Home / Testimonies / Steven L. Olsen

My testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ as restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith centers in large part on its view of the infinite and eternal potential of mankind. To this point, I share and comment on five brief excerpts from sacred writings produced by Mormonism’s founder.

  1. In a text attributed to the prophet Abraham, God describes himself thus: “These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all” (Pearl of Great Price, Abraham 3:19).
  2. In response to an invitation to summarize the essence of Mormonism for an American audience of newspaper readers, Joseph Smith appended to a brief narrative of the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a series of basic tenets. These have become canonized in Mormonism as “The Articles of Faith.” The ninth Article of Faith reads, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Pearl of Great Price, Articles of Faith #9).
  3. In a letter to his followers during arguably the most difficult months of Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry, he declared somewhat defiantly, “How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:33).
  4. On another challenging occasion, Joseph Smith received “knowledge from heaven” that identified four essential qualities that God and mankind have in common. The qualities of eternal existence, intelligence, spirituality, and innocence establish a presumptive basis for an eternal relationship between our Heavenly Father and His spirit children (Doctrine and Covenants 93:23-39).
  5. In a text attributed to Moses, the ancient prophet related successive encounters with God and Satan who invite him in turn to worship them. Moses concluded God’s offer to be the more compelling after having applied a rigorous and systematic comparative method that convinced him that God possesses more glory, power, and intelligence and provides a more exalted message to mankind than does Satan. Then, in declaring his own allegiance to God, Moses tells Satan, “I will not cease to call upon God, I have other things to inquire of him” (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 1:18).

These passages from Mormonism’s foundational scriptures describe a God who is more intelligent than all other beings and who willingly shares His abundant intelligence with all who receive and act on it. They also describe the human race as possessing essential qualities of godliness, implying that men and women can become like God to the extent that they nurture the divine essence within them. In these and other scriptural passages, mankind is richly rewarded for inquiring after the qualities of godliness.

Advocating a message that links mankind and God, heaven and earth, and time and eternity is very ambitious, even “audacious” (Harold Bloom’s term) for a religion that was founded by a frontier farm boy from New York’s “burned over district” and that is more often understood in the context of America’s religious past than the planet’s meaningful future. Whether Mormonism ever fully realizes these noble objectives is for the witnesses of another day. Those of our day must assess whether the ideology that Joseph Smith and his successors have advanced describes a God that we can faithfully worship and defines a gospel that can effectively guide our lives.

I find the Mormon worldview to be compelling, in spite of its essential ‘incompleteness’ (as required by Article of Faith #9) and the persistent imperfections of those, like me, who have attempted to live it through the years. Mormon history teaches me that its gospel obligates both leaders and followers to serve mankind and to work for the betterment of the earth and of all humanity, while developing personal virtues of godliness and overcoming their own and others’ imperfections. No exceptions, no excuses. Mormonism’s abiding emphasis on spirituality, service, work, and worship derives from the following basic tenets:

  • The extent to which our life is one of service to others determines in large measure the “kingdom of glory” we inherit in the multi-tiered Mormon afterlife
  • The “Celestial,” or highest, kingdom of glory consists of those who have covenanted with one another and with God to assist Him throughout eternity to bring salvation to all of His children
  • Salvation is a never-ending process of realizing our innate potential of becoming like God.

Latter-day Saint scriptures consist of the records of holy prophets that:

  • Reveal a vision of this plan of salvation
  • Document the (largely unsuccessful) efforts of past and present societies to realize its possibilities in mortality
  • Witness to the eventual fulfillment of this plan through the blessings of God and the persistent faithfulness of His children.

The central key to the success of this plan is the “infinite and eternal” atonement of Jesus Christ. Allowing mercy to play a major role in nurturing our divine potential, the atonement shows all mankind that charity is the essential quality of godliness and thus the most desirable of human virtues.

My witness is based on more than inspired writings and elegant systems of religious thought. Most importantly, it comes from personal spiritual experience. My knowledge of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its restoration through Joseph Smith in our day results from

  • An abiding desire to understand my identity and place in the universe
  • A concerted search for these “solemnities of eternity”
  • A willingness to conform my life to the moral and ethical implications of the resulting witness from God.

As partial and imperfect as these personal efforts have been, they have borne the sweetest and most sublime fruit of all others in my life.

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Steven L. Olsen received AM and Ph.D. degrees in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1978 and 1985, respectively. For the past three decades he has filled various professional and administrative positions with the LDS Church History Department, Salt Lake City, including Senior Curator and Managing Director. Major projects completed under his leadership include the permanent exhibits, “A Covenant Restored: Historical Foundations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and “Presidents of the Church” at the Church History Museum; the historic site restorations, “Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith Farm and Sacred Grove” and “Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site” (western New York), “Historic Kirtland” and “John and Else Johnson Home” (northeast Ohio),” Cove Fort” and “Brigham Young Winter Home” (Utah); and the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.

He has presented and published widely in the fields of museum studies and Mormon studies. Major continuing research interests include the symbolism of community design, literary conventions of sacred texts, ceremony and ritual, and visual iconography. Steve has served on the boards or in the leadership of the following professional organizations: American Society of Church History, Western Museums Association, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Utah Museums Association, Utah Office of Museum Services, and Utah Humanities Council.

Steve and his wife Kathi have five children and two grandchildren and live with assorted pets in Heber City, Utah.

Posted July 2010