The Latter-day Saints and the Resilience of Faith

My friend Robert Millet has been talking about his faith in relation to other expressions of the Christian faith for decades now, and I salute him for his contributions to fostering a better understanding. He has taken the initiative with me and others to engage him and other Latter-day Saints leaders in conversations about our similarities and our differences.

His essay here in Respectful Conversations is no different. He quotes both from church leaders and the New Testament to highlight the importance of prayer, service, worship, and the study of scriptures in the lives of Latter-day Saints. He also underscores the centrality of service to others, which the Latter-day Saints do as well as, or better than, most Christian groups.

As a historian of religion in North America, I’ve long been fascinated with the Latter-day Saints. (I’m sure, out of long habit, I will lapse into referring to them as “Mormons,” even though I know the current president is trying to stamp out that appellation. I mean no disrespect, but I also note that previous church authorities have launched similar initiatives, and yet the terms “Mormon” and “Mormonism” keep resurfacing.) I often remind my students that, aside from the obvious fact that the plethora of Native American religions are indigenous, Mormonism (there I go again!) is the first and certainly the most successful indigenous religion in North America.

My fascination with the Latter-day Saints is due in part to their resilience. Here you have a tradition that was widely reviled and persecuted in the nineteenth century; I doubt very much that the Supreme Court’s Reynolds decision would stand today, for example. And yet the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only persevered, it flourished, and it became by the middle of the twentieth century one of the religious groups most associated with patriotism and American values (it probably didn’t hurt that the Mormons consider America’s charter documents to be divinely inspired).

One thing that I find so admirable about the Latter-day Saints is the strength and durability of their faith – and I hope that my comments here will not be viewed as dismissive or condescending; I don’t mean that at all. When you look objectively at the controversies surrounding the Spaulding manuscript or Joseph Smith’s sexual history or the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the Book of Abraham, for example, you might reasonably expect that many of the faithful would simply walk away out of disillusion or even disgust. Some surely did so, but most remained loyal to the tradition. I have to believe that a true, authentic, and abiding faith played a role.

Despite my appreciation for Mr. Millet’s contribution, I wish he’d said a bit more about some of the distinctive characteristics of the Latter-day Saints. I know he’s spent his career trying to build bridges to various Christian groups, but one of the glories of religion in America is its diversity. As someone who harbors deep reservations about ecumenism, I’d love to hear more about what distinguishes Mormonism – uh, Latter-day Saints – from other Christian groups.

1 reply
  1. Robert Millet
    Robert Millet says:

    June 21, 2022

    Randy, it’s so good to be able to associate with you again, even if it is electronically. Your visit to BYU several years ago and your willingness to teach a couple of workshops on various facets of religion in America is still remembered and commented on by many of my BYU colleagues. And I continue to enjoy reading your books (my favorites are Growing Pains, Redeemer [Jimmy Carter and the religious right], and God in the White House.

    By the way, your difficulty in trying to avoid calling us “Mormons” is only matched by my own difficulty in writing, especially books or articles written to persons of other faiths.

    Your comment about how we manage to keep going and keep growing given the difficult moments in our past (e.g., sources of the Book of Mormon, plural marriage, Mountain Meadows Massacre) has a lot to do with the very significant decision of our Church leaders 25-30 years ago to move toward greater transparency in the telling of our history (including the massive “Joseph Smith Papers” project). In addition, members of the Church have been adopting a very significant point of view relative to the fallibility of our leaders, past and present.

    Dieter F. Uchtdorf, one of the senior leaders, stated: “Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question. . . . And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.”

    One of the more well-known and beloved of our present leadership is Jeffrey Holland, former president of BYU and now one of the apostles. In a very important address in general conference entitled “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief,” he said: “Brothers and sisters, this is a divine work in process, with the manifestations and blessings of it abounding in every direction. . . . So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.”

    Years ago I heard a quip like this: The Roman Catholic Church believes in the infallibility of the Pope in matters of doctrine, but most Catholics don’t believe it. Latter-day Saints have been taught that their leaders are not infallible, but most Saints don’t believe it.” It’s a challenge we face, but no different than what other religious denominations have had to face: Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism, Henry VIII’s extra-marital affair, Baptist preachers justifying slavery from the Bible, corrupt practices within Roman Catholicism, etc. We all have moments in our church’s history that we wish would have been different, but we move on.

    The reason I didn’t deal with distinctive Latter-day Saint teachings/practices was because we were asked to address ourselves to what it means to follow Jesus within our respective denominations. Because you asked, the following are some distinctives within our faith:

    • a belief in a premortal existence; that we are all spirit sons and daughters of God (Numbers 16:22; 27:16; Hebrews 12:9).
    • a belief in a kind of “fortunate fall” of Adam and Eve; that is, the Fall was necessary because it opened the way for the blessings of the Savior and His Atonement to be made available to all.
    • a strong belief in the effects of the Fall (both spiritual and physical death) but a denial of “human depravity.”
    • a belief that the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was a part of the Savior’s atoning suffering, that what began in Gethsemane was completed, climaxed on Golgotha. It was the withdrawal of the Father’s sustaining and comforting Spirit from Jesus—something Jesus had never experienced— that caused Jesus to sweat blood (Luke 22:44).
    • a non-acceptance of the post-New Testament creeds and theological formulations, including the doctrine of the Trinity.
    • a belief that God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons and three distinct Gods; we believe them to be one in almost every other way imaginable except for an ontological oneness. I might state our doctrine of the Godhead as follows: We believe there are three divine Persons within the Godhead—God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. We believe that each of these divine beings possesses all of the attributes and qualities of godliness in their perfection. We believe that the love and unity that exist between these three Persons is of such magnitude that they can properly be said to be “one God,” which for us means one Godhead. Our view of the Godhead resembles, to some extent, what is called social trinitarianism.
    • a teaching that would definitely be one of our most distinctive differences from traditional Christianity—that God, our Heavenly, an exalted and glorified Being, has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as mortal men and women. We do not believe that a physical body limits or confines God in any way, any more than a resurrected physical body confined or limited the Risen Christ, who stated that “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).
    • that with the deaths of Christ and the apostles in the first century, a period of apostasy or falling away took place in which the keys of the priesthood given to Peter and the apostles was lost, requiring more than a Reformation. A Restoration was needed.
    • that certain ordinances (sacraments) are essential for salvation.
    • that at the time of death we enter into a post-mortal spirit world, an intermediate state; there we learn, grow, repent, and prepare for the resurrection.
    • that every person will have the right to hear the message of Jesus Christ and His gospel, either in this world or in the post-mortal spirit world (compare 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 regarding Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison).
    • that in Latter-day Saint temples vicarious baptisms are performed, as well as the sealings of husbands and wives, parents and children, not just until death, but for eternity.
    • that in harmony with Jesus’s teachings that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2) and Paul’s teachings about various types of bodies in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:40-42), there is more than a heaven and a hell hereafter; there are degrees of glory.

    I hope the above is helpful.

    Bob

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