This is a guest post by Michael Davidson, who is a not-quite-so-young man living in Highland, Utah with his wife and kids.
At the tender age of 14, Joseph Smith went into a grove of trees near his home in New York in order to seek knowledge from the Lord. In the vision that followed, Joseph was told by the Lord not to join any churches then extant, for “they were all wrong” and that “all their creeds were an abomination in His sight” and that the preachers of these religions and creeds were “all corrupt.” It was in this First Vision that the Lord introduced Joseph, along with the rest of us, to the need for a restoration of the Gospel. The Lord makes clear that a simple reformation of existing christianity would be insufficient, driving the point home with strong language as was and is His prerogative.
In a recently published excerpt from “The Crucible of Doubt,” Terryl and Fiona Givens note that this account causes “many readers” to “feel the sting of a wide-net rebuke” in this narrative. And yet the Givens don’t seem to believe that such a rebuke was warranted. They introduce the First Vision narrative with a disclaimer that “[t]he language of Mormon culture … is fraught with contradictions” and that the “wisest and best men and women can say uninspired, ridiculous, and even reprehensible things.”
The Givens then observe that the First Vision narrative is “harsh to modern ears,” but seeks to excuse “Smith’s language” by saying it “fits right into his cultural milieu.” Further driving home their point, the Givens later bemoan the “colorful language of condemnation” in the canonized First Vision account because of its supposed “tragic influence on Mormon thinking,” including the “notion that Mormonism has a monopoly on the truth, that other churches and traditions have nothing of value to contribute, and that the centuries between the death of the apostles and the events of 1820 were utterly blighted and devoid of truth.”
Even further, the Givens argue that at least some “Mormons claim a monopoly on salvation” as well. But to them, “it grows increasingly difficult to imagine that a body of a few million, in a world of seven billion, can really be God’s only chosen people and heirs of salvation.”
It is with these two “myths” in mind, myths of Mormon monopolies on truth and salvation, that the Givens began their attack on the canonized First Vision narrative. They fault this narrative, which they claim sets the stage for the flourishing of these myths.
What purpose is being served by this attack by the Givens?
While the Givens make a show of targeting various strawman claims, their arguments hit deeper and run deeper. They suggest that “some members may indeed harbor [certain] unfortunate ideas” articulated by various apostates that they quote as saying that “Mormons believe that the church-Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant visions alike – completely died” and that some Mormons believe that “God was sort of snoozing until 1820.” In the first case, I don’t know that any Mormons believe that God was snoozing for any period of time. If anything, that strikes me as a very protestant idea. The occurrence of the First Vision and the publication of the Book of Mormon blew the doors off of this idea of a closed canon and a God that was finished with His work which prevailed in the christian world at the time of the restoration. While there was a loss of priesthood authority and a corruption of many of the basic doctrines, there aren’t any members of the Church that I am aware of that claim that all light was lost and that God was completely uninvolved.
No one can read and believe the Book of Mormon without finding that God was indeed involved pre-1820. He motivated Columbus to sail the ocean blue, and guided many of the early European settlers to come to America, though these two things are deemed impolitic by some modern voices. Likewise, we have heard from numerous apostles over the history of the Church that many of the reformers were likewise inspired to rebel against the dominant catholic church of their time. In reality, the myth of God sitting on His hands on the sidelines that is supposedly held by certain unnamed and unquoted Mormons is silly. No one believes it.
With respect to the second myth derided by the Givens, it is well known and generally accepted among the membership of the Church that only a very small number will inherit outer darkness, while all others will inherit a kingdom of glory. I was taught this in primary. And anyone who has read the 76th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants and understood even a part of it will know that this is the case. This is among the most basic teachings of the Church.
In fact, these two “myths” simply aren’t taught or accepted in the run of the mill wards and stakes of this Church, or in the Church generally. The one place you actually find these myths with any regularity is in the writings of angry apostates and other enemies of the Church. The Givens indirectly acknowledge this by failing to find a single faithful LDS source to back their assertions. Instead, they turn to anti-Mormon publications exclusively to find support for the existence of these myths.
