Discover more from Wayfare
How to Save the World
In working out our own salvation, we can become part of a global effort.
Many years ago, the Harvard psychologist David McLelland lectured at Brigham Young University. In the question-and-answer period, a faculty member asked McLelland why so many students from BYU and USU went on to graduate programs (both universities were in that top ten in the nation in that regard). McLelland said the answer was obvious: “You think it is your responsibility to save the world.”
No one contested McLelland’s assumption. Latter-day Saints do endeavor to save the world—though our idea of exactly what that means continues to evolve.
In the first decade and a half of the Church’s life, we sought to save the world by gathering converts to Zion. During those years, we concentrated the gathered membership in single cities. Independence, Far West, and Nauvoo took turns being Zion—the safe havens in the coming apocalypse. After the move west, new converts gathered to a new Zion: a region of Great Basin villages, more or less patterned after the original plat for the City of Zion in Missouri. In the twentieth century, gathering took still another form as saints planted “stakes” throughout the world and gathered locally to build mini-Zions. Stakes were established first in Denver and the great western coastal cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle—and then by the 1940s in New York and Washington D.C. We were to save the world by gathering people into these stakes, which theoretically could be planted anywhere. Today, there are Latter-day Saint outposts in virtually every part of the world where the law permits. Gathering now is not only to the cities of the midwest or Great Basin villages, but likewise to stakes in Indonesia and Africa and across the world.
In all of this expansion, we are left with a pressing question: what of those who do not obviously want to be “gathered?” Missionary efforts go on apace—we continue inviting the world’s citizens to gather into worldwide stakes by joining themselves formally to the Church. But what about the vast majority of the world’s population—those who either never hear the call to gather or who hear but, for any of a thousand reasons, never heed it? What is our responsibility toward the billions of our brothers and sisters who do not heed our message? I believe that we are beginning to understand that we have a responsibility to better the world for all of its citizens, whether they choose to be gathered or not.
Global humanitarian aid is one example of this new understanding. At one time, Church humanitarian aid served a public relations purpose, at least in part. We contributed food or water to a county in hopes it would raise our stock and persuade the government to welcome missionaries. The aid was worthy in itself, but our greater mission was to preach the gospel and gather people. More recently, we have been working largely through other aid agencies, funding projects we deem worthy in their own right, without putting ourselves forward as the primary providers who deserve credit for what we do. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks said recently in General Conference, “The Church of Jesus Christ is committed to serving those in need, and it is also committed to cooperating with others in that effort.”
That subtle shift returns us to the questions I raise above: Is teaching the gospel the only way to save the world? Does saving the world include bettering the lives of people who may never gather to Zion, such as those who receive our humanitarian aid? What obligation do we owe to those who do not profess to be Latter-day Saints? In an interview with the journalist McKay Coppins some years ago, President Nelson said, “We exist to make life better for people.” Does the word “people” in President Nelson’s comment imply only Church members, or does it include all people? Are the world’s great problems also our problems?
Assuming for a moment that we do wish to bless all people, not just those who join the Church, how do we do that? At one time we thought rapid Church growth would enable us to sweep the earth. Our numbers would swell to such a size that we would assume greater and greater influence to be used for good. Now, however, growth has slowed, and while it may pick up again—conversion rates have oscillated throughout our history—we cannot assume that we will overpower the world’s problems through sheer numbers. We need to ask what impact we can have even if we remain a tiny fraction of the world’s population.
One possibility would be for the Church to throw its weight and resources behind efforts at government-led reform. But from the initiatives of the New Deal through the push for marriage equality, joining in such governmental efforts has never been the institutional Church’s inclination or forte. If not by the standard reform measures, then, how are we to save the world?
Our greatest hope, I believe, is to rely on our greatest resource—the transformative power of the gospel. We offer a highly elaborated religion with theological beliefs, ordinances, and a vibrant community. We have a comprehensive program for redeeming people from their sins and setting them on a better path. One by one, we help people change their lives at the core and then grow and improve. They learn to strengthen their families, develop prudence in financial affairs, educate themselves, and take responsibility for their own betterment. Through experience in the Church, converts learn to teach, to run meetings, to manage organizations. Those who already possess skills and strong moral standards have them reinforced and magnified.
Over the generations we have produced competent, good-hearted, generous people. As we so often say, the gospel makes bad men good and good men better. This is not just a theological abstraction—this process of mundane improvement occurs every day in the lives of ordinary people in congregations around the world. Latter-day Saints are known for their good will. Somehow, we grow up learning to say “yes” to anything we are asked to do. We know how to work together and how to avoid group conflicts. All that is part of our culture, and those who join us learn those attitudes and pass them along to their children.
The question facing us now is this: how do we deploy this powerful cultural resource to make life better for everyone—to save the world in the broader sense? Perhaps we can begin by recognizing that our responsibilities go beyond our families and the Church. Yes, we teach our children and serve in the Church. That is the foundation of everything. But we should also recognize that there is something more. We are called by Christ to be a saving remnant, the leaven in the lump. The children of Israel are a chosen people—chosen to serve. Jews have a term for it: tikkun olam, repair of the world. Through Israel, the scriptures tell us, God will bless all the people of the earth. Our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, and even our political parties are sites for blessing people. In all of these, we should stand for honesty and fair dealing, for the protection of those being abused, for generosity towards the poor, for amicability, for high moral standards. We should seek to bring peace and good will in school rooms, on playing fields, in board rooms, in public meetings. Some will exercise influence in government, universities, philanthropies, and large corporations, others among only a small circle of friends. But we are all engaged in the same cause, to be points of light brightening the world.
In politics, too, we can play a vital role. President Oaks, especially, has made it increasingly clear over the last five years that our political role is not to be confined to or defined by any particular political ideology but is, instead, to draw together opposing poles, to bridge divides, and to heal the rifts that threaten to rend society.
These considerations help us to imagine the answer to a challenging, but fundamental, question: can a church that numbers less than one-half of one percent of the world’s population make even a small dent in global problems? It seems clear that if our theory of regeneration of the world is to have significant impact, it depends on collaboration. Acting alone, we are too small to have more than a local effect. Our only hope is to work cooperatively with others. Fortunately, Latter-day Saints are not the only people of good will in the world; our collaborators in healing the world surround us and will almost always outnumber us. To make the best of what we have, we need to form alliances with these like-minded souls and work together to establish righteousness. We can lead out in good causes and look for support. When others lead, we should join them. We can ally ourselves with just and good forces whenever and wherever they arise.
In my view, seeking collaboration need not always be done at the official Church level. In fact, these efforts may be even more potent if we adopt them as our personal missions, rather than relying on the Church to formalize and enact them under a potential shadow of institutional interests. Instead, at the personal level, we should notice people in trouble and offer help. We should try to bring peace to a workplace, a board meeting, a classroom, or a neighborhood whenever we can. Simply by making a selfless move we can make a difference, and most of the time, we will not act alone.
Our personal efforts to be spiritual and righteous have broad implications. In working out our own salvation, we become part of a global effort. While it is true we are few in number, Latter-day Saints have never balked at charges to do the impossible—to convert the whole earth or to baptize every individual who ever lived. These are outlandish propositions, but Latter-day Saints carry on in faith.
Richard Bushman is the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University and the author of “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography.”
Art by Maryna Lukach