Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On Race and Racism

As racism has again lifted its ugly head and been brought into the public discussion (specifically by events in the NBA) I thought I'd add my own two-cents:

Ever since I was as young as I can remember I can recollect thinking that it was absolutely ridiculous that anyone would ever believe that one race was superior to another or that individuals would be judged as inferior based on the color of their skin.

I remember learning in elementary school about a true American hero--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--and feeling simultaneously shocked/horrified by what I discovered about the injustice and inequality in American history, but also feeling completely inspired by Dr. King's "dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

I've since learned that this doesn't mean that we must be "color blind", because color is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact it should be embraced as a beautiful part of what makes us all unique.

Just a few months ago the lovely and ebullient Gladys Knight brought her "Saints Unified Voices" choir to San Antonio for a series of musical firesides. I absolutely loved it. (If you must know, as a kid I memorized the soundtrack to "The Preachers Wife" and sang along to every "gospel" note that came out of Whitney Houston's mouth). As the evening began, Sister Gladys looked out into the mixed race audience and with a smile that shined all the way to the back of the chapel and the beginning of the cultural hall where I was sitting, said how glad she was "to see so much chocolate mixed in with all this vanilla!" She embraced it as such a positive thing; we were very edified that evening.

Finally, I wanted to mention something that has stayed with me ever since I heard Morgan Freeman (one of my favorite actors) speak it when he narrated the introduction to a dramatic reading/performance of the Declaration of Independence:

"Not many people realize it today, but scholars believe Jefferson intended for the Declaration to be performed and not just read. It's words and rhythms were written to be spoken in proud and defiant tones in grand public places. It's a safe bet that the Continental Congress never had a in mind a performer like me. That is to say, a black man.

"Thomas Jefferson was not ignorant of the problem of slavery, of course. He called it a moral and political depravity, and in the original draft of the Declaration denounced the slave trade as a cruel war against human nature itself. But Congress thought better of this particular item and deleted it. In fact, there was no mention of slavery or black people, or of women for that matter in this pre-eminent statement on the equal rights of man.

"So it makes you wonder, how could a man who himself held slaves write with such incredible passion and eloquence about human liberation and the promise of a democratic republic? Why, some may ask, do I bring up such embarrassing truths on this glorious occasion? I answer, the real glory of the Declaration of Independence has been our nation's epic struggle throughout history to close the gap between the ideals of this remarkable document and the sometimes painful realities of American life. The Declaration symbolizes the birth of our nation of course, but ... also the constant struggle to achieve its ideals."

Here's to THAT struggle...

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Black Robes of A False Priesthood and Other Insights From Hugh Nibley

Hugh Nibley, to put it simply, was one of the great ones.  Here are a couple summaries of the man:

Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
"His commitment is so visible and has been so pronounced and so repetitively stated that that's not even the issue. So then we get on to: what is [he] saying?. . . He's impatient with mediocrity, he's impatient with irrelevance and to the casual eye that may be seen as eccentricity, when in fact I think it's a reflection of his deepened discipleship."

Truman G. Madsen:
"Is he a cynic and a pessimist, with all kinds of negative things to say? Yes. Is he an optimist, an idealist, with great hope for the future? Yes. Some would say you can't get those together. He does."

In 1983 Nibley gave a classic commencement address at BYU.  I was only three years old at the time, so I've come to appreciate his words through the marvels of modern technology.

The talk is entitled "Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift".  (I may be wrong, but I believe it ranks among the most under-appreciated talks in the history of the Church.)  You can listen/download the full audio at BYU Speeches website here, but that text is missing some of Nibley's greatest ad libs (so the text and the audio don't always match up.*)  "Zion's Best" does a decent job of capturing the text of his speech the way he actually delivered it, as well as the text of the speech in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley here.

One example of a humorous, but missing, ad lib is what Hugh Nibley says after paraphrasing Brigham Young: "To quote one of the greatest of leaders, the founder of this institution, 'There is too much of a sameness in this community. . . . I am not a stereotyped Latter-day Saint and do not believe in the doctrine . . . away with stereotyped 'Mormons!'"  He then added: "Goodbye all!" As the audience cracked up, he told them "That was just added--that wasn't in the speech. No extra charge!"  This particular departure takes place at the 12:49 mark of the audio, FWIW.  (All versions of the speech continue in agreement with his next line: "True leaders are inspiring because they are inspired, caught up in a higher purpose, devoid of personal ambition, idealistic, and incorruptible.")

While the entire speech is filled with great insights, this is the powerful concluding paragraph:

"In a forgotten time, before the Spirit was exchanged for the office and inspired leadership for ambitious management, these robes were designed to represent withdrawal from the things of this world—as the temple robes still do. That we may become more fully aware of the real significance of both is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."

