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Why Am I a Believing Latter-day Saint?

KentJacksonSome people would have us believe that Mormonism is incompatible with academic sophistication and that intellectuals cannot feel comfortable in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is a myth created largely by Mormons who, for various reasons, find fault with the Church. My observations of many years within LDS intellectual circles lead me to conclude entirely the opposite. Mormonism has produced thousands of scholars with advanced degrees from the best institutions who have found in their education and their disciplines countless reasons to affirm their belief in the Latter-day Saint faith. The real “Mormon intellectual community” consists of people who love their religion; see in it, its history, its sacred texts, and its leaders, the hand of God at work; and are faithful to their covenants regarding it. What follows is one small example from my own experience.

I have a PhD in Old Testament and the Ancient Near East from a prestigious university. My advisor was the most famous Bible scholar in the world, and all of my other teachers were well-known and widely published scholars. While in graduate school, I worked for four years for the premier organization that sponsors archaeological research in the Middle East, editing journal articles and books. There I read the latest research months before it was published and got to know the scholars who produced it. I published my first book in a prestigious series in my field.

Not long after I began my career at Brigham Young University, my interests shifted from Biblical Studies to Latter-day Saint history and theology, especially to the intersection of Mormonism and the Bible. I continue now to stay abreast of developments in archaeology and the ancient Near East, but I do most of my research and publication efforts in Latter-day Saint history and Latter-day Saint scriptural texts.

I mention all of this simply to point out that I was blessed to have a world-class education under superb scholars. I have researched and published in two distinct disciplines and have known, or studied the works of, the best scholars in each of those disciplines. As a result, and also as a consequence of being engaged in academic pursuits for over three decades, I think I have learned what good scholarship is. I believe I can recognize good and bad use of sources, good and bad academic arguments, good and bad analysis, and good and bad conclusions. I don’t think that I am easily swayed by bad ideas or fooled by nonsense.

So why am I a believing Latter-day Saint?

I am a believing Latter-day Saint because I find Mormonism to be the most rational, intellectually defensible system ever conceived for understanding the world and why I am in it.

God and Man

In recent years, there has been a trend among some people to promote their atheism aggressively in public discourse and in print, expressing loudly their contempt for the very idea that there is a God. I find this trend interesting, especially in light of how unscientific it is. It is based on the following reasoning: “Because I have no experience with something, it necessarily does not exist.”

I am a believing Latter-day Saint because, through Mormonism, I have had experiences with God. Things have happened in my life that I can only explain as encounters with the Divine. I have had thoughts placed in my mind that were not mine, I have received insights into complex matters beyond my ability, I have received answers to prayer, and I have witnessed miracles in my life and in the lives of others. Without exception, those experiences have left me more charitable, kind, empathetic, and forgiving than I was before—evidence to me of an encounter with something nobler and better than myself. And all of these experiences have involved the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its teachings.

I am a believing Latter-day Saint because no other religion in the world explains God and man as well as does Mormonism. When I was a doctoral student in the 1970s, I taught a world religions course with a fellow student (a faithful Evangelical) who is today an accomplished Old Testament scholar. He was leading a review session with our students on the topic of Christianity. Just to spice up the exchange, I asked, “What is the purpose of life in Christianity? Why do humans exist?” His answer was, “Humans exist to serve God.” I thought, “Well, the Babylonians believed that the gods created humans because they were too lazy to fix their own food, and they wanted someone to do it for them. This Christian explanation is no better than that.”

Around the same time, my wife and I bought a lovely Bible storybook from which we read to our little children. In the discussion of the Creation on the first day—“Let there be light”—we learned the following: “Before this, God was all alone in the darkness.”

These unsatisfying ideas do not fare well when compared with the doctrine revealed to Joseph Smith: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). “God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 354).

Add to these statements the words of some of Joseph Smith’s prophetic successors: “All people who come to this earth and are born in mortality had a pre-existent, spiritual personality as the sons or daughters of the Eternal Father” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 12). “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. . . . In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshipped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which [each of] His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize his or her divine destiny as an heir of eternal life” (Gordon B. Hinckley, et al., “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”).

These doctrines are personally fulfilling and spiritually uplifting because they are true. And they are the foundation on which many other truths revealed through Joseph Smith answer the questions the world has been struggling with since the beginning of history.

