Interview Terryl Givens

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A professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, Givens is the author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion; The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy; and The Latter-day Saint Experience in America. This transcript is drawn from interviews conducted on April 8, 9 and 10 and June 22, 2006.

Tell me a little bit about your missionary experience: Was it an easy decision to go? Where did you go?

I started attending the church and reading the Book of Mormon when I was about 16 years old, and it didn't take long at all until I decided that I wanted to serve a mission. ...

When I was 19 I sent my papers, and a few weeks later the mission call came, calling me to São Paulo, Brazil. Of course I didn't know a word of Portuguese at that time, but I was excited and willing to learn, and so in July of 1976, I entered the Missionary Training Center [MTC] and began what was supposed to be an eight-week course of study in the Portuguese language. It ended up being 23 weeks because of difficulty getting visas in Brazil at that time. By the time I finally made it to Brazil in December 1976, I was more than ready to serve.

Those two years really were a pivotal time in my life. I think most Latter-day Saints who served missions refer to those years as a kind of rite of passage and in many ways foundational to the rest of their lives. That certainly was the case for me. Brazil at that time, as today, was an area where church growth was extremely rapid. We didn't have to spend a lot of time knocking on doors, as you see missionaries do here in the States, because there was enough interest generated by the members in the church that most of what we did was referral work, working with friends and families of those who were already members of the church. ...

I don't know that I witnessed or experienced any dramatic miracles, but time after time after time, the experiences I had were of encountering young families, couples or even individuals who felt that by being taught the reality of a personal God, of a living God, who actually communicates, that they had found through prayer a kind of peace and serenity and happiness that they hadn't known before. To my mind that was the greatest witness that anybody could have of the efficacy of the power of Gospel. ...

“One of the hallmarks of Mormonism, and of Joseph Smith in particular, is the collapse of sacred distance -- the sense that there is an earthly and a heavenly, a bodily and a spiritual.”

Brazil is a country, of course, that has many mixed lineages and people of mixed ancestries, and 1976 was an era before the church had opened the priesthood to people of all races. Many of us didn't understand that doctrine, but we were faithful missionaries nonetheless. …

I remember one experience in particular when we were teaching a wonderful, wonderful family of mixed ancestry, and they wanted to be baptized members of the church. So we taught them the lessons, and they made wonderful progress. ... They attended services; they looked forward to going to the temple, to sending their sons on missions. It was heartbreaking for us to know that all of those blessings of the temple and the priesthood weren't going to be available to them, and yet we deferred explaining that aspect of priesthood doctrine to them.

We finally went to teaching the last discussion before their baptism. They were to be baptized on a Sunday. We went there on a Friday evening, and we opened our visit with prayer, and we had a wonderful conversation and talked to them about the coming baptism and sensed their excitement, their desire to follow through with that commitment. And then I felt that I needed to just close our meeting with prayer and leave. We did so, and on the way home my companion said, "But Elder Givens, you know that we can't baptize them [as] members of the church without their understanding the limitations on who may have the priesthood." I said, "I know that," and yet I just wasn't able to, and that was the first time in two years of missionary work that I had felt just absolutely incapable of explaining that doctrine to an investigator of the church.

We went home, not knowing what was going to happen. ... As we walked to our apartment, we passed the apartment of the district leaders, the other missionaries, and one of them came running out, and he said, "Elders, have you heard the word?" And we said, "What?" And he said: "President [Spencer] Kimball has had a revelation. The priesthood is now going to be available to all the people." I remember we ran from there to the stake president's house, and never did you see such a scene of gladness and weeping and rejoicing. And a day later the wonderful family was baptized into the church. I'm sure that they enjoyed the blessings of the temple and sent their sons on missions. It was great testimony to me of the subtle, quiet workings of the Spirit, and that there had been a reason why I hadn't been able to talk about a prohibition which as of that moment was no longer in force. ...

How early did the missionary effort start?

... One of the favorite stories in Mormonism of missionary work comes from the year 1839. Now, in October of the preceding year, the Haun's Mill Massacre had occurred, followed by the expulsion of all the Saints from Missouri. ... Most of the Saints were destitute. They suffered terribly under the persecutions. They were without resources or adequate housing or lodging.

In the fall of that year, of 1839, Joseph Smith called all the 12 apostles on missions to England. ... He knew that by sending missionaries to England that he would be laying the foundations not for immediate success but for an international church that would extend into future generations and far beyond. It was an extremely forward-looking and even courageous gesture on his part. ...

I think it's because of the origins of missionary work in the midst of that kind of hardship and suffering and deprivation that Mormons to this day associate missionary work with personal sacrifice. Though it's not as dramatic, that same tradition continues, I think, when you consider that all Mormon missionaries serve at their own expense. They take two years out of their lives, and, using their own funds or their family's funds, they serve the Lord for two years. ...

Describe [Joseph Smith's] family. ...

He came from a tradition of visionaries. His father had dreams; his grandfather had dreams. So it was nothing new for him to feel that he had some form of heavenly communication. He was steeped in a family and a cultural environment in which those kinds of heavenly manifestations were not commonplace, but they weren't all that rare. I think that's part of what prepared him but also what prepared his family to accept him as a prophet, because before he could test the waters of public opinion, he had to pass muster with his own family. And it isn't every child who would go to his parents and say, "God and Christ have just visited me in a grove of trees," and be believed. But, of course, he was. ...

The importance of Joseph Smith in history -- this is a man people compare to Moses. What is striking about this man?

... The most amazing thing about Joseph Smith was the scope of his vision. He didn't see himself as merely restoring a few principles to make course corrections of Christianity. But he had this sense, I think, that everything was possible through revelation; all knowledge could come through revelation. ...

One would have thought that after translating the Book of Mormon that he would have considered his primary work to have been finished, and yet within weeks of finishing the Book of Mormon he immediately turned to the Bible, wanted to go through the Bible and create what he called the "translation" of the Bible, which was really more of a redaction, making minor changes and corrections. But he was absolutely insatiable, and I think that some of the most important contributions of Joseph Smith were not the ones that he left in print, but the way that he personally exemplified a kind of passion and excitement for knowledge, for revelation, that I think informs and undergirds the church to this day.

[Smith has been quoted] as saying, "No man knows my history." What is that quote? What does it say about him?

... Joseph Smith was a man characterized by absolute religious certainty. One could say that that was hubris, but how else would you respond if you really believed that you had held in your hands physical plates of gold, that you had personally translated them through miraculous means, that you had felt the weight of angelic messengers on your head, restoring to you the Melchizedek priesthood and the Aaronic priesthood? So Joseph was a man who didn't refer to his faith in God. He referred in personal letters to his wife and elsewhere [to] "the absolute certainty I have of these truths."

I think that's really one of the distinguishing hallmarks of Mormonism -- not just that it was founded on these principles of absolute certainty, but Joseph was convinced that every member of the church, every individual and human family had access to that kind of certainty. ...

You've said Joseph Smith was "of his time." Could he have emerged at any other time? Who were his competitors?

I think one of the reasons for the great appeal and the great success of Joseph Smith as a religious leader is the fact that he combined within himself a kind of transcendent intuition or recognition of eternal truths with a kind of historical situatedness. ...

What was happening in the early 19th century was this kind of burgeoning sense of the boundlessness of the human spirit. You see this in the political life and theory, with the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of democracies, the French Revolution. You see it in the realm of literature and philosophy, with romanticism and this sense that the human being is characterized by this infinite potential which can't be constrained by physical limitations. Historically it had seemed to many of these people caught up in this euphoria about human potential that religious institutions had always circumscribed and impeded and restricted that potential. ...

