By Kenny Kemp
Kenny Kemp is an attorney and author whose latest book, Flying with the Flak Pak, tracks his father’s adventures as a bomber pilot in WWII. He can be reached via his website at: www.kennykemp.com.
I have finally found a way to live
Just like I never could before.
I know that I don’t have much to give
But I can open any door.
Everybody knows the secret
Everybody knows the score.
I have finally found a way to live
In the presence of the Lord.
“In the Presence of the Lord”
There is a gulf between mortals and God. While God is known through the whisperings of the Spirit, mortality is perceived through the physical senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. And because our spirits are currently constrained inside mortal bodies, these physical senses can overpower the more subtle testimony of the Spirit.
We mourn the gulf and desire unity with the Infinite. And as we seek a bridge, we realize how tenuous that link can be. Feelings, hopes, dreams, and even waking visions seem to pale in comparison with the five senses. Like the child who discovers that Santa is not real, we wonder if our spiritual sense has likewise deceived us. Is God merely wishful thinking as we stare into the abyss? Are we really alone in our hearts, our relationships, the world, or the universe?
Because we doubt our own spiritual promptings, we seek out those who claim to have experienced God in a way susceptible to mortal senses. I call these people “witnesses,” as they often term themselves.
The Bible is replete with accounts of witnesses’ experiences with the Divine. Adam speaks with God in the Garden of Eden.1 Joseph Smith asserts that God appeared to the first eight generations of mortal men at Adam-ondi-Ahman shortly before Adam’s death.2 Methuselah’s grandson Noah is said to have “walked with God.”3 Ten generations following Noah, Abraham says he “talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh to another.”4 God is said to have appeared to Abraham’s son Isaac,5 and Isaac’s son Jacob settled his family at a place he named Beth-el, “because there God appeared unto him.”6 Many years down the line, Moses claims God appeared to him, saying, “Go, gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them . . . I have surely visited you . . .”7 From Mohammed to Joseph Smith to current LDS church leaders, many nonbiblical persons have also asserted their witness status.
In these unwitnessed encounters, the witness obtains a sure knowledge of God and is often shown God’s plan for mankind.8 God then commands the witness to advance His will in the world, from receiving commandments to freeing enslaved peoples to establishing a religion.
But there is confusion as witnesses contradict each other, describing God’s physical appearance as everything from a burning bush9 to a spirit10 to a glorified man.11 They wax eloquent about God’s mercy,12 love,13 perfection,14 and unchanging nature,15 but also describe Him as wrathful,16 jealous,17 foolish,18 and unforgiving.19
What are we to make of these contradictions? Is God like the elephant in the Indian legend,20 only discernible “through a glass, darkly”?21 Is it even possible to ascertain God’s true nature from witness accounts?
Perhaps the best way to gauge the truth is to examine the witness himself: if he really stood in the presence of the Lord, he would be changed, and not just physically.22
In Joseph Smith’s version, after meeting God, Moses says to himself: “Now for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I had never supposed.”23 This dawning awareness of the incredible gulf (not only of physical distance but of type) between mortals and Deity should result in an abiding humility in a true witness. This begs the question: since we are all nothing, each and every one of us, wouldn’t God treat everyone the same? The answer of course is yes, as explained by Nephi, another self-proclaimed witness:24 “[F]or he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”25
Moses and Nephi demonstrate two major effects on a witness who has been in the presence of the Lord: (1) he will be humble, and (2) he will know that God is no respecter of persons.26
Applying the Standard
Unfortunately, witnesses seem to forget what they have learned the moment they leave the Lord’s presence. As an example, we will focus upon Moses, who has been called the greatest witness who ever lived.27
Shortly after the escape from Egypt, Moses returns from a conclave with God with the news that God has chosen Israel as “a peculiar treasure above all people.”28 Moses also asserts that God condones slavery,29 selling daughters into marriage,30 polygyny,31 and slave killing.32 He then sows division among Israel by choosing only Levites for the priest’s office, adorning them in fine raiment.33
The table is thus set for strife and bloodshed, and when Israel approaches the borders of Canaan, all hell breaks loose: Moses, revealing what he says is God’s will, orders all Midianite males killed, their wives and children taken captive, their cities burned, and their possessions taken as spoil.34 Once this is done, the army is then ordered to kill every male child and married woman among the captives, but female virgins may be taken alive as sexual trophies.35 Finally, Moses tells Israel that God commands them to “drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you . . . for I have given you the land to possess it,”36 and that “when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them.”37
Moses makes himself judge of Israel;38 claims if anyone besides him sees God he will perish;39 that he can atone for Israel’s sins;40 that he is responsible for turning away God’s wrath;41 and that it was he, not God, who brought forth water from the rock.42
Mormons believe the Old Testament God Jehovah is Jesus, who at that time was still “training” to be God, thus His emphasis of justice over mercy, which is effectively reversed in the New Testament, arguably because the more experienced Elohim (God the Father) took over while Jehovah was in mortality. Yet Moroni says, “God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.”43 One would think this impartiality and unchangeability is all the more important when God (whomever fills that post) deals with short-sighted and foolish mankind; children, as any parent will tell you, need stability.
