Updated: Jul 9, 2022
"...Wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!" (2 Nephi 28:24)
Someone dear to me, with an interest in early Christian history and a driving thirst to rectify the injustices in the world, asked me an unexpected question last week. It came on the heels of the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The stated question was something like: what happened to the days when Christian leaders taught challenging truths so unshrinkingly that it got them martyred?
I answered as best as I could at the time, but as I've pondered on the question, I've come to the conclusion that there were some unstated concerns, under its surface. They are:
1. Should we see the Church's relative inoffensiveness and even respectability to the world as evidence that we might be drifting off course?
2. Are politics a governing influence on the Church's position on key issues?
On the first concern, it is true that Jesus said, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). He is the Prince of Peace and His doctrines delineate the way to His peaceful kingdom, but His teaching them in a world that is dominated by the Prince of Darkness guarantees conflict. Jesus' doctrines are radical; He was so challenging to the establishment that they had Him crucified. Then there were the multitudinous martyrs of early Christianity. And then a change.
When Christianity became a state religion, religious persecution didn't cease. The Prince of Darkness has always had an interest in tempting mankind to wield coercive power against each other. He just adapted his strategy. Instead of tempting the powerful to persecute those who believed in Christ, he bade them persecute those who didn't, or who did believe, but not properly. That was the context for the Crusades, for the Reformation Martyrs, for the flight of the Puritans to America, and so forth. It was also the context for the martyrdoms of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. That same year, 1844, anti-Catholic sentiment in Philadelphia spawned the Bible Riots, in which two Catholic churches were destroyed and 20 people killed.
That we don't experience that kind of persecution today is not so much about the strength or doctrines of the Church as it is about gains during the past century in religious tolerance. The resulting reduction in life-threatening persecution is an enormous blessing that allows the message of the restored gospel to be carried to the far reaches of the earth. But there is a trade-off.
While it is true that persecution tries faith, it also strengthens it. And the hotter the fire, the stronger the steel. The persecution of the early saints, for instance, forged deep bonds between them and undaunted commitment to the truths for which they paid so high a price. It also drove them to the throne of God, seeking Him with an urgency that opened the way for mighty communion.
Ease is a different matter. Upon arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young declared:
"The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and His people, wax fat and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty and all manner of persecution and be true. But my greatest fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth” (Liahona, July 1977 "This is the Place").
He wasn't the first prophet to have such fears about his people. Nearly two millenia earlier, Mormon wrote,
Yea, and we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver, and in all manner of precious things of every kind and art; sparing their lives, and delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; softening the hearts of their enemies that they should not declare wars against them; yea, and in fine, doing all things for the welfare and happiness of his people; yea, then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One—yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity" (Helaman 12:2).
Why then, does God bless us with prosperity if ease trends toward drifting away from Him?
I have a couple of thoughts. The first is that it's a natural law that virtuous living leads to prosperity. It's the law of the harvest -- eventually (though seldom immediately), you reap what you sow. If you live honestly, you will eventually be trusted. If you are humble enough to learn from your mistakes, you will acquire wisdom. If you give a hand up to the people around you, you will eventually discover that you've ascended to new heights in the process. So God would have to interfere with natural law in order to prevent us from prospering with obedience to His teachings.
My second thought is that learning to seek after the Lord in times of ease is essential to our development. What God wants for us is exaltation. He wants to elevate us to a condition of omnipotence. Can we be trusted with that if we can't even stay true during periods of prosperity? And how can we learn without practice?
Elder Holland's and Elder Gilbert's recent talks in General Conference point toward the necessity of such practice. Elder Holland references the rich young man who struggled to fully follow the Savior. I think it wasn't so much his wealth as the ease of his life that made so daunting Jesus' invitation to "sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor...take up the cross and follow me" (Mark 10:21). It appears that this young man was born with what Elder Gilbert calls a "high intercept," both temporally and spiritually. He'd kept all the commandments from his youth. I think his background was similar to mine, as a 6th generation Church member, trained up so securely in the way I should go that keeping the commandments has always been a part of my culture. The rich young man hadn't had to fight with inner demons or the opposition of family and friends in order to obey. Gospel living had never really cost him much. But, as Elder Gilbert says, "While the world focuses on our intercept, God focuses on our slope. In the Lord’s calculus, He will do everything He can to help us turn our slopes toward heaven." Despite the young man's long-standing obedience, he still needed a mighty change. And so, the Lord invited him to alter his slope from a flat line to an ascending trajectory, to leave his comfort zone behind and to trade it for a cross.
Elder Holland says:
"I pray we will succeed where that rich young man failed, that we will take up the cross of Christ, however demanding it may be, regardless of the issue and regardless of the cost. I bear witness that when we pledge to follow Him, the path will, one way or another, pass by way of a crown of thorns and a stark Roman cross. No matter how wealthy our young ruler was, he wasn’t wealthy enough to buy his way out of a rendezvous with those symbols, and neither can we."
So, in answer to the first question, No; I don't think the Church's relative inoffensiveness and even respectability to the world is evidence that we're drifting off course. I think it's evidence that we need to be personally proactive about our faith, or we will.
The second question is, are politics a governing influence on the Church's position on key issues?
It seems to be a common assumption that they are, especially when the Church's position is at variance with our own leanings. On the one hand, people claim that the Church's reversing its position on baptizing the children of married same-sex couples was a response to intense public pressure. Which calls for more public pressure aimed at getting the Church to catch up with the times. On the other hand, people who suspect a global conspiracy involving COVID-19 vaccines discount the First Presidency's statements in support of vaccination as purely political. They say the Church was merely saying what it had to in order to stay under the radar of an intrusive government even though vaccines, they say, are far from safe and should be avoided.
I don't think either position is warranted. I think the process by which the Church reversed the priesthood ban for Blacks demonstrates remarkable deafness to pressure -- from the world or from within. Instead, President Kimball, his counsellors and then the 12 underwent diligent, earnest seeking to let go of every other consideration, and to learn and do the will of God.
I have seldom read anything as securing, humbling and touching as Edward L. Kimball's account of the process by which the prophet, then his counsellors, the Twelve Apostles, and the General Authorities came to an understanding that it was the Lord's will to extend priesthood ordination to Blacks. "Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on the Priesthood" is a lengthy read and a summary cannot do it justice but there are some details that seem important to the current subject. In the years leading up to the revelation, Elder Kimball "reacted especially negatively to militant protests against the Church and coercive methods" believing "that external pressures made revelation even less likely to come." There were many of these pressures. In 1962, the Salt Lake temple was bombed, damaging the east doors and blowing out some windows. From 1968-1970, BYU athletes were subjected to scorn and violence because of the priesthood ban. Players on opposing teams wore black armbands or refused to play against them. "One spectator threw acid, and another threw a Molotov cocktail that failed to ignite. Stanford severed athletic relations with BYU". In 1976, an elder in Vancouver baptized and ordained a Black man to the priesthood, then staged a protest in the middle of April General Conference.
Then, in 1978, when pressure tactics had abated, President Kimball became preoccupied with the question of whether it was time to lift the ban.
Over time, through the many days in the temple and through the sleepless hours of the night, praying and turning over in his mind all the consequences, perplexities, and criticisms that a decision to extend priesthood would involve, Spencer gradually found 'all those complications and concerns dwindling in significance.' They did not disappear but seemed to decline in importance. In spite of his preconceptions and his allegiance to the past, a swelling certainty grew that a change in policy was what the Lord wanted. 'There grew slowly a deep, abiding impression to go forward with the change.'"
By March 23,1978, President Kimball felt secure that the time had come. For the next two months, he focused his efforts and prayers on helping to prepare the Twelve to receive confirmation. The issue had divided the Brethren when it was last visited during President Lee's leadership. Now, President Kimball invited his brethren, some of whom felt resistant, to fast and pray for an answer.
"He did not push, lobby, pressure, or use his office to seek compliance. Instead, he increased his visits to the temple, imploring the Lord to make his will known, not only to him but also to the Twelve."
The confirmation came in the temple on June 1, during a 2-hour meeting on the issue where President Kimball expressed his own thoughts and feelings and then listened to each of the Brethren. All were in agreement. Then they prayed for confirmation and received the sought-for witness. "Those present felt something powerful, unifying, ineffable. Those who tried to describe it struggled to find words." President Ezra Taft Benson said he "had never experienced anything of such spiritual magnitude and power," and Elder Marvin J. Ashton described it as "the most intense spiritual impression I’ve ever felt." A week later, the First Presidency and Twelve presented the matter to the Seventies and invited them to express their feelings. While some wept with joy, another said, "I would have voted against such a proposal until I experienced the feeling that I did in this room this morning.” They voted unanimously to approve the decision. Then President Kimball told his first counsellor, "Eldon, go tell the world."
Are politics a governing influence on the Church's position on key issues? To me, this account testifies that they are not.
So, if it's not politics, why do the Brethren walk such a careful line? Why do they seem to refuse taking sides on the issues that divide Church members? Why don't they tell us, straight out, in impossible to misunderstand language, when we're on the wrong side of a matter?
Maybe, because if we're being divisive, we're all on the wrong side of the matter. Maybe part of taking up my cross and following Jesus is loving my brothers and sisters whose attitudes and actions offend me. Maybe I need to pray for the folks I think are full of enmity, and turn the other cheek, even and especially when I believe the Brethren ought to be calling out the ones I think are committing the greater sin.
To be honest, when Elder Holland came to the podium at General Conference, part of me was hoping that he would provide some clarifications about his recent, controversial speech to BYU faculty. He didn't. Instead, he invited us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Despite personal preparation, I listened with unready ears, evaluating who the talk was pointed at instead of realizing it was aimed at me. I was readier when I listened again, a week later. Then, the other issues paled in comparison.
From my perspective, the contention that swirls around our divisive issues arises out of a disappointed expectation to be at ease in Zion. But "wo unto him that is at ease in Zion!" (2 Nephi 28:24). I think that the Saviour makes the same invitation to me and to each of us as He did to the rich young man. I should not be surprised that He invites us to offer Him more than we think is reasonable. Or that He demonstrates more mercy than I think is deserved to those I perceive as antagonistic. Some day, some glorious day, I hope to find this has changed. When I have truly acquired His nature, I will find myself pleading on behalf of my antagonists.
What I heard in General Conference were challenging truths, taught unflinchingly. They challenge me. But the beautiful thing is that when I seek to take up the cross and follow Jesus, there is peace. That makes His yoke easy and His burden light.