Selections from the article, “The First Vision and Religious Tolerance”
(Part fourteen of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
In revelation both ancient and modern, the Lord calls His words “sharper than a two-edged sword” (D&C 6:2; 11:2; 12:2; see also Hebrews 4:12). In modern vernacular, much of what He said would be politically incorrect. It could be considered judgmental, divisive, rigid, closed-minded, or just plain embarrassing. Yet in some instructional meetings, the teaching of ethics prevails over the teaching of doctrine, thus avoiding disagreements or the possibility of giving offense. Everyone is content to speak of God’s love; rarely is His wrath or displeasure mentioned. . . .
In this context the reader is invited to consider three touchy or sensitive texts that stand at the very heart of our theology. These texts have been chosen to honor Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the great martyrs of our faith. They did not seal their testimony with their blood in Carthage Jail so that we may teach ethics. They did not die hoping that future generations of Latter-day Saints would say to the world, “Look, we are just like you.”. . .
Each of the three texts comes from the revelations of the Restoration, and each is frequently considered offensive by those not of our faith. Even within the Church some are uncomfortable with these texts and feel a need to apologize for them. . . .
The second is part of the Prophet’s account of the First Vision, in which he asked the Lord which church he should join: “I was answered,” the Prophet said, “that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof’” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19). . . .
I would like to make some brief observations about the principle of tolerance. . . .
When I was a young man, tolerance meant treating those with whom we disagreed with civility. It did not mean that we were obligated to accept their point of view. To many young people today, however, it means that we are to be nonjudgmental—holding all men and all ideas to be equal—and that it is morally wrong to say that something is morally wrong. It is not an unusual thing for people to cover willful disobedience with the blanket of God’s love and to advance the idea of a universal salvation that sounds dangerously similar to that advocated by Lucifer in the councils of heaven.
People like to equate tolerance with Christlike behavior, which is in many ways a poor fit. The appeal for Christlike behavior frequently comes from people who have no meaningful understanding of how Christ behaved and who would be greatly surprised to find out. When the dialogue between Christ and the woman from Canaan was read recently in a religion class at Brigham Young University, a number of the students were uneasy with the account of Christ’s behavior (see Matthew 15:21–28). A number of attempts were made to excuse or justify it. One student suggested that in calling the Gentiles “dogs,” Christ was really using a term of endearment. Such an explanation does not fit well in the context of the story. Finally a young woman expressed the thought that troubled many of her classmates; with tears in her eyes, she exclaimed, “But Jesus was so unchristian!”. . .
I appreciate the observation of Elder Neal A. Maxwell: “There is today more ecumenicism, but there is also more shared doubt. More and more people believe less and less—but they do believe it together. The fewer the issues, the easier it is to get agreements. The fewer standards there are, the less there is for congregations to rebel against. Since knowing is tied to doing, and doing to knowing, there is an awful cycle in all of this.”. . .
The second text is Joseph Smith’s record of the Lord’s instruction to him in the First Vision that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19).
While I presided over the mission in Scotland, one of the prominent ministers in the city of Edinburgh came to my office seeking answers to questions about Mormonism. He said, “I have some tough questions to ask, and I cannot get straight answers from your missionaries.” I promised him straight answers and spent a couple of hours responding to his questions. I then said, “Now it is my turn. I have some tough questions to ask you.” I asked how he justified the Christian creeds. He buried his head in hands and was silent for a matter of minutes. Then he raised his head and said, “Our creeds are responsible for the dark ages.”
He was a good man, an honest man, who always treated our missionaries with respect. I told him what it meant to have living prophets and that one of them was my great-grandfather from whom I received my name. I told him that my great-grandfather had received revelations from the Lord. He said he would like to see them. I read the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead to him from beginning to end without a word of commentary. It was as if a rushing of mighty wind filled my office. He wept as I read the revelation, and I wept with him. When I finished, he said that he could not say that what I had read was not a revelation.
I share this story because I think it is an important response to the matter of how we handle hard questions. Unique strength and power are found in standing on our own ground.
Are not the creeds spoken of in the First Vision simply a refill of the same prescription that killed the Church in the meridian of time? In a great revelation on the priesthood the Lord states, “After they [the Apostles] have fallen asleep the great persecutor of the church, the apostate, the whore, even Babylon, that maketh all nations to drink of her cup, in whose hearts the enemy, even Satan, sitteth to reign—behold he soweth the tares [the philosophies of men]; wherefore, the tares choke the wheat and drive the church into the wilderness” (D&C 86:3). Experience suggests that the corruption of scripture by incorporating the philosophies of men is as dangerous individually as it is collectively. The fruits of this union do not engender the faith known to our forefathers, and, in the words of the Savior, “every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up” (Matthew 15:13). . . .
As a mission president I discovered that the way we present our message has a good deal to do with who accepts it and how deeply their roots are anchored in the soil of the gospel. On this matter, some things are obvious. For instance, it is no great surprise that shallow missionaries get shallow converts. In like manner, the more direct we are, the more successful we are. There is no reason that missionaries cannot ask everyone they meet if they would like to be baptized. What came as a surprise to me, however, was that nothing chased the dark spirit of contention away as effectively as the declaration of those very texts that seemed the most contentious. Let me share an experience.
