Welding Another Link in Wonder’s Chain:
The Task of Latter-day Saint Intellectuals in the Church’s Third Century

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Abstract: This is a challenging moment for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints. Both its efforts at retention and missionary work are less effective than they have been in the past. At this moment, what is the most important task facing Latter-day Saint intellectuals? In contrast to those who argue that faithful thinkers and writers should focus either on defending the faith or providing criticisms of the Church’s failings, this essay argues that the Latter-day Saint clerisy should focus on celebrating the Restoration and finding new language in which to express what makes the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ a compelling and attractive force in people’s lives. The language which we have used in the past no longer seems to be as compelling as once it was. This is unsurprising. The history of the Church shows a cyclical pattern focused on missionary work, with seasons of harvest giving way to fallow times and seasons of planting. However, over time the Church tends to transform itself in the image of its most successful messages for proclaiming the Gospel. Latter-day Saint intellectuals have an important, albeit subordinate, role in finding such messages. Pursuing the project of celebrating the Restoration need not involve either usurping the prerogatives of Church leaders nor compromising one’s intellectual integrity. In this moment in the history of the Church, it is the most important project to which Latter-day Saint thinkers can turn their attention.

[Page 142]Welding another link in wonder’s chain,
Writing new chapters of a story strange,
God’s dealings with to-day…
— Orson F. Whitney1

The present is a difficult moment for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As it approaches the end of its second century, there is much to be worried about. After two generations of exponential growth, the Church’s missionary program has stalled. Despite a dramatic increase in the number of serving missionaries, the number of convert baptisms is down.2 Likewise, the Church’s admirable ability to retain those born into active Latter-day Saint families, long the envy of other denominations, seems to be atrophying. More Latter-day Saint youth are abandoning the Church as they make the transition to adulthood.3 There is also a sense of anxiety over the Church’s place in society, particularly in the United States. For much of the 20th century the saints thought of themselves as within the cultural mainstream, the exemplars of a widely shared commitment to the benignly patriarchal nuclear family. In the wake of the triumph of same-sex marriage and the proliferation of sexual identities in the opening decades of the new millennium, the ideal Latter- day Saint family has gone from being seen as a paragon to being seen by many as reactionary and threatening.4 Similarly, the Church’s all-male priesthood increases the distance between Latter-day Saints and the sexually egalitarian societies in which they often live, generating angst and alienation within the Church’s own ranks, particularly among [Page 143]the young.5 Finally, the Church as a hierarchical religious institution faces increased suspicion and hostility in a society where organized religion no longer commands widespread trust or respect and where the ranks of the “spiritual but not religious” are on the rise.6

What is the task of Latter-day Saint intellectuals in this moment? By intellectuals, I don’t mean scholars working in “Mormon studies,” although the groups will overlap. Nor do I mean those with ecclesiastical authority, although again the groups may overlap. Rather, I mean committed Latter-day Saints who for whatever reason feel called on to publicly discuss the course of the Restoration7 and the place of the Church in the world. These are public discussions of the Gospel, the Church, and the Latter-day Saint tradition that are both explicitly self-reflective and self-consciously religious. In short, I am talking about what might be thought of as the role of the Latter-day Saint clerisy as opposed to academics on one hand and those charged with ecclesiastical authority on the other. What is the most important challenge facing Mormonism’s chattering class?

My answer is simple: Finding new language in which to celebrate the Restoration.

This answer will strike some readers as strange. I imagine that a certain kind of intellectual is likely to respond by insisting that his or her role is to think critically. Surely, what we need is a clear-eyed [Page 144]assessment of the Church’s weaknesses and failures. Only by being honest about such things can we hope to gain the trust of the suspicious outsider and the alienated member. Furthermore, isn’t it vital to expose the faults and failures of the Church so they can be corrected or – failing that – so intellectuals can at least enjoy the peace of mind (and emotional frisson) that comes from “speaking truth to power”? Another kind of intellectual will respond that mere celebration is a feckless endeavor at a moment when the Church is beset by enemies and critics from both within and without. What is needed is a defense of the Church and its doctrines. Latter-day Saint intellectuals should concentrate their efforts on constructing a rational defense of the Restoration, one that will reassure the faithful, reclaim the doubter, and refute the scoffer. Precisely because of the difficulty of this moment in the history of the Church, so goes the argument, it is more important than ever that we increase the quality of our apologetics to meet the challenges we face.

I am sympathetic to both of these responses. I think faithful critics can serve an important role in the life of the Church. Likewise, intellectual challenges to the veracity of the Restoration must be met. Faith is unlikely to flourish in a world where people are told they must crucify their minds in order to believe.8 However, with all due respect to the skillful practitioners of both genres, I do not believe that either of them represents the most important challenge facing Latter-day Saint intellectuals. This doesn’t mean these activities should cease, but it does mean that such projects should be pursued only if we are confident that the far greater challenges of celebrating the Restoration in new language has been met. Ideally both tasks should be embedded in that larger project of celebration.

Understanding why requires that we see the history of Restoration through the lens of missionary work and the absolutely central role of proclaiming the Restored Gospel to everything else that happens within the Church.

Proclaiming the Gospel and the Arc of Latter-day Saint History

In February, 1829, Joseph Smith received one his earliest recorded revelations in what has since been canonized as Doctrine & Covenants section 4. There, the Lord declares, “Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men” (v. 1). Speaking to those “that embark in the service of God,” (v. 2) he says, “For behold the field is white already to harvest …. Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (v. 4,5). This is the familiar injunction to proclaim [Page 145]the Gospel. The timing of the revelation testifies to the centrality of this charge within the Restoration. This came before the publication of the Book of Mormon, the organization of the Church, or the elaboration of any priesthood hierarchy. In a very literal sense, the Restoration simply was people telling other people about the “marvelous work” of the Lord. From that time to the present, the work of proclaiming the Gospel has dominated the evolution of the Restoration. Repeatedly over the nearly two centuries of its life, the Church has remade itself in the image of its most effective way of articulating the “marvelous work and a wonder” (2 Nephi 26:27) of the Lord’s latter-day dispensation. This has not been the only force in Latter-day Saint experience, but over the long arc of history, it has been the most potent.

We are inclined to think of history in linear terms. We move from the distant past to the near past, to the present, and on into the future. The linear view of history lends itself to stories of progress or decline. We are either marching toward the millennium, or we are marching toward the apocalypse. One can see this in the current position of the Church. For those who grew up in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s, the dominant perception of the Church was of self-confident growth. We were expanding at a spectacular rate. Branches, wards, stakes, and temples were sprouting across the globe in places a generation or two before would have been unimaginable to a typical Latter-day Saint. Sociologists were predicting that in the coming century there would be tens of millions of Latter-day Saints, if not more.9 The line of history pointed toward progress. Today, however, many Latter-day Saints are haunted by a declension narrative: The growth of previous years was often hollow. Baptisms are dropping. Disaffection grows. The future is bleak.

