Inside Mormon Faith
Robert Millet is professor of Ancient Scripture and the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Inside Mormon Faith.” My guest, Robert Millet, is a leading scholar and lifelong member of the Church [of Jesus Christ] of Latter-day Saints. We’ll explore spiritual and doctrinal basics which are rarely clarified when Mormon history and religion enter political debates. We discover distinct ideas about the nature of God, family, and eternity, and a young frontier tradition which continues to develop internally.
MR. ROBERT MILLET: We’re in the religion-making business, and this takes time. It takes centuries. And trying to explain the faith and articulate the faith, that doesn’t come over night. We’ve really only been about that for 20 or 30 years.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Americans have been hearing a lot about Mormonism in the context of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. But we’re learning about this faith of 30 million people indirectly, by way of rhetoric and defense. This hour, we’ll avoid well-trodden controversial ground. We’ll seek an understanding of core beliefs and spirituality of Latter-day Saints with a leading scholar of the church and a lifelong practitioner. He describes a developing young religion with distinct, mystical, and practical interpretations of the nature of God, family, and eternity.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Inside Mormon Faith.”
The formal name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints begins to tell its story. It is a new religion, a bearer of latter-day revelation. Its founder, Joseph Smith, was born in Vermont in 1805 and grew up in a world of populist religious ferment, the era of the Second Great Awakening of Protestant Christianity. Abolitionists, suffragists, and utopian social experiments were on the rise along with a sense that established Christianity had lost its original transformative character. In that context, Joseph Smith reported a series of revelations over a period of 21 years that would complete and restore the original impulse of Jesus in the earliest centuries of Christianity. Alongside the Bible, Mormons honor a number of sacred texts that Joseph Smith is believed to have received and translated by way of visions and encounters with heavenly beings.
Today, the Church [of Jesus Christ] of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, has an extensive hierarchy of authority, including a presidency, a Council of Twelve Apostles, and a First Quorum of Seventy. My guest, Robert Millet, has been a scholar of ancient scriptures and religious understanding at Brigham Young University since 1983, and he’s twice served as a bishop or communal religious leader. His personal religious history is also very much representative of the newness and missionary impulse of this faith. An estimated 65 percent of Mormons, globally, are first-generation converts, as was Robert Millet’s mother and his paternal grandfather. They lived in a small, close-knit Mormon community in Louisiana.
MR. MILLET: The earliest memories I have, it’s community. It’s lay ministry where the person, you know, above and beyond job and home, they’re spending their hours teaching, or building a new church, or whatever it was. I gave myself in those early years to projects and to ideas and to working with people who loved what I loved. And so that, to me, is at the heart of it.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think that that example, that kind of witness of strong community and strong family, is very much a part of the appeal that this tradition is having for people…
MR. MILLET: Yeah, I think that’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: …globally, right? In addition to, or sometimes maybe even before, any kind of doctrinal or theological understanding.
MR. MILLET: No, I think that’s right. I think people feel something among the people. I think there are probably theological underpinnings to the way we live. In other words, we can give, and people have requested, we can give instructions on how to conduct a Monday family-home evening, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MILLET: We can give instructions on how to make your young people’s program successful. In other words, there…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MILLET: …there’s no formula for how to do it and make it work without the doctrine.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, you know, let’s get into that. Let’s talk about that. You know, your image of God, you know, I’m very intrigued, as I get into the literature and read your books, that, you know, there really is quite a very particular way of thinking about the nature of God, you know, that there are different names for God in the original Hebrew in the Bible.
MR. MILLET: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And my understanding is that for Mormons, you know, those different names of God are really about distinct manifestations of God or distinct gods.
MR. MILLET: Well, for example…
MS. TIPPETT: So Elohim is a God the Father, right?
MR. MILLET: Sure. Elohim would be God the Father. Jehovah or Yahweh would be the premortal Jesus Christ.
MS. TIPPETT: And Elohim, God the Father, you understand to be a corporeal being who was once a man, like us?
MR. MILLET: Yeah — yeah, let me address at least…
MS. TIPPETT: Correct me when I need correcting.
MR. MILLET: No.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MILLET: What I’m going to do is I’m going to address what I think we know and what I think we don’t know.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. MILLET: I think many people, in an effort to try to bring some kind of image in their minds to deity, no one wants to feel they’re praying to a force.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, imagine a person.
