Note: This is a talk given in my Sacrament Meeting a few weeks ago by one of our High Councilmen that I found very insightful. At my request, the author has agreed to allow us to post his talk on our blog. – Michael Barker
Preparing for General Conference
In a few weeks we will attend, or watch or at least listen to, General Conference. My talk today is on how we can prepare ourselves for that experience.
I want to talk from the heart about something that will at first seem a little strange in relation to General Conference. The world around us is changing. Information that was never easily accessible before is now instantly available if we know how to search the Internet. Major news networks are losing market share to bloggers and others on the Internet, so that we no longer get news just from the “top-down.” Similarly, the church’s message is no longer always from the top-down. The Internet has now made it possible for anyone to get news of the church from many different sources, some friendly to the church and some not. As people look up church topics on the Internet, they are likely to find information they never knew existed. Some of this information is comforting and faith promoting, and some of it is not. Critics of the church are as savvy as church members to get good Google rankings.
I firmly believe that the truth is our friend in all instances. When Sixty Minutes correspondent Andy Rooney retired several years ago, he said in his concluding broadcast that if “everyone knew the truth about everything, the world would be a better place.” I totally agree. The truth can never hurt us individually. Jesus said, “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) Truth simply is “knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come.” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:24)
If we are always seeking the truth, the Internet can be a great resource; but if we are insecure, the Internet may threaten many of our long held assumptions. As we now move into this new part of the information age – when there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and the truth shall be spoken from the housetops – I believe that we must get real about some things. One of those things is that no one – I repeat no one – is perfect. Not ancient apostles, not early church leaders, not bishops or stake presidents, not even general authorities (who, by the way, I believe would be the first to admit that.) Unfortunately, in the church we have become so adoring of authorities (past and present) that we project upon them a perfection that they have not claimed for themselves, and which as we search the Internet we will certainly find they don’t have.
I will return to this problem of “projected perfection” in a few moments, but I want to note in passing that I love to read biographies. I’ve read many hundreds of full-length biographies, beginning in high school when I read of the first Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin. Night after night, after completing my high school studies at my small desk in my upstairs bedroom, I would hop into bed and read from that thick biography, and be inspired by what I was learning. Even though I could disagree with everything about Communism, I had to admire the intellectual gifts of the man who transformed an entire nation, and later much of the world, into his world view. In later years I read about sixteen biographies of Abraham Lincoln, half a dozen of Winston Churchill, and dozens of biographies of US presidents, military leaders, and world-changers. I usually have several books that I am reading through at the same time. I cannot imagine a world without books.
Recently I finished the biography of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer – a remarkable genius who revolutionized at least five major world industries: personal computers, music (iTunes), books (e-books), animated films (Pixar), and telephones (the iPhone). In the end, Jobs made Apple the most valuable company in the world. Knowing that he was dying, Jobs asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography. Though at first reluctant, Isaacson met with Jobs and explained that his journalism standards would require him to interview hundreds of people and to read thousands of documents, and from what he had heard of Jobs, not all people and not all documents would describe Jobs in flattering terms. Jobs said that was okay, and encouraged Isaacson to adhere to absolute truth, adding that he (Jobs) would probably never read the book. After Jobs died, his wife Lauren also encouraged – even demanded – that Isaacson tell the whole truth. She loved Jobs, but knew that just because he was a genius in parts of his life, that did not make him a genius in all areas of his life. She felt that the whole truth had to be told.
And so Isaacson told the whole truth. Citing dozens of firsthand sources, he describes Jobs not only as an inspiring technological and marketing genius, but also as someone who could be a tyrant to employees, could relish belittling people, and would often insult waitresses and even friends. When Apple became hugely successful, Jobs distributed multimillion dollar bonuses to dozens of employees who had helped achieve that success, but he conspicuously didn’t give any bonus to one key man who had been his close friend and former roommate in college, and had contributed significantly to Apple’s success. When Steve Wozniak, Apple’s cofounder, realized the oversight, he went to Jobs and proposed, “why don’t we both contribute to his bonus? I’ll give half, and you give half.” To this, Jobs replied, “okay, I’ll give zero and you give zero.” In his early days at Atari computer Jobs was so dysfunctional in personal relationships and was so impossible to work with, that fellow workers pleaded that he be put on the night shift so that fewer people would have to interact with him. In his early days he also believed that an all vegetarian diet would relieve him of the need to shower. Consequently his body order was a near constant complaint of those who met him at that time.