Which is it, then? Is God the unforgiving being that struck Uzzah dead for trying to prevent the fall of the Ark of the Covenant,44 or is He, as John said, love personified?45
The Spirit whispers to me that God is indeed love and anything contradicting that is, by definition, false. In other words, great swaths of ancient scripture are simply untrue.
So, if God is love, how do we reconcile Moses’ actions?
Perhaps God’s love is unintelligible to mortals and He actually would drown every living thing on earth in the flood—including innocent children. But “my ways are not your ways”46 excuses my lack of belief because if God’s ways are so inscrutable that I cannot understand His definition of such a crucial concept as “love,” then He cannot fault me for not being loving.
Perhaps Moses was mistaken about God and when he came down from the mountain, he told the Israelites what he thought God wanted them to do.
Or perhaps Moses never was in the presence of the Lord at all.
So, if God is love, Moses was either mistaken or he lied. In either case, he is a false witness.
A Modern Witness
Millions of members of the Church accept Joseph Smith as a witness who claimed to have been in the presence of the Lord47 and to have received instruction.48 And yet Smith bragged he knew more “than all the world put together”49 and never taught anything that was wrong, nor was he ever confounded,50 crowing, “[T]here is no error in the revelations which I have taught.”51 To say the least, humility was not one of Smith’s strong suits.
Nor is an understanding that all are alike unto God. In 1843, Smith claimed a revelation on polygyny, wherein, because Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon had multiple wives and concubines, it is just—indeed, mandatory—that Smith do the same.52 Doing so is not adultery, because he “cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him.”53 The use of the impersonal pronoun “that” indicates that women, like slaves, are chattel.
Compounding the bigotry, Smith said that people with black skin come into the world as slaves, mentally and physically; that anti-miscegenation laws are just;54 that the freeing of slaves might result in the rape of white women; that the Bible itself condones slavery of the black race; and that slavery was the “design of the Almighty.”55
Thus, notwithstanding his many remarkable achievements and keen insights, Joseph Smith’s lack of humility and bigotry disqualify him as a true witness.
Those who succeeded Joseph Smith as “prophets, seers, and revelators” have largely echoed his views; indeed, polygyny, though not sanctioned by the Church since 1890, has never been repudiated as Church doctrine. In practice, this means that men may still be sealed to multiple wives but women may not be sealed to multiple husbands.
In 1974, then-current Church president Spencer Kimball dodged responsibility regarding the Church’s refusal to ordain blacks to the priesthood: “[T]his is not my policy or the Church’s policy. It is the policy of the Lord who has established it.”56 He admitted his bigotry, saying, “I had a great deal to fight . . . myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.”57
Nevertheless, over time, realization that the policy was wrong came to Kimball with swelling certainty,58 culminating in a revelation that he called “the most earthshaking thing that has happened in my lifetime.”59 For most Mormons, Kimball’s course reversal is proof positive of his prophetic calling, but instead of coming at the Restoration 150 years earlier, or at least at the height of the civil rights movement fifteen years previous, the change only came as Church growth was surging in Brazil, where a temple was being built that would otherwise stand empty, denying entry to thousands of local members of black African descent.60
God’s love for all mankind was made clear to me on my mission two years before the revelation. My companion and I were teaching a man who had what missionaries callously referred to as “black blood.” His kinky hair and dark complexion marked his heredity. Even before we reached the “difficult” latter discussions (chastity, the Word of Wisdom, tithing, and priesthood), this man was already converted. When we told him he would be barred from the priesthood, he said, “I don’t know what I did to offend God, but if you allow me to be baptized, I promise I will never stop repenting.”
Afterwards, on the muddy streets of Manta, Ecuador, I turned to my companion and said, “That man is more righteous than both of us put together. If he can’t have the priesthood, neither should we.” I didn’t need a revelation to know that this was racism, pure and simple. And to quote Joseph Smith, I knew it and I knew God knew it.61
But somehow, since the time of Joseph Smith, hundreds of self-avowed “personal witnesses” of Jesus Christ who served in the Church their entire lives missed this simple truth, even though it was in an oft-quoted verse in the Book of Mormon; even though they presumably prayed daily for God’s guidance; and even though they knew many faithful Church members who had been denied the priesthood. Notwithstanding all these evidences, they did not understand the plain language of 2 Nephi 26:33. How could this be? Were Church leaders from Joseph Smith to Spencer Kimball mistaken or were they liars?
Or were they simply afraid to teach the truth?
The Unwilling Spirit
By definition, a witness knows things the rest of us must accept on faith. Therefore, if Moses or Joseph Smith knew that God is no respecter of persons, why didn’t they teach it?
The excuse most often given is “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”62 Jonah quailed to do God’s bidding and Peter denied Christ. Ample evidence of my own weakness stares at me from the mirror, but then again I do not profess to be a witness. But I do have this:
In the fall of 1975 when I entered the Language Training Mission, I had a difficult time. The Spanish language escaped me; each day we would memorize a line or two from the discussions, but the words were meaningless gibberish to me. Though I had been a good student, I had hit a learning roadblock that would not give.
Part of the reason for this was that I still felt guilty for my pre-mission behavior. I had repented but my heart was still not pure. And as the daily grind of missionary life pressed down upon me, I became depressed, which I saw as further proof of my unworthiness. I couldn’t sleep or keep my mind on my studies. My prayers were empty and faithless. It seemed that it was only a matter of time before my leaders recognized that I didn’t belong there and would send me home.
After six weeks of this torture, I lay in bed one night, long after lights out, staring at my companion’s bunk above me, trying in vain to repeat in my mind the dozen lines we had memorized that day. I couldn’t do it. Finally, sleep took me.
Hours later, I awoke from a dream in which I was a child sitting on the porch step looking down between my bare knees at my black and white tennis shoes. Someone had drawn a hopscotch on the sidewalk using red berries from a bush bordering the porch.
Sandaled feet walked into my field of view. Each foot bore a puncture wound. Hands reached down and lifted me up, hoisting me over a shoulder. His hair was dark and his robe rough in texture. He placed a hand on my back and rocked me gently. The love that emanated from that being was like nothing I had ever felt before. It flowed into me like thick, golden liquid, filling me up. Years later I heard that Melvin Ballard had described his reaction to a similar dream that “the marrow of my bones seemed to melt,” and thought, That’s it! That’s how it felt!
And when I awoke, my pillow was wet with tears. I lay there in the darkness, hearing my companion stir in his bunk, probably dismayed at my crying, but these were tears of joy. As I wiped them away, the words of the memorized discussion lines came into my mind and I repeated them silently, knowing and understanding each word for the first time. I reviewed the previous day’s memorization and then the previous days and weeks and found each and every word and principle was there, seemingly etched in stone in my mind’s eye.
That day in class, for the first time, I understood Spanish and never after had any difficulty with it. I was known on my mission as one of the best Spanish-speakers and often felt words enter my mind that, though unfamiliar to me, were perfectly suited to express an important thought to an investigator.
And when my mission was over, as I descended the air stair at my home airport, I felt that same gift gradually leave me until, when my feet touched the tarmac, I knew it had been taken back.
I share this because, though the dream took place forty years ago, my knowledge of God’s love for me has not been dimmed by time; it is as powerful today as it was then. And if a mere dream can have that kind of staying power, imagine the thunderous power—and authority—that comes from standing in the presence of the Lord. All fear would be cast out and the witness would shout, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”63
But even if I did believe that weak flesh excused a witness from truth-telling, where is his willing spirit? If a man fears proclaiming the truth to non-believers, surely he would willingly share it with his fellow believers. But no, though the Quorum of the Twelve proclaim they are “special witnesses” (which everyone understands is code for having had a personal visitation from Jesus Christ), they nevertheless fail to teach that all are alike unto God, continuing to preach polygyny as a true doctrine, denying the priesthood to women, and engaging in racial bigotry as evidenced by the monolithic racial makeup of their own quorum when there are multitudes of qualified members of all races.
