The following is a transcript of a talk given by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, member of the Quorum of the twelve apostles, at Harvard Law School on 26 Feb. 2010
I welcome this opportunity to speak in what our hosts have called “Mormonism 101.” In his fine lecture last year Judge Thomas Griffith said he was giving “an introduction to the Mormon faith.” I intend to do the same, speaking from my special responsibility as an apostle called to speak as a witness of the gospel plan and mission and Church of Jesus Christ.
It is challenging to speak to such a diverse audience—some thoroughly familiar with the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ, some unaware, and many between those extremes. I will address this diversity by speaking about some of the fundamental premises of our faith and how they affect our interaction with the rest of mankind. My object is to illuminate several premises and ways of thinking that are at the root of some misunderstandings about our doctrine and practice.
We Mormons know that our doctrines and values are not widely understood by those not of our faith. This was demonstrated by Gary Lawrence’s nationwide study published in his recent book, How Americans View Mormonism. Three-quarters of those surveyed associated our Church with high moral standards, but about half thought we were secretive and mysterious and had “weird beliefs.” When asked to select various words they thought described Mormons in general, 87% checked “strong family values,” 78% checked “honest,” and 45% checked “blind followers.”
When Lawrence’s interviewers asked, “To the best of your understanding, what is the main claim of Mormonism?” only 14% could describe anything close to the idea of restoration or reestablishment of the original Christian faith. Similarly, when another national survey asked respondents what one word best described their impression of the Mormon religion, not one person suggested the words or ideas of original or restoration Christianity.
Even the “Tonight Show” took notice of this lack of understanding. In the course of poking fun at Senator Orrin Hatch’s Hanukkah song, Conan O’Brien led a chorus in singing several stanzas, including the following:
“Oh Mormons, Mormons, Mormons,
We haven’t got a clue
Of what you folks believe in,
Or think or drink or do.”
My disappointment with these findings is only slightly reduced by Lawrence’s other findings and observation that on the subject of religion Americans in general are “deeply religious” but “profoundly ignorant.” For example, 68% said they prayed at least several times a week, and 44% said they attended religious services almost every week. At the same time, only half could name even one of the four Gospels, most could not name the first book of the Bible, and 10% thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
Many factors contribute to our people’s predominant shallowness on the subject of religion, but one of them is surely higher education’s general hostility or indifference to religion. Despite most colleges’ and universities’ founding purpose to produce clergymen and to educate in the truths taught in their chapels, most have now abandoned their role of teaching religion. With but few exceptions, colleges and universities have become value-free places where attitudes toward religion are neutral at best. Some faculty and administrators are powerful contributors to the forces that are driving religion to the margins of American society. Students and other religious people who believe in the living reality of God and moral absolutes are being marginalized.
Some have suggested that religion is returning to intellectual life. In this view, religion is too influential to ignore in these times of the Taliban and the political influence of some religious organizations. But it seems unrealistic to expect higher education as a whole to resume a major role in teaching moral values. That will remain the domain of homes, churches, and church-related colleges and universities. All should hope for success in this vital task. The academy can pretend to neutrality on questions of right and wrong, but society cannot survive on such neutrality.
I have chosen three clusters of truths to present as fundamental premises of the faith of Latter-day Saints:
1. The nature of God, including the role of the three members of the Godhead, and the corollary truth that there are moral absolutes.
2. The purpose of life.
3. The three-fold sources of truth about man and the universe: science, the scriptures, and continuing revelation, and how we can know them.
My first fundamental premise of our faith is that God is real and so are eternal truths and values not provable by current scientific methods. These ideas are inevitably linked. Like other believers, we proclaim the existence of the ultimate lawgiver, God our Eternal Father, and the existence of moral absolutes. We reject the moral relativism that is becoming the unofficial creed of much of American culture.
