On August 23, 2021, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland addressed BYU’s 2021 University Conference. He spoke about the need for BYU to remain a unique institution “that is unequivocally true to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Elder Holland spent much of his talk addressing controversies surrounding the issue of LGBTQ rights. He emphasized the love that he and the other Brethren have for LGBTQ members and that they have “wept and prayed and wept again in an effort to offer love and hope while keeping the gospel strong and the obedience to commandments evident in every individual life.” Nevertheless, Elder Holland laid a clear line down in the sand. BYU and the Church would not compromise on the core doctrines in this area even if it meant that BYU would have to forfeit associations or even perhaps accreditation.
The reaction to Elder Holland’s remarks was sharp and fierce. He was accused of homophobia and stoking violence against LGBTQ individuals for his extension of a metaphor calling for professors to direct their “musket” fire towards defending the Church and its doctrines.
I suspect that this reaction was even more fierce because these remarks came from Elder Holland. Elder Holland has long been one of the most beloved Apostles among more progressive members of the Church. Along with President Uchtdorf, Elder Renlund, and Elder Gong, Elder Holland has represented for many a hope for a kinder, gentler, and more tolerant Church.
My heart goes out to those who are in pain over this talk and who are feeling betrayed or hopeless. Elder Holland has laid a line in the sand and made clear that Church doctrine on this topic is firm and fixed. For those who have hoped and prayed and expected a change, this can be earth shaking. But my hope is that Elder Holland’s unequivocal clarity on the topic will push you to your knees in humble prayer rather than to your feet in protest against BYU, Elder Holland, and the Church.
I know how difficult this is from personal experience. The spirit recently prompted me to look back on experiences from the time of my conversion through my baptism into the Church, and my decision to serve a mission. In doing so, I was able to reflect on how much I wrestled with the issue of LGBTQ rights when I first joined the Church. I agonized not understanding how the Church’s teachings could be consistent with a just and loving Father in Heaven. At the time, this was the one issue of all issues that stood poised to break my testimony. But because I remained humble and teachable, the spirit of God taught me over time and now my testimony of the Church’s teachings on the family contained in the Family Proclamation is a foundational pillar of my belief.
I grew up in a pretty liberal Jewish family. As I attended university in the Boston area, I became even more liberal especially in my social views. Gay marriage seemed to me to be a basic matter of equality and human rights. I had many gay friends in college and knew (and still do know) their relationships were beautiful and loving. While in college, I lost my faith in God and adopted a relativistic framework which rejected the notion that any type of consensual sexual relationship could be deemed right or wrong. I believed that people were born with their attractions ingrained and could not be expected to change. Even more so, I was strongly opposed to ‘the religious right’ and viewed their opposition to LGBTQ rights to be an inhumane attempt to push theocracy. In short, this was an issue that I felt very, very strongly about.
My conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began in August 2008. I have written about my conversion at length elsewhere so I will be brief here. I began to learn seriously about the Church when one of my best friends began to go back to Church. Her return to Church sparked a curiosity in me about the Church. I went and read introductory books about the Church. As I did so, I felt drawn powerfully to the doctrines and especially the idea of the premortal life and the plan of salvation answered the deep questions of my soul. But I also was repulsed by some of the visceral reactions that friends had against the Church because of what they considered the Church’s homophobia and bigotry.
On August 30, 2008, I felt prompted to visit the Boston Temple grounds. While there, I had an incredible conversion experience where I felt that God was speaking to me so clearly and telling me how much he loved me. From that moment onward, I knew that God wanted me to join his Church and the testimony I gained from that experience allowed me to have the strength to overcome a lot of family opposition and to be baptized in June 2009.
My initial conversion came in the middle of the 2008 election season. I campaigned for Barack Obama in New Hampshire and spent election day working there getting people to the polls. I remember being extremely excited as I looked at the election results. I was excited that a new president was elected who would embody change and the progressive values that I held at that time. The one sour spot for me was the triumph of Proposition 8 which I viewed as a travesty.
At first, I was hardly aware of the involvement of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as I began to realize how much the church and its members had supported the amendment, I was in shock. I had gained a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, but my faith in the modern day prophets and apostles was still very tentative and shaky at best. My first response was to think that the Church must have made a major mistake and that its stance would have to change.
