A few months ago I was going through a faith crisis. It was a moment of doubt and unfortunately a moment of anger. Something that bothered me was the very human tendency of putting other humans in an almost superhuman pedestal, especially among Latter-day Saints with regard to General Authorities, specifically the Twelve Apostles and President of the Church. This led to cynicism and really, just an overall negative attitude about anything they had to say. I saw them, at the time, as old white businessmen.
But what changed that? Three General Authorities did that. One current apostle, one former apostle, and one former President of the Church. To be more specific: Boyd K. Packer, Bruce R. McConkie, and Joseph Fielding Smith. These three are generally seen as the three great conservative figures within the LDS Church. There is nothing wrong with that perspective, though it can be polarizing (and maybe flat out wrong for staunch Democrat McConkie) and lead to a very negative view of these men.
Let me explain…
Boyd K. Packer
Part of my initial cynicism was when I found out about then-Elder Packer’s 1976 General Conference talk and eventual manual, “To Young Men Only”. The most difficult comment was when young missionary confessed to him that he hit his companion so hard that “I floored him.” Elder Packer’s response was: “Well, thanks. Somebody had to do it, and it wouldn’t be well for a General Authority to solve the problem that way.” The implication, in context of the talk, was that the missionary’s companion was probably gay and had either told his companion or made a move on him. Now, my problem was (and is) with Elder Packer appearing to support violence against homosexuals. Even if the companion made a move on the missionary, I’m sure it could have been handled a better way than “flooring” him. Even if that was the case, should Elder Packer say, “It wouldn’t be well for a General Authority to solve the problem that way”? Should an apostle advocate for violence against homosexuals, especially if it is excessive? What bothered me most was the audience reaction. They laughed as if violence against another human being was funny. Though to his defense, he did add, “I am not recommending that course to you, but I am not omitting it. You must protect yourself.” If that protection is necessary, I am all for it, but if force could be avoided, it should be avoided (not every gay man hitting on you will be so aggressive that you need to hit and floor him).
There then came the famous quote from Elder Packer from a talk to the All-Church Coordinating Committee in 1993 where he elaborates on the three greatest dangers facing the Church: “The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” As someone who likes to think of himself as somewhat of an intellectual and enjoys scholarship, and as an ally to both feminists and homosexuals, this bothered me. Especially when studying how this relates to the excommunications of the September Six (for accuracy, one of the September Six was disfellowshipped, and two of the excommunicated have returned to the Church).
It was with this almost “anti-Packer” bias that I came into the October 2014 General Conference. He was the first speaker of the Saturday Morning Session. As I sat down to watch the session on Saturday night, I wondered what he would have to say. I was surprised to find that he gave my favorite talk that conference. He bore an honest and sincere testimony of Jesus Christ. His was one of the most powerful testimonies of the Savior I have heard since joining this Church a year and a half ago. I realized that despite any disagreements I may have with President Packer, he is not some evil old man. He sincerely believes in Christ, worships Him, and does the best he can to live by his faith, even if we can disagree on a couple points. That’s the beauty of being a Latter-day Saint, we don’t always have to agree 100%, just help one another gain a testimony and closer relationship with the risen Christ.
Bruce R. McConkie
There is no stranger book, to my limited knowledge, in 20th century Mormonism than Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine. In the book, now out of print, Elder McConkie attempts to give explanations for why there was a priesthood and temple ban for those of African descent. Many of these explanations were given by faithful Latter-day Saints to possibly explain why blacks could not hold the priesthood or enter the temple. Since then, we now know and admit the practice started with Brigham Young and had no doctrinal basis. McConkie even backtracked and sustained the revelation to give blacks the full blessings offered in the Church. There were other problems with the book, of particular importance to me was its harsh views of Catholicism (a faith tradition I love and still have close ties to). It should be noted that the First Presidency was not happy with the book. President McKay asked Marion Romney to look at it and offer revisions. President McKay even went as far as offering a private rebuke and telling McConkie, in front of the rest of the Twelve, that the book cannot be republished. To that, McConkie humbly replied: “I am amenable to whatever you Brethren want. I will do exactly what you want. I will be as discreet and as wise as I can.”
Since learning about Mormon Doctrine and Bruce R. McConkie’s very straightforward and sometimes harsh tone and language, I avoided anything by him that I could. If anything, for my own well being. I thought that by avoiding him I would avoid things I thought would hurt my testimony or didn’t like.
Then one day when talking about Elder McConkie with someone from my Elder’s Quorum on the ride home from the temple, he said, “Yeah, there are things McConkie said that were wrong or extreme, but when called out for being wrong he had no problem changing course. And I admire the way he spoke. He didn’t care what people thought but instead taught what he saw as God’s will boldly. That’s what a prophet needs to do.” I couldn’t disagree with that. Especially that last sentence. We need more of that in the Church today.
