October 24, 2008

Simultaneous Searching and Certainty?

A few thoughts about doubt
Part 1 of 2

Because Mormons place heavy emphasis on the power of testimony based on personal metaphysical experiences with God coupled with the testimony of others, statements directly challenging beliefs can feel threatening and personal. In a culture stressing the importance of knowing, doubt may easily be seen as an aberration; perhaps something to avoid, fear, or reprimand.1 From another perspective doubt is the arbiter of an open mind, freedom, and wisdom.

Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, described a tension within the Church; a paradox of simultaneous searching and certainty:

Mormons are admonished to "get their own testimonies" and not live by borrowed light. But immersion in a culture so saturated in the rhetoric of certainty inevitably produces the pressure to express, if not to actually possess, personal conviction; and it produces a socially reinforced confidence about those convictions.
Perhaps this explains in part the proclivity of disaffected Mormons to so frequently react with bitterness and feelings of betrayal. It explains why people can leave the Church but cannot leave it alone.2
Perhaps it also explains why it can be tempting for members to vilify those who actively or aggressively manifest antagonism or even simply doubt toward the Church. Such a response may be a defense mechanism some faithful people employ in response to encountering an intimidating apostate who proclaims they lost faith despite praying, reading scriptures, and living a good LDS life ("If someone can lose their testimony while doing everything right...."). Labeling a person as a doubter, or manifesting fear or antagonism toward such a person can actually reinforce and feed doubt.3

In LDS devotional history there are some prototypes for doubt, most notably in Joseph Smith's uncertainty in searching for forgiveness and the true religion of God or his later prayer in Liberty Jail asking where God had gone. While such stories set an example, hindsight bias reveals their happy ending while the uncertainty in experiencing current personal doubt can be a tremendous obstacle. Should doubt, then, be avoided?

Can doubt be considered a sin? Can doubt be considered righteous?


In the new "Guide to the Scriptures" on LDS.org there is no entry for doubt, nor is there one in the Bible Dictionary or Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

Terryl Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, Oxford University Press, p. 275

For more, see Richard Bushman's "Introduction" to the 2008 Bushman Seminar.

October 22, 2008

He That Receiveth You Receiveth Me

Heber C. Kimball
August 13, 1853

A principle upon which Heber C. Kimball often discoursed was the importance of following the living prophet, who at that time was Brigham Young. The friendship between the Heber and Brigham was strong; it began back in 1832 when they were both baptized. They marched with Zion's Camp in 1835 and were ordained apostles the same year. Concerning these two friends, Joseph Smith said:

Of the [original] Twelve Apostles chosen in Kirtland,...there have been but two but what have lifted their heel against me—namely Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball (HC 5:412).
Many did "lift the heel," or turn against the prophet, which in my opinion, was one of Joseph's greatest sorrows. While prophesying of his impending martyrdom he lamented:
I might live, as Caesar might have lived, were it not for a right hand Brutus...1

Loyalty to the prophet was important to Heber, his sermons and writings consistently refer to the theme of following the prophet, and his loyalty to the office continued when Brigham Young replaced Joseph.

While Mormons believe God expects people to think for themselves, it is not a strictly individualistic approach. Counsel through a prophet is key to discipleship of Jesus Christ, providing valuable checks and balances to personal thoughts, as well as instruction directly from God people might not otherwise recognize. Some may believe following a prophet is foolish, or unnecessary today; that those who do are blind sheep. But Christ told his disciples in Jerusalem that people must accept His servants in order to accept Him:
He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward (Matt.10:40-41).

As evidenced in this sermon and many others, Heber sought a prophet's reward:
When brother Joseph Smith lived, he was our Prophet, our Seer, and Revelator; he was our dictator in the things of God, and it was for us to listen to him, and do just as he told us. Now that appears very absurd in the eyes of the world; but they all say, if they had lived in the days of Peter, Moses, or Jesus, they would not have done as the people in those days did to them; but at the same time they would take their lives if they could, and do just like them.