Like most myths, however, these two are based in the twisting of certain actual beliefs. However, these actual beliefs don’t make good headlines, and so we get the Givens fighting against the exaggerations of the apostates. What is believed, and what is central to the LDS narrative, is that there was a general apostasy which included a loss of the fullness of the Gospel and a loss of priesthood authority. With this loss of priesthood authority, there was no one upon the earth who could officiate in the ordinances of the gospel, which open the gate to forgiveness of sins and the cleansing effects of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
The Givens seem to concede this point, but do so in a contradictory manner. While acknowledging the role of Joseph Smith in the restoration of the priesthood, they make a case for why it was not necessary in the first place, referencing D&C 49:8. In discussing this, the Givens claim that the Lord told Joseph “that most of the world was under sin, ‘except those which I have reserved unto myself, holy men that ye know not of.’” But this is not what D&C 49:8 actually says: “Wherefore, I will that all men shall repent, for all are under sin, except those which I have reserved unto myself, holy men that ye know not of.” Do you see the difference? The Lord doesn’t say that “most of the world was under sin,” but that ALL men are under sin, with the exception of some “holy men that ye know not of.”
The Givens suggest that these “holy men” who are “reserved” by the Lord and who are not under the obligation of repentance, are actually disciples of Christ who are living lives outside of the Church and the ordinances of the restored gospel. The Givens go on to suggest that these “holy men” were remnants of a Church that didn’t fall into general apostasy, and survived to Joseph’s time, when “[t]eachings that had been preserved by the few would be made available to all.” The Givens acknowledge that “priesthood authority and ordinances had been lost” but “truth had not departed from the earth entirely.”
Of course the Givens don’t actually identify who these “holy men” are or were. They don’t identify a time when such holy men would have come to Joseph or one of his successors in order to be baptized by one having authority, such as when Christ sought out John the Baptist or the Wise Men travelled great distances, probably over the course of years, and sought out the Christ child. If these holy men were mortals, they had need of baptism and would have moved heaven and earth to seek it out.
(Of course, a much more plausible explanation of who these “holy men” are can be found in the many instances of translation of individuals and groups. Such groups and individuals are taken into a state where they are no longer subject to the buffetings of Satan; but they are not quite resurrected either. The inhabitants of the City of Enoch, John the Revelator, the Three Nephites and several Old Testament and Book of Mormon prophets come to mind.)
The simple fact is that these holy men would not and could not be the remnant or branch of the Church of Christ as they are described in Section 49. It would not be possible for men to be existing in their mortal and probationary state absent priesthood authority, and likewise absent the ordinances of the gospel, and yet without any need to repent. It is contrary to the very basics of the gospel. Even Christ had to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness, so how could these “holy men” without priesthood have even done this? It is absurd and there are better explanations for this verse. The only One to lead a sinless life, a life for which no repentance was necessary, was the Christ. Repentance is required of everyone else, for everyone else sins. There are no exceptions to this. And yet, the Givens argue that there were some vestiges of the primitive Church on the earth in 1831, unknown to Joseph and consisting of at least some mortals who needed not repentance and who had no sin.
The Givens cite D&C 10:53-55 as evidence that the Lord’s “church” had not left the earth at all, claiming that God “declared that He acknowledged many people as already belonging to His church in 1829, even before the restored gospel took its present form under Joseph Smith’s direction.” Again, the Givens misread the referenced scripture, which does not say that there are people at present belonging to the Lord’s Church, but merely observes that “whosoever belongeth to my church need not fear.” This is likewise absurd. The scripture merely states the maxim that those who are members of the Lord’s Church need not fear, and promises that the Church would be established (at a then future date), but it does not say that it existed anywhere else. Likewise, it is a given that individuals are admitted into the Church by baptism under proper authority. As discussed above, that simply wasn’t present or available anywhere else.