I think that what Joseph accomplished was the first seamless synthesis of this sense of this boundlessness of human potential, together with a kind of authoritative revelation of truth from heaven. So you have, for example, Joseph Smith expanding the domain of the human spirit temporally in both directions. He restored, for example, the idea that we lived before we were born, there was a pre-mortal existence, that our spirits are co-eternal with God himself, which is an astounding proposition to make in a Christian context. And then at the other end of the human spectrum, he taught that man can become even as God is. ...

Tell me about the Second Awakening and all the characters wandering around at the time. It was a fevered time. How did Joseph emerge from the pack?

... One can go to encyclopedias of religion or almanacs of religion and find that Mormonism is almost lost as a denomination in the myriad other varieties of Christianity that are springing up, most of which wouldn't last even within the generation. So the question is, well, how did Mormonsim distinguish itself in such a crowded field? There were many people who claimed revelation from heaven, who claimed to be prophets, who claimed to speak with the same kind of oracular voice.

The main difference in the case of Joseph Smith is that he had something concrete to show for it: It was the Book of Mormon. It always came back to the Book of Mormon. And the most important function that the Book of Mormon served in the early church was not that it introduced new teachings, not that there was any particular message or content which revolutionized the world; it was the mere presence of the Book of Mormon itself as an object, which was a visible, palpable object, that served as concrete evidence that God had opened the heavens again. So whether you believed or didn't believe it, at least there was something testable that you could look at. ...

I was struck by the opening paragraph in your book about Joseph describing the plates.

Joseph describes the plates, yes, and he describes them as a connoisseur describes a fine book in his library collection. There's a kind of attentiveness to the detail -- the physical detail, the craftsmanship of the plates, the nature of the writing, the thickness of the total package -- that is very, very striking, because right away what he is doing is he is turning our attention to the absolute physicality.

What Joseph does there, see, he takes a very important step from which he would never, never retreat, and that is that he creates a foundation from which it is virtually impossible to mythologize or allegorize the foundations of Mormonism. What that means is that it puts the Book of Mormon in a position in which it is very, very hard to find a middle ground, because [with] many of the stories of the Bible we can say, "Well, we don't know that God really wrote with his finger on the tablets of Moses," or, "We don't know that Moses really spoke face to face with God." One can take a kind of distance and say it's the message of the Bible that's important; that God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, and salvation is through him. ...

The same is not true in the case of the Book of Mormon. It's not the message in the Book of Mormon which is true; it's the message about the Book of Mormon. If Joseph really was visited by an Angel Moroni and really was given gold plates, then he was a prophet, and he has the authority to speak on God's behalf. That's how the logic worked. One can't take a kind of distance and say, "Well, maybe he was an inspired dreamer; maybe he was an inspired visionary," because from day one he points to the physicality of those plates, meaning that the foundations of Mormonsim are located in real space and time, not in a prophet's interior world. ...

Is that the way you feel personally, too, [about] historicity questions? …

There's no question that the church rises or falls on the veracity of Joseph Smith's story. Now, as a consequence, some people, for example, the Community of Christ, their president made a statement a few years ago in which he said, "History as theology is perilous." You don't want, in other words, to found all of your beliefs and hopes and religious values on a historical account that may prove to be spurious. To which my reply is yes, history as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ's resurrection is a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That's the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that's a reality that we just can't flee away from.

... [Religion scholar] Martin Marty said, "Mormonism is so young it has no place to hide."

That's right! That's a wonderful quote. "Mormonism is so young it has no place to hide." That's very true. I had a friend who was a religious scholar who said that for Christianity to thrive, there must always be an empty tomb where faith can enter in. Mormonism doesn't have very many empty tombs. Every compartment that you open in Mormonism has a physical artifact or resurrected being or historical event that calls upon our faith and ascent. There haven't been thousands of years for interpretations and translations and complicated transmission history to intervene between God's word and our reception of that word. What we have is an unmediated presentation of gold plates to us through one prophet figure. ... It is its strength. ...

What is the story of Joseph's First Vision? ...

... The story of the First Vision has been told many different ways. Even Joseph himself told many different versions of it. I don't find that surprising when one sees the story of Christ in the New Testament is narrated in very, very different ways by his own followers.

But I think the most important thing that came out of the First Vision of Joseph Smith was not his claim that Christianity had gone astray, but his experience itself, that finding that by asking a simple question, God can respond in a personal, discernable way. ...

At no time in the Bible, for example, do we see an example of God speaking to individuals other than prophets. In the Book of Mormon we see fathers praying to know about the welfare of their sons. We see individuals curious about certain principles of the Gospel. We see a concerned brother who wants to find food for his family, asking where to hunt. We see military leaders asking where the Lamanites are going to invade. And in each and every case, God responds in articulate, discernable human speech.

Now, I don't know that that's a hallmark of the church today, that people believe that they hear God's voice when they pray in their rooms, but the church was founded on that principle, on that hope. ...

Mormonism has been described -- and Joseph, too -- as both quintessentially American and un-American, too. Talk a little about that. ...

One of the paradoxes of Mormonism was the way that Joseph elaborated the principle of priesthood. ... And yet, in the early years of the church especially, the sense was widespread that we can all be prophets. So other individuals claimed that they were receiving revelations, and it didn't take long for anarchy to ensue in which it wasn't clear, well, who has the authority to receive revelation to whom? It wasn't long before Joseph articulated another principle of revelation, which stated there is one prophet, and he shall be appointed to receive revelations for the church.

So prophet went from being a calling to being an office in the church. That established a kind of hierarchy and a kind of precedence to Joseph that many Americans likened to the pope in very, very negative ways. It seemed anti-American, anti-democratic that we should have one person that is vested so much power and authority to dictate for his followers.

But on the other hand, Joseph bestowed that same priesthood, which gave him the keys for his office, to virtually every male in the church. So we're going in two directions at once here. We're going into a quintessentially American direction, which is to democratize priesthood, almost as universally as a priesthood of all believers, but at the same time we're also going in a very vertical, un-American way, establishing a rigid hierarchy which, of course, has only been further and further elaborated over the years.

Today the Mormon Church is characterized by that same kind of schizophrenia, in that in some ways it is one the most rigidly authoritarian institutions and in another way is the most egalitarian in that we don't even have a paid ministry. ...

What does the Book of Mormon say?

... The Book of Mormon is essentially the narration of a group of Israelites who migrate to the New World [around] 600 B.C., led by a prophet figure called Lehi. It chronicles God's dealings with them; it chronicles the fragmentation of that people into two primary races, the Lamanites and the Nephites. In many ways it's a morality tale as it chronicles the adversities they face when they are wicked, the blessings that are accrued through righteousness.

The dramatic peak of the book occurs at the time of Christ's crucifixion in the Old World, whereupon he visits the Nephites shortly after his crucifixion in Jerusalem, and then the book ends on a very tragic note, as we see the onetime righteous Nephites gradually overcome by wickedness, by unbelief, and they're eventually destroyed by a fratricidal war with the Lamanites. Along the way we're exposed to various missionary journeys, Gospel messages and teachings, but primarily it surveys the sweep of the family history that becomes a civilization unto itself in the New World.

You've said revelation is the scandal of Mormonism [in] the way the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is the scandal of Christianity. ...

The kind of revelation that Joseph describes is the scandal of Mormonism in the same way that the resurrection of Christ is the scandal of Christianity. What I mean by that is that on the face of it, that's an affront to sophisticated notions of how the universe works. God doesn't deliver gold plates to farm boys. It's a cause of embarrassment to many intellectuals in the church to continue to insist that Joseph had literal gold plates given to him by a real angel that he translates through the Urim and Thummim [seer stones].

But I also mean that it's a scandal in the sense that it is inseparable from the heart and soul of Mormonism, that one could no sooner divorce the historical claims of the Book of Mormon from the church than one could divorce the story of Christ's resurrection from Christianity and survive with the religion intact. ...