MR. MILLET: Yeah, a gas. They imagine a person, of course. And so the notion that we teach that God is corporeal or physical, it doesn’t strike an interested, curious seeker as overly odd because they often comment, ‘Well, I think I’ve sort of anticipated that.’
MS. TIPPETT: But I mean, and my sense is that this understanding of God is a product of something like a spiritual evolution of God who was once a man and moved into this very different kind of being.
MR. MILLET: Godhead.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MILLET: Well, Joseph Smith taught that in 1844. And other presidents of the church, like Lorenzo Snow, taught about it. But you know, it’s talked about so little, so infrequently. I hear much, much more of that teaching from those who are outside the LDS faith than I do from people within. And I guess the answer is for this — do I believe that? Yes, because I think it’s part of the faith. But it’s rather theologically tangential in the sense that we believe he’s a man. What went on before he was God, we just have no idea. In other words, that lies in the realm of the mysterious for us just as the final explanation for trinity would with traditional Christians. And I don’t have difficulty with that at all. And I think what that creates with Latter-day Saints is a greater sense of closeness.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think some kind of Christians find in the figure of Jesus, through the figure of Jesus, that closeness to God, right?
MR. MILLET: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: That sense of God made flesh. But even as you — someone might read a simple explanation of this and say that God is less exalted. I mean, they say that, in some ways, your understanding of Jesus seems to be more exalted. I mean, you very much stress Jesus as, in fact, originally Yahweh or Jehovah…
MR. MILLET: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: …who is already there in the beginning, the early chapters of Genesis, the God of the ancients, in fact, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
MR. MILLET: Let me say it this way.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. MILLET: Krista, I was in a meeting, oh, maybe a year ago with one of the Mormon apostles, present-day leaders of the church, and with a group of about 20 Evangelical pastors. One of the questions that came up — interestingly enough, this will have very recent application — one of the heads of Calvary Chapel said, “Now, elder so-and-so, isn’t it true that you believe that Jesus and Lucifer are brothers?” And I was very…
MS. TIPPETT: The remark that Mike Huckabee made recently about it.
MR. MILLET: That’s right. That was Mike Huckabee’s remark the other day. And he said this. He said, “Well, it is true. You need to understand we believe that before we were born, we all, not just Jesus, but that we all lived in a premortal existence. And yes, Jesus and Lucifer,” he said, “were in that world together.” But let me be straightforward on this. Jesus was God, and there was never a time when He and Lucifer were on the same plane.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. MILLET: Now, that’s a kind of mystery in itself for us, if you will, Krista, because it’s, we believe that Jesus is the — Jehovah was the firstborn spirit son of God. And yet, we believe that Jesus became God and was with God and was God. We have no problem with John 1. The Book of Mormon, in fact, on the title page, calls Him the Eternal God.
MS. TIPPETT: Mormon scholar Robert Millet. This is a traditional hymn about Jehovah, who Mormons understand to be the creator God who also chose to become Jesus of Nazareth. It’s sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
[sound bite of hymn]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we’re exploring some basic doctrinal and spiritual underpinnings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon Church has a distinct and developed belief, not only in life after death, but life before life. Church founder and prophet Joseph Smith described a premortal existence through which every human being passes. In what he called this first state of existence, men and women live as spirits, sons and daughters of God, and are spiritually prepared for the second state of life in human form on Earth. I asked Robert Millet about this.
MR. MILLET: There used to be a film that the church produced called Man’s Search for Happiness, and some of the lines went like this: “You did not suddenly just flare into existence at the time of birth, but rather, you have always lived.” For us, that answers many of the questions that people often have relative to a sense or a feeling of another time and another place, a kind of spiritual déjà vu, if you will. We would not believe, for example, in the reincarnation of souls, but we would believe that people’s sense that they once lived before is a very real sense, and that that’s what that was about, that we prepared there for here. And that that idea, you know, one of my colleagues is just finishing a book with Oxford on the prevalence of the notion of preexistence across cultures. And while it was condemned by the, oh, I guess the fifth or sixth century by the mother church, it is found throughout cultures all over the world, the idea of a life before life.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you quoted in your book on the Mormon faith the church’s first presidency in 1909. And the statement was that “the doctrine of preexistence revealed so plainly, particularly in the latter days, pours a wonderful flood of light upon the otherwise mysterious problem of man’s origin.” I found that a very evocative statement. I’m not sure I understand it. Is this doctrine illuminating for you in terms of the mysterious problem of man’s origin?
