Somehow we managed to land a big fish in the world of Mormon Studies. We are very excited to have a post from Dr. Gregory Prince. Within the small world of Mormon Studies, Greg Prince is an advocate for a more open approach to our LDS history. If we were to make a short list of people that we would love to (and never thought we would) post on our blog, the following names would be included: Richard Bushman, Claudia Bushman, Greg Prince, Teryl Givens, Jana Riess, Joanna Brooks, Bart Ehrman, D. Michael Quinn, Phillip Barlow, & Leonard Arrington (he’s dead so that would be a little weird). OK, since we are including dead people on the list, we have to include Eugene England, Sterling McMurrin, and Lowell Bennion too.
Greg Prince is best known for his biography on President David O. McKay, entitled: David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Greg’s biography, as well as the two written by Ed Kimball about his father, President Spencer Kimball, are probably the three best biographies about an LDS church president. Another good read is Greg Prince’s first book: Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood.
Greg Prince presently sits on the High Council in his Maryland stake and is on the board of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. The following is a talk he gave last year in a sacrament meeting. It should give us all reason to stop and pause.
Potomac Ward Sacrament Meeting
October 16, 2011
Yesterday, I spoke to a group of 100 Mormons with a variety of prefixes: “Active, Less-active, Inactive, Struggling, Former, Recovering.” Without attempting to do so, I find myself increasingly called upon to work with individuals or groups whose relationship with the Church are strained—and atypical. While some are wild-eyed, most appear to be quite conventional from the outside. Indeed, some sit, or have sat, in positions of leadership that would surprise you. The one thing all of these people have in common is that they are different—different from the mainstream of Mormonism and also different from each other; and their differences often result in their being shunned or even cast out by the mainstream.
The aversion to the different is nothing new. Recall the dilemma that Peter faced when Cornelius the centurion, a gentile, sought baptism. Peter, a Jew, viewed non-Jews as both different and unclean, and definitely not acceptable candidates for baptism into the new Christian faith. As Cornelius approached the home of Peter, Peter fell into a trance and saw a vision of all manner of beasts, some of which were forbidden for human consumption by Jewish dietary laws:
“And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.
But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.
And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.
This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.” (Acts 10:13-15)
It took a while, due to the deeply ingrained aversion to the different, but when Peter met Cornelius he said:
“Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come into one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I could not call any man common or unclean. …
Of a truth I perceived that God is no respecter of persons;
But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10:28, 34-35)
And thus began missionary outreach to the gentiles, who to this day are the dominant force within Christianity.
We are aware of the story of Peter and Cornelius, and yet our ability to generalize that story to today’s church is limited. Often we fall prey to a strong tendency within human nature to embrace same, and repel different.
One of the most impressive and memorable things of our kids’ early school years occurred at Darnestown Elementary School. Every year there was a one-week program called “Celebrating Differences.” It focused on physical and intellectual differences, and it went a long way towards instilling in our kids the healthy empathy that they have towards those who are different—and their empathy goes well beyond those whose differences are seen as disabilities. I wish that the entire Church would spend a week at the school, because instead of celebrating differences, we tend to scorn them and try to erase them. And so, with attribution to Darnestown Elementary School, my sermon today is entitled “Celebrating Differences.”
Nowhere in scripture are differences better understood and celebrated than in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. He wrote first in generalities:
“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all…” (I. Cor. 12:4-6)
Think of those three concepts. Not only are there differences in the gifts found in members within the Church, but there are differences in the way in which members act as administrators, and differences in the operations—think programs—within the Church; and all of this is countenanced by the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God. The message is not “One size fits all.”
Then, Paul writes of the different ways in which people learn of spiritual things:
“For to one is given … the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
to another faith by the same Spirit.” (I Cor. 12:8-9)
Section 46 of the Doctrine and Covenants gives further clarification to this issue:
“To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.
To others it is given to believe on their words.” (D&C 46: 13-14)
In other words, some are able to take the word of others regarding spiritual things, while others must find out for themselves. Therein resides a great divide within the Church, with those who accept without questioning on the one side, and those who question before accepting on the other. I have been in this church for over six decades, and it did not take long for me to recognize these two kinds of people. If there were any lingering early doubts, being a student at the University of California in the 60s erased them in a hurry. What took me far longer to realize is why there were two kinds. For many years I assumed that people chose to approach the world—including the spiritual world—in the way they did. Gradually, I came to understand that they were wired that way. Call it a “gift” or call it a “curse”—and Paul called it the former—but some people easily take it on the word of others that such-and-such a religious tenet is true; while others simply do not have the ability—the “gift”—to do so.
