the Church for at least a decade, but such was not to be. What was more unexpected was that a frail, small man who had been expected to die for a fair amount of time would take his place and serve as one of the most influential presidents of the Church for an extended period of time—a man by the name of Spencer W. Kimball. In the midst of all this, however, there was a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve apostles that needed to be filled, and an Assistant to the Twelve, Elder L. Tom Perry, was called to fill in the spot.

L. Tom Perry

L. Tom Perry

Now, over forty years later, Elder L. Tom Perry has passed away. I must admit, this was somewhat unexpected to me. Elder Perry was the oldest member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and the third most senior in service (after President Monson and President Packer), but seemed to be in very good health compared to many of his peers until a recent visit to the hospital for breathing difficulties. I had expected him to outlive many other members of the Quorum of the Twelve. Instead, he was the first to move on since Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin. We will mourn his loss as a good, cheerful, and religious man.

While Latter-day Saints and other friends of Elder Perry mourn his and President Boyd K. Packer’s deaths, consideration will also be given to who may be called to fill the vacancies created by their deaths. I mean no disrespect for them and their memory by looking into that aspect of events rather than at their rich lives and legacies so soon, but as a person with a primary interest in Mormon history and theology, I do feel that it is important to understand how vacancies in the quorum are filled, the people who are called to the Quorum, and what the process of becoming an apostle after being called is like.

In the modern Church, most things are run by councils where a number of individuals have the ability to express their thoughts and often have an opportunity to accept or reject a proposal. That is the administrative genius of the Church that Joseph Smith put in place to insure that things could continue after the death of charismatic leaders, such as himself, and to increase the likelihood that things are being done in accordance with God’s will (more people checking something, the more likely they are to catch errors). This system seems to carry over to the selection of a new apostle. President Hugh B. Brown (1883-1975) recalled that:

In calling a new apostle the president of the church ordinarily says to the Twelve and First Presidency, “There is a vacancy in the quorum. I would like each of you to write three names on a slip of paper and submit them to me. I will look them over and we will decide, possibly on one of those you recommend. Or we may choose none of the ones you recommend. But this will give you all an opportunity to express an opinion.” At the next meeting of the quorum, the president, usually aided by the First Presidency, having looked those names over, says to the brethren, “I wish to nominate XYZ to become the next member of the Council of the Twelve. Are there any remarks? If not, all in favor, raise your right hand.” When the president nominates someone whose name was not submitted by the Twelve, he simply says, “I feel inspired to appoint this man to this job. All in favor raise their hands.” And everybody raises their hands. President Heber J. Grant never submitted a name as far as I know without first talking it over with his counselors and then with members of the quorum.[1]

While this model isn’t always followed, President Brown suggests that it was followed most of the time.

Ideally, inspiration guides the selection of a new quorum member. There is a story from President Heber J. Grant’s administration about how, at the time, Church leaders weren’t shy about nepotism and felt that they should call their sons to serve as apostles. Heber J. Grant had no sons, however, so he wanted a close friend by the name of Richard W. Young to be called instead. As an apostle, he suggested the friend he had in mind a number of times, but he was never selected. When President Grant became president of the Church, he wanted to make sure his friend was called, discussed the possibility of doing so with his counselors and even wrote Richard’s name on a slip of paper to take to the next quorum meeting. When he got there, however, he presented the name of Melvin J. Ballard—whom he hardly knew—instead. President Grant later said:

I have felt the inspiration of the living God directing me in my labors. From the day that I chose a comparative stranger to be one of the apostles, instead of my lifelong and dearest living friend, I have known as I know that I live, that I am entitled to the light and the inspiration and the guidance of God in directing His work here upon this earth.[2]

Heber J. Grant

Heber J. Grant

As for the individuals that are considered to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, a brief survey of the thirty men who have been called to be members of the Quorum of the Twelve most recently (1951 to present) gives some indication of general trends. From this sample, all were Caucasian, 97% were men from the United States, and 80% were from Utah or Idaho. Careers before calls as general authorities were mostly in business (33.33%), law (20%), or education (20%) with a smattering of various careers such as Church service, STEM careers, or other occupations. The average age at a call to the Quorum of the Twelve in this group was 58.7 years old with a standard deviation of 8.79.

Men called to the Quorum of the Twelve were predominantly selected from the Presidency of the Seventy, the First Council of the Seventy, or Assistants to the Quorum/Council of the Twelve (all roughly equivalent to the Presidency of the Seventy today in one way or another, together making up 63.33% of the sample), with about 13.33% percent serving in the presiding bishopric, 13.33% serving as Church university presidents, and 10% serving in the Sunday School presidency. There is some overlap between the groups represented.

In addition, having relatives already in the hierarchy (particularly prevalent with the Smith, Kimball, Cannon/Taylor, and Tanner clans) or at least Mormon pioneer ancestry was prevalent, though exact statistics are difficult to calculate on that factor since they don’t always acknowledge such ancestry to the public. Association with a member of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time of their call during youth as a missionary or in a stake increased the likelihood of becoming an apostle as well.

Thus, Caucasian males from the United States—especially Utah and Idaho—in their mid-fifties to early sixties, with careers in business, law, or education and who have served in the Presidency of the Seventy or equivalent callings have been most likely to be selected to serve in the Quorum of the Twelve during the last half a century or so.

Based on these trends, as well as observation of rise to leadership and roles in Church hierarchy, the two most likely candidates to be called to replace Elder L. Tom Perry and President Packer are Tad R. Callister (age 70, quickly rising in Church leadership, grandfather was a third-generation apostle, service in Presidency of the Seventy and Sunday School Presidency, born in California, career in law) and L. Whitney Clayton (age 65, born in Utah, last name indicates Mormon pioneer heritage, service in Presidency of the Seventy, career in business, prominent leader in Church). Other strong candidates are Gary E. Stevenson (age 60, Presiding Bishop, Utah pioneer stock, business career), or any member of the Presidency of the Seventy (virtually all 60-70 years of age, business careers, and from Utah or Idaho).

If the Church chooses to call a member of the Quorum of the Twelve that reflects the international and multi-racial nature of Church membership these days, things could get more interesting. Ulisses Soares fits much of the criteria while being from South America (appears to be Caucasian, 57 years old, Presidency of the Seventy, accountant from Brazil), as does Walter F. Ganzález (63 years old, former Presidency of the Seventy, currently in 1st Quorum of the Seventy, career in education, from Uruguay). There are currently only two black men in the First Presidency of the Seventy—Joseph W. Sitati and Edward Dube—both of which have great potential, and the latter of which is the stronger candidate for a call to the Quorum of the Twelve based on the observations above (career in education, age 53, service in First Presidency of the Seventy). It is unlikely that either of these men will be called directly to the Quorum of the Twelve in the immediate future, however, since neither have served in the Presidency of the Seventy, the Presiding Bishopric, or as Church university presidents and the proportion of black men in high leadership indicates that while racial outreach to individuals with black African ancestry is becoming more important, it is not the highest priority for filling general authority positions at this time. There are six Asian men in the First Quorum of the Seventy, with Michael John U. Teh and Gerrit W. Gong standing out to me as the most likely potential candidates of the six based on age, career, and country of origin. For similar reasons to the African seventies, however, neither are likely candidates at this time.

Tad Calister, L. Whitney Clayton, Ulysses Soares, Walter Gonsalez

Tad R. Calister, L. Whitney Clayton, Ulysses Soares, Walter F. Gonzalez

Based on the above discussion, Tad R. Callister, L. Whitney Clayton, Ulysses Soares, and Walter F. Ganzález seem to me to be the most likely candidates to be called to the Quorum of Twelve in the near future. We never know what will happen, though, as the story from Heber J. Grant mentioned above indicates. The Lord directs through inspiration and it is a living Church, so statistics can be thrown out the window in a single moment. Plus, we’re not really supposed to speculate on such things. Essentially, any worthy male in the Church  could be called, though those who already are well known and impressive to the serving apostles are most likely to be called. We’ll just have to see what the Lord directs when the announcement comes.