Thus, their lack of humility and failure to teach truth disqualifies them as true witnesses.
The Only Unimpeachable Witness
From Adam to Thomas Monson, it seems no one has had pride and bigotry completely seared out of them and so it is unlikely that any mortal has actually been in the presence of the Lord.
Whom, then shall we follow? Again, consider an episode in the Moses narrative: When two men who missed an important gathering at the tabernacle nevertheless began prophesying according to the Spirit, Joshua jealously asked Moses to forbid them. Moses said, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”64
And at the Passover feast, when Jesus’s allusion to his imminent death alarmed his disciples, he calmed them by saying, “It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you . . . [and] when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth . . .”65
The Spirit of truth alone spans the gulf between mortality and eternity and is promised to all who ask.66 When we have the Spirit—the only true witness—we have no need of intermediaries; we will be led by God himself, which will result in wisdom and understanding,67 the gift of prophecy,68 signs,69 speaking with angels’ tongues,70 and miracles.71
I’m hard pressed to think of much else we mortals need to span the gulf between ourselves and God. If we will only ask with real intent, what we ask will be given us.72 And those who falsely claim to be true witnesses are invited to do as was the minister in the Temple endowment: receive the Gospel and learn another trade.
Everybody knows the secret
Everybody knows the score.
I have finally found a way to live
In the presence of the Lord.
- Gen. 3:9.
- D&C 107:54.
- Gen. 6:9.
- Abr. 3:11.
- Gen. 26:2.
- Gen. 35:7; 48:3.
- Ex. 3:16.
- Mos. 1:7–8; Mos. 6:35–36; Abr. 3:12–13.
- Ex. 3:4.
- John 4:24.
- D&C 130:22.
- Ex. 20:6.
- 1 John 4:16.
- Deut. 32:4.
- Mal. 3:16.
- Num. 14:23.
- Ex. 20:15.
- 1 Cor. 1:25.
- D&C 64:10.
- John Godfrey Saxe, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” The Poems of John Godfrey Saxe (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1881).
- 1 Cor. 13:12.
- D&C 67:11.
- Mos. 1:9-10.
- 1 Ne. 1:19, 3:1, 11:1, 17:7; 2 Ne. 5:5
- 2 Ne. 26:33.
- Rom 2:11; Gal 2:6; Mor. 8:12; D&C 1:35.
- Deut. 34:10.
- Ex. 19:5.
- Ex. 12:2.
- Ex. 21:7–8.
- Ex. 21:10.
- Ex. 21:20–21.
- Ex. 28:1-34; Num. 1:53.
- Num. 31:1–11.
- Num. 31:17–18.
- Num. 33:52–53.
- Deut. 7:2.
- Ex. 18:13.
- Ex. 19:21.
- Ex. 32:30.
- Deut. 9:19–20.
- Num. 11:20.
- Mor. 8:18.
- 2 Sam. 6:1–7.
- 1 John 4:8.
- Isa. 55:8–9.
- JS–H 2:17.
- JS–H 2:19; D&C in its entirety.
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, edited by Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 350.
- Ibid. 368.
- D&C 132:3–4.
- D&C 132:61.
- Teachings, 269.
- Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, 2 April 1846, 7:289–91, as recorded in The Essential Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 86.
- David Mitchell, “President Spencer W. Kimball Ordained Twelfth President of the Church,” Ensign, February 1974, 6.
- Gerry Avant, “President Kimball Says Revelation Was Clear,” Church News, 6 January 1979, 15; R. Scott Lloyd, “Revelation Rewarded Those Who Waited,” Church News, 18 December 1999, 4–5.
- Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (2008), 49.
- Kimball, 71.
- Kimball, 43–44.
- JS–H 1:25.
- Matt. 26:41.
- Rom. 8:31.
- Num. 11:24–29.
- John 16:7, 13.
- Luke 11:9–13; Matt. 7:7.
- Ex. 31:3.
- Num. 11:25.
- Mark 16:17.
- 2 Ne. 31:13.
- Heb. 2:4
- Mor. 10:4.