As always, he gives us so much to ponder on, and like a good prophet, speaks truth to power. The Church™ would have done well to learn from this speech, but alas, I don't think we've learned (at least collectively) the lessons Hugh Nibley was trying to teach us.

Some Latter-day Saints might bristle at just the mention of the Church as a corporation--but Hugh Nibley recognized that the Gospel and the Church are not the same thing:

It is quite inconceivable that the gospel should ever be under condemnation, though the Church has been from time to time. They are not the same thing. The one is a teaching; the other, an organization to foster that teaching. Is the organization free to adjust and control the doctrine? Can it decide on the basis of public relations what would be most appropriate for what audience and for what occasion? What to emphasize and what to play down? Does any organization through its officers have that discretion? ("Mediocre Meditations on the Media"Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints)

Parenthetically, the history lover in me would especially love to know how we got from point A to point B:
Point A:

"I admire men and women who have developed the questioning spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas and stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent - if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression. This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence nor any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences. We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it."  (Hugh B. Brown, counselor in First Presidency, Speech at BYU, March 29, 1958.)
Point B:
"As for the rest we do not question things at the BYU" (see clip below from his BYU Commencement Address, Aug. 19th, 1983.  Hugh Nibley was obviously speaking tongue-in-cheek, but still, people laugh because there's obviously some truth to it.) 
Clip of Nibley explaining his "black robes of a false priesthood" comment: 

For the record, Hugh Nibley's son-in-law, Boyd Jay Petersen, wrote the biography "Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life."  It won the Mormon History Association’s Best Biography Award in 2003. (You can purchase the Kindle version for just $9.99.)  Petersen also discusses Hugh Nibley in a fascinating multi-episode Mormon Matters podcast here.

    *Boyd Jay Petersen:  "Part of it is simply that they published the transcript prepared by Hugh, but not his off-the-cuff remarks, which were often some of his most brilliant and biting satirical jabs (one of my favorites is the part where he says that graduation robes caused the well-known green house effect). But there was also some controversy about the talk. In fact, the editor of BYU Today was allegedly fired due to publishing Nibley's "Work We Must But the Lunch is Free" talk as well as this piece. (I discuss this in a footnote on page 372 of the biography.  There was also a problem with the audio recording of the speech. FARMS put out a VHS of the talk, but there's a chunk they had to take from a tape recorded version that Phyllis made of the event, which was, needless to say, not great quality"
    (as quoted on Facebook.)  

    For what's its worth, Petersen also mentioned that Nibley actually pulled my favorite Brigham Young quote (above) out of context, which is why it would be wise to add: "as Hugh Nibley paraphrased Brigham Young" when quoting it.   

Monday, April 28, 2014

2014 MHA Conference in San Antonio June 5-8th, 2014

I'm looking forward to attending my first MHA Conference right here in San Antonio.  I've enjoyed so many articles in the Journal of Mormon History over the few years I've been a member, and now I'm looking forward to meeting some folks in the flesh.  (Any one reading this going to be attending?  Here's the preliminary program.)

Three years ago when I read Leonard Arrington's "Adventures of a Church Historian", I typed out the following paragraph about MHA because I found it interesting:

In 1977, I think, the year we met in Ogden, the dean of BYU's College of Religious Instruction presented a paper that was subjected to the usual ritual of a commentator making suggestions for improvement. The dean did not like the commentator's tone. Nor did he like a paper he heard presented in another session by a historian the dean regarded as "lacking testimony." The dean made up his mind to take action. BYU's College of Religious Instruction would no longer support any member of its faculty in attending future meetings of the Mormon History Association. The rule still holds. If any faculty member wishes to attend the MHA convention, and some do, the individual must pay and use vacation time. I wondered whether someone who heard a talk in sacrament meeting he didn't like would discontinue taking his children to meetings in that ward. Or, whether one who had seen an article in The Ensign she didn't like would cancel her subscription. I believe it is shortsighted to discourage the attendance of College of Religious Instruction faculty at MHA conventions, because they teach many courses in church history and they, of all people, need to know of new developments in the field. (--Leonard Arrington, p. 61, "Adventures of a Church Historian")

Seeing that there is now in fact the following announcement for the conference on BYU's Religious Education website, I'm wondering if anyone has any insight about this "rule" that Arrington talks about and if or when it changed? 

2014 MHA Conference in San Antonio, Texas, June 5-8, 2014 

"The Immigration of Cosmopolitan Thought"

The 49th annual conference of the Mormon History Association will be held in San Antonio, Texas, June 5-8, 2014. The theme emphasizes the interplay between Mormonism and broad national and international currents and forces. San Antonio, a cosmopolitan, historically Catholic borderlands city with a vibrant but contested multicultural history and a relatively small but expanding Mormon presence, is a good place to explore the immigration and impact of cosmopolitan viewpoints and ideas. Papers that connect all branches of the Restoration to diverse theoretical, intellectual, and cultural perspectives, as well as papers that examine the interplay between Mormonism and other religions, are encouraged. Texas, a state with a reputation for confidant swagger and independent thought, is also a bastion of conservative moral conviction. Also encouraged are papers that explore how Mormons have negotiated an identity and thrived in vast settings with firmly entrenched worldviews where they have comprised small, sometimes maligned minorities. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"An Eternal Quest--Freedom of the Mind"

The following is from Hugh B. Brown's "An Eternal Quest--Freedom of the Mind", a speech delivered to the BYU student body on May 13, 1969, when Hugh B. Brown was First Counselor in the First Presidency:

One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking. More thinking is required, and we call upon you students to exercise your God-given right to think through every proposition that is submitted to you and to be unafraid to express your opinions, with proper respect for those to whom you talk and proper acknowledgment of your own shortcomings.

We live in an age when freedom of the mind is suppressed over much of the world. We must preserve this freedom in the Church and in America and resist all efforts of earnest men to suppress it, for when it is suppressed, we might lose the liberties vouchsafed in the Constitution of the United States.

Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts. One may memorize much without learning anything. In this age of speed, there seems to be little time for meditation.

Dissatisfaction with what is around us is not a bad thing if it prompts us to seek betterment, but the best sort of dissatisfaction in the long run is self-dissatisfaction, which leads us to improve ourselves. Maturity implies the ability to walk alone and not be ashamed within ourselves of the things we do and say.

Progress in maturity may be measured by our acceptance of increased self-responsibility and an increased sagacity in decision making. This transition is not a time of calm enjoyment, but of growth and adaptation.

One matures as a person by responding differently today from the way in which one responded yesterday. We observe restraint so that restraints do not have to be imposed upon us; we do our best to think clearly so that we avoid chasing after false doctrines; we use deliberation so as to see through nonsense; we realize our social duty to the honest opinions of others while maintaining our own principles.

Self-discipline--and that is a subject on which I think I have some right to speak because of my military training and experience--means doing things you would rather not do but having the courage to do them if they are right. When a course of action shows itself to be unprofitable, it is sensible and valorous to drop it.

There is no personal value in making a show of maturity if you do not have it. Affectation of any sort borders on vulgarity, and at the least, it is ridiculous to pretend to feelings and beliefs that do not appeal to your intelligence.

On the other hand, no mature person will be content to sit by the side of the road and watch the world go by. One cannot be merely a bystander, doing nothing but criticize...

There are forces at work in our society today which degrade an intellectual quest for knowledge. These forces are nothing new. They have always been powerful. They are anti-intellectual. ... The Know-Nothings of the last century in this country could be cited as one example. Germany in the thirties saw the burning of books and the glorification of barbaric emotion as part of the tragedy of Hitlerism.

We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers--that we in fact have a corner on truth, for we do not.

Whether you are in the field of economics or political science, history or the behavioral sciences, continue your search for truth. And maintain humility sufficient to be able to revise your hypotheses as new truth comes to you by means of the spirit or the mind. Salvation, like education, is an ongoing process.

One may not attain salvation by merely acknowledging allegiance, nor is it available in ready-to-wear stores or in supermarkets where it may be bought and paid for. That it is an eternal quest must be obvious to all. Education is involved in salvation and may be had only by evolution or the unfolding or developing into our potential. It is in large measure a problem of awareness, of reaching out and looking up, of aspiring and becoming, of pushing back our horizons, of seeking for answers, and of searching for God. In other words, it is not merely a matter of conforming to rituals, climbing sacred stairs, bathing in sacred pools, or making pilgrimages to ancient shrines. The depth and height and quality of life depend upon awareness, and awareness is a process of being saved from ignorance. Human beings cannot be saved in ignorance.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On Ordain Women, Priesthood, and "either the Church is all true or false"

I've been commenting quite a bit on Jana Riess' excellent blog posts lately (especially here, here, and here). I figured when my comments begin turning into book length form, it may be time to simply drop them here on my own blog:

[Responding to Jason, who said that having Ordain Women in the standby line distracted from the spirit on temple square and the inspiration he was wanting to feel at Priesthood meeting, I wrote:]

I can tell you’re very sincere. I hope I can share a different perspective without taking anything away from your own. What I don’t understand is why it’s such a big deal to the Church NOT to allow them inside. To me, the way to make sure you don’t detract from the Spirit is to just say “the more the merrier” and let them in. Having sisters inside next to us doesn’t distract from the Spirit in our other meetings. If we must have gender segregated meetings (and I’m all for that) then let’s call it the “Men’s Meeting” along with the General Women’s Meeting they just held the week before the Priesthood Session. Our leaders have made it very clear that men ARE NOT the priesthood.