As for what happens to an apostle after his call, President Brown related his experience:

President McKay thereupon called those of the Twelve who were present in the room to join him. They surrounded me, laid their hands upon my head, and ordained me an apostle. Later, the president gave me what is known as the “charge to the apostles.” That charge included a commitment to give all that one has, both as to time and means, to the building of the Kingdom of God; to keep himself pure and unspotted from the sins of the world; to be obedient to the authorities of the church; and to exercise the freedom to speak his mind but always be willing to subjugate his own thoughts and accept the majority opinion—not only to vote for it but to act as though it were his own original opinion after it has been approved by the majority of the Council of the Twelve and the First Presidency.

After they set me apart, the matter was submitted to the General Conference of the church.[3]

Generally, an announcement of who are being called to serve as apostles waits until general conference in October or April. The most who apostles have been sustained at one time after the initial organization of the Quorum of the Twelve was four, in 1849, to fill vacancies created by the end of Nauvoo crises and the later reorganization of the First Presidency with Brigham Young and his counselors. Three apostles have been called at a time only twice, due to combinations of deaths and people being dropped from the quorum for one reason or another (1889, 1906). Generally the announcement will wait until conference, even if multiple vacancies are created. The Church is organized to handle some stress caused by poor health or deaths, particularly with the Seventies being able to pick up any slack in carrying out Church duties abroad. After being called, an apostle will serve for an average of about twenty seven years (calculated from most of the apostles who have been called in modern Church history), since it is a lifelong calling.

Hugh B. Brown

Hugh B. Brown

Apostles have generally taken their call very seriously. Thus, often, they have concerns about their worthiness or ability during the early days of their service in the Quorum. Heber J. Grant spent a number of months deeply depressed because he felt unworthy to serve in that calling, largely because he couldn’t say that he had experienced an open vision of the Savior, though that was eventually resolved.[4] Spencer W. Kimball spoke of having “a complete panorama . . . of the little, mean, petty things I had done” and told J. Reuben Clark Jr. that “there must have been some mistake” when he was extended the calling. Afterwards, he went through a week of intense internal turmoil until he slipped out to be alone in the mountains. He spent much of his walk that day “accusing myself and condemning myself and upbraiding myself” and telling the Lord that “I had not asked for this position, that I was incapable of doing the work, that I was imperfect and weak and human, that I was unworthy of so noble a calling,” and had concerns that he had been called by relation rather than by inspiration. He spoke of how he “never before had . . . been tortured as I was now being tortured,” but after a time on that mountain, peace was brought to his soul and he left felling that he “knew my way, now, physically and spiritually, and knew where I was going.”[5]

Such feelings seem to be typical in one way or another. President Henry B. Eyring has spoken of how Satan comes to anyone who receives a calling in the Church to whisper to them that they’re unworthy. He went on to relate that:

After I’d been called to the Quorum of the Twelve, one of the Presidents . . . said to me, “Hal, you’re looking a little sad. Is it come yet?”

I said, “I beg your pardon?”

He’d been watching me and he said “come see me,” and I went to his office. He said, “Well, you’ve been an apostle now a little while. Has it come? You look sad.”

And I said, “Yeah. I just don’t feel that I’m worthy of what I have to be, that I am not what I need to be to have the spiritual blessings that I need in this work.”

And he said, “Well, what’s the trouble?”

And I said, “Well, I’m thinking of some things that I’ve done in my life.”

And he, “Well, yes, I understand that.”

Then I said, “Could I tell you about them?”

He said, “No.” He said, “Don’t come to me. Go to Him.”[6]

The fact that the president asked “has it come yet?” seems to indicate that feelings of unworthiness are typical of the early period of apostolic ministry.

President Henry B. Eyring

President Henry B. Eyring

After the call, apostles enter a period of training and apprenticeship in the ministry. Prophets and apostles are not so different from us: they are mastering the same methods of communicating with the heavens that we are, and they are given tutors, trainers, and teachers to help them learn to do so. In the same speech cited above, President Eyring went on to say: “I have the best presidents you can imagine. … I will simply tell you the little I’ve learned from how I’ve been trained. Would you believe that they train prophet, seers, and revelators? Oh you bet—Elder Uchtdorf is learning.”[7] Prophets, seers, and revelators need training, and that training comes from other prophet, seers, and revelators.

The late President Boyd K. Packer recalled in a newspaper interview that when he was first called as an assistant to the Twelve:

“I had quite a schooling as I learned from the senior Brethren,” President Packer said. “I learned to be taught.

“It’s one thing to study the gospel and another to study men who have given their lives to it,” he said of the Brethren with whom he served in the early years as a General Authority and who since have passed away. “President McKay had a great influence on me. Elder Marion G. Romney, Elder N. Eldon Tanner and Elder Kimball were my mentors.

“Elder Marion G. Romney, Elder N. Eldon Tanner and Elder Kimball were my mentors.”

“Elder LeGrand Richards (born in 1886) was my history book. I learned in those early days to associate with the older Brethren. I would walk back from meetings in the temple with Elder Richards. He walked very slowly because he had a crippled leg. The other Brethren would say, ‘Oh, you’re so kind.’ I thought, ‘You don’t know how selfish I am.’ I would ask Elder Richards questions. He knew everything.”

President Packer spoke of his associations with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who on Jan. 23, 1970, became the 10th president of the Church. “He was a wonderful man. I liked to be around him and just listen to him and study him.” Elder Packer worked closely with Elder Harold B. Lee, who became the 11th Church president on July 7, 1972, and Elder Mark E. Petersen.

He spoke with admiration of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who “was regarded as very rigid and staid, but he had more humor than many of the others. He was very pleasant to be around.”

President Packer said, “If we look at the past, we can know where we’re going. The footprints are there, marching in a line. We need to take a thought for where we’ve been and where we’re heading.”[8]

One can see the influence and training from other members of the Quorum of the Twelve has had on President Packer—influence he passed on to other members called to that same body of priesthood, just as President Eyring spoke of. Harold B. Lee likewise had J. Reuben Clark, Jr. as a mentor, who affectionately called young Elder Lee “the kid.”[9]

Gradually the apostles move up from being junior members of the Quorum to being more senior members while they administer the worldwide Church. In time, they will move on from this life, as Elder Perry did recently and the process of calling and training will start all over again for a new apostle. At that time, we mourn the loss of those who have moved on, but the Church is able to roll on as it moves to carry on its work in the earth.

First Bump

Further Reading:

LDS.org: Calling an Apostle of God

Whatsoeverisgood

LDS Living

[1] Hugh B. Brown and Edwin B. Firmage (ed.), An Abundant Life, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999),127.

[2] Heber J. Grant, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant (SLC, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2002), 181-182.

[3] Edwin B. Firmage, An Abundant Life, p.126-127

[4] Truman G. Madsen, The Presidents of the Church: Insights into Their Lives and Teachings (SLC: Deseret Book, 2004), 184-186.

[5] Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, Jr. Spencer W. Kimball: Twelfth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (SLC: Bookcraft, 1977), 189-195.

[6] Henry B. Eyring, Mission Presidents’ Seminar. Transcribed from Audio CD in author’s possession.

[7] Eyring, Mission Presidents’ seminar

[8] Gerry Avant, “President Packer is at half-century milestone of service,” Church News October 1, 2011.http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/61499/President-Packer-is-at-half-century-milestone-of-service.html

[9] Truman G. Madsen, The Presidents of the Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2004), 306.