Richard Poll, who at one time taught at BYU, coined terms for these two kinds of people: “Iron Rod Mormons,” who grab onto certitude, often because of the words of others, and never look sideways; and “Liahona Mormons,” whose direction is determined by a complex interaction between themselves and the general direction indicated by the needle. Iron Rod Mormons, particularly in recent decades, are by far the more numerous, and church manuals, magazines and sermons generally focus on their way of acquiring spiritual knowledge. After all, the majority rules. (click here to read Richard Poll’s essay)
But what about the minority, those who are wired to question what others accept uncritically? They travel the more difficult road, particularly when they are young and impressionable. Well-meaning family members, peers and church leaders often misinterpret their questioning as disloyalty. Elder Paul Dunn, whom I interviewed extensively during the last three years of his life, put this in the context of his own family members:
“Somewhere in our whole education and Church system, we have got to train people with this kind of an attitude about when the Prophet speaks: ‘I hear you. It sounds logical and good. But I have to know for myself, and not because you told me.’ … We have reached a point where if you question, you are not loyal. And that scares me half to death. I’m trying to train my kids and my grandkids that it is not wrong to question. But you have to be honest and consistent in what you question, and be sure that you don’t just question to question. But you go into it as they have as to why that counsel came the way it did. That, we have not done.” (Interview, January 11, 1997)
When we create a climate that discourages honest questioning, even if it only involves a small minority of our members, the result is frequently disastrous and permanent. One such casualty was a missionary of Elder Dunn:
“This one missionary I had was about as sharp as you’ll ever get, I mean one bright boy—he goes to the Bishop, and do you know the answer he gets when he asks a question? ‘Don’t worry about that. Just pray about it.’ Well, you don’t say that to this missionary. So he falls prey to one of these dissident characters who says, ‘I’ll help you.’ And all he wanted was some intellectual stimulation, which the ward wouldn’t provide. We’re not doing that very well.” (Interview, January 11, 1997)
Others who attempt to help those who question are, themselves, often viewed as suspect and even dangerous, as are the things they write and publish. The oldest such publication, founded in 1966 by students at Stanford—including Brent Rushforth—is Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. By way of full disclosure, I have been a reader since its founding, a volunteer staffer beginning three decades ago, and a member of its board of directors for the past dozen years.
Shortly after its founding, it was the subject of a passionate discussion within a meeting of the Board of Trustees of BYU—a group that included Ernest Wilkinson, the BYU President; several apostles; and President David O. McKay. One who was in attendance at the meetings said:
“One of the items on the agenda that Wilkinson brought up was, ‘Brethren, I’m concerned about our Church teachers writing articles for Dialogue.’ That didn’t sit too well with some of the Brethren, and [one of them] jumps in and says, in words to this effect, ‘Well, that book, Dialogue, has no value in the world. In fact, if I had my way, I would burn the book,’ just like that. … Well, President McKay sits up and says, ‘Brethren, in this Church we do not burn books.’ … Then he turned to Ernest Wilkinson and said, ‘Next item.’” (Paul Dunn interview, February 18, 1995)
My point is not to pitch for Dialogue, in spite of the fact that there is only one subscriber for every 10,000 church members. Instead, it is to demonstrate that it and other similar publications are able to reach some church members who are not reached through other media. Indeed, it is a spiritual-life-support-system for many—and if we take the Lord’s admonition that every soul is valuable and should be saved, we must employ any means that work. In a recent conversation with a General Authority, I said, “I could give you a list of hundreds of church members who have stayed in because of these publications, but I suspect you cannot give me a list of three members who have left because of them.” He agreed, saying, “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
While the majority of church members may think and believe one way, there is no requirement that all do so; and, in fact, diversity of thought, even regarding gospel issues beyond a very few core beliefs, strengthens the Church. One who knew this better than most was David O. McKay. In the second year of his presidency, when he heard that the nephew of his former mission president was being singled out for his unorthodox views, he called the man and arranged to meet with him. That man recounted:
“He was very pleasant, but very, very much concerned. We sat down on the window side in two easy chairs, which were turned towards each other. He immediately took out of his pocket the document that I had written for Adam S. Bennion, and he started the conversation by saying, ‘I would like to know just what it is that a man must be required to believe to be a member of this Church. Or, what it is that he is not permitted to believe, and remain a member of this Church. I would like to know just what that is. Is it evolution? I hope not, because I believe in evolution.’ Now this is something that he just threw in on his own. There were no references to evolution, or as a matter of fact to any other ideas or beliefs, in the statement that I had written, and which he had in his hand. He said, ‘I hope not, because I believe in evolution.’ And then, he went on from there on a number of things, raising the question, ‘Does a man have to believe this? I hope not, because I don’t believe it. Or is he not permitted to believe this? I hope not, because I do believe it.’” (Sterling McMurrin account of meeting with David O. McKay in 1953, from a tape transcribed by G.A.P.)