Yet at the same time I could NOT deny the testimony I’d received. I could neither understand nor accept the Church’s position contained in the Family Proclamation . But I knew that God had told me that the Church was true. And I had confidence that if I continued to grow in the Church, more answers would come.
Shortly after I was finally baptized 10 months later, I began a summer internship in Philadelphia at a non-profit legal organization. When two of my co-workers learned that I was a new member of the Church, they began to very extensively criticize the Church and its beliefs on gay marriage. One was gay and the other a very ardent libertarian. I had just been baptized and as a brand new member, these criticisms stung. The start of that summer was a struggle as I day by day listened to their attacks and felt a great deal of sympathy with what they were saying. I agonized over this issue.
I spoke to my Bishop and ward leadership about my concerns. They were wonderfully sympathetic especially one of the counselors who spent hours talking to me about the subject and told me about his efforts to show love to a gay family member .
My concerns also led me to spend much time on my knees praying for answers. Yet, for weeks I didn’t find relief as I continued to be tormented by the question day after day.
Finally, one day after work I walked around downtown Philadelphia weighed down by the conflicting feelings that I felt. I went to Love Park and began to pray and while there received the first of a series of spiritual promptings that in time changed my understanding and brought me peace.
The next week, my ward took a trip to Palmyra to visit the Hill Cumorah pageant. In the Sacred Grove I took all of my concerns to the Lord. There, in that sacred place in which Joseph had seen the Father and the Son I felt the spirit so strongly testify to me that I just needed to have patience and be humble and keep my heart open and that everything would work out. I didn’t understand what that meant or what it would entail. But I knew that I was just where God wanted me. This was another key turning point for me. I prayed and fasted and the Lord told me to wait and gave me the patience to do so.
By the end of the summer I was able to improve the relationship with my co-workers and also find some peace on the topic.
Still, it continued to be a difficult issue for me. In October 2009 Elder Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles came to Boston and spoke at a conference on missionary work. We had the opportunity to ask questions and I stood and asked a question about this issue about how we could share the gospel with our gay brothers and sisters when the church stance so obviously alienated and upset them. He responded that the Church could not compromise on its stance and that the best thing to do would be to treat LGBTQ people with love and invite them to live up to God’s standard (which is the same exact message that Elder Holland gave at BYU last week, a dozen years later!). At the time, this answer was insufficient for me. I had hoped for something more, and was quite angry and disappointed. Still I was glad to know that the Brethren were aware of the importance of this issue
But that day I walked around Boston and discussed the issue with some members that I had met during the conference. As I spoke to them about my conversion and how my heart had been softened by the spirit in the past, I remembered once again what God had spoken to me in the Sacred Grove. I recommitted myself to continuing to be open and humble to the promptings of the spirit.
That semester I did a research paper for a class on modern American drama about how LGBTQ issues had appeared in plays written by or about Latter-day Saints. So many of these plays portrayed members of the Church as close minded and arrogant and with blood on their hands from the suicides of gay members. But as I read these plays, I contrasted these stereotypical negative portrayals with the experiences I had with members. The members I had come to know who were filled with love and compassion and were genuinely trying to follow Jesus while still staying firm to what they believed was a commandment from God. This realization helped further soften my heart.
As I studied the topic that semester, my views on the subject also became more nuanced. For instance, I began to also realize that the legal issues surrounding gay marriage and other LGBTQ rights were more complicated than supporters made them seem. I had been under the impression that gay marriage in California or elsewhere would have no negative consequences for Churches or people of faith whatsoever. But as I read stories of the wedding venues, bakers, florists, and photographers who were being targeted for not wanting to promote gay marriage, I realized that this was a complex topic and that those advocating for religious freedom had legitimate cause to be concerned. I began to believe that there had to be a balance that could achieve fairness for all.
Yet, even with all of that, I was still far away from the Church’s position on LGBTQ issues. For instance, I still saw the involvement in Proposition 8 as a mistake which placed the Church on the wrong side of history. And I hoped that the doctrine would eventually change in time.