Ezra Taft Benson, Chapter 8: The Power of the Word

Chapter 8 of the Ezra Taft Benson manual is based on a talk given to priesthood leaders about the importance of the word of God “as found in the scriptures, in the words of living prophets, and in personal revelation.” The Life section focuses on the setting of the talk that the lesson is based on. Section one focuses on troubles facing us in our day and that the Word of God is the way to deal with these challenges. Section two focuses on turning to the scriptures for meaningful study and making them a priority in our lives. Section three focuses on the power and blessings that come from studying the scriptures. Section four focuses on not treating the word of God lightly.

Resources for Lesson/Teaching Helps:

Suggested Hymns

Press Forward Saints (81)

How Firm a Foundation (85)

The Iron Rod (274)

As I Search the Holy Scriptures (277)

Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth (298)

Videos

The Blessing of Scripture

What the Scriptures Mean to Me

Daily Bread: Pattern

The Maze (It’s old and 10 minutes long, but a decent analogy)

Object Lessons

Bring a plate of cookies and ask for volunteers to demonstrate different styles of eating: abstain, sample, taste, snack, gorge, nibble, eat, and feast. Now compare those styles to how we study the scriptures, reminding the class that we should “feast upon the words of Christ.”[1]

Invite a Seminary teacher to show the class different methods of marking scriptures and building scripture chains. You could even teach them how to do a Scripture Chase competition like they do in Seminary.[2]

Further Reading

Ezra Taft Benson, Chapter 8

David A. Bednar: A Reservoir of Living Water

Richard G. Scott: The Power of Scripture

The King James Bible and the Restoration (BYU Symposium, online form)

Chad L. Nielsen discussion on the Word of God

Quotes

Boyd K. Packer: True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.[3]

Boyd K. Packer Image courtesy LDS.org

Boyd K. Packer
Image courtesy LDS.org

Dallin H Oaks: A childhood experience introduced me to the idea that some choices are good but others are better. I lived for two years on a farm. We rarely went to town. Our Christmas shopping was done in the Sears, Roebuck catalog. I spent hours poring over its pages. For the rural families of that day, catalog pages were like the shopping mall or the Internet of our time.

Something about some displays of merchandise in the catalog fixed itself in my mind. There were three degrees of quality: good, better, and best. For example, some men’s shoes were labeled good ($1.84), some better ($2.98), and some best ($3.45).

As we consider various choices, we should remember that it is not enough that something is good. Other choices are better, and still others are best. Even though a particular choice is more costly, its far greater value may make it the best choice of all. . . .

Some uses of individual and family time are better, and others are best. We have to forego some good things in order to choose others that are better or best because they develop faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and strengthen our families.[4]

Dallin H. Oaks Image courtesy LDS.org

Dallin H. Oaks
Image courtesy LDS.org

Julie B. Beck: If you have not already developed the habit of daily scripture study, start now and keep studying in order to be prepared for your responsibilities in this life and in the eternities.[5]

Julie B. Beck Image courtesy LDS.org

Julie B. Beck
Image courtesy LDS.org

Patricia T. Holland: There have been challenges in my life that would have completely destroyed me had I not had the scriptures both on my bed stand and in my purse so that I could partake of them day and night at a moment’s notice. Meeting God in scripture has been like a divine intravenous feeding for me—a celestial IV that my son once described as an angelical cord.[6]

Patricia Holland Image courtesy Deseret News

Patricia Holland

Chieko N. Okazaki: The manuals and the Ensign and other commentaries and sermons and essays are meaningful and perceptive; but if we read only them and don’t study the scriptures for ourselves, we still have only a secondhand relationship with the scriptures.[7]

Chieko N. Okazaki

Chieko N. Okazaki

Marion G. Romney: When I drink from a spring I like to get the water where it comes out of the ground, not down the stream after the cattle have waded in it. … I appreciate other people’s interpretation, but when it comes to the gospel we ought to be acquainted with what the Lord says.[8]

Marion G. Romney Image courtesy LDS.org

Marion G. Romney
Image courtesy LDS.org

M. Russell Ballard: The Bible . . . is one of the pillars of our faith, a powerful witness of the Savior and of Christ’s ongoing influence in the lives of those who worship and follow Him. The more we read and study the Bible and its teachings, the more clearly we see the doctrinal underpinnings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. We tend to love the scriptures that we spend time with. We may need to balance our study in order to love and understand all scripture.

You young people especially, do not discount or devalue the Holy Bible. It is the sacred, holy record of the Lord’s life. The Bible contains hundreds of pages more than all of our other scripture combined. It is the bedrock of all Christianity. We do not criticize or belittle anyone’s beliefs. Our great responsibility as Christians is to share all that God has revealed with all of His sons and daughters.[9]

M. Russell Ballard Image courtesy LDS.org

M. Russell Ballard
Image courtesy LDS.org

Gordon B. Hinckley: I hope the reading of scriptures will become something far more enjoyable than a duty; that, rather, it will become a love affair with the word of God. I promise you that as you read, your minds will be enlightened and your spirits will be lifted. At first it may seem tedious, but that will change into a wondrous experience with thoughts and words of things divine.[10]

Gordon B. Hinckley

Gordon B. Hinckley

Come Unto Christ

The intelligent but eccentric BYU professor Hugh Nibley once quipped that, “If you pray for an angel to visit you, you know what he’ll do if he comes. He’ll just quote the scriptures to you—so you’re wasting your time waiting for what we already have.”[11] While it’s a humorous way of looking at things, it is somewhat true. What I have also found interesting is that Christ himself quotes scripture when he teaches. We see it during his life—as represented in the Gospels, he quotes Isaiah, Psalms, and references stories in the Pentateuch and the histories in the Hebrew Bible. We see it again when he visited the Nephites—he quotes entire chapters of Malachi and Isaiah. Again, when he visited Joseph Smith in the First Vision, he referenced Isaiah once again. Granted, He expounded and expanded  upon what was in the scriptures, but it is interesting that the Lord of All Creation quotes the scriptures rather than teaching on His own authority alone. To me, this builds up the importance of being familiar with all the scriptures.

Friberg's Light of Christ painting.

Friberg’s Light of Christ painting.

A Deeper Look

Within the corpus of J. Golden Kimball folklore, there is a story of the salty seventy getting bored during a long list of sustaining officers at a stake conference somewhere south of Provo. Noticing that most of the congregation was nodding off or had fallen asleep while mechanically raising their hands for every name read, he continued in his usual magpie voice, stating, “It is proposed that Mount Nebo be moved into Utah Lake, all in favor manifest by the usual sign.” The majority of the people raised their hands. Then, Elder Kimball paused, looked around, and yelled, “Just how in the hell do you people propose we get Mount Nebo into Utah Lake?” or “I expect all men to be here tomorrow morning with your shovels.”

J. Golden Kimball

J. Golden Kimball

One of the faucets of the word of God that President Benson spoke about was the words of living prophets, and we had the opportunity to listen to those recently at general conference. As with last year, the main topic of discussion about general conference hasn’t been the words of Church leaders, but the dissenters who expressed themselves at the conference. As, I’m sure most of my readers are well aware, at least seven (some accounts say nine) people expressed themselves as “opposed” during the sustaining of Church officers. These individuals, who have declared that they are opposed for a variety of reasons—including institutional honesty about Church history, Church stance of women’s roles and LGTB families, spending of Church money on projects like City Creek Mall, and so forth—stood and shouted “opposed” when President Uchtdorf asked for contrary votes to sustaining the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

To many Latter-day Saints attending the conference in person or abroad, these dissenting votes were jarring. There were some occurrences during the 1970s and 1980s due to the restrictions placed on members of black African descent and the Church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, but there haven’t been many, if any, occurrences of opposing votes in General Conference for a couple decades (click here for some more history on the issue). In response, the internet has been flooded with memes and blog posts discussing the event, mostly in negative tones. Those who were opposed have been called “hecklers,” and a number of individuals have expressed themselves as shocked or disappointed by their actions, ruminated on their likeliness to go to hell (I don’t know if that’s online, but I’ve heard plenty of that in my community in some form or another). Other memes have simply offered support for President Monson and other Church leaders, affirming member’s commitments to their leadership.