... [Talk about] the range of revelations, from the most mundane to the most exalted, in the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C]. ...

One finds in the revelations of Joseph Smith an immense range of subject matter. One can go to the Book of Abraham, where he describes in vision pre-mortal councils where God himself participated, and we were present as unembodied spirits. One can go to section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which was called just The Vision, in which he describes the glories of the celestial world and the inheritance of those who go to the celestial or the terrestrial kingdoms. Those are examples of revelations that are about as exalted and transcendent as one could ask for. Then one can also find a number of revelations in which he tells people that they should open a print shop on this property, or they should sell this property here, or that they are called to New York to do this. His revelations range from the sublime to the mundane. And yet I think that there's no contradiction there.

One of the hallmarks of Mormonism, and of Joseph Smith in particular, is the collapse of sacred distance. Joseph insistently refused to recognize the distinctness of those categories that were typical in traditional Christianity, the sense that there is an earthly and a heavenly, a bodily and a spiritual. ... He did this in ways as divergent as commenting on the fact that God himself was once as we are, that he is embodied; by arguing that when revelations came to him, they came through vehicles as palpable and earthly as seer stones, or Urim and Thummin, or gold plates. ... Every time that we think we have found an example of what we think is a dichotomy, Joseph collapses it into one.

Time and time again that served as an occasion for much of the antagonism and hostility toward Joseph Smith, because I think that it's an inescapable fact of our Christian history that mystery is generally inseparable from what is holy or what is sacred or what is divine. Joseph articulated and specified the details of his theology in a way that I think was highly unconventional and made many people uncomfortable. ...

What are the most serious challenges ... to the historicity of the book? ...

Most of the difficulties that have been raised in connection with the Book of Mormon arise from the premise that the Book of Mormon purports to describe a civilization that spans an entire continent. Many of the early members of the church believed or assumed that the Book of Mormon described a family that landed somewhere in the New World that rapidly expanded into a civilization that grew to cover the entire hemisphere. If, in fact, the Book of Mormon has to be defended as a hemispheric history, it can't pass the test. It's quite easy to prove there are all kinds of illogicalities that arise, from the variety of Native American Indian languages to the impossibility of one clan peopling a hemisphere as rapidly as the Book of Mormon seems to imply.

However, it's clear that ... a good reading of the Book of Mormon indicates that it probably describes a people, a culture or lineage in an area approximately of 100 to a couple hundred miles. Once one understands the very, very limited scope of the geography of the Book of Mormon, many of the objections and criticisms are obviated. However, there are some that still seem to remain.

The Book of Mormon makes clear references to a number of things that the best anthropologists and archaeologists insist couldn't have been present in the New World at that time, things ranging from horses to steel to structures of cement. So most of the evidence in that context is an argument from absence. We don't find verified the presence of things that the Book of Mormon describes.

Perhaps a more pervasive weakness of the Book of Mormon in the eyes of many is the Christology of the Book of Mormon, the fact that there is a knowledge and an understanding of Jesus Christ existing among a people that settle this continent 600 years before his birth. It's not a kind of vague, messianic understanding of a future Christ, but it's a series of discourses and sermons and visions that give his name, the name of his mother, the place of his birth, the details of his ministry and crucifixion, and there's not parallel in the ancient world of any text making a claim of that level of specificity dealing with Christ hundreds of years before his birth.

On the other hand, the Book of Mormon presents us with a conundrum, because there are a number of features that seem inexplicable in any way other than to attribute to the Book of Mormon ancient origins. For example, the number of hubric structures and patterns in the Book of Mormon, such as chiasmus -- very ornate and at times extremely elaborate literary structures, that very few people, certainly not Joseph Smith, would have been familiar with in the early 19th century -- seem to bespeak an ancient origin and a Middle Eastern heritage.

There is also evidence such as an altar or a number of altars that seem to have been found in Yemen with an inscription that most would translate as Nahem, which is a place name found in the Book of Mormon in precisely that location where one would expect to find that altar if in fact it really recorded a journey of a people through Yemen on their way to the New World, as the Book of Mormon claims is the case with Lehi and his followers. ...

My idea going into this study of the Book of Mormon, especially the section dealing with evidence for and against its historicity, was if the Book of Mormon is true, then it has to stand up to the most rigorous assaults and critiques that skeptics and nonbelievers can make. So I made every effort to honestly, fully investigate every criticism, every objection that's ever been made to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. One has to suspend judgment in a number of cases, because it's hard to say when the evidence will all be in, but at the present there are still a number of unresolved anachronisms and problems and ambiguities in the text.

But I felt satisfied that there was in every case a corresponding weight on the other side of the equation, which actually led me to, I think, some very important insights into the nature of faith and how faith works. I came to the conclusion, in large part through my study of the Book of Mormon, that for faith to operate, and for faith to have moral significance in our lives, then it has to at some level be a choice. It can't be urged upon us by an irresistible, overwhelming body of evidence, or what merit is there in the espousing of faith? And it can't be something that we embrace in spite of overwhelming logical rational evidence to the contrary, because I don't believe that God expects us to hold in disregard that faculty of reason that he gave us.

But I do believe that the materials are always there of which one can fashion a life of belief or a life of denial. I believe that faith is a revelation of what we love, what we choose to embrace, and therefore I think [it] is the purest reflection of the values that we hold dear and the kind of universe that we aspire to be a part of. And so it comes ultimately as no surprise to me that the evidence will never be conclusive on one way or the other. I think that there's a purpose behind the balance that one attains in the universe of belief. ...

[What happened when the Book of Mormon was published?]

... It's clear that Joseph and the other early members of the church were disappointed with the initial sales of the Book of Mormon. … Initially it was kind of a word-of-mouth organization, largely constituted of immediate family and close family friends. The church didn't find its turning point until the first group of missionaries went out to teach the Lamanites, the American Indians on the frontier, passed through the area of Kirtland, Ohio, and had tremendous success in converting [preacher] Sidney Rigdon and a group of Campbellites who were prepared because they were Restorationists; they were expecting some great new signs and revelations. ... That was the first moment that it became clear that it was actually going to be a receptive audience, and the numbers began to dramatically increase from that moment on. ...

This is something that's confusing: Joseph Smith goes to Ohio, but at the same time he has a vision that the real Zion is in Missouri. ...

After Joseph announces the gathering in Kirtland, Ohio, church headquarters are moved to that area, and gathering begins in earnest. But almost immediately thereafter Joseph announces that the real place of gathering is further West, in far west Missouri, in Jackson County. ... It was there that the Mormons encountered their first real persecution and opposition from the outside. ...

At the same time events are going very badly back in Kirtland, Ohio, where Joseph Smith is, but there most of the opposition isn't from the outside. It's internal dissension. So Joseph Smith is put under so much pressure there that he has to flee westward with the other leaders of the church in 1838.

By the time he arrives in Missouri, things are at a boiling point there, and pretty soon disaster strikes: the Haun's Mill Massacre, the end of October, 1838, where a militia actually a massacres a group of men and boys. Joseph Smith is arrested; he's in prison, and the future of the church for a while there is very, very uncertain. The governor of the state indicates that the only way the Mormons are ever going to survive as a people is if they abandon the principle of gathering. ...

It would seem that for some time Joseph was uncertain what to do, but before long they announced a new place of gathering. They crossed back over the Mississippi into what would become Nauvoo, Ill., and there they just consolidated their numbers and their strength and of course would not abandon the principle of gathering until after they arrived in Utah years later. ...

Isn't it true that for Mormons, [Missouri] was the Garden of Eden?