MR. MILLET: Well, it is in this sense that, I mean, I had, we’ve had, my wife, Shauna, and I have had six children. We now have seven grandchildren. And I — children are as different as night and day.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yes.
MR. MILLET: I mean, the idea that we lived before we came, the idea that I, before I was born or before my children or grandchildren were born, that they were real, actual personalities, and that, to some extent, they bring those personalities and attributes and qualities and characteristics with them, that has a sobering effect on parenthood. You know, I look at my children very differently than if I just believe they were born, they came along at the time of their birth. And so it has a kind of an eternalizing effect upon family relationships, the ability to see my children as someone who, for all I know, could have very well been my superior in another world, in another time and place, and so I’d better treat them properly. Definitely, they’re, in that spiritual sense, my brothers and sisters. Do you see what I mean?
MS. TIPPETT: And Jesus is the Son of God, but is there also, in Mormon teaching, a sense of God having a family? Is there any kind of heavenly reflection of the maternal or mother role or mother figure?
MR. MILLET: There is. There is within Mormonism, although we know very little about this too, the concept of a mother in heaven.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. MILLET: It was first presumably taught by Joseph Smith, though we can’t find it in any sermons, but was reflected in a hymn written by Eliza R. Snow entitled “Oh, My Father,” in which she speaks of not only a father, but a mother there. You won’t hear Latter-day Saints talking a great deal about it because we don’t know much about it.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. MILLET: But, yeah, the family order, what we would say is the family order on this Earth, is a better reflection of the family order as it existed before we came to this Earth.
MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to also ask you about angels. There’s quite a developed understanding within Latter-day Saint theology of angels. Now, Joseph Smith, in 1823, reported being visited by the Angel Moroni. Is that where angels enter into this faith?
MR. MILLET: Mm-hmm. Yes, Joseph Smith put forward a belief in angels that’s quite different from, let’s say, traditional Christianity or Judaism. For us, angels are not a different creation than human beings. And that is…
MS. TIPPETT: Can you explain that? What does that mean?
MR. MILLET: Yeah. What that means is angels may take the form, they may be persons who have not yet lived as a mortal. They may be persons who have lived as a mortal and who are allowed to return. In other words, they can be both unembodied and disembodied persons that appear, or they could be persons who come back with a physical body, resurrected beings. And so, for us, angels are not a different realm of creation. For us, if someone appears to me to give instructions, warning, whatever, from the other side of the veil that separates this world from the next, it would be someone who had lived or will live.
MS. TIPPETT: And so, I mean, do you, would you say that, in your lifetime, you’ve encountered angels or that you’ve had experiences that you later explained in that way?
MR. MILLET: Yeah. Yeah, I do. I’ll just say it this way, that my grandfather was a very noble and god-fearing man. And you know, there are some things that are very personal, but I have felt grandpa’s influence through the years. My father passed away in 1988, and dad and I were very, very close. I don’t have any hesitation in saying that I believe that dad continues to live, that I believe in the immortality of the soul, and that, and I guess I would say it this way. A friend of mine told me that when his grandfather was getting very aged, he called the family together and, to bid goodbye because he knew he was going to pass. And then he said to them, and this would be, I think, a very typical LDS way of looking at things. He said, ‘I’m going to die soon, but when I die, I shall not cease to love you. I shall not cease to pray for you, and I shall not cease to minister in your behalf.’ Now, we take that seriously.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MILLET: And so I think I could say because my dad continued to live in Louisiana and I left Louisiana and came West, as it were, and we would see them once or twice a year, I think I can honestly say that my dad’s influence in the last 20 years has been far greater than it was in the 20 years before he died. It’s something we take very seriously that I cannot imagine that when I die, whenever that is, that I will stop feeling and thinking toward those I loved, that I spent 30, 40, 50, 60 years loving here. And so an LDS perspective would be, we not only don’t cut off all relationships at death, but that we seek to be worthy of having those relationships continue after death.
MS. TIPPETT: Mormon scholar Robert Millet. The Church [of Jesus Christ] of Latter-day Saints observes core communal sacraments of Catholic and Protestant Christianity, such as baptism and communion or the Lord’s Supper. Worship and extensive doctrinal instruction take place in meetinghouses and in families. Some exclusively Mormon sacraments, such as the sealing of marriages for eternity, are enacted in Mormon temples, which are closed to all but members of the church in good standing. Ritual clothing is worn, and strict confidentiality is observed. There are 124 temples in 42 countries across the world.
