The Wicked Take the Truth To Be Hard

In 1 Nephi 15, Nephi returns from his visions to his family only to find his brothers disputing over the meaning of what their father had taught them. When Nephi heard his father’s words, he was confused. With that confusion, he decided to go find out for himself, through deep reflection, prayer and study. He was rewarded with an expansive vision not only coming to an understanding of his father’s visions, but pushing out beyond that and learning so much more. His brothers, rather, simply struggled and argued and floundered. Nephi returned to this and attempted to help them. 1 Nephi 16:1-3 describes their reaction:

And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of speaking to my brethren, behold they said unto me: Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear.

And it came to pass that I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified, and testified that they should be lifted up at the last day; wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.

And now my brethren, if ye were righteous and were willing to hearken to the truth, and give heed unto it, that ye might walk uprightly before God, then ye would not murmur because of the truth, and say: Thou speakest hard things against us.

James Faulconer asks a very interesting question about this passage in “The Book of Mormon Made Harder”:

What does the fact that the wicked are cut to their center by the truth tell us about wickedness and truth?

First of all, consider Adam Miller in “Letters to a Young Mormon” in the chapter on sin:

As the heavens are higher than the earth, God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and, minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him. Preferring your stories to his life is sin.

Being righteous then is about being open. It’s about opening one’s mind and one’s heart to whatever is out there of goodness and truth. It’s perhaps allowing truth to lead you where-ever it may be, no matter how hard.

Maybe wickedness is about telling ourselves a story about ourselves, our kids, our life, whatever it is, and clinging to that story. It’s about holding onto an ideology or an opinion rather than being open to other possibilities. When eventually hearing the truth cut through whatever we’re clinging onto instead, it could feel like we’re being cut through to the very center.

I had this experience on my mission to a very small degree. I wanted to be respected. I wanted people to recognize me as a hard, valiant worker doing whatever it takes. I was the “district leader” in this remote town, I had a difficult companion who didn’t want to be there followed by a brand new missionary with a strong personality. I was trying my best. Being a missionary in the deep south is difficult. I think missions are more for the missionaries than for the people we were trying to help. I was in over my head for the most part. Not really up to speed on the cultural history and the poverty and the racism I had been thrust into. I went there with very little training or knowledge or experience. The people we were trying to help were dealing with enormous struggles.

For example, there was one couple, we worked with, prayed with, prayed for, taught. They listened to us, they liked our message. They read the Book of Mormon and liked it. They were desperately poor, unmarried a baby. The man had trouble holding down a job, there may have been drug issues, I don’t remember. We got them married but we couldn’t get them to convert. I really wanted them to get baptized and work toward temple covenants. It was unrealistic. That was one example among many.

Anyway, I was eventually transferred out. The person who replaced me complained to the zone leader about what I left behind, poor record keeping (I’m not very organized). He felt like we had spent too much time with with a neighbor couple in our complex who be-friended us. None of it was bad. The missionary was perhaps being unfair, and I was too sensitive, but it bothered me more than it should have when his complaints got back to me. I wanted to be liked and respected and looked up to. In this case I wasn’t. Well, maybe I was, he just saw a some flaws.

I wasn’t wicked, but I think the goal here is to be open with ourselves and open to the world. Being righteous, being good is about being awake and aware, it’s about being mindful and present, it’s about being close to truth. The wicked taketh the truth to be hard because it cutteth them to the very center.

The righteous, by contrast, “hearken to the truth and give heed to it”. This doesn’t mean they are perfect or even better in their actions than someone who is wicked necessarily. They are simply more open, more willing to be taught. More willing to abandon their false stories about themselves, more open to truth. And in that they allow themselves to grow and expand and change.

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The Story of Thomas B. Marsh, Faith, Loyalty and Apostasy

I don’t really have anything definitive to say about Thomas Marsh. I have a tenuous knowledge of Mormon church history. Too many years have passed between college church classes and today’s date. I’m not so attentive in Sunday school I’m afraid. I am reading Rough Stone Rolling, but I’m not positive Marsh will get much attention. He’s not a major historical figure, so I’m not sure how much there is to learn about Thomas Marsh.  Recently, though, I came across this article that I think makes some important points which I will get to. Here’s the church’s story on Marsh.