That wasn't really the significance of it. While they were there in Missouri, Joseph received a revelation in which he claimed to actually identify a land which he called Adam-ondi-Ahman, a place where Adam dwelled, which he associated with the original site of the Garden of Eden. The site doesn't have tremendous religious or cultural significance; it was just a kind of interesting connection that once again was consistent with that overall pattern of Joseph Smith of rendering concrete, physical and literal what for many believers was kind of abstract and spiritual and otherworldly. ...

Is it sort of an irony when you think about his sailing off into the night to his beloved Zion, where only greater opposition awaits him?

And of course the irony is he's out of the frying pan and into the fire. He leaves behind Kirtland, which is just imploding, and all of Missouri is about to go up in flames. Shortly after he arrives in Missouri the Saints are going to be expelled, not just from another county but from the state itself. He is actually going to be imprisoned and will languish in jail not knowing what the future or destiny of his people is going to be. ...

[What were the kinds of revelations Joseph received?]

Every principle that Joseph restored seemed to come from revelation responding to a particular question he posed to the lord. He wanted to know how were Abraham and Isaac justified in their many wives, and he receives a revelation on plural marriage. He wants to know the proper order and authority on baptism and John the Baptist brings the Aaronic priesthood. His brother Alvin dies, a crushing blow to Joseph, who is obviously very, very close and devoted to Alvin, and presumably that prompted his reflections and his pondering on the question of, what is the status of the dead who die unbaptized? And that precipitates a vision of the dead where he sees Alvin in the celestial kingdom. So all of those great developments in Mormonism accompanied a question that Joseph took to the Lord, for which he found a particular personalized response that amounted to a revelation.

It is an amazing trajectory when you think of the Book of Mormon, which ... is pretty traditional Christianity, to where he ended up. What was that, 14 years?

Yeah, 14 years. Many readers have noticed that the Book of Mormon is strikingly silent on most of those doctrines and teachings that are characteristic of Mormonism. If one were to create a list of the 10 most distinctive Mormon teachings, one might say, oh, anything from baptism of the dead to pre-mortal existence to the degrees of glory to the Word of Wisdom. None of those are found in the Book of Mormon. Yet by the end of his life, in 1844, when he gives the King Follett Discourse, he's propounding doctrine that is radically unlike anything that one sees in the Book of Mormon or in historic Christianity for the most part. So there is definitely a very dramatic progression to his thinking and to the revelations that he received. ...

[What do Mormons believe about the afterlife?]

It's been pointed out by other observers of the church that Mormonism probably encompasses a more detailed picture of the afterlife than is common in other faith traditions. ... I think the emphasis that Mormonism puts on the eternity of the family, the conviction that is so central to our faith and to our culture, that the family survives death, that my marriage to my wife is an eternal bond, that death will interrupt but not permanently -- I think that those aspects of our faith make the passing of loved ones and our own imminent death more tolerable, more consolable. ...

Would you tell me about your faith journey? ...

Many years ago I went on a trip to West Africa with a group of colleagues. We had been there a few days when one of my colleagues decided that she would take a swim out into the ocean. She found herself caught in an undertow, taken far out. Several of us came upon the scene and saw that she was in some distress, a great, great distance away from the shore, and so I jumped in to try and give her some assistance. Not being the greatest swimmer myself, I soon found that I was dragged out along with her. We struggled for some time against the current, and I grew weaker and weaker. She had already been out for quite some time. Eventually the current carried us out far enough that I at least lost sight of the shore, and I remember hearing her say to me across the waves, "We're drowning." And when she said that I knew that it was true, and I felt myself go under several times.

[I] had an experience where I came perhaps as near to death as one can, had a vision almost of my family receiving my body back home, saw the funeral. I didn't see my life flash before my eyes; I only got the end. I remember, of course, praying as one could only pray under such circumstances, and hoping that as I slipped into death that I would at least feel comfort, that I would feel assurance and peace, and yet all I felt was blackness and darkness. Just at that moment when I thought I had given myself over to drowning, we passed over a sandbar and found solid ground beneath our feet, and we were able to make our way back.

I quickly recovered from the near-drowning physically, but it left me deeply disturbed and left me wondering why, at that moment of ultimate need, of supreme crisis in my life, had I not felt a comforting presence: no visions of angels to greet me, no lighted tunnel. For a while it seemed that I had lost the underpinnings of my faith and serenity. What it really forced upon me was a need to reconstitute my belief in everything that I had once held sacred and firm. ...

Ever since that day I have looked and sought for occasion to reconstitute that kind of faith and serenity and confidence in God, in his reality and his presence. It just seems that in the years since then that I see evidence of Christ and his hand in ways and in places that I was oblivious to before. It strikes me that the most important principles, doctrines, teachings are not what really founds one's faith, but rather the way that one sees the evidence of God in other people, in their countenances, in the way they treat each other. The evidences that I find for God are what I would call the fruits of the Gospel more than the teachings. It's maybe more sensitive to the ways in which I have been able to see that the things that I have always espoused, things that I have always believed and taught do in fact bring real peace, real happiness, real serenity into the lives of people. I think I'm the better and the stronger for what I passed through.

[Tell me about the "dancing God."]

The philosopher [Friedrich] Nietzsche once wrote: "I should never believe in a god who should not know how to dance," and I feel the same way.

There is in the Mormon faith a kind of celebration of the physical, which I think is a little outside the Christian mainstream. Of course, in the early 19th century almost all of the Protestant denominations were condemning dancing, for example, as a device of the devil. Meanwhile, the Mormons are even dancing in the temple. We have record of that occurring in Nauvoo. When the Saints moved to Utah, one observer in the 1850s noted that they had schools in most every block, but that every night schools were converted into dancing schools, and he observed with some displeasure that they should go to school, but they must go to dancing school. I think that there's a connection with the place of dancing in Mormon history and the concept of an embodied God, because we believe that God the Father as well as Jesus Christ are physical, embodied beings; that elevates the body to a heavenly status. ...

Brigham Young once said that he supported and endorsed any activity that tended to happify, and I think that there's a kind of exuberance and celebration that is in many ways a result of that same collapse of sacred distance that was so central to Joseph Smith's thinking. Instead of denigrating the things of the body in order to elevate the things of the spirit, Joseph always argued that it was the successful incorporation of both that culminated in a fullness of joy. So dancing is, I think, in many ways just an emblem or a symbol of a kind of righteous reveling in the physical tabernacle that we believe is a stage on our way to godliness itself. ...

Thomas Kane, [author of The Mormons, published in 1850,] visited the Saints on the prairie. He said it was one of the most haunting, haunting experiences, to see the vast stretches of isolation and loneliness, and then you'd hear the soft strains of classical music coming over the hills, and there would be the Saints, gathered around, playing music and dancing. And so it apparently accompanied them all the way West. ...

[How were Mormons persecuted, and why did they seem threatening to non-Mormons?]

There's no question that the Mormons probably endured more systematic persecution in America than any other religious group. Some of that was brought on by themselves. In the Missouri years especially, where the first real serious persecution emerged, they were very intemperate in their rhetoric. They tended to emphasize that they were to inherit the land. They used language that differentiated between the Saints and the Gentiles, and they tended to proselytize the Indians, which aroused suspicions, and they tended to be very triumphalistic. Not to mention the fact that in a very, very real sense, they physically congregated in numbers sufficient to completely alter the political dynamics in those counties where they settled. So old citizens were rightly alarmed where suddenly, quite suddenly, almost overnight, they were losing sovereignty over the areas that they themselves had so long settled and owned politically. ...

However, it's also important to point out that there were reasons that existed completely independently of any of those political or cultural or social factors. For example, [in] the documents that the mobs actually created, in which they articulated their reasons for dissatisfaction with the Mormons and their reasons for insisting on the Mormon exodus, they were quite frank in expressing that they found the Mormons' claims to supernatural gifts offensive. They found the Book of Mormon itself a blasphemous imposition. And so much as recent historians have tried to sideline religion as one of the central motives behind the conflict, it's there. It's inescapably present in the documents of the period. ...

And for you the heart of [Mormon persecution] is what?

Well, in my own study of Mormon persecution, I was not looking for any single cause, but I was looking if there any constant threads in Mormon persecution. Of course polygamy comes to mind immediately in any discussion of the Mormon problem. However, polygamy wasn't publicly announced until 1852, and it wasn't widely known until really the mid-1840s, and the persecutions had begun several years before that time.

My reading of popular fiction, in which Mormons prominently figured as villains throughout the 19th century, as well as historical sources, convinced me that one of those common threads that existed from the very, very beginning was Mormonism's propensity to redefine the conditions of faith. ... In other words, Mormonism tends to collapse that distance that generally is held to be an absolutely essential ingredient in our experience of the divine, that sense of worshipful distance that should [be] attain[ed] between man and his God. The Mormons collapsed that over and over and over again. ...

In many cases, I think it was just the level of specificity [and] the brazenness with which Joseph's gaze penetrated the veils of heaven. I think it's significant that when he described, for example, the visitor, the Angel Moroni, he even describes the clothing he has on. He says he could see that he wore nothing under his robe, that it was a seamless garment. That level of detail and specificity we're not supposed to be able to obtain when we're talking about things that are supposed to be ineffable or transcendent or beyond human gaze. ...

[What happened at Haun's Mill?]

... A number of events had set the stage for violent confrontation between Mormons and old settlers. There had been inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the aisle. ...

There was a settlement of a few dozen Mormons along a creek at Haun's Mill. … [At] the end of October, a group of up to 200 or 300 horsemen, on some accounts, rode into the town of Haun's Mill. The women grabbed the children and ran into the woods. The men made for the blacksmith shop, presumably because that's where the arms were stored.

The horsemen quickly surrounded the blacksmith's shop, and because the logs hadn't been chinked, they were able to stick their muskets thought the gaps in the logs. They were able to open fire through the logs and massacred as many as 18 men and boys. Some they hacked to death with corn cutters. Others they shot at point-blank range, including even children as young as 9. It was certainly one of the most horrible and tragic events in that entire history of conflict between Mormonism and United States citizens. ...

It wasn't until I was a senior in college that I realized that I had ancestors who were actually there at Haun's Mill. I went to the Church Historical Department, did some digging around, and actually found an account written by a great-great-great-aunt of mine, who was a young girl at the time. She described both the event and its aftermath in vivid detail many years after the fact.

She wrote, as the mob descended upon the village of Haun's Mill -- the young girl's name was Artemisia Myers -- her mother took her by the hand and ran with her into the woods, where they hid. When the word came that the massacre had been accomplished and the mobbers had left, they came back into the village. And here it was, many, many, many years later, she's remembering that day as a young girl of 9 being taken by her mother into this center of the village and seeing a scene of just carnage and devastation.

But the one image that seemed to stand out in her mind decades and decades later was the sound of the bodies as they placed them on a door and slid them into a well, one after another, until all 18 had been deposited in a well. Apparently they feared the mobbers would return and desecrate the bodies. I've often wondered [what] the horror of that sound must have held for that young girl, who apparently remembered it for the rest of her life. ...

Then there's the question of are Mormons Christian? It's a paradox; according to Mormons, perhaps the Christians aren't Christian!

Part of the problem is insolvable because Mormons are using "Christians" in one sense; everybody else is using it in another. When Mormons say we're Christian, [what] we mean is we believe in Christ. And we do. We believe there is no salvation outside of Christ, that he is the Son of God.

But when everybody else uses the term, what they mean is there's this historically defined tradition that gives us definition through a set of formal creeds of Christianity, and you don't participate in that tradition or that belief, and they're right. So we're talking at cross purposes.

What is a ward? ...

... One of the really distinct ways that Mormons organize themselves is that they organize themselves geographically. Now, many churches used to do that -- you still have the idea of the parish -- but in no other faith community, in the United States at least, is it the case that where you live absolutely determines where you will worship. One has to consider, what are the implications and the repercussions of that practice? One would think that it would be a greater force of friction and discomfort because you are thrown in with people that you don't willingly choose to associate with until one remembers, oh, but usually we call that a family. ... That's one of the explanations I think for this uniquely cohesive bond that characterizes Mormon wards.

But I think there are several other things that account for these tremendous emotional and spiritual bonds. Some of them are the practices of Mormonism, such as the fast and testimony meeting. There's something remarkable that happens when once a month individuals stand up in front of each other and bare their hearts and express their deepest loves and longings and values and experiences. That practice of making yourself vulnerable is a practice that I think forges very practical bonds.

There's the sheer amount of time that Mormons spend together. Mormons have meetings during the week. They have a three-hour marathon of worship service on Sunday. They have leadership meetings early Sunday and also during the week. They have service projects. They go home teaching; they go visiting teaching. They take temple trips together. So there is much more interpersonal contact within a Mormon ward than is true of many, many congregations. ...

Since there's no professional clergy, nobody gets paid. The service that is rendered is all voluntary. Of course the father of the ward, so to speak, is the bishop. The bishop we feel is called by revelation, with the recommendation from the stake president, but the call comes from Salt Lake. Then that bishop assumes the burden of using his revelation and inspiration in order to designate all of the other callings in the ward. So everybody from the piano player to the Sunday school teacher is called in a manner that we believe is characterized by heavenly communication, inspiration, where the Lord instructs that bishop that he is to call that person to that office.

The amount of time spent in callings can vary tremendously. If you're a bishop, you can find yourself working hours that are comparable to a second job. You spend time in Correlation meetings, welfare meetings, priest executive committee meetings, bishop rec meetings; you preside over the three-hour block of meetings. You're usually present at the youth meetings that are held during the week; you accompany them when they take temple trips. You participate in service projects; you minister individually to members of the ward; you serve as a marriage counselor; you sometimes go out with the missionaries and help them to proselytize. So there are enormous demands on your time.

It's also the case that some bishops, for example, are responsible not only for attending to the needs of members of their ward, but even nonmembers of the community. For example, in my time as a bishop, I was designated what is called a transient bishop, which means I'm responsible not only for those members of my ward, but also for others who happen to be passing through, sometimes claiming to be members, sometimes not. ...

I remember one Easter Sunday in particular. I looked forward to that Easter Sunday because I thought, "Today of all days maybe the phone won't ring, and maybe I can spend this family just entirely with my family." And sure enough, just as I sit down to the meal the phone rang, and it turned out to be a very, very distraught father who was unemployed, was not a member of our church and didn't claim to be. But as I heard his story I was convinced that his problems were real and that he was sincere. He had three daughters, and he was concerned about how he was going to feed them over the next week. So I left my meal and my family and met him at the supermarket, and together we shopped for the necessities that would get him through that week. ... I felt it was an appropriate use of my time, and I felt it was an appropriate use of the funds for which I was responsible, and a rare exception perhaps, but it was one instance where it was an activity that didn't fall within that normal purview of the weekly services of a bishop. ...

A structure is set up to enable people to serve? How is that?

I think one of the great myths of our day is the distinction we try to make between religion and spirituality. It's so common for people to say, "I'm not very religious and I don't go to church, but I go into the mountains and I commune with God." The problem with that is that true religion is found only in service. Finding God is only possible by serving other people. And the function of a church, among others, is to create that context in which we can come together and serve each other and minister to each other. One can't find those opportunities by going alone to a mountaintop and contemplating the mysteries of life.

So that's one of the great services the church provides, is creating opportunities for every single member of the ward. In a typical ward you'll have over 200 callings. There's something for every single person to do to feel that they are actually making a real contribution to the life of somebody else.

Part of what happens [in the temple] is secret, but in general, what is happening there that gives a sense of the essence of Mormonism?

