Interview Jeffrey Holland

photo of holland

Holland was ordained an apostle of the church in June of 1994 and became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles later that year. He received a bachelor's degree in English and master's degree in religious education from Brigham Young University (BYU) and went on to obtain a master's degree and Ph.D. in American studies from Yale. Prior to joining the Quorum of the Twelve, Holland served as the church commissioner of education and later as president of BYU. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted March 4, 2006.

How far do your Mormon roots go back?

... On my mother's side I'm an old pioneer Latter-day Saint family. ... On my father's side, he's the convert. I'm just barely nudging into the second generation on my father's side. ... I love that. I love that combination. I feel like it's helped me identify with almost everybody who comes to the church. It's been kind of a special combination for me. ...

The origins of the Book of Mormon have been criticized. There have been counterclaims to its origins. ... What are the counterclaims that you've taken seriously?

... The Book of Mormon is ... a matter of faith, but it's there. It's readable. It sits on the table, and it won't go away. ... For me it is ... another testament of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ and the single most [important] piece of evidence, the declaration that Joseph Smith was a prophet. ...

I've thought about it a lot, read it often. ... I wrote a book about the Book of Mormon, partly just because I wanted my own conviction, my testimony, to be in print, even if only for my children's sake. I dismiss out of hand the early criticism that somehow this was a book that Joseph Smith wrote. The only thing more miraculous than an angel providing him with those plates and him translating them by divine inspiration would be that he sat down and wrote it with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook. There is no way, in my mind, with my understanding of his circumstances, his education, ... [he] could have written that book. My fourth great-grandfather -- this goes back to my mother's pioneer side of the family -- said when he heard of the Book of Mormon in England, he walked away from the service saying no good man would have written that, and no bad man could have written it. And for me, that's still the position.

So I disregard the idea that Joseph Smith could have written it. I certainly disregard that somebody more articulate or more experienced in ecclesiastical matters could have written it, like [Smith's close friend and adviser] Sidney Rigdon. Rigdon doesn't even come to the church until the Book of Mormon is out and in circulation for eight or nine months. ...

“We are adamantly not another Protestant religion. But what I don't like ... is the personal antagonism and where otherwise wonderful people can go to dinner together ... have kids on the soccer team together ... and then, when it comes to religion, just start throwing fists.”

Now, in terms of more modern theories, there are those who say it's more mythical literature and spiritual, and not literal. That doesn't work for me. I don't understand that, and I can't go very far with that, because Joseph Smith said there were plates, and he said there was an angel. And if there weren't plates and there wasn't an angel, I have a bigger problem than whether the Book of Mormon is rich literature. ... I have to go with what the prophet said about the book, about its origins, about the literalness of the plates, the literalness of the vision -- and then the product speaks for itself.

I don't think we're through examining the depth, the richness, the profundity, the complexity, all of the literary and historical and religious issues that go into that book. I think we're still young at doing that. But the origins for me are the origins that the prophet Joseph said: a set of plates, given by an angel, translated by the gift and power of God. ...

[You say] there are stark choices in beliefs about the origins of the book. Explain why there's no middle way.

... If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That's what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody's liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book, but not agreeing to its origin, its divinity. ...

I think you'd be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we're not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. ... We would say: "This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I'm going forward. If I can help you work toward that I'd be glad to, but I don't love you less; I don't distance you more; I don't say you're unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can't make that step or move to the beat of that drum." ... We really don't want to sound smug. We don't want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.

... There are some things we can't give away. There are some foundational stones. If you don't have those, you don't have anything. So the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, those are pretty basic things. ...

Others have said Joseph Smith gave us a weeping God; God is not distant and angry.

... I think Joseph Smith was a revolutionary in the holiest, most redemptive, most sacred sense of that word; that he came to testify and show and to let us experience that God not only lives but loves us, that the heavens are open, that this is real. ... Joseph Smith is not divine. We do not worship him. I hope no one out there misunderstands our view of Joseph Smith. He is a man, a mortal, as temporal as any of the rest of us. But his witness, his testimony was of that God and of that Son [Jesus] -- of those spiritual truths, of redemption, of hope, of happiness, of future, of peace, of renewal, of sanctification; that there are better things than we see in the newspaper every day. ... The challenge for every one of us is to try to extend that redemptive, redeeming, hopeful love into the lives of those of us who do not have it. ...

[What does it mean to have an embodied God?]

The first step, in my mind, toward the absolute ease in contemplating an embodied God ... is our commitment ... to the reality of the resurrection. What is the big deal about Christianity if there's no resurrection? We've had other good teachers. There have been other good men and women. This case, this is the first time that anyone who was dead, under his own power and the power given to him by his Father, got up, took off his own burial garments and ascended into heaven, embodied. If it is no mystery that Christ is embodied -- and that's the entire significance, to me, of the resurrection -- then there is no challenge to me, intellectually or otherwise, in taking the next step to say God his Father can certainly be embodied. ... But I do agree that it does seem foreign, and it does seem quite revolutionary. ...

When Joseph Smith saw [God and Jesus], he saw embodied beings. He saw men the way you and I would see men, with all the biblical features, the way Moses said he saw them, with eyes and ears and hands and faces. And behind that is the great humanity of such men: hearts. ... So we are unequivocal in our declaration that Joseph Smith saw beings, glorified and beyond description, not looking like I look to you -- thank heavens -- but nevertheless embodied, with arms and fingers that touch, and the same finger that Moses saw write those tablets, yes.

Talk about the foundational myths of other religions and why you feel the leap of faith in every religion is no greater or less than the others.

In the end, when you push Mormonism, when you push the greater circle of Christianity, Judaism, other religions, ... it always comes to faith. It will forever come to faith, or it isn't religion in any way that I understand religion. So much that we deal with, so much that we count on, so much that we hope for, so much that we pray about is beyond our reach. It is not sensory; it's not scientific; it's not rational. I think nobody's more engaged in reason and science and culture and history than we are. ... We're engaged in that. Nevertheless, ... everybody has a leap of faith. ...

Why is the appearance of angels in the Old Testament less satisfying or more threatening than the appearance of an angel in upstate New York in the early part of the 19th century or today? The miracles of the Old Testament should not have been startling to people in the time of the New Testament, and New Testament miracles should not be foreign to us today. ...

It's much easier to believe or conceive the traditions of 4,000 years ago -- a lot easier than 40 years ago, let alone four weeks ago. It's just easier to have that distance.

The other bold idea of Mormonism is the idea that man can become God. What does that mean?

It is bold, bold doctrine. It is easy to see why, cavalierly said, ... that it would be deeply offensive. There is nothing in this that is intended to offend. Where this starts with us is we take literally the fact that we're children of God, ... and if children, then heirs, heirs of the Lord Jesus Christ. ...

It does not mean any displacing of God. I think that's one of the first great offenses is that this looks like God is replaceable or removable. There is no teaching of that. Our God will always be our God forever and forever and forever. And Christ will always be Christ forever and forever and forever. But then we would say that we're divine, at least in spiritual heritage. That's why we call him our Father in Heaven. And we believe that we have a destiny with him in his company, ... given growth, the idea of progression and development eternally. ... How much time that takes, how much effort is required to achieve that, I do not know and wouldn't presume to know. ... It's to hope that people will see the divinity in women and men and achieve that -- pursue it, live for it, act like it, want it. That's as much as I know to say about that part of destiny.

... Tell me [about your mission].

As you've probably heard from others, my mission meant everything to me, partly because my father had been a convert and there really hadn't been a long tradition of missionaries in my life. So I was kind of venturing out a little bit onto new ground. ... It really was a pivotal, defining, electrifying moment in my life. ... I'd never worked harder; I'd never searched my soul more. Because I went to England, I'd never been that wet. It rained every day, it seemed. ...

Early on, I was very new and very green. I'd only been out a few months, maybe three months, and I had a new companion fresh from the farmlands of Alberta. We were walking and knocking on doors and getting wet, and walking and knocking on doors and getting wet, and we finally got in once. Someone invited us in, and it turned out to be a very bright, very intelligent, Oxford-trained, as I recall, British gentleman. Youngish -- early 40s. He invited us in, quite willing to listen to these two Mormon missionaries. ...

I bore my testimony. At some point in our exchange, I told him that I knew this was true, and he pushed me on that. ... He said, "Now tell me about knowing." Well, that was one of the defining moments. I did something that I hope I've never done since. And I know more now than I knew when I was 19. But when he said, "How do you know?," or "What does it mean to know?," or "What's the nature of knowledge?," well, I remembered having taken Philosophy 101, ... and I knew how to handle this question. I remember saying some stupid thing, some wholly unacceptable thing about knowledge or things that were axiomatic or things that were a priori knowledge. ...

Before I knew it I was in big trouble. ... And it was clear that not then and not now -- and I've taken a few more classes since then -- but not then and not now is it possible to talk about much of this, the deepest meanings of our belief. It wasn't possible to talk about it either from Descartes or Spinoza, let alone Kant; that, in a way, [our belief] had nothing to do with that. What I should have known that night, and what I learned painfully, was that I was out of context. I didn't have the slightest idea where I was going or what I was saying, and I don't think I've ever done that since. ... It was a valuable and painful lesson. ...

That doesn't mean, by the way, that there aren't reasonable, rational, discussable, articulate ways to talk about your faith. But when you're 19, and maybe when you're 65, start from where you should start. Start from the real beginning -- and that's matters of the heart, matters of the spirit, matters of knowledge that are personal and divine.

Was there one evening [on your mission when you felt your faith deepen]?

I can tell you that evening, and probably with any review of my ... missionary journal I could tell you the date. I can picture the night in Guildford, Surrey, England. Late -- probably should have been in bed. I was a good missionary, and I tried to keep the rules. You get up on time, and you go do your work, and you stay healthy. But I was reading later that night. It was early in my mission, and I can picture it. I can picture my room. ... It was pretty spare. But I can remember ... having just been studying the Book of Mormon. I can remember closing the book and sobbing. I absolutely sobbed. I wept. The front of my shirt was wet. My tie was wet. I was still dressed, still in missionary attire.

