Monday, October 5, 2009

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's Testimony of the Book of Mormon

General Conference is always enjoyable and uplifting. With more than 30 speakers drawn from the leadership of the church, there are always many talks that touch our current individual needs and sensitivities. But every once in a while, there is a talk like Elder Holland's that can become a supporting pillar of our faith and testimony.

(I suppose it would be good for each of us to make a list of those talks that have been "monumental" for us. I think we could keep them in hard copy as personal scripture, much like patriarchal and priesthood blessings. We could return to them often to renew that special experience that we had with the Spirit when we heard them the first time.)

Elder Holland's testimony yesterday was monumental on several levels as he testified to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and provided as evidence Joseph and Hyrum's state of mind as they sealed their testimonies of this latter-day work with their blood. Rhetorically, he asked if it was possible for them to continue to to maintain something they knew to be a lie in the face of their own death and the consequences that would have on their families and friends.

In truth, there are many in this world who hold faithfully to things that are false, but which they believe to be true. Certainly, there are those who claim the church to be true and those that claim it to be false with equal conviction. (They cannot both be true.) We each have our reasons, our evidences, our experiences which we use to construct our convictions.

But Elder Holland separates all of us, and our detractors, from Joseph and Hyrum in that they were telling the story from personal experience.
• We may say that we believe the Book of Mormon is truly a translated record of ancient origin, but Joseph and Hyrum personally did the translating.
• We may say that we believe the record to have been written on 70 some pounds of gold plates, but Joseph and Hyrum said they had held the plates themselves and examined the artifacts.
• We may say that we believe Joseph received the plates from the angel Moroni, but Joseph and Hyrum testify that they saw the angel and that he himself declared the ancient and divine nature of the record and God’s intent that it should be translated as a testimony to latter-day inhabitants.
• We may say that we believe Joseph Smith was God’s Prophet of the Restoration, that he was visited by the Father and the Son, that he received revelation restoring the parts of the gospel that had been lost or defiled, that the Holy Priesthood was restored by the laying on of hands by angelic ministration, but Joseph testified that it had happened as a first-person participant.

If we are in error, either those of us who testify that it is true or those who swear that it is false, it is no greater error than that we have believed someone else’s false witness or that we have misinterpreted spiritual feelings . We are no worse than a jury that gets the testimony and evidence wrong. We may be willing to die or go through great hardship, so convicted are we in our “testimony,” but we are only relying on our judgment.

Not so with Joseph and Hyrum. In those days just prior to going to Carthage and through the time of their murder, they had every expectation, both temporal and spiritual, that they would be killed if they surrendered. By the same way that Joseph had come to know anything that came from God, he knew he would die in Carthage. He and Hyrum each bid one last tender, wrenching goodbye to their families. Was there any way that this cup might pass from them? Yes.

Joseph, and all the saints, believed that all of the hatred would evaporate if Joseph would deny the very things that distinguished the Latter-Day Saints. Re-couch the first vision as something metaphoric and mystical. Recast the Book of Mormon as an allegory of his own imagination. Re-assimilate with mainstream Protestantism, though with its own unique flavor. They would have been no more reviled than Shakers or Adventists, or even Catholics. The price of his life was simply to walk away from what he had claimed were the actual events and experiences of his life as he had explained them. In this, he was no further ahead than back in early Palmyra, when the local clergy pressed on him to deny what had “seen and heard.”

For a moment, imagine that Joseph Smith is everything his detractors say he is: a fake, a deceiver. If it is all just his own fabrication (the First Vision, Moroni, the plates, the Book of Mormon), why die for lies? Elder Holland is not asking why he might not die for a cause he believes in, for many die for someone else’s lies, but why would he die for lies of his own creation?

Elder Holland challenges every detractor of Joseph Smith’s calling and testimonies, in the church and out, to confront this question. He calls on them to explain how the man they paint as a deceiver is consistent with the one willing to knowingly go his death for his testimony. And he concludes with his own apostolic testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and of Joseph Smith.

I am grateful for this supernal moment shared with Elder Holland. It will be one of those “monumental” moments for me and a talk I print and keep close in order to remember many more times.