Loyalty to a prophet did appear absurd to many onlookers, as it still might today. The Lord said through Joseph Smith that commandments given "whether by [his] own voice or by the voice of [His] servants, it is the same" (D&C 1:38). Surely one claiming to be a "prophet" could take advantage of that.
Joseph Smith himself seemed to understand the suspicion people had for one who claimed authority from God. Josiah Quincy, future mayor of Boston, related the following incident after visiting Nauvoo and meeting the Prophet:
I should not say quite all that struck me about Smith if I did not mention that he seemed to have a keen sense of the humorous aspects of his position.

"It seems to me, General," I said, as he was driving us to the river, about sunset, "that you have too much power to be safely trusted to one man."

"In your hands or that of any other person," was the reply, "so much power would, no doubt, be dangerous. I am the only man in the world whom it would be safe to trust with it. Remember, I am a prophet!"

The last five words were spoken in a rich, comical aside, as if in hearty recognition of the ridiculous sound they might have in the ears of a Gentile.2

Joseph and Heber both knew following a prophet would appear foolish to some people; even people who believed in prophets of former days; Bible-believing people calling into question the belief that God speaks to prophets.

This attitude was no different in the days of Jesus, though. A man whom Jesus had healed on the Sabbath was interrogated by critics of Christ, expecting the man to help incriminate Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. After continuing to ask if Jesus had, in fact, healed him, the man replied:
I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples?

Then they reviled him, and said, 'Thou art his disciple; but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is,' (John 9:27-29).
Perhaps these Pharisees had forgotten that the ancient children of Israel exhibited similar feelings toward Moses:
And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger (Exodus 16:2-3).

Disbelief or whining: par for the course for living prophets, it seems.

Later, in a stern denunciation of the Pharisees and Scribes, Christ pointed out and condemned the rejection of living prophets:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.

Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Wherefore, behold, I send [not 'sent'] unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth..." (Matt. 23:29-35).

Richard Bushman summed up the issue of living prophets succinctly, arguing that Joseph Smith posed an interesting challenge to Bible-believing Christians of his (and our) time:
Joseph aimed a question at the heart of the culture: Did Christians truly believe in revelation? If believers in the Bible dismissed revelation in the present, could they defend revelation in the past? ...And if revelation in the present was so far out of the question that Joseph's claims could be discounted without serious consideration, why believe revelation in the past?3
Heber, an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, understood the principle of the prophetic calling4; that it did not require the prophet to be a perfect man, but nevertheless, Heber taught the necessity of following the counsel of the living prophet:
We are the servants of God; we have been called of God through the ministry of that holy Prophet Joseph Smith, who received his authority through the ministry of holy angels. Now he was just as true a Prophet as Moses was, or as any Prophet that has ever been upon the earth; and we are just as much the authorized servants of God, as the Apostles and disciples in the days of Jesus Christ were, and I know it. And I bear testimony of it to the United States, and to the nations of the world.

They say they do not believe it. What do I care whether they do or not? I know it, and God requires me to bear testimony of it, to be valiant in testimony to the truth of this work, and to preach the Gospel, and to lay before my brethren their duty (JD 2:105).5

Related by Joseph's cousin, George A. Smith on March 18, 1855. See Journal of Discourses 2:211.

Josiah Quincy, a traveling companion of John Adams' son Charles Francis Adams, recounted his experiences in Nauvoo in his book Figures of the Past From the Leaves of Old Journals, pages 376-400.

Richard L. Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, 272-273.

When instructing Saints to prepare a food storage, Heber knew some would call his imperfections into question; he jested:
My feelings are, if God blesses and sustains me, to build a good storehouse for my grain this season; I am going to lay up everything I can raise. I say this for the benefit of brother Hunter, and all the Bishops in the House of Israel. Follow the example if you think it is a good one, and lay up stores of grain, against the time of need, for you will see the time when there will not be a kernel raised and when thousands and millions will come to this people for bread.

You cannot believe it, can you? You may say, "If one of the old Prophets could rise from the dead and declare it, we would then believe it, but, brother Heber, it is hard to believe it from you. You are very liable to take colds, if you were a servant of God you would not have any colds."

