My Talk On the Joseph Smith Conference

Today I gave a talk in Sacrament meeting on the recent Joseph Smith conference held at the Library of Congress last month. Obviously, I was not able to cover the whole conference in my fifteen minute talk, so I focused on a few of the items I found to be most memorable. I thought some of you might be interested in what I said.

In 1844, Joseph Smith gave a talk in April General Conference that may possibly be the greatest sermon ever delivered in this dispensation. It is called the King Follett Discourse because it was a funeral sermon for a man named King Follett. In it, Brother Joseph said:

“You don’t know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself.?

On Friday and Saturday, May 6th and 7th of last month, an historic conference was held at the Library of Congress on the life and works of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The conference was called The Worlds of Joseph Smith.

After watching and listening to the conference on the Internet from the official Church website, I can certainly believe that no one knows Joseph Smith’s history.

In the short time that I have I would like to make three points about what was said.

First, I would like to explain a few of the reasons that it was an historic conference.

2005 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith. During those two hundred years, a new religious tradition has come forth upon the earth; and it has grown into major faith in the United States, and is rapidly growing in the rest of the world. It has finally become so significant on the world stage that it can no longer be ignored by serious students of religion, and there are Mormon studies programs at universities that are not affiliated with the Church.

Not all of the presenters at this conference were LDS.

Most notable was the address given Saturday afternoon by the eminent scholar, Douglas Davies, of the University of Durham in England where he pioneered a program in Mormon studies. His address was entitled, “Joseph Smith and the Makings of a Global Religion.?

In it he made a distinction between a global religion and a world religion. The one, he said, could be a religion with congregations all over the world. But a world religion, he maintained, would be culturally and doctrinally diverse and appeal to broad cross section of humanity such as do Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. He predicted that Mormonism may in fact be a global religion, but that unless it changes some of its focus, it will not likely ever be a world religion.

He especially noted two characteristics of Mormonism that work against its becoming a world religion by these definitions. First, if present trends continue, there will not be a diversity of doctrine develop that would allow the religion to be accepted by a majority of people of other cultures outside of the USA. Second, as long as Mormonism is seen primarily as an American religion, it’s spread abroad will decline as the world becomes increasingly anti-American. He cited many facts and figures that indicate that this is happening even now, especially in Europe where the Church is not growing as it is in the United States and some other areas such as Latin America and Africa.

One of the respondents who spoke after Mr. Davies address initiated some controversy when to some, including Professor Davies, he seemed to be using an academic conference to evangelize. Specifically, Dr. Roger Keller of the Religion Department at BYU, spoke on the important place of priesthood authority in Mormonism. Because of that authority, he said, there will never be the doctrinal diversity within Mormonism which Dr. Davies believes is one of the essential characteristics of a world religion.

Dr. Keller is a very interesting character. In fact, I enjoyed his remarks the best of all those given at the conference.

His specialty at BYU is comparative religion. Before converting to the Church in 1986, he received a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a PhD in biblical studies and 20th century Christian Theology from Duke University. He was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry in 1971. In 1982 he was called to be the Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Mesa, Arizona. It was there that he became more deeply conversant in Mormon studies and finally joined the Church. He began teaching at Brigham Young University in the fall of that year.

I don’t believe I have ever heard a better explanation of how the authority of the priesthood maintains doctrinal purity in a world-wide church. He also mentioned a few examples of how that doctrinal purity might be maintained while also permitting cultural diversity within the Church. Unfortunately, Dr. Davies and apparently some others felt that he was preaching or evangelizing for the Church which was not understood by most to be the purpose of the conference. He definitely bore his testimony, which is probably why I enjoyed his remarks the most.

The second thing I would like to do in my talk is briefly review some of the things that were said by the various participants. I would particularly like to mention the main address in the fourth session because that is the assignment given me by Bishop Thomas. It was on the subject of Joseph Smith’s contributions to the world, and particularly to Christianity.

In the fourth session, the main speech was by David L. Paulsen. His paper was entitled, “Joseph Smith Challenges the Christian Theological World?

David Paulsen is a professor of philosophy at BYU where he has taught for about 35 years. He said that theology was unnecessary before the death of the apostles, and the Lord chose the apostles. The apostles didn’t choose themselves.

What challenges did Joseph Smith pose to orthodox Christian thought?

1. God’s resumption of revelation.
If Christians questioned present revelation, could they really believe in the revelations of the past? Joseph Smith said, “We believe the bible, and they do not.? The true church must and always will have living prophets. On what biblical grounds do traditional Christians claim that there is no more revelation since ancient times. Joseph Smith’s answer was, “None.?

Dr. Paulson got a laugh when he pointed out that since there is no mention in the Bible proclaiming that revelation has stopped or will stop, that if anyone claims that there is no more revelation, ironically he must have gotten it by direct revelation.

2. God’s restoration of divine authority.
Dr. Paulson mentioned the restoration of the Aaronic priesthood under the hands of John the Baptist, and the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood under the hands of Peter, James and John who received this priesthood directly under the hands of Jesus Christ in ancient times.

3. A greatly enlarged and still open canon.
The early Christian church didn’t have a closed canon. Jesus didn’t use a closed canon of Old Testament teachings in his ministry. And as a result of the above:

4. A very high, and clear understanding of Christ.

5. A reaffirmation of a living God as in the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a living reality.
The Christian world teaches of a cosmic God that is intangible, incomprehensible, without a body or incorporeal. This is the God of the Greek philosophers and the God of traditional Christianity. Joseph Smith taught of a God with a tangible body, someone with whom one can meet face to face as one man speaks with another. A God who, according to Enoch, wept because of the tragedy of man’s disobedience and wickedness in the days before the Great Flood. In other words, Joseph Smith challenges the Christian world with a God like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Old Testament.

Third, I would like to share with you some of the thoughts by Elder Dallin H. Oaks that he shared with the participants Friday evening during the third session of the conference. Interestingly, Elder Oaks was the only scholar at this academic conference who was also a living prophet. He was the main speaker at that session. He was introduced by Cecil O. Samuelson, the president of Brigham Young University in Provo.

His talk was entitled, “Joseph Smith in a Personal World.?

A major focus of this talk is Joseph’s role as prophet and the originator of revelation. A prophet is one who speaks for God to others, and revelation is God’s communication to man, to prophets and to every one of us if we seek. Joseph taught that he was directed by a continuing flow of revelation throughout his life, and that everyone could enjoy such revelation. “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations, and where is our religion,? he asked? “We have none,? he answered.

There is a contrast between two different kinds of decision making: the familiar and the revelatory.

a. The experience with fellow law clerks in the office Chief Justice Earl Warren.

b. The experience of making the prayerful decision to become a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

“When we ask in faith,? Joseph Smith taught, “God will give us knowledge in our mind and in our heart by feelings.?

Personal revelation also occurs when an inventor or artist or great leader receives flashes of enlightenment from a loving God for the benefit of his children.

Moses declared “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.? Latter-day Saints believe the same thing today.

Perhaps it is time for educated non-believers to ask, “Where did his genius come from?? “I of course believe that it came from God,? Elder Oaks testified.

Joseph Smith taught that each individual had identity in a life before this one with God.

Joseph Smith taught that the glory of God is intelligence, and that a man cannot be saved in ignorance.

“Everything we have is a lengthened shadow of Joseph Smith,? said President Gordon B. Hinckley.

Joseph Smith taught that we should preach the gospel to individuals and not groups. Affiliation with the Church must always be a personal decision.

Joseph Smith was 38-1/2 when he was murdered.

To summarize then, we have learned a few things this morning:

The academic world is beginning to take Joseph Smith seriously, even among those who do not accept him as a prophet.

Some of the presenters at the conference were not LDS, and one in particular, a Dr. Douglas Davies, said that he did not think the Church would become what he calls a worldwide Church because it would not be adaptable enough in its doctrine to appeal to a wide diversity of cultures.

A former Presbyterian minister, Roger Kelly of the BYU Department of Religion, took issue with this and bore his testimony of the importance of priesthood authority in the Church.

Dr. David Paulsen of the Philosophy Department at Brigham Young University enumerated some of the theological contributions of Joseph Smith including a resumption of revelation, the restoration of divine authority or priesthood, an open canon, a very high and clear understanding of Christ, and a reaffirmation of a living God as in the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Finally, Elder Dallin Oaks spoke on personal revelation as taught by the Prophet Joseph and how it has played a role in his life.

I really enjoyed these papers and discussions. I recommend that those of you with interest go to the Church website and watch and listen to some of them yourselves. It will give you a deeper appreciation of the importance of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the role he plays on the world stage.

Further, I testify to you that Joseph Smith truly did see the Father and the Son as he said he did. He was an honest man telling the truth about his First Vision and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Once more true prophets speak for God to his children today. Joseph Smith was one of these true prophets, and so is President Gordon B. Hinckley in our own day. Further, we can all know this for ourselves by receiving our own personal revelations. I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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2 Responses to My Talk On the Joseph Smith Conference

  1. John, That was an excellent summation of the Joseph Smith Conference. Thank you for your very strong and powerful testimony as well.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Justin B, has catalogued the cogent discussions of the conference here, here and here

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