Years ago at BYU, a new lecture series was instigated. Called the “Last Lecture,” it was formatted to give the lecturer the opportunity to speak as though it were the last address he or she would give before dying — a sort of gospel last will and testament, if you will.
That’s what I would like to do today. If I knew I was going to be called home tomorrow, this is what I would want to say to you right now.
Over the last 40 years or so, I have dedicated my spare time — outside raising a family and earning a living — to an in-depth study of the restored gospel. That study resulted in a distinctive view, one that prompted me to become an author and lecturer — roles I had never previously contemplated in my wildest fantasies.
In so doing, I found myself breathing rather rarified air: None of my fellow Saints seemed aware of the information I had ferret out and then sought to share with them. In fact, it became apparent early on that most church members regarded my views with the same hesitation and scorn that they reserved for reports of UFO sightings, vanishings in the Bermuda Triangle and chance encounters with Big Foot or Yeti in remote regions of the world. They almost entirely discounted what I sought to teach, and they regarded me as nothing more than a purveyor of “odd knowledge” having little to do with their understanding of the gospel or the real world.
Yet my research told me that what I discovered was identical to some of Joseph Smith's more obscure teachings, concepts that have been largely marginalized in the church today. It became readily apparent from my discoveries that early church members were well aware of Joseph's inclination toward cosmology, the story of the ancient heavens and the symbols and metaphors they spawned in ancient cultures and religion.
As time went on and my research progressed, this conceptual and perceptual gap widened. I discovered whole areas of thought and information of which most members were seemingly totally unaware. It was apparent that this traditional symbolism touched on more than simply prophetic imagery; it had sweeping implications for every aspect of the gospel, including temple iconography and ritual — perhaps one of the least understood facets of the Restoration.
And this puzzled me as much as it perplexed others with whom I attempted to share my newfound knowledge. Rather than encountering an enthusiastic response, which I expected from church members, to my surprise I found resistance, denial, indifference and apathy in most and outright antagonism in some. "Why?" I asked myself. "What is there about this information that elicits such negative reactions among my fellow Mormons?" I thought they would embrace these ideas with the same enthusiasm and excitement that I did. Not so. I was naïve.
At first, these reactions caused me to question my own conclusions. How could it be that everyone else had missed this information? Logic and reason suggested that I had probably shimmied out on a faux limb; otherwise, most members would already know these things. After all, we all belong to the one, true church, guided by inspired men. How could it be that with revelation in the church there would be gaps in our gospel knowledge? It just didn’t seem logical or possible.
Nevertheless, the evidence continued to mount as my research progressed. Thanks to a quiet revolution in the natural sciences, this information was notoriously obvious and readily available. There could be no doubt about the validity of the concepts I was learning.
Ere long, my research uncovered the indisputable fact that these ideas had been taught in the early days of the church by general authorities. Most reported that they had learned these concepts from the horse’s mouth: the prophet Joseph Smith himself.
So, I was confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, the modern church, with leaders who I knew to be inspired, seemed to know little or nothing of the things I had discovered. On the other, the evidence was overwhelming that the concepts were correct and had been taught early on in the Restoration. How, I wondered, could this seeming dichotomy be resolved? What had apparently blinded the majority of church members to such information?
The answer was actually quite simple, but not easy to see and sometimes difficult to acknowledge. It was we, the Saints, each of us individually, who had dropped the ball.
It’s not that I had discovered something heretofore unknown; I had simply discovered for myself something that every Latter-day Saint should also have learned in the course of a thoroughgoing study of the Restored Gospel. I was unique only in that I had followed that distinct trail of evidentiary breadcrumbs through the informational forest. I had gone without reservation where others declined or feared to tread.
They had elected to ignore those bits as irrelevant or misleading. I saw them as gems of wisdom and knowledge, invaluable to a thoroughgoing understanding of the Restore Gospel.
Let me demonstrate the indifference or apathy of the Saints for you. For example, how many of you have taken the opportunity to read through the Bible dictionary in your scriptures? (Hold up the scriptures.) There is a wealth of information there. Even though it’s only just about 200 pages long, most Saints have never taken the time to study those few pages. Or, what about Joseph Smith’s own diary, History of the Church? How many of us have read his views firsthand? I will state this categorically: No truly earnest member can claim they understand their founding prophet if they have not read his own statements on a myriad of issues, spiritual and secular. It’s a virtual treasure trove of gospel information. Yet, most members don’t even know it exists.
Some may say that they can’t be expected to do all that reading, that they can depend on the leaders and teachers to sort out that information and pass along the important bits. My rejoinder is to ask, How long have you been a member? Five years? Ten years? Most of your adult life? How is that not enough time to do a little reading?
Most of us have read untold volumes in our lifetime: newspapers, magazines, manuals, books, etc. Yet, we’ve not found time to fully study the gospel, our virtual passbook to salvation and exaltation. Instead, like recalcitrant children, most of us balk at true study. Instead, we depend upon the general authorities and others to spoon-feed us.
And therein lies the flaw in our logic.
What the brethren have concentrated on, as the Lord charged them to do, are the basics: the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. It’s missionary work, pure and simple -- all well designed, carefully orchestrated and calculated to reach out to nonmembers and new members alike, to get them solidly based in fundamental principles. What we hear in general conference talks and in church each Sunday is meant to support one mission and one mission only: convert nonmembers and get the new converts moving along the right path, in the right direction.
The rest of the information is our responsibility, again, by divine design. And that's where the majority of the Restored Gospel resides, outside church manuals and classes. It's there, waiting for us to search it out.
Yet, most of us are stuck in that early growth stage in our gospel progression. True, we fulfill our callings and even comply with church standards sufficient to go to the temple for the higher ordinance work. Yet, we do so largely without understanding what we see and experience there and in our reading of the scriptures as well.
Due to our almost complete failure to truly study the “fullness” of the gospel, we struggle with huge information gaps. Those are evidenced by our gospel blind spots: the imagery of ancient wisdom used in the metaphors of prophecy, the symbolism of our temples and the language of the prophets.
The notion that we can ‘read’ the temple, just as we do the scriptures, eludes us. It should be largely an instructive experience, at least as much so as a spiritual experience. But we come away from the endowment puzzled by its meaning and significance. The covenants are self explanatory. But the ritual, the majority of what is done in a temple session, is mere mimicry and mummery to us. It teaches us nothing. We leave as clueless as we entered, hoping someday to perhaps grasp its purpose and meaning.
Even for those among us who attend the temple regularly or work therein, the teachings and meaning in its ordinances, rites and rituals as well as the icons in its architecture are a mystery to us, invisible and unacknowledged.
So, too, with the symbolism of the scriptures. We all know, for example, that the phrase used therein “the mountain of the Lord’s house” refers to the temple. But, we have no clue about the origins of such an odd metaphor. How is a temple equated to a mountain? We don’t even exhibit so much as a little curiosity about such symbolism, taking it entirely for granted.
This, too, is the case with prophecy. Littered with seemingly bizarre imagery, it appears far too confusing and unfathomable for the average member. So, we dismiss it as unimportant or too mysterious for anyone but the most inspired of prophets to interpret.
We suppose that if it were truly vital to our personal repository of gospel knowledge, our church leaders would have repeatedly explained it in minute detail, just as they do fundamental gospel elements. We suppose that merely listening and reading a bit, coupled with sincere, prayerful supplication for answers, will yield all we need to know.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
This is key: The Spirit is not a teacher. He only confirms and comforts. This has been explained to us over and over. You must learn a thing first by research and study before the Spirit can confirm the truth of it to you.
We suffer from what I call the Oliver Cowdery syndrome: We think that truth will be given us without any effort on our part. Read about Elder Cowdery’s dilemma in Doctrine and Covenants, Sections 8 and 9.
Think about it. How did you come by your testimony? It was necessary that you first inform yourself about the gospel before praying about it. Reading the Book of Mormon came before praying about it to get a confirmation of its truth from the Spirit. Likewise, Joseph Smith had to study the Bible to come across the notion that God would answer his questions for him before he could be given that first vision.
That’s the way it works: study first, ask second.
But, casual reading does not qualify as study. Study means work. It takes real effort on your part and true inquisitiveness to formulate a focused concept that is sufficiently well developed to pray about. And surprisingly, as often as not, the Spirit reveals the truth of what you’re studying or formulating before you ever get the chance to ask. He’s that anxious to lead you forward.
So, in summary, let me say that what I have learned is not peripheral to one’s gospel knowledge and understanding. It is essential. (Hold up the stunt Bible.) Without it, we may as well tear our scriptures in half and throw one of the two halves away. (Tear the binding right down the middle and toss half of it on the floor.)
We may as well listen to the gospel message half asleep. We are missing that much ... and more! We set at naught the efforts of the prophets to enlighten us, and we disparage the fullness of the Restored Gospel. What a sad state of affairs.
So as I noted at the outset of this talk, this would be my last lecture, sermon or counsel to you: Study! (lengthy pause) Study! (spoken even louder) Study! (louder still). Look closely, and you will learn what I’ve learned. I am not the keeper and purveyor of odd knowledge and irrelevant information you may have taken me to be. I’ve only found and followed the trail of breadcrumbs left there for us by men of God. I’ve diligently tracked it where it was intended to lead those who exercise due diligence.
I’ve documented my concepts in the statements of early church leaders from Joseph Smith on forward, and I’ve successfully and enlighteningly employed these concepts to make sense of temple symbolism and prophecy. It’s no mystery. There’s no magic. But like the obvious nose on your face, it’s nearly invisible to you.
Only through concerted effort and diligence will this wisdom become apparent to you. And no one else can or will do it for you — not your home teacher, not your bishop not your stake president … not even the prophet. It’s not the responsibility of the brethren to explain every nuanced detail of the gospel to you. That’s your job; get after it. As President Kimball was fond of saying, “Do it … now!”
© Anthony E. Larson, 2007