Something usually happens to me once or twice each time General Conference rolls around. We’ll be a session or two in, and everything will be rolling smoothly. Then, all of the sudden, a speaker says something and I think, “Yep, that’ll get folks riled up.”
It always makes me smile, in a light eye-rolling sort of way. NEWS FLASH – Mormon Leaders Still Believe Mormon-y Stuff!
I had a similar experience just a few weeks ago, when Elder Neil L. Andersen gave a talk in General Conference called, simply, “Joseph Smith”. Sure enough, people heard him talk about Joseph Smith and immediately went here:
Someone even wrote, in effect, “I’m not saying that Neil L. Andersen is like Hitler, but… he’s kind of like Hitler.”
Totally not even joking.
I’m not going to link to it – I’m trying to engage less with people on the internet that say stupid things, and there’s no reason I should be helping him get more hits.
Besides, It’s much more worthwhile to discuss the good than spend time responding to all the straw-man objections (like those about Nazis). And I really enjoyed Elder Andersen’s talk! If you look at his intent, and (what I gather are) his two primary purposes, it becomes a great help to those experiencing a personal “crisis of faith.” If you’re really engaging with the material, and thinking about what Elder Andersen is saying, you can throw those objections right out the window yourself, without my help.
The Sincere Inquirer
I mentioned two purposes above. Elder Andersen first addresses those who know of someone struggling with their testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith, or who may even be struggling themselves. Perhaps they’ve learned things that they find difficult to reconcile with their understanding of a prophet. After all, during Moroni’s first visit Joseph was told that his name would “be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues.”
His first piece of advice is, I think, a good one – don’t study the church through the eyes of defectors. But he goes beyond that, too.
- What if we have legitimate concerns? How do we tackle some of the alarming things we encounter? Elder Anderson offers two cautions. First, remember “that Internet information does not have a “truth” filter. Some information, no matter how convincing, is simply not true.” We should identify and discard any falsehoods. Second, remember “that some information about Joseph, while true, may be presented completely out of context to his own day and situation.” We should search out not only the context, but the perspectives of the people of the time – 2014 if quite far removed from frontier 1820 or 1840.
Additionally, don’t forget to take into account positive evidences! It’s not all about responding to objections.
- Read “the words of thousands who knew him personally and who gave their lives for the work he helped establish.” They tell of a “good, honorable, [and] virtuous man.”
- Remember, “Joseph was not alone in the visit of angels.” The testimony of the Three Witnesses is especially powerful in confirming the veracity of the Book of Mormon, and there were many others who saw the Book of Mormon plates or shared in Joseph’s spiritual experiences.
- Consider the “fruits” of the Church, like “the spreading of the restored gospel” and the lives of Church members across the globe.
All of these things, though, from responding to objections to highlighting positive evidences, are secondary. The bottom line is that individuals need a spiritual confirmation that Joseph was a prophet. Elder Andersen says,
“Opposition against the things of God sends seekers of truth to their knees for answers….
“The importance of Joseph’s work requires more than intellectual consideration; it requires that we, like Joseph, “ask of God.” Spiritual questions deserve spiritual answers from God….
“Each believer needs a spiritual confirmation of the divine mission and character of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This is true for every generation. Spiritual questions deserve spiritual answers from God.“
A Spiritual Confirmation
Elder Andersen then spends his time teaching us how we can obtain that spiritual confirmation (i.e. “adjust [our] own spiritual oxygen mask”). Almost all of his suggestions are exactly what we might expect to hear.
- “Kneel in prayer, asking God to confirm that [Joseph] was a true prophet”
- “Read the Prophet’s account of the First Vision” and “the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith“
- “Read the Book of Mormon again and again” and “find scriptures in the Book of Mormon that you feel and know are absolutely true… then share them”
- “Bear your own testimony of the Prophet”
- “Stand in the temple and realize that through Joseph Smith the holy sealing power was restored to the earth” (and, if I can be so bold as to add to what Elder Andersen said here, consider the many other blessings we enjoy as a result of the Restoration, in addition to the temple ordinances!)
His last suggestion, though, is what caught my attention.
- “Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly, and sharing it with friends. Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.”
