Noel B. Reynolds
Professor of Political Science, Brigham Young University
President, Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
From the day Joseph Smith first shared the marvelous revelations that God was pouring out upon him, detractors began to gather. Today, as during his own lifetime, small groups of Christian antagonists and Mormon dissidents attack Joseph's revelations and the testimony of believers with endless repetitions and reformulations of arguments invented in the first years of the Restoration. In spite of the wide acclaim for the positive achievements of the Church and the way in which its critics have been overwhelmingly refuted, the negative spirit of anti-Mormonism lives on, surviving its retired or expired standard-bearers. Each generation recruits new champions, mostly from a relatively small number of dissidents on the fringes of Mormon society.
In our own generation many in the news media who are drawn mindlessly to controversy have given the detractors new status and power, christening them "Mormon intellectuals" and presenting them to the world as the thinking Mormons who know the inside story about the Church. In their rush to produce controversial news, many journalists have overlooked the obvious truth—the LDS intellectual and academic communities are composed of strong believers in Joseph Smith's revelations and solid supporters of the Church leadership. Only at the fringes is there noticeable dissent. The overwhelming majority of LDS academics and intellectuals are active, faithful Latter-day Saints who find these detractors to be driven by a secret hate for a goodness they cannot understand or enjoy on their own terms.
In spite of occasional eruptions of anti-intellectualism in the LDS community, the long-term reality has been that Mormons, perhaps more than any other religious group, seek and respect learning. Joseph Smith set the example himself, establishing schools for adults and studying Biblical languages. The LDS community has always produced far more than its share of highly educated people. And the Church has always taken advantage of the education of its members in calling well-educated Saints to positions of authority and responsibility at every level of Church organization. The media's errors might be excused to the extent that they are relying on a received common knowledge: in almost all religious communities the more educated groups are the most likely to exhibit reduced religious belief and commitment.
But why should this ignorance be excused among those who specialize in Mormon news when it has long been established by sociological research that educated Mormons show exactly the opposite tendency? The simple truth is that higher levels of religiosity among Latter-day Saints—as measured by devotion to private prayer, scripture study, tithe paying, church attendance, and other forms of religious observance—are directly correlated with higher levels of education. It may be an anomaly, but it is true of the LDS community that the more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to be fully observant and faithful.1
There may be good reasons for this surprising characteristic of the Latter-day Saints. Mormonism is a religion of both the spirit and the intellect. Mormon missionaries tell their investigators that they have answers to the great human questions. Conversion stories are always stories of learning and inspiration. Converts feel the spirit of the divine, and the gospel helps them receive answers to their questions about life and about themselves. Mormonism is not a religion that tells its members they have no right to know the divine mysteries. Rather, it tells them to seek knowledge of all things. There is nothing that God is not willing to reveal to his children, even to the point of showing himself to them on special occasions.
Nor are Mormons taught to be irrational or to despise logic in their understanding of the divine. From Joseph Smith to the present prophets, the Saints have always been urged to grasp a grand and coherent vision of themselves and their relationship to God. They are urged to acknowledge contradictions in their own lives and beliefs and to reconcile themselves to the full set of gospel truths. Latter-day Saints learn early that the Spirit can be their most valuable asset in this great quest, and that there is no true opposition between mind and spirit. The two must function harmoniously together to reach fully satisfying truth.
It would be fair to say that Latter-day Saints see themselves as both prophets and intellectuals. They depend daily on spiritual guidance, and they treasure deeply the understanding of God and his world that they have been given. They feel responsible to search the scriptures as a means of strengthening their spirits and their understanding simultaneously. They are suspicious of people who seem to emphasize one of these sources of knowledge to the neglect of the other. Both are God-given, and both are necessary for a fullness of life.
The testimony that individual Latter-day Saints bear of the truthfulness of the Church and the Book of Mormon, as well as the other revelations of Joseph Smith, is highly personal. The mind and spirit of a man or woman are finally quite private in their innermost workings. Each person must come to that mix of understanding and spiritual assurance that he or she finds adequate. There is nothing that others can hand you off a shelf that will do the job. It requires personal inquiry, reflection, prayer, and openness to God's revelation.
Though all believing Latter-day Saints find great commonality in the testimonies they hear from others, differences of personality and experience that stand out. Testimonies are multidimensional. They involve personal insights, spiritual witnesses, other people, miracles, personal experiences, and struggles with sin. Different individuals may emphasize different dimensions in their own understanding of their testimonies. I have always appreciated the fact that in Joseph Smith's first written account of his 1820 vision, it was the forgiveness of sins that most impressed him.
My experience is the same. For as we become aware of our sinfulness, we also begin to know of our distance from God and his high expectations—which becomes the most important problem in our life. And once we have experienced God's grace—the baptism of fire by which sins are purged and the desire to do evil is cleansed away—we've had an experience to which none other can compare. When one has been so directly touched and benefited by God's love, one will treasure and protect that gift at all costs. It is a form of knowledge that only a fool would deny or compromise.
