Church History Symposium examines Mormonism's global reach
SALT LAKE CITY — How The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is adjusting to meet the needs of an international membership was the theme this year of the annual Church History Symposium jointly organized by Brigham Young University and the LDS Church History Department.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the church’s First Presidency, was the keynote speaker Friday morning at the LDS Conference Center Theater. The two-day symposium, titled “The Worldwide Church: the Global Reach of Mormonism,” began Thursday on the BYU campus in Provo with a full day of scholarly presentations and an evening keynote speech by Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia and a prolific and popular author on intellectual topics about Mormonism.
President Uchtdorf drew his theme from a quoted remark by novelist Michael Crichton: “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
“History teaches us not only about the leaves of existence,” President Uchtdorf commented. “It also teaches about the twigs, branches, trunks and roots of life. And these lessons are important.”
The church leader said a failing of mortal men and women “is to assume that our ‘leaf’ is all there is — that our experience encompasses everyone else’s, that our truth is complete and universal.” He said the gospel of Christ that Mormonism embraces encompasses all truth, “not only the truth of what was and what is but the truth of what can and will be.”
God warns his children repeatedly not to place their trust in the world’s wisdom, observed President Uchtdorf, “yet we have an almost irresistible desire to assume that the leaf of information we have in our possession is a representation of all there is to know.”
He related an incident of Frederick the Great, the 18th century king of Prussia. After a military defeat, many of Frederick’s soldiers scattered in confusion. A soldier brought before the king was asked why he had run away.
“Because things were going badly for your majesty,” was the reply.
“Frederick reflected for a moment, then said mildly, ‘I suggest that you wait a week. Then, if things are still going badly, we will quit together,’ ” President Uchtdorf recounted.
“There will be times when it may appear that things are going badly for the truth of God — that the evidence of the world contradicts God’s utterances. For my part, I have learned to be patient, knowing that in the end things will work out. God’s kingdom will continue to grow. The truth will continue to flourish and spread throughout the earth. Sometimes all it takes is a little faith and a little patience.”
In his speech Thursday night, Givens said the LDS Church faces the same challenge that confronted Christian leaders after the death of Christ: “How do you export and disseminate the gospel in all of its purity and goodness to myriad peoples, nationalities, ethnic groups and societies without the cultural trappings and accretions it has acquired?”
Givens commented: “Our ideas of what it means to be saints, to worship God, to live the life of discipleship are shaped by myriad factors conscious and unconscious. Forms of address, rhetorical habits, music, instrumentation, the language of prayer, modes of engaging the sacred, etiquette and interaction and how we express love, these and a million other constituents of the religious life are not eternal verities or immutable truths but shifting modes of pursuing and living truth.”
Obstacles to spreading the LDS faith “freed from cultural baggage” are rooted in Mormonism’s history, Givens said, explaining that its sacred roots, including the Book of Mormon, were part of the physical landscape for early Mormons.
Moreover, he said, prominent themes in the Book of Mormon — wars fought in the name of liberty, a land of refuge for the religiously oppressed, the democratization of revelation, hostility to priestcraft — all resonate with what Americans have claimed as part of their national identity.
However, Givens noted, “the Book of Mormon is in large measure the story of the unending transmission of the gospel into new contexts, new settings and new conditions. It is a chronicle of the volatility and fragility of lands of refuge. It is a testament to the portability and ceaseless transmutations of Zion, with the only constant being the eternally present promise of spiritual blessedness and direct access to God’s power and truth.”
That, Givens said, seems to be a warning against the tendency to associate Zion “with a particular place or nationality or historical moment. There is no holy land, only a holy people.”
Givens said revelations given to Joseph Smith, including Section 10 of the Doctrine and Covenants, hint that the institutional church is not the “exhaustive repository of the chosen or the blessed or the eventually saved.”
“The idea of a spiritual church that exists alongside to encompass and eventually transcend the institutional church is persistently reaffirmed.”
He said the LDS Church “holds the keys of salvation for the living and the dead. At the same time, God loves and considers to be his people all those who honor him and will have him to be their God.
“The implications for how Latter-day Saints engage the rest of the world are there for the faithful to plumb. My task today has been to try and reconstruct from Joseph Smith’s own revelatory pronouncements what I take to be his way of balancing his certainty of the divine foundations and mission of the restored church with both the humility of language and self-conception and generosity of vision appropriate to its destiny.”
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