I want to make it clear that I support and sustain our Church leadership, but I also want to give some perspective on what happened during the sustaining of Church officers and how we could best respond. I also would like to discuss the principle of common consent—why we do it and what it means. My hope is that it will be informative and allow better discussion of the issues at hand.

"I sustain President Monson" meme

“I sustain President Monson” meme

Recently, I attended a lecture by Armand Mauss—the leading sociologist who has set his hands to Mormon studies. He spoke about a number of difficulties and issues that the Church is dealing with as it approaches its third century, including internal issues and organizations such as correlation, the accumulation of inactive members, the role and status of women in the Church, and the role of faith vs doubt in the Church. The last one of the four—faith vs doubt—was the one he devoted the most time to, noting that some General Authorities have made comments that recognize the validity of doubts, but asking how far they are willing to go to accommodate doubting members:

On the one hand, how can the church create and maintain a supportive environment in which individual members can struggle with serious doubts without jeopardizing the love and regard of fellow members, and even jeopardizing their church membership?

On the other hand, how can the church maintain boundaries around certain fundamental truth claims that define the very identity of the LDS religion? How much flexibility in understanding and interpreting church doctrine and practices can members claim and still feel that they belong?[12]

Armand Mauss

Armand Mauss

This is a very difficult subject to approach, and is becoming more and more visible. Despite Elder Cook’s assurance that “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never been stronger,”[13] dissenting members are better organized and better able to give voice to their feelings than ever before, thanks to the internet. The dissenting vote is likely to become a regular part of General Conference, as demonstrated by online shows of support and commitments to dissent at the October conference this year.

Many non-dissenting members have expressed frustration that dissenters would disturb the sacred atmosphere of General Conference, and wondered if it is the appropriate place to dissent in. It is a very understandable concern, especially when unanimity has been the norm in voting and there is so much emphasis placed on the importance of conference. The truth of the matter is, however, that General Conference really is the appropriate time and place to express dissenting votes. We read in the Doctrine and Covenants: “And a commandment I give unto you, that you should fill all these offices and approve of those names which I have mentioned, or else disapprove of them at my general conference.” (D&C 124:144, emphasis added.) Some leading brethren in the Church have made it clear in times past that thoughtful consideration of whether we sustain the Brethren is important. Take, for example, President Brigham Young:

Some may say, “Brethren, you who lead the Church, we have all confidence in you, we are not in the least afraid but what everything will go right under your superintendence; all the business matters will be transacted right; and if brother Brigham is satisfied with it, I am.” I do not wish any Latter−day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied. I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves, for this would strengthen the faith that is within them. Suppose that the people were heedless, that they manifested no concern with regard to the things of the kingdom of God, but threw the whole burden upon the leaders of the people, saying, “If the brethren who take charge of matters are satisfied, we are,” this is not pleasing in the sight of the Lord.

Every man and woman in this kingdom ought to be satisfied with what we do, but they never should be satisfied without asking the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, whether what we do is right. When you are inspired by the Holy Ghost you can understandingly say, that you are satisfied.[14]

Brigham Young

Brigham Young

Elder B. H. Roberts of the Presidency of the Seventy also made a valid, if somewhat chilling, point when he stated that:

If the time should ever come that The Church should be so unfortunate as to be presided over by a man who transgressed the laws of God and became unrighteous (and by such a thing could be, and that the President of the Church is not regarded as impeccable, is quite evident from the fact that provisions are made for his trial and condemnation), a means of deposing him, without destroying The Church, without revolution, or even disorder, is provided in The Church system of government.[15]

What I’m trying to say with all of this, is that the expression of opposed votes is an acceptable expression of belief within Mormonism and that General Conference is the appropriate time to express that vote. If it was not, they wouldn’t ask for any opposed to raise their hands. The manner in which it was expressed—individuals standing and stating “opposed” (not “no!” as has been often recounted so far) was probably the most polite way they could proceed while still being noticed in the large auditorium.

That being said, I do not support them in their course, I don’t appreciate their actions, and I personally sustain the prophet, even while I recognize that they have the right to act as they did. How do I think we should respond? In a Christ-like manner. As Elder Quentin L. Cook taught:

Many in this world are afraid and angry with one another. While we understand these feelings, we need to be civil in our discourse and respectful in our interactions. This is especially true when we disagree…. Yet there are some who feel that venting their personal anger or deeply held opinions is more important than conducting themselves as Jesus Christ lived and taught. I invite each one of us individually to recognize that how we disagree is a real measure of who we are and whether we truly follow the Savior. It is appropriate to disagree, but it is not appropriate to be disagreeable. Violence and vandalism are not the answer to our disagreements. If we show love and respect even in adverse circumstances, we become more like Christ.[16]

This is true whichever side of the issue you may be on. Remember, Joseph Smith taught that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism,”[17] and that “if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.”[18] While we tend to be concerned that we will not receive the same respect from the other side (again, whichever side we may be on in the issue), the more pertinent question is always, “Lord, is it I?” (Matt 26:22.)

These people are truly people, not demons sent from the fiery abyss (is we even believed in such a thing), and they deserve to be treated respectfully and civilly. What is more, they are Mormons and we have no right to tell them that they must leave the Church because we don’t see eye-to-eye with them. In the Book of Mormon Nephi asked the pertinent question, “hath he [God] commanded any that they should depart out of the synagogues, or out of the houses of worship?” and responded: “Behold, I say unto you, Nay. . . . He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him.” (2 Nephi 26:26, 33.) Their feelings don’t have to change ours, nor will they topple the Church, so there is no need to react defensively to them. We will probably just have to adjust and understand that there are members who love the Gospel and love the Church, but don’t agree with the direction its leadership is taking and respect them in that belief. At the same time, we should not be afraid to express our views, as long as we do so in the proper manner and realize that we may have to agree to disagree. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught last spring: “Be strong. Live the gospel faithfully even if others around you don’t live it at all. Defend your beliefs with courtesy and with compassion, but defend them.”[19]

"Defend your beliefs with courtesy and with compassion, but defend them" ~Jeffrey R. Holland

“Defend your beliefs with courtesy and with compassion, but defend them”
~Jeffrey R. Holland

Shifting gears a bit, this issue also raises doctrinal questions about the process of sustaining officers of the Church or a proposed policy change. Are we voting on leadership or doctrine? If God chose them, then why do we even have to give our consent? Democracy and theocracy don’t seem too compatible, really. While there is a lot that could be said about the issue, one of my favorite discussions of the doctrine comes from Elder B. H. Roberts. In the early 1900s, the Church underwent an intense examination by the United States government after one of the Quorum of the Twelve—Reed Smoot—was elected to congress as a senator from Utah. During these hearings, there were a few questions asked, statements made, or missteps by general authorities that caught on with the youth in Utah as things to say to poke fun at or question Church leadership. Elder Roberts, a president of the Seventies who was also involved in the youth organizations of the Church, wrote a response to these “smart statements.” One of the concerns that he addressed was that:

In the course of the investigation of the subject of revelation, it was developed that a law revealed from God, before it became binding upon the Church, was submitted to the people in conference, and they voted to accept or reject it. Then this question was asked:

“Suppose a revelation is given to the Church, and the Church in conference assembled reject it by vote, what remains? Does it go for nothing?”