I am a believing Latter-day Saint because Mormonism answers those questions. It teaches that there is a purpose for the vast universe and for human existence, that humans are God’s children, that they had a pre-earthly life, and that God communicates with his children now. Latter-day Saint doctrine explains human agency, the origin of evil, the brotherhood of the whole human family, and the universality of God’s love. I find in Mormonism an unparalleled understanding of human nature, the saving mission of Jesus Christ, the meaning of the Bible, the purpose of revelation, the origin and objectives of Satan, the need for the Church, the blessing of covenants and sacraments that connect us with God, and eternal rewards that God has prepared for us after this life.

Modern Prophets and Scriptures

Many people, among both academic intellectuals and ardent believers in the Bible, reject in principle the idea of God calling prophets in our day. This is a puzzling attitude. It certainly isn’t based on rational thought or on the Bible. Nothing in the Bible suggests that God can’t call new prophets if he wants to, nor does the Bible foretell that such would not happen.

I would ask my academic friends and my Bible-believing friends: If there is a God, and if he were to call new prophets in our time, would you reject them simply because you have a rule that there is no God or that God can’t or won’t do such a thing? And if you honestly can say that you don’t have such a rule, how would you be able to recognize a true prophet if you saw one?

Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims can be tested. I have tested them with all the tools I know of, and I am completely convinced that God called and inspired him. One way we can test Joseph Smith is to examine the scriptures he produced. God revealed more scripture through Joseph Smith than through any other prophet in history, totaling 886 pages in modern English editions. Some people will choose to reject these revelations without examining them, on the grounds that there is no God, or because the Bible contains all of God’s word and is complete for all time. Setting aside the fact that there is no hint of this notion in the Bible itself, I would ask the following question: Suppose there is a God and that he were to send new scripture into the world? Would you reject it simply because you have a rule that there is no God, or that God can’t or won’t do such a thing? And if you don’t have a rule like that, how would you test the new scripture to see if it contains true messages from a divine source?

Consider the Book of Mormon. I believe that it presents an unavoidable challenge for Christians and academic intellectuals alike. The Book of Mormon contains the account of a thousand years of a previously unknown civilization, complete with scores of named characters and places, detailed events, with conversations, letters, flashbacks, and sermons interwoven into the narrative with perfect consistency. But the most remarkable thing about the book is its message of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon teaches, better than any other book in the world, the principle of faith in Jesus, the nature of sin and human agency, and the processes of repentance, baptism, and spiritual rebirth. It teaches these better than does the Bible itself and better than all the treatises and commentaries ever written by the greatest and most educated minds in Christian history. Each time I read the Book of Mormon, I am amazed by the intricacy of its writing and moved by the power of its message.

But consider its origin. Joseph Smith, an uneducated, inexperienced farm boy from the frontier of North America, produced the book when he was twenty-three years old! How can that be explained except as a miracle? Many explanations have been put forward in the past 180 years for the book’s origin, but none of them work except the one he gave himself—that it was written by men in ancient times and brought to him by an angel, and that he translated it by the power of God. Even though that explanation requires a God, prophets, an angel, and a miraculous translation, it is still the most simple and problem-free explanation ever proposed. I believe it.

I am a believing Latter-day Saint because I have studied intensely the Book of Mormon, the revelations of Joseph Smith, and Joseph Smith’s sermons and writings. Not only have I tested them intellectually, but I have tested them spiritually as well. The Book of Mormon promises those who read it that if they ask God if it is true, “he will manifest the truth of it . . . by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). I have received that manifestation of truth, and thus I know not only that the Book of Mormon is true but also that Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s work on earth.

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Kent P. Jackson is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and is associate dean of Religion. He has been on the BYU faculty since 1980. He has a B.A. in ancient history and languages from BYU and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern studies from the University of Michigan. He teaches, among other courses, the Pearl of Great Price, the Old and New Testaments, and an introduction to Islam.

Professor Jackson has taught three times at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. He is a former director of Near Eastern Studies at the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at BYU and has traveled extensively in the Middle East. He has also served as regional president of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.

Professor Jackson does research primarily in Latter-day Saint scripture, doctrine, and history, with a focus on Mormonism and the Bible. In addition to numerous articles in this area, he has authored Joseph Smith’s Commentary on the Bible, Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts, The Book of Moses and the Joseph Smith Translation Manuscripts, and Lost Tribes and Last Days: What Modern Revelation Tells Us about the Old Testament.

He is married with five children and nine grandchildren. He and his wife, Nancy, live in Orem, Utah.

Posted December 2009