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The Mask of Mormonism

"We are greatly misunderstood,
and I fear that much of it is of our own making."
- Gordon B. Hinckley

So I ask, what is "real" Mormonism?


What does the church say?

The public face of the church

Every six months, in April and October, the church holds a General Conference. This is where church leaders make the most important announcements, and deliver keynote sermons. Major announcements are made, new apostles are called, and we are taught the things that are most important for the next six months. See for yourself at www.ldsworld.com.

On the surface, every conference talk says the same thing: "obedience brings blessings." We get the same old principles - faith, repentance, missionary work, etc. - and the same message again and again - "follow the prophet!"

To many people - including many church members - that is all there is. But others hear so much more.

"If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given. For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath. And he said, So is the kingdom of God." - Mark 4:23-26

Do all Mormons sound the same?

We should do. We take unity very seriously. The Lord has said "if ye are not one, ye are not mine." When we speak for ourselves, we are free to say what we wish. But if we speak for the church (or lead people to believe we are speaking for the church) it would be dishonest to say anything other than what the church teaches.

Often it would be helpful if we went beyond the simple message, but we do not. This is why:

  1. Most of us do not understand the gospel as well as we should.
  2. It is extremely easy to be misunderstood. The safe route is to keep it very simple and general.
  3. The church is made up of many different kinds of people. The only way we can work as a team is if we all decide to speak the same language.
  4. Most important: we are each responsible for working out our own answers. The church should not and will not do this for us.

Church leaders simplify things.

Most people do not listen to much the church says. So the message must be very simple and repetitive. But how do you simplify a message that encompasses all history and all knowledge, and is deeply personal? The only thing you can say is "Listen!" And "Follow the prophet!" and hope that the listener has enough sense to start their own journey of discovery.

If we are intellectually lazy, we may think the simplified message is all there is. If so, we will find it disappointing. We may even blame the church for not controlling our lives better! But really we need to listen more closely. "Follow the prophet" is only the beginning.


April 2000 General Conference
Saturday morning session: about being independent

President Hinckley began the new millennium with a keynote speech on - what? The Second Coming? The need for greater obedience? No! He spoke about the new conference building! Here, the prophet sets the example. He is human, he responds to his surroundings. He is firmly based in the here and now.

You must learn the gospel for yourself

President Packer got straight to the point that I am trying to make on this page: we need to see beyond the surface, and understand the purpose and deeper meaning of the church. He showed how the whole purpose of the church is for the individual - often an unlearned person - to be taught directly by the Holy Ghost. Gospel teachings do NOT come from just hearing, or just obeying (e.g. being baptized) but directly from God to you. Then YOU can speak "with the tongue of angels"! This is a personal, individual thing. If we think we can understand the gospel simply because it has been taught to us by the church, we have missed the whole point! We MUST discover them for ourselves, Elder Packer quoted Nephi to emphasize this:

"Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark."

If we get anything of worth from the church, it is only because we have discovered it personally, directly from the Holy Ghost. Yet even the faithful members seem unaware of this! They are benefiting from the Holy Ghost, yet they "know it not!" Others miss this power because they prefer laziness or contention. We all have our agency.

Learning and knowing are two different things.

Elder Hillam tells us how we know the commandments. NOT by seeing them or being told them!

"The second essential lesson is to learn the commandments and obey them because you choose to. Before you can obey the commandments, you must know what they are. You learn the commandments by being instructed. ... You know the commandments by the Spirit through prayer, your own personal study, and by your own personal revelation."

There is no room for "blind obedience" in this scheme!

Choose to be happy

Sister Menlove shows us that what we get from the church - and from life in general - depends on how we choose to approach it. "Our prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley, is the very essence of a glad heart. He has written: "I am an optimist! . . . My plea is that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight. I am suggesting that as we go through life, we 'accentuate the positive'"

Speaking of a time when she had rejected things that did not meet her personal picture of how things should be, she said, "I had cheated myself of much delight and happiness that could have been mine. I didn't appreciate the uniqueness of the objects because I was looking for what I had deemed perfection." This applies so much to those who leave the church.

Evidence for the literal truth of scripture

Elder Oaks reviewed the scriptural evidence for a literal resurrection. Then he added, "Many living witnesses can testify to the literal fulfillment of these scriptural assurances of the resurrection. Many, including some in my own extended family, have seen a departed loved one in vision or personal appearance and have witnessed their restoration in "proper and perfect frame" in the prime of life."

Many critics think that the church is based on vague feelings or long-lost ancient documents. Not true! The church is based on direct personal experience.

Faith does not replace our natural abilities

"Faith intensifies and magnifies our gifts and abilities" said President Faust.

He got straight to the point with this quotation: "Education is what you get if you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don't." That is the message of his web site. Plenty of people experience the Mormon church. But many do not receive an education.


April 2000 General Conference
Saturday afternoon session: about the Holy Ghost

Internalize the messages

Just hearing te gospel does not mean we get its power. Elder Perry's sermon is summarized like this: "The continued expansion of technology will only bring the messages to us. . . . [But it is] the challenge of each individual and family . . . to internalize the messages of the gospel."

Always see the context

Recently, a temple was announced for West Africa. Elder Pace used this fact to illustrate the context of temple work. Without this context, we cannot appreciate the real significance of church membership. Just obeying (in this case, visiting the temple) is not enough. We need to see what these covenants really mean "It is my hope and prayer that we will never take temple blessings for granted."

Also, as with Elder Oaks' previous sermon, Elder Pace showed how miracles are happening right now.

It's not just what you believe, it's how you believe it

Elder Jensen taught: "If we can help people first understand the plan, they will find a deeper and more permanent motivation to keep the commandments." In my experience, those who find the church difficult or oppressive completely miss this perspective.

"When we understand the great plan of happiness, we are gaining an eternal perspective, and the commandments, ordinances, covenants, and the experiences, trials, and tribulations can be seen in their true and eternal light."

Non-members can feel the spirit too

Those who do not understand he Holy Spirit think it is something that members learn to conjure up for themselves. A kind of learned conditioning. But this is no so. It touches the hearts of non-members, or why do they join by the thousand? Elder Coleman gave some examples of converts. Some of these men and women have observed the church for years before joining, so we can conclude that (a) simply knowing the church is not enough, and (b) if there was some delusion involved, they would have noticed. "It is the power of the Spirit that convinces the investigator to pray about our message, to attend church, read the Book of Mormon, schedule further discussions, be baptized into the Lord's Church, and continue to be 'nourished by the good word of God.'"

Is your testimony direct from God?

Elder Ballard taught that, no matter how much you now, you are not a firm member unless you have got it direct from God. "This Church will stand, because it is upon a firm basis. It is not from man; it is not from the study of the New Testament or the Old Testament; it is not the result of the learning that we received in colleges nor seminaries, but it has come directly from the Lord."

Have a good reason to believe

Elder Haight gave us reasons to respect the church. But he began with an anecdote that illustrates how church leaders are not machines. They do not respect the church unless they have a good reason.

"I enjoyed President Hinckley's comments regarding the walnut from which this pulpit is made. The Tabernacle pulpit had both a red light and an amber light to assist the speaker with his time. As we get older, our eyesight usually isn't as sharp as it used to be. The amber light would come on, and if you didn't pay attention to that, the red light would start to blink. Brother LeGrand Richards, when the light was first installed, said, 'Someone's put a silly light up here.' He said, 'I'll just put my hand over it.'"


April 2000 General Conference
Priesthood session: about priorities

The Mormon view of women

Elder Scott quoted President Hinckley: "Woman is God's supreme creation. Only after the earth had been formed, after the day had been separated from the night, after the waters had been divided from the land, after vegetation and animal life had been created, and after man had been placed on the earth, was woman created; and only then was the work pronounced complete and good." Yes, the church does believe that men and women are different. But that does not mean one is inferior to the other.

Do Mormons put the church before everything?

Bishop Burton quoted president Hunter, from the only Conference address he ever gave as president of the church:

"The family is the most important unit in time and in eternity and, as such, transcends every other interest in life"

Do Mormons believe in blind faith?

Elder Abrea said, speaking of ideas from outside the church:

"I'm sure that many questions have come to your mind. The truth is that you will not be condemned for wondering or questioning if you make a sincere effort to find the answer. Our mental powers have been given to us to use. Faith based on personal prayer, study, and obedience is more lasting than blind faith; it is more rewarding, and for sure it is better grounded."

"We are benefited by retaining the humility and teachableness of a child, but we must be sure to continue growing and not be content with the limited knowledge or comprehension of the gospel which a child has. Remember, Paul, what the Apostle of your same name said to the Corinthians: "Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men" (1 Cor. 14:20)."

Who has ultimate control over you?

Elder Faust: "Tonight, brethren, I should like to speak about the power of self-mastery in its larger sense. Self-mastery is essential to invoke the power of the priesthood of God. This is because this great, divine agency can only be exercised in righteousness. Self-mastery requires self-determination and strength of character. It enhances our own gifts and talents in a remarkable way. It is the power of noble manhood."

Who can judge our thoughts and behavior?

President Monson taught: "Faith forged in the furnace of trials and tears is marked by trust and testimony. Only God can count the sacrifice; only He can measure the sorrow; only He can know the hearts of those who serve Him--then and now."

There are some things we only learn direct from God. "Young men, some lessons in life are learned from your parents, while others you learn in school or in church. There are, however, certain moments when you know our Heavenly Father is doing the teaching and you are His student."

An interesting choice of words

President Hinckley made an interesting comment on priesthood. After commenting on how different we all are, he said: "Such is the wonder of this priesthood. Wealth is not a factor. Education is not a factor. The honors of men are not a factor. The controlling factor is acceptability unto the Lord."

Usually we say that obedience is the key. But the prophet used the word acceptability. This suggests not blind following, but that our choice of actions is acceptable. It suggests a range of possibilities. It has to be that way, because priesthood holders are all so different.

The need to be the same is only an organizational matter - an obvious expedient. "It is most interesting to me that we have 17,789 wards in the Church with a bishop in each. They are scattered over the earth. Their members speak various languages. And yet they are all alike. You may attend Sunday meetings in Singapore or Stockholm and the service will be the same. Think of the confusion we would have if every bishop followed his own inclinations. The Church would literally fall apart in a very short time."

But this unity does not mean blind obedience. Each must find his own solutions in many areas. "They recognize their own inadequacy, and I know that they pray for guidance and help. I know they study the scriptures to find answers." Even where strict matters like church discipline are concerned, "All of this is done in harmony with the direction of the Spirit and as set forth in section 102 of the Doctrine and Covenants." And what does section 102 teach? That (in the absence of a clear church policy) all decisions are made by prayer and by vote, and there is a right of appeal. As verse 19 puts it, after the evidence is given, "the president shall give a decision according to the understanding which he shall have of the case, and call upon the twelve councilors to sanction the same by their vote." The key words here are flexibility, personal choice, and personal revelation.


April 2000 General Conference
Sunday morning session: about being an individual

This is a personal church, made up of individuals

President Monson made clear that personal revelation is not blind obedience. It is simply a question of going to the Lord for help and advice. The wider church structure is not involved.

"The recognition of power higher than man himself does not in any sense debase him. If in his faith he ascribes beneficence and high purpose to the power which is superior to himself, he envisions a higher destiny and nobler attributes for his kind and is stimulated and encouraged in the struggle of existence." 

Speaking of a Stake Conference, where president Monson knew the long-serving Stake President: president. "'As I stood to speak, I was prompted to do something I had not done before, nor have I done so since. I stated how long Francis Winters had presided in the stake; then I asked all whom he had blessed or confirmed as children to stand and remain standing. Then I asked all those persons whom President Winters had ordained, set apart, personally counseled, or blessed to please stand. The outcome was electrifying. Every person in the audience rose to his or her feet. Tears flowed freely--tears which communicated better than could words the gratitude of tender hearts. I turned to President and Sister Winters and said, 'We are witnesses today of the prompting of the Spirit. This vast throng reflects not only individual feelings but also the gratitude of God for a life well lived.' No person who was in the congregation that day will forget how he or she felt when we witnessed the language of the Spirit of the Lord."

This church is not a crutch!

Some people think the church is for people who cannot face their problems. Quite the opposite! The church gives us reasons to face up to many challenges that we would otherwise avoid. As Elder Wirthlin said:

"The adversity we experience allows our souls to become like clay in the hands of the Master. 'Trials and adversity,' President Faust taught, 'can be preparatory to becoming born anew.' Adversity can strengthen and refine us. As with the butterfly, adversity is necessary to build character in people. Even when we are called to sail through troubled waters, we need to know the place of adversity in shaping our divine potential. If only we would look beyond our present suffering and see our struggles as a temporary chrysalis. If only we would have the faith and trust in our Heavenly Father to see how, after a little season, then we can emerge from our trials more refined and glorious."

This church is practical

Elder Tingey gave a talk about widows. When a widow requires help, family members and the local church are expected to support them. This is an example of why the church teaches obedience to commandments. Because there are real people out there who need our help! As James taught, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." The world prefers to place old people in homes, forgotten and unwanted. Pure religion means facing up to these responsibilities. This is why the church teaches obedience to these principles. Real people's lives are at stake.

It is up to us to make something of our lives

Sister Smoot began her sermon, "We are all creators." We each, individually, are expected to make something of our lives. Not from blind obedience, but from individual discovery:

"We each have to say to ourselves, What will I create of my life? My time? My future? First, go where the Spirit directs. Be still and listen. Your Heavenly Father will guide you as you draw near to Him. Immerse yourself in the holy word of the prophets, both ancient and modern, and the Spirit will speak to you. Be patient, ask in faith, and you will receive guidance in your creative efforts. .Second, don't be paralyzed from fear of making mistakes. ...

Every person on this earth is unique. We all have varied interests, abilities, and skills. We are each at different levels physically, spiritually, and emotionally. ... Instead of dwelling on your troubles, focus instead on creating something remarkable, something of eternal significance."

The church does not rely on training, just individual choices

Elder Eyring said, "More than 30,000 missionaries were called and set apart [in the last year]. Most of them were less than 20 years of age. They went with only brief training and little experience. Someone who knows organizations in the world might predict failure for a rapidly growing church depending on so many novice lay members. Even those called may well have felt some apprehension. And yet when they see through the eyes of faith the challenge as it really is, confidence replaces fear because they turn to God. ...

There is a miracle appearing in the Church. I see it as I travel back to nations after an absence of only a short time. The members and the leaders are changed. Just as Alma promised, their souls have been enlarged and their understanding enlightened and their minds expanded (see Alma 32:28, 34). "

Testimony is a personal thing

President Hinckley recalled how he gained his testimony. It did include good feelings of course, but also priesthood healings, on thinking, on observing the ugliness that is in the world. More than anything else, President Hinckley spoke of his studying, thinking, and his response, both intellectual and emotional. President Hinckley spent most of the talk discussing his relationship with the Savior - his friend, exemplar, teacher, healer, leader, savior, redeemer, God and King.

Anyone who tries to dismiss all this as just a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings, has really not been listening.


April 2000 General Conference
Sunday afternoon session: various points

Freedom of choice is everything

Elder Maxwell taught that "[the Lord's will] is to be done 'because of the word,' not because we are compelled (Alma 36:26). The rule has been, is, and will remain 'Nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself' (Moses 3:17). The Lord wants conversion without intimidation."

"Let us remember in our age of spin, the only spin God desires is our freely turning away from sin and turning to Him. Therefore, the Lord does not seek to overwhelm us but instead to help us overcome the world! (See D&C 64:2; Rev. 3:21)."

Catch the vision of what is possible

Some people criticize the church's emphasis on faith. But the fact is, it works. It produces higher standards of behavior, deeper understanding, greater efforts, and more happiness. Elder Holland spoke about John Moyle, a farmer who helped build the Salt Lake Temple:

"Once when he was home on the weekend, one of his cows bolted during milking and kicked Brother Moyle in the leg, shattering the bone just below the knee. With no better medical help than they had in such rural circumstances, his family and friends took a door off the hinges and strapped him onto that makeshift operating table. They then took the bucksaw they had been using to cut branches from a nearby tree and amputated his leg just a few inches below the knee. When against all medical likelihood the leg finally started to heal, Brother Moyle took a piece of wood and carved an artificial leg. First he walked in the house. Then he walked around the yard. Finally he ventured out about his property. When he felt he could stand the pain, he strapped on his leg, walked the 22 miles to the Salt Lake Temple, climbed the scaffolding, and with a chisel in his hand hammered out the declaration 'Holiness to the Lord.'"

The source of the 'warm feeling'

Sometimes people criticize the church because members talk approvingly of a warm feeling inside. But that feeling does not just appear out of nowhere. It is a personal response to real and positive things. For example, Elder Kikuchi told how he met a non-member who thought Mormons were "strange and weird." He spoke with her and told her of doctrines that would mean a great deal to her. She felt that warm feeling. Why? Because she learned - and understood- something that made a great deal of sense to her. Her brain was fully involved.

These teachings make a real difference

Elder Dunn spoke about being a good father. In a day when families are breaking up and many people lack a loving parent, these teachings are needed more than ever. The church is a practical help.

In this church you don't have to give up anything that is good

As Elder Dickson said concerning his father-in-law, who joined the church after being raised in another faith: "As he examined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he was able to retain truths formerly acquired, while enjoying a rich treasure of additional knowledge." Put simply, you have nothing to lose.

Two examples

Elder Nelson gave an example of this when he discussed the creation. Many people are aware of the discoveries of science regarding the age of the earth, and assume that the church teaches that the earth is much younger. Not so. We do take the scriptures literally, but way back in the early nineteenth century a scripture was received which indicated that the 'days' of Genesis were not neccesarily 'days' as we know them:

"The physical Creation itself was staged through ordered periods of time. In Genesis and Moses, those periods are called days. But in the book of Abraham, each period is referred to as a time. Whether termed a day, a time, or an age, each phase was a period between two identifiable events--a division of eternity."

Another example. Many people are aware of the importance of families. They may fear that the church will put itself ahead of their family. Not so. "Grand as it is, planet Earth is part of something even grander--that great plan of God. Simply summarized, the earth was created that families might be. Scripture explains that a husband and wife 'shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation.'"

President Hinckley's closing remarks

President Hinckley is a wise man. He is ready to accept blame where it is due. Speaking of the church:

"We are greatly misunderstood, and I fear that much of it is of our own making."

But he understands that teachings and feelings should not take us over. They do not drive us, bu they do provide a necessary reference point as we each make our own decisions.

"May it [the memory of conference] become an anchor in our lives, a guide by which to live, a training time where we learned to shape our actions toward others and our attitudes toward ourselves."

He does not ask for blind obedience, but for more thought.

"Let us take a little time to meditate, to think of what we can do to improve our lives and to become better examples of what a Latter-day Saint should be."


Previous General Conferences

In case you think that the April 2000 conference was unusual, just take a look at previous conferences. The October 1999 conference, for example, began with a wonderful sermon entitled "Lessons from Laman and Lemuel." Elder Maxwell observed that so many of our problems come because we think we understand what the church is about, but really we do not.

Failure to understand the church

"Failing to understand the 'dealings' of the Lord with His children--meaning His relations with and treatment of His children--is very fundamental. Murmuring is but one of the symptoms, and not the only consequence either; in fact, brothers and sisters, this failure affects everything else!"

We can only discover some things for ourself - we cannot learn them second hand.

"Exhortations given to Laman and Lemuel 'were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought' (1 Ne. 15:3)."

For example, Laman and Lemuel did not understand that everything must be interpreted in the light of the fact that God loves us. I have seen several ex-Mormons who have left the church because they did not understand this. They got confused over some issue in the church (such as the myth of 'blind obedience'), without realizing that their understanding MUST be faulty because it would imply that God does not love his children.

The church only teaches general principles

The last session of that conference included a sermon by Elder Oaks about teaching in the church. He makes it clear that:

"Teachers who are commanded to teach 'the principles of [the] gospel' and 'the doctrine of the kingdom' (D&C 88:77) should generally forgo teaching specific rules or applications. For example, they would not teach any rules for determining what is a full tithing, and they would not provide a list of dos and don'ts for keeping the Sabbath Day holy. Once a teacher has taught the doctrine and the associated principles from the scriptures and the living prophets, such specific applications or rules are generally the responsibility of individuals and families."

"Gospel teachers should 'teach the principles of my gospel . . . as they shall be directed by the Spirit. . . . And if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach' (D&C 42:1214)."

"President Hinckley stated an important corollary to the command to teach by the Spirit when he issued this challenge: 'We must . . . get our teachers to speak out of their hearts rather than out of their books, to communicate their love for the Lord and this precious work, and somehow it will catch fire in the hearts of those they teach.' That is our objective--to have love of God and commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ 'catch fire' in the hearts of those we teach."

A summary of what the church says

The simple message: The complex reality:
Listen Understand
Follow the prophet Gain the perspective he has gained
Follow the Holy Ghost Gain personal understanding, take personal responsibility
Basic teachings -e.g God loves you This is the foundation - without it, you cannot go further

 

The bottom line:

Is the church a massive edifice devoted to blind obedience? Judge for yourself.

 

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