The reality is that often the history of the Church has been more cyclical than linear. During the first generation of the Restoration, missionaries reaped a massive harvest of converts in the United States and Europe, especially the British Isles and Scandinavia.10 Those converts gathered to Zion, first in Jackson County and Nauvoo and [Page 146]later in the Great Basin kingdom of Deseret. However, over time this first great harvest of converts tapered off. The ferment of the Second Great Awakening and the missionary opportunities created by the early industrial revolution waned. Polygamy and theocracy placed the Church at war with American society and the federal government.11 By 1901 when Lorenzo Snow, the last President of the Church who personally knew Joseph Smith,12 died, the Church’s position in the world looked very different than it had when the Lord gave the revelation launching latter-day missionary work in February 1829. Convert baptisms had slowed to a trickle.13 While polygamy had been publicly discontinued, it had not yet been abandoned, and it would take the better part of the next decade to finally lay to rest the saints’ conflict with American society.14

The Church that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century looked like an institution whose most dynamic days were behind it.15 To be sure, the growth of population in the Intermountain West led to a steady if modest growth in the Church, which soon spilled beyond the borders of Deseret as young Latter-day Saints migrated to the Pacific coast and further afield in search of jobs. Missionary work continued, but it cannot be said that it was particularly successful. When compared to the dramatic mass baptisms witnessed during the 1830s and 1840s [Page 147]by Heber C. Kimball in Manchester, England or Wilford Woodruff in Preston, missionary work seemed almost moribund. An observer of the Latter-day Saint scene in the 1920s or the 1930s could be forgiven for thinking that the Church, if not in actual decline, could at best look forward to a static future.16

Then rather suddenly after World War II, something remarkable happened. What could be seen as a sleepy American denomination flung itself dramatically outward.17 In the early 20th century, Church leaders had counseled the tiny branches of saints beyond the United States not to gather to Utah, but in 1945 there were still no non-American wards or stakes other than in the Latter-day Saint colonies of southern Alberta and northern Mexico.18 In the second half of the century, however, Church leaders began establishing overseas stakes.19 Missionary work was re-emphasized, becoming a standard male rite-of-passage in a way that it had not been previously. For the first time, the Church poured money into permanent buildings beyond the United States, most dramatically with the new temples in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.20 Missionary discussions were standardized.21 Language [Page 148]instruction for missionaries was professionalized and centralized.22 In fits and starts, through a combination of inspired vision from above and percolating trial-and-error from below, the Church developed a new model of what it meant to be a Latter-day Saint.

At the center of this message was the family. In a surprising move, Latter-day Saints took the theology of sealing, which had been at the center of plural marriage and the Church’s grueling conflict with the federal government, and reinterpreted it in terms of the nuclear family of the 1950s. In the rapidly changing post-war world, which saw the fracturing of older models of extended family and community across the globe, this proved a potent message. Ultimately, the Church remade itself in the image of this message. The standardized teaching model that proved so successful for missionaries became a model for the correlated curriculum. The necessarily slimmed down Church program in the expanding international stakes of the Church increasingly exerted its pressure on the institutional structure of the Church, which simplified and centralized to conserve resources. And everywhere, the nuclear family – the heart of the Church’s successful missionary message – became the center of the Church.

After a half-century of success, the model developed after World War II has largely run its course. What had proven successful in the past no longer seems to be delivering the same results. This is unsurprising. It has happened to the Church before. Periods of relative stasis and retrenchment don’t mark the beginning of decline today any more than they did in the 1920s. History in this sense isn’t linear. Periods of harvest give way to fallow years, which will be followed by planting and harvesting in the future. However, it is unlikely the message of those future harvests will be the same one around which the Church organized itself in the second half of the 20th century.

Consider the message that Joseph Smith articulated in his 1838 account of the First Vision. After describing the religious revivals of his youth, he wrote:

[Page 149]In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? (JS-H 10)

While the First Vision did not figure prominently in 19th century missionary work, Joseph was articulating a set of questions of existential importance to his contemporaries.23 Priesthood authority from heaven and the revival of spiritual gifts spoke powerfully to these concerns. They were pressing questions to which the Restoration was an answer. They were also, however, very historically contingent questions. For most of human history and for most of humanity, the sectarian choice between competing Christian denominations has not been an existentially important choice. Indeed, even in Joseph Smith’s time, it was only an important question in North America, where religious freedom and the second Great Awakening had unleashed a torrent of sectarian diversity, and on the fringes of Protestant Europe, where such controversies retained some salience. It was not, for example, a burning question to French peasants in the mid-19th century.24 It meant nothing to the farmers of Burma or Japan. Indeed, even within Britain, Joseph’s questions were vital mainly among the dissenting sects of Scotland, Wales, and the Midlands. The Twelve and other early missionaries, for example, had very little success in London or the home counties, where the established Church of England was stronger and the diversity of dissenting sects was less salient.25 Today, this question is largely dead. Outside of a few tiny and ever shrinking corners of American Christianity, very few people regard sectarian choice as an existentially important question.26

[Page 150]Increasingly, the post-war Church’s message of traditional nuclear families is becoming as attenuated as Joseph’s answer to the question of which church is right. It is not that concerns underlying such questions and answers are gone. People today are still interested in connecting with loved ones and forming strong families. Likewise, the sense of making one’s way in a world glutted with existential options remains, even though people today do not articulate this concern in terms of sectarian choice. The language of the past, however, no longer speaks to these concerns in the way it once did. Indeed, to many that language increasingly seems alien, threatening, and distasteful. “The one true church” is a concept that appears to them as at best a gauche and flimsy response to the cafeteria of existential meaning on offer in modernity. At worst, it appears dangerously retrograde. Likewise, the benignly patriarchal Mormon family of the mid-20th century appears naïve, reactionary, and, in a world of heightened concerns about LGBT suicide and female empowerment, positively threatening to many. Something must change if the Church is to thrive in its third century.

We can already see changes, changes that not coincidentally began in the Church’s missionary program. The canary in the mine came in 2004 when the Church scrapped the standardized discussions that had been the backbone of its successful post-war expansion. In its place the Preach My Gospel manual provided a much more flexible model for proclaiming the messages of the Restoration.27 It did not, however, dramatically change the content of what the missionaries ultimately tell investigators. In the long view, Preach My Gospel was the beginning rather than the end of a process of finding a new model to carry the Restoration forward. We are now in the midst of that process. As it did after World War II, the Church will proceed in fits and starts as it looks for a new model of missionary success, and as in the post-war process, the messages will likely come from a combination of direction from above and trial and error from below. If we take history as our guide, however, once we find those messages they will transform the Church in their own image.28

[Page 151]The Task of Latter-day Saint Intellectuals

Verbal agility is not necessary to the living of a good life. There is no special moral or spiritual virtue in being articulate. However, like any other gift, articulateness can be consecrated to the Lord and his kingdom. Latter-day Saint intellectuals ought to seriously consider how they can effectively consecrate their linguistic talents. The biggest challenge the Church faces today is to articulate what makes the Restored Gospel worth having in one’s life, both for its members and for the world in general. We can no longer answer that question by saying “It reveals which church is true” or “It provides a successful way of creating a 1950s-style nuclear family.” At the very least, we cannot rely on those answers if we hope to reach the majority of young Latter-day Saints and the wider world to which the Lord has commanded that we proclaim his “marvelous work.” We need answers that are both compelling and comprehensible in our current historical and cultural situations.

Finding such answers is not solely or even primarily the task of Latter-day Saint intellectuals. However, for those Saints who wish to consecrate their intellectual ruminations the most important work they can is to find new language in which to celebrate the Restoration. To celebrate something is to render it attractive and important. The new language is required to make that celebration effective in a world where the power of old sermons and practices has atrophied. This is the most important thing that Latter-day Saint intellectuals today can do. It is important because it speaks to the central challenge facing the Church. In a sense, this is the challenge that has always been at the center of the Restoration: How does one become converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and endure to the end? It is also the most consequential project in which Latter-day Saint intellectuals can engage because ultimately the Church will be reshaped around the successful missionary messages of the future.

