On February 6, 2015 LDS apostle Jeffrey Holland gave a public address titled, “An Evening with Jeffrey R. Holland” (see video here). He directs his remarks primarily to Church Educational System teachers and leaders, encouraging them to teach their Mormon students mindfully and thoroughly. Mr. Holland spends a few minutes speaking to the issue of questions of “doctrine, history or Church practice that can and often does arise as the work unfolds. You’ve heard these questions,” Mr. Holland tells his audience. “We’ve recently addressed a dozen or so of these issues in a series of essays, desiring to be both accurate and transparent within the framework of faith. Not all gospel questions have answers yet, but they will, and they’ll come.”
Then Mr. Holland delivers his next words with great passion. Jabbing the pulpit repeatedly, Mr. Holland exclaims,
“In the meantime, I have a question! What conceivable historical or doctrinal or procedural issue that may arise among any group could ever overshadow or negate one’s consuming spiritual conviction regarding the Father’s merciful plan of salvation; His only begotten Son’s birth, mission, atonement and resurrection; the reality of the First Vision; the restoration of the priesthood; the receipt of divine revelation both personally and institutionally; the soul shaping spirit and moving power of the Book of Mormon; the awe and majesty of the temple endowment; one’s own personal experience with true miracles; and on and on and on? It is a mystery to me – talk about a question! – it is a mystery to me how those majestic, eternal first level truths so central to the grandeur of the whole gospel message can be set aside or completely dismissed by some in favor of obsessing over second or third or fourth level pieces of that whole. To me, this is, in the words attributed to Edith Horton, truly being trapped in the thick of thin things.” (Beginning around the 50:50 mark in the video.)
There really is no mystery here. Mormonism is not built on a wide and solid foundation of pillars of majestic truth as suggested by Mr. Holland. It is more like a Jenga tower, with a foundation of just one slim truth-claim that must support the whole. All of Mormonism is built on Joseph Smith and, like a Jenga tower, when his pronouncements and accomplishments are proven unsound, the whole of the tower topples.
Whether the questions troubling Mormons are about the plan of salvation, the First Vision, the LDS priesthood, continuing revelation, the Book of Mormon, “and on and on and on,” or same-sex marriage and women in the priesthood, they all come back to Joseph Smith, the foundation of the Mormon Church. Past LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley told the media in Salt Lake City why he was convinced that Joseph Smith’s teachings and messages were still so important in 2005:
“Because they are the foundation of our faith. Everything we have is a lengthened shadow of Joseph Smith. He was the key figure in the restoration of the gospel as we have it, and our foundation of doctrine and practice and procedure all come down from him.” (Church News, 3/19/2005, 3)
The December 2014 Ensign magazine included an article by Marlin K. Jensen in which he told readers,
“It is important that we become familiar with our Church’s history, especially with its founding stories. These stories – Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, angelic visitations by John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Elijah, Elias, and others – contain the foundational truths upon which the Restoration is based.” (Lessons from the Sacred Grove,” 71)
And so, when a Mormon learns that Joseph Smith engaged in plural marriage practices that are clearly forbidden in the Bible (e.g., marrying mother/daughter and sister pairs); when they learn that his revelations failed (e.g., selling the Book of Mormon copyright); when they learn that the relating of his history — regarding his First Vision, his translation of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, his translation of the Book of Abraham (“and on and on and on”) — are fraught with problems; when they learn that he borrowed heavily from Freemasonry for the temple endowment; when they learn that his understanding of the very nature of God changed and progressed over his lifetime; they rightfully wonder: Why should I believe the Mormon Church is true? Why should I believe my Church leaders are really hearing from God? Why should I believe anything promoted by my church since it all stems from what I now see as one polluted source?
Who said Christianity was corrupt and needed to be restored? Joseph Smith.
Who said Joseph Smith was called by God to be the prophet of this dispensation? Joseph Smith.
Who said the Bible was filled with errors? Joseph Smith.
Who said the Book of Mormon was the most correct book on earth and would get a person closer to God than any other book? Joseph Smith.
Who said the words of latter-day prophets are to be accepted as the very word of God? Joseph Smith.
Who said a positive religious experience proves Mormonism is true? Joseph Smith.
And on and on and on.
Mr. Holland’s mystery is no mystery at all. “Those majestic, eternal first level truths so central to the grandeur of the whole gospel message can be set aside or completely dismissed” because these, as well as the “second or third or forth level” doctrines of Mormonism, all trace back to the pronouncements of Joseph Smith, a man revealed through his own history as a false prophet.
Mormonism is built on Joseph Smith, and everything in the Church is a lengthened shadow of him. Every doctrine, every practice, every procedure is built on, and flows from, his claim to speak for God.
It was Joseph Smith’s claim that his church is the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth (D&C 1:30) that led eventually to a Mormon apostle’s pronouncement that “This Church…is the way, the truth, and the life” (Marion G. Romney, quoted in the Book of Mormon Student Manual: Religion 121 and 122, 26).
Friends, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). Though we are dead in our trespasses and sins, nevertheless, God, being rich in mercy, will make us alive together with Christ—by grace He saves us—and raises us up with Him and seats us with Him in the heavenly places in Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ. By grace we may be saved through faith. This is not of our own doing; it is the gift of God (see Ephesians 2:4-9).
This, my friends, this is the real mystery–that though we are sinners, God rescues and redeems us in Christ if we will but surrender to Him in faith. We don’t need Mormonism. We don’t need “new revelation.” We don’t need Mormon temple ordinances. We don’t in any way need Joseph Smith.
We need Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is our all in all (Ephesians 1:19-23).