A lot of people have been talking about Jeffrey Holland’s broadcast, “An Evening with a General Authority.” Much has been said about the content, but I am going to talk about the tone, which I found a little unsettling. I’m sure some would say, “The guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center” (1 Nephi 16:2). But that’s not really it.
I’ve always liked Jeffrey Holland since my time at Brigham Young University, when he was the university’s president. I met him once during that time when I was working in the Reading/Writing Center in the Jesse Knight Building. A water pipe had burst in the ceiling above the area in which I was assigned to work, so I was sitting there studying and keeping watch over a bank of computers that were drying in front of fans. He came in to inspect the damage, and I had a brief but cordial conversation with him, not just about the damage to the computers but also about my studies and plans for the future. I enjoyed what was casually referred to as “The Pat and Jeff Show,” a joint devotional he and his wife would give at the beginning of every semester. I recall Sister Holland’s horror when the off-campus paper, The Student Review, followed her at a supermarket and published the contents of her grocery cart, which included a pint of coffee ice cream. I liked both of them because they seemed down to earth and quite comfortable being human, and they clearly cared about the student body. He spoke at my commencement when I received my bachelor’s degree and then a few years later, he spoke as an apostle at the commencement when I received my master’s degree. Over the years I’ve enjoyed the conference talks he has given as an apostle, as he is clearly well-read and always came across as thoughtful and caring.
I was really taken aback in 2009 when he gave a talk called “Safety for the Soul,” in which his intent appeared to be to deliver a stirring testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon. Let me quote from his talk:
May I refer to a modern “last days” testimony? When Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum started for Carthage to face what they knew would be an imminent martyrdom, Hyrum read these words to comfort the heart of his brother:
“Thou hast been faithful; wherefore … thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father.
“And now I, Moroni, bid farewell … until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ.” 7
A few short verses from the 12th chapter of Ether in the Book of Mormon. Before closing the book, Hyrum turned down the corner of the page from which he had read, marking it as part of the everlasting testimony for which these two brothers were about to die. I hold in my hand that book, the very copy from which Hyrum read, the same corner of the page turned down, still visible. Later, when actually incarcerated in the jail, Joseph the Prophet turned to the guards who held him captive and bore a powerful testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Shortly thereafter pistol and ball would take the lives of these two testators.
As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest—and last—hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?
The implication is clear and need not be stated: People who know they are at death’s door do not tend to reiterate their testimony of something they know is a fraud. Posing such a rhetorical question would have been clear and direct. Curiously, however, Elder Holland doesn’t leave the implication unsaid.
Never mind that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be “houseless, friendless and homeless” and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor. Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the Church which espouses it to be true. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. (Emphasis in original)
It seems that he doesn’t trust his audience to understand his point. And to further underline, his voice rises in passion and what I can only describe as a mixture of anger, defensiveness, and contempt for critics:
For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator. In this I stand with my own great-grandfather, who said simply enough, “No wicked man could write such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.”
I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this latter-day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these, our times—until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be: “a stone of stumbling, … a rock of offence,” a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe in this work. Witnesses, even witnesses who were for a time hostile to Joseph, testified to their death that they had seen an angel and had handled the plates. “They have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man,” they declared. “Wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.” (Emphasis in original)
I thought this was downright strange and still do. He has abandoned bearing a positive testimony and instead has turned an accusing and angry eye to those who would dare question the book’s divinity. It’s no longer the book he is defending, but instead he is directly berating “anyone [who] is foolish enough or misled to reject” the Book of Mormon. He almost taunts those who have left the church for “crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit,” as if they were snakes or lizards furtively slithering their way to the door of the church. He leaves no question in his listeners’ minds: there are no legitimate grounds for disbelieving the Book of Mormon. Those who disbelieve, he tells us, are pathetic, foolish, misled, incapable of recognizing the book’s “literary and Semitic complexity” (OK, that made me chuckle), offended, deceived, and worse even than those who were hostile to Joseph Smith in his lifetime.
I know a lot of people who found Elder Holland’s remarks offensive and divisive. For me, the words and the tone were mystifying. They came across not as forceful and determined, as I’m sure he intended, but rather defensive and more than a little angry and contemptuous. I really didn’t know what to make of it.
