By Gregory A. Prince
Gregory A. Prince is the author of Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History (University of Utah, 2016), David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (University of Utah, 2005), and Power from on High: The Development of the Mormon Priesthood (Signature, 1995).
For two years, I worked behind the scenes with producer Helen Whitney while she made the 4-hour PBS documentary The Mormons. As her work was wrapping up, she said to me, “I have interviewed hundreds of Mormons for this documentary. You have a good religion, but you need to own it. Most of its members are borrowing it.” The statement jolted me, but upon further reflection, I realized it was true. Whether lifers or converts, most Latter-day Saints treat church membership as something like an admission letter to a university—except as an end in itself. But admission to a university isn’t a degree; and a degree isn’t a successful career. The acceptance letter enables those possibilities but they must be earned. To own Mormonism, you must own its history, own its doctrine, own its reality, and own personal responsibility.
Owning the History
Owning the history means, first of all, coming to terms with Joseph Smith. He often gets a free pass as a flawless man who founded a flawless religion, but in fact, he was quite human, just like the rest of us, and was as susceptible to the corrupting influence of power as we are—perhaps even more so, given his access to absolute power within the kingdom he founded. His foray into polygamy, for example, caused endless heartache for his wife Emma, and instigated challenges that persist to this day for the Church.
By democratizing data, the Internet has given easy—and often unwelcome—access to Smith’s foibles, and the response of many Church members who never bothered to study him deeply has been to denounce him and the church he founded, and then walk away. But I believe that is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Consider what Brigham Young, in a moment of unusual candor, had to say about the very human Joseph Smith:
I recollect a conversation I had with a priest who was an old friend of ours, before I was personally acquainted with the Prophet Joseph. I clipped every argument he advanced, until at last he came out and began to rail against ‘Joe Smith,’ saying ‘that he was a mean man, a liar, money-digger, gambler, and a whore master;’ and he charged him with everything bad, that he could find language to utter. I said, ‘Hold on, Brother Gillmore, here is the doctrine, here is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the revelations that have come through Joseph Smith the Prophet. I have never seen him, and do not know his private character. The doctrine he teaches is all I know about the matter, bring anything against that if you can. As to anything else I do not care. If he acts like a devil, he has brought forth a doctrine that will save us, if we will abide it. He may get drunk every day of his life, sleep with his neighbor’s wife every night, run horses and gamble. I do not care anything about that, for I never embrace any man in my faith. But the doctrine he has produced will save you and me, and the whole world, and if you can find fault with that, find it.’1
Brigham Young’s argument (and I agree with him) is that the message supersedes the messenger. Let’s look into how that message was created.
The role played by the founder of a religious tradition comes in two parts. First, he (or she) must have some kind of encounter with the Infinite. In the case of Joseph Smith, this encounter was not a single visionary event, but a process—punctuated by visionary events—that persisted throughout his ministry.
The second part of the role, perhaps more difficult, is to make that vision available to a community of believers—to help them gain their own direct access to the Infinite. But how do you capture the Infinite for your followers? Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, shared some insight on that subject with me when I interviewed him several years ago. “We suddenly, through the grace of God, realize a profoundly important truth, and we try to put it into words,” he said. “The words are helpful, but ultimately inadequate.… [The Infinite] is translated into human language, which will always be flawed and always be finite. Any attempt to capture the infinite in finite words is going to be less than perfect.”
Much of Joseph Smith’s genius was his ability to create symbols, both visual and verbal, that gave his followers access to what he had experienced. Those symbols were imperfect then, and perhaps they no longer carry the impact that they did nearly two centuries ago (which speaks to the heavy responsibility that current Church leaders have to update or replace tired symbols), but they still have great value.
Let’s examine the most enduring and influential of the symbols he produced: The Book of Mormon. If you allow data, rather than dogma, to speak, you will find many things that make problematic the traditional story of The Book of Mormon being a literal translation of an ancient history and the most perfect book in the world.
