This was a talk given by High Councilman Greg Prince to a sacrament meeting in the Chevy Chase Ward in the Washington, D.C. area, August 12, 2007. Brother Prince is the co-author of “David O. McKay: The Rise of Modern Mormonism.” He offered to send a copy of his talk to my wife who was in the congregation that day. He added that she could feel free to email it to others, quote it or use it as a talk, herself. For this reason I feel comfortable posting it here.
I spent ten years researching and writing the biography of David O. McKay, one of our most beloved prophets. President McKay was both a Scot and a poet, and it is no surprise that his favorite author was Robert Burns, Scotland’s poet laureate. One of the best known lines of Burns is this:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see ourselves as ithers see us!”
The presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney has been a source of pride for most Latter-Day Saints, placing the Church in a spotlight that we have not previously seen in our lifetimes. Much to our surprise, however, this has been a mixed blessing, as national polls have consistently reported that as many as 43% of all Americans would not vote for Romney or for any Latter-Day Saint because of their religious affiliation. Perhaps even more troubling is a Gallup poll that showed the majority of Americans– and the percentage was the same regardless of political party affiliation– distrusted Mormonism. A central message of these polls is that we clearly do not see ourselves as others see us. When you consider the hundreds of thousands of missionaries that have spent countless years spreading the benevolent message of Mormonism, to say nothing of considerable public relations efforts on the part of the Church and individual members, this is very unsettling. We have work to do.
Many years ago my friend Paul Edwards, who was a General Authority in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a church recently renamed the Community of Christ), told me of a public relations campaign his church had launched to counteract the frequent confusing of the Missouri-based RLDS Church and the Utah-based LDS Church. Several radio and television ads depicted vignettes in which the RLDS members were mistaken for their Utah cousins. At the end of each, a voice-over said, “The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: We’re not who you think we are.” Paul said that the next week, several church employees showed up at work wearing t-shirts. On the front they said, “We’re not who you think we are.” On the back they said, “We’re not who we think we are.” Between what we think we are and what others think we are is a very wide gap, and there is much that we can do to close that gap.
When one speaks to those not of our faith, three words consistently come up, and none of them corresponds to what we think we are: cult, non-Christian and blasphemy. They are not pleasing to our ears, and with good reason. But rather than pass them off lightly as unjustified criticism on the part of those who “don’t have the truth,” we might do well to take a minute and think about them, for they give important clues as to why we don’t see ourselves as others see us, and what we might do to reverse the situation.
First, cult. One of the dictionary definitions is “a group of people”– or a church– “devoted to beliefs and goals which may be contradictory to those held by the majority of society.” Is this a fair description of the Church? Well, if you look at the account of the First Vision that is contained in the Pearl of Great Price, wherein the Lord said that all other churches were wrong, you see that this is fair. Furthermore, many of our beliefs certainly are contrary to those held by the majority of society. We tout that as a plus, but many outside the Church see it differently. Take a look at another dictionary definition of cult: “A small, recently created religious organization that is often headed by a single charismatic leader and is viewed as a spiritually innovative group.” “A single charismatic leader” is an apt description not only of Joseph Smith, but also all of the prophets who have succeeded him. And Joseph Smith was nothing if not spiritually innovative. While both of these positive definitions accurately describe Mormonism, the word cult also has negative connotations that come along for the ride. One, humorous though quite accurate, is: “If you believe in it, it is a religion, or perhaps the religion; if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult.” If you are old enough to remember Charles Manson, or more recently, Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple, you can appreciate how dark a connotation the word cult can carry, and why we are rightly averse to its use in describing us. If we take the time to “see how others see us,” however, we begin to see that the real problem is one of communication, and that if we begin to speak in a different language– the same language that is used by those not of our faith, but one that is quite different from what we call “Saintspeak”– we can begin to reverse the negative image.
The second word is non-Christian. This is offensive to us, and over the past few years we have reacted by changing the Church’s letterhead twice, each time enlarging the words “Jesus Christ” while shrinking the other words of our name; and adding a subtitle to the Book of Mormon. What has been the effect of these changes? Essentially nil. Perhaps if we step back again and try to see ourselves as others see us, we can better understand the problem. We have taken such pains to emphasize our differences with other churches that we have sometimes overshot the mark. A single example, albeit a powerful one, is to look at our Priesthood/Relief Society manuals. While we rightly study the teachings of our prophets and revere these men, more than a decade has passed since the manuals contained the words “Jesus Christ” in their title. We know that we are Christians, but to an outsider who dispassionately looks at the hard evidence, which might include our study manuals, is there sufficient evidence to convict? One commentator even turned the question around: “In all honesty, do Mormons truly believe that Christians are truly Christian? Not if you take your theology seriously. There is a sense that you want it both ways.” [Helen Whitney, Sunstone address, August, 2007.] Once again, if we took time to see ourselves as others see us, and understand why they think we are not Christians, we could remedy the misunderstanding.