Also, please consider how saying that it is all about YOU and YOUR feelings without considering those “selfish” women’s perspective comes across, ironically, as very selfish.

Finally, please take the time to read this excellent post by a friend and former colleague of mine (who recently completed five years of service as a bishop) and who went to witness Ordain Women in person at the very same meeting as you:

Pride of Lionesses: My experience standing in line with Ordain Women

[He thanked me for responding and said he would read it when he got home.  Then he said that Ordain Women's "tactics would be inappropriate at any venue. It’s ok if you and I 'agree to disagree' on certain issues, but please tell me deep down in your gut you agree their approach should be reconsidered". I responded with the following:]

To be perfectly frank...I’m somewhat ambivalent about it.

On the one hand it’s clear that they were asked not to come and they came anyway (although by most accounts were well behaved and peaceful), but because of this there are some who obviously see this as rude and disrespectful and therefore not “well behaved”.

However, there are others who view the request for them NOT to come or to stay in the “free speech zone” as rude and equally disrespectful.

Some on both sides view the other as irrational and unChristlike. (I personally think it would have been completely rational to simply honor their request in the first place since women are allowed to watch the proceedings anywhere else. And had the Church done so there would have been no harm, no foul.)

If you put yourself in the shoes of the supporters of Ordain Women, it’s kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, don’t you think?

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich coined the phrase: “well behaved women seldom make history”. (I actually bought my wife a key chain with this quote at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.)

Speaking historically, I have no problem with civil disobedience of the past, whether the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Lunch Counter Sit-ins. I’m sure those white restaurant owners and patrons thought that those blacks who peacefully sat in at the lunch counters and politely asked to be served were also being “rude and disrespectful”.

If you pin me down and force me to tell you what I think I agree with, here’s what I think I’d say I agree with:

“I won’t cower to, privilege, or be afraid of authority. I give respect only where respect is deserved.”

“The very notion of Jesus being the author of women’s subjugation and spiritual disempowerment is a contemptible sacrilege. Mormonism’s contemporary sexual politics has more to do with outdated American 20th century cultural and social practices than it has to do with God.”

“If this religion is the international movement that it purports to be it might be time to shuck the barnacles of its host nation so that it can finally become both universally relevant and locally appealing – and that, as a minimum, means healing the institutional breaches in religious practice and leadership between men and women.”

(These comes from Gina Colvin's "Reflections after Temple Square: Furious musings from the periphery")

[A different person ("GR") responded to those statements I quoted from Gina's blog, and wrote that "the comment that Mormonism’s contemporary sexual politics has more to do with outdated American 20th century cultural and social practices than it has to do with God is not the comment of someone who has a firm testimony of the gospel and the Saviours position at the head of it. Either this is the TRUE church or it isn’t." I responded with the following:]

Thank you, GR, for sharing your thoughts. I sincerely appreciate the conversation. I hope I can disagree with some of what you share without coming across as disagreeable.

This binary thinking is extremely problematic, not the least of which would mean that the Lord doesn't honor the agency of the prophet at all, and that the prophet is therefore nothing more than a puppet. Also of consequence is that you then directly put the blame on God for the status quo where one half of the membership is barred from certain offices based solely on their biological sex, rather than chalk it up to the fact that we are all products of our time, and that we and all the prophets "see through a glass darkly" as we walk by faith rather than have direct knowledge as though we (or the prophet) has a clear Heavenly Fax/Phone number. The church has continually evolved and adapted throughout time as humans bring their concerns before God and God honors the desires of our hearts. The one true constant in this church is the fact that it continually changes and improves and progresses past the "status quo"--and thank God for that or blacks would still be barred from our most sacred temple rituals, and black men from holding priesthood.

Please don't assume that things are the way they are because God wants them that way. God doesn't micromanage us. Acknowledging the human element in the Church, as well as the fact that there have been errors in the Church in the past (such as that priesthood ban and also the rationales once used to defend it and that are now completely disavowed) and logically the fact that errors can occur today doesn't mean there is no divinity in the Church. It's not all or nothing, black or white.

I wish that more members would be less prone to dig in their heals and defend the status quo as though their testimonies depended on it, and allow for change and revelation of many great and important things, as their faith should require of them. Hugh B. Brown, who served with David O. McKay in the First Presidency, once said: "while I believe all that God has revealed, I am not quite sure I understand what he has revealed, and the fact that God has promised further revelation is to me a challenge to keep an open mind and be prepared to follow wherever my search for truth may lead."

The Church is not an essentially divine organization marred only by the human weaknesses and foibles of its leaders/members. We--the church--are entirely a human organization responding to the divine with which we have in faith been touched. (Hat tip to Phil Barlow for this insight.)