Last week I decided to start the Book of Mormon again and concentrate on Christ’s passion and death. I felt this prompting to look up Elder McConkie’s final General Conference talk. From hearing about it earlier, it was my understanding that it was a beautiful and simple testimony of Christ. I looked it up and it was a talk on the power of Christ’s sacrifice entitled “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane.” Elder McConkie starts:
“I feel, and the Spirit seems to accord, that the most important doctrine I can declare, and the most powerful testimony I can bear, is of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It was a beautiful talk that helped me understand Christ’s death much better. In fact, I have re-listened to the talk a few times over the last week.
What struck me most was the talk’s conclusion. For context, McConkie died 13 days after this talk.
I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears.
But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.
That was probably one of the most beautiful and most powerful testimonies of Jesus Christ I have ever heard. No matter what Elder McConkie may have said in the past, this was his final takeaway. In the end, Elder McConkie testified of Christ as a special witness. I see this as probably the ultimate fulfillment of his calling as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.
He was a man doing what he thought was best out of his sincere love for Christ. Seeing this love made me realize that. He was simply trying to show his love for the Savior.
Joseph Fielding Smith
If you know me, you know I love the history of the Church. I find it fascinating as someone interested in religion to be able to go back and see documents from the founder himself. If you want to study religion and the making of religion, Mormonism is the religion to do it in. Years before taking missionary lessons, I began listening to podcasts about Mormon doctrine and Mormon history. Unfortunately, history in the Church has been somewhat white-washed and glossed over. I found out that some of this had to do with Joseph Fielding Smith being Church historian for about 50 years. At first I blamed him and thought he was a terrible person for hiding and misleading people about the history of the Church. For example, the Church acknowledging in 2014 that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and had about 40 wives should not make the New York Times. This should be common knowledge and accepted widely accepted. It should have been known and accepted a lot longer than before.
Listening to a Mormon Stories episode with Terryl and Fiona Givens discussing their newest book, Crucible of Doubt, I heard Fiona mention this about Joseph Fielding. Joseph Fielding’s grandfather was Hyrum Smith, brother of the Prophet Joseph. His father was Joseph F. Smith, the last nephew of Joseph Smith, Jr. Joseph F was in Nauvoo when his father, Hyrum, and uncle, Joseph, were killed. He saw their bodies and the aftermath of the Prophet and Patriarch’s death. Not only did Joseph Fielding grow up hearing about this and what his father saw, this was his family. The Prophet was a close relative. Hyrum was his grandfather. Is it out of line to think that Joseph Fielding did what anyone else would do in that position? He saw part of his job as protecting his family. Now, that doesn’t make what he did right, but it takes away from my anger and moves to understanding and compassion towards him.
Then there was his anti-evolution stance. He, along with Elder McConkie, were strong advocated against evolution. He spoke out widely against it. Though as I started doing more reading, I discovered that Henry Eyring, father of President Henry B. Eyring, was a renown chemist who would debate President Smith on evolution and the sciences in private. The two men would disagree and discuss their disagreements but come out of them acknowledging the other as a faithful Latter-day Saint. If Henry Eyring could do that, why can’t I?
In this discussion it’s also important to note the First Presidency statement written after hearing from both Smith and B.H. Robers (who was in favor of evolution):
Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the people of the world. Leave Geology, Biology, Archaeology, and Anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research …. We can see no advantage to be gained by a continuation of the discussion … but on the contrary are certain it would lead to confusion, division and misunderstanding if carried further. [emphasis mine]
But what really did it was when I found out that he was in my line of authority (turns out it was his father, not him, but that’s besides the point). I didn’t want to have ill will towards someone in my line, so I went on ebay and bought the first volume of his Doctrines of Salvation (edited by none other than Bruce R. McConkie). When I started reading it there were things I loved about his theological thoughts and somethings that I disagreed with. But the beautiful thing was that while I disagreed I understood where he was coming from and it wasn’t a disagreement for disagreement’s sake. When I disagreed it was because I used logic, scripture, theology, to come to a different conclusion, not out of spite. It was a wonderful thing to dialogue with Joseph Fielding Smith through his text. And I will say, we agree more than we disagree.
Why mention any of this?
So you may be asking why say any of this? Why air my grievances and dirty laundry? Why come out against the prophets?
Well, I don’t see myself as doing anything of the sort. There were times when I went through my angry phase and doubt. There were some names of General Authorities I couldn’t stand and discredited anything they said. I was cynical. But I got beyond that. I had to realize that I could disagree with them but still find some truth to what they said and believed. They are not the sum totality of everything they say I don’t like.
I write this because I know there are many people who are going through faith transitions and may be going through their angry phase or have ill will towards some of our leaders. I’m writing this because I went through that and what helped was not avoiding those I disagreed with, it wasn’t because I kept silent and did nothing. What helped was a willingness to learn, to read, to hear, and to embrace these people as humans and as Mormons.
We are all Latter-day Saints so there has to be something in common binding us. Find that thing and embrace it.