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Mormon Apostle Speaks to Harvard Students: Q&A

Elder-Jeffrey-R-Holland-mormonElder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes referred to as the “Mormon Church” by the media), addressed students at the Harvard Law School as part of a Mormonism 101 event sponsored by LDS Students.  There was  a question-and-answer session following his remarks.  Elder Holland fielded a variety of questions regarding Mormon beliefs and practices.

Read Elder Holland’s address to Harvard Students.

Below is the transcript for their question and answer session:

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: Thank you for your courteous attendance. I will be pleased to devote the remaining time to your questions. I love you and leave my witness and blessing and thank you for this invitation. Please, if you have questions let me take the next little while to try and answer them.

Question: Thank you very much for that. Would you mind elaborating a little more on the nature of Christ. You had said earlier how there are several characteristics where Christ is similar to the Father, one [attribute] I did not hear was divinity.

Answer: Clearly divinity, absolutely. I guess that was a given for me. Good question; that would be my point of departure. In fact, I think we’ve done a disservice. I don’t know what your faith is or whether you have any religious faith, and that doesn’t matter, but I think we [Latter-day Saints] may have done ourselves a disservice. I think we have not taught as well—and by the way, we take responsibility for the fact [that] there’s a lot of confusion about who we are and some emotion and some error. Some of it’s justified in that I don’t think we’ve done a very good job in explaining our own doctrine, explaining our own position, mea culpa. I think one of the issues that we have strained—not strained, just declared—the separate nature of the Father and the Son physically; that’s a very big issue for us. We believe that Christ prayed to somebody, that this was not divine ventriloquism. This is really a Father and a Son. But having said that, I think that’s kind of what’s lingered in the public collective religious mind. And I think we have done a great disservice in then not reaffirming and emphasizing, insisting on the unity in virtually every other aspect of their nature and their being and certainly at heart forever and forever their divinity, absolutely. And that’s an error on my part to have even missed a word like that, thank you.

Question: One thing you alluded to in [the] distinction between the Father and the Son that I think many more mainstream traditional Christians have… Mormon faith, is the nature of the trinity, and what role if any do the Latter-day Saints teach about the Holy Spirit?

Answer: Thank you, thank you.  Great question, terrific question. We have avoided the word “trinity” because there’s so much ecclesiastical history attached to that. So we haven’t used the word “trinity,” but we do talk about a tri-partite God and we do talk about this unity that I hope people understand we really are committed to and that our scriptures are committed to. I suppose maybe nowhere, nowhere that I know of in the New Testament is it taught more powerfully than it’s taught in the Book of Mormon. I think most people would not know that. And quickly and emphatically included in that would be our devotion to, our reverence for, the Holy Spirit as the third member of that Godhead. Again we’ve just kind of assiduously not said “trinity” because so often that tends to blur this matter of substance.  And so we’ve tried to come up with a slightly different vocabulary. But in that tri-partite figure, and in that three-part relationship certainly, forever and always, would be the Holy Spirit. And I’m grateful. I think they’re not scriptures we use enough, but those are scriptures taken from our own Latter-day Saint canon as well as traditional New Testament documents, [or] New Testament texts.

Question: You spoke about Joseph Smith’s very American-ness, does national character at all play a role in the Church’s teachings?

Answer: Well, I think inevitably, certainly in the beginning, in the origins; we’re now global, we’re in 140 nations. We teach our—I don’t know if we have missionaries here in the back of the room, but—we send our missionaries out in 110 languages and publish the Book of Mormon in about that many languages. So, we’re now very global, but I think there’s no question… that there was a cultural, national, political, social, context for the 1820 origins, the restored later origins of the Church that clearly carried American significance and consequence.

And part of the thing we’d be very quick to say [is that] we don’t know anywhere else in the world that a concept of religious freedom would have existed that would have allowed this to happen in 1820, and [then] he’s [Joseph Smith] murdered by age 38. So, he was playing that about as close to the edge of the envelope as he could. And it hadn’t been that many years earlier that we were looking for witches. So, I think in terms of timing, I don’t know anywhere else, in my limited study of world history, I don’t know anywhere else that we could have had this religious opportunity except in the climate in America, in the aftermath of the Great Awakening, especially the Second Great Awakening. And a tolerance for this—at least a tolerance for a few years, and then of course he was martyred—but I don’t think it could have gotten off the ground anywhere else and probably that kind of opposition, that kind of fatal, mortal opposition probably would have come quicker and sooner.