- Despite the insistence of apologists for well over a century that archaeological ruins throughout Central and South America bear material witness to the book’s historicity, closer examination has shown just the opposite. Michael Coe, a Yale University professor widely considered one of the world’s experts on Mesoamerica, has gone on the record repeatedly to say that not a single archeological find supports the claim that The Book of Mormon is an ancient history.
- Linguistic studies long ago concluded that the diversity of indigenous New World languages could not have arisen from a single root language within the timeframe of The Book of Mormon, nor could all traces of Hebrew—which, given the book’s assertion that Laban’s “plates of brass” remained comprehensible to the Nephites only 1,400 years before Joseph Smith’s time—have disappeared in the same time period.
- DNA sequencing, which has allowed impressive mapping of the origins and timing of human migration since the first humans ventured out of Africa, provides no support for a Middle Eastern origin of indigenous New World populations—and complete support for an Eastern Asian origin.
- Anachronisms within the book are abundant:
- It contains post-Exilic passages from Isaiah, a book within the Hebrew Bible that was written over several centuries, including centuries anteceding the crucial Book of Mormon date of 600 B.C.E.
- It expounds a conception of the Atonement that was not formulated until many centuries after the purported fall of the Nephite civilization.
- It quotes extensively from the King James Version of the Bible, which was not published until 1611, and carries over translation errors later found in that version.
- It is often preoccupied with religious issues pervasive within Western New York State in the 1820s, including an entire chapter on infant baptism that stands isolated from the rest of the book but is coincident with the death at birth of Joseph’s firstborn child and the proclamation by a local minister that the infant would be damned for not having been baptized. The first published commentary on The Book of Mormon, written in 1831 by Alexander Campbell, notes, “Before Nephi died, which was about fifty-five years from the flight of Lehi from Jerusalem, he had preached to his people everything which is now preached in the state of New York.… [Joseph Smith] is better skilled in the controversies in New York than in the geography or history of Judea.”
I could give other examples, but I think you get the point.
Two questions arise from this overview. Given its numerous difficulties, how can we constructively define The Book of Mormon? And where might its value lay?
The best answer I have heard to the first question was given to me by Denise Hopkins, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Wesley Theological Seminary. In preparing to teach our study group for an entire year, she read The Book of Mormon and said, “It is a book-length midrash on the King James Bible.” Midrash is the longstanding Jewish tradition of scholars reading the Hebrew Bible and, under inspiration, writing commentaries on it, the most famous being the Talmud.
I’ve come up with an answer to the second question by gathering answers to three questions I often ask of Church members—particularly converts. First, “Did you read The Book of Mormon from cover to cover?” Almost invariably, the answer is something like, “No. Parts of it were pretty boring, and I lost interest.” Second, “What do you remember of what you read?” “Not much, except that there were a lot of wars.” And finally, “What did you experience as you read it?” Here, the floodgates open, and stories of personal conversion emerge. And therein lies the timeless value of the book: what it does transcends what it is. No other aspect of Mormonism has brought more people “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” This is an important instance of the message superseding the messenger. The Book of Mormon may not be what it says it is, but it does what it says it does—which is much more important.
Let’s approach the Church’s history the same way, following the data rather than the dogma. Again, we find aspects that are problematic, and which were made more so because of a conscious decision Church leaders made decades ago to present members with a highly sanitized account of history that bypassed, without comment, many “inconvenient truths.” By so doing, they made countless Church members vulnerable to those truths once they began to circulate on the Internet. Here are a few examples:
- Joseph Smith changed in material ways his accounts of the First Vision. In the earliest, his reason for praying was to obtain forgiveness of his sins, and not to find which church was true, for he had already come to the conclusion, from his reading of the Bible, that all were wrong. Only one heavenly being appeared, and there was not a hint of persecution. Compare that version to the canonized 1838 account, which contains more words describing persecution than the vision. What we see here is the process by which a historical account became theological—something that also happened to the “Christological” New Testament narratives.
