Returning to my academic roots in New England this weekend has reminded me today of—and I stand with—a marvelous Congregational cleric who a century ago had a little parish in Springfield, about equidistant from New Haven and Cambridge, which seems appropriate today. And he said, more than 100 years ago:
“The loss of popular respect for religion is the dry rot of social institutions. The idea of God as the Creator and Father of all mankind is in the moral world, what gravitation is in the natural; it holds all together and causes them to revolve around a common center. Take this away, and men [and women] drop apart; there is no such thing as collective humanity, but only separate molecules [of men and women drifting in the universe] with no more cohesion [and no more meaning] than so many grains of sand have meaning for the sea.”[i]
In the Western world, religion has historically been the basis of civil society as we have known it, and if I am not mistaken, men and women of the law are committed to the best—that is the most just—civil society.
So thank you for taking religion seriously. You will not only be better attorneys, but you will be closer to the truth in your own personal lives.
Now, you have invited me to speak for a few minutes about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I hope I can tell you something of what I believe and why I have committed my life and my loyalty and everything that I hold dear to that belief.
One hundred and eighty-nine years ago an angel—and if you want to know us, you have to know we believe in God and angels and divine manifestations of all kinds—an angel appeared to a 17-year-old boy and told him that “God had a work for [you] to do; and that [your] name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, . . . that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (Joseph Smith—History 1:33).
That angelic declaration seems to continue to be fulfilled for good or ill, as was prophesied, as various political, social, and cultural—to say nothing of religious—events swirl around The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I can understand that it’s a little shocking because it’s shocking to me to have had not one but two Latter-day Saint candidates vying for the presidential nomination of their party, and I confess I did not believe I would live to see the day that taxi cabs in Times Square would be scurrying about with “taxi toppers” saying, “See the Book of Mormon.”
Of course our quick rejoinder has been, “Now you have seen the show, read the book.” And so it goes.
Not much of any of this, the contemporary hoopla, will have meaning for you if you don’t understand some of the basic things that make us the religion that we are. So I’m going to leave that part to the questions and answer and go back a little earlier.
In 1820, this young man to whom I have referred, named Joseph Smith—a more American name you could not have—desired to know if the true, original church of Jesus Christ was on the earth.
Acting on pure faith in response to a single biblical verse which invited any seeker to pray and ask God just such questions (see James 1:5), this then 14-year-old boy prayed vocally for the first time in his life.
In response to that prayer, what happened next is, to believers like me, the most important revelatory event for mortals to have witnessed—or to have heard about—since that little band of disciples gathered near Jerusalem to see the resurrected Christ ascend bodily into heaven.
In a vision which the young Joseph Smith described as being “above the brightness of the sun” (Joseph Smith—History 1:16), God the Eternal Father and that same resurrected Jesus Christ appeared, in at least partial fulfillment of the promise in the book of Acts to which two angels had said to that earlier group, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
That day is inextricably linked with this day and any meaning my visit to you on this campus may have. There is not time to walk through 190 years of recent Latter-day Saint history since that epiphany, but suffice it to say that young Joseph Smith’s declaration in 1820 is our declaration today and forever—that there was a true church once in the meridian of time, in which Jesus Christ was the chief cornerstone and the personification of its divinity, with mortal men called as prophets and apostles to form a foundational footing around Him. These apostles, with other teachers and priests, pastors and members in general constitute a figurative building, a church if you will, which Paul described as being “fitly framed together … for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, [and] for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 2:21; 4:12).
That is our first testimony—of Jesus Christ as the literal Son of God, of the merciful and redeeming gospel He brought from the Father to the earth to share with all of God’s children, and of the church Christ established to be the vehicle for communicating those truths and those ordinances.
But our next testimony is that after Christ’s ascension and with the death of those early apostles the Church and its divinely ordained succession of priesthood authority was lost, taken, removed from the face of the earth.
So what ensued was a millennium and a half of opposing Paul’s hope—that there would be a “unity of the faith, and [a] knowledge of the Son of God,” his plea “that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:13-14; emphasis added).
It is commonplace to note that in the Christian world we see anything but “a unity of the faith” or any Christian cohesiveness that could remotely be called “the building fitly framed together” (Ephesians 2:21).
There seems to be none that would reaffirm “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).
So it was in Joseph Smith’s day. This young boy prophet lamented that his region was “a scene of great confusion and bad feeling . . . priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; . . . so that [any] good feelings . . . were entirely lost in a . . . war of words and tumult of opinions” (Joseph Smith—History 1:6, 10). That says so very much about post-New Testament Christianity.
So what brings me to you today is not a message of reformation but of restoration—the Restoration of that church Christ established by His hand in the meridian of time, and which He has reestablished by His hand in the present time.
Our basic message about Christ’s restored Church and its doctrine is not limited to, but might begin with, the truth that:
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returns,
Was not spoken of the soul.[ii]
The Apostle Paul said it even better: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Now, in light of what I consider the pretty straight-forward New Testament theology we’ve just noted, one may wonder—why do these Mormons stir up such emotions in people and why are they not considered “Christian” by some? Let me conclude with just a few thoughts about that.
We are not considered “Christian” by some, I suppose, because we are not fourth-century Christians, we are not Athanasian Christians, we are not creedal Christians of the brand that arose hundreds of years after Christ.
No, when we speak of “restored Christianity” we speak of the Church as it was, not as it became when great councils were called to debate and anguish over what it was they really believed.
So if one means Greek-influenced, council-convening, philosophy-flavored Christianity of post-apostolic times, then we’re not that kind of Christian. Peter we know, and Paul we know, but Constantine and Athanasius, Athens and Alexandria generally we do not know. (Actually, we know them, we just don’t follow them.)
Thus, we teach that:
How easily are bishops made
By man or woman’s whim:
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
But who laid hands on him?[vi]
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we attempt to answer honestly the question of “who laid hands on him” all the way back to Christ. The return of such authority is truly, I believe, our “most distinguishing feature” in our faith.
LDS Newsroom Article on Elder Holland’s Address