Upon the same principle I can say If you are the servants of God, why do you get hungry? I should not suppose that you would ever be hungry. I am a servant of God, and if you do not know it, I bear testimony of it, and I am a companion to Brigham Young, and will be for ever and ever (JD 3:253).
Christ to the ordained apostles:
And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city...He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me (Matthew 10:14-15, 40).
Christ to the apostles at the Last Supper:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me (John 13:20).
Christ to the Seventy:
He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me (Luke 10:16).
Paul teaches to obey leaders:
Remember your leaders, who spoke God's message to you; reflect on the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith. Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you (NET Hebrews 13:7, 17).
Orig. posted 9/24/07

October 21, 2008

Joseph Smith's Advice on Teaching

George A. Smith
August 12, 1855

About one week after the first saints entered the Salt Lake valley in 1847 President Brigham Young designated a spot for the Temple. Next to this plot the settlers constructed an open-air bowery composed of poles, adobe, and a rough roof of branches. In 1849 the structure was strengthened and enlarged with canvas awnings. In 1851 an adobe tabernacle was on the spot, the "old tabernacle," and a similar bowery attached, as pictured. In these buildings the saints gathered for conferences, sacrament meetings, and other meetings. The open air was nice in the summer, and even in rain storms and windy weather they'd sometimes meet in this bowery. On some occasions they'd end meetings early based on the loudness of the wind preventing the speaker from being heard.
Many of the discourses I've blogged, including this one, were delivered therein. With that in mind, here is the introduction of this discourse from George A. Smith:
It used to be, in the days of the Prophet Joseph, a kind of common adage that "Mormonism" flourished best out of doors, and although we struggled hard at the time that the brethren undertook in Missouri to build a hewed log house that would cost about $1200, yet that tried the faith of many, and was more than we accomplished before the Saints were driven from Jackson County, and we failed to erect a building big enough to hold the Saints previous to the death of the Prophet. At the time of his death we were still trying to build a Temple, but all our exertions only resulted in our having to go out of doors for room enough.
Interestingly, Joseph Smith wasn't involved in building one chapel during his life. Meetings were held in homes, and at Nauvoo in a large grove next to the Temple. His concerns revolved around the Temple. The Bowery was used until 1867 when the "Great Tabernacle" was completed.1
George A. Smith, cousin of the Prophet, was baptised in 1832 at age 15, marched with Zion's Camp at age 17, and by 1835 he became a Seventy. Around this time he was called on several missions. He discussed some of the advice his cousin Joseph gave him before he went into the field:
When I was first called upon by the Prophet to go and preach the Gospel, I received a little good advice, which I have endeavored to profit by ever since, and that too, to the best of my ability. In the morning, as I was about to start on my first mission to preach the Gospel, I waited upon brother Joseph, and asked if he had any advice to give me.

"Yes," said he, "George A., preach short sermons, make short prayers, deliver your sermons with a prayerful heart, and you will be blessed, and the truth will prosper in your hands."

I was a boy of seventeen at the time, and I called this [conversation] my college education; I however took a second degree, calling upon father Joseph Smith, who was the Patriarch of the Church, and as I was about starting, he said, "One word of advice George A., whatever you do, be careful to go in at the little end of the horn, then, if you increase, though be but a very little, you are sure to come out at the big end; but if you go in at the big end, you are certain to come out at the small end."

Ever since that time I have applied it, and thought often of the old gentleman's counsel, and I have found it to be very correct.
Preaching the gospel is a serious endeavor, and anxiety or zealousness may lead some to try to be impressive or pound the doctrines home with academic alacrity. Pres. Henry B. Eyring mentioned this tendency:
Because we need the Holy Ghost, we must be cautious and careful not to go beyond teaching true doctrine. The Holy Ghost is the Spirit of Truth. His confirmation is invited by our avoiding speculation or personal interpretation. That can be hard to do. You love the person you are trying to influence. He or she may have ignored the doctrine they have been taught. It is tempting to try something new or sensational. But we invite the Holy Ghost as our companion when we are careful to teach only true doctrine.