MR. MILLET: The temple is the place — we’re differing from a meeting house or a church house — where ordinances or sacraments are performed, not only for time, but for eternity, including both the sealing of a husband and a wife and a family, but also, and this is where one of the most unusual and often criticized of our beliefs, the doctrine of work in behalf of the dead takes place. For example, my grandfather, my wife’s mother died a Methodist. Now, we believe that when he goes into the next world, the world of spirits, the post-mortal existence, that he will be given a further opportunity to receive as much truth as he’s willing to receive, and that’s a personal choice, that’s his agency. He may choose to remain just who he is, where he is, and stick with what he believes. But if he should choose to learn more, we believe that opportunity would be provided. And we therefore perform what are called vicarious ordinances, sacraments for people who have gone on.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, do you understand the discomfort that people have with that?
MR. MILLET: I do.
MS. TIPPETT: And how do you respond to that?
MR. MILLET: I do. I understand that, obviously, this was a very, has been a very touchy issue with the Jewish faith. One man said to me it’s a spiritual Holocaust. Well, we don’t want anybody to feel that way, and that’s why the LDS Church has backed off of doing any work for Holocaust victims. But of course, I understand the discomfort. But I’ll tell you what I think it does provide, Krista, that is not readily accessible. And it’s been a part of our faith from the very beginning. I think it is the best possible answer to the question that is right up there with the problem of evil. And that’s if your Christian, and if you believe that salvation comes only in Jesus and His name and power, then what of the bulk of humanity that will go to their graves without ever having heard of Him? And so the concept that life continues beyond this life, that learning continues after this life, and that the opportunity to receive requisite ordinances may continue after this life, that God has a way.
MS. TIPPETT: And did this approach also originate from revelations that came to Joseph Smith? Are these things he saw and reported?
MR. MILLET: That’s correct.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. MILLET: It actually came, the beginnings of it came in 1836 with an experience he had. He reports being in the Kirtland, Ohio, temple, which still stands. And it was not yet finished, as far as being completed, the building, but they were meeting in it nevertheless. And in a meeting upstairs, Joseph Smith reported seeing a vision in which he saw, it’s called the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom, the highest heaven. Joseph he said saw father Abraham, and he saw Adam. And then he said, “I saw my brother, Alvin, who has long since slept.” And by that he means Alvin had died in 1823 just before Moroni had come, but of course, seven years before the church was organized. We’ve learned historically from sources that at the funeral for Alvin, that a particular minister, who was preaching the funeral’s sermon, intimated very strongly that Alvin had gone to here because he had not been baptized.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MILLET: And that had just, it had infuriated Father Smith, but it had hurt the family. And so some 13 years later, in this vision, he sees Alvin. But Joseph Smith essentially asked the question every one of us would have asked, well, how can that be? In as much as he died many years before, the priesthood was restored, and the church was organized. And the answer came to him, and it’s recorded in our doctrine and covenant as section 137, it’s recorded, all those who would have received the gospel, if they had been permitted to live on, are heirs of the celestial kingdom. And so, only God-knowing hearts — and so that was the beginning of the revelation, what we call a vicarious work. It doesn’t actually begin until about 1840, but from that point on, it’s been a central teaching of the church. And that’s one of the major reasons we build temples throughout the world.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I have to tell you that my first experience, and still absolutely the most dramatic experience I’ve had of a Mormon temple, was in East Germany in the 1980s.
MR. MILLET: Oh, my goodness.
MS. TIPPETT: And it was…
MR. MILLET: You were there then?
MS. TIPPETT: I was there. It was a temple that was being built to serve Latter-day Saints across Eastern Europe.
MR. MILLET: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: It was the first temple in that part of the world. It was a very unusual thing that it was being allowed to be built. And I was covering this temple opening as a journalist. It was not in East Berlin. It was way down in the middle of nowhere and in an especially kind of bleak landscape of East Germany. And this temple, this white temple rising out of the ground looked completely otherworldly. Now, aren’t there — isn’t there a period of, is it 10 days where the temple is opened, and visitors can come in, and then it’s closed?
MR. MILLET: Varies by the temple. But they’ll have a period of open house where visitors are welcome to come and see what it’s going to be like. And they’ll explain…
MS. TIPPETT: I think this was 10 days. And there were people, there were lines going on for days.
MR. MILLET: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And I will also say that, you know, it was kind of a strange story that the East German government was allowing something like this.
MR. MILLET: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And one of the things that was said is that, because a tenet of the Mormon faith is not only observing high moral standards, but honoring and sustaining the laws of the land.
MR. MILLET: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And I believe that the Latter-day Saints in East Germany and in Eastern Europe had agreed to compromise somewhat on their missionary activities…
MR. MILLET: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: …because of this other value of respecting the laws of the land. I just want to ask you about that. Where does that come from? Is that theologically based? Is that a result of Mormon history?
MR. MILLET: Respect.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, respect for the laws of the land.
MR. MILLET: Respecting the laws of the land. Yeah, it’s an article of faith. One of our articles of faith is there will be…
MS. TIPPETT: But you know, I’m sure they wouldn’t have let Pentecostals build a temple in the middle of East Germany.
MR. MILLET: Well, you know, what we had to do — it really was important — is we had to build a reputation that we were trustworthy and that we would stay within the boundaries of the law. And I think, too, we had to convince them that we could help make their people better citizens of their nation. And that’s one of the things we often speak. The church is very careful — in terms of missionary work in particular, but especially with temples — that we never sneak in the backdoor. Once we’ve established the right relationships with the leaders of the nation and can convince them that what we have to bring to their people will make them even better citizens of their community, there’s usually an opening, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Mormon scholar Robert Millet. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, a look inside the missionary impulse and experience of Mormonism and the importance of Joseph Smith’s legacy.
SINGER: I love to see the temple. I’m going there someday. I’ll covenant with my Father. I’ll promise to obey for the temple is a holy place where we are sealed together. As a child of God, I’ve learned this truth: a family is forever.
MS. TIPPETT: We’ve been finding ways of including you in our production process at speakingoffaith.org. In particular, many of you have begun to download and listen to my unedited interviews each week. My unabridged conversation with Robert Millet explores issues of marriage, family, and divorce within the LDS church in greater depth. Get the MP3 through our Web site, e-mail newsletter or podcast, and now, through our blog. Yes, we’ve created a staff blog, a scrapbook of our varied interests, from Battlestar Galactica to Bikram yoga.
SOF Observed is an inside look at ideas my producers and I bring to each other’s attention during the course of a day. It’s also a place for you to comment on the many topics we haven’t yet addressed in the radio program. Engage with us at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Inside Mormon Faith.” I’m speaking with a leading scholar and lifelong member of the Church [of Jesus Christ] of Latter-day Saints, Robert Millet. We’re exploring some basic tenets of the lived theology of this faith, which are rarely clarified amid politicized discussion of Mormon history and religion. We’re not discussing ground that has recently been well trod in the context of Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. The church’s history with race, for example, elicits criticism.
Black men have only been ordained since 1978. Women have no place in official church leadership. And current DNA evidence does not confirm some of the historical claims of church founder Joseph Smith. Smith was a mercurial figure in his lifetime, only in part for the polygamy he eventually decreed a doctrine. Polygamy still figures largely in American imaginations about the Mormon faith, according to the Pew Research Center, though the practice was officially banned by the church in 1890. Controversies notwithstanding, Mormon faith is a growing global force.
From 1.7 million members in 1960, the church now claims 13 million members, more than half of them outside the US. This growth is fueled by a tradition of missionary service. For example, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of young men from active LDS families spend time as missionaries. Many young women also serve, though at lower rates and later ages.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me about the importance of missionary work in your faith. And — I mean, I’d really like for you to personalize that. I mean, talk about…
MR. MILLET: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: …your experience in this, and also maybe — you know, you’ve raised six children…
MR. MILLET: Yeah, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: What this means, what it really means, where were you sent?
MR. MILLET: I was sent — yeah. I was sent to the foreign country of New York City.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, boy.
MR. MILLET: It was called then the Eastern States Mission. The headquarters were in New York City on 973 Fifth Avenue. But at that point in time, it encompassed all of southern New York, all of New Jersey, all of Connecticut, and it encompassed western Massachusetts. But missionary work is sort of the life-blood of the church. There’s nothing quite so exciting and contagious than a convert. They love what they have. They appreciate what they have. And they bring an enthusiasm with them that causes all of us to think back of when we first believed, and that’s just invigorating.
And so, it has very practical benefits, that’s one. The other would be it’s a tremendously valuable leadership training program — if you can appreciate that. I mean, in my case, I wasn’t sent to a foreign country, but my son went to Brazil. He served in northern Brazil, which was not as established as, say, São Paulo, where the church is very strong. But in northern Brazil, in Bahia — and for him to be able to just walk down the streets and meet people, make appointments. He was a very shy son. He’s, you know, he’s a fun guy, but he’s shy. And just to be able to learn to meet people, greet them, offer them something that matters to you, and teach them — I mean, he will tell you, it’s one of the great moments in his life as far as, as one, cementing him in the faith. You come to love that which you serve. And also, in building the capacity — I mean, they had to know how to conduct church meetings. They had to know how to lead the singing. They had to know how to play the piano.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I would imagine, also, that you have a lot of experience of being rejected. I mean, with…
MR. MILLET: No question about that.
MS. TIPPETT: …approaching strangers was something that they have not invited…
MR. MILLET: Especially in New York City.
MS. TIPPETT: …yeah.
MR. MILLET: I’ll tell you what that does for you. It builds you emotionally so that you learn to deal with rejection later in life better. I mean, it would be — not have been uncommon in New York City, in the days when we could get into hotels. And you can’t do that anymore. But in those days, in the 19 — the late ’60s, which is when I was there, we would go to the top of an apartment complex and just go door to door in that complex. We might see one person who would dare open the door. They weren’t sure who we were. And I look back and I can’t blame them. And on the other hand, we also did things in Central Park.
I mean, we’d set up a panel board of some sort with the name of the church and a few pictures, and it was not uncommon. I’ll tell you what else we did. We don’t do this much as a church anymore, but I was only there two days when I was brought by my missionary companion to something I’d never heard of, and it was called a street meeting. And we set up a soapbox that we would stand on right — it was on the corner of Wall Street and Nassau, which means it was right across the street from the stock exchange. And so, we get there about a quarter to 12:00. And at 12:00, the bell would go off for lunch, and it had become, I guess, by that time, a kind of a fun tradition that on Tuesdays, the Mormon missionaries were going to be across the street, and it was just astounding to me. I’m — probably 200 people would come and just listen to us preach. And…
MS. TIPPETT: And when was this?
MR. MILLET: This would have been 1967–68.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. MILLET: And that’s a growing experience. And I’ll tell you what else it does. It causes you to really search your soul and ask hard questions like, ‘Do I really believe this stuff? Am I willing to subject myself to humiliation or rejection or resentment by other people? And do I really believe this?’ And I think it caused that kind of spiritual introspection to the point where I did a great deal of praying and thinking and pondering and reflecting. And so, there are very practical benefits to it. Obviously, we take the great commission of Jesus very seriously to go into all the world.
Now, people will frequently ask us, ‘But why do you go to Christians who already have a church, who already have a belief?’ And, ‘Why don’t you just go to the heathen, you know?’ And there’s a practical answer for that. And that is — I’ve had pastors ask me this, and I’ve said to them, ‘How large is your congregation?’ ‘Well, about 700.’ ‘When you look out at that congregation, can you literally tell at one glance who of all those people have truly been converted? Who of all those people have had a personal conversion experience? Who of all those people have been born again? Who of all those people have, in your language, accepted Jesus as their savior? Do you know in each case?’ And he said, ‘Well, no, of course not.’ I said, ‘Neither do we.’ And so we approach everyone.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder — I mean, part of the idea that Joseph Smith presented that was pretty radical was that revelation was still happening.
MR. MILLET: Yeah, opening, opening of the cannon.
MS. TIPPETT: The cannon was closed, and yet the cannon was, perhaps, not fixed. It’s been added to. He did his, in fact, some of his own translation of the Bible. And I think a minute ago we were talking about — you mentioned some ideas that are in Mormon teaching and doctrine and yet, and yet not much as really understood about them.
MR. MILLET: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder, you know, is revelation still happening and are there teachings that stop making sense at times or are there new ideas that arise…
MR. MILLET: That’s a very…
MS. TIPPETT: …that haven’t been there historically?
MR. MILLET: It’s a very good question. In recent years, there’s been an effort to, to try to solidify and codify, if you will, what actually constitutes Latter-day Saint doctrine. And that’s caused us to ask hard questions like this: Is everything that was ever uttered by a church leader on a general level from the days of Joseph Smith, is that considered the doctrine of the church? And the answer has come back no. I’ll give you an illustration. At the time, The Da Vinci Code was very hot and a little controversy raged over it.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. MILLET: At the time it was raging, the church issued a very brief but insightful statement that I was appreciative for. It’s just something that just…
MS. TIPPETT: The Church of the Latter-day Saints?
