After my Father’s recent passing I received a large amount of church related material and I found a copy of a talk that was given by Elder Bruce R. McConkie to a gathering of regional representatives April 2, 1982. The title of the talk is Holy Writ: Published Anew. I have seen snippets of a video recording of this talk two times over the years but was never able to see the whole talk or find a written version, so I was thrilled to actually get a copy of the text. The basis of the talk is an overview of the new (at the time) edition of the scriptures and Elder McConkie’s desire that the Regional Representatives use the new edition more and in better ways. He gives them a charge to become gospel scholars and instructs them to pass this information to stake presidents and bishops and “down to the last person on the row.” He begins by listing three things he considers
“that have happened in our lifetime which will do more than anything else for the spread of the gospel, for the perfecting of the saints and for the salvation of men.”
I find his three choices very interesting.
“1. The receipt of the revelation which makes the priesthood and the blessings of the temple available to all men without reference to race or ancestry.
2. The organization of the First Quorum of Seventy as the third great council of the Church; and
3. The publication if the Standard Works in their new format and with the new teaching aids that accompany them.”
These three things could probably engender a post by themselves as to their meaning, merit and what has happened since. Would they still rank as high today? Elder McConkie then focuses the rest of his talk on the third item. In the process, he makes some startling comments about the nature of the administrative structure of the church and posits some reasons for the administrative mindset that has become so pervasive.
“Our tendency – it is an almost universal practice among most church leaders – is to get so involved with the operation of the institutional Church that we never gain faith like the ancients, simply because we do not involve ourselves in the basic gospel matters that were the center of their lives.
We are so wound up in programs and statistics and trends, in properties, lands and mammon, and in achieving goals that will highlight the excellence of our work, that we “have omitted the weightier matters of the law”. And as Jesus would have said: These (weightier things) ought ye have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matt 23:23)
Let us be reminded of the great basic verities upon which all church programs and all church organization rest. We are not saved by church programs as such, by church organizations alone, or even by the Church itself. It is the gospel that saves. The Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation”. (Rom. 1:16)”
I would imagine his words came as something of a shock and were not received with universal joy and happiness, unless, of course, each hearer was thinking, I’m okay – but the rest of these guys are in trouble. I am confident Elder McConkie believed this applied up the administrative ladder also. Since he had served as a general authority since 1946 he had plenty of experience in working and becoming very familiar with other general authorities. Elder McConkie goes on to say on the next page,
“Faith is thus born of scriptural study. Those who study, ponder and pray about the scriptures, seeking to understand their deep and hidden meanings, receive from time to time great outpourings of light and knowledge from the Holy Spirit. This is what happened to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon when they received the vision of the degrees of glory.
However talented men may be in administrative matters; however eloquent they may be in expressing their views; however learned they may be in worldly things – they will be denied the sweet whisperings of the Spirit that might have been theirs unless they pay the price of studying, pondering and praying about the scriptures.”
While Elder McConkie may have intended this as an indictment and a warning, I now see in different terms, a powerful explanation. The simple fact of the matter is that the majority of the general church leadership -then and today- just don’t know the gospel very well. They are largely ignorant of the history of the church, they have very poor backgrounds in Old and New Testament scholarship and have spent relatively little time in analyzing modern day scriptures. I have no doubt they have read the Book of Mormon many times and spend some time in the other standard works, but I believe they have fallen into the trap of repetitive experience.
I heard the concept described this way once: a person can have ten years of experience or one year of experience repeated ten times. Most people I know are in the one year of experience repeated ten times category as far as reading and understanding the scriptures are concerned. Many members read the Book of Mormon over and over again but I have to wonder if they learn anything that is new or if it is just an exercise in confirming what they already believe. They simply are not willing to put in the hard work of real study, the kind you could get at graduate school or that type of environment, learning material that is new, challenging and complicated, learning how to deal with conflicts and contradictions, being willing to confront new information that goes against long established beliefs, making the tremendous time commitment that is required to gain a deeper understanding, and worst of all, reading all of the books – hundreds of books–that are available to aid in our study and understanding. I wonder how many of the current General authorities have read Understanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy or By the Hand of Mormon by Terryl Givens, for example.
The sad truth is that no amount of blessings, ordinations, settings apart or public recognitions can replace the hard work. Each newly called General Authority does not magically have receptacles placed in his head where all gospel knowledge and understanding is simply poured in without any personal effort. I am sure most members believe that happens; it most surely is not the case. Any member has the continuous opportunity to learn and grow, General Authorities included. Some do; most don’t.
Elder McConkie doesn’t ignore the need for the institutional church. He says,
“But the Church and the priesthood administer the gospel. There must be an institutional church so there will be order and system in all things. There neither is nor can be salvation without the Church. The Church is the service agency, the organization, the earthly kingdom which makes salvation available to men.”
What becomes obvious is that anyone inclined to see the temporal needs of the church above the spiritual needs of the individual has more than ample opportunities to become so involved in the administration of the church that anything else is largely ignored. And it is so consuming that they may feel fully justified in doing so. From their perspective, their days and weeks are completely full with all of their assignments. All that remains is, to tell each other, over and over again that the gospel is simple and is just love and service. They may not know everything, but they know enough.
My point is not call them out for this shortcoming or to lobby for change, since I don’t believe that we will see any significant shifts in the near future. What is important for us to is to recognize the world for what it is and them deal with it from there. We need to realize that the Sunday school manuals are not very good, and are written to accommodate a very low level of understanding. The whole system is repetitive by design. Sometimes General Authorities will come to a stake conference and give a really bad talk that incorporates some false doctrine. General Conference will never be a place for deeper doctrinal understanding and enlightenment. One of the most aggravating assertions I hear all the time is that if the General Authorities thought we needed more than the same ten or twelve talk themes they would give them to us. The underlying assumption is that the General Authorities know all church issues incredibly well, but they just give us the basics because that is all we lowly members can understand. It is pretty obvious that the General Authorities speak and write to the level of their own viewpoint and understanding.
General Conference has been for a long time centered around three themes: counsel, comfort and encouragement–not doctrine or difficult issues. In my view, Conference has devolved into two days of psychological advice, motivational speaking and basic commandment review. There is nothing inherently wrong with this so long as one realizes that is all there is, and there “ain’t” no more. There are notable exceptions, Elder McConkie’s April 1985 talk, which was his last, and Elder Uchtdorf’s talk, Come, Join with Us (Oct. 2013) come to mind quickly. I am sure there are others that individuals have found noteworthy or exceptional; in my view those are the exception, not the rule. However, I do see one reason that General Conference follows the general theme that it does. I believe the members of the Q15 are acutely aware of tendency to chase after current political trends and they make efforts to avoid substituting a temporary political excitement for core doctrine. My personal sense if that first and foremost they see themselves as the keepers of the flame.
I find it helpful to know the how and why of current church administration and as a result I find I am less upset when I see things go awry. Is there a way to mesh an individual’s desire for more or better doctrinal content with a system that is geared toward the simple and repetitive?
The complete talk by Elder McConkie at the link below. It is heavily marked up because it passed through a few people’s hands prior to me getting it.