So yeah, that’s a long way around a short, good answer; there was an American climate and that certainly proceeded West with us. Brigham Young’s often called the American Moses, you know there’s a lot about that.

In this century, in the last 120 years, it’s  been much more global. Our growth is much greater internationally than domestically now. Simply because there’s more out there to do, and our lines have crossed in terms of the percentage of Church membership. Where our missionaries serve, where our congregations are, [growth is] greater now internationally than [it is] in the United States.

Question: Are all other churches, churches in name only?

Answer: No; this is a tough issue and it’s a good question. But I think the issue comes down, not to the lack of Christian teaching, not to the lack of compassion and mercy and Christian characteristics, but when it comes down to the ordinances, we believe there has to be some sort of documentable identification and line to that authority to perform that ordinance. That’s not a comment, that is not a statement about churches not doing good or not having truth, and not having grand truths, great truths. But when it comes to the sacraments, when it comes to an ordinance, we do press this matter of authority. Somebody somewhere has to say, “I’m authorized to do this;” and I just threw in the little exchange between the Wesley brothers because that’s something that divided in that case a very very famous Protestant family over the issue of authority. I’m very sensitive about the idea that it would sound like; “well I guess the Latter-day Saints think they’re the only ones who have said a good thing or done a good deed, or performed any kind of appropriate Christian act.” That is the farthest thing from our mind and the farthest thing we’d want to leave from any thought with you. But it is an issue with us about priesthood authority, about priesthood authorization.

Question: A relating question I think to [the previous] one: could you say a bit more about the status of the churches or believers between, say, the end of the first century and the restoration. Were there any reflections of the Church between those times?

Answer: I think there would have been threads of the truth [in the world] always. There were spiritual manifestations. I think people were having legitimate spiritual experiences. I do think you have to go along and find these moments when this priesthood issue came to surface. And when there is to our view, in our minds, an authorized sacramental ordinance. But there clearly would have been spiritual experiences, gospel truth, people searching in the scriptures, people having private spiritual experiences. Not only then, but in these vast periods in the Old Testament, you’ve got all kinds of people living all kinds of lives, for great segments of the Old Testament where there doesn’t seem to have been an authorized prophet on the earth at the time, or a period of some Babylonian captivity or the Syrian occupation. We think divine experience, divine care, that kind of religious experience would have existed all the way down through. We [have] just finally come to this point of finally getting it institutionalized and authorized. But we would never diminish or minimize religious experience all the way through for all kinds of people.

Question: I have more of a political question than a doctrinal question. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit on the LDS view on women, specifically in light of the recent war on women and Mitt Romney’s comment that he would get rid of Planned Parenthood.

Answer: I won’t speak on Mitt Romney or his campaign, we are apolitical in the Church in the partisan sense. So I won’t comment on any candidate or any political party. But I can say that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is more committed than any institution, any religious institution that I know of, to the dignity and standing and worth and merit and glory of a woman in any way that I know to say it to you.

My wife, where are you honey? Stand. My wife was a general officer of this Church before I was, and I don’t know very many churches that do that. But she was the general officer over a global organization, years before anybody thought I had anything to offer. And that may or may not be exactly what you have in mind in asking the question, because some of those come down to social issues, contemporary, political issues of the day, and you referred to one.

In principle, I can simply say that we believe that the creation of a woman was the crowning and final and most glorified moment of human creation. We start with light and dark, and land and sea, and we move through fish and fowl, and beasts of the field and we get to Adam and it’s still not good enough. And only when Eve was created—this is our theology; you say this is political, but for me it is theological—that the crowning creation and the glory of the human experience came with the creation of Eve.