Over the next two decades, President McKay occasionally referred to this man, Sterling McMurrin, and others like him. One General Authority said, “President McKay would say, and two or three times I heard him say privately, and once or twice publicly in meetings where I sat, that ‘if you would have to take action on that kind of a person thinking that way, you’d better take action on me, too.’” (Paul Dunn interview, October 6, 1996)
Although the common reaction to the different is disdain or even open opposition, the message of the Savior was quite the contrary. You recall the Parable of the Lost Sheep, where the Good Shepard leaves 99 sheep “in the wilderness”—that is, at risk—in order to rescue the one sheep that was different, that had strayed from the fold. What you may not recall is the setting that led to Jesus teaching the parable:
“Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
And he spake this parable unto them.” (Lk. 14:1-3)
Do you see the point? The Pharisees and scribes apparently preferred a church devoid of those who were different—in this case, the sinners—and yet these were the very people with whom Jesus mingled; the same he would have gone to fetch and bring back into the fold, even though it meant leaving 99 others in the process. Elder Dunn commented to me, “Can you show me anywhere in the scriptures, modern or ancient, where the Lord is casting people out? He came to lift and to help, not to sever.” (Interview, October 6, 1995)
The message of the Savior, and my plea to all, is not just to tolerate those who are different, but to help them on their own spiritual journeys, regardless of the roads on which those journeys occur. If some must doubt before they can believe, so be it—and let us help them address their doubts.
We hear little about George Albert Smith, who presided over the Church from 1945 to 1951. Shortly after he became president, he received a disturbing letter from a non-Mormon, who was appalled to learn that there were those in the Church, some of whom sat at high levels, who did not want members to question. President Smith responded to him:
“Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his ownsalvation, and is personally responsible to his maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject his teachings.” (George Albert Smith to Dr. J. Raymond Cope, December 7, 1945; George Albert Smith Papers, University of Utah Library, MS 36 Box 70 Folder 5, two letters.)
Do you see the point? The natural tendency of many people to desire conformity works against the will of God, who intentionally made us different from each other for a very wise purpose: an organization made up of diversity is better than one made up of uniformity, even if the diversity occasionally makes someone or some group uncomfortable. I return to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:
“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.” (I Cor. 12:12)
Fair enough for a starter: there is one body, one church. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul restated the same message: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” That said, the people who worship that one Lord, who hold to that one faith, who submit to that one baptism are quite different from each other. To make that point, Paul likened the church to a body, and the people to parts of that body:
“For the body is not one member, but many.
If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?
But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
And if they were all one member, where were the body?
But now are they many members, yet but one body.
And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:
and those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.” (I. Cor. 12:13-23)
Let me repeat that last verse for emphasis: “Those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.”
Think of that if you feel that those who question are “uncomely,” then remember the story of Thomas, who would not take the word of others that Jesus had been resurrected. Many call him “Doubting Thomas,” and yet the story in the Gospel of John does not use that adjective. Consider two things about the story: First, Thomas was no different than the others in the Twelve, all of whom believed because they had already seen the resurrected Jesus. And second, Thomas was not chastised by Jesus for having been “wired” to believe only upon seeing. Rather, Jesus also commended those who, being wired differently—or, in the teaching of Paul, had received a different spiritual gift—believed without seeing.
I have referred to Elder Paul Dunn who, in many ways, was different. And yet, his differences went a long way towards the extraordinary and lasting influence that he had on the youth of this church. If you doubt that, consider that I interviewed several people who had been students of his in seminary classes a half-century earlier, and I was astounded to hear them speak, in some detail, of the lessons he had taught them. In our first interview he told me of an incident that occurred at the time he was called as a General Authority. It involved Richard L. Evans, a beloved apostle who for decades was the voice of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:
“[Richard] was everything you’d ever hope for. He was not a disappointment when I got here. He was just great. I think I told you what he did to me that first conference. He walked in my office and closed the door. I thought, ‘Oh, dear, what’s this?’ He said, ‘I listened very carefully to your talk yesterday. You’re different, but don’t change. You’re going to find around here that they’ll try to get you to conform, but just remember the Lord got you here.’ Coming from a guy like that, that gave me understanding and a little bit of courage I might not have had otherwise. And I later learned that he had been in that battlefield for so long, that I really appreciated the wisdom of that moment. Not wordy, not lengthy, just ‘You’re different, don’t change.’” (Interview, June 2, 1995)
The most successful advertising campaign in the history of the United States Army employed a simple phrase: “Be all that you can be.” That’s good advice for all of us: not only to be all that we can be, given the gifts and differences that God has given us; but also to help others to become all that they can be. If we do that, we will be better people and a better church.
Podcasts with Gregory Prince: