Interview Marlin Jensen

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Marlin Jensen is an LDS church historian and member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 7, 2006.

Why did Brigham Young see Utah as the stage for the Mormon transformation? Why do you think the landscape was fitting for them?

Prophets see things that average people do not. We have a Scripture that says that "By the Spirit are made known unto the prophets all things that will come upon the children of men according to the flesh, or in this mortal life." So I have to grant Brigham Young his seer-ship and grant him the privilege of having seen things that none of us could see. ...

But if you look at our history as a people since 1830, it was as a driven people in a sense, a persecuted people in a sense, a people who were seeking to establish a community of believers, a community that they believed was like Zion, where people would dwell in peace and free from persecution and free from the kind of oppression they had experienced. I think this landscape, as undesirable as it might have been to the 19th-century eye, held the magic that we are now discovering.

I think Brigham Young did see that, and he must have known that it would provide the test, that it would be needed to make of the people a Zion society. That would not have come about had they gone to California and gotten rich in the gold fields. ... But they came here, and they were tested by the elements, tested by the extremities of this country, and sought out the little fertile pockets and pulled together as a people, and we've grown into a worldwide church from this little, humble beginning. ...

What was your experience with the mission, and did it reveal a side of you that you didn't know existed?

If I were to count on the fingers of one hand the defining experiences of my life, definitely my mission and my marriage and the rearing of the family would be the top three. I would place it in that category of importance. ...

“We do take history very seriously. I think we take it very literally. We don't deconstruct and feel that what we have is the figment of language or our imagination, or that there is some middle ground. I know that is very polarizing.”

I wanted, if I were going to go on a mission, to really know with some certitude that the things I was going to teach were true. I wanted to be honest about my preaching and about my mission.

So I tried before my mission to do what is always suggested -- to read the Scriptures, to say my prayers, to be obedient to the commandments of the church as we understand them -- and hoped in that process I would gain the spiritual conviction that is promised. And I didn't -- at least not to the degree of certainty that I had hoped for. So when I went on my mission, I was still somewhat tentative, and in those early weeks really I was fairly careful the way I said things to people. I wanted to be honest. I didn't want to say I felt a certain way or knew something I didn't really know.

I went to Germany. And if you're speaking about lows, for me the low was learning the German language. I had had a high school German class and had never learned a thing, unfortunately. I didn't even know what gesundheit meant when I got there, and I paid for it. Those first few weeks were just absolute misery, because I'm a personable, loquacious person, and I wasn't able to say anything. I didn't even like the little German children because they could speak German and I couldn't. (Laughs.)

I remember about six weeks into my mission, my companion and I had stirred up enough difficulty in this Lutheran neighborhood where we were working that the Lutheran minister called a special meeting to warn his parishioners about us. He posted signs about this, and so we saw them, and my companion, who was the senior member, said, "We're going to go." At the time, I think I had memorized a blessing on the food and a prayer to open a cottage meeting, as they're called, a meeting with people learning about the church, and a prayer to close such a meeting. Then I had a few snatches of other phrases.

So what I'm telling you now I know because he later informed me of what the whole subject was about, but in that meeting, the Lutheran pastor I thought made a very logical argument. He said to his parishioners: "Look, these young Mormons are working here; be nice to them, but you don't really need them. You have Luther. You have the Bible. They have the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, both of which are obviously fraudulent. So just be kind to them, and they'll go away."

Then he made a strategic error, or a tactical error, I guess. He said, "Is there anyone else here tonight that would like to say anything about these Mormons?" And of course my 6-foot-7-inch companion raised his hand and said, "We would," and up to the front we went, at which point he -- and again, I only know this from his retelling of it -- talked about the role that Luther had played in the Reformation and our belief in the Bible, but tried to explain there was more. There was a fullness that they didn't enjoy. And then [he] told about Joseph Smith and about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of priested authority and so on.

And then, as we are accustomed to do, he bore his testimony, as we called it, or made a declaration of his personal belief in this, and then turned to me and said, "And now my companion would like to say how he feels." And I remember thinking, "Well, dandy, I can bless the food," because that's the only intelligent thing I might have done in German.

But it was interesting -- and this is a tender moment for me -- because the conviction I'd been searching for came, and it came in this way: I remember sort of composing myself and trying to figure out what I might say in German, which is a very logical language if you know the rules. I remember in that moment about every German word or phrase I had ever read or heard sort of coming together in a way that I was able to express myself.

And I did tell those people that I knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that I knew that the Book of Mormon was the word of God and that I knew that the church had been restored through Joseph Smith. And it's interesting, because in that moment I came to know -- and one of our church leaders has since taught -- that beautiful principle that the acquiring of a testimony, the acquiring of a conviction, is in the bearing of it, in the stating of it; not that it's self-conversion in that process, but that if the Spirit, which is what we believe, the Holy Ghost really convinces us -- and it's there because the Bible teaches us to help us come into all truth and to know truth; that's the role that the Holy Spirit or the Holy Ghost is to play -- then somehow by walking down that tunnel, maybe just from the light into darkness a little bit, brings the light and the conviction.

That, for me -- I'm not a born-again Christian, because we don't have that terminology, and we don't have that experience as is had maybe in some churches -- but that was the moment, really, when my hope and my tender belief turned into something really solid, which has been the foundation for the rest of my life. It's what motivates me. It's what gets me up in the morning. It's what carries me in the duties that I do. It's what gives me joy and satisfaction from knowing that my way in life is the way I should be going. And it came about in that moment. So when people say, "How was your mission?," I say it was everything, because I've never been the same since that little moment.

Was there ever a season of doubt after that?

Yes. I went off to college after my mission. I took some philosophy classes. I took some anthropology classes. I've tried to read widely. I'm not an intellectual, I don't think, in any stretch of that word, nor am I a brilliant person. But I do think; I do discuss. I have a substantial library, and I've tried to test my belief against other philosophies and other theories of life.

And sure, your question, I think that's part of life. I think it's in that questioning, if you're honest and if you're really a true seeker -- if you're not just a skeptic sitting back and taking potshots at everything and everybody and their philosophy of life -- I think it tends to bring one to a deeper seeking, and I hope that's what my doubts have done. They've caused me, I think, to study and to ponder and to compare and in the long run to become even more convinced that the way I've chosen, the way that came to me early in Germany, is the right way. ...

There is a high percentage of returned missionaries who become inactive afterward. Is there some kind of malaise after the mission because of its intensity? What is your theory?

I think there really is in the church a genuine concern about what we call the returning missionary. ... Think about the fact that roughly 25,000 young men are coming home each year from all over the world, having been gone for two years, many of them having learned a foreign language, having lived almost a monklike existence in a sense. I think re-entry from that kind of world back into more conventional civilization is going to be difficult, and I think we've probably done a much better job so far as a church in preparing young men to get ready to go than we have in reintegrating them when they get back. ...

The other concern is retention rate of new converts. What do you think about that?

Yes. In fact, one of President [Gordon B.] Hinckley's themes as our prophet has been the retention of the new converts. A great deal of effort has gone into investigating just what that whole process is for someone to meet the missionaries, engage in a study of the Gospel, and make a life's change that would qualify them to be baptized and be confirmed a member of the church, and then to come into full activity in the church. And to do that all over the world in 170 different cultures -- we're in 170 lands -- so you just know that that's a tremendous challenge for a church that has a unified doctrine and, in a sense, a unified way of life, to pick up all of those people.

I often think of the savior's parable of the fishnet being likened unto the kingdom of God, and you throw that net out into the ocean and you bring it in and it's got a lot of things in it, from seaweed to pop cans to people. When we cast our Gospel net, that's what we get. We get all kinds of people -- poor people, rich people, educated people, uneducated people -- and the key in the long run is our ability as existing members of the church to reach out and to fold these people into our lives. ...

So we need to be better, I think, in the teaching process. We need to make sure that people really are committed before they join the church, and then I think as members, we've got to be ever so loving and careful in bringing them into our midst and making them feel a part of our society, our Gospel. Not easy.

Is there also a concern about correlation between the teachings in all the wards? How important is a unified lesson plan throughout the world? ...

... I think even in Christ's time, when his apostles were preaching -- you can't read the Book of Acts without knowing that keeping the church unified and keeping the doctrine pure was a challenge as they went out and started to spread it among more cultures than just the Israelites' at the time. And we've had that problem. ...

Doctrine, for us, is very precious. It's what really does change hearts. ... Without understanding certain basic doctrines or concepts of the Gospel, not everyone would be able to go through the transformation that we think this life is all about, where we hopefully grow and spiritually mature and eventually become like God and like his Son. That's foundational and fundamental and really can't be tampered with.

But how do you adapt that and translate that into 170 countries and 80 and 90 languages? There is room in that for some adaptation. And we do believe that the Holy Ghost, again, plays a role in that because he is the member of the godhead that prompts us and guides us and would guide us, for instance, in a culture other than the American culture, to take, say, a lesson that has been constructed here in Salt Lake City but is intended for all the world, and to adapt that and customize that to a different people, living in a vastly different way, using metaphors and anecdotes from that culture to put that lesson over.

And of course the Scriptures are common in every language, and that's the first thing we ever do when we go into a country and begin our missionary effort is to translate our Scriptures into that language, because they're the foundation on which we build. ...

So we have latitude. ... We are really trying to take account of cultural differences and to not feel that this Utah influence or even the American influence has to be worldwide. I've lived in places now where there are fourth- and fifth-generation members, in Germany, for instance, where there's very much a German church, in the sense that they honor their own customs and adapt what is produced here to their cultural needs. ...

Why is there persecution? [Historian] Richard Bushman said, "There is a mysterious layer of hatred that I can't understand." Do you find that?

That's really a novel thought, that there is an inexplicable dimension to our persecution as a people. Obviously if you think about Mormon doctrine and the idea that there needs be an opposition in all things, that part of our plan in life contemplates opposition, adversity, infirmity, you could say, well, it's either caused by the devil or it was created by God in order to make a better people of us. ... That might explain, at least in part, this sort of inexplicable part of our persecution. ...

I keep thinking to myself -- and this may sound not very humble -- but as I associate throughout the church and I keep meeting these tremendous people, educated people, accomplished people, artistic people, who are totally devoted to this religion, whether it's [former Mass. Gov.] Mitt Romney or some world-class scientist or whoever it may be, I keep thinking to myself, there must be something right about Mormonism. When is someone going to take notice that there are fine people here in America who, by and large, are going places? ...

I have wondered and worried about why we aren't gaining greater acceptance more quickly and why, for instance, a presidential candidacy by Mitt Romney or anyone else who's a member of the church would be problematic to anyone. I mean, he's in some ways as mainstream as a man can be and has a strong marriage and a good family. He's been successful in almost everything he's touched in life, and you don't read about him. Why? ...

Where were you when the revelation came about the black priesthood?

Great question. I know right where I was. I was on 26th Street in Ogden, Utah, and I was in my car; I heard it on the car radio. ... I was absolutely thrilled, stunned, thrilled, elated, and have been equally elated with the way that has played out now in the intervening 20 or so years.

Before the ban was lifted, tell me how the civil rights movement was experienced by your community.

The ban on the blacks in the priesthood was a very big issue. There was a lot of adverse press coverage that the church received, that BYU [Brigham Young University] received because of athletic endeavors. There were books and articles written, even within the church, that were very negative about the church's position on that issue. ... We can accept, I think, the indictment that sometimes we have been provincial, and I think we probably were to some extent on this point. ...

My opinion at the time [was] it was a matter of timing. I just hoped, I guess, and prayed that they would come sooner than later, because I didn't doubt that it had been instituted under prophetic direction, and my hope was that it would be lifted under prophetic direction, and that's what eventually happened.

During that intervening time, when there was the turmoil and the tension, it was just an unhappy time, I think, for people who were very civil rights-minded and felt like the Book of Mormon was talking about, "All are alike unto God, black and white, male and female, bond and freed," and yet we had a church that had this ban on the priesthood. So everyone, I think, was overjoyed when eventually God saw fit to lift that ban through the prophet. And now as our Scripture says, "Truly all men can speak in the name of God." ...

There is lingering folklore of the ban, and many active, faithful Mormons think more should be said about it. Could you talk about that?

Yeah. I was aware of the feelings on the part of many, many good black members of the church, and many white members of the church, that there's this body of writing and recorded speaking that was all well-intentioned. It had its purpose, trying to offer some rationale for why that ban existed, and then once the ban was lifted, that sort of remained in some form in various publications and so on.

A few years ago I did suggest that something be done, within the realms of my ability, to [address the folklore]. But nothing ensued from that, and one thing I've learned as part of my belief is that when I feel strongly about something, and I've expressed myself on it to the leaders of the church, I leave it then in their hands, when I'm aware that they know all the facts. If they don't happen to pick up on what I feel strongly about, then honestly I don't feel that strongly about it anymore. (Laughs.) That's happened to me here. I think it's an issue, but I think with every passing year it's less of one, and I don't know if the institution will ever do anything about that. That certainly isn't in my hands to say.

What is that folklore that troubles people?

The essential idea is that somehow in the life before this life, through some conduct on the part of black people, they were less worthy and had to spend some probationary time waiting then for the priesthood to be given to them. I think it's that idea that somehow they came here with some inherent disability, spiritually speaking, and that bothers them. It would bother me, too. And I don't think it's true. I think those were theories that were advanced, but I don't think there's any scriptural or doctrinal justification for them.

Many religions have been confronting their history to investigate the myths. But not the Mormons. What is unique about the church's approach to history? President [Gordon B.] Hinckley has made public statements saying everything happened exactly as Joseph said it did or not at all. Can you conceive of a middle ground?

Well, church history actually is what we would call a constitutional issue in this church. On the day the church was organized, a revelation was given that there would be a history kept, and faithfully; really since that day, the church has kept history. And in a sense, most Scripture -- I'm thinking of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, our Doctrine and Covenants [D&C] -- is history. Not all history is Scripture, but all Scripture is history, and so it does contain, in large measure, ... the things that are essential for us to believe and to preserve and to remember about God, for instance, and his dealings with us or with any of his children through the years.

So we do take history very seriously. I think we take it very literally. We don't deconstruct and feel that what we have is the figment of language or our imagination, or that there is some middle ground. I know that is very polarizing. In a sense, I think the hardest public relations sell we have to make is that this is the only true church. ...

If God came to Joseph Smith and his Son Jesus Christ came to Joseph Smith and told him that there was then no true church on earth and that they were going to restore the church through him, if that's true -- and I believe that it is with all my heart -- then there's really no middle ground. ...

If Joseph Smith really intended to defraud mankind, then any good lawyer would have said to him, "Destroy the documents; don't keep a history." And yet he documented, almost daily, his life from his 20th birthday on. We're in the process now through the Joseph Smith Papers Project [JSPP] of putting that out for all the world to see, and what they're going to see there is a wonderful life, a dedicated, purposeful life, of a man who really was, I think, led by God and had divine calling. And there are the documents, in a sense, to prove it.

A lot of churches lose their members as they move into a mythic area of their religion. Mormons are not rooted to metaphor about these foundational events.

We're not. I read an article recently about what makes churches grow. There are elements involved in a rapidly growing church typically, and one of those is clarity of doctrine and history. I think that's one of the appeals, really, of Mormonism, that we have a very well-defined doctrine. God is our father; he has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's. If you read that in comparison to the Nicene Creed, you'll be struck with how clear and simple in a sense that is.

I think that same principle applies to our history. We've tried not to turn it into metaphor, not to revise it. I think even today, the greatest piece of church history that we have is Joseph Smith's story. It's Scripture, and it's history, and it's the foundation, really, for everything that we have and we are, and it's beautifully clear and simple.

Can you choose one of the foundational stories and tell it?

I think the genesis of it all is Joseph's experience in the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1820, when, as a young boy, seeking the truth about religion, he went into the woods near his father's farm and prayed to God, having read a Scripture that said that "If any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God."

And in what we refer to as a theophany, this connection between God and man, he was blessed to be visited by God the Father and by his Son Jesus Christ. And in that moment he still had the presence of mind to ask, and to fulfill the purpose for which he came, which interestingly wasn't to ask, "Is there a true church?"

I've always been struck honestly with the question he posed: "Which of the churches is true?" He thought there was a true church. That would have been the logical thing to think. And so he asked that: "Which of them all is true?," not "Is there a true church?," which, even in that question, I think, tells us something about his sincerity, his honesty. The answer was that none of them were. I mean, that was an earthshaking answer. I'm sure that it came as a very big surprise to him.

But from that experience, so much is to be had: the idea that there is a God, that Jesus is his Son; ... the idea that you can pray and receive an answer; the idea that there is a true church, there is one way to live life that is approved by God and his Son. There is so much to be learned from that one experience, and when it becomes the foundation, not just for a church but for one's personal life, then you can see why there's no chance, really, to turn that into a metaphor. ...

There are different variations of that story that have come over time. How do you account for that? Does that raise questions for you?

Yes. I've actually studied the various accounts of Joseph's First Vision, and I'm struck by the difference in his recountings. But as I look back at my missionary journals, for instance, which I've kept and other journals which I've kept throughout my life, I'm struck now in my older years by the evolution and hopefully the progression that's taken place in my own life and how differently now from this perspective I view some things that happened in my younger years. ...

... What is the official position of the church on homosexuality?

... Our position on that is that there is a single standard actually of morality for all members of the church, and that essentially is that we abstain from all sexual relationships and sexual relations prior to marriage. Once we do marry, we are loyal, completely loyal, to our marital partner, and that the only marriage sanctioned by God is of a man to a woman. As Paul said, "Neither is a man without the woman nor the woman without the man in the Lord."

So there is really no allowance within our doctrine for a homosexual relationship of woman to woman or man to man. Obviously that creates a lot of pain. It has created a lot of pain for me just because I've known some of these wonderful people who have these feelings, who have these thoughts, who have these desires, and I've worked with them in my official capacity as a church leader. ... I've sat with those that have tried for years to transition to a more traditional way of life and who haven't been able to produce those feelings in themselves that would permit them honestly to marry. ...

The thing that we have to ultimately say ... is, yes, there's nature; yes, there's nurture; but there's also agency. We all have the capacity and power to choose. If you're going to live your life within the framework of the Gospel, within the framework of our doctrine, then you've got to choose to marry someone of the opposite sex, and if you can't do that honestly, then your choice has to be to live a celibate life. That is a very difficult choice for the parents, for the young man, the young woman, for whoever's making that choice, and my heart goes out to them. I think we're asking a tremendous amount of them.

And yes, some people argue sometimes, well, for the gay person or the lesbian person, we're not asking more of them than we're asking of the single woman who never marries. But I long ago found in talking to them that we do ask for something different: In the case of the gay person, they really have no hope. A single woman, a single man who is heterosexual in their thinking always has the hope, always has the expectation that tomorrow they're going to meet someone and fall in love and that it can be sanctioned by the church. But a gay person who truly is committed to that way of life in his heart and mind doesn't have that hope. And to live life without hope on such a core issue, I think, is a very difficult thing.

We, again, as a church need to be, I think, even more charitable than we've been, more outreaching in a sense. A religion produces a culture, and culture has its stereotypes, has its mores. It's very difficult, for instance, in our culture not to be a returning missionary. What about the young man who chooses not to go, or the parents who marry and for whatever reasons don't have children, or the young woman who grows old without marrying, or the divorced person? I think we can be quite hard -- in a sense unwittingly, but nevertheless hard -- on those people in our culture, because we have cultural expectations, cultural ideals, and if you measure up to them, it's a wonderful life. If you don't, it could be very difficult. …

Science is moving toward the idea of a scientific origin for homosexuality. What if this isn't a choice, but the way people are born? Would that change the church's thinking about it?

I think that the origins of homosexuality are still very much up for grabs. ... I don't think the church could ever change its position, because gender, gender identification and the idea that a man and a woman coming together in marriage and to procreate and to have a family is such a core element in God's plan for our life. There's no room in doctrine, and there's no room within the plan of salvation, as we call it, or God's plan for our life, for homosexuality to be accepted. ...

At several points in your history there were changes in your doctrine. Is there any way, through revelation, this ban could be changed?

Again, through revelation, I suppose anything could be changed. But certainly, in the consistency with which God has dealt with us from the beginning, the elements of his plan for our life, the essential elements have remained unchanged. That's why in this context, in the context we were talking about here, the tension between the plan of salvation and the gay person, I just don't think there's room for the plan to accommodate the idea that someone can marry, live with, be romantically involved with someone of the same gender and can then be living in accord with God's plan or our life. It's too antithetical. Just cannot work within the confines of his plan. ...

I feel there's been a sea change in the Mormon community I've talked to. I still hear "abomination," but don't you feel there's been a change?

Yeah, I do. We're more enlightened. We're more accepting in the sense that we understand this is a condition that some people are dealing with and that even if it needs changing or even if it needs controlling, that can't be done without our support, our love, our empathy, our interest in them as people. That's much different, I'm sure, than it was in my youth. I hear very little terms of derision used anymore, for instance, yeah.

[What does the temple mean to you?]

The temple represents to me the place where I can receive what I call the crowning blessings of this church that I belong to. In fact, I remember someone talking to some of the elders of the Jews in Jerusalem at some point when we were establishing our Jerusalem center there, and they asked him a question about the temple. Here is Jerusalem, and the old Jewish rabbi said, "The temple," he said. "If you want to know about the temple, you'll have to go talk to the Mormons."

So it's interesting that what really is almost a universal symbol throughout the history of mankind of worship, of God -- the temple -- is something now that is almost lost, the knowledge of it, except to this church. Really one of the priceless things that Joseph Smith restored or brought back to earth was a knowledge of what a temple was and what should occur at a temple. Much of the latter part of his life was spent in refashioning the temple ceremonies and leaving that as a legacy to Brigham Young so that that was perpetuated after his death.

It's instructive maybe to think about just the synonyms that we use in the church for the word "temple." You hear the word "happiness"; you hear the word "family"; you hear the word "cosmic," because I think for many of us it's a place where we go to get our bearings on this universe. You hear the word "covenant," because in the temple we do make covenants. We make promises to God that we're going to live our lives in a certain way. Part of the strength of our religion, part of the commitment that people feel, comes from those covenants that we make there.

If I were to describe sort of the overarching narrative that occurs there, I would say it's God's way, he being the master teacher, of teaching us his plan of salvation, his plan of life. So in the temple, we actually experience something that's dramatized for us. It's a dramatic narrative with participation on our part. And it's a rehearsal, really, of where we were before we came to this life, how the world was created and prepared for us to come here, what we're to do while we're here, including these promises that we make that would indicate that we should live our lives in a certain way. We should be chaste, for instance. We should be committed to Christ. We should be willing to concentrate and sacrifice what we have for his interests, the interests of his church. Nothing that occurs there could ever be interpreted as anything but wholesome and uplifting and ennobling.

And though it's in a sense secret because we don't talk about it outside the temple, we do that only because it's a sacred thing to us. When millions of people have participated in it and kept it confidential to a large extent, it shows you, I think, the seriousness with which that whole experience is taken. Ultimately we learn in the temple ceremony that our destiny is to return to God and to return there as families, so the sealing that takes place, the marriage that takes place in the temple where a man and a woman are joined together -- or, as we term it, "sealed together" -- not just for time or until death does us part, but for time and all eternity, is to me the high point, really, in religious experience and in religious ceremony.

If someone were to say to me, "What has Mormonism got to offer?," I would say it offers eternal love, and it offers eternal progression. Those are the two concepts of Mormonism that always appeal to me. And now, in my old age, after 38 years of marriage, if someone were to say, "What motivates you?," I would say my relationship with God and my relationship with my wife and the desire that she and I have to have a relationship with our family forever. Someone asked President [David O.] McKay once, "What is heaven? How do you envision it?," and he said, "I envision it as the continuation of a happy family life, and if my wife and my children aren't there, it wouldn't be heaven to me."

So you have this tremendous permanence about family relationships that you get from the temple, and then you have this wonderful foundation of personal commitment about how you're going to live your own life, and then you've got the perspective that this overarching narrative provides. And if you go back and have that renewed frequently, which we're urged to do, it just provides an anchor to one's life that I don't how you'd get it in any other way. In a sense, to me, it's a little bit of a competitive advantage we have as Mormons.

Please talk about the baptism for the dead and all of its urgent, ambitious aspects.

When I think of the temple, I think of it really in two grand divisions. There's a part of what happens in the temple, it happens for those who are living right now. We go there; we can be endowed, which is essentially blessed with knowledge and the opportunity to make certain commitments to God to live our lives in a certain way. And we can be married there as a husband and wife. Those things happen for living people.

But the temple in its second dimension answers a question that is still very topical among theologians today, and the question is, if Jesus is the savior of mankind and if hearing his Gospel and living life the way he proscribes is necessary for salvation, what about those who have never heard of Jesus? As far as I know, the only really complete answer that can be given to that question is given by our church. And the answer is if they don't hear it in this life -- and there have been millions of people who have lived at times when that wasn't unavailable or have lived in areas where it wasn't preached -- they, we believe, go to a spirit world following this life. It is in that realm that they're able to hear the Gospel, and their agency is still very much active. They can decide whether they're going to accept it or whether they're going to reject it.

If they do accept it, then we believe that there is still a need for certain essential ordinances or religious ceremonies to be performed for them on their behalf. And these ceremonies are earthbound. One of those is baptism, and another would be marriage, and another would be the endowment I mentioned. And for men it would also involve ordination to the priesthood.

So in God's foresight and in his comprehensive plan, he's given those of us who have the Gospel now the opportunity to do these ordinances for our deceased ancestors in hopes -- and we don't have a knowledge ever as to whether they've accepted this or not or whether we're doing it in vain or whether it's efficacious. ...

So it's a tremendous labor of love, and there's a linkage then, a linking of us to our ancestors that, again, provides a tremendous anchor to our souls. And in that process of discovering who our ancestors were, we come to know about them and to love them and to be inspired by their lives. There's just a solidarity there that is missing, I think, in many families and in many societies today in many cases.

And yes, the work of genealogy is a tremendous endeavor for the church. We have the finest genealogical library in the world. If there's a Mecca for genealogists, it's our Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City, where people from all over the world come. We're engaged in a tremendous endeavor to really build the family tree of all mankind. It's done for religious purposes; it's done out of our love and our hope that these people are hearing the Gospel and accepting it and that they need these ordinances performed for them.

You want to reach everyone?

We have [2.4 million] rolls of microfilm, I think, in our storage vaults, containing about 2 billion names, and we've just made a good start on the history of mankind. So yes, it is ambitious, and it's a costly undertaking in a way, but it's a labor of love, and there is a lot to be gained. We have a Scripture that says, "They can't be saved without us, and we can't be saved without them." There is this feeling of interdependence, I think, that goes on.

Many people have had a powerful, mystical feeling when engaging in this. Have you?

We believe that when a person dies -- if I had a glove I could illustrate it, because in a sense, when I put my hand in a glove, the glove comes alive like my hand is. And when we die, that spirit that enlivens a body lives on. The body comes off and gets buried, but the spirit lives. ...

I was very close to my grandfather, and at least on one occasion in my life I know that there was a spiritual contact between him and me at a very critical point in my life when I might have done something I shouldn't have done. I felt his closeness; I felt his interest, and it motivated me to make a decision that I might not have made in the way that I did because of his love.

So I know that when people die they don't lose interest, nor do they just vaporize into the cosmos. They're there. Their spirit body is intact, and on the day of resurrection they'll have it reunited with their earthly element. For us, the soul of man is body and spirit; that's what we are all about. But there will be a little time between death and the resurrection when we'll just be, and during that time they may well commune with us and we on occasion with them. I believe that.

There is concreteness and specificity of the Mormon afterlife. That's different than the rapture or hopefulness of other religions.

Yeah. And isn't that really a wonderful thing to have that kind of clarity about what awaits us? Not that we know all the details -- I mean, we'd all love to know more, but we have the general outline that heaven is more than just a place and hell is just another. There are gradations, just like there are gradations of people, and that we'll get a just reward for our lives here on this earth, how we've lived them, the choices we've made, the way we've exercised our agency. I love that. It's part of this clarity idea that when you have something you can cling to, then your life can be regulated accordingly. ...

We spoke to Holocaust survivors, and some people feel offense that their ancestors were given the chance from Mormons for baptism of the dead, because they feel their ancestors died for their own faith. How do you handle this situation and concern?

... As I understand their view of this -- and I have great empathy for it -- they are concerned that by baptizing a Jewish person, and particularly a Holocaust survivor, or someone who was killed in the Holocaust, that we somehow are denigrating the Jewishness of the person. And again, when I compare our little bit of persecution to what the Jews have suffered for 6,000 years, we'd have to carry their briefcases. What do we have to tell them about what it means to be persecuted or to be exterminated or to have their memory obliterated? So I'm very sensitive and appreciate very much their point of view on this.

What we really have, in a sense, is a classic First Amendment question, in a way, and we haven't wanted as a church to assert our First Amendment and say, "This is what we believe; this is our doctrine, and the devil may care." That isn't our intent at all. That's why in 1995 we entered into an arrangement with them. At that time we, in a sense, took out of our records those Holocaust survivors or Holocaust victims for whom we had performed temple work, and we have been actually diligent since in not sending to our temples Jewish names unless they were sent by Jewish members of our church who have sent in the names of their own relatives.

Now, occasionally, through the work of well-intentioned, sometimes slightly overzealous members of our church, Jewish names have found their way into our temples, and where that has been made known to us, we've removed them in our attempt to not create offense. So insofar as we're able to adapt to their needs, we have done that without compromising our basic religious principles, which we really can't do. So I think at this point we're at a fairly happy compromise.

As the new church historian, do you think there is a tension between faith-inspired publications and official facts? If so, how will the church deal with it?

... Over the last 20, 30 years there's certainly been an ongoing discussion about faithful history, faith-promoting history, as opposed to what some have termed more objective history. ... We're in the process actually of really trying to resolve the question: What should church history do? What should the church historian do?

As I look at the Scriptures, for instance, as the best model maybe of what historical writing ought to be for a church -- because again, Scripture is history -- I've come to believe that it's probably the best course for the church to take to dwell on what I might call a sacred history and to talk about those elements: the restoration of the church, the gathering of Israel, the establishment of Zion and the creation of a covenant people. Those are things that not only run throughout history today, but they run through the history from the beginning. Those are the things you'll find in the Old Testament as well as the New. ...

If we could kind of have that as our organizing principle and then as part of that encourage the more traditional, narrative-type history of the church and biographies that have been written and to make our archive available for that, make our assistance available for that, and leave that writing to other Mormon historians and other non-Mormon historians, I think that will gradually dissolve the tension that exists between what is faithful history and what isn't. We'll each have our individual roles, and the Lord will be better served in that way. ...

Many people have been excommunicated, even faithful Mormons. In intellectual areas, what is the line crossed in which excommunication is the answer?

First I'd like to observe that, in distinction to what happens in most religions, we have had some studies come out of the Brigham Young University which indicate that the more educated a Latter-day Saint becomes, the deeper he believes, which is an interesting ratio, so that we're not afraid of intellectuals or of learning or of knowledge, that we have Scriptures that say we can be saved no faster than we gain knowledge and that the glory of God is intelligence. So the intellectual has a wonderful place within the church.

Where an intellectual, I think, can get into difficulty is when that intellectual person takes a position and begins either to attack the general leader or the local leaders of the church or begins to attack the basic doctrine of the church and does that publicly. ... That's, at least in my humble view of it, probably the definition of apostasy. At that point a person in that situation would be counseled and lovingly invited to become at least quiet -- (laughs) -- if not orthodox, and if they refuse and persist in their public opposition to leaders or to the doctrine of the church, at that point I think the church has no option but to take some disciplinary action toward them with the hope that they will humble themselves and change their hearts and become more contrite members of the church, which often happens, but not always.

What are some of the doctrines a person might be excommunicated for opposing?

If you advocated, for instance, that gay people should be allowed to marry, and you were openly vocal about that, and in the process malign the leadership in the church for not adopting that position, that's something that would be severe enough, I think, to warrant disciplinary action.

Another example?

Another example would be to take on the Book of Mormon, for instance, and its divine origins. To begin to criticize it on the basis of its geography or its historicity or the doctrines it contains or the way it came to be and the translation of it by Joseph Smith -- those are all core issue that would be so central to the church that they would require disciplinary action.

So many people in the church are writing their histories and biographies, but there's still the idea that intellectuals are perhaps a threat to the church. Please comment on that.

If there is a perception that you can't be learned in this church and still be a mainstream member, I think that would be a most unfortunate perspective. And yet I'm sure it exists; I know it does. The Book of Mormon has a wonderful passage in which it says that "To be learned is good if we hearken unto the counsels of God." ...

We don't have to believe anything that isn't true in this religion, but there is something that holds sway over just the intellect, and that is the counsel of God. When that comes through men, who may be very fallible, that's probably very difficult for people to accept. They may trust more in their intellectual conclusions and powers than they do in that mantle.

That's [how] really intellectual people in the church get into trouble when they do. But if they can retain just a modicum of humility, usually they come out just fine, because we have tremendous intellectual achievement in the church. I mean, professors at Harvard and MIT and you name it, we have them, in business and so on, very accomplished people who also are extremely humble and accepting of the mantle of the prophet and his 14 associates. ...