The third word is blasphemy. Once again, let me turn to the dictionary. “The act of claiming the attributes of deity.” If you can take a step back and see yourselves as others see you, what is the difference between claiming the attributes of deity, and the oft-quoted phrase first uttered by Lorenzo Snow and endorsed by every Church President before and since: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become”? We know what we mean, but an outsider is hard pressed to appreciate the difference. Those who have become sensitized to the problem will often hedge and say “God-like,” but anyone who looks carefully from the outside will see that this is crossing our fingers. There is a way to reach a common ground without abandoning our theological uniqueness, but we have not yet moved in that direction, and the bulk of the movement must be on our part, not theirs.
I would like to spend the remainder of my time discussing a recent event that gave us an unprecedented opportunity to see ourselves as others see us. It came in the form of a documentary entitled “The Mormons” that was broadcast to a national audience over PBS. The documentary was unprecedented both in scope, with four hours in primetime; and in reach, with an audience of 9 million people– nearly double the normal PBS weeknight audience and double the highest prior national rating for any “American Experience” broadcast.
The producer was Helen Whitney, whose career in documentary filmmaking spans nearly four decades and has garnered a lengthy list of awards including one Academy Award nomination, six Emmy nominations, one Emmy Award and two Peabody Awards. She said: “My interest in Mormonism was originally sparked by some LDS classmates who made a very favorable impression on me when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Over the years, as I studied other churches, I came to realize the Mormons were one of our great neglected national narratives.”
As she began to work on the project, the Church became aware of it and did some homework on her. They made a strategic decision to cooperate at the highest levels. She was given unprecedented access to Church personnel, and ultimately spent nearly 20 hours on film with President Hinckley, President Packer, Elder Oaks, Elder Holland and Elder Marlin Jensen. My own conversations with General Authorities confirmed that they decided to cooperate at this level because they felt that Helen, even though she would tackle tough and sensitive issues as an independent producer, would be balanced and fair. They believed that she would give credibility and reach that the Church had not succeeded in obtaining through the many media programs it had produced itself. They were right.
The official response of the Church to the documentary concluded: “At a time when significant media and public attention is being turned to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and when news media is so often accused of superficiality in its coverage of religion, this serious treatment of a serious subject is a welcome change.”
A review published by The New York Times, a newspaper not known for pandering to the Church, said:
A proposition: If your beliefs are any good, you needn’t be afraid to bring them out into the light. The proof: “The Mormons,” a thoughtful two-part series tonight and tomorrow on PBS. The tenets of the Mormon church may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the church members and leaders who speak in this program are admirably forthright about their religion’s history, strengths and challenges. It’s great to hear people who believe in something and can articulate it without sounding crazy or defensive. [The New York Times, April 30, 2007]
A review by the Orlando Sentinel, posted on the Church’s web site, said:
Whitney has found first-rate speakers and assembled the material with style. She achieves balance by interviewing believers and skeptics, church insiders and the excommunicated. Most crucially, she provides respect that has oftern been denied the religion.
And Dr. Mario DePillis, a respected non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism, told a packed room at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association in Salt Lake City, “This is one of the best documentaries ever done on any American religion.”
All who viewed the documentary, whether member or non-member, learned something new; most learned a great deal that was new. Having spent hundreds of hours over a two-year period in working with the director, her staff and many of those interviewed for the documentary, I offer several observations and suggestions. Underlying them all is the fact that Church members are, in general, woefully under-informed about their own religion. As a result, they were caught off-guard by much of the well-documented information that was presented in the documentary:
- Example one: Joseph Smith wrote several differing versions of the First Vision over a period of a decade-and-a-half. The earliest, which was also the only one in his own handwriting, stated:
By searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.
What took him to the grove, according to his account, was not a desire to know which church was true, for he had already concluded, from his study of the Bible, that none was. Rather, he went to the grove because of his sorrow for his own sins, and his desire to obtain forgiveness for them. The Lord appeared to him and said: “Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee, go thy way, walk in my statutes and keep my commandments.” Those of you familiar with the later version of the First Vision that is contained in the Pearl of Great Price will note that the two versions are quite different. It turns out, however, that the differing versions are remarkably consistent with the differing accounts of the divinity of Jesus that are contained in the New Testament, all of which are on firm theological ground once one understands the process by which history becomes theology. Yet few Church members have invested the time necessary to gain such understanding.
- Example two: Few within the Church even knew about the First Vision for the first half-century following the founding of the Church. It did not become part of the message of the missionaries until 1881, when it was published as part of the newly-canonized Pearl of Great Price. Until then, their message was primarily the Book of Mormon, which was viewed as the tangible evidence of Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry. It was the Word of God, not a history book. That’s still the best way to look at the Book of Mormon.