What exactly might this project look like? The aim of this essay is to articulate tasks and questions, rather than any particular solution or answers. However, we have been in this position before and can look to historical analogies. In the opening decades of the 20th century, Latter- day Saints were casting around for new language in which to convey the message of the Gospel. In the 19th century, the most influential articulations [Page 152]of the Restoration had been offered by the Pratt brothers, particularly Parley P. Pratt’s wildly successful Voice of Warning and Key to the Science of Theology.29 However, by the Progressive era the cultural situation had shifted, and the Pratts’ writings had lost much of their power and saliency.

During this period three Latter-day Saint thinkers sought to offer new articulations of the Gospel. The most ambitious of these was B.H. Roberts, a polygamous general authority who came of age during the white-hot confrontations between the saints and the federal government in the 1880s. Rather than simply refighting the lost battles of the 19th century, however, Roberts embraced the task of articulating the post-polygamous meaning of the Restoration.30 In the early 20th century, he sought to present the Gospel as a complete intellectual system that could accommodate modern philosophies such as Herbert Spencer’s modernism and Darwinian evolution.31 At the time, these were seen as vital currents of thought that could give the Restoration saliency to his readers. During the same period two younger writers, John A. Widtsoe and James E. Talmage, pursued similar projects. In his Rational Theology, published in 1915, Widtsoe presented the Restored Gospel as a scientifically friendly system of religion that encouraged human improvement, potent themes during the Progressive era.32 Writing a few years later, Talmage produced The Vitality of Mormonism, a series of essays designed to restate the basic teachings of the Gospel.33 Writing at the end of World War I, he also emphasized improvement and advancement. In addition, Talmage linked the Restoration to the [Page 153]struggle against tyranny and the unfolding of human freedom, while at the same time deploring the violence and destruction of war.34 All these are themes that would have been very much on the mind of readers who had just suffered through the Great War.

These works all repay careful reading, but inevitably they are products of their time. Some of their arguments and interpretations no longer seem plausible, while others simply feel dated. That, of course, is the point. The Restoration must be taught anew to each generation, and each generation will bring different concerns and language to the Gospel. Each generation will find new insights and miss certain teachings they would have done better to emphasize. Roberts, Widstoe, and Talmage each recognized that it was not enough to simply repeat what Parley P. Pratt had taught a generation or two earlier. Each, in his own way, sought to remain faithful to the Restoration. They used some language that seems familiar to a modern Latter-day Saint reader and no doubt would have seemed familiar to a mid-19th century reader. But they also spoke in ways distinctive to their times and audience. No doubt each of these works was inadequate in various ways in making the Gospel live in the lives of its readers. Indeed, B.H. Roberts’ speculations were so exuberant that ultimately the Church declined to publish them.35 For our purposes, however, what is important is their willingness to engage in the central task of finding new ways of presenting the Gospel message for a new historical situation.36

[Page 154]The process of celebrating the Gospel today will undoubtedly look different than it did at the beginning of the 20th century. We will use different language and even different genres. Still, the fundamental task facing Latter-day Saint intellectuals today is essentially the same as that facing B.H. Roberts in the 1920s. For example, shortly after I became a professor, I was invited by Richard Bushman to participate in a series of private meetings of Latter-day Saint academics outside of Utah interested in the Church. In those meetings, he challenged us to identify that aspect of the Restoration we found most compelling. He then suggested that we try to articulate this in language for someone completely unfamiliar with the language of the Church. I don’t think much came from our discussions, but Bushman’s challenge has stuck with me over the years.37 It strikes me as a useful exercise for any Latter-day Saint intellectual who is serious about confronting the challenges the Church faces today. It is unlikely, of course, that any such writings in themselves would matter very much, but a literature of celebration could become a resource for Latter-day Saints and something that could be part of enticing others to consider the Restored Gospel.

To celebrate the Restoration in new language today does not mean we offer some facile bit of triumphalism or a mechanical translation of common Latter-day Saint tropes into more accessible language. Triumphalism will not render the Restoration existentially important. It will not explain to the unconvinced why they would want it in their lives. What is needed is a message that makes the Church and its teachings compelling. This means its failures and faults will have to be acknowledged and charitably dealt with. No one is interested in marble perfection. Such perfection is neither believable nor compelling for many in modern society. Fortunately, the world can be generous and open to an account of the Restoration that is willing to find the divinity within its often-broken humanity. Likewise, hostile attacks and objections to the Church and the Gospel must be met. We cannot avoid responding to [Page 155]hard questions for which reasonable people can expect an answer.38 Celebration may require defense as well as concession.

Truly celebrating the Restoration will require more than simple translation for two reasons. First, simple translation is impossible. Every retelling of a story changes the story slightly. This isn’t pernicious; it is inevitable. However, we need to be conscious of the ways in which we are telling our stories about the Gospel. Are we introducing changes that are both compelling responses to the challenges of the modern world and faithful to the divinity of the Restoration? This is a difficult process, one in which people are going to make mistakes. This need not be a problem, so long as we carry out our project of celebration with charity and humility. Indeed, the more Latter-day Saint intellectuals who are involved in this project, the less important and salient the inevitable individual errors become.

Second, a compelling account of the Restoration will likely require dramatic changes. Consider the situation of David O. McKay in the early 1950s. The Church had embarked on an aggressive program of international expansion. The goal was wards and stakes beyond the United States, centered on nuclear families, bound together by the sealing power of the temple. At the time, however, this vision was in the future. Realizing it required the creation of stakes and the building of temples, remarkably enough, the Church adopted an if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach, constructing overseas temples before there were even any overseas stakes.39 This move had a cascading series of consequences for the Church. Ecclesiastical authority moved from American mission presidents to local priesthood holders, who then became absolutely vital for the health of the Church. The emphasis on eternal families increased the importance of temples in the devotional lives of the saints. Both these shifts placed enormous pressure on the Church’s practice of denying priesthood and temple blessings to those of African descent.40 A quarter century after embarking on the journey charted by President McKay, the Church had been transformed, including the 1978 revelation on the priesthood. What made the post-war success of the Church possible [Page 156]was a willingness to imagine a future in which the Restoration would become compelling to a huge swathe of new people, even if doing so required massive transformations in the Church.

Latter-day Saint intellectuals, as intellectuals, lack ecclesiastical authority.41 Any future they imagine as an adjunct to their celebration of the Restoration must necessarily be left implicit or merely hypothetical. Such a faithful imagining, however, is not an invitation to simply remake the Church and the Gospel in our imaginations. The point of celebrating the Restoration is to celebrate the Restoration. This requires an effort to discern what is central and what is peripheral to the Gospel. The doctrine of continuing revelation always holds out the possibility of change. Indeed, just as the idea of exaltation suggests that God both loves us as we are and also desires for us a glorious transformation into something better, God can be thought of as constantly transforming the Church to better realize the Zion promised by the Lord to the saints. This, however, presents the danger to intellectuals of simply imagining a Church in our own image, one where our ideological priors are projected onto a more palatable and about-to-be-revealed version Gospel. We start as Pygmalion, falling in love with our own creation, and end in idolatry, worshipping our own graven images in a false temple. Done properly, however, imagination can be an act of faith and hope, so long as one remains open to the possibility of being mistaken and being given a very different future by the Lord.

Finally, one shouldn’t overestimate the importance of the intellectual’s task. First, Latter-day Saint intellectual life remains largely concentrated in the United States. This is a problem. There is the danger of mistaking the parochial concerns of American culture for more universal concerns. This is particularly important given the fact that even within the United States, Latter-day Saint intellectuals will likely skew toward affluence and high levels of education. Even when we self-consciously try to avoid this trap, American concerns inevitably occupy an outsized place in the discussions of Latter-day Saint intellectuals.42 Second, in the future, the Church will need a more pluralistic message. Those things compelling and existentially important to people in West Africa and East Asia are likely different from those that move [Page 157]well-educated Americans. Third, while a compelling way of presenting the power of the Restoration is a necessary component of proclaiming the Gospel, it is never sufficient. Ultimately, the work of the Church belongs to the Lord. It is rightly led by His prophets and apostles, not the Latter-day Saint clerisy. In the end, God’s work is carried forward more by the force of charity and the power of his Spirit than through articulate speech. At best the celebration of intellectuals can help to bring people to a place where they might be touched by those things. Without them, however, the words of Latter-day Saint thinkers will “become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).

