Terryl Givens, former professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, addressed a group of Brigham Young University Students on November 29, 2005, and talked about some of the most significant legacies Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often misnamed the Mormon Church), which have continued to help the church grow and be successful. As I read this talk, several things resonated with me. I would like to discuss a few of these things.
Terryl pointed out that in the past few years, prominent men and women from all over the world have begun to recognize the significance of what Joseph Smith did and the influence his actions continue to have on the world today. What are the things that drew these people towards Joseph? Dr. Kazi Islam said it was “profound love and respect for the ideals” of the tradition Joseph founded; Dr. Jason Lase called Joseph a “modern religious genius” who created “one of the most stable and well-organized religious organizations” he has come across; Arun Joshi claimed that “the message of Joseph Smith is more relevant today than ever before.”
Terryl believes that it is the radical doctrines Joseph taught that resonated with thousands of people in his day, and which continue to resonate with millions of people today, that laid the foundations for the growth and “success” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to experience today and which make the “Mormon Church” a community. “It is the quality of this community,” says Terryl, “Not its rate of increase, that is the more vital fact—and the more enduring mystery—of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
It is important to understand the historical environment into which Mormonism was introduced. Only 12 years before Joseph Smith’s birth, Louis XVI was guillotined and people turned drastically from religion. Historians have recognized this moment as a “banishment of God from the subsequent history of that people . . . [which] precipitated a steep decline in the fortunes of religion in the West generally.” This is evidenced by the fact that only decades after the organization of the “Mormon Church,” Nietzsche claimed that, “God is dead,” which statement was more a reflection on society’s view of God than Nietzsche’s personal religious beliefs.
The Romantics and philosophers of the 1800s pined for a deeper connection to God, but religion had claimed for generations that, like Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” proclaimed, God abhorred mankind and would have no compassion on or mercy for the unrepentant individual.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision, however, was an intensely personal interaction with a loving God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ who were answering Joseph’s personal prayer about a very specific question. Later revelation through Joseph further described God as a father who “feels real sorrow, rejoices with real gladness, and weeps real tears.” In addition to the restored knowledge of God’s true character that Joseph Smith presented was the restoration of the truth that God is accessible to each of us on the most intimate level.
Terryl goes on to discuss four truths about human nature that Joseph taught which were (and largely still are) radical: (1) man is eternally existent, (2) man is inherently innocent, (3) man is inherently free, and (4) man is infinitely perfectible. While Terryl talks about each of these more in depth, I want to discuss the implications I feel these truths have.
When I read Joseph Smith’s words about man’s true relationship to God, my heart burns and testifies to me of that truth. I have had several personal spiritual experiences in my life where I felt His love for me and His infinite concern for my happiness—my eternal happiness, not what I think true happiness is. His eternal perspective sees what will bring me lasting, full happiness far better than I can in my day-to-day life. Realizing that I have divine potential, as a literal child of God, brings a much deeper purpose to my life and how I choose to live it, than thinking that my existence ends when I die.
Having a better understanding of my eternal existence and potential also affects how I see my relationships with others. Another incredible truth that Joseph Smith restored is that of eternal relationships. The family is meant to be an eternal unit, and through covenant and obedience, we can enjoy those relationships forever. We are meant to draw close to each other and to depend on each other. Knowing this deeply influences how I interact with other people, no matter their relationship to me (e.g. family, friend, co-worker, acquaintance, or even—perhaps especially—someone I don’t really like very much). The idea of true community requires that I put my own selfish needs and desires aside to serve others with fulness of heart. This is not easy and grates against the natural tendencies of mankind, but when I try my hardest to do it, I feel peace and happiness, so I know it is a true principle.
The gospel that Joseph Smith restored to the earth also gives converts the chance to know for certain, by first exercising faith, that the principles of that gospel are true. Through personal revelation—that intensely intimate communication we as individuals can, and should, have with God, our Heavenly Father—we can each gain a certainty of gospel principles through the testimony of the Holy Ghost. The catch is that we must first exercise faith and obedience.
The burden is placed on us to make a decision, to exercise our eternal free will and choose whether to believe that Jesus is the Christ. Our other choice is to disbelieve that glorious truth, which puts us in a strictly dog-eat-dog world, focusing on accumulating wealth and prestige here and now, because that is all there is. We are presented with two options. There are many evidences that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. However, there is also “evidence” to the contrary. We must choose for ourselves what to believe and how to act.
Terryl recognized that “Joseph Smith ignited something in thousands of men and women that connects them to God and to each other in powerful ways. . . . His message resonated because it was a stirring, compelling, and exciting synthesis that presented a spiritually hungry humankind with a god, like the god of Plato, who ‘was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be.’ The god of Joseph Smith was not a threat to human potential but a being who gloried in that potential and whose work was to bring it to fruition. That was why Joseph’s message resonated and caught hold like a burning fire.”
I, like millions of other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recognize the truth in Joseph Smith’s teachings, the truths he restored to the earth. I have chosen time and time again to accept these truths and live my life accordingly. In response to these actions, I have received irrefutable spiritual witnesses that these things are true. There is a God. He is my Father, and He loves me. Jesus Christ is His literal son, who took upon Himself the sins and sorrows of the world, atoning for mankind. I can become like God and have a glorious eternal existence, if I do my best to become more like Him now.
Terryl Givens’ full talk “Lightning Out of Heaven”: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community
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