- Example three: Joseph Smith is, in the words of the producer, “the Alpha and the Omega of Mormonism.” If you don’t accept him as a prophet, you are hard pressed to accept the church that he established. Conversely, to understand that church, you must study and understand Joseph Smith, a task that is challenging to all. Non-Mormons who speak in the documentary have much to say about him, and we can learn from their insights. Harold Bloom, a professor of humanities at Yale University, considers him one of the greatest religious figures of modern times. He said:
All religion, Western and Eastern, is founded upon miracle. It makes little sense to present arguments against Joseph Smith and early Mormonism that would extend equally well to what we are told about the origins of what will eventually be Judaism, the origins of Christianity, the origins of Islam. All religion depends upon revelation. All revelation is supernatural.
Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary and a nationally prominent evangelical theologian, said:
What outrages the traditional Christians of the day was that this guy comes along, Joseph Smith, and he says, ‘Push the delete button on all the stuff you’re arguing about because we have to go back to the very beginning and restore a true original, primitive Christianity that has been corrupted for 1800 years. And you’re a part of the corruption. You are the corruptors of it in this present day, and God has given me a newer testament, but not only a newer written record of what God wants from human beings, but that God has restored the office of prophet, and I am the prophet for this new age…’ My instinct is to attribute a sincerity to Joseph Smith… As an evangelical Christian, I do not believe that the members of the godhead really appeared to him and told him that he should start on a mission of, among other things, denouncing the kinds of things that I believe as a Presbyterian. I can’t believe that. And yet at the same time, I really don’t believe that he was simply making up a story that he knew to be false in order to manipulate people and to gain power over a religious movement. And so I live with the mystery.
And Jon Butler, dean pf the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University, though a self-described agnostic, had high praise for Joseph Smith:
Smith’s claims are, in fact, extravagant, extraordinary, difficult. He’s way out there at the end of the diving board. He’s claiming a miracle in America. He’s claiming a miracle, having seen an angel. He’s claiming the creation of a new biblical text that he is delivering through a revelation that he has seen through a seer stone. These are claims that are really in the line of the claims made by the origin of Christianity– life over death– in the origins of Judaism, in the origins of Islam. They are exceptional. They’re really unlike that of so many other religious movements which emerged in one step or two steps out of existing religious systems. Smith simply transcends Christianity through the miraculous and perfects it at the same time. So he opens up a whole new world that simply didn’t exist before, and it is a whole new world. It’s a world with a text; it’s a world with an angel; it’s a world with a prophet. And it didn’t exist before Joseph Smith. And that is truly extraordinary.
- Example four: What we do is far more compelling than what we say. That seems like a trite statement, yet for decades we have concentrated on talking people into the Church, thinking that somehow a little bit better version of missionary discussions, or perhaps one more book will do the trick. I have first-hand knowledge of this, because I fell into the same rut as a missionary in Brazil four decades ago, and it took me years and years to realize the folly of that line of thinking. The Savior, as usual, led the way, letting his light shine and enjoining others to do the same. One of the most powerful sequences in the documentary was an interview of James Madison, a resident of New Orleans and victim of Hurricane Katrina, who had paid no attention to what countless missionaries and other Latter-day Saints had said, but who will never forget what they did. He said:
We were hearing stories on the radio of troops coming in. Helicopters were flying over. We even heard the president was flying over in a big helicopter, looking at us. But nobody was there on the ground with us except for the Mormons in their yellow t-shirts who showed up to help us clean up. And they didn’t just come in and hand us a piece of food, a piece of bread or something, and say, ‘Here’s something to eat while you’re working.’ They actually got down and cleaned and worked.
Before the storm, I had had Mormons knocking on my door, just like everybody else probably, and so the object was to try and get rid of them as fast as possible. You know, ‘just go away. Not interested. Don’t want to hear what you have to say.’ After the storm, a little bit different now. They’re part of my family now, always will be. You know, they got into my heart, and they’ll never stand on my doorstep again without being invited into my house.
We live in a time when record numbers of people in this country oppose the Church. We have much work to do to bring down the barriers of distrust that separate us from others. At a preview of the documentary at the American Film Institute, Dr. David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC and a good friend of the Church, spoke to an audience that included many members of the Methodist community that he had invited to the occasion, along with many Latter-day Saints. “Were this a gathering of Methodists and Hindus,” he remarked, “the Wesley community would rejoice. But it is a gathering of Methodists and Mormons, and it has raised some eyebrows. We all have work to do.”
My question and challenge for you is, Are you able to appreciate how others see us, and then speak to them in their language, not ours, so that mutual understanding goes up, and barriers come down? Are you willing to invest the time and effort to study your religion and, in the words of Helen Whitney, to “own your beliefs” in the public arena? Will your shining light of example overcome the biases of those around you so that they are attracted to Mormonism as “one of our great neglected national narratives.” At a time when both interest in, and suspicion of the Church are at record levels, we have an opportunity to reverse the neglect. But to do so, we must see ourselves as others see us, speak to them in their language, not ours, and show them that the real message of Mormonism is its power to change lives. May the Lord help us to do so.