To which answer was made, in substance, that if the people rejected it, it would go for nothing for them—that is, so far as the people were concerned.

The senator then exclaimed: “A sort of veto power over the Lord!” and then there was laughter.

That is one of the catchy phrases which some of the youth of Zion are permitting themselves to be pleased with. A veto power on God![20]

His response was profound:

After revealing himself to Joseph Smith, the Lord finally told him, with reference to the organization of the Church, that he must call together the baptized members and submit to them the question whether or not they were willing that he and Oliver Cowdery should proceed to organize the Church of Christ, and whether the people were willing to accept them as their spiritual leaders and teachers.

We may well marvel at such condescension of God; and yet when we come to analyze this, we learn that in this God only recognizes a great truth, and the dignity of his children, and acknowledges their rights and liberties. When he selected his prophet, to whom he first revealed himself, he chose whom he would and gave him the power of the apostleship; but when he was to effect an organization and exercise that authority upon others, then it must be with the consent of the others concerned, not otherwise. This is the principle of common consent, which the Lord respected at the organization of his Church, and which he still recognizes in its government.

The very title of our Church—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—indicates that it is not only “the Church of Jesus Christ,” but also of the “Latter-day Saints.” It is Christ’s because he made it possible by his sacrifice, because it is the depository of his truth, because he has called it into existence, because he has given it a mission to proclaim the truth, and to perfect the lives of those who accept that truth; it is ours because we accept it of our own volition. God has conferred upon his Church and our Church the right of being governed by common consent of the members thereof. It is not a tyranny, nor an ecclesiastical hierarchy dominating the people and destroying individual liberty, as our friends the opposition have frequently declared. But now they are confronted with the fact that, so far from being a tyrannical institution, not only the officers but the very revelations of God are submitted to the people for their acceptance! And then they turn to the other extreme, and, astonished, exclaim: “Then you presume to have a veto power on God!”…

… When the Church votes upon the acceptance of any revelation, whether on doctrine or the appointment of officers, it acts for itself alone, and neither concerns, for praise or censure, people outside of the Church. It is merely the exercise of a right conferred upon the Church in the very inception of its organization, which granted it the right to accept or reject any rule or law that was suggested for its government. This law of common consent is in strict harmony with God’s moral government of the world. Man is by nature a free moral agent, and that agency involves the liberty of violating the laws of God as well as the liberty of respecting them. If individuals reject the will of God, they will be rejected by him; and this applies also to the Church. What men may do in their individual capacity, the Church may do in its organized capacity with, of course, similar results to the institution; for if the time should come that the Church, in the exercise of those rights and that freedom which God in the beginning bestowed upon her, should persistently reject his word and his servants until she became corrupted, God would repudiate and disown her as his Church, just as he would reject and condemn a wicked man. But so far, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints has received as divine law the revelations and doctrines proposed to her by the prophets of God. But suppose a law is promulgated before the Latter-day Saints, and the Church, in the exercise of the liberty which God has conferred upon them, reject it, the question is then asked, what remains?

The truth remains. The action of the Church has not affected it in the least. The truth remains just as true as if the Church had accepted it. Its action simply determines the relationship of the members to that truth; and if they reject it, the truth still remains; and it is my opinion that they would not make further progress until they accepted the rejected truth. The truth remains—that is the answer to the Senator’s question, for, as one of our poets has said:

Though the heavens depart, and the earth’s fountains burst,

Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,

Eternal, unchanged, evermore.[21]

Thus, the principle of common consent is a recognition of our right to accept or reject any truth or principle or leader, whether individually or collectively. Those who have expressed themselves as opposed at General Conference are perfectly within their rights to do so, just as we are perfectly in our rights to sustain Church leaders. What is left is to carry ourselves in the most Christ-like manner possible.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir

[1] Boice, Trina (2014-11-09). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Kindle Locations 900-902). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Boice, Trina (2013-11-13). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teaching: Joseph Fielding Smith (Kindle Locations 2108-2109). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition

[3] Boyd K. Packer, “Little Children,” CR, October 1986, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1986/10/little-children?lang=eng

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Good, Better, Best,” CR, October 2007, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2007/10/good-better-best?lang=eng.

[5] Julie B. Beck, “My Soul Delighteth in the Scriptures,” Ensign, May 2004, 107– 9.

[6] Patricia T. Holland, Young Women Presidency “One Thing Needful: Becoming Women of Greater Faith in Christ.” Ensign, October 1987

[7] Chieko N. Okazaki, Relief Society Presidency “Aloha.” 1995, p. 83

[8] Marion G. Romney, address to religious educators, 13 Apr. 1973.

[9] M. Russell Ballard, “The Miracle of the Holy Bible,” CR, April 2007, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2007/04/the-miracle-of-the-holy-bible?lang=eng.

[10] Gordon B. Hinckley: “The Light within You,” Ensign, May 1995, 99.

[11] Hugh Nibley, The Essential Nibley, ed. Marvin R. VanDam (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014), 294.

[12] Armand Mauss, “Mormonism’s Third Century: Coping with the Contingencies.” Paper presented March 25, 2015, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.  http://religiousstudies.usu.edu/files/uploads/Recent_Presentations/Mauss_Mormonisms_3rd_Century.pdf

[13] Quentin L. Cook, “The Lord is My Light,” CR, April 2015.

[14] JD 3:45, Brigham Young, October 6, 1855

[15] B. H. Roberts, The Gospel: An Exposition of its first principles; and Man’s Relationship to Deity, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Desert News, 1901), 225.

[16] Quentin L. Cook, “We Follow Jesus Christ,” Conference Report, April 2010

[17] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[18] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Location 2621). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[19] Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Cost—and Blessings—of Discipleship,” CR April 2014, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/the-cost-and-blessings-of-discipleship?lang=eng

[20] B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era, March 1905, 359.

[21] Roberts, “Relation,” 361-364.

Ezra Taft Benson, Chapter 7: Joseph Smith, an Instrument in the Hands of the Lord

Chapter 7 of the Ezra Taft Benson manual focuses on Joseph Smith, as the title suggests. The Life section focuses on how Elder Benson faced opposition to the Church while he served a mission in his youth to England, but had a wonderful experience in preaching about Joseph Smith and that he continued to testify of Joseph Smith throughout his life. Section one focuses on the experience and significance of the First Vision. Section two focuses on dealing with objections to supernatural aspects of the Restoration—the visitations of angels in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and at other times to Joseph Smith. Section Three focuses on the importance of the Book of Mormon and an invitation to test the validity of the origin of the Book of Mormon. Section Four focuses on the restoration in a broad sweep covering the basic ideas of the Apostasy, First Vision, restoration of the priesthood, establishment of the Church, and the establishment of a new dispensation. Section Five deals with the persecution and faithfulness of Joseph Smith to his death. Section Six focuses on Joseph Smith’s role as the Prophet—his foreordination, his role in the work of Salvation, and the head of this dispensation.