MR. MILLET: That’s right. The Latter-day Saint leaders issued this statement. It just said essentially, ‘The scriptures are silent as to whether Jesus was married. It is true that early church leaders may have offered their opinion on this matter, but those opinions did not then, nor do they now, constitute the doctrine of the church.’ Now, that’s a statement that’s very important, because what it establishes is while Latter Day Saints revere and honor and respect and uphold their church leaders, we do not believe in a form of prophetic infallibility.
And so we — as we, as we move into the 21st century now, and as we begin having a greater focus upon Christ and Christianity and Christian principles, I think there is a tendency to look back and say, ‘All right, what are the central saving doctrines? And what are some other things we, A, don’t know much about, B, just don’t seem to be in harmony with what, with what — and where we are now? And I think that’s taking place more and more.
MS. TIPPETT: Mormon scholar Robert Millet. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Inside Mormon Faith.”
MS. TIPPETT: Well, you’re, of course, also in an unusual position because you are really a relatively — in a very young tradition. And also, I mean, I — you know, and I would like to talk a little bit about the person of Joseph Smith. I mean, the truth is, we can know a lot more about him…
MR. MILLET: That’s right…
MS. TIPPETT: …than we can know about other people in history who are called prophets.
MR. MILLET: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, I know that he, he reported revelations, and the stories sometimes changed when he told them at different times. And then the thing may be more, on a practical level, there’s the book of Abraham, which he…
MR. MILLET: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: …had said that he translated…
MR. MILLET: Translated.
MS. TIPPETT: …from some Egyptian papyri that were found inside a mummy. And then later, you know, several generations later, when scholars could, could really translate hieroglyphs, they said that these were funeral documents and not a lost book of Abraham. So I want to ask, you know, as a very faithful member of the church and a scholar of the church, you know, how do you, how do you make sense of this kind of contradiction?
MR. MILLET: I guess this is the side of me that — this is the stubborn side of me that is prone to say, ‘Yeah, I have questions about the historicity in terms of how it came.’ He didn’t tell us how exactly this happened, how he got the information. I mean, you know, scholars even within the church have taken different views. One, one view is that he literally translated it from Egyptian. Another view, perhaps, is that the Egyptian papyri that he had proved as a kind of spiritual catalyst to receiving an independent revelation about the ancient figure of Abraham. I don’t know what the answer is on that. And I, and I’m as eager to learn about that as, as the critics of the church are just curious investigators of the church are.
MS. TIPPETT: So you’re, you’re waiting for further revelation, in other words.
MR. MILLET: Yeah, really, in that sense. And my attitude toward this is one of — I heard a church leader not long ago say this, which is very simple, but it has a profound implication for me. He said, “Faith is just so much more than a feeling. Faith is a decision.” And I think that’s right for me. I made a decision a long time ago about Joseph Smith, fully aware now, maybe more so now as a professor for the last 25 years than I ever was as a young person, full aware that he was a human being, that he made mistakes.
But I made a decision back then that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the work he set in motion was divinely inspired and that what I was about was good and that it would bless my life and bless other lives. And, and I’m just, I’m just sort of taking the stance of I, I just will not allow my faith to be held hostage by what the things I do know to be held hostage by what science has or has not discovered at a given moment in time. Does that make sense?
That, to me is, it may sound naïve and it may sound weak, but, but that, that’s the faith part of me saying, ‘Well, of course I look forward to archeological evidences of the Book of Mormon. Of course, I look forward to substantiations of the translation of the Book of Abraham and so on. But I will, for the time being, put on the shelf the things I don’t know because there are just too many things that I’m, I’m convinced of, and that the way of life that the church promotes highlights to me.’ In other words, would I, would I want to go another way? I wouldn’t.
I’m asked this all the time in my Evangelical-LDS dialogues: ‘Have you ever given any thoughts to becoming Evangelical?’ Well, I have great admiration for my Evangelical friends. I have tremendous feelings of appreciation for what they believe and why. But it’s never crossed my mind to be other than Latter-day Saint.