The first article is written by John Hamer, a historian and member of the “Community of Christ church, the second article is written by Kay Darowski, also a historian a member of the Mormon church and of course its an article posted on the official church website.

The major difference between the two accounts is in each’s assessment of why Thomas Marsh left the church. Darowski references the controversy of the cream strippings:

Also contributing to his deepening dissatisfaction was the infamous “cream strippings” incident, which occurred in August or September 1838, involving Marsh’s wife, Elizabeth, and Lucinda Harris, wife of George W. Harris. According to George A. Smith, the women had agreed to exchange milk from their cows for making cheese. But counter to their agreement, Elizabeth allegedly kept the cream strippings—the richer part of the milk that rises to the top—before sending the rest of the milk to Lucinda. According to Smith, the matter went before the teachers quorum, then the bishop, and then the high council, all of whom found Elizabeth to be at fault. Marsh, not satisfied, appealed to the First Presidency, who agreed with the earlier decisions. Further offended by this chain of events, the already frustrated Marsh was said to have declared “that he would sustain the character of his wife, even if he had to go to hell for it.”

If you click on the reference you’ll find where this comes from:

The only full account of this oft-repeated story was given by George A. Smith in a discourse in Salt Lake City on April 6, 1856. Smith prefaced it by saying “sometimes it happens that out of a small matter grows something exceedingly important.” See Journal of Discourses, 3:283-284 for cream-stripping story.

Again, I’m not a historian, but a story repeated almost 20 years after the incident from one person’s memory with no verifying document is not considered reliable, in an academic sense at least. I think this is why John Hamer calls this a “fable” in his writing of the story.

Both accounts agree, though, of a more likely cause of his apostasy, although notice how the language is different in each telling:

Hammer:

Although the Mormons at the time were steeped in Gideon’s mythic defeat of the Midianites (Judges 7-8), where God required only 300 men to defeat 120,000, the danger in escalating the violence — in fighting mobs with mobs and in answering pillaging with pillaging — was extreme. The Mormons were as hopelessly outnumbered as Gideon. As much as the Saints eventually suffered after their defeat, even worse results were quite possible. The massacre at Haun’s Mill might just as easily have been replicated en masse at Far West, and the trial of Joseph Smith and other leaders may well have been a court martial and summary execution, (however illegal).

Darowski:

Within a few months, Marsh, as had many others, fell prey to a spirit of apostasy. He was among several Latter-day Saints who became disturbed by the increasingly violent relationship between Church members and their Missouri neighbors.

I think it’s obvious that Hamer is more sympathetic than Darowski. This is also interesting because this story gets repeated again and again. In a recent General Conference, Elder Bednar uses it to make the point that we shouldn’t let person offense get in the way of active church participation.

I’m not sure if the cream stripping story happened or not. It’s very possible it happened and it may have been a contributing factor in Thomas Marsh’s apostasy. But I think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t the central, driving reason. The church was going through a difficult time in what is now referred to as the Missouri Mormon war. The Mormons wanted to settle in Missouri, the people residing in Missouri didn’t want them there. Mormons were victimized by mob attack, but they also resorted to mob attack in retaliation. This retaliation was the concern for Marsh, Wikipedia:

Thomas B. Marsh, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church, and fellow Apostle Orson Hyde were alarmed by the events of the Daviess County expedition. On October 19, 1838, the day after Gallatin was burned, Thomas B. Marsh and fellow apostle Orson Hyde left the association of the Church.[63] On October 24, they swore out affidavits concerning the burning and looting in Daviess County. They also reported the existence of the Danite group among the Mormons and repeated a popular rumor that a group of Danites was planning to attack and burn Richmond and Liberty.[

This was a big thing, a huge thing. In many ways it’s understandable that Marsh left the church. But Marsh’s actions did hurt the church, caused it additional problems, and contributed to additional suffering to the church and its leaders. It’s also understandable that Joseph Smith felt betrayed by a friend. It was not easy being a Mormon during those times. Those who stayed true and faithful deserve our respect. Those who chose to leave deserve our sympathy.

I guess my point is historical truth is more nuanced and complicated than often times we realize. Usually, neither side is blameless. I understand why Elder Bednar makes the point he does. The cream stripping is a more concise, easier to tell story and more easily fits the larger point he’s trying to make. The real story is more difficult, nuanced and would overwhelm a pretty short talk.