Authority, Angst, and Wonder

Finally, there are those who will object that the task of celebration is inappropriate for an intellectual. On one hand, one might object that what I suggest here usurps the prerogatives of Church authorities. After all, direction of the Church lies in the hands of those who hold the priesthood keys for directing the Lord’s work. In the words of the 5th Article of Faith, “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer the ordinances thereof” (Articles of Faith 5). Perhaps Latter-day Saint intellectuals celebrating the Restoration are merely steadying the ark and should instead await the words of the prophets.

As noted above, there is a certain spiritual danger to this project. Intellectuals, like everyone else, are prone to pride and idolatry. Furthermore, it would be wrong for covenanted Latter-day Saints to arrogate to themselves priesthood or ecclesiastical authority to which they have not been formally called. That, however, is not what I am calling for here. Since the time of Joseph Smith, the saints have been taught that “it becometh every man that is warned to warn his neighbor” (D&C 88:81), and we are constantly encouraged to share the Gospel with others. That is ultimately what I am advocating. If missionary work means nothing more than awkwardly inviting our uninterested neighbor to church or preparing our children to serve full-time missions, then we are missing something. Rather, it should also mean throwing ourselves into the work of fulfilling the prophecy “that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language” (D&C 90:11). Doing this, however, requires more than learning a foreign language and ritually repeating past sermons. We must do the hard work of articulating why the fruit of the tree of life is, to use Lehi’s evocative [Page 158]word, “enticing” (see 2 Nephi 2:16) and do so in language fresh and compelling to our neighbors.

There is another objection from the opposite direction. In modern societies, the intellectual is supposed to stand outside of community as a critic and a gadfly. To celebrate, we might think, is to surrender our intellectual integrity. There are least two reasons for this stance. The first is the idea that to truly understand something, one must occupy the position of a disinterested observer. True understanding is objective, and we risk that objectivity by celebrating. This assumption, however, is a mistake. To be sure, there are often things that can be seen or understood only by virtue of a certain critical distance. However, it does not follow that only the position of the objective outsider is legitimate. There is always a bit of self-deception in such a stance, as no one is ever truly objective and outside of his or her own experiences. More importantly, however, there are certain things that can be seen and understood only from the inside. The beautiful stained-glass windows of a Gothic cathedral appear drab and colorless from the outside. Only by entering the building can their full glory be seen.43

Celebration, however, may strike even more deeply at our conception of what it means to be an intellectual. Socrates, the prototypical intellectual, was forced to drink hemlock because he questioned the inhabitants of Athens too closely, and there has often been tension between intellectuals and the cultures from which they spring.44 At least since the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century, western culture has tended to exalt the alienated intellectual, the hero of the mind driven to see beyond the appearances of things to their inner essence and in so doing to break with the past and with convention. This stance requires a certain emotional outlook, one dominated by anxiety and estrangement from community. Often, of course, alienation gives birth to thought. It is estrangement from the familiar that causes us to reflect upon it. However, it is tempting to think that angst and hostility to community are themselves requirements of intellectual respectability. On this view, there is something intellectually embarrassing in setting out to celebrate one’s native tradition.

This reaction, however, is also a mistake. It is not true that understanding or insight must always spring from alienation. Indeed, if [Page 159]Plato’s Crito is to be believed, Socrates drank the hemlock only because he refused to abandon his community when given the chance.45 His fate was tragic but marked acceptance of his native home at least as much as alienation from it. There is an alternative genealogy of intellectual life that does not rest on the supposed authority of angst. On this account, the life of the mind begins not in angst and alienation but in delight and wonder. We are driven to understand from the sheer joy of questing after truth, eternally at play amidst a fascinating world. This is the sensibility that Aristotle captured with the Greek word thaumazo, which he suggested constituted the primal origin of philosophy.46 In the New Testament, the word is often translated “marvel” and “wonder” (e.g., John 5:20; Acts 7:31).47 Similarly, when Nephi quotes Isaiah to describe the Restoration itself, he refers to it as “a marvelous work and a wonder” (2 Nephi 27:26; cf. Isaiah 29:14). There is thus a deep intellectual pedigree in both scripture and philosophy for the idea that the intellectual’s task is, to use Orson F. Whitney’s words, the process of “[w]elding another link in wonder’s chain,”48 the phrase he used to describe the Restoration. At this moment not only is celebrating the marvelous work of God a fit task for an “anxiously engaged” (D&C 58:27) mind, it is the most important work to which such a mind could be put.

1. Orson F. Whitney, Elias: An Epic of the Ages (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1904), 119.
2. See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormon Growth Rate Falls to Lowest Level in 80 Years, but Ups and Downs Vary by Region,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 7, 2017, https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=5381411&itype=CMSID.
3. See Jana Riess, The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 4–7.
4. See “Attitudes on Same-Sex Marriage,” Religion & Public Life (blog), Pew Research Center, May 14, 2019, http://www.pewforum.org/2014/09/24/graphics-slideshow-changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/; Tom Rosentiel, “Public Opinion About Mormons,” Pew Research Center (blog), December 4, 2007, http://www.pewresearch.org/2007/12/04/public-opinion-about-mormons/; Pew Research Center, “Public Expresses Mixed Views of Islam, Mormonism,” Religion & Public Life (blog), Pew Research Center, September 26, 2007, http://www.pewforum.org/2007/09/26/public-expresses-mixed-views-of-islam-mormonism/.
5. See Riess, The Next Mormons, 91-108.
6. See “Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning,” Religion and Public Life (blog), Pew Research Center, September 22, 2014, https://www.pewforum.org/2014/09/22/public-sees-religions-influence-waning-2/; Alan Cooperman and Gregory A. Smith, “The Factors Driving the Growth of Religious ‘Nones’ in the U.S.,” FactTank (blog), Pew Research Center, September 14, 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/14/the-factors-driving-the-growth-of-religious-nones-in-the-u-s/; Michael Lipka and Claire Gecewicz, “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual but Not Religious,” FactTank (blog), Pew Research Center, September 6, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/.
7. According to the official style guide of the Church:

The term “Mormonism” is inaccurate and should not be used. When describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is accurate and preferred.