Ezra Taft Benson as a missionary

Ezra Taft Benson as a missionary

Resources:

Suggested Hymns

The Spirit of God (2)

What Was Witnessed in the Heavens? (11)

Now We’ll Sing with One Accord (25)

Joseph Smith’s First Prayer (26)

Praise to the Man (27)

Videos

Seeker of Truth

Prophets of the Restoration Vignettes: Joseph Smith

The Restoration (20 minute First Vision video)

Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration (2002 version)

Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration (Proselyting Version)

The Great Apostasy (Wilford Woodruff’s Conversion Story)

Object Lessons

  • Tell the class you’re going to show pictures of different kinds of cars and that they’re supposed to raise their hands when they see a car that represents the kind of person they are (sports car, truck, minivan, racecar, luxury sedan, taxi). Explain that all cars get old and eventually break down. Age, accidents, and everyday use will wear a car out. Sooner or later all cars are destined for the junkyard unless someone restores them. In some ways, our lives are like the cars. Just as all cars break down, all people share a common problem that causes us to wear out and eventually die. Just as a car can’t fix its own dent or flat tires, we can’t fix the problem of death. The Savior keeps our cars running in good condition. He sends auto mechanics (prophets) who know how to restore cars to their best state when they get old and rusty. Joseph restored the Church after the Great Apostasy.[1]
  • Invite someone to play a hymn or song on the piano, but tape down most of the piano keys. After the death of the early Apostles, the authority was lost and the fulness of the gospel was not on earth. Explain that there are many wonderful churches on earth today that have some of the piano keys to enjoy, but the Church of Jesus Christ allows us to enjoy the whole song as it was intended and the fulness of the gospel. Joseph Smith was an instrument in the Lord’s hands.[2]

Further Reading

Ezra Taft Benson, Chapter 7

Sugardoodle

Joseph Smith Papers Website

Terryl Givens: Lightning Out of Heaven

Terryl Givens: The Woman in the Wilderness

Philip L. Barlow: To Mend a Fractured Reality (pp. 28-50)

Jan Shipps: Joseph Smith and Mormonism

James B. Allen: Emergence of a Fundamental

The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith, Part 1

The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith, Part 2

Gospel Topics page (access to a variety of articles on historical issues with Joseph Smith)

Podcasts

Neal A. Maxwell Institute: Reconsidering the Great Apostasy

Joseph Smith Papers Podcast

Quotes

Gordon B. Hinckley: Not long ago, while riding in a plane, I engaged in conversation with a young man who was seated beside me. We moved from one subject to another, and then came to the matter of religion. He said that he had read considerably about the Mormons, that he had found much to admire in their practices, but that he had a definite prejudice concerning the story of the origin of the Church and particularly Joseph Smith. He was an active member of another organization, and when I asked where he had acquired his information, he indicated that it had come from publications of his church. I asked what company he worked for. He proudly replied that he was a sales representative for IBM. I then asked whether he would think it fair for his customers to learn of the qualities of IBM products from a Xerox representative. He replied with a smile, “I think I get the point of what you’re trying to say.”[3]

An acquaintance said to me one day: “I admire your church very much. I think I could accept everything about it—except Joseph Smith.” To which I responded: “That statement is a contradiction. If you accept the revelation, you must accept the revelator.”

It is a constantly recurring mystery to me how some people speak with admiration for the Church and its work, while at the same time disdaining him through whom, as a servant of the Lord, came the framework of all that the Church is, of all that it teaches, and of all that it stands for. They would pluck the fruit from the tree while cutting off the root from which it grows.[4]

Gordon B. Hinckley

Gordon B. Hinckley

George Albert Smith: Many of the benefits and blessings that have come to me have come through [Joseph Smith,] that man who gave his life for the gospel of Jesus Christ. There have been some who have belittled him, but I would like to say that those who have done so will be forgotten and their remains will go back to mother earth, if they have not already gone, and the odor of their infamy will never die, while the glory and honor and majesty and courage and fidelity manifested by the Prophet Joseph Smith will attach to his name forever.[5]

George Albert Smith

George Albert Smith

Neal A. Maxwell: What came through Joseph Smith was beyond Joseph Smith, and it stretched him! In fact, the doctrines that came through that “choice seer” (2 Nephi 3:6-7) by translation or revelation are often so light intensive that, like radioactive materials, they must be handled with great care![6]

The Everest of ecclesiastical truth built from the translations and revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith speaks for itself as it towers above the foothills of philosophy. . . . Revelations came to us through an inspired prophet, Joseph Smith. His spelling left something to be desired, but how he provided us with the essential grammar of the gospel![7]

Neal A. Maxwell

Neal A. Maxwell Image courtesy LDS.org

Wilford Woodruff: Those who have been acquainted with the Prophet Joseph, who laid the foundation of this church and kingdom, who was an instrument in the hand of God in bringing to light the gospel in this last dispensation, know well that every feeling of his soul, every sentiment of his mind, and every act of his life, proved that he was determined to maintain the principle of truth, even to the sacrificing of his life. His soul swelled wide as eternity for the welfare of the human family.[8]

Wilford Woodruff Image courtesy LDS.org

Wilford Woodruff
Image courtesy LDS.org

B. H. Roberts: One thing connected with the character of Joseph Smith, and one that distinguishes him from false prophets and mere enthusiasts is the unaffectedness of his conduct. It was the prevailing idea of his day and even now that the calling of a prophet is inseparably connected with a life of austerity . . . as if communing with God was such awful business that it chills the heart and drives all happiness out of the life of man! Joseph Smith was nothing of all this. . . . He was the Prophet of a joyous countenance; of unconventional but upright deportment; the apostle of cleanliness and becoming apparel. He believed that serving God should make men happier and that the good things of the earth were made for the comfort and to increase the happiness of the righteous.[9]

The Prophet’s teaching . . . was unique in its way. He may scarcely be said to have made any attempt at creating a system of philosophy however much may be said for his system of religion and of ecclesiastical government. His philosophical principles were flung off in utterances without reference to any arrangement or orderly sequence; and in the main were taught in independent aphorisms, which is a remarkably effective way of teaching, for an aphorism resembles the proverb, and is a form in which Truth is bound to live.[10]

B. H. Roberts

B. H. Roberts

D. Todd Christofferson: We are blessed in our day to have a growing body of information about the Prophet Joseph Smith and his work, but most especially about his teachings. In the Church’s study series, “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church,” the volume published in 2007 featuring Joseph Smith’s teachings and writings is particularly valuable. I hope it is a reference you will always have close at hand in your gospel library. For some years now, the Church History Department has spearheaded a major undertaking to publish all the documents and other materials we can locate that were ever generated by or under the direction of the Prophet. It is known as the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It is anticipated that this project will produce about 24 printed volumes in six series such as Revelations and Translations, Journals, Histories, and so on. . . . Also, the Internet and electronic publishing have made it possible to access additional early, and even original source material bearing on Joseph Smith’s life and times.

Our study of the Prophet’s life and ministry are more than an intellectual exercise to satisfy curiosity. Insofar as we can, we want to know what he knew; we want to understand what he understood; we want to draw near to God as he did, for as Nicodemus said of the Savior so we can say of Joseph, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God.” . . .

Be patient . . . while some answers come quickly or with little effort, others are simply not available for the moment because information or evidence is lacking. Don’t suppose, however, that a lack of evidence about something today means that evidence doesn’t exist or that it will not be forthcoming in the future. The absence of evidence is not proof. . . . Where answers are incomplete or lacking altogether, patient study and patient waiting for new information and discoveries to unfold will often be rewarded with understanding.[11]

D. Todd Christofferson

D. Todd Christofferson Image courtesy LDS.org

Come Unto Christ

We do not worship the Prophet. We worship God our Eternal Father, and the risen Lord Jesus Christ. But we acknowledge him, we proclaim him, we respect him, we reverence him as an instrument in the hands of the Almighty in restoring to the earth the ancient truths of the divine gospel, together with the priesthood through which the authority of God is exercised in the affairs of his church and for the blessing of his people. (Gordon B. Hinckley.)[12]

President John Taylor made the superlative statement—now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants—that “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.” (D&C 135:3.) President Brigham Young stated “I feel like shouting, hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet.”[13] We sing the hymns of praise to the Prophet, such as “Praise to the Man Who Communed with Jehovah.” Statements like this cause many to worry that we worship Joseph Smith rather than Jesus Christ. Sometimes our actions do little to belay that concern—we talk often of Joseph Smith and the Restoration, and sometimes get carried away with celebrations of his life compared with our celebrations of Christ’s life. Consider, for example, the celebrations the Church put on for the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth in 2005 versus the celebrations (or lack thereof) of the 2000th celebration of Christ’s birth in 2000 (or on any year for that matter) or the tendency to sing hymns about Joseph Smith and the prophets in our excitement about General Conference this last week rather than focusing on celebrating Holy Week leading up to Easter.