- Joseph Smith plagiarized Freemasonry to formulate the Nauvoo temple endowment ceremony—which bore little resemblance to its Kirtland predecessor and was driven in part by concerns for his own life in the aftermath of John C. Bennett’s betrayal. Not until the early 20th century did Church authorities, sensitive to plagiarism as well as to Masonic lore’s increasing irrelevance, revisit the ceremony and systematically prune most of Freemasonry from it. But for more than a century, the power of Masonic symbolism showed through the endowment—which was why Smith borrowed from it so abundantly.
- Mormons were responsible for—not just participants in—the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which until the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in the late 20th century was the most horrendous episode of white-on-white mass murder in the nation’s history.
- After an initial period in which African-American men were ordained to the LDS priesthood, the Church descended into a racist posture and denied them ordination for well over a century before reversing the policy, never acknowledging that the very concept of race is artificial.
Without further belaboring the problems of our history, let me just say that if it happened, we need to own it, whether or not we condone it. Joseph Smith’s definition of truth is hard to beat: knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they will be—but not as we wish they would have been. “Alternative facts” don’t cut it in religion any more than in government. For example, owning the Mountain Meadows Massacre does not mean condoning it; instead, it means acknowledging that religious fervor can spin out of control and cause otherwise honorable people to do unspeakable things. This is a constant threat, and we must ever be vigilant so that it never spills over again. Owning the priesthood/temple ban means acknowledging how easy it is (even for servants of God) to blindly uphold popular prejudices. It means taking rigorous stock of how we might be upholding similar prejudices in our own day.
When you are able to own LDS history and place it in its context, you realize that there is tremendous strength beneath its surface, in spite of all the flaws. You realize that its strength contributes to your own, and that the flaws give you valuable insights into avoiding the pitfalls of being human.
Owning the Doctrine
Owning our history is the first step. Owning our doctrine is the next. To own it, you have to know it, and to know it requires deep and “uphill” reading far beyond the watered-down church curriculum and far beyond what you can Google.
Since the early years of the 20th century, Mormon theology has been dominated by fundamentalism—valuing only a literal interpretation of scripture. Considering the many contradictions in the canon, such an approach requires that we wear multiple sets of blinders (though if everyone is wearing them, it doesn’t seem strange). But the Internet, with its mountains of data, has forced many Latter-day Saints to remove those blinders, and for many—particularly the orthodox—the results have been devastating.
Recall, for example the front-page article of the Sunday New York Times in July 2013 describing the faith crisis of Hans Mattsson. He was a third-generation Swedish Mormon who had earlier served as an Area Seventy, but who nearly left the Church because of a faith crisis brought about by information he read on the Internet—information that was new to him in spite of his high church position.
A few days later, the Times published a letter to the editor from Rabbi Harold Kushner (the man I later interviewed) that offered some advice.
It will be interesting to see how the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deal with the apparent coming to light of facts to cast doubt on the validity of its founding narrative. Might I suggest that they use the tactic used by many modern Jews dealing with biblical narratives that defy credulity, from a six-day story of creation to Jonah living inside a large fish. We distinguish between left-brain narratives (meant to convey factual truth) and right-brain narratives (meant to make a point through a story; the message will be true even if the story isn’t factually defensible).
This is a very good place to start if you seek to own LDS doctrine.
- As you learn to differentiate literal scripture from allegorical scripture, also learn to appreciate the power of myth. It is one of the best means through which we learn truth, even if the stories that make up the myth have not actually occurred. The time and means through which the earth was created are for science to determine; creation myths perform a different function: answering the why of creation. Again quoting Rabbi Kushner:
When we read, ‘King David reigned for forty years in Jerusalem. He died, and his son Solomon succeeded him’—I have no problems with that. I can say, ‘Yes, that’s true.’ When I read that God created the world in six days, alternating between this task and that task, I don’t take that as fact. I take that as suggestive. It’s a story. It doesn’t mean it’s not true—it’s true at a different level. It’s true the way fairy tales are true and the way Shakespeare is true. It captures an essential truth, and the essential truth of Genesis chapter one is not, ‘How long did creation take?’ but ‘What can we learn about this tale of creation?’ We learn that it’s an orderly process. It is a creation that has within itself the seeds of its own creation. It alternates between the celestial world and the earthly world. . . . My answer to somebody who asks, ‘Do you believe the story of the six days of creation is true?’ is ‘Yes, I do; but not from a factual sense.’