Because of Isaacson’s honest contrast of both the flaws and the genius of Steve Jobs, there emerges from his biography a complex man who “made a dent in the universe.” Isaacson’s telling of the truth – the whole truth – made Jobs real and human and made his accomplishments all the more fantastic.
In sharp contrast with the candid and honest biography of Steve Jobs, written by a highly competent and professional historian, many biographies of church leaders have been written by adoring authors whose sole purpose has been to promote faith. From these idolizing biographies emerge early church leaders who had no faults, seldom doubted, didn’t make mistakes, and never had to back up and do it all over again. Although in one sense such worshipful biographies are inspiring, they are also misleading because they fail to tell the whole truth. Consequently, some early church leaders have been painted so heroically and placed upon pedestals so high that they are now very easy targets for anyone seeking to discredit the church.
As a result, some church members now find themselves trying to defend the indefensible – trying to prove that imperfect men were perfect – and when they fail to do so, as repeatedly they have and will, some good saints begin doubting and even leave the church because their illusions have been shattered.
This need not happen if we will simply take a few steps back, and realize that the Lord has never said that our leaders, past or present, have to be perfect. In fact, in several places in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord specifically warns against expecting perfection in our leaders.
When a young Joseph Smith lost the 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon, and also the power to translate for a time, the Lord said: “… [A]lthough a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.” (Doctrine and Covenants 3:4) Later, after councils of the church were established, the Lord made it clear that no one, not even the President of the High Priesthood, was beyond the temptations of sin and the need for accountability. “And inasmuch as a President of the High Priesthood shall transgress, he shall be had in remembrance before the common council of the church, who shall be assisted by twelve counselors of the High Priesthood; and their decision upon his head shall be the end of the controversy concerning him. Thus, none shall be exempted from the justice and the laws of God, that all things may be done in order and in solemnity before him, according to truth and righteousness.” (Doctrine and Covenants 107:82–84)
Anyone who has carefully studied the New Testament will realize that the ancient apostles had some serious doctrinal disagreements and personal disputes. And Peter and the other apostles had to put up with Paul, who was sometimes belligerently ungovernable. Paul even boasted that once he had “withstood [Peter] to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Galations 2:11). Many who objectively read Paul’s letters also become annoyed at his constant bragging and occasional belittling of women.
We often hear this passage: “…[T]hey shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost. And whatsoever they shall say when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” (Doctrine and Covenants 68:3–4) Although this Scripture is often cited in connection with General Conference, it is actually a promise given to Orson Hyde and other missionaries as they set forth on their missions in 1831. I believe it is also the Lord’s promise to any missionary – or for that matter, to any Relief Society president, or Bishop, or home teacher or any faithful member. It simply means that truth spoken by the power of the Holy Ghost is scripture.
The big “if” is whether what we have spoken has been under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. As we approach General Conference, we need to remember this principle. It is not only our right, but our sacred duty to God, to prayerfully consider all that is said, and to fully support those things that are spoken under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
Please consider these words by Elder Todd Christofferson from General Conference one year ago: ” …[N]ot every statement made by a Church leader, past or
present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such. (Joseph Smith, in History of the Church, 5:265.)”
Elder Christofferson then quoted President J. Reuben Clark (a member of the First Presidency), who years ago made this careful observation: “…[M]y father told me as a boy, I do not know on what authority,…that during the excitement incident to the coming
of [Johnston’s] Army, Brother Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with defiance to the approaching army, and declaring an intention to oppose and drive them back. In the afternoon meeting he arose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk. … (J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Church Leaders’ Words,” 10).”
Elder Christofferson then continued: “Of the story his father told him about Brigham Young, President Clark further wrote:
“I do not know if this ever happened, but I say it illustrates a principle–that even the President of the Church, himself, may not always be ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost,’ when he addresses the people. This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly speculative character) where subsequent Presidents of the Church and the peoples themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ “How shall the Church know when these adventurous expeditions of the brethren into these highly speculative principles and doctrines meet the requirements of the statutes that the announcers thereof have been ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’? The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest. (J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Church Leaders’ Words,” 10).”
Just for a moment, consider this agitated declaration by Heber C Kimball, then serving as First Counselor to President Brigham Young: “I am opposed to your many fashions and everything you wear for the sake of fashion. Did you ever see me with hermaphrodite pantaloons on? Our boys are weakening their backs and their kidneys by girding themselves up as they do; they’re destroying the strength of their loins and taking a course to injure their posterity. You may take all such dresses and new fashions, and inquire into their origin, and you will find, as a general thing, that they are produced by the whores of the great cities of the world. There is a new fashion that our boys have got hold of, of Spanish bits and bridles, and then with their hermaphrodite pantaloons they look ridiculous. I will speak of my own boys, for they are like the rest.”
On this occasion was Kimball inspired by the Holy Ghost? Are Levis with flys evil? Are they produced by whores? Do I dare put a Spanish bit and bridle on my horse?
Or consider some statements that I will relate in a moment by Brigham Young.
To put his statements in context, I need to talk a little about Thomas B. Marsh. Some of you may recall the often told story of brother Marsh. He had been the first president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but reportedly had fallen away after his wife and a sister Harris had quarreled over how to divide the cream
from their milk cows. According to the story, sister Marsh unjustly kept part of her cream, while sister Harris fully honored their agreement to equally share. Brother Marsh naturally took the side of his wife in the escalating quarrel, and when councils of the church repeatedly ruled in favor of sister Harris, Marsh reportedly appealed the matter all the way to the First Presidency, and when they ruled against Marsh, he apostasized from the church.1
Out of curiosity, I recently looked up the story, and learned some very interesting things. One was that the Marsh apostasy was far more complex than just the incident with the cream. Another thing I learned is what happened to Marsh after he eventually came back to the church.
Here is a brief summary of the sad tale. As already indicated, Marsh was the first President of the Twelve. Had he remained faithful, he may have been the next President of the Church, instead of Brigham Young. But in 1838 he swore out an affidavit against the church during the trying Missouri period, and that affidavit helped to bring about the Exterminator Order and the imprisonment–and near execution–of Joseph Smith and others.
After the saints moved West, brother Marsh remained in Missouri. He attended various churches, but never could find the peace and love he had enjoyed among the Latter-day Saints. In the years after he left the church he lost his wife, he had a stroke that permanently impaired one arm, and he went broke. Still in his mid-fifties, he looked and sounded like an old man.
And now in 1857, after 19 years away from the church, he made his way from Missouri to Nebraska, to seek out George Harris, husband of the wife who sister Marsh had quarreled with over the cream. He asked forgiveness and made peace with the Harris’s. He then walked on to Florence, Nebraska, near what had been Winter Quarters for the saints a decade before. From there he wrote a poignant letter to Church leaders in Salt Lake City.
This letter, written in utter remorse and humility, pleaded for forgiveness and asked if he could be welcomed back into the church – not as an apostle, but just as a member. From the agony of his heart, he wrote: “I love you better than I do any set of mortals on this earth. You have been diligent in accomplishing the work given you while I, miserable me! have played time away among harlot churches only seeking for nourishment to my soul where there was no bread of life; I Love you and hate myself. I wait here, at Florence anxiously for a letter addressed to your Old and now truly unworthy and truly sincere friend.”
After being permitted to be baptized again, he then walked 1300 miles across the plains to be with the saints in Utah. Shortly after his arrival, in September 1857, Brigham Young allowed Marsh to address the saints. His voice was so weak that some in the vast congregation could not hear all his words as he spoke humbly and feelingly of all that he had lost, and of how much he loved the saints. In that talk he expressed his determination never to forsake the people of God again, and to always do right. It was the pleading testimony of a returning prodigal.
After Marsh sat down, Brigham Young rose to speak. I do not know why President Young was so harsh. Perhaps his memory of thousands of Latter-day Saints being driven from their homes in winter or of the near public execution of Joseph Smith and others because of Marsh’s 1838 affidavit was seared too deeply in his soul for him to find the compassion to forgive his brother, Marsh. Whatever may have been his reasons, his words were not kind, as he mocked and then shamed a former senior apostle: “He [brother Marsh] has told you that he is an old man… When brother Thomas [Marsh] thought of returning to the Church, the plurality of wives troubled him a good deal. Look at him. Do you think it need to? I do not; for I doubt whether he could get one wife. Why it should have troubled an infirm old man like him is not for me to say.”
Noting that he was almost the same age as Marsh, Young boasted to the congregation that he looked much younger than Marsh, and he attributed the difference to the gospel.
Young then concluded: “I considered brother Marsh a great man; but as soon as I became acquainted with him, I saw that the weakness of the flesh was visibly manifest in him. I saw that he was ignorant and shattered in his understanding, if ever he had good understanding. He manifests the same weakness today. Has he the stability of a sound mind? No, and never had. And if he had good sense and judgment, he would not have spoken as he has. He has just said, ‘I will be faithful, and I will be true to you.’ He has not wisdom enough to see that he has betrayed us once, and don’t know but what he will again. He has told me that he would be faithful, and that he would do this and the other; but he don’t know what he will do next week or next year. I do not know what I shall do next year; I always speak for the present. But a man that will be once fooled by the Devil — a man that has not sense to discern between steel grey mixed and iron grey mixed, when one is dyed with logwood and the other with indigo, may be deceived again.”