The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God offers this experience to every human being born into this world. The personal nature of such experiences renders them inaccessible to scientific investigation or to external examination and evaluation. The believer cannot fall back on science or the opinions of others to make decisions about spiritual experience. Each person must learn to recognize the voice of God in his or her own life and to honestly distinguish between experiences with that voice and other internal experiences of emotion or imagination. Our salvation depends on our personal integrity. And only we and God can know. The opinions of others do not count much, except as they are useful in helping us to learn to recognize the Spirit.
As a young professor I had a pointed experience that helped me understand this more clearly. In 1978 I spent a week in a small conference with other philosophers and economists, discussing basic issues of human life and social organization. The question of religious knowledge emerged and was dismissed by some as a product of wishful thinking. A distinguished economist in the group (later to receive a Nobel prize) looked across the room and said, "Reynolds, you Mormons believe in personal revelation. How do you know it's not just psychological?" The answer that came to me then was simple, but adequate for me and the group that day. I know from experience what it means to come to believe something out of wishful thinking. And I know what it means to receive guidance from the Spirit. And the two are very different experiences. For one thing, the Lord has his own agenda and is as likely to direct against my own wishes as to support them. Wishful thinking never does that!
When Susan and Steven Booras first suggested in 1992 that a compilation of scholars' testimonies might be a useful response to the news media's lionizing of dissidents, it seemed like a project that might be worth trying. Little did we realize what a powerful and varied battery of personal witnesses we would receive. As I have read through the individual contributions to this volume, I have repeatedly been touched, enlightened, and inspired. Many of the writers open the most personal corners of their hearts to share priceless treasures. They offer significant insights into the process by which the Lord helps honest seekers to find the truth. Many report how personal failings or sins interfere with spiritual knowledge, and how repentance leads the way to enlightenment and sure knowledge of God's love.
When the leadership of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) determined to produce this volume, we thought immediately of Susan Easton Black, professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, as someone ideally suited to pull these testimonies together in a way that would be most useful to the Latter-day Saint community. Backed by the interest and participation of thousands of faithful Latter-day Saints, FARMS promotes the efforts of LDS scholars in numerous academic disciplines to expand and develop our understanding of the scriptures that have come to us through revelation to Joseph Smith. While these scholars occasionally engage in religious apologetics, refuting critics and dissidents, their primary efforts are directed to expansion of our understanding of the scriptures themselves. In the process, however, they demonstrate to the faithful that these precious scriptures can be reasonably defended by educated professionals using the highest scholarly standards. Such demonstrations can provide important shelter for fledgling testimonies that may be exposed to the fiery darts of the adversary.
Above all, the application of faithful scholarship to the LDS scriptures is another way of rejoicing in the great expansion of God's revelations to man in this day of restoration. While it is clearly the exclusive right of the Church leadership to pronounce official interpretations of scripture and doctrine, there is much in the background and literary character of these sacred texts that scholars can help us to see.
Readers of this volume will discover a marvelous and uncoached unity in these testimonies. The invitation to participate in this volume contained only minimal instructions—to share testimony; to discuss, if they desired, the interaction between their faith and their scholarly endeavors; and, if applicable, to reflect on their research into topics related to the Book of Mormon—yet the resulting testimonies share a number of attributes. Although most contributors are persons of substantial learning, none base their beliefs in scholarly insights. Rather, all point to an inner conviction that has come through life experience and God's gift. As they explain, these testimonies enlighten their entire lives, including their scholarly endeavors. None feel conflict between the canons of scholarship and of religious belief, but rather find the two mutually reinforcing and even necessary. But the reader will also notice a distinctive variation between these testimonies as each writer reveals the inner thoughts of a unique individual. The processes and events that each finds pivotal in the formation of his or her personal testimony reveal an authentic effort to rise to fuller understanding of the truth.
Our hope and prayer in publishing this volume is that it can strengthen others by precept and example as they pursue their own efforts to know the Lord and to understand his love and dealings with men. We do thank Susan Easton Black for the wonderful job she has done in soliciting and assembling these personal statements. We also thank Susan and Steven Booras for the original suggestion and Stephanie Terry of the FARMS editorial staff for her excellent editorial work. We thank especially all who have so unselfishly given of themselves in contributing to the volume. This volume contains the combined work and effort of many people, and it is better for each contributor. Finally, we wish to thank each reader who will find something of value here for taking the effort to seek truth, and we express the hope that he or she will share it with someone else who can benefit. The spirit of the book is that of sharing that which is most precious. We hope it will motivate and assist others who wish to do the same.
1. See Stan L. Albrecht and Tim B. Heaton, "Secularization, Higher Education, and Religiosity," in Review of Religious Research, 26, no. 1 (September 1984): 43-59.