- Next, continuing revelation, which is bedrock to Mormonism, means progress—it means new scripture can supersede old scripture. Jesus said that the Law was fulfilled in him, and that he thus brought about a new worldview. And yet, how many religionists, including those of our own tribe, cherry-pick Old Testament passages, in particular, to justify bigotry, injustice, and cruelty today? I have yet to encounter a single significant doctrine within Mormonism that has not undergone change since the earliest days of the Restoration. It is, literally, an article of our faith that we don’t have it all, and that we believe there is much yet for God to reveal. Rather than denying or fighting doctrinal evolution, we should welcome it—and pray for more.
- Finally, learn the difference between “the word of God” and “the words of God.” God is Infinite and beyond our comprehension—“My thoughts are not your thoughts”—and all written formulations that invoke the name of God bear the limitations of the humans through which they imperfectly passed. We are products of our own times, and scriptures written centuries ago by people who reflected then-common wisdom may be outdated in our data-driven world.
Owning the Reality
The third aspect of owning one’s Mormonism is to acknowledge realities within the Church, even if they frustrate or embarrass us.
A few weeks after my biography of David O. McKay was published, I received a phone call from Senator Robert Bennett of Utah. He told me how much he appreciated the candor of the book and then related an experience he’d had three decades earlier with Harold B. Lee, who became Church president two years after McKay’s death. As Bennett and Lee sat together in the Hotel Utah lobby, Lee said, “Bob, how is your brother?” Bob said that his brother had withdrawn from church activity. “Why?” asked Lee. Because, in working on the Correlation Committee, he was close enough to power that he saw some of its abuses. “Oh,” said Lee, “I can think of much better reasons for leaving the Church. Doesn’t he realize that we are just human beings, trying to do our best?”
Too often, and with the best of intentions, we try to reverse-engineer the Church. We adopt the biblical imagery of the Body of Christ as a metaphor for the Church and decide that because Christ was perfect, his church and its leaders must also be perfect. That sets us up for disappointment and disillusionment, because, inevitably, those leaders will turn out to have feet of clay. As, indeed, we all do.
This lesson was driven home for me during the writing of the McKay biography. I brought my scientific mentor, Dr. David Porter, an emeritus professor of pathology from UCLA, to our laboratory each spring to work with our junior scientists. Since he was free in the evenings, I gave him volumes of the McKay diaries to read. After reading several hundred pages he said, “If you change the proper names, this is just corporate politics.” Not what I expected to hear, but he was absolutely right.
At the same time, my secretary was volunteering her spare time to help transcribe 7,000 pages of pertinent passages from the diaries into the computer. A Catholic from Minnesota, Sonja had not known a Mormon until she began to work for me. When she finished the transcription, I asked her what she thought. “David O. McKay is my hero,” she said. Good call, but what else? Her two-word assessment nearly knocked me off my feet: “Power corrupts.”
Anyone who doubts these observations should take another look at one of the most profound of Joseph Smith’s revelations: “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). The message of this verse was driven home to me by Arnold Friberg, one of the great Mormon artists, whose works include iconic paintings of scenes from The Book of Mormon, and, perhaps most famous, his painting of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. I interviewed Arnold two decades ago when I was researching the McKay biography. He began his story by talking about Cecil B. DeMille, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and Arnold’s boss during the making of The Ten Commandments:
To show you what an understanding DeMille had, he had a homing instinct for truth. You didn’t have to prove it. He just knew. He didn’t use our terminology, but he said to me, ‘The thing itself is given to the world through prophets. For a while it’s the real thing, but after a while the priesthood becomes priestcraft. Then they become more interested in their buildings and their powers, and then they’ve lost it, and it has to be given again. It’s given over and over again. It hasn’t happened yet to the Mormon Church because they’re too young, but it will.’ I said that to Reuben Clark [then a counselor in the First Presidency] and he shot back and said, ‘Don’t think it can’t happen, Brother! If it were not for the promise that we will not completely lose it before the Lord comes, I would be very worried about this church.’
