October 7, 2009

Elder Holland on the Book of Mormon (with Helen Whitney)


Jeffrey R. Holland's recent General Conference address  created a stir at various online communities. When Elder Holland was interviewed by Helen Whitney for the PBS documentary "The Mormons" they discussed the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Here is an excerpt of that interview. The ellipses are in the original, the photo is from pbs.org.


Helen Whitney: The origins of the Book of Mormon have been criticized. There have been counterclaims to its origins. ... What are the counterclaims that you've taken seriously?

Jeffrey R. Holland: ... The Book of Mormon is ... a matter of faith, but it's there. It's readable. It sits on the table, and it won't go away. ... For me it is ... another testament of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ and the single most [important] piece of evidence, the declaration that Joseph Smith was a prophet. ...

I've thought about it a lot, read it often. ... I wrote a book about the Book of Mormon, partly just because I wanted my own conviction, my testimony, to be in print, even if only for my children's sake. I dismiss out of hand the early criticism that somehow this was a book that Joseph Smith wrote. The only thing more miraculous than an angel providing him with those plates and him translating them by divine inspiration would be that he sat down and wrote it with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook. There is no way, in my mind, with my understanding of his circumstances, his education, ... [he] could have written that book. My fourth great-grandfather -- this goes back to my mother's pioneer side of the family -- said when he heard of the Book of Mormon in England, he walked away from the service saying no good man would have written that, and no bad man could have written it. And for me, that's still the position.

So I disregard the idea that Joseph Smith could have written it. I certainly disregard that somebody more articulate or more experienced in ecclesiastical matters could have written it, like [Smith's close friend and adviser] Sidney Rigdon. Rigdon doesn't even come to the church until the Book of Mormon is out and in circulation for eight or nine months. ...

Now, in terms of more modern theories, there are those who say it's more mythical literature and spiritual, and not literal. That doesn't work for me. I don't understand that, and I can't go very far with that, because Joseph Smith said there were plates, and he said there was an angel. And if there weren't plates and there wasn't an angel, I have a bigger problem than whether the Book of Mormon is rich literature. ... I have to go with what the prophet said about the book, about its origins, about the literalness of the plates, the literalness of the vision -- and then the product speaks for itself.

I don't think we're through examining the depth, the richness, the profundity, the complexity, all of the literary and historical and religious issues that go into that book. I think we're still young at doing that. But the origins for me are the origins that the prophet Joseph said: a set of plates, given by an angel, translated by the gift and power of God. ...

[You say] there are stark choices in beliefs about the origins of the book. Explain why there's no middle way.

... If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That's what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody's liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book, but not agreeing to its origin, its divinity. ...

I think you'd be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we're not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. ... We would say: "This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I'm going forward. If I can help you work toward that I'd be glad to, but I don't love you less; I don't distance you more; I don't say you're unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can't make that step or move to the beat of that drum." ... We really don't want to sound smug. We don't want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.

... There are some things we can't give away. There are some foundational stones. If you don't have those, you don't have anything. So the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, those are pretty basic things. ...

Was there one evening [on your mission when you felt your faith deepen]?

I can tell you that evening, and probably with any review of my ... missionary journal I could tell you the date. I can picture the night in Guildford, Surrey, England. Late -- probably should have been in bed. I was a good missionary, and I tried to keep the rules. You get up on time, and you go do your work, and you stay healthy. But I was reading later that night. It was early in my mission, and I can picture it. I can picture my room. ... It was pretty spare. But I can remember ... having just been studying the Book of Mormon. I can remember closing the book and sobbing. I absolutely sobbed. I wept. The front of my shirt was wet. My tie was wet. I was still dressed, still in missionary attire.

But I wept. I could not stop. And it wasn't homesickness. I've known homesickness. It wasn't the euphoria of the moment. I'd known euphoria and despair. ... It wasn't that. I'd had all those experiences. It was a declaration to my soul that this book was divine; that this was true; that God lived and loved us, and Jesus was the Christ, and prophets really were prophets, and it really did matter what you did in life, and heaven really did care. And I just wept. ...

There have been a number of people in your church who have been disciplined or excommunicated for stepping over some line[...]What about people who question the history of the Book of Mormon?

There are plenty of people who question the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and they are firmly in this church -- firmly, in their mind, in this church -- and the church isn't going to take action against that. [The church] probably will be genuinely disappointed, but there isn't going to be action against that, not until it starts to be advocacy: "Not only do I disbelieve in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, I want you to disbelieve." At that point, we're going to have a conversation. A little of that is more tolerated than I think a lot of people think it should be. But I think we want to be tolerant any way we can. ... "Patient" maybe is a better word than "tolerant." We want to be patient and charitable to the extent that we can, but there is a degree beyond which we can't go. ...

8 comments:

DMI Dave said...

Thanks for posting this, Blair. It helps to put Elder Holland's recent Conference talk in better perspective.

Clean Cut said...

I also had this interview on my mind while listening to his General Conference address.

Personally, I have tried to view the Book of Mormon from the perspective of a non-believer, but I'm still coming up empty. I've really tried to figure out how if one doesn't believe the Book of Mormon to be authentic based this or that reason, then how DOES one account for it?

Even the "inspired fiction" theory seems to require the improbable--that Joseph and all witnesses who saw and felt the plates were just lying (and why?) I would need someone to do much better than simply try to explain it away by saying that Joseph thought it would be fun to get involved with magic, produce a hoax, and then live the unrelenting and persecuted life he lived defending a lie--even eventually giving his life for it. That just doesn't work for me.

If all someone can do is try to connect a few verses of Alma 40 with similarities from the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 32, or what not, then you've only attempted an explanation for a few verses in very long book. But what of the rest of Alma, or Mosiah, or the vast majority of the rest of the Book of Mormon?

So far the "best" explanation I've been given by a "thoughtful" critic of the Book of Mormon is that it's simply a "hodge podge of various common 18th century themes, sources, and religious controversies combined into an imaginative and compelling story." But even this explanation doesn't seem like they're giving this topic the amount of thought that it demands. After all, didn't Alexander Campbell say essentially the same thing?

Such a flippant explanation does indeed seem a little "pathetic" for someone familiar with the totality of the Book of Mormon, let alone the abilities of Joseph Smith or the unbelievable help (aka: vast conspiracy) Joseph would have needed to pull off such an amazing "scam".

It's actually harder for me to believe these theories/explanations than it is to simply believe that God and angels were involved. And for any believer in the Bible, it also shouldn't be that hard to believe in angelic visitations.

cinepro said...

Wow. The tone of that interview is far different than the tone of the Conference Talk (as I would expect). But it still raises the question of who the Conference Talk was intended for, since the interview is probably far more helpful to doubters and skeptics than his Conference Talk was.

Papa D said...

When you parse his words, he said very clearly in his GC talk that he was addressing his criticism to those who don't even try to understand the BofM's power and central message and those who claim the book is a total fraud.

This talk also influenced how I interpreted his talk when I heard it - and that was reinforced when I went back and listened carefully to it again.

Nametag Museum said...

Have you read any of the works by Cleon Skousen? I am in the middle of a most spectacular argument with Dave about him, and I was just curious to see if perhaps you had an opinion about Skousen. He wrote such works as "The Naked Communist" and "The 5,000 Year Leap".

BHodges said...

Skousen was something of a nutty conspiracy theorist. He has become somewhat popular again because of Glenn Beck. His scholarship was spotty at best and flat-out false at worst. Anything more specific?

Greg said...

This post reminded me of Elder Holland's Apostolic Witness. I hope it is a useful reference.

BHodges said...

Greg, thanks for the link.

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