December 3, 2007

The Practical Part of Religion

Brigham Young March 23, 1856 Brigham Young was less philosophical, systematic or historical in his extemporaneous sermons than one might expect of a "prophet"or religious leader. His opening remarks in this discourse give insight into his reasoning on the subject; he was very much living for eternity in the present:

I rise desiring that what I may say may be instructive, edifying, and beneficial to the people. At times, when I think of addressing you, it occurs to me that strict sermonizing upon topics pertaining to the distant future, or reviewing the history of the past, will doubtless please and highly interest a portion of my hearers; but my judgment and the spirit of intelligence that is in me teach that, by taking such a course, the people would not be instructed pertaining to their every day duties. For this reason, I do not feel impressed to instruct on duties to be performed a hundred years hence, but rather to give those instructions pertaining to the present, to our daily walk and conversation, that we may know how to benefit ourselves under the passing time, and present privileges, and be able to lay a foundation for future happiness.
It wasn't that Brigham disliked hearing of the past or future, or that he believed speaking of such was wrong; he preferred to focus on practicalities of the day:
Still, I love to hear historical narrations, to hear the Elders vividly portray the important events which transpired in the days of the Prophets, the Savior, and the Apostles, and it also cheers my heart to hear the Elders of Israel illustrate the beauties and glory of Zion, in the future. Yet, when I reduce it all to the duties of the religion we profess, I realize that it is of vital importance for us to know how to lay a present foundation for our future destiny, that we may attain that exaltation, happiness, and glory, which we anticipate, hence, I confine my remarks, more particularly, to the practical part of religion.[1]
Brigham said he was aware that many visitors were listening, and that they might expect him to preach sermons in an organized, systematized way. He had other plans, and explained why:
This does not suit my disposition, for I am in favor of that instruction which will enable us, this day, to receive the blessings offered and teach us to appreciate them, that we may be prepared to enjoy the glory that has been revealed. That is my “Mormonism,” my reflections, my judgment, and the spirit in me dictates this course, not to speak merely to gratify those who prefer to hear pleasing, delightful discourses, which sound smoothly to the ear and lull the hearers to sleep.
As far as pleasing sermons go, Brigham was not formerly trained, and as you can probably tell by now, his sermons were what Leonard Arrington called "weak in organization." Still, he could hold an audience captive. "Nevertheless," Arrington noted:
Brigham's messages were well thought-out, suggest remarkable mental power, and were well-adapted to his audiences. They were "fireside chats," an informal "talking things over" with his people, and a reading of the sermons indicates that he knew where he was going and was effective in getting there.[2]
Brigham often taught it was the privilege of every Saint to enjoy the "light of truth," or personal revelation. This was practical religion to Brigham; that everyone would follow the Holy Ghost:
Suppose we should actually enjoy the light of truth, to such a degree that we could always foreknow important events—that we had the spirit of prophecy insomuch that we could foresee our future destiny, would we not lay a foundation to secure our best interests? We most certainly would. It would be the constant aim of our daily conduct, to secure to ourselves and our families that happiness and comfort which we desire. Is it possible for us to do this? It is.
This ability to receive knowledge from the Holy Ghost is a gift of the Spirit, as explained in the Doctrine and Covenants:
To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world (D&C 46:13).
But what of those who don't feel that closeness to the Spirit? Or the beginners in the gospel who are still learning to walk by the light of revelation?
There are many who do not know and understand for themselves. Now let each person of that class ask himself this question—“Even though I do not know and understand for myself, is it reasonable that I should have confidence in those who do?”
Brigham believed it was reasonable, at least to begin with, to exercise faith based on the testimony of a trusted person, as is taught in that same D&C revelation:
To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful (D&C 46:14).
It seems a skeptical nature would be disinclined to be satisfied with someone else's testimony, and sure enough, we are counseled to seek to gain knowledge for ourselves, not living on what Heber C. Kimball called "borrowed light."[3] Some aren't even willing to borrow to begin with, they are too wrapped up in the cares of everyday living to worry about religion as Brigham discussed next:
