An Insider's View of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Each year the Latter-day Saint students at Harvard Law School sponsor a lecture that describes the beliefs and practices of the Church to their interested friends. In past years prominent Church leaders and academics have delivered the lecture. This year, the students took a different tack and invited Harvard law professor Noah Feldman—one of the most learned and insightful observers of the Church—to offer remarks from an “outsider’s perspective.” He was joined by former federal appeals court judge Thomas B. Griffith, who began the event with an “insider’s view.” Following their individual remarks, Professor Feldman and Judge Griffith participated in a discussion responding to questions from the audience.
I am a Christian who practices my faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am a convert to the Church, having become a Latter-day Saint while a junior in high school, and I have been an enthusiastic participant in its life ever since. In many ways, I am a typical Latter-day Saint, and what follows is my attempt to capture for you the essence of what that means.
Of the unique claims of Christianity in general, Ross Douthat writes, “The Christian story is not a theological or philosophical treatise. It is not a set of commands or insights about our moral duties. Nor is it a road map to a good life. It has implications for all of these questions, but fundamentally, the Christian story is evidence for a particular idea about the universe: It recounts a series of miraculous events about the life of Jesus Christ — his suffering, death, and resurrection — that, if real, tell us something profound about the nature of God, and His relationship to His creatures.”
If real. There’s the rub. That’s both the strength and the weakness of the Christian story. Is it real? Did Jesus rise from the tomb as Lord and God?
So, too, does Latter-day Saint Christianity rest on the reality of historical events, which, like the Resurrection of Christ, are miraculous. I’ll mention two.
The first is the recovery of the Book of Mormon. Latter-day Saints claim that an angel gave to Joseph Smith, a farm boy living in upstate New York in the 1820s, a book of scripture named for its final author and editor that was written on golden plates and contained an account of a group of Hebrew pilgrims who left Jerusalem in about 600 BC to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Their journey led them eventually to ancient America, where the Risen Christ visited them after his death and resurrection. Smith translated this record into English through miraculous means in the presence of others. He also showed the plates to people who handled and examined them. When the translation was complete, the angel retrieved the plates, leaving us to rely on the trustworthiness of those witnesses and the substance of the book itself to determine whether this story was a fraud or an actual instance of God intervening in history. To say the least, this is a bold story to a skeptical and increasingly secular modern world.
But wait, there’s more. Latter-day Saints also believe that John the Baptist and three of Jesus’s first-century disciples—Peter, James, and John—among others, came in bodily form—not in apparition or vision—and conferred upon Joseph Smith and others apostolic authority that resides today in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Latter-day Saints believe that the recovery of the Book of Mormon and the visitations of these angelic messengers are evidence to a secular and skeptical age that there is more to reality than what we can see, feel, touch and measure, and a marker that the Risen Christ is alive and active in the world today. The chief purpose of the Book of Mormon and the mission of the restored apostolic authority of the Church are to bear witness to our age that the ancient Easter story in the New Testament is true — that
Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Healer of a wounded humankind. Latter-day Saint Christianity is a modern manifestation of what we believe to be ancient Christianity. The biblical claims about Jesus and his redemptive mission of love constitute the core of our identity and witness to the world; the first half of our name is, after all, “The Church of Jesus Christ.”
Of Latter-day Saints’ focus on Christ, the late Catholic theologian Stephen Webb, observed, “Latter-day Saints are obsessed with Christ, and everything that they teach is meant to awaken, encourage, and expand faith in him.” A favorite passage from the Book of Mormon declares, “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ . . . that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins”(2 Nephi 25:26). Church founder Joseph Smith taught, “The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.”
Latter-day Saints believe that the central work of Christ is the work of at-one-ment: at-one-ment with God; at-one-ment between people. Christ works at-one-ment with each of us through covenant. Each Sunday, Latter-day Saints gather in our chapels and renew that covenant with Christ through Holy Communion (we call it “taking the sacrament;”; all are welcome to join us). We also build temples around the world as places where we make covenants with God through Christ. These covenants not only link us with Christ—we believe that the entire human family will eventually be linked together through these covenants, and part of our duty is to begin that project by creating covenant relationships with our forebearers, which is one of the reasons we engage in family history. As Latter-day Saint theologian Terryl Givens has written, “We believe in a Christ who has the desire and the capacity to exalt the entire human family. Our ambitious program of seeking out our forebearers is testament to that belief and to our desire to participate with Christ in his project.”
The chief way Latter-day Saints create at-one-ment among ourselves is in our local congregations, which we call a ward. There are two features of the ward that work in tandem to create at-one-ment. First, a Latter-day Saint doesn’t choose the ward he or she will attend. Membership in a ward is determined by where one lives, which means that you may attend church with people you don’t really like.
Second, because there is no paid clergy, everyone in the ward has some responsibility. Which means that you may be working alongside the same people you wouldn’t have chosen as friends. The miracle begins to work when you begin to realize that the Lord loves that person you don’t like as much as God loves you. Eugene England noted:
Church involvement teaches us compassion and patience as well as courage and discipline. It makes us responsible for the personal and marital, the physical and spiritual welfare of people we may not already love (may even heartily dislike), and thus we learn to love them. It stretches and challenges us, even when we are disappointed and exasperated, in ways we would not otherwise choose to be. stretched and challenged. Thus its gives us a chance to be made better than we might choose—but need and ultimately want—to be.
Because many of the earliest Latter-day Saints were Puritans, we don’t have much iconography, but there is one symbol that captures best what we consider to be our highest calling—the work of building community. The beehive. Not as grand as the altar at St. Peter’s or as beautiful as the Rose Window in Chartres, to be sure, but the beehive captures the essence of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. We work hard at building community.
The following comes from a Sunday sermon delivered recently in a Latter-day Saint chapel. It could have been said in any chapel among the sixteen million Latter-day Saints who live on every continent. I think it may be the finest expression of what we aspire to achieve:
God’s work is a river of love headed your way. To serve God is to join a work party: people with picks and shovels, trying to help clear this channel for the river of God’s love to reach his children at the end of the row. Single, married, gay, straight, Black or white or brown or anything, educated or not, monied or not, employed or not, every race, every class, every person, every political party, mentally or physically ill. There is room for you in God’s work. Grab a pick and shovel and join the team.
To be a Latter-day is to be part of a work party. We are a relatively new denomination and haven’t yet developed a rich contemplative tradition, but we know how to create a work party. In our view, heaven is not a reward for merit; it is an eternal sociality of people existing, striving, and creatively engaging in loving relation. Created in the image of our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, we are creators too.
Thomas B. Griffith was a judge on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit from 2004-2020. Currently he is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, a Fellow at the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University, Special Counsel to the international law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth, and Senior Policy Advisor to the National Institute for Civil Discourse. His most recent writings have appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, and BYU Studies.