But there are interesting lessons to be learned from the real story:

Being a member of a church community can be difficult. It takes loyalty and devotion, and sometimes this can be painful, devastatingly so. Thomas Marsh had valid concerns and these concerns led him to leave the church, but perhaps there were other ways he could have dealt with these concerns? But I also think the real story should serve as a cautionary tale for those of us who stay faithful to the church. We should be careful before inflicting a harsh judgment on those who decide to leave it. As Elder Uchtdorf counsels here:

Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations.

Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church.

We all have individual journeys and none of us really knows what it’s like to be another person. Thomas Marsh is a sympathetic person. He had real challenges. He suffered.  I think he’s someone who tried to do the right thing in the face of severe difficulties. He is one to emulate and learn from. His life was incredibly difficult and on the whole, I believe he endured it well. I think through it all, God loved Him and accepted Him as His own. I think Marsh’s life is a life to be revered.

One interesting postscript. Thomas Marsh was the president of the quorum of apostles when he left the church. Brigham Young took his position. If he hadn’t left, Marsh likely would have been the second prophet of the church and the responsibilities of the westward migration and building up the church in Utah would have been on his shoulders. This is an interesting alternative history. I’m not sure he could have done it as well.

Testimony?

Wikipedia has a lot of definitions of testimony, but I’m focusing here on the religious one, to declare testimony is to express one feelings of their faith, to describe often through personal experiences, why one believes what they believe:

In some religions (most notably Mormonism and Islam) many adherents testify as a profession of their faith, often to a congregation of believers. In Mormonism, testifying is also referred to as “bearing [sic] one’s testimony,” and often involves the sharing of personal experience—ranging from a simple anecdote to an account of personal revelation—followed by a statement of belief that has been confirmed by this experience. Within Mormonculture, the word “testimony”[3] has become synonymous with “belief.”

A testimony is personal and individual and groundless in every other way except in one’s personal experience. Testimony is not based on scientific or historical evidence, rather, testimony is simply what happens when one experiences something transformational in one’s life. More specifically, testimony is something one gains when one is touched by grace. And grace is rooted in the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Adam Miller says it better in his book Rube Goldberg Machine:

A testimony is a bolt of lightning that splits the night in two. Testimonies contravene the stubborn inertia proper to this world. Here, the lost and impossible possibilities revealed by a testimony take hold of and recondition the world.

Testimonies are not essential because they reveal how things are in the world (this is the task of science). Testimonies are essential because they reveal, in light of the Atonement, how things can be.

Miller, Adam S. (2012-04-04). Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Kindle Locations 1444-1446). Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition.

Grace makes possible what was previously impossible, it transcends the limitations of this world and gives us the power to strive for something more. It allows us to transcend the limitations of our bodies, our weaknesses, our addictions, even our mortality, Christ’s atonement reaches through all of that and pulls out from within something divine and eternal. Our testimony, if it is anything at all, is simply this, our experience with grace.

Our testimony has nothing to say about the age of the earth, the nature of revelation, or the historicity of scripture.

This can be deceptive for many. Our sacred scriptures are rooted in stories and in history. The Bible begins with the story of the beginning of the world, stories of Adam and Eve, a global flood, incredible stories of Moses in Egypt. These stories are rooted in history, describing characters in nations that actually existed. The Book of Mormon is similar, audaciously so. Coming from the most humble of beginnings bursting forth soon after the birth of a nation, giving ancient America a biblical story. In 500 pages, the Book of Mormon runs through one thousand years of ancient American history.

Neither of these books are historical or scientific. Our experiences with them have nothing to do with what they are saying about history or science. These books were written and translated by holy men and women, not historians or scientists. When we bear testimony of them, we are saying nothing about our views of history or science.

The same follows for Joseph Smith, President Monson, tithing, the word of wisdom, the Church as an institution, etc. To have a testimony of these things is to have experienced the Atonement in connection with them—nothing more, nothing less. Who would be more horrified by the idea of people having a testimony of Joseph Smith than Joseph Smith? Who would be more horrified by the idea of people having of a testimony of the Book of Mormon than Mormon?

Miller, Adam S. (2012-04-04). Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Kindle Locations 1374-1377). Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition.

I think this distinction is important. When I see or hear about attempts to prove the historicity of scripture, I’m left cold. I don’t see the point, it feels like a waste of time and resources. It does a disservice to religion, science and history. We all have biases, granted, but science done right and history done correctly, requires the adherer to encounter the evidence as they find it and let that evidence lead them to conclusions that may even contradict what they may find in sacred works. It’s possible that neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon are true historically, and certainly not true scientifically. But both claims are beside the point.

And the opposite is true for similar reasons. If we attempt to ground our testimonies in the realm of science, we are standing on shaky ground.

If we say the Book of Mormon is true because we believe it explains Native American history, what is left of our faith when we encounter evidence that contradicts this? Those who do tend to react in one of two ways, the reject the science or they reject the religion. But neither of these choices makes sense. Our hearts and our minds should be open to learn as much knowledge as we can possible get in this short period of our lives. We absorb it and are informed by it, our faith should be durable enough to grow right along with it.

What I’m trying to say is that our testimony in the church, in Joseph Smith, in the Book of Mormon have nothing to do with our present views on historicity, evolution, archeological evidence. The church has very little to say on these topics nor is qualified to do so. The church is for us, our scriptures are for us, our prophets are for us. They are spiritual tools to transform us, individually and collectively, and to bring us to Christ.

The Book of Mormon says it best here.

23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.

The Book of Mormon Made Harder: Why Do We Even Have this Book

In my last post, Nephi witnesses Christ’s birth, life and ultimate sacrifice. In 1 Nephi 12, the angel shows him a vision of America including a quick summary of the entire Book of Mormon story. He sees the “land of promise”, a new land that he, himself will soon set foot on. He sees his descendants populating this land. He sees wars and bloodshed. Then he sees Christ descend from the heavens to visit those in this land who survived. He sees twelve disciples called to both administer and to eventually be the judges of those who dwell on this land. Christ leaves, and three generations continue in peace and in faith, before they eventually fall back into old patterns, wars and eventually, total unbelief.

Why is it important for Nephi to see this vision? Why is it important for us to read this vision? Why are twelve disciples who just happened to be alive during Christ’s visit to America called to judge all of those who have inhabited America? What does this have to do with us?

Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830 in Palmyra, New York. The United States was a desperately young country at this point of time. A young country in an old land, filled with strange people with an unknown historical past, even today I’m not sure how much we really know about the ancient American world.  Joseph Smith is led to a hill by an angel and discovers a book with metal pages enscribed with words in an unknown language. He miraculously translates the book. Publishing the book kicks off the beginning of a new church that from humble beginnings eventually expands across the globe, by in no small part, the intense sacrifices of Joseph Smith’s earliest converts. Without this book there is no church.

I’m inspired by Richard Bushman’s words describing this book in the Joseph Smith biography, Rough Stone Rolling, in chapter 4, page 104:

The story of Israel overshadowed the history of American liberty. Literal Israel stood at the center of history, not the United States. The book sacralized the land but condemned the people. The Indians were the chosen ones, not the European interlopers. The Book of Mormon was the seminal text, not the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. The gathering of lost Israel, not the establishment of liberty, was the great work. In the Book of Mormon, the biblical overwhelms the national.

And here:

The Book of Mormon proposes a new purpose for America: becoming a realm of righteousness rather than an empire of liberty. Against increasing wealth and inequality, the Book of Mormon advocates the cause of the poor. Against the subjection of the Indians, it promises the continent to the native people. against republican government, it proposes righteous rule by judges and kings under God’s law. Against a closed-canon Bible and nonmiraculous religion, the Book of Mormon stands for ongoing revelation, miracles, and revelation to all nations. Against skepticisms, it promotes beliefs; against nationalism, a universal Israel….

I think timing of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon during the very beginning stages of the United States as a new nation is no accident. It foundationally stands in tension with secularism and nationalism as all churches should. Just as America was beginning to make its claim to what would become the light shining on a hill, the Book of Mormon comes forth to offer a counter-argument, to point to the one true light a light that knows no geographic boundaries.

That this story comes early on in the Book of Mormon story is telling. The book first tells us its purposes, then tells it again, and then again.

The birth of our nation was indeed a miracle and a blessing. So was the birth of this book and its church.