Please allow me one final correction to your comment. It wasn't the presiding bishop but rather Elder Oaks who said that women in this church already exercise priesthood power and authority, but that they do not hold priesthood keys or offices. (And by the way, neither he nor President Monson have ever said that women shouldn't be ordained. Elder Oaks simply said that they (the "Brethren") don't have the authority to make that change by themselves--meaning that only God can make that change through a revelation.

I openly admit to being perplexed, however, and not because my faith may be less sufficient than yours. I'm perplexed at how Elder Oaks definitively claims that this is the way things are by "divine decree".

I don't think it was ever divinely decreed that 12-year-old prepubescent boys could or couldn't hold offices in the priesthood, and yet they now do.

It is encouraging, however, that Oaks concedes that women exercise priesthood authority and power. But I still wonder how long before he realizes it's not that much of a stretch to assume that if women can currently exercise priesthood authority, that it really shouldn't be a big deal for them to also hold priesthood offices and keys. As far as I know, God hasn't ever said that his daughters cannot hold priesthood offices or keys simply because they were born female.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lovely and Praiseworthy Indeed

"We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things." (13th Article of Faith)

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail"

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

The following comes in part from what I wrote to a family in which both mothers were married in California before Proposition 8 and to whom I wanted to extended my congratulations and best wishes to them after Prop 8 was recently struck down in court:

Sometimes I can't believe how much time has passed since California's Prop 8. There's truth to Thomas Paine's quote: "Time makes converts more than reason".

In the years that have passed since that time I have undergone a mighty change of heart. I still recognize that people who oppose marriage equality should not automatically be labeled "haters" and that many of them are good and sincere people.

However, I now personally identify as an "ally" and feel strongly in favor of marriage equality (and this isn't even speaking as a religious issue, but as a public policy issue.) While I know many fellow members of my faith have become discouraged by the recent federal rulings in various states in favor of marriage equality, I have been heartened by them.  I feel in my heart it is the right thing, and I love that love wins out.

I believe that religious beliefs of a majority should not dictate public policy for the minority. There is wisdom in separation of church and state.  Our own scripture states this, but some don't seem to recognize it:  "We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied." (D&C 134:9)

The interior walls of the Jefferson Memorial are engraved with passages from Jefferson's writings. Probably most famous is this line: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Government must not get in the way of that noble pursuit.

However, most prominent are the words inscribed in a frieze below the dome:

"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

This sentence is taken from a September 23, 1800, letter by Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush wherein he defends the constitutional refusal to recognize a state religion.

My personal opposition to "tyranny" in any form, or any other imposition of human will over my personal liberty/rights, makes me sympathetic to our gay brothers and sisters. And my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ makes me more compassionate. I love my gay brothers and sisters and desire the best for them. I'm sorry that my church has been an impediment to this. I see hope that this has and is changing, although the pace of change is painfully slow.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Best General Conference Talk Ever Delivered

Okay, I know the title may be a little hyperbolic, but it's not far from the truth.  And I wish we heared more messages like this in General Conferences today.  But first, a little background:

I'm convinced that someone capable needs to write a really good biography of Stephen L Richards (Greg Prince, where are you?!)  If my google skills aren't wrong ("and I'm never wrong"), he was the grandson of Willard Richards (who was present inside Liberty Jail when Joseph Smith was killed and who later served as a counselor to Brigham Young in the First Presidency) and the grandfather of Stephen Richards Covey (famous author of "7 Habits of Highly Effective People", among other things.)

Stephen L (the L doesn't stand for anything--it's just an L) Richards was called by Joseph F. Smith to be an apostle at the age of 37 in 1917.  He delivered my self proclaimed "best General Conference Talk ever" while a member of the Quorum of the Twelve on April 9th, 1932 at the 102nd Annual Conference of the Church.  In 1951 President David O. McKay called him to be his First Counselor in the First Presidency.  This was when J. Reuben Clark (who had long served as First Counselor in two previous First Presidencies and practically ran the Church/First Presidency himself for many years since everyone else had such frail health) was demoted to Second Counselor (and then famously said "In the service of the Lord it's not where you serve, but how").

Through some of his personal connections, Stephen L Richards was able to personally order and pay for the copy of the famous Christus statue that is now housed in the North Visitor's Center on Temple Square.  It would be his gift to President McKay, and thus his gift to the Church.  Unfortunately, Stephen L Richards never saw the completed statue because in 1959, just months before the Christus arrived from Italy, he became gravely ill and passed away.  