Changing gears to the supposed “myth” about salvation, the Givens present lengthy quotes from various presidents of the Church that simply support what is widely taught and believed in the Church generally. This should not be a surprise to anyone that the membership accepts what the Prophets teach, though the Givens seem to find this novel enough to require reiteration for some reason.
They quote Brigham Young as stating that all of Christendom and all of the pagans will receive a heaven that outstrips their imaginations. This is borne out in D&C 76:89, which states that the glory of the telestial “surpasses all understanding.” Brigham Young wasn’t saying that everyone will be saved in the celestial kingdom, just that those who receive the very least reward will get something far beyond imagining. Quotes from Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow are likewise brought to bear, but each merely affirm that at some point “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess,” to which we may add that nearly every soul shall inherit a kingdom of glory, but there is nothing there to suggest that all or most will inherit any particular kingdom.
I did find it amusing that they managed to include a quote by Lorenzo Snow that was contradicted and superseded by D&C 138. Pres. Snow, nearing his death, spoke about the Savior himself preaching to those in spirit prison, but D&C 138:20-21 states that Christ did not go unto the wicked or “among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh.” These did not hear His voice or see His face. It is hard to imagine that such careful scholars as the Givens would have been ignorant of this, and not addressed a clear scriptural reference directly opposing their thesis. (More on this below.)
In all of this, the Givens claim that “as a mighty God, our Heavenly Father has the capacity to save us all. As a fond father, He has the desire to do so.” They quote with approbation Pres. Eyring when he likewise said, “[t]here is not one of us that He has not desired to save, and that He has not devised means to save.” Left out of this is the truth that all have agency, and not all outcomes will be identical. There will be the prodigal that does not return. There will be the one who lets the beggar put forth his petition in vain. There will be the one who crosses over to the other side to avoid him that fell among thieves. This is a cause to mourn, and while the Lord has a plan for all who will repent, we know that there are some that simply will not do so before the time of testing is done.
However, the Givens suggest that salvation will come to all in equal measure, sooner or later. They proclaim that “temple covenants may be made and kept here or hereafter, and the ordinances of salvation performed in person or vicariously.” And while this is true to a point, not all will exercise their agency in this way and to suggest otherwise leads to a myth that is gaining traction in some quarters of the Church that is significantly more dangerous than those which the Givens deride. While a myth of Mormons having a monopoly on truth and salvation may rub some of the Givens academic friends the wrong way, it would be highly motivating to those who believe it to preach repentance, and to share the gospel with as many as they can.
Whereas, a myth that all will, sooner or later, be saved in the celestial kingdom, no matter what, encourages sloth. It encourages laziness in the would be penitent and a laissez faire attitude among those that should be bearing testimony now. For “there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us” and we certainly see this in some corners of the Church today, while others add “nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.”
God tells Nephi that these are “false and vain and foolish doctrines.”
Alma, on two different occasions, begs the people not to “procrastinate the day of your repentance” until the end or until it is too late. Later, Samuel the Lamanite indicates that at least some of the Nephites had “procrastinated the day of [their] salvation until it is everlastingly too late.” Their “destruction [was] made sure.”
To be clear, while our Heavenly Father, who would welcome all of His children back who will, He knew from the outset that not all would gain exaltation, and so did we. Why else did Lucifer rebel? Because he knew that not all would return to our Father’s presence under the plan that had been proposed. This rebellion resulted in the loss of a third part of His children before any of us made it to this mortal life. It is not a lack of faith in God that forces the realization of this reality, it is a knowledge that some simply won’t repent for whatever reason.
No doubt the Givens would see me as one who “want[s] to see the burning of the tares.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no victory in any person not walking the covenant path and repenting of their sins, but we know that not all will and we shouldn’t placate ourselves by wrongly believing that everybody will be eventually exalted.