For us, the truth about the nature of God and our relationship to Him is the key to everything else. Significantly, our belief in the nature of God is what distinguishes us from the formal creeds of most Christian denominations. Our Articles of Faith, our only formal declaration of belief, begins as follows: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”
We have this belief in the Godhead in common with the rest of Christianity, but to us it means something different than to most. We maintain that these three members of the Godhead are three separate and distinct beings, and that God the Father is not a spirit but a glorified Being with a tangible body, as is his resurrected Son, Jesus Christ. Though separate in identity, they are one in purpose. We maintain that Jesus referred to this relationship when he prayed to His Father that His disciples would be “one” even as Jesus and his Father were one (see John 17:11)—united in purpose, but not in identity. Our unique belief that “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (D&C 130:22) is vital to us. But, as Gary Lawrence’s interviews demonstrate, we have not effectively conveyed this belief to our fellow Americans.
Our belief in the nature of God comes from what we call the First Vision, which began the restoration of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith, an unschooled boy of 14, seeking to know which Church he should join, was given a vision in which he saw two personages of indescribable brightness and glory. One of them pointed to the other and said, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS-H 1:17). God the Son told the boy prophet that all the “creeds” of the churches of that day “were an abomination in his sight” (JS-H 1:19). This divine declaration condemned the creeds, not the faithful seekers who believed them.
Joseph Smith’s first vision showed that the prevailing concepts of the nature of God and the Godhead were untrue and could not lead their adherents to the destiny God desired for them. A subsequent outpouring of modern scripture revealed the significance of this fundamental truth, and also gave us the Book of Mormon. This new book of scripture is a second witness of Christ. It affirms the Biblical prophecies and teachings of the nature and mission of Christ. It enlarges our understanding of His gospel and His teachings during His earthly ministry. And it also provides many teachings and illustrations of the revelations by which we may know the truth of these things.
In a New Testament letter the Apostle Paul explained his testimony of Christ. He wrote the Corinthian saints that he did not come to them “with excellency of speech or of wisdom,” because he had “determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1-2). He added that his preaching “was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power” (vs. 4). He did this, he explained, that their faith “should not stand in the wisdom of man, but in the power of God” (vs. 3). Similarly, the Book of Mormon condemns those who hearken to “the precepts of men, and [deny] the power of God and the gift of the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 28:26).
These teachings explain our testimony of Christ. We are not grounded in the wisdom of the world or the philosophies of men—however traditional or respected they may be. Our testimony of Jesus Christ is based on the revelations of God to His prophets and to us individually. I will explain this process of revelation in my third premise.
What does our testimony of Jesus Christ cause us to affirm? Jesus Christ is the Only Begotten Son of God the Eternal Father. He is the Creator. Through His incomparable mortal ministry He is our Teacher. Because of His resurrection all who have ever lived will be raised from the dead. He is the Savior whose atoning sacrifice opens the door for us to be forgiven of our personal sins so that we can be cleansed to return to the presence of God our Eternal Father. This is the central message of the prophets of all ages. Joseph Smith stated this great truth in our third Article of Faith: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we testify with the Book of Mormon prophet-king Benjamin that “there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17).
Why is Christ the only way? How could He break the bands of death? How was it possible for Him to take upon himself the sins of all mankind? How can our soiled and sinful selves be cleansed and our bodies be resurrected by His atonement? These are mysteries I do not fully understand. To me, the miracle of the atonement of Jesus Christ is incomprehensible, but the Holy Ghost has given me a witness of its truthfulness, and I rejoice that I can spend my life in proclaiming it.
Purpose of Mortal Life
My second fundamental premise concerns the purpose of this mortal life. This follows from our understanding of the purposes of God the Eternal Father and concerns our destiny as His children. Our theology begins with the assurance that we lived as spirits before we came to this earth. It affirms that this mortal life has a purpose. And it teaches that our highest aspiration is to become like our Heavenly Parents, which will empower us to perpetuate our family relationships throughout eternity. We were placed here on earth to acquire a physical body and, through the atonement of Jesus Christ and by obedience to the laws and ordinances of His gospel, to qualify for the glorified celestial condition and relationships that are called exaltation or eternal life.
We are properly known as a family-centered Church, but what is not well understood is that our family-centeredness is not just focused on mortal relationships but is a matter of fundamental theology. Under the great Plan of the loving Creator, the mission of His Church is to help us achieve exaltation in the celestial kingdom, and that can only be accomplished through an eternal marriage between a man and a woman (D&C 131:1-3).