But I wept. I could not stop. And it wasn't homesickness. I've known homesickness. It wasn't the euphoria of the moment. I'd known euphoria and despair. ... It wasn't that. I'd had all those experiences. It was a declaration to my soul that this book was divine; that this was true; that God lived and loved us, and Jesus was the Christ, and prophets really were prophets, and it really did matter what you did in life, and heaven really did care. And I just wept. ...

... I have heard people talk about that period in England [in the 1950s and early 1960s] in which there was a tremendous amount of pressure for conversion. ... Is that something you became aware of?

... That was a period prior to my time there. I was able to see a good deal of the aftermath of that, of large numbers of conversions, young conversions, ... that we tried to contact to see if they were still engaged in the church. So I sort of lived with the history of that. ... We're still very anxious with our young people, wherever they are in the world, but I don't think we have replicated that, ... where there was an inordinate rush of young people into the church. ...

I know that you've been to Chile, ... and you're aware of a retention problem in the church. [What's happening and does it concern you?]

President [Gordon B.] Hinckley, ... I don't know if there's a subject he's spoken [about] more directly and more emphatically than retention. Now, retention simply means that we'd like to keep everybody in the church that comes to the church. I suppose every church would like that. I don't know whether any church succeeds at that very well. There must be lapsed almost everything. There must be lapsed Presbyterians; there must be lapsed Episcopalians. And there are lapsed Latter-day Saints. ...

Nobody wants the child to miss out on what the parent had, or nobody wants the grandchild to not understand what a grandfather or grandmother were committed to. So it was a constant message for [President Hinckley], very emphatic, and I think all for the correct reasons: Teach better; teach as responsibly as we can as missionaries. Be more warm; be more welcoming. Extend that fellowship more generously when those people come in. Try to address some of the changes and some of the challenges when you come to the church.

We ask quite a bit of people when they join this church. They walk away from old habits; you know our position on smoking and drinking and things like that. We ask them to contribute offerings to the church; we have ... a biblical doctrine of tithing. As they mature and come along, we love to have the sons and daughters go on missions if they choose to do that, and on and on and on. We really ask for a bit. We don't apologize for that, but I think what President Hinckley is saying is let's be aware of that, let's be sympathetic and mindful of that, and carefully and gently with our arm around these new converts, and help them take those steps and not cataclysmically go off over the cliff on this basic decision to get baptized and come into the church. ...

In the parable of the lost sheep, any loss is too much of a loss. We would leave 90 and nine to go find one any time we could. That is the savior's example and teaching and ministry. ... We're committed to every single solitary individual that comes to us in this church -- and again, not that others aren't, but we keep records. We want to know who they are and where they are so that when they move, we try to find where they move so that the church can pick them up there. I think many congregations would like to do that. I think many other religious faiths would love to be as systematic about that as we try to be. But we try to really work at it. I don't say that in a self-vaunting way. I'm saying that may count in part for our numbers and activities. I think other parishes or congregations may simply hope that whoever is out there will come. Well, with us we really try to document who's out there and go find them. ...

Where were you when you heard that the ban was lifted on blacks in the priesthood?

I can remember exactly where I was. For us that's the "where we [were] when Kennedy was shot," this deep, deep, spiritual, emotional moment in the history of the church. I was a very young commissioner of education, still in my 30s, and I was coming over from my office in the church office building to the suite of General Authority offices for something or other. ... I walked into the office of the General Authority I was going to see, and he said, "Have you heard the news?" This was barely moments out of the temple meeting and the announcement where it was official. And I said: "What news? I haven't heard any news." And he said all worthy men -- regardless of race or status or circumstance -- all worthy men are to receive priesthood.

You're going to think all I do is cry, but this is in the same family as that missionary experience I described to you. I started to cry, and I was absolutely uncontrollable. I felt my way to a chair ... and I sort of slumped from the doorway into the chair and held my head, my face in my hands and sobbed. ...

There's no issue in all my life that I had prayed more regarding -- praying that it would change, praying that it would come in due time. I was willing to have the Lord speak, and I was loyal to the position and the brethren and the whole concept, but there was nothing about which I had anguished more or about which I had prayed more. And for that to be said in my lifetime, when I wasn't sure it would happen in my lifetime, ... it was one of the absolute happiest days of my life. ...

I've talked to many blacks and many whites as well about the lingering folklore [about why blacks couldn't have the priesthood]. These are faithful Mormons who are delighted about this revelation, and yet who feel something more should be said about the folklore and even possibly about the mysterious reasons for the ban itself, which was not a revelation; it was a practice. So if you could, briefly address the concerns Mormons have about this folklore and what should be done.

One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. ... I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. ... They, I'm sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. ...

It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don't know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. ... At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, ... we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.

What is the folklore, quite specifically?

Well, some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised. I really don't know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I've been able to live in the period where we're not expressing or teaching them, but I think that's the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. ... But I think that's the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. ... We just don't know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. ... That's my principal [concern], is that we don't perpetuate explanations about things we don't know. ...

