In memoriam: Stephen E. Robinson, 1947-2018

06.19.2018 | Janiece Johnson

Believing Christ was published in 1992, though I first read it on my mission. It was not on the approved reading list, but my grandma sent it to me in Argentina. It was a critical time for me. No matter how early I got up and how hard I worked, I never felt like I had done “all I could do”—Nephi’s words felt more like a weapon than a balm. Though Robinson himself might have tired of his bicycle parable, it was the first significant turn that Latter-day Saints took toward grace. Many have built on it, but Robinson’s work was the foundation. (Listen to Robinson’s comments from the conference on grace sponsored by BYU’s Wheatley Institution for the 25th anniversary of the Believing Christ here.) For me personally, it was vital. It was the first time I actually began to recognize that, no matter how much I worked, I could not earn God’s grace. I had to choose to receive the gift, and only then could it change me. I jumped at the opportunity to take a New Testament class from Robinson at BYU after my mission. His class was unlike any religion class I’d had before and asked more of me than any religion class I’d had before. He opened up the complexity and beauty of scripture for me in a way that changed my life. The classic Robinson approach—complete with a smattering of salty language—was a bit unconventional, particularly for BYU Religious Education. As I teach now, I recognize the purposeful calculations that founded his methodology and his personality. The gospel was for everyone; those whose lives outwardly appear perfect need divine help as much as those of us who readily demonstrate our mortal limitations. He helped me recognize that the gospel wasn’t about overt demonstrations of false piety, but about the place of your heart. I took both halves of the New Testament from him. His classes captivated me more than any other; I wanted to remember everything. I even made flash cards. More important was learning to consider the human creation and limitations of scripture—that they obscured as much as they illuminated and hard work could yield much. One day after a class discussion on those who will manipulate the spirit, I shared with him the 16-page “love” letter from a young man doing just that, and he offered to let the local police chief know just in case—he knew him through “Know Your Religion.” As the second semester ended, I asked him for a recommendation for a Doctrine and Covenants class. My prior experience with religion classes had not been great. I wasn’t willing to return to active dislike or even indifference. Robinson told me I could take Doctrine and Covenants from him. I took all the classes from him that I could, did research for him as he worked on his Doctrine and Covenants commentary, and later taught for him when he had health difficulties. At Divinity School when my evangelical friends went through faith crises when faith and academia clashed for them, I felt prepared to deal with difficult questions because of what he taught me. I teach the way I do because of him. Today I sat at the Bodelian Library at Oxford doing research on early Book of Mormon reception when I saw that Robinson died. I really wouldn’t be here (literally or metaphorically) if he hadn’t one day asked if I had ever thought about teaching Mormon history. He started me on a path to recognize that the intellectual and the spiritual did not have to clash. There would be tension, but a symbiotic relationship was possible. He also helped me recognize that discipleship means sometimes asking hard questions and leaping into the darkness, but it is always worth it. There are a number of Robinson quips that have rung in my memory over the years, but today I’m thinking about his plea to not minimize other’s tragedies with trite words. Such words might help us to make sense of tragedy in our own minds, but do nothing to minimize their pain—even if they are true. “Give them a hug and a kiss at the funeral and then send them a ham a week later so they know that you’re still thinking about them.” Today I will swear a few extra times for Robinson. And then after I get back, Janet will get a ham.

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Janiece Johnson is a Willes Center Research Associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. She specializes in American religious history—specifically Mormon history, gender, and the prosecution for the Mountain Meadows Massacre. She is co-author of The Witness of Women: First-hand Experiences and Testimonies of the Restoration (Deseret Book, 2016) and general editor of Mountain Meadows Massacre: Collected Legal Papers (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017). Dr. Johnson’s current research centers on the Book of Mormon in practice and the relationship of early Mormon converts to their new American scripture.