“Style Guide — The Name of the Church,” newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org, April 9, 2019, http://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/style-guide. In this essay, I use the term “Restoration” in this sense as synonymous with the “combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

8. I borrow this image from conversations with Daniel Petersen.
9. See Rodney Stark, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” Review of Religious Research 26, no. 1 (September, 1984): 18–27, https://rsc-legacy.byu.edu/es/archived/latter-day-saint-social-life-social-research-lds-church-and-its-members/1-rise-new-world; Rodney Stark, “So Far, So Good: A Brief Assessment of Mormon Membership Projections,” Review of Religious Research 38, no. 2 (December, 1996): 175–78.
10. See generally James B Allen, Ronald K. Esplin, and David J Whittaker, Men with a Mission, 1837-1841: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1992); William Mulder, Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957).
11. See Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Edward Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).
12. Joseph F. Smith met his uncle Joseph Smith, Jr. as a very young child in Nauvoo. Lorenzo Snow, however, was the last President of the Church who knew the Prophet as an adult.
13. In 1901, the year of Lorenzo Snow’s death, Elder Rudger Clawson reported in General Conference that the Church had 310,000 members and that in the previous year it had added 20,000 members, a number that presumably included both convert baptisms and children of record. See “72nd Semi-Annual Conference October 1901,” Conference Reports of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Internet Archive, updated October 12, 2011, https://archive.org/details/conferencereport1901sa/page/2.
14. See Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
15. The best scholarly treatment of the Church in this period is Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
16. For a beautifully written portrait of the Restoration at this moment by a sympathetic non-member, see Wallace Stegner, Mormon Country, ed. Richard W. Etulain, 2nd edition (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2003). Stegner’s book was originally written in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration.
17. Despite the fact that the international growth of the Church after 1945 is perhaps the most influential factor on the shape of the modern Church, there are no good synthetic histories focusing on this period. Much of the story can be found in the excellent biographies of David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball. See Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005); Edward L Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005); see also Patrick Q. Mason and John G. Turner, eds., Out of Obscurity: Mormonism since 1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). For a succinct summary, see Nathan B. Oman, “International Legal Experience and the Mormon Theology of the State, 1945-2012,” Iowa Law Review 100 (2015): 719–23.
18. See, e.g., James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1965), 4:165 (a 1907 Christmas letter from the First Presidency counseling the Dutch saints to stay in their own country); Clark, 5:199-200 (a 1921 letter from the First Presidency counseling the British saints to remain in the United Kingdom).
19. See Oman, “International Legal Experience,” 721.
20. See Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 206-9.
21. This was first done Church-wide in 1961. See “History of Missionary Work in the Church,” www.newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org, June 25, 2007, http://www.newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/history-of-missionary-work-in-the-church.
22. Efforts to train missionaries go back to the School of the Prophets in the 1830s. In 1925, the Church established the “missionary home” in Salt Lake City where missionaries received brief instruction prior to being sent to their fields of labor. In 1961, the Church established the Missionary Language Institute in Provo, Utah, which was eventually renamed the “Missionary Training Center.” See Richard O. Cowan, “Missionary Training Centers,” in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992).
23. The First Vision did not become an important feature of Church teachings until the administration of Joseph F. Smith. See Kathleen Flake, “Re-Placing Memory: Latter-Day Saint Use of Historical Monuments and Narrative in the Early Twentieth Century,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 13, no. 1 (2003): 69–109.
24. See Samuel W. Taylor, The Last Pioneer: John Taylor, a Mormon Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 146–58.
25. See Thomas G. Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 96–97.
26. As one convert to the Church in the 1960s wrote:

Because of what I’d learned from the missionaries’ lesson about the First Vision, I recognized that these age-mates of mine were trapped in a nineteenth-century worldview. They thought that the “one true question” was “which church is true?” and that all the denominations were clawing at each other with different interpretations. They somehow had been freeze-framed into Joseph Smith’s era.

Steven C. Harper et al., “Round Table: Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days,” Journal of Mormon History 45, no. 2 (April 2019): 54.

27. See Benjamin Hyrum White, “The History of Preach My Gospel,” The Religious Educator 14, no. 1 (2013): 129–58.
28. Indeed, to a certain extent this is already happening. It is not accidental that after Preach My Gospel introduced a more flexible model of preaching the Gospel, the Church’s Sunday school, youth, priesthood, and Relief Society curriculums followed suit, providing a much looser framework for teachers at the ward and branch level. One suspects that the newly shortened Sunday meeting schedule was also driven in part by pressure to further simplify Church programs and ease the burdens on members beyond the thickly-membered Latter-day Saint heartland.
29. See Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6 (“Pratt’s writings, which deeply influenced other Mormon authors, particularly his equally prolific younger brother, Orson, not only helped convert thousands to Mormonism but also shaped the Mormon theological system”); see also Breck England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985).
30. Although in fairness I must note that in his multivolume history of the Church produced for its centennial, Roberts was more than willing to refight the battles of the Raid in print, defending the Latter-day Saint position. See B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 6 vols. (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1930).
31. See B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1994).
32. See John A. Widtsoe, Rational Theology, Reprint edition (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998).
33. See James E. Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism: Brief Essays on Distinctive Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Boston: The Gorham Press, 1919).
34. For example, he wrote:

I cannot look upon the frightful carnage and inhuman atrocities of the world war as a manifestation of the direct will of God. This dreadful conflict was brought on through lust of power and greed of gain. It sprang from an unholy determination to rob mankind of God-given rights, and to subject the race to autocratic domination. It is a repetition of the issue at stake in the primeval struggle, when Michael, the champion of free agency, led his hosts against Lucifer’s myrmidons, who sought to rule by might. Talmage, 316-17.

This is a careful blending of Gospel and current situation designed to appeal both to the person horrified by the destruction of the war and to the one indignant at a once aggressive and now defeated Germany.

35. See James B. Allen, “The Story of ‘The Truth, The Way, The Life,’” Brigham Young University Studies 33, no. 4 (1993): 690–741.
36. One might note that all three of these works were produced by general authorities. This is not quite true, as Rational Theology was written while John A. Widtsoe was still a professor at Utah State University. All three of these works, however, were written either at the instigation of the Church or for Church publication. They were all, in that sense, “official” publications. That said, in an era before correlation the boundaries between official and unofficial publications were more porous than they are today. Intellectually, all these works are trying to articulate the Gospel for a contemporary audience, and none of them purport to speak authoritatively on behalf of the Church as an institution.
37. I did ultimately write a personal essay in response to Bushman’s challenge. See Nathan B. Oman, “A Local Faith,” Brigham Young University Studies 49, no. 2 (2010): 163–72.
38. The most tangible recognition of this need by the Church is the publication of the various “Gospel Topics Essays” dealing with such controversial topics as polygamy, the priesthood and temple ban on those of African descent, and the like. See The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, “Gospel Topics Essays,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/essays?lang=eng.
39. See Oman, “International Legal Experience,” 721.
40. See Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, 199–208.
41. This doesn’t mean, of course, that intellectuals cannot occupy positions of ecclesiastical authority; they can and often do. But they do not wield such authority by virtue of being intellectuals.
42. I am acutely aware that this is a criticism that could be leveled with some justice at the framing of this essay itself.
43. I borrow this image from a conversation with Terryl Givens.
44. See Plato, “Socrates’ Defense” in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, trans. Hugh Tredennick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 3–26.
45. See Plato, “Crito,” in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, trans. Hugh Tredennick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 27–39.
46. Aristotle writes in the Metaphysics:

For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin,?? and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders); therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance; evidently they were pursing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.

Aristotle, “Metaphysics,” in Introduction to Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon, trans. W.D. Ross (New York, N.Y.: The Modern Library, 1992), 261–62.

47. See Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10th edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), 27.
48. See Whitney, Elias, 119.

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About Nathan B. Oman

Nathan B. Oman is Rollins Professor of Law at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was educated at Brigham Young University and Harvard Law School. In addition to teaching at William & Mary, he has been a visiting professor at Cornell University, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the University of Richmond. He has published on Latterday Saint history and intellectual life in BYU Studies, Dialogue, FARMS Review, and The Review of Mormon Studies. He has served in the Church as a teacher, young men’s president, bishop’s counselor, and coordinating council director of public affairs. He lives in James City County, Virginia, with his family.

21 thoughts on “Welding Another Link in Wonder’s Chain: The Task of Latter-day Saint Intellectuals in the Church’s Third Century

  1. Excellent article. The author could probably find another cycle like the one he describes looking back further in history. As the church tried to expand beyond Jews in the 1st century it was led and reshaped by Paul and other missionaries to the Gentiles.