Now, we need to do better, everybody needs to do better, I think society needs to do better, this Church probably needs to do better, maybe your church does. I think we all need to do better, to make sure that dignity comes through, to make sure that kind of communication is conveyed. With one of you in this audience I sat a couple of hours ago and we talked about this. How to do it better, how to be more explicit, how to find a better vocabulary. And how to make actions follow our language, our vocabulary and our sermons, I think that’s a task that’s in front of all of us. But certainly doctrinally, theologically—I don’t mean this to be overly boastful or patronizing in any way and in any other tradition—but I would put the position of a woman in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints up against the dignity, worth, merit, and wonder of a woman anywhere on this planet. We just need to do better to be able to convey that. We need to be able to make sure that everybody understands that, including the women in our Church, which I don’t think we have done well enough yet.

Question: I have a question. How do you square the office of a prophet, that you have nowadays, with the Old Testament prophets? As I understand, the Old Testament prophets are called in a very special way, not affirmed by a democratic process—like Moses with the burning bush. And also, in the Old Testament, if the prophet spoke falsely [then] he was not a prophet at all. And I don’t know if the status of Joseph Smith’s and others’ teachings about Black people and polygamy have changed.

Answer: That’s a good question, a great question. First of all, I think the idea of how a prophet is called is still honored today. In fact, in modern time, we kind of have blended the prophet and apostle role. But we believe that a man is still called of God, by prophecy—that is one of the Articles of our Faith, literally an article of our faith—that we believe a man is called of God by prophecy, and that when one is called now, in the post–New Testament era to the Apostleship, that is by prophecy. That is the way Moses was called with or without a burning bush. It’s the way Isaiah was called, or Jeremiah, who didn’t have a burning bush, but were still called. And we come into the tradition of the New Testament, an Apostolic vacancy is filled exactly the way it was in the first chapter of Acts. That with Judas’ demise, that with his compromise, a vacancy existed in that Quorum. It says that they drew lots. Mathias and Barnabas were considered [to fill the vacancy], and [then] Mathias was called to the Twelve. That is exactly the way it happens today. That’s the way I was called, though I didn’t know it. I wasn’t in the room; I didn’t know anything about it. But there would be that long tradition that I was called—I don’t mean this to be personal, but it’s the only example I can offer you—I was called by prophecy, and called to fill a vacancy like Mathias was called to fill. I was called when Howard W. Hunter, a name you don’t need to know, but when he left the Quorum of the Twelve, there was a vacancy; so I was called to fill it.

And the idea about error; let’s try to be generous about human service. As far as I know, it is still a doctrine of most post–New Testament life that Christ was the only perfect person who ever lived. Moses, you mentioned him, had a challenge or two, and [he] was not, in fact, allowed to enter the Promised Land. But we still believe that Moses was a prophet, and we still believe before and after and since that he carries that kind of prophetic and leadership significance.

To study the Old Testament is a bit of a rehearsal in the humanity and mortality of great men and women. I don’t think that removes them from prophetic capacity. Peter had about as tough a moment and as dark an hour as anybody could have had. I don’t know that I understand everything about the denial, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience for him because he wept. And whatever he was going through and whatever was calculated, and whatever that meant, he had a limitation or two. But then he becomes the man who people will bring their cots into the street in order that they might have the shadow of Peter pass over them. So part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the ability to bounce back, and correct, and make change and alter what needs to be altered.

The Prophet Joseph Smith said once, and I think he could have been speaking for all prophets, “when I speak as a prophet, I speak as a prophet.”  Then I suppose, that’s the simple terse phrase, but I suppose that means then that if he has Coca Cola and you have Pepsi, you know, that’s negotiable. Maybe he’ll change his opinion about that and think that you made the better decision. I don’t want to trivialize the question because it is a great question, but I do think that we have to see that humanity in real-life people who have given real-life service [have] still worked it out. [Another example, when] Peter and Paul [were] going at each other in the Great Jerusalem Conference, in the fifteenth chapter of Acts; it is a fist fight. You know, they are down on the floor with this. You know, that’s because I think we are mortal. That’s because God isn’t going to give it to us all easily at once, maybe not all that clearly. So if we can concede that, then I would be willing at our leisure to try to answer specific questions or specific incidence, but as a backdrop I would hope that that would matter.

Question: You touched on this briefly [earlier], but I was wondering if you could talk more about the role of missions and missionaries in the Church? And whether, or how, having generations of young people go abroad and return has changed the character of the Church at all?