During a round of zone conferences, I challenged the missionaries to proselytize for one month without taking their Bibles with them. This meant that they had to do all of their teaching from the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants. I told them that any principle that they could not teach from those sources they had no business teaching because it was not a part of the message that the Lord had commissioned us to take to the ends of the earth. It seemed a reasonable assumption to us that if the gospel had indeed been restored and we in reality represented a new gospel dispensation, then we could teach the message as the Lord had given it to us.
Between then and our next round of zone conferences, the reports flooded in. The missionaries spoke of a stronger spirit in their meetings, even to the point of being overwhelming. It was obvious that the Holy Ghost liked being a part of what they were doing. Their confidence increased when they knew they were standing on their own ground. Naturally, they found more people to teach than they ever had before. These things I expected, but I did not expect the report that the spirit of contention, common to many efforts to teach, was now gone. After our one-month experiment, our missionaries refused to return to their old methods. Their faith was centered in the revelations of the Restoration. They liked the spirit of the whole thing.
The missionaries conceded that they did not necessarily know any more about the Bible than did those they taught. There was no reason to argue over the meaning of Bible passages, which was not their message. Their message was that God had spoken through a living prophet, and they stuck to that message. When those they were teaching understood this, they asked questions about what God had told the Prophet about this or that, and with every question came the opportunity to open the revelations of the Restoration and let their light shine. That light carries its own spirit. One can accept it or reject it, but one cannot argue with it. Imagine arguing with Moses about whether the Lord gave him the Ten Commandments. Surely someone must have said, “Moses, I do not think you got the Ten Commandments from God; I think Aaron wrote them.” Someone else must have said that Moses was just quoting from a book that was really written by Miriam. And what would Moses say to all of this? “I got them from God; if you question that, I suggest that you ask Him about it.”
That’s our message: ask God. The way we answer questions about our faith ought to be by finding the quickest and most direct route to the Sacred Grove. The heavens are open, class is in session, and it is time to ask questions. God gives answers, and if we do not get the answer from Him, we are not going to do very well on the test.
The Restoration began with Joseph Smith on his knees in the Sacred Grove, and that is where the testimony of all Latter-day Saints must begin, on their knees in a sacred moment, asking of God. Everything that we believe as Latter-day Saints rests on the reality of what God said that spring morning to Joseph Smith. The great irony of it all is that the harder the saying, the more offensive it seems to the world and the more peace it actually brings. It is the very light that chases away the darkness of contention with all that are honest in heart.
As a mission president, I was grateful for the three texts I have considered in this paper. I needed something—not from me but from the Lord—that justified the faith and sacrifice that I knew membership in the Church would require.
That such texts will give offense to some is true. Truth, however, is more important than harmony. Were that not the case, there would have been no war in heaven, no gospel of Jesus Christ, and no reason for the Father and the Son to appear to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove. If we are to be a Christlike people, we must value truth above life itself.
If we claim that our God speaks, that we have modern revelation and living prophets, we must of necessity claim that we are “the only true and living church on the face of the whole earth.” The two doctrines are as inseparable as the body and the spirit in the Resurrection. We cannot have the one without the other. If our prophets are indeed prophets and our Apostles indeed Apostles, then it is for them and them alone to mark the path that all who would return to their divine Father must follow. Claiming the authority to speak in the name of God and at the same time claiming that the heavens have been sealed since New Testament times is essentially claiming to be God’s spokesman while admitting that He has not spoken to you for two thousand years. This picture simply does not hang straight.
True, there are those who think it quite unchristian of Latter-day Saints to suggest that others cannot be saved in their errant doctrines. Yet it is these same people who hold the gates of heaven open to all who profess Christ except Latter-day Saints. Why, we might ask, is it that virtually all testimonies of Christ are acceptable in their heaven except ours? And why is it that we are labeled unchristian for not accepting them while their rejection of us is the proof they offer that they are Christian? It is their creeds that require them to respond in this manner.
To the early missionaries of this dispensation, the Lord said, “Preach my gospel which ye have received, even as ye have received it” (D&C 49:1). There is no suggestion here that they cover it with honey or put ribbons on it. A few months later, the Lord said, “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself” (D&C 1:38). The Lord has never commissioned anyone to make excuses for Him; He has simply asked us to trust Him.
If the gospel message is true, it must by its very nature have things in it that require faith to accept. If we are going to get serious about it, we can hardly expect to find gospel truths getting along compatibly with worldly fashions, nor can we expect them to get an approving nod from those who worship at the shrine of their own intellect. The plain fact of the matter is that strong testimonies cannot be built from weak doctrine. As there is no courage without a struggle, so there can be no spiritual strength without a challenge. We may claim neither peace nor safety unless we build on a strong foundation.
Anytime we declare something to be true we challenge that which is untrue. We cannot, as President Marion G. Romney assured us, do the Lord’s work without offending the devil. As certain as night follows day, we will never be able to declare our message without opposition or without offending some. Moroni promised Joseph Smith that his name would be known for “good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (Joseph Smith—History 1:33). He also told Joseph Smith that “those who are not built upon the Rock will seek to overthrow this church,” and he then promised the Prophet that the church “will increase the more opposed.”
As to Joseph Smith and the First Vision, we know that he learned much that he was forbidden to write at that time (JS—H 1:20). We also know that he “saw many angels in this vision” (Jessee 75–76). Those angels were not faceless and were there for a purpose. It seems a reasonable assumption that their number would have included the other prophets of whom we speak in this paper, the dispensation heads who would yet become the Prophet’s tutors in the restoration of all things.
For those wishing to know more about former BYU professor Joseph Fielding McConkie, see: