Elder Christofferson: “A little learning is a dangerous thing,”… so get a lot of it instead

09.30.2013 | The Maxwell Institute

Elder D. Todd Christofferson gave an interesting devotional address last week at BYU-Idaho focusing on the Prophet Joseph Smith. He highlighted the excellent work being done on the Joseph Smith Papers Project and called on members of the Church to become better familiar with Joseph by avoiding the overemphasis or denial of the Prophet’s flaws.

The expanding access we enjoy to the Prophet’s work and teachings fills previous voids in our knowledge. It confirms some things we already knew or thought, and it supplies answers to questions we might have had. The information also raises new questions and highlights new areas of inquiry to pursue. Realistically, however, we ought not to expect in this life to know all the answers—or for that matter, all the questions. The Prophet himself declared: ‘You don’t know me. You never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it. I shall never undertake it. I do not blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have I would not have believed it myself. When I’m called by the trump of the archangel and weighed in the balance you will then know me.’”

Elder Christofferson noted that while some people seek to magnify Joseph Smith’s flaws to undermine his influence, there are also “honest historians and researchers with no ax to grind” who sometimes discover or publish jarring information about him. So he offered advice for those interested in learning more about Joseph Smith: “Be patient, don’t be superficial, and don’t ignore the Spirit.”

Elder Christofferson said patience is required because some issues resolve themselves over time as new discoveries are made. As examples, he pointed to a blog post by the Maxwell Institute’s Matthew Roper that discusses steel in the Book of Mormon and to the Mark Hofmann forgeries. He also emphasized that not all issues will be so easily addressed and reiterated his point that not all questions will be answered:

If you determine to sit still, paralyzed, until every question is answered and every whisper of doubt is resolved, you’ll never move. Because in this life there will always be some issue pending, things yet unexplained.

Instead, Church members should make a point of diligently studying the history while continuously cultivating a relationship with God.

I would offer you the advice of our Assistant Church Historian, Rick Turley, an intellectually gifted researcher and author, whose recent works include the definitive history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He says simply: ‘Don’t study Church history too little.’

Remember the verse of English poet Alexander Pope,

‘A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.’”

Elder Christofferson served as executive director of the Church’s Family and Church History Department and published a piece in the Journal of Mormon History prior to being called as an apostle. You can listen to, watch, or read a transcript of Elder Christofferson’s complete devotional address, “The Prophet Joseph Smith,” here.