Interlude – Elder Holland’s powerful talk to a room full of unbelievers

Last Wednesday evening at the Chiasmus Jubilee, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve gave one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever heard. It was in the auditorium of the Joseph Smith Building, which seats over 850 people. The room was full.

I hope the talk will be published someday somewhere. I’ve only seen one report so far, in the Deseret News here, titled “Elder Holland on Book of Mormon: ‘Engaging the head as well as the heart’.”

The article is a nice summary of Elder Holland’s talk, but it overlooked a key point he made which I discuss below.

First, I note that Elder Holland began his talk by expressing deep appreciation for the work of faithful scholars at BYU and throughout the Church. It was a fitting tribute after the evening’s celebration of Brother Welch’s discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon and the widespread impact that has had on building testimony and encouraging additional faithful research. Non-LDS scholars were present in support of Brother Welch’s exemplary long-time collaboration with scholars around the world.

Because I don’t have a transcript, I’ll proceed by quoting from the Deseret News article, with my observations in red
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Elder Holland reminded guests that the spirit of revelation — including one’s testimony of the Book of Mormon — comes through a process of “engaging the head as well as the heart,” with “the force of fact as well as the force of feeling.” He prefaced this by reminding us about Oliver Cowdery and D&C 8:2, “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.”

He added: “Our testimonies aren’t dependent on evidence. We still need always and forever that spiritual confirmation in the heart of which we’ve all spoken. But to not seek for and not to acknowledge intellectual, documentable support for our belief, when it is available, is to needlessly limit an otherwise incomparably strong theological position and deny us a persuasive vocabulary in the latter-day arena of religious investigation in a sectarian debate.” Elder Holland said that we are sometimes not as bold as we could be about this evidence, which made me think about whether I need to be more bold myself. He also quoted from Austin Farrer 1965 observation about rational argument (as BYU President Kevin Worthen had also done earlier that evening): “[T]hough argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”

Elder Holland cited the Apostle Paul’s expression of faith being “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

“For me, the classic example of substance that I hope for and the evidence of things I have not seen is the 531 pages of the Book of Mormon, which come from a sheath of gold plates that some people saw and handled and hefted, but I haven’t seen or handled or hefted, and neither have you,” Elder Holland said. He described the experiences of the Eight Witnesses who testified that they had seen and handled and hefted the plates.

“Nevertheless, the reality of those plates — the substance of them, if you will — and the evidence that comes from them in the form of the Book of Mormon is at the heart, at the very center, of the hope and testimony and conviction of this work that is unshakably within me forever.” Elder Holland also described Martin Harris’ experience, when he responded to the visitation of the angel with the plates by shouting, “’tis enough, ’tis enough. mine eyes have beheld, mine eyes have beheld.”
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That’s the end of the article’s coverage of the talk, and it’s great. But it missed what I think was the most powerful lesson of the talk.

After reviewing the testimony of the witnesses, Elder Holland quoted Mark 16:14. This was Christ’s first meeting with the eleven apostles after his resurrection.

“Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.”

I did some research. This verse has been cited only twice in General Conference according to http://www.lds-general-conference.org/, once by Elder Carlos Asay and once by President James E. Faust, and only President Faust recognized that the Savior upbraided the eleven. This is significant because he upbraided them for rejecting eyewitnesses and having a heart heart against those witnesses.

I can find no reference besides his Chiasmus Jubilee talk in which Elder Holland has quoted this verse, according to Gospelink.

So I wondered, why quote Mark 16:14 at that time, in that place, to that audience?

The first thought: Maybe Elder Holland was appealing to the non-LDS scholars in the room, as well as other nonmembers who might hear or read his talk in the future, who have not accepted the testimonies of the twelve official witnesses to the Book of Mormon (Joseph Smith, the Three Witnesses, and the Eight Witnesses). Maybe he was suggesting they, too, should believe these witnesses who testified of what they had actually seen.

But I don’t think that was what he had in mind for three reasons.

First, he is much too kind and gentle to compare the non-LDS scholars in that room that night to the Apostles the Savior was upbraiding for their unbelief in the witnesses of his resurrection. Besides, these good non-LDS scholars are all firm believers in the Bible and they love the Lord.

Second, if the focus of the talk was on non-LDS people, there are plenty of other scriptures about nonbelievers; Mark 16:14 is unique because Mark shows how the Savior upbraided his closest and most faithful and trusted followers, the Apostles themselves, for their unbelief.

Third, his audience in that room that night contained only a few non-LDS people. The audience consisted mostly of prominent LDS scholars and educators at BYU and in the Church, along with students and other LDS people assembled to celebrate evidence that supports the Book of Mormon.

Then it dawned on me.

I was sitting in the midst of over 800 people who, in fact, “believe not them which had seen” and testified about important facts regarding the Book of Mormon.

This was a room full of some of the most faithful and committed members of the Church, many of them entrusted with the heavy responsibility to educate the youth of the Church at BYU and through CES, and yet nearly all of them “believe not” a fundamental witness from Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery about the Book of Mormon; i.e., their teaching that the Hill Cumorah was in New York.

(I say “nearly all of them” because some people in the audience I knew do accept Letter VII. I’ll estimate maybe 50 out of the 850 present.)

In this setting, at this time, Elder Holland’s audience consisted of many of the closest and most faithful and trusted followers in the Church today. I think he quoted Mark 16:14 to them–after discussing the witnesses to the Book of Mormon–to call their attention to their disbelief.

I doubt this has occurred to a single one of them, but maybe this blog post will help.

Consider this list of LDS speakers on the program. These are all good men, with a variety of academic specialties and backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: they have specifically rejected what Joseph and Oliver said in Letter VII.

Robert F. Smith
John W. Welch
Kim B. Clark
Noel B. Reynolds
Daniel C. Peterson
Taylor Halverson
Stephen Smoot

Others present in the room, some of them having presented earlier in the Jubilee, have done likewise:

Neal Rappleye
Matt Roper
Kerry Hull
Kirk Magleby

There were other scholars and educators present that I won’t name, and as I said, there were a few people in the room who do accept what Joseph and Oliver taught in Letter VII, but the ones I listed not only “believe not” what Joseph and Oliver wrote, they strongly oppose it. 
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Consider the sponsors of the event.

Book of Mormon Central, Official Sponsor of the Chiasmus Jubilee, and the Interpreter Foundation, Official Co-Sponsor, have published articles specifically opposing Letter VII and its implications.

BYU Studies , the other Official Sponsor of the Chiasmus Jubilee, continues to feature, on its main web page, maps and other material that reject Letter VII.

The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, another Official Co-Sponsor, published a book that ridicules what Joseph and Oliver taught by saying, “There remain Latter-day Saints who insist that the final destruction of the Nephites took place in New York, but any such idea is manifestly absurd.” Of course, among the Latter-day Saints who “insisted” this–who went further and stated it was a fact–were Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith.
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I hope this post is not perceived (or later characterized) as some sort of attack. It’s not. As I’ve always said, I respect and admire the people I’ve listed here and their work. I like all of them. Their ongoing disbelief in what Joseph and Oliver taught it inexplicable to me. 

Some may reject my interpretation of what Elder Holland meant, which is fine. Before they spend time trying to come up with an alternative interpretation, though, I suggest they ask themselves what they think about Letter VII and why. Is their rejection of what Joseph and Oliver taught based on confirmation bias? I.e., are they seeking to hold onto a belief in the Mesoamerican and two-Cumorahs theory? If so, why?

Some may claim that Elder Holland doesn’t know about Letter VII and what Joseph and Oliver taught, or how the disbelief in what they taught is affecting the Church. Do you seriously want to make that assumption?