So, Reality #1 is that we are all imperfect, but on a good day we reach beyond ourselves and try to make the Church—and the world—better. Imperfections in our leaders should not deflate us; instead, they should reassure us that we are in this together, and there is room on the bench for all.
If Reality #1 anchors imperfect us to an imperfect church, Reality #2 expands beyond it. This is from my interview with Rabbi Kushner:
Prince: I think if we had enough data points we would probably find that most, if not all religious traditions at some point in their maturation process either said, “We are better,” “We are the best,” or, “We are the only.” I think that the ones that I would consider more mature have softened those stances.
Kushner: Yes, due to reality.
Prince: The Mormons, unfortunately, immediately populated the top one and have been very reluctant, or incapable of vacating it.…
Kushner: To say, “Our religion is the best” is like saying, “Our baseball team is the best.” It’s not a statement of fact; it’s a statement of loyalty. . . . I think what we want people to believe is, “This religious system works for me.”
Mormon exceptionalism is nothing new, and it cuts us off from a great source of spiritual nourishment. More than a decade ago, I invited the president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC—the largest Methodist seminary in the country—for a round of golf. My intention was to have a good time, and not to discuss religion. However, at the third tee David said, “So tell me about Mormonism.” For the remaining 16 holes, I complied.
When we finished the round and went to the clubhouse for lunch, David said, “You have a good religion. You should be at the table.” My response was: “David, we have yet to acknowledge that there is a table.” Not long after that, he invited me to be on an advisory board at the seminary. Last year, he proposed that I be elected to the Seminary’s board of governors. I was approved unanimously—the only Mormon ever to serve as a governor of Wesley Seminary. I stand in awe of what I see people from other faith traditions accomplishing, and I have an unremitting sense of urgency to catch up with them. We Latter-day Saints don’t know it all and don’t have it all. A strong dose of humility would do us a lot of good, because Reality #2 is that we are all in this together, and once we drop our defenses and join forces with other faith traditions, we’ll find that there is no limit to the good we can accomplish.
Reality #3 is that institutional religion has only three cards to play, and for Millennials, one of them—truth claims—is off the table. That leaves two: moral authority and community.
People—particularly younger people—want a church that walks the walk, that takes a stand for values, and that tries to make the world better. They don’t want empty talk—and neither do I. There are so many areas in our society that are crying out for the voice of moral authority, and yet those cries go unanswered. Who would not yearn for our church to fill the moral vacuum with not just proclamations, but strong actions that address poverty, disease, climate change, social justice—showing us that character counts, that truth is essential, and that a society that disregards these traits does so at the peril of its very existence? But Mormonism has largely remained on the sidelines, declining to speak out against egregious assaults on these traits at the highest levels of society. It seems that it is up to individual members to own the responsibility of raising their voices to defend morality and move the Church toward a place of moral authority in the public square.
Even if people don’t see the Church embodying moral authority, they may stay if the community is nurturing—the third card. Again, Rabbi Kushner:
An idea that is probably more emphasized in Judaism than in any of the Christian traditions is to minimize the theology and maximize the sense of community. We had a service here on Saturday morning and we had maybe 180 people. I have no idea what they believed. I suspect if you gave them a yes-or-no quiz you would get a very low rate of coherence in believing the same things. But they are loyal and they find kinship. It’s a way of being assured that you are not alone in this frightening cosmos. It’s easier to conjure up the presence of God in the presence of other people who are trying to do the same thing.
I know as well as anyone that it is sometimes difficult to find community at church if the people around you know that cards one and two have turned up blank for you. Can the church be a place where community can flourish despite a “low rate of coherence in believing the same things?” Can it be a place where kinship and loyalty to one another come first? That is up to each individual member.