I simply don’t know enough of the times or the circumstances or of the mind and heart of Brigham Young to understand his treatment of Marsh. But I do ask the question that I believe the Lord always wants us to ask of any speaker: was he moved upon by the Holy Ghost when he boasted of his own virility and mocked Marsh’s infirmities? And I am quite willing to concede that he may not have been. Unlike Joseph Smith, who had freely forgiven William W. Phelps for a similar betrayal (“Come on dear brother, for the war is past; and friends at first are friends again at last”), Young appears to me in this instance to have abused the powers of his office – he did it because he could.
Perhaps he was inspired by the Holy Ghost to make a public example of brother Marsh by humiliating him.
Or perhaps – just perhaps – he was really venting his own impassioned and lingering bitterness towards Marsh and was blinded by his own anger. I do not know.
But if President Young stumbled, even if he stumbled very badly – if, instead of acting as a prophet, he became a Steve Jobs insulting a lowly waitress, or humiliating an overworked employee, does it follow that because Jobs was imperfect we should reject iPads, MacBooks, and iTunes? Of course not. We should keep and abundantly use these powerful tools, even though they were created by a genius who had some world class flaws.
And so it is with President Young. If he was overbearing and belittling to brother Marsh, he was still the God-inspired genius who against all odds led the church across 1300 miles of wilderness and made the desert blossom as the rose. And if as “the Lion of the Lord” he had to stand alone against the government of the entire United States to protect the saints, and also had to immediately develop hosts of industries to make the saints self-sufficient to survive in a wilderness, I am quite willing to allow that such a powerful man so ably gifted in those areas of his life might also have some rough and unfinished edges in other aspects of his life.
And just as we should not throw away an iPad because we discover a fault in the man whose genius inspired it, neither should we throw away the church when we learn that some of its leaders – like all the rest of us – have been imperfect.
In the church we have the most vibrant and wonderful organization, bringing to all of us the love of God and the atonement of Christ, and bringing to all the world enormous humanitarian kindness. I hope that no one will throw all that away upon discovering – wonder of wonders – that some church leaders, past or present, have not been perfect.
From my reading of hundreds of biographies, I can declare that history is full of great souls with awful flaws who nevertheless changed the world.
And so as we approach General Conference I hope that we will be humble and teachable and prayerful. It is possible that from time to time we may hear impassioned opinions about hermaphrodite pantaloons or Spanish bits and bridles, or hear ill chosen words that the speaker himself may later wish he hadn’t said.
But as long as the body of the church has the Holy Ghost, as emphasized by President J. Reuben Clark and recently repeated by Elder Christopherson, we will not be misled. Although the apostle Paul sometimes had opinions that were “not of the Lord” (see Doctrine and Covenants 74:5) and Brigham Young taught some doctrines that were not of God (such as the Adam-God theory), so long as the body of the church has the Spirit of God, such opinions and doctrines will pass away, while the rock foundation of the church remains. So long as we “prove all things, and hold fast that which is true” (as admonished by Paul), and “reason together” (as instructed by Isaiah), we can keep all that is dear in our beloved church.
And we can also keep our iPads.
And even ride with Spanish bits and bridles.
1. Defenders of Thomas B. Marsh argue, almost in unison, that the cream story never happened, and that Marsh has been unjustly and repeatedly defamed. They claim that the incident is not documented in the contemporaneous minutes of church council meetings, and that no one even spoke of it until two decades later when apostle George A. Smith described it in a conference address. But Marsh defenders repeatedly overlook the best evidence of all – the letter written by Marsh himself to church leaders when he asked to be re-baptized. In that letter he explains that he had traveled to Nebraska and had made peace with the Harris’s, and had felt great joy and relief in their forgiveness. That he felt the need to explain the Harris reconciliation to high ranking church leaders reveals that he knew they were aware of the earlier quarrel and that it had played a significant role in his apostasy. That after 19 years he felt the need to personally meet and make peace with the Harris’s reveals that the matter had troubled him to the core. Although he never mentions “cream” or “milk” in his letter, that omission itself suggests that he knew those reading his letter would know exactly what he was talking about without further explanation.