There's much that transpires within a Mormon temple that is too sacred to talk about in public forms, but there's much that isn't.

We haven't addressed enough what I think is one of the central beauties of the temple. I'm reminded of a revelation the prophet Joseph received in which he said the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there in the celestial kingdom; only it will be coupled with the eternal glory, which we do not now enjoy. Now, that's a wonderful vision of heaven, because what he's saying is that heaven is constituted really out of a set of exalted relationships that we're a part of. Those relationships are familial, but they also extend to friends.

In the temple, at two levels that truth is reflected, because on the one hand, most of what transpires there involves performing sacred ordinances on behalf of people that have already died in order to weld together families in chains: husbands to wives, parents to children, children to ancestors. In a very real sense the temple exists primarily to forge those eternal relationships that will service into the eternities.

But on the other hand, the temple exists as a kind of a microcosm of that heavenly world that we hope to inhabit, and that's what makes the temple a joyful experience to me. It's just absolutely delightful to know that there is one place that you can go, and when you walk through the doors -- for example, we go to the Washington temple. There's an actual bridge that takes you from the annex into the temple proper. It's glass-lined so that as you walk into the temple precinct, you can actually see yourself leaving the world behind. Then you enter into a realm where every single person in that huge edifice is smiling; every person is friendly; everybody is happy to see you. There is nothing but quiet conversation and loving expressions of kindness and people serving and helping each other. If there wasn't anything else that happened in the temple, knowing that you were going to a place that only those who had coveted it and committed to try to live Christ-like lives are permitted to enter -- it's not a question of people being perfect enough to enter the temple; it's a question of people being required to be committed enough to enter the temple, to show that their hearts are pure and that they're aspiring to live as true disciples of Christ. And to be surrounded for several hours a day in that environment is one of the great, great experiences of Mormon life.

[What is the process to enter the temple?]

Before any Latter-day Saint can enter into the temple, he or she must have what's called the temple recommend, which is a little certificate which is signed by both a bishop or a bishop's counselor, or a stake president or a stake president's counselor. The way to obtain one of the temple recommends is you need to pass through a series of interviews that are sometimes called worthiness interviews. I think the name is somewhat misleading, because in order to qualify to enter the temple, you don't have to prove yourself a pure and virtuous person. What you have to really pass is what I would call a minimum standard of worthiness that shows that you are making a good-faith effort to abide by the principles of the Gospel. You need to show that you're committed enough to be paying your tithing, that you're living the word of wisdom, that you're faithful to your spouse and those kinds of things.

What that recommend represents is not an endorsement that you're a good person; what it represents is access to a temple that represents the fullness of the blessings that God has in store for his children. For that reason, that temple has powerful symbolic significance, and most people consider it really imperative to have one, even if they don't live in a place where they can attend a temple, because of what it signifies. ...

Can you talk about what has been called a "culture of certainty"? What are the strengths and downsides of that?

Joseph Smith experienced his calling as a prophet in such a way that it imbued him with an unassailable sense of certainty. He knew he was called of God. But he expected other Saints to acquire that same degree of certainty, and that really is the principle that underlies the way missionary work is done today. The whole emphasis is on: Read the Book of Mormon, pray and you will know with certainty that these things are true. ...

Now, it's one thing to have a personal witness of faith, but Mormons have a habit, of course, of testifying in public, in meetings and in missionary work and in door to door. That sense of certainty that you express in public is generally construed as a kind of cultural arrogance. It's unfortunate, because I don't think that Mormons are presuming to come across as arrogant, but they really believe that heavenly things can be known with that same degree of certainty as other forms of knowledge. ...

Do some Mormons feel that the bar is set so high that any questions or uncertainties create a lot of anxiety?

... I think that in Joseph's emphasis on certainty, and on the possibility of a kind of confirmatory revelation from God, that faith sometimes becomes the poor stepchild of Mormonism. ...

What has happened is that the church has been under siege for so long by persecutors, by critics, by skeptics and now by revisionist historians that there is a tendency to associate doubt with calling into question the fundamentals of the church, so I think that those two categories get confused sometimes. I don't think that there is any stigma that gets attached with people who are honestly wrestling through their own religious doubts and questions. But very often that takes the form of calling into question the church's fundamentals, and when those things get confused, then the church reacts defensively.

The question of dissent in this church comes up a lot. What do you think of the complaints that the church is not a hospitable place to explore ideas, to look at shadow sides of Mormon history?

... In principle, or theory at least, the church does not or has not excommunicated for beliefs. ... Action can be taken only when disbelief or heresy becomes public criticism of the church, and that scenario is where I tend to sympathize with the position of the church, where I think every institution has the right to safeguard its members from those who would deliberately set out to undermine the foundations of faith. There's nothing wrong, and should be nothing wrong, with calling into question, with wanting to interrogate or investigate or ask questions. But when people aggressively assume a posture of trying to undermine or contradict church teachings or fundamentals, that's when action might be warranted.

It is significant and important to point out that the church never makes public the transcripts of church disciplinary proceedings; they never make press statements. So in every case where an intellectual has been excommunicated from the church, the public is exposed to only one half of the story, and I don't think it's ever possible to come to fair and just conclusions when we only have half the story. And that's the way it will always be, because the church refuses to divulge those confidential proceedings. ...

How would you characterize the stereotypes of Mormons that were prevalent in the 19th and then even later in the 20th century?

I think the apotheosis of anti-Mormon sentiment was probably evident at the scientific meeting in New Orleans in 1861, when two men stood up to present their findings as what they referred to as a new racial type, which was the Mormon race. They even described what they thought was the physiognomy that was typical of this new race of Mormons: sunken yellowish-greenish eyes, cadaverous visage, gelatinous constitution -- all of these delightful words. ...

Much of this was carried out through the characterization of Mormons in popular fiction of the 19th century. Beginning just a few years before the Civil War, it became increasingly common to use Mormons as a kind of stock villain in dime novels, boys' adventure stories, pulp fiction. Generally the Mormons were constructed into a group of individuals that were physically distinct, linguistically distinct. ... I think that it allayed some of the dread and the anxiety that was provoked by this sense that the Mormons were infiltrating the body politic, and that neighbors and friends and relatives were falling victim to these seducing Mormon missionaries, and we were defenseless because there was no way of identifying them. ...

When did these anti-Mormon stereotypes and sentiments come to a crescendo?

... Much of this was a pretty immediate response to the public announcement of polygamy in 1852, because it was the very next year that the first anti-Mormon novels emerged. Many of them depicted Mormons as a kind of white slavers, who would raid caravans or wagon trains in order to secure brides for the harem of Brigham [Young] or other high-profile church leaders.

Many of the depictions were humorous. Artemus Ward as well as Mark Twain loved to poke fun of polygamy in funny ways, but many of them were much more insidious [insofar] as they imputed to the Mormons a very pervasive culture of violence and coercion and bondage. ...

But people would be surprised to learn the names of some of the authors who actually engaged these caricatures and stereotypes. For example, the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, featured Mormons, Danites [described as] Avenging Angels, as the guilty culprits in that mystery. Zane Grey based at least two of his Western novels on anti-Mormon villains, and so did James Oliver Curwood and just a host of other writers who were really some of the most popular writers of fiction in their day.

When President Garfield was assassinated later on in the century, it was possible in this climate to suspect that the assassin was a Mormon. Now, there was absolutely no grounds for making that connection, except, as the writer pointed out, that the deed had all the villainy and perfidy of Mormonism, and so their fingerprint seemed to be at the scene of the crime.

In Senate testimony it was alleged in the 19th century that Mormons were actually offering human sacrifice on the altars of the Salt Lake Temple. Now, the person making that claim was reading a novel -- most of the novels at that time had appendices that claimed to [be] historic or documentary foundations for these literary treatments. ... So novels are citing history and people giving Senate testimony are quoting fiction, all in order to promulgate this sense of the threat that Mormonism was thought to pose to America, even though they were now geographically remote. ...

Which of those stereotypes persist today?

... I think it is distressing to see the media continue to invoke the polygamy issue as a way of sensationalizing Mormonism. That was the 19th century; we're now in the 21st. The time has to soon come where we just lay that to rest. ...

The irony is that today [Mormons] are often caricatured in mainstream literature for embodying now the center rather than the periphery. They're mocked as white-bread, Ozzie and Harriet, 1950s families, too good to be true, with boring personalities, and so clean-cut that they're slightly nauseating, in the words of one popular writer today. So they can't win for losing. ...

[How has Mormonism changed as the faith has become somewhat more accepted?]

... Brigham Young once said that he feared the day that Mormons would no longer be the object of the pointing finger of scorn. So again, it's one of these paradoxes that you want to have acceptability, you want to be mainstream enough that people will give your message a fair hearing, that you can fraternize with them as fellow Christians, but at the same time you don't want to feel so comfortable that there's nothing to mark you as a people who are distinct, who have a special body of teachings, a special [body of] responsibilities.

I think that once the walls of isolation fell down -- with the coming of the railroad to Utah, the cessation of gathering as a principle, which happened around the turn of the 20th century -- then, how do you maintain that sense of a people distinct, of a people apart? That's the challenge that the church is really wrestling with today. ... How do you manifest that distinctness when you're immersed in a world where you are highly respected, where your members are now named as possible presidential candidates and have numbers out of all proportion in Congress, where some of the most successful businessmen and sports people in America are prominently mentioned as Mormons?

It's very hard, and I think one of the costs is evident in a kind of nostalgia that Mormons have for the pioneer heritage. There's almost a sense that we're not only proud of those pioneers who perished by the thousands along the way West, but that we're envious, because they were provided with tests of their faith that enabled them to manifest forth their greatness, but also their devotion by what they were able to sacrifice. ...

What does revelation mean to you, and has it changed over time?

There's no question that the nature and the scope of revelation seems to have changed along with the evolution of the church into a modern institution. And I think that those changes, those transitions are in some ways foreshadowed by the different experiences that the early Saints had when they dedicated the Kirtland temple and Nauvoo temple.

When they dedicated the Kirtland temple in the 1830s, it was a day of marvelous Pentecost. We have literally hundreds of accounts of eyewitnesses who heard rushing of wind and saw angels and heard angelic choirs and felt the presence of ministerial angels. It was a day very much like the Pentecost of the New Testament.

Several years later, when they dedicated the temple at Nauvoo, under circumstances that were much more difficult, much more trying -- the aftermath of the prophet's martyrdom, the eve of heading out to the West on their exodus in the midst of persecution and despair -- we have no record that I'm aware of [of] a divine presence, of angelic visitance. Many probably wondered why, when their need was even more acute, did God seem more absent from them than he had in those days in Kirtland?

It may be that as in the history of Christianity itself, at the time foundations are being laid, that God opens the heavens with a fullness and a plentitude that won't be repeated again. That's not to say that revelation has ended. It's to say that I think even in the Mormon Church, as in Christianity as a whole, his manifestations have been more subtle. I think they've been more quiet. But I'm absolutely convinced, because of my personal experiences and because of my association with fellow members in the faith, that those experiences continue nonetheless.

What is your definition of revelation?

Joseph Smith referred to revelation as pure spirit, pure intelligence, communicating the pure intelligence, and I think that if we really believe in a God who is a personal God ... that we have to believe -- unlike [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, who famously called prayer a soliloquy -- that it has to be a dialogue. And if it's a dialogue, then that presupposes actual content that is communicated; that passes from one entity to another, from one person to another person.

So I believe that revelation can take many forms, but the common thread that underlies any true experience of revelation is that there's a personal agent at the other end of the conversation who is communicating something of value and meaning, that is personalized to the person at the other end. It can come through intimations of the heart; it can come through dreams; it can come through an audible voice. It can come through the unfolding of experience; it can come through the actions or the words of others to which the spirit bears testimony that there is a divine consciousness behind the communication of that idea or message or understanding. ...

[What is the role of women in the LDS Church?]

I think the role of women in the LDS Church and in LDS theology is something of a paradox. To an outsider what is most immediately apparent is that the priesthood is limited to men and that there are no women who officiate in the church, and even an institution like polygamy seems to privilege the man over the woman.

Yet at the same time there are many threads in Mormonism that move very, very sharply in the opposite direction. It is clear, for example, that the Mormons were ahead of their time in emphasizing the need and the desirability of women obtaining an education. They gave the vote to women, and women, in fact, ended up being the first to exercise that vote in the state of Utah, before the Congress took it away again when they didn't like the way they used that vote.

Then theologically, there are even more profound ways in which women are clearly put at a position of absolute equality and mutuality with men; for example, the centrality of the family and the absolute conviction at the heart of Mormonism that a man cannot be saved or exalted independently of a woman nor a woman independently of a man; that it is the perfect union of those two that constitutes a unit that can proceed all the way to salvation. There is the emphasis in the Book of Mormon on the culpability of men for much of the sexual immorality that prevails in any given society.

Then perhaps most importantly, Mormonism is probably fairly unique in believing that Eve was a heroine and not a perpetrator of a great crime for which the entire human race will forever bear the scars. We venerate and revere Eve for the courage of her decision. So I think that ultimately, any religious faith that believes that women ultimately can progress to inherit all the forms and status and privileges of godliness is a religion that is very, very empowering to the woman, as much as to the man.

Try looking at it from the other side. … Might some women feel inferior becuase they don't have the priesthood?

I don't think there's a substantial number that I'm aware of, but there may be some women who are less than happy with their status, especially when one considers that that status shifts from time to time. There has been a bit of a pendulum swing. There was a time, for example, when the Relief Society, the organization of women in the church, had greater autonomy: control over their own budget, their own magazine and so forth.

The church has moved in some ways to redress some of those concerns. Women have been given a role in General Conference for the first time in recent years. It's also true that women form a part of those councils that deliberate with the bishop at the ward level and have great input. Yet there may be some who will forever see the denial of the priesthood as an impediment to full equality and participation in the church. But of course the doors are always open in a church that believes in ongoing revelation. ...

[What is the role of welfare in Mormon practice?]

When many people think of Mormonism, the first thing that comes to mind is angels, gold plates, all those wives. Yet Leonard Arrington, the great historian of Mormonism, said that most historians have actually noted that the most distinctive feature of the Latter-day Saint religion, and in many cases the most remarkable, is the extent to which economics have been exalted to an important theological principle in the Mormon Church. It turns out that probably over half of the revelations that Joseph Smith received were economic, either partly or fully, in nature -- everything from the law of tithing to the law of consecration, the way the Saints organized themselves economically in the early years to the way that the Church Welfare Program is so central to the church's understanding of what constitutes a Gospel today. ...

[You've written that the Great Depression served as a wakeup call.]

When many people think of the Mormon Church today, they associate Mormonism with this extraordinarily efficient welfare system: a tradition, really a doctrine, of taking care of their own. Most people, even Mormons, would be very surprised to learn that back in the 1930s, the height of the Great Depression, that Mormons were actually more reliant on public welfare than were most Americans. It was as if they had forgotten, in some ways maybe, their heritage of autonomy and independence and self-reliance.

So in the 1930s, when the church organized the Church Welfare Program, it wasn't really so much an innovation, an introduction of a new system, as much as it was a returning to their roots but updating, modernizing and systematizing that tradition that extended all the way back to that gathering that Joseph initiated back in 1831. ... From the 1930s to the present day that pattern has persisted unabated. It has only undergone changes from time to time that only modernize and render it more efficient.

What structures were put in place? ...

... One of the distinguishing features of the LDS system is the highly structured, highly organized and extremely efficient nature of the organization. Bishop storehouses, for example, exist throughout the world, and they serve as a repository of goods that are accumulated through fast offerings and offerings of members of the church that are made available to bishops to distribute on a case-by-case basis according to the needs that he's aware of at the individual level. ...

When it's brought to his attention through the home teachers or through the Relief Society president [that] there is a case of need or destitution within the church, then the Relief Society is charged with visiting the home of that individual, assessing the needs, filling out the welfare order, which is then submitted to the bishop, who approves it. Then an actual order is passed on to a bishop storehouse, where those goods, those foodstuffs and materials that are required, are delivered to that individual, so that at every level there's supervision, there's accountability, and there is that close interaction between the bishop and the individual members of his ward that occurs throughout every ward, at every area within the church. ...

Can you talk about the remarkable efficiency with which Mormon relief efforts operate?

The efficiency of the Mormon welfare apparatus is really legendary. As early as the beginnings of the 20th century, an American writer said, "The Mormon Church operates with the efficiency of the German Weirmacht." This efficiency is seen at its best in moments of natural disasters such as the Teton Dam disaster of 1976, when over a billion dollars' worth of damage occurred, and almost overnight almost 35,000, 45,000 Latter-day Saints were marshaled into forces and deployed to make order out of chaos and provide emergency relief.

When Hurricane Andrew struck [in Miami-Dade County] in 2002 the stories went around that the Mormon relief trucks were on the way to Florida before the hurricane had even made landfall. In the Hurricane Katrina of 2005 we know that once again the trucks were there before the National Guard was even allowing relief through. So the response is incredibly fast, incredibly efficient.

In recent years especially, those relief efforts have been extended to not just members of the church, but anybody who's in the midst of a disaster or crisis. In the past 20 years alone, the church has responded to over 150 major humanitarian crises around the world. They have provided relief and funds in locations as disparate as Kosovo, North Korea, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. There's hardly a place on the earth where they haven't been seen, providing relief and assistance, and it's often through other, more established channels, like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, but very often, as was the case in Africa, renting their own helicopters to speed relief to areas that were remote and hard to reach. ...

... Every religion is grappling with homosexuality, but Mormons have a different take on this.

I don't think there's a church in America that isn't struggling and wrestling today with the issue of sexual orientation, homosexuality in particular. In the case of Mormonism the church comes to it from a perspective which is probably unlike the perspective of any other religious group. That different perspective has to do with the fact that in Mormon theology, gender is eternal. Mormons believe in a gendered universe. The church recently issued a proclamation on the family, which has the force and efficacy of Scripture to Mormons, in which they stated that gender is an eternal element of human identity.

For a Latter-day Saint, salvation means attainting to a level of godliness in conjunction with a companion [to] whom you are sealed eternally. Mormons also have the belief, of course, that the ability to procreate, to foster progeny, is a gift of God, and it's a right and a privilege and a gift that will persist into the eternities in some way or fashion. That makes it especially difficult to situate within the Mormon theological system a place for homosexuality. ...

... Just seeing the pain that this has caused, and with science [suggesting a biological basis], is this ever a question for you? ...

I don't know about the biological root in this, but that doesn't trouble me theologically. In other words, I'm fully prepared to admit, to accept, that there's no choice involved; that it is a condition that God gave them. So I guess I'm not sure what you're really asking, because my feeling is, I grieve for them, I hurt for them, but I don't condemn them. The church doesn't condemn them. I don't deny them the right of forming associations, relationships that they find satisfying and joy-giving.

But within my theological world, I just have to believe, and I really do believe, that it's like any other burden that we are born with individually. Some are physical; some are emotional; some are psychosomatic; some are sexual. You know, it's a grievous burden to be born [with]. But I don't believe that there is any pronouncement that we as a church could make, or I as an individual could make, that could alleviate that burden, other than to say, "I love you; I grieve for you; I respect you." ...

... [Have you ever considered] that it might not be a wise policy, the way the ban on blacks in the priesthood was not a wise policy? ...

I think there were many of us that were always comfortable with the idea that the black policy would change one day. There was nothing inherent to Mormon theology that necessitated that. Nobody today would ever try to defend it or argue it on those grounds. But as I said, gender, sexuality, marriage, eternal families -- that's the essence and eternal backbone of the church. There's just no logical way to reconcile that with eternal sexuality that I know of, that I can imagine. ...

[Talk about the chaos after Joseph Smith died, and how this religion should have died, but didn't.]

... Joseph was a one-of-a-kind. He had intimated on many occasions, to many people, different channels of succession that would kick in, but it was clear in nobody's mind exactly who was to succeed him. ...

What's really remarkable is how relatively smooth the transition was that took place. Now, there were many who stayed behind and joined various groups or various leaders, but the bulk of the Saints fell in line under Brigham Young. The reason they did that was not because they thought that he was the prophet who took Joseph Smith's place, but it was the principle of continuing the revelation that survived. The belief was intact that once the heavens had been opened again, God would continue to guide and protect his people through prophetic leadership. So it would be three years before Brigham Young actually assumed that title of prophet, but almost immediately the bulk of the people were willing to recognize in him that vehicle or instrument through whom God would continue to direct and lead his people. And of course he immediately showed himself more than adequate to the task of taking over the organization that Joseph had instituted. ...

... [Most religions put family at the heart and soul of their religion. Why is that? And how is Mormonism different?]

There probably isn't a religion today that doesn't claim to be family-centered, and with good reason. Most religions are committed to the value of the family. Most people recognize the family as the central organizing element of our society.

And still there's something different about the place of the family in Mormon culture and Mormon thought. I think it has to do with the way the family is understood in Mormonism: not as an entity of social organization that pertains to this world, but as an organization that has its roots in the pre-mortal world and will persist into the eternal world. ...

[Can you describe the transformation from polygamy as the central organizing family principle to monogamy?]

Oh, I don't have anything to say on that subject. It is too vexed for me. … I can't make sense of it, because there is a fundamental contradiction between elevating the marriage to kind of the apotheosis of spiritual life and rendering sacred and eternal that bond between a man and a woman and the necessary diffusion of that relationship that certainly must occur in any kind of a polygamous relationship. So I certainly can't understand myself how one transitions in Mormon thought from one to the other.

I think there are many of us who can only understand polygamy in terms of the Abrahamic test. And the Abrahamic test, as I understand it, is not that you sacrifice a person or someone who is most dear to you, but is that you sacrifice a principle. In Abraham's case it was the principle of human life, and in polygamy it's that understanding of the sanctity of a monogamous bond between a man and his wife. For reasons known only to God, that was the test required of the Saints during that terribly difficult period. ...

There's a quote from Brigham Young: "Even though a person's body can be buried in the earth, eaten by wild beasts, turned to ashes, the particles will be watched over and preserved until the resurrection. At the sound of the trumpet of God every particle will be reassembled into every man, and not one particle will be lost." What is that speaking to?

There are many religious groups that believe in some kind of eternal duration of the human soul in one form or the other. Mormonism may be a little unusual in its insistence of the restoration of the complete physical organism as it existed in this life. There are Scriptures in the Book of Mormon, there are quotations from Brigham Young that emphasize that not a single atom or particles of our body will be lost, but everything will be reconstituted as fully as it was. It's almost a kind of celebration of the totality of the triumph over death. Not only will something remain, but everything will be reconstituted as it was.

And the temple, which is of course the central feature, the central phenomenon in Mormon spiritual life, exists as a kind of series of ordinances and covenants, which all have, as their central meaning, a transcendence of the power of death to abrogate human relationships, so that the temple exists as a kind of vehicle through which we conquer mortality. ...