The truth is, however, that the work that the Prophet Joseph Smith performed was to bring people unto salvation through Christ. He did not seek to replace Christ, but to build up Christ’s position. Truman G. Madsen—a BYU professor who spent a lot of his time studying the life of Joseph Smith—stated that:

[Joseph Smith] has no stature at all except in his ties with the Master. Much modern scholarship deals with the window frame and the window rather than the vista. Many have claimed to see through Joseph Smith; I am among the number…. For the things that matter most, however—and what mattered most to him and those who surrounded him was the way of the prophets and ultimately the way of Christ—he is not only clear; he is transparent. It is fascinating enough to study the window; I myself have not resisted the temptation. But that is not what I’m dwelling on here. I am dwelling on what one may see through the window. In doing so I am making a call to what is vital.”[14]

Stained Glass First Vision

Stained Glass First Vision

I appreciate this view of the Prophet. He is a window to Christ in that his teachings and the system of ordinances he revealed point out the way to know the Messiah. While Brother Madsen was aiming his remarks at scholars, they really do apply to Mormons and their understanding of our history as well. Similar to Brother Madsen, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated some of his reasons for admiring and learning about Joseph Smith as follows: “I want to know anyone who knows God, and the Son of God, and the Holy Ghost, and can lead me to Them.  I want to take Joseph’s testimony and bear it to millions.  Through him millions shall know God again and receive the saving ordinances of the Gospel of His Son.”[15]

While we may believe that Joseph Smith was a window to Jesus Christ, we must have a correct understanding of how he functions as a window. It is primarily through the doctrines and priesthood authority that were restored and the revelations that were given that the Prophet acted as a window for us. These things give us access to understanding and experiencing Christ more fully. He was not, however, a revelation or viewport of Christ in that he was a perfect example of Christ’s attributes and personality. Joseph Smith himself held that he was imperfect, unlike the Savior of the world: “There was one good man Jesus.—Many think a prophet must be a great deal better than any body else. . . . I dont want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous.”[16]

Joseph Smith was fairly consistent in declaring his faults and imperfections. In his official history, he stated that during his teenage years: “I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into diverse temptations, offensive in the sight of God” (JS-H 1:28). In a letter to Emma in 1832, he wrote: “I have called to mind all the past moments of my life and am left to morn and shed tears of sorrow for my folly in suffering the adversary of my soul to have so much power over me as he had in times past but God is merciful and has f[o]rgiven my sins.”[17] On an occasion later in life, he told a group of Saints that “I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect.”[18] He further stated, though: “the wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature, like other men. No man lives without fault.”[19] At times, he took a humorous route to emphasize his imperfection, declaring on one occasion that: “Suppose I would condescend. yes I will call it condescend, to be a great deal better than any of you. I would be raised up to the highest heaven, and who should I have to accompany me?”[20] If we try to present Joseph Smith as a God-like, almost perfected being, we portray him in a way contrary to his own understanding of himself. He was indeed one of the “weak things of the world” that the Lord used in His work (D&C 1:19, 23; D&C 35:13; D&C 124:1).

Perhaps, then, Elder B. H. Roberts best captured Joseph Smith’s relationship to Christ when he wrote:

Great as we believe the Prophet Joseph Smith to have been, and he was great. His spirit of quick intelligence was touched by the inspiration of God. The veil for him indeed was rent, and upon his vision burst the truths of eternity. He was commissioned to come with those truths to the children of men and expound them. It was given to him to see the truth as few souls have seen it in this world: and a divine authority and commission was granted unto him to give effect to those truths, not only by teaching them personally, but to bring into existence a great institution, the Church of Christ, to be the teaching agency of the gospel in the great and last dispensation of that gospel to the earth. All this we claim for him; but as between him and the Christ, as the mountains rise above the foothills so, too, does the Christ rise above him, and all men, all angels, all teachers, all prophets. To him [the Christ], and not to any man or set of men, do we pay divine honors.[21]

"To him [the Christ], and not to any man or set of men, do we pay divine honors." Image courtesy LDS.org

“To him [the Christ], and not to any man or set of men, do we pay divine honors.”
Image courtesy LDS.org

A Deeper Look

It is always important to consider the teachings of the prophets and apostles about Joseph Smith, but it is also important to learn what we can through scholarly means as well. While I don’t have room to give a detailed discussion of many the trends and thoughts in Mormon studies, I would like to highlight three major scholars—Jan Shipps, Terryl L. Givens, Philip Barlow—and their approaches to Joseph Smith’s ministry and Restoration. Articles by each of them related to the subjects are posted in the “Further Reading” section above while brief overviews of their thought are posted below.

Jan Shipps Image courtesy Wikipedia

Jan Shipps
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Jan Shipps—a fantastic non-Mormon historian who has done much to make Mormon studies a respectable field for scholars—took an approach to analyze different phases in the Restoration in her book Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition and a later article on Joseph Smith published in Makers of Christian Theology in America. Taking a secular, non-Mormon approach, she considered the early history of the Church to be the “reiteration, reinterpretation, recapitulation, and ritual re-creation of the significant events in Israel’s past and the significant events in the story of early Christianity” by Mormons in modern times.[22] Based on her analysis, Joseph Smith’s ministry went through three phases or tiers of restoration. The restoration and reinstitution of elements from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament took place side-by-side throughout nineteenth-century Mormonism. Prior to late 1830, however, particular emphasis was placed on the restoration of primitive Christianity with the restoration of priesthood authority via messengers from the New Testament, and the establishment of the Church of Christ, a millennialist mindset, and renewed displays of spiritual gifts (particularly the prophetic gifts Joseph Smith displayed in the revelations and translations he produced). Shipps refers to this as the “Apostolic Restoration.”

During the Kirtland and Nauvoo eras, a layer of heavily Hebraic doctrine and practice was overlaid on the Church of Christ. This gave Mormonism a distinctly different appearance than traditional Christianity. Referred to by Shipps as the “Abrahamic Restoration,” this layer of restoration included the literal gathering of converts into Mormon enclaves—with a thrust towards the neo-Hebraic church-kingdom that characterized Mormonism in Nauvoo and pre-1890s Utah—the planning and construction of temples, the ordination of patriarchs and the practice of declaring Israelite heritage in patriarchal blessings, the clear distinction between Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and polygamy.[23] Based on these observations, historian Richard Lyman Bushman wrote that, “Throughout Smith’s life, the Old Testament was a major source of inspiration. His restoration can be thought of as purging the Hellenistic influences in Christianity and reviving the Hebraic. . . . In the end, Joseph Smith’s restoration pressed Christianity into an Old Testament mold.”[24]

The third tier in the development of Mormonism that has been referred to as “the fulness of the gospel” was introduced during the Nauvoo era by Joseph Smith that was constituted of many novel doctrines revealed by Joseph Smith. Teachings that are included by Shipps in this layer of Mormon theology include the temple ordinances of the Endowment and celestial marriage, the firm placement of mortal life between a premortal and postmortal existence, and other doctrines related to “a plan of salvation which entails the ceaseless persistence of personality and the eternal endurance of family units.”[25]

Terryl L. Givens

Terryl L. Givens

Another trend in Mormon studies has been to place Joseph Smith’s ministry and revelations in the context of his time and place. There have been further efforts to merge this eclectic appropriation of thought approach with the divine hand of God in the work of the Restoration. Two of Mormonism’s leading philosophical and theologically-minded scholars have provided models that are useful for understanding Joseph Smith’s work in this light. Terryl Givens has, perhaps, been most vocal in advocating his model of “inspired syncretism” using the Biblical imagery of the Woman in the Wilderness. While he has mentioned his beliefs on a number of occasions, Dr. Givens  has outlined them most thoroughly in three places: his essays “‘We have only the Old Thing’: Rethinking the Mormon Restoration” (which was published as the epilogue of the book Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy) and “The Woman in the Wilderness: Mormonism, Catholicism, and Inspired Syncretism,” and then most thoroughly in a chapter of his book Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity.