We don't pretend that something wasn't taught or practice wasn't pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we're absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that's not perpetuated in the present. That's the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic. ...

[How did you learn about the Mountain Meadows Massacre in which Mormon militia men killed at least 120 men, women and children on a pioneer wagon train from Arkansas?]

I grew up in the shadow of Mountain Meadows and knew about it -- sometimes in sort of hushed tones -- but knew about it from my childhood on. ... My next-door neighbor ... was the grandson of John D. Lee, ... [who] is known in the church as having been one of the local leaders who paid for that with his life, who was executed at governmental direction in some effort to bring that to closure. ...

As a young man, as a teenager, ... that's when I first came in contact with Juanita [Brooks'] book [Mountain Meadows Massacre]. Juanita was my high school English teacher. I grew up with her sons and daughter, and they're still dear friends to this day. ... I don't ever remember her ever talking to me about it. I don't think she saw that as her call. Certainly she never talked about it in any public way, not like a high school literature class. I don't even remember a back-lawn conversation about it. What little bit I knew, I knew from her book, and that's probably the way most people knew about it. ... It was the way most of us became acquainted with the challenge, the difficulty, the tragedy of Mountain Meadows. ...

Nobody's done more than President Hinckley in current times, in current terms, to try to get closure, to try to express regret, apologies or whatever -- not for the church, not institutionally. No, try as people may, there has never been any smoking gun in Brigham Young's hand or anyone else's at that level of leadership of the church. But there was clearly local responsibility. I don't think anybody's denying that. ... What we do know is that it was a tragedy. What we do know is that lives were taken, and that never should have been. ...

I've heard from so many people about how Juanita was treated after she wrote that book. This is a difficult truth to come to terms with. You were there. ... How did you observe her being treated after that?

... I didn't sense any great burden for her. Juanita was a strong woman. She was a very, very strong woman out of the hardscrabble world that southern Utah and southern Nevada settlers came [from]. ... I did not sense a sort of personal anguish, but you have to understand that by the time I would have been old enough ... that this is more than a decade after her publishing the book. ... When I knew Juanita and knew her family, she was a temple-going, tithe-paying, absolutely faithful Latter-day Saint. ... I saw her living out her life with the peace and tranquility [of someone] who had done a good piece of history and probably helped the church come to grips with something that all of us wish had never happened. ...

[In the context of the Mountain Meadows Massacre,] have you ever felt Mormons are held to a higher standard?

I'm willing to be held to the highest possible standard, ... although I have thought why hasn't the Haun's Mill experience, prior to Mountain Meadows, why hasn't anybody been exorcized about that? What about the parents who lost children there? Now, two wrongs do not make a right. ... It should not be justification, but I think it's at least context, and it's history. And probably, while a great many people may or may not know the phrase Mountain Meadows, I don't know that anybody knows Haun's Mill. And I'm just very happy, frankly, that they don't. That's why I say two wrongs don't make a right. Let's not dredge up anything that doesn't have to be dredged up. ...

The only thing that I would say -- this is not to raise some sort of persecution complex ... -- but we are a church which has had an extermination order issued against us. That is unprecedented in the history of this God-fearing nation. There has never been an extermination order against a religious belief, except us. Now, we're not whining about that. ... But our people knew hate. Our people knew what it was like to be hated; they knew what it was like to have their children killed; they knew what it was like to have their prophet murdered in cold blood. ... Their blood has been spread across six states, and then across the Oregon Trail. ...

That isn't justification. ... Everybody has known tough times. But you raise a very sensitive, difficult subject, and at the very least, in fairness to those who went through it and experienced it, it has to be seen in some frontier context of what had been a very, very difficult 30 years for Mormon pilgrims. ...

... How do you think Mormons were perceived by the ordinary 19th-century man or woman on the frontier? ... What were they so afraid of?

In a way, I still ask that in the dawn of the 21st century. Why are people still so afraid? Why do we evoke the emotion and the startled, sort of eyes-wide-open experience? Why do we engender that? I don't know that I know the answer to it. ...

On the frontier, I think part of the threat was that we were so focused. The frontier by definition was ragged or rugged or both. ... It was wild and woolly, and people were unorganized and disheveled. And here come the Mormons, ... with order and focus and determination and some beginning of power. ... Joseph Smith wanted to run for president of the United States. ...

We're still pretty organized. ... I'm proud of that, when in a tragedy like [Hurricane] Katrina you can count on the Mormons. They'll be there. They'll be there with their hammers and their saws and their donated labor. And ... when they're through with this community, they'll go on to the next.

I'm proud of that kind of that order, but I think it can be threatening. I think it was threatening then, and I think it can be threatening now. Katrina is an example of some people who did not want our help simply and solely because we were Mormons, not one other reason in this world. People would say: "No, thank you. We'd rather do without than have the Mormons enter these premises." That I struggle with. That I do not understand. ...

[I remember a conversation we had where you suggested that perhaps part of why Mormons have faced so much opposition is that there's a theological level to it having to do with evil. Can you talk about that?]

... Why are we opposed? Why are we hated? ... My belief and our doctrine is that there is evil in this universe. There is a devil; there is a Lucifer. ... His great quest -- I believe this literally and truly -- ... is to make all men miserable, like unto himself. ... I do believe that force exists in the world, and I do believe that it's part of the opposition to the movement of the church and probably the [opposition] of any good person, anybody trying to do good. He's constitutionally opposed to goodness. ... I'm not imputing the evil to the person [who opposes Mormonism]; I'm talking about a more universal, theological evil that I believe is exploited and is at work. And I think that when bad things happen to good people, it can be because there is evil in the world.

There have been a number of people in your church who have been disciplined or excommunicated for stepping over some line. ... What are those lines, ... those troubled areas where irreducible beliefs come into play?

... Every institution has to define itself somehow. ... As much as I admire it, this is not the Rotary Club. This is not an overly large scout troop, boy or girl. We are a church, and we have beliefs that define us, and that has to be for anything that would be a religion in the sense you and I talk about it. ...

You don't have to be in this church. You can be in any church you want. ... Now, for those that want the blessing of the church, ... there's a little bit of a price for that. Maybe it's a big price in terms of sacrifice and loyalty. Maybe it's a big price. But there's some price that's paid for the blessing, the participation, the identity and laying claim on the covenantal promises. ...

We don't discipline people in this church for very much. In a church of over 12 million people, I keep hearing about the September Six [the 1993 excommunication and disfellowshipping of six Mormon academics]. ... All I'm saying is, I think this church has a history of being very, very generous. There are some lines -- I'd probably say "lines," plural. The chief among these is the issue of advocating against the church. Personal beliefs within the give-and-take of life and associations and whatever you choose -- there are lots of people who carve out their life in the church all the way out to the edge and beyond. I guess that's always the way it's been, and that's always the way it will be. But I think where the church will act is when there is an act so decisive or so glaring, and particularly in this case, so much cast in the spirit of advocacy, that the institution itself cannot retain its identity and still allow that.

If somebody said tomorrow, a member of the church, "I am now the prophet of the church, and I'm declaring that, and I'm buying airtime on the local television station to tell you that, and Gordon Hinckley is not the president anymore," he's probably going to get disciplined, because we can't live without our sanction of the president of the church and the order of the church, and he's out of bounds. ...

What about people who question the history of the Book of Mormon?

There are plenty of people who question the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and they are firmly in this church -- firmly, in their mind, in this church -- and the church isn't going to take action against that. [The church] probably will be genuinely disappointed, but there isn't going to be action against that, not until it starts to be advocacy: "Not only do I disbelieve in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, I want you to disbelieve." At that point, we're going to have a conversation. A little of that is more tolerated than I think a lot of people think it should be. But I think we want to be tolerant any way we can. ... "Patient" maybe is a better word than "tolerant." We want to be patient and charitable to the extent that we can, but there is a degree beyond which we can't go. ...

Is there a tension between faith-promoting history and factual, scholarly history?

... I don't know of any institution that has had complete peace with its historians, with its storytellers. ... I am not afraid of history. I don't know of anybody who's afraid of history. Whatever our history is, that's our history. That's it. Whatever. I know what I love. I know what makes me a Latter-day Saint. I ... had faith before I had doubt, and I have faith after any doubts have been explored. ...

You don't want somebody else telling you your history, and therefore I would like to tell my children, and the children of the church, the youth of the church collectively, I'd like to be having them hear it from friends rather than enemies. I'm just doubtful about the motives of some. ... But there is not anything anybody can say to me that will make me afraid of my history. ... But I think we are genuinely anxious to teach in a way that is appropriate and enlivening.

The area of history that is most disturbing to some is the messy beginnings with polygamy. There was a serious religious principle involved. I have the sense of the church pulling away from or not wanting to talk about it. ... It will never disavow that it was practiced; it will never disavow that it was believed, that it had biblical precedent. ... I myself -- like probably, I don't know, 95 percent of the current General Authorities of the church -- I am the product, at least on my mother's side, of polygamous great-great-grandparents, four, five generations back. So I'm not going to disavow my past, and I'm not going to disavow the church's past.

In the same breath, we will be unequivocal in declaring that it is not now practiced, and say it with equal energy, with equal vehemence. ... As of 1890 we believe it was revealed [not to practice plural marriage], and so therefore the change is not the doctrine or the practice, but the issue is revelation -- the founding, guiding principle of the church. So it's loyalty to the revelation. It's loyalty to the role of the prophet. ...

Now, about the reasons for [polygamy] or the process and the challenges of it, ... I am glad that I was not asked to live something that was as difficult to live. I think this may bring a wry, sardonic, cynical smile from somebody in the audience when I say that I believe it was as hard for the men to live as it was for the women. ... But it was not easy. It was not sexual. It was not whimsical. ... Institutionally ... this was something more significant; this was something more biblical, almost literally.

