Of Convictions and Commitments
I first visited England the summer I turned seventeen. I would spend half of the next ten years living and traveling through Great Britain as a missionary, student, and teacher.
The English at that time were buoyant and at peace, but many of my conversations, prompted by an abiding interest in twentieth-century history, harked back to the Second World War. Those with whom I spoke responded eagerly and candidly to my questions about their experiences during those dark and difficult days. Repeatedly they expressed their conviction that the cause in which they had been engaged was right. They talked about the commitment they had to see the struggle through to the end, whatever the personal cost or sacrifice.
Those conversations impressed upon me the power associated with firm convictions and how genuine commitment gives one’s life focus and direction, inspiring great courage and selflessness. As I prepared for my chosen profession as a teacher and scholar, I determined to develop a set of convictions that would provide a similar focus for my efforts.
I returned from my first trip to England to enroll at Brigham Young University. As an undergraduate I spent many happy, productive hours studying in what was then the J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Library. I selected a quiet place where I would go regularly, a place at once familiar and dedicated to study. While I was there, my mind was concentrated and my energies focused.
To arrive at this location on the fourth floor, I climbed the stairs past a verse etched in the wall, quoting from the eighty-eighth section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (D&C 88:118)
Seeing those words each day inspired me as I considered my convictions and commitments.
On December 27, 1832, Joseph Smith received the most detailed revelation on education of this dispensation. It was from this revelation that the words etched in the library wall were taken. Also in the eighty-eighth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord instructed his Saints to build a temple: “Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God” (D&C 88:119). The Saints were further directed to begin a School of the Prophets, which Joseph Smith promptly established during the winter of 1833. Five principles guided that early undertaking and form the core of my convictions regarding learning and testimony.
First, the gospel embraces all truth. Rather than restricting us to a narrow, limited vision, the gospel offers a breadth of things to learn and subjects to master. The Lord commanded his people to gain an understanding
of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms. (D&C 88:79)
Accordingly, the curriculum of the School of the Prophets was ambitious. In March 1833 the Prophet was instructed that those attending the school should “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15). They studied English grammar, arithmetic, geography, history, penmanship, science, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, as well as theology.1 The school’s curriculum reflected the view articulated by Brigham Young that “every art and science known and studied by the children of men is comprised within the Gospel.”2
This injunction to seek all truth runs counter to two powerful tendencies in modern society—the tendency to specialize and the tendency to compartmentalize. Many see the path to success as one of greater and greater specialization, of becoming preeminent in a narrow, particular specialty. Others compartmentalize their lives, seeking to separate the secular and the spiritual, often neglecting one or the other. Some view the secular and the spiritual as in conflict; others consider one relevant and the other irrelevant.
The path the Lord outlined widens horizons and challenges us on every front. Those who retreat into the comfort of the cozy confines of a narrow specialty unwisely limit themselves, as do those who compartmentalize their lives between secular pursuits and spiritual matters.
Second, truth is revealed incrementally. The Lord has outlined the process by which he reveals truth and by which we learn wisdom:
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (2 Nephi 28:30; see also Isaiah 28:10 and D&C 98:12)
It is a process that rewards patience and persistence. We learn wisdom by moving through levels of understanding. Advancing to a new level requires desire and effort, openness and receptivity. Learning is an experience more like climbing a mountain than jumping a ditch. It occurs step by step.
Third, learning truth involves teaching one another. The School of the Prophets was designed not merely to teach the Saints in order that they could magnify their callings, but it was also intended to produce a community of believers. The Lord instructed them: “And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom . . . and teach one another words of wisdom” (D&C 88:77, 118). In certain respects, our study of the gospel is a collective effort and a collegial enterprise. Each is able to help others and to receive help.
Fourth, learning truth comes by study and by faith—the particular method by which we are commanded to learn. The combination of study and faith has many dimensions. Dedicated study can contribute to strengthening our faith and deepening our convictions. The more knowledge we acquire, the greater our understanding of a principle or a practice, the stronger our faith and convictions.
Likewise, faith can contribute to our scholarly efforts. It is easy, indeed commonplace, for people to become prisoners of conventional ways of thinking. Among the most powerful vested interests are those of the mind. These interests often cause intellectual arthritis, leading people to a sense of unwarranted certitude. Faith in the Lord and in his promise to continue to reveal truth to us line upon line makes us less dependent on conventional wisdom and more open and receptive to new ideas and new approaches. The combination of study and faith can both deepen commitments and help keep one intellectually limber.
Fifth, learning a fullness of truth requires dependence on the Lord. Life is filled with a variety of temptations. One of the most seductive is that of intellectual arrogance. Jacob follows his compelling explanation of the power of the Atonement by noting the common temptation of a pride that rejects the need for divine direction. He warns:
O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. (2 Nephi 9:28–29)
The gospel teaches us to depend on the Lord, to “look to God” (Alma 37:47) rather than to lean on our own learning and understanding. Joseph and Oliver were counseled early in their ministries: “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36). I had been taught these principles intellectually in my youth. I was to learn them experientially in England.
As a student at Oxford I felt like Joseph in Egypt, apart and alone. When I arrived to begin my graduate studies, I was the only Latter-day Saint, faculty or student, at the university. Although alone in some ways, I was far from lonely. The opportunities were immense and the challenges exhilarating. The days provided much time for reflection, reading, solitude, spirited conversations, and long walks down quiet lanes.
Best of all from my standpoint, the method of instruction at Oxford placed a premium on individual motivation and imposed few formal requirements. Students, working with a faculty tutor, prepared for exams they would take at the end of two or three years of study. Three eight-week terms consisted of lectures and tutorials. The lectures were optional. The tutorials focused on large questions designed to help the student master a subject. The remaining twenty-eight weeks of the year were spent in what was commonly referred to as reading vacations.
Shortly before arriving at Oxford, I reread the eighty-eighth section of the Doctrine and Covenants and was impressed again by the Lord’s counsel:
Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—
That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you. (D&C 88:78–80)
This injunction expanded my view of what I should study, prompting me to attend lectures in a dozen subjects along with my tutorials in economics and politics. At the same time, I determined to reread the standard works from cover to cover
By consistently devoting a set time each day to studying the scriptures, I was amazed at how much I learned and how quickly the time and the pages passed. The scriptures were opening to my understanding line upon line, precept upon precept. On many occasions, I concluded those sessions drenched with joy.
I also reflected frequently on the injunction to “teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.” On Sundays, I taught the Gospel Doctrine course and my share of priesthood class lessons, but something seemed missing. That void was filled by organizing a family home evening group that grew and led to several baptisms. Ultimately, we added a small seminary program, which I taught, for some of the newly baptized adults in the area. Most importantly, I had several spiritual experiences that confirmed for me the intensity of God’s love, the reality of personal revelation, and the power of his priesthood.
Throughout this experience I discovered anew the need and the place for both reason and revelation. The two are inextricably bound together. We are to seek learning by study and by faith. It is hard to identify where one begins and the other ends. This pattern of learning applies to the doctrines of the gospel, and “all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for [us] to understand” (D&C 88:78).
At Oxford, I had both the freedom and the motivation to learn about everything. I discovered that learning comes incrementally, that it involves teaching others, and that the combination of study and faith strengthens rather than weakens scholarship. My greatest insights, the times of greatest scholarly accomplishment, have come at times of faith. It is at such times that we are most open and receptive because we have a deeper sense of dependence on the Lord. Those convictions, learned intellectually, experientially, and spiritually, have deepened my commitment to the gospel and to the restored church.
One afternoon, I was reading the concluding pages of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History when the following passage washed over me with great force:
When we set out on this quest we found ourselves moving in the midst of a mighty host, but, as we have pressed forward, the marchers, company by company, have fallen out of the race. The first to fail were the swordsmen, the next the archaists and futurists, the next the philosophers, until only gods were left in the running. At the final ordeal of death, few, even of these would-be saviour gods, have dared to put their title to the test by plunging into the icy river. And now, as we stand and gaze with our eyes fixed upon the farther shore, a single figure rises from the flood and straightway fills the whole horizon. There is the Saviour; “and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see of the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:10-11).3
That Savior is the Lord Jesus Christ. The knowledge of his reality greatly strengthened me while far from home and continues to sustain and deepen for me the sacred convictions and commitments that are part of his gospel. To play a part, however small, in bringing to pass his eternal purposes is a privilege that lifts us and inspires us and will fill us with great joy.
1. See James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 96; John A. Widtsoe, The Message of the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 138; William E. Berrett, Teachings of the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 223–24.
2. In Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1869), 12:257. Brigham Young also declared that it was the duty of the Elders of the Church “to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, to mechanisms of every kind, to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, and bring it to Zion” (in Journal of Discourses 7:283–84).
3. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, abridgement of vols. 1–6, by D. C. Somervell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 547.