  2. “It will become even more important to look beyond our American paradigms and think about what matters to West Africans (among others, of course). What “new” cultural perspectives on the Restoration can they bring to the table?”

    With the understanding that it is cultures and mortal cultural paradigms – not gospel principles and the eternal truths they reference – that must be subject to change, modification, or abandonment – not gospel principles and eternal truths as identified in church teachings, whatever the cultural milieu in question.

    This includes core doctrinal propositions as well as the gospel behavioral and relational standards grounded in them.

  3. And, here’s one more, please, suggesting we need to go up another 10,000 feet in altitude to get an airplane view of the overall work of sharing the gospel, instead of our current narrow focus.

    Generally, our American society has mostly lost the ability to socialize and interact one on one. We text and tweet, we blog and post comments, but we have trouble talking face to face. We don’t talk to strangers, and we rarely _talk_ to friends.

    Our whole _conceptualization_ (at the rank and file level, not the Brethren/GA level) of “missionary work” is off kilter. And here are some thoughts on gaining or regaining a better conceptualization, and rediscovering person to person interaction:


    We need to not only “think outside the box” , but also to realize that with the Lord, THERE IS NO BOX! We should be living in a world of genuine miracles. I know we can, because I’ve seen a few while attempting to share foreign language editions of the Book of Mormon.

    Oh, and one final plug for Robert E Hall’s book “This Land of Stangers”. Get it, and please read chapters 11 and 13.

  4. Intellectuals, if God needs any, he can raise them up from “ignorant ploughboys”. Growth, especially rapid grow, is a risk factor, and not necessarily a good thing. That from a bankers perspective. I’ve often joked that the Church needs to cut back on the missionary effort because I can’t find a parking place at the Temple, even on a weekday! I served a mission in the Andes and marvel at the growth and strength of Peru’s Latter-Day Saints! From this members perspective, the fullness of the gentile has come and gone.
    The “intellectual” evidence is overwhelming. We have enough evidence and we need no more evidence.
    I have watched the leadership of the Church come and go for half a century and am amazed at the consistent excellence in management provided. The Church covers the earth and yet are “few in number”, relatively. That should ring a bell.
    I think that Simon bar Jonah will not be checking footnotes at the pearly gates. Not that the Lord doesn’t love the intellectual.
    Thank you for the essay. Well written and thought provoking.

  5. I notice that the “Come Unto Christ” website places a high emphasis on community. It even goes so far as to invite people to “make us a better church,” and I really like the humility and honesty in that one simple statement. We need to show prospective members that we need them, that they have things of value to contribute. We need to emphasize the advantages and possibilities that organized religion provides by uniting believers instead of just having them each do their own thing. The support we give each other, and the humanitarian aid we do that would be impossible for any one person.

    I think it’s also worth noting that there are some exceptions to the overall trend of stagnant or declining growth. Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria are doing very well. This will undoubtedly alter the demographics and concerns of the Church drastically in the not-too-distant future. It will become even more important to look beyond our American paradigms and think about what matters to West Africans (among others, of course). What “new” cultural perspectives on the Restoration can they bring to the table?

  6. John Wesley allegedly once received a letter saying, “The Lord has told me to tell you that he doesn’t need your book learning, your Greek and your Hebrew.”

    He allegedly responded, “Thank you sir. Your letter was superfluous, however, as I already knew the Lord has no need of my ‘book-learning’ as you put it. However – although the Lord has not directed me to say so – on my own responsibility I would like to say to you that the Lord does not need your ignorance either.”

  7. Be careful of trumpeting intellectualism too much in the church. That’s what the world does. Maybe the real problem is that the intellectuals worry too much about how they and their agendas look to everyone else. Yes, I said _agendas_. The Gospel isn’t rocket science, folks. Maybe the missionary effort is a bit stalled for now, but that’s nothing new. If we have a testimony of the Gospel, we simply need to focus more on living it, rather than worrying what the world’s intellectuals think. If we don’t, all the intellectualism in the world won’t bring us closer to the Lord.

    • Good comment! Ultimately it is the witness of the Holy Ghost which gives a person a testimony, and ultimately it is the possession of the Gift of the Holy Ghost which enables us to be purified and sanctified, and thus to be made Christlike in our nature – all of which is made possible by the Savior’s atonement. I have a Master’s degree in English with a minor in philosophy. I have read several theologians and philosophers about religion, God, the nature of God, the purpose of life, where we came, why we’re here, and where we’re going. And none – NOT ONE – comes close to the profound truths of the Gospel. None – NOT ONE – comes close to the 13 Articles of Faith, which are printed on a small card that can fit in your shirt pocket. I am amazed at how Joseph Smith, who never received an advanced degree in any subject, but who was taught by angels and by the Spirit (always by the Spirit), resolved theological issues that were debated for centuries by theologians and philosophers. If anyone would like examples of Joseph Smith’s resolving such issues, let me know, and I’ll provide them.

      I do think that scholars in the Church can be a great missionary influence because other scholars will respect Church scholars and listen more attentively. I have used Joseph Smith’s resolving century-old dilemmas in conversations, and some people in academia have been impressed. But ultimately gaining a testimony and being converted depends on the witness of the Holy Ghost and the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost.

    • I think you missed the point of current church intellectuals and intellectualism in the world? We’re always had many deep thinking, academics in the restored Church, beginning with the prophet Joseph. I believe we have hit a cultural wall as a church. Cultural and tradition are nice when everyone thinks, feels and acts similarly. Remember Christ broke with Jewish tradition over and over and over. Check the box home teaching has now been shot in the head and replaced with becoming true ministering disciples of the Lord. I’m glad for out of the box thinkers (intellectuals) in the church. I hope I am one! And I am anything but of the world! David O. McKay was a radical (not just because he was the first modern day prophet without a beard) but he thought way, way outside the bo, I’m so glad he did. Let me ask you, for instance, your thoughts about eternal progression? If you measure your mortal walk and judge yourself as only being worthy of the Telestial kingdom, of free agency is eternal, what happens if you progress worthily beyond the limitations of that kingdom? Are God’s arms closed to us? Is his invite limited to a line in the eternal sand? Reason would tell us that one could keep eternally progressing, well, through all of eternity if they chose to. It takes intellectual thought to go down this rabbit hole, vs, the usual, “Once you’ve been assigned a kingdom that’s it.” But what of eternal progression? Free agency beyond mortal death? President Nelson’s Book, “The Gateway We Call Death” notates repentance in the next life, which has long been a first of the four principles and ordinances of the (doctrine) gospel of Jesus Christ. I love this whole article. God will accomplish his work and his glory without bookends and limitation.

      • My only point was that, as time goes on and the world goes further and further down the proverbial toilet, _some_ of the intellectualizing I see going on in the church is more worldly than it should be. Having a testimony of the Gospel is no guarantee we’ll never start thinking in ways that are detrimental to our (or others’) spirituality. An example is the “Book of Mormon in the Heartland” theories some like to adhere to. Be as free-thinking as you like about it, but to me it feels like some are pushing a movement in the church, wanting the brethren to proclaim that their theories are correct. Sorry, but if the Lord hasn’t revealed it, they’re not going to say it. The church doesn’t need movements – the church IS a movement. That’s all. Just the same old tired but vital counsel we all get, to weigh our intellectualizing against our testimonies of the Gospel.

  8. Nathan Oman’s description of the ideal raison d’etre for the existence and function of LDS intellectuals reminds me of something the late Elder Neal Maxwell once said:

    “I believe much of the vindication that will come to the Prophet and to this work of the Restoration will come by scholars who are committed to the Kingdom, who are unequivocally devoted to it.” Maxwell, Interpreter, 7 (2013):xiii

    On the other hand, we have a notion from Brother Brigham which seems to throw cold water on the value of that approach:

    “If all the talent, tact, wisdom, and refinement of the world had been sent to me with the Book of Mormon, and had declared, in the most exalted of earthly eloquence, the truth of it, undertaking to prove it by learning and worldly wisdom, they would have been to me like the smoke which arises only to vanish away. But when I saw a man without eloquence, or talents for public speaking, who could only say, ‘I know, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith is a Prophet of the Lord,’ the Holy Ghost proceeding from that individual illuminated my understanding, and light, glory, and immortality were before me.” Young, Journal of Discourses, I:90.

    Seems to me that Oman has missed a couple of very important distinctions. On the one hand, the epistemologies of the intellectual and of the ordinary believer could not be more different. On the other, a faith-promoting “clerisy” is probably not the best descriptive category in which to place LDS intellectuals – who tend to cover a very broad range of specialties, of educational levels, and of predilections.

    Elder Russell Ballard has recommended to LDS seminary and institute instructors (CES) that they exercise better methods and content in their teaching of young LDS students in order to prepare them for an increasingly hostile internet world in which students may be unprepared to confront false or out-of-context statements about their LDS faith.* He would no doubt agree with Oman that this should be carried out in a celebratory manner, and that LDS teachers (intellectual or no) should be dedicated to that approach.

    The question I would raise, however, is whether LDS academicians can afford to place themselves in thrall to confirmation bias, or to tendentious arguments typical of dishonest evangelical apologetics. Such a priori nonsense is inimical to the communal interests which all true intellectuals share in ferreting out truth in their chosen fields of interest – including many non-LDS intellectuals who took or now take a strong interest in some aspect or other of the “Mormon” phenomenon: Thomas F. O’Dea, Sarah Barringer-Gordon, Jan Shipps, Margaret Barker, Wallace Stegner, Stephen Webb, Ernst Benz, Krister Stendahl, Larry Foster, Richard Mouw, Carl Mosser, Paul Owen, Harold Bloom, and many others. We have made some good friends and earned a great deal of respect among non-LDS scholars precisely because we did not stack the deck, nor did we engage in special pleading. We need to continue to adhere to that dedicated effort.

    We also need to gratefully accept the existence of a vociferous anti-Mormon community (as Hugh Nibley did), simply because there must “be opposition in all things” (2 Ne 2:11-13),

    “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, . . , righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
    “Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.
    “. . . . And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.”

    That is a stark reality of which we should constantly be aware.
    * Marianne Holman Prescott, “An evening with a General Authority: Elder Ballard introduces new initiative for seminary students,” LDS Church News, Saturday, Feb. 27 2016, online at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865648793/An-evening-with-a-General-Authority-Elder-Ballard.html?pg=1 ; the February 26 broadcast itself can be seen at https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/ watch/evening-with-a-general-authority/2016/02?lang=eng ; cf. Ballard, “Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century,” Salt Lake Tabernacle, Feb 26, 2016, online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmGO8R_HDbo .

  9. Thanks so much for this thoughtful essay. My wife and I faithfully attend, worship, fellowship, minister, clean toilets and vacuum carpets in an LDS ward for over two years now. Our bishop, with tongue-in-cheek introduces us to folks as members of the ward, but not of the church. The questioning looks we then get in the words of the MasterCard commercial are “priceless.”

    As I think of your essay I have one dominant reaction. If a Saint is to demonstrate the importance, power, and potency of a unique and irresistible restoration to folks like us, there must be a concomitant reality that such a radical event has created a radical spirituality (hunger and thirst) in its followers. If there is no physical, visible, and tangible difference in the spiritual life and daily testimony of the elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an elder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance or the Plymouth Brethren church, then the LDS insistence on a unique relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit via their unique ordinances and priesthood authority is less convincing.

    My wife and I have searched in vain to ascertain a spiritual difference between our church of origin and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the closer walk with thee (Christ) that each church creates and sustains. Psalm 42:1 states “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” We are looking for that panting, that hunger for God in the very souls of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To be sure, it can be found, but not in a differentiated way from Christians in other Christian groups.

    I am afraid that is the needed element if the church is going to draw other Christians like us to its bosom. Something in the teaching and self-inflicted wounds has to change. Our 70 year old hearts break listening to the testimonies of those who weep because they simply can’t keep up with the workload, the performance requirements, the focus on “doing” that seems dominant in LDS culture and psyche. Where is God’s grace, the celebration of the “gift” of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord?” In their passion to not be like other Christians they seem to have abandoned grace. I think the way to celebrate the restoration and appeal to a hurting world is to celebrate and demonstrate Christ and Christ-likeness.

    We didn’t begin coming to the ward to encounter an institution; we came to encounter Christ. We will be drawn to the validity of the restoration and the unigénito (unique, one of a kind) priesthood that is claimed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when we see a hunger, thirst, and piety that separates its members from members of other Christian communities. To use your metaphor, until then, the Church of Jesus Christ is just another undifferentiated link in the chain of Christianity.

    For folks like us, it isn’t about the virtue, the uniqueness, or the truth claims of the institution. It is all about a hunger and thirst after righteousness. That is what will inexorably draw us to its ministry. Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts as a faithful non-member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    • I find this comment one of the more interesting ones because I agree with its premise and because it comes from a faithful non member. Nate’s article is thought provoking and I appreciate his effort and all the well considered comments. Thank you all.

    • Former Mormon, now Anglican speaking here.

      The wheat and the tares will grow together in all denominations. You will not find what you are looking for anywhere. It never existed anywhere. Not in Corinth, nor in Jackson County.

      I believe that the culture of religious communities is simply “applied doctrine.” The culture is the practical expression of that doctrine. If for some reason the message of the grace of God is not getting through in the LDS community, it is very likely that the doctrine does not really contain the message of grace. LDS grace doctrine is essentially identical to the doctrine of grace within Catholicism. Yet the LDS community grew up within a Protestant environment in its formative years and adopted some of the Protestant language of grace. It has never yet fully formulated precisely what it means by “grace.” Sometimes, leaders sound like Protestants. Yet they often qualify those statements with Catholic-esque caveats. It is very confusing. It plays games with one’s mind.

      For the message of the Restoration to catch on again, it needs to offer something new. It once did offer something new. It offered the idea that men could become gods and that by acquiring wives in this life, one was building up his eternal kingdom in the next. It offered a Yankee-inflected understanding of the concept of the Adam-Kadmon from Kabbalah, thanks to Brigham Young. I was truly quite unique. But over the decades, the Restoration has aligned itself more and more with mainstream Christianity, that same ideology that was at first declared an abomination and a corruption.

      Mormons are giving up their “peculiarities.” Any legitimate claim to stewardship of the “Restoration” is going to follow. Frankly, with the increasing interest among younger generations in the occult and alternative, esoteric spiritualities, the original Mormonism of Jupiter talismans, seer stones, and Adam-God might actually be the message that would catch on in the 21st century.

      • I agree in principle that a degree of “peculiarity” is something which we should not be afraid of, but my study of church history has not left me with the impression that “men becoming gods and building their kingdom by acquiring wives” were the points of peculiarity that drew in the early members of the Church. Certainly they weren’t in play during the mission of the 12 to England, which featured perhaps the most successful exercise of missionary work in this dispensation. Though Joseph Smith had likely recieved the first principles of those teachings by that time, they were not yet in public circulation and would not have factored in the mass baptisms and life-changing migrations we observe from that era. Adam-God, likewise, was never widely adopted as church doctrine, Brigham Young notwithstanding. There is no evidence of it having been taught in a missionary context.