But when the change came, the loyalty was every bit as demanding to absent oneself from it, to leave it, as it was to live it. I don't know, not having been there, not having heard Joseph Smith teach it, not having seen the Western church, the Utah church, in later development live it more broadly. I cannot speak to the pluses or the minuses. I know my own history; I know my own great-great-grandparents' stories. ... But it is a little hard for me to say this is how I would have acted; this is what I would have thought about it. I just know we don't disavow it, and we do not now advocate it.

How was polygamy was connected to religious principle?

... It was a spiritual principle.... It was not licentiousness run amok. ... It was higher and holier than that. It may not in every instance have been practiced as appropriately as it should have been. ... Why it would have been a principle of exaltation and of eternity I'm not sure I know, and I'm not sure anybody knows. ...

All I can offer at this point, I think, is the feeling that belief as I see it in my own wife, as I see it in my own mother and I see it in my daughters -- this is not to disparage men in any way -- but there is something more given to spirituality in most women than I think there is in most men. Please don't present that as a disparagement or some sort of reverse-sexism comment about men. I just believe that women are more inclined to things spiritual.

I don't know that that's documentable or if that's defensible. I don't know if you can get any data on it. But I know women. I'm married to one; I'm the son of one; I'm the father of some. ... I know there is something holy, if you let me use that word, about a woman's faith, about a woman's heart, about her spirit. And I am only wondering with you -- on record, but still wondering -- if somehow in the final equation of this, it was a way to account for the eternal possibilities and blessings and promises of all women, as well as all men, who qualify -- whatever it is to qualify -- for exaltation and eternal life and the promises of the future.

We believe that marriage is eternal. One of the fundamental premises of this church is that family is forever. I know, in my life, that it won't be heaven without my wife, and it will not be heaven without my children, because that's true, and if that's some eternal principle, and if there's something eternally splendid about that, then God in his goodness must have some way to let everybody share in as much of that as possible. And I believe that our doctrine points toward that. ...

What would you say to modern polygamists who think they're living the higher law?

First of all, I grew up in southern Utah with people from Colorado City, [a modern-day polygamist community]. I went to school with their children. I know something of the travails of that complexity. I've been aware of that for a long time.

To the more responsible ones, the ones who really do believe they're trying to live a higher law, my only real answer to them is there cannot be a higher law than one that is revealed to God's prophet. ... There is not going to be some individual ... who is privy to a higher law than what God's anointed is given. So as long as he declares [plural marriage] not God's law, ... I have to declare my allegiance to that voice. ... And I'm not at liberty, at the peril of losing all the other blessings I want from high laws, to go against that and lose my membership in the church and the other blessings that I want.

Therefore, when we talked about lines that we can't cross, this is one of those lines. ... Plural marriage is grounds for excommunication in this church. It's one of the few, but it's clear, and it's visible; it's defended. ... Maybe with more time, ... maybe we can talk about it with more distance, with more dispassion, with more historical clarity, and telling the average visitor this was our polygamist past. But I think that it is too recent with too many people. This may sound defensive, but too many people think we still advocate it. So it almost strikes us, if we say anything about it, if we hardly say even the word, someone's going to say, ... "The Mormons are on the verge of reintroducing polygamy," or "They're secretly practicing it." ... Therefore the seriousness -- it's one of those lines that we ask people not to cross. ...

The fact that I've known so many from my childhood has been a vivid, indelible imprint on my soul about the pain of it. ... The teachings are still the teachings, and the loyalty I just described to you is the loyalty we ask, but the pain is just immense. And I think we try to be understanding. We try to be charitable. ... I don't know what we can offer, but we can't offer membership in the church. Like anybody, we'd like to offer compassion and patience and love and hope and a future. But for us the steps are fairly clear about how to claim the blessings of the church. ...

Another anguishing issue that faces you and every church: homosexuality. On a personal level, how do you counsel people dealing with that?

... The emotion and the pain and the challenge of [dealing with homosexuality] has to rank among the most taxing, most visceral of any of the issues that any religious group wrestles with. As others of my colleagues and brethren have, I have counseled hundreds -- I don't know how many hundreds -- of these young people. I say young people because often that's the group that come to us most, but there are people of every age struggling. ... The counsel I have given is that God loves them every bit as much as he loves me; the church loves them. We do have doctrine; we do have borders; we do have foundational pieces on which we stand. And moral chastity -- heterosexual ... and homosexual -- are areas where God has spoken and where the church has a position. ...

I spoke earlier about the price everyone has to pay for the blessing of the covenant, to be counted within the institutional circle of the blessings of the church. ... I have spent a significant portion of the last few years of my ministry pleading to give help to those who don't practice [homosexuality] but who are struggling with the impressions and the feelings and the attractions and the gender confusion. Or if they do practice or are trying to deal with it, that group I have spent scores of hours with, if nothing else, just saying: "Hang on, hope on, try on. ... Get through the night; get to the light." ...

I believe in that light, and I believe in that hope, and I believe in that peace. So I offer it without apology, but I know sometimes that's thin to people who would want more. Any more than I can see it compromising on its heterosexual position of chastity before marriage and fidelity afterward, I don't anticipate it that [the church] would change on homosexual behavior. But none of that has anything to do with my belief in the value of that soul and the love that God has for that person.