My faithful widowed mother had no confusion about the eternal nature of the family relationship. She always honored the position of our faithful deceased father. She made him a presence in our home. She spoke of the eternal duration of their temple marriage and of our destiny to be together as a family in the next life. She often reminded us of what our father would like us to do so we could qualify for the Savior’s promise that we could be a family forever. She never referred to herself as a widow, and it never occurred to me that she was. To me, as a boy growing up, she wasn’t a widow. She had a husband and we had a father. He was just away for a while.
We affirm that marriage is necessary for the accomplishment of God’s plan, to provide the approved setting for mortal birth, and to prepare family members for eternal life. Knowledge of God’s plan gives Latter-day Saints a unique perspective on marriage and children. We look on the bearing and nurturing of children as part of God’s plan and a sacred duty of those given the power to participate in it. We believe that the ultimate treasures on earth and in heaven are our children and our posterity. And we believe that we must contend for the kind of mortal families that provide the best conditions for the development and happiness of children—all children.
The power to create mortal life is the most exalted power God has given his children. The use of this creative power was mandated in the first commandment, to “be fruitful, and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), and another important commandment forbade its misuse. (“Thou shalt not commit adultery” [Exo. 20:14], and “Thou shalt abstain from fornication” [1 Thess. 4:3].) The emphasis we place on this law of chastity is explained by our understanding of the purpose of our procreative powers in the accomplishment of God’s plan.
There are many political, legal, and social pressures for changes that de-emphasize the importance or change the definition of marriage, confuse gender, or homogenize the differences between men and women that are essential to accomplish God’s great Plan of Happiness. Our eternal perspective sets us against such changes.
In last year’s lecture, Judge Griffith explained another characteristic of Mormons that stems from our belief that we are all children of Heavenly Parents. He said we have “an optimism about human potential that encourages sociality.” As a result, “we like people and that which we do best is build communities.” While some people complain that Mormons are not good neighbors because we are focused so intently on our families and our Church programs, I believe Judge Griffith had it right when he said that Mormons are good members of a community. This is why Mormons are often sought out to lead and staff cooperative community efforts.
Judge Griffith also notes that because our church congregations are defined geographically rather than by personal preference, our Church attendance and associations tend to be racially and socially diverse. We work side-by-side in church with other Mormons we may never have met or chosen as friends otherwise. We are assigned to make frequent visits to the homes of a few other members to see what service is needed. We are responsible to watch over, be with, and strengthen one another. As Judge Griffith said, we “come to appreciate and even love those whose backgrounds, personalities, and interests are different from our own.” We learn how to serve outside our personal preferences and this prepares us for volunteer community service.
Finally, our understanding of the purpose of mortal life includes some unique doctrines about what follows mortality. Like other Christians, we believe that when we leave this life we go to a heaven (paradise) or a hell, but to us this two-part division of the righteous and the wicked is merely temporary, while the spirits of the dead await their resurrections and final judgments. The destinations that follow the final judgments are much more diverse, and they stand as evidence of the magnitude of God’s love for His children—all of them.
God’s love is so great that He requires His children to obey His laws because only through that obedience can they progress toward the eternal destiny He desires for them. Thus, in the final judgment we will all be assigned to the kingdom of glory that is commensurate with our obedience to His law. The Apostle Paul described these kingdoms. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he told of a vision in which he was “caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2). Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, he described “bodies” with different glories, like the respective glories of the sun, moon, and stars (1 Cor. 15:40-42). He referred to the first two of these as “celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial”(1 Cor. 15:40). For us, “eternal life” in the celestial, the highest of these glories, is not a mystical union with an incomprehensible spirit-god. As noted earlier, eternal life is family life with a loving Father in Heaven and with our progenitors and our posterity.
The theology of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is comprehensive, universal, merciful, and true. Following the necessary experience of mortal life, all sons and daughters of God will ultimately be resurrected and go to a kingdom of glory more wonderful than any mortals can comprehend. With only a few exceptions, even the very wicked will ultimately go to a marvelous—though lesser—kingdom of glory. All of this will occur because of God’s great love for His children and it is all made possible because of the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ, “who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands” (D&C 76:43).