MS. TIPPETT: You know what? Let me put the question this way. I mean, if one reads accounts of Joseph Smith and — you know, there’s a lot of turbulence and turmoil, which also had to do with the times in which he was living and…
MR. MILLET: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: …and the path he chose and the turmoil and turbulence that that created. But even, you know, it seems to be — there’s a lot of personal drama, you know? There is the, the development of polygamy within the tradition. There’s, you know, it’s, it’s a chaotic picture that you get, especially, I think, if you just read it as historical details rather than through the lens of faith, you know?
MR. MILLET: Yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: If someone doesn’t see Joseph Smith as a prophet, then you read it as, as a fairly chaotic story.
MR. MILLET: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: But that picture, you know, could not stand in greater contrast to the picture that Mormons, Latter-day Saints — of the picture that people have of Mormon families, of Mormon communities, right? Of this, this community that you are describe in the beginning, this way of life.
MR. MILLET: Well, I think that’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: And so I, you know, I guess I wonder is there something that happens in a religious experience — in this religious experience — where the lived religion somehow transcends this person of Joseph Smith, who, who gave rise to it?
MR. MILLET: I don’t think in the fully sense we can ever transcend Joseph Smith or consider him to be a valued personality, but now we’ll move on. I don’t think you’ll see that among believers in the faith, because there are too many other things that came from him that are the reasons why we do what we do and we are what we are. That there are unanswered questions, to be sure. That there are things that I’m as anxious as the next guy to learn more detail on, I really want to know. But in the interim, it really doesn’t, doesn’t trouble me.
We’re in the religion-making business, as you intimated earlier, only for a short time, I mean, compared to the Christian church, which has been at this for a couple of millennia. We’re about halfway to Nicaea. And so, and so in that sense — I remember a very tender moment. I was speaking with — I’ve been invited to the Salt Lake Theological Seminary, basically an Evangelical seminary, to discuss a book I had done on Jesus. And they had read it, and they wanted me to come and just respond to questions. And it was, it was a very enjoyable couple of hours.
The very last question that was asked by one of my friends there was this one. He said, ‘Bob, what can we do for you?’ And I, I wasn’t ready for that question. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘What can we, as Evangelicals, do for our Mormon friends?’ And I, I guess my mind could have gone a hundred different ways, but what I came back with was this. I said, ‘Boy, I appreciate you asking that. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that.’ But, but I said, ‘Try this. Cut us a little slack, will you? Give us a little time. We’re in the religion-making business, and this takes time. It takes centuries. And, and trying to explain the faith and articulate the faith, that doesn’t come over night. We’ve really only been about that for 20 or 30 years.’
MS. TIPPETT: If you were just asked, ‘Talk about the spiritual core of what it means to you to be part of the Latter-day Saints.’ I mean, what, what are the concurs of your spiritual life as a practicing Mormon? What is, what the really important lived elements of your lived faith?
MR. MILLET: Well, I think, I think the things that matter to me the most after I move beyond, and you never move beyond, but after I sort of move beyond the central core which is Christ and Him crucified, once I get beyond that and begin to talk about the more peripheral areas of my life, I’d begin to say it matters to me a great deal to have some feel for where I came from and for why I am here and where I’m going after this life.
It matters very much for me as I associate not only now with my children, but now with my grandchildren, that I have a concept of family that spans the veil of death and that, and that I really intend to see them again one day and to be with them again one day and that the stuff I have believed in since I was 8 years old has very practical meaning to me in terms of how I live my life now and how I hope to live my life in a world to come. It dictates to me not only how I respect and admire and treat my wife, but it dictates to me how I treat the woman or the man on the street.
I feel like I have a sense of responsibility to be as, as gentle and kind and, in my case, Christian as possible. It’s, to me, if you’re, if you want to talk about Christianity or what it stands for, you have to look carefully at what it produces in people. My religion, for me, not only sets forth my theology, but it sets forth my practical, daily living in terms of how I treat other people and how I come to love them. And whether they feel the same way about ultimate and eternal things that I do or not.
MS. TIPPETT: Robert Millet is Professor of Ancient Scriptures and the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He’s the author of several books, including A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, and The Mormon Faith: A New Look at Christianity.
Let us know what you thought of the show. Contact us at speakingoffaith.org. To make this an hour of radio, we had to cut some interesting discussion about the LDS church from my conversation with Robert Millet. You can download an MP3 of that entire unedited interview and hear more of his ideas about eternal families. Get the MP3 through our Web site, podcast, or e-mail newsletter and now, through our blog, SOF Observed. This is a place where my producers and I are able to share some of the fascinating things that come across our desk each day. Engage with us at speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Anna Marsh. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.