Now with that background in place, I'd like to share some excerpts (okay, okay, the majority, because once I started typing I just couldn't stop) from "the best General Conference Talk ever delivered".  Sunstone published it as a pdf: "Bringing Humanity to the Gospel".  It's especially applicable if one substitutes the examples given that were apparently commonly discussed then (such as cigarettes and card playing) with examples that many are discussing today (such as gay marriage and female ordination.):


I want to say something to promote better understanding in the Church.  In so doing, my chief fear is that I myself may be misunderstood.  I have never felt more the need for the aid of our Father's Spirit and the faith and sympathy of my brethren and sisters.  I pray that I may have them.

As a preface to the specific things I wish to mention, I desire to set forth some fundamental principles as I conceive them.

I interpret the gospel in terms of life.  It was brought to humanity; it is our duty to bring humanity to the Gospel.  Election, not compulsion is the genius of Christian philosophy.  Ridicule and ostracism often amount to compulsion.  I deplore their existence.  I fear arrogant dogmatism.  It is a tyrant guilty of more havoc to human-kind than the despot ruling over many kingdoms.  I have pity for the disobedient, not hatred.  They deprive themselves of blessings.  The disobedient punish themselves.

I believe that the dignity of the Church should be maintained, and the purity of gospel truth preserved without dilution.  But man, after all, is the object of God's work.  "This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man."  The Church is God's established agency to this high purpose...

[The commandments] were not abrogated by the gospel of Jesus.  "Think not that I am come to destroy the law."  They were but extended and applied in a new spirit, the kind, merciful spirit of the Savior.  Even some of the major sins were forgiven of Him.  "Go thy way and sin no more,"was His gentle rebuke.  The doctrine of repentance instituted with the attestation and cleansing process of baptism was the epitome of the new Gospel.  "Repent and be baptised," was the cry of Christ's first disciples.  The promise of the new gospel was abundant life--more joy, more friendship, finer relations, peace on earth and eternal life in heaven...

The essence of the new constitution of the Priesthood, as of the whole restored gospel, was and is election without coercion, persuasion not compulsion, no unrighteous dominion, only patience, long suffering, meekness, kindness, and love unfeigned.

With the restored Gospel came also new and enlarged knowledge and conceptions of God and man.  A new philosophy of life arose.  Man's place in the universe, the beginning, end, and purpose of his existence, were better understood.  Some new laws were given, new ordinances and new commandments--not new in the sense that they had never existed before, but new to the knowledge of the people...

No man lives or has lived whose judgment is perfect and not subject to error.  To accept the doctrine of human infallibility is to betray gross ignorance of the divine plan of human life--the fall, mortal probation, repentance, and final election.  There could be no election with perfect knowledge, omniscience.  We walk by faith in mortality and by faith we exercise our agency.

The Church believes in new and continuous revelation, and ever holds itself in readiness to receive messages from the Lord.  To that end the people sustain the President in particular, and others of the General Authorities, as the media through which God's word may be delivered.  A revelation to our living president would be as readily accepted and become as much a part of our scripture as the revelations given to the Prophet Joseph.

In the absence of direct communication from heaven, however, the Church and its people must be guided by the revelations already given and the wisdom and inspiration of its leadership...

In matters of church government and discipline, the judgement of presiding officers is mandatory and controlling.  In matters of individual guidance to members, their counsel is directory and persuasive only.  In the interpretation of scripture and doctrine, they are dependent on their knowledge and experience and inspiration.

I make this frank avowal of my own personal understanding of these fundamental principles as a premise to certain observations and conclusions I desire to present.

First, I hold that it is entirely compatible with the genius of the Church to change its procedure and interpretations as changes in thought, education and environment of people from time to time seem to warrant, provided, of course, that no violence is done to the elemental concepts of truth which lie at the basis of our work.  I would not discard a practice merely because it is old.  Indeed, I believe that one of the tests of worth is the test of time.  But on the other hand, I would not hang on to a practice or conception after it has outlived its usefulness in a new and ever-changing and better informed world.

Old conceptions and traditional interpretations must be influenced by newly discovered evidence.  Not that ultimate fact and law change, but our understanding varies with our education and experience.  One man sees the meaning of a scripture so clearly and definitely that he exclaims with contemptible deprecation of a contender's view, "Why, it's as plain as the nose on your face," and the other replies, "It is silly and foolish."   Both are sincere.  Who is right?  What position does the Church take?  Generally, I think, the Church takes no official position and ought not to, in the large majority of mooted questions.  Men are permitted to hold individual views and express them with freedom so long as they are not seditious to the basic doctrines, practices, and establishments of the Church....

I believe it to be a generally accepted proposition in our church that no man's standing is affected by the views which he may honestly hold with reference to the beginning of man's life on the earth and the organization of the universe, or the processes employed in the working of the miracles of the Bible.  Personally, I find more peace of mind and comfort in what may seem a rather lay disposition to attempt no explanation of these seemingly inexplicable matters.  But if anyone holds views and gets satisfaction from them, I say let him have them, and for one I won't abuse him for them...