Sources of Truth
I have described some things that may seem doubtful and untrue to some of you. This concluding part describes our fundamental LDS premises on how one can know the truth of such things.
Mormons have a great interest in pursuing knowledge. Brigham Young said it best:
“[Our] religion . . . prompts [us] to search diligently after knowledge. . . . There is no other people in existence more eager to see, hear, learn and understand truth.”
On another occasion he explained that we encourage our members to increase their knowledge in every branch of learning because “all wisdom, and all the arts and sciences in the world are from God, and are designed for the good of his people.”
We seek after knowledge, but we do so in a special way because we believe there are two dimensions of knowledge, material and spiritual. We seek knowledge in the material dimension by scientific inquiry and in the spiritual dimension by revelation. In the interest of time I will say no more of the material dimension except to affirm the obvious truth that thousands of Latter-day Saints perform brilliantly in the material world without denying—and, indeed, by using—the parallel truths and methods of the spiritual world.
I will speak about the spiritual dimension and the way we experience its truth. This concerns revelation, God’s communication to man—to prophets and to every one of us, if we seek.
Revelation is clearly one of the distinctive characteristics of our faith. Beginning with Joseph Smith’s First Vision, described earlier, this founding prophet of the restored Church was directed and edified by a continuing flow of revelation throughout his life. The immense quantity of his published revelations, including the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, carried forward his unique calling as the prophet of this last dispensation of time. In this prophetic revelation—to Joseph Smith and to his successors as presidents of the Church—God has revealed truths or commandments to His prophet-leaders for the enlightenment of His people and for the governance and direction of His Church. This is the kind of revelation described in the Old Testament teaching that “the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Joseph Smith declared that “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded upon direct revelation, as the true Church of God has ever been.” “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations, and where is our religion?” he asked. “We have none,” he answered.
Joseph Smith also taught—and this is the subject most important to this part of my remarks—that because revelation did not cease with the early apostles but continued in these modern times, each person can receive personal revelation for his or her conversion, understanding, and decision-making. “It is the privilege of the children of God to come to God and get revelation,” he said. “God is not a respecter of persons; we all have the same privilege.” The New Testament describes such personal revelation. For example, when Peter affirmed his conviction that Jesus was the divine Son of God, the Savior declared: “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
Personal revelation—sometimes called “inspiration”—comes in many forms. Most often it is by words or thoughts communicated to the mind, by sudden enlightenment, or by positive or negative feelings about proposed courses of action. Usually it comes in response to earnest and prayerful seeking. “Ask, and it shall be given you;” Jesus taught, “seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7). It comes when we keep the commandments of God and thus qualify for the companionship and communication of the Holy Spirit.
Here is a personal example. Nearly 50 years ago, while I was employed by a large law firm in Chicago, Dean Edward H. Levi, who was later to serve as Attorney General of the United States, approached me with a proposal that I leave the law firm and become a professor at The University of Chicago Law School. He said, “I know you will want to pray about this.” He knew that because he knew me. I had been his student, we had frequent associations when I was the editor-in-chief of his school’s law review, and he had successfully recommended me to be a law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren. I discussed this unexpected new career path with my wife. My personal journal for that August 1961 records: “We prayed about it all through the weekend and shortly felt that this was what we should do.” I wrote to our parents: “None of us knows where this will lead, but we feel perfectly peaceful in our hearts that this is another valuable preparation for us.” This experience illustrates what we Latter-day Saints mean by personal revelation—a feeling of confirmation in response to earnest prayer for guidance in an important personal decision. To cite other examples, we believe that revelation also occurs when a scientist, an inventor, an artist or great leader receives flashes of enlightenment from a loving God for the benefit of His children.
Some wonder how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accept a modern prophet’s teachings to guide their personal lives, something that is unusual in most religious traditions. Our answer to the charge that Latter-day Saints follow their leaders out of “blind obedience” is this same personal revelation. We respect our leaders and presume inspiration in their leadership of the Church and in their teachings. But we are all privileged and encouraged to confirm their teachings by prayerfully seeking and receiving revelatory confirmation directly from God.
I explain this principle by an analogy from the law. We are all familiar with official use of certified copies of legal documents like a death certificate or an honorable discharge from military duty. The official certificate allows such copies to be accepted as if they were originals. This practice is based on the fact that anyone who doubts the authenticity of the certified copy can verify its authenticity by going to the original. So it is with the prophetic revelations of prophets of God. They are the certifying authorities that their teachings or directions are from God. Anyone who doubts this—and all are invited to ask questions about what is true—can verify the authenticity and content of the message by checking it with the Ultimate Source, by personal revelation. As Joseph Smith taught, “We never can comprehend the things of God and of heaven, but by revelation.”
Most Christians believe that the scriptural canon—the authoritative collection of sacred books used as scriptures—is closed because God closed it shortly after the death of Christ and there have been no comparable revelations since that time. Joseph Smith taught and demonstrated that the scriptural canon is open. In fact, the canon of scripture is open in two ways, and the idea of continuing revelation is crucial to both of these.
First, Joseph Smith taught that God will guide his children by giving new additions to the canon of scriptures. The Book of Mormon is such an addition. So are the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. Sometimes those new revelations explain the meaning of scriptures previously canonized—meanings that may not have been evident in earlier times. Most often prophetic revelations add new doctrinal understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and new illustrations of His love for and guidance of His children. Continuing revelation is necessary for us to understand what the Lord would have us do in our own time and circumstances.
Second, continuing revelation also opens the canon as readers of the scripture, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, find new scriptural meaning and direction for their personal circumstances. The apostle Paul wrote that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16; also see 2 Peter 1:21) and that “the things of God knoweth no man, except he has the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11, Joseph Smith Translation). This means that in order to understand scripture we need personal inspiration from the Spirit of the Lord to enlighten our minds. Consequently, we encourage our members to study the scriptures and prayerfully seek inspiration to know their meanings for themselves. Thus, while Latter-day Saints rely on scriptural scholars and scholarship, that reliance is preliminary in method and secondary in authority. As a source of sacred teaching, the scriptures are not the ultimate but the penultimate. The ultimate knowledge comes by personal revelation through the Holy Ghost.
It is time for me to conclude. In doing so I offer a closing commentary on this “Mormonism” that is so satisfying to so many Latter-day Saints and so puzzling to so many others.
It works. Jesus taught, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:2). To me, to countless other participants, and to many observers, the fruits are good—good for the members, good for their families, good for their communities, and good for their nations. Peter Drucker told a seminar at Harvard that “the Mormons are the only utopia that ever worked.” Whatever one may think of utopias, their participants make good neighbors. The millions of dollars worth of supplies and services The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members are quietly and efficiently providing to repair the terrible tragedy in Haiti are evidence of that fact. That effort is worthy of pride by its members and emulation by others.
As an apostle, I am called to be a witness of the doctrine and work and authority of Christ in all the world. In that capacity I bear witness of the truth of these premises of our faith, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
 Gary Lawrence, How Americans View Mormonism (Parameter Foundation, Orange, Calif., 2008), p. 32.
 Id., at p. 34.
 Survey referenced id. at p. 42.
 “Conan Mocks Orrin Hatch and the Mormons,” Deseret News, December 16, 2009, C8.
 Lawrence, note 1, supra at p. 40.
 Lawrence, note 1, supra at p. 49.
 Thomas B. Griffith, “Mere Mormonism,” p, 8, a lecture sponsored by the Latter-day Saint Student Association at Harvard Law School, April 7, 2009, manuscript provided to author.
 Id., at p. 10.
 Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 247 .
 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, p. 195 (2007).
 Id., at 196.
 Id., at 132.
 Teachings, note 11, supra, at 195.
 Teachings, note 11 supra at pp. 207-16, 265-66.
 Quoted in Mark W. Cannon, “The Mormons are the Only Utopia that ever Worked,” Deseret News, January 13, 2010.