In Givens’s eyes, Joseph Smith didn’t view the apostasy and restoration as a radical loss and abrupt reinstitution but that the ancient church was in some sense preserved through teachings and principles that were left intact and the restoration was a gradual process of assimilation, differentiation and development. “The grand project of restoration, then,” Givens wrote:

relied upon a vision of apostasy as retreat and admixture, rather than absence. His task would involve not just innovation, or ex nihilo oracular pronouncements upon lost doctrines, but the salvaging, collecting, and assimilating of much that was mislaid, obscured, or neglected. Space does not permit of elaborating one crucial caveat to this position: Like Fraser, Smith believed that apostasy did involve corruption beyond remedy of certain ordinances and covenants; and only heavenly transmission of authority could recuperate those essentials.[26]

To emphasize and contextualize his point, Dr. Givens referred to the allegory of the “woman in the wilderness” in Revelation and its interpretation by Joseph Smith’s contemporaries and writers that he may have been familiar with. Alexander Fraser, Joseph Milner, and a local newspaper all cited the idea that “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God . . . where she is nourished for a time.” To them, this was an indication that the church of God remained on the earth in the form of righteous servants of Christ while the outward institutional church disappeared. In other words, the corruption or apostasy drove the “true church of Christ” into the wilderness (rather than banishing it from the earth), rendering it “invisible, protected, nourished, and preserved—while it awaits the restoration of properly administered ordinances or sacraments.” Givens then pointed to a number of times where Joseph Smith used the terminology of brining the “church out of the wilderness” or other similar phrases to indicate that Joseph Smith believed in the same idea as those writers and felt that it was his work to gradually bring the church out of the wilderness into an institutional form by the “salvaging, collecting, and assimilating of much that was mislaid, obscured, or neglected. This would include doctrines, practices, sacraments, rituals, even blueprints for brick and mortar Zions, and temples with baptisteries modeled on Solomon’s temple with its brazen sea.”[27]

Philip L. Barlow Image courtesy Wikipedia

Philip L. Barlow
Image courtesy Wikipedia

The other scholarly model that I wish to bring up is Dr. Philip L. Barlow’s vision of Joseph Smith project as an effort to mend a fractured reality. This idea is most readily accessed in an essay entitled “To Mend a Fractured Reality: Joseph Smith’s Project,” published in the Journal of Mormon History Summer 2012 issue and in the 2013 preface to the book Mormons and the Bible. In Dr. Barlow’s eyes, Joseph Smith saw his project as something larger than an attempt to restore the primitive Christian church or the kingdom of Israel or merely restoring correct doctrine, spiritual gifts, ancient authority, etc. Rather, it was an attempt to restore wholeness to a fractured reality by restoring proper relations and order in time and eternity. Families, religion, social order, and language were all aspects of the fractured and broken relationships that were addressed by Joseph Smith. In order to do this he “sought to bring back the lost, to complete the partial, and to repair the broken.”[28]

Those three components of the process of restoration provide a framework for understanding how Joseph Smith approached the Restoration. In keeping with the traditional Mormon approach to the Restoration, bringing back the lost covers the idea of bringing back that which once existed, historically, and was lost by accident or design over the course of time. The repair of the broken covers “not to that which has been lost and brought back but to that which is broken and begs restoration to its perfect state,”[29] essentially those things that could be found in the Prophet’s environment that were assimilated into Mormonism. The completion of the partial has reference to “that which is neither lost nor broken, but absent—previously withheld and never before revealed. . . . This third aspect is made clear by the prophetic references to intelligence, knowledge, or ordinances kept hidden ‘from before the foundation of the world,’” such as parts of the Nauvoo temple rituals.[30] Thus, the Prophet’s mode of operation according to this approach was to use things lost over time, broken or incomplete fragments from his environment, and aspects of the pure religion never before revealed on this earth to fashion something new in the form of Mormonism.

These are three ways to understand the Restoration in new light and thought. Granted, some of them may be contrary to what has been understood in the past, even by prophets such as Ezra Taft Benson. I believe, however, that they still have great value and importance in understanding our history and theology as we gain access to more and more information in the 21st century.

Possible photo of Joseph Smith.

Possible photo of Joseph Smith.

[1] Boice, Trina (2014-11-09). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Kindle Locations 821-827). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Boice, Trina (2014-11-09). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Kindle Locations 827-830). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[3] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Joseph the Seer,” Ensign, May 1977. Web: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1977/05/joseph-the-seer?lang=sqi&clang=eng

[4] Hinckley, “Joseph the Seer.”

[5] George Albert Smith, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011), 34.

[6] Neal A. Maxwell, The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, ed. Cory H. Maxwell (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 181.

[7] Maxwell, Quote Book, 181.

[8] Wilford Woodruff, Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 36.

[9] B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vol. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1903-1908), 1:219-220.

[10] B. H. Roberts, Joseph Smith the Prophet Teacher: A Discourse by Elder B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1908), 62.

[11] D. Todd Christofferson, “The Prophet Joseph Smith,” BYUI devotional, 24 September 2013. Web: http://www2.byui.edu/Presentations/Transcripts/Devotionals/2013_9_24_Christofferson.htm

[12] Hinckley, “Joseph the Seer.”

[13] Cited in Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 495.

[14] Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 4.

[15] Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. “Knowing Brother Joseph”— Logan Institute of Religion Annual Joseph Smith Memorial Devotional Utah State University Spectrum, January 29, 2012, 7:00 p.m

[16] Joseph Smith, 21 May 1843 Discourse. Cited in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4018-4022). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[17] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: __, 2005), 185.

[18] Joseph Smith, Teachings, 522.

[19] Joseph Smith, Teachings, 522.

[20] Joseph Smith, 21 May 1843 Discourse. Cited in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4018-4022). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[21] B. H. Roberts, Essential B. H. Roberts, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 208.

[22] Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana, IL and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985): 54.

[23] Jan Shipps, “Joseph Smith,” in Makers of Christian Theology in America, ed. James Duke and Mark Toulouse (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1997), 210-215.

[24] Richard Lyman Bushman, Mormonism a Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 62-63.

[25] Shipps, “Joseph Smith,” 216-217.

[26] Terryl L. Givens, “‘We Have Only the Old Thing’: Rethinking the Mormon Restoration,” in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, ed. Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 338

[27] Terryl L. Givens, “The Woman in the Wilderness: Mormonism, Catholicism, and Inspired Syncretism,” Address at Notre Dame, 5 December 2013, p. 9-12. http://terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/The-Woman-in-the-Wilderness.pdf

[28] Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, updated edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), xxxvi.

[29] Philip L. Barlow, “To Mend a Fractured Reality: Joseph Smith’s Project,” Journal of Mormon History, 38, no. 3, 34.

[30] Barlow, “To Mend,” 34-35.