Another aspect of the changing process that must necessarily go forward in a live, vital institution such as the Church is, relates to the modification of forms and procedure.  We do not have a great body of set forms and rituals, I am glad to say.  The very elasticity of prayers, ceremonies, and procedure is additional evidence to me of the adaptability of our religion to human needs, and therefore of its divinity.  Some important changes have been made in recent years.  In some instances they have considerably disturbed some members of the Church.  I am sure that the concern and alarm so created have been unwarranted.  The critics have failed to recall that the items which have been modified were originally interpreted and adapted by good men occupying the same ecclesiastical positions and endowed with the same power as the good men now occupying these positions.  Personally, I highly approve of the changes that have been made, and I hope and believe that the presiding authority will be led to make other changes along various lines that will advance the cause we represent.  I am not affraid of change: it is the mother of growth.

But even more important than change of conception, form and procedure in our church as in any society, is change of attitude.  How do you feel about things?  Have more education, more knowledge, and wider experience broadened our sympathies or contracted them?

In application of this question, I must mention some delicate matters.  I call them delicate because I run a great hazard of being misunderstood when I discuss them.  Take smoking for instance.  Is there more or less tolerance for the user of tobacco by the Church, as represented  by its officials and the faithful membership, than there was twenty-five or fifty years ago?  I cannot say.  I have no way of knowing.  We feel that it is wrong and we inveigh against it.  Men often construe the Word of Wisdom as a commandment against it and invest the practice of it with the stigma of sin.  I think my own preaching against it may be so construed.  Am I right?  Are all of us right?  Have not some of our people failed to distinguish between the offense and the offender?

I do not mean to say that I doubt the wisdom of the Word of Wisdom.  I know that it contains God's wishes and direction for the welfare of His children, and I am sure that those who fail to heed the teaching of it will lose blessings of great worth, but I am not sure that we have not estranged many from the Church or at least contributed to their estrangement by attributing to violation of our standards of health, harmful as it may be, a moral turpitude and sinful magnitude out of proportion of the real seriousness of the offense.  Maybe I am wrong.  I do not claim that my analysis is correct, but I think it worthy of your attention.

I am sure that many young people feel themselves ostracized from the Church by reason of the emphasis and the somewhat intolerant attitude some of us have shown toward the user, not the use, of tobacco.  I believe there are some good people in the Church to whom the use of tobacco is so repugnant and who are so offended by those who use it that they may actually develop a feeling akin to hatred toward the smoker.  This state of mind, to my thinking is regrettable and dangerous--dangerous to the individual who harbors such thoughts because it tends to make him illiberal and intolerant, dangerous to the unfortunate who succumbs to a bad practice in that he instinctively sets up a resistance to the man who dislikes him, and dangerous to the church because such people characterize it with a reputation for dogmatic intolerance that weakens its influence with its members and in the world.

In lesser degree the same attitude is manifest toward those who use tea and coffee and other harmful beverages, and toward those who play cards, pool, billiards and some other games which have contributed to bad associations and undesirable practices.  I heartily approve of the church counsel that has long been given regarding these matters.  I believe it is sound and amply sustained by long experience.  But I am not sure that I accord with the attitude of mind toward and treatment of these subjects which have in some instances been manifested in the Church.  I think that these items have been invested not infrequently with a morally-degrading character which has been responsible for irritated feelings, strained and unpleasant relations, and a lack of respect for ecclesiastical authority.  This lack of respect has been the underlying cause of many a spiritual downfall, for no one can maintain the true spirit of a Latter-day Saint without a wholesome respect for our leaders.

It is difficult for many to understand how a diversion so apparently innocent as a game of cards or a game of pool seems to be, can take on the aspect of moral delinquency merely by church pronouncement.  In fact, many do not accept such doctrine, with the result that with them, all pronouncements of the Church are deprecated, and they find themselves out of harmony with the Church and its leadership.  When they reach such a conclusion, their activity in the Church is immediately affected and their faith begins to wane.

Perhaps I overdraw the picture.  It is difficult for me to get the facts.  I find that the people express themselves more freely among themselves than to their leaders.  I am sure, however, there is enough of truth in it to warrant our consideration.

Now someone naturally asks, "What are you going to do about it?  If the situation is as represented, would you abandon the campaign against cigarette smoking, tea and coffee drinking, and withdraw counsel against card playing, pool and billiards?"  My answer is, "No, certainly not."  The Church is far too interested in the temporal salvation of its members to pass by these items.  But I would surround the campaign and the counsel with safeguards which I think have often been lacking.