When I first heard this “record” suggestion, I was taken aback (and I wasn’t alone). You might be surprised as well. Be careful of the straw man, and seek to understand what Elder Andersen really meant.
(Spoiler – he didn’t admonish us, “Listen on repeat until you believe the testimony of Joseph Smith is true.”)
First, what of recording ourselves reading these things?
There’s absolutely tremendous benefit to ensuring that we understand the material enough to read it in a comprehensible way. You’ve listened to people read the scriptures in that dull monotone that says, “I don’t really care about this why did you even call on me OMG.” If we’re recording ourselves with the intent of listening later, we’re not just going to skim this important testimony. That’s significant.
Second, what of listening to our own recordings?
Importantly, Elder Andersen is not asking us to record ourselves reading platitudes or creeds or truisms. He’s not counseling us to listen to ourselves repeat “Joseph was a prophet” over and over again. In following his counsel, we’re basically recording and listening to canonized scripture. That brings with it memorization, and I can think of many benefits to doing that.
Scriptures and hymns I’ve memorized have been available for me to recall at important times. After all, we’re told to “seek first to obtain my word” (see Doctrine and Covenants 11:21). Those scriptures I’ve memorized have come to my mind when I’m teaching. They provided me strength during a moment I’ve struggled. They’ve enlarged and enlightened me when the Lord has wanted to increase my testimony (see Alma 32:28).
Elder Andersen’s recording suggestion is a fantastic idea.
Engaging with the material in this way, I’m fairly convinced that Elder Andersen is not a closet Nazi.
Overcoming Your Crisis of Faith
I love the kindness Elder Andersen shows to those with questions – he’s not at all dismissive of their concerns, instead spending much of his time discussing how to approach their questions and their crises.
And I’ll be the first to admit that, sometimes, these crises are the Church’s own fault.
Think of Church art, for example, depicting the translation. Picture it in your mind. Did it look something like this?
Now, there may have been a time when Joseph and Oliver sat down like this – I haven’t studied in depth the translation process – but I can think of a number of things that are missing (and you probably can, too).
Wasn’t there often a sheet that separated Joseph and his scribe?
What of the two stones that he used to aid in translation?
Wasn’t there some sort of breastplate and bow device that the stones were attached to?
I feel like I’ve heard things about a hat?
Were we to look into it, there are probably a number of ways this “artistic depiction” might differ from a photograph snapped at any particular time during the translation. That, for some folks, might be a little shocking, and send them teetering towards, if not a crisis of faith, some faithful discomfort.
I felt a little shock when I lived this precise situation, but it never drifted into any real discomfort, and it’s because of the spiritual witness I have of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. You see, none of these additional details change the foundational principle that Joseph was blessed by God with the gift to translate.
Regardless of exactly how he did it, Joseph translated the Book of Mormon through the power of God, and that’s something that I felt God had already confirmed to me.
That’s why Elder Andersen’s talk is so important. He recognizes that “the negative commentary about the Prophet Joseph Smith will increase as we move toward the Second Coming of the Savior. The half-truths and subtle deceptions will not diminish.” And what’s more, there is no way to prepare for each and every one of those attacks. Even if the Church could, it would be a marvelous waste of time, putting resources that would be better spent, I don’t know, preaching the gospel.
And yet, if people can stand on their own testimony of the prophet, they can work the kinks, the surprises, out for themselves, and come out the other end unscathed.
Is It I?
Since the time I was a missionary, I’ve known by heart the story of the First Vision. That’s not especially impressive – it’s only two paragraphs. Perhaps I can reread more often Joseph Smith – History, and become even more familiar with the Joseph’s early experiences.
I also want to read more about the early history of the Church. I’ve heard good things about Rough Stone Rolling. Maybe that would be something that would strengthen my testimony of the prophet, and a good way to dip my toe into a more comprehensive Church history.
(Massacre at Mountain Meadows was a fantastic book, by the way. It’s probably the first time I’ve read a book of it’s kind on the early days of the Church.)
And I can absolutely share my testimony more. Maybe I can grab some of those “Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith” pamphlets from the missionaries and be ready to hand those out if the opportunity arises.