Today was the first time I’ve been to Elders Quorum this year! There’s a good EQ secretary for you. All the usual excuses apply—week-long sickness early in the year, then right after that a newborn baby, and so on and so forth.
Anyway, that’s not really the point. President Clark gave the lesson today and he told about an experience he had just the other night when he was arguing with people on the internet. He’s a big-time political junkie with strong opinions on things, and someone was being wrong on the internet and he needed to correct them, as usual. Of course, such people are never open to being corrected, which he admitted later on in the lesson, and that’s why, though I am also a political junkie with strong opinions about things, I do not rush to intervene. It usually just makes me angry at people, and that anger is hard to shed. My brain doesn’t let go and stop arguing—even when I’m completely alone and sans computer—for hours and hours on end. So I just leave things be.
But that’s not the point either. The point was, he was arguing with some ardent atheists who were asking mockingly, Why Jesus of Nazareth? There were tons of “Jesuses” around the same time, many men claiming messiah-ship, including the infamous Barabbas whom the Jews voted to be pardoned in place of Christ. Barabbas means “Son of the Father,” after all. So why not him? Why not the other Jeshuas?
The answer is actually not too difficult to grasp. Brother Clark invoked a sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, who pointed out that here we are, 2,000 years later, and which Jesus are we talking about? Which Jesus survived two millennia? Which Jesus survived the persecutions and tortures and horrible public deaths at the hands of a hostile Roman government? By which I mean, which Jesus survived in the minds and hearts and souls of those who heard of him, who knew and testified of His divinity, even against the wrath of one of the most powerful empires of all time? Which Jesus even went so far as to overtake that empire a few hundred years later, until the two became synonymous? When we speak of “Rome” today we speak of a Christ-centered church. And even though the Christian church has gone through many forms and iterations and interpretations over the centuries, its core belief—that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised messiah, that He suffered and died for our sins, and that He was resurrected the third day—survives.
Perhaps that’s not why we worship Jesus of Nazareth. But it’s pretty indicative of the true reason: that Jesus was the Messiah. He was indeed the one who was prophesied to come. He was the real thing, and it penetrated people’s minds and hearts and souls so deeply that they died for it and lived for it. No other Jesus did that. When the false messiahs trying to raise up a revolution were killed by the Romans, their followers realized what was really going on and went their separate ways. They didn’t last. Jesus of Nazareth did.
I think we, as a nation, are tempted by such false messiahs now, promising revolutions and mighty changes in the political and social and moral landscape of the nation. But political revolutions don’t change the nature of human beings, do they? The only thing that can really change humanity in a permanent way is the true messiah. Just Jesus of Nazareth.
(So-called “progress,” without God, is just change. That’s because without universal standards of truth, without a canon of values that we all share, there’s no way to collectively measure the growth of a nation or society. And today America is split into so many violently opposing factions—including opposing Christianities—that sharing a common core of ideals, even among the religious, is no longer possible.)
But even that wasn’t quite the point of what Brother Clark was getting to. His overall point was that we can see the exact same dynamic with Joseph Smith.
In the time of the great religious revival of the early 19th century, there were countless numbers of self-proclaimed prophets and others starting their own religions, claiming their own version of God, and leading vulnerable followers into their own twisted renditions of Christianity. “Lo here!” and “Lo there!” they said. After Joseph Smith died, even the church itself was divided, with many of the leaders, formerly loyal to Brother Joseph, now taking the mantle of leadership upon themselves, trying to lead the uncertain Saints down their own paths out of (or remaining in) Nauvoo. Lyman Wight, James Strang, Sydney Rigdon, Emma Smith with little Joseph the Third, and many others all convinced earnest believers that they were doing what the Prophet wanted them to do. They all split off, and led their own branches.
So what happened to all those other religion-starters? What happened to the branches of the church that weren’t led by Brigham Young? Why do we believe Joseph Smith among all those crying “Lo”? Why do we believe Brigham Young was the proper successor?
Because the name “Joseph Smith” is known today around the world, and “Nancy Towle” isn’t. Because Joseph and his Golden Bible are still the subject of vast discussion and fierce debate; because Brigham Young started a city in a desert that not a few years ago was the center of the world for a time; because we are still talking about them and we are not talking about the rest.
Well, again, this isn’t the reason we believe Joseph and Brigham, but it is indeed indicative of it. Joseph Smith was as true a prophet as Jesus Christ was the messiah—and their fruits prove it. The fruits that are the testimonies in the minds and hearts and souls of those who have come to know them. That’s the power of truth, and in one form or another, it will always prevail.