I would like the church to continue to say to its young people: "Boys and girls, don't smoke.  If you do you will bring great injury to yourselves.  Your bodies are the tabernacles of your spirits.  You cannot take poison into your bodies knowingly without weakening them and offering affront to your God, who is the father of your spirits.  So you will hurt yourselves physically and spiritually.  You injure your chances for success in life.  You commit and economic wrong.  You spend for something worse than useless.  You weaken your moral fiber and decrease your power of resistance.  You become slaves to a habit; you are not free.  You hazard the best and safest companionships.  You sadden the hearts of your parents, to whom you owe your life and opportunities.  You are ungrateful.  You put yourselves out of harmony with the counsel of those who love you most--your parents, your church, and its leaders.  [Here I only wish he had added: "But you must follow the dictates of your own conscience"].

These things you do if you smoke.  But, dear young friends, do not think your church will disown you.  Your church sympathizes with you in your weakness.  It recognizes the courage and resistance you require to withstand the tremendous temptations to which you are subjected--the appeal of brilliant, seductive advertising, the universality of the practice, the ridicule you must endure to stand out almost alone.  Your church understands, boys and girls, and it wants to help you.  It invites you to come to its sunday schools, its mutuals, its sacrament and other meetings, to take part in activities and share in its spirit.  Don't stay away because your fingers are stained and your breath smells.  You may still enjoy brotherhood and sisterhood in the Church.  You have deprived yourselves of some personal blessings, but you may regain them, and when you do you will be happy indeed.  We all need to repent of something, and we can help each other.  Remember there is always a welcome for you."...

And even for those of maturity long confirmed in regrettable habits I wish to extend sympathy, deep sympathy, and few there are who need not repentance and forgiveness for some act either of commission or omission.

To the card players, the pool and billiard players, may not we say: "Dear friends, time is precious.  It is the stuff life is made of.  Waste none of it.  The Church needs you, the world needs your ability.  Do not squander your effort.  You need diversion, you need recreation, to enhance the pleasure of living and to recuperate your strength.  Let your diversions be wholesome, not sapping your strength but renewing it, not enslaving you to a habit and unprofitable pastime, but freeing your powers for worthy pursuits.  Beware of cards.  Of themselves they may be an innocent device for amusement, but their use is often abused and perverted to gambling and an obsession most wasteful of time and energy.  You may think you will be moderate, but you may not be.  Be careful.  Of course, you may not have committed sin in the playing of a game of cards or a game of pool, any more than in playing a game of golf or basketball.  You know when you have done wrong by gambling or wasting time.  You are your own judge."

The Church has no discipline or punishment for the card player as such.  The Church merely offers its warning, based on long observation, that the practice is attended with danger.  It goes no further.  Fellowship is not affected, nor good-will withheld.

Now, some may see in the position I have taken an undue liberality, a retraction of long-established rules, and a letting down of standards.  I have no intention to lower standards.  I want only better understanding.  The more sympathy and mutual helpfulness; the more true spirit of the Gospel we have, the more we approach the attitude of the Master.  Jesus in his ministry forgave transgressors even of the major sins--lying and unchastity.  Shall we be intolerant of those guilty of infractions of our counsel?

I want us to continue to lay emphasis on good, clean, wholesome living, but not in such a way as to in any manner obscure the primary objective of our work, which is to open the doors of the Celestial Kingdom to the children of our Father.  We do not know how many will enter.  We hope for all.  For my part I desire to deny none entrance for weaknesses of the flesh if the spirit is willing.  Yet I do not believe in indulgences.  I believe that the new and everlasting covenant is inclusive of all the laws of the Gospel and that no one can be broken with impunity.  Everyone who does wrong in any degree will forfeit a blessing.  But God is our judge, and as I expect mercy, I want to give it.

I have been filled with trepidation as I have delivered these words, fearing that I might be misunderstood, but my resolution has been fortified by my conviction that my heart and purpose are right.  I believe I do not need to protest my fealty and love for this cause among my brethren and sisters here assembled.  I have borne my humble testimony throughout the Church for many years.  I believe that you know that I know that this is God's work and that Joseph Smith is his prophet, and that the governing priesthood is now held by worthy successors.

I have said these things because I fear dictatorial dogmatism, rigidity of procedure and intolerance even more than I fear cigarettes, cards, and other devices the adversary may use to nullify faith and kill religion.  Fanaticism and bigotry have been the deadly enemies of true religion in the long past.  They have made it forbidding, shut it up in cold grey walls of monastery and nunnery, out of the sunlight and fragrance of the growing world.  They have garbed it in black and then in white, when in truth it is neither black nor white, any more than life is black or white, for religion is life abundant, glowing life, with all its shades, colors and hues, as the children of men reflect in the patterns of their lives the radiance of the Holy Spirit in varying degrees.

I pray that men may understand God and the Church, and I pray that the Church may understand men and human nature.  With such understandings there must come sympathy and love.  Truth and love will save the world.  May they ever be our portion, I ask humbly, in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen