GUEST HOST—Briefly Moroni, with David F. Holland & Spencer Fluhman [MIPodcast #122]
David F. Holland joins us in this episode to talk about his brief theological introduction to the final book—the book of Moroni. Spencer Fluhman, executive director of the Maxwell Institute, returns as guest host. Learn more about the brief theological introduction series at mi.byu.edu/brief.
Note: Dr. Holland refers to this article by Philip L. Barlow: “To Mend a Fractured Reality.”
David Holland is the John Bartlett Professor of New England Church History at Harvard Divinity School and the Director of Graduate Studies in Religion at Harvard University. He is the author of Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America, published by Oxford University Press.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. What a journey it’s been through the Book of Mormon over the past year, and what a year it’s been to take a journey through the Book of Mormon!
David F. Holland joins us in this episode to talk about his brief theological introduction to the final book, the book of Moroni. Spencer Fluhman, executive director of the Maxwell Institute, returns as guest host having just wrapped up editing on Dr. Holland’s forthcoming volume. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions series. You can find out more information about the series at mi.byu.edu/brief. We hope this volume and the rest of them will be available by the end of the year.
Dr. Holland joined us over Zoom. He’s the John Bartlett Professor of New England Church History at Harvard Divinity School and Director of Graduate Studies in Religion at Harvard University. We’re thankful to him, and to all the authors who have contributed to this series, and of course to all of you, the listeners, and the readers who have been taking this theological journey with us.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at email@example.com.
It’s David F. Holland and Spencer Fluhman talking about a brief theological introduction to Moroni.
SPENCER FLUHMAN: Welcome friends. My name is Spencer Fluhman, I’m the executive director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. I’m guest hosting the Maxwell Institute Podcast today and I’m with Dr. David Holland of the Harvard Divinity School who has written a brief theological introduction to Moroni as part of our brief theological introductions series.
David welcome! Have you been on the podcast before, or is this your maiden voyage?
DAVID HOLLAND: This is it. Glad to be here, glad to be with you always, Spencer. Thank you.
FLUHMAN: I’m excited to talk about this particular book, I’ve read it more than once.
HOLLAND: I’m sorry. [laughter]
FLUHMAN: No, don’t apologize. It’s tremendous! I’ve seen it develop, and I quite love it and I’m excited for it to be in the world. We’re hoping that it appears just before Christmas, that’s the plan. Stocking stuffers everywhere.
HOLLAND: That’s a step below coal I’m afraid.
FLUHMAN: If our timing is right, it’ll be a marvelous conclusion to a remarkable series. So I’m excited to talk about it today.
David, you’re trained as a historian, you’re not a theologian by training, maybe you’re a theologian on the side. But you come to this with a slightly different set of skills. Tell us what it was like as a historian to shift gears, to write something seriously theological.
HOLLAND: Interestingly enough, part of my historiographical commitment as a scholar of history is that everyone’s a theologian. It used to be that in the study of American religious history—and the study of the history of religion generally—the category of theology was reserved for elite, highly trained, quite rarefied thinkers who participated in a kind of discourse that was often inaccessible to regular people. And just about everything I’ve written as a historian has been premised on the assumption that you don’t have to be an Oxford- or Cambridge-trained theologian in order to participate in a theological conversation.
So in a sense, I’m sort of living out the historiographical commitment that’s informed my work by jumping into this conversation myself and saying, “I might not have the technical training in theology, I might not be deeply enmeshed in theological conversations in my professional life, but I am a participant in the human experience and I reflect on the meaning and the significance and the cosmological context of these lives that we live.”
I think that makes you and me and everybody that we encounter at some level, a theologian. So I do believe that we all have the opportunity to take our place in this discussion. And so I was grateful for the invitation and the chance to live out what has been a long-standing commitment of mine.
It’s also very gratifying because I work on theologians as a historian, I work on both technically trained and classically categorized theologians and popular theologians of any variety of stripes. I love the chance to think about them in the context of the Book of Mormon. So I get a chance to talk about Jonathan Edwards in relation to the Book of Mormon. Or Friedrich Schleiermacher in relation to the Book of Mormon—these people who I write about and teach about, but rarely have the chance to connect to my own devotional life. And this was an invitation to bring these sort of figures that I engage with historically into a contemporary, live, living conversation with me theologically. And I’ve found that really rewarding.
FLUHMAN: Your response is really interesting to me. For one thing, it authorizes me to think of myself as a popular theologian, which I just discovered that right now as we’re talking. [laughs] That’s great, I’m going to claim that title too.
But the other piece is about Latter-day Saints and our own community. Because on the one hand, theology can seem a little bit like a scary word, it sounds rarefied, it sounds overly academic, and we’ve got some negative connotations with theology in our tradition. Some with good reason, some maybe not. But your modeling—and I hope this series models—a kind of invitation for Latter-day Saints to call what they’re doing—when they think hard about scripture, when they talk in their Sunday school classes about scripture, when they wonder how things connect—that they’re doing a kind of theology. Does that help us?
HOLLAND: I think it does. I think it does. I think the reason why we are resistant is because we have this deep commitment to living revelation and the idea that you don’t need a set apart category of academically trained theologians to develop the doctrine. We have living prophets and apostles that do that work with divine authority rather than an academic credential. And that’s one of the things I love about our faith, it’s one of the things I love about being a Latter-day Saint. But I think that’s a pretty narrow conception of theology and what a theologian is and does.
Jim [James E.] Faulconer has a great line in his brief theological volume on Mosiah about how the prophetic figures in the Book of Mormon don’t do theology; they declare doctrine and they invite us to do the theological work of making sense of that, to figure out its systemic application in our lives and in our thought. And so in a sense, the existence of prophets and apostles who declare is in fact an invitation for the membership of the church to always be doing theology, not in opposition to revelatory authority, which is sometimes the way that it gets described historically, not necessarily in our faith, but sort of just generally in Christian history.
Not in opposition, but as the necessary complement and consequence of a living stream of revelation that, as we receive this and as we think about it in its historical sequence and in its larger cultural application, we have a lot of revelatory sources, scripture, prophet, living inspiration, patriarchal blessings—we believe revelation is this broad and vast sea of possibility. That we all have to do the work of theologizing that steady flow of light and truth to make it meaningful and applicable in our own lives. Rather than seeing the Latter-day Saint tradition as uniquely resistant to the concept of theology, I think—if conceived of in the way that I’m suggesting—it’s actually a pretty profound invitation for us to jump into that theologizing conversation.
FLUHMAN: Marvelous. Let’s jump into the materials that you had to wrestle with over the past months. The book of Moroni. No pressure! You have to wrestle with this dramatic conclusion narratively, theologically for the whole book of scripture as we’ve come to read it and love it. You argue in the book that the ordering of those materials we get from Moroni is itself important, that it doesn’t seem accidental to you. We’ve got this mix of things that we get, and for you, you see a kind of order there. So do a couple of things for us, would you? Remind us what we have for Moroni when we get to his writings and what might we take from the order that we receive them.
HOLLAND: I do think that a number of places in the Book of Mormon are ordered for theological, or at least doctrinal purpose, and some of my fellow authors in this series have made that case. Beginning with Joseph Spencer’s opening volume1st Nephi, which talks so compellingly about the structure of that book. So I don’t think Moroni is unique in this regard, I do think there is a bit of tradition and pattern in the Book of Mormon to order these materials with a kind of larger message in mind.
But Moroni’s book is quite distinctive in the sense that he is not really a chronicler of an era. Unlike his authorial counterparts throughout the book, he’s really quite disengaged with what’s happening around him. He’s on the run, he’s isolated, he’s on his own, he’s not watching, he’s not recording what’s happening in these other groups or these roving bands or how the history is unfolding around him. And so it’s kind of—”liberated” sounds like a positive term, I don’t necessarily mean it positively, I’m not sure he would have seen it positively—but he is sort of in that sense not in the position to chronicle his generation. He knows a lot more about the past than he knows about what’s going on in his present, and indeed he knows a lot more about the future than what’s going on in his present. And so we get a lot more about the past and the future than we get about his present.
What we get is this collection of artifacts. It opens with him describing his circumstance: he’s certainly surprised to be alive. He doesn’t know where this is headed; he doesn’t know how it ends. He knows that Jesus is the Christ and that’s the motivation to stay alive, to keep his testimony alive, literally and figuratively. And so he knows this one great truth: that Jesus is the Christ, and everything else is kind of swirling in uncertainty around him.
Once he lays that foundation, the very next step in what we have as Moroni chapter two is to start talking about the ordinances. Which seems like such an interesting move for him, given the existential crisis that he’s finding himself in, that he starts talking about how you confer the gift of the Holy Ghost and how you ordain a teacher and a priest, and how you bless the sacrament. And I think that is really quite telling.
For one thing, it elevates the importance of the ordinances as that kind of move in a moment of chaos. And in the book, I describe this as both kind of a theological move and maybe a psychological move. In the same way that starving people dream of feasts, Moroni is dreaming of the well-ordered Christian community. And that rests on a foundation of carefully preserved ordinances. I think it’s really quite significant that he launches right into that as he describes his own kind of dire straits.
And there are a lot of things we could say about the way he describes those ordinances. I think they’re quite rich in their description, but he’s describing ordinances from four hundred years earlier. He’s talking about the way Christ instituted these ordinances at the time of his visit to the Lamanites and the Nephites. He’s very historically aware and committed to this idea of preserving these. They’ve been preserved for four hundred years and now he’s going to preserve them for millennia more, as he anticipates the future readership of this book. He sees these things as stabilizing, as continuity, a consistency that’s essential to the larger project of God’s work in the world.
Then these ordinances lead up to a description of that community, and that’s what we get in Moroni chapter six, after chapters two, three, four, and five, which describe these ordinances. Then we get this description of the church.
And actually, one more ordinance, which is baptism, described in chapter six, doesn’t describe the ordinance itself so much as the prerequisites of the requirements for participating in it, foremost among which is a broken heart and a contrite spirit, which is a discourse in and of itself. But that these ordinances are to lead to a community of caring, they are the kind of ordering foundation upon which something higher rests. And that is this connection of love, a group that will meet together oft and nourish each other with the good word of Christ and follow the spirit in their worship. You get this depiction of the community beginning with ordinances leading up through the emergence of the Church.
And then immediately on the heels of that, you get Mormon’s great sermon in Moroni 7. The sermon that we associate with the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, though I think it’s about even more than that—I mean, that would be enough, but I think there’s actually even more going on in that sermon. You sort of see these ordinances help inform the Church, the Church then prepares the soul to learn how to love purely, and that’s the ultimate gift that comes at the end of Moroni 7, Mormon’s sermon, it’s this gift of love, the pure love of Christ, which God bestows on all that are true followers of His Son.
So it does seem to me there’s a kind of sequential logic that builds up to this ultimate gift in his father’s sermon. I love the complexity of Moroni’s approach here, that he’s telling history, he’s describing community, and then he’s declaring this great grace, the grace of love that Christ gives us and that he calls on us to offer to others.
And then we get these two really interesting letters which in some ways seem sort of inexplicable. Why on the heels of this kind of building momentum to this culmination do you suddenly get this discourse on infant baptism and then this really gut-wrenching description of what’s going on in Mormon’s moment? This is history to Moroni. Mormon’s dead at this point, why go back and provide this letter that describes this chaos that Mormon was living through?
These two letters function quite interestingly, and I contend in the book—and I stand by this suggestion—that that letter on infant baptism that constitutes our Moroni chapter eight is in fact a warning against over-reading the early chapters on the ordinances. Sort of the culminating point of Mormon’s letter is “Beware of dead works. Beware of the idea of so much emphasis on the ordinance of baptism so that you’re imposing it on children and you’re condemning those who have not received it, which is in fact a misreading of this doctrine.”
It’s almost—Moroni’s saying, we begin with the ordinances and we move up through this great outpouring of love that ultimately results from this sequence. But there’s a kind of caveat, there’s a kind of warning: “Don’t take this into the rigid formalism of a doctrine of dead works.” And infant baptism for Mormon is the ultimate expression of that. And so that then becomes the ultimate warning for Moroni, that caution against a misreading of that sequence that he described in chapters two through seven.
And then in nine, following on eight, we get another letter, and this one kind of gives us a counter-warning, “beware of anarchy, beware of chaos.” What Mormon describes is a people who have given up on order, given up on the structure, given up on the community, and you get this anarchic, free-for-all of the human depravity that has the most offensive, gut-wrenching descriptions in the whole book. Cannibalism, sexual violence, and the murder of husbands in front of their wives and fathers in front of their children—terrible, terrible stuff here. As if to say, “don’t resist the formalism so much that you break down the structures of community love.”
And then finally in chapter ten, you get Moroni’s culminating testimony in which he talks about the gifts of the spirit, and Jesus Christ as the ultimate gift of our Heavenly Father, and then describes himself as ascending up to heaven.
I think that imagery is so beautiful and poignant. When the book of Moroni opens you get this guy who is sort of kicking dust along the trail, very pedestrian, very earthbound, very lost in many respects, and by the end of the book, he is soaring through heaven triumphantly. It’s like the ultimate contrast of images, and I think for Moroni it’s a sort of description of what happens if somebody is true to this sequence that he’s been describing.
That’s my sense of the ordering and I do think there’s a meaning to that sequence, and we need to pay attention to that structure in order to get the full intent of Moroni’s message to us.
FLUHMAN: You’ve helped me a lot as a reader with that structure. That makes sense to me. Also helpful to me is, not only do you help make sense of that structure in the way those letters seem like guardrails of a certain kind, but you’ve also kind of given a through-line theologically to the book that you think helps us organize all of Moroni’s activity as a writer, as a theologian, as an observer, as a witness.
It is the idea of the gift and gifts. You’ve already used that word a couple of times in your response, and for you, that is a paramount kind of organizing word. You see him as “a theologian of the gifts,” that’s the way you frame Moroni. What prompted that for you? And how does that idea of gifts and giving help us understand these chapters that we encounter at the end of the Book of Mormon?
HOLLAND: Part of it is just the frequency of word occurrence. That the term gift appears so frequently, not just in the book of Moroni but anytime Moroni appears in the Book of Mormon. Every time he appears, this word comes up.
The title page. Twice he describes the Book of Mormon as being translated “by the gift and power of God,” that it’s a gift unto humanity. So right off the bat, and I know there’s debate about whether Moroni is the author of the title page, I’m in the camp that, I’m pretty convinced that he must be—so we’ve got gifts there.
When he finishes his father’s book that is the internal book of Mormon, it appears in his concluding wrap-up of his father’s testimony. It appears when he wraps up the book of Ether, and it appears throughout his own book. If you just do a raw quantitative analysis he uses the term more than any other Book of Mormon author, closely rivaled by his own father, which I think is kind of an interesting familial rhetorical tendency there.
FLUHMAN: You have a guess where he got it.
HOLLAND: Exactly. So I think that’s interesting, and it plays into one of my own anchor points of testimony about the divinity of the book. It goes all the way back to this moment I had with Alma where I began to recognize as a teenager what I’ve come to call the “authorial signature”—a kind of rhetorical tendency. You see that in Moroni, not just in this book, but everywhere he appears. I thought, “let’s take a close look at this. Why does he keep using this term? What does it signify?” And it just dawns on me that both in his own testimony and as work as a historian, as recovering the ritual history of Christ’s visit, and then in his selection of these materials from his father, I do think they are a conscious selection, he suggests that he pulled out those things that he thought was most important, and lo and behold it’s a sermon about the gifts of faith, hope, and charity. So again, the gifts come up.
And then in his concluding testimony in chapter ten the whole first half of that is about the gifts of the spirit explicitly stated. And then the transition to his concluding passage there is, “Be partakers of the heavenly gift.” As if the whole concept of salvation is encapsulated in that idea of the gift.
I mean, when you start to look at it, it’s kind of overwhelming just how significant that giftedness of all of this is to Moroni. And I think it helps us actually understand one of the great theological impasses or controversies of the entirety of Christian history, and that is this vexing relationship between grace and work. I probably can’t do it justice here in our conversation but hopefully I’ve gotten a little closer to it in the book. Part of that, as a result at least, it’s resolved in a practical sense when we understand that both of those things are gifts. We often think about grace as the gift, in part because the word etymologically is connected, and work is some kind of intrinsic capacity for us, that we do the work and God gives grace.
But I actually think that there is at least theological resource within the book of Moroni to suggest that we’re better off recognizing the grace and the work as both gifts from God. And given in particular proportion to our circumstance and the giver, God as the Giver with a capital G, has granted us the opportunity to work and has granted us the mercies of grace. And they come in different proportions, as you would expect a thoughtful giver to give individualized gifts. He is the great Giver and that means he’s given them to us to match our particular circumstance and need.
So there are moments when a circumstance in which I might be given the opportunity to work, agency, to choose a choice—to choose and change, and that is unique to me. I might look at somebody else and because of physiological constraint or trauma they’ve experienced or the inheritance of the psychological profile that makes it difficult or even impossible to do what other people might be able to do, that we cannot judge or condemn because their limitations are just as gifted as their capacities, as are my limitations and my capacities.
So the relationship between grace and work there is not an opportunity to beat each other over the head with whichever one we think somebody ought to be invoking at any particular moment, but to seek out a relationship with the Giver to understand how those gifts were given, why they were given to us, and how the Giver wants them to be exercised and used.
And so I think I try, in the book, to break down what I think is maybe a particular Latter-day Saint preoccupation with this notion that agency is an intrinsic ability and suggest instead that what the Book of Mormon teaches is that agency is a gift. And when we recognize its giftedness we get past some of that theological obstacles that the tension between grace and work sometimes creates for us.
FLUHMAN: That’s beautiful. On the one hand, you’ve certainly convinced me as a reader that this is a truly organizing theme for this section of the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, it’s kind of remarkable in a way, because given what we know about the narrative, we might be a little shocked that Moroni is seeing generosity and gifts all over the place. He’s been through a chaotic collapse.
He’s lost everything and everyone, there’s a kind of solitude and loneliness that marks this, and we see the fingerprints, maybe the residue is better, the residue of that life in his lack of clarity. He’s really clear about some things, but we’re a little surprised that he’s talking about gifts given the hand-wringing he does over lots of things. He’s a complex mix, himself. How does that hand wringing side of Moroni relate to a kind of spiritual eye that’s been trained on God’s generosity?
HOLLAND: That’s a great question and I think it adds to the power and the poignancy of his testimony about God’s generosity. That he’s living a life that looks so bereft of so many of the things that we would take for granted. Including the very church community that he is describing so lovingly, he doesn’t have. So it’s a great point.
I think one of the things that Moroni does—and you actually see it in some ways more clearly in other places in the Book of Mormon where Moroni appears, but that he turns the trouble and the lack into a gift. It’s related to what I was saying before, which is that in recognizing that grace and work are both gifts, they’re both given to us in individualized proportions, you recognize that limitations can have a divine purpose. So this is the Moroni that appears at the end of the book of Ether to say in 12:27, “When we come unto God he will show us our weaknesses, and he will make weak things strong.” That in the process of actually—Rosylande Welch always corrects me, it’s not weaknesses in the plural, it’s weakness singular—that that limitation is in fact a means to a divine end.
And that Moroni sees—in fact, you see it again previous to Ether at the end of the book of Mormon, the interior book of Mormon, when he says in chapter nine, “Don’t condemn me for my mistakes. Thank God that you’ve seen my mistakes so that you can learn to be more wise than I’ve been.” He sees possibility in the absence, possibility in the lack. I think he sees the generosity of God and the givingness of God, not just in the obvious sort of largess, munificence of God, but even in the ways in which God denies us certain things, or doesn’t give us the capacity that we wish we had.
So I think that’s one of the reasons why Moroni’s so able to see the generosity of the divine because he sees it on both sides of the equation, both in what we have and what we don’t, and that through the grace of God both can be transformed into instruments of light and truth.
It’s interesting to me that in Moroni 10, when he’s reflecting back on it, he sort of has this one moment to say, “Alright, what does all of this mean? What has been the message of this record?” He says, “I will show you that the tender mercies of the Lord have been present.” He says, “I invite you to see, as you read this,” speaking to the reader, “that the Lord has been merciful.” And for a guy that is living in the ashes of his own world, to say that the message of this book is one of mercy and hope is a powerful witness to all of us when we feel like maybe we’re living in the ashes of our own situation, about how a wise and good God might in fact be using those difficult circumstances to ours and others’ eternal benefit.
FLUHMAN: That’s wonderful. It’s timely for all of us living in a year that has given us a bit of a tutoring in chaos, I think it’s a really timely point that you make.
I want to loop back to a couple of the points you made when you were describing the book of Moroni’s sequence. Again, you note that Moroni pauses to convey sacrament prayers for a community that he no longer has. So he’s definitely thinking about a future “we,” when he says, ”we” it’s a ”we” that’s not present with him. And so he’s thinking about a future kind of communion there, but he gives us the sacrament prayers.
You write about those with a kind of insight that I wanted to plumb here together. You note something about their repetition, and these are set, these are recited, these don’t change, we don’t have the benefit of a kind of creative performance of these. We’re fastidious about the way these prayers go, but you see meaning there, you see meaning in his recording of them, his transmission of them, his care of them, there’s something about this that strikes you. Talk us through the possible meanings of the sacrament and these prayers for the modern Church.
HOLLAND: I think the careful repetition of those prayers does at least three things, and probably more, but I’ll mention three.
One is that it does what Phil Barlow described as “Joseph Smith’s great project,” in a wonderful article that I cite every chance that I get, which is “To Mend a Fractured Reality.” As we live in a world in which God’s family is divided at so many dimensions, we usually think about that as division of culture, or division of gender or race, all of which is painfully present and crucial to attend to. But we’re also divided along axes of time and space. And what a ritual does, in part—one that is kind of carefully preserved—is to break down that temporal division.
So when we carefully preserve that prayer, when we make sure that we’re repeating it word for word across time, it is a kind of defiance of historical change, as if to say “for all the things that do change over time”—and as a historian, I’m trained to pay attention to historical change. You know as well as I do that in the academic study of religion, that’s the definition of history, is change over time. And it’s often where historians see themselves at odds with religion. Religion is about eternal varieties and histories are about things that evolve.
But in this ritual, even as it acknowledges other things that might change in our church life and in the world around us, is to say that at this moment when we partake of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we are connecting across time. That I am hearing the same prayer that Moroni recorded, which is the same prayer that Jesus instructed his disciples to use. So that’s a way to say I might be living in a world that is radically different from ancient Lamanites and Nephites, but for a moment on Sunday morning, we’re in this together. We are the family of God. And those barriers of time that separate the children of our Heavenly Parents are broken down by our careful preservation of this prayer. Or the emblems themselves, a crust of bread, suddenly I’m back in the upper room at the last supper connecting with ancient apostles who ate the same thing for the same purpose. There are not many moments when we get to do that, when we get to leap across millennia and say, “My sisters and brothers of an entirely different era we are part of the same covenant.” And that’s a beautiful thing for a few moments on a Sunday morning. So that’s part of the careful preservation and repetition of that.
I also believe in this sort of power of what we sometimes refer to as Aristotelian virtue ethics, which is that we become something through the repetitive practice of something. And if we think about the sacrament as an act of devotion, as an act of confession, as an act of covenant-making, that when I repetitively do that over and over again, I am becoming a more thoughtful, more devoted, more covenant-keeping kind of person. That the repetitive action is in fact the process by which virtue is formed. And that this requires a kind of layering of “ritual performativity,” to use the post-structural term, in which we are formed as new selves through this process. And I think there’s a real power to that.
I use the scholar and anthropologist of religion, Saba Mahmood, as one of my thinking partners in this discussion of the sacrament in the book, who uses this sort of Aristotelian notion of virtue ethics, or what she calls “the habitus,” to describe this as—her ethnography is of Muslim women in Egypt, but what she’s saying is that they are engaging in their ritual practice, not as an expression of who they are, but as a means to become who they want to be. And that requires repetition, it requires frequency. Mahmood describes this in a way that is sort of like a pianist doing scales, you develop a kind of muscle memory of the self, muscle memory of the soul—
HOLLAND: —through this process. And that’s why we get up every Sunday morning and come do it. The same way a pianist gets up and does the scales. Not because we think the scales are the whole concerto, they’re not, and the ordinance is not the whole gospel. And this is what Moroni—even as he emphasizes them—kind of warns us against. But they are crucial to us becoming the kind of people who can play the whole concerto. And there is no shortcut to that. That’s part of the repetition of this.
And then the third sort of implication of the sacrament and its repetitive nature is that in the repetition, in the frequency of it, I get the chance to develop a kind of language of connection with God. I get to use this physical act as a way to express my hopes, and any relationship is benefited by more means of communication, and the ritual provides us with another set of symbolic expressions to our Heavenly Father that forge an even tighter bond.
So that’s a lot going on in ten minutes on a Sunday morning. The problem is its frequency and its memorization and the things that allow it to play these important roles also run the risk of us thoughtlessly, mindlessly going through this. And that destroys everything I just described. It’s got to be done thoughtfully. So this is the disciples’ challenge, which is to be both carefully repetitive, fastidiously careful in the way that we do this Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, without getting mindless about it. And that’s tough, that’s tough. But it is the recipe for the full power and possibility of that part of our ritual lives.
FLUHMAN: And you have my thanks because you’ve slowed me down, and that’s a gift of the book for me is that you’ve slowed me down with the sacrament. By you slowing down with Moroni and thinking hard about why he pauses there, your pause there has slowed me down. So I’m excited for folks to have that.
You said something in response about stepping across the millennia and it reminded me of your depiction of Moroni in a way, because in your hands Moroni stands kind of at the intersection of the past and the present and the future. He’s consumed by his people’s past, and the lessons it has. He’s wringing his hands in the present, he’s worried about the effects of his writing and so on, for the future, so he’s kind of in communion with folks who aren’t there in the past and folks who aren’t there that will be there in the future. So he’s kind of outside time himself.
You describe this as a kind of creative dynamism, that it’s about him pulling from the past and getting insight into the present for the purpose of a better future. And for you that’s kind of a model of sorts, you link this to restoration itself. I wonder if you could talk through that for just a minute, this kind of careful attention to the past, but openness to insight now. That “dynamism,” your word, is what restoration is.
HOLLAND: I’ve just prefaced this by saying that one of the important realities of the book of Moroni that I think too often we rush over and disregard is that it’s addressed to Lamanites. This book has an audience. There is just tremendous meaning in that for me about Moroni’s belief that time can work wonders. Because he’s on the run from these people that he’s writing to and as we understand when we read Moroni 9, his father’s letter, Lamanites have lots of good reasons to hate Nephites. The Nephites have done some terrible, terrible, unspeakable—I would say unspeakable except that Mormon wrote them down and wanted us to confront them.
FLUHMAN: They’ve been spoken.
HOLLAND: They are terrible things. Here’s this group of people that have very little reason to trust the message and all kinds of reasons to hate the messenger. And here’s Moroni thinking, “I’m going to do this because I believe someday this is going to work. Someday this will be received. Time matters. And it might take a long time.”
God’s gifts sometimes take a very long time to reach their fulfillment. Just ask Abraham, ask Christ himself who is still waiting on us to really come to appreciate what he did two thousand years ago or what he did before the creation of the earth.
So time. Time matters and time can be part of God’s toolset for effecting the redemption of his family. So that’s point number one. And I think we only see that when we pause to notice that Moroni is writing to a particular people here, and the rest of us get the benefit of the beauty of that relationship and his Lamanite kin. So that’s point number one.
Point number two is that Moroni does some interesting things here suggesting that the future is going to be different from his present. One of them is that in describing the conferral of the gift of the Holy Ghost, or the authority to confer, the conferral of the authority to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost, he does something actually that his father does in 3 Nephi 2, they both do it, which is to say “there are some things that Jesus just said to the disciples,”—the apostolic twelve that are described as the disciples, categorized as the disciples—”but I’m going to tell you what he said to them.” And that’s a really interesting authorial move to say, “Jesus reserved this knowledge for these twelve disciples, but for some reason, Moroni thinks it’s important that we all know what he said.” As if to say, ”there will come a day when you are going to need this knowledge too.” And it turns out that what Jesus said to those disciples is, “You’ve got to be spiritually prepared to be a leader and a source of divine power in the lives of the people that you serve.” Well, the whole message of the restoration that is this dispensation is that that’s applicable to all of us.
One of the most beautiful symbols in this regard is the symbolism of the endowment. There was once an era for much of God’s work in the world where there was one high priest on the face of the earth. One high priest designated by certain vestments, certain clothing items. And we live in a dispensation where every woman and man who passes through the temple wears the robes of the high priesthood and is ordained to be a priestess or a priest.
So you take this sort of ancient world where these gifts were reserved to a very small number and the restoration just blows that up. We wrestle as a people—and we wrestle for good reason, We have our own painful history with how expansive we’ve been with those offerings of authority and leadership, and we’re still in the middle of that, we’re still in that process. But at the core of it, something remarkable has happened with the restoration, where that singular high priest is now represented by women and men across the kingdom. And when Moroni says, “well you know Jesus said this thing to a select few but I’m going to make sure that you all know what he said.” It’s almost as if for me he’s anticipating that, that element of the restoration.
And one of the things that are striking to me about Latter-day Saint experience of doctrine and culture is that unlike say, a Protestantized move to a priesthood of all believers, which really universalizes the priesthood by lowering its distinctiveness by saying, “it’s really just the power of faith, the power of prayer”—I shouldn’t say “just,” those are really meaningful, significant things. But it doesn’t have that priestly distinctiveness of office. What the restoration does is say, “Okay we’re going to maintain this really high-level notion of what priesthood might signify and we’re going to start distributing it in these radically expansive ways,” and again we’re agonizing and wrestling over what that means and how broad is that distribution, and all these things that God expects us to prayerfully and thoughtfully deal with and wrestle with. But you can’t ignore the fact that something quite remarkable has happened there, theologically. And that in fact it’s anticipated by Moroni’s record, in so many ways, that everybody who picks up that book—woman, man, child—reads this instruction that was once reserved.
So I think this is sort of Moroni’s way of saying, “Alright, as the prophet I’m going to look back four hundred years and recover what Jesus says. I’m living four hundred years later and I’m going to ponder it, and record it, and think about it, and I’m doing so because I believe that hundreds of years from now this knowledge is going to be important to a wider group of people.” As if to say, “you need both what I have to offer and you’re going to need it in the distinctive context of your time and place.”
And so the restoration has the sort of convergence of dispensations, a place where new light breaks forth upon ancient truths. This idea that Moroni has something to offer us, but it’s not the same as the world that he lived in, nor is it the same as the world four hundred years earlier that he’s trying to recover. But that the convergence of these things is the fullness of times, and that he had a sense—it’s hard to know exactly how prescient he was, how far did that prophetic gift go? How much did he really see of what our world and what our version of the Church looks like? But he clearly had a sense that it was going to be different, but different in a way that would still benefit from what he had to offer.
FLUHMAN: Wonderful. A final question for you. You’ve been wrestling with Moroni, this text, for over a year and a half. You’ve been thinking, and writing, and it’s been a sweet kind of commune editorially for me, frankly, for me to have a front-row seat to watch you wrestle with this text. What’s changed for you now that the book is done? It’s being typeset as we speak. How are you different? What’s changed for you in this stretch of wrestling with these marvelous concluding chapters of the Book of Mormon?
HOLLAND: Really all the things I’ve mentioned, quite literally, I think maybe every single thing that I’ve mentioned in this conversation has been a kind of new realization for me or at least a new appreciation for me of these truths that I’m now utterly convinced by.
The giftedness, the importance of recognizing the giftedness of agency in addition to the giftedness of grace. That’s been a profoundly personally meaningful theological breakthrough for me. The role of our ritual lives in relation to the higher truths of the gospel.
Not to get too personal here, but I was having my Sunday night Come Follow Me discussion with my own children and began to kind of wax verbose, which usually causes them to roll their eyes, but I’ve found myself drawing from my study of Moroni to talk about why the sacrament matters. And I could have never had that conversation with the people that mean the most to me in the whole world, I want my children to understand this. Why we go to church on a Sunday morning. Why it does matter if we blow it off or not. How do you explain that in a world like today’s world? That Moroni suddenly gave me a way to have that conversation and I would not have appreciated that gift from Moroni if I had not spent a lot of time trying to understand him, trying to understand his book.
So from the importance of the ordinances, to the gifts of the spirit, and everything in between, the power of God’s gifts of what we lack, you name it. It’s been an opportunity for me to change as I’ve thought about the theological messages of the book of Moroni.
FLUHMAN: Well David, you’ve given gifts to us in the form of this book. You’re a busy man and yet you’ve consecrated yours for the good of the saints and I’m grateful for it and grateful for your time today. Thanks for the conversation. Thanks for the book, I can’t wait to see it in the world.
HOLLAND: I’ll always be grateful to you Spencer personally, and to the Maxwell Institute institutionally for conceiving of the series and for giving me the great gift of being a part of it.
FLUHMAN: Thanks a lot.
HOLLAND: Take care.
HODGES: That was David F. Holland of Harvard Divinity School and Spencer Fluhman of the Maxwell Institute talking about Moroni: a brief theological introduction. Yu can learn more about that book and the series at mi.byu.edu/brief.
Before we go let’s check out a review of the month. Here we are, Mimi Sundwall said that she found the podcast after listening to some lectures by Terryl Givens from the Institute’s YouTube channel. That’s great, it must have come up as a recommended video.
She said, “One of the many blessings from the Covid-19 pandemic is the discovery of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Every episode I’ve listened to has awakened my understanding, increased my faith, and left me hungry for more. The messages I’ve found here have expanded the scope of my pondering on truth and my study of the scriptures. I have a vision of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I’m grateful for the life work of these scholars who have helped me find what I wasn’t aware I was missing. I hope everyone I share this with will come and hear.”
Well, thank you for that. We hope people will come and hear, too. Mimi thank you so much.
Speaking of other people coming to hear, I wanted to say hello to Amy Nelson, who recently joined the Maxwell Institute Podcast completist club, which anyone can join simply by listening to every episode of the show. That’s over one hundred and twenty episodes. Amy emailed me to let me know when she finished and she said, “I feel like I’m a different person than when I started.” That’s great to hear, I feel different as well. If there are more completists out there let me know. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, I’m Blair Hodges. Thanks for listening.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)