And, finally, Reality #4 is that science matters. A lot. Where science can speak, one is well advised to “follow the data” (which could be easily put to a well-known Mormon tune). With apologies to Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of science is long, but it bends toward truth. While there are many religious assertions that are beyond the ability of science to illuminate—at least with the instruments we now possess—there are many others that can be profitably examined using its tools and methodologies. Some aspects of religious traditions are coming under the microscope of science (usually without malice, I would argue), and this process undoubtedly makes many religionists uncomfortable—or even panicked—probably because they know that such scrutiny will ultimately force a choice between change and irrelevance. But those traditions that embrace scientific truth will emerge stronger and more relevant to modern society. As DeMille said, “We cannot break the Ten Commandments. We can only break ourselves against them.” Similarly, we cannot break scientific truth. We can only break ourselves against it. “Faced with scientific evidence,” said Rabbi Kushner, “if it’s true, you have to make room for it.”
What does that mean for Mormonism? It means that policies, attitudes, and even doctrines that were based on assumptions unable to withstand scientific scrutiny must be reevaluated—and changed—in response to data. Revelation is a process of receiving “line upon line,” and science is one of those lines—a particularly bold line. Let me give you three examples.
The first is the concept of race. For centuries when white supremacy ruled the Western world (and, unfortunately, still does in too many places), whites considered themselves the master race, while considering people of color, particularly blacks, inferior at best, and cursed by God at worst. In other words, Adam and Eve were “white and delightsome.” But when molecular biology unlocked the door to understanding human origins, it became clear that humankind originated in Africa with black skin, and as migrations to northern latitudes with limited sunshine gave a selective advantage to genetic mutations resulting in less melanin production, fair skin prevailed. In other words, Adam and Eve were black. The “curse of Cain” has no basis in reality; it is a construct of whites to justify domination over people of color. Instead of black skin being a curse, white skin is a mutation. Consider what this could mean if we took the fundamentalist approach of believing that God literally created man (and woman) in his own image. We have work to do to dismantle white supremacist attitudes within the Church, and the 1978 revelation was only the first of several yet-to-be-taken steps.
The second example is The Book of Mormon. Since it presents itself as a history book, it has been defended as such nearly since its publication in 1830. I have already described several data sets, all obtained through scientific methodology, that do not support the book’s claims to ancient origin. From what I can see, the Church is in a transitional phase right now, quietly deemphasizing the ancientness paradigm while gradually emphasizing the metaphor paradigm—that is, The Book of Mormon as authentic scripture written, under inspiration, by Joseph Smith as the means of bringing people to a knowledge of Christ. Perhaps the Church will make a full transition to this metaphorical paradigm without ever having to directly disavow the ancientness paradigm. Only time will tell.
The third area where science is speaking with an increasingly persuasive voice is homosexuality. Generations of Church leaders, reflecting societal consensus, have proclaimed in unambiguous language that homosexuality was merely an unfortunate—and evil—choice people made that could be un-chosen. But scientific investigation has increasingly demonstrated that homosexuality is biologically based: a combination of genetics—the chain of beads of nucleic acids that form DNA— epigenetics—the factors that influence how genes are expressed—and hormones—chemicals produced by the mother that can interact with the developing fetus in varying ways. Homosexuality is not a mistake, it is not anyone’s fault, it is not a choice, and it is not changeable. Punishing someone for such a biological condition makes as much sense as punishing someone for not having genetic mutations resulting in light-colored skin.
Owning the Responsibility
To own Mormonism, you must own its history, own its doctrine, own its reality, and, finally, own personal responsibility. When the United States entered World War II, millions of men and women from walks of life other than military were suddenly pressed into duty. They became known as “citizen soldiers,” and much of the credit for our victory in that war should be given to these smart, willing people who brought whatever skill set they had and used it with courage and creativity. Similarly, since Mormonism does not employ a professional local clergy, all of us—even those not ordained to our lay priesthood—are citizen soldiers in the Army of God. How we perform will have much to do with how—and if—the Church will move forward. Consider this largely forgotten statement from President Spencer W. Kimball made in the April 1979 General Conference. Keep in mind that he made it only ten months after the 1978 revelation on priesthood that changed the Church more than anything else in the 20th century:
Now, my brothers and sisters, it seems clear to me, indeed this impression weighs upon me—that the Church is at a point in its growth and maturity when we are at last ready to move forward in a major way. Some decisions have been made and others pending, which will clear the way, organizationally. But the basic decisions needed for us to move forward, as a people, must be made by the individual members of the Church. The major strides which must be made by the Church will follow up on the major strides to be made by us as individuals.
We have paused on some plateaus long enough. Let us resume our journey forward and upward.… We have been diverted, at times, from fundamentals on which we must now focus in order to move forward as a person or as a people. Seemingly small efforts in the life of each member could do so much to move the Church forward as never before.”3
The Church is the sum of its parts, and if those parts, whether the head or the feet, own the responsibility of “acting well their parts,” (to borrow from the Scottish stone that illuminated President McKay’s 19th-century mission), the Church will move forward. And how do we “act well”?
First, make yourself a player, not a spectator. Become a citizen soldier by developing tools that can be used if and when you are called to the ranks. Read outside your comfort zone, read things that humble you and open your worldview. And then, with love for the people around you and humility for your own shortcomings, nudge the conversation toward higher ground. For example, in the 1950s, Hugh Nibley was asked by President McKay to write the Melchizedek priesthood manual. When he gave the completed manuscript to the reading committee, “they kicked out every lesson in the book. They said it was over peoples’ heads,” Nibley told me during an interview 20 years ago. “And every time, President McKay overruled them. The book is exactly as I wrote it. They wanted to make hundreds of changes and get rid of the whole thing entirely, and President McKay said, ‘No. If it’s beyond their reach, let them reach for it.’”
The mirror image of what McKay called for is, unfortunately, the default position for many in the Church: willful ignorance, and therefore an inability to move the Church—or even a Sunday school conversation—forward. Nels Nelson, a BYU professor in the late 19th century, took such ignorance to task:
The gray-haired Elder in our Sabbath meeting, the young man before the Improvement association, the Seventy before his quorum theological class—all stand up and claim a merit for not being prepared. Their minds, they start in by saying, are utterly vacant. Now, if they would sit down after making this confession, they might count on the pity and perhaps the sympathy of the audience. But alas! It is not so: they go on exhibiting the vacancy. . . . We feel called upon to listen; and the pain we feel is evidently caused by the conflict of our sense of duty and our knowledge: the duty we feel of paying strict attention to one who speaks in the name of the Lord, and our conviction by the first stroke of his tongue that his head is empty. . . . In spite of the thirteenth Article of Faith, many of us are woefully bigoted and narrow-minded. Let us confess this freely, and keep it daily in mind until we shall feel our cramped souls stretch out to the full stature of the image of our Father. We are narrow, not because of, but in spite of, our religion.4
Second, if you want to change the Church, look inward. Many years ago, a friend who was a general authority of what was then the RLDS Church said that they had an ad campaign in the Kansas City area to try to reduce the confusion among people who mistook the LDS for the RLDS. At the end of each TV ad was a voice-over that said, “The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: We’re not who you think we are.” The week after the campaign began, several RLDS employees came to work wearing T-shirts. On the front was the ad slogan, “We’re not who you think we are,” but on the back it said, “We’re not who we think we are.” And it’s true: we all have pretty high opinions of ourselves, and it’s quite easy to see the failings in other people, but we’re still riddled with blind spots, incorrect assumptions, and plain old prejudice. The first place we should look when we want to change something is ourselves. We should work to make the reality match the hype. And then, we should approach our callings, and even our “non-callings,” with energy, excitement, urgency.
Nearly a half-century ago, I attended my first scientific convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Between sessions, I visited a used-book store near my hotel and purchased, for $1, a book that continues to have a profound influence on me. With the ho-hum title of Lectures on Preaching, it was published in 1879 by Phillips Brooks, one of the greatest American clergymen of the 19th century. He wrote,
Preach doctrine, preach all the doctrine that you know, and learn forever more and more; but preach it always, not that men may believe it, but that men may be saved by believing it. . . . It is good to be a Herschel who describes the sun; but it is better to be a Prometheus who brings the sun’s fire to the earth.5
People are starving to hear the prophetic voice. If you are looking inward and being honest about what you see, if you can address your shortcomings and purify yourself little by little, you will see the sun’s fire within you and it will shine out to everyone around you. That much-needed prophetic voice will start to become your own, and you can change the Church from within.
In particular, become a force for exposing and eliminating the rampant abuse of women and children by men in the Church—whether the abuse is physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual. Following a recent lecture, I asked two thirty-something LDS women how many of their female friends experienced abuse in their marriages. One said, “80 to 90%.” The other said, “I know of only one woman who has not experienced abuse.” Sexual abuse of children is particularly disgusting and pervasive. Disclosures over the past several months make it apparent that Mormonism is at high risk of becoming “Spotlight 2.0.” And in exposing and condemning the abuse, call out the culture of abusive patriarchy that has, for decades, covered up and enabled it.
Third, while you change the Church from within, also look outward by sitting at the table with other faith traditions. It’s not difficult to learn and practice good table manners, and as you do, you will find that you’re welcome there. Happily, being at that table does not mean that you will be asked to abandon anything that defines you as LDS. Each tradition at the table has something to teach the others, and if you approach the task with knowledge and humility, others will learn from you—although I assure you that you will learn even more from them.
Fourth, place mystery back where it belongs: at the forefront of organized religion. For over a century, the primary theology pervading the LDS Church has been fundamentalism: scriptural literalism that is certain it can offer concrete answers to any question you can think to ask. This approach is problematic because the scriptures are not always literal or inerrant, indeed, they often contradict themselves, which means many of the answers being offered are bogus. But this fundamentalist approach is most problematic because it pulls us away from the vital essence of religion: the mystery and majesty of God.
A Chabad house is a center for disseminating traditional Judaism on or near college campuses. The first was established at UCLA in 1969—the same year I entered graduate school there. I remember the building, although my provincialism kept me from entering it. Rabbi Kushner talked to me about the mission and method of a Chabad house:
They will invite students to services with a lot of singing and a lot of liquor and a lot of good food, and no ritual or theological demands. Ultimately, they want people to become thoroughly observant and orthodox, but they want to get them in first. What they perceive is that they are looking for community, and they are looking for mystery. They are looking for something that transcends the understandable. I think liberal Judaism has failed this generation because we make sense. We are so insistent on making sense, and they say, ‘I don’t need a religion that makes sense. I get that in college. I want a religion that touches my soul, that sets my soul on fire.’
And finally, never forget why you are doing all of this. Again from Phillips Brooks: “All other interest and satisfaction of the ministry completes itself in this, that year by year the minister sees more deeply how well worthy of infinitely more than he can do for it is the human soul for which he works.”6 That is why religion lived outside a community of faith is the sound of one hand clapping—useful, but incomplete. Our hymn “We Are All Enlisted” rings truer to me with each passing year.
When I was in my 20s I read several books by Saul Bellow, who later won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now that I am in my 70s, many of Bellow’s passages resonate with me in a way that I could not have imagined a half-century ago. I conclude with this one, from Mr. Sammler’s Planet:
Sammler in a mental whisper said, ‘Well, Elya. Well, well, Elya.’ And then in the same way he said, ‘Remember, God, the soul of Elya Gruner, who, as willingly as possible and as well as he was able, and even to an intolerable point, and even in suffocation and even as death was coming, was eager, even childishly perhaps, even with a certain servility, to do what was required of him. At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be. He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet—through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding—he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.’7
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 4:77-78.
- Harold Kushner, “Religion and Doubt,” New York Times, A18, 27 July 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/opinion/religion-and-doubt.html (accessed 6 October 2018).
- Spencer W. Kimball, general conference address, 1 April 1979.
- N. L. Nelson, Preaching and Public Speaking (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing Company, 1898), 6.
- Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1877), 129.
- Brooks, Lectures on Preaching, 281.
- Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (New York: Fawcett, 1971), 285–86.