Answer: What a great question! And one about which I am totally, totally biased.  I am so prejudiced; you are talking to the wrong guy. I am the product of a mission from a family that had never served a mission of any kind, [with] kind of complex and slightly chaotic religious history and background. And in my generation, in my day, and in my life I had the chance to serve a mission. It has shaped, and formed, and fashioned, and underscored everything that has happened to me since that hour. I hope that isn’t hyperbole, because I have thought about it a lot, and I really believe it’s true. [Serving a mission] affected my educational decisions; it affected certainly the consequence of my education that led to professional decisions. It’s affected our marriage, who we each married, and how we’ve raised our children, and now their missions. And now we have a granddaughter who is thinking about a mission.

[Serving a mission] is voluntary service; they go at their own expense. We simply ask them to put everything on hold: put education, put professional opportunities, put marriage, put whatever for 18 months or 24, or whatever period of time is, and go voluntarily and pay your own way and have the experience of a lifetime. Ostensibly, theoretically, and truthfully it is for the Church, it is service to the Kingdom and religious principles, to spread Christianity. But in fact, I would do it, and I would institutionalize it, and I would include and encourage everyone to go, who can go and wants to go, if not a single solitary person joined the Church. If not one joined the Church, I would still say do it, simply because of what it meant to me. I think no young man in this Church was ever more affected by a mission than I was. And that partly is simply the context of which I had come in my childhood, in my life, in my youth. And so I’m just a horribly biased responder here.

And we are out to the tune of 56,000 missionaries, probably soon, our trajectory, just [the way] our demographics are, we will probably be around 70,000 [missionaries] in just three or four years. They’re supposed to go give service; they’re supposed to go love people where they are. If they join the Church fine, but if they don’t, fine. If they can do anything, anything they can do, anything single solitary Christian decent worthy thing they can do, they are supposed to go do. And if people join the Church great, and if they don’t [missionaries] have left a nation, or a community, or a family, or a person better than they found them. And that’s our call to be a missionary. And that can’t help but do good to the individual. And it can’t help but have changed the face of the Church in the 21st Century, because it has. There is no question about it. And some in this room have had that experience.

Question: You’ll have to forgive my basic question, but what does the afterlife look like for both Mormons and non-Mormons?

Answer: Well I think [this] is [a] very common [question] for everybody. “In my Father’s house [there] are many mansions” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:18). Paul had a vision of the afterlife, and he compared it to the sun, the moon, and the stars. I guess [there are] a lot of options out there. But we do believe, and I quoted the little Longfellow piece, which is sort of clichéd now, but it’s still terrific theology, that there is an afterlife.

We [Latter-day Saints] spend a lot of our time getting ready for [the afterlife]; [we believe] that this life ought to be devoted to eternity. A strange doctrine that you have all heard about, but we believe is representative of the commitment that God makes to be just and merciful to all of His children, [is that] we busily try to do ordinances in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 15. We busily try to do ordinances, these sacraments, for our family who are deceased.

[We do it] simply on the basis that we don’t believe that God loves me anymore than he loves my great-grandparents who did not know one single solitary thing about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And in many, many cases, and in many, many eras, and in many portions of dispensations [people] didn’t know anything about God, or Christ, or the Holy Spirit or anything else.  And yet we believe that [if] these [ordinances] are essential for you or for me then [we also believe] they must be essential for everybody. And so we have this afterlife pursuit where we perform ordinances, that are not binding, that are voluntary—as I guess all ordinances are and have to be—but we do this work so that if somebody cares in what we know to be, believe to be, and declare to be that the afterlife and the reality of that existence, if somebody wants to claim those privileges of salvation and redemption, then at least the sacramental part of that is taken care of. That’s kind of a unique doctrine for us, and it gets ballyhooed in the press, and there [are] some awkward moments about it if people don’t understand. But you’re attorneys; it’s an offer. And unless somebody accepts, [the] deals off. But we do believe that God in His grace and in His goodness and His universality would always make an offer, and that’s what that doctrine is. And that’s only one example of our commitment to the afterlife. But it is one that gets in the press a lot, so I chose to pursue it.

Question: Could you elaborate on the instances in which the Church will take a political stand? One that immediately comes to mind is the often-cited, sort of, material impact the Church had on the passing of Proposition 8 in California? And then also, how whatever that political involvement would be, squared with the notion, for instance, the American’s ability to have people exercise their beliefs freely?