        You’re right about grace. The Latter-day Saint understanding of “grace” appears to attempt to bridge the divide between Protestant and Catholic perceptions of grace, but that divide is made stark by hundreds of years and even more tracts debating the issue. More work is needed on our end, and that is one of the main thrusts of our theological efforts in the academy.

        That said, confusion over the technical nature of grace notwithstanding, there are still stark doctrinal differences between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and mainstream Christianity. Our community culture may have skewed toward mainstream Christianity, but in fairness, we have pretty much agreed with mainstream Christianity from the beginning on the basic meaning of virtues, the commandments, and Christian personal and communal behavior. If the application of those doctrines skews our culture towards mainstream Christianity, so be it, but that doesn’t erase significant doctrinal differences with regard to priesthood authority, biblical reliance, the nature of God and Christ, and myriad other tenets. I don’t think that cultural similarities with mainstream Christianity at all surrenders our stewardship of the Restoration.

  10. Theodore Brandley, JasonB, and Louis Midgley wrote excellent comments. I wish to add one thought:

    Theodore Brandley correctly said: “The presentation of the message always has to be adjusted according to the audience.” Knowing the best way to approach anyone about the Gospel, requires having a list of options, talking with the non-member to find out what the non-member’s most pressing needs or interests are, and praying and getting a witness of the Holy Ghost on which approach to use. For example, years ago I hometaught a family in which only the mother was a member, and she was inactive. The family consisted of the inactive mother, the non-member father, a non-member 12-year old boy, and a non-member pretty, outgoing (which proved to be very important) 15-year old girl. First, I prayed about inviting the family to church, but I got a stupor. Second, I prayed about inviting the family to an upcoming ward party; I got a stupor. Third, I prayed about inviting the family to my home for dinner; I got a stupor. Fourth, I prayed about inviting (with the parents’ approval) the 12-year old boy to a deacons’ quorum activity; I got a stupor. Because I thought such an invitation to the 12-year old boy was a great idea, I pondered why I had gotten a stupor. As I pondered, I realized that the boy was very shy and had trouble fitting in at school, and thus would not have enjoyed being with the deacons in his first encounter. Fifth, I prayed about another option (which I don’t remember); I got a stupor. As I pondered, I remembered that a ward roadshow was going to be put on. Sixth, I prayed about inviting (with the parents’ approval) the pretty, outgoing 15-year old daughter to be in the roadshow. After 5 stupors, I finally got a good feeling on my 6th option: invite (with the parents’ approval) the pretty, outgoing 15-year old daughter to be in the roadshow. I asked the parents if I could invite their 15-year old daughter to be in the roadshow. The inactive mother remembered what a roadshow was. The parents approved of such an invitation, leaving it up to their daughter to decide whether to accept the invitation. I asked the daughter if she would like to be in the roadshow after explaining what a roadshow was. She enthusiastically accepted. She went to the roadshow rehearsals and after a while began attending Sunday School. Then she wanted to hear the missionaries. The whole family listened to the missionaries, were baptized, and became active members of the church. We don’t know the best approach for a specific individual, but we know someone – the Lord – who does know the best approach.

    I got it wrong 5 times, but finally got it right the 6th time. I’ve had other similar experiences. In those experiences a few times my first option got a good feeling, but usually it was my 2nd or 3rd option that got a good feeling.

    I repeat: Theodore Brandley correctly said: “The presentation of the message always has to be adjusted according to the audience.” Knowing the best way to approach anyone about the Gospel, requires having a list of options, talking with the non-member to find out what the non-member’s most pressing needs or interests are, and praying and getting a witness of the Holy Ghost on which approach to use.

  11. I really enjoyed my first reading of Nate’s essay. He has again called my attention to the ways in which the situation and expectations of those we seek to bring into the Kingdom of God has forme and shape both our own mode of presentation and also our own understanding of the message we believe has been and still is being restored both to us and through us to the larger world.

    My own sense is that we have prospered most in teaching others when we have found peoples prepared for our message. This has resulted in a cultural exchange that benefits everyone. What seems to us to be a providential preparation yielding an openness to the Restoration has often taught or called our attention to crucial things about what is being restored.

    I have long been obsessed with what began suddenly in New Zealand on 25 December 1882, when we discovered that some Maori in New Zealand were prepared for what we had to offer by their own Seers. I have been engaged in preserving that remarkable story at least in part for what it can still teach us about the contents and grounds of our own faith. Our scriptures, including especially the Book of Mormon both often and strongly urges us to remember so we can genuinely enjoy the fruits of the mighty acts of God on our behalf.

    Even when Joseph Smith was alive, providential preparation seems to explain what took place in the United Kingdom, and portions of northern Europe, and even in the South Pacific. Now the sea of faith in virtually all of Europe has receded. Only to rise elsewhere. These events seem to me to have profoundly shaped our own understanding of the restoration–including the understanding of those first Apostles who ended up in portions of England. But the restoration did not just end there.

    I admit to being stunned when a window opened with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has allowed us to put down some roots in Russia and Eastern Europe. I never expected anything like that to happen in my lifetime.

    At least for me, an even more dramatic instance of providential preparation has been what has taken place in portions of Africa. Those events have, I believe, subsequently modified and enhanced the content of the faith of Latter-day Saints everywhere. It seems we must constantly look back and remember in order to be properly prepared for the next windows of opportunity that open up, or to face the demonic that is at work in this world.

    I noticed and was delighted by Nate’s willingness to follow the very strong urging of the current President of the Church of Jesus Christ to cease thinking of ourselves as Mormons and talking about Mormonism. What I now long for is what I hope will be a self-conscious focus on the word Saint. Why? That word, which we have from Latin, enters Christian understanding with a Greek root word meaning “Holy,” as in Holy Spirit. Hence in English we also have sanctification and Saint, and also Holy Spirit, which are all linked in crucial ways. So I am pleased to see more frequent us of the long title of the Church, and hence what I hope will be a self-conscious awareness that we should be seeking sanctification and holiness.

    I must now read Nate’s engaging essay more carefully. I urge others to do the same.

  12. Nate, two thoughts:

    1- While other authors hit on a very similar theme to yours (see Adam Miller “Future Mormonism” or listen to Terrell Givens), what I enjoyed about this article was the novel (at least to me) hypothesis that the church will ultimately adapt to success.

    2- While I do think rethinking the message will be part of the process, I actually think what will be equally or more important is mobilizing behind that message. Put another way: I think writing a missionary tract is one thing, getting your branch or ward to develop outreach programs that result with actual butts in seats is something on a whole other level. When those butts start getting in seats I’m sure the church at all levels will be quite interested in seeing what is bringing them there. But making that a reality will be as much about techniques and programs as it will be about a message.

    That said, I did find your article an inspiring call to action in my own life to think how I can articulate what I find most meaningful about the gospel.

  13. Nathan,

    Your article is very thought provoking. The presentation of the message always has to be adjusted according to the audience. Paul taught the Jews differently than he taught the Gentiles. You rightly point out that our audiences are changing. As evil increases in the world the audience that will even listen to any message about Christ is shrinking. On the other hand, those who want to eschew evil will become more receptive to an allied message.

    The key to conversion is still The Book of Mormon. Very few join the Church without a testimony that The Book of Mormon is true. Isaiah said, “Behold, I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth: thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff.” (Isaiah 41:15) The Book of Mormon is the “new sharp threshing instrument.” “A great and marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men. Behold, I am God; give heed to my word, which is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword…” (D&C 12:1-2)

    The Book of Mormon sharply divides people between those who believe it and those who do not. Perhaps the most effective way to apply your thesis would be to develop better ways of introducing and encouraging people to read The Book of Mormon.

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