Then I saw him later in an interview with the BBC in 2012, when at first he was pretty evasive when asked about the obvious mistranslation of the Egyptian papyri and Joseph Smith’s criminal record. His answers were about what I expected. As far as the Book of Abraham, he said, “All I’m saying is that what got translated, got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that I do not understand and don’t claim to know and know no Egyptian.” That’s pretty much the only honest response that can be made, given the obvious mistranslations. When asked about Smith’s conviction for fraud (“juggling” and “glass-looking”), he said, “I have no idea. … There’s a good deal of difficulty in the early frontier life in America, but that’s an incidental matter to the character and integrity of the man.” This is just weird: He says he doesn’t know anything about such a conviction (somehow I doubt that) and then in the same breath says a conviction for fraud is a trivial matter and doesn’t have anything to do with Smith’s character. Really?
After my friend Jeff Ricks explained to the interviewer about the nature of the penalties involved in the temple endowment before 1990, the interviewer asked Holland a really blunt question:
As a Mormon, in the temple, I’ve been told [Mitt Romney] would have sworn an oath to say that he would not pass on what happens in the temple, lest he slit his throat. Is that true?
The truthful answer to this is, “Yes.” Mitt Romney received his endowment in the 1960s and would have repeated the ceremony many times, each time miming the slitting of his throat and saying, “I covenant that I will never reveal” the signs and tokens of the temple. “Rather than do so, I would suffer my life to be taken.” I did this countless times myself. Knowing this, I wondered how Holland would reply. Would he simply acknowledge it and move on, or would he say something about how Mormons don’t talk about sacred matters in public? What he said was startling.
That’s not true. That’s not true. We do not have penalties in the temple.
I wasn’t expecting that. The first two sentences are simply false, full stop. The third sentence is true in a Clintonesque (define the word “is”) sense, but is a misleading answer to the question posed. The look on Holland’s face tells me he has suddenly realized that he’s dealing with someone who knows a little more than the average reporter about the Mormon church. The interviewer is prepared enough to know Holland is not telling the truth.
You used to [have penalties in the temple].
Holland finally gives up:
We used to.
He goes on to say that this was more a matter of a member like Mitt Romney not telling anyone about “his personal pledge to God” than it is about keeping the temple ceremony secret, even though the endowment itself refers to these pledges as “obligation[s] of secrecy.” Holland continues by saying that the Strengthening the Church Membership Committee is designed to “protect predatory practices of polygamist groups … principally.” I’m fairly certain he knows the committee does much more than that. To be fair, when asked the same question, church PR spokesperson Michael Purdy flatly denied knowing anything about the committee before finally owning up to it.
But what struck me the most was Holland’s response when the interviewer said that some former members describe the church as a cult, like Scientology, only smarter.
We’re not a cult. I’m not an idiot. You know, I’ve read a couple of books and I’ve been to a pretty good school, and I have chosen to be in this church because of the faith that I feel and the inspiration that comes. … We are 14 million and growing, and I’d like to think that your respect for me would be enough to know that this man doesn’t seem like a dodo.
At that moment the earlier anger and defensiveness about the Book of Mormon made sense. These words do not sound like the words of someone who is confident in his faith. Rather, they sound like something you would say if it was vitally important for you to defend something, but, somewhere deep inside, you have doubts about the thing you’re defending. It reminds of me a conversation I had several years ago with my wife’s sister, who is a heavy smoker. We were watching an old movie starring Judy Holliday. My sister-in-law wondered what had become of Ms. Holliday. I mentioned that Ms. Holliday, a comedic actress in the 1950s, had died from lung cancer at an early age. My sister-in-law said, “How could she have gotten lung cancer?” Without thinking, I said, “Well, she was a pretty heavy smoker.”
My sister-in-law had the same expression on her face and tone of voice as Holland’s as she angrily said, “There’s no proof that smoking causes lung cancer! Whoever says so is lying!” Her rant went on for a couple of minutes, and it was eerily similar to Holland’s “defense” of the spiritual truths of Mormonism.
When people talk like that, it makes me think that, somewhere deep inside, they are afraid they are dead wrong, so they make up for it with emotion and forcefulness. I am not suggesting that Jeffrey Holland is going through a crisis of faith. What I am saying is that the effect of his words and tone is quite different than what I think he intends.
He is trying to look firm and steadfast and impassioned. But it comes across as weak and pathetic to me, but I’m sure some people out there found it a stirring apologia.