Answer: First of all, let me work backwards, all we asked was the right to exercise our vote. We just asked for a religious privilege to cast a vote. We did not want to be disenfranchised. Institutionally not a single dollar, not one red cent, of money from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints went into Proposition 8 or any other comparable proposition that I know of. Now, a lot of Latter-day Saints got involved. And a lot of Latter-day Saints, particularly in California, donated their time and money to do it. I am not being coy; I am not dodging the fact that there was a terrific involvement, and a fairly heavy price to pay—people being fired from their jobs, people being blackballed in services they had rendered and were asked to no longer render—but that’s okay, that’s the price you pay for a lively democracy.

So we choose very carefully what we see those moral issues to be. And we saw that as a moral issue, we saw that not as a political issue; and never, ever, ever did we say that somebody could not express his or her vote in a contrary way. Nobody was blocking the ballot box, nobody was slashing tires, you know, as you approach the precinct. I’d really be disappointed if somebody thought there was some kind of effort [on our part] to deny somebody his or her free exercise. But again, all we were asking was the chance to have our free exercise, and some seem to think that was not right, that we ought to sit down and shut-up. We sit down and shut-up quite a bit. But on some things, on that one, we chose to be a little more vocal, a little more visible. And by we, I just emphasize, this is a voluntary lay participation with no money and no formalization institutionally.

[It is] something we all cared about, I am not minimizing that we cared about it. We’ve taken issues on gambling. We’ve been quite visible when legislation comes along to put casinos places and various kinds of gambling. That flops over from political to moral for us, and so we’ve been kind of visible on that. We have this health code; we see some of the damage that comes from alcohol, drugs and whatever, and so we’re pretty visible about that; that doesn’t tend to get down to legislation as much as we’re kind of vocal about it. We talk about the damage that [it] does to homes and families and parents and kids. There aren’t a lot of [issues we stand up for], but where we have them, we haven’t been shy. We hope it’s always appropriate. We hope it’s allowing everybody else exactly what we’re asking for, and that is the freedom to express an opinion and cast a vote. And we’ll all go where democracy takes us. But we do feel pretty obligated to stand up for what we believe, and you kind of let the chips fall where they may.

Question: First of all, thank you very much for coming in today. Can you speak on the Church’s view on personal and professional moral obligations of whoever holds political offices?

Answer: Part of the American question that was asked earlier is this devotion we have to the Constitution. I don’t know whether you know that, but… we have latter-day scriptural canon that refer to what we consider to be the divinity of the United States Constitution. And that really is a belief we have. We really do believe in the founding liberties of this nation, and that they were divinely guided and they were for a reason. We believe that anybody that takes public office and puts his hand on a Bible to declare loyalty to that Constitution, for us that is a moral, religious, political, social, call it what you will commitment; if there is inherent in that the idea that some Latter-day Saint would take his direction from Salt Lake as opposed from the electorate, or from the law, or from whatever it is he is sworn to, that would be as large a compromise, that would be as dramatic a compromise for a Latter-day Saint as it could be for anybody else in the United States of America.

Jack Kennedy made that clear in an earlier day regarding Rome, and I’m not going to talk about Mitt Romney, John Huntsman, or anybody else, but I can say in principle and in truth that the last thing, the last thing, this Church would do would be to tell an elected officer [what] to do, because that runs contrary to the very commitment we have made to the principle of that government by law. Call Harry Reid and ask him how many times we’ve told him anything. You’ve got Orin Hatch and Harry Reid, end of conversation. We really couldn’t, wouldn’t and don’t [tell public officers what to do]. This is a fiction, and I want to take it out of this election year and you can make it for the next 90 years. It’s a legal fiction; it’s an imaginary anxiety, though honestly asked, because a lot of people are asking it, whether somebody’s loyalty would somehow be to the president of the Church. His loyalty is to that oath of office that he takes with his hand on scripture that we espouse. He is supposed to do what his conscience and what the elected officials and the electorate of his constituency tell him to do. And that would be a pretty adamant position for us to take.

I love you. You’ve been very, very courteous. Thank you.

Read Elder Holland’s full address.