The true turning point for me was the first time I went to the temple and performed proxy sealing ordinances. When I was in the temple on that day, I received a very unexpected, profound, and penetrating testimony of the importance of family in God’s plan. Whereas my feelings about the doctrines of the family had been tepid and intellectualized, I now was filled with a burning testimony. I knew that marriage between a man and woman was an essential part of God’s plan and that nothing else could come close to the sacredness of temple marriage. In the temple of the Lord I finally gained the witness I had sought in earnest prayer unto the Lord!
Shortly afterwards, and just a little more than a year after my baptism, I left on my mission to Russia. Yet, even as I left on my mission I still was not fully comfortable or settled with this issue. For instance, I remember cringing as I watched Elder Boyd K. Packer’s talk which mentioned homosexuality during the October 2010 conference.
Nothing in particular on my mission happened to change my views. In Russia the population is very homophobic and the topic of LGBTQ rights almost never came up in the course of my mission. Early on in my mission I still felt the need to qualify myself by distinguishing between my views and the Church’s views. But somehow over the course of my mission I experienced a transformation which can only be explained as the result of losing myself in the service of the Lord
On my mission I saw first hand how the Spirit could inspire Church leaders to receive revelation. I also personally had many revelatory moments where I felt the guidance of the Lord very acutely. These experiences led me to further open my heart and mind to the possibility that the Church leaders that I had once mocked or looked down on like Elder Packer or President Ezra Taft Benson were likewise receiving revelation from God. As I studied their teachings on the topic of the Family, truly open for the first time to the possibility that those teachings were inspired, I felt the spirit quietly teaching me and showing me that their words were true. My cynicism was swept away.
As my testimony of the brethren and the divine inspiration that leads the church grew leaps and bounds, so too did my conviction that the Proclamation on the Family was inspired by God and like scripture for our day. I became more confident in the correctness of the Church’s position. I realized that even if the whole world saw it otherwise, we MUST stand in favor of the Family Proclamation because our unique view on the eternal importance of marriage necessitates it.We were not on the wrong side of history because we were on the Lord’s side.
After my mission, I started law school and there had many further experiences that shaped and enriched my views and helped me gain a much deeper appreciation for the doctrine of eternal families and the foundational role it plays in Church doctrine. One of the most meaningful was a lengthy conversation I had with President Oaks about this topic which confirmed for me what Elder Holland said at BYU last week about how he and his brethren “wept and prayed and wept again in an effort to offer love and hope while keeping the gospel strong and the obedience to commandments evident in every individual life.”
My personal witness that these men of God are genuinely striving to follow revelations and guidance from the Lord about how to love their LGBTQ brothers and sisters while standing firm on the commandments of God kept me rooted through challenging moments such as when I first heard about the 2015 policy on the baptisms of children with LGBTQ parents. Their words have also kept me looking for ways to show more love and to be more inclusive and welcoming even while affirming divine truth.
I am not suggesting that my process of change was easy or inevitable. Looking back now, I think the odds were far greater that I would have left the Church over this issue or continue to agonize over it than that I would come to the point of conviction where I am now. I was blessed with a very powerful conversion experience which rooted my faith in the Church and with the opportunity to serve a mission and to be able to abandon myself in the service of God. Without those things, I don’t know if my story would have turned out the same way. I very well could have been one of those who was up in arms at Elder Holland rather than feeling joy at his remarks. So I do not write this out of a sense of superiority, but out of a deep sense of humility and gratitude to God for leading me slowly but surely to where I stand today.
My journey is unlikely to be precisely the same as yours. But I can say that I am so grateful that I was willing to question my presumptions, pray to God in faith, wrestle with my concern, and ultimately be transformed by the spirit.
If Elder Holland’s words trouble you, I invite you to take it to the Lord with a sincere heart and real intent. If you have been touched by Elder Holland in the past, as I have on so many occasions, then please use this as an opportunity to go to the Lord and ask him whether there is a kernel of truth in what Elder Holland teaches on this topic. He is an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and I believe he is speaking words that we desperately need to hear. Please use this as a catalyst to seek further light and knowledge from the Lord.