One of the surest ways to avoid even getting near false doctrine is to choose to be simple in our teaching. Safety is gained by that simplicity, and little is lost...We can teach even a child to understand the doctrine of Jesus Christ. It is therefore possible, with God’s help, to teach the saving doctrine simply (Henry B. Eyring, "The Power of Teaching Doctrine," Ensign, May, 1999).2
George A. then related an experience in Kirtland involving Sidney Rigdon, considered by some to be the best Mormon preacher in the early years of the church's existence:
At that time Elder Sidney Rigdon, our great preacher, (the perfect comber of all the sects,) a man that could bring to bear all the big, jaw-cracking words of the English language, and who could fill up the interstices with quotations from other languages, and bring all to illustrate the Gospel of Christ, and to contrast it with the errors of the different sects to which he had formerly belonged, I remember seeing him get up to preach when there were present Professor Seixas3 and several other learned gentlemen who were on a visit to Kirtland, and President Rigdon wanted to show himself to the best possible advantage.

I discovered his error when he first began speaking; I saw that he was in his high heeled boots, and at the commencement he soared so far above his subject that he could not get down to it; his whole discourse was a constant series of efforts to descend to a style requisite to illustrate the simplicity of the Gospel, the natural result of his commencing on too high a key-the difficulty and trouble was that he commenced on too grand a scale to carry it through successfully.

Now if he had commenced to preach to those learned men the first simple principles of the Gospel, and then, as the Spirit had opened up things to his mind, have gone into the more advanced principles, he might have succeeded as he desired, but he got up with the intention of showing his great big self, and began at the big end of the horn.
Teachers speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost won't be as concerned with how they appear, or what others think of them when more concerned with speaking truth as directed by the Spirit.
Now when we present ourselves to a congregation of people, the first thing should be plainly and simply to communicate to them the first principles that we receive, in the best possible manner. But what is the best way to communicate them to the inhabitants of the earth? Shall we select the greatest jaw-cracking words in the English language, and from other languages, or shall we use reasoning the most abstruse and mysterious?

The best method is to select the best and simplest way in our possession, and you will find that to be the most successful method of proclaiming the Gospel. You may note it when you will, in men that go forth to proclaim the truth, and you discover that the man who has the fewest words communicates his idea to the people, as a general thing, in the plainest manner.

When a man uses ten or fifteen superfluous words to convey one simple idea, his real meaning is lost, he reaches beyond all the rules of grammar and rhetoric, and his idea, which, had it been clothed with simple and appropriate language, might have been good, is lost for want of more suitable words. It is like Massa Gratian's wit-"two grains of wheat hid in three barrels of chaff."
Just to make sure his point wasn't lost, George A. closed with an example typical of his preaching style:
It is my advice that our Elders should study brevity in all their discourses and communications to the people, and that they should speak in the plainest and simplest manner; for if they were to do this-speak so that the unlearned can comprehend, then the learned will be sure to understand, unless they have got their ears so twisted that it is vulgar for them to listen to common conversation; they are like the young gentleman who had just come from college and was desirous of making a considerable show, so when he stopped at a country hotel, he gave the following orders to the ostler- "You will extricate the quadruped from the vehicle, stabulate him, donate him an adequate supply of nutritious aliment, and when the Aurora of man shall illumine the celestial horizon I will award thee a pecuniary compensation."
The lad went into the house to the old man, crying-'Landlord, there is a Dutchman out here; I can't understand a word he says, do come and talk to him yourself.' (Laughter.)4

Now if he had said-'Unharness the horse, water and feed him, and I will pay you for it in the morning,' he would have been understood by the ostler (JD 3:23-28).

For more on the various meeting houses in use and the "Great Tabernacle," see "The Great Tabernacle: A Building of Purpose and Spirit," Ensign, Apr. 2007, 24.
[2] B.H. Roberts once spoke of the importance of accuracy in teaching, noting that the closer to truth we are, the better the Holy Ghost can manifest a witness to what we taught. I need to find the source on this statement, however.

[3] Professor Seixas referred to Joshua Seixas of the Hudson Seminary. In 1836, Joseph smith hired Seixas to teach Hebrew at the school of the prophets in Kirtland. More than 30 students formed the first class, and soon the group swelled to include four classes. Joseph Smith was faithful in attending and mentioned his studies often in entries now found in the History of the Church. (For more, see Milton V. Backman Jr., The Heavens Resound p. 272).
[4] Occasionally, as in this case, the transcriber would include an audience reaction such as "laughter."
Orig. posted 9/27/07.