Some may not see the importance of Letter VII. For that, I suggest you consider the abstract map of Book of Mormon lands that BYU is now requiring every new BYU student learn, and which was presented at the event right before Elder Holland spoke. That map teaches every BYU student that Joseph and Oliver were wrong about an important issue. It’s the first step on a slippery slope that no member of the Church should take, let alone be required to take.
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I think Mark 16:14 provides an insightful and profound explanation of the situation here. The Savior was appearing to his apostles for the first time after his resurrection. They would go forward from this meeting and “preach the gospel to every creature” with great power and faith.

But first, he upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe the witnesses the Lord had provided. They had to conquer their unbelief and hardness of heart, and they weren’t doing it on their own. We may infer they had justified their unbelief somehow. They had their reasons. Their rationalizations. Maybe they even thought they had facts. Everyone does.

And yet, their disbelief and hardness of heart prevented them from accomplishing their callings. The matter was so important that the Savior Himself came to them to upbraid them.

Their justifications didn’t matter then, any more than the justifications for disbelieving Letter VII matter today.

We know from Brigham Young and others that Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith were eyewitnesses to Mormon’s record depository in the Hill Cumorah. That’s how they could speak of Cumorah as a fact years later when they wrote Letter VII. They were witnesses to Cumorah as much as they were to the plates themselves.

For too long, modern LDS scholars and educators have rejected the witness of Joseph and Oliver as “manifestly absurd,” as the book I quoted claimed.

I hope Elder Holland’s talk will motivate these faithful, capable, and talented scholars to reconsider their justifications and cease their disbelief.

As Joseph taught, “there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it—” (D&C 123:12)

Imagine how many blinders would fall from the eyes of the people in the world if our LDS scholars and educators–and their students and readers–would accept and embrace and work to vindicate the testimonies of Joseph and Oliver about the Hill Cumorah and related issues instead of opposing them because of disbelief and hardness of heart. 

I think it will happen. It’s just a matter of when, and I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Source: Book of Mormon Wars

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3 thoughts on “Interlude – Elder Holland’s powerful talk to a room full of unbelievers

  1. Obviously, Elder Holland would not have attended the conference if he did not agree with the conclusions of the scholars who attended. Do you really think he’s going to attend a conference honoring John Welch if he thought John Welch had taught something false? Your claim does not compute. Neither does the Heatland Model. I don’t care where the Book of Mormon took place, but vilifying some of the best minds in the church, particularly when an apostle is there to honor them, is irresponsible at best. A cheap shot is a more apt description.

    1. Thanks for commenting, but let’s think about the implications of what you’re writing here. Do you think when Elder Holland quoted from Mark, he was addressing his remarks to the handful of invited guests who have not accepted the Three Witnesses? Mark related the Lord’s upbraiding of his own faithful apostles who disbelieved the witnesses of the resurrection. It’s a perfect parallel to the many faithful scholars in that room who disbelieve the Three Witnesses (or at least Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer).
      And you’re saying Elder Holland’s attendance constituted approval of everything the scholars in that room teach? Even when they don’t agree among themselves? Not to mention, even though I was present in the room? By your logic, Elder Holland agrees with my conclusions and disagrees with yours.
      My comments were the opposite from vilifying. I pointed out how much I respect our LDS scholars and educators and appreciate their great work, but that’s the problem. They do so much so well, it makes their repudiation of the prophets and apostles on the New York Cumorah all the more troublesome.
      Your two propositions are fodder for more blog posts, but I may not get around to them.

  2. Kim B. Clark is a general authority. Jack Welch was being honired that evening for his discovery of chiasmus inntge Book of Mormon and his contributions to scholarship on the Book of Mormon, as well as serving as editor of BYU Studies and a founder of FARMS, the parent of the Maxwell Institute. Dan Peterson was a co-founder of FARMS and editor for many years of the FARMS Review. Your notion that these brethren, who have served so effectively in teaching the restored gospel, and especially marshaling persuasive scholarly evidence supporting the historicity of the Book of Mormon, were being rebuked by Elder Holland, is irrational, to the point that I feel I must presumptively discount anything you say about your version of Book of Mormon geography.

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