But it's just that ... there is a quid pro quo in terms of wanting the church's blessing on our lives. If someone chooses behavior that goes in a different direction, people choose that every day. And while that may make me weep, ... people are free to do that. ...

I believe with all my heart that it's divine language; it's a divine commandment. There really are "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" in life. And in this world, in some contemporary life, thou shalts and thou shalt nots are not popular on the face of it; it wouldn't matter what subject. But we'll always have some, and we'll try to help each other master that and embrace it and see it through and be exalted on the other end.

It's tough being gay anyplace in society, in any church, but especially here in yours.

Absolutely. I don't think there's any question about that. And it's true of so many other things about the church. We're so defined by marriage and family. ... So it's got that added component of pain in a church where we do advocate and expect and encourage marriage -- traditional marriage, man to a woman, woman to a man -- and family and children. And for anyone in whatever gay or lesbian inclination may exist, ... the marriage I have and the marriage I've seen my children have and I pray for my grandchildren to have, they say, "For me it's an experience I'll never have." And true to the Holland tradition, I burst into tears, and I say, "Hope on, and wait and let me walk with you, and we'll be faithful, be clean, and we'll get to the end of this."

I do know that this will not be a post-mortal condition. It will not be a post-mortal difficulty. I have a niece who cannot bear children. That is the sorrow and the tragedy of her life. She who was born to give birth will never give birth, and I cry with her. ... I just say to her what I say to people struggling with gender identity: "Hang on, and hope on, and pray on, and this will be resolved in eternity." These conditions will not exist post-mortality. I want that to be of some hope to some. ...

... How does revelation work in your life? ...

As a person, it has been a reality, as real as you sit before me or I sit before you. I think it's much more common for many people than ... people who are not members of the church [understand]. This is God's love for the person, ... and it's a promise ... that's given from baptism onward. ... The introduction to covenantal life in this church is a baptism by water and a baptism by the spirit, which is, by definition, a revelatory experience. ... That is the formal introduction to what for the first eight years of their lives was instinctive. ...

[Revelation] is so common and so fundamental that we fill up with it like a fish in a tank of water: You don't even know it's there until someone takes you out of it. You don't even know how much you have until you're in a time in your life when you don't feel that closeness. That's how real revelation is for us from our childhood onward.

It certainly has been a deeply personal reality for me, ... as a sudden lightning strike, an absolute thunderbolt of revelation on the level of the parting of the Red Sea -- and from there on out to gentle, sweet, procedural whisperings; a gentle nudge here and there with no voice and no words and no texts. ... There is nothing more pervasive in our lives, in the Latter-day Saints' experience, than the quest for and reality of and promise of personal revelation.

Can you give me an example of a thunderbolt-strike revelation?

The really personal ones I can't. I've got some I can't tell you. Let me give you one I can. ... This was a thunderbolt; this was a lightning strike. But it's so distanced in some way that I can share it with you. I was finishing at Yale, a Ph.D. program, and ... I'd had a wonderful experience. It had been trying, taxing. ... I'd gone though quickly with a wife and two children, with limited income. I didn't spend a lot of time at cheese and sherry evenings -- I wouldn't have been able to drink the sherry anyway. ... I was to the point when I needed to make a decision. ... I could stay on for another [year], ... or I could go out on the market, so to speak, [and interview for professorships]. And a third, and almost to everybody distant consideration, was to come back to Utah. ...

So [my wife] Pat and I decided, as we did with every major decision in our lives, we would pray about it; we would fast about it. ... I went into our bedroom in our little student apartment to pray, and I had been fasting and praying through the day. But this was sort of the day. I had to tell somebody something about what I was going to do. I went in and knelt down to pray and started to pray. ... I'm going through this great elaboration of our choice and sorting it out before him, and I couldn't even finish the sentences. I could not articulate anything except "go home." The least likely [option], the least understandable down the street in the graduate hall or in the American studies department. ... It was absolutely, adamantly, unequivocally, declared in my heart and in my soul that I was to come home. ...

Was it a physical sensation?

It was almost so powerful as to be physical. ... I'm not telling you about other experiences, but in this case, I can't say I heard a voice or that there was some appearance; in this case it was not that. But it was so powerful and so unequivocal that it was nearly debilitating physically. ... I was left with nothing more, and I got up, told Pat we're going home. ... I should have had some hint, some foreshadowing of returning to be the commissioner of that educational system or being the president of the principal university in it, or even being an authority in its governing ranks. I didn't have any of that. I wasn't given to know that. I wasn't told the end of the story. All I was told is "go home." ...

Revelation is central and defining to this church; it's supposed to be possible for everybody. What is the distinction between that and what other religions ask of their members in terms of having an ongoing conversation with God?

... It is defining for us, but at the personal level revelation is not very different for me, the Latter-day Saint, than for her the Episcopalian and him the Methodist. Or take this to Eastern religions; take it wherever you want. ... I don't think I'm more favored by God's direction or prompting than you are or my neighbor of any persuasion. The reason that it is so defining for the church is our institutional commitment to revelation, starting with the revelation of the prophet Joseph Smith and continuing to what we declare and defend and acknowledge the president of the church to be receiving for us to this day. ... But I would hasten to not seem to have the corner on [the personal-revelation] market. The institutional thing is where we would find it more defining.

Doctrinally, what separates Mormons from the rest of the Christian world?

... I am deeply hurt when I am called anything but a Christian. ... The thing that defines me is my love of God, my commitment to Christ, my Christianity. And for people to tell me that I am not a Christian is wrenching, as much a punch in the solar plexus as anything you can say to me. ... What is different about Mormons, and why would anybody say you're not a Christian?

The two most distinguishing characteristics that come to mind that would separate us from other institutional religions, including institutional Christianity, are these: One is our view of the godhead. We believe that God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Ghost are three separate, distinct individuals. We believe they are united in every other conceivable way: in purpose, in majesty, in duty, in love, in glory, in mercy, in communication, in whatever, ... except personal being. They are separate. ...

That's one distinguishing characteristic. The other is priesthood authority and the keys, if you will -- the right to speak and act in the name of God, ... to have a baptism authorized, to have a marriage authorized in the eyes of God. I'm not talking about the civil law; I'm not talking about the goodwill of the Christian brotherhood; I'm talking about the right to speak or act for God. ... One of these foundational pieces ... is the restoration of the holy priesthood, whereby actual authority is conveyed from heaven to us on earth to perform this ordinance, "us" being the Latter-day Saints.

The priesthood in other churches does not have that authority?

That has been our historical position, and that is a position that can offend. ... We do speak about exclusive authority. ... If there was a loss of authority, if there was an apostasy from the early church, then no Protestant church can form off of that and claim an authority that the parent didn't have. That can't be self-conferred. ... Someone has to be authorized to do a baptism. Where are the apostles of old? Who can speak in God's name? ... That can be a sensitive, sore point with anyone, with any faith, to say: "What? You mean I don't have authority, or my priest or pastor or minister doesn't?"

But we're not the first ... to raise that question, and our response is simply that being neither Catholic nor Protestant, we're not the mother church in that rational sense, nor a reformed church. We are a restored church, and we believe that authority that was lost inevitably through the death of the apostles, the loss of priesthood-bearing people. It had to be restored. It could not be reformed. It could not be shaped. It could not be brought out of nothing.

What did people do in that period where that authority was lost -- roughly 1,500 years from the death of the last apostle until Joseph Smith?

... It's the same for that period as it was for untold ages in every other period in history, from Adam and Eve on down, when no such authority existed. ... Most of the history has fallen into that camp more than the enlightened camp. What we're committed to is a sense of mission to the dead as well as to the living. We believe, as Peter openly taught, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached on the other side of the veil, ... that everyone living in whatever period of time will have the chance to hear the truth.

We add to ... that baptism of the dead, of which Paul spoke. ... Most of the people of the world's history lived without knowing what you and I are talking about today, ... so baptism of the dead is one of the greatest manifestations of God's justice, and certainly of his mercy. No one is going to come up short because they happened to live in the wrong time or the wrong place or the wrong location or people or tribe. Universally, someday, somewhere, sometime, everyone will have the chance to hear the truth, to know that Jesus is the Christ. ...

Turning the question around, do Mormons feel that Christians are Christian?

... It is absolutely incumbent upon us and our solemn obligation to acknowledge every good thing and every good act and every good truth of anybody on the face of this earth, including -- and especially, in terms of a brotherhood and sisterhood -- Christians and Christian churches. Somehow there has evolved this chasm, this decisive distinction. ... That seems to me absolutely wrong. It's wrong on the face of it; it's wrong in my experience; it's wrong doctrinally. ... As an institutional response, it seems to me that past, present or future, it is not our call to damn or deny or vilify anybody else. Our call is to extend the fruits of His ministry and the benefit of what we know.

Our universal cry, as I understand it, is to say, "Bring any good thing you have, bring any truth you've ever known, every Gospel principle you've ever embraced, every non-Gospel, civil, humanitarian impulse you've ever had," which, by the way, would be part of the Gospel in our definition -- and our only duty is to add to that. We do believe we can give value added. There's something we can contribute that ... was not available prior to the restoration, the Gospel and Joseph Smith. ...

I'm in the good-news business. It is to no advantage and to no purpose for me to desecrate or decry. I would do that against evil. I would speak out against child molesters and pornographers. There are things that I'm not going to equivocate on. But I'm not talking about individual people's religious belief and their quest for the best that's within them. ...

Now, in saying that, that is not some mournful plea from the gallery about wanting to be mainstream in 21st-century Christianity. That is not an issue for me. I don't have any particular desire to have anybody say whether we're mainstream or whether we're not. ... I have no particular wish to in any way be seen as another Protestant religion. We are adamantly not another Protestant religion.

But what I don't like, and what I don't want to perpetuate, is the personal antagonism and the personal cleavage where otherwise wonderful people can go to dinner together and have their kids on the soccer team together and carpool to the PTA together, and then, when it comes to religion, just start throwing fists. That does not seem to me right. ...