By Robert L. Millet
Reviewed by Catherine K. Arveseth
The Standard of Truth
What difficult question were you most recently asked concerning Latter-day Saint beliefs? Did you scour the Bible for some kind of proof that validates a particular doctrine? Did you wonder if your answer was appropriate? Did you say too much or not enough? Robert L. Millet, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, has written a guide to improving gospel conversations. His latest book, Getting at the Truth, is the product of intense doctrinal study, numerous interfaith dialogues and a true appreciation for his associates, despite their religious affiliation.
Millet explains, “Getting at the truth is what life is all about. We spend our days and months and years striving to jettison falsehood and discover truth. We seek to rid our lives of sin and deception in order to see things as they really are rather than as we are.”
As we come to know and understand truth, it is our divine charge to carry it to the world, like a lighted torch that can illuminate the darkness of error and despair. Joseph Smith taught, “The standard of truth has been erected” and it will go forward.
The Church is continuing to grow and expand; our influence is being felt more than ever before. Millet submits, “People are beginning to recognize and acknowledge that we have no secret agenda, no private version of Mormonism to cover up…yet misunderstanding and misrepresentation concerning the beliefs and practices of the Latter-day Saints persist.”
Despite these misunderstandings, Millet laments, “The greatest source of frustration I have felt in this work – and the one that has brought me to the brink of turning in my badge and throwing in the towel – has not been unsuccessful encounters with other Christians but rather misunderstanding and, occasionally, outright unkindness on the part of Latter-day Saints” (14).
Such a statement should surprise and sadden us. It means we have much work to do. Getting at the Truth is an effort to help church members overcome this weakness, to help them feel secure in their faith, reinforce their witness and conviction and assure them that there are answers to some of the most difficult questions raised by individuals of other faiths.
The Doctrine of Inclusion
In October General Conference 2001, Elder M. Russell Ballard taught the “Doctrine of Inclusion” – a doctrine the Savior and His prophets have taught throughout time. It was apparent to me then that we had somehow lost sight of this important teaching.
If you read nothing else, read Millet’s first chapter! “Reaching Out” is the title. Its aim is to help us see other faiths for what they have to offer, to cultivate meaningful, sensitive and uplifting conversations, without compromising truth or shrinking from conviction. Millet’s ideas will change your view of the world and God’s plan to deliver His message to it. You will want to be more sensitive to your neighbors’ needs and beliefs, all the while stirring within your heart a deepening certainty of what you know to be true.
Millet writes, “We are commissioned to be a leavening influence among the people of the earth. We cannot make our influence felt if we completely avoid the troublesome issues in society and isolate ourselves and our families from today’s challenges” (7). As we move through our lives with awareness and sensitivity to others, void of offense, we will more effectively share the gospel message. President Hinckley taught, “We must not become disagreeable as we talk of doctrinal differences. There is no place for acrimony” (9). Millet continues, “We may never resolve our differences on the Godhead or the Trinity, on the spiritual or corporeal nature of Deity, or on the sufficiency of the Bible, but we can agree that salvation is in Christ, that the ultimate transformation of society will come only through the application of Christian solutions to pressing moral issues, and that the regeneration of individual hearts and souls is foundational to the restoration of virtue in our communities and nations” (9-10).
Millet offers two profound examples. After reading Billy Graham’s autobiography, Millet closed the cover, sat back and said, “Wow! What a life!” Millet was extremely moved, sensing deep down that “God had worked wonders through this simple and submissive North Carolina preacher” (15). Not long after he had read the Graham autobiography, Millet came across this quote from Orson F. Whitney delivered in a conference address in 1928.
“Perhaps the Lord needs such men on the outside of His Church to help it along. They are among its auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else…Hence, some are drawn into the fold and receive a testimony of the truth, while others remain unconverted…the beauties and glories of the gospel being veiled temporarily from their view, for a wise purpose. The Lord will open their eyes in His own due time. God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all (16).”
A second personal example shared by Millet illustrates that although not all who learn of our doctrine will accept it, it is important that they understand what we say and what we mean. Millet’s friend, a Baptist pastor, shared a letter with Millet that he had recently written to school administrators where his daughter attended first grade in a predominantly LDS community. In his letter he explained that his daughter had experienced some difficulties because she wears a cross necklace to school. Below is a portion of the letter he wrote.
“As an Evangelical Christian family, it is appropriate in our tradition of faith to wear the symbol of the cross as a reminder of the wonderful gift we receive because of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a family, we have discussed the symbol of the cross, and she can tell anyone who asks her why she wears it and what it means to her. The difficulty she has experienced…is that some children in her class have told her that it is bad to wear the cross. One child even said that he hated the cross and that she should take it off. These experiences…have been confusing to her and we have done our best to explain to her that…it is not wrong for her to wear [the cross] if she wants to, which she does. I would simply petition each parent to take a few moments with their children to explain to them that in a public school there will obviously be children with a wide range of spiritual beliefs and that we need to respect the faith of others…My hope is that such an exercise of communication will make our community a better place to live in, a place of understanding and respect for all” (24-25).
These two examples speak for themselves. Millet is attempting to create awareness of the alienation we can unintentionally cause. He hopes church members will change their perception of others to include rather than exclude. We must be especially vigilant in areas where the LDS faith is predominant; examining the messages we are sending, recognizing goodness and truth in any shape or form.
Know the Doctrine
Millet encourages us to avoid peripheral issues when discussing the beliefs of the church. To know if something is part of the doctrine of the church we can ask ourselves, is it found within the standard works? Is it taught or discussed in General Conference? Is it found in the general handbooks of the church? If it meets one of these criteria, we can appropriately teach it as doctrine.
Just because a prophet once expressed an opinion or perhaps a doctrinal view does not mean we teach it as doctrine. This does not mean it is untrue, but we must avoid focusing on questions for which we have no definitive answer. This theme arises again and again within Millet’s text: it is okay to say “I don’t know” – in fact, sometimes, “I don’t know” can be the most satisfactory answer to those not of our faith. We do not know why the bestowal of the priesthood of God was withheld from blacks until 1978. Many offer their estimated opinions, but we do not know. If we do not currently teach something as part of the doctrines of salvation, even though a church leader said it long ago, it is not our doctrine.
We belong to “the only true and living church” (D&C 1:30), key word “living”. We believe the canon of scripture to be open, flexible and expanding. We believe that God directs and empowers his children as need arises. This is one of the most celebrated truths of the restored gospel.
Answer the right questions. This advice from Millet urges us to stay in order when answering questions, stay in control and be loyal to the restoration. He shares the following example as recorded by Elder Boyd K. Packer, who marveled as President Henry D. Moyle of the First Presidency handled biting comments and baiting questions with great ease. Elder Packer questioned him about his successful interview. President Moyle replied, “I never pay any attention to the questions – that is, if the interviewer is antagonistic. If he doesn’t ask the right questions, I give answers to questions he should have asked…if a total stranger walked up to me and asked, Do Mormons really believe man can become like God?’ It might not be the wisest course to respond, Yes, indeed we do. Let me read to you the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith in his King Follett Sermon.’ Rather, I might begin with something like, That’s a good question. To put it into perspective, let me say that in the spring of 1820, a young boy by the name of Joseph Smith was concerned…” (78-79).
Because we believe in an open canon of scripture, we must remember we cannot prove everything by using the Bible. Millet writes, “If everything we taught or believed was in the Bible, there would be no need for a Book of Mormon, a Doctrine and Covenants, a Pearl of Great Price, and for that matter, a Joseph Smith and the Restoration” (85).
With this in mind, the fact remains that we will still have hard issues to face. Saying less is often better than saying too much. But there are answers to be given that will offer greater understanding of the true doctrines and teachings found within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Below is a sample of some of the questions answered within Millet’s book. His answers are succinct, clear and intelligent. They will strengthen your desire to be a more sound and confident source when it comes to answering questions about the church. I am not including any of Millet’s answers, but if a question resonates with you, I encourage you to read his answer.
Isn’t the Latter-day Saint claim to be “the only true church” exclusionary and unchristian?
Why do Latter-day Saints build temples?
Isn’t it true that Latter-day Saints belong to a cult?
Why did Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints practice plural marriage?
How could a group claiming to be Christian deny blacks the priesthood for so long? What is the doctrinal basis for such a restriction?
Is it true that Latter-day Saint women occupy a second-class status in the church? Why are they not ordained to the priesthood?
The Message of Mormonism
“The message of Mormonism is that there is a God; Jesus Christ is his divine Son; the Father and the Son have appeared and spoken again in these times; and the Father’s plan of salvation has been restored to earth for the ultimate blessing of humankind. In short, the Latter-day Saints believe that God loves his children in this age and generation as much as he loved those to whom he sent his Son in person. The perfect love of God the Father is manifest not alone through the preservation of the biblical record but also through modern revelation, modern scripture, and modern apostles and prophets” (160).
In this excerpt, Millet spells out the unassailable truths of our message. He reminds church members that it is a message of hope and fullness. “We say to a drifting world that there is more truth to be known, more power to be exercised and more profound fulfillment to be had” (160).
It has been some time since I reviewed a book for which I am inclined to offer such a strong endorsement, but I sense the great urgency expressed by our prophet to be more effective in sharing the gospel. Getting at the Truth can help, as long as we don’t just read it but put it into action. We can better integrate our communities by dispelling fears and misunderstandings.
We must frequently reach out to others with no ulterior motive. We should learn the tenets of different faiths and strive to nurture uplifting dialogues with them. We can answer their difficult questions with appropriate responses, with conviction and with love.
Thanks to Robert L. Millet for constructing a treatise that accurately attends to the hard Latter-day Saint questions, for offering optimism and hope despite our human weaknesses. If we can do as Millet urges and “get at the truth” we can aid in accomplishing the Lord’s great plan. As Joseph stated, “No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing…the truth will go forward boldly, nobly and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”