Now let each person of that class ask himself this question—“Even though I do not know and understand for myself, is it reasonable that I should have confidence in those who do?” and, through the weakness and blindness of fallen nature, he would answer, “No.” Still it would be best could it be so, for those who are blinded to their own interest to have confidence in those who do know and understand what is for their good, to trust in them, take their counsel, and do in all things as they are told. But, no; the spirit of apostasy, the neglect of duty, tend to cast a veil over the minds of people, and when they cannot see and understand for themselves, they say, “I think I know as well how to dictate my own affairs as does brother Brigham, or any other brother.” ...What a pity it is that men who do not know how to govern themselves in the kingdom of God, do not know enough to observe the counsel of those who do know. A pity it is that men and women of mature age, but who have not got a fair stock of good sense, do not know how to control and apply what they do know. Such persons do not know enough to sit still and hear from others, but they must always be indulging in their own gabble; their tongues are like a flutter wheel in rapid motion, and their chatter flows in a continual stream. We have men here who will come into this stand, and preach you and I perfectly blind, figuratively speaking, and when they are through they do not know themselves from a side of sole leather, with regard to the things of God; they are all gab. What a pity it is!
Such is the case when people are confused about who they really are:
They have no confidence in anybody, and can have none in themselves, for they do not know themselves. They do not comprehend their existence, and were it not that they get tired, and wish to rest, they would scarcely realize that they had a body; and when their stomachs become empty and crave food, they are prompted, like the brutes, to seek for something to eat.
Lest anyone think Brigham was only being critical of people outside the Church, he got more specific:
This is the case with some in this congregation, they have but little more idea of what they are, who they are, and what will be their future destiny, than has the stall-fed bullock that is fatted for slaughter.
People would become distracted, (Brigham often used the word "decoy"):
What is the matter with them? The god of this world has blinded their minds, they give way to selfishness, covetousness, and divers other kinds of wickedness, suffer the allurements of this world to decoy them from the paths of truth, forget their God, their religion, their covenants, and the blessings they have received, and become like beasts, made to be taken and destroyed at the will of the destroyer.
In our probationary state we can follow the Light of Christ within as it prompts us and pulls us back home:
That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day (D&C 50:24).
Or we can follow the entropy that drags us to the things of this world:
For they love darkness rather than light, and their deeds are evil, and they receive their wages of whom they list to obey (D&C 29:45).
This eternal principle was cryptically and paradoxically explained by Christ in the New Testament:
He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it (Matthew 10:39).
"Finding" life would likely include the selfish or distracted things Brigham outlined above, whereas losing life in the sake of the gospel could indicate a certain selflessness. Brigham said we all have more to learn in this regard:
This people have yet much to learn, even the best of them. For one, I am aware that I know enough to do right to-day, as also do very many who are now before me. If sin presents itself to them they know what it is, and know better than to give way to it. I know that it is not right to do wrong, and so do the most of the people, and all may and should, as have all who have received the spirit of the Gospel; and if this knowledge has gone from them, it is because of transgression.
We can be more apt to see the failings of our neighbors than our own. The second half of this sermon has a great parable on the topic, which will be discussed in the next post. Footnotes: [1] Perhaps Brigham's greatest legacy to the Church which still pervades Mormon thinking is the practical nature of religion, which was subsequently buttressed by the Church welfare program among other things. Elsewhere Brigham explained: I want present salvation. I preach, comparatively, but little about the eternities and Gods, and their wonderful works in eternity; and do not tell who first made them, nor how they were made; for I know nothing about that. Life is for us, and it is for us to receive it today, and not wait for the millennium. Let us take a course to be saved today, and, when evening comes, review the acts of the day, repent of our sins, if we have any to repent of, and say our prayers; then we can lie down and sleep in peace until the morning, arise with gratitude to God, commence the labors of another day, and strive to live the whole day to God and nobody else (JD 8:124-125). [2] Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, pg. 196-197. [3] Heber C. Kimball said: "The time will come when no man nor woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. If you do not have it, how can you stand?" (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Kimball Family, 1888], 450). JD 8:124-25

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